Please read the Disclaimer in Part One!
Major Spoilers: "Apotheosis," Hooves & Harlots, Deliverer/Gab's Hope
Minor Spoilers: ITADITH, The Debt, HTLJ Prodigal Sister
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Three: Argo was once again not harmed in the production of this fanfic, although for a moment there, she was sure she needed to get her eyes checked.
"You've certainly made yourself quite at home here," Gabrielle observed as Anaira led her through the twisting paths that snaked between the Amazon cottages and tents. Along the way, the dark warrior greeted several Amazons by name; they all responded to her with smiles and pleasantries, although as soon as they perceived the presence of the Queen they became somewhat more subdued. Already Gabrielle could see that word of her presence was spreading. She was uncomfortable with the glances of near-reverence darting her way; she made a mental note to speak with Ephiny about bringing herself back down to mortal level in the Amazons' eyes.
"Yes," Anaira replied with a pleased smile that lit her face. "I feel so secure here, like I belong. Sometimes I can hardly believe it's only been a few months -- it feels like I've lived here my entire life."
"That's wonderful," Gabrielle murmured with sincerity. "And Mimi?"
"Oh, she loves it too. She's made so many friends, not least Xenon. The children here are very ... accepting...." Anaira trailed off, and Gabrielle looked sideways at her.
"So, you've told people about...?"
"I told Ephiny almost immediately," Anaira said quickly. They had reached the communal dining area and made their way to an unoccupied table; the place was mostly deserted at the moment, and what few Amazons were present kept a respectful distance. "Not many days after we arrived here, I decided that she needed to know, especially if she was going to shelter us under her roof, but also since she was acting as Queen ... she should have all the information necessary in case anything ... happened." She nodded significantly at Gabrielle, who nodded back to show that she understood. Both were reluctant to speak the name of the god involved, for fear he might somehow overhear.
"That was brave of you," Gabrielle encouraged. Anaira laughed a little and shrugged.
"Well, I had already concluded that Ephiny wasn't the type to judge. She's wonderful, you know?" Her smile was a little shy. Gabrielle returned it.
"She is. I'm so glad you two have ... found each other."
"Yes, somehow the subject of getting me and Mimi our own tent just ... never came up." Anaira smiled again. "Anyway, then I met Xenon and knew I had been right to tell Ephiny. I've told a few others who have become my close friends, and I did tell Ephiny that if she decides the other Amazons need to know, she should tell them. But so far it hasn't been an issue." She rapped her knuckles lightly on the tabletop in a wry gesture of superstition.
"I'm glad it's all worked out," Gabrielle repeated, her own voice trailing off as she observed the blissful spectacle that was Ephiny and Anaira's love for each other.
Anaira gave her a look of concern. "Gabrielle, here I've been babbling on and there's obviously something wrong between you and Xena. Do you want to talk about it?"
"I don't want to think about it," Gabrielle said, repeating what she had told Cyrene in answer to the same question. "No, thank you for your concern, Anaira, but right now I'd rather concentrate on the Amazons' problems." At least those I can do something about, she thought morosely, even if it's just playing figurehead to boost morale.
"Well, all right," Anaira said, her small concerned frown not smoothing. "But if you change your mind...."
"Thanks, I'll remember that," Gabrielle told her, and she meant it. Anaira might indeed be just the person to confide in, since she, in her own way, had been Xena once....
"Good." Anaira looked around and called a greeting to someone. Gabrielle noticed that the dining area had begun to fill up; apparently it was lunchtime. She leaned forward and lowered her voice a little.
"Listen, Anaira, I do appreciate your concern. But do me a favor, and don't mention this to anyone, okay?" She hesitated, not sure whether her next words would sound accusatory. Anaira beat her to it, holding up a hand.
"Don't worry, Gabrielle. Ephiny and I may be together now, but we're still each her own person. I don't tell her everything, and I'm quite sure the same is true in reverse."
"Thanks," Gabrielle said again, sitting back as a couple of Amazons approached their table, carrying plates.
"Stew, my Queen?" one of them offered, setting a plate in front of Gabrielle, as one of her companions did the same for Anaira. The dark warrior looked surprised, which Gabrielle was relieved to see: the Amazons didn't usually serve each other, then.
"Thank you ... Galia," Gabrielle said, dredging the name from a corner of her brain. The woman looked surprised and pleased. "But in future, I'm capable of serving myself, okay?"
"Of course," Galia said, looking slightly embarrassed. "May I present my cousin, Daraia, and her friend Sepha. They're staying with me during the conflict."
"Nice to meet you," Gabrielle told the two women, and invited all three to join her and Anaira. Upon closer inspection, she saw that Daraia and Sepha looked worn and older than their age (which she judged to be around the same as hers); their skin was dark with fatigue and their exposed arms bore bruises. "You two were involved in the fight over the hills," Gabrielle realized slowly. The women nodded.
"Yes, my Queen," Daraia replied solemnly. "We were able to escape mostly unharmed, thanks be to Artemis, although many of our sisters were not so lucky."
"I heard the story from Ephiny," Gabrielle said as they all dug into their food. "I'm sure you fought well, but there were just too many of them."
"Yes, and they're vicious," Sepha said in a sudden burst of ferocity, which she immediately tempered. "Your pardon, my Queen."
"Don't apologize. I've been through a vicious battle or three myself," Gabrielle told her. "Tell me more about the village. I think I may have been there once."
"Well, it's much smaller than this one, of course," Daraia replied. "But because of its strategic importance so close to Centaur land, it sees a lot of trade -- travelers from the north and south, scouts from other Amazon tribes bringing news, and so forth...."
Unseen by Gabrielle, Xena and Ephiny had arrived at the mess hall a few minutes ago. Ephiny went directly to the food tables to serve herself, and was immediately approached by a few other Amazons with miscellaneous business; Xena, however, remained by the entrance, ignoring the curious glances of the eating Amazons, watching from across the clearing as Gabrielle made herself welcome. From afar, it was clear to Xena how the bard's naturally friendly personality, combined with her interest in the situation and the Amazons' trust of her, were quickly making her the object of not just respect, but genuine liking. Before long, the small comfortable grouping at Gabrielle's table had grown to a much larger one, and the Amazons at the surrounding tables were leaning over to listen in as well, and somehow the conversation progressed, and before anyone knew how it had happened Gabrielle was standing up and recounting the story of her first encounter with the Amazons, the wisdom and bravery of Tereis, the climactic battle with the Centaurs at last fighting as allies rather than opponents. Now Ephiny had joined the group, and she added her own pieces to the story, filling in bits that Gabrielle hadn't observed firsthand, while the other Amazons listened enraptured.
The story finished to muted cheers and general congratulations, and its conclusion led Ephiny and Galia immediately into a similar tale, for which Gabrielle sat down and rejoined the audience. A pang wrenched Xena's heart as she saw how easily Gabrielle fit into this gathering of vibrant women. Maybe this is right, after all, she thought. She's among her own kind now. They have so much more to give her. And turning, she moved quietly back out of the dining area and set her feet on the path to the stables.
Around the first corner, behind a tent, Anaira was waiting for her. Xena stopped short, and then gave the other warrior a wry smirk and an accepting nod. They were two of a kind.
Anaira fell in step with Xena and they headed toward the stables together. "So, taking the coward's way out," Anaira observed blandly. Xena scowled.
"Don't try to goad me. I invented that game."
"I'm not goading. I'm trying to sympathize." Moving in tandem, as if they had worked together for years, they set their shoulders side-by-side to the barn door and heaved it open in one smooth push.
"I don't need sympathy. If anyone needs it, it's Gabrielle. I'm glad she has you and Ephiny," Xena added, finding Argo's stall and beginning her inspection of the horse.
"She doesn't need us, you know," Anaira replied, holding Argo's head and stroking her nose gently.
"What she needs is to be rid of me. And that's what I'm going to give her," Xena said firmly, lifting one of Argo's rear feet to examine the hoof. Anaira shook her head.
"Come on, Xena. You can't fool me. I know you're not stupid, and I know you don't really believe that-"
"That Gabrielle is better off without me? No, one would certainly have to be stupid not to believe that," Xena interrupted harshly, moving to the other side of Argo. Anaira refused to be fazed.
"That's bullshit. You know perfectly well if she knew you were leaving, she'd be here begging you to stay. And she's a grown woman, she can decide for herself how she's better off."
"She'll thank me someday," Xena muttered, telling herself that she was not going to be swayed by this woman, so like her and yet so unlike.
"Sure. She'll thank you for everything you've done for her up to today. Not for leaving her, though. You know love, it's a funny thing. Even if it does turn out she's better off, she'll never forgive you."
"Love," Xena bit out angrily, but the rest of the sentence wouldn't come. She narrowed her eyes in displeasure and glared at Anaira, who bore the infamous Look complacently.
"Xena, I hate repeating myself, but I'm going to do it, just this once. Don't be a fool. You and I both know how hard it is to talk about feelings -- especially if you have to be the one to initiate the conversation -- but running away is just not the answer. Trust me." Her tone took on the intense heat of one who wishes she didn't know of what she speaks. "You will regret it. Forever."
Xena had stopped fussing over Argo and turned her full attention on the other warrior. Her glare was still as intense as Anaira's tone had been. After a long moment of facing each other down, she said in a low growl, "Go to Tartarus."
Anaira relaxed slightly, almost smiling. "I will," she promised. "And I'll light the way for you."
Some time later, after an exhausting afternoon of discussing strategy and studying maps -- always aware of Xena's hot gaze burning holes in her skin, although the warrior remained unobtrusive -- Gabrielle found herself finally set free. "I think that's enough for now. You look like your brain is going to pop out of your skull if we try to cram any more into it," Ephiny told her with a laugh. "Why don't you take a walk, or lie down or something?"
"Actually, what I'd really love is a bath," Gabrielle replied, bringing grins to the faces of the Amazon council members as they straggled out of Ephiny's quarters. Ephiny smiled too, as Anaira came up behind her and rubbed her neck strongly.
"I could use one of those myself. Come on, I'll show you the way," Ephiny said, standing up and delivering a quick kiss to the warrior at her back. Gabrielle rose as well, noting with unease the tension that seemed to have developed between the two dark warriors.
"Xena, is everything all right?" she asked cautiously. "You know, you could-"
"Everything's fine," Xena replied with a strange glint in her eye. "I think I'll go see if there's anything left from lunch."
"Um ... okay," Gabrielle said dubiously, and continued glancing over her shoulder at her friend as she followed Ephiny out the door.
Tactfully, Ephiny refrained from commenting on the evident tension. Wanting no more than to forget about it as well, Gabrielle returned to the safer topic of gossip.
"So, Ephiny, Solari wouldn't tell me much about her relationship with Eponin. Are they still together?"
"Oh, yes," Ephiny replied as they entered the bathhouse. Gabrielle slipped quickly out of her clothes and lowered herself gratefully into the steaming water. Ephiny sat beside the tub and continued, "Solari was probably just being shy. She doesn't like to talk much about herself. You know, typical warrior type." She grinned. "Anaira probably wouldn't say one word about me, either, except that it's just so...."
"Obvious?" Gabrielle finished for her. Ephiny's grin widened.
"Yeah, I guess it is. Well, when you're happy you don't like to keep it inside, you know?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed, suddenly sobering as she thought about how long it had been since she was that happy. Since the last time she'd seen Ephiny, in fact. "Are you going to join me, or what?"
"Oh, of course," Ephiny looked a little embarrassed. "Sorry, I tend to get a little sappy."
"It's okay," Gabrielle murmured distractedly as Ephiny stood and pulled off her own leathers. Gabrielle stood up to move over and make room for Ephiny in the tub, but as the Amazon's legs descended into the water, her dark expression gave Gabrielle pause.
"What is it?" she asked, stopping dead, looking at Ephiny with concern, her torso still mostly out of the water.
"Gabrielle...." Ephiny struggled with indecision for a moment, and finally spoke, choosing her words with great care. "As your friend, I hope you know you can trust me to be discreet. I would never ask you to talk about anything you didn't want to discuss."
"I appreciate that," Gabrielle said in confusion, not understanding where this was going.
"But as your regent, and the Amazon Queen in your absence," Ephiny continued uncomfortably, "I feel that I have to ask you about ... this." She reached out, and her fingers traced, without actually touching, the angry pink and white lines of scar tissue lacing across Gabrielle's lower abdomen. Stretch marks.
"Oh," Gabrielle breathed, sinking back down into the water. The impact of everything that had happened before the land of Ch'in, despair and grief long buried and ignored for sanity's sake, came rushing back, and the loss of Hope hit her in the chest like a physical blow, stinging her eyes with tears. "It's ... a very long story," she choked, trying to swallow a lump down her suddenly aching throat. Ephiny watched her with growing concern.
"And a very painful one, I can see," she said gently. "Gabrielle, like I said, I wouldn't ask ... but I felt...."
"No, you don't have to explain," Gabrielle assured her. "It's not a pleasant story ... and it's not one that makes me look particularly good, either. So maybe you should hear it." She closed her eyes briefly, and sighed. "But not right this minute, okay? I need some time to...."
"Collect your thoughts. I understand," Ephiny agreed hastily. "It can wait."
"Thank you," Gabrielle said gratefully. She leaned her head back against the edge of the tub and closed her eyes again.
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