Chapter Two-The First Glimmers of Hope
Written By: Caina Q. Fuller
Xena awoke to the sound of yet another day of rain and another day of knowing Gabrielle was no longer in her life. The pain that had become a constant part of her existence hurt with the same raw intensity it had when Gabrielle first died an eternity ago. As she lay there listening to the rain mingled with the sound of Varias slow breathing, it occurred to her that she had plans to attack the temple below.
Xena sat up, her sudden movements rousing Varia from her sleep. Damn! Xena thought, as she looked around for her weapons. Varia had let her sleep through the night knowing full well she had plans By the expression on Varias sleepy face, Xena began to suspect more than physical weariness was the cause for her heavy slumber.
What the hell did you do to me?
Varia rubbed her eyes, looking for all the world more like an innocent child than the conniving little snipe she really was. I gave you something to help you sleep.
Careful not to hit her head on the low ceiling of their shelter, Xena stood and looked out into the dreary morning. The clouds seemed heavier and grayer than they had the day before, showing Xena Mother Nature had no intention of lifting the storm any time soon. This was perfectly fine for Xena since she didnt believe she would be able to enjoy a beautiful day ever again without Gabrielle by her side to share it. Singing birds and blooming flowers were the last things she wanted to see right now anyway.
Im not even going to ask you why you did that, Xena grumbled, looking around for her weapons. To hell with the innocents, she thought. Im attacking now. I wont stop until every last man in that temple is dead.
Xenas eyes scanned the area around her but it was clear her weapons were gone. Irritation with herself for allowing Varia to drug her and the rage that had been building since shed lost Gabrielle was boiling within her and if she didnt do something soon she was going to kill Varia for getting in the way of her revenge. Xena let out a cry of sheer frustration and grabbed Varia by the neck. The younger woman didnt resist in the least.
I dont have time for your little games Varia! Where are my weapons?
I hid them.
I dont want you to attack the village below Xena. Its not what Gabrielle would want you to do.
Xenas grip tightened around Varias neck until it was dangerously tight, and Xena was finding more difficult than she cared to admit to loosen up. Varia forced her body to remain relaxed, though her breathing now came in ragged gasps. The younger woman could see in Xenas eyes the lust to shed blood in her anger over Gabrielles loss. Would the blood she shed be hers this day?
Dont, Xena said, her voice a dangerous whisper, you dare presume to tell me what Gabrielle would and would not want. No one knows her the way I know her.
Xena blinked, looking down at Varias face in confusion. What?
No one knew Gabrielle the way you knew her. Xena, Varia forced her words around Xenas restrictive hand, Gabrielle is gone.
Dont you think I know that?
No, I dont think you do.
With a rage that frightened both women, Xena shoved Varia back against the bedroll and ran into the rain. She didnt need her weapons to kill the bastards below. She was her own weapon and she would rip each and every one of them apart with her bare hands if she had to.
Varia picked herself up off the furs and ran after Xena. The rain was falling from the sky like shards of ice that felt like needles striking her bare skin and robbing her body of its precious warmth. Xena, wait!
Ive waited long enough!
Varia inserted herself between Xena and Argo before the taller woman could mount the horse and ride away to lose herself in hatred. I cant let you do this.
This struck Xena as an incredibly amusing statement. Sugar, you are coming dangerously close to getting yourself hurt. Youve about pushed my patients to the limit.
Just listen before you go. Please.
Since when did you become such a talker? For that matter, since when did you care whether a bunch of thug men got what was coming to them?
Since I met Gabrielle. Xena, I know the story of Callisto. I know how you promised her that if she died before you, you wouldnt become a monster again.
Xena looked deeply into Varias eyes. She could see the genuine love and concern that filled them, and she knew all of it was for her. She turned away from it as memories of that same goodness and light in Gabrielles eyes flashed before her minds eye. That promise if only she hadnt made it. Perhaps that was the nagging doubt that held her up even more than Varias foolish attempts to talk her out of her plans to destroy Apollos followers just as assuredly as Gabrielle had destroyed the very same god.
A pair of cold yet soft hands found their way to her shoulders from behind Xena, and she could almost feel Gabrielle there in Varias place. Oh, how she missed her. This was a burden Xena just didnt know if she would be able to bear.
Xena, I know you dont want to do this. I know you are a woman who keeps her promises. If you kill to avenge Gabrielle, youll be breaking your word and you will never forgive yourself.
The pain, anger and rage were more than she could bare but Xena refused to allow herself to weep in front of Varia. She just couldnt. She knew the woman would hold her close and tight, and Xena found herself afraid she would like it. If she accepted anything from Varia, no matter how innocently it was offered, she would be betraying Gabrielle regardless of the fact the Bard had told her to go on to other loves after her.
Let it go Xena.
No. I cant. I just cant.
Varia came to stand before Xena, her full lips trembling with what? Cold? Emotion? Perhaps both, Xena thought as she stared down at her. She wanted to let Varia hold her so much. She needed the comfort of anothers arms wrapped around her now more than shed ever needed it before in her life.
I know youre not ready for another lover, but what about a friend? Let me be here for you. Let me be here for you. The way you were for me and my sisters when we lost Marga.
Suddenly the weight of her pain was more than she could bear and Xenas knees literally gave out beneath her. She collapsed to the ground and Varia followed, wrapping her arms around her and holding her close. Varias love felt better than Xena wanted to admit but she didnt have it within her to resist any longer. She wept for the first time since the funeral, and the sobs were so great they hurt. All the pain came out in a flood that would have drowned her, had Varia not been there to hold her head above water.
Xena, Gabrielle and the remaining fifteen of the Elite Guard healthy enough to continue on to Corinth traveled in quiet, though Xenas mind was a storm of thoughts and feelings. She was still attempting to figure out what made this woman tick and why she was so intent on being what Xena considered overly attentive to the Virgins in their care. True the women had been locked up in Aphrodites temple for a few days with some minor wounds, but Aphrodite had fed and watered them. Why was she treating them as if theyd been at war for the past month?
Its her heart, Xena finally decided. Gabrielle had a heart as big as the Aegean Sea and she genuinely cared about how these women were doing. She was a woman Xena found intriguing for the simple fact that sometimes she got the impression Gabrielle had seen a lot of the world and had taken a hard view to life. Yet at other times Gabrielle had an almost child-like innocence and Xena was absolutely certain she had lived a sheltered life and knew nothing of how cruel the world could be. All the while Xena fought to decide which was the truth about Gabrielle she could feel her heart pound with a desire to pull the beautiful blond into the trees and take her heart, body and soul.
Other than the physical attraction Xena was feeling for Gabrielle, she got the impression that this woman could show her what it meant to trust again, and this was something she found herself desperately wanting to be able to do as time went on.
As the small caravan made their way to Corinth Gabrielle could feel Xenas blue eyes boring into her. Had this been her woman she wouldnt have thought anything of it. As a matter of fact she would have enjoyed it, yet Gabrielle knew this was not her Xena. This was a complete stranger to her, and with every passing moment she became more aware of how dangerous the woman riding next to her could be.
Do you have a portrait artist? Gabrielle asked after minutes of feeling Xena stare at her. This world's Warrior Princess frowned and shook her head no at the odd question.
I was going to suggest you have him draw a likeness of me. It will last longer.
Xena laughed at Gabrielles sarcasm, genuinely amused. Only Amaranda had the guts to say something like that to her, but her sarcasm never seemed funny to Xena. Only irritating.
You seem so relaxed with me, Xena said. As if you know me.
Youd be surprised how well I know you. As soon as the words left her lips Gabrielle regretted them. Xena was now looking at her with a slight air of suspicion.
Really? And how would that be?
Actually, Gabrielle replied, wanting to cover her words, I meant I know your type.
What type is that? Xena asked defensively. Gabrielle chose to ignore the tone her tone of voice and continued on bravely.
Well, lets see. Youre brave but also arrogant. Youre honorable yet cold. You want to save the world but you care nothing for the people youre risking your life for. As a matter of fact, youre so mistrustful of the very same people you fight to save in the name of your goddess that you have come to resent them.
Incredible, Xena thought. She could only ride along for a while in speechless awe that this woman had been able to sum her up in only a few seconds. It really did seem as if Gabrielle knew her as well as she knew herself. However she couldnt just let Gabrielle say the negative about her without throwing in the good. Even if it were all true. Thats almost me.
Whats left? Xena could see a mischievous twinkle in Gabrielles eyes that told Xena she liked this little game. She hated to admit it, but Xena was enjoying it too.
You forgot to mention I have talent.
Oh youve got that alright, Gabrielle said, her face beaming brightly with her beautiful smile which only melted Xenas heart even more. In abundance.
Not to mention intelligence, passion and loyalty.
All of the above, yes.
Why didnt you mention those? Xena asked with an almost childish petulance to her voice.
Why do I care if you see these qualities in me? Xena found herself thinking. They were strangers after all, and even though she wanted Gabrielle, she had nothing to prove to her. Or did she? As Xena watched the sun set, casting its golden light over Gabrielles fair skin, she knew in her heart that she would lose this beauty if she didnt prove herself worthy. Now her only question was how to convince Gabrielle she was worth sticking around for?
Xena pulled herself from her thoughts and looked Gabrielle in the eye. That strong desire to make love to Gabrielle right then and there flooded Xena again but she held herself in check. She couldnt just forget about Athena altogether now could she?
Dont you think we should make camp soon?
Gabrielle was right of course. It would be getting dark soon and she had to prepare the camp against any surprise attack Marcus might have planned for them. She just hated to stop now when they were so close to Corinth.
Youre right. Marcus may have something planned. He has a reputation for being ruthless. Ill set up.
As Xena organized the camp that night, Athena materialized in the quarters on Mt. Olympus she shared with Xena and studied the neatly ordered room. Her mortal lover was obsessively neat and constantly repeated one of her favorite creeds: A place for everything and everything in its place.
Now she was off in her element: Out in the world ready to do battle at the head of some of the best fighters Greece army had to offer. She also had a new young beauty to entertain her while she was there, and Athena found herself wondering if they were making love at this very moment. With a sigh she pushed these thoughts from her mind stared out the window.
This Gabrielle woman was a mystery to Athena. She was so different from any other mortal shed ever met in the way that she was strong, beautiful and intelligent. Above all she didnt seem to hold the gods in high regard.
This was an idea completely foreign to Athena, since every single man or woman shed ever encountered in her own land, or even in foreign lands, worshiped her on sight. The idea of having her favor should have left Gabrielle speechless with awe but instead shed merely shrugged it off as if it were nothing. Perhaps, Athena thought humbly, her favor was nothing to become excited over.
Athena lay down on the bed and buried her face in Xenas pillow. It smelled of the jasmine soap Xena loved to wash her hair with, and the scent conjured up countless memories of the love theyd come to share since they met and the passion they had shared in this very same bed. Sometimes they were content to simply hold one another through the night as they talked of their past victories in battle. Other times they were insatiable and it seemed no matter how much they made love they would never be able to quench that thirst of passion they had for one another.
Then Gabrielle came along. Athena remembered the look in Xenas eyes the first moment shed laid eyes on Gabrielle. She was well aware of the bond Xena had been searching for all her life. A soul mate Xena had told her when they first met, was out there for her somewhere and all she had to do was find her. Over the years Athena had come to believe she was that soul mate. Now she wondered if perhaps Xena felt this new woman was the one shed been longing for all her life.
What if she is? Athena asked herself. What if Gabrielle is the one Xena was meant to be with instead of me? The idea of Xena loving another woman over her was almost unbearable to Athena. There was something about the Warrior Princess, a quality no other woman in history could ever possess. Her spirit was unbreakable, her beauty impossible to match. She was, in Athenas opinion, the perfect woman. There had been many times when she was tempted to make Xena immortal so she would never have to lose her, or see Xenas beauty fade with age.
Athena walked back over to her window, holding the pillow to her chest so she could continue to breathe in the familiar scent of the one she loved. Perhaps she should bow out gracefully No. She was the goddess of War and she would be damned if she allowed some irreverent stranger win Xena away from her. This left her with only one option: Kill Gabrielle. The best way to win a contest was to have no competition. If Gabrielle were dead the prize would once again be all hers, and Xena would eventually forget the woman ever existed.
The only problem was figuring out how to get rid of Gabrielle without Xena knowing she had a hand in it. Killing Gabrielle, Athena thought, might turn Xena against me forever. Ill have to be very, very discreet. As she stared out of the window that overlooked the glory of Mt. Olympus, Athenas mind wandered to the one man who could make it all possible. A smile curled the corners of her lips up, making Athena look every bit as cold of heart as she really was. She had a plan of action, and that feeling of helpless fear began to melt away.
The next day Marcus reclined into the soft cushions of his bed and closed his eyes. After three days of arduous travel hed finally made it back to Potidea, the location of his stronghold. Every muscle in his considerably powerful body ached from the struggle to safely escape Athena, Xena and her Elite Guard. Now he was home and he wanted nothing but the comfort of one woman hed ever allowed himself to even come close to liking enough to keep around.
A raven-haired beauty entered the room, wearing a gauzy black gown that did very little to decently cover her body. He knew she hated him, and that may have been part of the reason he wanted her so much. In his eyes she was the perfect woman in form and mind, and he craved her touch, her smell and feel every moment he was away from her. The flesh of another woman never satisfied him the way hers did.
Yes? Lila said, stopping half way into the room. She never came to him willingly. He always had to demand her obedience, sometimes with a threat against the family she loved so much. He knew they were the only reason she didnt at least attempt escape. She stayed for their safety, especially that of her older sister Gabrielle.
Gabrielle She was mainly the reason he called her here now. How many sisters do you have Lila?
The smooth, creamy skin of her brow crinkled in a frown. What a ridiculous question. Did he finally lose what little bit of a mind he was born with? Lila wondered. I have one sister. Gabrielle.
Sudden panic flooded Lilas gut at the thought of him taking her beloved sister and ruining her sweet innocence. Gabrielle was the main reason she stayed and allowed Marcus to violate her at his whim. She hated everything about the man: his smell, his touch, and the feel of his lips against her every night. He had an insatiable appetite for sex and he always left her feeling bruised and sick after he used her, yet, she would stay with him a thousand lifetimes if it meant her sister would be safe.
Are you sure about that?
My parents have only told me of one sister. Why do you ask?
Had she been anyone else questioning him, Marcus would have summarily executed them. Yet, she was the one he felt the most for so he always allowed her to ask whatever she liked. That didnt mean he would always answer.
The woman whod ruined his attack on the Elite Guard and killed his most reliable informant had been and exact double for his lovers sister. She was a few years older, true, but still theyd been exactly the same. The theory that everyone had a double came to mind, but this was just too close. With the exception of the shorter, blonder hair, the stranger with the sais had been an exact replica of Lilas sister.
Marcus eyes drank in the sight of Lilas scantily clad body and his man-hood flooded with hot desire. Hed figure out the mystery of Gabrielles double later. For now, he needed to work out the soreness in his muscles with the best exercise life had to offer: sex.
Come to me.
Lila gave a sigh that sounded every bit as tired as she felt in heart and soul and did as she was told. The gods forbid something ever happen to her family because of her own selfish desires to avoid this monster.
When Lila was close enough Marcus grabbed her wrist and pulled her down onto the bed. As usual, he wasted no time with foreplay. Instead, he hiked up the gauzy material of her gown and entered her with violent force, hurting her with every move he made. It was this pain and helpless anger he saw in her eyes that made the sex so good for him. Unlike with his other women it never dulled, no matter how many times he took her it remained as raw and intense as it did the first time.
Lila prayed to any god who may listen that he would hurry and climax. He was the only man shed ever been with, and each time the sex was painful beyond belief. The experience always left her hurting and sick to the point she wondered if one day it would kill her. Would she ever get used to it? Would she ever escape this monster and live a life where lovemaking with a man was pleasurable? No, she thought to herself. If she were ever free of Marcus, she would never be with another man as long as she lived.
Finally he did climaxed and rolled off of her, but the position of his sweaty body pinned her against the wall. He wants to keep me here in torture for who knows how long, Lila thought miserably. Feeling bolder than usual, she got up on her knees and attempted to crawl over him. He stopped her immediately of course.
Are you finished with me? Lila asked. She wanted so much to get to a bath and wash the stench of her captor from her body. How she hated him. Lilas most erotic fantasy concerning Marcus was driving a blade through his heart.
Leave if you want. Ill call you when Im hungry again.
Lila crawled over him but Marcus wrapped a hand over her throat tightly, almost cutting off her ability to breathe. Sometimes he got the almost irresistible urge to kill her, though he always managed to pull himself back in until he could exercise his blood lust on some peasant in the village. He never understood this urge, but it had hold of him now, and Lila could see it, just as she always could and it frightened her. Not because she had a great desire for her own life, but because she knew if she were gone, Gabrielle would be his next target.
Dont get any ideas about venturing beyond the sound of my voice now, you hear?
In a rare display of courage Marcus loved to see in her, she pulled herself free with a sudden jerk. I wouldnt dream of it.
Lila left the room, leaving Marcus alone with his thoughts. Now that hed used Lila to satisfy his base desires his mind was clear enough to think. Hed worked long and hard to lure Athenas Elite Guard into that trap and Gabrielle, or a woman that looked just like her, had ruined it. He wondered if perhaps she had a sister he wasnt aware of.
No, he thought. That doesnt make sense. The woman whod ruined the biggest sale of his career was not only older than the Gabrielle that lived in his small kingdom; she was a warrior as well. If she knew she had family living under his rule she would have done something by now to liberate them. There was something about her. Shed looked at him in a way that had sent an uncomfortable chill down his spine.
He got up and went over to the tub of water that waited for him. Hed had it poured scalding hot but now it had cooled enough for him to enjoy it. As he sank down into the water he could feel his tight muscles relax beneath his skin, and through the window before him he watched the young slave girl that was the Gabrielle he knew carry the days wash toward her familys hovel. Something strange was going on here, and as soon as he could relax he was going to find out what it was.
Marcus continued to watch her hang the clothes she had washed up to dry. Gabrielle was a beautiful creature in his eyes but she held no attraction for him. He liked to let Lila believe otherwise so she wouldnt be tempted to run, but there was something defiant about Gabrielles personality to the extent he knew he could never control her they way he did Lila. He knew Gabrielle would die before she allowed him to use her the way Lila did, and that kind of bravery in a woman turned him off like nothing else could. He liked a woman he could manipulate and control, and Gabrielle was not it.
As Marcus lay back, his eyes closing and his body relaxing, he was completely unprepared for the strong hand that gripped the top of his head and pushed him beneath the surface of the water. He struggled to push against the impossibly powerful grip but to no avail. He was unable to move in any direction to free himself and the hand held him under so long his lungs began to burn with the need for air. Just when he could take no more the grip released and he sat up out of the water, gasping for air.
Athena came around to stand before him, her lilting laughter filling the hot air of the early afternoon. She rested one wet hand on the hilt of her sword and looked him in the eye. Marcus was sure she was going to kill him for his attack against her women and the Virgins that followed her sister Hestia. Hed wondered how long it would take before even he went to far.
Athena, he said, his voice resounding with a confidence he didnt feel. Her strength was born of supernatural means and he knew this was one opponent he didnt stand a chance of defeating. He hated her immediately, just like he hated all women in a position of authority over him. What brings you to my little kingdom?
She only stared at him, her gray eyes almost glowing in the bright light that flooded the room from the high sun outside. She looked every bit as inhuman as she really was. It was disgusting really.
You have gone too far, she said. Her voice was little more than a whisper barely audible over the sound of the young children playing around their slave mothers skirts outside. He looked around for a weapon even though he knew it would be useless against her.
Youve come to kill me?
Yes, I have. Unless
Ah, Marcus thought, hiding the smile that threatened to split his face in an irreverent grin that could cost him his life. She wanted to use him for something. Wonder what that could be?
You can save your life if you succeed in a mission for me.
Me on a mission for the great Athena? What could that possibly be?
Something I know youll take great pleasure in doing. I want you to attack my Guard Elite Guard once again.
Gabrielle and Xena arrived in the city of Corinth and delivered the Virgins to the waiting arms of their goddess. She had appeared at the foot of her temple, arms outstretched and eyes flooding with tears of relief to see her children safely home, and the Virgins were equally happy to see their goddess. She laid hands on each of them, healing their small wounds and communicating her love for them, which they reciprocated with joyous songs of praise.
Gabrielle found the entire scene touching, but Xena only watched on with mild disgust clouding her beautiful blue eyes. Something wrong Xena?
Look at that, Xena said, unaware of the venom that tainted her words. She did nothing to save them. Nothing. Yet the way theyre acting youd think it was her instead of Athena whod taken the initiative to save their weak little-
Xena, Gabrielle said, talking over Xenas harsh words. Youre looking at it all wrong.
Well then how should I look at it?
Before Gabrielle could answer, Hestia came over to them, a scroll in one of her delicate hands. Gabrielle had always believed her to be one of the most beautiful of goddesses, even more so than Aphrodite. Her hair was thick, curly and midnight black. Her skin was dark as if she spent every moment of every day outside sunning, and she had large, soulful brown eyes to compliment her skin tone. Gabrielle didnt doubt every male god on Olympus resented Zeus for granting Hestia her wish to remain a virgin for eternity, though Gabrielle couldnt imagine wishing eternal chastity on oneself.
To each her own I suppose, Gabrielle thought, smiling at the Virgin goddess that approached.
Xena bowed deeply with a respect Gabrielle knew she didnt feel and she was disturbed by how hypocritical Xenas attitude was. Gabrielle had known Xena to be many things in her lifetime, but a hypocrite was never one. Remember, she thought to herself. This isnt my Xena.
My Xena, Gabrielle thought. She was reminded that she had been gone from the one she loved for three days and she still was no closer to an answer of why she was here or how long she would have to remain. Perhaps Hestia, in her gratitude, would assist her with answers to those questions.
Xena, Gabrielle. Thank you for bringing my daughters home.
Youre quite welcome goddess, Xena said. Her voice reflected all of her distaste in what she perceived to be weakness in Hestia, though her actions reflected respect. This Xena was so ambiguous. Gabrielle was aware now more than ever of how many wrinkles there was in complex tapestry that was Xena, and only the iron of selfless love would be capable of straightening her out.
Gabrielle. You have a visitor in the gardens.
Gabrielles eyebrows shot up just as high as Xenas did at this unexpected news. Really?
Its best you not keep her waiting.
Gabrielle looked back at Xena who nodded her approval then bowed to Hestia with genuine respect. Thank you goddess.
If this temple were anything like the one Gabrielle knew in her own world then there should be no problem finding her way to the gardens. She left the Virgin goddess behind with Xena and entered the temple alone.
Gabrielle found her visitor in the gardens, sitting next to a magnificent sculpture of a dove. The curves revealed by her scantily clad body were all to familiar to Gabrielle, and she had to admit, shed never been so relieved to see Aphrodite as she was right now.
Aphrodite. Thank the gods youve come.
Gabrielle didnt know what shed been expecting but a lustful stare was not it. Gooseflesh rose on her skin as this stranger behind a familiar face studied her with open lust and licked her lips. She was clearly not the same friend Gabrielle had come to know and love. There was also a strange scent that Gabrielle had never smelled before. It was fleshy but wonderfully feminine and intoxicating. It invaded Gabrielles entire being and the first tendrils of dizziness began to wrap around her mind. Gabrielle tried but she was unable to identify what this power was reaching out to her, seemingly from Aphrodite.
So youre the other Gabrielle huh?
This Aphrodites voice was heavy and sensual in a way that put to shame the Aphrodite Gabrielle was accustomed to. This woman radiated sex like Gabrielle had never seen, to the point she could literally smell it. Divine pheromones? Gabrielle wondered. Whatever it was, it had become so strong she was literally swimming in the intoxicating effects.
Aphrodite held up one long, delicate finger and motioned for Gabrielle to come to her. When she got close enough, Aphrodite stood took Gabrielles face in her hands. Her skin was soft and warm, just feeling them made Gabrielles loins flood with desire. Without really doing anything Gabrielle felt lost in Aphrodites smell and touch. It was like they were making love in an ethereal kind of way. The entire experience was intellectually wrong, but Gabrielle didnt give a damn. She liked the way this goddess made her feel and she found her mouth watering in anticipation of a kiss.
Aphrodite didnt disappoint her.
Xena excused herself from Hestia and the Virgins with an excuse of needing a drink of water when the truth was she wanted to get to the gardens to find out what was going on with Gabrielle and her mysterious visitor. She rounded one corridor after another until she came to the large double doors that opened onto the gardens. Before she could pull them open however, a familiar voice rang out from behind her, sounding too loud in the hot afternoon air.
Eavesdropping now days Xena? Really, thats so juvenile dont you think?
Xena turned to find Athena leaning against the wall with her arms crossed beneath her considerable bosom. Athena. What brings you here?
This is my sisters temple. I have every right to be here.
Xena didnt have time for Athenas jealousy right now. She wanted to hear what was going on with Gabrielle in the gardens. For all she knew, the woman she was falling head over heels in love with was reconciling with some long lost love. Now all Athena wanted to do was who the hell knew.
Of course you do. I didnt mean to imply you-
Oh! Athena grunted with disgust. Dont play little-miss-reverence with me Xena. Its really not you. Youre falling for her arent you?
Alright then. Lets go home. Youve finished your mission here.
Panic flooded Xenas stomach with the tiny wings of a thousand wasps. She couldnt leave now. Theres no telling where Gabrielle would go or if she would even see her again. Athena saw that panic in Xenas eyes and her own were filled with genuine hurt. Xena knew Athena was no fool, and after all the goddess of war had done for her, she didnt want to betray her. Yet she couldnt help the connection she felt in her soul with Gabrielle. She didnt want to hurt Athena but she didnt want to lose her chance with Gabrielle either.
What about Gabrielle?
What about her?
Xena wracked her mind to come up with a good reason not to return to Mt. Olympus without actually coming right out and saying she wanted to stay so she could form a relationship with another woman that completed her in a way Athena never could. It was her old selfish nature shining through bright and clear, and Xena knew this was something shed have to give up if she were to ever win Gabrielles heart.
Well? Athena said, waiting expectantly.
Shes come all this way Athena. I cant just abandon her.
Shes a big girl Xena. She saved your life, so what makes you think she needs you to take care of her.
I know that. Its just I
Athena placed her hands on her hips, looking at Xena like a mother would look at a child trying to lie their way out of trouble. Funny but that was exactly how Xena felt right now.
Damn it! Xena cursed to herself. She shared a long look with Athena that spoke volumes more than she could if shed came right out and told the truth with her own lips. Athena nodded, understanding.
I just want to get to know her better Athena. Thats all, I swear.
Ill bet you do. Ill see you around Xena.
With that, Athena walked away, fading as she went, and Xena turned to the doors. As quietly as she could she opened them and the sight she found literally made her heart feel as if it had dropped from her chest.
Aphrodite held Gabrielles face between her hands, claiming her mouth with a passionate kiss.
Aphrodite finally broke what had to be the longest, deepest kiss of Gabrielles life, and Gabrielle found herself wondering if perhaps it wasnt the best. She knew what she was experiencing was nothing more than the power of lust from a god, but was all so intoxicating. The more Aphrodite gave her the more she wanted.
Ive come to bring you a message, Aphrodite whispered. In the still hot air of the afternoon Xena had no difficulty hearing every whispered word.
Yes? Gabrielle said, her words coming out more like a moan.
A couch appeared behind Gabrielle and the two collapsed onto its soft cushions. Gabrielle felt helpless with desire but she was unable to do more than hold on to Aphrodites wrists. Her head rolled back under the gentle guidance of the goddess of love and Aphrodite planted soft kisses on all the right places on her neck until Gabrielles breath came in ragged gasps of pure need. It was beginning to have an effect on Xena as well, and she licked her lips, wishing for all the world she were in Aphrodites place right now.
Its from my alternate self in your universe.
Xena frowned at this news. She knew almost nothing of alternate universes, except what she heard from listening in on the conversations of the other gods on Olympus. There were supposedly an unlimited amount of universes, all separated by a mysterious, unknowable force as thin as the skin of an onion. Only the most powerful of the gods had the power to punch through that force, but they chose not to for fear of paradox.
Now this goddess was all but making love to a woman Xena desired to have as her own, and saying she wasnt even from this universe? What did it all mean?
Gabrielle slumped back onto the couch, literally drunk off the power of Love. Aphrodite indulged herself in Gabrielles perfect flesh as she took her sweet time finishing the message. Her hands caressed every part of Gabrielles body, slipping under her clothes and gliding over the most sensitive places of Gabrielles skin, leaving Gabrielle struggling for breath.
Aphrodite sent you here after you were shot with an arrow. Your lover Xena Aphrodite continued, though she stopped to run her tongue up Gabrielles neck. It drove Gabrielle mad with lust and Xena almost as mad with jealousy.
Yet at the same time Xenas heart began to race at the sound of those words. She had an alternate in Gabrielles world, and they were lovers! That explained so much about the connection theyd made as well as how Gabrielle had known so much about her. She listened in rapt attention as Aphrodite finished the rest of the story.
Xena Again Gabrielle moaned out the word and Xena could imagine the blonde beauty saying her name that way as she drove her to the height of passion. Xena
Time differs here than it does in your world.
Time moves faster in the universe you come from. Xena has been without you for quite some time. Shes on the verge of becoming a monster again. Varia is trying to turn her from the path of vengeance but its questionable if shell succeed.
This time Gabrielle took the initiative and claimed Aphrodites lips in a kiss as she took in the news that her lover was falling back into her former darkness. She was doing her best to care but all she could think of was taking the woman in her arms and spending the rest of her mortal life making love to her. Aphrodite finally broke the kiss.
Take me Gabrielle whispered, her voice laden passion.
No dont, Xena thought, watching the exchange with both growing jealousy and desire. Turn down the charm Aphrodite, Xena whispered, trying to make it so by the sheer force of her will.
I am to return you to a few moments before your death. This way you can save yourself and it will be as if nothing had ever changed.
Yes, Gabrielle said, mentally wanting Aphrodite to do this while her body screamed for the goddess touch.
Are you ready to go now?
Now? Gabrielles eyes wandered over to the door where they connected with Xenas blue orbs. The sight of the familiar face was like having a bucket of ice-cold water splashed over her and she sat up, away from Aphrodite. She swooned, still dizzy from the power exuded by the goddess, but she forced herself to her feet anyway. Guilt hit her like an anvil falling from the sky. She felt as if shed betrayed her love with this radically different Aphrodite, and it almost left her feeling sick.
What about Xena?
I told you, Aphrodite said. Her voice still dripped desire but it no longer had the same effect as it did before. Gabrielle watched as the doors slammed shut to the garden and the Xena that belonged to this world was gone. Shes falling apart without you.
I mean the Xena from this world?
Aphrodite frowned in confusion. What about her? She has Athena.
Thats exactly what worries me, Gabrielle thought. If Aphrodite could return her to a few moments before her death then it wouldnt matter how long she stayed here. She could set this Xena on the right path and then go back to her own world, solving two problems at once.
I should stay here and help this Xena.
Help her with what?
I dont know! Gabrielle said, her voice rising with frustration. I could help her I could help her find me!
What? Aphrodite came to stand behind Gabrielle, planting kisses on her shoulder. The spell was broken by Xenas face so the contact had almost no effect on her, but she didnt bother to pull away from Aphrodite. She didnt know this goddess like she did the one from her world and she didnt want to do anything to offend her.
I can help Xena find my double. I do have one dont I?
Of course you do. Theres only one problem.
I should have known, Gabrielle thought. She faced Aphrodite for the news.
Gods have the power to move about at will, but mortals do not. The longer you stay here, the more difficult it will be to get you back to your world. The door is closing, fast.
How long do I have?
One more day, tops. Then youll be trapped here for good.
That does it then, Gabrielle thought. She was going to have to leave without saving the Xena of this universe. Give me as much time as possible with her. Then well go.
Aphrodite shrugged. Fine. Just remember: You have to be at the gate in order to make it.
The goddess of love nodded. The same place you entered into our world. Ill meet you here, she pointed to the ground, tomorrow. Well return to the gate then.
Without waiting for Gabrielles response Aphrodite faded away, no doubt her mind already on some other beauty she would drive mad with desire. In all honesty, Gabrielle was relieved to see her go. She couldnt imagine herself wanting to make love with Aphrodite, yet that was exactly what happened. It was best they spent as little time as possible together before Gabrielle did something she would never forgive herself for.
Gabrielle went to find Xena, wondering how much of the truth she now knew. As she walked out of the garden to look for her, Gabrielle felt a myriad of emotions pulling at her heart. She felt responsible for this worlds Xena, so she was disappointed that she would have to leave Xena. Yet Aphrodite had been quite clear. She had limited time in this universe before she was trapped here forever.
Ill make the most of it, Gabrielle said. She left the garden, never knowing she was leaving under Athenas hateful stare.
Are you ready to go home?
Xena sat looking down the hill at the town shed grown up in. Amphipolis was thriving again now that it was no longer under the demonic influence of Mephistopheles and the forces of hell. The only problem was coming home reminded her of one more hurt: Her beloved mother would not be there to greet her as she came through the newly erected gate the citizens had put up since the last time shed been here with Eve and Gabrielle.
Whats the matter? Varia asked. She doubted Xena would answer this question any more than shed answered the first. The Warrior Princess had hardly spoken a word to Varia since theyd left their camp over Apollos temple where shed planned to raid and kill everyone unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Xena had sworn war but Varia had managed to turn her toward home instead of the battlefield. The only question was how long would Xena be content to let the men whod robbed her of her joy go free?
Nothing, Xena said. When it came to telling of her feelings, Xenas answer was always either nothing or Im fine. Varia knew nothing could be further from the truth and Xena was a long way from fine, but she didnt push the issue. Yet.
Xena turned away from Amphipolis and stroked her horses neck gently. Argo nuzzled her mistress lovingly and Xena responded. The horse had taken to loving Xena just as much as her predecessor had, but Xena still missed her old Argo at times.
As Xena stroked her steeds neck she wondered how long it would take Varia to say something about how she felt or ask again if she were ready to go. Over the past month since Gabrielles death the Amazon Queen had yet to return to her people and she wondered how long she would have Varia to keep her head above the deep waters of her pain.
Also with each day that passed Xena saw the softer side of the younger woman. Before Gabrielles death, Xena wouldnt have believed Varia had such a large capacity for love and mercy. She was pleasantly surprised by this revelation.
Xena had also noticed that Varia and Gabrielle more alike than anyone would have guessed. Xena had noticed it was the simple pleasures of life that really made Varia happy. Things such as sunsets and the natural beauty around her seemed to set Varia at peace. Even days of rain that preceded winter this far north relaxed the Amazon warrior where it drove Xena mad with cabin fever.
Winter is coming Varia. I think we should return further south where it will be warmer. I hate snow.
You disagree that I hate snow? Xena asked, knowing full well that was not what Varia had meant.
Varia came around to face Xena, a smile pulling at the corners of her full, rosy lips. Now why am I noticing something like that? Xena asked herself. She casually looked away, wondering if Varia had seen the moment of weakness in Xena. Chances are, she had.
No, I mean I disagree to returning south.
I figured you would, Xena said. Had Varia not been in her way Xena would have mounted up and rode out of there like a bat out of hell. Theres nothing here for me anymore. Why cant you see that?
Thats crazy Xena. This is your home.
Yes, and everyone Ive ever loved that made it home is gone. It doesnt feel like home anymore.
It can. Xena, all I ask is that you give it time.
Xena shot her a cold look that showed Varia just how deeply she was still mired in her anger over Gabrielles death despite Varias best efforts. I dont give a damn what you want.
The words cut deep into Varias heart and Xena immediately regretted it. After all shed done to help her, Xena still didnt hesitate to say things she knew would hurt her. Im fighting a losing battle, Varia thought. Yet her stubborn nature wouldnt allow her to quit. Not yet.
Im sorry Varia. I didnt mean that. And Xena now realized she hadnt meant it. She was coming to feel things for Varia with each day that passed that she didnt want to allow in her heart, yet she was helpless to stop it. Im betraying Gabrielle if I allow myself to love her, Xena thought, looking everywhere but at Varia.
I think you did.
Varia turned her gaze down to the newly walled village of Amphipolis with a fresh smile decorating her flawlessly beautiful face. Then lets go. Home is where the heart is right? Besides, every town needs a good Inn.
Before leaving the last time Xena, Gabrielle and Eve had managed to leave Cyrenes tavern in pristine condition. The villagers had helped a lot of course, but Xena had asked it remained closed. She didnt like the idea of someone other than family running the place. Now she was back and the smell that greeted her when she opened the door almost made her weep fresh tears.
The familiar smell of the breads and cakes her mother used to make for her guests stubbornly clung to the air in this place, mingled with the scent of the ale her mother made from her fathers recipe. Perhaps it was all in her mind, but just beneath it all Xena swore she could smell the lingering scent of jasmine soaps Cyrene used to clean with. It had been her favorite as well as Xenas, and smelling it almost made her believe her mother was going to come from the kitchen, wiping flour from her hands with a loving smile of welcome gracing her aging but beautiful face.
Shes not here.
What? Varia asked, unsure if shed heard Xena correctly.
Xena had spoken the words barely above a whisper. So quietly in fact, they had parted from her lips on nothing more than a breath. Mother, Xena explained. Shes not here. Shes gone forever.
Thats where youre wrong Xena. Varia entered the Inn and looked around with an appreciative nod of the quality of structure. There was a presence here that exuded love, and though Varia had never met Xenas mother, she didnt doubt in the least that presence was the very same woman they were talking about.
I feel something here. Something warm and loving. Ill bet its her.
Xena ventured inside, letting the heavy door swing shut behind her. Despite herself she had to agree with Varia. She could feel her mother too. You know I think you might be right. I feel it too.
The words her mother had spoken to her about always being alive in her heart came back to Xena as she looked around the familiar walls of the Inn. Shed been feeling homesick for a long time. Now she was back and she could feel some of the burden of her despair being lifted from her shoulders with each breath of home she took in. Varia had indeed been correct when shed said that home is where the heart is, and her heart would always be in Amphipolis.
Give me tour?
Xena looked down at Varias smiling face. She could see the triumph Varia was feeling shining from her eyes. Xena gave Varia the first real smile in a long time. Right this way.
Later that night Xena and Varia had aired the Inn out and the smell of baking bread, meat and steaming vegetables that was to be their first dinner filled the air. The rain Xena had been forced to endure off and on for the past month poured outside once again, but this time she found the sound soothing instead of bothersome. Her mother, Xena recalled, used to love the rains that hailed the arrival of winter. A smile came to her face as she remembered tender moments between her and her mother here in this very same kitchen.
What a beautiful smile.
Xena looked over to see Varia watching her as she set the small table the family and occasional seasonal employee had always used to eat meals and relax. She didnt attempt to hide her newfound smile. It felt good to allow herself a small measure of happiness after a month of hard grieving.
Varia had noticed Xena allowed the smile to linger as well, and she wanted so much for Xena to share the thought that had inspired it. When Xena began to explain her thoughts, Varia felt her soul smile as brightly as the smile on Xenas face. Xena was beginning to accept her.
I was just thinking about how Mother loved the rain. After we finished cleaning in here, she would stand by this window and look out at the town.
Xena did so now and Varia came to stand beside her. The windows of the other homes of Amphipolis glowed with warm yellow light as families settled down for the evening after a hard day of working their shops and markets. Xena pointed one out to Varia.
See that one, three doors down?
Varia nodded. It was a small, solid structure with only one tiny window. Uh-huh.
When I was twelve a boy lived there that I was absolutely crazy about. His father was absolutely crazy about my mother.
Really? Varia said, becoming genuinely interested in a story Xena had never told Gabrielle. Xena felt pangs of guilt for sharing something with someone new but she forced herself to bury those feelings. It had been only a month, but if she didnt begin to move on at some time she would become trapped in her hurt until she was once again the bitter wretch shed once been. Maybe Varia
Varia looked up at Xena expectantly. She was so young! She had an innocence Xena knew wasnt really there, but that didnt matter. Varia was beautiful and she genuinely cared about Xenas soul.
With no small measure of effort she pulled her eyes away from Varias and looked back at the house. Anyway, the boy was named Maphias, and his father was named Rufus.
Varia burst into laughter and quickly held a hand up to her mouth, covering her perfect smile. Im sorry. Rufus?
Yeah, Xena said, smiling again for the second time that day, despite herself. Whats so funny?
Varia shook one strong shoulder that was draped in creamy, smooth skin. Xena imagined it was every bit as soft to the touch as it was to the eyes, then she chided herself for the thought. She would not allow herself to fall for Varia. They could be friends, but nothing more. Gabrielle was the only one for her, and there would never be another.
Varia explained her laughter. Nothing really. That name it just sounds like something a dog would say if you could teach it to talk.
This day was filling with momentous events. Shed smiled twice today, but now she was actually chuckling. Whod have ever thought shed find a reason to laugh without Gabrielle to inspire it?
Afraid she would do something to ruin the moment, Varia only looked back at the house. What happened?
It was a disaster, Xena said, walking away from the window and going over to the oven to take the bread out to cool. Rufus liked my mother but she didnt like him. I liked Maphias but Maphias liked my mother too.
Oh yeah. They ended up in a little war to court her.
They both giggled like schoolgirls. What did your mother do? Varia asked. She could just imagine a twelve-year-old boy competing with his father over the affections of an older woman.
She let Rufus know she was happy being single and nothing was going to change that. My thirteenth birthday was coming up so they planned this party.
Xena put the bread on the bakers rack and sat down at the table across from Varia. Xena had long since pulled her boots off and had donned one of the many dresses in storage in her old room. Varia still wore her usual Amazon dress but she appreciated the sight of Xenas long, bare legs as she put them up on the table. The Warrior Princess lost herself in memories of her past, not noticing the effect she was having on Varia, and continued the story.
I was such a tomboy. Big surprise there huh? Maphias didnt care much for that but I didnt have the first clue of how to be a proper girl.
What did you do?
I didnt do anything, Xena explained. She closed her eyes and remembered the events almost as if they were yesterday. Mother Rufus did it all. They fixed up this place like they were preparing a banquet for a King and mother made this beautiful white Roman toga for me. She brushed my hair and adorned me with daisies. When I came down the steps I remember how Maphias mouth dropped open.
I can see that Varia thought, hoping against hope Xenas skirts would slid up her impossibly long legs just a little further. Of course she didnt get her wish but she was happy to see Xenas spirits lifting for a change even if her skirt wouldnt. Xena was an exquisite creature when she was happy.
What happened after that?
It lasted a whole week. Ah, we were kids. I was his girl, you know how it is.
Uh, no I dont. Ive never been with a man.
Xena looked at her with something that almost looked like pity, especially the way shed said man like it was a dirty word. You dont know what youre missing Varia.
Varia leaned forward with a wicked grin and licked her lips. Actually, you dont know what youre missing.
With that she stood from the table and went to the grill. The meat was done, but even fresh from the fire it wasnt as hot as Xena was getting at the sight of Varias powerful, well-muscled body as she moved about with her chores of getting their dinner on the table. Xena knew Varia was aware of her stare and she didnt doubt the younger woman enjoyed the attention.
What was even more amazing was Xena was enjoying giving it.