The Longest Night - Part 7

Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

"So.." Hercules gazed around the cabin, a look of interest on his face. "This is your place, huh?" He was seated on a chair next to the fire, his shirt unlaced, as he watched Xena mixing something or other at a small table nearby.

Xena dusted a pinch of powdered herb into the mixture she was working on and nodded. "Yep."

Well. The demigod let his eyes linger over the inside of the cabin. "Nice." He commented, noting the large, comfortable looking bed, and the warm colors of the bedclothing and scattered woven rugs.

Xena looked over her shoulder, and gave a low, deprecating chuckle. "Never considered myself the domestic sort.. but it's not bad here." She finished her work, and stepped over to where he was seated, dipping her long fingers into the ointment she'd worked up, and gently daubing it onto the raw, angry red burns that still graced the demigod's neck. "These must be driving you nuts."

Hercules closed his eyes at her skilled touch, wincing at the sting of the ointment. "You could say that." He muttered, pleasantly aware of the tangy scent of the stuff, along with the warm, tickly smell of the woolen outfit Xena was wearing.

"I just did." The warrior dryly advised him, moving his shoulder length hair out of the way to get at the burns on the back of his neck. "You know, you coulda said something about this earlier." Her voice tickled his ear. "You're not going to pull that noble silent hero routine on me, are you?"

Against his will, Hercules felt a grin tug at his lips, and he let his head rest against her belly as she worked on the back of his neck. "Takes one to know one." He retorted, giving her a light slap on the knee, and feeling the chuckle that rumbled through her before it ghosted past his hearing. "So.. you decided to settle down here for good?"

Xena finished her task, and stepped back, folding his shirt back into place and giving him a critical look. "I wanna check that later.. I'll bring this stuff with me." She juggled the container of ointment in one hand. "We're staying around through the winter, yeah. After that… " She shrugged lightly. "We'll probably bump into you guys out on the road."

He nodded slowly and stood up, wandering around the cabin with gently curious eyes. He stopped next to the table, and stared at the two tiny stuffed toys propped up next to each other and picked the squirrel up, turning and looking at her with a wide grin.

Xena winced. Oops. Let's see.. can I get away with a bland stare? She tried one, but he just started laughing. Nope.. She sighed, and let her arms lift up slightly, then drop down again. "My mother's idea of a joke."

"She's got quite a sense of humor." The demigod remarked, putting the toy down and resuming his walk. "Hey.. these are nice.. " He ran a finger over the painted woven mats on the wall.

"Gabrielle's work." Xena told him in a quietly proud tone, as she stowed her supplies back into her healer's kit.

He studied the paintings for a moment, then shook his head a little. "She's a very special person." He wandered over to the linen press, chuckling a little as he picked up the tiny carved turtle from amongst its playmates. "This her work too?"

Xena felt a faint blush coming on, and she scowled a little. "Um.. no." Damn.. what possessed me to drag him in here? She glanced furtively up at him, seeing his smiling eyes watching her, waiting, one eyebrow cocked in question. Oh… centaur poop. Her mind sighed. "Mine, actually." She finally muttered.

Hercules' felt his square jaw drop, and he let out a startled blurt of laughter. "Well..well…. talk about surprises. " He set the turtle down, and crossed back over to her, bumping her shoulder with his own, and giving her a gentle slap on the back. "Relax.. I won't tell anyone."

"Thanks." Xena growled. "C'mon, we'd better get back… Josclyn wants to get the ceremony rolling."

Hercules abruptly lost his good humor, and he glanced down, before putting a hand on Xena's shoulder. " Can we… sit down and talk for a minute first?"

She picked up his tension and felt her own gut tighten in response. "Sure." She gestured him towards the chair next to the fire, and seated herself in the other one, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees, clasping her hands between them. "What's up?"

The demigod leaned back in the chair, feeling the peace of the place as a tangible thing. "Listen.. I.. found out something about that necklace. " He began, then paused. "I.. think you should know."

Xena studied his face, seeing the strain and exhaustion there. "Go on." She said evenly.

"Ares… was.. not telling you the whole truth." Hercules replied, quietly. "Or.. " He lifted a weary hand. "He didn't know.. I don't… know which. But the fact is.. that necklace.. affected me.. because of who my father is."

Xena's brow creased. "Wait.. it affected you because Zeus is your father?" That makes no sense…"Someone got something out for him?"

Hercules sighed. "No.. not.. exactly. It affected me because.. I'm half god." He leaned forward. "It only affects people who are.. like me." He paused. "Or.. of course, full gods." He chewed his lip. "That's.. why Ares was so concerned."

Oh. Xena bit her lip in concentration. "I see."

"Do you?" Hercules asked quietly. "Xena, I talked to Iolaus.. I know that thing affected you somehow."

Xena studied her strong hands intently. "It's.. not.. something I haven't considered, Hercules." She looked up, and met his eyes squarely. "But I think it's just coincidence in this case." She paused. "I am, after all, mortal." Her lips quirked. "I died, remember?" Now her humor turned dark. "And I certainly didn't end up in Mount Olympus" A quick memory of the seashore flickered through her thoughts then, and she smiled inwardly.

He nodded slowly. "And you came back." He answered, reaching over and taking her hand. "I can't offhand think of many people who could have done that."

She shrugged. "I was lucky, and had a lot of help." And one overwhelming, undeniable need.

He looked at her, his eyes sad but intent.

Xena looked at their clasped hands, then raised her gaze to his again. "I'm not like you, Hercules… when I get cut, I bleed.. when people hit me, I hurt. " She sighed. "I've got the scars to prove it. "

"So do I." Hercules answered quietly. "But I can cross the boundaries between life and death, my body heals with incredible speed.. I'm stronger than just about anyone I know.. and gods keep meddling in my life." He paused, and gave her a wistful smile 'Sound familiar?"

A quirk of one dark eyebrow. He was right.. and it wasn't something she hadn't considered more times than she could count. Even Gabrielle sensed it.. only the bard called it her special 'magic'. "Yeah." She finally said, with a deep sigh. "It does." A darkling though crossed her mind, and almost.. almost made her chuckle wryly out loud. "But.. it's water under the bridge… nothing I can do either way." She advised him. "Just something else I gotta live with."

He ducked his head. "True." Then gave her a wry look. "Listen.. sorry to spring this on you today.. I just.. I haven't really had a chance to talk to you since… "

She smiled. "Don't worry about it… like I said.. it's not something I haven't considered." She shrugged lightly. "Matter of fact, Gabrielle and I talked about it a few weeks back."

Bare days after the bard had returned from the slavers camp, when they'd lain snuggled together after a long translating session, with bard's slowly healing ribs giving them an excuse to while the lazy hours away with each other. Like they really needed an excuse.

"Xena?" Gabrielle had said, tentatively, from her position cradled against her partner's chest.

"Mmm?" Xena had answered in a half asleep mumble, shamelessly allowing the patter of icy rain on their roof to lull her into a dreamy daze, and reveling in a sense of guilty pleasure at the feeling.

"I was.. just thinking." The bard had started, with an uncertain tone in her voice. "About.. you."

One blue eye opened, and regarded her fiery gold head thoughtfully. "What did I do now?"

"Nothing." Gabrielle answered. "But I was thinking about.. how much this hurts.. " Xena's arms cradled her more securely. "Thanks.. but I can't help feeling kind of depressed at how long it's taking to heal." She'd turned her head and gazed up at her partner. "Because it's not like that for you."

Xena had regarded her thoughtfully. "No.. I guess it isn't."

Green eyes had pinned her. "Why not?" Fingers had reached up and delicately traced her face. "You… I know you work really hard, Xena.. but you can do things other people just can't .. why? Are you.. " Her voice had faltered. "I mean.. "

Xena had sighed. "I don’t know." She'd finally, honestly, answered. "Does it matter?" This last as an aching, scared question.

Gabrielle had nestled closer. "Not to me." Warm affection colored her tone. "I was just curious." She'd sighed, and winced. "Whatever it is, I wish I could borrow it for a few candlemarks."

And Xena had smiled ruefully, and gently wrapped her in warmth, coaxing her back into a healing sleep. Which had.. in some strange, mystical fashion, seemed to have worked, despite the bard's impatience. Gabrielle's ribs had healed much faster than they should have.. though Xena hadn't told her that.

She'd just accepted it, like she accepted her own abilities. And tried not to think about them too much.

"Yeah?" Hercules replied. "What does she think?"

Xena shrugged. "She.. thinks.. whatever the source, it's a useful thing."

The demigod laughed softly. "Practical." He stood, and extended a hand to her. "C'mon, my friend.. let's go get you hitched." He rubbed his stomach. "I want to try some of that roast your mother is doing.. Knickers of the gods, Xena, she sure can cook."

The warrior chuckled, and wrapped an arm around his broad back, as they fastened their cloaks and prepared to force a way through the thickly falling snow back towards the inn.

Xena felt her partner's presence just inside the door to the inn, and she smiled as she pushed the wooden portal open, glad to get out of the driving wind that whirled fiercely through the weave of her cloak and blew wet snow down the back of her neck. Sure enough, there was Gabrielle, her pale hair collecting the flickers from the torches, waiting for her. "Hey.. " She stepped aside to let Hercules go past her, and ducked her head down towards the bard. "Had to get some ointment for his neck."

Gabrielle wound her fingers around the warrior's arm. "From the necklace?" She asked, in a low voice.

Xena nodded. "Yeah.. we ready?" She felt an odd nervous sensation deep in her guts that surprised her. Damn.. don't tell me I'm getting spooked at this.. not at my age for Ares' sake.

The bard smiled. "Yep.. we are.. but… " She tugged Xena towards the kitchen. "Can I.. just.. talk to you alone for a minute?"

Xena willingly allowed herself to be ushered through the door into the now empty and quiet kitchen. "Sure.. " She gently cornered the bard against the counter, and kissed her, feeling Gabrielle's light, surprised laugh against her lips. Then she relaxed, and leaned against the cupboard. "Now.. you had something to say?"

Gabrielle regarded her fondly. "You're such a brat." She lifted Xena's hand, still clasped in her own, and brushed the knuckle against her lips. "I.. wanted to give something to you.. and.. I'm not sure if you're going to like it, so I'd rather.. um.. "

Strong hands gently grasped her face, and tilted it up. "Gabrielle… if you gave me a polished, petrified centaur poop I'd love it."

The bard's eyes glinted with sudden, impish humor. "Really?"

Xena brushed her fingers against her partner's soft cheek. "Really." Then she cocked her head in inquiry as her hand was captured and held, and found herself drowning in Gabrielle's eyes as the bard's hands moved, and she felt a cool constriction settled around a finger, along with the gentle warmth of Gabrielle's touch.

She looked down at their clasped hands, and felt her knees give out, forcing her to grab awkwardly for the counter, as Gabrielle's steadying grip found her. She was vaguely aware that the bard was saying something, isolated words kept filtering through her astonished awareness, but.. 'Gabrielle."

The bard stopped speaking, and waited, her mist green eyes anxiously searching Xena's face.

"Its.. beautiful… I don't… how did you… " Finally she gave up, and just closed her eyes, and reached out, grabbing Gabrielle's shirt and pulling her close. Burying her face into Gabrielle's sweet smelling hair and just holding on to her.

"I.. I wanted to.. um… " Gabrielle was stammering softly. "I know.. you don't like jewelry.. I know.. you said because of the fighting and stuff, you don't wear it.. but…I just wanted.. I mean, you don't have to…"

A hand gripped the back of her neck and kneaded softly, and she stopped speaking, recognizing the gentle pressure for what it was. She let her body melt against her soulmate's, and felt a happy smile start to edge across her face. Guess I did OK. The less she talks, the more she feels about something.. and when she stops talking, and just reacts.. I hit the bullseye.

Finally, they released each other, and Xena leaned back, keeping her partner wrapped loosely in her arms. "Thank you." She gave the bard a dazzling smile. I can't believe she did that.

Gabrielle smiled back. "Listen.. I know you don't wear that kind of stuff."

The warrior spared a glance for the glittering circle on her hand and chuckled softly. "Guess I'll get used to it." She brushed a wayward strand of fiery gold hair from the bard's cheek. "You didn't have to do that, you know."

The bard quirked a grin at her. "I know." She played with the satin laces at Xena's throat idly. "I.. there's nothing material that will ever express what.. you mean to me, and you.. know that, right?" She saw Xena's small nod and gave one back. "This is just.. something I really wanted to do."

A knock on the door cause them both to jump a little, then grin as the wooden panel moved inward, and Cyrene poked her head in. 'Hi mom." They managed to say in concert.

The innkeeper slipped all the way in the room, and put her hands on her hips. "Excuse me!" She snorted softly. "You two have the rest of your lives to cuddle with each other.. you mind if we get this party going?"

"Oh gods." Gabrielle softly groaned, and just buried her face in Xena's shirt. "I'm gonna die." She burst into a helpless giggle.

Xena felt a blush coloring her own face, but she maintained her composure, and gave her mother a wry look. "Ok..ok.. " She gave the bard a gentle nudge towards the door. "G'wan, I'll be out in a minute."

Gabrielle gave her a smile, then pushed off her, and edged past Cyrene, biting her lip when the innkeeper gave her a knowing poke.

Cyrene watched the door closed, then sauntered over to where Xena was standing, arms crossed. "You two really don't have to sneak around like that, you know… it's not like everybody doesn't know, right?"

Xena sighed, then gave her mother a fond look. "Yeah.. I know that. .she just wanted to give me something.. kind of hard in that circus outside." She let out a breath, trying to relieve the gnawing feeling just under her ribcage. "I.. was just…"

Cyrene moved closer, then curled her fingers around Xena's hand and tugged it away from her chest. "Gods." She laughed softly. "Would you look at that." Then she noticed the slight tremor running through the long fingers and glanced up. "Are you all right, honey?"

Xena clenched her hand into a fist, and swallowed. "Yeah, I'm fine." She answered in a slightly husky voice. "Just a little surprised."

Her mother regarded her quietly. "And a little nervous." She gave her daughter a gentle pat. "That's a beautiful gift, Xena."

The warrior tucked her hand back against her chest and gave her mother a tight smile. "Yeah.. it sure is." Then she took a deep breath. "Well, better get this moving."

Cyrene chuckled softly under her breath, and circled her arms around the taller woman. "C'mere." For an instant, Xena's body remained rigid, then she relaxed, and returned her mother's hug. "That's better." The innkeeper rubbed her daughter's back soothingly. "Take it easy… I know there's a lot of people out there, but it'll be over in a few minutes, and you can go back to your corner and glower at everyone again."

She felt a movement as Xena started chuckling. "You know me pretty well." The warrior sighed resignedly, but her voice sounded much calmer.

Cyrene snorted. "I *am* your mother." She gave her a pat on the back and released her. "Besides.. I felt the same way."

"Yeah?" Xena queried, putting an arm around her shoulders and steering her towards the door.

Her mother waved a hand. "Oh yeah.. mine was a real circus… though.. " She peeked out the door at the very eclectic crowd "I think there was less.. um.. fur." She paused thoughtfully. "And no Amazons."

Hecuba fussed over Gabrielle, who was standing quietly with her arms crossed near the table Jocelyn had commandeered. The older woman was brushing non existent specks of dust off her daughter's shirt, and twitching at her belt. "This is very nice." She commented dryly, looking the bard up and down. "But it certainly is.. um.. well, it doesn't leave much to the imagination." She finished, with a hint of disapproval.

"Yeah, your majesty. " Ephiny drawled, coming up behind her and tugging at her collar. "We're used to seeing you in so much.. er.. less." She teased wickedly. "This seems positively.. decadent."

"Thanks guys." Gabrielle sighed, rolling her eyes and exchanging amused looks with Jocelyn.

"What does she mean?" Hecuba asked, puzzled, then her brows creased. "Oh.. yes.. that other outfit you seem so fond of." Her voice left no doubt of her opinion of the outfit in question. "Disgraceful."

"Hey..!" The bard scowled. "What's disgraceful about it? It's nice and cool in the summer."

Her mother clucked her tongue. "Really, Gabrielle.. you can see… everything."

The surrounding Amazons all hummed in approval in concert. "Yes, you certainly can." Granella drawled.

"Thanks guys." Gabrielle muttered, through clenched teeth, as she flushed a deep crimson. Gods… what on earth possessed me to ask both my parents and the Amazons to this thing? Did I get into some fermented nutbread that day or what?

"Ooo.. " Ephiny chuckled. "Look at that blush… very impressive." Her pale eyes danced. "Actually, I always thought that outfit was Xena's choice."

Now the laughter proliferated, and Gabrielle thought she was going to just sink through the floor of the inn. She felt intensely uncomfortable with the knowing scrutiny, despite it's harmless nature, and bit her lip at the sight of her mother's darkening expression.

Then three things happened. The laughter abruptly stopped, a silence fell, and two arms slid around her neck and clasped her securely.

"I'm sure I didn't hear anyone making fun of my best friend here." Pause. "RIGHT?" Xena's voice was silky with dark menace, and her ice blue eyes lanced into them. Even Ephiny's eyes widened. Hecuba took a nervous step back.

The Amazon regent rubbed her nose. "Um.. no… no.. of course not. We were just.. admiring Gabrielle's outfit." She gave the bard an apologetic look. "Right?"

Gabrielle let them sweat for a minute, getting a guilty enjoyment of turning the tables on them, then relented and grinned. "Yeah, it's ok." She patted Xena's thigh lightly. "They were just razzing me.. it's no problem."

Everyone got a raised eyebrow stare, then Xena relaxed, and turned towards Jocelyn. "We ready?"

The reeve nodded, pinching his lips to keep the smile off of them as he opened his leather bound ledger, and put his hands lightly on the faded pages.

Ephiny mock wiped her brow as the two of them turned and faced the reeve, exchanging sheepish looks with Granella. "Forgot about that damn protective streak. " She muttered softly into Eponin's ear. "Whoo.. that icy stare sure hasn't lost anything."

Eponin grunted in agreement, then leaned back against a support post and smiled bashfully when Ephiny did the same, slipping an arm around her waist and settling down to watch the ceremony. She did her best to ignore the darting looks going back and forth between the other Amazons, and kept her eyes forward, watching the rest of the guests gather close to witness the rite. Finally, she turned her head. "You're scandalizing the children." Her voice a bare whisper.

Ephiny smiled. "They'll survive." She whispered back, giving Eponin a quick nip on the nose. "Whoops.. there go Granella's eyeballs…"

Xena tore her distracted attention from the whispering going on in back of them, to focus on Jocelyn's voice, which was running through the legal obligations of the joining. She was very aware of Gabrielle's slim, silent form next to her. Very aware of the ridiculous pounding of her own heart, and the chills that were making her knees shake. This.. is out of control. She sternly told her body. I have stood up in front of gods and kings without turning a hair. I am *not* going to pass out in my own mother's inn at my own damn joining ceremony in front of every damn friend I have because I will never, ever, ever live that down.

Fingers gently twined with hers, and she concentrated on the warm sensation, letting the reassuring presence of her soulmate work it's magic, calming her down and bringing a measure of peace to her slightly frazzled mind. Her heartbeat slowed, and the closeness of the room receded, and now she could concentrate on what Jocelyn was saying.

Gabrielle watched her partner out of the corner of her eye with a touch of amused concern. The hand clasped in her own had been chilled, unusual in the extreme for her normally warm blooded companion. Gods… I think she's nervous. That's a first. She saw Xena visibly relax a little, as she gently rubbed the warrior's fingers. Yeah.. and it's really close in here.. that can't be helping. She squeezed the hand wrapped around hers, and was rewarded with the perceptible relaxation of Xena's shoulders.

"Gabrielle, as a newcomer to our village, I'll explain to you how we do this." Jocelyn gave her a friendly look. "These are the legal documents of your joining. " He indicated the two sheets of parchment. "They spell out the requirements and responsibilities that this step you're taking entails.. and what your rights are."

The bard nodded, having reviewed this with Xena days before. "I know." She grinned impishly. "Where do I sign?"

Jocelyn smiled back at her. "Do you agree to take responsibility for all your life long for your partner here?"

Gabrielle's eyes took on an inner glow. "Longer than that." She felt the grip on her fingers tighten, and smiled.

The reeve gave her a little nod. "Do you agree to share legal responsibility for your life together, and any contracts or agreements you decide to enter into?"

That.. Gabrielle felt the weight of that settle onto her, knowing that she might not know, or suspect the breadth or depth of the things Xena had done, or would do in the future. But there was really only one answer. "Yes." She said quietly, firmly, and received another nod from Jocelyn.

He gently pushed the parchment towards her, and handed her a quill, which she took in wondering fingers, leaning forward a little to inscribe her name in a steady hand. It was a curious feeling.. she reflected, after she'd straightened up, handing him back the quill, and listening quietly as Xena made the same responses to the same questions. Then the warrior was releasing her hand to take the quill herself and sign the parchment, twirling the writing instrument in her fingers briefly before handing it back, and the thing was done. Just like that, she marveled.

And then she was extending her hand, and so was Xena, and Jocelyn was taking a deep breath for this, the most symbolic part of the ceremony. He took up a small dagger, with it's bright, glittering blade and hesitated, glancing at Xena for permission. Very aware of just who it was he was approaching with bared blade.

The warrior nodded quietly, and watched with only a tiny flinch as he took her hand in his own, and swiftly nicked a cut in her palm. Then he did the same with Gabrielle, whose jaw jerked at the pressure but who made no sound.

They clasped hands, mingling the trickles of blood, and Jocelyn took up the white linen, binding it around their fingers in a tight bandage. "This is our way." He said softly. "As your blood is joined, so your hearts are joined, and as this fabric binds your hands, may the Fates weaving bind your lives together for as long as you both shall live."

Xena could feel the harsh fire of the cut, and focused on it, ignoring the faint trembling that started in her knees and was working it's way up. The linen felt cool, then warm as it took on their body heat, and she felt Gabrielle's fingers clasp hers in gentle reassurance. She found herself unable to lift her attention past her partner, and let her world narrow down, until it included only herself, and Gabrielle, and Jocelyn's ending murmur, which spoke words her brain surely recognized, but which made no impression on her hearing.

Then she was in a pool of expectant silence, and Gabrielle's mist green eyes were focusing on her, the bard turning so they faced one another.. and here was Gabrielle's biggest nightmare, one that she'd mumbled confession of, and Xena had gently teased her about, reminding her that she'd already kissed the bard in front of a crowd.

But this was different, as Xena also realized. And now it was her turn to reassure her partner, and make this ending of the ceremony as gentle, and as wonderful as the rest had been.

She let their bound hands dropped to the side, and lifted her free one, interlacing her fingers into Gabrielle's fiery gold hair and capturing her eyes. Watching as the bard let the room fade out as she focused her attention on Xena, and leaned her cheek in to the palm caressing her face. And then she ducked her head and kissed her, seeing the bard's eyes flutter closed as she responded to the familiar touch and her free hand drifted up to curl around Xena's waist, sliding a hesitant thumb up the line of the warrior's ribcage.

She took her time, they both did, letting the watching crowd dissolve into a mist that left them alone in each other's eyes for a long, breathless, peaceful slice of time.

Then the sound of clapping, and cheering slowly broke in, and they glanced at each other, exchanging wry grins, as the crowd clustered around them, and hands reached out to give friendly congratulations.

They endured hugs from everyone, and even Gabrielle was feeling the faintest protests from her normally open boundaries by the time they'd made it across the room and to a fairly open spot on the floor. A glance sideways told her that her partner was enduring the trial by will alone, her seemingly calm, almost friendly expression betrayed by the tension the bard could feel radiating down into their still joined hands, and Gabrielle nudged her gently towards the table that had been set up for them. "C'mon… " Getting no protest from her silent companion, who followed her willingly to the relatively quiet corner and settled down next to her on the wide, padded bench against the wall.

She waited for Xena to lean back, while she accepted two mugs from a smiling server and put them down on the table. "Thanks." She grinned up into the short, stocky man's eyes and he laughed. Her eyes scanned the room, noting the knots of talking people, now beginning to move towards tables, and the servers who scurried around the room putting down platters and cups. The inn's rafters had been draped in the same colors which graced their cabin, and the rising din of happy noise made her sigh in some contentment. It hadn't been anything like what she'd imagined.. and nothing like what her marriage to Perdicus had been.

Maybe because.. in most joining ceremonies the two people being joined hoped they'd be able to merge their separate lives into one.. and in hers, that was no longer a question, making the ceremony more an affirmation than a promise.

Her hand stung lightly, and she flexed it inside its linen wrap, and smiled when Xena's fingers tightened their grasp, making her look up and over at her partner. "You all right?" She muttered, in a low voice, leaning closer to Xena.

The blue eyes blinked a few times, then a corner of Xena's mouth tugged into a grin. "Yeah.. I just… I realized when they did this.. " She raised their linked hands. "That this is… all real."

Gabrielle slid closer, her brow contracting a bit. "What did you think it was before?" She asked, keeping a light tone in her voice. "A rehearsal?"

Xena gazed at her. "A dream." She answered softly.

"Oh no." The bard replied in a whisper. "This is very, very real." She smiled and laid her head against Xena's shoulder, letting out a happy sigh. "It's the most real thing that ever happened to me."

That brought a smile to the warrior's face, and she rested her cheek against the top of her partner's head. "Oh yeah." She breathed, on the end of a gentle laugh as the rich warmth of their connection swept over her. This… she felt it bubble up. Was happiness. She closed her eyes and let it surface, flowing over her in a wave so intense, it blocked out everything save the solid warmth of Gabrielle's body pressed against hers, and in that moment, she didn't care about the past, or the future as both faded into a blurry haze while the single moment of now came sharply to focus.

She felt a slight poke in her ribs, and opened her eyes, gazing down at Gabrielle. "Huh?"

A giggle from the bard. "You're not falling asleep on me, are you?" Her eyes glinted impishly. "You'd never live that down, love."

Xena laughed ruefully, letting her eyes flick out over the crowd. "You're right." She admitted. "But no.. I wasn't dozing off.. I was just thinking."

"Uh huh" Gabrielle teased. "So.. remind me again, how long do we have to keep this on?" She lifted their joined hands. "Not that I'm complaining in any way, right?"

The warrior stretched her legs out, and felt her body begin to relax. "Hmm… well, we're supposed to keep ourselves tied together until.. " She let the sentence trail off, and just jerked her head towards the door. "You know."

"Ah. I see." Gabrielle mused.

"It's.. supposed to be so that the newly joined couple.. " Xena felt a warm giddiness shiver down her spine at the words, and scolded herself in outrage. C'mon, now.. we're not kids here! "Um.. anyway, so that they start learning to work as a team." She lifted their hands and smiled. "It can pose some problems… walking… eating.. that kind of thing."

Gabrielle's fair eyebrows rose and she chuckled. "Not for us." She reached over and clasped Xena's free hand. "I think we've gotten some practice in working as a team already."

"Mmm.." Her partner agreed. "I don’t think they had us in mind when they wrote that bit." She shrugged lightly. "Well.. I m… " She gazed at Gabrielle's head, tucked firmly into her shoulder. "We could take it off if you want."

The fiery golden hair moved as she shook her head. "Nope." Now an impish twinkle appeared. "I intend to dance, and party, and have a great time tonight.. and if you're tied to me.. I guess you'll just have to do that too."

A darkly dangerous eyebrow curved up. "Oh really? You think you can drag me across that floor, little bard?"

Gabrielle grinned devilishly. "Hey.. I'm not that little anymore.. and yep, I do."

Xena settled back with a grin. "Well.. it's going to be fun to watch you try." But she winked at her partner. She glanced up as a shudder of wind rattled the timbers of the inn, and her brow raised again. "Looks like it's a good thing we're indoors, though."

"That was nice." Ephiny commented to Toris, who was moving some chairs around. "It's.. an interesting tradition."

The dark haired man glanced up, and motioned her to sit down. "Yeah… I wasn't sure if she was going to go through with the whole rigamarole.. I mean.. the wrapping stuff is mostly a fun thing, because usually the two people don't really.. well.. know each other that well, and to be stuck tied to someone all night.." He glanced the short distance to where his sister and her partner were seated. "But I don't think that's a problem in this case."

Ephiny smiled quietly at the gentle shine in those blue eyes, and the look of unabashed joy on Gabrielle's face as she rested her cheek against the warrior's shoulder. They turned to look at each other, and the emotion was so strong between them, it was almost a physical thing that Ephiny could sense readily. She sighed. "You don't get to see that very often, Toris."

Toris grinned briefly. "No.. you really don't." He chuckled. "I always said if my sister got defeated.. it wouldn't be by force of arms."

Ephiny regarded the pair thoughtfully as she sat down, and felt Eponin settle to one side of her, and Granella to the other. "No.." She met Toris' blue eyes. "That wasn't a defeat." Her lips twitched. "It was a willing surrender."

A sound made them all turn, and watch as the door to the kitchen swung open and Hercules edged his wide shoulders out, followed by a grinning Jessan. The demigod was brushing snowflakes off his thick shirt, and gave them a nod as he pulled a chair up to the end of the table, and sat down in it. "Hi."

Jessan joined Elaini at the table next to them, and patiently sat as his lifebond plucked bits of straw out of his golden fur. "So.. you guys get the pig out?" Elaini asked idly. "Um…" She realized how odd that sounded. "I mean… did you help.. oh.. Ares boots."

Jessan sat back, and crossed his arms. "You know, I think I resent that." He eyed Hercules, who blinked. "How come everyone always thinks big guys like us are only good for hard labor? Like dragging some pig up out of a hole in the ground?"

Hercules' mouth twitched. "You know, you're right." And so had Xena been, he mused, when she'd told him things could have been worse. Knowing… He decided firmly was better than wondering, and since he couldn’t change what happened.. at least he could be grateful that it.. hadn't been as bad as his mind had imagined it to be. "How do you know we weren't' in there.. um… baking cookies."

Iolaus leaned forward and rested his short forearms on the tables. "You.. baking cookies?"

The demigod crossed his arms on his muscular chest. "Yes, Iolaus."

A tiny silence. "Well." The blond man scratched his head. "If we get attacked, we've got ammunition, then."

That got laughter from everyone, even the idly listening Xena and Gabrielle.

"Did you.. talk to him?" The bard whispered to her partner.

Xena nodded. "Yeah.. I did.. I think it's ok now.. I kind of knocked him around a little."

"Really?" Gabrielle mused, as she picked up her glass of ale and sipped slowly.

"Yeah.. and, oh, by the way… they're not." Xena commented, sniffing reflectively.

A splutter, and she felt droplets of ale hit her as the bard choked on her drink. "Hey.. easy there.." Xena patted her back, concerned. "You OK?"

Gabrielle cleared her throat, giving the curiously watching group a reassuring smile. "Fine.. fine.. no problems here.. just drank too fast." She ducked her head against Xena's shoulder again and lowered her voice. "I'm gonna kill you for that."

"Me?" Xena asked plaintively. "Damn.. all I do is pass along a little information, and what does that get me? I'll just keep it to myself next time." She picked up her glass of ale and sipped it, watching her mother direct the crowd of servers.

"Did you.. just… ask.. him???" The bard whispered curiously.

Xena shrugged. "Nope.. he volunteered it.. I was giving him some tips on communicating when.."

Gabrielle banged on her chest with her free hand. "WHOA!!!!!"

Everyone turned around and looked, at Xena frozen in mid drink, and the bard with her fist clenched firmly in the rich wool of her partner's shirt. The warrior swallowed and gave them all a dour look. "It's all right.. she just gets a little excited now and then." Ignoring the drumming of fingertips on her breastbone blithely. "Hey… would you look at that pig."

Eyes went that way, and now she grinned impishly at Gabrielle, who was biting her lip in outrage. "Hey… you're really cute when you're mad."

The bard made a low, rumbling, growling sound that was immediately echoed by Ares, who was curled up around Xena's feet. "I.. am.. going.. to… tell.. every. .single.. person.. in.." Gabrielle breathed. "Exactly where your ticklish spot is, and I bet..I just bet we have enough people here to hold you down and make your life… "

She was stopped by a kiss that claimed her soul with its warm suddenness. Gabrielle felt her body respond with sensual abandon, making her forget her surroundings for a long, wonderful moment. Then she broke off, and took a breath, licking her lips thoughtfully. "Why do we always do this in a crowd?" Aware of the husky tinge to her voice, and the slow movement of Xena's hand against her upper thigh.

"They're all busy looking at the pig." The warrior chuckled softly.

"Mmm.. bet they aren't." Gabrielle disagreed, knowing her audience.

"Bet they are." Xena replied.

"Five dinars." The bard immediately responded.

"You're on." Xena agreed cheerfully.

Gabrielle looked, then gave her partner a speculative glance. "How'd you know?"

A lift of those dark eyebrows. "I have.. many.. skills, Gabrielle."

The bard laughed. "You were just waiting to say that, weren't you?" She sighed, and snuggled closer, turning her head to watch the servers bringing around platters of the fragrant meat. Her head cocked slowly. "Yeah..I never really thought they were." She studied Hercules and Iolaus with gently speculative eyes. "I can't believe he just told you, though."

Xena sipped her ale. "Well… he's kind of worried about his image."

Gabrielle blinked. "What? Oh… " She giggled softly. "I get's that tough macho guy thing." She thought about that for a minute. "You think it drives them nuts that the toughest guy in this place is you?"

Xena's turn to send ale flying.

The bard glanced up and grinned. "Gotcha."

A tug on her sleeve, and Xena glanced down. "Hey… " Her face broke into a smile at the sight of her son. "You having fun?"

Solon nodded vigorously. "Cait's teaching me all kinds of stuff."

Xena winced internally. Oh.. boy… that. could be dangerous. "Oh yeah?" She inquired. "Like what?"

The boy climbed up onto the bench and snuggled up next to her, peeking around her chest to see what Gabrielle was up to. Satisfied that the bard was occupied in conversation with her sister, he returned his attention to his mother. "Umm… neat stuff.. like.. " His eyes darted around and he lowered his voice. "How to fix a saddle so it falls off when you try to get into it."

Cait.. you're bacchae fodder. The warrior cursed silently. He doesn't NEED any help being sneaky. "That's nice… um… you're not going to do that to Argo's tack, right?"

His blue eyes widened. "No way!" A short pause. "Sides.. you'd check."

Xena raised an eyebrow at him, then let herself relax into a grin. "You're right." Oh.. the world's not ready for this. Not for two of us. She slipped her free arm around him in a hug, much to his evident delight.

Solon remained quiet for a minute, fingering the fabric of her shirt before he looked up into her face again. "You look really pretty today." He paused. "All glowy and stuff."

The warrior smiled at him. "Thanks." She idly push the hair back off of his forehead. "You look very nice yourself." Then her mind went back over what he'd said, and she paused. Glowy? Gods…

"Hey Solon.. " Gabrielle's voice broke into her thoughts, as the bard leaned across her and ruffled the boy's hair.

He grinned at her ."Hi mom.. you gonna tell any stories tonight?"

Gabrielle laughed softly. "Um… well, I've been told I've got the night off from that." She cast a glance at her partner, who was chuckling. "Because I .. tend to use my hands a lot, and um… " She lifted their linked hands and gave Solon a grin.

It had been a fun afternoon, the bard reflected. And their linked hands had given them a perfect excuse to spend it practically in each other's laps, as they took turns feeding one another. Though.. Gabrielle reflected with a grin, she was glad the binding had taken her left hand and Xena's right.. because the warrior's left-handed coordination was a lot better than her own would have been.

And the pig roast had been… Gabrielle sighed in contentment. Fantastic.. to the point that she was sure if she tried to eat even one more bite, she'd pop like a soap bubble. Right now, she really wanted nothing more than to lay her head down on Xena's shoulder and take a nap, but her eyes flicked around the room ruefully. Uh… not likely. The musicians were setting up, and a space was being cleared in the middle of the inn for dancing. Idly, she watched the antics of the Amazons at the next table, where the ale was flowing.. very freely.

Xena noticed the same thing, because she gave her partner a nudge. "Hey… your majesty.. can I beg a favor?"

The bard cocked her head, and gave Xena an intrigued look. "I can't wait to hear this. Go ahead." She grinned at Solon, who giggled in return.

The warrior sighed. "Listen.. they're gonna get drunk." She jerked her chin towards the party Amazons. "And you know how they get."

"Mmm… " Gabrielle hummed thoughtfully. "Oh.. yeah, ok. I see what you mean.. Eponin especially.. wants to go around challenging everyone to a fight."

Xena's eyes twinkled. "You get the night off.. I get the night off, OK?"

The bard's fair brows contracted. "Huh???" Then she chuckled. "Oh.. right.. I get it.. I don't have to tell stories, you don't have to beat anyone up, right?" She nodded. "Ok.. ok.. anyone challenges you, I tell them to get lost." She considered the thought. "Though.. this might be a good opportunity for you to prove the claim that you can beat anyone with one hand tied behind your back." Green eyes blinked helpfully at her.

"Gabrielle." Xena gave her that look.

"Just a thought." The bard laughed. "Not that I have any doubts."

"Me either." Solon agreed.

"Roo." Ares poked his head up from under the table, and gave Xena's knee a lick.

Xena sighed, and rolled her eyes.

Cyrene leaned back against the pantry, as a wave of exhaustion hit her. Long.. long day. She sighed. But.. it was worth every minute of it. She was alone in the kitchen, taking a moment's peace out from the party still going strong inside. She could hear the music leaching in through the door, along with the scent of the mulled cider and wine that was being heated and served.

She looked up as the door creaked open, and smiled as Ephiny edged into the room. "You taking a break?" The innkeeper hazarded, with a twinkle. "Looks like you're having a nice time out there."

Ephiny ran fingers through her fair, curly hair and laughed gently. "Oh yeah.. great time." Especially that last dance… her body tingled remembering it. "Just.. came in to see if there's anything I can do to help.. I feel rotten that we're all here having a good time, and there's work to be done." And.. a few minutes breathing space wouldn't do anyone any harm.. she'd gotten a bucketful of razzing from Granella about the.. sparks.. they were throwing off on the dance area, until Xena and Gabrielle got up, and that had shut everyone up really fast. She smirked quietly, and made a mental note to tender her thanks to the bard later. Much later.

You always thought of Xena as being.. well, she had a lot of power, and when she fought, that was almost like watching a kind of dance, it was so smooth, and fast. But graceful? And who knew Gabrielle knew how to move like that? Well well.. an educational evening indeed.

Cyrene's mouth twitched, and she went to the storage area, coming back with a tall glass. "Here." She handed it to the Amazon. "You look like you could use something cold to drink." She studied Ephiny. "How are you feeling? "

She got a wry grin in response. "A little tired, but please.. don’t say a word.. they'll chase me off to bed, and I'm really enjoying myself." Ephiny pleaded. "How often does something like this happen?"

Cyrene gave her a quiet smile. "Once in a lifetime, I think."

The door swung open and Jessan staggered inside, closing it after him, and lurching to the table. "Ares' balls." The forest dweller groaned, as he sat down and cradled his head in his big hands.

Cyrene and Ephiny exchanged alarmed looks, and hurried over. "Jessan? What's wrong?" The Amazon put a hand on his arm, which was very warm. "Hey.. you running a fever?"

Jessan glared blearily up at them. "Don't ask."

"We're asking" They both stated in chorus. "Here.." Ephiny handed him her glass. "Cold drink?"

Cold. Jessan eyed the beverage. Good idea. "Thanks." He downed the contents in a single draught, and licked his lips. "Hey. Milk. I like that."

Ephiny smothered a giggle at the white froth staining his golden muzzle and patted him on the shoulder. "Better?" What on earth was his problem? Yeah.. it was a little warm in there.. all those people.. all that dancing.. but…

The forest dweller sighed. "A little." He glanced up at them. "Um.. I.. um.. just kind of got a little… uh.. overheated." It had been a very, very bad time to see exactly what impact four mugs of ale had on his Sight. And a very, very, very bad couple to experiment on, seeing that he could almost sense the waves of energy coming off them even without his talent.

It had surged through him, sweeping his defenses down, and starting a burning ache in his guts that had set his fur to standing straight up. Dumb, dumb, dumb, Jess. He concentrated on breathing. In, out, in, out.

"Jessan.." Cyrene stepped closer, and touched something at his throat. "What is this?"

In, out, in… uh oh. Uh big time oh. His lifebond necklace. "Uh… " He peeked up at Cyrene. "What is what?"

Her eyebrow curved up, and she lifted the crystal up in her fingertips. "This?"

"Oh.. uh.. that." His mind struggled to move through the fog towards a reasonable answer. "It's.. um… a necklace."

Ephiny settled in the chair next to him, and waited. She recognized the stone as well as Cyrene had, and wanted to hear the explanation. She'd made a comment about Gabrielle's and the bard had brushed her off lightly, claiming it a memento.

"Thank you." Cyrene commented drolly. "I'd gotten that far myself. What kind of necklace is this? Is it something specific to your people?"

Lie? Truth? Lie? Oh Ares toenails. "Yes." Jessan finally said, slowly. "It's.. something specific to.. some.. of my people." He was in trouble, and he knew it, from the suddenly alert looks on these two human's faces. "Look..uh.."

"Jessan?" Ephiny gently put her hand over his. "When we met you.. you introduced Elaini as your lifebond." She paused, as he looked up, his eyes round. "What is that?"

The forest dweller lowered his gaze, and examined the tabletop, one finger tracing the woodgrain quietly. "It's.. hard to explain." He temporized, then made his decision. Someone had to know.. in case. "A lifebond is.. a special kind of partner." He chose his words carefully. "It's someone who becomes a part of you.. who is essential to your well-being." He hesitated. "If something happens to Elaini.. I feel it. If.. she gets hurt, I hurt." He tried to inject a little humor. "When she gets food cravings.. " He smiled ruefully and patted his belly. "I'm showing it." He took a breath. "When we're apart, it's like half of me is missing." His eyes flicked from one human to another. "That's what a lifebond is."

"And.. " Cyrene asked slowly. 'This is something that only happens to your people?"

Jessan sighed inwardly. Xena was going to kill him for this. He just hoped she did it fast. "We always thought so, yes."

"But?" Ephiny asked, a faint smile playing around her lips. "There are exceptions?"

His golden eyes lifted. "Yeah." A quiet admission. "Looks like it."

"Hmm." The Amazon regent considered the information. "That explains a lot." She patted the forest dweller's arm gently. "Jessan, it's all right. I'm glad you told us.. it's something I think we needed to know."

He gazed at them. "It wasn't really my thing to tell." He admitted slowly, unhappily.

Cyrene crossed over to him and gently stroked the fur on his head. "No.. but if we waited for Xena to tell us, honey, we'd never know a darn thing."

Ephiny couldn’t help it.. she burst out laughing. "Oh.. gods, that's so true." She sighed, and shook her curly head. "I can't imagine what it would take to get her to open up."

Jessan let a tiny grin show the tips of his fangs. "I can." He said quietly.

They looked at him.

He held out his hand. "Bout..oh. this tall, red hair, green eyes…?"

That brought a round of laughter, and even Jessan joined in, his deeper chortles contrasting oddly with the human women's. Then he sighed, and stood. "I need a little fresh air." He admitted. "It's.. kinda warm in there."

He walked to the door, and pulled it open.

A cascade of snow buried him, from a thick drift piled up against the door.

"Uh oh." Cyrene muttered, hurrying to help the spluttering forest dweller up. "I think we got a problem."

"C'mon Xena…" Eponin's hands landed on the table in front of them. "I'm in th mood for some boxin."

Gabrielle looked up from her very comfortable spot, cuddled against Xena's chest and wagged a finger. "No no.. Pony. She's off limits tonight."

A grin tugged at the corner of Xena's mouth, but she remained in her sprawled position with her eyes shut, enjoying the sensation of Gabrielle's body pressing against hers. "Find another sparring partner, Pony… I'm busy." She muttered happily.

The Amazon snorted. "You gonna let her get away with that? C'mon Xena… you hiding behind her skirts?"

One blue eye lazily opened and peered at her. "Watch it, Amazon.. she can kick your butt." Xena gave her a dazzling grin. "So.. yep.. I'll hide behind her skirts any day."

Eponin shook her head in disgust. "You're turning into a house cat, Xena." She shoved off from the table, and started to move away, but found her feet entangled in something and headed floorward instead. "Yagh!!!"

A sodden thump followed, and Xena prudently tucked her boots back under the table, peering innocently up at Gabrielle's knowing smirk. "You just can't resist, can you?" The bard covered her eyes with one hand and sighed.

"Mew." Xena made a tiny, kittenlike sound, her eyes twinkling mischievously.

"And it's not even the ale." Gabrielle gazed at her in amused disbelief. "You've only had the one cup."

That got a broad, relaxed smile from her partner. "Nope..I wanted to make sure I didn't forget one second of this day." She shrugged. "I'm just in a good mood." An eyebrow arched. "Got a problem with that, bard?"

Gabrielle riffled idle fingers through her dark hair. "Nope." She replied quietly. "Not in the least." She laid her head back down on Xena's chest and put her hand over the warrior's heart. "It feels so good to see you happy."

Xena gazed down at her. "Likewise." She settled her shoulders more comfortably against the padded back of the bench and sighed. "Besides… she's right. I feel just like a nice, soft, well fed cat, curled up in the sun."

Gabrielle pressed her ear to Xena's chest. "Are you purring?"

The sound got louder. "Yet another of the many skills." The bard giggled, then poked her experimentally. "Hey.. you are getting kinda soft."

The purring stopped, and an eyebrow arched. "Just kidding." Gabrielle teased gently, giving her a little pat on the belly. "Some house cat.. panther more like it."

She'd touched a panther once… a captive, somnolent creature in a king's court. And it.. he.. had felt very much like her partner, in fact. All soft, beautiful fur on the outside, silky and gentle to the touch, but underneath.. steel and whipcord muscles coiled with menacing power. Beautiful eyes.. and four inch fangs. Soft, gentle pads, and steel claws. "Not that it would matter if you were." She added, as an afterthought.

"Mmm..'" Xena mumbled. "It would matter if I have to have that armor rebuilt…" She advised the bard. "Expensive stuff."

Gabrielle snorted softly. "I wouldn't care if you never wore that armor again." Then bit her lip as she realized what she'd just said, and she felt Xena's steady breathing pause, then resume.

"Neither would I." Came the response, with a faint, but clear note of surprise in it.

The bard raised her head, staring at her partner in shock. "You mean that, don't you?"

A wry grin tugged at the warrior's mouth. "Yeah.. I do… but there's not much chance of that happening, so I think I'm stuck with the stuff for a while."

Gabrielle rested her chin on her partner's collarbone for a long moment, then sighed. "Yeah.. I guess you're right." She paused. "For a while."

The purring resumed, and Gabrielle put her head back down, letting the sound fill her senses. Then it stopped, and she glanced up. Xena's eyes were flicking across the room, and she could feel the alertness seeping back into the relaxed body under hers.

"Uh oh." The warrior muttered.

Gabrielle's eyes followed hers, and she saw Cyrene emerging from the kitchen, a concerned Ephiny and damp looking Jessan in tow. "What's up with that?"

Xena's brow creased. "Dunno.. but I think we're about to find out." She watched Cyrene cross the room, and end up with her hands on Xena's table, and her face grim. "Hi."

"Hi." Her mother said crisply. 'We've got a problem."

Xena's eyebrow rose. "We out of firewood?"

"No" Cyrene stated.

"We… out of food.. that's kind of hard to believe. " Xena then guessed.

"No." Her mother answered impatiently. "We're snowed in."

Xena blinked. "What??"

Her mother took a breath for patience. "What part of that wasn't clear?"

The warrior's eyes flicked to the window, and them back at Cyrene. "How far?"

Toris stood and went to the front door. "Can't be that bad.. it wasn't snowing that.." He opened the door, and a mini avalanche of snow came crashing in on him, effectively silencing his speech.

Silence descended for a long moment, then Xena sighed, and stood up, brushing herself off lightly with her free hand. She surveyed her position, being somewhat trapped behind their table, with people and chairs and tables clustered all around.

One eyebrow cocked, then that grin appeared, and she slipped her arm over Gabrielle's shoulders, settling it around the bard's waist. "Mother?"

Cyrene eyed her. "What?"

"Move." Came the quiet request, as Xena tensed her arm, and lifted a surprised Gabrielle up, then took one long step and launched them both upward onto the bench, pausing for just an instant before she leaped over the table, hurdling into the air and doing a lazy half turn that landed both of them neatly next to Cyrene's hurriedly shifted form. "Thanks."

Gabrielle let out her held breath, and sighed. "Some house cat." She muttered under her breath

They strolled over to where Toris was digging himself out of the white drifts, and regarded him thoughtfully. Ephiny joined her, putting her hands on her hips and chewing her lip pensively.

Xena stepped forward, and poked at the wall of snow blocking the doorway. A bit of it fell fee at her motion, and dropped onto the floor, where it started melting from the heat inside. She poked again, and more fell. An eyebrow rose. She scooped a handful of it out, and quite a bit fell inside the inn.

She looked at the handful, then looked at Gabrielle. "You know.. it's kinda like the Amazons.. if we don’t leave, nobody leaves." She ignored the faint dripping of the melting ice in her hand.

"Uh.. yeah?" Gabrielle replied warily. "Well.. I was.. um.. getting kind of.. mm.. sleepy…"

"Hmm." Xena mused. "Guess I gotta get you off to bed then, huh?"

A round of tipsy giggles greeted her words, and she cast a sardonic look around the room. Solon had been put to bed earlier, and some of the older townsfolk were snoozing in the dark corners, but most of their friends were still up and about. Xena observed Eponin trying to braid Kaleipus' tail and her eyebrows both rose, especially when she noted that the centaur appeared to be helping. Well, mostly up and about.

"Xena.' Gabrielle sighed, and bumped her head against her partner's shoulder. "Don't you start."

The warrior bounced a little on the balls of her feet, and let a tiny, wicked grin start to play around on her lips. "Well, I guess we'll have to dig ourselves outta here." She scooped up a second handful of the white icy stuff and paused.

Gabrielle suddenly spotted the nasty little twinkle in her eye and cursed silently. Oh.. gods.. no no nononononnoon. She ducked just as Xena swiveled and let fly, catching Eponin in the face with unerring precision.

Eponin yelped, and tugged hard in reflex, pulling Kaleipus' tail. The centaur jumped, then slid in the water from the melting snow and ended up tangled with the Amazon on the floor.

"Oops." The warrior grinned. "Guess its time to cool off a little in here." She dug in for another handful, and watched eyes widen with realization as she set to work. "There you go.." Splat. "Sorry Eph..' Splat. "Whoops.. sorry mom.."

Handfuls of ice went flying, as everyone started scrambling out of the way, or scrambling towards the door for ammunition.

"Xena!!! " Hercules yelled in outrage, as a snowball hit him squarely in the chest.

"Sorry.. big target." The warrior teased, ducking a thrown handful from a spluttering Ephiny, and managing to nail the demigod again, this time in the face.

Windows were pulled open, and now it resembled an indoor hailstorm, as the Amazons got up to full speed, and were chucking fistfuls of snow at Xena's dark form. The warrior managed to dodge most of them, keeping her body positioned to intercept any that were bound for her partner. "Granella, you couldn't hit the broad side of a… " Her eyes flicked over Kaleipus. "Barn." She whipped a handful of snow at Jessan, who ducked, causing the ice to fly over his head and nail his mother. "Oh oh."

Xena glanced behind her, to where a very fair dent was being made in the snow blocking the door and grinned. "Not bad." She whispered to Gabrielle, who was doing her best to stay out of range, and out of the fight.

Then the bard caught sight of a slinking Ephiny about to dump a handful down Xena's back, and gave a little resigned chuckle. "Sorry.." She whispered under her breath, as she lunged over, and smacked Ephiny's hand, causing the snow clump to be delivered into the regent's surprised face.

"Traitor!!" Ephiny sputtered, wiping her face and glaring at the bard.

"Told you, Eph.. pays to have the best watching your back. " Xena drawled, ducking a thick wad of ice tossed her way by her brother.

"Hey.." Eponin called. "If we all jump her at once, we can wash her good with this stuff."

"Uh oh.." The warrior whispered. "Time to go, love."

Gabrielle muffled a giggle "You chickening out??"

"Yep." Came the surprising answer. "It's an old warlord trick." She ducked a flying snowball, and dodged into the opening she'd made in the snow drift, grabbing Gabrielle securely, and plowing up through the thinning layers, then crouched and launched herself skyward, breaking through the top layer of snow, and out into the clear, cold air of a newly starry night.

"Whoa.." Xena laughed, as they landed on their backs, sinking into the cold drifts, and looking up at a veritable explosion of stars. "Sure is a lot quieter out here."

Gabrielle felt the cold of the snow soaking into her hair, but as yet, it only felt refreshing after the overheated inn. She turned her head to watch her partner scan the sky, as her breath made small puffs of fog and sounded loud in all that stillness. She could hear the growling ruckus faintly from inside the inn, but as yet, none of their friends had made the climb out into night, and she found herself reveling in the peace of the crisp, empty courtyard, and the close presence of her soulmate.

They rested there for a minute, gazing at each other, before Xena sighed, sending a plume of fog drifting softly up, and smiled. "Guess we'd better get going.. before we either freeze here or melt a hole in the snow."

Gabrielle rolled over onto her side, and gazed at her. "How would we do that?"

Xena flexed her left hand, and reached over her body, running her fingertips lightly over the bard's face, smiling lazily as the skin warmed under her touch and Gabrielle's eyes closed. "Oh.. I think we could think of something."

Gabrielle grinned, and let her eyes flutter open. "Let's go home." She sat up, and waited for Xena to join her, as they both rose started plowing their way towards the cabin. An irritated yelp stopped them, and the turned to see Ares scrambling out of the drifting snow that covered the inn door, his paws fighting frantically for a hold on the icy surface.

"Hey boy..'" Xena laughed, as she jogged back over and grabbed the wolf's ruff, hauling him up onto the snow. She peeked down into the hole and grinned, as Eponin's face scowled back at her. "Hey…."

The Amazon tossed a snowball at her, which was neatly deflected. "I'll get you for this, Xena." She hiccuped, which ruined the menace of the threat neatly. "M' all wet."

The warrior rested one hand on her knee, and grinned. "There's a nice fire in that back room, Pony… " She watched a blush cover the Amazon's face. "Good night."

Gabrielle rubbed her cheek against her partner's arm. "We should have said goodbye. "

Xena slipped her arm around the bard's shoulders again. "They'll forgive us."

The walk back to the cabin was tedious, as Xena plowed her way through the chest high snow, clearing a path for Gabrielle with a dogged determination, mounting the stairs to the cabin and spending quite a few minutes clearing path to the door with powerful sweeps of her arms. "Damn… didn't think I'd end the night up with a workout." She commented wryly, as she finally tugged the door open, and nudged the bard inside.

The door closed behind them, and they were in a cool darkness, the fire having gone out. It was silent, save the gentle creaks of the wooden walls around them, and the soft clicks of Ares' claws against the surface. Xena walked slowly to the table, trailing her partner via their still joined hands, and paused. "Gabrielle, I think we're going to have to take that off now.. striking a light's gonna be tough."

The bard's voice came quiet and disembodied from the darkness. "Bet we can do it." She picked up the flint in her right hand and poised it over the candle. "Go ahead."

Xena lifted the striker and paused, closing her eyes and trying to sense where Gabrielle had her hands. The darkness was so complete, she couldn't even see the barest outline of her partner's body, though by the heat, and the gentle sounds of her breathing, she had a good idea of her general position. This isn't going to work.. I can't… "Gabrielle.. I don't want to hit you.. this can hurt." She hesitated.

"You won't." The bard's voice was utterly confident. "Go on."

"I can't even.." Oh Hades… Xena let out a breath, and just let her instincts take her, moving her hand in a sudden blur of motion, and feeling the sharp crack as the striker hit the flint, sending a spark down to light the candle as easily as if she'd held both herself. It was an almost dizzyingly good feeling.

The wick caught, and a globe of friendly, golden light was born, slowly revealing Gabrielle's gilded hair, and the green eyes gone amber in the candle's glow. "Told you." Came her gentle voice, sliding down Xena's hearing like a verbal caress. "But I guess we can take this off now." She grinned, as she carefully worked the tucked linen loose, and unwound the bandage that bound them together. "Did this drive you crazy all day?"

"No.' Xena replied in a dreamy voice. "I .. thought it would… but .. " She shrugged lightly, as the bard unwound the last wrap, and their hands were freed. She unlaced her fingers from the bard's slowly, feeling the odd coolness of the air against her skin, and the dull sting of the cut Jocelyn had made. "Dancing was fun."

Gabrielle smiled. "Mmm…yeah, it was.. did you see Ephiny's face?" She giggled, as she took up the candle and moved around the cabin, lighting the other tapers scattered about the room. The familiar outlines of their home came to glowing life around them as Xena knelt at the fireplace, and built a small fire with expert hands. Once she had it going, she stood, and dusted her hands off, turning to take the candle from Gabrielle's hands, and set it on the table.

The bard smiled, and ran light fingers down the front of Xena's shirt. "Did you have a good time today?"

Xena nodded. "Yeah.. I did.. I was glad we made everyone bring the presents in here though.. " She waved a hand at the pile of mysteriously wrapped bundles they had yet to open. "Knowing our friends.. I'm not entirely sure opening all of them in public was a good idea."

Gabrielle's eyebrows quirked. "Oh.. really?" Her eyes went to the pile speculatively. "Is this just guessing on your part or…??"

A rakish half grin met her gaze. "Weeeell…. I did hear about this… " Her gaze drifted lazily down her partner's body. "One.. little… outfit… in there for you.. that I'd… appreciate."

Gabrielle glanced down, as a gentle blush covered her face. "Oh.. gods." She laughed softly. "They're so bad."

Xena moved closer, and cupped the bard's face in her hands. "They have no idea." She kissed her partner gently. "Of what its like.." Kissed her again, as Gabrielle's eyes closed "To love you." She laced her fingers behind her partner's neck, and ran her fingers down the soft skin, feeling Gabrielle's knees give way as the bard collapsed against her in sensuous abandon.

After a few moments, though, Xena broke off regretfully, her breathing gone ragged. "Hold that thought for a minute.. " She groaned. "I gotta go check the horses.. meant to do that on the way in here."

Anything else, and the bard would have lost it. But helpless creatures under her responsibility? Gabrielle sighed gently. "Hurry up." She traced a lazy set of loops on Xena's chest. "And say hi to Argo for me."

Xena captured her hand, and kissed her fingers. "I will." She promised, then reluctantly let go, and slipped back out the door in the cold night.

Damn.. she gazed around her in disbelief as she pushed through the drifts again, heading for the barn. I can't believe this snow… but then.. I did say I'd settle for a storm, right? She laughed silently at herself. Guess I got what I asked for… She cleared a little space around the door to the barn and pulled the door open enough to slip inside.

Only her innate instincts saved her life, as a dozen dark forms descended on top of her.

Hands grabbing her, and heavy blows hitting her body, as she rolled, and tucked herself into a ball, and swirled out of their grasp, kicking out and hearing the satisfying crunch of bone as her boots impacted one of her attackers.

It was dark, and it was silent, the figures moving in a eerie quiet that almost unnerved her, but then she had no time for that, since they swarmed again, and she was fighting to keep her footing in the slippery straw. An elbow, and one dropped, as she grabbed onto an arm that was choking her and flipped a second over her head.

A club struck her in the side, and let loose her temper, and now her blows had a surge of angry energy behind them. She grabbed an arm and twisted, feeling bones separate under her powerful hands, and kept moving as her attacker let out an agonized howl and fell to the ground. Three down, and another club was slamming into her, taking her breath away with the sudden, sharp shock of it. She brought her knee up savagely, and the figured slumped over her leg, making harsh snorting sounds as she took the club from him.

Then they were in trouble, and knew it, as she swung the thick club in a short circle, smiling as it impacted, with the shivering crunch of bone shattering.

Hands at her neck now, and she felt her nape hairs lift, at the close proximity of something.. dark.. and queasily familiar. Cold links brushed her skin, and the dark energy surged, as her body recognized the touch of the evil that had taken over Hercules.

No!!!! Her mind yelled in horror, as she twisted her body violently, throwing off two of her determined enemies, but she felt her legs go out from under her as the rest piled on, and again felt the bite of harsh, angry metal at her throat as they tried to get the necklace over her head.

The gem grazed her, and she felt it's seductive tendrils inserting themselves into her thoughts. Just give in… accept it, and they'll stop hurting you.

It was the wrong thought, and Xena shut it out without trouble, gathering herself up and preparing to shove off from the ground despite the weight of six adversaries half crushing her.

Then a blast of cold air hit them, and she heard the solid crack of wood hitting flesh, then the warm menace of the necklace was just.. gone. With a growl, she pushed off, and sent four of the enemy flying, and grabbed the fifth, slamming his head against the stall partition and tossing the suddenly limp body against the wall.

Silence, then a torch exploded into life, and revealed Gabrielle's very pale face, as she put the torch into a holder, and picked her staff back up, warily examining the necklace hanging limply from her other hand. "You all right?"

Xena scrubbed her face with one hand, and ran her fingers through her hair. "Yeah.' She quietly assured the worried bard, as she examined the slumped forms. She found one still conscious, and lifted him up, shoving him against the barn wall and holding him there.

Bleak, gray eyes looked back at her in an expressionless face. "Come here, Gabrielle." Xena asked softly. The bard walked up behind her, and peered at the man, still holding the necklace. "Give me that." She held out her other hand.

Gabrielle gave her a wary look, but put the cold links into her hand. "Here.. it seems.. kind of harmless."

Xena felt the darkly seductive power of the thing, but with Gabrielle this close.. it had no hold over her, and she ran the links through her fingers, casually examining the stone before the man's eyes. His nostrils flared in surprise, and he stared at her. "Take this.. back to whoever gave it to you.. and tell whoever that is… " She moved closer and got into his face, letting her own anger loose. "Don't come after me again.. " She wrapped her hand around his throat and lifted, choking him. "Or next time.. it won't be you bringing the message.. I'll bring it myself." His chest heaved, trying to get breath into his lungs. "You got me?" She let his throat loose.

"You can't win" He choked out. "They'll find another way."

"Just take the message." Xena growled, shoving the necklace into his gloved hands, and releasing him. "And take your friends with you." He backed away from her, collecting his colleagues as he walked, and disappeared through the door.

Xena gathered the bard into her arms and hugged her, tucking Gabrielle's head underneath her chin, and sighing, as she felt the bard's touch encircle her waist. Damn.. if this is what it's going to be like..I gotta start those drills up again. I can't afford this. Though.. she let her eyes scan the interior quietly. I didn't do so bad.. score me, eleven, Gabrielle, one and a necklace, and them, zero. "Thanks."

"For what?" The bard mumbled, letting her breath warm Xena's chest. "There were bodies all over the barn by the time I got here… you didn't leave me much to do."

Xena sighed silently. She didn't even get a twinge off that thing… damn.. Hercules must have been right. "Let's check the horses, and get outta here." She said softly.

Gabrielle lifted her head. "What was that all about?' She stared at Xena, puzzled. "Were they trying that necklace thing again? Didn't work.. it just felt like an old necklace to me."

The warrior closed her eyes, and let out a slow breath. "Yeah.. well.. " Can I lie to her? She said it didn’t matter… but I don't… oh gods, Gabrielle. "As good a person as you are, I'm not surprised." She leaned back a little, and rested her forearms on the bard's shoulders, lacing her fingers behind Gabrielle's fair head, and gazing at her with a quiet, wistful expression. "I felt it calling to me."

Green eyes reflected the torchlight. "But you didn't answer."

"No." Xena replied, then took a deep breath. "Gabrielle… that necklace.. and the one before.. it um.. it affects people.. that.. " She hesitated on saying the words, as if speaking them would prove the truth of it.

"That have the blood of the gods?" Gabrielle asked simply.

Blue eyes blinked in startlement. Damn.

"You know, Xena.. you're better than I am at math, but I can add two and two." The bard informed her, with a slight smile. "Gee, I'm so surprised." She sighed when her partner glanced down at the ground, and refused to meet her eyes. "Look.. it can't be much, right?"

Xena's brow creased. "Huh?"

Gabrielle let her head fall forward and bump gently against her partner's chest. "You know, I really, really do love you, but sometimes you're just … "

"Focused." Xena supplied, but chuckled wanly. "Single minded? Dense?' Unable to see the forest for the trees? "

"Too critical of yourself." Gabrielle quietly answered. "Look this thing took over Hercules, body and soul, until you ripped it off his neck. It bothered you.. yeah, but you had almost no problem breaking free of it, Xena… if you do have.. some of a god's blood running through you.. well. it can't be that much." She sighed. "Just enough to.. " Her voice dropped. "let you do things like.. heal fast.. and.. drive yourself past anyone's expectations.. " She lifted her hand and cupped her silent partner's cheek. "Or come back to me from.. " She stopped.and her eyes closed, shedding tears at their corners. "from the dead." She finally got it out. "Ssso I thank the gods daily, Xena.." Her fingers slid up the warrior's arm and gripped it. "That some ancestor of yours decided to find out what it would be like to be with a god."

Damn. Xena reflected somberly. She's right. She touched her forehead to Gabrielle's. "Another lesson learned from my best friend." They gazed into each other's eyes quietly. "Let's go home." She wrapped an arm around the bard's shoulders, and edged around the barn, making sure Argo and friends had enough water and hay.

Gabrielle ran a hand down the mare's smooth sides, and smiled. "She starting to show a little bit, I think." She laughed softly. "Like Lila."

Xena studied the mare, as she scratched her behind the ears. "Yeah, a little." She admitted with a grin. "You gonna have a colt or a filly, huh girl?" Her eyes twinkled gently. "If it's a filly, wanna name it after my bard here?"

Argo dropped the hay she was chewing, and snuffled at Gabrielle's chest, blowing chaff all over her.

"Thanks." Gabrielle rolled her eyes and brushed herself off, then tugged Xena's sleeve. "C'mon." A swift glance at Argo. "No offense, ok? But there's this nice, warm bed that's just calling my name."

Xena doused the torch, and tucked the bard neatly under a protective arm, as they made their way back towards the cabin. "We can tell the rest of them tomorrow.. no sense in ruining their mood."

"Mmm.." Gabrielle mused, as they reentered the cabin, and she started nibbling gently up Xena's arm. "What kind of mood do you suppose they're in?"

Xena smiled as she slid her hands down the front of Gabrielle's shirt, and let her fingers rest on the belt, tugging at it gently. "I hope.. " She undid the clasp and started on the ties. "they're in half as good a mood.. " She reached the warmth of her partner's bare flesh just as Gabrielle's nibbling brought her lips up to the warrior's own "As I am." She breathed a finish, as she spent a few minutes improving her mood.

"But I doubt it." She commented teasingly, as they finished undressing and scooted under the covers.

"Mmm… " Gabrielle mumbled, as she happily explored her partner's bare skin. Then she stopped, and rested her cheek against Xena's belly, gazing up at her. "Why?"

Blue eyes blinked innocently at her. "Oh.. no reason."

One fair eyebrow inched up. "Xena, what did you do?" She gently nipped the soft skin around her partner's navel, smiling a little at her sudden intake of breath. "Hmm?"

"Uh… " Xena shook her head a little, and let out a sigh. "Nothing.. how could I have? I was tied to you all night."

Gabrielle considered that thoughtfully, continuing her gentle exploration, and feeling the rough uneven texture of a scar under her lips. Experimentally, she gave it a lick, and felt the unconscious flinch of the muscles just under the skin. "Ooo.. ticklish." She grinned. "So you didn't do anything, huh?"

Xena bit her lip. "Nope." She replied calmly. "Couldn’t have."

"Hmm.." Gabrielle nibbled the spot again, and saw her partner's jaw clench. "Heh." She grinned. "Nothing?"

"Nope… augh.. Gabrielle!" Xena gritted her teeth as the bard targeted her most ticklish areas unmercifully. "All right.. all right.. "

"Hmph." The bard chortled. "You're so easy." She relented, sliding up and fitting her body against Xena's, reveling in the warmth of their contact. "Spill."

Now it was Xena's turn. She let her hands find familiar places on her soulmate's body, feeling the heat of her breathing suddenly intensify. "You sure you want to know?" She traced the outline of one ear with a teasing fingertip.

Gabrielle had to take a breath before answering, as a warm flush washed over her. "Uh… how bad is it?" She realized she was losing the desire to find out, and struggled to keep her head above the sensual wave washing over both of them.

"Dunno." Xena mumbled, as she kissed her gently. "Depends on how Eph feels about the color blue."

Gabrielle squeaked, then let her head drop onto her partner's chest.

"M gonna killer." Eponin mumbled, as she brushed the snow off her head, and stumbled, loose kneed back into the center of the room, hanging on to a roof support with grim determination. "Don't care if it is her birthday."

"Pony.. shut up." Ephiny laughed gently, as she took a casual grip on the weapon's master's arm. "C'mon, it's your bedtime." She let her eyes run indulgently over her friend, smiling at the way the fiery copper silken outfit clung to the dark haired Amazon's body. Gods.. her face… Ephiny's mostly sober mind remembered.

"I can't wear that." Eponin had stated, flatly. "Ephiny, you're crazy." Then she'd glanced down. "I mean.. it's very nice… but um… "

The regent had sighed. "But what? You don't like the color?"

"Nnno… " Eponin had hastily protested. "No.. no.. it's.. I do like it." Her fingers had tangled in the soft, slinky fabric. "It's… " A tentative, half grin. "really slick."

Ephiny patiently cocked her blond head to one side. "So… what's the problem?" The regent had aimed a thumb at her own outfit. "Look.. if I can ditch the leathers for one night, and for the sake of Artemis' underwear, If XENA can ditch her 'If I was any badder I'd have metal spikes on my chest' intimidation central number, you can wear this."

"But…" Eponin groaned. "Eph…."

"S'matter, Pony.. you scared?" Ephiny asked casually, stepping a pace closer, and putting a hand on the other Amazon's shoulder. "It's just a party.. these are all friends."

Dark eyebrows jerked up. "Scared? You're cracked, Eph." A pause. "It's just… hey, these are comfortable."

Silence. "Well, they are!"

Pathetic sigh. "Bacchae's bitten bottoms."

Ephiny had grinned seductively, and proceeded to strip Eponin of her beloved leathers, and distract her enough to get the copper silk number over her head and settled around her body. "There.. was that so bad?" She bit off a smirk as she twitched the folds neatly, and sighed at the scowl on Eponin's face. "Hey… " She dropped her amusement and took one of Eponin's restlessly moving hands in her own. "That really looks nice on you."

Eponin paused, and eyed her doubtfully. "Really?" She glanced down at herself, touching the fabric cautiously. "It's.. kind of gaudy, isn't it?"

The regent patted her cheek. "Really." She laughed softly. "And it's not gaudy at all."

"Hmph." Had come the grumbling answer.

But Ephiny had caught her eyeing herself in the room's small mirror twice, and she's certainly not lacked for compliments when they joined the rest of the group for the ceremony.

But they'd gone and had a drinking competition, and that had lead to a favorite Amazon drinking pasttime.

Challenges. Ephiny winced, and flexed an arm. Eponin was without question one of the tribe's best warriors, and had a good head for drink. But she also had a tendency to get a little… belligerent. And go for the biggest opponent she could find.

Who was off limits tonight, which was frustrating Eponin no end. "C'mon, Pony…" She sighed, and tugged on the taller Amazon's shoulder. "You can go after Xena tomorrow."

"She's a chicken." The Amazon grumbled, allowing herself to be led off.

Ephiny sighed, and wrapped an arm around her. "No, Pony.. she's not a chicken.. don't call her a chicken, she'll lay an egg right on your head."

"A…an egg?" The Amazon warrior queried. "I like eggs." She fell silent for a minute. "Hey..wanna have an egg throwing competition?"

"No..not now." Ephiny soothed her.

"You're a chicken." Eponin accused, with a hiccup.

"Cluck." The regent warbled, as she pushed the door open and guided her companion through it., leaving the bustle of the slowly dispersing crowd and entering the soft, candlelit quiet of the small room she'd come to regard as a home away from home. "Here.. siddown.." She pushed Eponin towards the big chair, and went on to grab a water pitcher and couple of mugs. "Better get this started."

Eponin sprawled obediently in to the chair, and glanced at the low table next to it. "Hey.. what's this?" She pulled a earthenware bowl towards her with one hand, and peered in. "Hey… " She dipped a finger into the cool, fluffy contents and brought it to her mouth, tasting cautiously. "Mmmm…"

Ephiny wandered over, setting the pitcher and mugs down and dropping into the seat next to the dark haired woman. "What've you got there?"

"Dunno." Eponin answered, tasting another mouthful. "But I like it."

The regent peered at the bowl's contents, then intercepted the next scoop and sucked its contents off Eponin's fingers. It was smooth, and sweet, and cool. "Mmm… me too." She bit down gently on the other Amazon's fingertips, and heard her sharp intake of breath. Playfully, she dipped her hand into the stuff, and brushed it lightly on her companion's face, then set to work cleaning it off.

She didn't really remember them getting undressed, only a slow series of touches that left trails of honeyed sweetness behind, until the bowl's contents were gone, and they were huddled warmly in each other's arms as the cold, crisp night outside settled into a snow covered silence.

"Iolaus." Hercules took a breath nervously. He was seated on the bed, his shirt unlaced and his boots off, a small jar in one hand. He juggled it a little as his companion turned around from his crouch by the fire and stood up.

"Yeah?" The blond man stretched, and yawned. "Boy, that was some party, huh?" He wandered over to where the demigod was seated and hopped up onto the bed, swinging his legs a little. "D'ja have fun?"

Hercules thought about that for a minute, filtering his answer through a goodly portion of ale. "Yeah." He finally decided, with a slightly lopsided grin. "Even the fight at the end." He paused awkwardly. "Um.. look, can you do me a favor?"

Iolaus regarded him in some mild astonishment. "Sure buddy… name it!" He spied the jar in his friend's hands. "Oh ho… Xena cornered you, huh?" He smiled widely. "Knew I could count on her."

Hercules gave him an embarrassed half nod. "Yeah.. well, she gave me this stuff.. I can't really see to get it on the right spots.. would you.. uh.. " A faint shrug.

"Ah..oh.. sure." Iolaus gingerly took the small jar from his hands. "Um.. you need to uh.. get your shirt off." Unaccountably, he blushed.

"Right." Hercules agreed, pulling the damp linen over his head, and wincing as it caught on the burns. He sat quietly as Iolaus cautiously daubed the wounds with the tangy smelling salve. "Weird smell, huh?" He commented, more to break the silence than anything else.

"Mmm.." Iolaus replied absently, as he concentrated. "Y'know, I think these look better…" He cleared his throat. "Hey.. wasn't that some ceremony?"

The demigod smiled quietly. "Yeah, it was… it.. makes me glad to see two people come together like that.. and.. I'm really happy for them." But his gaze unfocused, and his face look on a wistful expression.

Iolaus finished his task, and studied his friend's face. "You… it reminds you of your family, doesn't it?" He asked quietly. "I.. know you must miss them."

Hercules turned his head and regarded the smaller man for a long moment. "Yeah it does." He paused. 'And I do." He flexed his shoulders. "That does feel better." He took a breath. "Thanks."

The blond man carefully covered the jar and handed it back him, rubbing the excess salve off on his trousers. "Anytime."

An awkward silence crept in, while the two friends sat glancing sidelong at each other.

I'm drunk.. or half that… it's late, this isn't the time to talk about this. Hercules had decided. He opened his mouth to make a light comment.

And was surprised when a stammered apology came out. Then he reflected that maybe half drunk wasn't a bad time to do this after all.

"Look.." Iolaus replied, with a heavy sigh. "I know.. I should have told you what happened right up front, but I just couldn't, see? It wasn't any big deal..and I knew you felt lousy about the whole thing to begin with.. so…" He lifted his hands and let them drop. "So let's just forget it, OK?"

Hercules considered that. "I'll try." He gave Iolaus a sheepish look. "Oh yeah..and one other thing."

"What?" The blond man asked.

"Stand up." The demigod requested, as he slid off the bed and got to his feet.

Iolaus did, and stood there, warily. "Ok."

"Don’t freak out." Hercules warned him. "I talked to Xena."

Puzzled look from Iolaus. "Yeah?" What's up with him? I know he talked to Xena.. but…waitaminute. "Talked about what?"

Hercules' face contracted. "You know."

"I do?" Iolaus replied in bewilderment, then he winced. "Oh. Right. I do." The Situation, which they'd been dancing around for a while before that whole mine incident. He felt a blush start. "Uh.. what did she say?"

A similar blush was reddening Hercules' face. "She said we should talk."

Iolaus' very blond eyebrow crept up to his hairline. "She said to talk?" Xena, the Warrior Princess of glum, dour silences is giving this advice? No way. "About what?"

Hercules chewed his lip. "I dunno." He hesitated. "But you know something? "

Warily. "What?"

"Funny thing about Xena.. she doesn't really give a Bacchae's butt about what other people think." Hercules commented. "She just lets chips fall where they want to, and does what she does. You know?"

"Yeah." Iolaus agreed hesitantly. "That can be a good thing." He waggled a hand. "And sometimes a bad thing." He relaxed a little. "On the other hand, that kiss she gave Gabrielle got my toe hairs curling." He smirked.

Hercules rolled his eyes. "Iolaus." He sighed. "What I'm trying to get at, is that I think we need to just chill out and not worry about.. it."

"It?" Iolaus hazarded. "Oh.. it." Right. "Absolutely, Herc. I agree. Let's not."

The demigod nodded. "OK.. we're ok, right?"

"Right." The blond man confirmed.

"Good." Hercules breathed a sigh of relief. He paused. "Glad we got that settled."

They looked at each other. "Herc?" Iolaus ventured, tentatively.

"Yeah?" The demigod answered, rubbing his head with one hand.

"Um.. you don’t actually think.."

"No!" Came the immediate response. " I even asked Xena about that, and she said no way."

"Oh." Iolaus smiled. "Well.. that's relief.. I mean, if anyone would know, she would, right?"

"Right." His companion agreed. "Listen.. glad we talked about this."

Iolaus grinned. "Me too."

A pause. "Iolaus?"

"What?" The blond man clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels a bit.

"Come here." Hercules felt a tiny grin tugging at his mouth.

Iolaus edged forward cautiously. "Why?"

"Just come here." The demigod repeated the request.

"You're not going to do something weird are you?" Iolaus asked hesitantly, as he moved within striking distance.

Hercules rested both hands on his companion's shoulders. "Iolaus, I just want to say thank you. For standing by me when you really had no reason to."

Blinking, pale eyes stared back at him. "Hercules, I had every reason to. You're my friend." He shrugged lightly. "You would have done the same for me."

The demigod smiled. "It's good to have a friend like you." And he pulled the startled Iolaus into an unexpected hug, wrapping his long arms around the smaller man and crossing his fingers that the blond man wouldn't freak out.

It was a tightrope walk for a minute, as Iolaus' body fought between simple, childlike pleasure, and a startled shying away. The child won, and he let himself in for a moment of quiet peace, before they broke apart, with hearty back slaps.

"So.. how about those gladiators?" They asked in concert.

And broke into helpless laughter, as the candles burned down, and they fell into bed and let the darkness close over them.

Continued in Part 8

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