Aphrodite stormed through the ruined halls of Olympus, left untouched since the Twilight, growing more frustrated as her search proved fruitless. Since Xena and Mesella left to rescue the child she had been on her own hunt; looking for answers. Starting in Athene's apartments she had found nothing but the usual accoutrements of godly life. Systematically, working from suit to suit, she had eliminated her kin one by one as the god who enchanted Gabrielle. Now, days later she was left with a steaming pile of nothing.
Sullenly she threw herself into the crumbling throne that sat at the centre of the great hall. Wriggling into a more comfortable position she felt something digging into her back. Turning at the waist, she expected to find a piece of rubble lodged into the join where seat met back but there was nothing. Standing up she bent and ran her hands over the area, once again finding the jutting irregularity in the carving. Concentrating hard, she noticed an almost imperceptible ripple in the air as her hands passed over it.
"Sneaky, sis, real sneaky." Muttering to herself she extended her powers and thrust her hand through the magical barrier. Grasping hold of the concealed object she pulled hard, dislodging it and breaking the illusion.
With the spell broken it was easy to see the shallow recess carved into the chairs back, not quite big enough for the box that it had contained. Perching on the edge of the chair the blond goddess turned over the square box she now held in her hand. It was a simple object, made from pine and brass, giving no indication that it contained anything important enough for a god to hide. Gesturing towards a nearby table, which glided towards her across the floor and positioned itself before her, she placed the box on its surface.
"OK, Dite, concentrate. Who knows what booby-traps Athene put on this." With a look of serious concentration she flexed her fingers and carefully opened the lock. With a snick it came loose, the lid popping open just enough to reveal a crack of white. Sliding a manicured finger into the gap, she pulled open the lid revealing a large stack of parchment bound together with a gold ribbon.
"What have we here?" Picking up the stack she untied the bind and spread them across the alabaster surface. Picking one of the folded squares at random she unfolded it and began to read;
My Dearest Athene,
I can not tell you what our time together means to me. Since I was a child I have dreamed of being your champion, being your lover is more than I ever hoped for. I know that our time is fleeting, but I tae what you can offer readily. Although you can read my thoughts, I wanted you to have something more tangible, a piece of me…
"Oh, Thene!" She had known, they all had, that Athene shared a more personal relationship with her chosen than most gods. None of them had realised just how deep that relationship was. "Some Goddess of Love I am!" Turning to another letter she realised that this parchment seemed newer, written in a different hand.
My beloved Ilainus you are gone, slain by the hand of she who would destroy us all. I held you in my arms as you died, felt you slip away and could do nothing. I, the goddess with dominion over that and I could do nothing to save you.
Perhaps I should have protected you, kept you away from the fighting but you would have resented that. So would I. I miss you; I know you can hear my thoughts from Elysium so you know that. I do love you, as much as any immortal can love. I wish that we could be together when this is ll over but I do not know where I will find my end. You see, I know I will join you in death; Xena is nothing if not determined.
If I die, I will make sure that I take from her that which she has taken from me, something that will hurt her far more than loosing her life: losing her soul. I never thought gods had a soul till I met you Ilainus and found the other part of mine. Maybe I will see you on the other side.
Aphrodite felt a fat tear trail down her cheek and watched as it splashed onto the parchment, smudging ink where it fell. The sometimes flighty and always upbeat blonde goddess had never really understood her older sister, not until today. Athene had always been an enigma to her, cool and aloof, all wisdom and logic with the exclusion of emotion, or so it had seemed. How wrong had she been; it seemed her sister had managed to find and cultivate love without her sibling even knowing.
"You knew what you were going to do all along, didn't you, big sister?" Riffling trough letters from Ilainus and ones written to her after death, she saw when things changed for her sister. "That day in Amphipolis, it stopped being about the Twilight for you." Aphrodite's voice was soft as she realised what they had all died for. "They all died for your revenge; Artemis, Poseidon, my sweet Hephaestus and I can't even hate you for it. I might have done the same in your place."
Carefully she gathered the letters back together, securing them with the ribbon before placing them back into the box. Putting the box into its shallow alcove she cast a quick ward over it, leaving things as she had found them. Although she had not found any trace of the spell that separated warrior and bard she now had confirmation that it had been her oldest sister.
"You wouldn't leave them with no way out, would you Thene? Even at your worst you had more class than that." Now the trick was could the Goddess of Love figure out what that was.
My wife goes gallivanting across the countryside with some warrior she doesn't know, my sister vanishes and I'm left in the dark! Ares let out a growl as he contemplated the situation. Something was definitely going on between his wife and his sister and he couldn't quite put his finger on it which irked him still further.
He was further disquieted by the captain of the guard, something about the woman teased at the back of his mind. He felt that he should know her but couldn't place the reason why. Again, things came back to his sibling and he couldn't help but wonder if his sister knew more than she was willing to share with him. Her sudden and unexplained departure several days ago had not been out of character for the ditzy blond, that it coincided with the rescue of the young prince was suspicious, however.
Tearing into his suit, he was startled to find the warrior princess seated at the window with Eve in her arms. The two blue eyed brunettes turned to look at him, one curious and the other excited. Eve clambered off of her mother's lap and was wrapped around her father's knees in a flash. Patting her curly head he met his wife's eyes and couldn't miss the question there. Kneeling to be eye level with his child, he clasped her tiny hands.
"Evie, why don't you o and visit with Claudius and I will read you a bedtime story tonight." With a happy whoop the girl kissed him sloppily on the cheek before dashing out of the room. And then here were two.
"Ares, would you like to tell me why our dau…why Eve is acting like she hasn't seen you in days?" She just couldn't bring herself to say 'our daughter' knowing that Gabrielle was so close. Gabrielle; who had kept them safe during her pregnancy and after. Gabrielle; whom she had hoped, so long ago, would be Eve's other mother.
"Xena, I've been busy, you know that. Just because you choose to go running around the countryside doesn't mean that my business grinds to a halt." As soon as the words left his lips he knew it wasn't the way to go.
"So you would rather I let an innocent boy die?" The words were cool an utterly calm, frighteningly so.
"You know what I mean."
"Oh, I know Ares. Seems to me that the further I get in this pregnancy the more you think I am going to demure and be the 'little wife'. Seems like you don't really know me at all." Standing up, she walked until she was standing toe-to-toe with him. "We've been here almost three moons and I have barely seen you, Eve has barely seen you. You tell me you're busy, that you have pressing matters to deal with, but refuse to share them with me… I don't think I know who you are anymore!"
"Everything's my fault? Get off that high horse before you fall off it, Warrior Princess! You haven't exactly been available yourself, have you? You're always off conspiring with my sister or that soldier…should I be jealous?" And there was the crux of the matter, he was jealous.
"I don't know, should you?" When had they become a pair of bickering children?
"I can't do this, not now; I'll come back when you're ready to listen to me." Turning on his heals he thundered out of the room, the door slamming behind him with a resounding crash.
"Way to go, Warrior Princess!" Tiredly she moved back to her seat and stared blindly out of the window. "Why did I have to pick a fight with him?"
On her journey back to the palace with Mesella she had realised that, as much as still loved Gabrielle and liked the guard captain, she could not leave her husband of the last four years for that. There just wasn't enough of her soulmate there to justify that. Or so she had thought, until she saw Ares and Eve's reaction. After spending o many days with the doting Mesella and the boy who was not hers, the fact that her husband seemed to have lost interest in her child was disturbing.
"Little one," she patted her swollen stomach, now seven moons along, "I hope that you're not the reason your father is behaving this way." Yet a part of her knew that it was and she shuddered.
Stalking around his sister's room, Ares was not surprised when he could find no sign of her, just like he hadn't found her in any of the other places he looked. That only left one possibility. Concentrating hard, he excised his powers and transported himself to Olympus. When the Twilight had first occurred, he had been convinced that he would become mortal when the other gods were destroyed. This was a notion that Athene had cultivated, it was also untrue. Like his blond sister, Ares still retained many of his godly gifts. Unlike his sister he had chosen not over use them, knowing that Xena detested the reminder of who he had been. Today, the Warrior Princesses worries were not the top of his list of priorities.
Standing in the centre of what was the main hall he noted the accumulation of dust ad debris that had mounted in the six years since the last battle. He also took note of the obvious disturbance in the dirt where his sister had walked not too long ago. Satisfied that she was somewhere in the mountain he began to track her down. Treading carefully through the rubble, not wanting to alert her of his presence too soon, he made his way to the apartment that the Goddess of Love had shared with her husband.
Nearing the door which stood ajar, he paused before entering as he heard a voice from within. Listening intently to his sister's monologue, he was very pleased with his decision to stay quiet. What he heard made him less happy; in fact, it made him very, very angry.
"Think, Aphrodite, if meting Xena didn't snap her out of it what will? Come on Gabrielle, give me a clue! Show me how to get Mesella to wake up!" Peering through the crack, Ares saw her rubbing at her temples, obviously at a loss.
So, the annoying blond is back! Damn it, I knew that little bitch was familiar! Walking back the way he came he found himself back in the main room. It explains everything, really, especially why Xena is pushing me away, she knows! Running his hand across his beard he began to plot. His days as God of War may be over, but he was still that man and he fought for what was his. You won't take her away from me this time, Blondie, not this time!
Then he was gone.
Agrippina watched as her son took perverse pleasure in tearing the legs off of a small, grey, mouse. He was fascinated by the way that the creature writhed and squealed as limb after limb was removed. He didn't kill it outright, didn't rip off the legs all at once. He was a far more patient little boy than that, just like his mother. He would remove one leg and then watch as the animal learned how to drag itself around and then he would remove another. Sadistic? Maybe but h had a thing that most children his age lacked, rive and determination. He would make a fine Emperor one day, if she had her way. Already the wheels were in motion.
"Gaius, come here." Stormy eyes turned to glare balefully at her.
"Don't call me that, mother," the word was all but a sneer, "I am Caligula!"
"I am sorry, Caligula." At hearing his chosen name, he acquiesced to her wishes and came to stand before her. Most children would have forgotten about the rodent but not her son, she could tell he was still observing its death throes. "Caligula, we will be leaving this palace soon only to return when you become emperor. Are you prepared for hat my son?"
"Don't be ridiculous, mother, I will be the next great emperor, with Drusilla by my side as my queen!" He was so adamant that she was not sure how she would make him change his mind. The child's eerie obsession with his little sister did trouble his parent but she was sure he would grow out of it.
A cough in the doorway drew her attention away from her son. Turning to glimpse the dark figure in the archway she knew what she had to do. Resting a hand on a thin shoulder she met his eyes, hoping to impart the importance of her next words.
"Caligula, you need to go and find your sisters, stay with them until I fetch you. Remember, you may tell nobody what you know or who you have seen here." He nodded solemnly before dashing to meet up with the girls.
"Are you sure that the boy should know so much?" The dark figure took a seat beside her.
"Caligula is a good boy, he knows what to do!" Agrippina couldn't help but feel a little defensive; she knew that she was only tolerated in the palace. She and her family were considered to be little more than peasants to the royal family. Only her son kept them in the Emperor's good graces, Caligula was third in line for the throne.
"Everything is in place. You know that this will be a long process?"
"I know that, War God, my child isn't ready for power yet!" Did he think her a fool?
"Quite," Ares studied the driven young woman and couldn't help but admire her fire. "The senate will never allow Claudius to take power, I have seen to that. I had hoped that the boy would be completely eliminated but that plan hit a snag. No matter, Caligula is now second in line to the throne."
"Will Germanicus take power?" Shrewd, very shrewd.
"Yes, we do not want to raise too many suspicions after his father's death. He will take control and then die in battle, leaving the throne empty for your teenaged son."
"Teenaged?" It would be sooner than she had expected.
"It's a long plan but not too long. Go home, Agrippina, and forget about all of this. Just remember, your son will owe me a debt when he is the most powerful man in the world and I will collect."
"We understand Ares." He was already gone, vanished as gods are want to do.
His business at the palace concluded at long last, Ares was at liberty to focus on his own problem. Today had not been the best day to weave the last threads of his plan, not after finding out about Gabrielle but it was done. Caligula would be a fine, albeit unpredictable, ruler and allied wholly to Ares. Just because he didn't play the role of War God anymore, didn't mean that he wouldn't willingly accept tribute. When Agrippina had approached him with her request, how could he say no?
What to do with you, Gabby? What do I do with you…?
What are you going to do now, Mesella? The thought had been plaguing her ever since her return to the palace and the dream. The dream, more than anything, had finally convinced her to accept the truth; now she just needed to figure out what to do about it. Sitting on an out of the way section of the parapet, she dangled her feet into the open air and took in the view of the city. Rome was spectacular, laid sprawling below her and not for the first time she felt proud to be a part of it. Would Gabrielle feel that way? Something at the back of her mind told her that she wouldn't.
Suddenly her vision filled with crosses and snow, almost causing her to loose her perch. Shaking her head to clear it, she once again found herself staring down at Rome, only it seemed a lot less glossy now. A memory; that was a memory! She was stunned at the realisation, too much too ask tat it be a happy one, huh? Even so, it was oddly reassuring to have something of this illusive past, at last.
Xena had been there, in that vision, lying beside her. They had been together at the end and, to Mesella, seemed strangely happy. I don't think I've ever been that serene; what must that be like? Picking up the roughly hewn wooden pipe that sat beside her she brought it to her lips and began to play softly. Not a skilled musician she only played for her pleasure, much to the displeasure of anybody listening.
Focused on her playing, she didn't immediately hear the footsteps coming from behind her. When they did register she discounted them; they were the steps of a soldier and one of her men. She carried on playing. The marching man moved passed her and she heard him disappear into the building. Once again alone, she let loose, playing her heart out. This time, when the figure returned, appear from thin air she had no idea until a long shadow fell across her seated form. Turning sharply she came face to face with the snarling God of War.
"What…?" Before the words were even out of her mouth she saw the glint of steel as he raised his sword.
Reaching up to block the blow, her flute was knocked from her hand to go flying over the wall and into the brush that lined the building. Unbalanced by the force of the fist blow she was unprepared when a dagger appeared in his hand. With a single thrust the dagger was up to its hilt in her abdomen. Looking down at the bloody hand that still clutched the weapon, her eyes slowly travelled back up o the bearded face.
"Why?" It was little more than a wheeze.
"She's mine now, just like she always was and I can't let you ruin that!" Releasing the dagger he watched her sag and fall to follow her flute. Looking down over the wall he saw her disappear among the undergrowth far below. "You loose Blondie, no hard feelings." Wiping his hands on a scrap of cloth that he had in his belt he made his was back towards his chamber and his wife.
Pain sliced through her like a knife, making her double over in agony. One hand flew to her swollen abdomen, feeling her muscles flutter and contract through the thin material of her dress. Hoping beyond hope that it was just another twinge or false alarm, she stood tall and tried to carry on down the hall. Getting no further than a few steps closer to Aphrodite's chamber she collapsed to the floor. Agony lanced through her again and again and she knew, with mounting dread, what was happening.
"No, no, no, no…" Unable to get up, the Warrior Princess felt helpless to stop the tears from coursing down her face. "It's too soon!"
Spasm after spasm rippled through her at irregular intervals, leaving her unable to prepare for their arrival. That was how the Goddess of Love found her, prone and writhing on the floor, barely conscious. When the brunette had not turned up for their meeting more than an hour ago she had felt compelled to go in search of her and felt very glad that she had on finding her. Without a second thought she transported them both to her sleeping room in a shower of pink hearts.
"Xena, Xena wake up! Come on, babe, we need to give this baby a fighting chance!" Lightly, she patted the pain ravaged face, getting no response.
Leaving the woman in the throes of premature labour, she collected the water pitcher from the corner and moistened a cloth. Coming back to the bed she used the cold compress on her flushed skin, pleased to see blue eyes flutter open. Blinking sluggishly those eyes struggled to focus on the blond woman.
"Gabrielle?" Confusion was clear in her slurred speech.
"No, babe, not Gabrielle, it's me Aphrodite!" She continued to stroke the damp forehead tenderly.
"Aphrodite…" recognition, "I'm in labour."
"I know, babe." Staring into strained blue eyes she felt compelled to ask, "Was it like this before?" Xena, having been pregnant twice before would surely be able to make a judgement on this.
"No, not like this," the pain was coming more regularly now and she panted through it. "It's never been this bad before; I practically had Solan and Eve on the move!"
"Maybe that's because it's early?" Two moons early, but neither woman wanted to voice that fact.
"You could be right, Dite," a particularly bad contraction made her bite off her words with a scream. "Do you think the baby will be all right?" So unlike the warrior to be so unsure, her voice so very plaintiff. Before the goddess could offer ay words of reassurance she was interrupted by her door flying open.
"Aphrodite, I demand…" Bellowing suddenly ground to a halt as her brother realised who was on the bed. "What's going on?" He rushed to her side and clasped her hand.
"I'm having the baby!"
"Isn't it too soon?" Surely mortal women took nine moons to have a baby not seven?
"Yes!" Now it was a hiss and not a terribly happy one.
"It'll be fine, my love. Our baby will be healthy, after it'll be half god, so try not to worry." Too many people seemed to be forgetting that eh was still a god, albeit not as powerful as he had been, perhaps I should start reminding people!
Aphrodite watched her brother and his wife interact and couldn't help but note that her brother was behaving strangely. Over the last six years she had noticed him mellow and change, becoming a far better man than he ever was. However, since the couple arrived in Rome she had noticed him changing back, being far more the Ares that she had grown up with and it was not something she had ever hoped to see. Even though he appeared to be focused on his partner, she could tell that some part of him, a big part was elsewhere.
Something else was tugging at the edges of the goddess's mind, a feeling that she should be elsewhere but she didn't know why. Pushing it down as simply her growing paranoia over her brother, she returned to her friend's side, casting furtive glances at her brother as she did so.
"We're gonna g…g…get in tro…tro…trouble!" Claudius knew he shouldn't be following the younger child through the hole in the wall, but he couldn't seem to stop himself. Something about the small girl always made him feel safe and adventurous although he still felt the need to voice caution.
"We'll only get in trouble if we get caught, Claude, and I haven't seen mommy or Mesella since lunchtime." Two candle-marks after that meal Eve felt sure that her idea could work.
Satisfied that he had tried to make her see reason and convinced that she would need his help, he wasn't strong but he was smart, the little boy followed his dark haired companion. In all of his ten years he had never ventured out of the formal gardens and into the kitchen garden. To his wide, blue eyes, it was a land of wonder not the sterile overly manicured trees and lawns he was used to. Not for the first time he wondered how Eve managed to find all of these fun, and sometimes hidden, places.
"Eve, are you s…s…sure we can g…get out this w…way?" Picking up his pace he hurried to keep up with her.
"Of course I am; I saw it when mommy took me out for a ride a few weeks ago." Well, if she said she saw it that was good enough for him.
Stealthily the two small children skirted the edges of the garden, staying out of sight until they reached the far wall. The back wall of the garden was covered in ivy and a large bush seemed to grow out of the wall. Grasping the small hand of the boy behind her Eve plunged into the foliage dragging him with her. Pushing aside the small branches of the bush they made steady progress forward until they hit the wall.
"Um, Eve?" There was only a wall in front of them.
"Claude, feel along the wall that way and I'll feel this way." Both children began to feel along until Eve heard a muted 'huff' and went to investigate. What she found was Claudius lying on the ground outside the palace after having fallen through the small hole in the wall.
"See, I told you there was a hole in the wall!" Carefully she pulled the fragile older boy to his feet. "We need to stay out of sight. If you get taken again mommy will be really mad!" Acting even as she spoke the children stuck to the wall and disappeared into the dense thicket that surrounded the brick.
"M…M…Messy would be really m…mad too." He really didn't like to disappoint his protector. He loved her too much.
Acting like two bold explorers they crept through the underbrush that reached well above both their head. They would occasionally scare themselves by hearing noises that weren't there and going to investigate. They had been at this for almost a candle mark when they heard something rustling through the leaves. Quickly Eve scampered to see what it was and soon came back to Claudius with a roughly made flute in her hands.
"Look what I found. The boy examined it closely and a look of confusion spread across his face.
"T…That's M…M…Messy's flute!" He continued to look puzzled, "and w…where you went isn't w…where I heard the n…noise." He pointed to where the noise had come from. "It was over t…there."
Determinedly he started to move in he direction that he had indicated, extremely concerned that they had found his guardian's instrument. The greenery was so thick in this area that he failed to notice the leg that lay in his path until he fell over it and landed, gracelessly, across a muscular body. Raising his blond head he couldn't help but let out a yelp as he came face to face with his hero. Hearing his cry, Eve was instantly at his side.
"Oh no!" The little girl was horrified by what she saw; there laid Mesella, a dagger sticking out of her side and blood covering her stomach and chest. Her fair head was lodged between two jagged rocks and blood also covered her hair, Eve guessed that she must have hit her head.
"S…she's really hurt, Eve. Somebody hurt her!" He had tears running down his cheeks as he pushed the encrusted hair off her forehead and took in her almost deathly pale complexion. Leaning down, he touched her neck with two fingers.
""What are you doing?" Uncharacteristically Eve's voice was feather soft.
"If I can f…feel a bump against m…my f…fingers then s…she's alive." He was obviously concentrating hard.
"How do you know that?" She was in awe of the older boys talents.
"S…she taught me." There, he had felt the bumping on his fingers a few times but they were really far apart and he knew that wasn't good. "Eve, c…can you c…call Aphrodite?"
"What do you men?"
"J…just c…call out for her and m…maybe she'll c…come." All of his focus was for his favourite person.
"Call Aunty Dite, I can do that!" Sucking in a huge lungful of breath she let loose with the loudest "Aphrodite" possible and just hoped it would be enough.
Aphrodite's head jerked up and turned in the direction of the window, the woman in labour on the bed all but forgotten. What was that? Concentrating hard she could feel Eve and the anguish coming off of the child in waves and suddenly she knew what the tugging feeling had been. She knew that Mesella was hurt and need her and she had a sneaking suspicion that her brother knew something about it. I can't leave Ares alone with Xena; I've got a bad feeling about all of this…Why isn't she calling for her father?
"Ares, Eve's in trouble." The large bearded man seemed unconcerned, not even taking his eyes away from his wife's stomach. "Ares, your daughter needs you now!" Her sharp words seemed to cut through his concentration at last
"How do you know that? I can't sense anything." Not what she was hoping to hear and not a terribly reassuring sign of his dedication to parenthood.
"She called out to me, I don't know why." Reaching out she found the child's location and knew what to do. "She managed to get out of the palace and now she's lost in town and very scared. You need to go and find her!" That should get him away for a while.
"You go; I want to stay with Xena." The warrior in question had watched all this in silence, save for the occasional grunt of pain. Like the goddess she was troubled by her husband's lack of control for their oldest child.
"Ares, go and find Evie, Aphrodite is more capable of delivering this baby that you." Noting a pleading look in the blonde's eye she continued. "Don't you dare come back until you've found my little girl!"
"Fine!" Dejectedly he left in search of the little girl. His petulance and lack of interest had Xena focused on something other than the pain f labour and for that small mercy she was grateful.
"Is Eve really lost?"
"No but she is outside the palace. She called to me and I can feel incredible pain from out there." Seeing the panic in blue eyes she was quick to reassure, "Not Eve's pain. I need to fetch her; will you be able to manage while I pop in and out?"
"Go, quickly, I'll be fine for a few minutes." Before leaving the goddess checked the warrior's readiness.
"You'll keep; you're only about half way there, babe. I'll be right back!" With that she was gone.
An instant later she appeared beside the dense thicket, confused when at a glance she could not see the child. "Eve? Eve, where are you?" It was a low whisper but one that carried.
"In here, Aunty Dite, please hurry!" The usually exuberant voice was clearly terrified.
Picking her way through the shrub she lowered herself until she was crawling through the greenery towards the child. Moments passed before she came upon the little girl and what she saw froze her to the spot. Eve sat, knees pulled close to her chest rocking back and forth as she stared at the other two people in the tiny space. Claudius was wrapped around a prone adult form and as she drew closer she saw that it was Mesella. What spurred her to action was the sight of the dagger that still protruded from her abdomen.
"Kids, everything is going to be ok. Eve, go over beside Claudius and Mesella." Crawling closer herself, she reached out and touched the small warrior. "This might feel a bit weird, but we'll be inside really soon." Stretching her powers outwards she concentrated and transported them all to her chamber.
They materialised during a break between contraction and Xena snapped her head in their direction and was stunned. Eve ran to her mother's side and climbed onto the bed beside her head, cuddling close to her mother and crying. Reaching up her hand the Warrior Princess soothed her first born.
"Hush Evie, everything will be alright." She hoped.
"Mesella's really hurt, mommy." She sniffled and felt another quaking tremor rumble through her mother body. "Whatsa matter with you mommy?" Full on hysterics were looming.
"Shush, Evie, I'm just having the baby, that's all. You have nothing to worry about." She continued to sooth her child even as she watched Aphrodite make a second bed appear and place the injured warrior onto it. The small boy at her side did his best to help. Blue eyes landed on the dagger and narrowed to slits.
"I know that dagger…I gave it to him last Solstice." God damn you Ares!
"I was afraid of that. She's hurt pretty bad, babe. I can do a little healing but I don't have the powers to completely heal her anymore." Seeing the incredulous look in her friend's eyes she rushed to reassure. "Since I lost that particular power I've taken a lot more interest in the healing that goes on in my temples. I've learned a lot, trust me." And Xena found that she did.
Who am I? Through the haze of pain she could not be sure. Memories started to blur together, whirling around and around in her mind like a tempest. Blending with the pulsating fire running through her body it proved to be entirely disorientating until she found herself falling into her own unconscious. Images slowed in their passing, allowing her to understand more clearly and finally to see…
Two small children stood beside a stream, one tall and dark, the other smaller and fair. The dark girl skimmed a flat rock over the surface, making it jump twice before turning to her sister.
"C'mon Gabby, it's your turn!"
"You know I can't do it Lila! Stop trying to make me." She tried to be patient with her younger sister but Lila didn't make it easy.
Gabby had never been a very skilled child when it came to physical activities. She could never run as fast as the other village children, or throw as hard, or climb the same trees (well at least not without falling out) and she was scared of the horses since one had taken a swipe at her; but she could imagine. Her imagination was better than anybody else's and she loved to regale her friends with stories and in her stories she could be the best.
"Well you could at least try!"
"Come on Gabrielle, try it on, please!"
"Mother, I don't want to go to the dance, why have I got to try a dress on?" Why couldn't people just leave her to her own devices?
"Sometimes it isn't about what you do or don't want, Gabrielle. We are going to the harvest festival as a family and you need to look presentable." Her eyes bored into her stubborn twelve year old.
"Alright mother." Green eyes looked dejectedly at the sheaf of peach material that her mother held out, she could clearly hear her sister sniggering from the other room as she was chastised yet again. Maybe one day she wouldn't feel like such an outsider.
"Now, you need to hold still while I pin the fabric." Pins were place in strategic locations through the cloth bringing the dress to life. "Hold still!!"
"Hold on Gabrielle! Come back!" The boy's voice receded into the distance as she continued to run, she knew that he would soon catch her but at least she could be alone for a while.
It wasn't that she didn't like Perdicus, she loved him, he had been her best friend since they were small children. It was just…she'd never banked on him becoming her betrothed. She had never though of him as more than a brother and now she was expected to marry him in the not too distant future. That had never been a part of her plan for the future.
For years she had thought that she was too odd for anybody to want her as a wife for their son. She was too bookish, too chatty and far too full of strange ideas to make a good wife. She knew it was true, having heard enough of the old women in the town say it. Seemed that her eccentricities had not put of Perdicus and his family, in fact they had probably encouraged her friend. There was no doubt in her mind that the thing that had swayed his family was the fat parcel of land that came as her dowry. Her family didn't have much but they did have a fairly prosperous farm and several acres of land.
"Maybe I'm just not like the other girls."
"I was never the little girl my parents wanted." Sad green eyes met blue and not for the first time she felt a connection to the steely warrior.
The second her mind turned to images of the Warrior Princess the maelstrom in her mind sped up again. Visions of herself in a blue blouse and brown skirt morphed into a brown two piece, then she was in green that seemed to get smaller and smaller as time progressed. Her hair grew, changed colour and then ended up short. They fought with despots, witches, warlords, kings and gods, by the end Gabrielle looking more like a warrior than a village girl.
Moving through time, day after day, year after year flashed across her mind until she found herself standing on a battlefield, the dead body of a blonde soldier at her feet. In that instant all became clear. She felt the moment when Mesella and Gabrielle became one, the latter pushed aside for the former. The memories merged and compartmentalised, leaving her with complete clarity.
She was Gabrielle, Bard of Potadeia, Amazon Queen, Warrior and partner to the formidable Warrior Princess. Now all she had to do was wake up!
In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. The rhythm of her breath gave the other woman something to focus on beyond her own pain. Watching Gabrielle's shallow but steady breaths gave Xena a sense of peace even as contractions tore through her body. The baby was coming and then she would be able to tend to the battered blond.
Eve sat on the pillow beside her mother's head, gently stroking through dark, damp tresses. She wanted to help her mother through the birth but more than that she needed to feel safe. Anchored. Touching her mother gave that to her, even though wide blue eyes kept drifting to another pallet where her best friend sat in a pose that mirrored her own. All the while she could hear the measured in and out of her mother's breathing.
You can't die, Messy, you're all I have! It was true and the small boy knew it; as much as his elder brother might love him the only one brave enough to fight for him was laying before him. Perched on the edge of her makeshift bed he ran nervous fingers through short hair, deftly avoiding the bloody patches. He was sure that he had felt her stir several times, lending him hope that she would wake. Come on Messy, wake up! There's going to be a baby to see! And still her breath came, slowly, surely, in and out.
"Ok Xena, it won't be long now, you're nearly ready to push!" Aphrodite sounded a lot more confident than she felt; standing between her friends' splayed legs. As a goddess she had impregnated women but this was something completely different; not to mention the beaten body of the soldier beside them was way distracting! "Don't push until I say. Just keep breathing; in, out, in, out…"
Lying with her newborn son in her arms and Gabrielle resting peacefully beside her, Xena could almost imagine this was her life; that all was well; that her family's life had not been turned upside down in the space of a few short candle-marks. Feeling the tiny infant begin to fuss she cooed softly to him, careful not to wake the other two children who lay sleeping together at the foot of the bed, curled up like puppies. Glancing towards them she saw that they were peacefully resting.
Xena turned her attention to the woman who lay sleeping beside her. Now that her inactivity was down to Morpheus' healing touch, and not a coma, she was already looking a little better. The colour had returned to her cheeks, replacing the deathly pallor which had taken residence there. Tracing blue eyes over the angry cuts and bruises that littered that beloved face, she could barely contain her rage. After Gabrielle had regained consciousness a lot of things in the room, and in Xena's life, had instantly changed.
Sensing that the baby was growing hungry, Xena bared her breast and felt him eagerly attach his lips to her nipple. As he feasted she allowed her mind to drift to the life changing events that had filled the room only candle marks before…
"I can see the head Xena, just one more big push and you'll be home free!" Seeing the baby crown had fuelled Aphrodite with confidence and buoyed her spirits. A derisive snot burst from the Warrior Princess in response.
Sweat was beaded on her upper lip and rivulets trailed down from her hairline. Pushing hard she felt the baby's head move through her birth canal and braced herself for the final push. Gritting her teeth and casting a reassuring look towards her daughter, Xena bore down and felt the baby break free from her body.
Aphrodite suppressed her desire to make a very loud 'EEEWWW' of disgust as she held the mucus covered child, quickly cutting the chord. Surreptitiously, unsure how well it would go over with the dark haired woman, she magically cleaned the child up. Bringing the now clean baby to her lips for a kiss she realised that he wasn't breathing! Eyes wide she tried not to panic as she turned horrified eyes to the woman lying before her.
"He's not breathing!" Xena's joy upon hearing she had a son was tempered by the news.
"Dite, take him by the ankles and hold him upside down." She watched as the Goddess did as she bid. "Now very lightly slap his butt, it should stimulate his breathing." The goddess did as instructed while Xena eased herself up, her strength already returning. Now seated against the headboard she placed a reassuring arm around Eve, waiting and hoping that her advice would work.
As a well manicured hand connected with the small, pink buttocks a wail tore through the room. The tiny boy, indignant at being held upside down, made his displeasure known. His cry tore through the room, drawing Claudius' attention away from his vigil. Moving off of the pallet and over to the bed he reached out a fragile hand and touched the fine cap of dark hair on the babies head. He stood, fascinated, as the small boy was placed into his mother's arms for the first time.
Green eyes snapped open as the scream tore through the room. Blinking dazedly she attempted to focus on her surroundings, the pain racing through her making it a near impossible task. Vaguely aware of the distant sound of voices she strained to make out the words, even as she took an inventory of her injuries. Everything ached and throbbed, her stomach seeming to have its own sick pulse making her nauseas. Come on Gabrielle, you need to work out where you are; even though her thoughts were muzzy from the sensations assaulting her, she could at least hold on to the fact that, for the first time in a long time, she knew who she was. Now she just needed to figure out where.
Already feeling sick, the young warrior knew that she must turn her head and see who shared the room with her, damn the consequences. If nothing else, the long years spent in the guise of Mesella had honed her skills to a point where they could not be ignored. Painstakingly she rotated her neck, slowly bringing her cheek into contact with the rough surface beneath her head. As her stomach roiled in protest she squeezed her eyes closed and nearly lost the contents of her stomach as colours burst behind her eyelids. A pained whimper escaped her lips.
Blue eyes snapped away from the small child laying, cradled, in her arms to fix on the prone figure lying across the room. Instantly locking with the glassy gaze of the woman she had loved for so long and thought lost to her, her face broke into a smile which only grew wider as it was returned on trembling lips. Seeing a recognition in those stormy orbs that had not been there before, the warrior princess tried not to get her hopes up as she passed the tiny infant to a stunned Aphrodite, who kept switching her gaze from one woman to the other.
Carefully easing off of the bed she approached the blond. Looking down at the small figure she tenderly ran her hand down a clammy cheek, coming to rest along her jaw. Behind her Eve and Claudius looked on, both knowing that something special was happening in front of them yet not sure what it was.
"Hey." Xena's words were whispered, almost as though she feared that anything more than that would shatter the moment.
"Xena," rough but understandable words were forced from a too dry throat, "I remember."
"Gabrielle?" A sob filled the proud warrior's voice as she pressed a soft kiss to the bard's forehead.
Claudius had been watching the adults reunion with avid interest, eyes following their every move. Eve, on the other hand, though relieved that her playmate was alright; was transfixed by her new brother. Realising that nobody was holding him back, the small boy could no longer stop himself from approaching his hero. On hearing the soldier answer to this new name he felt a creeping sense of dread thread its way up his spine. He couldn't lose Mesella; he just couldn't! He soon found himself standing close to the tall brunette, his face on a level with his hero.
"Claudius." Sensing the boy's uncertainty she feebly reached out, backs of her fingers touching a downy cheek.
"You remember me?" Fat tears rolled down his face and over her hand.
"Of course I do, you're my boy," and both of them knew, then and there, that was the truth.
Xena stepped aside to allow the child to throw his arms around his protector and hug her tightly. A wince of pain flashed across the pale face but Gabrielle held back the yelp of pain this touch caused, knowing that the boy needed this. Looking at the taller woman over the child's shoulder she knew that she was home.
Aphrodite had helped to move the injured woman onto the larger and more comfortable bed in the centre of the room, which is where Xena now found herself. Placing the now sated and sleeping infant into the bassinet beside the bed, also provided by the Love Goddess, she tried to reposition the fair head against her shoulder. So intent on not waking the children at her feet, she failed to notice the green eyes watching her intently, until the body against her repositioned itself.
"I was…um." Sheepishly she trailed off.
"S'ok, I think I needed to move around a little anyway." Scooting up she reclined against the ornate headboard and watched as Xena mirrored her position. Soon both women sat in a tense silence. Xena was the one to break it long moments later.
"Well this is weird, never thought I'd be the chatty one."
"I guess I still have a lot of Mesella in here, she's been running the show for a long time now and," here she paused, wondering how to say this without hurting the larger woman, "I wasn't exactly sure who I was even before all this." She waved her hand vaguely in the air to encompass the whole situation.
"I'm sorry," the whispered words were thick with remorse.
"Not your fault, Xena. None of this was ever really your fault. We both should have done things differently but in the end it was me who ended it all. I should have opened up, told you how I felt," a snort of laughter escaped her at that, making her wince in pain as it jarred her still fragile body. "I spent so long trying to get you to open up, I think I just forgot how to." Seeing her companion about to refute her words she put a finger over full lips to forestall her. "I wasn't going to come back."
"Oh." Really, what else could she say?
"We have a lot to talk about." Saying that, Gabrielle pushed the covers down to her hips and raised the sleep shirt she had been given in order to get to the bandage around her stomach. Satisfied that no blood had seeped from the carefully placed stitches, she covered herself back up; ashamed that she had used this as a way not to meet the older woman's eyes. "I am happy that you're here."
"Good… that's good. I've missed you more than I thought I could miss anybody." Unable to resist, she reached out and clasped a calloused hand, rubbing her thumb across the back. She was heartened when the other woman did not pull away. "We will definitely have to talk, about a lot of things; more than I ever realised, apparently. All of that can wait for now, though, it's enough that you're alive and finally know who you are."
"Thank you. I think we need to take things slowly." Grasping the larger hand more firmly in her own, she forced eye contact. "There is one thing we need to talk about now."
"I know what he did." There was no need to ask who the 'he' in question was. "I just don't know why."
"I bet I do." The complete conviction in her voice left no room for doubt. "The same reason that he's been trying to get rid of me from the day I met you; you. Only difference is, this time you're his not mine."
"You're wrong about one thing."
"I was never his."
How dare she! How dare she send him away on some fools errand! His wife, his wife, was about to have his child! He had waited a lifetime for this moment and he was damned if his half witted sister was going to rob him of it! Seething he stormed through the halls of the palace, intent on his goal. He had decided not to just appear in the room; even in his current frame of mind he knew it would not go over well with the warrior princess. He was also quite certain that he didn't want to reveal to her just how much his power had increased during her pregnancy.
He had arrived in the city, franticly trying to find the child and return as quickly as possible. As much as he was frustrated at having to leave at this crucial time, he did care for the tiny copy of his lover. Realising that looking for her the mortal way would take too long, and could ultimately prove fruitless, he had delved into his reserves and used his powers to search her out. She wasn't there. She hadn't been there. Aphrodite had lied to him, but why?
The why had quickly solidified in his mind. She had known about Gabrielle all along and had clearly decided that she wanted to get the women back together. Ares had allowed himself a burst of laughter at that, if only she knew that it would never happen. He had seen to that! This led him back to her audacity!
Now, as he rounded the corner to his suite, he had worked up a full head of steam. Suddenly he was thrown back by surge of energy. He didn't have to see the angry red hearts swirling around him to know here they had come from. Leaping to his feet, he found himself face to face with his glowering sister, hand upraised, ready o strike again.
"I never knew you had it in ya, Dite." The smug smirk etched across his features bellied his words.
"I know what you did Ares. I won't let them be hurt again, not by one of us." Her voice was as cold as he had ever heard it and the God of War actually felt the menace beneath them.
"And exactly what did I do, sister? Gave Xena what she never could?"
"You sound sure of yourself now, brother. How did you feel earlier when you stabbed her? Doesn't seem like the actions of a confident man to me, sounds more like a coward." A howl of absolute rage tore through the hallway as she hit the nerve she'd been aiming for; it was quickly followed by a barrage of lightening bolts.
"You bitch! How can you choose that annoying little blond over me?" Every word was a shout.
"Because we've hurt them enough already!" It was a plea that she knew he would not understand.
"I haven't even begun to hurt them yet! I'll only tell you once, let me have my son. Let Gabrielle keep Xena, I can't compete with that, I never could, especially not with you on their side but I want my son." Throwing one last energy bolt at his sister, this one nearly sending her to his knees, he turned to leave. "Think about it, give me what I want or I will just take it!"
"She means that little to you, that you'd give her up?"
"How dare you try to judge me! Look at your own motives, Love Goddess!" His voice rose to a near deafening level as it rolled off of the stone walls, "Give me my son!" Then he was gone, leaving a worried blonde in his wake.
Blue eyes fluttered open, blinking sleepily in the dim room. Something had woken him up but it was gone now. It had almost sounded like shouting. Listening carefully all he could hear was the even breathing of the four other people in the room. Sitting up slightly he looked at each shadowed figure and felt a sense of peace settle in him. He was still loved.
Yawning widely, he suddenly found himself looking into eyes much bluer than his own. A wide, white grin shone in the gloom and he felt safe.
"Go back to sleep, little man. I think we'll have a busy day tomorrow." Xena watched as the golden head settle back onto the bed and large, thoughtful eyes fluttered closed. She had been woken by the same thing as the child and had a sinking feeling that she knew what it was. "Tomorrow."
Settling back down she tried to fall back into the oblivion of sleep, listening to the breathing that was all around her. The comforting sound of air moving in and out, in and out, in and out.
Looking fondly down at the two slumbering women, the goddess was loath to wake them. She knew that their relationship needed time to heal and grow and that the news she had for them would not allow that to happen. Unfortunately she knew she had no choice.
"You're thinking too hard Dite; I can hear the wheels turning!" The soft alto broke the silence.
"I didn't mean to wake you."
"I wasn't asleep."
"Me either," both women turned, shocked towards the tousled blond as her voice rasped out.
Checking that the two children still slept, Xena eased out of the bed and lifted the stirring newborn into her arms. Nodding towards the doorway, she indicated that the other women should follow her out into the main room of the suite. Gabrielle gingerly sat on the edge of the bed and braced herself to stand; as she pushed herself up she felt a secure hold on her left side, smiling her thanks to the goddess as she helped her into the other room.
The two blonds slowly made their way to the pair of couches where the brunette was perched feeding the baby. Xena glanced up and smiled at her companions, gesturing for them to sit with her. Aphrodite carefully lowered the small soldier, checking that she was comfortable before taking a seat herself.
"So, Dite, what brings you here so early?" Though she had a pretty good idea, she needed the immortal to confirm her suspicions.
"Ares wants his son. My brother's come to the conclusion that you've picked Gabby over him and he won't fight for you."
"Charming!" Xena could barely believe what she heard; how could he so easily abandon everything they had?
Ignoring the Warrior Princess' comment, Gabrielle joined the conversation. "He tried to kill me, how can he be sure I'm still alive?"
"He is a god, babe. He knows when his handy work goes awry."
"I thought he gave up his godhood to stand with Xena in the Twilight? At last that's what I… Mesella… heard." Xena was also puzzled, she knew her husband retained many of his godly attributes but thus far nothing like in his heyday.
"He did give up much of his power, though he seems to have been regaining it since you arrived here and I am not sure how." Stroking a gentle finger over the baby's downy head she voiced her biggest fear. "I think the baby may be feeding his power, making him stronger. He hit me with an energy bolt last night and almost over powered me."
Xena sat very still contemplating this. If it was true that he had grown more powerful since arriving in Rome, she was not convinced that the tiny life in her arms had anything to do with it. Thinking back over their stay, something gnawed at the back of her mind, something about his long periods of absence. All along he had been up to something and if they knew what perhaps it would reveal the source of his renewed power.
"I need you to do something for me, Aphrodite." Getting a compliant nod she continued, "I need you to find out what he's been up to while we have been here. I think that his business may have a lot more to do with this than his child."
"I'm on the case!" She was gone before the words were complete.
Left alone together the two warriors fell into silence. Gabrielle couldn't help but watch mother and child; transported back to Eve's birth and the events that led to their separation. Inside her head was a peculiar jumble of memories, Gabrielle's youth and Mesella's marched side by side until the void of years where only the Roman remained. Taking a moment to bask in the fact she could pick out her own memories, she tried to put off talking to her companion knowing that the sooner she did the sooner painful emotions would be laid bare.
"Everything changed the last time you had a baby too. It seems to be a pattern." Almost before she completed the thought she wanted to real it back as she saw the other woman's face fall, only the knowledge that saying nothing destroyed them the last time stopped her from taking it back.
"I didn't know… You never said…" Xena couldn't meet the probing gaze of the younger woman.
"It was as much my fault, Xena; I knew it then and I know it now. I expected you to read my mind, I guess, to understand why I was acting as I did and you just didn't." Pausing, the injured woman scooted closer and placed a hand on the warm back of the baby. "What are you going to do about this?"
"I have no idea. I wasn't exactly expecting any of this to happen," covering the smaller hand she gave it a reassuring squeeze, "though I'm glad it did. Now I just hope Ares doesn't do something we'll both regret."
Gabrielle wanted to make a jibe about the war god, desperately wanted to rant and rave, to ask Xena what she had been thinking; instead she held back. Xena didn't need her petty jealousies right now. "I do have one suggestion, for the baby. Dedicate him to another god. That way he will be protected and have choices and it won't create a rift between you and your husband," she almost choked on the word.
"I'm not exactly flavour of the month with the remaining gods," at a quirked brow she had to correct herself, "Well obviously Dite is an exception to the rule. Do you think I should offer him to her?"
"No, Aphrodite has already interfered and Ares will only see it as a ploy, he won't honour it; the same is true for Eros. It needs to be somebody impartial." Gabrielle was frantically working through the possibilities in her head; it wasn't a long list.
"Artemis is out, as much because he is a boy as the fact that she would still like to see me dead. She didn't surrender easily."
"What about her twin?" A broad grin covered her battered face.
"Apollo did refuse to be involved in the Twilight and he has never toyed with us. It could work." Absently her thumb moved in small circles over the hand that still rested on the infants back.
"Um… Yeah," Gabrielle was distracted by the feel of warm skin on hers, something so familiar yet so alien. "He really is the perfect choice; he is one of the few benevolent gods, controls healing and the Sun. Maybe this little one will grow up to be a healer."
"I think you're right, I'll need to collect the right herbs for the dedication." Nervously she locked eyes with her partner, "His name is Lyceus. I wanted to call him Gabriel but Ares wouldn't hear of it. He said he was tired of living in the shadow of a ghost." Kissing him on the brow she passed the child into the stunned arms of the blond warrior.
"It's a good name Xena, a really good name." The importance of this exchange was not lost on either of them. Huge blue eyes stared up at his new guardian and a coo escaped his lips. "He looks just like Eve at this age."
It would take a while but they would work it out. Quite where all this left her marriage had the warrior princess in a quandary thought she felt sure that Ares was hell bent on making these decisions for her. The real question was; what was he up to?
Heavy black boots pounded on the dusty marble floor, the sound reverberating off the walls. The emptiness of the palace was jarring; for so long it had been filled with the hustle and bustle of the pantheon and their hangers on. Now it seemed a lonely place. Ares had not returned home, alone, for any substantial amount of time since the destruction of his family, resentment began to well in him as he passed room after room.
The great hall loomed large ahead of him and he could almost see his father seated on the throne, hurling orders as he would thunderbolts. Other memories soon overrode those, memories of pain and fury as his brothers, sisters and uncles were slain by the woman he loved in this very room. The woman he loved and, damn it, he did still love her like he always had and probably always would. He wished he could believe that she would choose him over the annoying blond, they had a solid marriage and there was love; it just wasn't enough love to break that bond.
With a practiced swagger he flowed towards the throne and perched within its seductive folds. The allure of power steeled over him revealing yet another reason why he knew that Xena would never be his again. She would never be able to deal with his plans, never be able to accept him as a full god once again. It was a part of him that she had never trusted. To make it even worse he had felt his power grow long before they stepped foot on Rome's shore, failing to tell her about it would just show her a further betrayal.
Expelling some of that power he created a corona of energy around his fist as he thought about his return to divinity. He really had no idea why he had suddenly changed; although he thought it may be linked to the birth of his son it could as easily be the increased worship from the Roman provinces, led by Agrippina. That woman certainly had a plan in mind which she had executed to perfection. When she had come to him in supplication, begging him to favour her son he had thought she was delusional but revelled in the adoration which he had missed for so long. Now that he had made the deal, engineered a new empire loyal to him and regained his following, he knew he couldn't give that up again.
Aphrodite watched her brother from a hidden alcove in the wall. She remained invisible even though she was out of his sight, she did not want him to be aware of her presence. Her hope was that he would reveal something while alone that would let her in to his plans. As he sat in the throne she watched as he played the small bolts of power through his fingers, a feral grin that she had not seen on his face in o long, firmly in place. This was the brother she had grown up with, not the man he had become.
"What do I want the Roman's to call me? Ares is a member of a dead pantheon; it needs to be something new, something catchy." The sudden sound of his clear baritone caught Aphrodite off guard, almost making her give away her location. Focusing in on his words, she realised that her worst fears were being realised. "Mmm… Mars! I'll be Mars, God of War! It's got a nice ring to it. I'll have to tell Agrippina to spread that around." Drumming long fingers on the ornate armrest of the chair he continued to plan his future.
Agrippina? What is he up to with that simpering shrew? Seeing that her brother was now caught up in his own thoughts, the blond was pretty sure that nothing more would be forthcoming and made her way to his old quarters.
Oppressive red and black walls greeted her as se entered the room. Weapons lined the wall, with opulent gold furnishings framing them. Making her way across the room she riffled through the scrolls that littered the huge desk that dominated one side of the room. She found nothing but old and yellowed parchment. Taking her investigation to the bed chamber a flash of pure white on the inky sheets drew her like a magnet. Picking it up she unrolled the sheet and began to read the contents with growing apprehension.
Sneaking up behind her prey the fearless panther was ready for the kill. Taking one last look to make sure that her dinner was unaware she pounced. The dark haired missile flew though the air, taking down its target in one efficient move. As they crashed to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs a groan of pain escaped the victim.
"Owie, Eve! That r…really hurt!" Claudius lay on his back with the younger child perched on top of him, grinning like an idiot, utterly unrepentant.
"That was fun!" Fists held up high in victory she failed to notice the glimmer of mischief in the boys pale eyes until it was too late. Seeing his opportunity, Claudius leapt up, fingers at the ready and began to tickle his tormentor mercilessly.
Rolling around on the floor the children seemed blissfully ignorant of all the turmoil that surrounded them. Xena peered into the main room, having heard the commotion and was pleased to see the young prince giving as good as he got. Satisfied that neither child was really hurt and that tears were not imminent she moved back into the sleeping chamber and resumed her seat beside the reclining Gabrielle.
"Did they call a truce?" High pitched squeals answered her question. "I guess not." The blonde's voice was slurred, showing her fatigue.
"Don't worry, little Claudius is getting his own back. He really adores you." The statement came out of the blue.
"I love him too, he's my boy. I've been taking care of him ever since he was a baby. Well I guess until he was four that was the real Mesella but we both love him a lot. He'll never be a great leader; he's just a good kid. I wish Livia would realise that." Rubbing at tired eyes, it was clear that she was fighting a battle with her still healing body and losing.
They had spent much of the morning talking about the time that they had spent apart. Both knew it was too soon to talk about the things that really mattered. They needed to reconnect and look to the future before they worried about the past. Xena did have one thing that she needed to know.
"When I go back to Greece, will you be coming with me?" She spoke softly almost as though she was trying not to startle a wild animal.
"Will Ares be there?" It was petty but she was too tired to censor herself.
"I can't trust him now, not after what he did to you. It took me a long time to get this far with him and now it's gone. It's just me and the kids."
"Do you love him?" She wasn't sure why she was torturing herself this way; the need for sleep was clearly making her crazy!
"I'd be lying if I told you I didn't. There was always something between us and it grew. Without you I was lost and he filled the void. I never felt for him what I do when I'm with you." Not realising that she had used the present, it wasn't lost on her companion who weakly reached out and patted her forearm.
"I get it, Xena."
"You still haven't answered my question. Will you come home?"
"I have to think about Claudius, I can't just abandon that boy. Of course I would love to go home but…" the two children who had been hiding just outside the doorway moved away, not hearing the rest of the conversation. That had grown tired of their game and decided to eavesdrop on the grownups.
"Mesella really loves you."
"Not Mesella, Evie, t…that's G…Gabrielle but it's ok 'cos she l…loves me too." Seeing that the little girl wasn't completely following him he tried to explain. "She was never r…really Mesella, she kind of lost her m…memory, that's why she couldn't rem…member you and your m…mum. I think they used to be close when you were a baby."
"Oh." Eve's eyes became stormy, "Does mummy not love daddy anymore?"
"I think your d…daddy did something bad."
"I'd love to go and live with Me… G…Gabrielle in G…Greece." Claudius became wistful, caught up in his own fantasy of a life as his protectors son. He failed to notice as a tear tracked down the unusually silent girl's cheek.
Ritual complete, offering accepted, Xena felt a weight lift from her as she watched her son enveloped in white light. Apollo had accepted tribute and taken the child as his disciple; quite what that would mean for the boys future she was unwilling to think about. With his fate secure, for now, her attentions had to turn to her wayward spouse.
Xena knew that she had to confront him, with the overwhelming evidence that Aphrodite had provided there was no other choice. It was now three days since Lyceus' birth and still no sign of the war god, it wouldn't last, he was just biding his time. Soon he would be there, all seductive smile and insidious words; trying to get her to surrender. He would weave some tapestry of half truths and lies to justify his plots and schemes. She had to head him off.
Clasping her son to her chest she planted a kiss to his fuzzy head and passed him to the seated soldier. Kneeling down she took Eve's face into her hands and locked gazes with eyes that mirrored her own. She could see sorrow in their depths.
"Everything will be all right, Evie," even as she spoke she wiped fat tears from downy cheeks.
"What about Daddy?" Full lips pouted as she spoke.
"Daddy is working on some business, baby, and he might not be around for a while. It doesn't mean that he doesn't love you," she really hoped that was true, "he will just be far away. To make up for it he said that Gabrielle can stay with us to make up for it and because she is Mesella too, you get two new playmates in one." A hopeful look shone through.
"Will Claudius come with us as well?" It wouldn't make up for her daddy being gone but she loved the other boy a lot.
"We'll see." She hoped that they would too.
Olympus, once the seat of godly power, now laid in wrack and ruin as she prowled the halls, searching. Aphrodite had transported her here and now it was up to her to confront Ares alone. As she ploughed a path through the dust, leaving little clouds in her wake, she knew that once their marriage was severed he would go back to his old ways. She feared that this time he would be much worse, no longer swayed by the promise of her affections that he had already had. The one hope she held was that he would be too busy recruiting new armies and followers to think about her, for a while at least.
Almost without thought she found herself at the huge iron doors that bore Ares crest. She knew he was in there, that same familiar tingling, that had been absent in their time together, was back and buzzing in her mind. He would be waiting for her. Walking confidently forward, the doors parted without a touch revealing the blood red interior of the room.
Ares lounged negligently on a couch, decked out in leather pants and vest, heavy boots propped up on a low table. In one hand he held a pewter tankard while in the other he balanced and flipped his sword. There was no reaction as she entered, not even a raised head or a nod. Xena knew that she was being baited so took what was her due.
"So I no longer even warrant a greeting?"
"Oh, so you've finally remembered you have a husband? So sorry, I thought you would be looking for your whore." The words, like the pose, were laconic but Xena could hear the edge beneath them.
"I never forgot I had a husband, Ares, but I never thought I had a god! You have lied to me time and time again."
"And you've been honest?" At this his head snapped up and his eyes burned. "You've been lying to me from the day we got here, from the moment you saw her!" The last word was spat with such venom that Xena visibly flinched.
"I did nothing wrong!" Her voice had now risen to match his as she flowed across the room to stand, poised, in front of him. "Yes I knew it was Gabrielle when I first saw her but she didn't know me! I have done nothing but speak with Mesella, while feeling guilty that I was betraying you! All that time you were doing this!"
Finally he stood, moving into her, forcing her to step back or fight. Their eyes locked, full of fire and in that instant he wanted nothing more than to lunge forward and kiss her. To lay down everything he had at her feet and beg for forgiveness but he was Ares, he was Mars, God of War. The sun had set on their too brief time basking in it. Neither one of them could ever go back now.
"What exactly is it you think I have been doing? My powers have come back thanks to my son! I will have him Xena!"
"A pretty lie, Ares but that's all it is and you know it! Your powers have nothing to do with Lyceus and I will not let you have him to shape into some perversion to carry out your will!" She wasn't expecting the blow and so was felled by it, crashing to the floor.
"You know nothing! How do you suggest you keep the boy away from me? I am a god!" He was not expecting the laughter that bubbled forth from the woman as she bounced back to her feet.
"I managed to keep a great many things from you before, Ares, you seem to have forgotten!" Her fingers hovered over the chakram that hung at her side. "I know about your plan, yours and Agrippina's. She has been gathering worshippers for you and that is where your power comes from." Taking a breath, she moved her hand away from the deadly weapon.
"I'm not angry at you; it just hurts that you would do this to us. It isn't just me you have left behind, it's Eve as well. You can pretend all you want that this is some sort of retaliation because I saw Gabrielle but we both know that you were working to cease power the day we arrived." Taking a step towards the door she dismissed the glowering warrior. "I won't fight you. You have no hold on our son, he belongs to Apollo. Play your petty games while you can, you're time is up."
"Don't turn your back on me!" Energy bolts pounded the walls on each side of the door, a counterpoint to his howl.
"You destroyed us; I would have stayed with you. You have given me back to her, she did not take me." Then she was gone, leaving Ares to stare sullenly after her, all his rage turned to pain as he fell back into his seat and threw back the content of his cup.
Augustus sat listening attentively to the head of his royal guard as she unfolded what she knew of the plot on his dynasty. He could barely believe his ears as she revealed that his own family would go to such lengths. Much of what he had heard in the last two hours left him stunned, not least of which was the fact that the stocky woman in front of him was not who she seemed. Best damn guard I ever had and all this time an impostor, albeit a unknowing one.
"So, what now?" The Emperor was glad that his wife was not present for this, at the urgings of the blond. He needed to hear the facts with a clear head and not have rash ideas thrown around.
"That is up to you, Highness. I have told you all we know; now you will need to use all that you have at your disposal." Her demeanour was every bit the dutiful servant that she had always been to the throne.
"I will have to give this some thought, for a betrayal such as this a more creative punishment is necessary. What of your future?"
"I humbly ask to leave your service, Highness. I have loved my life here but my place is with her, in Greece."
"You will be greatly missed by the court and by its Emperor. You have protected this kingdom with your life. Let me give you something to take with you, a part of Rome that will keep u in your heart."
"Well there is one thing…"
Pushing already burning legs to the limits, the small Amazon breezed through the woods, heading back to the palace. Today would be her last in Rome and her feelings were ambivalent at best. In the weeks since Xena's confrontation with Ares they had talked often, growing closer and starting to rebuild the trust that had been eroded more than six years ago. As her body healed so had their broken relationship; it was still nothing close to what they had shared but time would change that.
Even so, a part of her remained reluctant to head back to Greece. That was the part of her that was still, and would remain, Mesella. A sense of duty threaded through her psyche that she was finding difficult to ignore and so she ran. Her body was yet to completely heal, regular sparring sessions and runs were helping and it would not be long before she was at full strength again. The problem was that all the training in the world would not sweat Rome out of her pores and she hoped that would not one day turn into a dangerous weakness.
As she flew out of the woods, the great city standing before her like a crown, the palace the jewel at its centre, her thoughts turned again to Ares. Xena had been tight lipped about what had happened on Olympus but her lack of injury testified to the fact that they had not fought. Whatever had transpired seemed to have worked, for now. Gabrielle was not foolish enough to think that they had seen the back of the war god. He would be back, playing his games and trying to destroy them soon enough. He could never be satisfied with just taking over swathes of the world with his corrupt ideas for power and manipulation. Xena was in his blood as surely as Rome now flowed in hers. He would never really let her, or his children, go.
The children were something else that laid heavily on her mind. After she had told Augustus of Agrippina's plans, he had offered her anything within his power. She had made the foolish mistake of taking him at his word and requesting that she be allowed to take Claudius with her. The Emperor's reaction had been contemplative and she had held out hope that he would eventually say yes. His wife's reaction on the other hand had been swift and disastrous. Livia would hear nothing of it, raving at her husband and his soldier. The irony was not lost on Gabrielle, here was a woman who wanted her crippled son hidden from view and yet when given the opportunity to send him away she riled against it. Maybe she does love him? The idea was so alien that she had to dismiss it; she had never seen any evidence for it.
Poor little Claudius had been heart broken at the news that he would not be leaving with her. He had sobbed on her shoulder like he had lost a part of himself. After his initial sorrow he had pulled away from her completely and refused to speak to his hero or even go near her for more than a fortnight. This saddened her and made her unsure whether she was making the right decision in following Xena back to Greece; and that was what she was doing, following the warrior princess' lead as she always had before.
Desperate not to fall into the same malaise that she had been feeling since the situation began to resolve itself she pushed her body even hard, arms and legs pumping to focus her thoughts. She and Xena had talked daily in an attempt to air grievances and feelings before heading home. They were still working through things, nowhere near ready to renew any sort of physical relationship but definitely opening up to each other. Gabrielle did enjoy the time they spent together, it was almost like the start of their friendship only this tie she was Xena's equal in every way. The old fears; that she was just a tag-along, following the other woman like a puppy, were a vestige of the past that she was trying hard to quash.
Xena had her own set of lingering problems which, try as she might, Gabrielle could not really help to remedy. The biggest of those was also one of the smallest; Eve. Eve had been sullen and withdrawn since she realised that her 'daddy' would not even be coming to say goodbye to her. The dark warrior knew that this hurt her child but was powerless to remedy it. In a vein attempt to alleviate her daughter's pain she had even had Aphrodite tell Ares he could visit the girl, a gesture that had been flatly refused. Unlike Claudius, Eve at least continued to speak to Gabrielle, not seeming to connect her presence with her father's absence.
Lyceus was the only child not to be causing heartache, far from it. He was an extremely happy and content baby, barely crying and equally happy with either woman. He slept easily, seldom waking and was growing like a weed. He seemed fascinated by his sister, making her smile when nobody else could. He also seemed to be mesmerized by Claudius' curly golden locks, tugging on them whenever the children were together. Gabrielle kept her distance when they older children played, not wanting to drive the prince away from his best friend.
Nearing the palace, the former guard captain was greeted by salutes from the soldier's who stood at rigid attention. Slowing her pace to a jog she joined them, exchanging a few casual words before entering the imposing structure. Moving through the servants' area of the palace, out of sight of nobles and dignitaries, she was greeted by the smiles of many people who she would never see again. Sweat rapidly cooling on her skin, damp linen clinging to back and breasts she headed to the bathing chambers used by the soldiers. At this time of day it would be empty and she could scrub the dirt and dust from her skin.
Eventually arriving at the steam filled room she pushed through the door and began to pull off her sandals when she suddenly realised that she was not alone. It was hard to make out the face of the figure who lounged on the edge of the pool but the body language was unmistakable.
"I wondered how long it would take." Standing at her full height, body tensed and alert, she blankly stared at the God of War.
"You always were the smart one, Blondie. I should have tried harder to win you over." Ares flowed to his face and stalked towards the young warrior who made no move to back away, even when he stood mere inches away.
"Whatever you have to say will just be more hot air in this room Ares, or should I call you Mars now?" Voice casually neutral she hid her disgust well.
"I don't know Mesella, you tell me." Imperious smirk firmly in place his gaze bore into her.
"Did you want something? I have things to do that don't involve stroking the ego of a sociopath." Making as if to push past him she found her wrist held in a vice like grip. Refusing to show any sign of weakness, even though the pressure was more than bruising, she returned his cold stare as his face now became a mask of hatred.
"You ruined my marriage!" She wasn't expecting the low growl of the words, more used to the large man shouting the odds.
"I think you did that all on your own." Her answering stare was equally cool.
"Enjoy your victory for now, it won't last for long. You know you're not enough to satisfy her, that's why she could never really resist me." He knew this was her weakness and tried to exploit it.
"I never saw Xena as a trophy, Ares and I was never competing. The only love worth having is that freely given, something you don't understand. If we she leaves, she leaves. At least I will have tried." Seeing that he was not about to win this battle of words and wills, he released her arm and stepped back.
"Enjoy what time you have, Blondie. Once Rome is under my power, I will be coming after you."
"I'll see you then." Frustrated by her glib response he burst into a cloud of energy bolts and was gone.
Letting out a deep breath, relieved to be alone, she rubbed at her aching wrist. He had not broken the bone but had come close. Shucking her clothes she settled into the heated water, inhaling the perfumed air as she felt the water relax her stretched muscles. This little altercation had been something she had been waiting for and the god had not disappointed. He had always been jealous of her, ridiculous really that an immortal with such power should envy a simple peasant girl yet he had since the day she met Xena.
Submerging herself she allowed the heat of the water to seep into her aching muscles. Her stomach was still giving her some trouble, even though the wound was healing quickly and the stitches had been removed. The need for air soon meant that she had to surface. Breaking through the water she was confronted by a face much too close to her own and, without thinking, lashed out with her elbow. Her assailant's head snapped back as he sprawled onto the smooth stone floor.
"Good to see there's nothing wrong with your reflexes Messy." Postumus rubbed his aching jaw and he used powerful stomach muscles to pull himself into a seated position. Seeing the abashed look on his friends face he leant forward and dunked her head into the water, taking her by surprise. Spluttering accompanied a blond head coming back into view.
"Et tu, Postumus." Slicking hair away from her forehead she moved beside her friend, facing him with her arms folded on the edge of the pool. "I wasn't exactly expecting to see you here."
"You know me, Messy." Realising that he was using the familiar moniker, her turned troubled eyes to his friend. "Is it ok to call you that? Gabrielle just doesn't seem right."
"You can call me whatever you like; I think I shall always be Mesella within these walls."
"I was on my way to find you and one of the serving girls told me you'd come in here all grubby. I actually brought you a change of clothes," he gestured to the pile of while linen that lay on one of the benches that bracketed the walls. "I knew you wouldn't have any; some things don't change."
"And some things do. I'm sorry that so much has changed so quickly." A meaty hand closed on a muscular shoulder.
"You have nothing to be sorry for. You lost more than I can imagine and now you have it back. Never apologise for that. Take this chance in both hands and squeeze the life out of it. Take some of your own advice and live a little, Messy. I listened and am so grateful that I did."
"Yeah, Vispania is a great girl. Don't know what she sees in you!" Then she was choking on water after the hand on her shoulder forced her under. Bobbing up again she sprayed water all over her companion.
"I was looking for you. I wanted to say goodbye. I know you leave in the morning but I'll be on duty." A damp hand ruffled through already messy hair, leaving glistening trails over the strands. "I'm no good at this, I've already said goodbye to Gabrielle, six years ago and now I have to say goodbye to Mesella. I'll miss you; you're like a sister to me. I trust you with my life." Eyes glistening, though he would not shed any tears, he smiled down at her. "If you ever need me, I will come at your call. You will always be my captain." He stood with a salute, before she could respond he was gone. A tear tracked down a round cheek, swallowed up by the water.
Agrippina sat in the dark dankness of the dungeon and wept. She wept for the loss of her hopes and dreams, torn away by the Emperor. She cried for her son's uncertain future and her daughters ruined reputations. All her hard work for nought. A delicate lace kerchief dabbed at her eyes so that she missed the light show that heralded the god's arrival.
"Buck up woman! We have much to do!" His voice boomed around the tiny room but died before it reached the sentries outside.
"A…Ares?" She hiccupped the word through her tears.
"Call me Mars, dear lady. It has a nice ring to it, don't you think." She nodded mutely. "Dry those tears; we have things to talk about."
"What can I do now, from this place?" Blowing her nose loudly she could not miss the look of revulsion that quickly fluttered across dark features. "Sorry."
"That's where you're wrong. You aren't to stay here at all. Augustus is shipping you off to some balmy little island with your children. It's perfect!" Clapping his hands together in glee he began to set out his plan. "You will be able to recruit followers for me and your son from there with very little scrutiny. I will be able to mould little Caligula into a fine leader…" Agrippina beamed as she realised that far from being over, her ambitions were just beginning.
Watching sailors load the cargo onto the ship, Gabrielle felt a real sense of loss welling in her stomach. Most of her possessions would be staying behind, handed out to her loyal troops as a thank you and farewell. True to his word she had not seen Postumus this morning which she accepted as his way of dealing with the separation. The thing that really was breaking her heart was that neither Claudius, nor his brother Germanicus, had come to see her before she left the palace. Holding back the tears that she could feel collecting, she felt a presence at her back, a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"You could stay a little longer if you need to." Xena spoke softly, meaning the words even though the idea hurt.
"If I don't leave with you, I never will. I never understood why all roads led to Rome, Xena. I hated it so much because of all the pain we had suffered at the hands of Caesar, Pompei, Anthony," the last of these still left a bitter taste in her mouth. "Now I love the place like a part of me. It just gets into your blood. Makes you want to fight for it; it's like the whole place is alive."
"Still weaving your words my bard," without thinking she pressed kiss the blonde's temple. "I understand." Gabrielle remained stock still, stunned by the act of spontaneous affection.
The sound of running footsteps pounded along the dock, accompanied by panting breaths, broke the women apart as both prepared themselves for possible attack. On seeing who the intruder was, the ex-soldier visibly relaxed, as did her dark companion. The dishevelled and red faced youth skidded to a halt in front of the soldier and extended a rolled scroll before leaning over, hands braced on his knees, to try to catch his breath.
"I'll leave you two alone." Xena smiled at the boy before walking to where Aphrodite looked after Eve and Lyceus, cradling the latter while entertaining the former with tiny magical feats.
"Gemellus come and sit down," leading the boy over to a nearby docking post she sat him down. "What's this?" She waved the unopened scroll in his face as he slowly regained his breath.
"It's from Lepida; she couldn't come so she sent me." He didn't tell the woman in front of him that the younger woman had been forlorn ever since her last visit. The clerk felt sorry for her but ultimately she was a whore, people never stayed, even he realised that.
"Oh." Feeling tremendously guilty that she hadn't given the young woman a thought, she grasped the parchment more firmly. "When you get back, tell her that I will write to her from Greece. I won't forget." Knowing when he was being dismissed, the boy stood and started down the pier on to be stopped by a whistle. Spinning of his heal he was just in time to catch the gold coin that flew towards him. Beaming smile in place and jogged away.
Gabrielle sat in his vacated spot and unrolled the letter. It was a short note, written in a shaky hand. Finally she did allow a tear to fall from her eye as she realised just how much she had meant to this girl who would now be all alone again. Retying it, she placed it into the satchel at her side and wiped away the lone tear. Turning on the stump she now faced the sea, once again lost in her thoughts.
Xena had watched the whole exchange with a troubled look on her face and Eve on her shoulders. Flipping the child onto the ground she was about to go and question her partner when Eve insistently tugged at a strap on her leather skirt. Bending to her daughter's level she quirked a questioning eyebrow.
"Mama, look!" Excitement threaded through her voice as a small finger pointed behind her. Looking over her shoulder, following the direction that Eve pointed, Xena's face lit up at the sight.
"Well spotted, Evie." Receiving a huge smile from the girl, she was thrilled that her apathy seemed to be fading. Pressing a kiss to her cheek she stood and called out, "Gabrielle, I think you have visitors!"
Aphrodite stood beside the Warrior Princess, handing her the infant as they both watched the golden head snap up at the call. Gabrielle followed the direction of Eve's still pointing finger until her eyes travelled up a pair of sandaled legs. Looking up quickly she was stunned to see a grinning Germanicus, Claudius held securely on his back, standing their. Not holding back the whoop of joy she felt, she rushed to the boys and pulled them both into a hug.
"Think she's happy?" Aphrodite's whispered words held laughter.
"I think only one thing could make her happier." More tugging on her skirt drew her attention to Eve.
"Do you think Claudius is coming home too? Look he has bags." Seeing for the first time what her daughter had noticed almost immediately, Xena felt her heart swell.
"I hope so, Evie."
Back at the foot of the pier Gabrielle now held Claudius on her hip while she ruffled the heir's hair. Good naturedly the youth swatted her hand away, amused that she had yet to ask why his entourage carried so many bags. Her joy at seeing her so pleased to see them made his ceaseless begging worthwhile.
"We have a going away present for you, Messy, don't we little brother?" Claudius nodded shyly up at his hero.
"You didn't have to boys; I am just sorry I have to leave you." Absently she kissed the top of the smaller boys head.
"Oh, well we could take it back," seeing the horror stricken look he received from his brother he burst into laughter. "Maybe not."
"What's going on?" Gabrielle looked curiously from one child to the other when out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of the packs that lay behind Germanicus. "Claudius is coming with us?"
"Yep, I had to do a lot of whining, but mum's a great teacher. She finally caved to get me to shut up." A strong arm wrapped around his shoulder and pulled him in for another hug. "All she demanded was that you continue his education and have him write a letter to court once a moon."
"I think we can manage that, don't you?" Laughing blue eyes met her own, as the boy wriggled in pleasure.
"Thank you for all you have done for us, your name will be remembered in Augustus' court. I had better go; looks like you'll be casting off once all of this is on board." Tousling his brother's hair for the final time he turned and marched away, his entourage falling into step behind him. He was the very picture of the young monarch which he would become.
Standing at the side of the ship, Xena enjoyed the feel of the salty air on her skin, the wind whipping her hair around her face. Holding Lyceus to her shoulder, she rubbed his back as she thought about what lay ahead. Next to her stood her soul mate, back in her rightful place, Eve balanced on Gabrielle's hip and Claudius standing in front of her with a protective hand on his fragile shoulder. All of the looked back at Rome as it receded into the distance. A city that could take away everything and then return much more.
As the boat had left port they had seen the dark carriage pull up to a smaller boat and the figures of Agrippina and her children get out. Escorted by a group of guards they had been herded into the vessel which would take them to exile. Xena hoped that the woman would work at being a better mother to her children but a sinking feeling told her that they hadn't heard the last of Agrippina and young Caligula.
Moving close to the trio beside her she extended her free arm and wrapped it around the shorter woman's shoulders. Standing together like this, there was real hope for their future, for their family. Whatever they may face from now on, from vile despots to jealous gods they would face, together. As if reading her thought Gabrielle turned to smile at her and all was well, time would do the rest.