Written By: Caina Q. Fuller
Callisto poked her head around the tree where Gabrielle was just beginning to doze off. The wanna be Bard could never keep her eyes open for long, especially when she was forced to sit still for more than a minute at a time. It didn't help that today was hotter than Hades itself.
Callisto usually loved to watch her friend sleep, though right now she didn't have any choice but to wake her. Matters were urgent. "Gabrielle! Hey, wake up!"
Gabrielle opened one eye and looked up at the taller, more voluptuous blonde that had become her closest friend since Marcus had sequestered her sister Lila in his harem over a year before. They shared each other's secrets, deepest desires for their futures and Callisto loved to listen to stories as much as Gabrielle loved to tell them.
They knew each other so well in fact, that Gabrielle could sense her friends fear before she could say one word. "What's the matter Cally?"
Gabrielle sighed with frustration and sat up. She hated that man. Ever since he'd laid siege to Potidea over a year before he'd done nothing but torment her and her family. The citizens of Potidea weren't his only victims either. Callisto and her family had merely been going to visit relatives in Torone when Marcus had taken them captive and forced them into a life of slavery behind the walls of the village. Luckily for Callisto, her sister Naomi and Gabrielle, they'd found one another and become fast friends.
"What's he doing now?"
Callisto looked back around as if to make certain no one could hear them, then stooped and whispered to Gabrielle. "Marcus is gathering together some of his men. They're moving out."
"Oh," Gabrielle said, perking up. "You're bringing me good news! I can visit with Lila while he's-"
"No, that's just it! He's taking Lila with him."
Gabrielle's heart leaped into her throat. Why would Marcus take Lila out to harvest slaves? It just didn't make sense.
"What could be going on that he'd want to take Lila out on a harvest?"
"That's the question of the day because I don't have a clue," Callisto said. She checked to see if they were alone one more time then voiced a thought already running through Gabrielle's mind.
"I think now is the time."
Gabrielle immediately shook her head no as fear tickled her gut. "No, it's too dangerous."
The Bard stood to her feet and walked over to the lake where she was letting the day's laundry soak. She stooped to her knees to continue her work as if this would somehow validate her reasons for not wanting to listen to the argument she knew Callisto was about to present.
"What do you mean it's too dangerous?" Callisto's voice was a mixture of disappointment and anger. "This is the best opportunity we've ever had. Besides, I was thinking."
"Callisto, I hate it when you think. It always gets us in trouble."
Gabrielle allowed her eyes to wander to the tip of a nasty scar on one of Callisto's freckled, well-tanned shoulders. They had been caught once, here at this very lake making fun of Marcus when a soldier over heard them and ordered them whipped. Callisto had insisted she was the only one speaking ill of their Lord, and in a rare display of mercy Marcus only had one of them beaten: Callisto. She spoke ill of him now more than ever, but she was definitely careful of who may or may not be around to hear her.
"Very funny. We can keep an eye on Lila this way."
"Now I know you've lost your mind. Its bad enough you want to attempt an escape. It's another to even toy with the idea of following Marcus. If we get caught he'll put us to death! Or worse, he'll put us in his harem."
Callisto took a step away from Gabrielle, her back stiff with determination. Gabrielle knew that posture and she gave up right then on even trying to talk the smallest measure of sense into Callisto. The daring blond wasn't about to entertain the notion of giving up her suicidal mission to follow Lila and Marcus, wherever they were planning to go.
"I guess I care more about Lila than you do."
Callisto's words cut Gabrielle to the core. Not just because they were cruel but also because Gabrielle half believed them. She was the older sister and every day she carried the guilt that she should be the one in Marcus' harem instead of Lila, but she was too afraid to even think of trading places. Besides, Marcus never gave her a second look and she doubted he would give up his favorite for her.
However, Callisto had gone too far in saying such a thing. "You listen to me Callisto," Gabrielle said, her voice trembling with pain. "Lila is my sister and nobody loves her more than me. Do you hear me? NO ONE!"
"Shhh!" Callisto tried to reach out to Gabrielle but she would have none of it. Callisto had hurt her and now she was angry.
"I'm sorry Gabrielle. I shouldn't have said that."
Gabrielle knew Callisto well enough to know she meant her words. In time, she would get over it and forgive Callisto, but for now...
"If you're not ready to leave this prison, fine. You can stay. I'm going to find out what they're doing and maybe I can free her when he's grabbing Virgins."
Callisto turned to head back to the village but she didn't get more than a few steps before Gabrielle was trailing behind her. The mission Callisto had in mind was reckless and would surely lead to their capture and possibly even their deaths, but she couldn't just stand back and watch while her best friend risked her life to save her sister. If they were to all die, Gabrielle thought, they would die together.
"Wait! She's my sister. I at least have to try."
Callisto beamed at Gabrielle with sisterly pride. "That's my Gabby."
"Yeah, yeah. Whatever."
They made their way back to the village before they could arouse the suspicion of any of the guards that were most familiar with them. They had a plan of action, and they were going to bravely see it through, regardless of the consequences.
Lila was completely unprepared for Marcus' sudden arrival into her rooms as she struggled to wash the stench of him from her body. It seemed that no matter how many baths she took she could never get his smell off her. Part of her knew it was all in her mind, yet part of her also wondered if he'd invaded her to the point she actually carried his smell.
"Get ready. We're going on a little trip."
"Since when do you take me on your raids?"
Marcus was not in the mood to put up with any of Lila's sarcasm. He'd struck a deal with Athena barely an hour ago that would decide the direction his life was going to take. If he succeeded Athena would have what she wanted, and he would also have her favor.
He knew that if he had the favor of the most powerful god on Olympus, second only to Zeus, Hera and Poseidon, then there would be no stopping him. She would guarantee his success until the day he died, which would be a very long time from now.
Marcus grabbed a hand full of Lila's wet hair and jerked her head back until she wondered if perhaps the pressure on her throat would choke her.
"If you ever question me again, I'll replace you with your precious sister. Do you understand me Lila?"
She did her best to speak around the fear that was oddly choking her. How many times had she imagined her death at his hands? How many times had she feared he would force Gabrielle into a life of misery with him once she was gone?
"I understand. Forgive me Marcus. I meant no disrespect."
"That's a good little sheep. Get dressed."
"Begging your pardon my lord," Lila said respectfully, as he turned to prepare his men. He turned to look at her, his patients dwindling by the second.
"Well?" he said, when she failed to continue.
"You've forbidden me to wear clothes, remember?"
"Then you'll just have to come naked won't you?"
Marcus stormed from the bathing room and out into the hot afternoon. He'd never cared much for the feminine members of Olympus, but now it seemed as if one of them just might be his saving grace. All he had to do to make his dreams come true was rid the world of a mysterious doppelganger.
Gabrielle found Xena waiting on her horse outside the Hestian temple facing the eastern path. Gabrielle didn't doubt Xena had heard every word spoken between her and Aphrodite. From the look on her face, Xena was every bit as confused about who Gabrielle really was as she was about the feelings she had developed for Gabrielle in the short time she'd been here.
Xena cursed herself for not being more forward. She'd known that regardless of what else might happen, she would eventually have to answer to Athena about the way she was feeling and the future, or even if there was a future, of their relationship.
Now Gabrielle was all but gone from her life, and she'd squandered the time she'd had with her. A war was raging in Xena. Part of her wanted to walk away from Gabrielle now before she said something she'd come to regret. Another part of her wanted to do something irrational, like kidnap Gabrielle and force her to miss her window of opportunity to return to the gate. A small voice inside her urged her to beg and plead with Gabrielle to stay and give her a chance to prove she could love her every bit as much as her counterpart in Gabrielle's home world.
"Hey." Gabrielle mounted her horse and came to a stop next to Xena. They shared a long look that seemed to communicate volumes before Xena broke her silence.
"I gather you're from out of town."
This brought a small smile to Gabrielle's face. "Way out of town. Though I do have a double. That's what I wanted to talk-"
"Well I don't want to talk. We've been together three days and you never said a word about what was really going on. How could you lead me on like that?"
"Lead you on?" Gabrielle seemed genuinely hurt and confused. "Xena, I never led you on about anything-"
"Oh yes you did." Xena said, interrupting Gabrielle again. "You could see I was falling for you but not trying to rush anything and you still kept silent about who you really are. Why?"
"Because I didn't think it was wise. I don't know you. I had no idea if I could trust you or not."
"I'm exactly the same as your Xena. If you can trust her, you can trust me."
"That's just it." Their voices were rising now and Gabrielle was relieved the Virgins had retreated to the relative cool of the temple to be with their goddess. "You're not exactly like her. There are a lot of differences between the two of you."
"Like the fact she's not half dead inside like you are! You're cold Xena."
"I am not cold," Xena said, though the chill in her voice proved her words to be lies.
Xena kicked her horse into a run down the road, but Gabrielle would be damned if she just allowed Xena to run away from the issue like this. She took off behind her, knowing if they kept this pace up they would reach the port by nightfall.
"She also wouldn't run away from a conversation like this," Gabriele called out to her as they thundered down the road.
Xena drew her horse to a sudden stop, making Gabrielle almost collide with her. The Bard brought her own horse around and until she was blocking the narrow path with the length of her horses body. If Xena wanted to get past her, she would have to go through her.
"Is that what you think I'm doing? Running? I am Xena. Favored above all others by Athena herself. I do not run. Not from anything, especially my-"
Xena brought herself up short and looked away. Though it had been brief, Gabrielle had seen very real tears wet Xena's eyes. The proud warrior took a deep breath and pulled herself together, then looked back at Gabrielle. If only Xena knew how much effect the pain in her eyes had on Gabrielle...
Being the friend to Xena that she was, and a bard to boot, Gabrielle finished the sentence for Xena. "Feelings? Xena, you've been running from your feelings all your life. Its time to stop and confront them."
"How? With Athena? She doesn't care about feelings. At least not mine."
"I'll bet she does. Have you talked to her? Have you tried to tell her your inmost secrets?"
"I don't want to talk about it," Xena said, evading the issue again. "I'm not bearing my soul to someone only to lose her in a matter of hours. I'm going back to Athens. I think it would be best if you wait at the temple with Aphrodite. I'm sure she won't mind keeping you company."
Xena charged Gabrielle, forcing her no choice but to move out of the way and allow her through. Gabrielle watched Xena thunder down the road in her champion's uniform for a few moments, considering what she should do.
Should she follow Xena's advice and return to the temple, or should she pursue Xena? After barely a split second Gabrielle kicked her horse into a run. It really wasn't that difficult a decision. In matters of the heart Gabrielle was very wise, and she knew that no matter what world she was in, she could never walk away and leave Xena in pain. Never.
Xena awoke the next day to the sound of the familiar, daily life of the villagers of Amphipolis outside her window and the wonderful smell of eggs and sweet cakes cooking downstairs. She rose from the comfortable cushions of her bed and winced in surprise as her warm feet made the first contact of the day with the nearly ice cold floor. That was the one minor detail Xena had forgotten about home: No matter how warm the room the stone floor always seemed impossible to warm.
She was mildly surprised when she found a pair of brand new slippers just beneath the stand next to her bed. Xena knew they had not been there the night before and Varia must have placed them there. Once again she was reminded of how amazingly thoughtful the sometimes-brash Queen was, and she was also reminded of how similar she was to Gabrielle.
Varia seemed to genuinely enjoy catering to Xena. Whenever the Warrior Princess smiled, which had been quite frequently the day before, Varia seemed to become filled with satisfaction that Xena was taking her first shaky steps back onto the road of happiness that life could hold, even without Gabrielle. Perhaps Varia was just what Xena needed right now to live life instead of merely surviving.
"Perhaps she is," Xena found herself whispering aloud. She shook the thoughts away and went into the washroom to find a tub of steaming water waiting for her. "Oh, this is too much." Varia was running herself ragged in an effort to keep her happy, and Xena wouldn't allow it any longer. She exited the room and made her way downstairs.
Varia had changed from her usual Amazon clothes and was now wearing a dress Xena had never seen before. Apparently Varia had been up with the dawn and had found a dress in Cyrene's closet that complimented her incredible figure. At least she'd done one nice thing for herself.
Varia gave Xena a beaming smile as she set two places at the kitchen table. "Good morning Xena. Breakfast will be ready shortly."
"I want to talk to you about that. Slippers, a hot bath and breakfast? You're running yourself into the ground to cater to me and I want it to stop."
She realized her tone was sharper than it needed to be, but Varia was nothing if not stubborn. Sometimes the only way to reach Varia was to be firm. What made this situation even worse was the hurt expression the younger woman didn't even realize she was displaying.
"I'm just trying to be helpful."
"And you are." Xena softened her tone and entered the kitchen. She guided Varia to the table and took the utensils to finish the job of setting the table. "I'll finish breakfast for you."
"No buts. It's my turn to do something for you."
Varia waited a moment then spoke again, this time in a rush before Xena could interrupt her again. "But I'd rather you didn't."
"And why not?"
"Because you can't cook."
Xena knew this to be true but it didn't stop her from being slightly offended. "I can too. When I have to."
"Yeah, in the jungle with no other recourse. Let me handle the food department huh? Please?"
With that kind of desperation on a woman's face, how could Xena refuse? Besides, Varia did have a point. Xena didn't have many skills in the culinary department. "Fine, but I've got the dishes."
"Take that bath first. I'd hate it to go to waste after all the work it took to prepare it."
Xena couldn't believe it. Varia was using legitimate excuses to force Xena into allowing her to do everything for her. Well, if that's the way she wanted it, then that's the way it will be. Xena turned with a shake of her head and ran up the steps to take her bath.
Amphitryon had been watching old Cyrene's Inn all day in the hopes he could catch a glimpse not just of the legendary Warrior Princess herself, but the exquisite beauty that had come into town with her. He'd watched from his window as the two women had ridden into town just before dusk the night before. From the shadows in the windows and the brief glimpses he'd caught of them through the curtains, he'd gotten the impression they were cleaning the old place up.
Perhaps, he thought, they were going to open the Inn again. Nothing would make him happier. Cyrene had been one of the nicest women in the entire town...at least until they'd discovered the evil happenings were because she was a witch. He'd regretted having to take part in her burning, but what could he do? His family and farm had suffered because of her evil doings...Amphitryon consoled himself with the excuse he'd done the right thing.
Now Xena had returned home for the first time since vanquishing Mephistopheles and putting Lucifer on the throne of hell in his place. Since that day the curses visited upon the farms of Amphipolis had all but vanished and they were once again thriving. The only inconvenience really, was the town no longer had an Inn to cater to visitors and most of the single men had been forced to learn to cook for themselves in Cyrene's absence.
As quietly as he could, Amphitryon eased around to the rear of the Inn. There was a door that he could use to peep into the kitchen without being easily seen by anyone inside. He just wanted to get one more look at the raven-haired beauty that had accompanied Xena into town the night before. Hopefully she had that skimpy outfit on from the day before. It signified her as an Amazon, and it was rare he got to see that much female flesh without bedding with a woman, and none of the women he'd ever slept with had such a firm body as hers.
When he reached the rear door the smell of ham, eggs and fresh bread wafted through the door. His belly growled at the thought of eating such delicious food since he had been one of the men forced to eat his own cooking since the death of the witch Cyrene. Now the village had two women who were going to run the old place and hopefully he could gain back some of the weight he'd lost since he'd practically stopped eating.
He peered inside the kitchen and to his disappointment it was empty. A dishrag hung over the back of one of the chairs, still swinging from the momentum of being thrown across the chair. Whoever had been in there was gone now. He spent a few moments struggling to see past the kitchen and into the main room but no one was there.
"Looking for someone?"
Amphitryon whirled around to find the very same woman he'd been looking for standing behind him. How had she come up behind him so fast?
"Uh...hi there," he said, trying to sound cheerful though he was horribly embarrassed and more than a little shaken by her stealth.
The woman only looked at him with distaste, as she would a bug she'd crushed with her boot. She had also regrettably changed out of the sexy clothes she'd worn the night before, and now she wore one of Cyrene's old dresses. It was out dated but it did her exquisite figure justice.
She kept her hands on her hips but her feet were spread shoulder length and most of her weight rested on the balls of her feet with her knees bent just slightly. She could spring in any direction at the drop of a hat. She was ready to fight, he could tell, and he knew he didn't want to come to blows with an Amazon warrior. He was no slouch but he knew he couldn't handle her.
"What are you doing, sneaking around here like that?"
"I'm not sneaking."
The woman only lifted her right eyebrow, not buying a word of his clumsily delivered excuse. Why should she? It was a lie after all. He decided he'd better come up with a better story, but he didn't want to come right out and tell the truth of why he was there "sneaking" around.
"Ok, I was sneaking. I wanted to see what you were doing with the place. That's all, I swear. I'm your neighbor Amphitryon. And you are?"
"None of your business."
Suddenly the door swung open, hitting him on the rear. He turned to find a leggy brunette leaning out to see what was going on. She made no apology for hitting him once she saw Varia's defensive stance.
"Varia? Everything ok?"
Varia, Amphitryon thought, trying the name out in his mind. He liked it a lot. It suited the fierce beauty of the woman he'd come to see. He turned back to her, not aware of the open admiration on his face that belied the crush he was developing on her with lightning speed. Varia rolled her eyes and pushed her way past him.
"No. We've just got a snoop, that's all."
Xena smiled. She'd seen the young man wearing his heart on his sleeve and pitied him. If only he knew he didn't stand a chance of winning Varia's affections. "Can I help you?"
"Hi." He offered Xena his arm and she took it in a strong, manly clasp. Boy she was strong..."My names Amphitryon. I live over in Rufus' old place."
"No kidding," Xena said with a smile. "I knew him. Whatever happened to him?"
"He moved about twenty years ago after his son Maphias was killed in the flood."
Xena's face fell at the mention of Maphias' death. "That's too bad. Maphias was a friend of mine."
"If it'll help," he said, wanting to cheer her up in some way, "he died saving a lot of people."
People that murdered my mother, Xena thought, but she hid the anger from her face. It wasn't necessarily this young man's fault that her mother had been lynched because of foolish superstition. "At least he didn't die in vain."
They shared an uncomfortable silence. The more Amphitryon thought about it, the more he realized it was uncomfortable for him, not Xena. These two were way out of his league and he began to curse at himself for even coming over. What in Tartarus did he think was going to happen anyway?
"Xena, breakfast is ready. Won't you come and eat?"
"I'll be there in a minute."
Something about the way they spoke to one another immediately bothered Amphitryon. As he watched the look in Varia's eyes when she looked at Xena, he got the distinct impression he was seeing something more than sisterly friendship. Varia sounded more like a wife calling a husband to a meal, and Xena responded more like a husband than a friend.
Nah, that's silly, he finally said to himself. These were honorable women who wouldn't be involved in a relationship like that. He gave Xena a short bow then backed away. "I uh, hope to see you again sometime."
"Sure you will," Xena said, offering him a bright smile. "We're re-opening the Inn so you're always welcome. Good-bye."
Xena disappeared back into the Inn, shutting the door behind her, and Amphitryon made his way back to his own home. He had a lot of work to do that day in the field, and he'd wasted too much time as it was. As he made his way home, images of Varia cooking meals like that for him filled his mind, yet he still couldn't shake the feeling there was more to the relationship between the two women than met the eye. But like he'd thought before...Nah, that's silly.
Xena watched Varia eat her breakfast as if it were possibly the last meal she would have in a long time.
"Hey, slow down. Enjoy your food."
"I'll bet-" Varia caught herself just before she could say something she would regret, but that didn't change the fact Xena knew what words had almost slipped from Varia's lips.
"You'll bet Gabrielle always ate slow? She did."
Varia looked away, embarrassed. "It's an old Amazon habit. Eat fast so you can get back to work."
Xena knew the younger woman was trying to avoid the subject of Gabrielle and in her own way maybe she was even trying to apologize for her near-slip. Xena appreciated it. "Don't worry about it. You're not Gabrielle, I know that. You don't have to try to be her to take-"
Speaking of near-slips. Now it was Xena's turn to look away in embarrassment. She'd almost promised something she wasn't sure she was ready to give, but Varia wasn't going to let it slide any more than Xena had. "I don't have to try to be Gabrielle to take her place?"
There was more than a small amount of hope in Varia's voice at the possibility that Xena may finally be ready to advance their relationship to another level. A more...intimate level?
"Not so fast huh? Look, the place could use a good dusting. What do you say we get started?"
"Ok. While you're doing that, I'll go out for some supplies."
"I'll give you the money," Xena said. They both stood and from the positions of their chairs they came face to face for one brief moment that almost seemed like a lifetime. It was all Varia could do not to move in for their first kiss. She wanted Xena so bad she could just taste her.
Sensing Varia's need-and her own-Xena decided space was just what they needed to keep from making a serious mistake this early in their budding friendship. Xena quickly moved away and went over to a secret floor space where Cyrene always kept the profits of the business. Just as she'd suspected there were two large sacs full of money.
"Impressive. You know Xena, partnering with you might be a very lucrative-"
"Hush-hush," Xena said, offering Varia a smile. She took out almost a few coins that together were worth almost fifty dinars, and then placed them in the soft skin of Varia's hand.
"I'll see you later. Let me know if you need help bringing everything in."
With that, Xena hurried away before she allowed herself to much time to notice how the morning light made Varia's skin glow with almost ghostly beauty, or how rosy and soft her lips really were.
Varia had seen Xena's moment of weakness, and as she made her way through the Inn to the front entrance, she wondered how long it would be before she and Xena not only shared the responsibilities of the Inn together, but their bed as well.
After hours of silence Gabrielle and Xena finally arrived at the port commonly called Demetra. "Xena, what are you going to do?"
It wasn't the first time Gabrielle had asked the question, and it seemed to Xena that her silence wasn't going to be enough to stop Gabrielle from asking it again and again until she got her answer.
"I'm going to catch a ship to the island of Salamis. From there I'll take another boat to the mainland and ride on in to Athens."
"I don't mean that. I mean what are you going to do?"
Xena turned to Gabrielle, genuine confusion on her face. "What are you talking about? Do what?"
"I mean are you just going to go back to Athena?"
"What do you mean 'go back'? I never left her."
Xena handed the reigns of her lathered horse over to a stable boy, tipped him then made her way into the local Inn. It was full of rowdy men that immediately lifted their glasses in toast to Xena in a sign of respect for the uniform she wore. Xena offered them a few nods as she made her way to the bar.
"Mead." The bar tender nodded and gave her a fresh mug. Xena was purposefully ignoring Gabrielle as the bard stood next to her, staring her down. Finally she could take it no more.
"What?" Xena barked.
"You know what."
"I need a room," Xena told the man behind the bar. He nodded and waved a serving wench over.
"Get Athena's champion the best room in the house. A hot bath Xena?"
"Get a bath for her too. No charge."
Xena smiled at him but threw money on the counter. "Thanks for the offer but I've got it covered. Next time you're in trouble, call on Athena in my name. She'll save you." Xena got up from the bar and walked briskly toward the steps, Gabrielle following close behind.
"Bartender," Xena added, motioning at Gabrielle. "Do something about this pest will you?"
Gabrielle wasn't aware her mouth could fall open as far as it did, but she could only stare as the bartender ran around to stand in front of her as Xena went up the steps, disappearing into the darkness.
"Sorry miss. Xena wants to be alone."
Gabrielle wasn't about to be put aside quite so easily, but she also wasn't going to hurt a well-meaning innocent either. "I get the picture. You don't have to worry about me."
"Thanks," he said, in obvious relief. "Come on. You look like you could use a hot meal and a drink."
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