Please read the Disclaimer in Part One!
Warning: Rated NC-17. If you're underage, or if you're in any way opposed to the idea of two women (or two men) in love and/or in bed, stop reading now. This story contains explicit sexual content, as well as probably some four-letter words.
I am digging my warm heart, Till I find its coldest part; I am digging wide and low, Further than a spade will go; Till that, when the pit is deep And large enough, I there may heap All my present pain and past Joy, dead things that look aghast By the daylight. -- Now 'tis done. Throw them in, by one and one! I must laugh, at rising sun. --Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Night and the Merry Man"
Had Anaira been any less than the warrior she was, she would have been hard pressed to keep up with Gabrielle. As it was, the two women ignored the thundering blood in their overtaxed ears as they pounded through the caverns, up the stairs and across the hall. They burst through the sword-emblazoned door at the same instant, and Gabrielle gave a shriek of anguish at the sight on the bed.
Ares lifted his head from Xena and, though his eyes were clouded with a menacing passion, he spoke with his customary savoir-faire. "Ah, good, you're just in time." He waved his hand. "Take her and get out." The toddler appeared with a pop by Anaira's feet.
Warily, the warrior knelt to embrace her daughter again. Gabrielle, though, flung herself across the room and grabbed Ares' bare shoulders, yanking at him with such unpredictable ferocity that she actually succeeded in pulling him off Xena and onto the floor. He sprang to his feet with murder in his eye, but by the time he whirled around Gabrielle was on the bed, trying to pull Xena away. The warrior merely looked at the bard, her eyes colder than Gabrielle had ever seen them -- even during the encounter with the Horde. It sent a chill of near-despair through the bard, but she didn't give in.
"Take the child and go," Xena growled imperiously. Gabrielle seized her shoulders and gave a last desperate tug, hauling her larger friend bodily off the bed. Xena's unclasped armor fell off and clattered to the floor, leaving her half-clad in her unfastened leathers with the straps hanging to her elbows, exposing both breasts. Gabrielle turned, taking a defensive stance in front of Xena, and faced Ares.
"We are not going *anywhere* without Xena," she stated firmly. Ares reached down to fasten his trousers with a casual hand, giving Gabrielle a contemptuous sneer.
"Think again, little girl." He laughed nastily.
Never taking her eyes off the god, Gabrielle bent and picked up Xena's armor. Turning, she helped the warrior buckle it back on. "Come on, Xena. We're going."
Xena watched impassively as Gabrielle dressed her. As soon as the bard's hands fell away, the warrior pushed roughly past her and returned to Ares' side. Tilting her head up, she gave him a feral smile and he kissed her savagely on her already-bruised lips. Gabrielle sucked in her breath in dismay.
"Gabrielle," Anaira whispered. "Come on, Xena's made her choice. Let's go. Come on!"
"No!" Gabrielle replied vehemently. "I am not leaving without Xena!" She turned to look at the other warrior. "You go. Don't worry about us. Get your daughter to safety."
Anaira stood, clasping her daughter to her body, wrestling with indecision. "I can't leave you," she said, but her voice lacked conviction. Reluctantly, she backed toward the door.
Ares looked up. Gabrielle moved swiftly, marching toward him, taking his attention off the woman and child escaping into the hallway.
"Listen to me, Xena," she said urgently. "What happened here is not your fault. Giving yourself back over to Ares is not the solution!"
"Gabrielle," said Xena thickly, as if she had a throatful of mud, "leave before it's too late." She glanced up again at Ares and amended, "....for you. It's already too late for me."
"No!" Gabrielle moved even closer, until she could feel the heat of Xena's body rising to meet hers. The heavy dangerous scent of the god seemed to permeate Xena as well. "I won't accept that," Gabrielle said, not loudly, but harshly. "I will never give up on you. There's nothing you can do to get rid of me."
"Persistent, isn't she?" Ares smirked condescendingly, giving Xena a knowing grin which he clearly expected her to return. Instead she looked thoughtful. Ares' eyes narrowed.
"Xena, don't listen to her. You know you're where you belong." Watching her expression slowly begin to change, he became agitated. "Dammit, we had a deal!"
Gabrielle watched in fascination as the warrior hardness, like a waxen mask, melted away from Xena's features, to be replaced by the familiar steely glare of the woman Gabrielle knew and loved. Slowly, Xena turned to Ares, cocking one eyebrow.
"No," she said, and even he could see that the warrior glint was gone from her eye. "You had a deal." Her expression was bland; now she allowed the tiniest of smirks to curl her lip. "*I* never swore to anything, remember?"
Fury and dismay twisted the God of War's features as he mentally replayed their conversation and realized the truth. "You tricked me!" he raged. Gabrielle cringed backward, but Xena was unfazed.
"You swore to leave them alone, and you'll do it," she said icily. "Or answer to me."
"You?" Now he sneered in amazed disdain. "I'll take orders from you? I think not!" He reached out and wrapped one large, strong hand around her throat. "I can still kill you."
"Go ahead," Xena managed, wheezing slightly as he cut off her air supply. "Do it, *Daddy*. Do it!"
A moment passed that seemed to last a lifetime. Ares' grip did not slacken, but neither did it tighten. He and Xena locked eyes, seeming to be holding an unspoken conversation. At last Gabrielle took initiative, once again hurling herself bodily between the two, dragging at Ares' arm with both her hands and pushing Xena away from him with her whole body. Ares relaxed his grip and Xena fell free, taking huge deep gulps of air but managing not to gasp.
"Come on," Xena gulped, and grabbing Gabrielle's hand she dashed for the still-open door. Ares glared after them, panting with fury, but made no effort to stop them.
Xena and Gabrielle pelted through the hallways of Olympus, never slowing until they reached the cavern. The boulder, to their surprise, had been moved. Now they slowed, pushing cautiously out of the cave and into the bushes, alert for any sign of an ambush.
What they saw instead startled them even more.
They emerged from the darkness of the cave, blinking slightly in the strong light of the full moon, and discovered a crowd of some two dozen Amazons, in full battle gear, surrounding Anaira and her daughter, with weapons at the ready. The leader stepped forward.
"Ephiny?" Gabrielle exclaimed, surprised and pleased. "What in Tartarus are you doing here?"
"Gabrielle!" Ephiny embraced her friend and Queen, while the other Amazons sheathed their weapons and saluted. Then she pulled back and added, "Xena."
"Ephiny." Xena nodded a greeting. "We're waiting on the answer to that question."
"Oh ... the strangest thing," Ephiny said. "Artemis came to me in a dream and told me that you were in need of me, here. I got here with the war party just as your friend there was bursting out of the mountain." She indicated Anaira. "She said we should just wait, but I was for taking the place by storm and dragging you out." Ephiny and Gabrielle grinned at each other. "Another five minutes and I probably would have."
"I'm so glad you came," Gabrielle said fervently, hugging her friend again. "Of course, I'm also glad we didn't need you."
"So what happened?" Ephiny asked. Anaira came up to them, just in time to hear this last.
"Yes, what did happen?" she repeated, looking uneasily from Gabrielle to Xena.
"Let's talk about that when we get to safety," Xena suggested, her tone much more subdued than usual. Ephiny gave her a look of concern. "What I'm interested in is, who moved that boulder?"
"I did," Anaira replied. "I figured I had time, coming out, that I didn't have going in."
"Hmm," said Xena, looking thoughtful.
"Come on," Ephiny put in, taking charge. "Let's get us to safer ground, and then we can all rest and eat and catch up."
Some time later, when they had established a makeshift camp several safe miles from Olympus, Anaira came to find Gabrielle as she tended the meat on the fire.
"Gabrielle," the warrior said, somewhat anxiously. "You and Xena did so much for me and Mimi today, and you didn't even know me. I don't think I can ever repay you."
"You don't have to thank us," Gabrielle told her warmly. "We wanted to help."
"I know." Anaira looked embarrassed. "That's why I feel that I owe you an apology."
"For what?" Surprised, Gabrielle turned from the fire to look at the other woman. Anaira's eyes were wide with self-recrimination.
"For telling you to abandon Xena. For abandoning you. For giving up too easily." She gave a self-deprecating laugh. "I guess that's why I'll never be the warrior Xena is. I give up too easily. I see now that she would never have given up -- and neither would you."
"Listen to me." Gabrielle put her hand on the other woman's arm and looked her in the eye. "You came to get your daughter, and that's what you did. The rest of it was ... stuff that Xena and Ares had to work out between them. It was none of your concern. You don't have to feel guilty for leaving. You have *no* reason to feel guilty. Okay?"
"Okay." Anaira gave a shaky sigh. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. But promise me, that's the last time you'll thank me."
"I promise." The two hugged tightly.
When they finally separated, Anaira's eyes were shiny with tears that she dashed away with a self-conscious laugh. "I don't even know what Mimi and I will do now. I suppose we'll just go back to our hometown. Without Mother it doesn't really feel like home any more...."
"I have a better idea." Gabrielle looked across the small clearing and called, "Ephiny!"
The Queen-Regent strode over to join them. "What's up?"
"Listen, I've been thinking," Gabrielle said. "I think Anaira and her daughter are great Amazon material. Isn't there some way they can join the Nation? Some ritual or something?" Anaira looked surprised but hopeful. Ephiny nodded slowly.
"Sure there is," she said, "as long as they're willing to undergo the rituals and learn the history and customs of the Amazons." She grinned. "We already know she's favored by Artemis, so I don't see why there should be a problem. That is, if it's what you want."
"If it's -- Gods," Anaira sighed, laughing through tears again. "You have no idea."
"Great!" Gabrielle said. "In the morning we can send a party to your town to collect your things."
"I'll have Eponin look into the rituals," Ephiny said. "You two get some sleep. You look like crap."
"Thanks!" Gabriele said, laughing, as Ephiny moved off. Anaira looked at Gabrielle and opened her mouth, but Gabrielle held up a hand. "Ah-ah! Remember your promise!"
"No more thanks," Anaria agreed. "But ... do you think I should tell them about ... you know ... Mimi's heritage? I mean, he is...."
"Hey, every Amazon has a father," Gabrielle said. "It's not like they want to deny that. Look, don't make any more huge decisions tonight, okay? Get to know the Amazons first, and then you can decide."
"All right." Anaira looked relieved. "Good night, Gabrielle. Sleep well."
"You too." Gabrielle watched as the warrior woman moved away to find her daughter and bed down.
Glancing around the camp, Gabrielle noticed that Xena was conspicuously absent. Grabbing a chunk of roast bird from the fire, she went off in search of her best friend.
At length, Gabrielle found her way to a small pond among the trees, surrounded by rocks. Atop the largest rock lay Xena's armor and leathers, neatly arrayed beside her boots and a folded cloth from Argo's saddlebags. Gabrielle climbed up onto the rock and sat, looking out over the still moonlit water.
After a few minutes her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she was able to distinguish a darker blotch in the water that was Xena's head. The Warrior Princess was immersed up to her neck in the chilly water, silent and still. Gabrielle knew that Xena had been aware of her presence from the instant she approached the pond.
A long moment of comfortable silence stretched between them, and at last the soft swishing of the water told Gabrielle that Xena was moving closer. She waded forward until her upper body rose from the water. In the bright moonlight her dripping wet breasts were magnificent.
The pond was not wide, but it was deep, even at the edges. With the water lapping at her navel, Xena could almost reach over and touch Gabrielle as the bard sat on the rock. The warrior put out her hand silently and silently Gabrielle handed her the piece of meat.
"Thank you," Xena said, making the simple nicety sound like a benediction. Gabrielle gave a small smile.
"You're welcome." Standing in the water, Xena began to eat. Gabrielle took a deep breath and spoke in her normal cheery tone. "I talked to Ephiny. The Amazons are going to take Anaira and Mimi in. Ephiny says if they agree to follow the customs they can be made Amazons."
"That's good," Xena mumbled around her mouthful.
"They'll be safe with the Amazons. And happy. Anaira already looks like the world has been lifted off her shoulders."
"I figure we can travel with the Amazons as far as Agropolis, and then turn south. We'll only lose a day's travel if we cut through the forest, and the detour will give us a chance to see if ... there's going to be any more trouble," Gabrielle said carefully. Xena didn't react. "And of course it'll give me time to catch up with Ephiny and Solari and the rest. I'm sure there's so much to talk about. I can't even imagine how big Ephiny's son must be by now. And I think there's some Amazon business she wants to discuss with me." Gabrielle trailed off, watching Xena gnaw the bones clean.
"That's fine with me," Xena said. She gave one last suck at the marrow and tossed the bone onto the shore. Swishing her greasy hands in the water, she looked up at Gabrielle. The moon shone full on her face, but Gabrielle could not decipher her expression. Xena seemed to be listening to some inner pain, or perhaps ignoring it.
Slowly, Xena put one hand on her belly and slid it downward. Her fingers disappeared underneath the black water. Gabrielle could see her body shifting slightly as she widened her stance, and the muscles in her forearm working as her fingers moved. Xena's face was hard, a little pained, desperate, and a few other things that Gabrielle could not so easily identify. After another moment she sighed.
"But I'll never really have him out of me, will I?" Calmly she looked up at the bard. Gabrielle shook her head slowly.
"No, either way, you never will."
Abruptly, Xena ducked down, submerging her entire body. The surface of the pond roiled frenetically in reaction. In an instant she reappeared, striding through the water toward the edge. Her shiny wet breasts bounced lightly as she climbed out of the water. Her hair hung like silken ropes down her back, dripping, and the dark triangle between her legs was like honeyed midnight, shading upwards to a tight stomach on which Gabrielle could see the tracings of stretch marks like battle scars.
Xena climbed up the rock and sat next to Gabrielle. Close up, the bard could see the goosebumps standing up all over her friend's skin. She unfolded the cloth and wrapped it around Xena's torso, rubbing her upper arms strongly. Xena sat and stared out at the disturbed water.
"Gabrielle, I need to explain."
"No you don't." Xena lifted her head, exhaling slightly, then turned it to look at Gabrielle. Her eyes were hooded.
"Xena, I understand why you did what you did, and you'll have to excuse my saying this, but it was stupid. What happened to Mimi was never your fault or your responsibility. Even if you could have known that she existed, which you didn't, you couldn't have known what Ares would do." Almost absently, Gabrielle lifted her hand and brushed her fingertips across Xena's throat, which was purpled with angry bruises from Ares' hand. "And it's pointless to tell yourself that he wouldn't have taken her if you hadn't defied him. You can't ever know that for sure."
Xena sighed softly. "No, I know Ares. If he had me -- if I had given in to him any of those times -- he wouldn't have cared a thing for Simetra." She turned again to look Gabrielle in the face. "But you're right about the rest, Gabrielle. It was stupid of me to try to solve the problem that way. Stupid to believe that it was really my fault. Stupid to even think of abandoning you for..." her lips curled in disdain "him."
She took a deep breath. "But ... that's not really what I meant when I said I needed to explain."
"Oh?" Gabrielle was surprised. "Then what?"
"Gabrielle, I ... as usual, I didn't tell you the whole plan. I'm sorry. I knew that you ... that you would figure it out. I knew even when I left you and Anaira at the foot of Olympus, you were already starting to question the plan and it would only be a few minutes before you realized what I was really doing."
Gabrielle stared at her best friend, frowning slightly, shaking her head. "I don't understand. What are you saying?"
"I'm saying...." Xena sighed again, grimacing. "I'm saying that I felt safe, giving in to the warlord inside me, because I knew you were coming. I calculated how long I thought I could hold the warrior back, how long I could bear up against Ares, before you would arrive. I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" Gabrielle was gasping now, feeling short of breath suddenly. "For what?"
"For using you!"
"Trusting me!" Gabrielle shook her head in wonder. "Are you serious, Xena? You put all your faith into *me* to carry out the plan? And you're sorry?"
"It was a foolproof plan either way," Xena protested almost defensively. "If you didn't arrive in time, the deal with Ares was done and the baby was free. If you did, I would be free as well." She paused, and her expression sobered. "I just didn't realize how powerful the warrior still is ... how easy it would be to give her control ... how hard it would be to take control back. She took over so quickly, and it took so long to get myself back." She scowled. "And I was so horrible to you. Gabrielle, can you forgive me?"
"Forgive you? Xena, haven't you been listening to yourself?" Gabrielle put her hands on Xena's shoulders, and they looked deeply into each other's eyes. "You get so far into believing you're a bad person, you can't even recognize the good when it surfaces. You've paid me the highest compliment I've ever had. You trusted me to rescue not just your body, but your entire mind -- your soul -- from Ares. Not to mention taking care of Anaira and Mimi. You had faith in me. You put the entire plan in my hands. And now you're apologizing?"
"You're not mad because I didn't tell you? Or because I predicted what you would think and do?" Xena asked hopefully, her face shining with moonlight and the various stresses of the day.
"Oh, Xena. What does it matter? We got through it. We're both alive, Mimi is back with her mother, Ares is defeated ... for now ... and you and I are still together. What else matters?"
A smile slowly took shape on Xena's face. "Gabrielle ... I don't deserve you."
"Oh, don't be silly. Who else would have me after they knew all my annoying habits?" They both laughed lightly.
"But I know ... listen," Xena said earnestly. "A year ago, this would be the point in the adventure where you'd be asking me if you did the right thing. Should you have come in earlier than I said? Should you have entrusted Anaira and her child to the Amazons?" Her fingers lightly grasped Gabrielle's chin, lifting it. "But now you've grown past that. You have your own strength, your own confidence. Your own courage and power." Gabrielle started to protest, but Xena's fingers moved up and pressed against her lips. "We both know it's true. You've grown up. You don't need me any more." Xena gave a heartfelt sigh. "But I need you."
"Xena, that's not true." Gabrielle captured the fingers in her own and held them as she spoke. "I'll always need you. You're my friend, my mentor, my teacher. You're the family I've chosen for myself. And whatever you need from me, is just what I need to give, to you. We complement each other. I may have grown up ... but I'll never outgrow you."
"Thank you," Xena whispered softly, putting an ocean's worth of feeling into two words ... and leaned closer. Gabrielle tilted her face up, trusting, waiting ... but then Xena stopped. Closed her eyes, and shook her head, pressing and rubbing her lips together. Even after her long chilly bath, she could still feel his touch. Gabrielle looked up and saw it on her friend's face.
Uncaring, Gabrielle put up both her hands to twine them in Xena's hair, and brought the taller woman's mouth firmly down on her own. They tasted each other sweetly, unhurriedly. Gabrielle felt the chill of Xena's skin against hers. Xena felt all other tastes, all other kisses erased forever from her lips.
When it began to chill her as well, she pulled back, reaching back for Xena's leathers. "Here ... let's go find our bedroll," she said softly, handing Xena the clothing. The warrior smiled beautifully and stood up, shrugging into the leathers, leaping lightly to the ground and reaching up to help Gabrielle down from the rock.
Hand in hand, they strolled back toward the fire and the comfort of their shared future.
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