Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence –Well… this is a more or less violence lite story. Now.. you've got Xena in it, and Amazons, and Gabrielle with that staff.. so it's not all sweetness and light, but no one gets their heads cut off in this one. (Sorry MaryD)

Subtext - Do I really still have to disclaimer subtext? Someone asked me if I thought Xena: Warrior Princess was a romantic show. My answer was, when a show has one main character state in no uncertain terms to the other main character that she would rather die at her side than live without her, that show cannot be defined as anything less than a romantic tale. Yeah, there's subtext.. maintext… under the table text.. whatever you wanna call it.

This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more. That never changes.. for those of you who are waiting for me to stick in a rip roaring, no holds barred graphic orgy scene, make sure you have plenty of coffee and doughnuts handy. And a comfortable chair.

So - having read this lovely disclaimer, if you then read the story, and are shocked that Gabrielle and Xena are kissing each other, I can't help ya. If you're offended by it, send me your address, and I'll send you a bushel of citrus. We like to send that from here - we have to get rid of all of it somehow.

Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:

Festival - Part 11 - Conclusion

By Melissa Good

Xena was sure she hadn't heard her correctly. "What?" She blurted, incredulous. I didn't heard that. I know I didn't hear that.

The feather rotated. "You heard me, outsider… you pass, you're in. You fail… well, we'll have to decide on your fate." She turned around in a circle, to the cheers from the Amazons. "This is how it works… I perform the trial, you have a mug of ale. Every time you laugh, you drink." She grinned at the startled warrior. "Longer you last, harder it gets."

Damn. I did hear that. The warrior heard a scuffling sound behind her and was unsurprised to feel Gabrielle's hand on her arm, as the bard eased in front of her and confronted the elder. "Hi."

Rena quickly put the feather behind her back. "Why, hello, you're majesty." She gave tipped her mask up, and gave Gabrielle a cheery smile.

Gabrielle put her arm around the older woman's shoulders and leaned close. "Listen. You know.. I'm really very attached to Xena." She stated, in a confidential tone.

"No kidding." Rena muttered, deadpan. "Really?"

"Mm." The bard confirmed. "Yeah, and I'd really hate to think someone here.. anyone here.. was out to.. oh.. embarrass her, or make her look dumb.. or anything like that."

No answer.

"Because if they were, I'd have to do something really horrible, like…oh…make them go to bed and miss the rest of the party." A pause. "Do you see where I'm coming from?"

"Um.. yes." Rena drew the words out. "I.. was just looking for some kind of challenge that didn't involve sharp pointed objects, sweaty women, ropes, or spikes." She nibbled her lip. "It was either this, or an egg eating contest." A shrug. "It's a weird traditional law."

"Weird." Gabrielle exhaled. "Oh yeah… well, in that case, we'll just pass."

Rena's jaw dropped a little. "You serious?"

Now the bard's eyes went very quiet. "You're not going to make a fool out of her, Rena. Not in front of them, and not in front of me, or I swear… "

"Shh.." The elder put a hand on her arm. "That wasn't the plan… take it easy…" They both stopped speaking when a friendly arm dropped around both of their shoulders.

"You two done yet?" Xena's voice held more than a hint of amusement. "I'd kinda like to get this… trial… outta the way so I can get some dessert."

They both looked at her. "You… agree?" Rena asked, hesitantly, giving Gabrielle a doubtful look.

"Xena… " The bard eyed her in warning.

"On one condition." Xena replied, aware of the fascinated eyes watching them from all around the circle.

"Condition?" Rena was rapidly recovering. "Well.. I suppose… all right, what is it?"

With a motion so fast it was merely a flicker in the firelight, Xena plucked a long feather from Rena's headdress and twirled it in her own, long fingers. "Make it a duel." She neatly turned the challenge back on the elder, daring her to back down.

"Uh." Rena was caught offguard. "I'm.. not sure… what the rules say about that."

"No problem." Gabrielle gave her a sweet smile. "I can change them." She gave her soulmate a thinly veiled look of admiration. "A duel sounds good."

"Umm… .not fair." Rena backpedaled. "You have much longer arms."

Xena spread the bodyparts in question. "You're in armor." She purred. "And you're a smaller target."

The elder's eyes flicked up and down Xena's length. "That's for sure." She muttered. "Aw, centaur butt hairs… all right."

A cheer went up, and a buzz of interested talk as the two women separated for a moment to prepare.

"You don't really have to do this." Gabrielle said in a low undertone. "Xe, I mean it.. I'd rather we just forget it… "

"Shh." Xena leaned down and kissed her. "I'll be fine.. I'm not ticklish."

"Xena." Gabrielle gave her an exasperatedly fond look. "You most certainly are."

A fingertip on her nose. "Relax." The warrior whispered, then winked, as she straightened her tunic, then sauntered towards the cleared area, where Rena was in furious consultation with three other elders and Eponin. She strolled around the fire a bit, returning shy grins from the Amazons in the front row while she waited for them to stop plotting. A young server trotted up, bearing a tray full of mugs. She handed one to Xena, who took a sip of it, and licked her lips appreciatively.

A slow drumbeat started, as Rena and crew broke off their meeting, and the elder came trotting over to meet her, stopping a body length away and taking a breath. "I haveta warn you.. I've been at this a long time, Xena.. I have perfect control of my body." She grabbed her own mug, sniffing it, then shaking her head a little.

The warrior took a step closer, and let her animal energy surface, putting a seductive smile on her face as she studied elder from head to foot. The firelight didn't do anything to hide the blush that resulted. "I'll keep that in mind." Her voice dropped to a lower register, and caressed the words lovingly. She held up the feather, and hiked both eyebrows. "Shall we?"

Rena dropped her mask down, and shook her head, bouncing around a little to settle her feathers.

"I can't believe she said yes." Ephiny leaned over, and poked the bard, who was seated on her pillows, her legs tucked up under her watching her partner intently.

"Mm… me either." Gabrielle murmured back. "She doesn’t normally go in for this kinda thing." She turned her head as Jessan crawled up next to her, and relaxed on his side, the tips of his fangs showing in a faint grin. "Hey, Jess… "

"Hey… you shoulda told me the Amazons were so much fun… " The forest dweller cheerfully poked her. "Feather trials?" He turned his head just as Xena was doing her head to foot review of the elder, and bit his tongue. "Ow. .. gotta stop doing that." He slapped the side of his head.

Gabrielle eyed him in mild alarm. "You okay?"

Her friend rubbed his face. "There's just a lot of.. uh… energy… around here." He gave Gabrielle a wry look.

"Energy?" The bard peered at him in puzzlement for a moment, then she blushed. "Oh." She returned her attention to the contest. Xena had stepped back, and rolled her shoulders to loosen them, and the bard could tell by her soulmate's body language that she was regarding the contest as a bit of pure fun. Gabrielle was puzzled, knowing the warrior's ticklishness, but decided to wait and see what happened. She could see what Jessan meant about energy, though… when Xena was in this kind of mood, the sexiness just exuded from her, starting with that charming grin, and not ending with the little bounce in her movements.

It brought a helpless smile to the watching bard's face, and she sighed, resting her chin against her fist.

"I'll warn ya, Xena.. " Rena circled around to her left, raising her feather. "You're asking for it… "

The tall warrior grinned, and lifted her arms, standing stock-still. "C'mon.. you first." She crooked a playful finger at the elder. "Free shot."

The older woman cursed, then edged toward her, feathers in her mask bobbing up and down like a rabid chicken's. She extended a cautious arm, and flicked the feather in her hand across Xena's arm.

No reaction.

She tried the other arm. Then she got bold and stepped closer, tickling Xena under the chin. "You're faking."

The warrior moved smoothly, catching her on the underside of her arm, and eliciting a startled squawk. "You're not." She aimed for Rena's ribs, but the elder danced back out of the way with a curse. "C'mon, drink up."

"No fair…" She protested. "You're covered." But she took a swallow of the potent ale.

Xena grinned and reached for her belt, then glanced over as Jessan yelped and covered his eyes. She untied the fabric, and let the shirt drape open, with a wicked glint in her eyes. "Better?" Her smoothly muscled body was lit with flame and shadow from the fire, painting an alluring picture.

The woman gave her an evil look. "You're a right proper little troublemaker, aren't you?" Came the outraged mutter. But she dove forward, running the feather across Xena's exposed ribs, then darting aside as the warrior got the side of her leg. She bit her lip, but a blurt escaped anyway, and she took another sip as she gave the warrior a disgusted look.

Another dodge, another passing swipe, and this time Xena got her along her back, making her hop forward like a startled rabbit. But she swallowed the chuckle, and so didn't have to swallow any ale. Rena circled, planning her attack. She feinted right, and moved left, getting inside the taller woman's guard, and running her weapon along the warrior's belly, watching the muscles contract sharply in response. "Ah!" She chortled triumphantly.

Xena didn’t bother to tell her it was more her intense struggle to force her defenses down far enough to let the Amazon touch her than anything else. She just grinned, then took a sip of her ale anyway, although she hadn't made a sound. It tasted good, and she was enjoying herself. The game reminded her of the long evening's entertainment she used to have with her army, when contests of all sorts were constantly at hand.

And everyone.. evvverryone wanted a chance at Xena. She lunged forward suddenly and got the Amazon right above the hip, dropping to a knee and spinning out of her grasp as she yelped, then jumping back, lifting her body completely off the ground and lifting her knees out of the Amazon's range. Rena cursed, but drank, finishing off her mug, and wiping her lips.

The server trotted forward and retrieved it, then offered her another.

Her next try was to duck, and get Xena behind the knees, a favorite place of hers. The warrior hopped out of the way as though her knees had springs in them, avoiding the feather with consummate grace. "Bugger." Rena bit her tongue to keep the laughter inside as a light touch skittered down the back of her neck.

Rena realized there was only one way she was going to get the damn woman to hold still long enough to get a score in, so she launched herself at Xena, catching the taller woman around the thighs and bringing them both to the ground. Two cups of ale went flying into the fire, as a yell went up from the crowd, and she yelled back, swiftly following up her advantage and straddling the warrior, going to work on her with a vengeance. "Ahah! Gotcha!!!"

With a wicked grin, she slowly drew the feather down Xena's powerful body, starting at her collarbone and not missing anything on the way to her navel. It was.. almost an intoxicating experience in itself, as she could feel the rumbling power just under the surface, fighting to throw itself against her. She'd lived her life on the edge of danger, but this… Rena sucked in a breath. This was like riding a thunderbolt.

Xena.. exuded danger. She fairly bled off a wash of sensual, dark energy that sent shivers up and down Rena's body, and reminded her forcibly of the bloody reputation than hung over her like shadowy shroud. It would be so easy to get lost in that… how did Gabrielle resist it?

Maybe she didn't. The elder reflected. Maybe she was as facinated by that dark side as everyone else was.

Xena relaxed, and crossed her ankles, peering cheerfully up at her attacker. Not one bit of a reaction as the Amazon covered most of her exposed body in feathery tickles. The blue eyes looked calmly up at her tormentor, and her breathing remained even and slow. "C'mon.. you gotta do better than that." She teased, her grin dispelling the danger like a soap bubble popping.

The Amazon stopped, and stared at her in disbelief. "Son of a frigging Bacchae." Rena threw up her hands in frustration. "I give up…I don't think I've ever…yeeooww!!"

Xena had arched her back and tossed the elder off gently, rolling over and pinning her down with one long, muscular arm. She then flourished her feather, and drew a slow, teasing line down Rena's ribs, watching her teeth grind in reaction. The feather slipped up, dancing across the outside of her shoulder, then down the back of her leg. An odd, choking sound came from the Amazon.

"Y'know what… " Xena returned her attention to the ribs, running the end of the feather up and down, and watching the muscles jerk under it. "I think you're ticklish."

"Yeeewwwooo!!!!!!" Rena finally exploded, as the feather got her behind the knees. "Godsbedamnedyoupieceof… " She pounded the ground with her fists, and growled at the warrior.

Xena sat up, and released her, facing the crowd and holding the feather up in question. A round of applause greeted her, and she grinned. "Anyone else wanna have a go?" She teased them, then pointed the feather sternly at the bard, who had immediately stood up. "Not you."

Gabrielle chuckled. "Awww…. No fair! "

Laughter echoed around the circle, as Rena sat up, and gave her tormenter a wry look. "I think I've been had." But she laughed. "Welcome, Xena." She held out a hand, and the warrior gripped it firmly. "Welcome to the Amazon Nation." A cheer went up, and then it was chaos, as most of the crowd clustered into the central area, to congratulate her.

Gabrielle managed to beat them, though, and was snugging her soulmate's tunic closed with a proprietary air as Xena helped Rena up.

"Ahh… " The Amazon elder dusted her self off. "Damn mask.. I forgot how gods be damned uncomfortable these things are." She pulled it off, wiping the sweat off her lined brow, and giving Xena a look. "No wonder you accepted.. you're not ticklish you beast, you."

The bard captured Xena's feather, and twirled it in her fingers. "Mmm… " She snuck a tickle on the inside of the warrior's elbow and got a squawk. "Depends on who's doing the tickling." She grinned mischeviously, as she ruffled the feather under Xena's right ear, and was rewarded with a helpless chuckle.

Rena's jaw dropped. "You little son of a… "

Gabrielle just smiled, then leaned forward and put her nose against Xena's chest. "How did you do that?" She muttered in a low tone. "I know darn well you're ticklish."

"Only when you do it." Xena replied softly. "No one else."

The bard blinked at her, surprised. "Oh." Then she smiled. "Cool."

"Mm." The warrior agreed, putting her arm around her soulmate's shoulders, then turning to greet her new Amazon sisters.

It was a swirl of bodies, and sounds and scents, and Xena just managed to keep her instincts in check as she was gingerly hugged by lots of warm, sweaty Amazons. Only Gabrielle's hand on her back kept the urge to toss bodies at bay, but she didn't grudge the crowd, as she realized it was their way of making her one of them.

"Try not to kill anybody, Xena.. " Eponin muttered, as she took her turn. "They've been waiting for years to do this."

"Tch." Xena rolled her eyes. "Amazons."

Eponin chuckled, and gave her a pat on the back. "We know a good thing when we see it."

Then, slowly, the crowd dissolved back into a solid circle, leaving only Xena, Gabrielle, and Ephiny in the center. The regent smiled at them, and jerked her head at the crowd. "You go first, guys.. then the rest of us can relax and get this over with."

The low drumbeats made a seductive undercurrent as Gabrielle took her partner's hand, and they walked over to where the regent was standing, holding a scroll. Ephiny waited for them to stop, and then took a breath. "Well." She cleared her throat in the sudden silence, only the soft drums stirring the air. "Gabrielle, you are Queen by right of caste, and you have chosen to take a lifemate here, before the Nation, on this festival night. " The language was formal, and somewhat stilted, and she winced, hearing herself.

Then she waited.

Gabrielle realized some sort of response was expected, but the regent hadn't had time to go over the ceremony with her, due to the incident that afternoon. Guess I have to wing it.. oh well.. "That about covers it, yes." She finally answered, causing the regent to bite her lip to keep from laughing. What the heck. "I think I picked a good one."

A round of laughter, warm and genuine ran around the circle. Gabrielle looked up at her soulmate. "She's tough and sturdy… fights pretty good… nice to look at.. "

Another round of laughter, and this time Ephiny joined in. Xena just raised a brow, and grinned at her.

"Uh.. yeah.. yeah.. " Ephiny lifted a hand. "Agreed.. um.. " She flicked through the scroll. "Ah.. here we are… okay." She took a breath. "At this point I'm supposed to ask if there is anyone here who objects to our queen's choice of consorts, then let that person speak, without charge or censure.

She fell silent.

The rustle of the leaves seemed suddenly loud, as even the drums stopped.

Gabrielle's eyes closed briefly, and her lips tightened, as her fingers wrapped themselves around her soulmate's larger ones. She hadn't expected Ephiny to ask that, and the answer could have been…

But the silence went on, for sixty full heartbeats, as they all looked at each other.

"Let it be recorded. "Ephiny's calm voice almost startled them, after the peacefulness of the moment. She turned her eyes to the warrior. "Xena, you have come before us, and passed our trials." Her eyes rolled, hidden from the crowd. "And have been accepted in the Nation. Do you swear to obey our Queen, defending her even with your life?" It was a subtle change of the verbiage, true, but Ephiny was satisfied with it, and she thought Gabrielle was too.

Xena smiled. "I swear."

"Me too." Gabrielle added, although she knew it wasn't required of her.

"You're the queen, Gabrielle.. you don't have to say that." Ephiny muttered under her breath.

"The sun doesn't have to shine either, but it does." The bard answered, getting a little grin of surrender from her friend.

"All right… your Majesty, your choice is recorded." The regent took a quill handed to her by a young Amazon, and made a notation on the scroll, then ran a finger down the rest of the codicils. "Redundant.. redundant.. useless in this case…oh, I'd like to see them enforce THAT…ah." She cleared her throat. "Seal it with a kiss, and we're done."

"Like we haven't already done THAT in front of everyone." Gabrielle rolled her eyes, and caused the crowd to burst out in laughter. Even Tyldus was laughing, from where he'd come up alongside the fire to see the ceremony. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Jessan's furry head, and she turned, to see him grinning and winking at her.

She turned back, to see her soulmate watching her with intent blue eyes. She slipped her arms around Xena's body, and felt the warrior's hands cup her face. They looked at each other for a long moment, and Gabrielle memorized the scene, to add it to her small collection of the sweet times of her life. She tilted her head as Xena bent hers, and their lips met, as they had the first time over a year ago before many of the same watchers.

She swore she heard thunder.

She could faintly taste the rich barley ale on Xena's lips, and the fruity sauce from the meats, and she let herself dissolve into the contact as their bodies melded together under a blanket of stars.

Xena settled back against the pillows, pulling Gabrielle against her chest, and settling a possessive arm around the bard's stomach. The music was louder now, as the servers passed large mugs of ale, and fruity wine around with the thick, chewy, honey and nut pastries that comprised dessert.

The other three joinings had gone without a hitch, with Gabrielle gently and persistently taking the scrolls out of Ephiny's hands, and performing hers and Pony's ceremony, then chasing them back to their seats as she finished up the other two couples. It hadn't taken long, but the other two looked blushingly grateful that it was their gentle queen presiding, and one of the second pair whispered to her that she hoped she and her partner were half as happy as Gabrielle and Xena.

That had gotten her a big hug from the bard, and a smile from Xena, who was standing solicitously at her partner's shoulder, holding her scrolls for her. Then they'd returned to their platform, with the mostly quiet, and mostly incredulous looking Eponin and Ephiny, and the snoozing Xenon, who curled back up by his mother, tucking his hooves under his body and leaning against her.

Gabrielle nestled against her, leaning her head back and groaning as the warrior offered her another cake. "Please.. I'm going to explode any second." She let out a breath. "I'm so stuffed, I can hardly breathe."

Xena chuckled. "Good." She patted her belly gently, then gave her partner a little squeeze.

"Ugh.. not too hard, or I'm gonna lose it." The bard warned, stretching a little and resting her head against her soulmate's chest. "Did you see the necklace Eph gave Pony?" She looked up at the warrior with a smile. "It's pretty."

"Mmhmm… " Xena agreed amiably, feeling the effects of several cups of ale, and far too much dinner. She sincerely hoped no one got any stupid ideas about anything tonight… she knew she didn't have enough coordination for safety, and she wasn't uncoordinated enough to be harmless. "Very nice… I liked the sword impaling the star." That stirred a memory. "Oh… "She reached down and tugged something out of the cuff of her boot and handed it to the bard. "Forgot.. sorry.."

Gabrielle took the small packet, and studied it, before she lifted her gaze up to the quiet blue eyes. "What's this?"

Xena shrugged. "Figured I should give you something.. consider it a belated birthday present, if you want." She idly tangled her fingers in the bard's hair.

The bard unfolded the item, which was long, and vaguely dagger shaped, moving aside pieces of fabric until she exposed a long, intricately carved piece of ivory, shaped to a hand and ending in a thin, flexible point. Tiny, intricate faces, and strange animals were etched on the surface, and the handle curled into smoothly comfortable grip.

Gabrielle fit it into her hand, and flexed it, imagining herself writing with its thin, precision point. "It's… beautiful, Xe." The diminutive seemed to be coming to her lips more frequently lately, and she made a mental note to ask the warrior later if it bothered her. "Incredible… I've never seen anything like it."

Xena smiled quietly. "No… you wouldn't have, not here, anyway."

The bard turned it over in her hand. "Not here… where is it from?"

The warrior hesitated, then cleared her throat. "Chin." She replied quietly. "After I got off the boat.. I had to wait until dark to… well, anyway.. I wandered around the harbor market for a while.. hadn't seen some of that stuff in a long time, I'll say that." Long haunting sights and smells, not the least of which were the drugs, freely available at every other stall. "I.. saw that… " She stopped, then went on. "I bought it for you before I really thought about… where I was, or what I was doing… I felt pretty stupid when I ….." She stopped again, and this time didn't go on.

Gabrielle turned the item over in her hand again, then looked up, and lifted her other hand to the warrior's cheek, gazing at her in total compassion. "Thank you." Her fingers stroked the soft skin. "For everything."

Xena smiled at her. "You're welcome." She touched the pen. "Write me a poem with it."

The bard smiled back. "All right." Then she exhaled, and reached for the pouch at her belt. "Have I ever told you that you are the hardest person on earth to think of presents for?"

"Umm… no." Her partner admitted.

"Mm.. you are." Gabrielle advised her quietly. "I mean… how many knives and armor bits can you get one woman, right?" She joked. "You don't really wear jewelry, and I know better than to try and get you anything relating to your gear."

"That's true." Xena confirmed. "But… I don't really need gifts from you, love."

Mist green eyes gazed at her. "You always say that… but it never stops me from trying." She tugged something out of her pouch. "Well…I had an idea… I know you like to tie your hair back when we travel.. to keep it out of your face.. so I.. " She unwrapped a leather braiding, stained a deep crimson. "I figured I could actually make one of these myself.. and I did." She gave the item a proud look, remembering the hours spent shaping the leather with tiny curls of a leather knife.

A charmed smile crossed Xena's face, and she touched the braiding with a fingertip. "Wow.. that's really nice, Gabrielle.. thank you."

"Mm…. But then I figured, well, you could get one of these anywhere.. I mean… "

"Not made by you." The warrior interjected, removing it from the bard's hands and studying it.

"Right.. but… " Gabrielle gently turned it over, displaying the interior, where the finished hide was. "This was the hard part…I… well, there's that poem you really like, and I figured, if I could write it on the inside.. well.. that'd really be unique."

Xena blinked, peering at the leather in the low firelight. Tiny golden letters stared back at her, eight, no, twelve lines engraved in patient, carved forms. She read them twice over before she looked up at the waiting bard. "That's very beautiful… thank you, my love." She reached up and touched Gabrielle's face. "It is unique… just like you are."

The bard's jaw clenched, and she swallowed. "Can I.. " She motioned to her partner's hair.

"Sure." Xena bent forward, and waited patiently as she felt the bard's hands gently braiding her hair, the touch soothing her, along with the sound of Gabrielle's heartbeat which she could hear through the bard's tunic where her head was pressed against her. She felt the motion stop, then arms gently circle her shoulders and hug her. "I love you." Came the words, whispered into her ear.

Xena smiled, and returned the hug. "I love you too." She murmured in response, feeling a happy little surge. They stayed like that for a bit, then eased apart, settling into a more comfortable position.

Gabrielle ran a hand through her hair, and relaxed against Xena's chest, as the next set of dancers wound their way across the opening, this group into palm fronds and pipes. "Xena, what is she doing with that coconut?" The bard whispered, curiously.

The warrior cleared her throat.

"Never mind." The bard rolled her eyes, then looked over as an Amazon approached Ephiny, and knelt down beside the regent, gesticulating with both hands. "Uh oh."

Xena rested her chin on the bard's shoulder. "Umm…. okay, I'll try to guess what it is." She observed. "Rabid goats running rampant?"

Gabrielle snorted. "Where do you get THAT?" She watched the woman. "Uh…bad weather expected… the traps are in danger?"

"What clued you into that? " The warrior wondered. "That last hand gesture?"

The bard observed the gesture. "Uhm… no.. I don't think that's what that means."

Ephiny put a hand up, then scrambled to her feet, and padded over to them, dropping to her knee on the platform. "Hey… sorry to interrupt.. " Her eyes twinkled at Xena, who had wrapped both arms around her soulmate's middle again. "We've got a little problem."

They exchanged wry glances. "Really?" Gabrielle gave her full attention. "What's up?"

"It's Cait." Ephiny sighed. "They're getting ready to do the initiation rites, and she was up this time."

"What are they?" Xena asked, quietly. "The rites, that is."

"Oh… the usual.. " Ephiny waved a hand. "Hand to hand your choice, with one of our senior warriors." She grinned. "Generally our lot compete to be the one who does it.. because if you're picked, that means you're considered to be one of the best.. and they were all scared featherless that they were going to have to go up against you for that honor."

"Oh no." Xena shook her head. "Not tonight.. I wouldn't last a half candlemark."

A soft chuckle. "So I gathered.. but anyway, that's the deal."

Gabrielle's brow creased. "Well… Ephiny, she's shown she can handle herself before now.. can't you make an exception?"

"Sure." The regent grimaced. "In a heartbeat.. problem is, she wants Paladia to join her."

Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other. "Ah." The bard pursed her lips. "I see."

"I shudder to think what the council would say if I brought that up.. " Ephiny sighed. "I don't think there's much popular support there." She looked pensively at the ground. "I sure don't know how Paladia feels about it.. she probably doesn't want to have anything to do with us after her sentence completes."

"Hmm… not sure about that." Gabrielle disagreed. "Tell you what… set up a council meeting for tomorrow… let's just see how things go."

Ephiny exhaled. "All right… but I don't think there's much chance.. maybe I can convince Cait to go ahead with this anyway." Her eyes lifted to Xena's face. "You'd have a better chance, y'know." A wry grin. "She eats, sleeps, and breathes what you say."

The warrior gave a little nod. "I know." She replied quietly. "I'll go talk to her." She gave the bard a squeeze, then released her, and stood up, straightening her tunic with an automatic gesture. "Be right back."

Gabrielle watched her, until she disappeared into the darkness before she returned her attention to Ephiny. "So. Things went pretty smoothly, huh?" She gestured at the crowd. "With the ceremonies and stuff."

Ephiny sat down next to her friend and played with the mat's surface. "Yes… very, actually.. more so than I had anticipated." She raised her eyes to Gabrielle's. "I won't lie to you.. there was a certain amount of.. debate… over your choice of consorts." Then her face creased into a wry grin. "But as I pointed out…what we said, or did, wasn't going to affect either of your commitment to each other."

"True." The bard smiled. "It's a pretty ceremony… you and Pony were so cute."

Ephiny blushed. "I got sooo much razzing for that… but I'm glad we did it." She slapped Gabrielle on the knee. "You little sneak." She looked up as Elaini padded over, and settled down. "Hey… you guys all right? Did you get enough to eat?"

"Oh.. boy yes." Elaini put a hand on her stomach and rolled her eyes. "Thank you… " She peered over at the other platform. "So.. Ephiny.. that's your son, right?"

The regent cast a fond eye over to where Xenon was snoozing against a bemused looking Pony. "Yep.. it sure is." She smiled at the boy. "He's at school with the centaurs right now.. I miss him a lot."

Elaini smiled, her fangs glinting. "He's adorable…he came over to see our kids before and it was so cute." She turned to Gabrielle. "Are you going to stay here, my friend?" She patted the bard's knee. "Seems a nice, safe place to gestate."

Gabrielle was caught between a blush and a laugh. "Uh… no, actually, we're going home." She gave Ephiny an apologetic look. "Cyrene would never forgive me if I didn't." She explained. "But we'll be back a lot."

A grin from the regent. "Especially if you bear us an Amazon princess, right?" She gave her friend a teasing slap. "What do you think.. boy or girl?"

A shake of the bard's head. "I have no idea…." She paused. "But if I was a betting person… " Grins all around. "I'd bet on a girl."

"Ooo… " Ephiny laughed wickedly. "I'll hold you to that… are you.. I mean, do you have everything you need there? Blankets, baskets, baby bunting.. "

The bard chuckled. "I don't know.. we.. I mean, they don't know yet, right? We only found out a few weeks ago, and we haven't been back since.." Wonder what they'll say? Yikes.. wonder what my folks will say? "Cyrene's a packrat, though… she mentioned, offhandedly of course, that she had a bunch of baby stuff for 'anyone who might need it.'" They all laughed at that.

"Wonder how Gran's doing… " Ephiny mused. "Figure she's about.. what.. a month ahead of you?"

Gabrielle nodded. "About.. yes… " It was weird, she reflected. It was like she was now a member of a club.. a mother's club that she'd been excluded from before. Strange, but nice. "You'll have to come and visit… give her a hard time." She half turned. "You too… Elaini.. since you guys were headed our way anyhow.. why not come and stay for a few days?"

The forest dweller grinned. "Well. That worked out great.. I was just coming over here to ask you that very thing."

"Great!" The bard sighed happily. "I have a lot of questions for you."

Elaini chuckled softly. "I know, little sister.. I know."

Footsteps interrupted them, and they all looked up as a runner skidded to a halt before the raised platform. It was a scout from one of the further outposts, Gabrielle realized. "What's wrong?"

The woman stopped, and sucked in a breath of air. "Perimeter just signaled… Erika, and a band of armed Amazons are on their way in."

Xena took her time in walking across to the healer's hut, which was situated in the back part of the village where it was quiet. The leaves crunched lightly under her boots as she moved away from the noise of the party, and the cool breeze blowing across the compound brought a welcome breath of air after the crowd.

She looked up, to see the constellations through the leaves, and found a few favorites, then peered ahead of her, seeing the low gleam of light from the healer's windows. The wooden boards of the threshold sounded under her weight, echoing loudly across the stillness as she put a hand on the door, and pushed it open.

Inside, most of the room was in firelight peace, pallets with their occupants shrouded in shadows as the injured Amazons took what sleep they could. She paused a moment at the edge of the room, then paced inside, stepping quietly around the sleepers, and heading for the far back corner, where Cait's pallet was. There was an older Amazon crouching down next to her, speaking softly, but even from here Xena could see the look of stubborn disagreement on the girl's angular face.

They both looked up as Xena reached the bed, and Cait's eyes lit up on seeing her. "Hi." She gave the girl a smile.

The older Amazon stood and scratched her head. "Hello, Xena… how's the party going??"

"Pretty good." The warrior drawled a reply. "Why don't you go catch a mug.. the ale's nice and cold."

She got the message. "Sure… see you out there."

Xena watched her leave, then she settled on the small stool next to Cait's pallet. "You get yelled at a lot for this afternoon?"

Cait looked around carefully. "Gosh yes." She gave Xena an impish grin. "But I don't much care.. I had fun."

The warrior smiled. "Good."

The girl waited a moment, then cleared her throat. "Thank you for sending Elaini by before, that was super of you." Her thin fingers plucked at the blanket. "I'm really glad Gabrielle is all right."

Xena shifted a little, and interlaced her fingers. "So am I."

A little pause. "Were you scared?"

Blue eyes peered through the candlelight. "I guess I was." The warrior replied, the let a faint grin shape her lips. "I tore through Esta's herb garden on the way in."

Cait's gray eyes widened. "No!"

Xena nodded. "Uh huh."

"Gosh…" The girl giggle. "I bet she had an absolute fit." She took a cautious breath in, and looked up at Xena. "Do you… do you remember before we left Amphipolis?"

"Yes." The warrior's angular face creased into a brief smile.

Cait nodded solemnly. "You were right."

"I was, huh?"

"Yes." The girl seemed older, suddenly. "I didn't think you were, at first, you know.. I was really rather annoyed that here I was, stuck with such an awful job, like she was." A thoughtful purse of thin lips. "But I remembered what you said.. about how everyone deserves a second chance, and just kept on, and kept on.. and suddenly, just like that one day, it was all right."

Xena nodded thoughtfully. "That why you asked Ephiny to let her join in?"

Cait considered the question, taking her time in a silence that didn't bother either of two naturally silent people. "I don't think she ever belonged to anything." The girl finally said. "Except that cave lot, you know."

"I know."

"I think it matters,"

Xena shifted again, then rubbed her temples to combat the fuzziness from the ale. "Maybe it does." She acknowledged. "I know… that when I finally was able to go home… and my family accepted me back, it made a big difference." The words tumbled out before she could really think about them. "Having Gabrielle accept me…having her believe in me… that let me regain some of my humanity, Cait… I can't tell you how much it meant."

Cait gazed up at her, eyes fastened intently on her face. "Oh." She exhaled softly. "Does that mean you'll help me out, then?" She gave Xena her best wishing look. "If you said, I'd bet they'd do it."

"Probably." Xena admitted. "But does she want to be an Amazon?"

The girl sighed. "Well, getting her to say would be like trying to get a pig to sing … but she could have left… and she didn't, you know." Her brow furrowed. "I can't think why not… but still."

The warrior leaned over, and put a warm hand on the girls' arm. "I think I know why."

Gray eyes looked at her in puzzlement.

"I think she found a friend." Xena's voice took on a gentle quality.

Cait was silent, as she thought about that. "A rather odd friend." She confessed. "I do go on at her all the time."

A flash of white caught the candlelight as Xena smiled. "I'll see what I can do." She promised. "But you should go ahead with your stuff tonight…you earned, it, Cait."

The girl sighed. "But it's like cheating, Xena… I mean, what kind of trial is it if I'm flat on my darn back in this bed?" Another sigh, as the warrior just looked at her. "Oh, all right."

"Good girl." The dark haired woman chuckled.

Cait grew very pensive. "Xena… can I ask you something?"

The warrior resettled herself, and laced her fingers around one knee. "Sure."

Gray eyes peered around cautiously, and the girl's voice lowered. "How.. I mean, what… oh bother." She cleared her throat. "How did you know.. I mean, what did it feel like.. when…well, how did you know you were in love?" She got the last out in a rush, and her face colored gently. "I mean.. with Gabrielle, of course."

"Of course." Xena bit her lip quietly. "That's a tough question."

"I'm sorry." Cait gave her an embarrassed look. "You don't have to answer.. I can't think what I was meaning by asking you that."

You can't huh? Xena smiled inwardly. "No…it's okay.. it's just a hard question to answer because I never really thought about the exact… moment."

Which wasn't true, of course. She certainly did know.

It had been a totally rotten day. They'd sniped at each other from sunrise to sunset, in the drizzling rain that had completely drenched both women, and an annoyed Argo. Scrublands hadn't given up even a hint of decent shelter, and they'd found themselves having to make camp in the dubious safety of some broad leafed trees, which shed liberal coatings of water on them every time the wind blew.

"I am not cooking." Gabrielle had stated, putting her back against the tree's bole, and slamming her bag on the top of her head in a vain attempt to keep the rain off.

"Perfect, because I'm not making a fire" Xena had snapped back, stripping off Argo's tack, and throwing her own gear down on the other side of the trunk. Her temper had been shot, and she'd spent several wet, soggy moments wishing herself anywhere else but here.

Then she'd peered grumpily around the corner of the tree, and found herself gazing at Gabrielle's miserable profile, the rain dripping off the bard's nose and ears, and running down her bare arms. One of these days, Xena… She'd told herself. One of these days, she's just gonna have had enough, pick up her gear, and start walking back to Potadeia.

At that moment, Gabrielle, perhaps sensing the eyes on her, had turned her head, and regarded her companion, her green eye softening unexpectedly. "I…um.. I could try to… put something together if you could get the stuff out." She offered, tentatively. "Look, I'd really rather not fight with you all night, Xena.. it's miserable enough as it is." The bard's teeth had chattered, involuntarily, and she clenched her jaw shut.

Xena had felt something inside her melt at the words, and she'd extended an arm. "Come over here."

Gabrielle had scrambled over, and settled down next to where she was seated, in the lee of the storm. "Hey.. it's not raining over here." She'd accused.

"You picked a side first." The warrior had shrugged. "Not my fault."

"Yeah? How long were you gonna make me sit over there in the wet?" Now Gabrielle's temper had flared again.

The angry retort had been right on the front of her lips, almost uttered, and somehow..

It had just died there.

"I thought we weren't going to fight all night." Xena countered instead, feeling vaguely confused.

"Well, that was befo…Xena, why are you staring at me?"

"You're shivering."

"Of course I am.. it's freezing out!" The bard had answered, in frustration.

What am I going to do if she does leave? The question had suddenly become of paramount importance to Xena. The thought of how empty her life would be without the girl overwhelmed her, and she sat back, stunned.

"Xena?" The voice had changed, deepened and softened, and a chilled hand touched her elbow. "Hey.. what's wrong?"

She raised her eyes, and looked right into Gabrielle's, the anger that had been there a moment ago dissolved into a warm concern that snared her in and made her focus on what she was feeling for just about the first time.

It wasn't attraction, which was something she'd just taken for granted between them. It was a far more complex, and at the same time a far simpler emotion.


Shaken, she'd taken out one of the sleeping furs, and tucked it around her smaller companion's body, all in silence.

"Xena?" Now the bard's voice was worried.

"Hmm?" She'd finally responded. "Sorry.. did you want another blanket?"

The bard's hand had popped out of her snug nest, and touched the warrior's forehead.
"Did you just get bitten by something?"

And Xena had sighed, a little, wry grin escaping. "Yeah.. maybe." Her eyes had roamed over her companion. "You still cold?"

Hesitant, Gabrielle had paused a moment, before nodding. "A little, yeah… listen, are you sure you're okay? You have a really weird look on your face." She'd paused, considering. "Like a deer caught in torchlight at night."

Before she could change her mind, Xena slid her arm around the bard's shoulders, and pulled her closer, feeling the startled resistance melt immediately, as Gabrielle relaxed against herswith a little gasp of surprise. "Yeah.. I'm fine…."She'd mumbled.

Gabrielle had reached up and felt her head again. "I think you're coming down with something.. you feel really warm."

Coming down with something. Oh yeah. Xena had gazed out at the rain unseeing. Wonder where I'll have to go to find a cure for this? It wasn't supposed to happen.

Gabrielle had tucked the end of the furs around her and settled down, confused but happy, as they'd shared trail rations in the rain.

Now she smiled at Cait. "You just know." She admitted. "You look at the other person, and you just know."

Cait digested this. "Hmm."

The door of the healer's hall slammed open, and the young healer came dashing back in. "Gods.. you'll never believe it… we're going on alert!"

The Amazons were assembled and waiting, by the time Xena arrived back at the festival area and she paused just before she got there to observe the group at their fore, waiting for the incoming party.

Ephiny was standing, with her arms crossed, talking in short bursts to Eponin. The weapons master's hands were clenching and unclenching, and the Amazons around them were reacting to the stress by fidgeting, and moving around restlessly.

In their midst, like the calm at the center of the storm stood Gabrielle, her hands resting on her hips and a look of quiet expectation on her face. The bard seemed completely unaffected by the nervous activity around her, and as Xena watched, Gabrielle sensed her presence, and turned her head, her eyes brightening as they fell on her partner's face.

A glance at the Amazons, the faintest rolling of green orbs and Xena answered the thought with a quirky grin

Who needed speech? It was one of her favorite things about their partnership, this silent communication which spoke of an understanding that went far below the surface. The warrior gently nudged her way through the crowd, and ended up at the bard's side. "Hey."

"Hey, yourself." Gabrielle answered. "Did you hear?"

Xena nodded.

"What do you think?" The bard asked, quietly.

A shrug. "I think we'll know in a minute." Xena responded, her greater height allowing her to see a small, armed group approaching. She momentarily regretted not having a weapon, then wryly admitted that in her current state, that wouldn't be the best idea in the world. She rested a hand idly on Gabrielle's shoulder, and waited.

Erika was in the lead of the group, her sword unsheathed and in her hand, her body covered with dirt, and what looked like old, dried blood. She was a short, compact Amazon with dark curly hair, and hazel eyes, which at the moment were bloodshot. A definite look of surprise crossed her grim face as she spotted Gabrielle and she altered her course a little, which brought her standing just in front of the bard. "Your Majesty."

Well, Xena considered. She's probably not here to make trouble, then. She noted the woman's gaze kept drifting and focusing on her, and she gave Erika a cool smile.

"Hello, Erika." Gabrielle replied quietly. "Are you all right?"

Hazel eyes regarded the bard tiredly. "I'm all wrong, as a matter of fact, but… that's neither here nor there. I'm here to warn you… Arella's headed this way, and she intends to capture as many Amazons as she can, to be sold into slavery."

"I know." The bard answered, simply. "She's been here already."

Erika just blinked at her in total astonishment, then she looked around, turning in a circle, before coming back to stare at Gabrielle again. "But…."

"She brought a bunch of filthy mercenaries." Ephiny told her, rubbing her arms a little. "She occupied the village for a half day or so, but… " A shrug. "Things worked out."

The group around Erika looked profoundly relieved, but their leader's face went very grim. "Well, I'll push on then.. I need to find her."

Ephiny and Gabrielle exchanged significant glances. Xena merely glanced up at the swaying leaves. "Why?" The bard finally asked her.

"To bury my sword in her heart." Erika answered, in a stark voice. "Something I should have done a long time ago." Seeing the shock in their faces, she took a breath. "And now, after what she did… "

"What happened, Erika." Ephiny interjected. "At the outpost.. I sent a runner down there as soon as… well, yesterday.. but.. "

Erika looked down at her boots. "She… sold us." The words were bitten off, as though bad tasting. "Someone offered enough dinars, and she just… " The Amazon exhaled. "She drugged us senseless one night at dinner, and the next morning we were in cages." She rubbed her hand through her curly hair. "Anyway… I've gotta get going… anyone know what direction she headed off in?"

"She didn't." That was Xena's low, vibrant voice.

The younger woman gazed at her. "Damn.. you captured her then… that's good." She took a breath. "Makes this easier… " Her eyes went to Gabrielle. "Forgive me, your Majesty.. I know this is your bailiwick, but I must have justice."

Gabrielle studied her, as she felt warm hands gently close over her shoulders, the thumbs pressing against her skin in a light massage. "Erika, justice… has been done."

Puzzled, the dark haired Amazon looked from the bard's grim face, to Ephiny's, then up into Xena's eyes. "She's…no, she can't be… she's dead?"

"Yes." Xena answered quietly. "At her sentencing, she chose to give challenge rather than allow Gabrielle to judge her, and… " A faint shrug. "I answered that."

Erika's arm, still holding her sword, dropped down to her side as though suddenly strengthless. She looked at Xena in disbelief. "She's gone?"

"She is." Ephiny stated.

One of her companions gripped the dark haired woman's arm as she wavered. "Damn… " Erika whispered. "I should feel glad… but all I feel right now is disappointed."

Ephiny motioned to three nearby scouts. "Get these people some food, and drink… settle them in." She ordered, giving the small party a brisk nod. "I think you can all use a break… Erika, come on up here, you can tell us all what happened." She turned around in a circle. "All right.. break it up… let's get back to what we were doing.."

Erika allowed herself to be led up to the highest platform, where she collapsed, laying her forearms loosely on her knees and staring at the padded surface as the other women settled around her.

Xena chose a spot near the back of the platform, and reclined, gazing at Erika thoughtfully. The last time she'd seen the dark haired woman, she and Arella had been best friends. Maybe even more… what had happened to change that? She watched as Gabrielle seated herself, offering the quiet woman a mug, which she gripped with listless hands.

"Erika.. what happened?" The bard asked, gently. In the background, a low rumble of drums started up, and the cool tones of a pipe.

The woman didn't answer. Instead, she slowly turned her head, and looked back at Xena. "How did she die?" Her voice was raspy.

The warrior steepled her fingers, and rested her chin against them. "Broken back."

Erika snorted. "Pity she died then.. you should have left her to live like that." Her voice was very bitter. "Would have been poetic justice." She paused, and took a long sip of the ale she'd been handed. "I guess you want to know why I feel like that, right?"

"Well.. " Gabrielle cleared her throat a little. "You seemed to be pretty good friends the last time we.. I mean, Xena and I, saw you."

"Yeah." Erika snorted. "The good old days." She blew out a breath after a moment. "I went with her when she got sent to the outpost.. things were… okay… I thought she was making progress, in fact, for the first few months it was pretty good." A pause. "I was… well, I was happy, and I thought she was."

"No, huh?" Eponin murmured.

A short, humorless laugh. "No." Erika confirmed. "She started into that 'we've got to save the Amazon Nation from itself crap again.. I tried to talk her out of it." She stopped. "We started fighting." Unconsciously, a hand lifted to her jaw, and touched it. "Things went downhill from there." She shook her head. "I couldn’t reach her anymore.. so I stopped trying."

Gabrielle swallowed, but didn't say anything.

"There were two or three villages close by… I met someone.. a guy, and I decided I really liked him." The hazel eyes closed. "They found him with both legs broken one night… he refused to tell anyone what happened.. but he also refused to even talk to me again." She reflected on her memories. "I don't think he'll ever be able to walk."

"You think she did it?" Ephiny asked, her voice shocked.

Erika looked up at her. "I know she did it." Pain showed in her eyes. "She told me.. every single detail."

Gabrielle looked past her, and found icy blue eyes staring back at her. She swallowed a little, then got up, and went to her soulmate, seating herself next to the taller woman and leaning against her. Xena put an arm around her in pure reflex. "That's horrible." The bard finally stated, shaking her head.

"No, Gabrielle." Erika seemed to lose herself somewhere. "That wasn't horrible.. horrible was… when she found out I was pregnant." Her face went very still. "And she just kept hitting me in the gut over and over until I lost the baby."

Even Xena's jaw dropped. Gabrielle could feel the shock wave, since she shared it, and felt the warrior's arms close over her in unconscious protection.

"Dear Artemis." Ephiny managed to get out. "She was insane."

Erika just dropped her head. "I should have listened to my mother." She replied tiredly. "She was right… she told me before I left what would happen." Her shoulders slumped. "But I'm glad it's over." Her eyes lifted to Xena's face. "Thank you." Then she drained her cup. "Speaking of which.. I better go find her.. if she'll talk to me." Another humorless smile. "I told her she was an intolerant, old fashioned, narrow minded fool before I left." She got up with an effort, and brushed herself off. "Who was the fool?"

A profound silence fell after she left, and the four friends all just looked at each other. Gabrielle exhaled, and leaned her head against her partner. "That's so hard to believe." She looked up at the still profile above her. "Was she really insane?"

Xena gazed off into the fire. Was she? Was there such a difference between what Arella had done, and what she had done to Gabrielle, chasing her without relent, forcing her to abandon her baby, Hope?

The warrior sighed. Even her guilt ridden conscience had to admit there was, in fact, a difference, and that Arella was, in all probability, truly insane.

Or was she simply justifying herself? Was her innate sureness that Hope was evil really just an instinct, or… was she just burying herself under her grief that she'd failed Gabrielle, and this was an attempt to erase that? Get rid of Hope, and they could go back to the way things were.. right?

Gods. Xena felt an ache in her chest. Please don't let me be the kind of person who would have done that on purpose. I don't think I could stand knowing it…

Or did the simple fact that she was asking the question bringing its own answer?

A warm hand on her cheek brought her attention back to the bard sharply. "Yeah?"

"I said… are you all right?" Green eyes studied her in concern.

Xena searched her face, memorizing the soft planes, and gentle curves. "Yeah… just a little too much ale, I guess." She let out a breath she hardly realized she was holding. "I was thinking about the whole thing… it's…damn awful."

Ephiny grunted in agreement. "I never much liked Erika.. " She paused reflectively. "After all, she did try to kill me." A sigh. "But she didn't deserve that…" Her eyes found Gabrielle's. "Listen.. I know you don't need any justification for the decision you made, but… "

Gabrielle studied the padding. "Yeah."

Eponin shook her head. "Menelda's not gonna let anyone forget this anytime soon."

The bard glanced up, puzzled. "What does she have to do with it?"

The two Amazons exchanged glances. "She's Erika's mother." Ephiny answered, awkwardly. "Gods.. sorry.. I though I'd told you that before…"

Gabrielle stared at her, stunned, hearing a soft word in an unknown language escape Xena's lips. "Uh.. no.. you didn't mention that." The bard replied weakly. "She's going to be really upset when she hears about all that.. " Her mind went over what she'd learned about the healer, and she spared a glance towards her partner.

"Mm." Xena agreed softly.

Eponin sighed. "You're right.. I'd better go keep an eye on her." She shyly leaned over and kissed Ephiny, who smiled at her, then she stood, and dusted off her leathers. "Damn party's more business than a full council meeting with feathers on."

They watched her leave, then Gabrielle drew breath, just as a piercing, frightened yell reached their ears.

Everything froze for a moment, then Ephiny expelled a huge breath. "Gabrielle, I love you, but for the sake of Artemis, go HOME!" She wailed. "I'm exhausted!!!!"

The bard stared at her, as she was being helpfully pulled to her feet by her taller partner. "It's not MY fault!!!" She yelped, causing the slumbering Ares to bolt awake from where he'd curled up on the platform after returning from hunting.

The regent glared over her shoulder to Xena. "How do you stand living in the middle of a cyclone ?"

A white flash of teeth. "Makes life interesting.. Besides.. ." Xena turned and stepped off the platform, leaving her words hanging.

"Besides what?" The regent grumbled, as she picked her way though the startled Amazons.

"I love every minute of it." Came the satisfied answer.

Cait lay quietly after Xena left, wishing she could follow her. The warrior had given her a lot to think about, though, and she spent a few minutes just pondering things.

Xena, she decided, was a very complicated person. Sometimes she even seemed to regret being just the most awesome fighter in all the known world, which Cait didn't understand at all. It almost seemed like there were two of her.. the confident warrior who loved to fight, and this other person, who was nice, and funny, and who loved Gabrielle so very much it seemed awful sometimes.

She couldn’t decide which one she liked better, but she suspected perhaps Xena couldn’t decide either, so that was all right.

Xena had the most annoying habit of evading questions, though…especially the hard ones, like how do you know you're in love. What kind of answer was, "you just know."? Cait sighed. Maybe she'd asked the wrong person.. perhaps Gabrielle would be a better target. At least she'd probably get some kind of explanation.. and possibly one of those super cute blushes as an added bonus.

Cait decided she rather liked Gabrielle. At first, she'd kind of thought she was somewhat silly, and certainly very sentimental, though very nice. After a while, though, she realized that the kind of strength the young bard had was just as formidable as any warrior's. And besides, she was quite a good fighter, in the bargain.

A noise to her rear made her cock her ears, focusing on the sound intently. Then a half grin found its way onto her face as she recognized the heavy footsteps. "Hello."

Paladia dropped onto the stool next to the pallet, with a grumpy look. "Hi."

"Did you get tired of the party?" Cait asked, affecting not to notice the bundle Paladia had dropped at her side. "Who won the dancing competition?"

"Beats me." The ex renegade shrugged. "Who could tell? All that bobbing up and down, and throwing sticks and stuff... " Her pale eyes went all over the room, then finally settled back down on Cait. "Brought you over some of the crap they kept passing out…here." She handed over the packet.

Cait balanced the bundle on her stomach, and pulled it open one handedly. "Super." She selected a tidbit from the package and bit into it. "Thank you.. the food in here is simply horrid."

Paladia merely grunted, and studied her hands as she played with a bit of thatch that had fallen from the roof. Everyone had been treating her a bit nicer since the whole capture thing, whether it was because she helped, or because they were just embarrassed for themselves, she couldn’t be sure. But it wasn't so bad. Two of the younger scouts had even talked to her. They had some weird ideas, though, about her and Cait.

Like she and the girl were friends or something. Where had they gotten that idea? "Ceremonies were okay.. all full of mushy stuff you'd have loved." She commented offhandedly. "Yeah.. and.. craziest thing…that sourpuss elder made your hero go through some kinda real strange ordeal."

Cait's eyes widened. "No.. really? What was it?"

"Tickle fight." The ex renegade stated.

"Excuse me?" The girl snorted. "I'm sure I didn't hear that correctly."

"What's to hear?" Paladia retorted. "Two crappy words.. tickle, and fight." She reached out and demonstrated against the girl's upper arm.

"Ooo." Cait jerked, and gave her a stern look. "Stop that."

A look of guilty intrigue appeared on Paladia's face. "Huh… " She experimented again, and got her hand slapped. "Well, your hero did a better job.. didn't laugh once, not even when the old harpy had her down, and was going at her half starkers."

"No way." The girl yelped. "I can't believe it.. Xena wouldn't let anyone do that to her."

Paladia shrugged. "I think she thought it was a gag." She shifted a little. "Anyway.. she knocked whatsherface on her butt, and turned the tables… then everyone kinda went down, and patted her on the butt, and hugged her, and said she was one of them now." A shake of her blond head. "Too weird."

Cait looked very confused. "Very too weird." She agreed. "Maybe it was a joke."

"Mmph." Paladia's lips quirked. "Whatever… but she sure does look good naked, I'll tell ya that."

"Tcha." The girl gave her a look.

"Yeeeah… " The ex renegade lifted both hands and made a subtle gesture. "All nice and…" She glanced up and saw the stormy look being pinned on her. "Ah.. nevermind."

Cait narrowed her eyes. "You are very bad."

A snort answered her. "Me? Like Hades… you shoulda heard the damn comments flying… I felt like a bootless urchin in my first market."

Cait hesitated, then she laughed. "Gosh."

An awkward silence fell. Cait let it go on, until she'd geared up her nerve quite enough, then she drew breath. "Have.. have you thought about what you're going to do next?" The pain in her chest was making her dizzy, but she put that aside.

Paladia was surprised by the question. She hesitated a bit, then finally knit her fingers together, not looking up. "Naw." She answered, briefly. "Figure it out then, I guess."

Cait fiddled with her blanket for a bit, then looked up. "I asked them to let you stay."

Gray eyes met her own in shock. "What'd ya do that for?"

"I don't know.. I thought maybe you'd like to." The girl answered quietly. "I know it get annoying here sometimes.. it does for me, but they're not bad people."

Paladia swallowed audibly. "They won't go for it."

"Does that mean you want them to?" Came the soft question. "Xena said she'd see what she could do."

"Why?" Paladia asked, bluntly. "Why the Hades should she care about what happens to me? I jumped on her precious Gabrielle, remember?"

Cait nibbled her lip. "I don't understand why she does some of the things she does do, but she's very much into making sure people get second chances." She paused. "I suppose because she did."

"Mph." The other girl grunted noncommittally.

Cait paused. "Do you want me to tell her to forget it?"

Long silence. Finally, Paladia sighed heavily. "No."

"Gosh." Cait's eyes twinkled gently. "Don't sound so very devastated."

She got an evil look in response, but it caused her to smile. They both looked up as footsteps drew near, and Cait groaned inwardly. Menelda.

A crossbow cocked, and the healer stepped into the candelight, her eyes dark and unreasoning. "Get away from her." The point of the arrow aimed directly at Paladia's heart.

Cait stared at the healer. "What are you doing?"

The dark haired woman thumbed the mechanism on the crossbow. "Hush, child… I’m not going to let anything happen to you."

Blond brows knit. "I’m perfectly all right.. put that down, please."

Paladia had frozen, and was sitting utterly still, her nostrils flaring out slightly.

"Menelda… put the damn bow down." Solari's groggy voice interrupted her. "You cracked?"

"No.. " The healer carefully aimed the weapon. "I’m just making sure little Cait here doesn't make the same mistake my daughter did." Her eyes fastened on Paladia. "You've got them all fooled, don't you?"

"I’m not fooling anyone." The ex-renegade croaked, her eyes pinned to the crossbow.

"Menelda… " Solari was struggling to sit up. "Put the damn thing down, now!"

"Shut up." The healer tossed over her shoulder. "You're just a soft heart, just like the rest of them. Well, I'm not, and I’m not going to sit here and let this happen again. " She turned and raised the bow, aiming quickly, her finger tightening on the trigger, ignoring Solari, who let out a warning bellow of alarm.

"No!" Cait yelled, then gathered her strength, and pulled herself upright, lunging off of her pallet and throwing herself against the startled Paladia, wrapping her arms around her neck and holding on for dear life.

Paladia grabbed her in pure reflex, her arms tightening around the girl's slim body in startled reaction.

Utter silence fell.

"No." Cait repeated, her voice catching in pain as her wound reopened, spilling warm crimson against Paladia's bare skin. "No.. Xena said.. " She sucked in a breath. "She said she deserved a second chance, and… you.. " A jab of pain lanced through her. "don’t have the right to… take that away."

Paladia didn't look up. Her eyes were focused on something beyond her vision, her chest moving with uneven breaths.

"You little fool." Menelda shook her head. "You don't understand."

"No." A deep, even voice responded from behind them, and the healer whirled, to see a tall, dark haired figure step out of the shadows and into the candlelight. "You're the one who doesn’t understand."

A fair-haired image materialized next to her, green eyes the color of honey in the dim light. "Cait, are you all right?"

A long, tense silence fell, before a muffled. "Actually, I don't think so." Came trickling out.

"Xena… " Gabrielle put a hand on her partner's back.

"Yeah." The warrior padded forward, stopping as she came even with Menelda. Her eyes went to the weapon, then to the woman's face. One eyebrow curved up. "Put that down before I take it apart."

Menelda simply dropped it.

The warrior moved on, and knelt on one knee next to the still frozen Paladia, putting a hand on Cait's back. "Easy… " She gripped the girl's shoulders. "Okay… g'wan.. let go."

For a moment, the warrior thought she hadn't heard her, then the girl's arms loosened slowly, and she allowed Xena to ease her back. "Damn." The warrior cursed, as she saw the blood.

Paladia stared down at the crimson stain on her own chest, as though she couldn’t imagine where it came from. Her arms fell slowly to her sides as the warrior gently laid Cait back onto her pallet, and she raised her eyes, fastening them on the slim, pale form under Xena's hands.

Gabrielle moved up next to Menelda, studying the stunned look on the ex renegades face, and smiling a little, at an old, familiar memory that was its very echo.

She'd felt like she'd spent days and days in pursuit. Through streams, and dirt, and giants…over rocks, and brambles which ripped her skirt, and rubbed her skin raw as she passed. All to come to this last long road, heading slightly uphill to a place whose name she'd only recently learned.


And every other step, she'd wondered what in the name of the gods she'd done, chasing out here in the wilderness, after someone who'd tried their best to scare her off. Was she nuts?

Or was she chasing a dream?

She'd gotten a stitch in her side, from running. All the way down that dirt path, and through an unfamiliar village, turning her head from side to side as she looked for its inhabitants.

None. But she'd heard the clamor from the large building ahead of her, and figuring that would at least find her people, she pelted in, shoving the outer door open and dashing inside, then skidding to a momentary halt.

The crowd was ugly, and carrying rocks, sticks, scythes…their focus the tall, dark haired woman who stood against them, her hands raised in meager defense, a look of hopeless despair on her face.

She'd never, in her life, felt such a kinship to someone as she did to this rude, frightening stranger, and seeing her there, seeing those rocks hitting her and seeing the slump of her shoulders as she surrendered to them stirred a feeling inside Gabrielle, a fierce protectiveness that overrode her fears, and sent her plowing through the crowd, to put her back to the beleaguered woman, and face the crowd.

It had felt.. so right. So natural. And she'd turned around, after they'd left, and her eyes had risen to meet Xena's, and that look had been there.

Equal parts disbelief and wonder, guilt and relief.

It was an indescribable feeling, this claiming of an unknown soul, something she'd look back on over the years with the knowledge that her life had been changed, in a very special, and very rare way.

Whatever else went wrong in her life, she would always have that.

She made a mental note to talk to Cait later about it. Now, she turned her attention to Menelda. "That would have been a really bad mistake." She told the healer, softly. "I know you're angry about what happened to Erika, but hurting someone else isn't the answer."

"How can you stand there and say that?" Menelda whispered.

"Because it's true." Gabrielle answered, her eyes fastened on the Xena's silky dark hair. "You have to learn to let go of your hatred."

The healer remained silent for a moment, then she sighed. "I don't think I can do that." She looked at Xena, and the still stunned Paladia. "I can't not hate them." Her eyes turned to the bard. "And I can't understand why you don't."

Gabrielle sighed. "I don't know what I can say to help you… other than to tell you that feeling that way will never bring you peace."

"And all that forgiving has brought you, peace?" Menelda asked, skeptically.

Mist green eyes gazed up at her in gentle pity. "Our forgiving of each other, yes." She stressed the words, aware of Xena's set, expressionless face bent over Cait's pallet. "Very much so." She waited, but Menelda didn't speak. "Maybe… I don't know if this will help, but would you like to go back with Erika? The group there sounds like they could use a hand." Maybe they could help each other, she considered quietly.

Menelda snorted softly. "That would make things more comfortable for you, wouldn't it?" She gazed at the bard. "No one around to criticize the fact that you nurse a viper." She took a breath. "Everyone here just seems to suck this up.. they've jumped on your little wagon… but I'm going to tell you, Gabrielle.. I don't, and I never will."

The bard's reaction was not what she expected. Gabrielle just nodded at her. "You're right." She replied quietly. "Some people can't change." Her eyes pinned Menelda's directly. "So I guess it's your viewpoint up against mine, and I'm going to do my best to make sure mine wins." She turned her back on the healer and walked over to where her partner was kneeling. "So you think about it, and let me know what you want to do."

Menelda stood in silence for a moment, then turned, and left without another word.

Gabrielle sighed, then turned her attention to her soulmate and her charge. "Hey."

"Hey." Xena muttered, under her breath. "Just broke the wound open.. it'll be okay."

"Mm.. what should I do about her, Xena?" Gabrielle whispered. "Menelda, I mean?"

"Slug her." Came the crisp answer.

"What?" The bard hissed. "How will that help her?"

"It won't.. but it'll make you feel great." Xena replied, as she finished adjusting a new bandage on the girl's chest. "To be honest, Gabrielle…I don't much care what happens to her." The warrior shrugged. "She's got an idea in her head about me, and nothing's going to change that."

Gabrielle winced at the blunt honestly, but sighed. "You think she's right?" She asked. "That everyone's just going along with me?"

The warrior gave her an admonishing look.

"Sorry." The bard leaned her head against Xena's shoulder. "I guess it's just depressing when I'm wrong about people.. that's twice now." She exhaled. "My average is getting pretty lousy."

Xena clucked under her breath. "I only count for one??" She chided, trying to break the bard out of her glum mood. "Damn."

Gabrielle drummed her fingers against her thigh. "Well…." She allowed the gentle teasing to coax her spirits up. "You have a point.. you should count for at least two."

"Two!" Xena responded, with a mock injured look. "C'mon..c'mon.. give me five at least… I was the Destroyer of Nations, Gabrielle."

Blue eyes and green met, and exchanged warmth. "Okay..okay… " Gabrielle surrendered, then turned to Paladia. "You all right?"

The ex renegade seemed to have finally regained her composure. "Yeah." She sat down on the next pallet, and clasped her hands between her knees. "That crazy kid okay?"

Xena smiled quietly at Cait, who was looking groggily back at her. "Oh yeah."

The girl's eyes tracked slowly from Xena to Gabrielle, and settled on the bard's face, a tiny, almost wondering grin edging Cait's lips. "You're not going to scold me, are you?"

Gabrielle gave her a warm, loving smile. "That'd be hypocritical of me, wouldn't it?"

"Rather." Cait agreed. "It's quite…an odd feeling, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is." The bard responded, oblivious to the puzzled looks from the watchers. "But it's something I hold very dear to my heart." She touched the girl on the nose with a fingertip. "And so should you."

Cait nodded weakly, and closed her eyes.

Xena finished her task, and stood, offering her soulmate a hand up. "That's done.. c'mon.. let's let these people get some sleep."

"Thanks." Solari groaned. "Take the mushy angst outside, okay?? It's dripping nice in here."

Gabrielle laughed softly. "Thanks for sounding a warning, Solari."

The injured Amazon waved a hand at her. "Anything to get a little peace around here."

Xena guided her partner out, half turning as they reached the door. "Hey." She jerked her chin at the dourly silent Paladia, still seated on the pallet. "Keep an eye on her, okay?"

The ex renegade gave her a deep scowl.

Bard and warrior smiled, then disappeared through the door into the misty embrace of a rising fog.

It was well after midnight, Xena realized, and the area they were walking across was very quiet. Most of the celebrants had been told to stay by the campfire, and to the warrior's surprise, they'd done just that. Even Eponin and Ephiny had turned back, once they'd reached the healer's hall, and seen the still, silent tableau inside.

Now, the dampness of the air was increasing, and the warrior watched as her boots stirred the mist, kicking the wispy stuff ahead of them in gentle, ethereal puffs. A deep breath of air brought a sweet scent of night blossoms, along with the campfire's smells, and Xena smiled as she felt an arm slip around her waist, and the warmth as Gabrielle snuggled up next to her.

"Beautiful night." The bard commented, tipping her head back, and regarding the stars. Feathery clouds obscured some of them, but most winked through at her, making friendly patterns. The security of Xena's arm around her shoulders felt very nice, and she tilted her head, gently kissing the wrist that lay draped over her neck.

Xena reciprocated, brushing her lips across the bard's fair hair, and breathing in the familiar scent with absent pleasure. She suddenly had no desire to rejoin the Amazons, wishing instead for peace, and quiet, and time alone with her soulmate, although she admittedly had truly had a good time at the party.

Gabrielle slowed her steps, and looked up. "Um… " She exhaled. "Xena, you know.. I'm… really kind of tired…you can go on and keep partying if you want to.. though."

The blue eyes warmed, and a grin edged Xena's face. "Gabrielle, after all the trouble you instigated around her the last few days.. you think I'd let you just go off unescorted?"

A twinkle in the bard's eyes. "I could suspect you just want to get me alone."

Xena's right brow edged up, and she leaned forward until they were nose to nose. "You could be right."

"Tch.. that's very antisocial, Xena." Gabrielle took advantage of their closeness, and gently kissed the warrior's lips. "Mm." A hand slipped up and tangled itself in the dark hair, as the bard leaned against her partner's powerful body and went back for a more thorough exploration. "But.. that's not always … a bad thing." She murmured, as strong fingers gently slipped up her side, and sent pleasant chills across her skin.

"C'mon." Xena kept a firm hold on her, and started towards their quarters. "Been a long day, and you need your rest."

Gabrielle grinned and captured a finger of the hand on her shoulder, nibbling it enthusiastically. "Rest?" Her green eyes peeked up at Xena mischievously. "Hmm… if you say so, oh overprotective Warrior Princess." She allowed her partner to lead her to their door, and paused, as Xena's long arm reached out and tugged the lashed door of sticks open. "Gods.. " She looked up sharply. "I know you didn't leave a candle lit in here, Xena."

The warrior blinked in surprise. "No.." Instinctively, she put her body in front of Gabrielle's and edged inside, her senses struggling to throw off the residue of the ale. On the small desk the bard had appropriated for her scrolls, a candle was lit, carefully centered in a small ceramic dish to prevent the wax from falling to the table's surface.

The round, golden light from the flickering candle spread across the desk, and glowed back from a picture propped up against Gabrielle's scroll case, which stared back at her. "Wh…. "

The bard peeked around her shoulder, and sucked in a breath. "Whoa…" She moved in front of the warrior and approached the picture, kneeling down in front of it to study the details. There was the panther, all right, all its inky black hair painted in, and the coy golden red fox, itstail curled demurely around its neatly painted paws.

But now the fox's eyes peered back out at Gabrielle in a shade that matched her own, and the panther… A smile edged across the bard's face. Palest blue in a field of black, so reminiscent of her soulmate it was uncanny. "Would you just look at that?"

Xena knelt next to her, and studied the painting, her face tensing in to an unconscious smile. "That's incredible."

The bard nodded absently, absorbing the look of the majestic cat, its neck slightly bowed, those eyes looking right out in a pose so wild, and so challenging… and the huge paws which circled the fox, so detailed she could see the faint shadows of the muscles under itsthick pelt, the half extended claws on one paw glinting in warning. If she looked closely.. she could swear the cat was smiling faintly, a hint of white fangs at the edges of its lips.

Then she went on to the fox, its fur gleaming, and its posture proudly straight, only the head tilted just a trifle, to give it a gentler, sweeter look as it peered up from misty green eyes upon the watcher.

"It's us." Xena whispered, in an amazed voice. "How in… "

It was most definitely them, Gabrielle acknowledged. Their spirits, caught by the eye of a grudging artist and expressed in a unique, and very special manner. "It sure is." She exhaled. "Paladia did it."

Blue eyes widened. "Damn." Xena leaned forward and studied the picture. "She's really good." Her voice held honest admiration, and she lifted a cautious finger to touch the neatly edged hide framing, which, though plain, was carefully done. "But why…"

Gabrielle had lifted a piece of rolled parchment up that had been perched near the picture, and unrolled it. "It's a joining gift." She said quietly. "I think." She showed the scrap to the warrior.

"These stupid things are supposed to be excuses for presents. Here."

Xena felt a startled laugh escape, and she relaxed into it. "She's… something else." The warrior admitted, then she cupped the bard's cheek. "You can feel good about your judgement there, my love."

A contented smile appeared on the bard's face. "That's true." She sighed, leaning against the taller woman. "That's gonna look great over the fireplace, tiger."

"Mm… ." Xena cocked her head, thinking. "You know, you're right…. Gabrielle, if the Amazons could get her to do commission work.. they'd make a fortune off her… I can tell ya I've met dozens of princes and others who would love to be painted with that kind of detail."

A blond brow lifted. "Hmmm… but she'd have to be an Amazon for that, huh?"

Xena caught her drift. "Oh yeah."

They smiled at each other. "Okay.. now that we have the troubles of the world settled… " Gabrielle eased closer, and ran a hand over the warrior's neck, feeling the soft run of gooseflesh that followed her touch. "I've now been joined to you for the third time. You know, Xena.. most people maybe get to do this once….and certainly only once to the same person. Do you think we're overdoing it?"

"Well.. " Xena laughed a little, as she got to her feet, pulling her soulmate up with her. She tugged the younger woman over to the bed and, putting her hands around the bard's waist, lifted her up onto it. "To tell you the truth, Gabrielle… I kind of.. lost hope, at some point, that I'd ever be able to enjoy something so normal as a joining." She joined the bard on the bed, stretching out on her side with a light groan. "So what's three or four? Especially to the only person I have ever loved enough to want to be called Consort to."

"No… " Gabrielle traced her partner's strong features with a fond touch. "You don’t take second place to anyone easily, do you?"

Xena's eyes drifted up to the painting, then back to Gabrielle's face. "Nope… only to certain foxy little bards." Her teeth gleamed in a feral smile.

Gabrielle ducked her head a little, feeling the faint blush that those eyes could still bring to her skin warm her. She looked up at Xena from under pale lashes, unconsciously imitating the picture, and causing an even broader grin to edge her partner's lips. "That was really nice of Paladia."

"Mmmhmmm... " The warrior agreed, reaching over to brush the pale hair out of Gabrielle's eyes. "Time for *you* to get a trim, my bard." She moved a little closer, and pulled the younger woman's hair up into a tuft. "Woodpecker cut?"

Green eyes rolled. "Gabrielle, Woodpecker of Potadeia." She remarked wryly. "Oh.. yeah.. that would be great, Xena...I always wanted that as a legacy."

A smile. "Speaking of legacies.. " She released the bard's hair, and laid her hand over Gabrielle's belly. "How are you feeling?"

The bard covered her partner's hand with her own, and interlaced their fingers. "I'm all right... I was getting kind of tired before, but...that seems to have gone away for the moment."

Xena rubbed her thumb against the warm skin she could feel under the fabric. "I can't wait to meet this kid."

A startled, happy grin appeared on Gabrielle's face. "Really?" Xena hadn't spoken much about the baby.. other than her initial glad acceptance of the news. Gabrielle had.. well, not exactly wondered, but... "I keep thinking about.. well, how big is it now, and what is it thinking.. or can it even think yet?" She nibbled her lip. "Is it this little thing swimming around like a tadpole, and if it is, why do we have to teach kids to swim again, if they did it in the beginning?"

"Sometimes you don't... " Xena eased over onto her back and crossed her ankles, which were hanging off the bed. She paused to watch the bard, apparently fascinated by the smooth movement of the muscles in her legs as she did this, reach over, and start tracing the lines just under the skin. "Mother says she tossed me in a large tub when I was a baby... and I just started.. "She made motions with her arms, as if swimming like a frog. "Kinda like that."

"Well... " Gabrielle sighed, and rolled over, to be nearer to her target. "You're kind of a natural at things, tiger... I had to have my uncle teach me to swim.. I was really scared when he took me out into the water, even though it only came to about my chest."

"Hmm.. how old were you?" The warrior countered. "I think it matters... after a while.. I know I don't remember learning a lot of things.. swimming, riding... reading, for that matter."

"Really?" Gabreille was fascinated. "I remember learning all those... I don't think I'm a natural at anything." She found her words cut off by a pair of soft lips, and she leaned into the contact, enjoying it thoroughly.

"I beg to differ." Xena growled softly as they parted.

The bard giggled softly. "That doesn't count."

A dark eyebrow lifted. "I was thinking of your skill at storytelling." Xena teased gently, watching a predictable blush darken the tanned skin. "Tch tch.. such a mind." She tapped the bard's knee. "Pull your leg up."

Gabrielle did so, and felt long fingers work at the laces holding on her boot. She sighed happily, as she slid an arm around Xena's neck, and nibbled her way up the warrior's throat, pausing and nipping at the pulse point just under her jaw. "You've been such an inspiration."

"Hmm? To which skill?" Xena countered, with a low laugh, as she worked Gabrielle's loosened boot off, and started on the other, letting her fingers trail down the bard's muscular calf in the process.

"Yes." Came the soft answer as Gabrielle impatiently rid herself of her other boot and let her fingers work at the belt around her partner's waist. She unclasped the buckle and pulled the fabric aside, sliding her hand up the smooth slope of the warrior's belly, and up the rippled surface of her ribs which expanded against her touch as Xena took a breath. "Any story I write.. " She closed her eyes in reaction as her partner's touch curled around her thigh. "Has you at its matter what it's about."

Her tunic slipped free of her shoulders, and she slid against Xena's body in an ecstasy of sensation, feeling her breathing and the warrior's synch, as they pushed against each other. Fuzzily, she was glad they'd chosen to tuck themselves away in private... the padded platforms of the festival had been designed for intimate activity, but the thought of all those eyes watching.... The bard sighed, and squirmed a little, as Xena's touch traveled down her belly and caressed her thighs. Part of her would always be a village girl from Potadeia, she suspected. And that, she decided, as a low, purring chuckle tickled her ear, wasn't really a bad thing.

Xena felt her defenses drop, but only so far, as she kept senses aware of the life around them. She wasn't really worried about attack, though you never knew, but the possibilities of the curious Amazons skulking around were endless. Not that she cared, Xena chuckled to herself, as she started a slow, relentless advanced down her soulmate's body, starting at her collarbone. But Gabrielle certainly would, and that sometimes shy, and often innocent side of her partner was something Xena found herself quite protective of.

Let the Amazons keep their worldly frankness.. she preferred the bard's gentle honesty anytime. She moved slowly down Gabrielle's ribs, tracing each one with her tongue, and feeling them move faster, as the bard's breathing increased. One hand was curled lightly around her partner's muscular thigh, and she started a gentle stroking against the soft skin, rewarded with an incoherent sound from the bard, whose fingers drifted against Xena's body and sent sharp jolts of fire against her nerves as they found familiar places, accompanied by the warm rush that she always associated with their connection. The need rose up within her, an insatiable desire to add a physical dimension to the profound emotional link that bound them, and she surrendered to it, their bodies reaching for each other in sweet familiarity.

And as peace finally settled over a sometimes fractious, and sometimes tested Nation, Dionysus smiled.

A pleasant breeze cooled Ephiny's skin, and she muttered appreciatively, before snuggling back down and letting sleep start to claim her again. A faint nibble on her ear caused a grin to tug her lips, but she pretended not to feel it.

Another nibble, and this time, a touch against her neck. "G'way.. it's too early." she mumbled in protest.

A brush of something very soft against the skin of her chest followed, and she could feel a warm breath against her cheek.

The breath got closer, then moved around to her ear. She smiled quietly, waiting for the words she knew were coming.


Ephiny 's eyes popped open, to see the tiny dark orbs staring back at her, topping a cute black nose which wiggled in her general direction. "Hey!"

The squirrel leaped back, chittering at her in outrage, before it flipped its tail in disgust, and hopped of the platform, making a run for the nearest tree.

"Godsbedamnedpieceofmotheatenfurcovered...." Ephiny growled, as she pushed herself up to sitting position, glancing around her in sudden embarrassment. To her relief, she was more or less alone on the platform, and everyone else was still asleep in the misty pre dawn. She raised a shaky hand and pushed the curly blond hair off her forehead, tipping her eyes up to regard the graying sky, before glancing across the compound as soft footsteps reached her ears.

To her relief, it was Pony, who was juggling a pitcher of something warm, two dishes, and a mysterious container. She watched the weapons master tread gingerly around various and sundry bodies, until she reached the top platform in triumph, settling down next to the regent with a satisfied thump. "Hi."

Ephiny rubbed her neck, which was a little stiff "Hi... where've you been?"

Pony held up the pitcher. "Thought you'd like something warm.. it's a little cool this morning. " She answered cheerfully, as she poured a portion of steaming, hot cider into a cup, and handed it to her lover, then opened the container to reveal equally steaming spice bread. "Just done." She grinned, breaking off a piece and putting it in Ephiny' s eagerly outstretched palm.

"Mmm... " The regent took a healthy bite, and chewed it. "All quiet?"

"Absorrupfty." Pony assured her, with a nod. "Nftng doin... wffs gd..."



"Swallow, okay?"

The dark haired Amazon complied, then took a sip of her cider. "Sorry. " She grinned, crinkling her snub nose. "What a great morning...huh?" She kicked booted feet against the edge of the platform, and leaned back on one hand, taking in a deep breath of the clean dawn air.

Ephiny gazed at her in mild bemusement. "You're in a good mood." She commented.

Eponin thought about that for a minute, then shrugged. "I guess I am... it's a nice morning, we got through the festival... why not be in a good mood?"

"Good point." The regent agreed, holding out her hand for another slice of spice bread. "Oh ho... we're not the only one's up, I see." She gestured towards the queen's quarters, where two shadowy figures were emerging.

The rising dawn light captured them, in all their contrasting beauty, in Xena's dark power, and her partner's sunny good nature as they crossed to the firepit with matching strides. The warrior was dressed in her dun colored gambeson, and Gabrielle in her familiar traveling outfit, the tan and green fabric contrasting with her sun darkened skin and fair hair. As they watched, the bard gave her companion a pat on the side, and got a ruffle of her hair in response, then Xena turned off towards the half hidden path heading up into the mountain, leaving Gabrielle to continue on her path towards them.

Was it her imagination, Ephiny wondered, or did Gabrielle's eyes really look more luminously green than usual today? Certainly, the bard seemed to glow in the dawn light, and her face crinkled into a friendly grin as she mounted the platforms, threading her steps carefully around still sleeping Amazons. "Good morning."

Ephiny cocked her head and gazed up at the bard, as she settled down cross legged next to them. "You look like you had a good night, actually. " She teased.

Predictably, Gabrielle blushed, but she grinned also. "Yes, I did.. thanks." Her eyes twinkled. "And the party was fun, too."

Hazel and caramel eyes widened in surprise. "Um." Ephiny coughed a bit. "So.. where's Xena off to?"

The bard gave them both a satisfied smile, and accepted the piece of spice bread Eponin hastily handed over. "Thanks... um... where is Xena off to.. well, you know how when you're in a good mood, and it makes you want to just.. well, I don't know.. jump around?"

"Eyahh... " Ephiny answered, drawing the word out.

"Xena, being Xena, loves to work off that kind of energy by putting herself through Hades." Gabrielle informed them, chewing on her bread with a contented look. "Seventeen different kinds of drills, running for leagues.. you know."

"Mm.... I remember her doing that when she was at home.. when I headed down here when you were with us a year ago." Ephiny recalled thoughtfully. "I followed her into the forest.. watched her do some really amazing things, more than usual, and she had a... a kind of wild energy about her that was really incredible to watch." She shrugged. "Don't know what triggered that off, though...sure wasn't our visit. " She gave Gabrielle a wry look. "Unless it was just getting a note from you. "

Gabrielle's brow crinkled, as she gave thought to that. Then her lips tensed into a wistful smile. "When we parted... she told me to think about joining you permanently." She watched Ephiny's eyes blink in astonishment. "Of course.. I never did.. " Her gaze turned apologetic. "But I guess she didn't know that until I sent that note asking her to come get me."

"Gabrielle... " Eponin leaned forward. "Any *idiot* could have told her what your decision would have been, ya know.. even I realized that."

A shrug. "I... know that.. but.. sometimes.. I don't know, she was worried that I was out there with her.. losing lots of chances at what she honestly thought was a better life." A tiny smile crossed her lips. "She's always been like that... whenever I wanted to leave, she was right here, supporting me... telling me to follow my heart.. for the longest time, I thought it was because she was tired of being responsible for me."

"But it wasn't." Ephiny stated.

"No." Gabrielle agreed. "It was that she was scared.. and she still is, that her influence will hurt me.. that because she is who she is, and because of what she's done, that my life will be lived down a very dark path." She shrugged. "And that may be true.. but we influence each other, and maybe what will end up is that we both move towards the center.. she'll move towards the light, I'll move a little into the dark... we'll end up a lot of shades of gray, instead of black and white."

"Wow." Pony breathed. "That's real profound, Gabrielle."

The bard laughed gently. "Yeah, well... I'm a bard, remember? We do the word thing."

Ephiny put a hand on her knee. "Are you scared of that?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "No.. I think about it sometimes.. and it used to scare me.. but after all the stuff I've been through, I've just decided to take things as they come.. and work towards the best life I can."

Ephiny gazed at her friend respectfully. "You're a very brave person, my do know that, right?"

"Everyone tells me that.. I don't really see it, myself." The bard answered, modestly. "But I do understand Xena better now.. I used to tell her that all the time, about how brave she was.. and she'd just look at me like I was nuts, and tell me she just did what she had to do, so what was the big deal?" A shrug. "That's how I feel.. I just do what I have to do.. and I know I'm capable of being a coward, and other nasty things, so.." Another shrug. "Anyway.. what I came over here to say is that I wanted to thank you both.. for being such good friends to both of us."

A small silence fell. "I'm not sure Xena would have agreed with that, the last time you both were here. " Ephiny finally said, in a quiet voice. "I'm not sure I would have, either."

Gabrielle folded her hand around the regent's. "Xena is a very dangerous person, Eph... no one knows that better than she does.. she's very focused, and single minded when it comes to something she wants.. it takes a lot to stop her when she's like that." She hesitated. "I know.. because I'm one of the few people who has... and mostly I could do that because under all that aggressiveness, and sometimes madness, I always knew that at the core... at the center of everything, a part of her heart belong to me." Her eyes saddened. "But after that funeral, I no longer believed that was true.. and I was very scared when she took me, because I knew... there was nothing left between us that could stop her, if she really wanted to take her anger out on me." She squeezed Ephiny's hand. "You were right to try and stop me. I was insane to go with her."

Ephiny studied the ground, then inhaled, and looked up. "I would have come after her, with every resource I had, if she'd done anything to you."

"I know." The bard replied. "She knows that... and to be honest with you Ephiny.. I don't think, at that point, if she had done something.. that she would have stopped you." She sighed. "We were both... very, very fractured...the fact that you've both accepted her back as both a part of my life, and as a friend, I can't tell you how much that's meant to me."

The regent looked up at her. "I'm glad... but I didn't do it for you." Came the quiet reply. "I don't give up on friends easily...and she means a lot to me."

Gabrielle smiled at her.

"Yeah.. what she said." Eponin agreed hastily. "Me too."

The bard's smile grew broader. "Thanks, guys."

"Um... " Eponin hopped to her feet. "I..uh.... I've got some.. something I have to do, so if you guys would excuse me.... "

Ephiny and Gabrielle exchanged glances. "G'wan." The regent waved her off.

"Thanks.." Eponin waved and started off.

"Pon?" Ephiny rested an arm on her knee and called after her lover.

"Huh?" Eponin trotted backwards, an excessively innocent look on her face.

"If you come back with bruises, don't come looking for me to fix you up, okay?"

"Me? Uh.. where would I get bruises from?" The weapons master replied indignantly. "I'm just going for a.. uh.. on patrol."

Ephiny just shook her head and waved back. "G'bye."

Gabrielle laughed as they watched the dark haired Amazon disappear. "Relax.. if she didn't go out after Xena, I think the love of my life would feel like she was being neglected."

The regent rolled her eyes, noting the ease with which Gabrielle used the term of endearment. " headed home?"

Gabreille leaned back onto her hands. "Yeah... we'll stop by Potadeia first, so I can give them the news.." She glanced down at her belly, and gave Ephiny a wry grin. "Then back to Amphipolis.. I won't lie and say I won't be glad to get there." She stretched. "You've gotta come visit this winter, Eph...maybe we can work up that regional market plan we talked about last year... attract merchants from all over, and get some trade going around here."

"Mm... I like that idea." Ephiny nodded. "Between us, the Centaurs, and you lot.. we can really get a seasonal thing going... four times a year, with all that stuff coming in and out.. it'll do good things for all of our pocket pouches." She sighed and handed the bard half of the remaining spice cake. "And I bet you're going to be one of those lucky souls who stays absolutely gorgeous all the way through your pregnancy."

Mist green eyes peeked up at her. "What makes you say that?"

Ephiny laughed. "Just a feeling...why, are you worried about it?"

Gabrielle hesitated, then shrugged. "No."

Her friend leaned forward, and tapped her on the knee. "Gab, I love you, but you can't lie to save your life." She pulled herself closer, and offered the bard a cup. "Now, you listen to Auntie Ephiny, okay?"

That got a giggle from the younger woman. "Gods... listen to ancient you." She joked. "I'm not worried, really.. it's just weird."

Ephiny gripped her arm, and put a serious expression on her face. "You listen to me, okay? I may not know everything, Gabrielle, but I know this... even if you were a one eyed, peg legged, featherless maiden hen, that half nuts, leather loving, sword wielding partner of yours would still be crazy about you, understand?" She exhaled. "And believe me, we all go through feeling that it can't possibly be true."

The bard looked at her for a long moment, then she smiled, and squeezed Ephiny's hand. "Thanks." She replied softly. "You will come visit, right? I bet Gran's going to need the same speech....Toris isn't nearly as sensitive as his sister is."

Ephiny jerked up right, and slapped the side of her head. "Xena.. and sensitive.. in the same sentence... I may have to go record this in the annals of the Amazon nation... " Then she laughed. "You bet I will... when are you guys leaving?"

Gabrielle glanced at the sky. "Midday, probably.... though Xena could probably be coaxed into delaying a little.. I think she had a great time at the festival."

Ephiny got to her feet, and held a hand out. "All right.. let's get some stuff squared away.. and that council you asked me to convene is scheduled for after breakfast." She hauled the bard to her feet. "C'mon...I think I hear another loaf of that spice bread calling me."

"Lead on." Gabrielle answered cheerfully. "You know I won't argue with that."

Xena stopped on the upper ridge, where the high ground looked over a set of sloping, forest covered hills, half shrouded in mist that shifted and changed before her eyes in the brightening light. She leaned back against the tree and caught her breath, having raced up the mountain at top speed scattering small animals and loose rocks before her without much thought.

The brisk fall air carried hints of trees, and moisture from the fog, which collected on her skin and dampened the tan gambeson belted around her body. The breeze also brought small sounds of the forest around her, the crackle of a rabbit chewing, a clattering as a woodpecker arranged a nest, and the soft rustling as the leaves whispered to each other, conveying secrets in a language Xena had always loved to listen to.

Had always wished she could understand. But the energy of the world around her, that she did understand.. and she could feel it thrumming through the wood she leaned against, and rumbling through the ground her booted feet stood on, an energy she was part of, and a source she drew from in a way she couldn’t explain, and hardly even comprehended.

It just felt good to be alive, right then. The rising sun peeked over the horizon, and painted her face in peach and gold light she could feel through her closed eyelids, and she smiled back at the sun, cocking her ears as she detected Ares close presence. She reluctantly opened her eyes, and gave the wolf a look. "So. You're back."

Ares wagged his tail smugly, and sat down, wrapping the long bushy bodypart around his feet. "Roo." He commented, as he dropped a small rabbit at Xena's feet.

"Oh.. so you brought me a present, huh?" The warrior eyed him tolerantly. "Good thing, seeing as how you scared the leathers off me this morning, then tripped me and made me fall all over your other mommy."

Ares panted, which made him look like he was grinning. "Agrrr."

"Oh yeah.. I don't think she minded either, but that's not the point." Xena shook a finger at him., then sighed as he licked her knee, and gazed up at her adoringly. "Aw.. not that look… you learned that from Gabrielle, dindcha?"

The wolf yawned.

Xena bounced up and down a few times. "Well, lazybones, you can sit there, if you want.. I've got things to do." She leaned over, and spotted a plateau just below her, a nice, flat, green surface that would fill her needs nicely. "Perfect." With a running start, she bolted off the ridge top, launching herself downward and landing on a rock outcropping, then bouncing off that, and flipping twice before hitting the plateau.

With a flourish, she pulled her sword out, and saluted the sun, then started in on a set of warm up drills to loosen up her muscles. The blade moved in a flickering pattern around her first right handed, then left handed, as she tightened the arc down to a precision figure eight using mostly her wrists, and the tense control muscles in her forearms.

The ache felt good, and she smiled, then spun the blade up and over her shoulder just for fun, catching it as it came down along her side, and tossing it up into the air. She flipped and caught it on the way down, then started into a second set of drills, concentrating on feeling her position and the space around her, closing her eyes and defending against an unseen enemy.

Eight quadrants, four above her waist, four below, two in front, two behind for each limb. The trick was to hone instincts so finely, that no thought was required, and each limb acted in defense of its territory, all smoothly integrated into a rapid attack that allowed her to punch forward, swing her sword, and do a back kick all at the same time, without losing her balance.

She concentrated more fully, imagining enemies coming at her from all directions, and her body responded, swinging around in a circle and ducking as phantom swords struck at her head. Without warning, she leaped up, swinging the sword under her legs in a move that would have beheaded an opponent, then twisted in midair, to avoid a ghostly counterstrike. In her mind, she could hear the grunt of surprise from the hapless enemy, and she kicked down, landing on one foot and spinning before lashing out in savage kick that would have broken bones if it had connected with anything.

Next. Xena's blood was pumping now, and her nostrils flared slightly, bringing in air as she started practicing leaps and kicks, running at a tree nearby and using its branches as targets, eventually knocking a dead limb off that was over her head. Then she turned and bolted across the green surface, sheathing her sword and throwing herself into gymnastic tumbling, launching up into somersaults, then landing only to throw herself skyward again, whirling and leaping with an excess of energy that fairly exploded from her.

The sun was pouring down on the plateau before she did one last flip, and allowed herself to land on her back, stretching out her arms into the soft mossy surface, and tilting her face to the welcome warmth. The cool breeze riffled her dark hair, and cooled the sweat that glistened on her exposed skin, and she sighed in pure animal content as she felt her heart slow and steady.

Far off, she heard Ares' faint growl, and she tuned her hearing, closing her eyes and picking up the grass rustling, and the crickets, and a few far off birds before a soft sound came out of place. She listened intently, then smiled towards the clear blue sky. "Hey, Pony." She stayed where she was, though, only crossing her ankles and wiggling her boots comfortably.

The footsteps crunched louder, then the sun was obscured by the compact, muscular form, which gazed down at her, shaking its head.

"Siddown." The warrior waved a hand at her, waiting until the Amazon thumped down onto her side, and stretched out, propping her head up with one hand and pulling a grass stalk up with the other.

"Y'know.. you are the damnedest thing." Eponin commented, chewing on the grass.

Xena's brow lifted. "What?"

"You are just the damnedest thing.. I've been sitting here watching you for over a candlemark and a half.. and I swear I'm shaking my head so damn much I've got a crick in my neck."

"Yeah?" Xena reached over and before the weapons master could do more than croak, set strong fingers along the back of her neck, and probed. "Yep.. you do." She twisted her grip slightly, and felt the bones pop into place, then gave the Amazon a pat on the head and dropped her hand to the turf again. "Better?"

Eponin reached a hesitant hand back to her neck, then blinked. "I didn't expect you to do that." She muttered. "But yeah."

Xena smiled.

"So.. what's it like to be invincible?" Pony inquired, regaining her composure.

A blue orb peeked at her. "I have no idea." Xena answered, seriously. "I hate losing.. but it doesn't mean I haven't… bad day, bad fight… I can be beaten, and have been, plenty of times." A faint memory stirred. "By an Amazon once, in fact, when I was younger."

"Mm… really?" Pony looked intrigued. "But not much recently, huh?"

A shrug. "Lately I've been having to fight mostly for either my life or Gabrielle's.. it kinda puts a different spin on it." She admitted. "Besides, I.. um… " She fell silent.

Pony grinned. "Don't wanna lose in front of the honey, right?"

The warrior gave her a look, then burst into easy laughter. "Something like that. yeah." She lifted both hands and let them drop to the ground. "Ego, as Gabrielle likes to put it."

Eponin gave a shrug of her own. "We've all got that." She chuckled. "You'd fit right in here."

Xena thought about that. "Guess that's why you guys always give me such a hard time, huh?" She rolled her head to one side and regarded the dark haired Amazon thoughtfully. "I get a little tired of defending my reputation sometimes."

Pony chewed on her stalk for a while, trying to formulate an answer. Finally, she shrugged. "I thought you liked the challenge."

The warrior sighed. "Sometimes." She pulled a bit of moss up and rolled it between her fingers. "But I've been fighting for so damn long, it just gets old after a while." Her blue eyes flicked to the Amazon's face. "I've had fifteen years of challenges, Pony…you think that's enough?"

A shake of her head. "You say that, but then I watch you do what you just did.. you can't tell me you don't get a kick out of that, Xena… I won't believe it."

Xena grinned wryly. "No.. you're right.. I do.. but that's different.. it's me challenging myself.. pushing myself beyond limits that I set… not having to worry about some Amazon jumping at me from behind a bush every half league." She lifted herself up onto her elbows. "Look.. I'm not saying I don't like sparring.. and I'm not saying I won't do it…but can we drop the open season on me as soon as I walk into the village?" She sighed. "Pony, someone's gonna get hurt.. I'm gonna slip, and put a sword through someone's gut one of these days, and then what?"

Eponin spat out her bit of grass. "All right.. on one condition."

Both dark eyebrows lifted. "And that would be…?"

The Amazon grinned smugly. "Now that you're one of us.. you gotta teach us what ya know." She tapped the warrior's arm. "Lessons, Xena.. that's my condition." She waved a hand as a protest started. "I know.. I know.. you're going home.. but it's a long winter season, and we looovve visiting Amphipolis."

"Lessons, huh?" Xena repeated, with a hint of a smile.

"Uh huh."

The hint grew into a lazy, full smile. "You sure you're up to it?"

Eponin blinked, then scowled. "Hey.. is that a challenge?"

They both laughed, and Xena stretched her body out lazily. "All right… you got a deal." She agreed. "You send folks down… I'll work with em… probably a good thing, since I won't have Gabrielle to spar with for a while." She spared a wistful thought to the peaceful months of the previous winter. "Okay?"

"Deal." Eponin agreed. "You heading back? I know you guys wanna take off."

Xena pushed herself to her feet, and brushed the grass bits off her gambeson. "Yeah… " She waited for the Amazon to rise, then broke into a run, feeling the sun at her back and the wind in her face as Eponin's curses got left behind.

Gabrielle stepped out of the council chamber, and took a deep breath of the cool air. "Mm…" She commented, to no one in particular. "Great day for traveling." The close air of the chamber had laid a layer of sweat against the back of her neck, and she reached up, riffling her hair to allow the breeze to get at her skin.

"Morning!" Jessan's voice boomed out, and she turned to see the forest dweller ambling towards her, his huge body dripping with water, droplets catching the sun like diamonds. "Wow.. that was one heck of a party last night… Gabrielle, your Amazons really know how to have fun." He shook his head rapidly, scattering water everywhere including all over the bard.

"Hmm.. thanks, Jess." Gabrielle held a hand up and closed her eyes as the shower dampened her bare skin. "You guys ready to go?"

"Oh yeah." A big grin. " Eris is ready, and Elaini is spending a few minutes in the dining hall saying goodbye. Everyone loves the kids. " He paused. "Thanks for inviting us home, by the way… I was looking forward to spending some time with you guys."

The bard tucked a hand inside his fur covered arm, and fell into step beside him. "Me too…" She glanced up. "It's nice to be with someone who… " She paused, searching for the proper words.

"Who understands?" Jessan gazed at her, his liquid gold eyes warm. "You can tell me what it's like for you, and we'll tell you both what it's like for us…maybe we'll all learn stuff."

Gabrielle grinned. "I bet we do." She glanced across the village, and grinned, as she fastened her eyes on the dim, leafy entrance to the path up to the springs. Moments later, a dark haired form slid into view, moving easily as she dodged the leaves which canopied the route.

Xena was still jogging as she entered the compound, and her pace picked up as she spotted Gabrielle and Jessan and changed her direction to intercept them. The warrior slowed to a halt as she reached them, the ground bouncing up tiny pebbles as her boots hit them. "How'd it go?" She asked the bard. "Morning." That, with a nod to Jessan.

Gabrielle nodded firmly at her. "All set… it was… well, kinda tough, but Ephiny stood by me, and after that… it's going to be a kind of probation sort of thing, but I think it'll work out."

"Xena?" Jessan had been cocking his head from side to side. "What is she talking about?"

"Paladia.. she's going to stay here." Xena answered mildly. "What about Menelda?"

A shrug of the bard's mostly bare shoulder. "She hasn't decided… Eph said, it's a good idea, but.. having her that far away can be bad, too, because her and Erika together might be good, or they could just reinforce each other's bad points."

Xena considered that. "True." She commented. "But she needs some help."

"Mm… I know…" Gabrielle nibbled her lower lip. "I'll have to think about what to do for her." She sighed, and squared her shoulders. "So.. we ready to take off? I'm going to just go and tell Cait the good news, then I'm all set." She leaned against her partner. "Can we stop tonight at that nice place by the spring?" Her eyelashes batted at the taller woman. "Please?"

Xena grinned, ignoring Jessan's mischievous look. "I suppose you want salmon, too, huh?"

"Well." The bard put her nose in the air and sauntered. "Of course."

Thew warrior swatted her on the butt. "G'wan.. I'm going to go change and saddle up Argo.. I'll meet you by the healer's."

"Hey!" Gabrielle yelped, poking her in the side. "Cut that out!"

Xena deftly evaded her partner's defensive grab, and snatched at the back of her halter, tugging it back and releasing it with a pop. "Gotcha.."

"Ooo… " Gabrielle decided she was in a feisty mood, and lunged at the taller woman, catching her around the waist and making a desperate attempt to pull her to the ground. Given their respective height and weight differences, however, it was not a very successful attempt. "Aww… c'mon, Xena… "

The warrior laughed, as she looked down at her determinedly wrestling soulmate. She reached down and got an arm around the bard's middle, then lifted her up until she was upside down, squawking like a plucked chicken, her legs kicking up in the air. "Tch tch… "

"Xeeeennnaaa!!!" Gabrielle made a grab for the warrior's sturdy knees, getting an arm around one and tickling her mercilessly. "Yeehoowww!!!" She'd forgotten her midriff was in Xena's clutches, until a feathery responding tickle worked it's way up her side. "All right.. all right. .I surrender!"

Instead of letting her down, Xena tossed her upright, then caught her, and cradled her in her arms. The bard caught her breath, blowing her hair out of her eyes with an impatient puff. "I'm gonna get you for that."

"Oh yeah?" Xena replied softly, gazing down at her affectionately.

"Yeah." Gabrielle shot back, as she wound her arms around the warrior's neck and they looked into each other's eyes.



"You've already got me." Blue eyes softened.

Gabrielle laid her head down on the padded shoulder. "I guess I do, huh?"

They both turned as Jessan let out a long melodic sigh. "Awwww… " He pressed both hands above his heart. "This is sooooooo cute…. "

Eyebrows quirked simultaneously. "I'm gonna hit you." They both managed to say at the same time.

"And I won't EVEN bring up that long conversation you and I had coming back from Cirron, Xena… " Jessan warbled. "You know the one… right?"

"Jessan." Xena's voice dropped a whole octave.

"No no.. it'll never come from these fuzzy lips." The forest dweller held up a virtuous hand.

"What conversation?" Gabrielle inquired with interest. "You never told me about that." She turned her eyes on her partner, who was glowering at their friend. "C'mon Xena.. how bad could it be?"

Xena stared at Jessan, who grinned. "Y'know, Xena.. that nasty look would come off a whole lot better if you weren't cuddling your sweetheart, there." He poked the tip of his tongue out from between his fangs.

Xena let out a breath, then turned her attention to the inquisitive bard. "I'm going to saddle Argo." A pause. "Now."

"Okay, honey." Gabrielle patted her shoulder "You wanna let me down, first?" She was set neatly on to her booted feet. "Thanks." She waited until the warrior was several feet away. "We'll talk about that conversation later, right?"

Pale blue eyes flashed over one tanned shoulder, as Xena stopped, then she shook her head, and kept going.

Jessan and Gabrielle exchanged glances, and laughed. "Let's go.. " Gabrielle grabbed his arm again. "One more stop." She paused as a line of men, dressed only in loincloths passed, their bodies covered in mud. "Ah.. I see Ephiny found a use for those guys." She grinned, as their prisoners vainly tried to rid themselves of muck.

Jessan laughed. "Oh yeah.. something about digging a foundation for her new quarters?" He commented. "She said something about a sunken bath.. I think."

Cait drummed her fingers against her thigh, as the healer took yet another look at the wound on her shoulder. It hurt a lot less today, really, she'd assured them. She was really just taking up a needless pallet.. surely, it would be better for her to rest in her own snug cot. "Really.. it's quite a lot better today."

The healer glanced at her, then shook her head. "Y'know, I could get a complex around you, Cait. You'd think we were killing you here."

The girl sighed. "Oh.. please… it's just so boring here."

Solari snorted from the next pallet. "Gee, thanks, Cait… nice to be your neighbor."

"Gosh.. that's not what I… " Cait realized Solari was kidding her and she scowled. "I'd just feel lots better in my own bed, that's all."

The dark haired Amazon's eyes twinkled. "We all would, kid… specially if there was someone else in em."

Cait blushed.

The healer laughed. "Soli, you're about ready to go home, I think.. your sense of humor's back." A wave of weak laughter went around the room, which broke off as the door eased open, and Gabrielle entered, bringing a wave of pine scented air in with her.

"Hello, everyone." The bard waved. "How are you all doing?"

A chorus of "great!" responded, causing blond woman to smile. "Good to hear… sorry it was such a hectic festival for everyone.. maybe next year it'll be more peaceful." Yeah.. Gabrielle chuckled wryly to herself. Maybe we won't be here.

"Queen Gabrielle.. " A voice called from the back, and the bard recognized one of the young scouts who had been injured in the battle.


"Is it true you're pregnant?" The girl asked, blushing as everyone turned and stared at her. "Well, gods.. none of you have the guts to ask.. what's she gonna do.. swat me?"

Gabrielle laughed. "Yes.. it's true… um.. about eight weeks, I guess." She laid a hand over her flat stomach. "I still haven't really gotten used to the idea yet."

Weak whistles and cheers went up. "You got any names yet?" Solari asked, with a wink.

"Gods.. no.. " The bard chuckled. "We've got plenty of time for that… but you guys have to excuse me.. I need to talk to Cait here, and then we're taking off for home." She moved over to the girl's pallet, and gazed down at her, aware of the acute interest of the surrounding Amazons, who had found other things to look at while they listened. "Um.. " Gabrielle turned to the healer. "Listen… you know.. I really need to talk to Cait in private.. would you mind if I helped her back to her quarters? I think she'd do just as well there, as here. "

From the corner of her eye, Gabrielle saw the swiftly hidden triumphant grin on Cait's face, and swallowed a smile herself.

The healer sighed. "As you wish, your Majesty.. let me put together an herbal pack for her." She surrendered gracefully, and Gabrielle tucked the pack under her arm as she carefully helped Cait to stand. "Easy now…you'll probably be a little dizzy."

"Gosh." The girl hung onto the bard's arm as she waited for the world to steady. "How ever did you know that?"

Gabrielle sighed. "Been there, done that." She slipped an arm around Cait's waist, and steadied her. "I had an arrow wound not too terribly long ago… it was pretty painful, so I know what you're going through."

Cait leaned shyly against her, and took a few breaths. "All right.. let's go.. I want to get out of here before she changes her mind." She added in a low voice. "It's ever so boring… and all those people complaining of everything.. "

"Yeah.. " Gabrielle pushed the door open and guided them through. "I know when I'm sick, or hurt… I want to b left alone mostly.." She paused. "Well, except for Xena, of course."

Cait grinned. "Of course.. she's such a good healer.. all the ones in there were talking about her."

That got a big smile from the bard, and they made the rest of the short journey in silence. Cait's quarters were on the end, nearest the training fields, and would ordinarily have held four girls. However, three of her mates had been advanced yesterday, and had lost no time in moving their stuff to the full Amazon's group quarters, leaving young Cait in solitary splendor.

Gabrielle glanced around in interest as she gently helped the girl into bed, tugging the soft comforter up around her and smiling as she recognized the pattern. "Here's a bit of home."

Cait fingered it. "Yes… Cyrene gave it to me before I left.. I thought it was awfully nice of her.. I mean it's not like I'm part of her family or anything."

The bard seated herself on a low chair nearby, and rested her elbows on her knees. "Cait.. that's not true." She told the girl quietly. "You are a part of our family.. don't you doubt that."

Gray eyes blinked at her, on the verge of tears. "I'm just an orphan."

"No." Gabrielle took her hand and covered it with her own. "As an Amazon, you're my sister.. and Xena's too, now….but even before that, you were a part of our lives, and I've always considered you part of my family."

Cait just looked at her, breathing hard for a moment. "It.. feels so strange.. I hardly remember my parents anymore."

"Yeah.. I know.. I remember how I felt, when Xena told me I was part of her family.. she told me that our friendship bound her and I closer than blood ever could, and you know.. that was the most amazing thing anyone had ever told me." Gabrielle sighed gently at the memory. "I felt.. proud… and awed…it was very special."

A small silence descended, as both women seemed absorbed in thought.

"Gabrielle.. can I ask you something?" Cait finally said, very softly. "I asked Xena.. but the answer she gave me didn’t' really explain things.."

The bard laughed softly. "She's not much into details.. no.. sure. What's the question?"

"How do you know when you're in love?"

Gabrielle exhaled. "Oh." She breathed. "That question." Her eyes went to the girl's face. "You mean.. in love, not just loving someone, don't you?"

Cait nodded soberly.

"Hm." The bard nibbled her thumbnail, then leaned back, and focused her eyes on the small shelf above the bed, where pinecones rested, each one decorated with lurid colors. "You know.. because when you look at the person you're in love with, you get a… a pain.. right here." She put a hand over her heart. "It feels like something's squeezing you.. but something else is filling you up inside, more and more, until you're ready to explode." She paused. "You know, because you'd do anything, and be anything for that person, you'd die for them, you'd give up everything you knew, and all of your dreams just to be with them… "Another pause. "They become the center of your world."

She swallowed, ignoring the tear rolling down her cheek. "And.. when they look back at you.. with the same love in their eyes that you have for them .. there is nothing on this earth, or beyond that can compare with that feeling." She looked up at an awed Cait. "That's what love is, Cait… there is nothing stronger, nothing more wonderful… then when you find that one person, that one tree in the forest meant for you."

They looked at each other. "Was that what you wanted to know?" Gabrielle finally asked, quietly.

"Gosh." Cait murmured. "You make it sound so magical."

A small nod. "For me, it was."

Cait sighed. "But.. what if your tree is a coconut palm?" Her eyes went to Gabrielle's in plaintive appeal.

The bard let out a surprised chuckle. "Well.. then you get the coconuts down, crack them open, and enjoy yourself." She replied. "Okay?"

Cait thought about it. "Okay." She finally agreed.

"Now.. on a totally different subject…your friend Paladia is going to be taken in on a trial basis…but you've got to keep an eye on her, understand?" The bard told her, not missing the surprised, and delighted gleam that appeared in the pale gray eyes. Not so different a subject after all, huh She mused quietly to herself. "She should show more people her pictures.. she gave Xena and I one for our joining ceremony."

"Blast.. that… " Cait spluttered. "Did she? I'm going to whomp her.. she didn’t tell me she was going to do that.. was it the panther and fox one?"

Gabrielle nodded.

"Gosh.. it was perfect, wasn't it? She worked for days getting those eyes the right colors.. had me chec…. " Cait blushed a little and stopped. "It was quite nice, wasn't it?"

The bard's face crinkled into a big smile. " Sure was.. it's going above our fireplace… I love it, and so does Xena." She watched Cait's head cock, and she listened herself, hearing footsteps which were heavy enough to be her soulmates, but lacked the warrior's distinctive rhythm. The door eased open, and Paladia poked her head in. "Hey.. c'mon in." The bard waved at her.

"Um.. " Paladia looked doubtful. "Nah.. you're busy." She started to edge out, but Gabrielle had launched herself to her feet, and gotten to the door first, sticking a hand through and grabbing the ex renegade's arm. 'Hey!"

"No. it's okay.. come on in.. " Gabrielle insisted, giving her a tug, which resulted in the rest of the tall blond emerging into the room. She was carrying a small sack, and she thrust it in front of her towards Cait.

"Your stuff." She grumbled. "Healer sent it over."

"Thanks." Gabrielle took it from her, and set it down on the table. "We were just talking about you."

Instant suspicious look. "Why? What'd I do?"

The bard gazed at her kindly. "I was just telling Cait how much Xena and I love the picture you did for us… it's wonderful." She was rewarded by a dull blush that colored the taller woman's face almost crimson. "And also I was telling her she'd better hurry up and heal, because she's got a new prospective Amazon to break in."

Gabrielle, an expert at reading body language, saw the faint slump in the ex renegade's posture, and felt a quiet sympathy for her. Even after everything.. this was one case where her judgment had been right on target.

"Well.. good luck." Paladia said awkwardly.

Cait let a cool grin shape her lips. "Thank you .. I'll need it." She replied, with a quiet glint in her pale gray eyes.

Paladia felt the silence, and she glanced up, seeing Cait's gaze on her, then shifting her eyes, to see Gabrielle's equally amused regard. Her brow contracted. "Why're you looking at me?" She asked, hesitantly.

Gabrielle straightened, and lifted her chin, returning the taller woman's gaze. "Well.. you have a home here, if you want one."

Paladia froze, to the point she even stopped breathing. When she finally drew breath, it was a gasp. "Why… in the seven levels of Hades would you do that?"

Mist green eyes shone with quiet conviction. "Because everyone deserves a second chance, Paladia." She put a hand out and gripped the taller woman's arm. "Good luck." Then she gave Cait a tiny wave, and backed towards the door. "I've got to get going… we're headed home." She told them, not even sure if they heard, as she closed the door on a silent, pensive tableau.

The cool air struck her, and she sighed, putting her hands on her hips and regarded the compound. She spotted her soulmate leading Argo across the open space, and watched as little Xenon galloped up to her, dancing around her and gesturing with his hands. Jessan and Elaini were edging there way over too, surrounded by a cluster of Amazons of all ages, all vying to hold one of the triplets, who were having the time of their lives tugging on necklaces and feathers.

Gabrielle nodded to herself, then straightened her shoulders, and started across the ground, heading towards home.

The end.