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For complete disclaimers see Precursors part 1.
If you haven't read The Peloponnesian War Book I: Precursors, Book II: Poteidaia Under Siege, and Book III: The Mytilene Debate, you're in the wrong place.
EXTRA SPECIAL DISCLAIMER:
This is a long, four-book monster and as such stands to be an intense roller coaster. It's a serious and sometimes disturbing story. Our heroes will undergo difficult tests, the action and psychology of which may prove difficult to read to some. There will be violence aimed at one or both of our heroes and sexual abuse. If you normally choose to avoid such subject matter, please do not read this story. I don't want to upset people, just walk that fine line to make the long read worthwhile.
Ephiny leaped in front of Gabrielle, brandishing her sword and positioning herself to block the attacker's wild path. He hit her hard, barreling into her with his own much larger body. Ephiny dug into him with her shoulder and planted her feet, deflecting him away from Gabrielle, still able to concentrate on meeting his blade with her own.
He grunted on impact and wound up in the dirt. Gabrielle caught Ephiny, keeping her from taking a tumble and righting her immediately so she had the advantage on the attacker. Ephiny scrambled toward him as quickly as she could but not before he recovered his wits and readied his sword.
An old Amazon school drill kicked in: man down, sword raised. This seemed too simple. Ephiny dropped her blade low, carrying the hilt near her hip and drew his eyes and concentration to block her attack, thrusting with her body from the hips, then calmly stepped down on his groin, releasing her full weight on him long enough to incapacitate him.
Of course, by now everyone had been rousted from their sleep. Pasio came first and brought a piece of rope. He wiped the sleep from his eyes as Ephiny bound the man.
"What's going on?" demanded Hecuba, never one to wake up easily. Genetics, thought Gabrielle.
"A little visitor, that's all," Ephiny replied. "Go back to sleep."
"How can you expect us to turn over and get to sleep again after being attacked twice in one day!" Hecuba roared her disapproval from the comfort of her bedroll.
"Relax, please. I'll see what's going on," Herodotus spoke gently, tried to soothe his wife. He joined Pasio at Ephiny's side taking a good long look at his daughter to see if she was unharmed. "Same one," he said plainly, gesturing to the downed man. "Where are the others?"
"Xena's taking care of them," Gabrielle replied, trying to take the edge out of her voice. She hadn't been rattled by this one coming into camp, it was the fact that he had broken through Xena's defenses, and that might mean she'd been hurt. Come on, Gabrielle, she told herself. They had us surrounded. Xena can't be everywhere at once.
"Xena?" the captive asked. "That's the Warrior Princess?"
It was Gabrielle's turn to smile. "That's the one."
"She stopped the war," he tried to get comfortable, shifting with his hands bound underneath him. "We're out of a job now thanks to her," he spat.
"It's just as well," Herodotus leaned down into his face. "I don't much like the idea of men making a living killing other men."
"Speak for yourself. You probably have a home and a job," the captive had quickly become a dejected ex-soldier.
"I'm going to find that out tomorrow," Herodotus answered evenly. "We're from Poteidaia." He met the attacker's eyes, a flash of recognition passed between them.
Gabrielle kept one ear on the conversation her father was having with the ex-soldier and another to the perimeter waiting for Xena's return. Ephiny came up to her and whispered, "Now I know where you get it."
"Huh? Oh, yeah, that," Gabrielle smiled briefly at her father, her face quickly returning to its expectant and worried state.
"Don't worry, she'll be back soon," Ephiny reassured her. As she heard a faint rustling behind her she again positioned herself in front of the bard, sword at the ready.
But Gabrielle pushed past her, recognizing the walk a split second before Ephiny did. "Xena," she saw the warrior carry one shoulder lower than the other. "You're hurt."
"Just a scratch," she said with a smile lighting up her face. "I see you took care of the last one. Thanks, Ephiny."
Gabrielle pulled her in by the fire. "Looks like that stings," she said inspecting the gash on her upper arm. "I'll..."
Pasio interrupted her, "I'll do it, Gabrielle."
It froze the bard. Someone taking away one of the little things she could do for Xena. "Come sit by me," Xena said, interpreting Gabrielle's look correctly. Gabrielle nestled in close, leaning forward to look around Xena and watch Pasio work.
Pasio examined her arm, Herodotus did the same while peering over Pasio's shoulder and he was soon joined by Hecuba who couldn't stay in bed through all the ruckus. "I don't need to stitch this, you're right, Xena. Just a scratch." Pasio winked at Gabrielle then cleaned away the blood, applied some herbal salve to ward off infection and wrapped it in a piece of linen, well aware of how many eyes were on his work. Once finished, he sat back on his heels. "Okay, can everybody go back to sleep now?" He finished with a bit of roughness, almost a command, but his eyes were laughing.
"What about him," Hecuba asked twitching her head toward the prisoner.
"I think I've got him under control now," Ephiny told her. She stood guard to ensure there would be no escape, no more attempts on the queen's life, or anyone else's she told herself.
"All right, back to bed. Everyone." Herodotus herded them away from Xena and Gabrielle.
"What happened?" Gabrielle asked Xena quietly.
"Tripped," Xena replied cryptically, until she saw the concern emanating from her friend. "I got five of them then the sixth took off. Had to decide whether to let Six go and take out the last one or run after the other guy. I figured Ephiny needed something to do, so I went after the runner. Just as I caught him, I tripped over a tree root. He had once chance at me but he wasn't very good." She took the bard's chin in her hand, saw the scared trembling. "Hey, he wouldn't have gotten me."
Gabrielle's bottom lip quivered slightly, but she held back the onslaught of tears. "It's just... I didn't know where you were."
"Never far from your side." She let her eyebrows dance in the firelight in lieu of kissing Gabrielle. Then she pulled them both up and went to talk to the man Ephiny stood over.
"You're Xena," he spoke first.
"Yeah," she responded with an unconscious swagger Gabrielle adored.
He snickered, "Guess that was dumb."
She knelt by him, "It was dumb no matter who I was. Got that?" He nodded briskly. "What's your name?"
He stammered, "Theagenes."
"Theagenes," She saw him shiver when she addressed him by name, "you're going to be traveling alone for awhile." He swallowed at the gruesome implication. "You'd better get some sleep."
"I'll keep watch," Ephiny offered.
Xena considered the options and what someone else might be hoping for. "I'll be awake for awhile, yet. Why don't you sleep for now, Ephiny, and I'll wake you later."
"Okay. But promise me you won't stay up all night." Ephiny guessed correctly that Xena hadn't slept at all yet.
Xena agreed and Ephiny trudged off to bed, tired now that the adrenaline had worn off. The warrior sat by the fire several paces from the ex-soldier and felt Gabrielle settle in beside her. "I don't think I can get to sleep for a little while," Gabrielle said.
Xena smiled at her, "Thought so."
"Thanks for taking the first watch." Leaning in again, Gabrielle laid her head on Xena's welcoming shoulder and felt the warrior extend an arm around her.
"You're welcome." Good guess, Xena told herself. Soon she felt the bard's deep breaths against her shoulder and just let herself enjoy the closeness. Being able to study every hair, every curve of Gabrielle's body warmed Xena's heart until she felt it aching in her chest. And she renewed an old promise, one she'd almost convinced herself she'd never broken: I will never do anything to hurt you, Gabrielle. I will never do anything to endanger that wondrous gift you've given me, the one I treasure with all of my being, all of my soul: the gift of your heart.
Finally, she relinquished her wants to the bard's needs and picked up Gabrielle, carrying her gently to the bedroll, covering her with a light blanket. "Sleep well," she said, placing her lips on Gabrielle's forehead for a long moment.
The next day, Theagenes rode in the back of Xena's cart with Ephiny. He could be judged for his crimes when they reached Poteidaia, everyone agreed. No one spoke about the others who had come with Theagenes to attack them the night before. Xena never mentioned them.
When the party came to the crest of the mountain, the last pass before descending to the Chalcidice region and to its harbor town of Poteidaia, Gabrielle lay her hand on Xena so she would stop the carts. They all clamored out and stood by the side of the road looking down on their home. Though they were too far away to tell how bad it was, they could see, even from that distance, that buildings lay in ruins, garbage blocked some streets, the city wall had collapsed in a few spots. The harbor beyond showed some signs of life, a few boats sat idle at the docks, another sailed in. That alone raised everyone's spirits. No matter what, Poteidaia's inhabitants would return home and reclaim the lives they once had.
"Better get a move on," Hecuba said.
As they zigzagged down the slope and more came into view Gabrielle's optimism rose and fell depending on whether she concentrated on coming home or on what Poteidaia actually looked like. The closer they got, the more clearly Gabrielle could see how dilapidated much of the town was. The city wall needed major repairs, abandoned catapults and gastraphetes littered the fields--the land which should have supported crops for the coming winter.
But when they rode through the gates, even though the great wooden doors had been torn from their hinges, it still meant coming home and nothing could dilute the power of regaining something so special, such a vitally inherent part of who you are, particularly when you believed you'd never have the chance even to see it again. It felt great.
There were a handful of Poteidaians who had already returned. They greeted each other, but mostly everyone was in a daze and wanted to get to their own homes. Pasio took Ismene and Atossa home, splitting with everyone else with just a few words of encouragement. Xena let Herodotus take the lead, she followed his cart down the streets to their home.
From the outside it didn't look too bad, but Hecuba broke down when she stepped in the common room. Not a piece of furniture remained in useable condition, there wasn't a single item left to them, shelves torn from the walls, beds ripped apart, even bedding left in threads. Whoever had done it had been malicious and wild, caring not for the devastated feelings of anyone coming after them, only for the short-lived exhilaration complete destruction could bring.
Herodotus steered her back outside and onto the back of the cart and held her, letting her cry, to feel how complete their loss had been. Xena watched Gabrielle carefully and though the bard put up a good front, Xena knew she'd need her time in release as well. Ephiny brought Theagenes in the house to get him out of Herodotus and Hecuba's way.
"Let's clean up one room for them," Xena suggested. "Bedroom or this one?"
Gabrielle thought about it. "They'll need a place they can sleep in peace."
"Help me?" Xena asked, pleased to see the smile on Gabrielle's face. "How 'bout you two?" she asked Ephiny and Theagenes.
"I'd like to help," Theagenes said meekly.
"I'll keep an eye on him" Ephiny said, untying his hands.
"Thanks," he rubbed his wrists lightly, working out the stiffness in them.
Together they hauled out the wreckage that had been left in Herodotus and Hecuba's bedroom, putting it in the other bedroom for the time being, and swept out the room as best they could. By the time they'd finished, Herodotus and Hecuba joined them as they brought in the belongings that had traveled with them to and from Amphipolis. Once they got the bedroll down, Herodotus insisted Hecuba try to take a nap and although she protested, she was soon asleep.
Herodotus came out into the common room and helped Xena take the biggest pieces of the broken table outside. "Thanks," he said, breathing heavily.
"Why don't you take a break, Herodotus? We can finish what needs to be done." Xena regarded him warmly.
He returned the kind look. "Thanks, but I think I need to work it out this way."
"I understand," she said with a smile. "I do the same thing, but you look pretty tired."
He laughed, "Fine. I'm defeated." He waggled a finger at them, "But don't you do anything while I rest."
"Not a thing, Father," Gabrielle's eyes twinkled. He shook his head lightly and retired to the bedroom.
"There's still quite a bit of wood out there," Theagenes said eyeing the pile they'd carried outside.
"More in the other bedroom," Xena said, catching on to his plan. "I'll get the tools while you bring out the rest of the wood."
Soon Xena, Ephiny, and Theagenes were busy fashioning a small table and some benches with whatever scraps they could find in good enough condition. Gabrielle sifted through the junk pile, sorting smaller pieces for rungs and dowels, making a point to find the perfect piece for whatever they needed. Before long they were dragging in a table and benches enough to seat the family together.
Of course the table looked ridiculous, pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle from so many different woods in no logical shape or style and the benches rocked on slightly uneven legs, but they would do. When Hecuba and Herodotus got up from their unexpectedly lengthy naps they came out into the common area to find a clean room and Gabrielle, Xena, Ephiny, and Theagenes seated at the table, chatting.
"By the gods..." Hecuba said, grabbing the door jamb to steady herself. The look of absolute disbelief sent Gabrielle into squeals of laughter. Herodotus escorted his wife to the table, formally pulling a bench out and seating her graciously.
"What do you think?" Gabrielle asked already knowing the answer.
"I think you're miracle workers." She rubbed her fingers across the table top. "If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes..."
"I get the feeling it's just the first of many miracles, my
Herodotus leaned over and kissed her gently. "Thank you. All of you."
Even his eyes shone with moisture threatening to fall.
"I guess you don't much like these arrangements?" Ephiny whispered to Xena.
"What?" she answered in mock surprise, "And leave him all to you? I don't think so, Ephiny."
They laid out four bedrolls in their room, Theagenes would stay under their watchful eye all night. He'd been unbound most of the day, but no one quite trusted him, if left alone, to stay through the night, or worse...
Xena positioned Gabrielle behind her, next to the wall, putting Theagenes in the middle of the room, and Ephiny on the other side, by the door. He'd have to go through one or the other of them to do any damage.
Theagenes startled them, though. When it came time to bed down he walked to Ephiny, arms outstretched. "I'd rather you tie me up again. That way you'll be able to sleep."
"Okay," she answered slowly, not really certain if his motives were pure. She brought his wrists behind his back and wrapped them with leather thongs. They weren't as secure as rope but they wouldn't chafe as hemp could. It was her way of showing him he was gaining her trust--slowly.
Once tied, he crossed to his bedroll and kneeled, awkwardly turning his body to lie down. Xena pulled a blanket up over him, making sure he saw the look in her eye. She would be watching.
Xena lay down next to Gabrielle, rolling so she faced Theagenes, but he had turned away from them, preferring to sleep with Xena at his back. She felt Gabrielle's hand on her arm.
"Hey, you," she whispered to Xena. "You should sleep. You didn't get any last night, did you?"
"A little," she said, still watching Theagenes.
"Come here," Gabrielle rolled Xena on her back, rubbing her stomach under the leathers she slept in. No one changed from their regular attire for this night in case they had to get up quickly.
Xena smiled and caught the busy hand in her own, bringing it down by her side. "Okay, you win," then shut her eyes and concentrated on their link, rubbing her thumb gently along the back of Gabrielle's hand. The bard closed her eyes, squeezed her fingers around Xena's a few times, then fell asleep.
Early the next morning, Xena and Ephiny decided the time had come to take Theagenes to jail. They agreed to take him together and Gabrielle insisted she come along. She wanted to be sure that whoever ran the jail now knew Theagenes had some respect left in him. He'd helped them a lot the day before and had let them sleep through the night.
"Well," said Xena as they stood by the ruins of what was once the Poteidaia jail, "I guess you could help rebuild it."
Theagenes didn't laugh. "Okay," he said amiably.
"Now what, Xena?" Gabrielle asked a bit frustrated, thinking they would spend the rest of their lives with Theagenes sleeping a few feet away.
"You could gather everyone who's come home and ask them to pass judgment as a people." Ephiny didn't want to deal with him anymore, either.
"That would be fine," Theagenes commented. He seemed neither eager nor cynical about the matter, merely ready to be handed his due.
Ephiny continued, "Then the town can all meet together. I'm sure there's a lot that needs to be discussed."
Gabrielle laughed and poked Theagenes playfully, "She's always thinking politically. Happens when you run the Amazons too long."
Theagenes gulped and eyed Ephiny with a new respect. "I thought you were Amazon. You're Queen?"
"Nope," Xena answered for them. She waggled her thumb at Gabrielle, "She's Queen. Ephiny's Amazon Regent."
Theagenes hung his head. "Gods..."
"Got caught by the wrong people, eh?" Xena pestered him.
"You can say that again," muttered Theagenes.
"Why not send Herodotus around to see who's here?" Ephiny suggested.
"No, let's send Mother to gather everyone. She needs something to do and I'm sure it will take her all day." Gabrielle laughed with the rest of them. Though Hecuba dealt with everything as best she could, she was still hard to take all day every day.
Hecuba instructed everyone she found to gather at the tavern, sending some there earlier than others to clean it up a bit. In all, close to fifty homesteaders were back in Poteidaia. It was good to see them, it was good to feel the burgeoning community among them. Their first order of business was Theagenes. Herodotus stated clearly all that had occurred from the first attack on the road to the second at night, then continued on to mention Theagenes' behavior following his crimes and how he'd helped out, spending the day building shelves and cabinets for them.
"We have no jail," he concluded. "No jailer, no judge, no adjutant. It's up to us to decide his guilt and his punishment."
"He is guilty." Pasio spoke without anger. Ismene sat next to him, her hand nestled in his.
"I will admit to that, of course," Theagenes offered. "There's no need to bother with that question."
"So now what? We can't lock him up, there's no place to do that," Herodotus asked the assembled group. He stood before them, arms lazily crossed over his chest.
"So sentence him to labor," Ephiny suggested. "I'm a outsider here, I don't have any say in this case. But he seems to be repentant. You could sentence him to helping you rebuild. If he takes off, so be it. But he's a good carpenter and you could use his skills now. And besides," Ephiny added directly to Theagenes, "I believe I remember you complaining about being out of a job. If you do a good work something tells me you'll have found a home and an honest means of making a living."
Theagenes smiled but did not speak. It was too good to be true and he desperately wanted a second chance.
"I'd be in favor of that," Pasio said. He was echoed by several other voices and when Herodotus took a vote, the results were unanimous.
"You're a lucky man, Theagenes. For the time being, why don't you move into Thermenes home. He won't be coming back to it." That hushed the group. Thermenes, their last council leader, had been given the task of surrendering to the Athenians. He'd lost his life for it and in return, given them the opportunity to live theirs.
"Let's meet here again tomorrow night," Herodotus spoke softly and yet could be heard easily. "And all go home for now." Everyone shuffled out, tomorrow they could talk about the future, but tonight their thoughts were on the past.
As they walked back, they detoured past Thermenes' home, "It's yours for now," Herodotus said to Theagenes.
"Thank you. All of you. I intend to earn the respect you've already given me." Theagenes opened the door and peered in. Like every other place in Poteidaia, it had been ransacked. "Guess I can start in here."
"Need some help?" Ephiny offered.
"No thanks. You've helped more than enough already." He bid them good night, eager to dig into the task of cleaning up his own home.
The five of them lit a fire and sat around the new table when they got home. No one was particularly talkative, there wasn't really anything to do to occupy them. One by one, they excused themselves, going off to try to sleep until only two remained at the table.
"Xena," Herodotus said quietly, 'thanks for all your help."
She cast her gaze on him, "You're welcome."
"And don't think I haven't kept track of everything you've done. All through the siege... and you were the one who convinced us there was a time to give up, a time to surrender before all was lost." He cleared his throat and took a last sip of wine, idly turning the mug in his hand. "I know what you mean to Gabrielle."
"She's very important to me," Xena said sincerely.
"That's clear enough." He put the mug aside, "You've risked your life for her."
"More than once," she replied, her voice less strong than his. "And I would again."
"As she would for you." He reached out and tapped her hand, resting his on the table in front of her. "I'm not prying, Xena, but things do seem better. Are you two working it out?" The blue eyes flashed something... anger? embarrassment? "I only know what I've seen, and I've seen a lot on my daughter's face. She loves you, that's as plain as day. But then something happened between you, something while you were away from Amphipolis, and I saw that on her face, too."
Xena listened to him in a daze, she knew he meant well but he was treading on private ground. She studied the tabletop, the piece-meal pattern of woods from scrounging through the debris.
"I could see sadness there, and longing..." He read her troubled expression. "Well, like I said, I'm not one to pry and I don't ever care to know what it was about, but I am glad to see the illumination in her face again. I had it figured that you'd work things out. I guess I just wanted to say that I'm glad you did."
She sat quietly, not sure if what he said required an answer or not. Then she realized why it all sounded so strange. She'd never had the chance to hear her father say things like that to her, never knew him past early childhood. "Herodotus," she said, his name catching in her throat. "Thank you. I... it means a lot to me that you care."
"I do, Xena," and he extended his hand again, this time she took it in one of her own, holding it tentatively at first. "I care very much about my daughter and that means I care about you, too." He leaned forward and wiped a thin trickle of tears off her cheek. "When she left home with you, we were all pretty worried. She was young and determined and sometimes that's a bad combination if you run with the wrong crowd. I'm glad she picked you. It's pretty obvious that you've been a wonderful mentor for her... and a great friend. And I thank you for that most of all."
Xena swallowed a few times, "If I have been that to her it's only because she taught me how." Come on, Xena, he should know this. "She's saved me more times than I can remember from a path that... that I once followed. Gabrielle is the reason I am who I am today, the only reason."
Herodotus tightened his grip on her hand, "As much as I like hearing my daughter given the credit for something, I know better than that. Such a commitment must come from the inside, from yourself, Xena. Gabrielle may have helped you but she's not the only reason you're the remarkable person you are today. Give yourself some credit, I know Gabrielle would."
Xena smiled, "You're a great father, you know that?"
"So I've been told." He returned the smile.
Quite plainly, she said, "My father died when I was quite young."
"I know that, too. Cyrene and Hecuba got to be pretty good friends during our stay in Amphipolis. Your mother told us a little about your childhood." Xena's eyes widened in fright briefly. "Don't worry," he chuckled, "she didn't tell us much and whatever we know never crosses that threshold," he said looking toward the door.
"Do you ever worry about Gabrielle traveling around with an ex-warlord?" The question popped out before she had a chance to think it over.
"I wish I could tell you I don't worry, but I do. But I worry as any father would. I'd worry if she was home, I'd worry if she got married, I'd worry about her if she had children. It's all a part of being a parent. We live with it."
Xena thought about Solon, and about how little she thought about him. She didn't spend her days worrying about him, wondering where he was or what he was doing, who his friends were. Yet another part of your life I've missed, she mused.
Herodotus watched her face closely, the lines across her brow, furrows etched deeply in her forehead. "But Xena, I don't worry if she's made the right choice." Again he squeezed her hand and she returned the pressure. Her hand seemed such an odd combination of brute strength and utter softness. "I know that you two are connected on a level I'll never understand, though I can just glimpse it. I know you have a path to follow that we'd never even dream of, or if we did we'd paint it in fairy tales. But it's real for you, isn't it?"
"We do run into... interesting people," she smirked. "Hercules, Kings, a few gods... Amazons."
"My daughter is Queen of the Amazons." Herodotus still couldn't quite believe it. "It is a fairy tale, Xena."
"It's quite real, Herodotus. We don't get to be with the Amazons much but when she's there she's a good ruler. Fair and just."
"And I get the sense that you two have had a greater role to play in the war than any of us knew about." She made absolutely no movement but the lack of a denial confirmed his suspicions. "It's a heavy weight for young shoulders to carry." He gauged her once again. "I appreciate that you try to shoulder most of it, leaving Gabrielle with what she can handle." Blue eyes pierced him once again.
"Whatever we do, we do together. Gabrielle is amazingly strong, stronger than I could ever be. No, Herodotus, she gets saddled with the biggest burden of all, and that's me."
"Somehow, I don't think she considers that a burden."
Their gazes remained riveted on each other.
"No," Xena said softly, "I guess she doesn't consider it a burden."
"And neither would we. You're welcome here whenever you fancy a visit home, Xena." Herodotus withdrew his hand from hers. Her palm suddenly missed the feel of his warm hand. "It's about time we got some sleep."
Once again, her eyes held his. "Thank you, Herodotus. It's nice to know I have two homes now."
"I'd add that you have two families, but as I recall we've already been incorporated into one big one." He laughed. "It wasn't long ago that I feared your name, Xena. Then I started to hear stories about a woman who had changed, stories a certain bard helped spread, no doubt." They both laughed. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe it's all real. To think the Warrior Princess would be sitting at my table..."
"I am honored to be here. And sometimes I have to pinch myself to remember my life is a good life... and that you're a part of it."
They both got up and headed toward their rooms, Herodotus to join Hecuba, Xena to join Gabrielle and Ephiny. She stopped and turned toward him then enveloped him in a hug quite spontaneously, amazed at the power he had in him to hug her back. "Sleep well, Xena," he said.
She crept into the room quietly so as not to disturb two softly breathing sleepers, both lightly snoring on either side of the room. Xena lay by Gabrielle, just barely making out the outline of her body in the faint moonlight. I think I understand a bit more about how you turned out the way you did, my bard.
Xena fell asleep with an utter contentment the likes of which she'd
Ismene and Pasio decided to make things a bit more official, so Ismene moved in with him. That left Atossa alone with the twins, but she insisted her sister make the move; it wasn't up to Ismene to babysit for the rest of her life, "Unless they're your own," and she slapped Pasio playfully as he blushed.
Xena, Ephiny, Gabrielle, and Theagenes helped them move and also to clean up Pasio's house. They converted one of the rooms on the ground floor to a suitable place for him to practice and Theagenes cut a new door to the room so Pasio could see the sick or injured without disrupting the flow of the rest of the house. As they worked, people stopped by to say hello and wish the young couple well.
Gabrielle finished up in the kitchen. Putting away Pasio's meager supply took no time at all, but Atossa sent over half of her pots and pans, plates, bowls, and mugs, so Gabrielle had to get creative with the limited space in the kitchen. Once everything finally had a shelf or cubbyhole to call home, she wet a cloth and gave every surface a last wiping down. She turned to do the same to the small table and let out a startled cry, "Eupatrids, hi. I didn't hear you come in." He didn't say anything, just stood near the door and stared. "Are you okay?" Gabrielle tentatively shuffled toward him, still he didn't flex a muscle, didn't open his mouth to speak.
His eyes penetrated her with an eerie, distant glaze, his head sat on his shoulders at a slight angle, his arms were as straight as they could be, his body resting in an unnatural position. "Eupatrids?" she tried again, more softly.
Suddenly his face flickered in recognition, and just as unexpectedly it reverted to the obtuse unfocused front he came in with. The incongruous person before her, not the Eupatrids she thought she knew, unsettled her. Again, he momentarily came to life, moving toward her so swiftly she almost couldn't get out of the way, and stopped just as quickly as he'd moved. One moment he seemed nothing but lethargic, the next he exploded for a brief outburst.
A disturbing sense of alarm spread through her bones, unfortunately he blocked the door to the common room, or she might have slipped past him. She slid around the table so they stood at opposite ends, at least that way some barrier stood between them. For the next spurt, instead of running toward her, he grabbed her wrist, shooting his hand across the table faster than she imagined possible.
"Ouch, hey, Eupatrids, that hurts." His grip remained tight. Gabrielle didn't want to do anything to hurt him, clearly he wasn't well, but she didn't know what to do. A broom rested against the wall within reach, she could grab it and inflict a nice sting on the arm that held her, that would surely loosen the grip. She took another look around the room, to see if any other option was open to her, only to see what she most hoped for, "Hi Xena."
Eupatrids dropped her wrist and ran, barreling past Xena and out of the house.
"What was that all about?" Xena asked, seeing a rare frazzled expression on the bard.
"I wish I knew," she blew out slowly, putting her hands on the table and leaning against it.
"You okay?" Xena came close and draped an arm around her.
"Yeah, I think so. It's just that... he seemed so... disturbed. Creepy."
"Do you want me to go after him?" Xena wasn't sure what would make Gabrielle feel better.
"No, thanks. Just stay here." Gabrielle straightened up. "Thanks. Perfect timing, as usual."
Xena thought about what Gabrielle had said, "What do you mean Eupatrids seemed disturbed?"
"He wasn't himself, had a weird look in his eye. Either he was just sort of not really all there or he was wild, nothing in between." She leaned into Xena. "Bothered me, I guess."
"Just another victim of the war, probably. I'll keep an eye out for him, see if there's anything we can do." Xena cocked her head, "Here comes Ephiny."
"Yes indeed," Ephiny laughed as she came in the kitchen and spied the two of them arm in arm. "Am I interrupting?"
"Nah," Gabrielle separated herself from Xena.
"We're pretty much done here. I think Hecuba is expecting us for lunch," Ephiny reminded them.
"We don't dare disappoint Mother," Gabrielle grabbed Xena's hand and pulled her along. "Where's Pasio?"
"Upstairs with Ismene," Ephiny replied, her voice rich with implication.
"We can catch him later, Gabrielle," Xena suggested.
They ran into Atossa as she was on her way to visit Ismene and Pasio, a twin on each arm. "Why don't you come home with us for lunch?" Gabrielle suggested, taking Hippas from her and blowing raspberries on his belly. Hippas giggled and squirmed. "I think Pasio and Ismene want to spend some time by themselves for awhile." Gabrielle didn't mention why, just gracefully maneuvered Atossa away from the busy couple. Atossa relented, especially after Ephiny took Cassandra, and fell in with the group as they sauntered through the streets of Poteidaia.
Gabrielle walked in first, carrying the still giggling Hippas, "Mother, do you mind if... Lila?"
Hecuba fumed in the corner of the kitchen while a tired and bedraggled Lila sat at the table.
"Hi Gabrielle," Lila nodded to each woman as they came in after the bard.
Gabrielle crossed the floor quickly and gave her a one-armed hugged. "You're home?"
"Yeah, I'm home." Lila looked to her mother expectantly, Hecuba stood, feet firmly planted, arms tightly crossed.
Atossa took Cassandra from Gabrielle and the bard sat by Lila, "What happened?"
"I don't know. Perseus is just... boring." They both heard the not well camouflaged sigh from their mother.
"I'm glad you came home, Lila. It was the right thing to do." Gabrielle eyed her mother.
Atossa decided it would be best to break the tension, "Looks like you have a full house, Hecuba. I can take some boarders at my house. Plenty of room now." She waited. "How 'bout it Ephiny? I've an extra room, and there's still the shed where you two stayed before," she gestured to Xena.
Lila leaned over and whispered, "Go ahead, Mother's just pretending. She'll be fine later."
"Are you sure?" It felt so strange to Gabrielle, whispering in front of all these people. Lila nodded. The bard looked to Xena who met her eyes without answering the unspoken question.
Ephiny took in all the subtle signals around her, "Thanks, Atossa, I'd love to stay with you, help you out while you adjust to life without your sister around all the time."
Gabrielle still waited for Xena to let her know how she felt one way or the other, but to no avail. Fine, she thought. I'll make up my own mind. "Atossa, you know I think Xena and I would like to use your shed for awhile. It's about time things returned to normal around here." And she knew she'd chosen correctly when a warm smile spread on Xena's face.
"Fine," said Hecuba cryptically and started serving lunch, putting out bread and cheeses for everyone and slowly becoming involved in the conversation so that by the time the meal was over, it seemed that Lila had never been away.
When Herodotus arrived, late for lunch he knew, he caught Lila's eye immediately and lit up with delight, lifting her into a huge, crushing hug. "By the gods it's good to see you," he smiled and didn't ask for details, knew she'd come home for good and that he'd learn all he need to know in good time. And although he was sad to see the house guests leave for other accommodations, he knew it was for the best. "Hey, I almost forgot. Fishermen are back. There'll be a fish roast for all at the tavern tonight. They're hoping you might tell some stories, Gabrielle."
The bard, never one to refuse an invitation to entertain, felt insecure about this one. Xena recognized the pause before her response, so did Herodotus. "Sure, I'd love to," she finally said without being very convincing.
"Fine," her father said kindly. "You just tell one or two, whatever you think is best."
For you, Father, anything. "Okay, I'll think about which ones I'd like to tell."
With some bustling and packing, Ephiny, Xena and Gabrielle vacated Lila's room, leaving behind Gabrielle's bedroll for Lila to use temporarily. While all that was going on, Gabrielle snitched a chance to talk to Lila, finding out she missed everyone and Perseus couldn't do anything to fill in those holes, and that she'd been able to catch a ride with a trader heading this way, one that Cyrene knew and recommended. Gabrielle told her once again she was glad Lila had come home, "But I'm sorry things didn't work out for you and Perseus and I'm sure you'll find your tree in the forest one day."
"You say that because you already found yours," she cast a wistful look Xena's way which Xena either didn't see or wisely chose to ignore.
"Yes, I have." She knew it was true. "But I didn't know who it was for a long time, even though she was right under my nose... so to speak," Xena had heard that and very quickly turned to stick out her tongue at Gabrielle. "Just have faith that it'll happen, and it will."
"Yeah." Lila sighed. "See you tonight?"
"We'll be there." Gabrielle kissed her sister on the cheek. "If Mother gets to be too much, go hang out with Father." That earned a knowing smile from Lila.
Xena hefted the saddlebags and Ephiny's gear including both bedrolls, refusing anyone's offer to help. "You take the babies, I'll handle this," which she did with elegance and grace. The babies, having been so good for so long finally started to get cranky. Atossa took one then the other, but nothing worked. They all went to the main house and spend a time getting the babies to go down. It wasn't until Xena sang to them that they finally got to sleep, and then she threatened them all on pain of death never to mention the feat to anyone else.
At last, well into the afternoon, Xena and Gabrielle made their way around back to their former abode, the shed off of Atossa's house. They stood outside the door waiting for the other one to open it and go inside first.
Xena shuffled the saddlebags and bedroll impatiently, "Gabrielle, I'm carrying everything, why don't you get the door?"
"Okay," she whined, opening it, "After you."
It didn't look too bad. Everything that could be lifted easily had been carried off, no chairs, rugs or blankets were left. Unlike most other places in Poteidaia, no one had run through there with wanton destruction, the palette and table were still in good condition and after dumping the saddlebags in the corner, Xena set the bedroll out on the palette. Suddenly it looked like home.
"Hey," Xena called softly to Gabrielle. The bard hadn't moved since walking in, her slumped shoulders told the warrior she was upset.
"Sorry. It's just... well, kind of strange to be back. Things are do different, and yet... they're not." Gabrielle held her arms out as Xena walked into them, she savored the ease with which she was read by her friend.
"War has a nasty way of lingering, doesn't it?" Xena knew too well how long the effects could last.
Gabrielle rubbed her cheek against Xena's warm skin, pressed against her body, the perfect height to rest against her chest. "Sort of surprised me, I guess. I don't know what I was thinking."
Ah, I think I know what the root of this is. Better start easy, though. "The scene with Eupatrids really bothering you?"
"Maybe," Gabrielle spoke quietly, unsure of her words, unsure of what she was thinking or feeling.
"Come on, let's at least sit down," Xena looked around.
means the bed, I guess." She walked Gabrielle the few steps to the
palette and sat her on the edge before joining her, happy the bard snuggled
in close. "Gabrielle?" Xena took a breath. "I think it's
time we talked about what happened to you with... Athena."
Xena pulled her in closer, trying to provide physically what she felt so inadequate to express verbally. "Why don't you start at the beginning."
So she did. Gabrielle told her about the earthquake, the libra ry burning--the vivid recollection of how it smelled, acrid and angry and deadly, scrolls melting before they burst into flame--getting the girls out, finding a place to camp, worrying about the safety of the cave, getting food. About how Edna and Naomi drugged her when she came on watch late at night, took her through a pass in the mountains, up north to Athena's haven in Methymna. "Athena brought Orithyia. I watched Orithyia die, Xena. Just before she died, she told me she was sorry, said to tell you that she tried to watch out for me, that she'd been worried about me." The story just got harder and harder to tell. "Sorry," she wheezed and made herself concentrate on where she was in the present, in Xena's arms, in Poteidaia, safe, protected.
"Then Delia came. She..." Gabrielle shuddered. "Delia would do anything for Athena, she'd completely forsaken Artemis. I can't believe an Amazon would abandon... well, she did." Gabrielle fidgeted, trying to get comfortable and breathed a sigh of relief when Xena pulled her into her lap. "Thanks," she murmured into Xena's neck.
"Go on, Gabrielle. You're doing fine." Great, Xena, just be a coach, urge her on as if she was practicing with a staff or something.
"Okay, just give me a minute." She wanted only to be held and hold, to love and be loved. "Okay, okay..." she said between breaths, gearing up to continue. "Delia was... cruel. And Athena practically gave me to her like I was a thing, an object... a toy." The pulse beneath her lips, the smell of Xena, her hair... that's real, she reminded herself. "Athena left and Delia sent Naomi and Edna to get the boat ready. Being alone with Delia really scared me." The fright returned to her as if it had never left, engulfed her, took control of her heartbeat.
Xena felt it, she felt in the body she held and could practically hear it in her own mind. "It's okay, Gabrielle. I've got you. No one else is here." Gabrielle buried her face farther into Xena's neck, resting on her shoulder, pressing her torso to Xena's.
"I know." Whew... "Delia dared me to escape, said it was a game. Then she gave me an opening and I had to try. I couldn't resist." Just a few more breaths, I can get through this. "She caught me and tossed me across the room. I think that's the first time she broke my ribs."
"First time?" It escaped Xena's lips before she could stop herself. She didn't want to say anything to disrupt the flow. It did stop the bard, she sat quietly again, clinging to Xena as Xena embraced her. "Sorry, Gabrielle, go on."
"Okay. Next came the boat. They tried to keep me in the hold but I kept getting sick so they brought me up on deck and tied me to the mast. I stayed there the whole trip. Gods it hurt... And Athena came. She..." the words came more slowly, "told me..." And the tears began, Gabrielle couldn't talk through them, every time she tried she hiccuped and then her frustration flourished making things even worse.
"Shhh," Xena rocked her, running a soft hand up and down her back. She could have finished the sentence for Gabrielle, she chose not to. Gabrielle needs to say it, to get it out by herself.
After she stopped crying, Gabrielle concentrated on her breathing, slowing it, bringing it back to its steady rhythm, not too deep, not too shallow. "Okay." She swallowed, "Um..." Another breath. "Athena told me that you and Orithyia... had... slept together." Hey, wait a minute... "I never even thought about how I'd seen her die, Xena. It was as if... as if Athena kept me from remembering that. If I'd thought about it, I'd have known it was a lie, but I didn't remember that, only... only what I'd seen on the boat from Eion to Mytilene. I didn't even think about what we'd talked about after that, you and me, at Sappho's. Gods... she must have been manipulating me, too... I can't believe I didn't realize it..."
I can, thought Xena. I can believe it... now.
"Everything was so strange after that. I'd never felt that way before, so out of control. If I let myself think, I kept thinking about you... and Orithyia, seeing it so vividly in my mind." She shook her head, "Even that must have been planted." She let the thought settle in for a moment. "Delia took advantage of that, she tested me, she teased me, and I even began to... want her. Just to be there so I'd stop thinking about... Gods, it's all so confusing."
If Xena could have found a way to squeeze tighter without actually hurting Gabrielle, she'd have done it. "Go on, Gabrielle. It's okay."
"Yeah, okay. Delia, she... almost... well, I told you about that already." And I don't want to have to again. I came so close to giving in to her. So close...
"I remember, and you kicked her for it." Xena thought about that conversation with Gabrielle, in Heraclea, at the inn. "You said she broke your ribs."
"Yeah, so that was the second time. She didn't have to hit me very hard for it to hurt a lot. I guess I passed out or I slept because the next thing I remember was getting to Eion. And I told you most of that already, too."
Yes, remembered Xena. "I'm proud of you."
"What?" She truly didn't think she'd heard Xena correctly.
"Really. I'm proud of you. You figured out Athena, you stood up to her, you didn't let her defeat you." Like she did me.
"I know what you're thinking," the bard said letting her emotions well up and give power to her words. "You think you failed, you gave up, and somehow you think I didn't? But I just told you--Athena manipulated me, had me believing things I couldn't possibly have believed. I didn't even remember until just now that I'd seen Orithyia die!" She'd grabbed Xena by the upper arms, almost shaking her into believing her. "That's no different from what she did to you!"
Xena didn't know what to say. She couldn't come up with a viable argument, Gabrielle's words sounded so true. But still, something seemed different about her experience. Something she just couldn't quite figure out yet.
"You don't believe that, do you?" Gabrielle asked quietly, having watched Xena's face for several moments.
"I'm not sure what I believe, Gabrielle." And that was the truth. "I know, unequivocally, that you are telling me the truth. It just doesn't... feel that way."
"Give it time, Xena. A wound like that can't heal in a few days." Gabrielle kissed Xena lightly. "It will heal, though. I can promise you that."
Xena ducked her lips back down to the bard's. Connected like that, in the physical realm where she always felt more secure, she had no doubts. In that quality that went beyond words, beyond the ability to translate into mere consciousness, when the soul knows a truth so deep it penetrates everything, it is... ineffable... she knew Gabrielle was right. The ordeal would be behind them one day. A journey taken and overcome, folded into memory, called upon only when necessary. And with it, inextricably linked, would be the healing, never one without the other, never doubt without the certainty that overcame it. Never Xena without Gabrielle. It seemed so simple and so right.
They finished their kiss mutually, at the same time, with little follow-up nibbles. Then fell back into each other, pressing against each other with a fierceness that no longer surprised them.
"I love you, Gabrielle," Xena said, colored with rich and husky undertones.
"As I love you." Gabrielle dipped into the blue pools across from her, her own verdant green matching their intensity. They could hold each others eyes for an eternity and never suffer those moments of embarrassment, of insecurity, of succumbing to too much profundity.
Until Gabrielle's closed. "Gods, I forgot to do my homework."
"I need to tell stories tonight. I have to figure out which ones." Gabrielle relaxed into Xena, letting herself click through her repertoire one by one, not running across anything that satisfied her.
"It'll come to you, Gabrielle. Don't worry." Xena rubbed her knuckles along the bard's cheek. "I guess we'd better get going," she gestured toward the window where the light of day had faded into the sunset.
"Yeah, okay." But Gabrielle didn't move.
"Come on," Xena stood, carrying the bard with her.
She pounded lightly on Xena's chest. "Hey, put me down!"
"Yes, your majesty." She dropped her lightly to her feet. "Ready?"
Gabrielle grasped Xena's hand. "Now I am."
Many more people had returned to Poteidaia that day, almost 100 of them crowded into the tavern, sharing stories, enjoying the catch of the day from off their own coast, as they had for years and years. Gabrielle stayed rather quiet, always being polite to the old friends who greeted her, but not indulging in storytelling, at least not yet. She kept a hold on Xena's hand, under the table, hidden from view to all but Ephiny who sat beside them. But Ephiny just kept smiling, so neither Xena nor Gabrielle thought about letting go of each other.
And when the time came, later in the evening, when the food was gone and table cleared, people gathered around the fire, at the hearth, near the stage, and waited for Gabrielle. They'd survived the siege because of the bard's kind words, remarkably revealing stories, and the sense of community she engendered. They were anxious to experience it without the threat of an Athenian invasion poised just outside their walls.
Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand a few last times, then made her way to the stage, sitting on it rather than standing, already showing everyone that life was more relaxed, more causal, more real.
"I sing of Demeter with the corn-ripe yellow hair," began Gabrielle, just as she had some two years earlier in Eleusis the first time she and Xena visited, "who was bound to her daughter, Persephone, unlike any other. The maiden of the spring was her mother's delight and joy, her soul-joined partner for eternity." She spoke to the room but her eyes rested on Xena's. Do you hear me? You're my soul-joined partner. For eternity.
The bard continued, telling the story of Demeter and Persephone, of Hades taking Persephone to be his wife of how Demeter felt when her daughter was taken from her. "Demeter withdrew her gifts of grain and the land about her withered and died. She aged until she become an old woman, seeing her reflection in a well. She sat inconsolable in her grief until four sisters found her at the well and brought her home to try to lighten her heart. They welcomed the old woman in their home but they had no luck in brightening her spirits. One night, three moons later, as the sisters returned from getting water at the well, the elder sister spoke of the old woman's plight. 'I'm at a loss. What we can do for the old woman?' The next sister cried out, 'We can't give up.' Finally the youngest spoke, 'Only Zeus himself can cure this woman of her grief.'
"The mighty Zeus heard this tiny plea and knew that he must take matters into his own hands. He sent Hermes to the underworld to tell Hades that Persephone must be allowed to rejoin her mother. But Hades tricked Persephone, made her eat a pomegranate seed, thereby ensuring her eventual return to him. When Demeter learned of the this, her grief returned in force. She couldn't believe that she'd regained her daughter only to lose her once again.
"Zeus sent Rhea, oldest of the gods and mother of Zeus, to Demeter. Rhea told her that for a third of the year the kingdom of darkness could claim Persephone, but for the rest, she would keep her daughter with her. Then Rhea left saying, 'Peace now. Give men life which comes alone from your giving.' Demeter, grief assuaged, called upon one man to be her ambassador and instructed him how to sow corn, Triptolemus of Eleusis, who tends her gardens and teaches men of the gifts Demeter gave to him.
"And such is the story of Demeter and Persephone as most know it. But there is more," and though she'd had the attention of everyone in the room up until that point, you could have heard the blink of an eyelash when she said there was more.
"They have learned to live with hardship, with an annual separation that brings winter to the lands. But they believe in each other and know their love will last through the cold months while Persephone dwells in the underworld with her husband. They never worry if one will outgrow the other, if their lives will take slightly different turns when apart, because when the spring arrives and they are reunited, all that has gone before is put aside in favor of the present and of what will come. There is no doubt in their relationship, just an... ineffable quality that lets them survive anything knowing the strength of their bond will endure it, will outlast everything possible on this earth. They have long since stopped questioning their bond, for they are the sun and the moon, as ageless and long-lived as can be imagined by the mortals or even by the gods. They are as free as the sky, traveling their own paths that meet, intersect, and part as Zeus has decreed. But never do they worry that one will rise and cross the sky without seeing the other. They are eternity, forever lighting our lands in yellow warmth or silvery shadows. Our guideposts. Our reflections."
Gabrielle finished quietly, exhausted. Herodotus stepped forward and
hugged her, walking her back through the crowd, holding her as the people
thanked her and wished her well. When they got to the table where Xena and
Ephiny waited for her, Herodotus hugged her again, whispering into her ear
something that first made her laugh, then made her cry. He kissed her and
sat her between Ephiny and Xena. "Take good care of her," he said
with a warmhearted glimmer in his eye.
"I will, Herodotus. I promise," the solemn words directly from her heart to his.
"I know, Xena. Good night to you." He dipped his head then walked away, disappearing into the crowd.
Ephiny rested her warm hand on Gabrielle's arm. "You look tired. Want to go home?"
"Ah, yeah. I think I would." Gabrielle blinked a few times. "Wow, guess that took more out of me than usual."
"It was far from ordinary," Xena said softly, drawing her in with an arm around her shoulders. "Let's get you home to bed. Can we walk you home Ephiny?"
"Please," she said, rising and stretching at her chair. "I haven't eaten that much for awhile. Sucks the energy right out of you, huh?"
Several people stopped Gabrielle as she left, thanking her for the story, for all they stories she'd told during the siege. She smiled sweetly, content that she was sandwiched between Ephiny and Xena and that they'd get her out of there as quickly as was polite. Well, that was Ephiny's job, Xena would have bulldozed right through the crowd.
Once outside, she captured Xena's hand and linked elbows with Ephiny. "Thanks."
"That was a good story, Gabrielle. I've missed hearing you tell them," Ephiny's unruly curls glowed under the light of the moon.
"It's been awhile..." Gabrielle perked up, "but I sure told a lot when we were here last. Three or four a night, every night. First to the kids then a few for the adults."
"She was wonderful, Ephiny. You should have seen how everyone listened to her. They came every night to hear her, she became their link with humanity."
Surprised that Xena would say something so recondite, Ephiny kicked herself. Come on, Eph, she thinks it, she just doesn't always say it.
Xena stopped them, a noise in an alley attracting her attention. Unconsciously, she stepped forward, shielding Gabrielle with her body.
Out of the alley, running at full tilt came Eupatrids. He rushed toward them, oblivious to their presence, and suddenly stopped. His body assumed the same unnerving pose it had earlier, when Gabrielle saw him at Pasio's. In the blink of an eye, he regarded them, seemed to recognize them, then took off full speed again, back the way he came.
"Who was that?" asked Ephiny, moving only her jaw and her eyes.
"Eupatrids," replied Xena. "Or what's left of him." She urged them on, "He never was very stable, but... wow, he's really gone over the deep end now."
"At least it's not just me," Gabrielle murmured.
"You? No, Gabrielle. He's really that way. Sometimes, when you're a loner, when you're not around people who really care, something bad can happen, who knows just what it was but we all saw more horrific scenes than anyone ever should. And if there's no one there to help you through the rough spots..." Xena left the rest unsaid and no one bothered to finish it for her. It was clear enough.
They saw Ephiny to the door then scooted around the back to their place, Gabrielle flopping on the bed as soon as she walked in. "At least you could change," Xena teased her.
Muffled from the bedroll she mumbled, "Too tired..."
"Here, I'll help." Xena took off Gabrielle's skirt, rolled her over to unlace her top and then pulled it off, replacing it with her night shirt. "There. Now you can sleep."
Gabrielle rolled onto her side, a tiny smile on her lips. "Thanks," she said before falling into a long and deep sleep, hardly moving when Xena snuggled in next to her some time later..
Xena and Gabrielle spent the next day fixing up the tavern, working with several others including Herodotus and Theagenes to build new tables, repair benches and replace what couldn't be repaired. If the town was going to meet there regularly again, they needed to remove all the reminders of what life was like outside. By the time they were done that night, the tavern looked better than before, a new hearth had been laid with large, craggy stones, the newly wrought tables were of different sizes some accommodating big families, others perfect for a party of two. The workers shared a simple meal before returning home, tired and satisfied from a hard day's work.
Xena and Gabrielle walked Herodotus home, stopping in to see that Lila and Hecuba were madly sewing new curtains, bickering with each other just like always. Things actually were back to normal. They bid them a good night and sauntered back to their shed.
"Feeling better?" Xena asked.
"What do you mean? Its been a good day all day. We got a lot done."
"I meant," she said as she tucked the bard into her shoulder, "more in general than that. You were pretty wiped out last night and we haven't really had much of a chance to talk today."
"Ah, that. I don't know what happened. I just got sleepy. Sorry." She patted Xena's belly in a familiar gesture. "I'll try not to fall asleep on you tonight."
"That's not really what I meant, Gabrielle." Xena turned them around the last corner before home. "And I don't think it was just the storytelling that took it out of you, though I will admit I was a little surprised by that tag you stuck on the ending. You know, actually saying that Demeter and Persephone were the sun and the moon."
"Do you think I gave away too much?" Gabrielle stopped them at the door. "Gods... the mysteries. Did I say too much?"
"No, you didn't. And no one associated it with the mysteries and even if they had, you didn't say anything you weren't supposed to." Xena slid her hand around Gabrielle's body and opened the door.
"I didn't even think about that. I should be more careful." Gabrielle strode in and sat on the bed. "I can be so stupid sometimes."
"Hey," Xena said with a lilt, "Don't be so hard on yourself. You didn't say anything you shouldn't have said. I was surprised only that you added it, not at what you said." She put her palm to Gabrielle's cheek. "It was a nice touch. And I did appreciate what you were really saying."
Gabrielle sighed and smiled at the same time. "Did you? I was hoping you'd know what I meant. I didn't really care what anyone else thought."
"They were stunned, Gabrielle, and that's a good thing. And I..." she leaned forward and kissed Gabrielle, "was..." she kissed her again, "warmed..."
Breathless, too soon, Gabrielle tugged on Xena's arm asking her to sit by here. Their kisses were becoming more heated, but Gabrielle didn't want them flying blindly. "Wait." She pulled away slowly. "Wait."
Xena came to rest, her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "Okay, I'm waiting."
"We haven't... done this for awhile." She brought her hands up to Xena's arms, holding on. "I just wanted to check that everything's okay."
Xena thought about it, "Yes. Everything's okay. How about you?"
"I just... I never want to taint this act," she leaned forward and kissed Xena's nose, "I never want anything to tarnish the pureness," she kissed her chin, "to blur the ecstasy." Her tongue trailed down Xena's neck, lips finding the pulse point between Xena's collar bones.
"I think," moaned Xena, trying to control her rising passion, "that we both knew to wait and both know it's time." Gabrielle's lips found hers again, at first lightly caressing her mouth, then slowly seeking entrance, probing over sensitive skin to entwine with her tongue. Xena tried to hold back, afraid the power of her need would consume Gabrielle, would be so explosive it couldn't be contained.
Gabrielle's hands busied themselves unbuckling armor and prying skin-tight leather away from the naked flesh she longed to touch, to feel against hers, to explore with a languid tongue. Experienced hands needed only a tiny portion of her concentration, the rest she focused on her mouth, her lips, the amazing sensations Xena's skillful tongue could draw from her.
Breaking their kiss to pull the leathers off, as soon as they'd been tossed aside, their lips found each other and Gabrielle reached to fondle Xena's breasts, already slick from the light sheen of anticipation, moisture pooling under them needing to be rubbed away by willing fingers, kneading and caressing the hypersensitive flesh.
Xena worked the laces on Gabrielle's top, pulling off the top in a fluid motion, tugging at the skirt until the bard lifted her hips, Gabrielle returned the favor and divested Xena of her breeches. At last naked, they fell to the bed, never breaking their kiss, rolling their bodies together, sliding against each other, just feeling the other one near, there, with them. Rooting themselves in the present.
"I love you," Xena murmured as she maneuvered the bard onto her back under her, kissing her all over her face and neck. "I need to love you and I want it. Want it with every fiber of my being, of my body."
"Xena," the bard moaned and wriggled, absorbing the contact, cherishing how well their bodies worked together, running her hands all over Xena's back, feeling the muscles ripple as Xena moved, kissing her. Their bodies knew each other, craved each other. "Make love to me. Take my body, you already have my soul."
Their mouths met again, tongues thrusting into the other as their slick skins rubbed. Gabrielle felt Xena move down, running her hot mouth over her breasts, hands never still, touching everywhere, stroking in rhythm with their tongues and their hips.
She felt her move lower again, her tongue examining every ridge in her ribs, dipping lower, on a well-known quest through territory that was theirs alone. Gabrielle knew she was moaning, she couldn't stop herself, "Xena, yes," she managed to articulate just before she felt the tip of a tongue. A light caress, an appetizer. Then she felt a kiss, too gentle, not enough, "Please..." Familiar fingers parted her, a tongue dragged itself along her length, stopping at her clitoris where it swirled a delicate pattern until lips descended and claimed it.
Gabrielle's stomach muscles clenched, she found herself half sitting as Xena sucked, but the insistent lips slowed, letting her ease back down to the bed, panting, "Gods, Xena. It feels so good." Xena let her tongue return to it's tracings, sliding across all that was the bard, teasing her before becoming more firm, more determined in its purpose. The hips beneath her and the grunts from Gabrielle told her the movements had found a meaning beyond a simple physical pleasure. Already, Gabrielle was wound up, the intensity level higher than usual, and yet she wasn't ready to climax, to let herself be released.
But she could see it was torture, too, and didn't need to play with the bard tonight. There was time for games later, this was too important to tease. She clamped down on her clitoris again, engaging the sensitive flesh with her mobile tongue. As she felt the muscles begin to clench, she entered her with two fingers, moving from slow thrusts to hard pounding quickly, bringing Gabrielle to the edge, letting her own body decide when to go over. The tell-tale clenching she knew so well led to Gabrielle digging her toes in the bed. Her hips raised off the bed and floated over trembling legs until she let go, screaming Xena's name as she came.
Xena crawled up and held her, letting the aftereffects soothe both of them in that wafting numbness and letting the purity seal their love. She rolled them over, putting the bard on top of her so she could watch her face, see all that was open to her. It had been right, it had been genuine. It would be again.
Gabrielle opened her eyes, smiling at Xena. She didn't need to say anything, there was no doubt in her mind that Xena knew, just then, how much she meant to her. She reached up and ran her thumb along Xena's lips, they pursed to kiss it until Gabrielle moved up and put her own mouth where her thumb had been, tasting truth.
And the taste of truth propelled her out of her wonderful daze.
Xena just let it happen, let Gabrielle take her, closing her eyes to concentrate on the sensation of Gabrielle's lips on her breasts. She didn't feel rushed, she didn't feel unfulfilled and needy, it was a phenomenon of memory and a blessing of the here and now. Gabrielle drew down her body, painting a searing image of all she believed in on Xena's skin, imprinting it forever, deeper than memory, etched permanently on Xena's spirit, the essence of who she was, eternally interwoven with Gabrielle. Her identity.
Fingers slid so easily against her and into her, a singularity between them. The sense of distinctive individuality multiplied and expanded, more than there ever was before, the nexus imperishable. She felt herself pulling Gabrielle in, both spiraling together, never one before the other, until Gabrielle's lips recaptured hers and she felt a release she'd forgotten, one that left her intact, and happy, and sated, and overwhelmed, all at once.
And it unlocked a door she hadn't even known was there, threw it open for her to venture in, and she knew she was whole again.
Gabrielle felt her crying before she heard her, she slid up and cradled Xena's head, giving her the warmth and security of a safe haven. But it wasn't a normal release, the bard realized, and Xena's sobs grew deeper, racking her body. "It's okay," the bard whispered. "Everything's wonderful." She lay back rolling Xena into her arms waiting and caressing, providing a pillow and a secure place in which to be vulnerable.
Finally, a frighteningly long while later, Xena slowly calmed, ragged breaths smoothing into deep gulps for air. "Are you okay?" Gabrielle asked hesitantly.
Xena opened her eyes, they betrayed the honesty she had now recaptured. "I remember." She took a few more deep breaths. "I remember everything. I remember saying no and desperately trying to stop her but I couldn't, I was swallowed up by something, something dark and wicked. I wanted her to stop, I tried so hard but I couldn't get her to stop." Gabrielle felt a shudder travel through Xena, and it kept going right into her, tingling down her back, down her legs to her toes.
"The worst part was watching my body betray me. I fought it, I wouldn't let any love into the act, no passion, no release. I needed to save it, I needed to protect it, and I couldn't do it, she was too strong. So I took it away from her, took it with me and closed up. Never letting her in there, into that part of me. Into my heart... where you are."
The final chink in the armor exploded through all that they'd been
between them, ridding them of the unconscionable burden Athena had inflicted
on them. The onerous load imposed on them in her desperate attempt to handicap
them enough to render them insensate and impotent. In that moment, Xena
and Gabrielle returned to the light, carried on the crest of Athena's ultimate
failure. They were back, giddy with the freedom to feel everything and indulge
in the felicity, the pure, unadulterated pleasure their lives together meant.
"Xena?" Gabrielle woke up slowly, but she knew precisely what she wanted to ask Xena, even if she couldn't find the means to make her mouth work very well, her face plastered against a soft skin pillow.
"Good morning," She smiled at Gabrielle, having spent a portion of the early morning just watching her, feeling the extraordinary visceral connection between their sleepy bodies.
"Don't you think it's time we took Ephiny home?" Gabrielle's fingers began to flirt with Xena, quite unconsciously.
"Yeah, I was beginning to consider that myself." Actually, it had been hanging around her head for days, but she'd decided that since it had to be a mutual decision, she'd wait for Gabrielle to bring it up. "When do you want to go?"
"Soon." She laughed, "Tomorrow?" Gabrielle dipped her head into Xena's breasts. "I guess," she came up, her eyes laughing now, "I want everything back to normal. Right now."
"My impatient bard," Xena kissed her, then looked into her eyes and kissed her again. "It's way beyond normal, Gabrielle."
"Then you... feel it, too?" Gabrielle asked. "I mean... it feels great, doesn't it?"
When you've been through a heinous ordeal and survived, you always come out the stronger for it. "Wouldn't trade it for anything." Again, she pressed her lips to Gabrielle's. Such a glorious mix of sensations, passion without needs, tenderness without demands, fulfillment without requirements. Each kiss a pinnacle in and of itself. "Wow."
When they knocked on Atossa's door, Ephiny answered, inviting them in then gaping in wonder as they walked by. Ephiny closed the door and turned to them, staring. "You can close your mouth now, Ephiny," Xena teased.
"Ugh, sorry. It's just that... ah, well..." She threw up her hands. "You know!"
"That bad?" asked Gabrielle innocently, digging behind Xena's back, trying to catch one of her hands.
"Yes," Ephiny answered matter-of-factly. "That bad." She stood in front of them, arms akimbo. "Well?"
"So, you ready to go home?" Xena threw at her side-armed. She let go her desire to win in hand chasing, slowing so Gabrielle could catch and hold her.
Ephiny cocked her head, thinking about it, "Ah, sure. I guess it's about time."
"Good," Xena continued on, "We'll leave in the morning. Gives us time to say our good-byes."
The all decided to hold an extended-family dinner, Hecuba fussing about who to invite (everyone who'd journeyed with them from Amphipolis, even Theagenes), where they'd sit (the invitation required everyone bring a chair), what to serve (once again, fishermen arrived in the harbor that afternoon with a bountiful catch).
As the guests began arriving, Hecuba complained to each of them about some aspect of the preparations or the seating or the impending departure of her daughter, but as they all knew too well, they were merely experiencing Hecuba's normal mode of operation. Come dinner, she'd settle back and listen to everyone with a comfortable smile and eager ears.
Xena helped Theagenes bring over a new table, one with matching woods and an intricate design inlaid in the middle. "Just something in thanks for all you've done for me," he said shyly. "I'll make some chairs as soon as I get a chance."
Hecuba reverted to her flustered state while the old table made way for the new. Theagenes had hoped to bring the table a little earlier but it had taken all day to finish the inlay. "Careful," he advised as Hecuba's callused fingers traced the pattern. "It needs to set awhile before it's ready for that."
Hecuba snatched her fingers away, "You just say that! Go on, get your chairs, sit down everyone, bring those plates and mugs back, Herodotus get the water pitcher over here now!" She thrived on commanding the little troop.
For a time, the room blurred with people following orders. When at last they were all settled, Herodotus got up from his chair, mug in hand. "I guess this is called a toast." He cleared his throat and spoke with the voice of authority. "We've three fine people sitting with us tonight who will be on their way tomorrow for lands we've never dreamed of, and the time has come to thank them for their unrelenting efforts to right a horrible wrong. With their help, Poteidaia is emerging once again, coming back as the wonderful place we once knew it." He hoisted his mug and took a drink and let his voice settle back to an honest tone. "Ephiny, though we haven't been paying attention to it, you've taught us a lot about what it's like to be an Amazon. And I'd venture a guess you've taught the same to Gabrielle and then some. I'd say the Amazons are a giving people, concerned with the welfare and happiness of their friends and family and neighbors." He winked at her, "Sometimes a reputation doesn't have a lot to do with what people are really like." And he smiled at Xena, as well.
"Funny how we can have so much royalty in the house and never bother to fuss over them." Of course, that only made Hecuba nervous, wondering what she should have done, should be doing. Her bottom lip quivered while her busy fingers drummed on the new table top.
"It's nice just to be family. Taking off the political shroud is a relief, Herodotus. I'm honored you have treated me as a friend for who I really am rather than what I represent." Ephiny peeked at Hecuba. She'd calmed down.
Herodotus nodded and hoisted his mug Ephiny's way, taking a sip of wine as his response. "Then sometimes," he went on, now looking at Gabrielle, "your own family surprises you. No," his voice softened once more, threatening to crack, "it's never a surprise with you, Gabrielle. Just a reinforcement of how special we've always thought you were. The Amazons are lucky. Just as we are."
Very softly, Ephiny added, "That we are."
He took another sip, a long one this time to regain his composure. It wasn't working. Oh well, he thought, nothing wrong with losing it in front of family. "Xena," their eyes met. "I think you already know what I think about you. And I hope you know you've converted a whole town to your side. My daughter's an amazing woman, but without you, I dare say, I don't believe she'd have the chance to realize her potential. You've given her that gift. And more." He scratched his temple, tried to loosen the big knot at the back of his throat. He blinked a few times and finally whispered, "Thanks," before taking a last sip and sinking into his chair.
It remained quiet for a time as they all tried not to watch Herodotus force himself not to cry, but their attention stayed riveted on him no matter what they distracted themselves with. But then Cassandra gurgled a typically wet baby noise and everyone laughed, breaking the spell. Foods were passed and piled high, and eventually people began to rediscover their plates as they ate down to them, filling their bellies and pampering their spirits.
They tried to say good-bye, but no one would have it. They'd all be there early the next morning to see them off, a scene Xena had hoped to avoid. There'd be no way to dissuade them, however, so she accepted it, if begrudgingly. And later, when she and Gabrielle fell into their blissful stunned state, hearts slowing together, gently relaxing into sleep, she knew it would be okay. They were walking out of the gates of Poteidaia in the morning, but a very large chunk of them would be left behind.
Lila brought Gabrielle's bedroll, "Thanks for letting me use it. Father promised me a real palette by the end of the day."
Gabrielle handed it to Xena who stowed it along with the rest of their gear on Argo. The horse was edgy, anxious to go. Even before Xena saddled her that morning, she knew they would be traveling, moving, and that she'd be out of the confines of a stable.
"You take care of yourself, Lila." Gabrielle hugged her sister giving her an extra squeeze just before releasing her. Lila laughed and tapped her on the nose, then she dropped her eyes and stepped away.
Hecuba broke down and cried, flailing a hankie of white linen in the wind as she dabbed at tears, blew her nose, and said, "My, my, oh my..." She hugged Ephiny and Gabrielle and demanded a hug from Xena who gave it willingly.
There were more quick hugs and pecks on the cheek for everyone who'd gotten up to see them off at dawn, even Hippas and Cassandra, though actually Hippas slept through it all. Then finally, it was time to go and Gabrielle looked at her father all hope of escaping dry-eyed gone. She hugged him fiercely, matched in strength only by his own strong arms around her. They let their embrace say good-bye, neither wanting to risk talking through their barely contained tears.
Xena hugged Herodotus, without the ferocity but with a tenderness she
allowed very few people to see. She kissed him softly on the cheek, gently
holding his face in her hands for a moment then smiling. She turned and
started walking, her movements gathering Gabrielle and Ephiny with her.
The three of them passed through the gates and out into the world, leaving
behind all that once was a war, all that would forever be their family.
Gods it felt good to gather wood, fill the skins with cool river water, and heat dinner over an open flame under the stars. The three of them sat back, content and tired. Gabrielle, particularly, seemed worn out from the day's traveling. She still hadn't recovered fully, though the daily life in Poteidaia hadn't taxed her enough to know that until she walked a long road at Xena's heels. Xena kept a close eye on her, slowing their pace, occasionally asking if she'd like to ride, accepting Gabrielle's answer without argument. Ephiny asked for more breaks than she needed, seeing Xena's grateful smile each time.
The next day was better, Gabrielle told stories, took responsibility for getting everyone back on the road after lunch. Xena listened, keeping her eyes on the road, her attention all around. Ephiny got entirely caught up in a few of them, tripping once, missing all of Xena's curious glares.
That night at the campfire three good friends sat together, one across the fire from the other two who leaned into each other like old walls that had grown together after years of slowly shifting sands. Ephiny watched them, envied them, and loved them. Time and time again she thanked herself for sending everyone on home, allowing herself to stay behind and be a caretaker, even if they hadn't really needed her. Maybe she stayed because she wanted to see them work it out, needed to know that even when the earth is spilt by monumental forces, cleaved in two, the truly committed can repair the damage. There's always a way when the way is deemed necessary by the fates. The path is never revealed, just the conclusion demanded and proclaimed as a given, a certainty as assured as Apollo's chariot gracing the sky each morning.
Now Ephiny could relax and bask in the glow of the fire, the crimson flush of heat she felt emanating from Xena and Gabrielle well beyond their own boundaries, a flame so intense it heeded no borders, spreading around them at will, igniting everything that crossed their path. It warmed her very core, reminded her of that which was important in life. And it would stay with her, be a part of her in every decision she made, every decree she signed, every word she spoke, every hand she clasped.
And so the days passed, three people out for a stroll, laughing and chatting. No one interrupted their journey, the nights elapsed free from intruders, their path familiar and easy, enhanced by the perfumes of the forest, deep green resins and soft yellow flower petals, refreshed by running water and light breezes.
The Amazon border patrols bid them welcome, sent word on ahead to ready the village, then let them pass, to savor the remainder of their way on foot, together, feeling the soft spring of forest duff under their booted feet. When Eponin and Solari heard that Ephiny would be there soon escorted by both Xena and Gabrielle, they knew beyond facts what that truly meant. And they both experienced a relief so great and so unexpected, they had to catch each other. But it was nothing like looking into the eyes of Xena and Gabrielle, feeling their presence, their connection kinetic and alive, jumping from one to the other, occasionally detouring through an unsuspecting nearby human, overwhelming the unprepared.
Ephiny made a formal presentation of the scroll given to the Amazons who helped win the last battle, a scroll adorned by the formidable scribble of King Pleistoanax thanking the "Heroes of the Battle of Amphipolis." The Amazons drank to the return of their Queen, their Regent, and Xena. They drank to the "Heroes of the Battle of Amphipolis," and chided them for not telling the whole story of their adventures. And finally Ephiny produced the Amazon's copy of the treaty, the "Peace of Nicias" as it had come to be called, no small indication of the role Gabrielle played in bringing peace and stability to the land, proving once again that Gabrielle could mediate any disagreement, finding the common ground and somehow, magically, making the warring factions actually want to stop the fight, end the battles and shake hands in a lasting friendship, then re-forge the whole affair into an epic to be told and retold, teaching her values to an eager audience, one that would, in turn, spread her wisdom to lands once beyond her reach. It was her calling in life, that potential Herodotus spoke of that she could achieve only at Xena's side.
Late that night, after many of the happy and quite tipsy Amazons headed for their own beds, Xena and Gabrielle strolled under a waning moon to the Queen's hut, one of Gabrielle's many homes, one of Xena's many homes as well. Just before passing into their rooms to the privacy of their own walls, Xena captured Gabrielle's lips with her own, choosing once again to express herself through touch rather than words. Gabrielle rooted herself to Xena's chest, content to stay there for as long as it took to still her wildly beating heart.
But Xena had other plans. She gently kicked the door open and urged Gabrielle inside, kissing her again as she closed the door behind them, leaving them in darkness so only their touches showed them where the other was. It was more than enough.
Gabrielle bent to find the flint, striking it near a candle, and then again at the wick until the yellow flame lent its illumination to the room. But the room brightened more, took on the glow of a hundred candles, and though the effect was quite unnatural neither Xena nor Gabrielle were afraid.
Demeter and Persephone appeared before them and the two pairs stood for a moment just gazing on the others. "It has been a long time, a difficult time for us all. But we knew this meeting would come." Demeter's voice sparkled in the small space. "We have come to thank you and also to answer your questions."
"You have done well, our reflection," Persephone added. She draped her body in robes of shifting colors, flickering in the soft light.
"Did you know all that would happen?" Xena asked, trying to hide the rough edge to her voice, but the anger was there, there could be no denying it.
"Yes and no," Demeter answered obliquely, her face honest.
Persephone explained, "We knew that the two of you were the only hope for ending the war, and we knew that Ares and Athena would carry this knowledge with them as well. Though we could guess that they would try to keep you from interfering in their nefarious game, even to be certain that the traps they'd set would be the most difficult you had ever attempted to overcome, we had no idea just what they would force you to endure."
"You could have helped," Gabrielle said suddenly. "You could have warned us."
"No, for if we had, we would have broken a promise and everything would have collapsed around us." Demeter took Gabrielle's hand. "You see, we made a deal with Zeus. If we had taken one more step, it would have taken us over the boundaries. Zeus is my brother, we can speak as peers so long as I don't challenge his authority. We were allowed to set you on your path but not given permission to aid you."
"Had we known what Athena would do, however, we might have not made the decision to seek your help." Persephone asked for Xena's hand, she gave it. "We know that Athena attacked you in the most devious way possible, making each of you believe the mistakes came from within you. She physically violated you, Xena, because you feel the most control in the physical world. It is your realm to rule, you are the master there, indeed no mortal could defeat you in a battle of strength and agility. And Gabrielle, she tormented you with words, planting the seeds of doubt that spread like a wildfire through your imagination. You are so comfortable with your creativity, so gifted in the realm of words and thought, that when the answers to your questions came from within, from your own visualizations, your own inventiveness, you saw them as your own ideas, your images, believing the fault your own."
"Each of you is strong. On your own you battled as ferociously as you could, but Athena knew your real power came to the fore only when you were together, only when you were connected... as you are now." Demeter smiled. "Though you approach problems from different worlds, from the separate realms you have each so easily mastered, you understand the key is in the union of the two, the complete comprehension of the whole situation, the yin and the yang."
"The sun and the moon," Gabrielle said, breathlessly.
Persephone nodded, "Yes. That's it precisely."
"And so we thank you for not giving up, for enduring and trusting each other, and letting each other help on your journey to... well, to where you are now." Demeter's free hand reached into a pouch, she held her arm out and opened her palm. In it sat two tiny, golden wheat sheaves. "I believe these are yours," she laughed. "I'm afraid the only worth they have now is what you give to them."
"Thank you," a thoughtful Xena replied, delicately picking up one of the trinkets from Demeter's hand. "I'd like to keep this."
Gabrielle took the other, turning it around between her thumb and forefinger before placing it on the table near her, just in front of the candle she'd lit.
"As you know, gifts from the gods never come for free." Demeter let Xena's eyes bore into her before elaborating. "The price is two-fold. First, the war is not truly over. It can erupt again and is destined to do so unless..."
Persephone continued for her mother, "You know now that you carry within you, between you, the ability to stop it. You must take an active role visiting both camps routinely, sorting out their aggravations before they spiral into something out of control."
"We can do that," Gabrielle announced. Xena smiled and agreed.
"Second, and more seriously. You have defeated a god. Athena is in no position to take retribution, you need not fear her. But the other gods have seen this to be true. You have made them... uncomfortable, particularly Ares now that he's had some time to think about the causes and effects of his actions and yours. All the gods must now question their powers for they are no longer absolute. It is possible that some will test you, just as it is possible they will leave you alone out of an unspoken respect. We cannot foresee the future where the gods are concerned. But, as you asked about earlier, Gabrielle, we do owe you a warning." Demeter let go of Gabrielle's hand. "We should leave you now. Our... interference... is at an end."
"Though we may not meet again for some time, know that we are watching you." Persephone faded.
Demeter followed but not before whispering, "...watching over you..."
Neither woman spoke for some time. Xena deposited her wheat sheaf on the table next to Gabrielle's, and straightened, bringing Gabrielle into her arms slowly. Gabrielle lay her head on Xena's breast, too stunned to speak until finally she articulated a single word, "Wow."
At the liminal threshold, barely audible, Xena breathed, "I love you."
Gabrielle heard it, felt it, knew it was absolute truth. "Should we believe them?"
"I think you asked me that once a long time ago."
"What did you say?" though Gabrielle remembered word for word.
Xena also remembered, "Not if we know what's good for us."
"Yup, that's what you said." Xena squeezed her. "And I love you, too, Xena, the sun to my moon."
"No, my love. I'm the moon and you're the sun."
"Ah ha! I finally got you to admit it." Gabrielle kissed her.
"I knew it all along."
The end of the Peloponnesian War
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