The Perfect Gift
by LJ Maas
#8 in the Queen Series
“Xena, how many of dese do we have ta do?” Tai asked the tall warrior beside her.
“The more we have, the better it will be,” Xena answered.
They stood side by side, Xena worked quickly with her sharp knife and Tai filled the wooden buckets beside them. The five year old performed her task with a screwed up face at the odor coming from the containers on the ground. Tai only came up to the warrior’s knees, but she worshiped Xena and worked as hard as she could to please her new mother. Tai tossed another of the smelly objects into the bucket. She looked up at the warrior and Xena winked at the youngster. Tai didn’t much enjoy this part of fishing, but she did enjoy spending time with Xena.
After Tai’s mother had died, Xena and Gabrielle had adopted the youngster as their own. The two women told Tai that she and her baby sister, Emery, were their little girls now. There were days when Tai still missed her mother, but Gabrielle held her at night and Xena promised to teach the youngster everything about being a warrior. Those small acts of kindness helped to keep the sad thoughts from overwhelming her.
Tai had slipped one day and called Gabrielle, Mama. She didn’t know why, but Tai felt so much better after saying it because Gabrielle was just like her Mama. At first she thought that Gabrielle had been upset because the Queen said Tai didn’t have to call her that. Gabrielle sat down and explained what she meant and the little girl listened intently. Gabrielle simply hadn’t wanted Tai to forget her mother. Tai nodded her small head in understanding, knowing however, that it just felt right to call Gabrielle that name. From that day on, Gabrielle became Mama to the youngster.
“Okay, little bit. I think we have enough now. Let’s go.”
“Do we really need dis many?”
“Oh, yea. It will make it lots better, trust me.”
Xena’s head craned around the corner of the building, the rest of her body hidden by the structure. Heartbeats later, a tiny blonde head looked around the corner as well, about knee-high to the warrior.
“Dere’s da bad man,” Tai whispered.
Xena and Tai watched the two figures across the compound. Xena couldn’t keep the smile from her lips, watching Gabrielle as she spoke to her uncle. The blonde Queen straightened up and a hand went to her back. She massaged the area as she continued talking with the dark-haired God. Xena’s smile was meant, not only for her wife, but also for the life that Gabrielle carried inside her swollen belly. Recently, it only took a quick thought of their soon-to-arrive daughter, Brianna, for Xena to get emotional. Shaking her head, the warrior quickly returned her mind to the job before her.
“Okay, little bit. Keep your head down and stay by me.”
Ephiny caught sight of the two from the balcony of her own small hut as they scurried through the Amazon village, hiding behind huts and tents. She watched the comical sight with an unexpected fascination.
“Ep,” Ephiny called out to the Village’s Weapons Master. “What on earth is Xena up to?”
“Don’t know. She just asked me if I had an extra bucket and a ball of twine. I gave the stuff to her and she and Tai took off giggling like schoolgirls.”
Ephiny shook her head. “Why does that sound like trouble to me?”
Eponin chuckled. “Maybe because you know Xena as well as anyone and you also know that since Gabrielle became pregnant again, Xena’s probably been good for about as long as she can stand it.”
“Yep, that’s what I was afraid of. Oh, well,” the Regent turned to go back inside. “The Warrior Princess is our Queen’s headache during peacetime.”
“Okay, we tie the string like this,” Xena explained as she worked.
Tai watched in fascination as the warrior moved around the room. Xena tied the string into a series of complicated loops and knots, stringing it around the doorframe and pulling it through the door’s latch. She stood on a stool to reach the top of the door, precariously balancing her precious cargo upon the upper frame.
“We crouch down here, under the window, and we wait. When he comes in, as soon as the door opens just the tiniest bit…leather boy gets it. The opening door automatically trips the lever and we’ve got him like a rat in a trap.”
“Den what?” Tai asked.
“Then we laugh our butts off,” Xena answered, a satisfied expression on her face.
“You said butt,” Tai giggled.
Xena smiled at the youngster’s amusement. “Yea, well, warriors can say butt when we’re with other warriors.”
Xena thought a moment. “Uhm…just don’t tell your mom I said that.”
“Why? Will you get in trouble?”
“You have no idea.”
“Is it cuz she’s Queen and in charge?”
“Is that what you think?”
“Well, who do you think is in charge?” Xena asked.
“You!” Tai said emphatically, pointing a tiny finger at Xena.
“Why do you say that?” Xena asked.
“Cuz you’re bigger and stronger.”
Xena chuckled aloud. “Some day, little bit, you’ll learn that even the smallest and weakest looking among us can be strong. Sometimes, usually just when we need it the most, the greatest heart and strength can come from the most unlikely of people. Which means, when we’re here in the Amazon Village, Gabrielle’s in charge.”
Xena could see this going on for a while. “Because she’s Queen and that makes her the most important person here.”
“More ‘portant dan you?” Tai’s expression told the warrior that the youngster was amazed.
“Way more important than me. You might even be Queen one day.”
“Baby Bri will be Queen cuz she’s your real little girl,” Tai replied.
Xena paused, wondering how they had gotten onto such a complex subject. “Where did you get that idea, Tai?”
“I heard somebody sayin’ it,” Tai evaded.
“Well, that’s not true. You and your sister Emery are just as much our little girls as Brianna will be. Any one of you could be Queen if you wanted it. It takes a very wise and strong woman to be Queen, though. Do you think you’d like that?”
“Nope,” Tai answered.
“Oh, you’ve already made up your mind about that, have you?” Xena teased.
Tai’s head nodded up and down in quick jerks.
“So, why don’t you want to be Queen?”
“Cuz mama doesn’t get ta have no fun. You get ta ride Argo, and go fishin’, and go huntin’. Warriors get ta have a lot more fun. I think I’ll be what you are. I’m gonna guard the Queen.”
“Ahh, the Queen’s Champion?”
“Yea, that’s it…Queen’s Ch–Ch–thampion.”
Xena laughed quietly. “I know you’ll be the best, little bit.”
Xena peeked over the windowsill and saw Gabrielle and Ares coming their way. She watched as they walked toward the home that Xena and Gabrielle shared with their girls. They stopped outside as two Amazon’s approached them. Xena knew the two women. In fact, she had told them to be on the lookout in order to pull Gabrielle aside. Xena wanted to guarantee that Ares walked through that door alone.
Xena and Ares had always had a rather adversarial relationship. In the past, it had been easy for the Warrior Princess to express her dislike and rage against the God of War. Things had changed last season, though. One of the more surprising revelations had been that Ares was not only Gabrielle’s uncle, but also her mentor. Apollo had extracted the oath from his brother before Gabrielle had been born. It became Ares’s duty to teach his charge everything necessary in order for Gabrielle to control her newfound godly powers.
Gabrielle had finally come into her own as the daughter of Apollo and she and Ares had formed an interesting relationship. Oddly enough, Gabrielle seemed to be one of the few people who never feared offending, enraging, or even yelling at the God of War. Xena’s part in their newly extended family became slightly fuzzier. She had always known where she stood with her old nemesis, but she now found that Gabrielle actually expected Xena to behave civilly around Ares for the sake of the children. Xena usually made herself scarce when Ares was in the Village with Gabrielle.
So, Xena had been left with conjuring only fantasies in her mind of ways in which hurt Ares. She had been planning this latest attack for some time. It was fun, she loved the scheming and the time spent with Tai, plus it was so innocent it couldn’t possibly get her into trouble with Gabrielle. To Xena, it was a win-win proposition. Aside from naptime, there were few moments during the day when Tai wasn’t with Xena. At first, Xena thought she would go insane at having the pint size child as a constant companion. It didn’t take long until she actually looked forward to the company each day. Gabrielle had even commented on how the warrior moped around the house when Tai had to take a nap.
“I think he’s coming, Xena.” Tai’s childlike whisper shook Xena from her musings.
“You’re right.” She ducked her head under the windowsill, doing a last minute visual on the trap’s set up.
“Xena?” Tai whispered.
“Ssh.” Xena concentrated on the trail of beige string.
“Ssh, Tai. I hear footsteps. If he hears us we’ll get caught.”
“But, Xena…dis is really, really ‘portant.”
“What?” Xena finally asked in exasperation, looking down at the youngster crouched beside her under the window.
“Isn’t da bad man s’pposed to come in?”
“An’ he comes in an’ da buckets fall?”
Xena watched with extreme satisfaction as the door began to open. “Yea, yea. This is it.”
“Den why is he over dere?” Tai pointed out the window.
“Wha–?” Xena whipped her head around to see Ares standing out in front of the house, chatting up some Amazons. “Oh, no!”
She jumped up from her hiding place in order to slam the door closed. Unfortunately, her muscles had grown stiff from her crouched position under the window. She tripped as the door opened and the buckets emptied their contents upon the unsuspecting victim.
“Gods on Olympus!” Gabrielle cried out as two buckets of assorted fish parts rained down on her.
The Queen looked down to find her wife sprawled across the wooden floor of their home, Tai right behind her. Gabrielle closed her eyes and breathed deeply. “You two–”
“Mama…Mama!” Tai ran forward, a small piece of parchment in her hands. “Look what I made for you for Cupid’s Day.”
Tai looked up at Gabrielle with a sweetly innocent expression, glancing back at Xena with a ‘you’re on your own’ look.
“That is so cheating,” Xena whispered.
Gabrielle took another deep breath. “That’s lovely, honey, thanks. Was this,” she brushed a fish tail from her shoulder, “Xena’s idea?”
Tai looked back nervously at Xena’s still prone figure. “I don’t think warriors are s’pposed to tattle on other warriors,” Tai whispered up at Gabrielle.
“Xena?” Gabrielle said in a voice that sounded as though it had begun to fray at the edges.
“Yes?” Xena couldn’t think of one intelligent thing to say.
“Are these pieces of…fish?”
“Uhm…they’re trout…your favorite.”
“On a plate, not with their guts draped all over me!”
Xena winced at the younger woman’s volume. “Gabrielle, I–”
“No. I don’t want to hear it right now.” Gabrielle drew in another breath and fought down the urge to hit something. “I’m going to the bathing chamber and I want this cleaned up by the time I return.” She walked out of the door without another word.
Gabrielle’s glare dared anyone to comment on her appearance as she walked down the steps of their hut.
Ares’ smile formed as soon as he saw Gabrielle coming his way. “You know–” He began with a chuckle. He froze at Gabrielle’s next words.
“If you say anything that could be classified as a smart-ass comment, so help me, you lose a testicle!”
“Um…I gotta go.” Ares disappeared, leaving behind a trail of falling blue sparkles.
Later, as Xena and Tai mopped up the mess they had created, Xena commented on the youngster’s behavior. “Quick thinking to suck up like that.”
“What’s ‘suck up’ mean, Xena?”
“In this case, my friend, it means that you’re a lot smarter than me.”
Xena and Tai knelt on the floor, each with a wet rag in hand. A candlemark had passed since Gabrielle left the hut, covered in fish unmentionables.
“Tell me, little bit, is this the fun warrior stuff you were talking about?” Xena asked.
Tai kept scrubbing the wooden floor that still smelled of fish guts. “Dis don’t seem like fun warrior stuff at all.”
“Tell me about it.” Xena paused and tilted her head as though she was testing the air with her senses. “Tai,” she whispered, “Give me that soap.”
In a matter of heartbeats, Xena had pushed the thick cake of soap a couple of feet away from where they kneeled. Suddenly, the air crackled with a sort of hot energy and Ares’s form materialized. As soon as the God became solid, his legs flew out from underneath him and he landed on his back, hitting the wooden floor hard enough to expel all the air in his lungs.
Tai took that opportunity to do what she always did when Ares was on the ground playing with her. She charged him, screaming out her own particular version of a Xena battle cry, landing directly on the God of War’s stomach.
Xena laughed as Ares pulled the cake of soap from underneath him and tossed it in the nearby bucket.
“That’ll teach you to knock first,” Xena said.
“I’m a God–ooph!” he exclaimed as Tai jumped up and down on this stomach. “Nobody else makes me knock.”
“Nobody else can kick your ass whenever she wants, either.”
“You can’t kick my ass…whenever you want,” he quickly added at the challenging gleam in Xena’s eye.
“Oh, yea? Who’s lying on a wet floor, flat on their back, with a kid bouncing on top of them?”
“Point taken. Whoa, kid. You’re getting a little close to the equipment.” Ares lifted Tai off his prone form.
“Dat was funny, Ares. Do it again,” Tai said.
“Maybe next time, kiddo.” He reached down to pat the blonde head. “So,” he lowered his voice and looked around the room. “Is she back yet?”
“I never thought I’d see the day. You acting like a wuss around Gabrielle.”
“You would be too if you knew what was good for you. Have you ever been around a woman just beginning to learn her God power? She may not have many of them, but until she learns how to control what she does have, I’ll look out for my family jewels, thank you very much. When she says I’ll lose a testicle, all she has to do is think about it too hard and poof! There it goes. ”
“Hhmm, could be worth seeing,” Xena said in between her laughter.
Gabrielle returned from her bath, wearing a much more congenial expression. “So, everything is all clean I see.”
“Completely. Bri, I’m–”
Gabrielle held up her hand. “It’s okay. I should have known that you were getting ready to blow. You’ve been good way too long.”
Gabrielle winked and Xena knew that her wife had already forgiven her. One of the earmarks of this pregnancy had been that Gabrielle’s temper resembled a summer gale. It swept through fast, with lots of strong wind, lightning, and thunder, but was gone before it ever achieved full force. Xena knew her wife. She also understood what it was like to be pregnant. It would only be another moon or two and Gabrielle’s sweet and compassionate disposition would return.
“Ares, I’m beat. Do you mind if we call it a day?” Gabrielle asked.
Before Ares could answer, he sneezed.
“Bless you,” Xena and Gabrielle said in unison.
“Wait a minute. Did you just sneeze?” Gabrielle asked.
“I don’t think I’ve even heard you sneeze before,” Xena said.
“That’s because Gods don’t sneeze,” he replied. “Maybe it was just a fluke.” Ares sneezed again. “Uh oh. I gotta go.”
“What’s wrong?” Gabrielle asked.
“It’s the immortal virus. Man, I have to get back…now!” Ares face grew a look of concentration. He paused and looked at his outstretched hand. “Damn.”
He snapped his fingers, even said a quick incantation but all that happened was a little smoke and a small popping noise. “I’m still here.” He said, looking down at his body.
“Brilliant deduction,” Xena said without sympathy.
“I mean I’m stuck here. All because I came back to check on you,” he nodded his head at Gabrielle. “I knew this being nice gig was gonna bite me in the ass sooner or later.”
“Now, Ares, calm down,” Gabrielle said. “What do you mean an immortal virus…is it catching? Is that why you can’t transport yourself back to Olympus?”
“The immortal virus only affects Gods. We heard last week that a couple of the Roman Gods were infected. Damn! I played cards with Mars. I bet that asshole passed it on to everybody on Olympus!”
“So, you sneeze and lose your ability to transport?” Xena asked. “Doesn’t sound too terrible.”
“I lose all my powers. I can’t do a thing until I get better. I’m stuck here unless somebody comes for me.”
“All your powers?” Xena asked with an evil grin.
“Xena, stop,” Gabrielle ordered. “Don’t worry, Ares. I’ll call my father and he’ll come get you. Do you feel okay?”
“Yea, it doesn’t do anything unless I–” Ares sneezed again.
“What in Hades name?” Xena looked out the window into the Village. “Well, this is different.”
Joining Xena at the window, the three of them watched as snow fell from the sky. Ares sneezed and the snow stopped. He sneezed again and the entire compound filled with multicolored butterflies.
“Everything is okay unless–”
“Unless you sneeze,” Xena finished. “Great,” she said to Ares’s embarrassed shrug. “This could be dangerous.”
“Nah, it’s usually weird harmless stuff.”
Gabrielle went into their bedroom and opened up the small wooden box that held her prized possessions. She put on the ring that Apollo had given her and spoke one word… father. In the past, Apollo had appeared almost immediately upon Gabrielle using the enchanted ring.
“Father isn’t answering.” Gabrielle came out of the bedroom to address Xena and Ares.
“You rang?” Aphrodite’s voice arrived before she did. The Goddess wore her customary pink, low cut diaphanous gown. The only thing different was that she wore a cloth mask over her mouth and nose.
“Aw, Dite, thank you, thank you. I thought I was gonna be stuck here as a mortal,” Ares said.
“Thanks a lot,” Gabrielle responded.
Ares shrugged and at least had the decency to look apologetic. “You know what I mean.”
“I’m afraid I do,” Gabrielle said. “Aphrodite, where’s my father and what is that thing on your face?”
“Hey there, mama-to-be. Well, Apollo and the crowd have the same virus that this lug has, and boy, are they like pissed at you, Ares.”
“I only let Mars in to play cards!”
“Yea, right! That wolf of his was all over the place. After everyone gets over this, we’ll have to have Olympus fumigated. And do you want to know the worst part? This mask is ruining my make-up!”
Xena and Gabrielle tried to hide their smiles. No matter how she had matured around mortals, Aphrodite would always be…well, Aphrodite.
“So, you’re the only God who doesn’t cause puppies to fall from the sky when they sneeze?” Xena asked.
“Yep, I’m virus free and I plan on staying that way. That’s why the mask, get it? Apollo gave me a yell when you tried to call on him,” Aphrodite said to Gabrielle. “He figured little bro was stuck down here.”
“So how long does this virus last?” Gabrielle asked.
“A few years,” Aphrodite answered.
“Years?” Xena and Gabrielle repeated in unison.
“Well, not to you guys, silly. Years up on Olympus are just…what, two or three days down here?” she asked Ares.
“More or less,” he answered.
“Gabrielle’s been with Ares all day. Any chance she can get this virus?” Xena asked.
“Don’t think so, warrior-babe. I’ve never heard of anyone but a full God getting the immortal virus.”
“Excuse me, My Queen, but we have trouble.”
Ephiny had waited as long as she could, but felt that the situation warranted interrupting Gabrielle and her family. The Regent had never felt truly comfortable around Gabrielle’s Godly relatives. She thought it best to steer as far away from the Gods as possible whenever they were in the Village.
“Now what?” Gabrielle asked as Ares sneezed again. Suddenly, a herd of small gray burros materialized and wandered aimlessly throughout the compound.
“Are you doing that?” Ephiny asked. She knew that Gabrielle had been practicing to control the powers she had inherited from her father.
“Not me…him” Gabrielle jerked a thumb in Ares’s direction.
“I don’t want to know why, do I?” Ephiny stared at the burros as they passed by the group.
“Not if you want to stay sane,” Xena replied.
“And the trouble is…?” Gabrielle encouraged Ephiny to continue.
“Huh?” Ephiny looked confused.
“The trouble you were going to tell me about?”
“Oh…um, yea. Unfortunately, we have a rather touchy situation going down at the settlement near the Strymon.”
“Situation?” Gabrielle asked.
“Marcasa, their new leader is starting shit, but it’s the kind of shit that could end up causing a war.”
“We just gave them an extension to stay on that land until we can meet to sign a lease. What more does he want?”
“He wants a lease immediately. The terms of the last contract stipulate that the Queen of the Amazons would negotiate in person no more than a fortnight after the lease ended.”
“Does this moron know that Gabrielle’s pregnant and due by the next moon, that she’s in no condition to travel?” Xena growled.
“Frankly, I think that’s part of his plan. At this point, he knows Gabrielle can’t possibly travel the four or five days it would take to get there before the fortnight is up. If the timeline on the negotiation isn’t kept, as written, the land will revert ownership to the lessee.”
“The bastard!” Xena said.
“Actually, the people there aren’t the type to want to go to war, but Marcasa is misguided enough to want to pull a fast one when he sees the opportunity.
“So you’re telling me the Amazons lose that land if I can’t get there in time?” Gabrielle asked.
“I’m afraid so, but that’s not the worst part of this little scenario. Andralen is taking these manipulations by Marcasa rather personally. He’s threatening physical force if the settlement doesn’t wait until the birth of your child, until you’re able to travel. You know how Andralen feels about you.”
Gabrielle nodded, remembering Andralen. A centaur captain, he met Gabrielle the previous fall in the forest to the south of the Amazon village. He had his rear hoof ensnared in a hunter’s metal trap. Luckily, Gabrielle had been visiting her favorite quiet spot in the woods and heard the centaur’s angry bellows. After releasing the spring on the trap, she carefully explained about the healing power passed down to her from her father. In order to save Andralen’s leg, she would have to expend some of this power, but first warned the creature that her ability was inconsistent much of the time. She had a hard time calling it up at will. Andralen took the chance and Gabrielle saved him from what would have been an almost certain amputation of the limb. Since that time, Andralen had become a devoted supporter of the young Amazon Queen.
“I’m at a loss. How on earth can I possibly get there in time, even if I could spend five days on horseback?”
Everyone looked around, trying to come up with an idea. Even Xena had a difficult time in dreaming up a way to get out of their situation.
“Hellooo!” Aphrodite said. “Am I like invisible here?”
The women went silent and looked at her in confusion.
“Sweet Pea, I can get you there before you can say ‘hot tub with the girls’ and have you back in time for supper.”
They continued their silent stares for a few moments, but then they looked at one another and all began to speak at once, effectively dismissing Aphrodite’s suggestion.
She stamped her foot in an attempt to get their attention. “Hey!” Aphrodite said.
No,” Xena said.
“It does sound like an easy solution, though” Ephiny added.
“No,” Xena repeated, folding her arms across her chest.
“Xena, I think–” Gabrielle began.
“No. Gabrielle you’re–”
“Not going to deliver for another moon. Even if it does happen early it will still be another fortnight.”
“Xena, I’m kind of offended. You know I’ll take care of our little mom-to-be,” Aphrodite was quick to add.
“I know you mean well, Aphrodite, but–”
“Xena, I don’t think we have any choice. Aphrodite, will it be safe for the baby?”
“Sure! She’ll be in the safe hands of Auntie Aphrodite.”
“Oh, that just fills me with confidence,” Xena said. “All right,” Xena held her hands up in mock surrender, not looking at all thrilled with the idea, but slightly intimidated by her wife’s gaze. “But, I want Aphrodite to zap you into the centaur village first and make sure Andralen sends a unit with you to the settlement. I want you protected. Actually, I think it would be better if I–”
“Xe, someone needs to stay home with the girls.”
“We’re surrounded by Amazons. They live to baby sit.”
“Sweetheart, I’ll only be a few candlemarks.”
Xena realized that she had gone into her over protective mode. She had to let Gabrielle rule her people, no matter how personally difficult that became. She smiled and reached over to kiss Gabrielle’s forehead.
Gabrielle placed one hand on Xena’s arm. “Don’t worry so much, okay?”
“What, just when I’m getting so good at it?”
“Okay, now that it’s all settled how about giving me a lift home first. Eh, sis?” Ares sneezed again and a long line of multicolored rabbits slowly hopped past the group.
“Right. Off you go!” Aphrodite sent Ares on his way with a wave of her hand. “Okay, just say the word, Sweet Pea, and we’re outta here.”
“Let me change into something more formal first,” Gabrielle said.
“Tell Tai that I had to leave in a hurry…don’t let her eat too many snacks before dinner…do you remember how Emery’s milk goes in the container to feed her?” Gabrielle rattled off a string of requests as she dressed.
“Bri, You’ll be back for dinner. I think I can manage until then,” Xena answered.
“I know, I’m being silly, aren’t I?”
“Pretty much, but I’m used to it.”
“Very funny, warrior. Gods, I’m getting nervous already.”
“You’ll have everything under control in no time, I know it. Just come back to me quickly, my heart. You know I haven’t had to spend a Cupid’s Day apart from you in all the time we’ve known each other.”
“Xe, it’s days away,” Gabrielle answered with a smile. “But, I promise you, no matter what, we’ll celebrate Cupid’s Day together.”
“With my gift?”
Gabrielle suddenly remembered why she had wanted to talk with Ephiny earlier that day. She knew that Xena had been casually trying to remain inconspicuous, while searching their home high and low for any signs of hidden gifts. The Queen had requested that Ephiny hide the custom-made saddle Gabrielle had commissioned for her wife.
“With your present,” Gabrielle replied.
“It’s a deal then.”
They kissed and held to one another as though it would be a much longer separation. Xena wanted one more kiss, but there wasn’t time before Gabrielle rushed through the door.
Gabrielle and Ephiny discussed the details of the contract one last time. After a few more hasty farewells, Gabrielle gave one last wave, and blew a kiss in Xena’s direction before her figure shimmered into nothingness beside Aphrodite.
“Your Highness, we are most honored that you have come in person.”
An elderly man took Gabrielle’s hand and gave it a light squeeze. “I apologize for my son’s behavior in this matter. Marcasa is young and has yet to gain the maturity that leadership demands. You are an excellent example for him.” The old man glared at the young man who stood beside him.
“I’m happy that we could come to an understanding and that this didn’t have to escalate into anything violent,” Gabrielle replied.
She watched as Marcasa looked away from her, unable to make eye contact. His cheeks had turned red with shame. She understood that his father had taught him better, but the young man had given into the attractive nature of power.
“I really must be going, now. I have someone waiting.” Gabrielle looked over to where Aphrodite stood, surrounded by a group of men and Centaurs.
“We’ve never seen any of the Gods in their mortal shapes before,” the old man’s words explained and seemed to apologize for the behavior of the men of the village.
“You get used to it after a while,” she replied with a smile. “Aphrodite? Ready?”
“I’m always ready.” She winked at the men.
“Say goodbye, Aphrodite,” Gabrielle pulled the Goddess away from the group.
“Spoilsport. Well, toodles, guys. See ya ’round the temple.”
Aphrodite took hold of Gabrielle’s hand, and the Goddess snapped her fingers together. A pale pink powder shimmered as it fell to the ground where the two women had been standing only a heartbeat earlier.
“Wow, that was quicker than last time,” Gabrielle said, as she felt solid ground beneath her feet.
She looked around, unable to understand why they were standing on the side of a road in an area she couldn’t recognize. “Aphrodite, where are we?”
Before Gabrielle even had the words out of her mouth, Aphrodite threw back her head and sneezed. Suddenly, brightly colored tulips popped up from the ground for as far as they could see down the road.
“Uh oh,” Aphrodite said in reply.
“Oh, no,” Gabrielle said. Her face expressed the shock that she felt. “Don’t even tell me that you have it, too.”
Silence hung heavy in the air. “Well?” Gabrielle cried out.
“You said not to tell you!” Aphrodite replied. She sneezed again and all of the green grass around them turned a bright blue.
“I don’t believe this is happening. Where are we?”
“Hey, I’m just as surprised as you are. This wasn’t exactly how I planned this. Don’t you have any transport powers at all?” Aphrodite asked.
“Even if I could, which I can’t, I’d be afraid that we’d end up in a dozen pieces. You know how erratic this stuff is for me.”
“Well, this bites,” Aphrodite said.
“I guess we’ll just have to start walking,” Gabrielle said.
“Exqueeze me?” Aphrodite stopped to stare at Gabrielle. “You want me to walk?”
“It’s either that or camp out for a few days until your powers return.”
“That sounds fine.”
“Of course, we have no food, no water, and no place to sleep,” Gabrielle said.
“Oh, guess we can’t let you and the bambino go without food.”
“There’s another really good reason why we have to get home,” Gabrielle added.
“My water just broke.”
“You can break water?” Aphrodite asked. “What does that mean?”
“It means I’m having my baby.”
“Oh no you don’t.” Aphrodite placed her hands on her hips. “You cross your legs and don’t let that little bugger out.”
“It’s not quite that easy,” Gabrielle replied, clutching her abdomen. The pain seemed to roll through her in slow, fluttering waves. It felt nothing like the first time she had given birth to this youngster.
“Brianna, stay!” Aphrodite ordered as she pointed to Gabrielle’s stomach.
Gabrielle laughed, in spite of the seriousness of their situation. “Aphrodite, you’re losing it.”
“Well, this mortal gig can get old in a hurry. What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know, but the first thing we need to do is get off the side of the road.”
Aphrodite sneezed and a line of wooden chairs inched their way down the road.”
“I take that back. The first thing we need to do is stop you from sneezing. The second is to find some shelter. I’m going to need your help in walking, though.”
“Oh, okay. Um…what do I do?” Aphrodite looked as though she was afraid to touch Gabrielle.
“Just let me lean on you a bit. Okay?”
They started walking, still unsure which direction would lead them home. They were in the middle of nowhere and nothing looked the slightest bit familiar to Gabrielle. After a while, they had worked up a sweat for their efforts. Well, Gabrielle had worked up a sweat. Aphrodite attempted to assist Gabrielle in between fits of sneezing. They had seen the sky turn magenta, bunnies grow wings, but the strangest, Gabrielle had to admit, were the fish that flew by.
Seeing the fish caused Gabrielle to think that it was only earlier that morning when Xena had doused her with fish guts, a practical joke meant for Ares. The thought of Xena, and the Cupid’s Day gift from little Tai, made Gabrielle’s eyes fill with tears. She was trying to be brave, but their present situation, coupled with the pain in her lower belly was simply too much for her.
“Geez, how many loaves of nut bread have you been eating lately?” Aphrodite asked. “Hey, I’m sorry, it was just a joke.” Aphrodite was quick to apologize when she saw the tears in Gabrielle’s eyes.
“I’m just…Aphrodite, I don’t know how much further I can go.”
“We need to find you a spot to rest for a while. How about over there?”
“I don’t think we should stop,” Gabrielle responded and then grimaced from another contraction.
“Sweet Pea, I don’t know what to tell ya, but I have no idea where we are and you really look like–”
“No! We have to keep going.”
“Why are you being such a stubborn half Goddess?” Aphrodite said in exasperation.
“Because I’m having a baby and it’s just you and me in the middle of nowhere! Because the last time–”
A strangled sob halted the remainder of Gabrielle’s sentence, but she didn’t have to finish for Aphrodite to understand. The Goddess knew that Gabrielle had been thinking of the last time she had given birth to this same baby, when Hera had stolen the child’s life force in an act of revenge. The pain and suffering experienced by Gabrielle and Xena had set all of Olympus against Hera.
“We can do this, Gabrielle. Come on.”
Gabrielle offered a weak smile, rather impressed that Aphrodite could take charge of the situation. The feeling was short-lived, however.
“Just quit saying you’re going to have that baby. That is just way too grody to even think about.”
“”I knew it, I just knew it!” Xena shouted. “And you just couldn’t wait to send her out there…with Aphrodite of all people.”
“They’re not actually that late,” Ephiny responded. She was just as concerned, but couldn’t explain to Xena what she had been feeling.
“They’ve been gone for an entire day! Yesterday she said it would be a few candlemarks. She’s with a Goddess. It isn’t like they had to stop for the night.”
Ephiny had been trying to display an outward calmness in hopes that it would affect Xena. So far, that hadn’t worked at all. Xena took everything that anyone said to her as patronizing. The warrior was right about one thing. They couldn’t remain passive. They had to take some sort of action.
“So help me, Ephiny, if you say you’re sending another message to Andralen with those damn birds I’m going to wring your neck. Right after, I’m going to do the same to those freaking pigeons!”
“Okay, okay, no more messages with the birds.”
Ephiny clearly understood Xena’s reasons for worry, but the Regent didn’t know quite how to explain that she had a certain feeling about Gabrielle. She didn’t know how to explain it herself, but although Gabrielle had been missing for nearly a full pass of the sun, Ephiny simply knew her Queen wasn’t in harm’s way. She had no idea how to convey that very abstract feeling to a very worried Xena. Ephiny doubted it would have done any good anyway.
“I’m open for suggestions, Xena,” Ephiny continued. “Andralen said that when Gabrielle and Aphrodite left the settlement, they were both fine. The only thing I can think to do is have a search party set off for the settlement and hope we run into them along the way. Maybe Aphrodite did get that virus they were talking about and they had to walk the rest of the way.”
“I hope you’re right, and yea, that’s about all we can do right now,” Xena answered, taking some heart from Ephiny’s confident answer.
“Ep, get a search party together. I want Sika along. She’s the best tracker we have,” Ephiny ordered.
Eponin didn’t even answer. She simply rushed off to make the arrangements.
Xena pursed her lips and whistled. Moments later Argo stood waiting beside her mistress. Xena jumped up and landed softly upon the animal’s bare back.
“The more people, the slower we go. I’m taking Argo and heading out now. Catch up when you can. I’ll take the main road. If anything did happen, Gabrielle would be sure to stay along that route.”
Xena’s actions didn’t surprise Ephiny. It was quite evident that Xena was dangerously close to losing what shreds of patience now held her together. It wasn’t simply about Gabrielle, although that would have been nothing new for Xena. The overprotective behavior had become second nature for Xena ever since their baby’s, life force had been returned to them.
“Damn, I forgot about the girls. Tai’s gonna freak,” Xena turned around to address Ephiny just as Eponin rejoined them, leading two horses. The warrior was afraid Tai would be frightened if both Gabrielle and herself turned up missing.
“I’ll take care of it. Tai loves Sartori. I’ll have the kids stay with them and explain to Tai. Go one. We’ll catch up as we can.”
“Thanks, Eph!” Xena called back, leaving the Amazons choking on a cloud of dust.
“How long do you think it will take her to get there,” Eponin asked as she tossed a saddle on her mare’s back.
“I figure it takes almost five days to get to the settlement on horseback at an easy pace. The way she’s moving, it won’t take more than 2 days tops.”
“What do think really happened to the Queen?” Sika asked Ephiny as she joined the group.
“Not sure, but I have a feeling. I know, you’ll think I’m nuts, but it’s like…like–”
“A gut feeling.” Sartori joined them, finishing Ephiny’s sentence.
“Exactly. Do you feel it, too?”
“Yes, but I can’t explain why, which I find odd in itself. Adia has the same feeling so I can only hope that our mutual intuition is correct,” Sartori answered.
Ephiny opened her mouth to speak, but Sartori raised a hand to stop her. “Eponin already told me that Xena left. I’m on my way to collect Tai and Emery right now. I’ll let Tai know that there’s nothing to worry about.”
“Sartori, you’re a life saver. Everyone ready?” Ephiny looked around as the group on horseback nodded their heads. Without another word, they rode from the village.
Sartori smiled when she saw her mate walking toward her. The tall healer carried Xena and Gabrielle’s additions to their family, one in each arm. Adia carefully deposited baby Emery into Sartori’s arms.
“Can I ride on your shoulders again, Adia? Can I?”
“May I,” Sartori added.
“You want to, too?” Tai looked up at Sartori.
Adia laughed and kissed her wife on the cheek. “Does she remind you of her mom?” Adia scooped up the youngster and perched her upon her shoulders.
“Wow, I can see everything from here,” the small girl said.
“Tai, Xena had to go get Gabrielle, but I think they’ll both be back soon.”
“‘Kay. Mama’s okay…juss late.”
Sartori and Adia exchanged stunned glances. “How do you know that Gabrielle is okay?” Sartori asked.
Tai shrugged. “Juss know.”
“Well, we all feel it, I guess,” Sartori said to Adia.
“Hope we’re all right,” Adia replied. “Although, I think by now we should be used to the fact that our Queen does have a knack for finding trouble.”
Sartori smiled at the statement. “I think Gabrielle would argue that trouble seems to find her.”
“Either way, I feel rather sorry for any trouble that’s bothering Gabrielle right about now.”
“Indeed,” Sartori agreed. “They have evidently never dealt with the Queen’s Champion.”
“Yep. If they only knew that in another day or so old tall, dark, and pissed off will be hot on their trail, they’d run for the hills,” Adia said with a chuckle.
Aphrodite led Gabrielle off the road and up a small grassy hill. The young Queen didn’t say a word. She allowed her aunt to lead her into a rather sizable wooden feeding stall. Gabrielle recognized the enclosure from her days in the farmland of Potidaea. Farmers with a great deal of land filled the buildings with hay, leaving them open to allow their stock to feed in the winter.
Gabrielle gave a tired sigh followed by a grunt of pain as she settled her back against a pile of bundled hay. A jumble of thoughts and fears raced past her mind’s eye. She didn’t want to give in to her fear, but the contractions had become more frequent. The pain grew a little stronger with each one, no longer the light flutters that had first tickled her belly. Another contraction took hold of her small body and Gabrielle felt the familiar pressure that indicated that Brianna had no intention of waiting until her due day.
“Oh, Gods!” Gabrielle couldn’t keep from crying out.
“Okay, like I don’t know what to do. This cannot be happening!” Aphrodite paced back and forth as agitated as Gabrielle had ever seen her.
Gabrielle’s cries came more frequently. She silently consoled herself that while the pain was enough to take her breath away, it felt distinctly different from her last experience at giving birth. Then, something had felt wrong from the onset. The agony had gone on for what seemed like candlemarks. Now, it was happening fast…almost too fast.
Aphrodite continued to look around and pace the small building. She looked more terrified than Gabrielle.
“Okay, you have got to stop this whole thing. I mean it. Quit fooling around, Gabrielle!”
“Aphrodite–” Gabrielle bit her lip in order to swallow the agony of another fierce contraction.
The Goddess went pale as she stood there, wringing her hands and looking as though she might faint at any moment.
“No, no, no. This can’t be happening. I can’t do this, Gabrielle. I can’t do this at all. I’ll find someone. That’s it. There must be someone around to–”
Aphrodite froze at the sound of Gabrielle’s voice.
“Aphrodite,” Gabrielle said from between clenched teeth and panting breaths. “Whether you like it or not,” she sucked in what appeared to be a painful breath. “I…am…having…this…baby!” Gabrielle nearly shrieked. “And, I’m having it right now. I can’t do it alone, though. Please, Aphrodite…I’m so afraid.”
Aphrodite’s expression changed. Her brow furrowed together and she looked down at Gabrielle. Her face grew serious and she very nearly looked as though she was staring directly through Gabrielle.
Aphrodite’s physical features changed as Gabrielle looked on. The Queen had never had the opportunity to see Aphrodite in any light other than as the frivolous Goddess of Love. Most people, even Aphrodite’s own family, had never thought of her as anything but shallow and empty-headed. Only those who caught the Goddess during one of those rare personal moments when she let her guard down would see her as Gabrielle did just then.
“All right, then. Let’s get to work,” Aphrodite moved away from Gabrielle, scurrying around the building and gathering up a number of cloth sacks that looked to be cleaner than the rest. She scooped up two other items near the back of the stall.
“Aphrodite?” Gabrielle’s frightened voice called out.
“I’m right here, Sweet Pea.” She rushed back to Gabrielle and knelt beside the young woman.
“What are you doing?” Gabrielle asked.
Aphrodite smiled confidently as the young woman. “Getting ready to introduce your baby girl to the world.”
Gabrielle reached out and Aphrodite took her hand. The Goddess’s grasp was deceptively strong, surprising Gabrielle with a strong sense of reassurance.
“You may have to help me a bit,” Aphrodite said. “It’s been a long time since I had Cupid. Talk about labor pains. Try giving birth to a kid with wings, then we’ll talk.”
Gabrielle found herself smiling in spite of what she was experiencing.
“Like, that’s a day I’ll never forget. Wanna hear about it?”
“Atta girl. Well, it happened like this…”
“A few more seasons and she’s gonna knock ’em dead,” Aphrodite said as she handed the small crying bundle to Gabrielle. “How can something so tiny eat so much?”
“Well, she is my child, after all. Oh, Aphrodite she’s so beautiful,” Gabrielle replied as she looked down at the baby pressed against her chest. “I didn’t know she would be so beautiful.”
“Did you try to project yourself to Xena?” Aphrodite asked.
“I tried, but she keeps her mind so closed. Besides, I’m not even sure yet if I’m doing it right. I tried to send a sort of mental picture to the Amazon village. I figure someone will tune in to it.”
Tears fell from Gabrielle’s eyes when she looked down at Brianna, but she had never been happier. All she could think of was how much she wished Xena had been there to share in the overwhelming emotions. After their last experience under Hera’s curse, Gabrielle had so wanted Xena to be at her side during the birth. Actually, she hadn’t told anyone, even Xena, exactly how frightened she felt, as her due date grew closer. Gabrielle had been certain that no one but Xena would be able to help her get past her fear. Then she thought of Aphrodite.
Lately, Gabrielle had been feeling more and more comfortable around the Olympian Gods. After all, Ares had been seeing her every day as part of her instruction on the magical arts and her father had even been a frequent guest at their dinner table. Gabrielle had always had a soft spot for Aphrodite. She felt that the Goddess had always meant well, even if her plans did sometimes go astray. As familiar as the Gods had become to her, Gabrielle still hadn’t felt as though these people were family. Seeing the change that had come over Aphrodite, just when Gabrielle needed help the most, had altered her perception of the Goddess, along with the idea that these immortals were a part of her or she with them. During Brianna’s birth, Aphrodite had become a source of strength that Gabrielle had never anticipated. The Goddess had not only taken complete control of the situation, but, with her own strong and compassionate attitude, Aphrodite had instilled a feeling of confidence within Gabrielle.
“I don’t know what I would have done without you,” Gabrielle said.
“Hey, just tryin’ to do my part as Auntie Aphrodite.”
“Well, I’ll never forget how you held it all together. You sort of…well, to be honest you surprised me.”
“Yea, well, between me and you, I kind of surprised myself, too. No one’s ever…you know, depended on me before, needed me.”
“I needed you, Aphrodite, and you came through for me.”
The Goddess smiled and Gabrielle wondered if it was possible for Gods to blush.
“Just don’t get used to it,” Aphrodite teased. “Stepping in to save the day is so not my gig, ya know.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “I think it just might be. Maybe more than you realize.”
“Right!” Aphrodite answered before laughing. “You and I both know I’m not cut out for the whole Queen’s Champion thing. I think I’ll leave that for–”
Both women turned toward the door in order to see who had finished Aphrodite’s sentence. Gabrielle already knew that voice. The low, female alto was unmistakable to Gabrielle’s ears. Xena looked as though she hadn’t slept in days, her hair was wind blown from the wild ride she’d just had.
“Xena!” Gabrielle exclaimed and the tears returned.
Xena wasted no time in rushing to kneel beside her mate. “Bri, you had me so worried. I–” She wrapped her arms around Gabrielle, pulling back at the last moment in surprise. Sapphire eyes went wide at the sight of the now sleeping bundle lying against Gabrielle’s chest.
“Gabrielle.” It was the only thing that Xena could think of to say. She just stared down at the baby.
Brianna, somehow sensing that it was her turn to make an appearance, stretched and yawned. She opened her eyes and made a gurgling sound, falling back asleep instantly.
“By the Gods! She’s beautiful,” Xena said at last. “My heart, I’m so sorry you had to go through this alone.” Xena carefully slipped her arms around Gabrielle and kissed her gently.
Gabrielle was rather glad that she wasn’t the only one crying as she watched Xena stroke the infant’s head, tears falling slowly from those same sapphire eyes. “I wasn’t alone, Xe. I was with my aunt.”
Xena looked on as Gabrielle and Aphrodite exchanged a glance. They smiled in such a way that Xena knew there was much more to the story. It was obvious that something special had passed between the two women. She had no idea how Aphrodite had come through for Gabrielle, but she shouldn’t have been too surprised. After all, only a few days ago she had told Tai that when we needed it the most, the greatest heart and strength could come from the most unlikely of people.
“Thanks, Aphrodite,” Xena said.
“All part of the service.”
“You two missed your mark a little in trying to get home, though, didn’t you?”
“Unfortunately, Aphrodite came down with–”
Aphrodite sneezed and bubbles began to float down from the sky. Each pink, translucent bubble had a furry pink teddy bear inside with a red heart on his belly.
“I see,” Xena replied with a chuckle. “Brianna, look what your Auntie Aphrodite made for your birthday.” She burst one of the bubbles and grabbed the bear out of mid air.
The acknowledgement wasn’t lost on Aphrodite. Having Gabrielle accept her was one thing, but having the hard sell warrior claim her as family touched the Goddess’s heart.
“You okay?” Xena asked.
“Yea,” Aphrodite shook her head and moved toward the large door. “I think I just got something in my eye. Guess I’ll give you guys a few minutes to…you know.” She practically ran from the enclosure.
“For being the Goddess of Love, I don’t think Aphrodite handles real affection too well,” Gabrielle said.
“Hey, happy Cupid’s Day,” Xena said before she leaned over and kissed Gabrielle’s forehead.
“Has that much time gone by?” Gabrielle appeared surprised. She grinned up at Xena. “I’ll bet you tore the house apart looking for your gift. Didn’t you?”
Xena tried not to look as guilty as she suddenly felt. “Not too much,” she mumbled.
Gabrielle developed a sort of mischievous gleam in her eye. “Well, here.” She carefully transferred Brianna to Xena’s arms. The child looked even smaller held safely within the warrior’s strong embrace. Gabrielle realized that even when she was quite old and gray, she would always remember that image, of Xena holding their newborn child, tears filling the warrior’s eyes.
“She’ll have to do for now. Happy Cupid’s Day,” Gabrielle responded, reaching up to kiss Xena’s wet cheek.
“She’s just what I wanted,” Xena replied as her voice broke from emotion. “She’s the perfect gift.”