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 – Violence - yes, there will be violence of a moderately graphic nature in this story. Xena is easily bored, and when she gets bored, she likes to hit people. It's just one of those things.

Subtext - As in all my stories, this one is based on the premise of two people who are very much in love with each other. They happen to both be women. There is no graphically depicted action here.. but if the thought of this gives you a problem, find a different story to read. There are lots of very good general fiction Xena stories that can be found everywhere.

If you read the above, and then persist in reading the story, which won't be a short one, cause they never are, and then you're STILL offended by love… send me your address, and I'll send you some kumquats. It'll be perfect for you, trust me.

ON the other hand, if you kinda like the stuff, send me your address, and I'll pass along some of my favorite snack foods, white raisins, dipped in fresh milk chocolate.

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

 All right… I know I said Part 7 was the end, but I lied. OR.. more to the point, I was told the characters just were not ready to shut up yet. You all can go argue with the Amazons.. I already have the Amazon secret police out after me for Ephiny abuse.

Leap of Faith - Part 7

By Melissa Good

Paladia looked around nervously, as she followed Xena through the inn, where eyes flicked to her, and then away, fastening instead on the shorter warrior striding in front of her. The inhabitants of Amphipolis were not too different from what she remembered from home, a bit more prosperous, maybe.. she didn't see many rough homespun shirts here, mostly well made, stoutly belted garments, with a bit of embroidery to them.

They all seemed to be not above spending a dinar or two, either, she noted enviously. Besides the merchants they'd been after, there were obviously village residents here, regulars, whose calls back and forth across the candlelit room showed complacent familiarity. Against the back wall, where Xena was leading her, were two fairly large tables, well made, containing people she sort of knew.

I guess Curly didn't croak. She mused, seeing Ephiny's pale eyes gazing at her with an expressionless intentness. Point for me.. guess I don't get hung. The Amazon was surrounded by her sisters, with the annoying girl at one end, and the one who'd tried to kill her next to her. There was also a smaller, dark haired one, and the two she'd had as guards most of the trip.

The table she was being directed to held a tall, broad shouldered man, whose dark hair and blue eyes reminded her strongly of Xena, and a slim, dark haired woman seated next to him, and of course, the bitch Queen who had preceded them into the room.

"Siddown." Xena pushed her into a corner seat, and let the shackles drop to the ground loosely. She pinned Paladia with a searingly intense look, which carried a clear, unmistakable warning. "Don't try anything stupid." The warrior rasped, then pulled the chair out next to her and sat down, resting her elbows on it's arms, and extending her booted legs out under the table, lapsing in to a brooding silence.

Gabrielle took the chair next to her, and rested her folded hands on the table. "We thought maybe you'd like to get out of that cellar for a few hours." She said evenly. "I guess I should introduce everyone.. " This with a wry, swift glance at her glowering partner. "You know Xena already... and this is her brother Toris, and his betrothed, Granella. They're getting joined tomorrow."

Paladia carefully shifted her eyes first to one, and then the other. "Congratulations." She muttered sourly.

"Thanks." Toris answered cheerfully, as though she'd been a casual acquaintance. He pulled a tray of newly delivered bread over, and sliced off a few pieces, offering them around. "Here.. might as well get my cutting prowess while I can.. if we get a joint, I know I'll get booted outta here." He directed a frank grin across the table to his sister, who lifted an eyebrow at him. "Right, sis?"

"Right." The warrior replied, then looked up, her eyes slipping to the door. A faint half grin tugged at her lips, and she nudged Gabrielle, who was deep in conversation with Granella. "Hey... "

"Hmm?" The bard looked at her, then turned and looked at the door, where her partner was pointing. "Hey!" She broke into a big grin, as she spotted Lennat crossing the room, followed by Lila and their son, and her mother and father. "Wow.. they made it. " She stood and met them, throwing her arms around Lila enthusiastically.

Paladia studied them. A stocky, broad shouldered man brought up the rear, with grizzled brown hair and paler eyes. In front of him was an older woman, with a careworn face, and gray hair, and somewhat stiff movements. The girl the bitch was hugging was taller than her, and had dark brown hair. The blond man leading them, who looked vaguely familiar, was carrying a baby. Oh. Right. She recognized him now. One of the merchant sheep from Potacraps. No wonder... She snorted to herself softly. Just her luck to have swiped family of that damned, annoying bitch of an Amazon Queen.

"That's Gabrielle's family." Toris provided her in irritating helpfulness. "Her sister Lila, and her little nephew Gabriel, and her mother and father." He paused. "I think you know her brother in law Lennat."

Paladia was about to make a scathingly rude comment about their looks, then caught Xena's expression, and bit her tongue instead. "Nice." She muttered, not wanting to rouse the warrior's temper any further. Her arm hurt like Hades, and she just had a feeling that if she pushed a little, Xena would take a lot of pleasure in thumping it. "That why you're involved?" She asked the ex warlord, more to hear something other than their own breathing than anything else.

Xena turned her head, and gazed at her. "That's how we heard of it, yeah." She replied gruffly. "But it didn't have to be Lennat... we woulda come after you anyway. I don't like creeps in my back yard."

"YOUR backyard?" Paladia asked.

The warrior nodded. "Mine. This is my home." She looked around. "These are friends and family of mine... no little wannbe scum comes in and takes what's theirs as long as I can do something about it."

The renegade didn't understand the looks that passed between the tall man on one side of her, and Xena. Didn't understand the almost sad, wry smiles that etched almost at the same time onto their faces. She only knew that now, at last, she at least had something in common with her. "That's what I was doing."

Twin pairs of blue eyes studied her.

"Those people in that cave were my friends, and my family." She explained. "Everyone else gave up on them."

Toris leaned on one arm. "That doesn't give you the right to take other people."

Paladia looked him in the eye. "It's survival of the fittest... you don't understand." She took a breath. "We had to land to grow things.. most of us too young for skills, or too old to work.. we took what we could find."

Xena gazed at her, those vivid eyes searching, calculating.. "But you didn't stop there." She concluded quietly. "Even when you had enough.. you kept on, because it got to be a kick... didn't it?"

The renegade took a breath to protest, then paused. There was something in that expression that warned her off lying. Something that knew parts of her with a frightening thoroughness.

Something that understood, more than anyone else ever had. "What if it did?"

Xena was spared from answering by the arrival of Gabrielle's family at their tableside. The bard was getting them situated at the table next to them, and she stood to exchange greetings with Lila, who walked over and hugged her with no hesitation.

That's a change. The warrior sighed to herself, as she returned the younger girl's heartfelt squeeze. "Hello, Lila, glad you made it down here." She surprised herself by actually being glad to see Gabrielle's younger sister.

"Don't give me that." Lila whispered, pulling back and looking at her. "You did it. Again."

Xena shrugged. "We did it." She corrected gently. "Your sister did most of the work."

Lila laughed. "That's not the story she's going to tell, I bet." She smiled, and bit her lower lip, almost, in that moment, looking very much like her older sister, with her eyes sparkling like they were. "Thank you." She lifted Xena's wrapped hand. "Did you get hurt?"

The warrior half chuckled. "Doing that? No." She turned her hand over. "Just a little mishap here." Her eyes drifted over to where Gabrielle was standing, cradling little Gabriel in her arms, and cooing at him. "How's your son doing?" She asked absently, watching her soulmate's smile broaden, as the baby giggled and kicked at her. "Looks healthy."

Lila let out a pleased sigh. "He's doing great.." She laughed gently as she watched her sister. "He sure likes her." She glanced up at Xena's shadowed face, and saw the poignant wistfulness there. "Mother told me about your son.. Xena, I'm so sorry."

The warrior tore her eyes from Gabrielle, and gazed at her quietly for a long moment. "Thanks." She replied softly. "It's been tough."

Gabrielle raised her head at that point, and looked over, a gently questioning look in her eyes. She walked over, rocking Gabriel gently, as she came even with her sister and her soulmate. "Hey... someone wants to say hello to you. " She put the baby in Xena's reluctant arms, and turned to her sister. "So.. did we perform as advertised, or what?" She pushed Lila down in the closest chair at the next table, and sat down in her own, so that their knees were brushing. "Wait till you hear what Xena did."

Lila giggled, and shot a glance towards the warrior, who had reseated herself, and was giving Hecuba and Herodotus nods over her head. "I thought so... "

Gabriel reached out eager hands and captured locks of her dark hair, and tugged, opening his eyes wide when she smiled at him. His snub noise twitched at her, and he seemed mesmerized by her face. His fingers unwound from the black, silky hair and stretched up, touching her jaw, then slapping at it. Xena let his fingers clutch her injured hand, and returned Hecuba's grateful, almost enthusiastic smile.

Paladia watched all this with enigmatic eyes. So.. She furtively watched Xena's face, seeing the gentle softening as she idly played with the baby, and then caught Toris and his tart also watching her, with weird looks on their faces. Maybe they thought she was going to just take a bite out of the brat.. wouldn't that just stir up this happy little family gathering?

She'd never really liked babies.. they seemed more trouble than they were worth, and she'd seen her mother work herself to exhaustion taking care of her younger brothers and sisters, with little resources and less help. Each one seemed to suck more life out of her.. enough so that when that last, ugly winter had come, she'd just sort of.. faded out. They'd found her one morning, cold and still, in the tiny, empty kitchen.

Then their father had come in, and just looked, then left. He'd never come back, and the town, cheated of his contributions of skill, and his small patch of land, had thrown them out.

The three youngest had died, almost together, that first week. They'd fallen in the creek, and had barely been able to crawl out and lay on the frozen ground. She'd found them hugging each other for warmth, but too late. She'd had to burn them.. the ground had been too hard to bury, and damned if she was going to let the wolves have them.

So, who was this Xena, to tell her what was right? She had a nice place here, with her little family, and all these jerks hanging on her every word and move like she was some kind of royalty. She had no right to say anything at all.. so what if she'd.. well, started raiding for the fun of it.. for the spoils, instead of sheer necessity of it? She'd been entitled.. they'd all been entitled.. after what they'd gone through.

The scent of roasting meat got much more apparent, and she looked up, seeing servers now moving into the room carrying platters of the stuff. She felt her mouth start to water, and she swallowed, wondering if Xena was going to let her eat the junk, or just keep her sitting here watching.

The warrior stood, in a smooth, muscular motion she idly envied, and passed the child over to her mother, with a wry half grin. The baby took exception to this, and his brow creased, his little mouth puckering and opening in an angry grimace, as he waved his fists around, and clutched the air in Xena's direction.

Lila looked at him, then at Xena, then at Gabrielle, who hid her eyes behind a hand. "Don't you duck out on me, big sister... this is very obviously your nephew, here." She chuckled. "He definitely shares your tastes."

Gabrielle giggled, and turned her eyes to her partner, letting her feelings show for a long, golden moment, as their glances met, and that coaxed a grudging smile from her grumpy soulmate.

Paladia almost turned away. No one had ever looked at her like that. Gabrielle's face seemed to glow from within, as the tiny lines close to her eyes crinkled, and the candlelight captured deep sparkles in the deep green depths.

She rolled her eyes, and looked over at Xena, who had a tolerant grin on her face. Gabrielle was a gullible little fool. Then she took a second look at the warrior's suddenly unguarded eyes. Wasn't she?

The server delivered their portions, and to her mild surprise, she was allowed to eat the stuff, finding it incredibly tasty, as did the rest of the crowd, apparently. She was even given a cup of ale, which she found to be cold, and sweet, and very, very smooth, and she spared wistful thought that at least if she was going to be stuck here for a while, she wouldn't starve.

That had been a problem in the winter, before they finally got their acts together, and found the caverns. She'd gotten so thin she'd stopped looking at herself in the still pools of water they'd found.. the sunken eyes looking back at her had reminded her too much of her mother. After they'd finally gotten settled she'd made up for it. She glanced down. A little too much, actually.. but it had felt so good not to be hungry all the time, she couldn't help herself.

Paladia glanced around. No one here seemed to be going hungry.. though both the Amazons, and Xena and Gabrielle seemed to have a lean muscularity that pointed to a fairly active lifestyle. That was what had triggered her initial suspicions about that damn bitch... one look at those arms and she'd known she wasn't no damn storyteller. And the way she moved.. oh no...she might be wearing those frilly, little girl clothes, but that solid, confident walk and the way she just held herself told a different kind of story.

But then.. the bitch had performed! It had thrown her way off.. listening to her stupid stories, and she'd let herself get lost in a dream of how happy it would make all of them, to be able to hear stuff like that all the time. Looking around the inn, at the happy faces, and the friendly conversation, she found herself missing the others. Her family.

What now? Oh.

The crowd was turning their way, and Gabrielle, who'd been leaning lazily back in her chair with her hands clasped over her belly straightened, and held a hand up. "OK.. hang on." She turned a questioning eye on Xena. "Any requests?"

The warrior blinked at her, appearing fairly relaxed. "Yeah, but you won't honor it." She drawled, with a rueful grin. "So just take it easy on me, ok?"

Gabrielle stood up, and stretched, then put her hands on Xena's shoulders and kissed the top of her head. "I promise." She pressed her cheek against the warrior's. "I'll only make you look only slightly bigger than life, how's that?"

Xena sighed, and butted her head against the bard's side. "I'll have to take it."

"Yep." Gabrielle agreed, giving her shoulders a squeeze. "I'll be back."

Paladia didn't know what to make of it. But she understood why Gabrielle wasn't scared, there in the caverns. The crazy woman played with fire on a daily basis.

They watched her move slowly to the front of the room, as friendly greetings and eager requests followed her, and settled back to listen.

Gabrielle had gotten through four stories, and a poem before she heard a scuffle outside, and broke off, half turning towards the door. Xena had heard it too, and stood, her previous attitude of relaxed attention gone. The inn door opened, and two of the outer guard entered, wrestling a tall, well built man between them. All three were liberally coated with mud. The captive was snarling, and fighting them, and he was almost too much for the two guards to handle.

Xena darted a glance at Paladia's face, and saw a flash of recognition there, then strode forward, hardly noticing it as the patrons moved out of her way with knowing speed. She reached the three men, and the two guards gave her grateful, welcoming smiles. "Problem?"

The man twisted out of their grasp, and swung on her. She caught his hand, and tightened her grip, stopping him in mid swing, then threw an elbow at his jaw, slamming him backwards. "Dumb move. Wanna try another?"

The room was avidly watching them, almost enjoying this unexpected end to their evening. Xena noticed the man's quick glance over her shoulder, and the slight widening as he recognized Paladia against the back wall. She turned her head slightly, and found Gabrielle watching her, her arms crossed over her chest, standing in a relaxed posture. So. I get to do this my way, huh? Xena turned to her captive, and shifted her grip from his arm to the neck of his tunic, twisting it around her fist and bringing them closer. "C'mere."

She dragged him across the floor, their footsteps loud in the suddenly silent inn. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted her mother, wiping her hands on her apron, having come out of the kitchen to see what was going on. Mentally she willed her to stay near Gabrielle, and continued on. She stopped at their table, and commanded Paladia's attention with an icy stare. "All right. You listen, and you listen hard." She snarled, lifting up a little and half choking the man, who scrabbled at her arm ineffectively. "Unless you want me to go out, and personally.. " She smiled. "Discourage all these nice, brave, stupid kids, you tell them to back off. "

Paladia looked at her, then at Elesran, who was staring at her in obstinate pride. She liked him, and suspected he really liked her, and he obviously was leading the group doggedly trying to set her free. Gods, she wished she was back there with them.. they'd sit around the campfire, and tell lies about the animals that had gotten away from them.. the little hunting parties..

She sighed inwardly. Elesran would keep going, he was just that kind of guy, too. Then she looked up into the inflexible, cold blue of Xena's eyes, and understood that the ex warlord wasn't bluffing. She was offering her a choice, her, or them.

 Her, or them. She looked up into his eager gaze, knowing she'd probably never see him again. "Elesran.. go home." She growled, giving a hand sign he knew.

His eyes showed shock, and profound hurt. "Go on.. go take care of everyone else, ok?" She swallowed the bile suddenly in her throat. "You can't beat these people."

Silently, he dropped his eyes, and released his hold on Xena's arm, and a whisper of comment edged about the room as Xena let go her grasp, and flexed her fingers. "Good choice." The warrior said quietly. "Now, get out of here, and I don't want to see you, or any of your friends around here, you got me?"

He looked at her with a depthless hatred. "I'll pay you back for this someday."

Xena favored him with a world weary grin. "Buddy, you've got a long, long line to stand in." She informed him. "Don't waste your time." She gave him a shove towards the door, and watched him closely as he stumbled out, followed by the two guards, who turned at the door, and gave her enormous, worshipful grins, before dutifully escorting the man away.

The warrior resumed her seat, draping her long arms over the chair arms, and hooking one leg over the arm as well, as the buzz of conversation rose again.

"Well." Gabrielle mused, uncrossing her arms. "That's all for me tonight, folks... my voice is going." She announced, as Cyrene straightened up from her position against the wall, and slid an arm around her shoulders. "Hi mom."

"Hey cutie." The innkeeper smiled at her. "I see your family made it out here.. that was nice of them. "

Gabrielle nodded absently, her eyes glued on her partner. "Yeah.. it was.. it's nice to see them." She finally glanced sideways at Cyrene. "That baby loves Xena." Her face crinkled into a smile. "She's really good with kids.. but she won't admit it."

Cyrene sighed, and nodded. "I know...I wish.. " She left the sentence unfinished, then took a deep breath. "C'mon.. let me go say hello to your mother.. she looks petrified. I'm afraid my daughter's done her usual good job of intimidation."

The bard allowed herself to be tugged along, as she kept her eyes down, studying the floor in absorbed silence.

The cabin was invitingly quiet when Gabrielle took leave of her family, and headed back there, Xena having gone on ahead of her a candlemark or so before. The warrior had escorted their silent prisoner back to the root cellar, then told Gabrielle she was going to go out and scout around, to make sure the renegades had listened to Paladia's command.

So she entered into the peace of her home, without even Ares' silent presence, the wolf having gone off with his mistress in delight at the thought of a night run. Xena had lit the candles though, and changed from her light fabric tunic to leathers and armor. The tunic was draped neatly over the chair, and the bard lifted it idly as she passed, bringing it to her face and breathing in her soulmate's essence with wistful pleasure.

She spotted the cup standing by the fireplace, and saw the water left to warm, and it brought a grin to her face as she seated herself on the rug and tugged her diary towards her, from where it was resting with her quills as she'd left it earlier.

The faintly musky scent of the rug tickled her senses, along with the wonderful smell of the crushed herbs Xena had put in the bottom of the cup. She brought it to her nose and drew a deep breath in, recognizing nutmeg and lemon rind, and the sweet tang of raspberries. She let the cup fall to her knees, and studied it, running her fingers over the carved pattern on it's outer edge.

It had been nice seeing her family, although.. her mother had drawn her aside and told her she'd.. they'd.. heard some stories that had upset them a lot. Gabrielle let out a long breath. A lot. She'd had to confirm them, and only Cyrene's steadying presence had save the situation, when the innkeeper had neatly captured her mother, and spirited her away into the kitchen, leaving her with her sister, and Lennat, and her father.

An awkward silence had fallen, until her father had cleared his throat, and fiddled with his cup of cider, then glanced at her. "Well... " He'd licked his lips, and shrugged a little. "You handled it... you lived through it... it's your life, daughter, but if you ever need your family, we're here for you."

Just like that. Even Lila had just gripped her hand hard under the table, in an instinctive gesture of support. She was, actually, proud of them. They'd hated hearing what happened, but Lennat already had, from Cait, and they didn't yell at her, didn't criticize, didn't try to get her to leave here. Though she hadn't told them everything, just the bare details. That she'd been attacked in Brittania.. that she'd borne a child, who had turned out to be a manifestation of an evil god.. and that it was that child who had killed Xena's son.

And that she'd poisoned Hope, to keep anyone else from being hurt.

That she and Xena had… somehow… worked things out between them.

Sighing, she put the cup down, and poured some water into it, then picked up her quill, and flipped open the diary, pausing as the candlelight shone down on what she'd taken to be her old placemarker. A slim, very supple piece of leather was in it's place, dyed a deep, forest green, the edges very neatly wrapped with golden thread, and a fanciful letter G stamped into it's surface.

Around it was wrapped a piece of parchment, with a familiar handwriting on it, which she unwrapped and flattened out, as the wisps of fragrant steam from her cup rose up and misted her sight.


I needed my armor bit back, so I replaced it.

And in case you're gonna give me grief because it was such a meaningful piece of my old leather for you, this one's mine too. It's just from a old set that hasn't fit me for years, so relax.


Gabrielle felt a smile stretch her face, as she ran her fingers lovingly over the soft surface, and examined the neat, perfect edging. Xena never did things halfway, right? She raised the leather to her nose and sniffed, and sure enough, detected the faint but perceptibly familiar scent of her soulmate's skin on it. She laughed softly, and picked up her quill, dipping it into the ink, and pressing letters into the page. The soft scrape of the quill's edge rasped gently in the silence, competing with the candle's flutter, and the soft hoot of an owl just outside the window.

Today was kind of a mixed day, both good and bad. On the bad side, my family knows what happened to me in Britannia, and what happened after we got back. They know about Hope... and they kind of surprised me by not freaking out as badly as I thought they were going to. Da... really surprised me. I don't think they're happy, and I know this makes them even more nervous about Xena, but... I think they realize that I'm not leaving her, not for them, not for anything, so they figure it's better to support me, and that's kind of that.

It was kind of a relief to have them know, though, so I know how Xena felt after she told her mother about it. It hurts, but it feels better to have things out in the open. I like that better. Xena said I would.

We brought Paladia in for dinner, and that was weird, and kind of uncomfortable, because it put Xena way over on edge and into her surly, I'm the toughest thing to walk the earth mode. She's so cute when she's like that, but I can't say that to her, because it kind of ruins the effect, you know? It was like she was trying to out tough Paladia, and I think it may have worked. For a little bit, once or twice, I kind of felt sorry for her.. she looked so overwhelmed, and I think she felt really bad about sending that guy away. Kind of like she was cutting her ties to them, and that must have been hard. She doesn't have any other family, I think.

If she hadn't done what she did to Ephiny... I'd work on Xena to just.. find a way for those guys to live, and let her go. If it was just the kidnapping of merchants.. and the road stealing.. and stuff like that. Because I can see how she'd feel, how she was desperate to get food and stuff for all these guys.. maybe I would have done the same thing.

But not what she did to Eph. I know.. Xena said she's done worse.. but... in one way it's not worse. Xena did.. what she did for a purpose. If.. she used someone.. it was part of her objectives.. because she needed something, and this was the way she chose to get it.

Paladia did it for her own pleasure, and no other reason. Is that splitting hairs? Yeah. Am I trying to find justification for Xena because I love her, and I'd rather see her in a better light? Yeah. But I think that's true anyway.

Xena is.. so driven... that people become obstacles to her, or a means to an end. She doesn't stop to think how they'll feel, she just goes - and people get hurt. That's exactly what happened to me.. isn't it? Sure it is. The difference is, I distract the Hades out of her. Even in Britannia, during that whole thing, she kept getting sidetracked finding out where I was.. planning a rescue.. and even with Caesar's army on the field, and her about to light in to them... I heard stories in the camp after they rescued us about how she just walked into Boudicca's tent, and flattened her when she figured out she'd been lied to about where I was.

I was pretty proud of her right then. Even with Dahok's influence, and facing Caesar, and having to deal with Boudicca, and knowing I... knowing that it looked like I was choosing Krafstar over her.. his way over hers.. still.

Still. But I know she doesn't see it like that. She believes, deep in her heart, that she abandoned me, and because of that, bad things happened.

If I could turn back time to one single moment in my life, it would be to choose, after we liberated the temple, to go with her, instead of with Krafstar. That was the point.. I think.. where it would have made a difference. I would have been at her side, even if she didn't really want me there, and if she'd fallen in battle.. well, I would have been there, standing over her with my staff until they took me down too. And that would have been that. No Dahok, no Hope.. I wouldn't have killed Meridan.. and if we came back Solon would be living with us right now.

My gods.. that hurts to write. Xena says...there are some things in life that you just wish and wish and wish you could change. I guess this is one of those things. I think she has lots of them, but I guess it's one of the things she'd want to change too.

Well.. one thing.. I talked to Toris tonight. We took a little walk out behind the inn, and sat down, in the moonlight that finally appeared since this rain stopped. I told him after his joining.. and when he felt he was ready, that I was ready, and we could.. go ahead with our agreement. I think he was a little surprised, but he hugged me, and told me he was really glad I'd decided to do it. He said he was watching Xena tonight with little Gabriel, and all he could think about was Solon, and what it might have been like if Xena had been able to raise him. He thinks she'll be a good mother, and that I will too.

I couldn't help thinking about Hope when he said that. I still dream about her sometimes. I could have forgiven her almost anything.. but I know she killed Solon.. and she did it specifically to fracture my love for Xena.

That I can't forgive. Not even if it's my own daughter. Because it almost worked.


She felt Xena's distinctive presence a few seconds before she heard the rhythmic sound of her footsteps against the wood, and she turned as the door opened, revealing the windblown features of her soulmate, along with the happy looking Ares. "Hey there." She watched as Xena padded in, dropping her sword and chakram on the table. "Everything quiet?"

The warrior ambled over, and dropped down onto the rug next to her, looking pleased with herself for some reason. "Yep." She lay down, extending her legs and crossing them, and putting her hands behind her head. "Nothing around for miles."

Gabrielle closed her diary, and took a long swallow of tea. "How far'd you go?" She asked, curiously.

Xena regarded the ceiling. "Most of the way back to the caverns." She admitted. "Just felt like a run, I guess." She gave the bard a sheepish grin, obviously very relaxed. "Took the edge off."

"Mmm." Gabrielle rolled onto her side, and rested her head on the warrior's leather clad stomach, gazing up at her over the curve of her armor covered breasts. "My folks know about.. stuff."

Black eyebrows edged up.

"Lennat heard it from Cait.. so.. " Gabrielle shrugged a little. "They were sort of ok.. but mom had to take my mother out back and kinda work her over a little."

The brows dropped.

"I made a date with Toris."

Brows shot up again, and Xena dropped a hand to her face, stroking it gently.

Gabrielle turned a little, and kissed the fingers touching her lightly. "I really want this."

Xena traced the tiny lines her face and breathed out slowly. "Gabrielle.. " Her voice was very gentle. "Our lives.. are still pretty dangerous."

Gabrielle looked her right in the eye. "I spoke to your mother, Xena.. and to Toris and Granella. If anything happens to us, our child will be taken of." She drew in a breath. "And Ephiny, Solari, and about a half dozen other Amazons have also offered.. so .. I'm not going to let that stop me."

Blue eyes softened, and Xena smiled at her. "All right." She agreed. "I'm with you."

The bard smiled back. "You'd better be...even chances are that baby's gonna like you better anyway." She teased gently. "You attract them like bees to a flower."

The warrior chuckled. "I do , huh??"

Gabrielle's eyes glinted. "Oh yeah.." She made a faint buzzing sound, and rose up on her elbows, skimming above her partner's body with a look half teasing and half enticing. "Bzzzzzzz.. mmmm." They ended up kissing, and she let herself down gently, feeling Xena's hands slide up and come to rest on her waistline, as the warrior's thumbs traced gentle circles against her skin. "Just like a bee to a flower... " She closed her eyes, savoring the taste of her partner's lips. "Or a moth to a candle." She released the right catch on Xena's armor and slid her fingers under it, touching warm skin. "Or a river to the sea." She got the left catch undone, and moved the armor out of the way entirely, sinking down and nuzzling the warrior's throat, nipping lightly at her pulse point, which was pounding hard under her lips.

Xena's hands moved up higher, loosening the annoying fabric that covered her body, and making her suck her breath in suddenly as the warrior's touch hit sensitive spots that caused a slow shudder to make it's way down her back.

Gods.. Xena's body generated heat, she could feel it even through the leathers, which her hands were peeling slowly back, exposing the warm skin that released a heady scent that was part sweat, and mostly desire up to her. She let her hands run over the familiar contours, reveling in the solid play of muscles just under the surface that shifted and moved with her breathing, feeling a low, soft chuckle move from her throat as she felt the rain cooled air glide over her now bare body.

Then they were touching, skin on skin, and she felt like she was on fire, except for little shivers that followed wherever Xena's hands moved, and slid, and she gave herself up to the moment, gazing down at eyes gone dark blue and slitted, and feeling the sheer intensity of their connection as something so strong, she could almost.. almost... see it.


Cyrene yawned, as she pulled her robe about her, and padded out of her rooms in the back of the inn, heading towards the kitchen. It was predawn, and she knew without really thinking about it that she was the only person awake.

That was all right, she decided, as she pushed the time scarred wooden door inward, and entered the quiet, still room. The fireplace was cold, and the oven also, except for the low, banked night fire that she crossed to, and stoked with experienced hands. She waited for the new kindling to catch, then set a small pot on to heat as she leaned back against the low working counter, and gazed thoughtfully out the window across from her.

Her short walk through the inn had reassured her that all was in order for the joining ceremony later that day, and she mentally went over her supplies, and preparations. A satisfied nod moved her hair, and she turned, pulling down a cup and carefully measuring herbs into it, then poured the hot water over them, and let them steep, bringing the cup to her nose and breathing in the rich, floral scent of the steam.

Glancing around she let a half smile quirk her lips, then spoon a generous helping of honey into the cup, stirring it, and carrying it over to the worn kitchen table, setting it down, and seating herself with a sigh. I like this time of the day. She mused in silence, taking a deep breath of the pre dawn air gently wafted in the window. There was no moisture evident, and she suspected that they might, perhaps, have decent weather for the day. In fact.. she took another breath. The air was even a little cooler, giving the first, gentle hints of the coming fall in the rich harvest scents it carried.

She took a slow sip, and felt the peace of the morning seep in to her. She'd left Johan still sleeping, and decided she wanted a little while of solitude before the ceremony of joining that would seal the life of her eldest child to that of a young girl she'd grown to like very much. As an Amazon, Granella brought a refreshing, different perspective, having lived all her life in the warrior's cloister, and who now sometimes viewed their traditional ways with deep puzzlement.

Was a time, she thought. I never expected to see a joining here.. when Toris went off to go chase down Cortese, and then of course... She pursed her lips. Didn't I once say I'd rather have had her die, then have had to live through what she'd become? Just goes to show you.. it does no good to give up on people. Gabrielle taught me that.

Ah.. Gabrielle... Cyrene took a deep swallow of tea. Hecuba had taken most of her late evening to calm down, and she'd had to get a little testy with the outraged woman. "Hecuba... you need to get a grip on reality. "She told her. "I know its horrible.. it's horrible for me, too."

Hecuba had broken down, then, and cried, for a daughter she hardly felt she knew. Cyrene had done her best to comfort her, and tried to make her understand at least what she had figured out about her daughter, and the Potadeian's. "It's hard, and it's dangerous... gods, I know that." She'd finally told her. "But.. Hecuba.. let me explain something to you. It's about.. what people are."

Some people were like they were, simple folks, who worked the land, and suffered the weather, and the vagaries of rampaging warlords, and the shifting tides of power. Some people were kings, and rulers, who made the laws, and directed their society.

And some people were the ones who shifted fate, who stood in the winds of time and deflected the dangers of the world by attracting them to themselves. Some of them did it on purpose, some of them did it just because they were who they were, and because no one else could. They were captains of war, and princes, prophets, and seers. Most of all , they were heroes.

Like Xena. Who was a hero despite herself, reluctant, denying it, but unable to keep from standing in that wind, and attracting those dangers. And Gabrielle was as much an essential part of that as a root system was to a tall tree. They were inseparable, and all they could do, as mothers.. as friends, was support them.

Hecuba hadn't liked it, but finally, reluctantly, she'd been persuaded to it, buoyed by the fact that Herodotus had gruffly told her to leave off trying to convince their older daughter otherwise.

Secretly, Cyrene suspected the gruff Potadeian was proud of Gabrielle, on a lot of levels.

The sky outside slowly shifted it's tint from black, to faintest gray, heralding the coming dawn, and perking the first, tentative trills of waking birds.

Cyrene's head tilted to one side as she heard soft footfalls, and her heart started pumping as she realized they were headed right for the outer kitchen door. Those renegades? She silently stood, and reached behind her, gripping a heavy handled iron skillet, then tiptoed around the table, and edged her way towards the door.

The footsteps grew positively stealthy, and she took a deep breath, raising the skillet as the sounds halted, and she heard the faint rasp of skin against the outer door pull. Adrenaline surged, and she poised herself, cursing in several silent languages to encourage herself, watching the slim line of pearl gray light as the door cracked open.

With a powerful lunge, she yanked the wood open, and swung, aiming for the most likely target of the intruder's head.

A startled yelp met her efforts, and she felt the skillet's motion halted, freezing her arm in place clutched in a very strong grip. "Mother!"

Cyrene opened her eyes, to see Xena's outraged blue ones glinting back at her. "Whoops." She released the skillet, and dusted her hands off. "Glad that was you, dear... it would have been tragic if it had been your brother."

Xena let her own hand fall, with the skillet in it, and let out a breath. "Lucky I was paying attention.. what in Hades seven levels were you doing?" The warrior moved all the way into the kitchen, and let the door close behind her. She was dressed in a light tan outfit, and her skin was beaded with water, which was also dripping from her dark hair.

"Well, honey.. " Her mother eyed her appraisingly. "With all these kidnappers around.. you can't be too careful. I wasn't.. expecting you." She gave her daughter a teasing tweak. "You've been getting up a lot later these past few weeks."

The warrior raised an eyebrow at her, then set the skillet down gingerly. "Gabrielle's sleeping in a little. "She allowed a rakish grin to crease her face. "We got a little.. preoccupied last night. "

Cyrene chuckled, and tugged at her hemline a bit. "So you decided to leave her alone? That's silly."

Xena grinned. "Not exactly.. I promised her breakfast in bed."

Her mother let out a delighted laugh. "Ah, I see!" She stifled a yawn. "Well, I think I can help with that.. what do you have there?" She nodded to the pouch Xena was carrying., which the warrior amiably opened to show her. "Mmm... Xena.. where did you find those?" She plucked a ripe strawberry from the pile, and bit into it. "Wow... " She tried to catch the juice. "I love these things."

A grin. "Yeah.. so does Gabrielle, and I don't find them often." Xena snuck a berry herself, and sighed happily. "So.. what are you doing up this early?"

Cyrene went to the stove, and poured a second cup of tea, which she pointedly dropped a few spoons of honey into, before mixing it and handing it to her tall daughter. "Just enjoying the peace and quiet...I don't think we'll have much of that today.. though I'm looking forward to it. " She patted the chair. "Here.. sit down. I'll heat up some muffins and cereal for you."

Xena set the pouch down, but perched on the edge of the table instead. "Mom... you don't have to do that. You've got enough stuff going on today. I can just take these, and some bread and cheese, and we'll be fine." The warrior absorbed the maternal glare with a wince. "No.. really... we will.. it's more than we ended up with most mornings."

"Mmm." Cyrene ignored her, and set a pot on the fire. "That explains why I could practically see through you when you got home this time, hmm?" She gave her daughter a look over her shoulder. "You both looked like you hadn't eaten for weeks."

Xena glanced down, and played with the edge of her pouch. "We were too.. upset." The warrior finally sighed. "Everything that happened... I think it was just tearing us up inside." She looked up to see her mother's sympathetic eyes on her. "I know it was for me."

Cyrene finished dumping ingredients into the pot, and gave them a stir, then walked over, and gently grasped Xena's arms. "I know... after you came home for Argo, I was very worried about you." She smiled at her. "You look so much better now."

Xena shifted awkwardly under her scrutiny. "I feel like a different person. " She admitted quietly. "I think back to that whole time.. and it's like one long nightmare. "

Her mother nodded. "And now you're awake."

The warrior sighed. "Something like that, yeah." She shook her head. "I keep going back to how could I let that happen.. just over and over again."

Cyrene patted her ribs comfortingly. "Honey, don't torture yourself. It happened.. and now it's over, and you two are back together. That's the important thing - not whose fault it was."

Xena reluctantly raised her eyes, and studied her mother's face for a long moment, then she stood up, and wrapped her arms around the older woman, and gave her a fierce hug.

The innkeeper returned the embrace, feeling the solid strength in her daughter's tall body. She patted her back gently as Xena released her, and sat back down on the edge of the table. They looked at each other in vague embarrassment for a moment, then both smiled. "Well." Cyrene reached up and straightened the warrior's collar. "And what have you gotten your brother for his joining, hmm?"

Xena was as glad as she was for the change in subject. "Granella didn't bring much in the way of householding stuff with her.. the Amazons are a communal society.. so we got them just a whole bunch of practical stuff.. brushes, cleaning stuff, cooking stuff.. you know."

Her mother nodded. "Good girl." She patted her knee. "Jo and I are giving them a new bed."

A twinkling glint entered Xena's eyes. "Is that a hint, mother?"

"Tch." Cyrene clucked at her. "Such a mind."

They both fell silent, then looked at each other. "Gabrielle had an interesting chat with me yesterday." The innkeeper commented evenly.

Xena took a deep breath. "She told me." She answered. "It's... something she really wants."

A weathered hand covered hers. "Honey.. forgive me for saying this, but are you sure she's not just trying to.. "

Give me my son back? Xena tipped her head back, and regarded the ceiling. "I think part of it.. is what you're thinking.. but most of it is.. this is.. it's something she really wants.. something her heart's craving.. and I can't say no to her." She hesitated. "I don't want to say no." She finished, in a low voice.

Cyrene nodded slowly "All right." She took Xena's hands in hers, startled again at just how much larger, and more powerful they were than her own. "You know you have my support." She released her daughter, and went to the stove, stirring the pot of cereal, now emitting a nutty, sweet aroma. "I'm not going to pretend I wouldn’t welcome that, Xena." She said over her shoulder, as she moved some of the cereal into a smaller pot, and covered it, putting a package of sweet rolls on top of it and swinging around, to set the pot down on the table next to the pouch. The motion disturbed the folds of the leather sack, and they fell open, exposing the merrily winking fruits, and a handful of wonderfully colored wildflowers. Cyrene put her finger on one, and glanced up at her daughter, who was scowling and blushing all at once.

"Must have just gotten in there somehow when I picked em." Xena muttered.

Her mother laughed gently. "I always suspected you had a romantic streak in you, dear." She paused, giving Xena a soft poke in the ribs. "But I won't tell a soul, I promise.. I know it will wreck your image, and goodness knows we don't want that to happen."

Xena was caught between embarrassment and laughed, and let laughter win. "Let me get outta here.. before I get in any more trouble." She hefted the pot up, and tucked her pouch away. "Thanks... we'll be back to help entertain the guests... did.. um. things go ok with Hecuba?" She and Cyrene exchanged wry looks.

"Eh." The innkeeper waggled a hand. "She'll... she's very upset, but mostly I think it's because she thinks Gabrielle has moved so far from her.. that she's losing touch with who she is."

"That's true." Xena said, quietly. "But that's been true for a long time now." She paused. "In the back of their minds, I think they'll never, ever forgive me for taking her away from them. "

Cyrene nibbled a piece of roll. "Did you?"

Xena thought about that question. "Did I? I guess I did.. kind of.. I could have forced her to go back home. " She chewed that over. "I think.. she's pretty stubborn. But she wanted so badly to come with me, and I ... "She sighed. "I just couldn’t say no to her." A wry grin. "Still can't."

The innkeeper smiled, and patted her arm. "Don't worry.. Hecuba will adjust... it'll just take a little while. "She glanced up as the door swung open, allowing the bulky form of Eustace to enter, along with the first faint hint of dawn. "Morning, 'Stase."

"Hello, ma'am.. " Her eyes flicked shyly over the warrior. "Ma.. Xena."

The warrior favored her with a quirky grin. "Morning Eustace... "

Cyrene chuckled, then tugged her daughter’s arm. "Wait… give me those berries a minute."

Xena hesitated, eyeing her. "You’re not going to eat them, are you?" She hazarded.

"Tch.. .Xena." Cyrene snatched the bag from her. "As if I’d steal Gabrielle’s berries. Really." She took them to the counter, and spilled them out, then took a bowl, and poured a few sticks of honey into it. Then she went to the pantry and took a small bag from a high shelf, and glanced inside. "Did these yesterday.. I think they’re small enough.. let’s.. see.. " She mumbled to herself as she worked, dunking the berries lightly in the honey, then dropping them into the bag, and shaking it. She opened the bag and removed one, handing it to Xena. "Here.. try that."

The warrior peered at the berry, now coated in something vaguely nutty smelling. She took a tentative bite, then grinned uninhibitedly. "Wow… pistachios.. " She downed the rest of the berry. "You’re making it very hard to be selfless here, mother."

Cyrene finished coating the rest of the berries, and packed them back up in their flower nest, tucking the bag into a small basket along with the sweet rolls. "I have to save the rest of these for the pastry I'm making for later.. but you go on now, enjoy." She gave her daughter the basket, and a shove, and watched her pad out, followed by an attentive Ares. Her gaze drifted out the window, following the tall form until it disappeared, then she shook her head, and briskly dusted her hands off. "Well, you ready for today, ‘Stase?"

The cook beamed at her. "Yes ma’am.." She was already working at mixing flour for bread. "It’s going to be a lovely party."

The innkeeper crossed her arms. "It’s good for the youngsters to have celebrations like this.. and now that all the trouble’s finished… we can relax and have a good time."

Eustase glanced at her. "I'm glad everything worked out all right, ma’am.. is it true Xena brought the ruffian who was responsible for everything back here for trial?"

"Yep." Cyrene rolled up her sleeves, and finished off her tea. "She made things right."

The cook turned and focused on her work. "She certainly is wonderful."

A dark eyebrow rose, as Cyrene regarded the cook’s broad back, then she smiled to herself, and set to work.

It was dark, and slimy, and she hit the floor with a bang, feeling the stagnant water splash over her in a stinking wave. A ghostly laughter followed her, and she cringed, as the trap door she'd fallen into slammed shut, showering her with bits of rotten wood.

A worm crawled over her hand, and she shook it vigorously, sending the creature against the wall with a tiny splat, as her eyes took in her surroundings in depressing knowledge.

She was alone. Again.

It was that heart wrenching loneliness that mocked her with the realization of her abandonment, of knowing she was not only alone here, she was lost. To herself, to her partner.. it was cold, and her soul rang with the emptiness she'd known before, after Xena's death.

In despair, she stumbled along the wall, flinching back from the slimy surface, and feeling the stinking muck pull at her boots, some of the surface moving under her and making her footing very uncertain.

"Xena?" She whispered, hearing only the echoing laughter come back at her. There was no warmth here, no sense of her soulmate, just.. nothing.

A winged creature swept by, catching the edges of her hair, and yanking strands from her head, and she screamed in startlement, ducking as her yell caused a flood of flying things, some tiny, some large, soundless, and hissing.

Bugs landed on her, and she writhed, shaking herself in disgust and terror, dropping close to the ground and curling herself up in a tiny ball, panting.

More bugs. She screamed, as a thick , searching tendril curled itself around her leg and started sucking her forward, and she fought it, fought the insects who were crawling over her skin, and now starting to nip... in horror she called out.. called the one name foremost in her mind...

An answer came, so gentle. Gabrielle...

The howling stopped, the biting stopped.

The grip loosened from her ankle.


A hand touched her face, warm and real, and she blinked up into the darkness, to see pale, glowing eyes gazing back at her. But she wasn't afraid, because she knew them. "Help me." She whispered. "I'm scared."

"I know." The voice answered gently. "Come on."

She was lifted, and surrounded, and guided to a small stair, one she'd never seen before in her dream. The steps were slippery, but she stumbled up them, as the air grew drier, and the stench of the dungeon faded slowly, until they came to a door, and then stopped. She looked up, seeing the shining eyes. "Can we go out?"

The eyes studied her. "You have the key, Gabrielle."

"I do?" Gabrielle asked softly.

A nod. "All you have to do is decide to never come back here."

"I don't come here on purpose." She objected. "I hate it." A faint sound of flapping wings drifted up to them. "Make it go away.. I know you can."

Hands cradled her face, and a flood of loving warmth covered her. "Let the light in, Gabrielle.. just open the door."

And so she did, touching the latch and pushing the door wide, to let sunlight come streaming in and bring the world back to her. They stepped out onto a lone, high plateau, whipped by the cool, dry wind, and watched the door slam shut behind them, and Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her tall, dark haired companion and buried her face in the familiar leather. "Thank you."

"I didn't do anything... you did it." The warrior uttered gently, right into her ear.

"You came back for me." The bard sobbed softly. "You were there when I needed you."

"Yes." Came the low response. "I love you." A hand gently stroked her hair, and she felt the warm sun on her back, and the cool wind brushing the tears off her cheek, and far off, at the edges of her hearing, she could swear she heard the sound of waves breaking.

A seagull called.

The sun got warmer, and the wind faded, but the sense of being surrounded by love did not, as the rarified air slowly got richer, and took on the distinctive scents of clean linen, and wood, and green smell of summer.

She was being held securely, her head tucked against a cloth covered chest, and a gentle stroking pressure moved her hair, and soothed her.

She opened her eyes, blinking a little as the early morning sunlight hit her face, and illuminated Xena's eyes as she watched her in brow knotted anxiety. "Hey... you all right?" The warrior whispered, in a worried tone.

Gabrielle stayed totally still, and just drank in the sight of her face, and the brilliant sparkle of the sun that made her blue eyes glow. "You came for me." She breathed.

"Well.. " Xena glanced over at the tray she'd hurled on to the table in haste, as she'd felt and seen her soulmate's dreaming terror. "You were yelling out... I guess you had a bad dream."

The bard's eyes widened. "You don't remember it? You came and got me... I was so scared... I called out for you, and you saved me." She reached out a shaking hand and touched Xena's sun warmed skin. "It was you, Xena... you talked to me and everything."

Xena laughed faintly. "Me, talk? Must have been a dream then, huh?" She tried to lighten the atmosphere, seeing the edges of remembered terror in her soulmate's mist green eyes. "You were struggling.. and you called my name... so I just.. " She shrugged lightly. "Kind of grabbed on to you, and told you it was ok.. you got quiet, then you just woke up."

Gabrielle let her head rest against Xena, listening to the strong, and steady heartbeat. "I was in that dungeon.. " She muttered. "It was... oh gods... there were bugs, and something grabbed me...I.. I was so scared... I called your name, and then... " She looked up. "You were led me to a stairway.. and we went up to a door. You told me I had the key to open it.. and that I just had to decide not to come back here again."

Xena looked at her in bewildered amazement. "I did?"

The bard nodded gently. "You told me to just open the door.. and I did.. and we were outside... and I said thank you... and you told me you loved me." She took in a breath. "It was so real.. I remember hearing your heartbeat.. just like I am now.. and I could feel you there.. " Her eyes closed. "I felt so safe."

The warrior petted her softly, running her fingers down her soulmate's arms, and brushing her hair back. "Well, you're all right now." She assured her. "That sounds like a nasty dream, love...I hope you don't have it anymore."

Gabrielle let her eyes drift open, and she studied the angular, sunlit face above hers. "I don't think I will." She answered quietly, as a slow, relieved smile shaped her lips. She waited a bit, then eyed her partner. "So.. where've you been?"

Xena grinned, and reached behind her, tugging the basket over. "Close your eyes."

Gabrielle gave her a mock suspicious look, but complied.

"Open your mouth." The warrior added.

Like a bird, the bard did.

Xena plucked one of the honey and nut covered strawberries from the container and put it neatly between Gabrielle's teeth. "Bite."

"Mmmmoohhhhhh.... " The bard let her eyes flutter open, as she chewed. "Wow... " She swallowed her mouthful, and took another nibble. "That is fabulous."

Xena smiled in relief, glad that her partner seemed to be getting over her nightmare, but tucking aside a slate of questions to think about at a later time. "Good... got a whole bunch of em."

Gabrielle smirked, then leaned back in utter relaxation, folding her hands across her stomach, and opening her mouth in impatient anticipation.

Paladia blinked slowly, as she rolled her head to one side, and regarded the early morning sunlight streaming in the small window. She’s actually slept the night through, after drinking most of a pitcher of ale that, to her utter and complete surprise, Xena had left with her. The ale had taken the edge off the pain in her arm, and made her sleepy enough to ignore the discomfort.

The warrior had silently changed the bandage on her arm, too, and wrapped it a different way, so that it didn’t pull so much. She had no idea what Xena was up to, and didn’t hold out any hope for the decent treatment to continue, but it had been nice, and the ale was real good. She stretched her long legs out, and shifted a little, kicking her heels in a bored manner against the packed earth floor, wishing she could at least see out the window. She’d always liked watching birds.. it was one of the few things she’d really missed inside the caverns.. though she’d spent a good bit of time out on the ledge, watching the hawks and eagles soar high above them.

Glancing to her right, she spotted a small stack of whittled wooden skewers, and she tilted her head, then reached her unhurt arm out, and managed to get one from the pile, examining it with stolid interest. Soft footsteps alerted her, though, and she quickly tucked the skewer under her thigh, and leaned back. That sounded like the annoying girl.

Sure enough, the door edged open, and Cait slipped inside, with her breakfast tray. The slim Amazon set the tray down, and settled down next to it, cross legged. "Good morning." Cait picked up a piece of bread and munched it. "Did you have a good time last night? I think it was idiotic for them to have you to dinner, but there you go."

Paladia glowered at her. "Who asked you?" She snarled, picking up a muffin and biting into it. "I didn’t ask em too." She crammed the rest of the muffin into her mouth and chewed it, watching as little crumbs dropped and fell onto the dirt floor.

"I really don’t understand the Queen sometimes. She’s much too nice. I’d have let you rot in here." Cait informed her cheerfully, nibbling a grape. "But Queen Ephiny’s getting better, so I suppose you got a bit lucky there."

Paladia just continued to glower at her, as she pulled the wooden bowl towards her one handed, and manipulated the spoon, poking at it’s contents. "What the Hades is this?"

Cait peered. "Eggs." She took her own portion. "They’re ever so nice… they won’t hurt you.. haven’t you ever had them? Cyrene makes lovely ones, all full of nice ham." She scooped up a mouthful and chewed it appreciatively. The renegade peered at the substance. "Who’s Cyrene?" She poked at a bit, then sighed, and lifted it to her mouth, eating it gingerly.

"Xena’s mother, of course." Cait answered.

Paladia stopped chewing. "She has a mother?"

Cait just looked at her, the blond brows dipping over her pale, almost colorless eyes. "What kind of an idiot are you? Of course she does.. what did you think.. she hatched out of a chicken egg or something?" She poked the empty pitcher with her boot. "Did she leave you that?"

The renegade shoved a spoonful of eggs into her mouth. Damn girl was right.. they were good. "Yeah." She grudgingly admitted. "Damned if I know why."

Cait crossed her legs, and rested her elbows on her knees. "Because she's a good person." She explained, as though to a child. "She's ever so horrid when she has to be, but I think she'd rather be nice."

Paladia snorted. "I don't think so.. I think she gets one big kick out of beating the crap out of people."

The girl rolled her eyes. "Of course she does…who doesn’t? But only when they deserve it." She gave Paladia an irritated look. "She doesn't go about doing ratty things to people for fun, like you did."

"Get off my back." The larger woman snapped. "You don’t know anything about it, so just shut up."

Cait drew her dagger and thumped it into the earth, driving it almost to its hilt. "Rather, I do… what you did to Ephiny was just rot, you hear me? She's had a rotten time.. what with Phantes being killed, and then all that horrible stuff with Velasca and Xena dying, and then.."

Paladia put her bowl down and waved a hand. "Stop." She yelled.

Cait did, and waited.

"Died?" The renegade repeated. "You're cracked. She's not dead."

"Well." Cait snorted. "Of course not…. She couldn’t stay dead.. Gabrielle needed her."

Paladia clutched her head. "You're nuts. She's nuts, everyone here is out of their chicken plucking mind." She said through clenched teeth. "When people die, they're dead, ok? Dead.. D E A D… worm food, gone, rotten, goodbye. "

Cait shrugged. "Not if you're Xena." She answered placidly. "At any rate, Ephiny's had a tough time, and she's just settled down nicely with Pony.. "

Paladia squinted at her. "Yeah.. I hear she's into horses." She sniggered.

Cait stopped, and coughed in disgust. "You really are a pig." She stood, and dusted herself off. "I don't know why I bother talking to you." She went to the door, then turned. "You're not worth a bit of dirt for her to walk on."

The door slammed behind her, and Paladia was left in silence again. For a few minutes, she tried to convince herself that she was better off without Cait's noisy company, but she eventually sighed, and looked down at her hands. The injured one rested limply on her thigh, and the other bore scrapes of dirt on it, and she found herself wishing she could just go to sleep, and wake up back in the caverns. She'd take a bath, and put on clean clothes, and maybe go down to the kitchen and talk to Helena, the black eyed, button cheeked wanderer who they'd taken in, and who'd taken over their kitchen. She'd always had something nice to say, and a cookie to tuck into Paladia's pocket. "For later." She'd always said.

For later. She took in a shaky breath, and let it out. No more later.

With a sigh, she retrieved her skewer, and studied it, noting the neatly tapering point. She licked it, and tested the point against her tongue, wincing a little. Then she withdrew it, and dropped her head, as the sunlight draped the dirt floor in faded gold, and reversed the point in her hand.

It was tricky, because she had such limited motion, but.. her hand moved, hesitantly at first, then more steadily, as she pressed out a pattern in the dirt.

A tree, this time, maybe. With leaves, and maybe some apples.. maybe a bird. Maybe two.

A soft bird call penetrated Ephiny's sleep, bringing her to a hazy awareness, of warmth, and coziness that almost persuaded her that she was home. But the smells were all wrong, and the sounds were not that of the village, so she cracked an eye open, and recognized her surroundings without effort.

Definitely an improvement, she mused, turning her head to view Eponin's drowsing form, cuddled neatly next to her on the relatively small pallet. The weapon's master was on her side, with one arm thrown protectively over Ephiny's body, and her head resting on the regent's shoulder.

Gods. Ephiny studied her. She's been soooo snuggly the past day or so. Not that I'm gonna bitch… She sighed, and nestled closer. No… it was something she really… She bit her lip a little, and admitted it. Something she needed.. the warmth and the security that was putting a patch on the ragged wounds her ordeal had opened inside her.

She yawned, and blinked, then looked over as Eponin stirred, and her golden brown eyes opened, or rather one did, and peered at Ephiny in grumpy affection. "You hungry? Thirsty? Hot? Cold?"

Ephiny tilted her head and gave her a light, hesitant kiss. "I'm fine." She slid a hand up and curled it around Pony's arm. "Thanks for just being here."

Eponin tightened her clasp, and let out a gentle sigh. "You need a full time bodyguard, Eph." She mumbled in her ear.

"Mmhmm.." The regent agreed, letting her eyes drift closed. "You applying for the job?"

"Yep." Came the answer, as Pony's lips nibbled her ear, and brought a roguish grin to her face.

"You're hired." The regent sighed, feeling a tension relax inside her. "Wanna hear the perks?"

Eponin let her hands gently wander, sliding under the blanket quietly. "Think I found a few." She murmured softly into the warm ear next to her face, pausing as she felt her lover's indrawn breath. "You ok?"

Ephiny's eyes closed, and she half rolled over, burying her face into Pony's sturdy shoulder. "Hey." The dark haired Amazon crooned softly, patting her shoulder. "Easy." She swallowed, feeling warm tears against her skin, and hugged the regent closer, mentally reviewing all the possible ways she could cripple the person who'd done this to her lover. A broken arm wasn't nearly enough. "Eph… ?"

A shuddering breath, and Ephiny cleared her throat a little. "Sorry.. " She sighed. "I just can't deal with that.. it's just too close."

Pony bit her lip. "Hey.. it's ok… take all the time you need, all right?" She studied the haggard look on the regent's face with a growing anger. "I'll be here for you."

Ephiny rested her cheek against Pony's shoulder. "I know.. and it means a lot." She blinked, brushing the weapon's master's skin with her eyelashes. "It really does." She dropped back off into an uneasy sleep, leaving a pair of caramel colored eyes to study the wooden raftered ceiling, their texture hardening into a glittering amber sharpness.

"Nervous?" Toris asked, as he slid a platter down, and thumped into the chair next to his betrothed.

"Very." Granella answered, propping her chin up on one slim fist.

"Really?" The tall, dark haired man looked at her in surprise.

"Uh huh." The Amazon answered, tilting her head to look at him. "In a few candlemarks, I'm gonna have to get into ceremonial Amazon garb, and thanks to your mother's damn cooking, that's a very, very scary prospect."

Toris laughed. "Relax… you'll look great." He leaned over and kissed her. "I heard Gabrielle trying to talk my sister into wearing some Amazon stuff they got from the village last time… I'd love to see that."

"Ooo… " Granella snickered. "That would be choice.. it would certainly get me off the hook for visual interest… wonder if I could help Gabrielle out in convincing her…"

"Hmm… " Toris considered. "My sister.. half naked." He shook his head. "Bad idea.. we'll have people walking into the inn walls, and tripping over the benches. Not a good thing."

They both laughed. "Oh.. all right." Granella groused. "Actually.. does that mean Gabrielle's going to wear her official gear?"

Toris shrugged. "I think so.. why?"

The Amazon let her brow raise. "Hmmm… she does nice things to that leather and feathers."

The dark haired man looked down, and studied the table.

Granella put a hand on his arm. "Toris.. listen… I know this is awkward, ok? Don't feel bad if you're attracted to her.. half the Nation is, and the other half moons over your sister.. it's all right."

Toris looked up, an embarrassed expression on his face. "I'm not being asked to father a child for half the Amazon nation, Gran." His brows contracted. "I know it's all right with you.. it's just… "

"Hey." The Amazon patted his arm. "She trusts you like crazy, Tor…that's the important thing."

He sighed. "I know." He lifted her hand, and kissed it. "Thank you for being so understanding."

A faint shrug. "Comes right down to it, she's my Queen, Toris… sometimes we Amazons find ourselves someone we want to make a child with, to keep the Nation growing, and that's all right, but we know we can't make it a lasting thing, and still remain part of the Amazons." She rubbed a thumb alongside the back of his hand. "But she's lucky enough to have found someone who she loves, and who she respects.. and she has a chance to try and bring a life into this world who will be the closest thing she can get to being a part of the person she loves more than anything else on earth. It's.. " She sighed. "Toris, if you can do this for her, for your sister… I'm so glad."

He ducked his head. "I know." He muttered. "I just hope I'm up to it."

Granella smiled, and chucked his chin. "You'll do fine.. we've got time to practice on your technique." She teased gently, watching him blush. "Or you could ask your sister for tips."

Toris turned beet red.

Granella cheerfully munched on the sandwiches he'd brought, her good humor restored. Outside, the sounds were picking up, as the village came to life, an air of revelry already apparent in the raised, happy voices.

"Xena, could you..?? " Gabrielle gave the fastening on her shoulder a glare, and sighed, as Xena stepped up behind her and took over the job, arranging the clasp neatly. "Thanks." She glanced into the mirror, then back at her partner. "Do I look ok?"

Xena moved around in front of her and grasped her shoulders, turning her slightly into the light, then leaned back and studied her attentively. A smile edged it's way onto her lips as she took in her soulmate's fidgeting form, and the soft, rust colored leather garments that graced it. The Amazon outfit definitely looked... "You look great." She assured the bard, adjusting the leather arm bracers that circled Gabrielle's biceps, and giving the low cut skirt's waistline a twitch.

Gabrielle fiddled with the soft leather arm gauntlets and pushed a braided lock back from her face, blushing a little. "Thanks... I always feel kinda weird wearing this."

Xena straightened the carved flint feather necklace, and brushed a bit of dust off the shoulder, letting her smile broaden. "Don't worry... you don't look weird." She reassured her again, enjoying the play of the sunlight on the bard's tanned skin. "Trust me."

That got her a smile back. "I can't convince you to join me, huh?"

Xena snorted lightly, and let her silk dress fall open a little, pointing to her chest. "Gabrielle.. honest.. I look like I was run over by a centaur in rut... that would be pretty distracting, doncha think?"

The bard regarded her. "It would be distracting either way... " Her lips twitched. "But I see your point." She had to reluctantly agree. "I wish I had that excuse."

The warrior's brows drew in. "I thought you liked this outfit?

Gabrielle moved away, crossing to the window and leaning out into the sunlight. "I... I do." She answered quietly. "Now.. anyway.. I... I just remember what it felt like when I put it on to take the mask." She paused, aware of the silent, watching presence at her back. "How it seemed like putting this on really meant I was going to have to say goodbye to you."

She closed her eyes as the remembered bittersweet ache of that moment came back. "And gods.. gods.. I didn't want to do that."

Xena let out a quiet breath, watching the play of tension run across the bard's mostly bare back. "You know.. I .. was so proud of you when you faced down Velasca and claimed that mask, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle's jaw clenched, the sun rippling shadows down her face at the motion. "Were you?" She whispered. "I was hurting so much inside I guess I forgot to be scared." She blinked, still looking out at the courtyard. "Nothing Velasca did could have made me feel worse."

A long silence. "It made me stop and think about what I was doing... " The warrior finally said. "About whether or not... you wouldn't be better off if I just..." She paused. "Especially after you came in after... and what you said.. I thought... maybe this was what you really needed."

Gabrielle slowly turned and looked at her.

"I thought maybe trying to come back was selfish of me." Xena continued softly. "That I should let you find your future like you said you were going to."

The bard leaned back against the windowsill, slowly shaking her head. "Xena.. the only reason the Amazons were even an option for me is because I didn't know what else to do...I couldn't go home.. I couldn't just wander around... " She fell silent for a moment. "What changed your mind?"

Xena fastened the forest green silk dress around her with a mechanical motion. "After they lit the pyre, I heard your thoughts."

Gabrielle looked down. "Oh." She remembered looking at those flames, and knowing she was giving up the other half of her soul to them, knowing that she'd never regain that, and reconciled herself to living with the aching emptiness that even then, on that platform, threatened to overwhelm her. Her soul had cried out in agony.

"I had just a split second to decide..." Xena took a breath. "And I looked up, through those flames, and into your eyes, and I saw.. this…light kind of go out in them."

A very slow nod. "Yes, you did." Gabrielle confirmed, in a whisper. "That would have taken away something very precious in my life." She took a shaky breath. "I was really hurting."

The warrior glanced down. "I couldn't let that happen."

They just looked at each other for a while. "Thank you." Gabrielle said, at last.

Xena gazed back at her peacefully. "You're welcome."

The bard pushed herself off the sill and arranged the light silk that was draping her soulmate's lean body. "A lot of stuff has happened to us this year."

Xena laid her forearms over the bard's shoulders, and laced her fingers behind Gabrielle's neck. "Yes, it has." She leaned her head forward until their foreheads touched. "Thanks for hanging in there with me."

Gabrielle smiled. "You're welcome." She stood there, absorbing the sunlight and the warmth of their connection blissfully for a while, then sighed. "C'mon.. let's go party." She kissed her partner. "I promised I'd help Gran get into her leathers."

Xena straightened up, and let her eyes wander over the smaller woman for a bit. "After you, your Majesty." She mock bowed, gesturing towards the door.

"Hmph." Gabrielle poked her nose in the air. "Follow me, you measly Warrior Princess." She walked towards the door and Xena strolled after her, letting loose a low, seductive chuckle."Oh.. anytime." The warrior purred, enjoying the view of her partner's distinctive little swagger.

Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Blue eyes blinked innocently. "Nothing." Xena replied, her voice oozing sincerity. "I.. uh.. just meant I'd follow you wherever you wanted to lead me, Gabrielle."

The bard turned, and put her hands on her hips, ducking her head and raising an eyebrow. "Oh.. right." She paused. "Did you draw a funny face on my back or something?"

The warrior poked a thumb at her own chest. "Me?" A shake of her head. "Nope... there's nothing that.... " She arched her neck and peered at the bard's back. "That nature didn't put there." She blithely assured her, running her fingers lightly down the exposed spine. Her eyes twinkled, and she gave the bard a little pat on the butt. "Get going."

Gabrielle continued on, but stopped as they got out the door. "Stop smirking." She warned.

"I'm not!" Xena protested, with a chuckle. "I'm not even looking at you. I'm watching a squirrel."

The bard continued walking. "What color?"

"Huh?" Xena replied. "What color is what?"

Green eyes whipped around and pinned her. "Gotcha." She poked Xena hard in the side. "Busted... you were smirking."

Xena laughed. "Yep.. you got me." She dropped an arm across the bard's shoulders, and steered the way towards the inn.

"Gods ankles and little fishes, Granella.. would you please relax." Eponin rolled her eyes, as she adjusted the nervous Amazon's ear cuffs for the sixth time. "Eph... conk her, willya?"

Ephiny crossed her ankles and settled back into her very comfortable chair. "Thought you weren't scared?" She drawled, letting her head rest against the chair's high back. "Gran, calm down, ok.. you look great." She surveyed the slim, dark haired Amazon with a smile.

Granella had let her hair grow out a little, and it now touched her shoulders, and was long enough for Ephiny to have braided several neat braids that were dangling in front of her ears. She was wearing their traditional leathers, and despite her grumbling concerns, the garments fit quite nicely, emphasizing her lithe build although, and Ephiny kept this strictly to herself, she really had acquired a few more curves in the months she'd been living in Amphipolis, a subtle softening that made her appear younger.

The leathers were a creamy tan, decorated with turquoise stones, which matched the turquoise and amber ear cuffs that Eponin was working on attaching. "Believe me... you really do look fantastic." Ephiny reiterated. "If you'd just CALM DOWN."

Granella tugged on her bracer and sighed, then took a deep, deep breath, and let it out. "Thanks.. thanks... I don't know what's gotten into me." She glanced up as the door cracked open, and a red gold head poked itself in. "Hello, your Majesty."

"Hi." Gabrielle opened the door and walked in, giving her a big smile. "Wow.. you look great."

"So do you." Ephiny and Granella managed to say simultaneously, getting a blush out of the bard. "Did you win or lose your argument with Xena?" Ephiny asked, with a gentle twinkle.

The bard sighed. "Lost.. but she's right... she's all over bruises and has a nasty cut from that jump.. I think it would weird everyone out." She grinned. "Maybe next time."

Eponin glanced up from her task. "Didn't know she got hurt."

Gabrielle settled down on the corner of the table in Ephiny's small room, where they'd sequestered themselves, and gave her pale head a little shake. "Yeah, well.. you know Xena." She commented wryly. "You ready? The crowd's all here."

Granella glanced at herself the mirror, and made a few final twitches. "I guess... " She muttered. "Where is Xena, anyway?"

Gabrielle stood up and adjusted one of her leather bracers. "She's convincing her mother to put on something other than an apron." She paused. "Tactfully."

Dead silence.

The bard held up a hand. "I know... I know." She glanced at Ephiny, who darted her eyes towards Granella, then at Eponin, then cocked her head to one side in mute appeal. "Hey.. Pony… wanna help me bail her out?"

The weapon's master shrugged agreeably. "Sure.. I could use a cold drink too… " She joined Gabrielle as the bard walked towards the door. "Meet you guys outside."

A little silence fell after the door closed behind them, as Granella fussed over her bracer, keeping her eyes on it, and Ephiny gravely studied her. "You all right?" The regent finally asked.

The dark haired Amazon took a breath, then turned and walked over to the chair Ephiny was resting in, kneeling at her side and putting her hands on the arm of it. "I'm scared."

Ephiny rested her hand on the younger woman's arm. "Yeah.. I was too." She leaned back. "I knew marrying Phantes meant cutting off my life with the only family I'd known since I was very young.. it meant a lot of change, and a lot of unknown stuff."

Granella considered that, and put a hand over the regent's. "Eph.. do I have your blessing on this?" Her voice was very serious. "You know I never… " The words trailed off. "I didn't ask… or.."

Ephiny leaned forward, and cupped her cheek gently. "Listen, you featherhead… I'd be the last person in Greece to stand in the way of two people in love, and you know that." Her eyes gentled. "I'll miss you, Gran… but it makes me glad to see you happy." She smiled. "Besides… it's not like you're lost to us, right? Amphipolis is a great place to visit." She paused. "And… considering his family, I think we could maybe make an exception if you wanted to bring him up and visit with us for a while."

Granella ducked her head, and blinked. "Toris in a village full of Amazons… oh gods, Eph.. I think he'd go crazy.. but thanks." She sucked in a breath. "I like it here." It was a quiet, sure admission. "I didn't think I would.. it's so.. so…normal.. just a daily routine, all that.. but damn.. you know, I do." She sighed. "It's even nice to have a mother again.." Now her look turned wry. "Never thought I'd ever say that."

The regent laughed softly. "C'mon, my friend… let's go get you joined, so we can get this party started." Her teeth glinted in a rakish grin. "You know I love a party." She stood slowly, biting off a retort as Granella solicitously assisted her. "You ready?"

The slim ex scout straightened, and gave her regent's collar of office a twitch. "Yep.." She smiled a little. "As I'll ever be." She smirked a little. "Hey.. at least at my joining we won't have to suffer through hail, being snowed in, an attack by renegades, a visit from Ares, or falling in a pig pit."

"Shut up." Ephiny growled, pointing towards the door. "Get moving, or you'll jinx it, and something'll happen."

They both paused, and looked at each other in expectant silence, and waited a beat.

"Whew." Ephiny weakly chuckled.

"No kidding." Granella agreed, mock wiping her brow. She hesitated, then pulled Ephiny into a gentle hug. "Gods.. I'm gonna miss you."

Ephiny closed her eyes, and held on, patting her friend's back rhythmically. "Hey… " She felt the unevenness of Granella's breathing, and realized she was crying. "You're gonna do fine… you know how it is with us, Gran.. you'll be seeing us all the time, now." She reassured the younger woman. "Come on now… take it easy."

Granella sniffed, and released her, wiping her eyes on the back of her leather half gloves. "Sorry.." She gulped. "I told myself I wasn't going to do this." She leaned back, and got herself under control, looking up as Ephiny reached over, and handed her a mug of water. "Thanks."

The regent patted her arm. "It's all right.. relax." She reached a thumb up and wiped away the last traces of tears from her face. "If it's any consolation to you, everyone goes through this." She glanced around, and lowered her voice. "Gabrielle told me Xena was so nervous she almost passed out."

Granella's eyes popped open wide, and her jaw sagged a little. "Really?"

Ephiny grinned, having successfully distracted her. "Yep.. really." She pushed the door open, and nudged Granella forward. "Gab said the only thing that kept her going was knowing she'd never live it down if she didn't."

The dark haired woman nodded, as she moved out of the short corridor and into the main part of the inn. "Know the feeling."

The inn was crowded, smiles spreading amongst the combination of villagers and guests, as they awaited the short ceremony that was giving an excuse for an early harvest celebration. Gabrielle slipped through the crowd, giving friendly hellos, and studiously ignoring the raised eyebrows and gentle murmurs as her friends and family caught sight of her Amazon clothing. She felt Eponin close by her shoulder, and glanced behind her as the weapon's master caught up to her. "Nice crowd."

Eponin flicked her eyes around, then gave her Queen a wry look. "I think they like your feathers."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, and rubbed her temple with one hand. "Eeeyah… I don't think they've seen this partic… "Her eyes met her mother's. "Uh oh."

Instant alertness, as Pony looked around, and tried to find the source of Gabrielle's sudden apprehension. "What?"

The bard sighed. "My mother…"

Pony winced. "Oh." She straightened, as the older woman made her way with stolid determination towards them. "One Amazon guard of honor for her Majesty the Queen.. comin right up." She put on her special, reserved for possibly hostile but potentially clueless people look, and stood in the guard position, just to Gabrielle's right.

"Hey.. it's my mother… not a Persian soldier." Gabrielle hissed, from the corner of her mouth.

"All the more reason." Eponin hissed back, poking her chest out. She allowed her caramel colored eyes to fasten on Hecuba, as the woman finally broke through the crowd, and bustled towards them. As she suspected, Hecuba slowed, and came to a halt, uncertainly, and didn't put a grab on Gabrielle, as had been her very obvious intention.

"Hi." Gabrielle said, conversationally. "I just saw Lila.. she looks great."

Hecuba glanced at her daughter, then at the silent, bristling Amazon to her right. "Ah… "

"Oh.. " Gabrielle half turned. "Mother, this is Eponin, she's one of the Amazon's finest warriors." She smiled, seeing the creeping red line etching it's way up Pony's neck. "She taught me how to use my staff."

Her mother hesitantly extended an arm. "Um… very nice to meet you."

Eponin gave her one of her best squint eyed looks, and took the hand, clasping it briefly then letting it go. "It's nice to meet our beloved Queen's family. " She added one of her more social looking smiles, and heard an odd, choking sound coming from the bard. "A great honor." She added.

"Yes… um.. " Hecuba eyed her daughter unhappily. "Gabrielle.. may I speak with you a moment?"

The bard crossed her arms and shrugged. "Sure." She cocked her head to one side, and waited. "Granella's family is the Amazons.. so Ephiny and I decided it would be great if we were both there.. in our fancy stuff." She glanced down. "You like it?"

Hecuba's eyes dropped slowly down her daughter's leather clad form, and winced. "Well… " She finally sighed. "You do have a lovely tan. "

Eponin made a tiny, squeaking noise, as she bit down on her tongue to keep from laughing.

"Thanks.." Gabrielle elbowed her in the ribs. "It's not very different from my usual.. in fact, that's based on traditional Amazon gear.. but it makes a nice change." Then, having postponed the inevitable for as long as she thought she could get away with it, she turned to Eponin. "I'll be right back." She motioned her mother towards the small, darkened hallway that led into the kitchen, and stopped as they both entered it, giving them a small degree of privacy. "Is something wrong?" She asked quietly, wishing she didn't know the answer.

Hecuba hesitated, her eyes studying Gabrielle's face. "I'd like you to do something for me."

Mist green eyes under drawn brows gazed at her. "Sure.. if I can.. name it."

The older woman lifted a hand, and gently touched her cheek, with a tiny shake of her head. "After this all settles down.. do you think you could come by.. just for a few days, Gabrielle? I'd like to spend some time with you."

It was the last thing she expected, and it threw her off balance. She blinked a few times, then exhaled. "Sure." She answered very softly. "If you want me to." She looked down. "I know there's.. some things that have happened this year… we couldn't really go into them before, we didn't have time but.. "

Hecuba held up her other hand. "Gabrielle… I think I've finally gotten it into my head that… you're not my responsibility anymore." She pursed her lips. "I'm not going to… ask for explanations.. I'm not going to criticize your life, or your choices.. I just… " She patted the bard's arm lightly. "I just want to talk to you, a little."

Gabrielle leaned against the roof support, and let out a breath. "I'd like that." She admitted in a low voice. "We… had planned a trip out past Potadeia before winter… maybe we could stay over a few days."

Her mother tentatively smiled. "I'd love that." She took a deep breath, and reviewed the slim, muscular figure before her. "And I think you look wonderful."

Now, at last, Gabrielle smiled, letting the emotion reach her eyes, and she let a laugh escape. "I feel ridiculous, honestly." She confided. "All these feathers… and I don't know.. I don't do leather nearly as well as Xena does." She held up her arms, displaying the vambraces. "But I don't get to wear it often, so.. "

Hecuba gave a relieved sigh, and studied her. "That's a very interesting color on you.. " She twitched the skirt, then peered at her daughter's navel. "Goodness… did you get hurt?"

Gabrielle looked down, then blushed, and tugged the waistband up a touch. "No.. no.. I.. um… " Her mind scrambled wildly. "Bee sting." She finally blurted. "Nothing serious."

"Oh." Hecuba sniffed, then glanced over to where Joscelyn was now setting up his parchmentwork. "Strange… it looked like a hickey to me. " She commented in a dismissive tone, then stepped forward into the crowd. "Hero!"

Gabrielle stood by the door, with her mouth open.

"She gotcha." A voice purred into her ear.

The bard turned her head, with her mouth still ajar and found her lips quickly captured and engaged. "Buhh.. " She broke off, and blinked at her partner, who had appeared out of thin air. "Wh.. ah.. " She licked her lips. "Mmm…." One hand snaked out, and wrapped itself around Xena's neck, pulling the taller warrior's head down so she could sample the rich, sweet taste again. "Hey… what is that?"

Xena grinned at her, and glanced over her shoulder. "We could step inside the kitchen and I'll just show you."

"Or?" The bard let her eyes close, as she breathed in her soulmate's presence.

"Or we could stay out here and continue to provide the village with a spectacle." Xena burred gently.

A quick glance back. "Ah." Gabrielle put a smile on her face, and pushed her partner backward through the kitchen door. "Did I hear my mother right?" She asked, when they were safely out of sight in a corner of the busy kitchen. "Gods…"

Xena laughed. "Yeah.. she surprised me, too." She leaned forward and brushed a finger over the red mark on her soulmate's belly. "Sorry about that… "

Gabrielle glanced down, and grimaced. "I forgot about that." She admitted sheepishly. "How'd it go with mom?"

The warrior buffed her nails on her shirt. "I.. " She waggled her eyebrows. "have many skills." She reached behind Gabrielle and picked up a tiny confection, offering it to the bard. "Here… we'd better get out there." She popped the treat into her partner's mouth, then took her by the elbow. "Toris is about to dissolve into a puddle."

"Mmmmmmmmmmmm…." Gabrielle chewed enthusiastically. "Let him.. more of those for me." She grabbed a second before allowing Xena to steer her back out into the main room, and clear them both a path to where she could see a nervous Toris fidgeting.

The room quieted, as Xena released her arm, and she stepped forward to join the rest of the Amazons, standing in a semicircle around an equally frazzled looking Granella. Ephiny and Eponin quietly moved over and gave her a smile as she joined them, and she stood a little straighter, aware of herself, as she so seldom was, as not only an Amazon, but the ruler of their Nation.

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Xena move silently into place next to Toris, her forest green outfit neatly complimenting the rich golden tan embroidered shirt he was wearing. He glanced aside as she joined him, and quirked a brow at her, and she, too, straightened, letting her hands rest quietly against the tops of her thighs. Ares sat down next to her leg, his dark fur stark against the green fabric of her dress, and his tongue showing a bright pink as he panted.

Cyrene joined them at that point, fussing over a beautiful, dark blue dress, obviously new, and giving her daughter dour looks. Gabrielle caught the innkeeper's eyes, and widened her own, mouthing a 'wow' at her, and winking.

The innkeeper tried to maintain a scowl, but ended up brushing a bit of dust off the glistening fabric, and turned her attention to her children instead.

Joscelyn cleared his throat, and glanced down, settling two piles of parchment neatly on the table, and giving the crowd a dignified look. "This is getting to be a habit around here." He said mildly, and was rewarded with a round of chuckles. Then silence settled down. "Toris?" The tall, dark haired man stepped forward, straightening his shoulders self consciously. "Granella?"

The Amazon joined him at the table, her fingers unconsciously tangling with his as they stood side by side. Her leathers matched his tunic in color, though her head barely topped his tall shoulder, and they exchanged quick glances as the reeve cleared his throat.

"Hmm." Josclyn studied the parchment in front of him. The tense expectation in the room rose, and Xena rocked a little on her heels, catching Gabrielle's eye and suppressing a smile. "You know.." The reeve shuffled a piece, then another, clearly enjoying himself. "I do believe I'm missing something here."

"What the Hades is he about?" Cyrene whispered, knowing Xena would hear her. The warrior shrugged.

"Ah." Josclyn settled a second piece on the table, and rested his fingers on it. "Yes.. here we go.. it seems I need two other people to join us up here." His hazel eyes twinkled brightly as he looked up. "Cyrene?"

Xena grinned fiercely as she heard the startled squeak from her mother. She put a hand on the innkeeper's back, and pushed gently.. "G'wan, mother… you're not getting outta this."

Josclyn smiled. "Johan?" His eyes found his old friend's, who was staring at him in utter shock. "Well?"

Cyrene finally found her composure, and turned, giving her daughter a slap in the belly. "I am going to get you for this, you colossal sneak." But she moved forward, as Johan joined her, his grizzled head slowly shaking. "Did you know they were doing this?" She asked plaintively.

Johan laughed softly. "Me? Ah, no lass… " But he took Cyrene's hand in his, and smiled. "But I'm glad they did."

The crowd closed in around them, now in very high spirits, and Xena managed to work her way around in back of her partner, and surreptitiously brushed her lips on the top of the bard's head.

Gabrielle leaned back against her, and sighed happily as she felt warm hands slip around her waist and tighten, and she interlaced her fingers with Xena's as they settled down to watch.

"This is… " Cyrene made a token, futile protest. "We don’t have rings.. we didn't.. " She was aware of someone standing behind her and turned, to see Xena, a half grin on her face. "Don't you dare."

"Sorry, mother." Xena replied, to laughs and cheers from the crowd. "This is from Gabrielle and I… guess we get a jump on the presents" She slipped a hand between them, and opened it, letting the sunlight coming in the window reflect off the two bands resting on her palm.

Cyrene just looked at them, and then up at her. "Xena." She breathed, gazing up at her daughter. "I'm going to kill you."

The warrior smiled. "You're welcome." She waited for Johan to gingerly lift the rings from her hand, and stepped back to rejoin her soulmate, absorbing the grins and nudges of the Amazons. She returned her arms to their comfortable position around Gabrielle's warm body, as the bard leaned back against her and gave Josclyn a quiet nod.

He nodded back, and smiled at his victims. "Well, now… let's get started."

The late afternoon light speckled her picture, and she let herself become completely absorbed in it, getting her mind off the loneliness, and the pain, and just concentrating on shaping the leaves, and the tiny birds… she'd put a flower near the ground, and she was just crouched over the dirt, focusing hard, putting the petals on when a voice nearly sent her through the roof of the cellar.

"That's quite lovely."

She jumped, and jerked back, staring at Cait's quiet form crouched nearby, her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped around them. "How in Hades did you get in here?" She snarled.

Pale eyes regarded her thoughtfully. "Through the door, of course." She replied.

Paladia glared sullenly at her, and made a motion to smear her work out, but found her hand held in place by a slim, steely grip. "Let go of me." She growled, tugging hard.

"Oh, leave off." Cait snapped, moving around closer to get a better look. "Stop being such a silly goat." She peered at the ground, tracing a line with a slim finger. "Gosh.. that's really quite nice." She looked up at Paladia's face. "Do you do this a lot? I mean with dirt and all."

The bigger woman scowled. "Of course not, you little jerk." But she didn't try to pull away again. "I used charcoal bits." She went on grudgingly. "On the rocks in the cave." She blinked a little, feeling suddenly exhausted, and let her body slump back against the dirt wall. She was aware that Cait still had her fingers clamped around her wrist and now she felt the grip shift. "You can let me go. I'm not gonna trash it."

Cait dropped her hand, then reached behind her and pulled forward a tray. "I brought some stuff over with me here.. they've got lots of things over at the inn. The joining's going on, and it's quite frantic over there."

Paladia regarded her. "I'm not hungry." She rested her head against the wall, as the pain in her arm came back full force, the throbbing making her sick to her stomach.

"Here." The annoying girl was mixing something in a cup. "Xena said for you to have this."

The renegade looked at her in weary annoyance. "If Xena said to jump over a cliff, would you do it?"

Cait looked up. "Of course. " She answered cheerfully. "But she wouldn't ask, she'd just do it herself."

Paladia took the cup and drank it. "You people are all crazy." The herbal mixture was sharp tasting, but not totally unpleasant, and she realized how thirsty she was. "You got water there?"

Cait poured her some from a waterskin she'd had slung over her shoulder, and passed the cup back, watching her gulp the liquid. "Let me see if I can shift that bandage a bit. " She set down the tray, and started working on the wrapping. "Hold still."

The renegade squirmed. "That hurts."

The young Amazon looked up. "I'm sorry." She said quietly. "I'm not doing it on purpose."

Their eyes met, and Paladia blinked. "Didn't think you were." She muttered, dropping her eyes sullenly to the dirt, but holding still until Cait finished her task. The herbs were starting to take effect, and she felt a gentle buzz starting in the back of her head as the pain slowly subsided. She stretched her back out a little, having gotten very stiff from her time spent crouching over the dirt and leaned back against the wall again, with a disgruntled sigh. "Tired of sitting." It came out unplanned, and she wondered why she was bothering mentioning it to the unbelievably irritating girl who was now sitting back and studying her with those nasty pale eyes. She snuck a look at her.

Cait blinked like an owl at her, several times, then silently put the things she'd brought back into the small basket she'd carried them in. "Stand up." She ordered quietly.

"Why?" Paladia asked.

"Well." Cait stood herself, and dusted her bare legs off. "I could tell you just because I said so, or I could take my knife out and make lovely designs in your hand until you did, but actually, I thought you might like a bit of a walk."

The renegade stared at her, then just shook her head. "Nuts… you're a kook." But she stood carefully, wincing as her back seized up, and standing motionless until the muscles grudgingly relaxed, watching as Cait unfastened the shackles. "I could just knock you over and take off." She said.

Cait looked over her shoulder, and lifted one pale brow. "You certainly could try that." She agreed. "But I wouldn't if I were you." In a flickering motion, a blade was in her hand, and pressed against Paladia's throat, then it was gone, just like that. "But come on then, I know a nice spot we can walk to."

This turned out… all right. Xena mused, as she wriggled her shoulderblades into a more comfortable position against the back wall of the inn, and stretched her long legs out under the table, crossing them at the ankles. To her right Gabrielle was deep into a story, with a collection of eager listeners, including the two sets of celebrants. The bard was sitting up straight, and occasionally lifted a hand to push the braided locks on either side of her face back behind her ears from long habit, and the warrior spent a few minutes pleasurably reflecting on just how cute she looked in her Amazon gear.

She even held herself a little differently in it, maybe because it was so much less flexible than the usual fabric she wore, and Xena lifted her cup, draining it as she idly watched Gabrielle's breathing move and shift, pressing against the leather. Then she glanced at the cup, trying to remember how many times she'd emptied it, and bit her lip when she realized she absolutely had no idea. No wonder I feel so relaxed. She mused wryly. Better not try standing up.

A faint scrape made her turn her head away from Gabrielle, to see Josclyn sitting there, folding his strong hands on the table. "Potadeian you left with those kids came in a while ago." He told her softly. "He's got them returning what they could find back to the villages it came from."

Xena nodded quietly. "That's good… but they should take those kids in, Josc… a lot of them were just looking to survive."

The reeve exhaled. "I know…I guess I didn't think about what it might have been like outside of here, Xena… we got some folks in, but.. a lot of people died last winter."

The ex warlord gazed at him quietly. "Can't save em all, Josc." She commented. "Lot of those kids were just abandoned.. I can't agree with what they did after, but I don't know.. if it were my friends in need like that.. I might have done the same." She paused. "I would have done the same… maybe worse."

The reeve studied his hands. "You see yourself in them, eh?"

Xena nodded slowly. "I started off just wanting to protect this place." She felt a wave of regret roll dully over her, and realized the ale wasn't helping. "Maybe if someone had stopped me after Cortese." She let the thought drift off. No sense in revisiting that, again. "They probably hate my guts right now, but when they all have grandkids, maybe they'll look back and say thanks."

Josclyn gazed at her in gentle understanding. "I think they will." He ran a hand through his grizzled hair, and stroked his close trimmed beard restlessly. "The kids are cooperating.. even the lot that came after our prisoner.. they just want to keep their place.. if the stuff goes back, do you.." He hesitated, eyeing her thoughtfully.

The warrior lifted a brow lazily at him. "You asking me for an opinion? You're the law here, Josc.. you and the Potadeian reeve, and the rest from down river." She shrugged. "If you think reparation was made.. that's up to you."

"Mmph." Josclyn drummed his fingers. "After all, you've got the real planner and all under arrest here.. I don't see any sense in dragging all those kids and elders into the law." He nodded briskly. "Thanks, Xena."

"Didn't do a damn thing." Xena protested, waving a hand at him, as he stood and edged his way through the crowd. She turned back and found her cup filled again, and she fitted her hand around it, and stared into its amber depths.

She was on the edge here, she knew. One more cup and she'd go over, going past rigid limits she'd placed on herself, and for a long, aching moment she really wanted to. It had been a long, long time since she'd allowed herself to get this drunk, to lose control over her thoughts and actions.

The pale liquid winked up at her enticingly, the scent pulling her forward in an almost hypnotic manner, and she lifted the cup to her lips, and let the fluid touch them.

Then with a quiet smile, she set the cup back down, and released it, folding her arms peacefully across her chest, and exhaling. No. These people didn't deserve to be subjected to that side of her. She looked down as a warm hand curled around her arm. "Hey."

Mist green eyes filled her vision, sparkling with gentle affection. "You doing ok?" Gabrielle slid closer, dropping a hand to rest on her thigh. "You look a little tired."

Xena smiled. "Just glad everything went off all right… " She put her hand over the bard's and squeezed it. "Even if mother's gonna be out for revenge." She glanced around, at the silvery moonlight that sent ghostly beams in the windows, rivaling the warmth of the candles on every table. "I see Granella calmed down."

Her new sister in law was snuggled down in Toris' lap, her arms wrapped around his neck as she listened to him trade half drunken quips with Johan, who kept glancing at the ring on his finger with a look of puzzled disbelief.

Gabrielle let out a soft chuckle. "Oh yeah.. she looks really relaxed there." Her eyes drifted around to where small groups of people were talking, spotting her mother and father in amiable conversation with the miller and his wife, and Lennat and Lila showing off silly baby tricks to a trio of young girls who were laughing at Gabriel's antics. "This really did turn out nice." She turned her gaze back to her partner, noting the faintly disjointed look to her clear blue eyes. "You've had some ale, huh, tiger?"

A relaxed grin appeared. "Oh yeah." Xena admitted wryly. "Please don't ask me to demonstrate any of my many skills at the moment, ok?"

Gabrielle laughed in gentle delight. "None of them?" She asked, teasingly, easing out of her chair and perching on the arm of her soulmate's. She brushed the long, dark hair back, then impulsively leaned over and kissed her, intending on it lasting a brief, unnoticed second.

To her shock, arms curled around her precariously perched body and pulled her down into Xena's lap, as the warrior returned her kiss with remarkable enthusiasm. She gurgled in surprise, then just relaxed and enjoyed it, finally breaking off when she felt the silence of the room beating against the back of her head.

She looked up, to see Xena wrestling a raised eyebrowed, droll expression onto her face as she returned the somewhat startled looks they were getting.  

Eponin cleared her throat from the next table over. "Huh… guess it's good to be the Queen." She offered, into all that quiet, giving the two a wry roll of the eyes.

That broke the tension, and a relieved chuckle ran around the room.

Gabrielle looked up at her partner's amused eyes and sighed contentedly as she wrapped her arms around Xena's neck, and laid her head down against her silk covered shoulder. "Another adventure in the bag, huh?" She commented quietly. Their first, really, since.. Her mind deliberately sheered off thinking about the recent past. "That felt good, Xena… rescuing those people, and stopping the kidnappings."

The warrior circled her with long arms, and breathed out softly against the bard's skin. "You telling me you want to keep doing it?"

Gabrielle nodded gently against her shoulder. "I just want to live our lives, Xena… I want to try and have a child, but I don't want to back off from helping people, and not do things that I know we could just because I know it's dangerous."

Xena was silent for a moment, then sighed and pulled the bard closer. "Yeah." She decided. "I'm with you." She exhaled softly. "So be it."

The bard relaxed, and yawned. "Gods, I'm stuffed." She complained, letting out a breath.

The warrior gave her a gentle squeeze around the middle. "So I see." She chuckled softly, patting her belly. "Did you get enough of those little pastries?"

"Mmm… " Gabrielle thought about it. "I don’t' think so." She decided. "Wanna go find some?"

Xena grinned.

Really, truly, will be concluded in Part 8 Or Else.