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© Copyright 1997 J.M. Isige
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Xena and Gabrielle continued down the road to Patrai in their usual manner. Xena rode Argo while Gabrielle walked alongside practicing one of her many tales. Xena looked down to show her continued interest in what the bard was saying, and was struck by the change in the young woman over the last few months. She had been through so much, what with the death of Perdicus and then that of Callisto. She tried to keep cheerful and for the most part to one who didn't know her well there did not seem to be that much different about the bard, but Xena knew better. The changes were subtle and almost imperceptible, but they were there none the less. The way she carried herself and the look in her eyes were different. She still carried herself with the assurance of one who knew they could look after themselves, but in the last few months Xena had seen a slight slump come those shoulders, revealing a tiredness that she knew Gabrielle felt in her soul. If she had had any doubts and thought that it was perhaps road fatigue those were soon put to rest by a look into Gabrielle's eyes. They had taken on the faraway gaze of one who is reliving things she wished she had never seen. The gaze was not constant, and it was not indicative of a total loss in innocence on Gabrielle's part, but the fact that it was there at all and revealed even a small loss was sometimes too much for Xena to bear.
Xena had stayed up on many a cold night berating herself for what had happened to Perdicus. She would lie awake letting her mind fill with 'if onlys', until she wanted to scream at the night sky in frustration. Her feelings of guilt were only compounded by Gabrielle's continued allegiance. They were made worse still by the realization that had Gabrielle not come back to her, Xena did not know what she would have done. That thought tormented her more than the guilt partly because it pointed to feelings that she was not prepared to address, and partly because Xena knew she now had a weakness that she would never get over. Whatever relationships Xena had had in the past, she had always been able to leave them behind when it suited her to do so. As a warrior she had prided herself on her lack of emotional attachment for the most part, and had only come close to a serious commitment once. Now she had to deal with the nagging thoughts in the back of her mind that kept suggesting that had Perdicus not been killed, she would have tried to get Gabrielle back anyway. This did not sit well with the warrior, especially since she was not sure of Gabrielle's feelings about her. If she had been so willing to leave Xena and marry the farmer turned fighter, perhaps her feelings for Xena had not been as deep as the warrior had begun think.
Looking down at Gabrielle, Xena forced herself out of her deep train of thought, angry that she had allowed herself to get so lost in her thoughts. It was just as well that she had decided they both needed a rest. They were headed to the village of Patrai to get just that. Xena had passed through the village once before as a warlord, but she had done the people no harm and was sure that they would have no problem with her brief return now. Seeing the tired slump to Gabrielle's shoulders she was glad they were almost there. She hoped Gabrielle would be pleased with her choice, Patrai was known for it's beauty. It was a small village on the Ionian sea nestled between the sapphire blue of the water, and the emerald of the forests that surrounded it inland. One came upon it suddenly coming over a ridge and looked down on it by the sea. The sight of it had even taken Xena's breath away the first time she saw it, and she was not known for her appreciation of nature in those days.
Seeing they were coming to the final ridge, Xena leaned down to let Gabrielle know.
"O.K. were almost there now. Come up on Argo and close your eyes, I want it to be a surprise", said Xena extending her arm out for the bard to grab.
"It must be quite a sight, I haven't seen you this excited for ages", said Gabrielle smiling as she reached up for Xena's arm.
"You'll see soon enough".
They came over the ridge and Xena half turned in the saddle to look at Gabrielle.
"O.K. you can open your eyes now", she said not taking her eyes off the bard, wanting to see her expression when she saw the village.
Gabrielle opened her eyes to the most beautiful sight she had ever seen.
"Oh Xena, its beautiful", said Gabrielle her eyes wide with wonder.
"Yes it is", said Xena taking in the beauty and wonder on the young bard's face. "This is the way I always want her to be ", thought Xena. "Full of joy and wonder at the world she sees around her".
She was jolted from her thoughts by Gabrielle smacking her thigh and saying, "Well don't just sit there, lets go get a closer view".
"Yes ma'am", said Xena as she turned around, and with a smile on her face, urged Argo onto a fast trot down the other side of the ridge to the village below. "This is going to be just what she needs to get the spring back in her step and the worry out of her eyes", thought Xena as they neared the village. "This will be a wonderful week by the sea".
As they rode down the main road of the village looking for an inn, Gabrielle looked around at their new surroundings. The village was bright and colorful, and from what she could see of the people they seemed to be a friendly group. "This is exactly what I needed", thought Gabrielle. "A week by the sea with nothing to do but relax and spend time with Xena". It was rare that Gabrielle had Xena all to herself. Sure there were the times they were on the road or making camp, but Xena always had part of her mind busy, listening for attacks, or planning what to do when they reached their next destination. This week in Patrai would give them a chance to spend time together and possibly to mend some of the damage done by Gabrielle's marriage to Perdicus. It was not that there had been any open hostility between them, in fact Xena had been so understanding about the whole thing, Gabrielle sometimes found it hard to face her. The damage done was of a more subtle kind. Gabrielle had sensed the difference almost right away. The small tenderness' that Xena had begun to exhibit stopped. Xena rarely touched her now, regardless of if was in play or in a quiet moment together after a long day. Gabrielle had seen some of the walls it had taken her so long to break down, going right back up again, and felt powerless to stop them. After all what could she say to Xena, why don't you touch me , why don't you care? The questions would not have been fair, and besides Gabrielle could see that Xena did still care for her. What she had noticed was gone, was the sense that Xena cared for her more than just as a friend. More painful than that realization was the knowledge that it was her own fault. If she had not married Perdicus how different would their relationship be now, six months later on. Gabrielle was afraid she might never know, but more afraid that perhaps she did not deserve to. What was it they said the gods did to those who made rash decisions for the wrong reasons? They made them live with the consequences. Gabrielle had hoped that maybe she would have the chance to correct her mistake, surely the gods could not be so cruel as to punish mistakes made from fear and not malice. She had almost given up hope of a chance to redeem herself, when Xena had suggested they come to Patrai for a week by the sea. Gabrielle had thanked any and all gods she thought might be listening, and vowed not to throw away this one chance she had been given to make things right between her and Xena. "This is going to be just what we need to rebuild the bridge between us", thought Gabrielle as she dismounted Argo and followed Xena into an inn.
The inn was called The Clamshell and was close to the beach and the market place. "It seems to be a nice homey place", thought Gabrielle as she followed Xena up to the bar. There were two people behind the bar, a man and a woman, who had her back to them as they entered. Xena addressed the man, and asked for a room. The words were barely out of her mouth when the woman behind the bar spun around to face them, nearly dropping the cup in her hand as she did so.
Xena looked up from the cup in her hand which she had caught, and looked into the eyes of a woman she had never expected to see again.
The woman came around the bar and was in Xena's arms faster than Gabrielle could figure out what was going on.
"Xena it is you. I wish the gods would have warned me my heart was to be in for such a shock when I got up this morning, I would have gotten a better nights sleep", said the woman as she pulled back slowly from the embrace.
"Ariana. I don't believe it. What are you doing here?" asked Xena with her arms still around the woman, and a smile on her face.
"I own the inn", she said, laughing at the surprised look on Xena's face. "A woman's got to make a living somehow".
Gabrielle watched the scene before her with a mixture of amusement and what she tried not to admit was jealousy. It was rare to see Xena so surprised, but it was even more rare to see her in the arms of another woman. Especially one so beautiful. The woman before her, and still in Xena's arms she noticed, was striking. She had chestnut hair and the greenest eyes Gabrielle had ever seen. She was tall, taller than Gabrielle anyway, and slender with the figure of a dancer. All that combined with the natural beauty her face possessed, made her quite a vision.
Gabrielle was just about to remind Xena of her presence when Xena recovered from her initial surprise, and remembering the bard behind her turned around and made introductions.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle this is Ariana. Ariana this is my friend Gabrielle".
Gabrielle wasn't sure, but she though she saw the woman raise an eyebrow just slightly, but she quickly recovered and gave Gabrielle what appeared to be a heartfelt smile.
"Well, any friend of Xena's is welcome in my inn, for as long as she wishes".
Gabrielle returned the smile and instantly felt guilty about having harbored any ill feelings for the woman, no matter how slight they had been. Ariana must be as genuine as she appeared, or she wouldn't be a friend of Xena's.
Turning back to Xena, Ariana asked, "So what brings you back to Patrai?"
"We've been traveling for quite a while, and are sorely in need of a vacation, and I couldn't think of anywhere I'd rather spend my time relaxing. Besides Gabrielle has never been here and I thought she might like it", answered Xena with a smile directed at the bard. Gabrielle rewarded her with a warm smile in return, and instantly felt better. She had begun to feel left out but the smile from Xena had assured her she was still in the warriors thoughts.
"Well if a vacation is what your after, than a vacation is what you will have", said Ariana. Turning to the man behind the bar she said "Damos go and prepare our best room for our guests. Make sure to prepare them baths, and when your done, get them a little something to eat to hold them until dinner". The man nodded, and stopping to pick up their bags, headed upstairs.
"Thank you", said Xena.
"Of course, anything for you. Now why don't the two of you go sit down until Damos gets the room ready. I have to go and pick up a little surprise".
Ariana showed Xena and Gabrielle to a table in the corner of the room and went into the kitchen. Once there she closed the door behind her and leaned up against it her hand on her heart. "By the gods I never expected this", she thought. "Xena, and just as beautiful as the last time I saw her. What are the gods trying to do to me? Is this punishment or reward for all my years of begging?" Standing up straight again Ariana collected herself with a quiet laugh and headed out the back door.
Xena and Gabrielle sat at the table in silence for a moment, which was as long as Gabrielle could keep her curiosity silent.
"You've never mentioned Ariana before, how do you know her?" asked Gabrielle.
"We met when I was a warlord. She traveled for a time with me and my army, until she decided to settle down. I haven't seen her in four years".
"How come you never mentioned her? She seems very nice, and it looks like you were close?" asked Gabrielle hoping she didn't sound as insecure as she was beginning to feel.
"Oh I don't know, I guess she just never came up", said Xena trying to make light of the whole situation. "Besides if I tell you everything you'll have nothing to wheedle out of me later", said Xena smiling.
Gabrielle was just about to make a smart reply when there was a small voice at the door.
Gabrielle looked up to see a small boy standing in the doorway looking at Xena with a huge smile on his face.
"Damian? By the gods, look at you. Come here", said Xena a huge grin on her face. The boy ran across the room and straight into Xena's arms. Standing up and swinging the boy into the air as she did so, Xena gave the boy a hug. Gabrielle looked on in amazement. She had almost never seen Xena with children, and when she had, she had never been like this. Xena looked almost giddy with joy at seeing the boy. Looking towards the kitchen she saw Ariana coming towards the table.
"I told you I had a little surprise for you. What do you think?" asked Ariana looking at Xena with a smile.
"I can't believe how big he is, and how does he remember me? He was two the last time he saw me", asked Xena.
"Well he does have an amazing memory, but I do talk about you enough. I think he was beginning to think you were this mythic creature that I had made up. Every once in a while he would ask when you were coming to see us. I'm glad I no longer have to evade the question', said Ariana looking at Xena intently, then breaking into a smile as she noticed Gabrielle watching her. "I'm sorry Gabrielle this is my son Damian. Damian say hello to Xena's friend Gabrielle".
"Hello", said Damian still in Xena's arms.
"Hello Damian. Its nice to meet you", said Gabrielle coming to stand next to Xena.
Just then Damos came down the stairs and announced that their room was ready, much to Gabrielle's relief. So much had happened in the last half hour that she felt as though her head was beginning to spin. She desperately wanted to sit down and be alone with Xena, and get her bearings. She was not used to feeling like the third wheel on a chariot, but there was something about being in Ariana's presence that was beginning to make her feel that way.
"O.K. Damian lets leave Xena and Gabrielle alone for a while so they can freshen up and rest before dinner".
"But mother I want to play with Xena", said Damian as Xena put him down.
"You can play with her later, right now she's tired honey", said Ariana smiling apologetically at Xena.
"O.K. but you promise me you'll play with me later Xena?"
"I promise", said Xena smiling.
"Damos will show you to your room, and I will see you at dinner. I still have an inn to run", said Ariana as she headed back to the kitchen, taking Damian with her.
The room was large with a fireplace at one end, and a small room for bathing just off the side of it. Gabrielle went to the window and excitedly turned back to Xena, "You can see the market place and the sea from here Xena. Its a gorgeous view, come and see".
Xena crossed the room and came to stand beside Gabrielle at the window. "You're right, its beautiful", said Xena as she put her arm across Gabrielle's shoulders. Gabrielle let out an involuntary shudder. This was the first time in months that Xena had touched her. "What's the matter Gabrielle? Are you cold?" asked Xena who had felt Gabrielle shudder.
"No Xena I'm just excited. This looks like its going to be a wonderful vacation. I'm so glad you brought me here", said Gabrielle turning to smile at Xena.
"Good. I want you to be happy", said Xena melting beneath the sun of Gabrielle's smile. "When did that smile start to affect me so", wondered Xena as she gazed at the bard who had turned her attention back to the view. Realizing she had begun to pull Gabrielle closer to her, Xena released her grip and set about unpacking their bath supplies. Sighing, Gabrielle turned away from the window. She had felt Xena's pull and had not wanted it to end until she was safe in the embrace of the warrior, but once again the old walls were thrown up between them.
"Why don't you go ahead and take a bath first Xena and I'll get the rest of our things unpacked", said Gabrielle trying to cover up the awkwardness that had followed Xena's departure from the window.
"O.K.", said Xena and gathered her things as she headed for the bathroom.
Xena sat in the tub reflecting on the afternoon's events. It was a shock to see Ariana again, but it had also been nice to see that she was all right. Their last parting had been painful and Xena was glad to see that she no longer appeared to harbor any ill will . Of course she may have just been biding her time, not wanting to start something in front of Gabrielle, but Xena didn't think so. And what about Damian. What a pleasure it was to see him. Xena had forgotten how much she missed him until she held him in her arms. She remembered the first time she had held him, just after he was born. It seemed like a lifetime ago thought Xena, then realized with a quiet laugh that it was.
What was she going to tell Gabrielle? She had felt her confusion this afternoon, and had seen what almost looked like jealousy on her face. What would happen if Xena told her the full story? "This might not be the best time to tell Gabrielle that Ariana is the one person I almost settled down with five years ago", thought Xena. She didn't know how she felt about seeing Ariana again, how could she imagine what Gabrielle would feel. Xena imagined that Gabrielle's feelings on the matter would be based on her feelings for Xena, which Xena wasn't sure of either. "How do I get myself into these things?" thought Xena with a sigh of resignation as she got out of the tub. She got dressed and went back into the main room. Gabrielle was at the window again staring out at the sea. She looked beautiful standing there with the light shining in her eyes. Xena just stood there and watched for a moment, until Gabrielle turned around and smiled.
"I thought I heard you come in. All cleaned up?".
"Yes. Its all yours", said Xena a little embarrassed that she had been caught. "I think I'll go let Damos know were ready for our snack while you take your bath".
"Good idea", said Gabrielle as she gathered up her bath supplies. "I won't be more than about fifteen minutes".
Gabrielle went into the bathroom as Xena laced up her boots and then headed downstairs. "I'll just check in on Ariana while I'm down there", thought Xena. "I want to make sure she wasn't just being nice for Gabrielle's benefit. The last thing I need is for her to bring up our past together, before I figure out what I want to tell Gabrielle about it".
Xena found Ariana in the kitchen, bent over a large pot of stew. She looked up when she saw Xena enter.
"Hi. I wasn't expecting to see you until dinner", said Ariana. "Is something wrong?"
"Oh no, I just wanted to let Damos know we would be ready for that snack in about fifteen minutes".
"Oh. Well he's out back but he should be back in minute".
"Good", said Xena looking awkward. "I guess I also wanted to ask you something".
"Oh yes? And what might that be", asked Ariana trying not to smile. The warrior's reluctance at discussing personal matters had always amazed her, especially when one saw how readily she engaged in battle.
"Well", said Xena with obvious difficulty, "you don't seem to be angry, and I was just wondering if that was just for Gabrielle's benefit or if you have really forgiven me?"
Ariana left her cooking to come and stand directly in front of Xena.
"I'm not mad at you Xena. I was, and for a very long time I didn't think I would ever forgive you, but as you know its hard work carrying hate around and eventually I just let it go. Once I did that, I was able to concentrate on the good in our relationship, and I was much happier. Besides you know I was never very good at staying mad at you".
"That's true", said Xena as a wave of relief washed over her.
"Speaking of Gabrielle, where is she?" asked Ariana changing the subject.
"She's taking a bath".
"She seems very nice. I had heard you were traveling with a young bard, I'm glad you found someone", said Ariana.
"Yes, so am I. We've grown to be good friends", said Xena feeling that somehow that didn't quite describe their relationship.
"Friends? You mean you and her are not..?"
"No. No", said Xena wishing that hadn't sounded as panicked as she knew it did.
"Oh I'm sorry. I guess I just assumed when I saw you two together that.....Well you know what I mean. I guess that puts a different light on it."
"On what?" asked Xena.
"Well what have you told her?"
"And knowing you that's how you intend to keep it", said Ariana irritation creeping into her voice.
"I don't know, I haven't decided".
"What is there to decide? You either want her to know or you don't. What's the matter, are you ashamed of the fact that you once loved me?"
"No of course not Ariana. Its just that its... complicated".
"I see some things never change, you're still playing emotional hide and seek", said Ariana her irritation with Xena now obvious.
"Don't Ariana. I'm really not in the mood", said Xena a hard edge to her voice.
Ariana remembering the signs backed off.
"I'm sorry. I had no right. Its your business Xena. If she asks I'll just leave out the juicy bits", said Ariana trying to evoke a smile from the warrior, and smiling herself when she saw that she had succeeded.
"Thank you. And she will ask.".
The two of them just stood looking at each other for a moment each remembering what had been an exciting but often turbulent past. Slowly Xena leaned forward and brushing the hair off of Ariana's forehead, gave her a kiss.
"Its good to see you again", said Xena softly. "I missed you".
"I missed you too", said Ariana. "more than you'll ever know", she thought to herself.
They stood together for a moment longer until they heard Damos coming in the door. Xena stepped back as Ariana turned to go back to her cooking. When Damos had entered Xena told him they were ready for their food and went back up to the room.
Xena and Gabrielle ate their snack and then they both took naps realizing once they had eaten, how tired they were. When dinner was ready Damos let them know, and they made their way downstairs. Xena spotted Damian at the table in the corner waving at her madly as they came down the stairs.
"Well it looks like our table is all picked out for us", said Xena returning the wave and making her way towards the table.
They sat down, and Damian immediately began to inundate Xena with questions. Gabrielle sat back and laughed as she watched Xena trying to keep up with the boy. Soon Ariana brought their food to the table and joined them for the meal, leaving Damos to run the bar on his own. Gabrielle waited until they were done with dinner, to ask the question she had been waiting all afternoon to ask.
"So how did you and Xena meet?" asked Gabrielle, purposefully avoiding Xena's eyes.
"Well its kind of a long story", said Ariana looking for Xena's approval to continue.
"Good I love stories", said Gabrielle, noticing Xena giving Ariana the nod to continue.
"All right, but I'm no bard so remember you asked for it", said Ariana laughing.
"We met about six years ago. I was the lover of one of Xena's lieutenants named Alexander. We met during one of the times Xena gave her army time off to see their families. He was very handsome, and I was just a simple village girl, when he strolled into my father's stall at the market place. I had never known anyone who led such an exciting life, so when he asked me at the end of the week to join him, I agreed".
"What did your family say?" interrupted Gabrielle.
"They disowned me", answered Ariana, a sad look in her eye.
"Oh I'm sorry", said Gabrielle instantly regretting her need for details.
"That's all right it was a long time ago", said Ariana reassuringly.
"I followed Alexander back to camp, and realized almost instantly that I had made a big mistake. There is very little that is glamorous about a war camp Gabrielle, especially Xena's", said Ariana smiling at Xena across the table.
"Well Xena liked to be able to up and move camp at the drop of a hat if they ever needed to, so she would let her men keep only the barest necessities with them. They were some of the wealthiest people in the whole of Greece, but you wouldn't know it from looking at the camp. Xena made them keep their bounty at certain villages under her protection, so they always had access to it, but it wasn't slowing them down on the road. Anyway where was I? Oh yes, I soon realized that it was not the place for me especially after I bumped into Xena for the first time. And I do mean bumped".
"Why what happened?" asked Gabrielle noticing Xena beginning to look embarrassed.
"Well I was coming out of one the cooking tents with a big pot of soup, but unfortunately I was backing out of the tent as I was still talking to the cook. I swung around once I was out of the tent and banged right into Xena, sending most of the soup down the front of her armor. Now anyone who has known Xena for more than five seconds, knows that was not the way to introduce myself".
"What did she do?" asked Gabrielle imaging the scene, and knowing Xena must have been furious.
"First she let out the longest stream of obscenities I had ever heard, then she threatened to have me publicly flogged. After she saw me almost pass out from fear, she began to calm down and eventually decided that making me clean and shine the armor would be punishment enough. I didn't find out until much later, that when she had found out I was Alexander's lover, she had made him beg for forgiveness on my behalf".
Seeing Gabrielle's shocked expression, and Xena's ice cold stare, Ariana tried to make light of the event.
"Hey she wasn't feared for nothing, it takes a lot to keep up the image of a mean, lean warrior princess".
Gabrielle started to smile, and Xena's stare softened.
"Anyway, I had decided that this life was not for me, but I had nowhere to go, so I tried to make the best of it. I was doing well until I got pregnant. Alexander wasn't happy because he knew Xena didn't allow children in the camp. That meant that once the child was born he would have to send me to a village and pay for my upkeep there. That kind of negated the whole purpose of bringing a woman to camp. It turned out though that he didn't ever have to deal with it. When I was about six months pregnant, Xena and her army were out on a raid, when one of the villagers attacked Alexander causing him to fall from his horse and break his neck".
"Oh how awful".
"Yes it was, but according to Xena he died instantly and so did not suffer. I was always grateful for that. When they brought him back to camp, I was hysterical. I thought my life was over. It wasn't so much that I loved him, because truth be told his shine had begun to dull, but I felt I had no one left in the world. That's when Xena came to me", said Ariana looking over at Xena warmly. Xena returned the smile, and brushed the hair out of Damian's eyes as he sat on her lap listening to his mother tell the story he had made her tell him a hundred times before.
"That night Xena came to my tent and told me she would look after me and provide for the baby. It turned out that Alexander had been quite the gambler and so there really wasn't any money that he could have left me. Xena had my tent moved next to hers and over the next few months we became friends. In fact she held me for the entire twelve hours that I was in labor with Damian. She was the first person to hold him after he was born, apart from me. I think that's when she fell in love with him, because the first thing she did was change the rule about no children in camp. After that we spent the next two years traveling with Xena and her army throughout Greece, and the rest is history".
"Why did you stop traveling with her?" asked Gabrielle.
There was a moment of silence while Xena and Ariana looked at each other, before Xena answered. "We decided that since Damian was getting older, he needed a more stable environment".
"Oh", said Gabrielle getting the feeling that she had opened up an old wound. "Well thank you for the story".
"My pleasure, but now its your turn, its not every week I have a bard on the premises".
Gabrielle looked over at Xena to see what she thought, and smiled when she saw Xena's encouraging nod, and heard Damian second it.
"Oh all right, I can never refuse my public", said Gabrielle rising from her seat and heading for a makeshift stage at the front of the room. She stood there thinking for a moment and then launched into one of her favorite stories about Xena. Damian and Ariana watched her with rapt attention enjoying the story. Xena sat back and simply watched Gabrielle. She loved to see the bard in her element. Ariana looked over at Xena and noticed that her eyes followed every move of Gabrielle's. Gabrielle for her part seemed to get an air of self assurance from feeling the warrior's eyes follow her. Ariana looked away and wondered if Xena's eyes had ever followed her with such dedication. If they had, she didn't remember it.
After Gabrielle had been talked into telling two more stories, she finally decided it was time to call it a night. The crowd was thinning out and Damian had been asleep in Xena's arms since the middle of the second story. Gabrielle had been amazed at how comfortable Xena had looked to her from the stage, holding the boy in her arms. She had always figured that Xena did not especially like children, but it was obvious that she adored Damian. She had shown a level of patience with him that Gabrielle had never seen before. It looked like there was much more to Xena's past than even she had imagined, and Gabrielle intended to find out more about it over the course of the rest of their stay. Right now though it was definitely time for bed she decided as she returned to the table.
"I think I'm on my last legs, how about you", she asked Xena.
"Its definitely bed time for me, I forgot how exhausting he can be, I feel as if I spent the afternoon in combat", said Xena with a smile. She stood up carefully so as not to wake the boy. Ariana came over and offered to take him but Xena said she didn't mind putting him to bed. Ariana showed Xena and Gabrielle to the part of the inn that she lived in, and showed them to Damian's room. Gabrielle stood in the doorway and watched as Ariana undressed the boy in Xena's arms, being careful not to wake him. Gabrielle got the sense she was watching a family in a private moment, and she had the feeling that she should turn away, but she was fascinated by what she was seeing. Damian was now in bed, and Xena sat on the edge of his bed and leaned over him to kiss him goodnight. Gabrielle noticed that Ariana was rubbing Xena's back as she did so, and when Xena stood up to leave she gave Ariana's hand a quick squeeze. Ariana bent over to kiss Damian goodnight as well, then they both turned to leave the room. They almost looked surprised to see Gabrielle there, as if they had been reliving the past, and had forgotten her existence. Seeing the look on Gabrielle's face Ariana quickly thanked Xena for her help and left to go and close up the bar. Xena and Gabrielle made their way up to their room in silence. Gabrielle didn't say very much of anything while they got ready for bed, and Xena was beginning to get worried, especially since she didn't know what if anything she had done wrong.
Gabrielle was trying to figure out what she felt as she got changed in the bath room. She had always enjoyed the feeling that she saw a side of Xena that no one else saw. A gentle, caring side that she knew most people would be surprised even existed. She had been secure in feeling that she was the only one who saw this Xena, but now she realized that was not true, and what was worse, she was not the first either. She had never seen Xena the way she had been tonight. Relaxed, playful and doting on a child. Gabrielle was ashamed that she was jealous of a child for being able to bring out a reaction in Xena the likes of which she had never seen. She decided that her feelings were caused by too much excitement for the day and hoped she would feel better in the morning. She entered the bedroom to see Xena sitting up in bed waiting for her, concern on her face.
"What's wrong?" asked Gabrielle.
"That's what I'd like to know", replied Xena as Gabrielle got into bed beside her.
"You've been pretty quiet since we came upstairs. You've hardly said anything to me since I put Damian to bed. Did I do something wrong?" asked Xena.
"No, no you haven't done anything wrong", said Gabrielle starting to feel better as soon as she realized she was still in Xena's thoughts. "I guess I was just thinking".
"About you and Ariana".
"What about us?" asked Xena feeling worried for some reason she couldn't explain.
"Well I guess I had always envisioned your warlord days as being very lonely. It always seemed as if you had no one to care about you or talk to, and now its obvious that was not the case".
"Does that bother you?"
"No, I'm glad actually. It makes me feel better to know that even then someone cared about you".
"I've been lucky I guess. The gods sometimes smile on me despite my disdain for them. After all they sent you to me didn't they?" asked Xena with a smile forming on her lips.
"Yes, but I'm not sure you've quite forgiven them for that one yet", said Gabrielle laughing and feeling a lot better.
"Good. You're smiling again. Now we can go to bed", said Xena as she put out the small lamp by the bed.
They pulled the blankets up and settled in. Sometime in the night Xena put her arm across Gabrielle's waist and pulled her close, her subconscious letting her do what her conscious mind had refused to let her do earlier. When Gabrielle woke the next morning she was pleasantly surprised to find herself in the arms of the still sleeping warrior. She settled back into Xena's hold, and waited for the world to wake up around them.
Xena and Gabrielle decided to spend the day exploring the village. They packed up a picnic lunch and taking Damian along with them decided to start off at the marketplace. Gabrielle set off to look at some fabric for a new top and Xena and Damian went off boot shopping. They met up mid morning both having found what they wanted, and walked through the rest of the market together. They decided to eat lunch on the beach, but stopped in at the local potters on their way there.. Gabrielle was surprised to see Xena show an interest in his work and technique, and was even more surprised to see her explain some of the techniques used to Damian.
"I didn't know you knew anything about pottery", she said.
"I had an aunt who was a potter. When I was a child I used to go and watch her work. She liked the company, and was eager to pass on what she knew, so she taught me quite a bit. I got quite good at it for a while, but I gave it up when I got older", said Xena.
"Well you certainly are full of surprises, I can't wait to see what else I learn about you", said Gabrielle smiling.
Xena returned the smile as they turned to leave. They found a nice quiet spot on the beach and settled down for lunch. They said little during the meal, choosing instead to let Damian regale them with a story. He was pretty good, and even had Xena laughing out loud a couple of times. When they were done eating he went to play with some of his friends a little way down the beach. Gabrielle saw an opportunity to ask Xena about her past while she was relaxed and decided to take it.
"He's quite something isn't he?" she asked, wanting to ease into her questions.
"Yes he is", answered Xena looking at him fondly as she watched him play.
"You seem to be very fond of him".
"We developed a bond very early on I guess", said Xena.
"It certainly looks like it. Can I ask you something?"
"Of course", said Xena.
"How come you took Ariana in when Alexander died?" asked Gabrielle hoping she wasn't being too forward.
"I don't know. I felt sorry for her I guess. She was all alone and had nowhere to go. I don't think even I could have turned out a pregnant woman like that, especially since.." Xena let her voice trail off.
"Since I had given birth to Solan less than a year earlier. I knew what it would be like for her to try and do it alone. She needed someone to look after her", said Xena with a faraway look in her eyes. She stared at the horizon as if lost in the memory. "Once Damian was born I knew she wouldn't be able to provide for herself and the boy with him being so young, so I asked her to stay. Besides we had become friends by that time."
"Do you think you took to him so quickly because you were missing Solan?" asked Gabrielle hoping she wasn't crossing the line.
"I'm not sure. I think that's what I told myself at first, but as he grew I knew that wasn't the case. Solan was more like his father. I could tell that right away. Damian was more like I remembered being as a child. He was a good tempered baby, and he learned fast. He could talk by the time he was one you know. He was fascinating to me, and so I would spend a lot of time with him when I wasn't at war and that's when we became so close. Ariana would often complain that she thought I only kept her around so I could be with Damian", said Xena smiling.
"I sounds like you were very happy then".
"I was, for quite a while", said Xena.
"I don't know. People change, things happen. I stopped being happy", said Xena looking sad as she recalled her past.
"Is that why you and Ariana stopped traveling together?" asked Gabrielle, amazed that she had gotten Xena to say so much.
Xena snapped back to the present and as if realizing where the conversation was leading, once again appeared to put up her guard.
"No, as I said we decided that it was best for Damian to lead a more settled life", said Xena. Realizing that Gabrielle looked like she thought she had made her mad, Xena tried to laugh away the tension that had been in her voice.
"Enough about me, how are you enjoying your vacation so far?" asked Xena.
"I love it. Its nice to see you relax as well, its been so long", said Gabrielle softly, looking into Xena's eyes. They looked at each other in silence, until the moment was broken by Damian's return.
They packed up their things and decided to call it a day and head back to the inn. The rest of the day passed with a general lack of excitement. Gabrielle spent time writing while Xena spent time with Damian, showing him how to groom Argo. After dinner Gabrielle told a couple of stories and then they all turned in for the night. All in all it had been a very good day thought Gabrielle as she settled into the arms of sleep, and hoped to wake once again in the arms of Xena.
The next couple of days passed much as the previous two. Xena and Gabrielle would spend time in the village and then would spend time at the beach with Damian. Occasionally Ariana would join them and they would all sit around and talk. The talk was mostly light hearted, being discussions about things they had seen on their travels, or funny stories from their respective pasts. Ariana was not more forthcoming with information about her and Xena's past together, and Gabrielle had decided to give it a rest for a while knowing it was never wise to push Xena, no matter how relaxed she may look. In the early evenings Gabrielle would work on her scrolls while Xena taught Damian some new skill or life lesson that she felt he needed. In the evenings they would have dinner and then Gabrielle would tell a few of her stories. All in all it was a very relaxing time.
The only time Xena was ill at ease was during the few moments she allowed herself to be alone. On those occasions her mind raced with a thousand questions while she tried unsuccessfully to analyze her feelings. She had come to Patrai hoping to figure out her relationship with Gabrielle, and how Gabrielle felt about her. Ariana being there had thrown something new into the mix of her feelings. Slowly and almost imperceptibly some of the old feelings for Ariana had begun to resurface and Xena didn't know why or what to do with them. She was sure, when she would admit it to herself, that she was falling in love with Gabrielle. Fallen was probably more accurate she admitted. Why then were the old feelings for Ariana back ? They had not parted on good terms and Xena had thrown herself into battle, and soon had erased whatever hurt she might have been feeling. Over the years she had been able to recall the good times more frequently than the bad, and had made peace with herself about the whole thing. This time though things were different. Xena was seeing glimpses of what might have been if she had been different, if everything had been different. Ariana was the same, but she had changed so much, and so much for the better. All of a sudden it seemed that the things that had held them apart all those years ago where gone. Damian was older and better able to learn all the things that Xena had wanted to teach him. She could be a much better parent to him now, and being a parent to him had always been important to her. Xena almost felt as if she had been given a second chance at the family she had once had, but had not been ready to deal with all those years ago. The only problem was the person who made her who she was now, the one who made her this better person, the one who she believed she loved, was Gabrielle. How could that be, that the love of one woman could make her ready at last to accept the love of another? She knew that Gabrielle loved her, what she hoped was that she was in love with her as well. On the other hand she could see that Ariana was in love with her, still. What would she do if they both were in love with her? What would she do if Gabrielle was not in love with her, and did she have the courage to find out? These were the things that raced through Xena's mind was she groomed Argo, or lay in bed waiting for sleep to come to her. She wished she had someone to talk to but the ones she could talk to were the ones that were the cause of her troubles. Xena felt sure that somewhere on Olympus there was a god enjoying her predicament. This was just the sort of thing they loved to torment mortals with she thought to herself, smiling even as she thought it.
On the fifth night of their stay, Xena woke from a dream she was having and was unable to fall back asleep. Her confusion had even begun to enter the dreamworld and as she lay there in the dark she realized she was not likely to fall back asleep anytime soon, so she decided to get up and get herself something to drink from the bar. She got out of bed carefully so as not to wake Gabrielle, and went downstairs. The bar was dark and deserted save for the fire slowly dying in the fireplace. Xena got herself a cup and a bottle of port and sat down at a table near the fire. She poured herself a drink, sat back and tried to figure out what she wanted.
She had been lost in thought for quite a while when she heard a noise from across the room. She looked up to see Ariana coming towards her in the firelight. "She looks beautiful", thought Xena admiringly as she approached the table.
"Hi. I thought I heard something", said Ariana.
"Sorry, I hope I didn't scare you, I couldn't sleep", said Xena apologetically.
"That's all right, neither could I", said Ariana smiling.
She sat down across from Xena and took a sip of her port.
"What's on your mind?" she asked.
"Oh I don't know. A lot of different things", said Xena.
"Like Damian, Gabrielle, you, me".
"Us?" asked Ariana.
"Yes", said Xena looking down at her cup.
"What were you thinking about us?"
"Its so different this time, isn't it?" asked Xena looking up at Ariana.
"Yes, it is. You've changed so much I can hardly believe it sometimes when I look at you. It could be so much better this time".
Xena looked at her and smiled, not knowing what to say. Ariana got up and took a seat next to Xena. Reaching out she stroked Xena's forearm marveling at how strong it felt under her touch.
"I've missed you. So much. I can't tell you the times I have imagined what it would be like to have you walk back into my life, and here you are, and its not anything like I thought it would be. You're so much more at peace, the anger that kept us apart is gone, but everything that I loved about you is still there".
Ariana reached up and began to caress Xena's face.
They were so caught up in the moment that they did not notice Gabrielle at the top of the stairs. She had woken, sensing that Xena was not at her side. Seeing she was right she got up and went to look for her. As she approached the top of the stairs, she heard Xena's voice and had stopped to listen. Once she realized she was talking to Ariana she knew she should have turned and gone back to bed, but she could not bring herself to turn around. She inched forward until she could see them, stood still and listened as they continued to talk.
"You're still so magnificent, it still takes my breath away to look at you. I've had to try so hard not to be too obvious these last few days", said Ariana still stroking Xena's face.
"You're just as beautiful as I remember. More so actually. There is a sense of calm and self assurance about you now that adds to your beauty", said Xena, taking Ariana's hand and holding it her own. Ariana started to softly cry.
"Its so nice to hear you say that. I was so afraid these last few days that it was only me who felt a resurgence of my old feelings, but looking at you now, I can see that you have been feeling them too', said Ariana.
Wiping the tears from Ariana's face Xena said, "Yes I have".
She leaned forward slowly and kissed Ariana on the lips tenderly, pulling Ariana onto her lap as she did so.
At the top of the stairs, Gabrielle felt her stomach become one big knot, and she had the feeling that her heart was slowly being ripped out of her chest. She was so confused she wasn't sure what she was feeling. She was hurt, angry, jealous, all at once , but not sure she had the right to feel any of those things. "Is this what it felt like to see me kiss Perdicus?" wondered Gabrielle. "This sickening feeling that is starting in the pit of my stomach and that makes me feel like I will never be able to eat again. This feeling that if given the chance I will banish Ariana to the farthest corners of the world so she may never come near us again". Gabrielle wrapped her arms tightly around herself and tried to keep from crying. Common sense told her she should turn away and go back to bed, but her heart had control of her feet and they wouldn't move. She stood there and continued to watch the scene played out below her.
After a long and tender kiss Ariana pulled back, and still sitting on Xena's lap began to stroke her hair.
"I love you , you know that, and after that kiss I have to believe that you love me too. I know you love Damian, these past few days, its been as if you never left. He is so happy you're back. Why don't you stay? We could be happy, like we were only better. We could be the family that I wanted us to be, that we wanted to be".
Xena looked at Ariana and didn't know what to say. She could see the love in her eyes and knew that she was right, Xena did love her. But what about Gabrielle?
"Its not that easy Ariana. There are a lot of things to take into consideration".
"Yes, I know. I can see that you care deeply for her, but you said you were not lovers. Do you think she feels that way about you?' asked Ariana.
"I don't know", admitted Xena.
Up at the top of the stairs Gabrielle suddenly accepted the one thing that she had been denying to herself since Perdicus' death. She did love Xena. Very much. It was her denial of the extent of her feelings for Xena that had helped rebuild the walls between them. Standing there and listening to Ariana speak Gabrielle became aware that she might have taken too long to sort out her feelings about Xena. It might be too late.
"Would you give up a life with a woman you know loves you and a child who adores you, and who you adore, to travel with a woman whose feelings for you you're not sure about?" asked Ariana.
"I can't just leave her Ariana. We've been through too much for that. She deserves more", said Xena drowning in confusion. This was all happening too fast.
"Of course she does, and you shall give it to her. She wants to be a bard right? I can give her enough money to live on while she studies at the Academy in Athens. She so good now that by the time she's done with her studies, she'll be able to make a living easily".
"Why would you do that?" asked Xena amazed.
"Because I like her, I really do, and because like you said, she deserves it. If for no other reason than for bringing my warrior princess back to me", said Ariana smiling.
"I'll have to think about it".
"Of course", said Ariana. "In the meantime would you spend the night with me?"
"I can't I'm not ready, besides Gabrielle will worry if I'm not there when she wakes up", said Xena.
"You can always go back before she wakes up. Please Xena. I need to have you near me tonight".
Xena looked into her former lover's eyes and knew she could not say no. She nodded her head and they stood up, Ariana holding Xena's hand and leading the way to her bedroom.
Gabrielle remained at the top of the stairs until they were gone, then quietly made her way back to her room. She felt as if her world was spinning out of control, and she had no way to stop it. This was not the way she thought it would end. She tried to never think about the end, but on the rare occasion that she did, she thought that Xena would either die in battle, or they would both live to a ripe old age, Gabrielle amusing Xena with the tales of their adventures. She had never seen it ending with her being sent away to leave Xena in the arms of another woman. And what a woman thought Gabrielle as she lay in bed. Ariana was gorgeous, and had a son who Xena adored. Gabrielle felt she couldn't compete. What did she have to offer Xena, but her undying love, and she had only just admitted that to herself. Xena had no idea how she felt, so why should she leave Ariana. And maybe she didn't want to reasoned Gabrielle. After all Xena had not said she loved her. She knew Xena cared for her, but did she feel about her the way she seemed to feel about Ariana. Gabrielle didn't know and she realized with a sickening feeling that was worse then the realization that she had waited too long to tell Xena she loved her.
Gabrielle spent the rest of the night tossing and turning, finally falling asleep out of exhaustion a couple of hours before dawn. When she awoke the next morning Xena was again beside her.
Gabrielle did her best the next morning to act as if nothing was wrong, but she wasn't very successful, and by the afternoon Xena could take it no more and suggested they go for a walk down to the beach. They made small talk until they got there, then Xena found a quite place and sat Gabrielle down on a large rock to talk.
"What's wrong? And don't tell me nothing, you've hardly said anything all day", said Xena looking concerned.
Gabrielle looked at her for a moment trying to decided what she should say. She considered making something trivial up but then thought the better of it. She needed to talk and this was as good a time as any.
"I woke up last night and you weren't in bed", she began looking at Xena to see her reaction. Xena's face was a mask of neutrality so she continued. "So I got up to look for you, and when I got to the top of the stairs, I heard you talking to Ariana. I didn't mean to listen in but I couldn't help myself".
"How much did you hear?" asked Xena trying not to look as alarmed as she felt.
"Enough. Enough to know you were lovers. Why didn't you tell me?" asked Gabrielle.
"I didn't know what to say, besides I wasn't sure that it mattered. There are a lot of things from my past you don't know about, I didn't think this was much different", said Xena knowing she was lying.
"It is different, and it does matter. At least to me it does. Will you tell me the truth about your life together before?" asked Gabrielle.
"Because I'm asking you to", said Gabrielle hoping that would be enough.
"All right", said Xena knowing that was all the reason Gabrielle ever had to give her.
"We became lovers after Damian was born. We had become close before his birth, but we didn't become intimate until afterwards because she had a rough pregnancy. At first things went very well. Ariana complimented me very well. She was everything I was not. She was kind and gentle, and always concerned about others. She fell very much in love with me and looked after me very well. In time I fell in love with her, and began to become a better person I suppose. Damian helped with that as well. I fell in love with him immediately, he renewed my faith in life to a certain extent. Soon we began to look like a little family. I cut down on the number of raids my army went on and spent more time in the camp with Ariana and Damian. We even took vacations. That was the first time I came to Patrai, Damian was one I believe. We rode into town with a small force and set up camp by that ridge over there. We ended up staying for a month that time. Other times we would go away for a week or two".
"It sounds like you were very happy", said Gabrielle surprised at the picture she was getting of Xena's past. "What happened?"
"After about a year of this Ariana started to push me to find a place where we could settle down permanently. She felt I had acquired enough wealth to allow us to settle down and live comfortably for the rest of our lives. Now even though I had settled down emotionally, I was not ready to settle down physically. Even though I had decreased the number of raids I went on , we were still always on the move going from place to place. There was always something happening. At the same time some of my top lieutenants began to complain about the decrease in the number of raids. They felt that I was denying them their chance to get rich just because I was getting soft and had fallen in love. These two things eventually caused me to increase the number of raids we went on , and that's when it started to go down hill. Ariana and I fought every time I prepared to go away, and sometimes when I got back as well. We started to spend less time together and I started to drink a little more than I should. Unfortunately I'm not a very pleasant drunk, and that just made things worse. We would fight until all hours of the night, and I'm ashamed to admit it, but there were times when I was drunk that I would hit her".
Gabrielle looked at Xena in complete shock. She knew Xena had prided herself on never attacking women and children during raids, but here she was admitting she had hit Ariana in the privacy of their tent. Xena saw the look on Gabrielle's face and wished she could change the past if only to make sure Gabrielle would not have to hear about it.
"It was along time ago Gabrielle, and I'm not that person anymore", said Xena knowing that that still didn't make it right.
Gabrielle looked up and saw the look of shame on Xena's face and realized that Xena must have punished herself enough, she didn't need to do so now.
"I know, I'm sorry. Please continue".
"This went on for about another year. It wasn't always bad, we still managed to have good times, and I was always very good around Damian. In fact towards the end it was Damian that kept us together. Eventually though it wasn't enough. It had gotten so that I was with Ariana and Damian for only a few days a month, so Ariana gave me an ultimatum. She said I had to either settle down and make a proper home for us, or she would leave me. I packed up her things took her to the nearest village, gave her what I thought was a fair amount of money, and left. That was the last time that I saw her until this week.. I know it seems cruel, but it was very hard on me as well. For months I had my scouting parties keep an eye on her to make sure she was all right, until she moved out of the region. The more she had pushed though, the clearer it became to me that I was not ready to be what she wanted me to be. I wasn't sure I ever would be, so I knew it had to end. I did love her, and I tried to make her see why I was doing what I did. At the time she swore she'd never forgive me, but I think in time she came to see that I had been right. It was after that that I entered some of my darkest days as a warlord", said Xena her eyes dark with the memory. "Is that what you wanted to know?"
"Yes", said Gabrielle. Things made more sense to her now. She could understand why Ariana wanted Xena to stay. Xena had changed, Gabrielle knew that the Xena she knew now was the Xena that Ariana had wanted then. What she didn't know was whether she could walk away and give her over to Ariana.
"So are you going to stay here with her and Damian?" asked Gabrielle before she could stop herself.
"What makes you ask that?" asked Xena surprised.
"Well you've changed, you must be the way Ariana wanted you to be all those years ago. I can see that she still loves you, and you obviously care for her and Damian".
"That's true", said Xena surprised at the turn the conversation was now taking. "What do you think I should do?" asked Xena hoping that if Gabrielle did have any feelings for her they would come out now.
"I don't know, are you considering it?" asked Gabrielle wishing the answer was no but knowing it wasn't.
"Yes I guess I am. But what would happen to you?"
"Don't worry about me. I can find work as a bard, or maybe I could go to the Academy. They said they'd take me back if I ever wanted to return", said Gabrielle knowing that what she really wanted to say was that she would be lost without Xena. She wanted to tell Xena the truth, but couldn't bring herself to do it, believing that it would only make Xena's decision to stay harder. She had spent all morning convincing herself that Ariana was what Xena needed. She could love Xena and give her a family to love in return. After hearing Xena talk about their past together Gabrielle knew that Xena was what Ariana needed. Gabrielle had convinced herself that what she had to offer paled in comparison. Besides she was sure that after last night when Xena had retired to Ariana's room, Xena did not love her. It would make no sense to spoil two people's happiness just because her heart was breaking. Surely it was serving the greater good to give love to two hearts by taking it away from one.
"So you'd really be okay with it if I decided to stay here?" asked Xena trying to hide the disappointment in her voice. She must have been wrong, Gabrielle did not love her. It was probably just as well to find out now while she had another opportunity at happiness so close at hand. Maybe this was for the best reasoned Xena. Perhaps Gabrielle would find happiness at the Academy. She had loved it there, and maybe it had been wrong of Xena to allow her to throw the opportunity to study there away, just to follow her around Greece. Gabrielle had a talent she should develop, and Xena was holding her back. Yes this trip had served the greater good, it had given Xena back to Ariana, and given Gabrielle the chance to move on with her life and to return to the Academy where she should have been all along. It was a small matter Xena thought that she was not entirely sure of her feelings for Ariana. She was sure that in no time she would be as in love with her as she had been when they separated four years ago.
"Yes. I really would be O.K. with it if you stay here. In fact I would be very happy for you, you deserve to settle down and be with someone who loves you. You can still perform good works for the people in the area and most importantly you can help raise Damian to be a good man", said Gabrielle, hoping she sounded more convincing than she felt.
"Well I guess its settled then, I'm going to stay here". said Xena looking at Gabrielle hoping for a sign she should change her mind. Seeing none she turned toward the inn and said, "I guess we should go and let them know the news".
"Yes I'm sure they'll be ecstatic", said Gabrielle.
Together they made their way up from the beach and towards the inn, each wondering what life was going to be like without the other, and not being sure they wanted to know.
Xena gave Ariana the news that night before dinner. She took her into her room and told her that she had made the decision to stay. Ariana as expected was thrilled beyond description. She hugged Xena and with tears running down her face promised her that this time would be different, this time it would be perfect. They came out of the room to tell Damian who managed to look happier than his mother if that was at all possible. Gabrielle watched them, Ariana in one of Xena's arms and Damian in the other, and tried to feel she had made the right decision. They looked so happy, so much like a family, surely it shouldn't matter that all she could feel was her heart breaking.
Dinner that evening was a festive affair. Ariana bought drinks for everyone, and there was a general celebratory mood to the inn. Gabrielle did her best to look happy, and tried to smile every time she caught Xena's eye. Xena for her part was one big ball of confusion. She was happy, thrilled even at the joy she had brought to Ariana and Damian's faces, but she couldn't escape the ache in her chest every time she looked at Gabrielle. She was doing the right thing, she had to believe that. It would just take time.
That night Xena went up to the room with Gabrielle and gathered her things. Ariana had made room for them down in her room, and was anxious to have Xena by her again. The room was quiet as Xena packed. Gabrielle sat and watched her from the bed. She wanted to speak but didn't know what to say, so instead she just sat and watched and tried to smile when Xena looked up. It didn't take Xena long to pack, and soon she said goodnight and headed for the door. The finality of the situation did not hit Gabrielle until that moment, as she watched Xena leave, and she realized that never again would she sleep with the warrior beside her. Never again would Xena wake her in the morning or ride beside her as she worked on a new tale. Never again would those blue eyes search a crowd looking for her, and brighten when they found her face. Never again would Xena be her Warrior Princess.
The realization made Gabrielle fall back on the bed and start to cry, to cry as she had never done so before. She lay there a long while wallowing in her sorrow, before she fell asleep. Her final thought being that she would leave the next day, so she didn't have to inflict the pain of watching Xena start her new life, on herself.
Xena had barely made it out the door. Every fiber of her being was telling her to stay, to tell Gabrielle how she felt, to hope she felt the same way, but in the end her mind reminded her heart that she had been wrong. Gabrielle did not love her, not like that. She had to let her go and start the new life that was waiting for her downstairs. A life she reminded herself, she had wanted but was not ready for before. She was ready now, that must mean it was the right thing for her.
Ariana was sitting up in bed waiting for her when she got downstairs. She knew that this would be hard for Xena. Xena had always been loyal to those she was close to, and Ariana knew she would be worried about the bard. She could wait, she would not push the warrior to love her. She had waited four years, she could wait a little longer. When Xena got into bed Ariana simply held her close and kissed her tenderly, then rolled over and went to sleep.
The next morning over breakfast Gabrielle told Xena she was going to leave right away. She explained that the sooner she got to the Academy, the sooner she could enroll and begin classes. Xena accepted this explanation and helped her map out the route she should take for a fast, safe journey to Athens. Xena recommended the inns she should stay at and reminded her of all the safety precautions she should take. Finally Xena could think of nothing else she could do to delay Gabrielle's departure. Gabrielle was packed and ready to go. Ariana had given her a sizable amount of traveling money, and Gabrielle had tried to refuse it, but had finally agreed at Xena's insistence. Reluctantly she rose from the table they had been at and started to gather up her things. Ariana and Damian said their good-byes, wishing the bard good luck and safe passage, and saying they hoped to hear from her soon. Then they gathered up the dishes and headed for the kitchen to give Xena and Gabrielle some privacy.
"So I guess this is it", said Gabrielle trying to sound cheerful.
"I guess so. Remember everything I taught you, and send word when you get to Athens", said Xena.
"I will, I promise".
They just stood there and looked at each other for what seemed like an eternity, before Xena reached out and pulled Gabrielle into an embrace. As she felt Xena's arms wrap around her, Gabrielle closed her eyes. This was where she wanted to be, not on the road, not in Athens, not anywhere but here. Here in Xena's arms. They stood there each not wanting to let go, Gabrielle feeling the muscles in Xena's arms tighten as she held her tighter, Xena taking in the scent of the bard's hair one last time, and committing it to memory. Finally and reluctantly they pulled apart. Gabrielle said good-bye quickly and turned to go before Xena saw the tears in her eyes. Xena stood and watched her go, not believing it was really happening until the door closed behind her, and she was gone.
The next few days passed in a blur to Xena. She had little recollection of time or what she was doing one moment to the next. She played with Damian, groomed Argo, spent time with Ariana and just tried to keep busy in general. Every time her mind wandered to Gabrielle she started a new task, and after a couple of days there were a lot of half done jobs around the inn. Xena was doing her best to keep her listlessness from Ariana, but she was only partially successful. Ariana could see that Xena was not herself, but she attributed it to one friend missing another. After all she reasoned they had traveled for a long time together. It must be strange for Gabrielle to suddenly be gone. After four days, Ariana decided enough was enough. She had been patient, but she had needs too. Xena had spent plenty of time with Damian, but Ariana felt that she was not getting the attention she desired, so she decided it was time to do something about it.
She put Damian to bed as usual then asked Xena to lock up the bar citing exhaustion. Xena willing obliged as her thoughts had once again turned to Gabrielle. She took her time and did a complete job of it then headed for the bedroom. She opened the door and was transfixed by what she saw before her.
Ariana had at least fifty candles spread around the room giving off a warm glow, with just enough shadows to heighten the thrill as Ariana walked out of them to the center of the room. She stood before Xena naked, chestnut hair falling down around her shoulders, her green eyes sparkling in the candlelight. Xena could not help but take a sharp intake of breath, she had never seen Ariana look more beautiful.
"Ariana you look exquisite", said Xena unable to take her eyes off of her.
Ariana was thrilled. This was the reaction she had been looking for, waiting for, hoping for.
"Thank you", she said walking towards Xena. She pulled the warrior into her arms and began to kiss her. Tenderly at first, but then releasing the pent up passion she had kept locked up for days, years. Xena responded in kind, her body picking up where it had left off four years ago.
They made their way to the bed, discarding pieces of Xena's clothing on the way. Ariana reached behind and pulled back the covers, pulling Xena down onto the bed in the same motion. Xena worked her way under the covers and onto Ariana without ever breaking the kiss. She stopped kissing her only to start on her neck, working her way slowly down towards her breasts, at a pace so slow and lingering, Ariana thought she would scream in anticipation before she got there. She wrapped her hands in Xena's hair as Xena gently bit first one nipple then the other, returning to the first to elicit a groan deep from Ariana's core. Xena worked her way slowly down her stomach from her breasts to her navel, stopping to tease her with a flick of the tongue, before she continued southward.
Ariana arched her back as the anticipation built. Xena lowered her head and felt soft hair on her chin, then her lips.
"Oh Xena, yes. Please Xena".
"Oh yes, how long I have waited to hear you say those words Gabrielle", thought Xena. "Gabrielle. Oh gods what am I doing? I can't do this", thought Xena as she stopped her descent and pulled herself off of Ariana.
"Xena what is it? Why have you stopped?" asked Ariana.
Xena just lay there staring at the ceiling for a moment not knowing what to say. How could she tell Ariana that she had made a mistake, that she shouldn't be there, that despite the last ten minutes she didn't want to be there?
"Xena what is it? Please tell me". said Ariana tears beginning to well up in her eyes.
Xena rolled over to look at her knowing she would have to face the truth sometime.
"I can't do this Ariana, I'm sorry".
"We can stop Xena. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have pushed you. We can do this another time".
"No we can't, I can't do this", repeated Xena.
"What? What can't you do?" asked Ariana panic beginning to rise in her throat.
"I can't be with you, I can't stay", said Xena hating herself for the pain she was about to bring again to this woman who had nothing but love her.
"Why? Why Xena? Why?" asked Ariana the tears flowing freely now. "I thought you loved me".
"I do, I love you and Damian. I care more for the both of you than you will ever know, but I can't stay here with you when I'm in love with someone else. Its not fair to you or Damian".
"This is about Gabrielle. I thought you said you were not lovers", said Ariana, anger slowly beginning to replace the tears.
"We never were, but I've finally admitted to myself that I always hoped we would be. I know you don't want to hear this, but she's all I've been able to think about since she left. The thought that I may never know if I ever stood a chance of having her love me is nearly driving me mad. I cannot stay here while my heart is on the road to Athens with Gabrielle. It would not be right and it would not be fair. We both know that eventually I would begin to make your life miserable, and I certainly don't want Damian to see me like that again, now that he's old enough to remember it".
"Why did you stay? Why did you stay if you knew it wouldn't work".
"I stayed because I wanted it to work".
"No you stayed because you thought that if you couldn't have Gabrielle you could at least have me", spat Ariana as she got out of bed, put on a robe and sat in a chair across the room.
Xena got up as well and put on a shirt than sat back down on the bed deciding it would be best to give Ariana some space.
"That's true but only partially. I did want it to work. I was devastated the last time when you left. I couldn't sleep for months without you by my side. And what made it worse was knowing that I had brought it all on myself. I couldn't be the person you needed me to be and that filled me with self loathing for such a long time. This time, I know I'm the person you wanted back then, and I wanted to give you what I had denied you before. I wanted you to be happy. I wanted to be happy. I wanted us to be the family we were, and the family you wanted us to be. I did want it to work", said Xena with tears in her eyes.
"I'm sorry Ariana, so very sorry. I wanted so badly for you to be happy, and I wanted to be the one at long last to bring you that happiness. All I've succeeded in doing is causing you more pain again. I'm sorry". Xena put her head in her hands and began to cry openly, unable to hold back the tears any longer.
Ariana watched her with amazement. She had never seen Xena cry before, and the sight moved her. She knew then that Xena had not meant to hurt her, and she knew that in time she would forgive her for the pain she was now causing. She got up from her chair and went to sit by Xena on the bed. Ariana held the warrior in her arms and together they cried until they could cry no more. They fell asleep in each other's arms, each knowing that it was the last time they would ever do so.
The next morning Xena had the unenviable task of telling Damian that she was leaving. The boy was understandably distraught.
"Why Xena? Why do you have to go? Did I do something wrong? I'll try harder at my lessons, I promise I will".
"No Damian you did nothing wrong. You are perfect. No one could ask for a better child", said Xena fighting back the tears.
"Then why, why do you have to go?"
"I have to go where my heart tells me to go, and my heart tells me I must find Gabrielle", said Xena struggling for a way to explain her leaving to the child.
"Do you love Gabrielle more than me and mother?" asked Damian.
"No, I love all of you, but I know I can't be happy if I'm not with Gabrielle. It would be like me taking you away from your mother. I know you love me, but you would be unhappy if you couldn't ever see your mother again. Eventually your unhappiness would make you mad at me. That's what would happen if I stayed here, and didn't find Gabrielle, the part of my heart that loves her would be unhappy. Do you understand?"
"I think so. Does this mean that you still love me and mother?" asked Damian.
"Yes I love you and your mother, and I always will. Nothing will ever change that. Nothing. I promise you".
"O.K." said Damian, a smile beginning to form.
Xena picked him up and held him close, hugging him for a long time. The time she spent with him had been priceless, and she knew she would treasure it always.
Xena spent the rest of the morning preparing to leave. She got Argo ready and made sure she had enough provisions to last her until she found Gabrielle, then she said her good-byes.
Wiping the tears from Ariana's face she said, "Thank you".
"For not making this as hard as you have the right to, for loving me again, for being the first person I ever loved".
Ariana smiled and wrapped her arms around Xena in a final embrace. As she pulled away she whispered, "You're welcome".
Xena smiled and then bent down to give Damian a hug.
"If the two of you ever need me, just send word, and Ill come right away", said Xena as she put Damian down.
"I will I promise", said Ariana, her arm around her son.
As Xena turned to mount Argo, Ariana said, "Good luck. I hope it all works out".
Turning in the saddle Xena said, "Thank you". She started Argo off down the road at a fast trot, leaving behind the love of one woman to find what she hoped was the love of another.
Xena rode hard for three days stopping only when she knew Argo would buck in revolt if she didn't. She followed the route she had mapped out for Gabrielle and checked in at the inns she had recommended the bard stay at. At each point he learned that Gabrielle had continued on to the next town on the map. Xena was gaining on her but not fast enough for her liking. If only Gabrielle would stop in a town for more than one night. On the third day of her search Xena found out that Gabrielle had headed to a village called Salonika after hearing they were having a small festival at which a number of bards were planning on performing. Xena rode on through the night hoping that Gabrielle had decided to stay a while in Salonika for the festival. She arrived in town at about noon, having exhausted Argo in her haste to get there. She found the local inn quickly and after handing Argo over to a stable hand, she went in to inquire after Gabrielle.
Walking up to the bar she questioned the old man who stood behind it cleaning cups.
"Good day. I'm looking for a bard".
"Well you've certainly come to town at the right time then", he said smiling.
"So I hear. Actually I'm looking for a very specific bard. She has strawberry blond hair, carries a staff, sometimes talks a lot".
"You would be asking after Gabrielle then wouldn't you?"
"Yes. Is she still staying here?" asked Xena her heart in her throat.
"Yes, but she's not here right now. I believe she went to the market to by more parchment. She said she wouldn't be long".
"Thank the gods", said Xena relief washing over her. "Could you show me to her room please so I can wait for her?"
"Well I don't know about that. Who are you, and how do I know if she wants to find you waiting there when she gets back?" asked the man cautiously aware he was speaking to a warrior.
"I'm a friend, and I want to surprise her", said Xena giving the man her most ingratiating smile.
"Oh well that's all right then I suppose. Just as well, the poor things looked like she could use a friend these last couple of days. Its such a shame to see such a pretty young thing without a smile on her face", said the man as he walked around from behind the bar to show Xena to Gabrielle's room.
The man took Xena to the room, and as he turned to go back downstairs she reminded him, "This is a surprise, so please don't tell her I'm up here when she comes in".
"As you wish", he said as he ambled off down the stairs.
Xena sat in a chair by the window wondering what to say to Gabrielle when she came in. She couldn't remember ever being this nervous. It was amazing what the bard could do to her.
Xena sat there for almost an hour before she heard a noise outside the door. She stood up as Gabrielle walked into the room. Gabrielle shut the door behind her before she turned to look at the room and noticed Xena standing there. Surely she was dreaming. Her desperate heart was causing her mind to play tricks on her.
"Xena", she exclaimed dropping the parchment. "what are you doing here?"
"I had to ask you something", said Xena fighting the urge to run.
"You followed me all this way to ask me a question?" she asked in disbelief.
"It's a very important question."
"What is it?" asked Gabrielle trying to get her heartbeat back to something resembling normal.
"Do you love me? I don't mean in a best friend sort of..."
"...way, I mean...What did you just say?" asked Xena praying to any gods that would listen that she had heard Gabrielle correctly.
"I said yes. Yes I love you. Yes I always have, and yes I always will", said Gabrielle throwing her arms around Xena's neck.
Xena held Gabrielle as if she never intended to let her go, all the while whispering, "Gabrielle I love you".
Finally Gabrielle pulled back and looked at Xena questioningly.
"What about Ariana, why did you leave? Did something happen?" asked Gabrielle. She would take being second choice if it was the only way to keep Xena she had told herself, but now that she stood in Xena's arms again she had to know she was the one. The only one Xena wanted.
"I suppose you could say something happened. I realized that I couldn't live without you, and it was stupid of me to think I could try".
"But that night, you and Ariana.., when you went to her room. I thought you loved her?" asked Gabrielle confused.
"I do love her, but I'm in love with you. I didn't sleep with her that night Gabrielle. I just slept beside her. Even after you'd left I couldn't bring myself to be with her. That's when I knew I had to find you, to see if you felt anything more than friendship for me".
"How did she take it?" asked Gabrielle showing the compassion that Xena loved.
"It was hard. I didn't want to hurt her and Damian again", said Xena sadly, "and I know that I have".
"I'm sorry", said Gabrielle knowing how hard it must have been for Xena to hurt Ariana again and leave Damian.
"If it's any consolation I'm glad that you finally made the decision to make the first move. We almost lost this", said Gabrielle looking up into Xena's eyes and wondering how she had ever thought she could live without seeing them again.
"I know. That thought will give me nightmares far worse than any I have now", said Xena smiling down at Gabrielle.
Slowly Xena bent her head down and kissed Gabrielle. As soon as she did so every fiber of her being told her she had made the right decision. No one had ever made her feel the way she felt now with Gabrielle in her arms. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's neck and pulled their bodies closer together. This was what she had wanted all those nights in the woods, all those nights in taverns looking down at Xena from the stage. This is what she had wanted to see when she looked to the future, and now it was finally hers. Breathlessly she said to Xena, "I think we would be more comfortable on the bed".
"I think you may be right". Gabrielle led Xena to the bed, stopping when they got there to help the warrior off with her armor. Xena kissed Gabrielle's neck as she did so, making it very hard for her to keep her concentration. Eventually Xena was free of her clothing, and she began to undress Gabrielle, marveling at her figure as she unwrapped it. The little Amazon outfit did not do her justice at all thought Xena as she let her top fall to the ground. When she was finished Gabrielle pulled her onto the bed shuddering as she felt Xena's naked body next to hers for the first time.
They spent the rest of the afternoon and evening making love and exploring each other's bodies. It was well into the night before they fell asleep exhausted in each others arms having finally gotten what they wanted. Each other.
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