Winter's Ending - Part 8

Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

Gabrielle spent a few minutes quietly regarding the ceiling after Cyrene left, waiting for the blush to leave her face, and thinking about what she’d said. Wonder what my mother would have said if she walked in on us… Ew. Gabrielle, don’t go there. She took a cautious breath, and tried to settled her body more comfortably, turning her attention back to her diary.

So.. mom knows about Solon. I guess I’d better warn Xena, right? I don’t know what else I could have done.. if I said I didn’t know what she was talking about, she’d know I was lying. I’m really bad at that.. especially to her. I’m glad she wasn’t really upset - I’m not sure how I would react to suddenly finding out I was a grandmother.. I hope she realizes Xena was doing what she thought was right for Solon.

Even I think she was right… after I really think about who she was back then, and what she was doing.. it was better for Solon not to be a part of her life. Wow. That’s harsh, isn’t it? Looking back, she could say the same for me, right? But I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this.. not for anything. So it turned out to be a good thing, despite the pitfalls, and the stuff that’s happened, and what I’ve been.. no, what we’ve been through.

Maybe it would have turned out ok for him, too? Maybe having him around would have changed her faster. Maybe not. Maybe he would have ended up hurt, or.. dead. Or worse.. like in a place where we were the past few days.

Like I would have ended up in without her. Life has a way.. I guess, of evening things out. Maybe it turned out for the best for both of us. He got to grow up in a warm, stable, loving family. And I got to escape being sold to slavers, and find the love of my life. Hmm.

A soft knock interrupted her thoughts, and she turned her head. "Yeah?" The door opened and Solon poked his head in, and gazed around. "Hey there.." Gabrielle smiled. "C’mere."

He came in, and closed the door carefully behind him, looking around with avid curiosity before ending up at her bedside. "Hi." He smiled at her. "How’re you doing?"

Gabrielle put her quill down, and closed her diary, giving him her full attention. "Well.. not too bad. How is everyone else?"

Solon nodded. "Fine." He looked up from under long, fair lashes. "Does that hurt a lot?"

The bard sighed. "Yeah." She gave him a wry look. "It does… but it’s not that bad.. Xena says it’ll be ok."

That got a grin from him. "Then it will, right?" He looked around. "Is this where you live?" He walked around the bed and looked at everything. "It’s nice."

"Thanks." Gabrielle chuckled. "Yeah, this is our home." She smiled inwardly at the words.

The boy stood on his tiptoes and looked at the top of their linen press. "Wow… look at the animals.. where’d you get them?"

The bard bit her lip. "Xena made them." She answered, watching his face.

His eyes opened wide, and he reached up a small hand to touch the nearest. "Wow! She did?" He picked the piglet up and looked at it. "That’s awesome…" He put the carving down carefully and turned back towards her. "I didn’t know she could do stuff like that."

Neither did I.. "Well, she can.. she made that chair, and that table, you know." Gabrielle motioned cautiously with her left hand, trying not to jar her ribs.

Solon trotted over and put a hand on the table, bending down and peering under it. "Wow." He looked up at her. "I thought she was a fighter."

That got a gentle laugh from the bard. "She is, and you know it. But that’s not all she is."

He thought about that for a minute. "Like you being a storyteller, and good with your staff, right?"

Gabrielle nodded. "That’s right." She paused. "You shouldn’t assume someone can’t do something just cause of other things they do."

A clatter of footsteps on the porch made them look at each other. "Uh oh." Solon whispered, moving closer to the bed. "Here comes trouble."

The door opened, and Cait peeked inside. "Hello."

Gabrielle hid a grin. "Hello, Cait.. come on in." She paused. "And bring your friends." Looks like the whole gang is here.. I’ll get Xena for this.

Cait stepped in, and held the door for the rest of the girls, closing it carefully after them. "Xena said it was all right to visit. " She gave them all a stern look. "But we weren’t to tire you out." She paused dramatically. "Or else."

Gabrielle smothered a grin, as she imagined her partner issuing the ultimatum. "Well, I can see her point." Another jolt of pain seared through her side as she tried to shift, and she saw them all flinch in response to her own grimace. "Guess I should have ducked that last one, huh?"

The girls came forward, and settled themselves on the floor, their eyes glancing all over the room. "That was very brave, cutting that bridge down.." Sharra said. "Whatever were you going to do?"

Gabrielle took a cautious breath, and let it out. "Um.. I was just going to fight them off as long as I could.. to make sure you all got away." She glared at them. "And I didn’t see you running, for that matter."

Cait squirmed forward, their spokesperson. "Gosh.. we had no time, really." She grinned. "I’d just gotten over to that side and saw those men come round and face you, when I got this great old hand on my shoulder and nearly passed out." She gave Gabrielle a little grin. "You never do get to see the good bits, do you??"

"Good bits?" Gabrielle laughed puzzledly. "What do you mean?"

"Well.’ Cait took a breath, happily. The girls giggled, and even Solon wrapped his arms around his legs and waited to hear the story. Again. "Like I said, I got this great hand on my shoulder, then the next minute Xena’s taking of her tunic.." Giggles from the girls, rolled eyes from Solon, a smothered grin from the bard. "And bam.. over the side she goes.. climbing down that bridge fast as anything."

"Really?" Gabrielle said. Cursing me every step of the way, I bet…

"Really." Cait assured her. "Then.. she gets to the bottom of the bridge, and just lets go!" Sighs from the girls, respectful silence from Solon, and a gentle shake of the head from Gabrielle. "I can’t imagine how she landed, on all those rocks.. but she did."

"She always does. She has amazing balance." Gabrielle murmured, half to herself. Damn… I was so glad to see her, I forgot to wonder how in Hades she got across that crevice.

"You can say that again, but please don’t." Cait replied. "I’m getting to the good part." She added. "The rapids were just churning, and roaring, and dashing up against the rocks.. and she just jumped right in!" Cait’s face flushed, remembering. "I was ever so scared.. I thought she’d surely get smashed up.. but it was like she just knew exactly where to move, and jump, and dive.. one wave picked her up and tossed her over this ever so jagged outcropping, but she went into one of those flip things, and got over it."

Gabrielle felt her throat go dry. "I didn’t realize… it was that bad." She managed to say.

Solon scrambled up, and leaned across the bed, grasping her hand in his own. "Don’t worry.. that old river wasn’t going to stop her." He snorted. "No way."

"No way." Cait repeated. "So then she got to the other side, and there wasn’t any way up from where she was.. so she jumped back into the water, and let it carry her down a bit, then let a wave toss her up.. and she caught this little outcropping. " She sighed. "I think my heart stopped beating."

Mine would have. Gabrielle cursed to herself. And that water must have been like ice.

"But she held on, and just pulled herself up." Cait paused. "She’s ever so strong." Remembering a vivid picture of Xena’s moonlit form, silvery water sluicing off dark leathers, highlighting the moving shadows her muscles made as she hauled herself up and pressed her body up onto the small ledge.

The bard nodded silently.

"And climbed up that rock face like it was nothing… I’ve never seen anything like it." Cait finished triumphantly.

Three days without sleep. Gabrielle mused. After whatever happened with Hercules, and a full speed run from Amphipolis, and she pulls that off. And never mentions it. Probably never even thought twice about it. "She’s.. " Gabrielle hesitated, searching for the right words. "A very special person."

The girls were all grinning at her. "Bet you were glad to see her." Sharra commented, with a dimpling smile.

The bard sighed. "Oh brother.. was I ever." She admitted. "I really wasn’t expecting her to get here anytime before next week." She gave them all a little grin. "Guess I just got lucky."

A little silence dropped over them. "Gabrielle.." Elianas asked, hesitantly. "What were they going to do to you if… "

Gabrielle considered the question. "I don’t know." She answered carefully. "They were pretty mad.. I guess it would have depended on if they still wanted to make a profit…or.. " She cleared her throat a little. "Or if they just were so mad they wanted to take it out on me." She looked at all of their very solemn faces. "But you guys would have been safe, so it would have been OK."

"Not with me." Came a very quiet, vibrant voice from the doorway.

Everyone turned around and stared as Xena entered the cabin, carrying a tray and accompanied by Ares. The girls all turned shy, except for Cait, who gave Xena a smile and stood up. "Come on then, you lot." She waved her hand at them. "We can visit tomorrow. It’s getting late." She herded them out, even Solon, who exchanged a knowing, amused look with Xena, and closed the door behind himself.

Gabrielle let out a tiny sigh of relief. "Nice timing." She drawled softly, holding a hand out to her partner. "I was starting to really feel this." Her face tensed, and she moved herself a little, trying to ease the ache.

Xena put down her burden, and crossed to the bed, settling on one side of the bard, and taking her outstretched hand and kissing it. "I can see that." The warrior commented. "I brought back more herbs.. lots of food.. something special from mom.. " Then she sighed.

"Oh. She was here." Gabrielle advised her ruefully. "She was hunting information."

Xena sighed again and rolled over onto her back, gazing at the ceiling. " I know.. she cornered me in the kitchen."

"Eep." Gabrielle winced, reaching gingerly over and giving her partner’s belly a gentle rub. "Sorry about that."

Xena shrugged. "She was all right about it… surprised me." Her eyes searched Gabrielle’s. "Talked to Kaleipus on the way here.. he wants to leave tomorrow.. we kind of agreed I’d take Solon out for a ride in the morning. " She blinked. "And tell him.. I guess."

"Hmm.. ok.." The bard maneuvered closer and kept up her gentle patterns, tracing a soothing route up and down Xena’s body. "We’ll come up with something."

"Mmm.." Xena mumbled. "Don’t keep doing that.. you’ll put me out." She blinked sheepishly at Gabrielle. "Still a little tired..." Her expression turned rueful. "Guess I really must be slowing down."

"Oh.. no no no.." Gabrielle gave her a little slap. "Don’t be giving me that…I just had the Warrior Princess admiration society in here telling me about some white water rapids and mountain climbing that somehow escaped my notice yesterday."

"Oh." Xena paused. "That." Her brow creased. "It wasn’t that bad…"

The bard went back to her gentle stroking. "You know, you are harder on yourself than any person has a right to be, Xena." She shook her head a little. "How many days did you go without stopping? And then you get here, and the mountains, and the rapids.. and fighting twenty men.. and all that.. and you’re upset at yourself for being a little tired and sore? Give me a break, OK?"

"Yeah, I know." Xena sighed, giving a short little laugh. "Sorry.. old habit." Mercenary armies didn’t let you slow down. You kept razor sharp, or you died. But this isn’t an army, and you’re not a warlord anymore. And you’re the one who decided to back off on the conditioning.. so keep remembering that, OK? So you don’t drive her crazy. "Those girls in here telling tall tales of terror again?"

Gabrielle gazed fondly at her. "You know they all have wild crushes on you, right?"

One blue eye opened and regarded her. "Get outta here, Gabrielle." She snorted. "If it’s anyone they have a crush on, it’s you, their brave, resourceful, and clever queen."

"Not." Gabrielle poked her tongue out. "Did you not see their faces when you came in? Gods, Xena.. you really have no clue sometimes." Then she smiled. "Or maybe I can recognize it because I was in their shoes not too long ago."

"Gabrielle.. you never.. " Xena paused, and regarded her. "Not like that?"

A gentle laugh from the bard. "Oh yeah." She reached out and stroked Xena’s face with sensitive fingers. "Didn’t you ever notice how I could hardly ever talk to you without getting tongue tied?" She watched Xena inhale to protest. "No.. not just talk at you.. questions, or whatever. But talk *to* you?" She paused. "Or how I’d blush whenever I looked into your eyes?"

Xena’s mouth quirked. "Yeah, I noticed." She responded quietly. "I thought it was just a kid thing.. that it would go away after a while." Her face reflected a past sadness. "Or after you figured out I wasn’t this.. hero.. you seemed to want to see me as."

Gabrielle closed her eyes, and sighed. "No.. it never went away." She replied softly. "And then one day, I just looked up at you.. and it was like someone was pulling my heart right out of my chest, the feeling was so strong." She paused. "And right then I realized I wasn’t a kid anymore, and it wasn’t a crush." She smiled at the memory. "I was thinking about that, when I was in that cage.. just to pass the time."

Xena rolled over onto her side, and propped her head up on one hand. "In the meadow. With the fireflies."

Gabrielle’s eyes popped open, and focused in startled wonder, as a slow smile spread across her face. "You knew."

Xena rolled off the bed, and collected the platter of food, bringing it back with her to the bed. She settled herself back down, and ladled the bard a large portion of thick fish stew, putting the dish by her left hand where she could reach it, and buttering a slice of bread for her. "Yeah." She finally answered, aware of the green eyes studying her. "I knew." And why didn’t I do anything about it? She’ll grow out of it, isn’t that what I told myself?

Gabrielle took the slice of bread, and just stared at it. Then she looked up at her partner’s quiet, tense face. "Why didn’t you… " The obvious reason occurred to her, and she fell silent. Of course.. Gabrielle…she must not have.. well, you knew it wasn’t this at first sight thing… But she was vaguely disappointed, and a little embarrassed. I mean, things worked out ok, right? She sighed, and glanced back at her partner, who was poking at the food in her bowl but not eating it. "Xena?"

"Yeah?" Xena finally looked up. "Sorry.. I was just .. thinking." She paused. "About Thessaly."

The bard took a bite of bread, and chewed slowly. "Thessaly?" Well.. that was an abrupt change of subject… guess she doesn’t want to talk about that. Probably doesn’t want to hurt my feelings. "Ephiny mentioned that." She mused. "I was telling her about when I had the coughing sickness… I said you just wouldn't let me go, and she said it was just like Thessaly." A pause. "What did she mean by that?" She took a bite of stew and looked up. And stopped chewing. "Xena??" She put down her fork and grabbed her partner’s hand, alarmed at the suddenly lost look on the warrior’s face. "Hey!" She ignored the sudden stab of pain in her chest, and extended her other arm, reaching for her.

The warrior captured her hand, and gently pushed it back towards her body. "Don’t.. you’ll pull on those ribs. .. um.. sorry.. I was.. " Xena stopped, and collected herself. Every instinct was telling her to keep this quiet.. to hold it inside. Every instinct except one. She clung to it. "Thessaly was.. " All right. It’s time we talked about this. Time she knew.

She took a breath, and brushed the backs of her fingers against Gabrielle’s face. "Gabrielle, you’ve.. had my heart for a very long time." Longer, I think, than you realize my bard. Longer than I’ve had yours.

Oh.. The bard felt a sense of buoyancy invade her as she understood what Xena was saying. OK.. maybe there was something there all along.

"I kept.. I told myself that I needed to just keep that to myself.. because you were.. innocent, and kind.. and good.. and all the things I’m not. And I didn’t want you tainted." Xena’s voice had dropped to a whisper, and she was staring at the soft blankets the bard was snuggled in. "I didn’t want you touched by all this darkness I’m wrapped in." She felt gentle fingers comb through her hair and fell silent for a moment, cherishing the touch. "I couldn't… ignore that any more at Thessaly.. because when I lost you.. " She stopped, staring off into nothing. "My world ended."

She heard Gabrielle’s sudden intake of breath. "I would have fought every single denizen of Tartarus a dozen times over to get you back." She looked up, finally, and met the stark, mist green eyes that were staring at her in agony. "I went out of my mind, Gabrielle." She swallowed. "If you hadn’t come back… I don’t know what I would have done.. and I realized.. that night.. that this was something that was going to change my life." A pause. "And I also realized... I couldn’t let you be a part of what I am.. even if that hurt.. a lot." She bit her lip. "But I never could stop myself from loving you." She sighed. "No matter how hard I tried." Never really tried hard, though, did I? It was that one, nice warm feeling I could keep to myself, on those long cold nights of looking up at the stars and watching you sleep. My little secret.

Gabrielle had forgotten her ribs, forgotten the bowl of stew.. forgotten everything except for the words which were winding their way through her understanding. She hadn’t known.. hadn’t dreamed… her leaving to go with Perdicus suddenly took on new poignancy, as she realized it hadn’t been the desertion of a friend.. but the sundering of their hearts Xena had been feeling, that she had deliberately stepped aside to allow. Because.. the bard suddenly understood.. Xena never gave of herself in halves. When you got it, you got it all.. the good and the bad, the dark and the light. And it came with a fierce, bone deep loyalty that she had unknowingly.. unthinkingly, shrugged aside. How much had that hurt? And yet… Xena would never blame her for that. "I didn’t know." She whispered, feeling quiet tears roll down her cheeks. "Gods, I wish I had."

Xena reached up and brushed the moisture away, with a sad smile. "Well, I’m better at keeping secrets than you are." She brushed the bard’s unruly hair out of her eyes. "Anyway.. in the meadow.. I saw it in your eyes… and I wanted so bad to say something." She hesitated. "I just… I was so scared for you I couldn’t." She picked up the bread and put it back into the bard’s hand. "C’mon. Eat." She let out a long breath. "You asked.. I thought you deserved an answer."

Gabrielle took a bite of the bread, and slowly chewed it, thinking hard. "Xena?"

The warrior swallowed the mouthful of stew she’d been eating, and looked up. "Huh?"

"What made you finally decide to.. let this happen?" The bard asked, quietly. Knowing it had been a conscious decision on Xena’s part. Probably a bad time to ask this.. but we don’t talk about us often. We kind of just.. go with it, and I really want to know what it was.

Xena sighed, and bit the end of her spoon thoughtfully. "It just… it got so strong.. I couldn’t.. Gabrielle, it was either let that loose, or we would have had to go our separate ways."

The bard swallowed very hard, and felt her heart pound in reaction.

"And I couldn’t face the thought of living without you." Came the quiet, almost introspective conclusion. "So that night in Cirron.. after the battle… when I saw how worried you’d been.. and thought about how it so easily could have ended differently.. well, I just…decided that since we meant so much to each other anyway.. it was pretty dumb not to go ahead and let something happen that was probably going to make both of us happy.

Gabrielle stared at her in silence for a bit. "I could have told you that a long time ago." But her eyes gentled with a deep tenderness. "You can’t imagine what it felt like after that.. to see everything I’d hoped for start happening."

Xena chuckled, and took a spoonful of stew, letting a smile play around her lips. "Oh.. yeah, I can imagine." She met Gabrielle’s eyes with a twinkle. "I know how I felt when I could finally just do some of the things I’d been wanting to for the longest time."

It had been just another campsite, after just another day of settling someone else's problems. But it had been in a pretty spot, a small glade that sloped gently down to a deep pool, stirred by gentle waterfall that trickled and coursed down the rocks rather than poured over it. The sound of the running water was soothing, and the weather was cool and dry, and the scent of the woods they were in wafted around them.

"Mmm." Gabrielle had sniffed appreciatively, as she settled down with her scrolls, then sighed. "Y'know, I love helping people, but moving cartloads of rocks? I ask you, Xena… was that fair?" She'd given the warrior a mock aggrieved look, and rubbed her upper arm. "My arms are killing me."

Xena had been sprawled near the fire, mending her leathers and looked up to study the bard speculatively for a minute. Gabrielle's mock complaints were usually answered by some brief, sarcastic comment by her… and she could think of several that would apply here. But her instincts were actually urging her to do something else, and this time, instead of putting a block on them, she let them have free rein. It was an almost dizzying feeling of freedom, though a bit scary.

She got up, and put away the leathers, and sauntered over to their bedrolls, dropping quietly down next to the busily scribing bard. Gabrielle had looked up as she settled, and she'd let herself just enjoy the sight of the bard's face for a long moment, chased with firelight and shadows, her eyes a fiery hazel in the orange glow. "Put those down a minute." She had requested in a calm voice, and waited for Gabrielle, her eyes lit with curiousity, to set the scrolls aside and turn her attention fully to her companion.

"What is it?" The bard had asked softly, propping herself up on her elbows and peering at Xena.

"Just lie down, and put your arms out over your head." Xena had instructed, and after a startled pause, Gabrielle had done so. The warrior moved to a kneeling position over the bard's body, and starting with her lower back, worked her companion's stiffened muscles with a quick and expert skill.

After a frozen moment of shock, Gabrielle had just closed her eyes and abandoned herself to the experience, uttering low, contented murmurs as the warrior moved up her back, and across her shoulders, leaving a trail of relaxed warmth behind her. She worked her way down the bard's outstretched arms, and finally ended with the back of her neck, feeling the subtle pops as the vertebra settled back into place, and Gabrielle sighed in relief.

Then she'd patted the bard's back lightly, and returned to her own bedroll, settling onto her back, and folding her hands across her stomach with a satisfied smile, turning her head a little and seeing one green eye dreamily peering out at her. "Better?" She asked casually.

"Can we go move rocks tomorrow too?" The bard mumbled, a happy smile on her face. "Thank you.. that felt wonderful." She'd let out a deep sigh. "Didn't know you could do that."

Xena had regarded her thoughtfully, then shrugged. "Our line of work.. it's a useful skill." She tried to be as offhand as possible. She could see the next question in Gabrielle's eyes, but the bard never asked it, and Xena figured she knew the answer as well as Xena herself did. Why now? Yeah. She knew.

The bard had, instead, reached a lazy hand out, and slid it up Xena's bare shoulder, gentle fingers tracing the muscles just under the skin. "See your point." She'd mumured, closing her eyes, but leaving her arm curled around the warrior's in a solid grasp. "Very useful."

Xena had smiled to herself, and abandoned her planned chores cheerfully as she let the peaceful sounds of the waterfall and the comforting snap of the fire start to lull her to sleep. She could have gotten up, but she found she was unwilling to break the bard's hold, and instead settled her own arm gently across Gabrielle's shoulder, feeling the soft strands of red gold hair tangle in her fingers. And had felt, after a moment, the subtle shift under her arm as Gabrielle turned her head slightly, and a feather touch of lips that brushed against her skin before the bard nestled back down and relaxed.

The warrior smiled at the memory, as they ate in silence for a short while, with Xena getting up to refill both bowls twice and retrieving the second loaf of bread, and setting a bowl down with the venison for the hungry Ares. "Damn." The warrior chuckled a little ruefully. "Guess mom was right after all."

"Bout what?" Gabrielle mumbled around a mouthful. She wiped her bowl with the last of the bread, and popped into her mouth, chewing and swallowing, then laying back with a groan. "Gods.. I’m stuffed."

"She said we were a pack of starving wolves." The warrior replied dryly. Then she collected the dishes and set them aside and picked up the roughly square package left on the platter. "Guess you won’t want any of this, then." She drawled, unwrapping it and waving it at the bard.

Who squealed. "Nutbread.. why didn’t you tell me mom sent that?" She gave the warrior an aggrieved glare.

Her partner smiled, and relaxed onto the pillows next to her. "Because I wanted you to get that stew in there first… and I know you’d eat this whole thing if I gave it to you."

Gabrielle stuck her tongue out, and grabbed the package, but didn’t deny the charge. "You make me sound like such a piglet." She muttered, giving Xena a sideways look. The warrior smiled, then slid in behind her and cradled her gently, letting the warmth of their connection wash over them both, and feeling Gabrielle’s body relax against her with utter abandon.

"That’s ok." Xena slid a careful arm around her partner’s sore body, and gently patted her belly. "You’re my piglet." Gods.. I can’t believe I just said that. I’m dissolving into mushdom.

"Oh yeah? " The bard giggled. "Remember that when I can’t do anything until these ribs heal, and your mother keeps stuffing me." She unwrapped the nutbread, and removed a slice, taking a bite, and offering the slice to Xena. "Mmm…." She closed her eyes and sighed happily as she chewed.

"Thought you were full.’ Xena teased gently, as she took her own bite.

"Different stomach." The bard assured her, with a wink. "Now…" She gave Xena a quiet look. "You have a story for me?"

Xena tried to feel apprehensive about it, but lying there, with Gabrielle snuggled into her arms, the experience faded from it’s stark horror and allowed her to step back and relate it with less difficulty than she had anticipated. Besides, she got to start it off by telling Gabrielle about her conversation with Iolaus.

"No way. You didn’t say that." The bard burst out laughing.

"Fraid so." Xena admitted. "You should have seen his face. He looked like I’d slapped him with a dead fish."

"Oh.. gods." The bard sighed, closing her eyes and letting her head fall back against Xena’s warm chest. "He’s going to give me that goofy, big, gosh aren’t you cute grin when he sees me, isn’t he."

"Yep." Xena grinned. "Speaking of which.. they probably are going to be wandering by here.. you know you can’t travel for a little while. What do you want to do about the Amazons?"

The bard sighed. "Let me talk to Ephiny tomorrow. " She gave Xena a look. "I am going to go visit her tomorrow, right?"

Xena’s fingers probed very gently, and Gabrielle tried not to cry out. "Mmm.. for a little while.. I’ll get you over there." She related the rest of the story in quiet bare, detail.

"I felt that." The bard said quietly, when she told of the necklace. "I think at that point I stopped worrying about myself and started worrying about you."

Xena sighed. "I was a little worried about me too." She shook her head. "Damned close, Gabrielle." She stared at her hands. "The only thing that kept me from going.. over into that pit was the fact that I knew.. you were out there somewhere." She paused. "That you were in trouble..and you needed me." She let out a shuddering breath. "Almost."

Gabrielle tangled her fingers with Xena's. "Almost doesn't count." She said quietly. "I think someone told me that not too long ago." She studied Xena's face. "You did what it took."

A slow nod. "I guess I did."

"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice held a note of quiet strength.

"Yeah?" The warrior replied, gazing at her in question.

"If you had.. let it take you over.. " The bard wrapped her fingers around Xena's hand. "I would have come and found you.. and brought you back."

Blue eyes met green. Could she? Gods hope I never have to find out.. but if anyone could, it would be her. "I know that." Xena answered, with a little smile. "I feel rotten for Hercules, though."

"Ugh." Gabrielle winced. "Poor Herc.. he must have been freaked out when he woke up." She shook her head. "It must have been horrible for him to find out he'd done that stuff."

Xena sighed. "Yeah.. he was pretty shook up." She regarded Gabrielle thoughtfully. "But he had Iolaus there to get him through that… he was almost frantic.. it was kind of… " Her lips twitched, as she searched for a word to describe it. "Cute."

Gabrielle's eyebrows shot up at the choice. "Cute???"

Her partner chuckled a little. "Yeah.. all kind of… flustered, and concerned… "

"Really." Gabrielle commented, gazing at her speculatively.

"Yeah." Xena confirmed, with a sly grin.

"Interesting." The bard nodded.

"Very." Her partner agreed.

Gabrielle tucked that aside for further study, then poked Xena in the ribs. "Told you I’d bet on you."

"Gabrielle…." Xena growled. "Not a fair fight.. he wasn’t himself." She gently set the bard down, and got off the bed, moving to where she’d left the fresh herbs. "Let’s get some of this in you." She glanced down. "Right Ares?"

"Argrrhooo?" The wolf raised his head and glanced at her, then stood up and nudged her knee, giving her a lick. "Agrrrooooohhoo?"

Xena put the water pot on to heat, and sat down in the chair next to the fire, playing with Ares and ruffling his fur.

"Hey." Gabrielle rolled a little onto her side to watch her partner.

Blue eyes glanced up and met hers in question.

"Leave out the sleeping stuff." The bard requested.

One dark eyebrow crawled up. Then she chuckled. "Come on now, Gabrielle.. not that I don't.. you know what I mean."

Gabrielle grinned. "I bet that would make me feel lots better." She coaxed. "Come on… you know you want to."

"Gabrielle!" The warrior let out an exasperated chuckle.

The bard's eyes dropped, and she played with the covers. "Sorry." She said quietly. "I.." She let out a breath slowly. "They tied me up.. outside.. it was cold, and raining… and one of the things I did to keep my mind off of all that was remember what it was like to be with you." Her eyes closed wearily, only to pop open a moment later when Xena slid into the bed next to her, warm hands cradling her face, blue eyes vivid and intense. "I got lucky there…didn't I, Xena? A lot worse things could have happened to me, right?"

Xena didn't answer. Instead, she captured the bard's lips with her own, and didn’t' stop her gentle attentions until she felt Gabrielle's hands tangling in her shirt and the bard's breathing going ragged. Then she paused, and gazed into the now dreamy green eyes. "You let me do all the work, OK?"

"Sure.. " The bard murmured. "But you don’t have to... I mean… "

"Gabrielle." Xena's voice was low and the timbre rattled her eardrums. "You've only ever known gentleness and beauty in this..I know that's true." She stroked the bard's face. "It would hurt me very much to have that taken away from you.. do you understand me?" Do you? If they had… what I did to Rurik would have been the least of what would have happened to them.. do you realize that, my bard? Nothing would have stopped me. Nothing.

"Yeah." Gabrielle whispered, letting her fingers trace the angular profile above her. "I do understand." Her lips twitched into a smile. "My protector and defender."

Xena smiled back. "Always." She kissed her. "Forever." She felt the bard's hand unbuckled her tunic. "No matter what happens."

And as the familiar touch eased the pain into the far background of her mind, Gabrielle felt the shattered pieces of her internal security slowly fall back into place. It was all right. She'd made it out of a very scary place.. and she was safe again. It was a healing of another order, and as she drifted off into sleep a timeless while later the bard felt the words of a poem forming fuzzily in her mind to describe it.

She opened one mist green eye, letting herself revel in the strength surrounding her and spent a moment just memorizing that feeling. Xena's chest rose and fell with steady regularity beneath her, and she could hear the warrior's powerful heartbeat in it's gentle sleeping rhythm under her ear, a rhythm that matched her own, and lulled her peacefully in a deep sleep.

"Ow." The bard sighed, as she moved an incautious arm. "Ok.. that’s better." She took an experimental breath, as Xena finished tying off a fresh set of bandages around her chest. She was standing by the fire, one hand resting against the fireplace mantel, trying to keep warm while her partner completed her task.

Xena studied her closely. "Are you sure you don’t want to just take it easy here?" She touched the fading bruises on the bard’s face. "You’re really pale."

Gabrielle pushed the desire to agree into the back of her mind, and sighed. "Yeah, I’m sure. I really want to see Eph, and move around a little.. I’m stiff from lying down so long." She let herself fall gently forward against Xena’s chest, and the warrior slid long arms around her, dropping her hands to the bard’s lower back and carefully working the knotted muscles she found there.

"Uhhggg…" Gabrielle groaned, burying her head into Xena’s shoulder. "Yeah.. right there."

The warrior worked her way up her partner’s spine, then across the width of her shoulders, ending up at the base of her neck. "Better?"

Gabrielle nuzzled her neck, and gently nibbled the soft shirt the warrior was wearing. "If I say no, will you just keep on doing that?" She replied teasingly, then sighed. "Yeah, thanks. That does feel better." She straightened up reluctantly, and ducked her head into the shirt Xena had picked up off the linen press and was holding out. She managed to get the sleeves on, and pulled her hair out from under the collar as Xena fastened the belt loosely around her. "You look nice." She commented, fingering the crimson wool tunic draped neatly over her partner’s body. "I like that color on you."

Xena gave her a half grin. "Thanks." She dusted one sleeve off. "Haven’t worn this in a long time." She acknowledged. "Usually it’s too hot to wear."

Gabrielle leaned close, and took a deep breath. "Mmm.. you had it packed in herbs, right?" The faint scent combined mint, eucalyptus, and pine, and tickled the bard’s senses. "I like that."

"Yep." The warrior confirmed. "Sit down.. let me give you a hand with your boots."

The bard sighed, and seated herself gingerly. "I hate being so… ugh. Helpless." She paused, and tugged on a lock of Xena’s dark hair. "Hey.. that’s why you always do that ‘it’s nothing’ routine, right? You hate asking for help."

Xena’s blue eyes glinted up at her in amusement. "You caught me." She answered dryly, lacing the bard’s left boot neatly. "My secret’s out."

Gabrielle laughed. "Ow." She groaned. "Don’t make me laugh…that hurts." She laid her right hand gently down on her stomach as she watched Xena’s movements. "You know what you’re going to say to him?" She asked in a quiet voice, watching the rosy bars of early morning sunlight paint warm patterns across the warrior’s back. They’d discussed that very subject since she’d woken up, curled peacefully up against Xena’s warm body.

The warrior took a deep breath, then looked up. "I think so." She stood, and held out a hand to the bard. "C’mon."

Gabrielle allowed herself to be gently helped to her feet, and kept hold of her partner’s hand. "Nervous?" She asked sympathetically.

A twitch of her mouth betrayed her. "Yeah." Worried blue eyes searched hers. "A little." She paused. "Shows, huh?"

The bard shook her head, and patted her stomach. "I feel it." She gave her partner a grin. "Either that, or I’m just nervous on your behalf." She gave Xena a gentle hug. "Take it easy.. you’ll be fine."

Xena sighed, and rested her chin on the bard’s head. "Thanks." She’s right. I’m as nervous as a chicken in a fox’s den. It’s disgusting… I can face a dozen men with swords and not feel a thing.. but one little boy? Gods. She blew out a long breath, and straightened up. "C’mon.. I’ll walk you over to the inn.. mom should have breakfast on by now."

"Sounds good to me." Gabrielle stifled a yawn. "Come on, Ares."

They left the cabin, exiting the warmth of the indoors for the cold, crisp air of early morning. The sun was just coming up over the trees, spilling an amber glaze over the courtyard, and scattering bars of light into their path. Gabrielle tilted her head back and took a cautious breath. "Mmm… " she grinned. "Smells like fresh bread."

Xena settled a hand on her back, and guided her up the stairs and into the inn, hold the door for both of them to pass through. Inside, the room was dim and quiet, the night fire sending out lazy pops, heard against the faint sounds of movement from the kitchen. "Looks like everyone’s still in bed." Xena commented, with a grin.

Gabrielle chuckled. "Oh..I can see I’m gonna get some teasing out of this." She gave Xena a poke. "Those lazy Amazons… "

The kitchen door opened, and Cyrene poked her head out, spotting them. "Well!" She broke into a big smile. "What a pleasant surprise." She moved into the room, and let the door swing closed behind her. "Hey there cutie." She reached Gabrielle’s side, and patted her shoulder gingerly. "How are you feeling?"

The bard grinned. "A lot better, thanks." She assured the innkeeper. "Smells great in here."

Cyrene laughed. "You must be feeling better." She teased, then gave them both a ruefully amused look. "Fraid it’s going to be a little quiet here this morning.. we had…" She paused, chewing her lip thoughtfully. "Celebration… last night."

Gabrielle cocked her head in a puzzled fashion, then turned as she felt Xena start to chuckle. "What??"

"Mother." The warrior put her hands on her hips. "Did you get the Amazons drunk?"

"Me?" Cyrene poked a thumb at her own chest. "What makes you think *I* had anything to do with this?" She gave her daughter an insulted look. "I didn’t make them drink half a keg of ale."

Identical flinches on both Xena and Gabrielle’s faces make her burst into laughter. "half a KEG???" Gabrielle groaned. "Mom!!" She covered her eyes with one hand. "How could you?"

Cyrene smirked. "I assure you, I had nothing to do with it. " She paused. "However… you did miss out on your brother dancing on a table with that nice young Amazon." She considered. "The one with the dark hair. You know who I mean."

Xena leaned against a roof support and groaned.. "Oh gods." She muttered. "I’m glad I was sleeping." She shook her head at her mother. "Anyone get hurt?"

The innkeeper snorted. "No." She tugged them gently towards the kitchen. "Come on.. we’ve just gotten some bread out of the oven." She held the door for them, and followed them into the slightly steamy, fresh bread-smelling kitchen where Eustase was carefully arranging new loaves on the cooling racks. "Eustase, look who I found."

The cook glanced around, and beamed. "Good gracious.. hello!" She picked up one of the wooden bakery paddles with two loaves still on it, and bustled over to them. "And I’ve got two of these nice breads just out of the heat. Go on.."

Cyrene took a cloth, and grabbed both loaves setting them down on the kitchen worktable, and motioning Xena and Gabrielle to sit down. "No one got hurt.. " She continued, as she split the loaves and brushed warm herbed butter on them, before passing them over. "There was some.. well, I suppose you could call it arm wrestling. " She paused, considering, then shook her head. "That kind of got messy."

Gabrielle had been savoring the bread, eyes closed, and at this popped them wide open. "Messy?" She asked, taking another bite. "This is wonderful, by the way." She grinned at Eustase. "Thanks."

The cook beamed at her. "My best customer." She started to turn, then glanced back. "And I really, truly am glad you’re OK, m’dear."

Gabrielle returned the smile, then darted a glance back at Cyrene. "Messy?" She asked again, feeling Xena’s hand settle gently on her knee. She wrapped her fingers around the warrior’s and squeezed them, feeling the warm pressure as Xena returned the act.

"Well.. " The innkeeper sighed. "We had those cream filled pastries last night."

"The ones where you squeeze them and.." Xena interjected.

"Yes." Her mother answered.

"Sorry." Gabrielle winced. "I’ll have a talk with them." She gave Xena a look, and the warrior nodded almost imperceptibly in return. "I'm going to see Ephiny.. and maybe I can coax another loaf of bread out of mom here." She said, giving Cyrene an impish look.

Xena nodded, and rose, having finished her loaf. "I’ll be back in a little while." Her eyes met the bard’s, and Gabrielle gave her a little wink, and mouthed "Good luck." She nodded, and patted her mother’s arm. "Your ale is dangerous, mother." She muttered, as she left the kitchen by the back door, and walked steadily towards the sun-gilded barn.

Gabrielle looked up, as Eustase put a plate down in front of her, with another steaming loaf and a selection of sliced meats. "I was just kidding." She smiled up at the cook, who winked. "But since you’re offering…" She carefully maneuvered the roll with her left hand. "Ugh.."

Eustase chuckled, and patted her hand, taking the roll from her and breaking it apart, then spreading it with butter. "Here you go.."

The bard gave her a smile. "Thanks… it's a little awkward." She slid the meats onto the bread, and took a bite, leaing back with a sigh.

Cyrene returned from her own journey to the fire, and settled back down across from the bard, putting a mug in front of her, and taking one for herself. "You do look a lot better this morning." She commented, giving Gabrielle a smile. ‘Still hurts though, huh?"

A slight nod from the bard. "Yeah.. it does." She admitted quietly, as she picked up the mug and took a sip. "I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard your daughter just blow this off like it’s nothing." She paused, and rolled her eyes. "It’s not."

The innkeeper let out a soft chuckle. "That's like her. She was always pretending nothing was wrong… used to drive me nuts. Especially when the imp would be bleeding here on my kitchen floor."

The bard smiled. "Oh yeah." She took a bite of her sandwich. "Let me see.. it's just a scratch, right?" Complete with the proper intonation.

Cyrene laughed. "Perfect." She sighed. "Stubborn thing."

Gabrielle nodded quietly. "Very." She paused. "But she can't pull that with me much anymore. I can always tell." She sighed. "I look back, sometimes, and realize that a lot of the times I thought she was just in a bad mood, or whatever… it wasn't that. It was that she was really hurting, and just didn't want to let me know it." And I remember the first time she did.

It was another in a long line of tiny, dusty villages being subjected to the ceaseless raids of a particularly brutal warlord. Xena had caught them at it, and taken into them, regardless of their superior numbers. As usual.

And, as usual, she won, even though it came down to a piled on, vicious hand to hand where she had to throw at least three of them off her by just plain brute strength.

Gabrielle had thought maybe it was the heat, or the fact that they were just a pack of unthinking, cruel animals, or.. she didn't know what. But Xena had emerged from the battle in a dour mood, short-tempered even with the bard, even though Gabrielle hadn't done anything that she knew of to deserve it.

Camp that night had been a very quiet affair, they'd eaten some stuff they'd had in their packs, which Gabrielle had prepared before Xena had a chance to go out and hunt. And had gotten a quiet look in response that had started her mind working. The bard had settled down on her bedroll with her scrolls, but found her attention wandering ceaselessly to her companion, who was doing her usual chores, sharpening her sword, then taking out her armor repair kit, and working on a bit of her shoulder armor that had gotten twisted in the fight.

Finally, she'd had enough of the sullen quiet, and had gotten up, and walked across the campsite and sat down at Xena's side, resting her elbows on her upraised knees and gazing at the warrior patiently.

"What?" Xena had said, pinning her with sharp blue eyes.

"Hi." The bard had said, holding onto her own temper with difficulty. "How are you doing?"

A shrug. "Fine." Then a scowl. "Why?"

Gabrielle had sighed a little. "OK.. what did I do?" She finally asked. "Must have been something, the way you're acting." Steeling herself for the angry response she knew she was going to get, but deciding it was better than this damn sulking.

But Xena's gaze had dropped, and she'd put down the armor she was working on, then rubbed her eyes in a weary manner. "Sorry.. it's not you." She'd answered in a quiet voice, then paused for a long moment, her jaw working a bit as though she was fighting to say something. Or not to say it. Finally she sighed, and turned her head, meeting Gabrielle's waiting gaze. 'I'm just.. hurting." An unprecedented admission. "And it puts me in a bad mood.. didn't mean to take it out on you."

Gabrielle's response came right from her guts, as she reached over and circled the warriors arm with both her hands, and slid closer. "What happened?'

Now with her defenses down, the bard could see plainly the tense lines of pain across Xena's face, and as the warrior drew breath to answer her, she saw the flinch. "Come on.. come over here and lay down." Panic made her heart race, especially when her companion for once didn't argue, but instead allowed herself to be led over their bedrolls, and settled slowly down on hers, laying her head down on the folded cloak she used as a pillow and closing her eyes. And Gabrielle could see the muscles in her jaw suddenly stand out against her tanned skin as her jaw clenched.

"Xena.." She had said softly, aching for her. Putting out a tentative hand, she'd gently stroked the warrior's arm, feeling the tense shift of the muscles under the skin, until Xena had at last opened her eyes and gazed up at the bard.

"Nothing… big.. " She'd sighed. "Just pulled something.. " One hand touched her side. "Hurts to breathe… move." Now her face showed regret. "Sorry you thought it was something you did.. gods.. Gabrielle.. I didn't mean to do that to you." She collected herself. "It's all right.. just a little sore."

Gabrielle had smiled back. "Don't worry about it." Knowing that, at least for a tiny, short, while, she had gotten inside the door again. "Lay still." She'd gotten up, and gotten one of the waterskins, and gone to the spring, filling it with icy cold water and bringing it back to where the warrior was resting. "When I hurt my leg.. you said cold helped." She held up the waterskin, and raised her eyebrows.

That got a smile from Xena. "Good memory." She'd admitted, as the bard had sunk down next to her, and their eyes had met. "Right side, just below my ribs." Not even making a token attempt to take the skin from her, a gentle trust that warmed Gabrielle through.

She had carefully placed the skin against her body, seeing the little nod when she got it in the right place, first time. Then she drew up the blanket, and settled it around Xena's shoulders, never taking her eyes from the warrior's. "How's that?"

Xena's lips had twitched into a reluctant grin. "Perfect." Then the blue eyes had warmed considerably. "Thanks for putting up with me." Her arm had moved up, and she ruffled Gabrielle's hair in playful affection.

"Hey.. " Gabrielle had smiled. "That's what friends are for, right?"

"Right." Came the quiet answer. "It's been so long I'd kind of forgotten that."

Gabrielle had felt her chest constrict, and knew what she was feeling was showing in her eyes, and on her face. "I'll keep reminding you." She promised in a whisper. Feeling the ghostly brush of fingertips against her face that warmly, suddenly, became all too real.

And she had bowed to her body's insistent craving and leaned into the pressure, just enough for Xena to have felt it. And the warrior hadn't backed away from that.


"Gabrielle?" Cyrene's voice cut gently through her memories, and she looked up with a start. "Gods.. sorry. " She laughed a little. "I was just thinking."

"I can't imagine about what." The innkeeper replied drolly, chuckling as the bard blushed. "Ah, Gabrielle… enjoy it."

Green eyes glanced frankly up into hers. "I am" The bard let out a light laugh, then drained her mug. "I think I'm gonna go wake Ephiny up.. have a word with her about her Amazons."

Cyrene stood, and got a small tray out. "Do you think you could bring in a little soup? If it's too much for you to carry, I will." She paused. "Her Amazons?" Her dark eyebrows curved up as she regarded the slim bard who was standing carefully.

Gabrielle's gaze focused into her. "I think I can manage." She answered quietly. "And yes, her Amazons. They can borrow me for a while, but I know where I belong." She gingerly took the tray from Cyrene. "Thanks, mom."

The innkeeper gave her a careful hug. "Take care, honey." She hesitated. "Where did my daughter go off to?"

The bard smiled. "She's talking to Solon."

Cyrene's face perked up. "Really?"

A nod from Gabrielle. "Really." She took the tray, and nudged the door open with her elbow, moving through into the still quiet main room.

Xena hesitated a moment, one hand resting on the doorlatch, as she gathered her courage before opening it. Inside, she could hear Kaliepus's patient voice, and Solon's higher responses, and she smiled a little at the boy's request.

Ok.. let's go. She lifted the latch, and opened the door, passing from the cold morning light into the warm dimness of the barn, her senses catching the familiar scent of straw and horses, and the like yet unlike smell of the centaur. "Morning." She said casually, giving the centaur a faint smile.

"Ah.. morning Xena." Kaleipus sighed. "I was just explaining to Solon here why he can't go climbing around in the hayloft."

Solon eyed her with sparkling eyes. "'s your barn.. can I???"

Xena dropped to one knee and regarded him solemnly. "It's my mother's barn, and no, you have to listen to your father. That's the rule."

The boy scowled. "The girls got to go up there." He protested, giving Xena a stern look. "No fair."

Xena and Kaleipus exchanged amused looks. "Life's not fair." She cheerfully informed him. "Besides, it's just a hayloft."

Another scowl from the boy. "Yeah, but the girls say there's something really cool up there, and I wanna see it."

Xena's brow creased. "Believe me, Solon.. I've been up there.. there's nothing to see except hay and…" She stopped short, and let out an exasperated chuckle. "Oh.. I think I know what they meant." Gods.. gods.. gods… how did they get up there? More to the point, why were we so childish as to… oh Hades. "Hey Solon.. I don't think you'd find it very cool." She informed the boy. "It's just some stuff carved into the wood."

"Yeah?" Solon asked, studying her with an intentness that was weirdly familiar.

"Yeah." She answered, giving him back the same look.

"Did you carve it in there?" He countered, moving closer and tugging a bit of straw out of the nearest bale to chew on.

"Yeah." Xena answered again.

Solon grinned. "Then I really wanna see it."

Gods. I've just been outsmarted by a twelve-year-old child. I think it's time I retired. Xena sighed to herself, as she cast a look up at the smirking Kaleipus. I know what my mother must have gone through.. my one consolation is that this child is without question my son. Maybe he'll put those brains to a better use than I did. "What do you think, Kaleipus?"

The centaur shrugged. "It's your barn." He commented, and she heard the unspoken. And your son.

"C'mere." Xena stood and walked over to the loft, shaking her head.

Solon followed, grinning in triumph. "There's a ladder over.. whoa!!!!"

Xena had turned and caught him at the waist then boosted him up and over her head, tossing him up into the soft hay with a chuckle. "Ladder? Is that how the girls did it?" She jumped up and caught the stanchion, pulling herself up next to him and leaning back against the roof support with a smile. "Where's the fun in that?" She glanced down at Kaleipus, who gave her a little nod.

"I'm going out for a little run.. be back in a bit." The centaur called, as he trotted towards the door, and slipped outside. Ares slipped inside the barn at the same moment, and spotted her.

"Roo!!!" The wolf scowled, then sighed, and curled up in the hay next to Argo's stall. The mare put her head up over the partition, and snorted.

"Everybody's a critic." Xena muttered, then turned her attention to Solon, who was crawling around the loft and tracing the crude carvings, some old, some not so old at all.

"Wow.. that's you?" He found her name.

"Yep." Xena admitted, crossing her legs and putting her hands in her lap.

"Who's that?" His child's fingers traced a long dead name.

"My brother Lyceus." Xena answered quietly. "He died."

Solon glanced at her, a little startled. "Oh." His brow creased. "I'm sorry."

Xena nodded slowly. "Me too."

His eyes shifted left, and now he smiled and rolled his blue eyes. "Mushy stuff.. that must have been what they meant."

Xena smiled. "Told you."

Solon crawled over and sat down next to her, leaning against her shoulder. "They are so weird about you."

That got him a laugh. "Yeah, I know." The warrior sighed. "They'll grow out of it, though." She looked at him. "It's a girl thing."

"I guess." Solon snorted. "It's icky." He sighed. "It's been fun playing with them, though." He looked up. "I did get to play with Xenon the other week. Is he named after you?"

Xena studied him. "Ephiny's son? Yes, he is.." She cleared her throat. "Both of us, actually. His name is Xenon Gabris."

"How come?" Came the logical question. "He's really kind of cute.. they said he was going to get to stay with us for a while. How come?"

"Well.." Xena shifted a little, and considered the questions. "He's named for me because I was the one who helped bring him into the world." She hesitated. "And for Gabrielle because she and Ephiny are very good friends."

Solon's eyes widened. "Wow.. really??"

"Mmhmm." The warrior confirmed. "And.. I guess he's going to come stay by you because.. his mother thinks it would be the best thing for him. So he gets to know other centaurs, and learns about that side of his family."

"Oh." Solon considered this. "But.. doesn't his mother want him?"

Xena felt her breathing catch, as she sensed a hidden meaning in the question. "Of course she does." She quietly assured him. "Ephiny loves him very much.. but she knows.. that if he were to grow up without knowing that part of his heritage, he'd be very much hurt." Her eyes gently caressed him. "It's a very hard thing for her to do.. Solon.. and I know she must have debated with herself for a long time before she decided to do it."

"You think so?" The boy asked softly.

A nod from the warrior. "I know it." She smiled sadly. "It comes down to what's best for Xenon."

He was silent for a long moment, then his eyes rose and met hers, and he nodded a little. "OK." Then he glanced up and changed the subject. "Gabrielle is really cool."

Xena's eyebrows rose at the change. "Well, I kinda think so."

He smiled. "She really likes you a lot." He laughed a little.

"Yeah, I know." The warrior grinned. "That's ok.. I like her a lot too."

His eyes glanced up to the carving, then back at her. "She said she knew what I was gonna look like when I grew up. You think that's true?"

And suddenly, Xena knew that if he didn't know the truth, he at least suspected, and it made things… infinitely easier. She gazed quietly at him. "Oh.. I'd say she probably has a pretty good idea."

"Yeah?" His eyes widened a little, and he squirmed around in the hay to get a better look at her face. The sun was coming in the glazed window now, and lit both of them in a warm haze, catching idle dust motes as they floated over the sweet smelling hay.

"Yeah." Came the quiet answer, as she turned her head and let a smile shape her lips.

Solon stared at her intently, and she saw his hand suddenly clench in the straw, and his chest heave as he drew a deep breath. "You think I'll look like....." His courage failed him, and he begged her with his eyes.

Xena lifted a hand, and smoothed his thick hair back. "I think you'll look very much like me, yes."

A moment of crystal, golden silence, and Xena felt like time itself had stopped, as she merely waited for his response. His eyes never left hers, and his mouth worked a single syllable but no sound emerged.

She heard him anyway, and nodded minutely, laying her heart open and taking the risk. Just like Gabrielle had taught her.

"Mom?" Now his voice whispered out, shock and wonder coloring his expression.

'Yes." She replied softly.

She was never really certain, after, just how he ended up wrapped in her arms, just that he was there, small hands clutching her fiercely and his face buried in her tunic. It was like a long sundered piece of her life coming home at last, and she spent a long time just holding him, reveling in the feel of his body against hers.

Finally he looked up, and sniffled a little. "How come… how come…"

Xena hugged him. "I never told you?"

He nodded, a hurt expression in his eyes.

Now, the hard part. Xena sighed inwardly. "Solon.. when you were born, I .. was not a good person. I was doing some very bad things to a lot of people."

He blinked and swallowed hard. "I know that."

She nodded. "All right.. so I decided.. that it wouldn't be a very good.. or a very safe thing for you if you were to be with me." She paused. "And that was a very hard decision…for me."

"I figgered that out." Solon said quietly, his fingers playing with the necklace around her neck. "But now it's not like that." His eyes searched her face.

She sighed. "Well, no.. it's not. " Her voice dropped a little. "But…what I do now doesn’t really change what I did back then.. and there are a lot of people that remember that, Solon.. they remember that and they want… well, they would like to hurt me for that." She paused. "Or hurt the people I love."

He put his head down on her shoulder. "Like Toris?"

"Like Toris, and my mother, too." She answered, then hesitated. "And Gabrielle.. and you, if they knew about you." She sighed. "It's why we don't stay here all the time."

Solon snuggled closer. "It's not fair." He sighed. "I mean.. I kind of started to guess.. after that last time. Cause of stuff Kaleipus would say.. and I guess I just sort of hoped.. it was true." He turned his head and gazed up at her. "I know… what I used to think.. but then I met you, and it got all different." He blinked at her. "It was like my head wanted to hate you.. but my insides wouldn't let me.. an I thought about that a lot after you left."

Xena gazed at him sadly. 'I wanted to tell you then." She stroked his hair. "I just couldn’t." She felt his hands clench on her shirt. "I'm sorry, Solon."

"When we heard you were living here.. I made Pappa tell me where this was." He sniffled quietly. "Wanted to see you." He burrowed deeper into her embrace. "Thought maybe if I came an visited, you'd let me stay."

The warrior felt her heart sink. "I.. can't.. let you do that." She managed to get out. "It's too dangerous."

"But.." He protested

Xena put a finger on his lips. "Solon.. " Her voice cracked. "If something happened to you because of me, I couldn’t live with that."

"But.." He protested again. "You can beat up everybody!!"

That got a wistful smile from her. "Not everybody.. not all the time.. it's not true, Solon."

"I don't believe that." He answered sturdily. "Everybody knows you're the best fighter in the world."

"Everybody does, huh?" The warrior laughed gently. "Well, it's… " Not true? Who knows? "Not something I think about." She stroked his soft cheek. "But I can't put you in that kind of danger."

He furrowed his brow, thinking. "But you let Gabrielle stay."

Xena sighed. Damn him for being so bright, and so persistent. Then she laughed wryly at herself. Damn me, you mean. "Solon.. that's different." She gazed at the window and blinked. "Gabrielle is.. an adult. And you know she can fight, and defend herself."

He scowled. "Yeah.. " He subsided, and a lonely tear rolled down one side of his face. "I know.. I didn't really think you'd let me stay."

Xena saw it, and it hurt. "Look.. Solon.. Gabrielle and I talked about it.. we're going to see how being here works out. If it's ok.. if it looks like it's going to stay safe.. but we won't know that for a while."

He was silent for a while. "Can I come visit sometimes?" He finally asked, his voice breaking a little on the words, but with a subtle hope growing in his eyes. He wasn't giving up, Xena recognized the expression with a wry self knowledge.

She hugged him. "Sure." Then she pulled back and gave him a look. "But no more sneaking off."

He blushed. "Aww…"

Xena ruffled his hair. "You hungry?"

He nodded. "Can I call Gabrielle Aunt?"

Xena dropped out of the loft and brushed off the hay sticking to her tunic. "Well, you can ask her.. but I think she'd like that." She held up her arms. "Jump."

And without question or hesitation, he did, leaping for her in total confidence. She caught him, and then tossed him up a little, and caught him again. "Wow." He laughed, and looked up at her with sparkling eyes. "That was fun." He seemed reconciled to leaving, at least for now, but Xena knew if it had been her, another plan of action would already be in the works. And she expected no less from her son. It was both exasperating and reassuring.

She set him down, and he immediately trotted over to sleepily stirring Ares, who raised his dark head and regarded the boy with wary eyes. "Hey wolfie." He plopped down in the straw next to the wolf and held out a hand. Ares sniffed it, then wagged his tail and gave him a lick. Solon peered back over his shoulder at his mother, who was leaning against the stall divider. "Pappa won't let me have a dog." He sighed.

A slow, mischievous grin crossed Xena's face, and she had to work very fast, and very hard to quash the idea that floated to the surface. "Well, I'm sure he has good reasons." She pronounced, watching Solon play with the wolf's big front paws. "You like dogs?" She watched him turn and nod vigorously. Of course he did. "What about horses?" Another nod, complete with a grin. Right. Poor Kaleipus.

He jumped up and trotted over to her, and wound one hand into the fabric of her tunic, looking up wistfully. "Is it ok to call you mom?"

Xena dropped to one knee, and studied him carefully. "Sure, honey." She put a hand on his shoulder. "But for now.. only when we're here, OK?" She looked around her. "This place is safe… I trust the people who live here."

Solon thought about that. "Is it ok to tell the girls?" His eyes twinkled with anticipation.

Xena sighed. No point in not. That rumor would be racing all over the Amazon Nation within days anyway. "Yes, but I think Cait already knows."

His face went serious. "I think so too. She wasn't going to let Gabrielle stay by herself… " His eyes flicked to her face. "And then they had a fight, and after that, she stayed by me all the time." He blinked. "Why did she do that?"

The warrior felt her face go very still, as a wash of horror swept over her. She took a deep breath before answering. "Because.. she wanted to make sure you were safe, son." The word tasted odd and wonderful. "And she didn't think she'd be able to do that herself."

Solon bit his lip unhappily. "Were they really gonna kill her?" His blue eyes looked up into hers, and he gasped a little. "Mom?"

Xena realized what her face must be showing, and shook her head a little, breaking their eye contact, and restoring a measure of her composure. "Um… yeah, Solon. They really were."

He was silent for a minute, watching her face. "I'm glad you got there."

The warrior pulled him into a hug, and gazed sightlessly over his shoulder at the sun dappled wall. "Me too." She whispered finally, sighing then releasing him. He backed off a step, but kept his hands on her, and poked her arm gently.

"Hey.. you're all solid." His eyes coursed over her curiously. "Like a centaur."

That got a smile. "Oh yeah?" Well.. that's the first time I've ever been compared to a centaur. Life is just full of new experiences today, huh? "Come on… let me go introduce you to your grandmother.. the right way." She stood and put an arm around his shoulders, guiding him towards the door.

Gabrielle nudged the door to Ephiny's room open with her elbow, and peered in, seeing the Amazon still fitfully asleep. She smiled, and entered the room, setting the small tray down and crossing to the blonde's bedside. She's almost made it to the very edge when Ephiny's sharp instincts alerted her to the new presence, and she stirred, turning her head, and forcing her eyes open a little.

Blinking, and focusing on her visitor, then opening wider as a shaky grin formed on her mouth. "Hey.." She rasped. "Shouldn't you be in bed?"

Gabrielle settled down on the small stool near the bed and gave her a smile. "Probably." She admitted. "But I wanted to see you." She took a cautious breath. "And Xena's got these wrapped pretty good.. I do feel better." The sharp stabs of pain had subsided to a persistent dull ache, and Xena had told her this meant the bones were knitting.. and not moving against each other any more. She cringed when she imagined that. "How are you doing?"

Ephiny nodded a little, and hitched herself up so she could see Gabrielle better. "Not bad.. I feel like a centaur is sitting on my chest, and I'm weak as a newborn kitten, but you know.. why complain?"

The bard's face broke into a welcome grin. "You sound more like yourself." She commented, then glanced towards the tray. "I brought you in some soup."

Ephiny's pale eyebrows rose. "All these people, and they have to draft you to do that?" She stifled a cough, and managed an outraged look.

Gabrielle chuckled softly. "No.. no.. I volunteered." She glanced down at the wooden floor, then back up as Ephiny's hand clasped hers, and their eyes met.

"I can't tell you how glad I am to see you." Ephiny said quietly. "I was out of my mind worrying, Gabrielle."

"I know." The bard answered in a very quiet voice. "I feel like such an idiot." Her expression turned grim. "You were right, Ephiny. I had no business taking those kids out there."

The Amazon's brow creased. "Gabrielle.. don't be crazy." She squeezed the hand under hers. "What happened out there wasn't your fault… for the sake of the gods.. you handled that as well or better than any of us could have."

Gabrielle leaned forward, and pinned her with an intense gaze. "Ephiny, I totally disregarded the fact that I knew there were raiders out there, and deliberately put five of your people into danger." She hesitated, then went on. "Because I thought I could handle it.. that I was as much of an Amazon as any of you were."

Ephiny gripped her hand with surprising strength. "Look.." She said, giving stare for stare. "You are as much an Amazon as any of us are, and they're not my people." She took a careful breath, pausing to stifle a cough. "I'd like to hope that any of my fellow Amazons would have had the level of courage, and strength, and intelligence to deal with a very bad situation like you did, but you know what? I bet they wouldn’t have. Those kids were damn lucky to have you there with them. You got me??"

"Ephiny, they wouldn't have been in that situation if it hadn't been for me." The bard said quietly, sadly.

"How do you know that?" The Amazon retorted. "They were running all around this damn place, Gabrielle.. they might have gone out there on their own, like Solon did, and then what? They'd be on their way to who knows where by now." She paused, and watched the bard assimilate the information. "Gabrielle, have you told Xena you feel like this?"

A slight, reluctant shake of the head.

"Why?" Ephiny asked. And waited. "I'll tell you why." She continued, when the bard didn't answer. "Because she'd tell you to stop being silly, right?"

A resentful mist green glance.

"Well, sorry, but I'm with the old war horse on this one. So, Gabrielle, stop being silly." Ephiny finished, but her voice was gentle. "Look.. things happen, my friend." She gave the bard a wistful look. "Look what happened to me, huh?" She glanced down the legnth of her body with a wry look. "Here I am, Amazon from birth, right? I figure, no problem, I can take these kids out an give them some proper lessons, right?" She lifted her hands and let them fall. "So what do I do? Fall in a river and have to be rescued by Xena, then end up flat on my back for days." She sighed. "Is that any kind of example for young Amazons? I ask you."

Gabrielle sighed. "I've got everyone thinking I'm some kind of hero, Ephiny." She looked up, startled, at the sudden chuckle. "It's not funny."

"So.. did she teach you to do that too?" Ephiny grinned. "You've got the act down pat."

"What act?' The bard scowled.

Ephiny leaned back and started to relax a little. "That 'gee, gosh, it weren't nothing, hardly' act?"

"Ephiny!" Gabrielle protested.

The Amazon relented. "Oh, for Hades sake, Gabrielle." She laughed gently. "Come on.." Her expression sobered. "Listen, I know it was a really scary thing.. but you handled it with honor, and courage, and you were willing to risk your life to save those kids.. and I have news for you, Gabrielle. That is what a hero does."

She studied the bard's face, dusted in the sunlight that was edging in through the window and bringing out the fiery highlights in her hair. No.. Ephiny's mind sighed. She's certainly not a child anymore, is she. The faint lines of experience had begun to shadow her, and the green eyes held a depth of knowledge that went beyond her years. I think I'm seeing, at last, what Xena always did see in her.. gods, we all thought she was crazy, dragging this poor kid around half of Greece. Silly us. "Feel better now?" She asked quietly, seeing the bard's body relax.

Gabrielle studied her for a minute. "Yeah." She finally said, with a reluctant smile. "Check this out..I come in here to see how you're doing, and end up fighting with you."

Ephiny waved a hand at her. "Fight? Get outta here, Gabrielle." She gave the bard an amused look. "If you call that a fight, you must not get into many with the old war-horse."

"Ephiny?" Gabrielle said, getting up carefully and getting the soup, then settling down and handing it to her.

"Yeah?" The Amazon responded, sipping slowly.

"Don’t call her that." The bard requested quietly.

Ephiny stopped still, and stared at her. "Gods.. I didn't think she cared."

Green eyes captured hers. "She probably doesn't, but I do."

The Amazon studied her for a long moment, then dropped her gaze. "All right, Gabrielle." Damn.. I didn't expect that. "I'm sorry..I didn't mean any disrespect."

Now the bard smiled. "I know, and thanks… from both of us."

Ephiny sipped her soup thoughtfully, watching Gabrielle out of the corner of her eye. "Hey.. can I ask you something?" She said casually, her eye catching on the necklace the bard wore.

"Sure." Gabrielle responded, scooting the stool closer, and wincing as she jarred her ribs. "Ugh."

"Hey.. careful." The Amazon warned, giving her a concerned look. "Why don't you sit down in that other chair, huh?"

The bard took a shaky breath and tucked her elbows against her sides. "'s ok. What did you want to ask?"

Ephiny reached out a hand and touched the necklace. "What is this? I saw.. um.. yesterday.. Xena had one something like it on. I've never seen one before." She gently turned the crystal over, and studied it. "Looks like it's a half of something."

"It is." Gabrielle answered softly. "One half of a whole." Just like I am.

"Oh." The blond woman replied. "Wow." Then she took another sip. "Bet there's a story behind that." Her eyes twinkled, and she saw an answering twinkle in Gabrielle's gaze. "Thought so." She swallowed. "You did promise to fill me in on what you've been up to."

Xena pushed open the door to the inn, peeking inside, then grinning. "Oh.. look what I see." She drawled, opening the door to allow Ares and Solon to enter ahead of her. Seated at the far table was her brother, who was holding up his head with both hands, and staring into a mug of something in front of him. A devilish glint appeared in his sister's eyes as she sauntered over, accompanied by the boy and the wolf.

"Hey, Toris." The warrior said, pulling up a chair and seating herself, patting the seat next to her for Solon.

"Shh." The man groaned, staring at her with bloodshot eyes. "Are you usually this noisy? I thought you prided yourself on how quiet you were."

Solon giggled. Toris turned his bleary gaze on the boy and sighed. "Hello."

"Solon, unfortunately, this is your uncle Toris." Xena said, watching her brother start in surprise. "He's not usually this… " Her lips twitched. "crabby in the morning."

"I'm not crabby." Toris retorted. "I'm in agony, and you are very cruel." He watched her settle her elbows on the table and winced. "Just don't rattle the boards, OK?"

Solon immediately slapped both hands down on the table, causing the top to vibrate rapidly. "Like that?"

Toris grimaced, and gritted his teeth, turning a accusatory eye on his sister. "Oh.. he's definitely your son." He growled at her. "If I had any doubt at all, that just proved it."

Xena laughed gently, and patted his shoulder. "Hang on." She shook her head, and went to the service area, taking out a mug, and mixing something together. "Toris.. Toris… I can't blame the Amazons, but gods, you know better." She sighed, and moved back to the table, putting the mug down in front of him. "Drink that."

Toris sniffed it. "Oh.. gods in Olympus, Xena.. do I have to?"

"No." His sister replied. "You can feel the way you do for the rest of the day instead." She paused. "Look at it this way, Toris…once you feel better, you can have fun doing this to everyone else."

He thought about that for a minute, then gave her a slight grin, and, holding his nose, drank the mixture down. "Ugh." He moaned. "Do me a favor?"

"Sure." Xena replied.

"Don't tell me what was in that." His blue eyes met hers in supplication.

Xena smiled. "OK." She stood and held out a hand for Solon. "C'mon." They headed towards the kitchen.

"I'm dying." Granella stated, from facedown on the bed.

"Been there, done that." Lida replied. "Wanna hear something scary?"

"No." The dark haired Amazon answered. "I'm experiencing something scary right now."

"We gotta leave to take the girls home today." Lida moaned.

"Oh gods." Granella sighed. "What kicked me in the head? Did I do something stupid like challenge Xena to a boxing match?"

"Ugh." Lida answered, slowly rolling over. "Nah.. she wasn't even at the party." She opened her eyes, then immediately shut them again. "Augh!"

"Last thing I remember was.. " Granella's brow furrowed against the soft fabric. "Betting with someone about a frog."

"Ew." Lida suddenly said.

"What?" Granella mumbled.

"How did this pastry get inside my leathers?" Came the puzzled response.

Xena pushed the door open to the kitchen, and spotted Cyrene stirring a large pot at the back fire. She knelt down and whispered in Solon's ear, and he giggled softly, and nodded, then crept across the floor towards the busy innkeeper.

The warrior settled herself against the doorjamb to watch, smiling quietly to herself as Solon reached his target, and tugged on her apron strings.

"Hi grandma." His clear voice carried across the kitchen.

Cyrene jumped, and dropped the spoon she was using, as she looked down in startlement. Then her face broke into a huge smile and she opened her arms and grabbed him up in a big hug, half turning to look at the tall, dark haired woman smiling across the kitchen at her. "Hey there sweetie." She said to Solon, as she stroked his curly hair. "Welcome to the family." But her eyes met Xena's over his head, and she returned the warrior's smile. "Come here and sit down.. let me look at you."

Xena watched them as they sat down, the boy readily answering all her questions, his bright voice lightening the kitchen as it hadn't been for many years. She propped her chin up on one hand, and felt a reluctant peace settle over her soul, glad that for at least this one, small moment in time everything was.. right.

It couldn’t stay that way, she knew. She had done too much, to too many people, and the future was murky at best, but for right now, she was happy just to sit quietly, and listen to her mother's delighted voice, and enjoy an almost unnerving sense of stability.

She could almost, almost… imagine what her life might have been like without Cortese. And she felt a quiet, gentle sense of loss for all those years. For not knowing her son. For the darkness, and the anger, and the bloodshed.

But those years had happened, she wearily admitted. And changing that would change… too much now, far too many good things. She glanced up at her son. So maybe I should just gather in the good times like this.. and someday.. they'll just overwhelm the bad memories. Maybe they will.

"Gods, Gabrielle." Ephiny said in a hushed voice, as the bard finished what she called the short version of their recent adventures. "I'm sorry you had to go through that.. and poor Xena." She shuddered, imagining being trapped under solid rock.

The bard sighed. "Well, she's ok.. you know her. " The green eyes warmed. "But I was really scared there for a while.. and that whole thing is kind of why we're here.. I mean.. " She played with the button on the tunic she was wearing. "When we left you guys that last time.. we came here for a couple of weeks just to kind of.. get used to things.. and take a break." Her eyes met Ephiny's "I needed one."

The Amazon nodded slowly. "Yeah.. I kind of got that impression." She gave Gabrielle a little pat on the knee. "You looked pretty drained."

"Yeah.. well, so we did - and it was great." The bard laughed. "Two weeks, no fights, no pressure, no wandering around.. just relaxing, and having a good time." She sighed. "Toris and Cyrene were fantastic… '" She rolled her eyes. "They even threw me a birthday party."

Ephiny's eyebrows rose. "Oh.. so you'll tell them your birthday, but not me?" She gave Gabrielle an arch look. "Some friend you are."

"Ephiny." Gabrielle laughed softly, and patted her arm. "I never told them. Xena found out somehow.. and it was a surprise.. she even surprised me with a gift.. I didn't expect any of it."

"Mmmhmm." The Amazon didn't relent. "Likely story." She considered. "But wait.. I can narrow it down to within two weeks, because I know when you left us." She chuckled. "Ah.. but do you know when Xena's is?"

An impish grin from the bard. "Yep."

Pleasant smile from the Amazon. "Cough it up."

"But Eph.. she'll kill me." Gabrielle protested, but her eyes were smiling.

"Ah ah ha…" The blond woman shook a finger at her. "She won't harm a hair on your head, and you know it. Spill."

"Solstice." The bard laughed. "I think she set the ceremony for then so we'd be celebrating anyway, and she thought I'd just forget."

"But.. you didn't, right?" Ephiny was enjoying herself, imagining a number of torturous gifts she could present to the tall warrior. Amazons could be.. inventive.. when they put their minds to it.. and after all, she did owe Xena a favor or two.

" nonono…" Gabrielle assured her. "So anyway.. it was a great two weeks.. I hadn't realized just tired out I was until I had the chance to just spend a couple of days snoozing.. we just get so busy, you know?"

"Yeah.. you guys do get around." Ephiny acknowledged.

"So.. after we went by Potadeia, and that whole thing happened with the landslide, we both kind of just decided we'd like a taste of.. well, home." The bard finished. "It's been wonderful, Eph. I like what it's doing for both of us."

"Mmm.." Ephiny agreed. "She seemed more at peace..I noticed that even when you were by us those few days." The image of the banquet hall, flickering in the torchlight and Gabrielle nestled asleep in the warrior's protective arms formed in her mind. Two halves of a whole, huh? What two unlike halves.. but… odder things have happened, right Phantes, my love? She glanced up at Gabrielle. "And you, my friend, even with those bruises, look a lot better." She tugged on the bard's tunic. "You were starting to get me a little worried before you left."

The bard sighed. "I know." She glanced ruefully at the floor. "My mind just… when I get upset, I just don't feel like eating.. and I get these nightmares." She quietly admitted. "I never really felt secure there… always felt that people were depending on me every minute.. that I had to constantly keep my guard up."

Ephiny reflected on that. "I guess I've been living in the village so long.. that just doesn't occur to me." She mused. "Conentious as it is, that's home to me." She looked up. "Like this is for you, I think."

Gabrielle's gaze softened. "No.. home for me is wherever Xena is." She smiled. "But I do love it here."

The Amazon nodded slowly. "I'm glad you found all this, Gabrielle.. it makes me feel good to see you so happy."

The bard clasped her hand. "Thanks, Ephiny… now you have to make me feel good by you finding the same thing, OK?"

Ephiny's eyes misted over. "Oh.. my friend.. I've had my chance." Her face tightened in remembered pain. "And I think you only get that kind of chance once."

Gabrielle studied her pensively. "Sometimes you get a second chance, Eph. And if you do, take it."

The Amazon heard levels of meaning in the comment, and she filed it away quietly. "I will." She promised softly.

Gabrielle nodded. "Listen.. I'm going to go get some more herbs.. your cough is starting to sound worse. I'll be right back." Slowly she stood, and moved towards the door.

Toris heard the patter of footsteps, and glanced around to see the girls pouring into the inn. They spotted him, and headed his way, and he sent silent thanks towards whoever was so wonderful as to make sure his sister had stopped by on her way to the kitchen. "Morning." He said, somewhat cheerfully.

"Hello!" Cait said, seating herself. "Wonderful morning, isn't it?" She grinned. "Great for traveling."

The girls settled into place, beaming at him. "Thank you very much for having us here." Sharra said, with a shy smile. "You've been very nice."

Toris smiled at them. "Sorry you had to have such wild adventures." He sipped his hot tea.

"Oh no." Elianas laughed. "We've got the best stories to tell once we get home." She poked Sharra. "Right?"

They all giggled. "We're all packed." Sharra confided. "We've just got to wait for the scouts to wake up."

"Hmm.." Toris grinned quietly. "Might be a while."

Cait leaned forward. "Is it true they were in here dancing naked last night?"

Toris, caught in the middle of taking a sip, sprayed the table with it. "What???" Did I miss that? "No.. of course not.. where did you hear that from?"

Another round of giggles.

A door opened, and he half turned to see Gabrielle emerging from the sick Amazon's room, holding a small tray in one hand, and moving far more slowly than normal. His face winced in compassion. Then the kitchen door opened and his sister came out, spotting the bard and crossing over to her.

He saw Gabrielle hear the footfalls, and look up, and watched as a dazzling smile appeared on her face, almost as though sunlight had caught her out of the shadows.

The girls all sighed. "Gosh.. isn't that wonderful." Cait commented, resting her chin on her hand.

Xena went to her, and removed the tray from her grasp, then lifted a hand to tilt the bard's chin up, and study her face. They were too far away to hear, but the warrior said something, and that made the bard's smile wider.

Then they both turned and walked towards the table, Xena slowing her steps to her partner's, and circling her shoulders with a protective arm. "Hey.." The warrior greeted them. "You all ready to travel?"

Cait nodded. "We're ready." She glanced around. "We'd like to say goodbye to Ephiny for now.. may we?"

Xena glanced at Gabrielle, who nodded, leaning against Xena and wrapping her left arm around the warrior's waist. "She's up.. go ahead." The bard commented. "Be gentle with her though, ok guys?"

They clattered past her, and disappeared from sight, leaving the three of them gazing at each other. Gabrielle turned her head and looked up . "Where's Solon?"

Xena motioned with her head. "Spending a few minutes with mother.. we all had breakfast together. Kaleipus is ready to go, but… "

They turned as footsteps sounded on the stairs, and Xena muffled a grin as the Amazons came creeping down, glaring at them.

"Hi" Gabrielle called, sweetly. "Good morning." She added, nestling closer to Xena for protection as the group staggered over to them.

Granella looked like she might dispute that, but one glance at the dark blue gaze above the queen's head stopped her. Instead, she wobbled over to where Toris was sitting, and before he could so much as squawk, lifted her hand and pushed a very soggy, and somewhat stale pastry into his face.

Then she turned around, and staggered to the next table, and collapsed on top of it.

It took a while to get the Amazons in any condition to ride, and Xena left that to Cyrene and Gabrielle, while she took Solon out for a long ride on Argo as Kaleipus said he would wait and travel with them.

Finally, she turned the mare's head homeward, and trotted through familiar fields, showing him the layout of the village, and the different landmarks. "Just in case you happen to be around here again." She said, giving him a look.

He gave it right back. "Neat." He grinned, and leaned back against her, holding onto Argo's mane and raising his face to the sun. "Argo's a nice horse." He said approvingly, giving the mare a pat.

Xena chuckled. "Yeah, I think so.. she's going to have a baby, you know."

He turned and gazed at her. "Really?" His eyes lit up. "Can I come see it?" He paused. "And I can come for Solstice, right?"

His mother sighed. "Everyone else is going to be here.. sure you can.. if Kaleipus says it's all right. " She looked at him with a serious expression. "Solon, remember Kaliepus is your father, all right? And you have to listen to him. What you know now.. that doesn't change that."

He looked up at her. "I know." He bit his lip. "But I can't help it. You're a lot more fun."

That got a very raised eyebrow. "Fun?" Xena repeated, her voice dropping.

Solon grinned. "Yeah." He sighed. "Like in the barn when you told me to jump out of the loft. Kaleipus would have had a foal if I did that." He shrugged. "But you didn't.. you wanted me to do it.. and like when we were playing little jokes on grandma and uncle Toris." He looked up. "You're fun."

Xena scowled at him. "Life isn't always fun, Solon."

He gave her a look. "I know that.. but… like when the Amazons came downstairs.. I was thinking of all the neat stuff I could do to them.. and I looked over at you, and I could tell you were thinking the same thing." His eyes caught hers. "You were!"

Xena started laughing. Busted. He caught me dead on. Gods.. it would be dangerous having him around. What was that old saying? I hope you have kids just like you? Oh boy…

"I knew it!" He yelled in triumph.

Suddenly, she put a hand on his shoulder, and her body stiffened. "Shh." She cautioned, reining Argo in, and listening.

He went very still, huddled in front of her, watching her face. "Keep quiet." She murmured. "Maybe we can talk our way out of this." He nodded in silence, now hearing the stealthy hoofbeats that had alerted his mother.

Xena nudged Argo out into the open, and waited, her hands resting lightly on the reins, and her senses alert. Six horsemen. She relaxed a little as they edged out from the coverage of the trees, and faced her.

"Now.. no trouble, there.. " The lead rider said. "We just want the kid, ok? Long winter.. you can spare em." He moved his sorrel stallion closer to her. "Just put him down, and ride off."

Xena leaned back, and studied him. "Funny.. you didn't look that stupid." She drawled. "Why don't you boys just ride off, and I'll pretend I didn't see you. Your buyer's not in the picture anymore anyway."

Solon stayed very still, feeling the electric shift of bone and muscle behind him, and knowing he was as safe as it was possible to get in the circumstances.

"Yeah? What do you know about it?" The lead rider asked, moving closer.

Xena dropped the reins, and gently covered Solon's ears with her hands. "He had his head taken off by a longsword two days ago." She grinned. "Not nice for the kid to hear." Then she dropped her hands to Solon's shoulders and waited.

The man moved his horse up against Argo, and studied her. "How do you know? We haven't heard that."

Xena smiled. "It was my sword."

He reached for Solon. "Liar."

Xena got a booted foot up against his chest and kicked him clean off his horse. "Idiot." The sorrel stallion snorted, and backed up, as Argo nipped him.

The man lay on the ground, coughing and holding his chest, finally catching his breath and glancing up at them with a murderous look.

Solon gazed impassively at him, then shook a small finger. "Nobody messes with my mom."

Xena had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing. "He's right." She advised the rest of them. "So get lost.. and stay out of Amphipolis."

"Amphipolis?" One asked, shifting uneasily. "Oh .. Hades..we came too far." Their eyes fastened on Xena, and she saw them go suddenly pale, as her probable identity registered. They turned their horses, and scattered, the downed raider limping after, dragging his horse behind him.

Xena chuckled, and turned Argo's head, kneeing the mare once again towards home. They'd gone a few horse lengths when she felt a small hand touch her thigh, and she glanced down.

Solon was gently feeling muscles in her leg, and looking up at her in wonder. "Will I be this strong when I get big?" He asked, eyes round.

His mother ruffled his hair. "Well, I don’t know, Solon.. it takes a lot of effort to be like this." She gazed at him. "You gotta really work at it."

"Yeah?" He replied, studying her attentively. "All the time?"

"Every day." Xena confirmed, with a guilty thought about just how much that hadn't been true lately.

He thought about that for a minute. "Guess all the good stuff takes work, huh?"

"Pretty much, yeah." Xena agreed.

"Is it worth it?" The boy queried, wrapping his hands around hers and studying the muscled palms intently.

A montage of intense memories hit her, where that very strength had made the difference. Between good and evil, between life and death. Not the last of which was the memory of the surging power that had taken her, unstopped, through the rapids and up the side of a sheer cliff. "Yes, it is." She answered quietly.

He looked up. "So.. where do you start?"

"Are you guys sure you have everything?" Gabrielle asked for the tenth time, as the Amazons clustered around the small group of horses they were being lent for the trip home. They'd bid a temporary good bye to Ephiny, who would remained comfortably resting until she could safely travel. Xena had estimated another ten to fourteen days.

"Yes, we do." Granella assured her, scrubbing her face tiredly, and pushing her hair back from her eyes. Toris had coaxed Xena into fixing her herbal mixture up for them, and they were, if not happy, at least serviceable. "We'll send back an escort when we get home… I know you can probably expect either Solari or Eponin to show up.. they must be driving everybody completely nuts."

Gabrielle laughed gently. "I can imagine." She looked up as she heard hoofbeats approaching, not needing the familiar sight of Argo to identify the rider. "Ok.."

Xena pulled Argo to a halt next to Kaleipus, and lifted Solon up off the mare's back, swinging him over onto the centaur's. She ruffled his hair. "Behave yourself."

He grinned at her. "You too." Receiving an arched eyebrow in reaction, that made him giggle. They had said their good-byes before the last bend removed their privacy, and now just winked at each other as Xena backed Argo off, and surveyed the little party.

Mounting slowly, the riders moved out, waving goodbye as they cleared the courtyard, and started on the long road home.

Xena dismounted, and led Argo over to where Toris and Gabrielle were standing, sliding an arm around the bard's shoulders. She looked up. "You all right?"

The warrior nodded. "Yeah… " A glance down. "How about you?" She studied her partner's face.

Gabrielle sighed. "I could use a nap." She confessed, then slid a light fingertip up Xena's side. "Care to join me?"

"Yeah." She grinned, steering the bard towards the cabin, and leaving a snorting Toris to roll his eyes. "Hey… can't help it if you're jealous." She called back over her shoulder. "C'mon Ares." The wolf sneezed, then trotted after them.

Gabrielle giggled. "Damn..I wish I'd seen him dancing on the table."

Xena snuggled closer, and nibbled a bit of her hair. "Oh? What's it worth to you for me to engage him in a drinking contest?"

Gabrielle regarded her with an amused look. "You sure you'll win?"

The warrior chuckled deep in her throat. "Trust me."

They entered the cabin, and closed the door behind them.

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