A Queen’s Tale

Part 32

 

Xena strolled through the quiet lanes that made up the upper town, Dori’s hand clasped firmly in hers.   Men were coming in from a long day in the fields, and she exchanged greetings as they made their way through the trees towards the back gates.

“Hey, Xena.”  One of the shopkeepers waved. “Welcome home!”  The man trotted closer. “Took care of those Spartans didncha?”

“Yes, we did.”  Xena agreed. “And Dori helped, right shortie?”

“Yes!”  Dori bounced around Xena in a circle.  “Helped Boo make the bad men go away!”

The man chuckled. “I can see they’d be scared of her, that’s for sure.” He lowered his voice. “Is it true, what we heard?  Merchant came through yesterday saying the war’s simmered down a bit.”

“Might be.” Xena said.

“Good for us.  More trading’s coming this way, they said.”  The man smiled.  “Word got round, maybe we got things worth trading.”

Xena exhaled, but nodded. “Hope we have a good harvest season. I’m looking forward to a little more expansion this winter.”

“Right way this time. “ The man nodded. “We pick who stays.” He touched his forehead, then went on towards one of the small cots off the main lane, opposite the stable.

“Boo, c’n we go home?”  Dori tugged on her hand. “Want to see the buppits!”

Xena allowed herself to be hauled along, pushing the gate open with one hand while Dori danced through it, taking a deep breath of the rich, woodsmoke scented air.   She was sensing no particular anxiety from Gabrielle, and so she decided to take Dori up to their cabin, and then maybe stop by the Amazons if it seemed she was needed.

The path leading up was under her boots, when she slowed, and pulled Dori to a halt.  “Hey shortie.”

“Go go go, Boo!”  Dori tugged somewhat ineffectively at her much taller companion.  “C’mon!”

Xena studied her. “Want a ride up?”  She offered. “Do a little flying?”

Dori stopped and reversed her course, holding her hands up and squealing in delight as Xena lifted her up and put her arms around her neck as the child’s legs wrapped themselves firmly around her waist. “Ready?”

“Go go go!!!”  Dori held on tight, giggling as  Xena started up the steep slope, moving from a walk to a lope as the breeze picked up.

After she felt her body settle into the motion, she sped up, lengthing her stride and throwing herself forward and upward.  Her lungs expanded and the wind blew her hair back and she felt  a wild rush of energy as she pit herself against the mountain.

Dori’s yells of joy were carried back on the wind as she raced up the slope, passing the Amazon village in a blur, catching sight of the startled face of a sentry and the flicker of an upraised hand as she was already gone past.

“Go go go!!!”

She went.  Xena bounded from rock to rock up the path, feeling a tingle on her skin as she sped up even faster,  racing past the last bend and leaping up onto the flat rock at the top of the rise, exploding into the air and into the fading sunlight surrounding their cabin.

They flew through the air for a few moments, then she tumbled over and landed with a bounce, on level ground at the start of the lightly worn track that led to their porch.

“Yay!” Dori was delighted. “Boo that was fun!”

Xena drew in a lungful of air and released it, feeling her heartbeat settle immediately, and finding herself not even slightly out of breath.    A soft chuckle escaped her, and she turned her face to the fading light, smiling into it. “Yeah, that was fun.”

Fun, and surprising, and a relief, as she savored the sense of renewed vitality, appreciating belatedly how much of that she’d lost over the last while.  

Just little by little, until she’d really started noticing the effort, and getting tired out faster.  She remembered having to bolt up here for some damn thing or other and being so out of breath Gabrielle had teased her about it.

She’d blown it off, made a joke of it, and Gabrielle had given her a big hug, but looking back, Xena acknowledged the sting and the realization that what she’d feared for so long was finally happening to her.

Hey. Everyone got old. Right?

Well.  Xena spun unexpectedly in a circle, then crouched and shot skyward, hearing Dori squeal as she whirled in a somersault then twisted in mid air to land, only to launch backwards into a series of flips that ended up just in front of their porch, amidst a torrent of laughter from her daughter.

Dori hugged her around the neck. “Boo, you are the best!”

Xena smiled. “Thanks.” If she had to lose Elysia, then damn it, she’d take the apparent years she’d gotten back as a trade off.   

She let Dori down and followed her scampering form towards the cabin, which was still, and quiet and apparently untouched since Gabrielle had left.  “Dori, wait for me.”

Apparently.  Dori turned and looked at her, then took a step back. 

Never paid to take chances.   Xena eased in front of Dori and went to the door, laying her fingertips on it and cocking her head.  After a moment, she pushed against the surface and let it open, a gust of familiar scented air emerging.

She  walked inside and swept the area with flickering rapidity.  Her senses remained quiet, and she relaxed. “C’mon in, shortie.”  She stepped forward as Dori pattered in behind her.  She paused to poke her head in Dori’s room, then in the bathing room, but all was in order.

Almost order, there was a slight disarray from Gabrielle’s packing, some things were missing, no doubt down in the village in the queen’s quarters but everything else was in it’s place.

Home.  

Dori went into her little room, as Xena knelt before the fireplace, taking pieces from the wood pile and stacking them in place, setting the kindling just so and reaching for her flint to strike the sparks to start it.

“Boo, will you help me find the buppits?” Dori poked her head out. “I miss them!”

“Sure.” Xena gently fed the fire with dried moss.  “We should get all the puppies and bring them with us when we go find mama. You think that’s a good idea?”

“All?”  Dori’s eyes widened.

“Sure.”  Xena grinned to herself.  “It’ll be fun.  Right?” She looked sideways at her daughter, who was giving her a slightly puzzled look.   “Did mama ever tell you about how your Boo likes to play jokes?”

“No.” Dori shook her head.

“She’s a smart woman.” The warrior chuckled, standing up and dipping the water put in the cistern, then setting it to heat near the newly born fire.  “C’mere, and siddown. “ She settled on the low slung couch, and Dori climbed up next to her.  “My turn to tell a story.”

“Wait Boo!” Dori got down and ran into her room. She came back with Flameball, shoving him up on the couch and climbing after him. “Okay. He wants to hear Boo’s story too!”

Xena ruffled her hair. “Once upon a time, your mama and I decided we were going to have a big party.” She said. “We asked all our friends to come here, and watch us get married.”

“What’s marred?”

“It’s when two people really like each other, and decide to live together.”  Xena said.  “So we had a party, and all our friends were here, including your Aunties Ephiny and Pony.”

“Eff!”

“Right.”   Xena paused, taking in and releasing a breath. “Well,  your Aunties were giving us a hard time about it, so I decided to go to your Gramma, and get some of her cake icing.”

“Yum!” Dori grinned widely. “Can we have cake  now?”

“I’m sure Gramma has some.  We can get it later.”  Xena said. “So I got some icing, but I knew everyone would be watching me, right?  So I had to find someone to help me play the joke with it.”

Dori nodded.

Xena leaned over a little and tweaked her hair.  The story had gone some place she hadn’t expected, but now that it had, it seemed right. “So I found a friend to help me.  He was a little boy, and his name was Solon.”

Dori cocked her head. “Lolo?”

“Your cousin Solon is named after him.” Xena said. “Your uncle Toris knew that the first Solon was someone very special, so he named Lolo after him, so we’d remember him.”

Dori’s big, green eyes studied her seriously.   “He go away?”

Xena nodded. “He did.” She felt, finally, a sort of peace about it. “Something bad happened to him, and he went to another place. A really nice place, like your mama told you about when we were in the big place, where it was hot. You remember that?”

Dori nodded.

“Solon was my son.”  Xena gently took Dori’s hand in hers. “I’m sorry you didn’t get to know him. I know you would have had a lot of fun together.”  She watched Dori blink, then squirm closer.  “He would have been your big brother. Like Lolo and Ly are brothers, or me and your uncle Toris.”

“Will he come back Boo?  So we c’n play?”

Xena gave her a hug. “No sweetheart, he can’t.  But he’s in a nice place, and someday, you may get to meet him after all.” She thought about Elysia. “Or maybe you both will end up someplace else that’s even nicer.”

“Want the buppits.” Dori said. “Want someone to play with all the time.”

Ah. The warrior paused and glanced down at her.  “Well, I’ll talk to your mama and we’ll see what we can do about that.” She gave her a kiss on the head.   “Anyway,  Solon helped me play the joke. He took Grandma’s frosting and he put it where he knew Auntie Pony and Eff would find it and they did.”

“Uh oh.”

Xena smiled. “That’s right. They had a lot of fun with it, because you know how good Grandma’s frosting is, right?”

“Yum!!!”

“But I made it blue.” She leaned over and whispered the words.  “So the next day, what do you think happened?”

Dori giggled. “They were all blue?”

“They were all blue.”  Xena agreed.” They had blue spots here.. “ She put a fingertip on Dori’s nose. “And blue stripes here..” She ran her finger across her cheek, making her giggle.  “And their tongues were all blue.” She stuck hers out.

“Boo that’s funny!” Dori said. “C’n we do that?”

“Shh. We can.” Xena whispered. “But you can’t tell anyone or it won’t be a surprise.”

“Boo you tell good stories!”  Dori told her.  “Good as mamas!”

“Shhhhhhh.” Xena narrowed her eyes. “You can’t tell anyone that, either okay?”

Dori giggled.  “Love you Boo.” She reached around Xena and gave her a hug.  “You make everthing good.”

The water pot rattled gently. Xena returned the hug and released her, then she got up and started the process of making a cup of tea.   A moment later, she felt a prickle against her senses and she turned just in time to see Aphrodite pop into view. 

Best of all evils?  Eh.  “Hi.” Xena said. “Siddown. Want a cup of tea?”

Aphrodite stopped in mid motion, staring at her in unbridled disbelief.   “Who are you?” She asked. “And what have you done with Xena?”

“Hullo.” Dori went over and tugged at a bit of the floating goddesses pink silk toga. 

“Hey there, kiddo.” Aphrodite allowed herself to be distracted. “Don’t you look cute?”  She looked back at Xena, who was still holding the cup of herbs. “You’re not bitching at me.”

“No.”  Xena went back to her tea.  “What can I do for you?”

The goddess settled to her feet, then she went over and seated herself like a regular person on a chair, patting her lap. “C’mere, cute stuff. “ She lfited Dori onto her lap. “Xena, you’re freaking me out.”

“Sorry.” Xena sat down with her liberally honey laced tea.  “Didn’t mean to.” She leaned back and took a sip of the herbal mixture,  the touch of mint and lemongrass in Gabrielle’s favorite mixture comforting on her tongue.

Aphrodite studied her.  “I just came to say I’m sorry.” She said, in a quiet and very serious tone. “Getting the rents involved was a real bad idea. “

“Yeah.”  Xena sighed. “Didn’t really need to get on Hera’s hit list.”

“She’ll chill.”

“Probably not in my lifetime.” The warrior responded mildly. 

The goddess sighed.  “You know something, I finally get it.” She said, glancing down and tweaking Dori’s ear. “The little one was right.  We really don’t understand that whole love you till death whatever stuff.   We just don’t.”

“I know.”

“Kinda sucks.”  Aphrodite studied her. “ But it kicks your ass, don’t it?”

Xena nodded. “Worth it though.” She said.

“Anyway.” The goddess glanced away.  “Like. If you could help my half bro out with those screaming mortal chicks he’s carrying around, me and Ares would appreciate it.”

“He coming here?”

“Yep.”

“If I can help, I will.”  Xena said.

Aphrodite stared at her. “Are you smoking something?” She said. “Like, what’s in that cup? “ She demanded.  “Where’ the rude, crude leather chick?” She asked Dori. “You know whats going on, cutie pie?”

Dori looked up at her in puzzlement.

“Y’know, Aphrodite.” Xena felt a gentle tug.  She stood up and swirled the contents of her cup. “I’m not always a homicidal maniac with lethal combat skills.  Sometimes.. “ She shrugged. “I’m just some innkeeper’s kid with a partner and a family.”

The goddess studied the tall figure in front of her. She watched Xena’s head tilt slightly to one side, as those clear, blue eyes gazed back at her – for once quiet, and calm, with no anger showing at their edges.

Xena, at peace.

Aphrodite smiled. “Yeah I get it.”  She set Dori onto her feet. “So anyway, thanks for the girl talk.   Tell your main squeeze I stopped by.”   She snapped her fingers and disappeared. 

Dori gazed at the empty space. “Boo, dat’s a weird people.”

“You said it.” Xena finished her tea. “C’mon, munchkin. Let’s go find your mama and go get some cookies.”   She put the cup down and held her hand out. “Wanna fly some more?”

“Go get frosting!” Dori yodeled.  “Go go go!”

**

Xena settled into the chair behind the table nearest the kitchen, the familiar contours of the seat neatly accommodating her long frame.   She picked up the mug of ale her mother had deposited and took a sip, leaning back and surveying the room with a sense of wry satisfaction.

Amphipolis was a small place.

"So." Cyrene took a seat next to her  "You're back."

The servers were circulating around them, passing out mugs to the militia men who had come in with Xena and the other stragglers who would never turn down a free drink.

Toris came in from the kitchen and circled the table and clasped his sisters shoulders, before taking a chair next to her. "Welcome home, sis."

"Thanks."  Xena smiled at him.

"So what happened?" Cyrene prompted. "All we know is that after Gabrielle left, the Spartan army took off after her fast as their little block heads could go."

"We tried to stop them." Toris spoke up. "Mother rode out there on Argo and told them there was gold, and silver, and the gods only knows what up in the hills and they were idiots to pass it by."

Xena looked at Cyrene,  Her mother shrugged faintly.

"I even told her to tell them there was a Hestian Virgin temple up there." Toris added. "I figured, what the Hades, right?"

Xena covered her eyes briefly with one hand.

"They wouldn't have any of it. Idiots."  Cyrene said. "All they could think of was that they had to get hold of Gabrielle.  Single minded morons."

Xena took a sip of ale. "By that yard stick. I"m a single minded moron myself." She remarked dryly. "I'm pretty sure the feeling was mutual though."

Toris laughed. "It was crazy."  He said. "They were watching for her, watching the out roads but then one of the Amazons came down and told them she left out the back way and they took off."

Xena's eyes narrowed.

"First time I heard Gran curse like that since the twins were born." Her brother said. "She pulled the woman behind the barn and killed her." He added. "Gutted her with a work knife."

There was a little silence. Then Xena cleared her throat. "Saved me the trouble."

"It was a little shocking." Cyrene admitted. "But i can't say I'm sorry to have seen it happen.  They took one of the mules and dragged the body back up to the village and left it there."

"There was more than just her that wanted to do it." Cyrene said. "But she got to her first. Wasn't expecting it, that's for sure. I saw her face when Gran took hold of her and dragged her out of sight."

One of the servers came over and set a platter of bread, cheese, and sliced vegetables down on the table, giving them a smile. "Good to see all the faces back here." She said. "Glad everyone came back safe."

"And Xena was just going to tell us how that came about." Cyrene firmly took control over the conversation. "Xena?"

The warrior's lips twitched.  "You know I'm not the storyteller in the family." She said. "Gabrielle'll make a better tale of it." She sat up a little. "Anyway, I went off after Ephiny and Eponin, and ended up in Therma. Heard tales of Amazons being taken aboard one of the ships so I decided to get on the next one and see if I could find them on the docks in Athens."

"Athens." Cyrene made a face.  "Rather not see that place any time soon."

"I never made it there." Xena said. "Midway we ran into a storm, then found a ship that had foundered in it.  Turns out Ephiny and Eponin were on it."

"So you did rescue them?" Toris grinned. "Everyone had bets you would."

Xena nodded.  "We turned around and went back to Therma, and got there just in time to meet Gabrielle and the rest of them."

"I see. And the Spartan army?"

"We cut a deal with them.  I let them get on their ships and leave if they went quietly, and they did."  Xena said. "So that's that.  Then we came back here."

Her mother and brother looked at her. "Why do I think there' s more to that story?" Toris queried. "A few details left out?"

"We'll get the whole thing from Gabrielle." Cyrene patted him on the knee. "At least we know everything's all right, and they didn't chase you back here."

"No."  Xena said. "They won't be back. At least not for a while."

"Hey. I heard some of the guys that came back with you talking about Artemis and Athena... what was that all about?" Toris asked. "And they said Hercules and Iolaus were there too, and a tidal wave."

"A few details." Cyrene commented dryly.

Xena smiled and leaned back again, hitching up one boot to rest on her knee and propping her elbow on it. It felt good to be home, with the familiar shape of the inn around her and her family there.

Her family.  Xena studied the two faces opposite her briefly. The stamp of family resemblance was strong there. Toris shared Cyrene's face and squarely built frame, and he was tall like Xena was, shared the dark hair and blue eyes but...

But.

Xena took a breath in and released it, understanding in her heart now there was something she didn't share with either of them. Something she really had known all along, but put the difference down to her nature and the path she'd taken way back when.

Always a lie.  Toris and Ly had always been her half brothers. Ly had known, had sensed it.  Had told her in the darkness of one of those dark nights they'd spent together     when her skill with arms was becoming so very evident.

"Someday, Xe." Ly had said. "You'll go places I can't follow you. But it wont' be for lack of trying, and if I can be, I will be there for you."

And he had been.  Xena gazed quietly into her mug.  Someday, Cyrene and Toris would join him, there in that gentle, peaceful place.

They'd tell stories of her.

"Hey, Xe?"

Xena looked up, as Toris touched her arm. "Sorry." She took a sip of ale. "Long couple of days."

"I bet." Her brother said. "So - what's going on with the gals up the hill? Gran said she doesn't even want to talk about it. She said last night she was damn glad she decided to get out of there."

"Change."  Xena said briefly. "Before she left, Gabrielle wanted to make some changes up there. Small stuff.  The older crowd flipped.  One of them challenged her."

Cyrene straightened up. "What?"

Toris nodded. "Gran said something about that, she was laughing about it though."

"Wasn't really funny." The warrior said. "Not with everything going on.  Gab pulled out a sword and I guess it made the woman back down. Didn't figure her to bear steel."

"But... I didn't think..' Cyrene's brow creased.

"She doesn't."  Xena said. "But they didn't know that, and after all." She shrugged self deprecatingly. "I did teach how to fight with everything else."

"Well, now I really want her to get back down here we'll be all night catching up." Cyrene stood up. "Let me see what's going on in the kitchen."

Xena drained her mug and stood up. "I'm going to go get my kid and take our stuff home. We'll be back down for dinner."

Toris nodded, and also stood. " I heard theres a pony in the family now.  Going to introduce me?"

Xena chuckled, as they walked together to the side door, and went through it.

**

Gabrielle circled her worktable and sat down, leaning her elbows on the surface and folding her hands together as the rest of them filed in and took seats on various stools and the floor.

Nala had a cloth held to the cut on her head and she exhaled heavily as she sat down on the low bench near the fireplace.  "My queen, please believe me when I say I have never in my life been happier to see anyone as I am to see you."

Gabrielle smiled briefly. "Thanks." She said. "I think."

Ephiny went behind Gabrielle and opened the small cabinet near the wall, extracting a flagon and some glasses. 

"It's been a really tough time." Aalene spoke up. "I'm glad you're back too." The young Amazon ran her hand through her curly blond hair. "I really didn't think it would get so.. so.."

"Out of hand?" Ephiny spoke over her shoulder.

"Ugly." Aalene corrected her quietly. "I'm used to things being out of hand, you know?"

Gabrielle, surprisingly, chuckled at that.   "So what happened? I figured someone went and told the Spartans where we went. That what caused all this?"

"No." Nala examined a cut on her hand.  "I mean, yes, someone did. Elisa, did. She's the partner of the idio... the person who challenged you, your majesty."

"I see."

"That's the first one we'll talk to." Eponin grunted.

"Can't." Aalene shook her head. "She's dead."

Ephiny turned around and stared, and Gabrielle's eyebrows lifted. "Spartans?" The regent guessed.  "Confused the message with the messenger?"

"No." Nala shook her head. "Granella Down in the town. Heard her squeal and put a blade in her from front to back."

"Thats what freaked everyone out."  Nala continued.  "They dumped the body outside the gate there, and then we heard the town told the Spartans to come up and get us."

Gabrielle felt rather nonplussed. "Come up here and get us?"

Aalene nodded. "Not.. "  She lifted her hands. "It was your family, you know? They were just trying so hard to give you a head start. They told the Spartans about the silver, and all that. Trying to get them to stay here."

"Yes."  The bard murmured. "We heard that from the Spartans. They said the people here were trying to distract them."

"So anyway, word got around that the town was throwing us to the wolves - people got some crazy on." Nala said. "Until the Spartans left, and then Gran came up here and told us what was really going on."

"I see."  Gabrielle said. "Well, that's sure not what I intended."

"No, we knew that." Aalene said. "But everyone down there's pretty pigheaded." She blushed a little. "No offense."

"None taken." Their queen smiled. "Xena's the most pigheaded of them all and I love her dearly anyway." She paused. "I"m sure if she'd been here, and I'd been trying to escape, the Spartans would still be hammering at the town gates, if not our front door up here."

"Or they'd be dead." Pony said.

'Anyway." Nala sighed. "Things got crazy. I told the whole bunch of them if they wanted to just get the Hades out. Just leave, go find another tribe, whatever. Nothing was holding them here.."

"But something was." Aalene broke in. "The valley."

"Ah." Ephiny grunted.

"They wanted all the loot?" Pony said.

"They wanted what they figured was their share." Nala agreed. "And they weren't leaving without it, and that meant they figured they should take over the place."

Gabrielle got up and started pacing.

"We disagreed." Aalene said, quietly.  "Me and the rest of the youngers."  She clarified. "That's what we started calling ourselves, cause we weren't the elders."

"They figured they had the right." Nala said.

"They didn't." Ephiny came over, putting a glass down on Gabrielle's desk and handing another to Pony. She went back and got three others, and distributed them. "They broke our laws."

"I guess they figured.."

"There's no figuring" Pony said. "It's in the scrolls, there in that cabinet." She pointed at a wooden case in the corner of Gabrielle's quarters. "Bunch of old crocks. Bet they dont' even know what's in em."

Gabrielle hitched her thumbs into her leather belt. "Well. I don't know some of the stuff that's in them. There's a lot of those damn things, and half of them are rubbed out." She went back to her desk and sat down. "But what are laws, really, other than just general agreements by people who live in a community on how to coexist with each other and by that view, they're not doing much for us now are they?"

"Hum." Ephiny grunted.

"So maybe we need some new laws." The bard concluded. "Because from what you told me if I have to enforce the ones in that cabinet I'll have to order half the tribe killed." She studied them all. "I don't really want to do that."

"Be kinda tough to do."  Nala conceded.

"No."  Gabrielle leaned forward and studied them. "It wouldn't be hard at all.. well, it would be hard for me to make that choice, but Xe would do it if I asked her to."

Everyone fell silent.

"So." Gabrielle finally broke it.  "Then we need to find a way to live together that accommodates these different viewpoints." She said. "And the gods know, if Xena and I could learn to live together, the Amazons should be able to."

She eyed Nala. "So, what did we walk into out there? Final confrontation? There were six of them, so it wasn't a one on one challenge."

Nala looked uncomfortable. So did Aaleene.

"Judgement?" Pony spoke up. 'Gang up?"

Ephiny made a sound like a spitting cat.

Gabrielle looked from one to the other, then she looked over at Nala. She was about to ask what the heck they were talking about, when a memory of something Xena once had told her popped up. "Is that something like running the gauntlet?"

Nala exhaled, then she nodded. "Sort of.  It's... I guess it's something that was made... I mean..."

"It's a check and balance." Ephiny said, in a crisp voice.  "We have our right of caste, and we have our pecking order, Gabrielle. But there's a piece of the law that lets numbers override that.  If enough of us want to overturn the sitting leadership, then they call for a judgement."

"You mean if.. the opposing party, I guess you can call it, can't come up with a single champion to challenge?" Gabrielle eyed them shrewdly.

Ephiny nodded.

"And they figured this was their chance because once we got back it was game over for them."

"Sure." Pony grunted.

"Either cowardly or opportunistic depending on your viewpoint." The regent commented sourly.

Gabrielle sat quietly in thought for a few minutes.  Everyone else respected that, and remained silent as well, sipping their glasses of wine.  Finally the bard sighed. "Ick."

"Yeah." Ephiny sat down in the stuffed chair near the window. "Makes me wonder if i really want to bring  a kid up here." She laced her fingers together. "Maybe I was always really glad Xenon turned out to be a boy."

Nala looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry." She faced Gabrielle. "I'm sorry I couldn't keep it all together. I didn't know what to say to these people. They just kept getting angrier."

"Nothing we said was right." Aalene murmured.

Gabrielle got up and circled her desk, crouching down next to Aalene.  She put a hand on the young Amazon's knee and gazed at her. "I know what that feels like." Her voice had dropped in pitch, and gentled.  She included Nala in her regard. "So I want to thank you both for taking the brunt of what rightfully should  have been on my shoulders."

Ephiny watched the two women melt under that gentle regard. Gabrielle at her most open and honest tended to be irresistibly compelling and she remembered seeing an angry and upset Xena be tamed with a single touch and that same entreating look.

It wasn't even calculated. Gabrielle wasn't trying to manipulate them.

"No, they were wrong."  Aalene said.  "No one should have had to shoulder that. They were mean, and self serving."

"They took advantage of what was going on to try and stage a coup." Nala added. "We weren't going to let them do that. This is our home. This is our family. We have a right to protect it."

Gabrielle smiled, the warmth of it bringing a twinkle to her eyes. "I know what that's like too." She said. "So - let's finish up our cups, and go to the meeting hall and see what we can make of this place. But so long as there are people like you here, I'm sure we can make something good together."

And with a few words like that, the regent marveled,  they were sealed to her, and would  gladly bend a knee to her, and die at her word.

Would she?  Ephiny studied the shadowed profile of the kneeling woman.  Would she lay down her life for Gabrielle? Step in front of a sword? An arrow?  She thought about Xena, on that rope between the ships, a handspan from disaster.  Would she risk for Gabrielle what Gabrielle risked for her?

Which side was she on? Elders or  youngers?

"Hey Gabrielle?" Pony spoke up from her corner.

"Yes, Pony?"  Gabrielle leaned her elbows on her knee.

"If you did decide to off them?" Pony cleared her throat. "You wouldn't have to bother the champ for that.  I'd do it."  She shrugged one shoulder. "Soli'd do it. Heck, Cait and her nutcase would do it.  You're the queen. "

Gabrielle grinned at her.

"And, we may not always agree with stuff you do." POny went on. "But like, I've learned the hard way you make decisions for the right reasons. You know?"

Gabrielle got up and walked over to her, motioning her to stand up.  She faced Pony when she did, cocking her head a little upwards to meet the weapon's master's suddenly bashful eyes.  "Thank you." She took Pony's hands in hers. "Though it's an amazing thing to me that I can finally in my heart appreciate dear friends offering to kill people for me."

Ephiny smothered a laugh and Pony wrinkled her nose up and grinned.

'Seriously. Thank you Eponin."  Gabrielle leaned forward and gave her a kiss on the lips, taking a step back then quickly grabbing Pony's arms as her knees unlocked. "Whoa."

"Sorry." Pony blushed a deep, vivid red.

Ephiny covered her face with one hand, her shoulders shaking.

"You okay?"  Gabrielle rubbed Pony's upper arm. "Sorry about that. Didin't mean to freak you out."

Pony cleared her throat and furtively looked around, then finally met the bard's gaze. "Didn't expect you to do that."

"No, probably not." Gabrielle put her arm around Pony's shoulders. "C'mon, Eph. Let's go kids. Time to lay it on the table and sort this out."

She waited until they exited to add an arm around Ephiny, and they strolled together across the grass, the sunset light gilding them all and sending their shadows right across the square.

**

 

**

Gabrielle leaned back against her partners usual perch, her arms crossed casually over her chest as she watched the room slowly fill.

Ephiny was seated at the elevated table, her hands folded in front of her. Eponin had taken up a position to her left, a dour glare on her face and her hand resting prominently on her sword hilt.

Cait was standing to Gabrielle's right as though in a mirror position, watching the crowd.  Solari was leaning against the back wall, quite near the entrance as she watched everyone come in and take their seats.

There was a seriousness about them all that touched Gabrielle. It was serious to her too, of course, but there was a sense also that she had gotten sight of a bigger picture and she no longer felt any sense of anxiety at the mix of attitudes facing her.

When she'd left the village she'd been very conflicted. About her place in the tribe, the tribes place in her life, and a hundred different dreams tugging her in all directions. Standing here now, though, she felt a sense of self confidence that both bemused and surprised her a little.   

Paladia ducked inside the room and plodded doggedly up to where Gabrielle was perched, brushing past the bristling Eponin and climbing up onto the raised dais. "Hey, listen."

"I'm listening." Gabrielle responded amiably.

Unaccountably, Paladia gave one of her quirky grins at that. "The guard said to tell you they jut saw Xena hauling butt up the hill like she was being chased by harpies."

"She wouldn't run from harpies." Gabrielle responded without hesitation.

Paladia stopped and tilted her head. "You seen them?"

"Uh huh."

"Ugly?"

"Oh yeah."

"Anyway they said to tell you." Paladia concluded.

Cait sidled over.  " Do you suppose something's wrong?" She asked. "Shall I go check?"

"Nah. She's fine." Gabrielle reassured them.  "She's probably just playing with Dori."  She could sense happiness coming from Xena, a bouncy delight that made her smile. She recalled their words at parting down in the town.  "C'mon, people. Get moving in here."

Finally, the room was almost full.  Gabrielle pushed off the padded ledge she was leaning against and strolled forward to the edge of the platform, just in front of the table. She let her hands drop, hooking her thumbs into her belt as she waited. She studied the faces as the murmur of conversation dropped off and their attention focused on her.

"Okay people." Gabrielle said, after a brief pause.  "The last time I stood up here, I told you I was leaving. I told you that I was a target of the Spartan army, and that my intentions were to remove myself from here so no one would get hurt."

Renas the elder stood up. "The town down there didn't buy into that. They tried to get the Spartans to come up here and destroy us."

Gabrielle waited for the murmur to die down. "The people in the town, specifically, Cyrene, did everything they could to keep the Spartans from going after me, including offering you up as a sacrifice. Yes."

Absolute silence.

"Xena's mother values me more than she does the tribe." The bard went on, in a mild tone. "That's a fact of life, people. Just like it's a fact of life that I value Xena more than I do anyone in this room."

Renas didn't seem to know what to respond to that.  She looked like she'd been expecting Gabrielle to make excuses.

"Do you all want me to lie?" Gabrielle scanned the room.  "Want me to tell you that because I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, that I'd give up the love of my life, or my family, for the good of the tribe?"

"Gabrielle." Ephiny had stood up behind her. "You sent the love of your life into mortal danger for my sake." She had a wry look on her face. "Can't have it both ways."

"I don't." Gabrielle half turned, so she could watch both Ephiny and the crowd. "You are family to me, Eph. You and Pony, and Cait, and the people who have brought themselves into my life as friends."  She glanced out at the crowd. "But the 'tribe' is not my family. The 'tribe' is a group of people I'm responsible for in some way but a good part of whom not only doesn't care about me, but would actively prefer I was dead."

Silence again.

"YOU can't have it both ways." Gabrielle went on. "You can't plot against me, and challenge my authority, and want to get rid of me and then expect me to feel bad when my family... the people who do care about me, throw you under an oxcart on my behalf."

Renas slowly sat down.

"But if you are my family." The bard said. "Then you can expect me to sacrifice everything for you."

Ephiny looked down at the table, her fingertips pressing lightly against it.  Pony merely stood quietly nearby, watching Gabrielle, the faintest hint of a smile on her face.

"So."  Gabrielle turned forward again. "Let's talk facts.  I am the queen." She paused briefly. "I carry the right of caste. You are stuck with me." 

Cait smirked a little, and glanced at Paladia, who had remained up on the raised platform next to her.

"And if you are stuck with me, you are also stuck with what I bring with me, which is my family. Cyrene is my family.  The militia is my family.  Xena is my family and my consort."  She looked now at Renas. "That brings me to another subject.  Before I left, a bunch of you decided, despite the danger we were all in, to challenge me for my right."

"It's our law." Renas muttered.

"No it's not." Ephiny spoke up again. "Sorry, your Maj, but i want to speak."

"Hang on." Gabrielle held a hand up. "You'll get your chance." She looked at Renas. "Renas, if your little gang had killed me, just what do you think would have happened to you? No matter what you think the Amazon law says?"

"Same thing that happened to that git who sold Gabrielle's plan to the Spartans." Pony said, briefly.  "You think anyone down there cares about Amazon law?"

Gabrielle glanced at her, then back at the room. "She's right." She said. "I know that to a lot of you here, the tribe is your whole world.  I understand that." She paused. "But you probably better realize that in that big old wider world out there a whole lot more people know and care about me, than they do about you."

Shockingly egotistical, Gabrielle thought. And quite surprising to the Amazons based on the facial expressions she was seeing.  "So yes, no matter what the law here says, I'm above it.  Xena's above it.  We're not Amazons. We belong to the wider world and to the greater good and that's something you all just have to deal with, or you need to go somewhere else."  She concluded. "Because I am the queen.  I carry the right of caste, and I intend to keep it that way."

Mixture of reactions.  Some surprised her really. She could see grins on the faces of those younger she always knew were with her, and resignation and anger on the faces of some of the older, but the primary reaction it seemed was relief from the rest of the tribe.

She wasn't really sure why, though.  From the corner of her eye she could see Ephiny nodding slowly, and she thought Pony was pleased.  She hadn't really pre thought out what she was going to say, but spoke from the heart, and tried to keep it honest, and all in all, she thought it hadn't gone too badly.

No one had rushed her with a sword, anyway.   A flicker of motion caught her eye, and she looked at the doorway just as Xena slipped inside, carrying Dori.  The warrior's hair was windblown, and she had just a light tunic on with no weapons.

The blue eyes met hers, and one winked.   Xena took a seat at the very back, in an empty row and set Dori on her lap, her arms wrapped around the child to keep her still.

"So is what you are saying, Gabrielle, that you can't be challenged?" Renas spoke up. "That our laws mean nothing to you?"

"No." The bard shook her head. "What I am saying is, if you decide to challenge me, you need to accept the consequences both for yourself, and the tribe, because the response will not adhere to Amazon law."

Xena gave her a thumbs up.  Gabrielle tried to muffle a grin, and only partially succeeded. "So let me give you a better option."  She kept her body posture open and relaxed. "Talk first. Then fight." 

"What?" Renas frowned. "I tried to talk to you."

"You tried to talk at me." Gabrielle shook her head. "That's why I didn't listen to you.  When people say 'it's like this just because I say so, or because that's how it's always been' I don't buy it. Not from anyone." Her eyes slipped back to her silently laughing partner. "Isn't that true, honey?"

The room all turned, startled to find the warrior in their midst. 

"Damn true."  Xena acknowledged. "The only way to win an argument with her is to be right."

"Mama!" Dori squiggled.

"So you are telling me if we disagree, I should come in and argue with you about it?" Renas almost spluttered in disbelief.

"Yes." Gabrielle said. "That's exactly what you should do. If your arguments make sense, maybe I'll agree with you, or maybe we can agree to disagree. But talking.. communicating with each other is the only way to stop this crazy stupid cycle of resentment that mounts until someone is dumb enough to pick up a sword and take a swing at me."

"Breaking the cycle of violence." Ephiny muttered just loud enough for her to hear. "Finally come full circle."

Finally come full circle. It almost made her start laughing. "No one has to stay and put up with me." Gabrielle said. "There's a bunch of tribes out there, who live the way Amazons always have, and keep the old ways."

"Got that right." Eponin grunted. "Bunch of jackasses."

" Since when are you a radical?" One of the older Amazons asked. "Eponin?"

"Since we met up with a pack of those other types." Pony stared her right down. "And got knocked over the head and tied up, on the way to be sold to Athens so they could get some extra feathers for it."

"What?" Renas blurted.

"We were kidnapped." Ephiny folded her hands together. "Taken onboard a ship on the way to the capital. The queen of the tribe who took us was going to hand us over as spies for the Spartans so she'd get credit in her march to be named overall queen of the Amazons."

'What?" Now Renas stood up, and so did several others. " Named by who?"

"Athens." Pony. "Nice, huh? Real traditional."  She put her hands on her hips. "We go out there to try and warn them and they do that."

"Well.." Renas looked nonplussed.

"So yeah, i'm not so into the tradition stuff now. I got over it." Pony concluded.

"She should pay for that." Renas said.

"She did. I killed her." Ephiny commented.

Another period of silence.  Most of the crowd looked uneasily from their regent to their queen, who was quietly watching her as well.

"And then I stood by and let the rest of them drown when the ship went down. Had no interest in saving their sorry asses." The regent concluded.  "After Xena risked her life rescuing us, I wasn't going to see her risk anything for them. So I get what Gabrielle said about family, y'know?"

Heads turned to look at Xena who merely nodded.

Renas sat down again. "It's so much to think about." She said, after a moment. "It's so hard to know what the right thing to do is."

Gabrielle realized at this point she had a choice to make.  There were two paths she could lead them down, one that would have her ordering Ephiny to bring the laws she knew so well to bear, and placing the Amazons who had challenged her under the regents sentencing.

The other path was more complicated.  She could wipe the slate clean at this point, and it was unclear where that would lead them to.  Maybe it would mean the break up of the tribe.

Maybe it would change what it meant for those who remained to be Amazons.

Gabrielle studied the faces opposite her.  "What's it going to be, people?" She asked. "I think a lot of the problems some of you have with me stem from the fact you think I'm not strong enough to be an Amazon queen."  She sensed the reaction and saw it, ripping across the crowd. "You want me to prove that's not true?  I see four of you who were part of that plot here in the room."

They stirred uneasily, and exchanged glances.

"You want me to be a traditional Amazon queen? It's within my rights to punish you, for endangering the tribe. You want me to ask Xena to execute you?"

Absolute shock.

"That's in the law, right Eph?" Gabrielle half turned, to see widened hazel eyes watching her.

"Yes." Ephiny managed to respond.

"Xe?" Gabrielle met her soulmate's eyes. "C'mere."

Xena stood up and put Dori down, leaning over and whispering something to her before she straightened and made her way up the aisle through the now frozen crowd up to where Gabrielle was standing.  Dori watched for a moment, then she turned and ran out of the room, the patter of her footsteps as much a warning as the tolling of a bell.

Xena was unarmed, but it didn't matter and everyone there knew it.  The warrior turned when she reached the platform and stood there, sweeping her gaze over them before she looked up at her partner, and quirked an eyebrow at her in question.

"What's tradition worth to you?" Gabrielle stared at Renas. "Worth your life? Put up or shut up. It's time."

A figure stirred in the back of the room and stood. Gabrielle recognized it as the woman who challenged her, and she slowly drew in a breath as she walked forward through the crowd and faced her. "Mara."

Mara stared at her. "So our choice is to accept your new ways, or keep our traditions and take the consequences. That right?" The woman said, looking right into Gabrielle's eyes.  "That what you're saying?"

"That's it." Gabrielle agreed. She could sense the tension rapidly growing in the room, and knew a brief moment of sadness as she realized where the situation was likely going.

She'd had a chance, to have it end right.  But there was also that part of who the Amazons were that never had accepted her.

The part that was convinced that no matter what the evidence, she didn't have it in her to truly understand the warrior spirit that defined them.

The part that believed she was wholly a storyteller, and nothing more.

Mara gestured rudely at her. "This time, I'm calling your bluff, Gabrielle." The woman said. "I say we keep our traditions, and our laws." She stood a little straighter. "Now you put up or shut up. You've posed long enough."

"You really think I'm posing?" Gabrielle could sense the eyes on her, and knew she had the future resting in her hands in a very personal way.

"I know you are. You faked me out the last time. Not this time." Mara said. "You said it yourself. You're not an Amazon. You haven't got the guts to be."

And so, there it was.  Gabrielle sensed her partner shift next to her, as without moving the warrior prepared herself to act.  From the corner of her eye, she could see the planed features twitch, and saw Xena's breathing change just so very slightly.

Ready to defend her.   Anyone in the room could see it.

But she didn't want to be defended. Not this time.

"Xena." Gabrielle said, quietly and clearly. "Execute her."

The woman didn't even have time to prepare herself. In a flicker of motion, almost too fast for the eye to follow, Xena lashed out and caught her on the point of her chin with such savage power she broke her neck before her victim could so much as take a breath.

Between one breath and the next. Just that quickly.

The body dropped at Gabrielle's feet.

The queen looked up and took in the utter shock facing her.  "Be careful what you ask for."  She said, in a very calm voice.  "Anyone else think I'm bluffing?"

Renas sat down, refusing now to meet her eyes.

Gabrielle absorbed the silence, taking slow and deliberate breaths. "So."  She felt a sudden warmth as Xena's hand touched her knee, just a random contact briefly grounding her world. "Meeting's over. I'll be in my quarters tomorrow if anyone wants to talk."

After a long moment, the Amazons slowly got up and started to file out, not without a lot of backward glances at the woman standing on the platform, and the tall figure standing on the ground next to her. 

Only Solari stayed, watching each face as it passed.

Gabrielle held it together until the last one had left, then she felt her knees unlock and would have dropped to the ground if Xena hadn't sensed it and grabbed her, stepping up onto the platform and pulling her close.

"Wow." Pony motioned to Cait and Paladia. "C'mon. Let's take out the trash." 

"Rather." Cait's eyes were rather wider than normal, and she hurried to join the weapons master, tugging Paladia behind her as they circled the fallen form.

"Xe." Gabrielle felt herself start to shake. "Get me over to that damn water basin."

She barely made it in time, before her body convulsed and she lost what little was in her stomach, retching so hard she saw stars clearly defined on the inside of her closed eyelids.

"Easy." She could barely hear Xena's voice for the roaring in her ears. "Breathe, Gabrielle. Take a deep breath."

She couldn't. Her body was in such complete rebellion she was caught between throwing up and crying, the reality of what she'd just done rendering her nearly helpless.

"Hey."  Xena's voice was right in her ear. "Gabrielle."

A touch at her neck, and the sudden tingle of pressure points. The need to retch eased and she felt Xena's body warm hers as her partner cradled her gently.  She took a deep breath, then another, as the stars faded in her vision and the roar receded in her ears.

"Easy." Xena gently kneaded the back of her neck.

"You send Dori down to mom?" Gabrielle whispered.

"Yeah."

"Thanks."

"Just breathe. Stop scaring the daylights out of me."

Gabrielle complied, feeling her heartbeat slow. She opened her eyes and looked up, seeing nothing but Xena's concerned face very close to hers. "Sorry."  She put a shaking hand on her own stomach.  "Sorry, Xe. Sorry I .. "

"Gabrielle." Xena interrupted her. "Shut up."

The bard buried her face into the light fabric on her partners shoulder and obeyed. She didn't have to tell Xena anything. 

Xena knew.

Finally the shivering stopped, and she felt the tension relax.  She opened her eyes again and exhaled, looking past Xena's shoulder to find Ephiny next to her, just sitting there holding her hand. "Ugh."

"That was very gutsy, my friend." The regent said, in a mild voice.

"Wasn't what I was after tonight." Gabrielle sighed. "Damn it."

"I know." Ephiny nodded. "But it was the only thing you could have done and remained queen. There was no backing down from that, Gabrielle."[]

"I know." Gabrielle's eyes shifted to her partner.  Xena was seated on the edge of the platform, still cradling her in her arms. "Sorry I had to ask you to do that, sweetheart."

"I'm not." Xena replied. "But I am glad you didn't stop for lunch first."

Gabrielle blinked, then she couldn't prevent a brief smile from appearing. "Xe."

Xena leaned over and gave her a kiss on the forehead.  She could feel the warmth coming back into Gabrielle's body, and the color of her skin was returning to normal. The bard stirred a little, and she helped her sit up, keeping her hands on her partner's shoulders as she ran a hand through her hair.  'Better?"

"Yeah." Gabrielle exhaled. "Sorry i freaked out."

"Battle shock." Xena said. "You'll be fine."

Ephiny handed over a skin. "Apple juice. Take a sip."

Gabrielle complied, cautiously. Her stomach agreeably accepted the sweet juice though, and she swallowed a second mouthful with less hesitation.  She became aware of the silence in the hall, and the rich golden sunset pouring in the windows, and the beautiful depths of Xena's eyes as they watched her.

The warrior  stifled a yawn. "Hades of a welcome home, huh?"

Gabrielle found herself smiling. "No place like it." She agreed. "Can't wait to see what happens tomorrow."

**

Xena caught her mother's eye as she entered the inn, strolling through the late night customers and ducking into the kitchen.   It was quiet and empty in there, only the night hearth lit with it's ever present pot of odds and ends mildly bubbling.

After a minute, Cyrene entered, dusting her hands off. "Well, there you are."  She walked over and gave her daughter a hug.  "Have I said it yet? I'm very glad you're back, and all in one piece for a change."

Xena returned the hug, then she perched on the edge of one of the worktables. "I hear you tried to keep the Spartans here."

"I did." Her mother answered straightforwardly. "I have a few people here more than pissed off at me for it and you know what? I don't give a damn."

Xena smiled. "She only just made it to the city." She said, after a pause. "They chased her right to the gates. I had to lead a force out and stop them. So thanks."  She eyed Cyrene. "I don't really want to think about her and Dori getting caught by those bastards. By the time they caught up to her they were shooting blindly."

Cyrene sobered. "I didn't hear that."

"Lot of stuff happened."  Xena acknowledged.  "It'll probably take her a while to tell it all... some of it she might not."

"Huh."  Cyrene went over to a pot near the fire and poured something out of it into mugs. She brought them back over and handed Xena one.  "Things go alright up there with those women?"

Xena's lips twitched. "It worked out. I had to break someone's neck, but it's quiet up there now.  Gabrielle cleared up some problems."

Cyrene sighed. "I almost went up there and broke some necks myself." She admitted. "Ridiculous, pissy wenches. I cant believe they sold out to the Spartans."

"Gran took care of it."

"She certainly did." The innkeeper nodded. "Scared the pants off your brother. He wasn't expecting that at all."

Xena sipped the mulled cider, feeling the warmth travel down and gather in her belly. "No, I guess he woudln't."

Cyrene studied her face, then, with a slight frown, she got up and picked up a candle, holding it closer, then she reached up and touched the skin above Xena's left eyebrow.

Xena stayed still, watching her quietly.

Her mother cocked her head. "That hoof scar's gone." She said. "You've had that since you were six years old."

"Yeah."  Xena kicked her leg out a little, glancing down at her bare thigh.  "They're all gone."  She hiked her knee up and displayed it, the white scar tissue from her injury in Athens nowhere to be seen. "We had a little problem happen when we were in the city."

Cyrene looked at her intently. "Problem?"

"Mm." Her daughter nodded. 'Had a building fall in on us and we ended up on Mount Olympus." She glanced up at Cyrene's face, seeing a look of honest startlement appear.   "Wasn't one of my better moments."

"By the gods." Cyrene whispered.

"Well, yeah." Xena said. "was all about the gods. Zeus decided he wanted to see us." She watched her mother lift her hand to her mouth,  her eyes full of awe and something close to fear.  "Anyway, it was all a screwup and and we got sent back, but we lost the scars."

She had been debating with herself, how much to reveal to Cyrene - trying to judge by how much her mother seemed to be willing to reveal to her. How much did her mother know? How much did she suspect?

Cyrene exhaled. "Xena." She put her hand on Xena's and turned it over, looking at the palm. "Is Gabrielle all right?"

"She's fine."  Xena smiled briefly. "It was all tangled up in this damn war.. and Hercules, and... well, anyway."  She paused. "Might not be the last we heard of this."

"Ah."  Cyrene leaned against the worktable.  She pondered the words for a few moments.  Then she looked up to see those pale eyes watching her, and a wry smile appeared on her face.  "Sit down." She gestured to the kitchen worktable. "We probably need to talk."

**

Gabrielle was glad enough to leave the village behind for the night. She walked quietly across the central square, aware of the eyes watching her, and the murmured greetings announcing her presence.

She returned them. The attitudes she'd encountered were perceptibly different, there was a wariness, and a respect there in some faces she hadn't see before and Gabrielle was aware that things would never be the same for her with the Amazons.

And that was okay. She passed through the campfire as she headed towards the entrance to the village, feeling the warmth of the fire as she circled it, and watching her shadow dance off into the darkness.

That was okay, because she understood that something had really needed to change.  Either that change might have been her relinquishing her right, or going in the direction she had, but Gabrielle had realized she had come to a point in her life where she had to grow.

She'd wanted to remain in place, she reasoned.  THat was why she wanted to go with Xena and Dori into the world, and just go around exploring things. That was a part of her life she cherished greatly, and the urge to go back to that simpler, in some ways happier time was understandable.

Understandable, but impossible.   Gabrielle exhaled a little. It was time for her to grow up, and take charge, and accept the responsibility of the titles she'd frivolously shrugged off for so long.

Unfair, to let Ephiny take all that on, and not have the title. Unfair to the tribe, to force them into an absentee leadership. 

After Ephiny gave birth, and had time to deal with her new infant, there might then be another change, but for right now?

"Suck it up, Gabrielle." The bard muttered to herself.

"Your Majesty?"  Pasi, one of the younger Amazons stood up. "Did you say something?"

"No." Gabrielle grinned briefly. "Just talking to myself."  She glanced around. "I do that sometimes."

She studied the group of youngers - all of whom were watching her intently. 

They were clustered around one of the smaller fires scattered around the periphery of the big square.  Nearby were some of the group quarters, and Gabrielle figured they all probably lived in them and had developed a group relationship. "What are yo guys up to?"

They all looked happy for the attention. "We're just relaxing. " Pasi said. "It's been a rough moon so far."

"We have some new wine from the merchant train." One of the others spoke up, a little shyly. "Would you like some, your majesty?"

Gabrielle smiled, and returned the few steps needed to join the group, taking a seat on one of the round log stools common to the village. "Sure." She rested her elbows on her knees, meeting the curious eyes.

They were all either around her age, or younger.  Gabrielle suddenly felt a little pang, realizing how long it had been since she'd had a group of just friends her age to pass the time with.

Back in Potideia. All the girls in the town roughly the same age had gathered to talk, and share gossip, make whispered remarks about the young men of the town, and share their lives - her and Lila included.

She hadn't of course shared her troubles with her family. The rest of them hadn't either, just frivolous, superficial chatter.   It wasn't as if she couldn't talk to Xena, or to Dori, to Eph or the folks down in the town.

But it wasn't this. Gabrielle took the cup she was offered, and sipped it. It was raw, and sweet, and burned a little going down. "So what did you guys think of what happened tonight?"

Pasi eyed her. "Do you really want us to tell you?" She asked. "Most of the time when the elders ask us stuff like that they want to hear what they want to hear, not what we think."

Gabrielle smiled at her, the bard's pale eyes visibly twinkling. "Definitely want to hear what you have to say."

"Thought so." The second woman said. "I'm Verga, by the way. I don't think we ever talked before." She extended an arm, which Gabrielle gripped and released. "I was in the same group that took feathers with Cait."

 

"I do remember you."  Gabrielle said. "You sucker punched Pony." She said. "YOu know how much I got to hear about that?"

Verga laughed. "About as much as we all heard about you taking Xena as your consort." She replied. "OMG.  I almost took to drink to get away from it."

The group relaxed, the darkness, and the crisp popping of the small fire bringing an unexpected intimacy.

"Yeah, I know that wasn't the most popular of my unpopular decisions." Gabrielle leaned back, extending her booted legs and crossing them at the ankles. "But I was glad they accepted it.  Xe and I.. that's not negotiable."

Pasi cleared her throat. "The new chicks." She said. "We were talking. They said you could have just named anyone as consort. You didn't have to do that, what you did with Xena. Is that true?"

Gabrielle nodded. "It's true." She said. "Ephiny and I talked about it, but I really wanted the tribe to accept her."

"Why?" Verga asked. "It just pissed a lot of them off."

Why? Gabrielle pondered that question.  "Just because." She answered honestly. "There wasn't really a reason behind it. I love her. I knew I wouldn't name a consort because I'm just not into the stuff for show.  If I could get her to agree to it, I wanted to do it."

"A lot of people thought what you did tonight was really cool."  Pasi changed the subject after a short pause.  "I thought it was, because now everyone will go back to just doing stuff, instead of it all being nervous and up in the air."

"They're scared." Verga clarified. 'I heard one of those old tarts saying that." She cleared her throat. "But can I ask you something?"

"Sure." Gabrielle swirled her wine in its cup.

"HOw come you didn't do it yourself?" The young Amazon asked her. "Kill her, I mean. That would have really scared them. Maybe enough to shut them up for good."

Gabrielle took a sip. It hadn't occurred to her, honestly, to do anything other than what she did, in asking Xena to be her executioner.   The warrior had expected it.

Should she have?

Could she have?

"That's a good question." She responded finally. "You know something? For a really long time when I traveled with Xena I was blood innocent.  We went around, and I learned to fight, sure, and the gods only know we were in and around enough death and all that, but there was this line."

"She did the killing." Verga said, bluntly.

"She did." Gabrielle agreed. "Xe's very good at it. For a long time, I thought that was just  driving her into Tartarus, you know?" She glanced at the women, who were silently fascinated. "Then I finally understood Xe just doesn't have the same moral structure that I do.  It doesn't bother her to kill people. She doesn't think about it. Goes right past her." The bard flicked her fingers near her ear. "I don't."

Pasi nodded. "Cait was saying that. It changes stuff."

"It does."  Gabrielle nodded slowly. "It changes everything.  So even though now, I can take someone's life, and I have, it bothers me a lot in here." She touched her chest.  "Xe knows that.  So if I'd done it, and not asked her to, not only would I have hurt myself, I'd have hurt her too."

"Huh." Verga grunted.

"I turned myself inside out throwing up afterward as it was." The bard said, wryly. 'It's just not a part of who I am as a person.  No matter how much fighting I do."

"Your majesty." Pasi said.

"Gabrielle, please. We're just people talking here." The bard said.

Pasi paused. "Gabrielle." She said. "Are you really going to stay here with us now?"

An owl hooted nearby, and Gabrielle felt the gentle breeze come down the mountain, ruffling her hair and bringing just the faintest hint of another fireplace to her nose. "Yes." She answered. "I am going to stay here, and try to work to make this a good place for you all to live in, where you'll be happy, and where the tribe will grow and thrive." She could see the smiles appearing. "You like that idea?"

"We do." Verga nodded. "I know it pissed them others off, but it's like now maybe we have a voice here. You know?"

A voice.  Gabrielle grinned. "Well, I want everyone to know they can come up to me, or come into my quarters, or stop me on the way across the plaza anytime, and talk. I like that."

"Do you?" Pasi cocked her head curiously.

"Yep." Gabrielle felt a gentle tug, as though someone had passed by and tapped her on the shoulder. "I really do." She stood up and set her cup down on her seat. "But right now I need to go tuck my kid into bed, and spend a little quiet time with Xe. been a really long day."

"Good night!" The group chorused. "Thanks for stopping by us." Pasi added with a shy grin. "See you tomorrow."

Gabrielle lifted her hand and waved, then she turned and disappeared into the darkness  , heading for the path up the mountain.

Verga exhaled. "She's all right."

"She's honest." Pasi said. "Most of those other guys, they talk crap just to hear themselves, and put on airs. When she talks, she says real stuff."

"And she's really cute." Verga grinned.

They all chuckled.

"I think this is going to work out pretty cool." Verga said. "At least for us."

**

Xena climbed up the path for the second time, this time at a far more sedate pace. She had Dori, asleep, cradled in her arms and she moved through the shadows with steady confidence.

She crossed through the flat area that split off towards the Amazon village, and exchanged a s signal of recognition with the Amazon once again on guard.  The woman stepped out into the path and the warrior slowed as she approached, recognizing Solari.  "Hey."

"Hey." Solari responded. "Gabrielle's still talking to folks in there. Everything's cool."

Xena nodded. "Things settle down?"

"Oh yeah." Solari agreed. "Even the elders shut up. Her Maj kicked major butt there."

The warrior smiled.

"Impressed the newbies." The Amazon went on. "Even that weird chick.  She still has the hots for you, though."

Xena sighed.

"Hey, c'mon,  Xena. Half the nation does." Solari grinned. "It's a compliment." She glanced around. "Can i walk you up to your place? I'll make points with her maj."

The warrior snorted a little, then chuckled. "C'mon.  I've got some wine up there. Share a mug with me."

They walked together up the hill, dodging the gently moving limbs as the moonlight splashed among them.   Xena found herself a little glad of the company, glad, in fact, that they were once again at home surrounded by friends and family.  "How's the attitude in there?" She jerked her head back towards the village.

"You know, better than I figured." Solari said. "I wasn't sure what those damn hidebound women were going to do with that, but you know, her maj got some serious brass nipple points with that whole thing."

"Huh." Xena grunted.

"That was nice work you did." Solari said, after a pause. "Fast and no mess."

Xena wasn't sure how to react to that, since she didn't often get complimented on her assasination skills quite so bluntly.  "Woman was an idiot."  She said, briefly. "I need to get Renas aside and find out what the Hades her beef is."

"Figurehead." Solari said, succinctly.

"But what would she get out of if?"  Xena pushed open the door to their cabin as they reached it, and held it as Solari came past her. She carried Dori into her bedroom and set her down in bed, tucking the covers around her.

Dori curled up immediately, clutching the stuffed dragon Xena put next to her.  She opened her eyes, blinking a little. "Boo?"

"Right here, little one." Xena smoothed her daughter's disheveled hair back. "Go to sleep. I'll be right in the other room, waiting for your mama to come back."

"Boo c'n we go in the lake tomorrow?" Dori asked. "Want to show my friends how to go to fishes."

"Sure." Xena smiled. "We'll take all your friends, and Rusty too. How about that?"

Dori grinned. "Good!" She put her head down and squiggled closer to her toy, closing her eyes as Xena stood up and watched her for a moment.

"You glad we're home, Dori?" Xena asked.

Dori's eyes opened again.  "Yes." She said. "C'n have fun now."

Xena smiled, and turned, walking back into the main part of the cabin. Solari was waiting patiently by the fireplace, examining a glass goblet.   "Bet your glad to be back here."

 She went over and retrieved a wineskin, pouring a mugful and handing it to Solari before she poured her own and gestured to the seats near the fire. "Siddown."

"Am I glad."  Solari mused, as she took a seat and leaned back. "Y'know? I don't know."

Xena lifted a dark eyebrow.  She studied the dark haired Amazon curiously, seeing a definite thoughtfulness in her face. 

She liked Solari. Always had. The Amazon had always been one of the stalwart, straightforward women who'd stood by first Melosa, then Ephiny and Gabrielle, staying out of the politics and just being a strong right arm when one was needed.

"I was glad her Maj let me go with her." Solari said. "I was over all the henpecking. Most of them were blaming me anyhow, said Gabrielle was changing stuff up because of me."

"About the housing?"

"Yeah."

Xena took a sip of her wine.  "She probably did." She said. "She likes you.  If she thought that would make you happy, she'd do it."

Solari, surprisingly, blushed.

"That's Gabrielle."  The warrior bit off a smile. "I think they're probably jealous."

"Eh." Solari grunted. "Maybe.  Guess I get to find out now though.  Pon said she picked out a little place near the back of the square for me." She said. "Went back and checked it out. It's nice.  Gonna be nice to go back there after a day and chill."

"LIke we do here." Xena indicated the cabin around them. "Gab knows what it's like to live rough. She appreciates the privacy. Probably thought you would too."

Solari took a swallow of her wine. "Good stuff." She lifted the cup in Xena's direction. "Not like that stuff you gave us that one time."'

Xena's very blue eyes twinkled.  "Hey I drank it too." She issued a mild protest. "Boy did I regret it the next morning."

Solari grinned "Me too."

**

Gabrielle felt the presence as a prickling of her senses, and before she could think about what it was her body was reacting to a threat.

She ducked and threw herself to one side, feeling a whisper of motion as something went past her ribs and thunked into a tree behind her.

The fitful moonlight broke through and she saw a figure outlined in it. tossing something to one side and coming at her with quicksilver speed.

She set herself and waited, leaning a little forward as the figure closed in with her and a flash of metal showed against the leaves.  Gabrielle let it come past her and then she grabbed quickly at the arm driving it, half turning and throwing her weight against her oncoming enemy.

She felt the impact, and heard a grunt, as her fingers closed hard on her attackers arm and shoved the knife their hand away from her.

Fingers at her throat.  Instinctively she sucked in a deep breath and punched with her free hand, feeling her knuckles meet flesh as the grip on her neck loosened.  She punched again, as the attacker tried to wrench free, using her body weight to slam the arm she had hold of into the tree and scrape it against the rough bark.

Another grunt.  Gabrielle opened her hand and shoved it hard at roughly the level of her own collarbone and felt skin under her fingers. She clamped down hard on what she realized was a throat, lunging forward an forcing her attacker backwards.

Dead silence. ONly the sound of their boots scuffling in the leaves and then the crunch as Gabrielle drove her adversary against a tree and slammed forward, getting her forearm across the figures throat and leaning hard.

The figure struggled, knee raising to kick. Gabrielle felt it move and blocked it with her own thigh, then shifting to slam her kneecap into her opponents gut.

Gasping.

"Had enough?" Gabrielle said, in a conversational tone.  "I keep doing this, I'll probably break something and the nearest healer is someone you really don't want to see right now."

The figure twisted and lunged against her.  Gabrielle went with the motion, and then slammed her opponent back into the tree. "C'mon."

The figure went still. 

Gabrielle squeezed the fingers of her left hand as hard as she could, hearing a stifled curse and the sound of a knife falling to the ground.   She shifted her left boot over and covered it, the thick hilt evident under her arch. 

Then she pushed her assailant over a body length, into a pool of moonlight.  She was completely unsurprised to see MIlena's glowering face reflected back at her, and felt actually, oddly relieved. "So that's how you thank me for the hospitality?  Xe was was right. I should have said no."

Milena tried to yank herself free, but Gabrielle held her against the tree with ease, trying to decide what to do with the little idiot.  "I'm warning you."

"Shut up. Shut up you bitch. I wanted you dead." Milena hissed. "I will kill you. I won't stop trying until I get you and then she's mine."

Gabrielle held her still. 'You're really that stupid, huh?" She mused. "Kid, what the Hades is wrong with you?"

"Nothing!" Milena growled. "I just want what I want. I will have it if I have to cut you to chunks to get it."

Gabrielle studied her, the bard's blond head cocking slightly to one side. "No you wont'." She said, leaning closer so they were eye to eye. "Because I'm going to kill you first."

Milena went absolutely still, her eyes widening in the dim light.

"Ah." Gabrielle said. "Didn't expect that, huh? Let me tell you something, you little stinker." She leaned closer. "She's mine."  The bard's eyes slitted. "In this life. In the next, in Tartarus or beyond."

Milena stared at her.

"So I'm going to do her a favor and kill you before she has to and believe me, kid. She will."  Gabrielle whispered. "Rip your heart out right through your chest. I've seen her do it."

The pale eyes shifted and looked down.

Gabrielle didn't loosen her grip. "I understand what it is to want her, Milena." She said. "But she's not yours for the taking."

Milena looked up at her. "Would you really kill me?"

"Yes." Gabrielle answered, without hesitation. "Because I know what having something happen to me would do to her and you're not worth it."

"What an arrogant bitch you are." The girl said. "You think you're the only woman in the world for her?"

"Yes."  Gabrielle answered again. "I do."

Milena lunged at her again, twisting and yanking with all her strength to get away from Gabrielle's grip. Gabrielle shoved her away, then as the girl came at her, she grabbed one of her arms and turned in a circle, using Milena's own momentum and the weight of her body to pull her around and send her head first into the tree.

She bounced off it and Gabrielle caught her in mid air, grabbing her by the back of the neck and throwing her against the trunk as hard as she could. 

Her scream was cut off short and she slid down the trunk, hands twitching. Gabrielle released her and let her fall, seeing a splash of blood flicker into view in the moonlight.

Running footsteps, light and controlled. Gabrielle took a step back and lifted her hand as Cait came barreling right at her, the young Amazon's hair plastered back by the wind. "Cait."

"Oh my gosh." Cait hauled up and let out a whistle. "Where's the blood guards... hello!  Hello!"

"It's okay."  Gabrielle tried not to look at the still form. "I'm all right."

Cait knelt by Milena, and touched her. "Well, I thought this would be trouble." She frowned. "Bother."

More footsteps, and then there were a half dozen bodies in the clearing, and Ephiny was pushing her way through, her curly hair in complete disarray. "What in the Had... Gabrielle! Are you okay?"

Gabrielle folded her arms around her chest. "Yeah."  She said. "It seems our guest thought they'd do someone a favor and knock me off."

Ephiny stared at the still form. "Well, y'know..."

"Yeah, Xena was right. As usual." Gabrielle sighed. "Boy that gets annoying sometimes."

"Well, she wont' be doing anyone any favors any longer." Cait said, standing and dusting her hands off. "Good job, that."

"She jump you?" Ephiny moved closer to Gabrielle and lowered her voice.

"Shot at me with a crossbow, then tried a knife." Gabrielle answered, shortly. 'Anyway. Put her on a pyre, I guess."

"Leave her here for the foxes." Cait objected. "She isn't worth the wood."

Another few sets of footsteps sounded and then Nala and Renas edged into the torchlight being held by the guard.  "Oh." Nala frowned. "That one."

Renas stared at the body, then glanced at Gabrielle.

"Seems she wanted me out of the way." Gabrielle said, slowly, meeting the elders eye. "You wouldn't know anything about that, would you, Renas?"

Everyone fell silent. Renas stared at the queen for a long moment, then she looked away. "No." She replied quietly,  "I don't, your majesty."

Cait grunted in satisfaction.

"Well." Gabrielle took a breath and released it.  "It's been a very long day.  Cait, please take her back and see she's burned."

"I will." Cait glanced around. "You lot, give me a hand, will you?" She motioned to two of the older women.

They hesitated, then nodded, and joined Cait in picking up Milena's body, as the rest slowly started to disperse. 

Ephiny remained, standing at Gabrielle's side. "Surprised all the action didn't bring Big X running."

Gabrielle exhaled again. "She's there." She said, in a quiet tone. "Xe?"  She lifted her voice a little, and a breath later she felt Xena's warmth pressed up against her back, and strong arms wrapping around her. "That was my fight. I really wasn't ever in any danger. was I?"

"Anytime you fight, there's danger."  Xena said.  "But she tangled with someone way out of her league and paid the price."

Gabrielle grunted. "Yeah." She sounded disgusted. "Can we go home now? I've had about enough of being me for today."

Xena gave her a hug, and patted her side. "C'mon."  She guided her towards the path up to their cabin. "I've had those kind of days."

"Ugh."

**

Xena drizzled a bit of honey into the cup she was stirring, sniffing the steam interrogatively before she turned and handed it to her partner.   Gabrielle was curled up on the couch, her elbow resting on the arm of it, as she watched the flames in pensive silence.

Shed changed out of her traveling clothes and theyd taken a bath,  now the firelight revealed them just as two women in plain shifts, barefoot and casual together as the night closed in around them outside.  Gabrielle?

Now, those grave eyes lifted and looked up at her as she took the cup.  Thanks.   Gabrielle waited for Xena to sit down next to her with her own tea before she shifted a little and faced her.  I think Im glad this days finally over.

Mm.  Xena lifted her cup in Gabrielles direction, then took a sip.  Glad were here.

Me too.  Gabrielle studied her tea.

But? The warrior gave her a little nudge. 

But nothing. I was just thinking.  Gabrielle said.  About tonight.

Ah.  Xena extended her  legs out over the bear rug.  What about tonight?

Gabrielle shifted a little closer,  putting her hand on her partners and lacing their fingers together.  You didnt stop me.

No. Xena put her feet up on the sturdy table, its edges cautiously padded for Doris sake. Why should I have? She asked.

Gabrielle thought about that for a while.  Boy, have we come a long way. She finally said, her face twitching into a wry grimace.

From me kneeling in the moonlight? Yeah.  Her partner acknowledged. I look back and Im not sure I even know who that person was anymore.

Me?

Me.  Xena turned her head and regarded her soulmate.  Knowing what I do now?  Boy was that hypocritical of me, yknow?

Hm. Gabrielle frowned.

Xena put her hand on the bards knee.  But anyway, no.  You were right. That was your fight.  Not mine.

Gabrielle shifted and turned so she was facing Xena. I dont know if I agree with that. She protested. You could have.

Xenas brow twitched. Given the subject of what you were arguing about? What was I supposed to say? She asked. What part of that argument would you have liked my comments on? She eyed her partner.  Hm?

Gabrielles eyes dropped to one side, then she peered up through her disordered bangs, a faint, embarrassed smile tugging at her lips.  Was I lying?

Xena rested her wrist on Gabrielles shoulder, her fingertips gently brushing her cheek.  No.  She said, in an affectionate tone. Everything you said was true.  She would just never have stopped trying to change that, Gabrielle.  I would have killed her, if you hadnt. She added. I probably should have, when she was holding a knife to my throat.

Gabrielle went still for a moment, then she looked sharply at her soulmate, one blond brow hiked.

Had my hands full steering a ship at the time.  Xenas dark lashes fluttered in bemused acknowledgement. Had a scratch from it you cant see anymore. She touched her own neck.

Im never letting you go anywhere without me again, Xena. I miss too damn much.  The bard groused.  And you NEVER tell me all the details.

Xena cleared her throat.  At any rate,  you were ready to do what you did. Me stopping you would have been pointless.

Hm.  Gabrielle nodded slightly. Im trying to figure out how Im supposed to feel about this, Xe.  Its so different than how I felt earlier tonight.  This sort of I guess it almost  I dont know. She paused for a long moment, and Xena waited patiently for her, tracing a gentle, idle circle against her skin.

I dont know.  She finally repeated. I think I sort of feel relieved.

Xena kissed her gently. "Don't take this the wrong way." She prefaced her words.  "I"ll be happy to kick asses in your behalf until we're great grandparents if you want and I can."

Gabrielle studied her profile. "Xena, do you honestly think that's going to happen?" She asked. "Us being around long enough to see great grandkids, I mean."

"Now? Maybe." Xena replied. "Anyway." She returned to her previous thoughts. "I'm glad you showed those damned Amazons you can take care of things yourself."

"Why?"

Xena put her cup down and slid closer, gently cupping the back of Gabrielle's head and kissing her. "Takes away any crazy ideas of solving their problems by getting rid of me." She said, after they parted. "In any way."

Gabrielle licked her lips, savoring the tingle in her guts as her mind started to shift from the long day. "You really think they'd try that?" She asked, in a doubtful tone. "Xe, they're scared of you." She said. Those of them who arent madly in love with you that is.

"I know." Her partner leaned forward and gently rubbed noses. 'But now they live here. When they only saw you every ten moons, it was different."

"Ah. Heh."  Gabrielle grunted. "I'm more real now."

"Really real now."  Xena agreed. "You're here, you're making changes, you have your own agenda, and people."  She tilted her head and nibbled Gabrielle's ear.  "One hand that probably scares the crap out of them. On the other, it makes you more familiar in terms of the politics."

You think so?  Her partner mused. Do I have an agenda?

Did you realize you promoted Cait to senior tonight?  Xena countered, with a slight smile.

I did? I just asked her to take care of ..  The bard frowned. When did I do that?

Twenty warriors of the nation standing around you including your regent and you ask Cait to take charge.   Xena rested her head against Gabrielles.  Hon you just promoted her to Queens chief guard, about what Pony is to Eph as weapons master.

Gabrielle eyed her, almost squinting as their glances met at very close quarters. "I hadnt' really thought about any of that." She admitted.  I just knew Cait would do what I asked her to do.

"I know." Xena's eyes twinkled a little.  But thats what I meant about you having your own people.  You jumped her over a lot of women because you trust her.  Its not wrong. Its just going to rock the boat.

Gods.  Gabrielle muttered, covering her eyes with one hand.

Hey, they took it.  Xena ruffled her hair. She gave orders and they listened.  Its not like Caits a lightweight. They already respect her as a fighter.

Gabrielle reached up and stroked her partner's cheek. "I'm glad I picked a beautiful, smart consort who knows about all that stuff." 

Xena produced a particularly sexy grin at the words. Then she sobered and her expression altered into something more serious.  "I know this wasn't what you had in mind."

The bard's expression, though, was contented. "No, it wasn't."  She acknowledged. "I really did want to take you, and Dori, and go somewhere else. But you know, Xe, that's a really selfish idea."  She touched a finger to her companion's lips, stilling her speech. "It is.  Selfish because I know Dori wants to play with her friends, and like it or not, i'm the queen of those Amazons, and because I know you want to stay here."

Xena's pale eyes dropped, then lifted.

Gabrielle traced the outline of her lips with her index finger. "So I'm going to be the queen for a while, let Dori grow up here riding her pony, and having her friends and try to make you as happy as I can."

Xena gently captured Gabrielle's finger in her teeth, and bit down lightly on it. Then she opened her jaws and let it go. "That'll work for now." She said. "Im' not sure the Fates will let that go on forever though." She studied her partners face. "And who knows what's going to happen with our friends from Olympus." She demurred. "But I've got a few ideas about things I want to do around here and I'd like a chance to try em out."

"We'll take what we can get." Gabrielle set her cup down and focused all her attention on the tall body next to her.  She wound her hand in Xenas then responded to the tug as  her partner stood up and headed for the big, fluffy bed.

Through the long nights sleeping on the ground, Gabrielle had dreamed of that bed, matter of fact, and now she climbed into it and sprawled at her length over it and let out a sigh of appreciation. 'Will I blow my new image if I sleep in tomorrow?"

Xena chuckled. "Don't worry about it. It'll take em till well after lunchtime to cough up the guts to come talk to you."

Gabrielle grinned. "Think so? Really?  I don't know, Xe. I think maybe some of them think it's mostly an act with me,still."

"Well." Xena paused at the edge of the bed, hands on her hips. "If it is, you've got that role nailed now. But I think most of them know better.

Do they?

Blue eyes twinkled in the candlelight.  *I* know better.

Gabrielle blinked. "Wow."

Xena rolled into the bed after her, ending up on her side with her head propped up on her hand. "Wow?"

"Wow that was a pretty darn cool compliment." Gabrielle reached over and gently tweaked her partner's nose. "Thank you." She let her eyes half close, and exhaled. "Ugh."

"Tired? Xena asked.

Gabrielle stretched her body out and relaxed again. She looked up, her eyes tracing the dimly seen rafters of the roof of their home, set in place by Xena's hands and so, perfect in their symmetry.

She was glad she was home.  There was a comfortable solidarity about the cabin, tucked away as it was here near the top of Xena's mountain.

Xena's mountain.  Gabrielle thought about that.  Sort of like their own little Mount Olympus, wasn't it? She smiled at the thought. Even if they had wood walls instead of cool marble and her hand painted mats for decoration, and Xena's little carvings everywhere.

Every corner of it was a part of them. 

Was she tired?  Her body wasn't, really. Despite the long day, and the traveling, and the unexpected battle. "My head's tired." She finally said. "I don't want to think about stuff anymore tonight."

"Good." Xena promptly reached over and untied the laces on her shift, pulling them loose. "I don't want to think any more tonight either."  

Gabrielle felt the fabric loosen around her  and she extended her hand to loosen the ties on Xena's shift.  She rolled onto her side as her shirt came free and ran her fingers through Xena's hair, feeling it soft and silky against her skin as Xena's hand came to rest with casual intent on her hip.

The warmth of the touch made her inhale, and she closed her eyes as Xena's lips gently explored hers.

She could taste the faint hint of mint from the tea they'd shared, a homely normal flavor so different than the ethereal drink of the gods and that made her think all over again about that choice.

That choice, and other choices her partner had made.

She paused and eased her head back a little, so she could look Xena in the eye. "Could I ask you something?"

Xena regarded her wryly. "Could I stop you?"

Gabrielle grinned briefly in acknowledgement then sobered, her eyes searching her partners face.  "Why me?"

Xena was silent for a moment, her brow creasing as she cocked her head slightly to one side. "Why you what?" She asked, in a puzzled tone.

Gabrielle lifted her hand and laid it against Xena's cheek. "You could have anyone, Xe. Anyone you wanted.  Why me? That's what that poor kid wanted to know.  Why me? Why not her? Or anybody else?"

Xena's eyes shifted and she looked past Gabrielles shoulder, her brow knitting even more tightly. "Why you?" she murmured softly.

Gabrielle gently brushed her thumb over her skin.

Then Xena lifted her head and looked back at her, pale eyes ochre in the candlelight. "Why not you?"  She questioned. "What did that kid have that you don't?" There was blunt, honest puzzlement in her tone.  "Why even ask me that?"

Gabrielle's lips twitched a little. "So nothing even a little special, huh?"

Those pale eyes dropped again.  After a moment, Xena exhaled a little. 'When I met  you." She said. "I was in place in my life where i'd given up on the idea that anyone would love me for who i was." She paused.  For what I was.

Gabrielle felt the motion under her hand, the clenching of muscles just under the skin - but she remained silent, waiting.

'And you did." Xena looked up at her. "That made you special, but honestly Gabrielle it didn't make a damn difference.  I had no reason.  I just fell in love with you even though I knew it was a stupid thing to do for both of us. I just didn't... " She paused. "I couldn't stop or change it, and even in the worst times we had I didn't want to."

No, that was true.  Gabrielle felt that in a deep, inevitible way.  "You don't choose what path your heart leads you on."  She leaned forward and rested her forehead against Xena's. "Sorry I asked that. It's a sort of dumb question." She sighed. Im not really sure whats wrong with me tonight with all this stuff.

Xena studied her, reaching over and rubbing her thumb against the furrowed forehead. Crossroads.  She commented briefly.

Yeah.  The bard answered, after a brief silence. Even though I know theres really no choice walking through those things scares me crazy sometimes.

Xena reached around her and pulled her close in a hug. "I love you for who you are, y'know."

"I know." Gabrielle felt a little silly. "Anyway, sorry." She cleared her throat. "Listen.. um.. I've been thinking about Dori."

"Uh huh?"  Xena rolled onto her back, pulling Gabrielle with her into a squash as she amiably went with the subject change.  "What about her?"

"I think she needs a baby brother or sister."  Gabrielle got the words out in a bit of a rush, the combination of mild embarrassment and the sudden clench of passion as Xena's hand cupped her breast making her squirm a bit.

"Uh huh. We talked bout that already."

Gabrielle sucked in a breath as one of the warrior's long legs slid between hers, and Xena nibbled her neck.  "B.. w yeah, I know but ... I was thinking.."

"Were ya?"

"Ung." Gabrielle managed to keep focused. "Maybe we could try the tree again. With the apple."

Xena kissed her. "Okay." She nibbled the edge of Gabrielle's very sensitive ears. "But maybe this time you give me the seed."

Gabrielle went absolutely still. She opened her eyes, still breathing fast, and found Xena looking back at her, the faintest of smiles on her lips. "W...what?"

Xena's brows lifted.

The bard shifted a little, studying her face. "I didn't think you.. " She faltered. "I mean.. you want..."

"I think I might." Xena apparently understood the fragments. "Give it a try, anyway."

Gabrielle exhaled, feeling more than a bit of shock. "Xe, I dont' think I ..." She faltered again. "I mean, with you it's... She stopped speaking, resting her weight on her elbows and looking at Xena.   You serious?

Xena nodded.

Wow.  When theyd spoken about it, the few times they had, Gabrielle remembered the definite, absolute negative vibe shed gotten to find that now turned upside down surprised her.

Shocked her, in truth.  She watched the angular face, seeing the faint motion of the muscles under the skin as Xena watched her back.   Had the trip to Mount Olympus really changed that much?   Really, Xe?

Seems weird, huh? Xena replied, in a mild tone. Maybe Ive gotten so many damn second chances I figured what the Hades.  Why not?

I dont think I can do that.  Gabrielle said. Maybe thats why not?  Im not you. 

"Guess we'll find out."  Xena went back to her assault. "You never know till you try.  She rolled them both over and settled herself gently over her partners body, pinning her lightly down. But not tonight. She grinned. Tonight youre mine.

Gabrielle hesitated, then she wrapped her arms around Xenas waist and grinned back.  Now that I can do.  She agreed.   No more tal.. pumpf.

**

It was a wash of beautiful morning sunlight that woke her.   Gabrielle felt the warmth of it on her face, and she turned over to escape it, snuggling up against Xenas body with a contented grunt.

What  a night.

Her body still felt all sensitized from it.   Gabrielle let her eyes drift closed, and savored the feeling, letting her mind drift back to their talk.

Had Xena really said what she thought shed said?  Gabrielle lay there quietly breathing for a moment.  Shed always taken it for granted that, if they were going to try and have another child together, that shed be the bearer.

Hadnt been a question.  Xena had said, point blank, she wasnt interested, in fact, that she thought she was too old for it.

Gabrielle opened one eye, to study the light dappled profile on the pillow next to hers.  That hadnt been how shed put it, shed said she didnt think her body was capable of it anymore, but thats what shed meant.

And, maybe shed had a point. Her cycles had never been regular, after all. 

But now?  Gabrielle traced the dark brows, and the equally dark lashes.  Now maybe she wanted to try it.  Maybe Dori had changed how she felt.  

Maybe enough time had passed after Solons death.   Gabrielle had look away from her partners face thinking that, still feeling the pain of it.

She was glad for Xena, if that was the case.   Gabrielle knew she loved Dori, completely and absolutely just as shed promised she would but

But. 

Gabrielle felt tears stinging her eyes, thinking of her soulmate being made whole, in this last, most profound way.  There was a place in both of them that would dearly cherish having that shadow eased and Gabrielle couldnt pretend that the thought of Xena cradling a newborn of her own didnt light her heart with joy.

But.

Could they really do that? Could she really..   Gabrielle took a little breath.   It was one thing when shed had Dori, and theyd realized who really had for want of a better term, fathered her.  That was one thing, because Xena had gods blood in her and because shed willed it to happen.

She didnt have gods blood.  She couldnt do what Xena did.  Xena knew that.   Gabrielle felt the body next to her shift a little, and then Xena draped an arm over her and drew her closer.

She felt suddenly rather small, and inadequate. If Xena really wanted this, she really wanted to be able to give it to her and yet

And yet.

Ggggabrielle.

The low rumble tickled her ears.  Gabrielle tilted her head back and peered up. She could see a lazy blue eye watching her from under a half lid,  yet she felt as open and exposed as she ever had sensing that Xena knew exactly what she was thinking.

Did she?

Then, abruptly, her ears registered the utter quietness of the cabin around them, and the lack of Doris presence, and she surged up in alarm only to be held in place by Xenas arm.  B Do..

Down in the stable, with the pony.  Xena informed her, the warriors eyes now firmly closed. Relax.

Ugh. Gabrielle collapsed back onto the soft surface, as her heartbeat settled. Sheesh.

You said you wanted to sleep in.  Her partner gathered her up in her arms and tugged the covers closer.  Took her down to play with the twins. They were all cleaning pony crap when I left.

Toris watching them?

Uh huh.

Gabrielle relaxed, and closed her eyes.  She could hear the birds chirping outside, and the sound of crickets, and just beyond that the rustling of the leaves in the breeze that was coming in the window and ruffling her hair.

She could feel the warmth of Xenas arm, draped over her and knew a moment of perfect contentment.  Thank you for indulging my slothdom. She let her hand rest on Xenas side.

Slothdom?  One blue eye appeared, examining her. We didnt go to bed until just before dawn, Gabrielle.

Gabrielle grinned rakishly.  Heh.  Then she let her head rest against Xenas arm, her thumb rubbing lightly across the skin on her bare ribcage.   Ah, Xe.

Whats up?  Xena gave her a scratch on the back of her neck. 

Just me.  Gabrielle responded. Being me.

Xena chuckled softly.   Still freaked out?

The bard lay quietly for a few minutes.  I just dont want to disappoint you.  She said, after a while. I know that sounds silly after all this time and everything.

What makes you think you will?

Gabrielle looked up at her. Xena.  Her voice was wry but affectionate.  You know.. um. She took a breath. We could find another way.  Like what I was thinking. Before.

I dont want to find another way.  Xena pulled her over and gave her a kiss. Its you or nothing.

Xe.

Xena laughed, a light and  unusually happy sound.  Would you relax?  If it happens it happens, Gabrielle.  Lighten up.

Gabrielle sighed. Then she took a breath to comment and ended up having to use it to squeal, as Xena slid one hand down the back of her leg and tickled her on the back of her thigh.  Yow!!!

Ĺ∂ĹŇ (this is Mochas contribution to this manuscript)

She tried to grab for a bit of sensitive flesh but Xena had her tangled up in the light cover they were under and she squirmed and rolled over, only to have her navel attacked  as Xena kept her own knees out of range.   Ooorrgrr. Xena!!!

Hehe.  Xena deftly got her arms around her partner and held her still, one hand with its wiggling fingers exposed in the sunlit air.

Gabrielle accepted the distraction.  What choice did she have, really?  Was there a point to arguing about it?  Im gonna…”

NO youre not.  Xena rolled out of bed as she evaded her struggling bedmate and scooped her up, whirling her into the pool of sunlight from the window and kissing her with a fiercely joyous passion.

Whoof.  Gabrielle blinked as they paused for breath. That sure beats tickling.  She wrapped her arms around Xena and hugged her.  How about a splash in the spring before breakfast?

Or as breakfast? I saw some elderberries out there last night. 

They ducked out the door and circled the cabin, climbing the rise to the tree shrouded dell where water softly burbled, emerging from the rocks and spilling into the deep, clear spring that supplied their cabin.

Ahh.  Xena stepped down the neatly arranged rocks and into the pool, pausing halfway in and diving the rest of the way in a scattering of cold drops.

Gabrielle took her time following, letting her skin get used to the chill before she arrived at the bottom of the hewn steps and submerged, ducking her head under the surface and blowing a storm of bubbles from her nose before she came back up.

The air was cool, the pool half shadow and half sunlight and she could taste the mineral tang on her tongue as she licked droplets off her lips. 

Xena came up from another dive, shaking her head and sending water flying  as she spread her arms to either side on half submerged rocks, half in shadow, half in sunlight.  She leaned back and extended her legs forward, her skin glistening.  So.

Gabrielle swam over to her and leaned on a sun warmed rock.  So.

They studied each other.  Gabrielle realized she was getting used to not seeing any scars on her partner. It no longer seemed weird to her and she smiled as she let her hand rest on Xenas now unmarked knee. 

The air had a slight crispness to it,  and she could feel in the movement of it the signals of the change of seasons.   That meant the end of summer and the approach of harvest season and she found her mind jumping ahead to plans for them, for the tribe, and for their extended family.

Thoughts of traveling were fading, she realized.  She even found a measure of excitement in the thought of reshaping the Amazons, and rebuilding some of the growth in Amphipolis that Xena had mentioned.

She looked up at her partner. Know something?

What?

I want to rebuild that theatre, Xe.   I want to bring those kids back who wanted to learn to act, and see what we can do with them.

Xenas face creased into a smile. I want to hear your stories in it.  She said.  Know what I was thinking?

What?

Xena put her hands behind her head and leaned back. Too easy, those Spartans getting through from Thrace. We should build some relationships back there.

Gabrielle felt a faint prickle down her spine. Relationships?

Her partner nodded. Theyre closer to us than Athens. She said, briefly.  Maybe theyre interested in a little trading.

Gabrielle watched the pale eyes drifting casually around, then back to her.  Maybe an alliance. She said. Athens hasnt done much for us, thats for sure.

Maybe. 

We could get ourselves in trouble with that.  The bard said, in a mild tone.

Gabrielle, we get ourselves in trouble with pretty much every damn thing we do including picking flowers. 

Well, that was true.   Gabrielle had to acknowledge.  She settled herself next to Xena and regarded the sun splashed foliage that surrounded their home with a freshly appreciative eye.  You know, its really pretty up here.

Xena regarded her.  Here?

This place.  Gabrielle gestured towards the hillside their cabin was built on.   The cabin was set on a level portion of the hill, surrounded by an open space of wild grass around it.   The spring they were in was within easy reach, the wood and hammered metal piping that brought water into the cabin circling around the back behind where Xena was leaning.  

Tall trees ringed the area and as the sun squirmed through them and lit the waters surface,  Gabrielle felt herself relax and finally settle into the space , knowing a sense of home in it consciously for the first time.

More than their first cabin down the mountain. More so even than Amphipolis itself, or the village shed founded just down the path with the Amazons.  It moved from being the place she stored her things between adventures to a place she belonged in an odd prickling rush that sort of surprised her.

Was she growing out of being a vagabond?    Gabrielle smiled a little as she felt the warmth of Xenas arm as it draped over her shoulders and she willingly gave into the pressure and half rolled over in the water to give her partner a hug in return. 

Maybe it would be nice to settle down for a while and enjoy this beautiful space.

Yknow what? Xena kicked up a bit of water with her foot. 

What?

I was just thinking.  When Hercules shows up here with his sisters. Xena mused.  You think we could put em to work in moms kitchen for a while until I figure out how to get them fixed?

Gabrielle lifted her head and peered at her partners face, seeing that mischievous glint in those very blue eyes and that little smile that never meant anything but trouble. 

And then again.. She returned it with one of her own. Heck, why not? Maybe they could help out in the stables too. Get them a nice good taste of mortal life.

Maybe they can act in one of your plays.

Lets not get too crazy, okay?

They could play the pile of horse manure I fell in with that damn cow.

Heh.

**

The end. (for now)