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

Specific Story Disclaimers:

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

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

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

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

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


Festival - Part 10

By Melissa Good

Steady thuds of hammers rang through the air, as sets of Amazons worked industriously on the area they'd be using for the party that evening. Four stocky women were balancing logs on their shoulders, placing them carefully for the bonfire, and two daring girls were inching out along thin branches, putting up long strings of brightly colored flowers.

The entire atmosphere of the village had definitely picked up, Xena realized, as she saw two or three of the normally serious scouts start pelting each other with extra fruits. A grin edged her face. Maybe this won't be so bad after all… Several of the working women spotted them, and sent up cheerful greetings, which Gabrielle returned. The bard glanced up at her. "Better than last time, huh?"

Xena exhaled. "I was just thinking that." She admitted wryly. "Yeah… " A passing figure caught her eye, and she noticed the tall blonde's intent interest on her. "I think they're kinda warming up to me."

Gabrielle watched the quickly striding blond Amazon run right into a tree. "Think so, huh?" She commented innocently, as the girl bounced off and ducked into the nearest hut. "I'm not sure 'warm' is the temperature we're looking at here, munchkin, but…" She reached over and straightened the front of Xena's crimson leathers. "I do love you in red."

Xena laughed, and draped an arm across the bard's shoulders and pulling her closer. "Well, it is the Festival of Dionysus.. we might as well enjoy it." Her eyes twinkled, and she ducked her head quickly, surprising Gabrielle with a gentle kiss.

The bard sighed, watching another Amazon walk into a tree. "Xena, you're causing chaos." Then she licked her lips, and pulled the warrior's head down again. "Might as well do it right." They stopped in the shade of a large tree, and enjoyed the moment, peripherally aware of the sudden cessation of noise around them. "We have to cut this out." The bard murmured.

"Why?" Xena nibbled her jaw.

"We'll be eating thatch tonight and sitting on rocks." Gabrielle replied, with a giggle. "C'mon."

The loud voices were echoing out of the dining hall as Xena and Gabrielle strolled up, arm in arm. "Uh oh." Gabrielle muttered. "Sounds like trou… don't you look at me like that!"

Long, dark lashes batted. "I wasn't going to say anything."

The bard's green eyes slitted. "You were thinking."

Xena laughed, as she pulled open the door and nudged her partner inside.

A group of Amazons were clustered around the head table, and they could just barely see Ephiny's curly blond hair in the middle of it. Menelda was leaning against the wood table, yelling.

"Damn it, Ephiny… I've had about enough of this! I'm telling you the bastard took off, and kidnapped that young girl, and you've got to do something about it!"

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks. "You know, Xe.. we don't cause trouble here. We just usually end up fixing it." The bard muttered, in an undertone. "All right.. what's going on?" She added, in a louder voice.

Menelda turned around, and put her hands on her hips. "The problem you sent home, your Majesty."

Gabrielle felt the blow up coming and just barely got her hands on her soulmate before the village healer was treated to a taste of Xena's dark side. "Whoa, tiger… hold on…" She put her hands against the steadily moving chest and willed the flashing eyes to drop to hers. "Hey.. hey…. "

Ephiny stepped around the table and put herself between Menelda and the still bristling warrior. "Menelda, that was uncalled for. And it was my decision, not hers." She spoke sharply, then turned serious hazel eyes to Gabrielle, who had her back to the regent since her attention was focused on Xena. Reluctantly, Ephiny met the warrior's smoldering blue eyes. "Paladia and Cait are missing."

Gabrielle felt the pulse under her fingertips slow, and she rubbed her thumb against the smooth skin before she turned around to face Ephiny. "Missing?" She looked from the regent to the irate healer. "Maybe they just went for a walk?" She commented mildly, as she felt Xena's hands settled on her shoulders in a warm grip.

Menelda snorted. "Went for a walk? Cait's badly injured, or did you forget that?"

Gabrielle felt the fingers on her tighten and she put her hands on her hips. "Can I ask what your problem is?" She asked in irritation. "Are you incapable of basic civility, or something? You act like you have a chobo stuffed up your.. " The grip tightened, but she could feel the faint warmth of a chuckle tickle the back of her head.

Menelda stared at her in dislike. "We're standing her babbling when that criminal could be doing who knows what to Cait."

Gabrielle looked at the ground in disgust, then turned and faced Xena. "Could you please go find them?"

"We've already searched." The healer interjected.

Xena touched the tip of her nose with one finger. "Right." She turned and gave the gathered crowd a look. They parted without a word, and she paced through them, snapping her fingers for Ares as she got to the door and the wolf met her.

"We have a search party out." Ephiny told Gabrielle, in a low voice. "Pony's out there, and a few others… we don't know how long they've been gone."

The bard nodded. "Xena'll find them." She looked at Ephiny, then at Menelda. "I think we need to talk." She paused to let them absorb that.

"Now?" Ephiny asked, glancing at the crowd.

"Now would be good." Gabrielle informed her. "In fact, now would be great." She motioned for them to precede her. "How about my place?"

Two silent Amazons paced quietly out the door, followed by a very annoyed bard.

"Where are you off to, Xena?" Rena caught up to her as she reached the healer's hall, and started checking the ground.

"Going to go find someone." The warrior replied, dismissing the front door, and moving around to the back one. Her eyes caught on the doorsill, and she peered at one stout support, which bore a scuff on it about shoulder level. She leaned close, and spotted a tiny string of blue embedded in the wood. She plucked it out, and examined it, then ducked her head inside the room and peered at the nearest pallet. "Paladia and Cait are missing." She noted the blankets that were laid over the beds, and let her eyes run over Cait's, which was missing its cover.

"Ah." Rena had been perched on an upturned bucket, watching her with evident enjoyment. "Run off, did they?"

Blue eyes picked up sunlight as Xena looked back over her shoulder. "What makes you say that?" She stood up, and dusted her hands off, noting no signs of a struggle.

The grizzled elder chuckled. "I'm old, not blind, Xena." She stood, and ambled over to where the warrior was standing. "I cleaned up big time when you gave that pretty lassie of yours that peck in the Centaur's courtyard." She whispered, giving the warrior a poke in her bare ribs.

Xena fought down a blush, and settled on a gruff snort instead. "Well, I gotta go find em, so.. " She clucked for Ares, who was sniffing around in the nearby brush. "C'mere, boy." The warrior stepped inside, picking up the pillow Cait had been using, and offering it to the wolf.

Naturally, he bit it, then shook his big head, ripping the pillow out of her hand, and sending stuffing flying all over the pallets. "Agrufhf."

"Hey." Solari protested weakly, brushing a bit of down off her face. "Save the pillow fights for when I can enjoy em, huh?"

"Sorry. "Xena retrieved the shredded item. "Ares, just smell it, okay?" The wolf did so, then sneezed. "Find." Xena said, deepening her voice. "Find."

Ares panted at her, then sneezed again. "Roo." He pushed past her, and trotted down the forest path, his nose firmly rooted in the earth.

"I think I'll tag along and give you a hand, Xena." Rena decided. "I like that kid."

The warrior sighed inwardly. "Suit yourself, but you gotta keep up." She strode after the wolf, then broke into a faster gait as he headed up into the forest.

Rena fell into pace beside her, chuckling a little. "I'm not one of these little puppies, y'know.. I've made it a point to keep my conditioning up." She kept up with the taller woman easily. "You young sprouts have it easy… just wait till you get to be my age, and have to do this stuff."

Xena loped along after Ares, and gave her companion a wry look. "I'm not that young, Rena."

"Pfft." The Amazon snorted. "Listen, kiddo.. I'm twice your age, so eat my feathers." She hopped nimbly over a protruding root. "I could be your mother." A pause. "Gods, that's a frightening thought." She muttered. "I hear these kids moaning about aches and pains… I could just throw up my lunch."

The warrior scratched her jaw, but remained silent.

"See? That's what I like about you, Xena." The elder nodded briskly. "Never hear you complaining.. and don't think I don't know you got clobbered yesterday."

A shrug. "No point in making a big deal over it." Xena kept an eye on the frisking Ares, and dodged as he headed up a narrow path. "But Gabrielle disagrees with you. "

Rena chuckled quietly. "Of course she does… but that's different." She ducked a low hanging branch. "I bet she takes every opportunity to coddle you, huh?"

Xena just looked at her.

"Enjoy it." The elder's eyes twinkled. "Comes right from her heart."

A faint smile traced the warrior's otherwise grim face. "I know."

She leaned forward a little as the path sloped upward, powering up the incline as Ares scrambled forward, his nose brushing the leaves eagerly. Abruptly, the wolf came to a halt, and pranced on the edge of a ravine, peering down into it with a puzzled look. He turned and peered back at Xena, then looked down again.

The warrior pulled up next to him, and peered down, then glanced along the lip of the ravine. "Hm…. I bet they didn't climb down there. "

Rena peered past her. "Bet you're right." She examined the tree just to one side. "Check this out."

Xena did, seeing a patch of branch that was worn smooth. She put her hand around it, covering the patch completely, and feeling the roughness of the bark at its edges against her hand. "Handhold."

"Mm." Rena agreed, turning Xena's hand over, and peering at it. "A lot smaller than yours, too."

"Yeah." The warrior acknowledged. "Ok.. I guess we go this way. " She edged up the narrow path that bordered the lip of the ravine, placing her boots carefully as she went. Rena followed nimbly, her smaller stature more easily maneuvered around the thickly branched trees. The older woman put a hand against Xena's bare back, then yelped as the warrior's body shifted fluidly.

"Don't do that." Xena warned, with a sigh, having only just stopped herself from thwacking the Amazon into the ravine. "Not without saying something."

"Whoops.. sorry. " Rena grinned unrepentantly. "You got soft skin for such a tough wench, y'know that?"

Xena gave her a look, then she chuckled and shook her head. "Can we get back to finding these kids?" She started up the path again, ducking under a low hanging branch, then freezing unexpectedly, causing the Amazon to collide with her. She managed to keep her instincts in check, and stilled, pointing down. "There."

Rena peered over her extended arm, brushing a branch full of leaves aside impatiently. "Ah." She grinned. "Told you."

Xena grinned as well, as she made out Paladia's tall form, braced against a tall tree, one knee propped up with a piece of pale parchment on it, her other leg pinned in place as it served Cait as a pillow.

The ex renegade didn't look comfortable, in fact, she kept turning her head to look at the smaller girl, the crinkle in her brow visible to Xena even where she was. "Well, well." The warrior commented. "I don't think Cait's in any danger."

A small basket sat nearby, and a wineskin was draped over the branch next to Paladia's head, and it was obvious to Xena that the pair had spent quite some time there, looking out over the water.

"They must have made their way down that side. " Rena pointed, to a half hidden switchback path that would have ended up next to the spot. "Ain't that cute. "

Xena felt a grin edging her own lips, then she sighed, and moved forward. "Well, let's get them back." Without so much as a word of warning, she reached the edge of the glen, and leaped out into space.

"Son of a BACCHAE!" Rena yelped, scrambling to the thin ledge, and peering over just in time to see Xena catch a branch, then swing up and into a double flip before she landed near where the two missing fugitives were settled. "Bleeping bugger of a show off. "The Amazon muttered to herself, glancing back at the watching Ares, who wagged his tail. "She always do that?"

"Agrrroow." The wolf snuffled her boot and nudged it with his nose.

"Oh no.. I'm not doing that… you're crazy." Rena scowled at him, as she started to make her way down the switchback. "I didn't get to be this old by being that reckless."

The queen's quarters were very quiet, as the three women entered, and Gabrielle motioned them to the two chairs set squarely in front of the table she used as a desk. She waited for them to be seated, then she took her own seat behind the table, and folded her hands over her diary. "So.. where do we start?"

Ephiny glanced at the ground, and Menelda folded her arms over her chest, and remained silent.

Great. Gabrielle let out a quiet sigh. "I guess I start then." She pinned the healer with her eyes. "Why are you so hostile?"

She saw a faint quirk touch Ephiny's lips, and she knew the regent was inwardly chuckling at the directness. "I've never done anything to you." She added.

Menelda looked at her sullenly. "I don't like the way things are being run here, and it's just too bad I'm the only one who has the guts to say something about it." She pointedly didn't look at Ephiny, who snorted softly.

Instead of getting mad, Gabrielle reflected on the statement. "Okay. What would you do differently?"

The healer hadn't expected the question, and her jaw sagged a little. "What?"

A faint shrug. "You said you don't like things. All right, I accept that, but not liking things doesn't count unless you have an idea to change them. " The bard explained reasonably. "What is it you don't like, that the Nation is at peace? That your neighbors don't attack you that much anymore? That you've expanded your trade zone to twice what it was? What?"

Ephiny was watching in fascination, her chin propped up on one hand. Gabrielle's style was unique, her attitude gentle and inquiring rather than confrontational, and it put her opponents off balance because you just couldn't look into those pretty green eyes and see an enemy. Ephiny suspected that was how she was able to face Xena's darkest corners, because there was no judgement or accusation in her approach, just a need to understand.

"There's… " Menelda struggled to order her thoughts. "There's no discipline anymore."

"Ah." Gabrielle nodded solemnly. "You mean the training? Or are you talking about everyone's attitude in general?"

"Both.. neither… I… " The healer rubbed her head. "I don't know… it's just like no one wants to live by our traditions anymore."

"Hmm." The bard considered that. "How is that my fault?"

The healer looked at her. "You're the queen. It's your responsibility."

"I see." The bard stood, and walked around the table, pacing quietly to and fro in front of the large bed. "So.. let me get this straight… you decide there's a problem with discipline… which suddenly developed.. what, three years ago?"

"It's been going on longer than that." Menelda protested. "You've seen it.. look at what happened the other day?"

One slim hand rose, and a finger made a point. "But I've only been around in the Amazon's life for.. oh…what, two years?." Gabrielle's brows rose. "Right? And not a whole lot of that two years, either… I think I've spent a total of… two months.. here?"

'What does that have to do with anything?" Menelda growled. "It's still your responsibility."

The bard studied her. "Maybe, but since I have no control over day to day events here, it's kind of hard to grasp that." She glanced at Ephiny. "I don't think we've put out any directives that reduce discipline lately, have we?"

Ephiny shook her head. "No.. and I think Pony would be highly insulted at the insinuation. The training regimen she designed was complete, and to my mind, effective."

"Sure, you'd defend her." Menelda sniped. "Look what happened yesterday."

The regent sighed. "All the training in the world can't help you if you're caught by that kind of surprise… we depended on our outposts to warn us, and they weren't expecting a friend to turn on them."

"No.. no one ever expects that." The healer commented, staring pointedly at the quietly watching queen.

The bard put her hands on her hips. "I don't think this has anything to do with Amazon discipline." She replied honestly. "I think… you're unhappy and looking for a convenient scapegoat, and I fit the bill." Gabrielle replied. "So instead of changing your life to make yourself happy, you find someone to blame" She paused. "In this case, me."

The healer stared at her. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"Don't I?" The bard answered softly. "And you still haven't told me what you'd do differently, because you don't know." Gabrielle pressed her point relentlessly. "It's just so much easier to try and make other people miserable." A pause. "Question is, why are you attacking me, all of a sudden?"

"It's your fault, damn it.. " Menelda shouted back. "They look at you and… " She stopped. "Forget it."

The bard rounded on her, and put both hands on the chair arms, leaning forward and pinning the woman with her pale, green eyes. "I don't like whennpeople are nasty to me for no reason, Menelda. It makes me feel really bad, and it annoys my partner."

"But you're the.. "

"No." Gabrielle cut her off. "I'm not 'the queen'." Her voice strengthened. "I'm a person, and my name is Gabrielle, and I have feelings just like you do." She paused. "So… what is your problem with me?"

Long, long silence, as the two women looked at each other. Ephiny remained quiet.

"It's not fair." The healer finally said, hoarsely.

"What isn't?" Gabrielle asked, quietly. "What do you find so horrible?" Her voice dropped. "You didn't used to be like this… we had some great talks when I was here that month."

The older woman's jaw worked. "You stayed with her. "

Ephiny stiffened, and half stood, until Gabrielle waved her back to her seat. "No.. it's okay, Eph… I figured that was it." She said, then paused, and took a breath. "Yes, I did."

"How could you ?" Menelda asked, in almost a whisper. "After what she did?"

Gabrielle gazed back at her. "Because I would die without her." She replied gently. "Because she's a part of me… the other half of my soul." Her eyes searched the other woman's. "Because she forgave me everything." She let the words fall into an aching silence. "But that's not what happened to you, is it?"

Ephiny felt her jaw drop, as she watched the emotions chase themselves across the healer's face. No one… no one living, at any rate, knew what had happened to Menelda. She'd kept everything inside, not telling anyone for all these years. How could Gabrielle know what had happened?

There was no way, but as Ephiny watched the mist green eyes searching, and probing Menelda's silent face, she was convinced that somehow, Gabrielle did know. It was part of the bard's own, special magic, that allowed her to see in the hearts of others, as she touched chords of emotion with unerring precision.

She never expected Menelda to lunge forward, but she did, and caught Gabrielle around the neck, throwing the younger woman back as she let out a wild, anguished cry.

Ephiny hurled herself forward, out of her chair, but Menelda had turned, throwing her body and Gabrielle's away from her, and she was now throttling the startled bard. "Damn you … don't you bring those memories back, you bitch!"

Gabrielle arched her back, and unseated her opponent, then powered them both over by sheer strength, her muscular arms pushing off against the floor as she broke Menelda's hold. She jammed an elbow into the older woman's throat, then got enough leverage to throw her body over the healer's and pinned her down. Menelda was taller, but she was slight, and couldn't budge the bard's solid weight. "We all have memories we'd rather not have."

The woman gasped, her face reddening. "You… are a fool… she'll.. turn on you again.. and then she'll.. finish.. what she started." She struggled helplessly. "Don't you understand? "

Gabrielle merely held her down, watching her in quiet compassion. "I'll take that chance."

The healer went very still, and just looked at her.

"You can't live your life based on what might go wrong, Menelda.. not if you have a chance at being happy. You have to live life for the good parts." Gabrielle told her. "So.. yes.. I know we hurt each other. And I know it might happen again. " She drew in a breath. "But we both decided to take a chance on love." Now her eyes gentled. "I'm sorry it wasn't the same for you."

For a long time, Menelda stared up at her. Then slowly, achingly, she seemed to collapse inside herself. "She didn't mean to hurt me." She whispered. "She just got so angry all the time."

Gabrielle closed her eyes, and relaxed, shifting her weight off the now harmless healer, ignoring the look of shock on Ephiny's face. "Anger is a really destructive thing." The bard remarked softly, stroking the woman's arm in compassion. "It makes you do things you don't really mean, sometimes."

"She came at me.. with a knife… " Menelda moaned. "It was late.. she was… we'd been drinking… hadn't paid attention to where we camped.. knew it was a slide zone… last thing I remember was that knife.. and me reacting.. and then it hurt."

Gabrielle pulled her up, and hugged her gently, remembering the impact of a fist on her own face. And how death had seemed… so tempting at that moment, it had hurt so much. "I'm sorry.. I know how much that must have hurt you." She kept up soothing murmurs, until the woman stopped sobbing, then she sat back. "Eph.. help me get her up.. " Gabrielle sighed, as she got her feet under her and pushed away from the floor, wincing at the sudden ache in her back.

Halfway up, she felt a wave of dizziness hit her, and she gasped, as the world darkened, and she felt a sickening vertigo that grabbed her and took her knees out from under her.

She was barely aware of Ephiny's sudden, desperate grip on her arm, as she stumbled towards the bed and managed to land on it, lying down and watching the world darken, and close in, and grow very, very quiet.

Paladia leaned closer to her parchment to study the line she'd just drawn, then rubbed out a bit with one charcoal stained fingertip and redrew it. She paused and regarded the gully they were overlooking, then went back to her work.

It had turned out to be a more or less okay morning, she grudgingly admitted to herself, though Cait had dozed off after they'd munched the scraps and things she'd managed to snitch from the back of the dining hall. And of course, she'd forgotten to bring a frigging pillow, so the damn girl had decided to use her leg as one.

Paladia looked down at the sleeping girl with a scowl. Cait's eyes were shut, and her slender chest was rising and falling with what the ex renegade supposed was a normal rhythm, though given the angle of the sun, she planned on waking the girl up soon so they didn't get into too much trouble.

With a sigh, she went back to her sketching, drawing in a boulder, and the interesting looking pine tree that was almost wrapped around it, having been struck by lightning and shriveled. She drew the long narrow leaves in, then moved her vision to focus on a leafy shrub next to it when something blocked her vision.

She blinked, with a frown, as she tried to make sense of the tan, and crimson and black, then she jerked as she realized it was a person. "Aw, crap!" She yelped, startled. "Where did you come from?"

Cait woke with a jerk, and blinked, her hand reaching for a knife hilt that wasn't there. She gasped as her shoulder protested, and sank back. "Gosh."

"Stay still, okay?" Paladia gave Xena a look. "It's just the wonder warrior."

The tall, dark haired woman sauntered forward, putting her boot up on a boulder and leaning on her knee. "Hi." She chose to ignore Paladia's description of her.

Cait stiffly rolled over, still using Paladia's leg as a pillow. "Hello….how super it is you found us." She greeted her hero.

"Mm." Xena agreed, seating herself on the rock and leaning back, as she stretched her long legs out and crossed them at the ankles. "More than you know."

They looked at each other. "Aw, crap." Paladia rolled her eyes in disgust. "Lemme guess.. they missed us."

Xena took in the basket, and the nice location, and the view, and smiled. "Yeah." She reached over and neatly plucked the parchment from the ex renegades hands, ignoring her glare of protest. "Hey… not bad." She complimented the glowering Paladia, half turning to compare the view with the picture.

The grumpy look on the ex renegades face faded, to be replaced with a bemused one. "Thanks." She muttered. "Gotta do something to pass the time around here."

Xena handed the picture back, as Rena and Ares trotted up. "Looks like everything is under control, here." She advised the elder, hearing the soft "Uh oh" from Cait.

Rena studied them. "Lookat you lot… talk about lazy kids."

Xena bit off a grin. "Well… I think we can cut Cait some slack."

The elder put her hands on her hips and struck a pose. "I was including you in that, kiddo."

A dark brow edged up. Rena's attitude required an adjustment, since she wasn't use to being treated with such a mixture of familiarity and veiled respect outside her own family. Kiddo? She sighed inwardly. Respect your elders, Xena… "All right, Grandma." She drawled slowly.

That got a flaring of nostrils from the elder. "Doncha give me that look…. The rest of us have to walk, walk, walk down the path, we can't just fly through the air like a damn squirrel." She pointed a finger at the comfortably seated warrior. "Sure.. take the easy route!"

Paladia snickered at the nonplussed expression on the tall warrior's face, then she yelped in shock as she felt a pinch on the skin of her thigh. "Hey!!!!"

Cait folded her hands across her stomach demurely, batting her lashes at the foliage above. "Gosh, it's a nice day, isn't it?"

Xena was caught between being vaguely insulted by the elder's teasing, and vaguely complimented by it, and decided there was really no point in getting mad. She stood up, and dusted herself off. "Well, this is lots of fun but…. "

The sick feeling hit her in the gut so hard she dropped down on to a knee, grabbing for the rock to keep from toppling over. Rena was at her side instantly, and had a hand on her shoulder steadying her.

"Hey… Xena… " The elder's voice sharpened in concern. "What's wrong?"

Xena closed her eyes, and concentrated, feeling a tendril of fear cut through her awareness, sharp and cold as a mountain stream. "Damn." She shoved the disorientation down, and stood, shaking off Rena's hand. "I'm fine.. I've… I have to get back to the village." She took several deep breaths, planning her route. "You take these guys back?"

Rena stared at her, uncomprehending. "Uh. Sure."

"Thanks." And then the warrior was gone as she bolted towards the path leading back towards the Amazons, and a partner she knew was in trouble. Ares bounded along behind her, scrambling up the muddy slope.

They watched her go. "What in Hades right eyeball was that all about?" Rena wondered, turning her eyes towards the two truants.

Cait sighed. "It's Gabrielle, of course." She winced as she tried to sit up. "Something must be wrong.. we'd better get back there."

Paladia snorted. "And you're gonna do what… bleed on the problem?"

"Don't be foolish, girl.. " Rena added. "Woman didn't get a pigeon message… she just probably heard a noise or something."

Cait managed to crane her head around, and gave them both a very severe look. "She most certainly did not." She informed them. "She always knows when Gabrielle's in trouble. It's part of their… thing."

"Well, you both are going to lose parts of your 'things' if you don't get a move on." Rena advised them. "Folks are swallowing dirty feathers over you two."

"Oh… great." Paladia groaned. "Now I guess I gotta carry you back, huh?"

Cait sniffed. "I can walk."

"No you can't." The ex renegade mimicked her tone.

The girl winced, and realized she was right. "Well, I'll tell a story then."

"Aw…. " Paladia groaned.

"Not that one." Cait relented.

Rena watched them, bemused. "Hey, you kids having a fling?"

Two sets of shocked eyes faced her. "Gosh no!" Cait blurted.

"You nuts?" Paladia barked.

"Hmm." The elder wiped a grin off her face. "Right… okay, let's get a move on, then." She helped Paladia gather her things, and carried her parchment and pencils as she picked Cait up, amongst rounds of bickering. "Heh… hope we meet Pony and the girls on the path.. won't they be snarked I found you guys."

Cait peered over Paladia's broad shoulder. "Xena found us." She corrected firmly.

"Shh.. don’t contradict your elders, sprout." Rena chuckled, as she led the way.

Ephiny hung on to the bard as she collapsed, thanking Artemis that Gabrielle had landed on the bed and not the hard floor. She checked the pulse in a slack wrist and bit her lip as she felt the rapid flutter. A noise made her look down, to where Menelda was dragging herself to her feet.

"What happened?" The healer asked, hoarsely.

The regent shook her head, as she smoothed the pale hair back from Gabrielle's forehead. "I don't… understand.. she seemed fine." She muttered. "Her heart's beating so fast… "

Menelda lifted a hand with what seemed an enormous amount of effort, and circled the bard's slim wrist. "Damn." She started looked the younger woman over. "She get bit.. or.. .I didn't… did I do something…"

Ephiny shook her head. "I don't think so… I.. ah, she's pregnant."

The healer's head jerked up. "What?"

Curly blond hair moved as the regent nodded. "About… oh, I guess around six weeks or so." She deliberately set aside her anger at Menelda, figuring rightly there was a time and place for that, and this wasn't it.

"You should have told me." The healer gazed at her. "Or didn't you think it was worth mentioning?"

Ephiny exhaled. "Later… let's take care of her, first, all right?" She felt Gabrielle's pulse point, which hammered against her fingers. The bard was pale, and her skin seemed chilled. "Let me get a cover over her.. she's cold"

Menelda got numbly to her feet and helped Ephiny tug the thick black fur over the bard's slender form, then she put a hand on her head. "She prone to fainting?"

"No." The regent said quietly. "Not that I've ever noticed…she's always seemed really healthy to me, in fact." She studied the bard intently.

A low groan drew their notice, and Ephiny sat down on the edge of the bed, grabbing hold of Gabrielle's shoulders as she stirred. "Hey… take it easy.."

Pale lashes fluttered, then opened and the bard lifted an unsteady hand toward her head. "Wh…" Her face contracted in pain. "Ow… gods… " She curled an arm aaound her stomach and rolled onto her side. "Augh.."

"Gab…" Ephiny clasped her shoulder anxiously. "Hey… what's wrong? Tell me what hurts?"

The bard gritted her teeth. "Cramps… ow… gods… it's like my insides are being turned out."

Menelda sucked in a shocked breath. "Oh Hades… " She ran a hand through her short hair. "No no.. listen.. Gabrielle, try to relax your body, okay?" Healer's instincts took charge, pushing aside other issues for the moment.

"Can you give her something?" The regent spoke softly, and rapidly. "Menelda, she can't… "She cut the thought off and clenched her jaw, rubbing the bard's tense shoulder gently. "Take it easy… take a deep breath, Gabrielle."

Easy for her to say. The bard moaned silently, as she tried to comply. Her body curled into a ball, and she wrapped a hand around the pillow, squeezing it hard. "Okay… " She gasped. "I'm … doing what I can." A mental cry went out for her soulmate, wishing her here, and in charge, wanting her touch desperately.

"Do something." Ephiny gritted her teeth, and stared at Menelda.

"Oh.. now I'm a healer, right?" The woman snapped back, but she got up, and walked over to the bags slumped on the floor, pawing at one, and then the other of them until she pulled out a sack.. "I have no idea if she even bothered to carry… ah." Her hands found the herbs she was looking for, and she stood, carrying them back to the desk where a pitcher and cup were perched.

"Easy…. Easy, my friend… " Ephiny crooned to the suffering bard. "Come on… come on… relax… we're gonna give you something, and it'll make you feel lots better." She mentally crossed her fingers, recognizing the symptoms of a nascent miscarriage. No… Artemis, no…. please… I'll offer you up anything.. but don't let that happen to her.

Gabrielle's eyes blinked open, and she stared at the doorway, unseeing. "It's the, isn't it?" She whispered, fear spiking her voice. "Oh…sweet gods, please…."

"Shh… no… you're gonna be fine." Ephiny felt the tension in her young friend's body. She looked up as Menelda returned, mixing a cup with her finger. "What is that?"

"You wouldn't know even if I told you." The healer answered shortly. "Just help me get it into her."

Ephiny stared at her, suddenly apprehensive.

"Oh… I can't be trusted, right?" Menelda hissed, seeing her face.

"You did just try to strangle her." Ephiny replied hotly. "But no.. I'll trust you, Menelda. Only remember this.. if anything happens to her, I will personally rip your guts out and leave them hanging on the village gatepost." Her voice was cold and hard, more so than Gabrielle had ever heard it.

They stared at each other. Menelda finally stirred the cup again. "Let's go, or this'll be a moot point." She muttered uncomfortably.

Ephiny exhaled, then she gently lifted the half-conscious bard. "Honey… hang on, okay? You need to drink this."

Gabrielle's eyes opened painfully at that. "What is it?" She croaked.

"Just… it'll relax you." Menelda put the cup to her lips. "Drink."

The bard caught a sharp, unpleasant scent from the cup, but the pain was overwhelming, and she knew she didn't have time to wait for Xena to get back. Reluctantly she drew in a breath, then touched her lips to the liquid.

To be stopped by a gentle hand on her head, and an inflexible one on the cup, which moved it away from her face accompanied by a warm, familiar presence. "Hold it."

Menelda jerked back, and Ephiny gasped, startled by the warrior's sudden, menacing presence. "Gods.. Xena… thank Artemis." The regent moved aside as Xena slid onto a knee by the bed, gently cupping the bard's cheek in her free hand. Didn't even hear her coming… damn…

The warrior sniffed the cup, then with a flick of her wrist, tossed the contents out the window. "Eph… get me my kit." She asked quietly, gently stroking the bard's face with her other hand. "Easy… just relax, love.. I'm here."

"Xe…" The bard almost sobbed. "It hurts." She gripped the warrior's arm causing the veins to jump across Xena's powerful wrists. "Augh… " A low moan escaped her. "Please…."

"Shhh… I know…. Hang on a minute." Xena replied, keeping her speech low, and even, soothing her soulmate with a gentle caress. "Easy now… just breathe.. that's it…"

Ephiny dove back to the bedside with the herbs, and watched as the warrior found three by touch alone, and mixed them, then filled the cup with water from the pitcher at bedside. Xena's face was completely impassive, but the regent could see her hands shaking and the rapid rise and fall of her chest in panicked breath. She abruptly remembered Thessaly, and put a hand on the warrior's tense back in pure reflex. The skin twitched under her touch, but she felt the iron bands under her fingers ease a trifle.

"Okay.. okay… " Xena gently slipped under one of Gabrielle's shoulders, and eased her up, then held the cup to her lips. "Now drink."

One swallow. Two. Gabrielle grimaced. "Oh…gross. " Three swallows, then she drained the cup, and let her head fall down against her partner's chest. One arm was still curled tightly against her belly, and she moaned as another cramp racked her body. "Xe.. I don’t… oh… "

"Shhh…" Xena dropped the cup, and slid up onto the bed, picking her partner up and cradling her against her chest. "I got you…. I got you… you're gonna be fine, love." She told Gabrielle softly, ignoring the two other women in the room, as she willed the herbs to work. "You're gonna be okay." One hand slipped down the bard's back, massaging the achingly tense muscles there. "C'mon… breathe for me… nice deep breaths."

Ephiny felt almost like an eavesdropper, as she listened to the gentle words, so unlike anything she'd ever seen from Xena it was almost like hearing another person.

Which, she realized, was exactly what it was.. this other Xena that Gabrielle seemed to know so well, and who was , in fact, her beloved soulmate as Gabrielle had called it. This was the person she'd willingly risk her life for. Whom she defended fiercely. Whose love she'd clung to, even in the most horrible of circumstances. Maybe now I see why.

She watched Xena's hands move gently over the stricken bard's body, trying to ease her distress and wiping the tears that had squeezed from under her tightly closed eyelids, then shot a glance at Menelda, who was watching the two women with an unreadable expression. Ephiny wondered what the healer was thinking. Probably find out soon enough, she mused wryly.

Gabrielle felt a warm, sweet lethargy pass through her, and she almost cried out in relief as the awful cramping in her guts eased. She squirmed closer to her partner, absorbing the heat from her body, and hearing the harsh hammering of Xena's heart where her ear was pressed against the warrior's chest. It was all right. Xena was here. She was safe. "Better." She mumbled against crimson leather.

Xena felt a shuddering sense of relief, and she closed her eyes, resting her head against Gabrielle's. She could feel the bard's body slowly unwinding, and relaxing against her, and she sent a quiet thanks to whatever god or goddess had been watching over her soulmate.

It had been close.

"How're you doing?" She asked, after a few moments, becoming aware again of the Ephiny's silent presence, and Menelda's stiff form against the wall.

Gabrielle took in a deep breath, then released it. "I'm okay." She felt her senses returning to normal, much to her relief.

Ephiny's head dropped and she sat down abruptly on the nearby chair. Then her curly blond head slowly raised, and she stared at the healer. "Remember what I told you?" Her voice was shaking with anger.

But Xena raised a hand. "Hold it… that first cup wasn't wrong." She slowly slid back against the headboard, cuddling Gabrielle's body to her with amazing gentleness. "It's just… she's very sensitive to herbs… I have to be really careful what I give her." She gave Menelda a short nod. "It was a good choice.. these were just better for her."

Ephiny subsided, and returned her gaze to the floor.

Xena watched the bard's eyes flutter closed. "What happened?" She asked, directing her question to the blond regent.

Ephiny glanced up, and exhaled. "We… were just hashing some stuff out… " How much do I tell her? She observed the tense, controlled features. "There was a little tussle… Gabrielle took care of it… but when she stood up, she passed out."

Blue eyes went ice cold. "Tussle?" Her gaze shifted to focus on Menelda.

"Xe?" Mist green eyes peered up at her. "What's wrong?" Gabrielle's tired voice arrested her building fury. The bard's hand shifted, and she looked up with a worried expression.

It was a struggle. But her soulmate needed her, and that…. Well, Menelda would have to wait until later. She forced her anger down, and took a shaky breath, stroking the bard's hair as much for her comfort as for the younger woman's. "All right… it doesn't matter."

Ephiny rose and crossed to her, sinking down to her knees next to the bed and putting a hand on Xena's knee. "What can I get you… anything you need, or she needs…. I…"

Gabrielle opened her eyes again at that, and peered at her friend, forcing a tiny smile onto her face. "I've got everything I need right here." She joked faintly, patting Xena's chest with one hand. "Sorry about that.. didn't mean to scare everyone." The herbs Xena had given her relaxed her body, but didn't really make her sleepy, and she was content to slump against the warrior's chest as close to motionless as she could manage. The horrible cramping was gone, and now she felt mostly just weak.

And hungry, she realized, startled. What a weird thing to happen.

Xena shifted a little. "Um… " She studied her partner. "If you could get some lunch sent over… I think she mostly just needs some rest." Her brows drew down. "Lots of rest."

The bard peered up. "Xe…. " Her voice sounded a protest.

"Gabrielle, you could have lost the baby." Her soulmate told her, very gently. "You realize that, right?"

The bard swallowed. "I… I didn't…. I mean, I didn't really do anything, Xena… we just walked over here, and talked, and then… "

"And then?" Her partner repeated.

"It was nothing… just a little wrestling, that's all… I was fine." Gabrielle insisted. "It was just when I got up… I just got so dizzy… "

"Gabrielle.. we're not gonna argue about this." Xena stated, flatly. "You are staying in bed until I tell you it's okay to get out of it."

"Xena… for.. "

"She's right." Menelda's voice came quietly from the corner. "Your Majesty."

Xena gave the healer a look, then decided she'd take any ally she could get at the moment. "See?"

Gabrielle looked at both of them. "I feel fine now." She insisted. "I don't want to miss the party."

"Gabrielle." Ephiny put a hand on her calf, and squeezed it. "We can have a party anytime." She let a grin cross her lips. "You know we love parties."

The bard's shoulders slumped. "But… "

Xena took pity on her, and kissed the top of her head. "All right… I'll personally bring you to the party, but you stay here until then, and you just watch everyone when you go." A pause. "Deal?"

"One condition." Gabrielle negotiated skillfully.

The warrior rolled her eyes. "I never get away with this stuff.. okay, what is it?"

"You stay here too." The bard told her, with a smile.

Xena smiled back. "Oh.. is that all?" She hugged the smaller woman. "All right… you win." Like I was going to leave her, even for a minute. Right.

Gabrielle sighed contentedly. Then she lifted her head and gazed up. "So.. did you find them?"

A look. "Yes." Xena's eyes flicked up to the watching Ephiny. "Near the creek… Rena's bringing them back here." She paused. "They were… um… "

"Running off?" Menelda asked, from her corner. "Damn fool kids."

Ephiny saw the sparks flare in two sets of brilliant eyes, and she stood abruptly "We're leaving." She announced. "I'll have a tray sent back here…and maybe some entertainment." Her eyes twinkled soberly. "Get some rest, my friend."

"We will." Gabrielle said softly, one hand playing with the front of Xena's leathers, as she watched them go through the door.

A silence settled over the room, punctuated by the shouts of preparation that were continuing outside. Gabrielle listened to the heartbeat in the chest her ear was pressed against slow, and she waited for Ares to timidly approached the bed and jump up onto it before she lifted her head and looked up at the angular profile above her. "You okay?"

A sharp motion as Xena focused her attention on her soulmate. "Me?" The warrior asked, incredulously. "Gabrielle, I wasn't the one having a problem here."

The bard smiled gently, and plucked a few leaves from under her partner's leathers. "You got here in a hurry." She responded. "I didn't even hear you coming."

Xena surveyed her mud and foliage stained body wryly. "I think everyone else did." She sighed. "I scared the living daylights out of a few people getting across the place."

Gabrielle nodded. "I can imagine." She plucked a few more leaves out. "Um… I think I can survive here by myself for a few minutes if you want to stand up and get that stuff off you." Xena's arms were still wrapped very firmly around her, as though the warrior were afraid she'd escape somewhere.

"Oh." Xena glanced down sheepishly, and released her, setting her very carefully back against the pillows and tucking the fur around her before she got to her feet, sending a small cascade of twigs and leaves to the floor. " She'd eschewed the paths, and taken a more direct route, ending up exploding out of the foliage near the bathing hall and frightening the three Amazons inside into diving out of their tubs and hitting the floor. That had added a little thatch to her body decoration, and now she patiently pulled the scratchy stuff out from under the crimson leathers.

"Why don't you take that off?" Gabrielle inquired. A dark brow lifted saucily. "That's not what I meant." The brow lowered into a scowl. "Oh.. you know what I'm ta… Xena, that's not what I meant either." The bard told her, in mock exasperation.

It was a good idea though, Xena reflected, after she rewarded her younger partner with a wry chuckle. She removed the Amazon leathers, shaking out the bits of tree bark with vigorous movements, then padded over to their bags, and pulled out two shifts, one of which she settled over her shoulders, the other she brought back with her to the bed.

Gabrielle had been watching this in idle enjoyment, and agreeably sat up when Xena perched on the edge of the bed again, to allow the warrior to start removing her ceremonial get up. The warm fingers felt good against her skin, and she remained silent as Xena gathered up the fabric of the shift, and eased it over her head.

"Is Cait okay?" She finally asked, softly, as the warrior worked on removing her boots.

Blue eyes glanced over at her. "Yeah.. she's fine. They were just playing truant." Her lips twitched in amusement. "Found them a nice spot, Cait was snoozing, Paladia was sketching." She tugged the bard's footwear off, then tickled her toes.

"Yah…. Xena!" She snatched her foot away, and muffed a giggle.

The warrior smiled, and quietly fiddled with the blankets before she let out a brief sigh. "So.. you gonna tell me what actually happened, or… " She watched the bard's face intently. "Look… I'm not going to rush off and attack her, if that's what you're afraid of." Her voice took on a bitter twist.

Gabrielle blinked. "No…I…"She paused, reflecting quietly. "I guess that's what it seems like to you, huh?" She murmured, remembering Ephiny's truncated explanation.

"Like I can't be trusted with the truth, yeah." Xena replied honestly.

The bard winced. "Ow."

Xena shrugged.

"C'mere." Gabrielle tugged her sleeve. "Lie down, and I'll tell you the whole story." She paused. "I think I was just trying to find a way to excuse what she did….because I feel sorry for her."

Xena accepted that. "All right." She waited for the bard to move over, then she leaned against the backboard, and stretched her legs out onto the bed. Gabrielle immediately wrapped an arm around her and snuggled close, letting her eyes drift shut in quiet peace for a long moment.

"Mmm… that feels so good." She murmured, after a bit, then she sniffed at Xena's skin. "Why do you smell like sage? I mean.. not that I mind, it smells nice, but it's not your usual after bath splash."

"Um." The warrior scratched her jaw. "I took a short cut."

"A sho….oh, Xena.. no… " Mist green eyes gazed up at her. "Not through the herb garden?" Gabrielle sighed, then reached up, and plucked a bit of dill from behind her soulmate's ear. "Oh, am I ever gonna hear about this.. that's Esta's pride and joy.. she wouldn't even let me walk around in it the last time I was here."

"You.. are more important than herbs." Xena stated, unrepentant. "It was in my way." She examined the sprig of dill and sniffed it delicately. "Hmm." She chewed the sprig experimentally.

Gabrielle sucked her lip and let out a short laugh. "That's my Xena." She patted the warrior on the belly. "Glad to know that stuff still works."

Xena settled herself further into the soft pillows. "Mmm.. oh yeah.. that's for sure." She remarked, wryly "Nearly knocked me out." She tickled the bard's ear idly. "So.. do I get the story, or not?"

"Wait." The bard held up a hand. "Knocked you out? That never happened before."

A sigh. "I know.. maybe it's the whole baby thing." Xena answered. "It was like a… I don't know…. Like standing under a waterfall, I guess… took me a minute to figure out what was going on, then I kinda just took off."

"Hmm. Sorry." Gabrielle remarked apologetically. "Glad you got back here, though…" She took a breath, readying her thoughts. "We'd…. I brought them back here because I was… gods, Xena, I was so sick of hearing her just go off on everyone for everything.. I figured I could… find out why she was so angry all the time."

"I take it you did?" The warrior asked quietly.

"Mm." The bard nodded against her chest. "Sort of, I guess… she… " Gabrielle sighed. "She had a bad time when she was younger…I think that person who died in the rockslide was her partner, and they… Xena, that person was bad to her."



Xena considered the statement carefully. "Bad like… your father was bad to you?"

A nod. "She… I guess she kind of felt.. " This was the hard part. "I… think she was mad… at me.. because she thought I…well, she thought we were like she and that person used to be, and…" Gabrielle felt the body under her go very still. "And she didn't understand." A pause. "That we're not."

Xena stared at her. "She thought I was… that I'm…." The words trailed off. "That's what everyone thinks, isn't it?" She finally continued, in a small voice.

"It's a stupid thing to think." Gabrielle stated quietly, but surely. "It makes no sense, Xena.. you explained it to me yourself.. people who do that, do it because they feel… powerless in their life, and that's the way they make themselves feel good." She hesitated. "They have to do that to feel like they're on top."

No answer. Gabrielle looked up to see her partner's face a dull mask, and her eyes focused on something not present. "Xena, you're the wrong kind of person to do that." She caught the warrior's slack hand in her own and curled her fingers around it.

The eyes closed. "They think it anyway." Xena replied. "Everyone always has… seen me as a bully who took joy out of using my fists on anyone weaker than I was." She shrugged. "Goes with the territory, I guess." Her jaw clenched. "I can't even say it's not true."

"I can." The bard stated.

"Can you?" Xena lifted a hand and brushed her jaw, at the exact spot she'd hit Gabrielle in that cave.

"Oh yes." Gabrielle replied, catching her hand, and bringing it to her lips. "I know what that is, remember? I know how it feels to be struck at without cause, and without warning, and what it's like to be left hurting, wondering what you could have done to deserve it." She looked her soulmate right in the eyes. "In that cave, there was no wondering. I knew what I'd done." She exhaled. "That was very different, Xena." Her eyes studied the still face intently. "You think about that a lot, don't you?"

Xena nodded. "I think about… how… I could have done that, no matter what the… situation.. was… I…"She stopped, and swallowed. "It hurts… knowing I could do that… I never thought I…not with you… which is funny, because I've killed people with no remorse more times than I can count."

"I know exactly how you feel." Gabrielle responded softly. "Every time I relive coming through that door and seeing you on the ground with him." She took a breath. "I think.. how could I have done that?"

They sat in silence for a moment. "I know it took a lot of courage for you to let me back in." The bard finally said. "Thank you."

Blue eyes regarded her. "I know it took a lot of courage for you to trust me again." She quietly replied. "And I'm very glad you did, but what I did took no courage at all, Gabrielle." She traced the bard's jawline slowly. "I couldn't face living without you."

Gabrielle had to take a moment just to breathe. "I felt the same way." She whispered at last.

They studied each other. Finally Xena nodded. "Okay… so… you found out what was wrong, and then?"

"Oh." The bard had to think about what she was saying. "Well.. no, before that, I kept pushing at her… and she kind of snapped." Her eyes flicked to the warrior's. "She jumped at me, and we wrestled.. but.. " She held up a hand to forestall the indignant protest. "She wasn't a threat, Xena… she couldn’t hurt me. I had her down in a second, honest.. and then I got that whole thing out of her."

"Uh huh." Xena scowled a little. "Were you feeling bad before that?"

"No.. not that I… well, I guess.. I mean I kind of had a headache…or I was getting one, anyway, and it was making me cranky, I do remember that, and… " She thought a minute. "My back hurt."

They both fell silent as the door pushed open, and Rena came ambling in with a tray. "Well, well, well.. lookee here." She gazed at the two women with a wry smirk. "Aren't we cozy?" She put the tray down on the bedside table, and whisked the cover off. "Now.. we have not one, but two different kinds of soups, roast chicken for the timid, roast mutton for the brave, white cheese, orange cheese, two peaches, two pears, two bowls of nice gruel, and a pitcher of milk."

Gabrielle peeked at her over her partner's chest, sniffing delicately. "Smells nice."

Xena chewed the inside of her lip to keep from laughing. "They weren't taking any chances, I see."

"Uh huh." The elder agreed, then she perched on the edge of the bed. "So… this is your emergency, huh?" Her eyes twinkled gravely at Xena. "Cait the precocious was right, I guess." Her gaze turned curious. "How'd you do that?"

"It's just something we share." Gabrielle informed her politely. "Are Cait and Paladia okay?"

Rena cocked her head at the younger woman. "Funny, that's exactly what they asked me about you." She assumed a stern look. "Now, you listen here, kiddo… this is not a laughing matter, and if'n your body is telling you to slow down, you'd best listen to it."

Gabrielle drummed her fingers on her partner's chest. "You paid her to do this, didn't you?" She mock accused the dark haired woman. "It's a conspiracy."

Rena put a gnarled hand over hers. "No conspiracy, just truth, my friend." She gave Gabrielle a sincere smile. "We want to see a healthy bouncing baby in a few months… so you stay put, and relax, and play around with this rambunctious goat here for a while, okay?"

Rambunctious goat? Xena groaned inwardly. She's worse than my mother.

Gabrielle looked at her, a tiny sparkle making its way back into her mist green eyes.

"Maaaa." The warrior made a goatish stuttering sound. Ares head popped up, and he growled. "Maaaa!" Xena made the noise at him again.

"All right.. all right.. how could I resist that?" Gabrielle giggled.

Rena put her hands on her hips, and stared at Xena. "That leathers full of whup ass attitude is just an act, isn't it!"

The warrior immediately went to serious mode, raising an eyebrow and pinning her with an icy blue gaze. "No." She replied, in utter deadpan. "It's very real."

Dead silence, as Rena blinked at her, and Gabrielle nearly bit her lip through to keep from giggling.

"Most of the time." Xena relented, with a wry chuckle. "And other times… well.. " She tousled Gabrielle's hair affectionately. "My bard here pokes me out of my shell."

The elder let out her held breath, and snorted. "You're a piece of work, Xena… I'll tell ya that." She shook her head. "Well, I'll leave you two little lovebirds to it… enjoy your lunch. " She got up, and strolled to the door, turning as she reached it. "Oh.. and the food, too." Her lined face wrinkled into a mischievous grin, then she was gone.

Xena busied herself in grabbing one of the wooden plates from the tray and filling it with an assortment of things, carefully avoiding the gruel.

"Rambunctious goat, huh?" Gabrielle teased her. "I like Rena… she's really sweet."

A dark brow rose. "Gabrielle, she is NOT."

The bard just chuckled. "Yes she is." Then she sighed. "Xena… what happened to me today? Is this what… I mean, I was hoping… " A sigh. It was too soon for this to be making that big of an impact on her life. She wasn't about to spend the next seven plus months 'taking it easy.'.

"Well." The warrior nudged her over a little, and brought the plate over. "I think your body was protesting that it didn't have enough energy and stuff to do what its doing… so.. ." She eyed the plate, then the bard with a kind, but serious look. "You need to listen to what your insides are telling you, love… give them what they're asking for, and you'll probably be okay." She watched Gabrielle take the plate determinedly.

"That's all I have to do?" A green gaze darted to hers. "And I can keep doing stuff?"

"Rest, eat, take care of yourself. Yes." Xena nodded. "Not too much to ask, huh?"

Gabrielle took a bite of chicken. "Can I have some soup?"

"Sure." Xena smiled in quiet relief, and stretched a hand towards the tray.

"Both kinds." Her soulmate mumbled around a mouthful. "And the cereal."

The warrior turned to her. "You hate cereal."

"Not taking any chances." Gabrielle stated firmly. "Pass the milk?"

 "Have you seen Eph?" Eponin asked, as she plodded into the dining hall for the fourth time. The place was bustling with people, getting ready for the banquet and festival that night. Esta was fuming in the corner, and when the weapons master entered, she bolted for her like a hungry puppy for its mother. "Esta, have you.. yow!"

The cook grabbed Eponin's arm, and dragged her off a few steps. "I'm gonna kill her."

Pony's nostrils flared in alarm. She rapidly thumbed through people the words immediately brought to mind. "Um… I'm sure Menelda didn't meant it."

"Menelda?" Esta answered sharply. "What does that harpy have to do with anything?"

"Uh….the elders raid the pantry again?' The dark haired Amazon hazarded.

"No… " The cook growled.

"What did I do?" Eponin squeaked.

"Nothing, no, not you, not that pack of starving elder wolves, not Menelda.. I'm gonna kill that six foot tall walking pile of nothing but trouble." Esta yelled at the top of her lungs.

"Oh." Pony scratched her jaw. "You mean Xena?" She glanced around. "What'd she do?"

"C'mere." Esta still had a hold of Pony's arm, and she pulled her to the back door to the dining hall, then shoved her head outside it. "That's what!!!"

Pony took a deep breath, sucking in the pleasant fragrance of the herb garden, rich with sage, and thyme, and the tickly smell of eucalyptus. The garden was surrounded by a thick hedge, which protected it from wind and weather, and concentrated the heady scent .

Except that now, there was a hole in the hedge. A large hole.

A six-foot tall hole, which corresponded to a path ripped through the plants that looked like a centaur had gone into rut and run down it. "Um." She drummed her fingers on the doorsill. "Esta.. it was an emergency.. she was in a rush."

The cook pulled her back inside and glared at her. "What kind of emergency is more important than my herbs? I know you warriors.. every Artemis blessed thing is an emergency.. the weather, a rampant cow, your bow is unstrung… so what was it this time?"

Eponin looked at her quietly. "Gabrielle was in trouble."

Esta looked back at her. "Oh." She subsided. "Is she all right?"

The dark haired woman nodded. "Yeah… it was kinda scary, though.. Eph said she almost looked like she was going to miscarry."

"Mis…she's pregnant?" The cook's eyes popped. "Dear gods… did you know that?"

Eponin sniffed, shrugging her shoulders. "Yeah.. for a little while.. she told Eph when she got here, but had her keep quiet because she wanted to compete." She looked around. "Speaking of Ephiny.. have you seen her?"

Esta appeared lost in thought. "What? Oh, yes.. I saw her heading off towards the washhouse a little while ago."

Ah. Pony sighed. Should have known. "Thanks.. I gotta go." She glanced out the door. "Listen.. sorry about the garden.. we'll help you put it right tomorrow."

"Don't worry about it." The cook patted her arm absently. "Hey.. do you think the Queen would like some of those little pastries? She should keep her strength up."

Eponin clamped her lips down on a grin. "I'm sure she'd love em." She watched the stocky woman wander off, then sighed, and slipped out the back door, using the convenient hole as an escape route towards the wash house.

"I'm fine, thanks." Cait repeated, for the sixth time as two apprentice healers hovered over her pallet. "Really." They had changed the bandage on her shoulder, making various sniping noises about the leaves and dirt she'd picked up on her travels through the brush. Paladia had escaped after putting her down on the pallet, fading back before the disapproving stares of the healers and leaving quietly out the back

But not before Cait got a word in edgewise. "Find out about Gabrielle, all right?" She'd heard the faint groan, but then a muttered. "Allright" reached her, and she smiled.

It made the fussing, and the probing worth it, and she suffered them in silence, only rolling her eyes a little bit.

Okay, a lot. Finally, the healers were done, and they tucked her in bed. "Might I have a cup of water?" She asked, when she was very sure they were finished. She received it, and took a grateful sip. It had, she decided, been worth it, since it certainly hadn't been boring. Xena showing up had been quite the surprise, and actually being there, actually seeing their.. thing.. work had been terribly exciting.

She wondered what that had felt like. It must have hurt, she decided, since it had almost made the very sturdy Xena collapse, and her face had been a combination of fear, and pain, and confusion that had been quite remarkable to witness.

But somehow, she didn't think Xena minded. It must be ever so strange to be connected to someone like that, but the warrior seemed to accept it, and certainly depended on it to help her keep her beloved Gabrielle out of trouble. Cait sighed, then looked up as a shadow crossed her vision. "Hello."

Elaini crouched down, and observed her, golden eyes blinking in the dim light. "I hear you had a little adventure."

Cait reached out, and touched the furry wrist. "Elaini… please.. is Gabrielle all right?"

The forest dweller sat down cross-legged next to her, and rested her elbows on the pallet. "I just came back from there… she's resting comfortably." Elaini's lips curved into a smile, exposing her fangs a little. "Very comfortably, in fact." She sighed. "And.. yes, I think she's going to be just fine.. Xena said she thought it was the stress, and the stuff that's been happening the past few days." She reflected. "And she's bullying Gabrielle into taking better care of herself, which is a good thing."

Cait's brows knit. "Is she sick?"

Elaini chuckled softly. "No, little one.. she's expecting."

"Expec…." The girl's eyes grew round. "Gosh.. you don't mean she's pregnant, do you?"

The golden head nodded.

Cait expelled a breath of air. "Wow." She digested this. "So.. she's all right, then?"

"She's fine, yes." Elaini pronounced. "Would you like something to eat?"

Cait shook her head. "I had lunch, just, thanks." She patted her stomach. "It was lovely… all bits and pieces of things."  She stifled a yawn.

"Well, you get some rest." The forest dweller patted her shoulder. "I just wanted to let you know about Gabrielle.. Xena said to stop by."

Cait's eyes lit up. "She did?"

Elani returned her smile. "She did. She figured you'd be wondering."

"Gosh." Cait sighed happily. "That's lovely of her." Her eyes flicked to the shadowed golden ones next to her. "She is quite nice, you know."

A gentle grin. "I know." The forest dweller yawned, exposing her teeth. "She saved my entire village."

All thoughts of sleep fled. "Did she.. will you tell me about it?" Cait pleaded. "I haven't' heard that one yet." A pause. "Please?"

Elaini took a quick look around, noting the interested eyes peering from the other pallets. "All right." She decided. "I can do that…"

She didn't see Menelda's dour form settle back in the corner.

The sounds outside grew busier, but Xena merely kept her eyes closed, and drifted lazily in a half asleep, half awake state that was very pleasant. Gabrielle was tucked into her favorite spot, her head nestled in the warrior's shoulder, and an arm wrapped firmly around her stomach, her warm breath moving evenly over Xena's chest as she dozed.

The bard had kept her word, determinedly cleaning not only her plate, but her partner's as well, sparing only one of the cereal bowls, which went to Ares. Xena had then coaxed her into sleep, giving her a thorough back rub until the younger woman was simply a stressless lump cuddled against her.

The whole thing had… scared her. Not so much because of what might have happened to the tiny, almost formless life growing inside the bard, but for what that would have done to Gabrielle.

She would have been devastated. Xena didn't want that, and she was a little glad that at least Gabrielle would now take her advice seriously, and start taking it easier. The bard murmured unintelligibly in her sleep, and tightened her hold, sliding a knee up to pin her partner in place. This merely elicited a smile from the warrior, who agreeably snuggled closer, breathing in the bard's scent with a sense of quiet satisfaction.

Her thoughts turned to Menelda, anger at the woman's attack, however ineffectual warring with a quiet depression at the reason for her quarrel with the bard. How could they think I was… Xena let her eyes drift open, and glanced down at Gabrielle's fair head. How could they think I would betray this trust? They've seen one small portion of our lives together.. how could they put that against the rest of it… I fought Death herself to keep us together.. doesn't that have any meaning, or is it just…

She thought about how their relationship must look to anyone on the outside, and cringed, remembering early days when she'd treated the young bard so offhandedly it must have seemed cruel to any onlooker.

Had Gabrielle stayed with her because she saw past all that? Or because it was what she was used to, and Xena had been a more attractive alternative to her father? It had taken her so long to warm up to the girl.. to stop ignoring her, and giving her barely the time of day, not to even mention actually listening to her, or encouraging her.

Why? She silently asked the sleeping woman. Why the Hades did you stay? Why did you come back, time and time again? It really made no sense.

Maybe… Xena felt a wry grin edge her lips. Gabrielle had youthfully boasted of being a visionary… of being able to see the future. Maybe this was the future she saw, and it was something she wanted. Ah… but what a road to travel to get here, my friend. She stroked the bard's hair gently. A future she wanted so badly she was willing to risk anything for it.

The warrior thought about that. What an incredible compliment that was, to have someone want to be with you so badly, they would risk life and limb, and their immortal soul on a regular basis, and not feel like it was too great a sacrifice. Could she have done that?

The dark brows lifted in surprise. It was what she was doing right now, wasn't it? Willingly giving up everything she'd known to remain at Gabrielle's side, to protect her, to love her…

Funny how that had never seemed like a sacrifice at all.

Okay, so they were both completely blinded by each other, and deliriously happy in that. Xena sighed, looking wryly at the ceiling. There were worse fates.

A sound of drums dribbled in the room, and a practice chanting. Xena flinched as the voices didn't quite synch up and the resultant discord hurt her sensitive hearing. Ares lifted his head and whined, and she gave him a sympathetic look. "Yeah.. I know… " She muttered, very softly, reaching down and giving him a pat on the head. "Not what you're used to, huh?" Even Gabrielle, who was a self described musical idiot didn't often produce discordant sounds like that, mostly because she'd realized a while back that her partner found off key singing annoying in the extreme.

The campfire had crackled industriously, outlining their forms and giving Gabrielle light for her project, which was memorizing and singing a small piece as part of one of her stories.

Xena had spent most of the evening in vigorous drills, and would still be out there except that after the long day's march, and two fights, she was simply exhausted. Too tired, in fact, to even object every time the bard's wavering contralto scraped against her ears. Instead, she'd huddled in her sleeping furs, doing her best to block the noise out.

It had been futile.. Gabrielle's voice was nothing if not piercing, and try as she might, blocking it out just wasn't working.

So she'd sat up, and wrapped her furs around her, and rested her elbows on her knees as she gazed across the fire at the fiercely intent bard.

The light had flickered across her subtly changing features, outlining a body newly muscular on display in her rust colored Amazon style outfit. Gabrielle was muttering to herself, making marks on a parchment and completely oblivious to the watcher across the way, until she glanced up, right into Xena's pale eyes. "Oh!"

A hand had gone to her chest. "Gods.. Xena.. you startled me." Her brow had knit. "I thought you were sleeping."

A dozen sharp retorts rose effortlessly to Xena's lips, and she forced them down. This was what Gabrielle did, remember? "… I was just.. resting my eyes."

A hint of guilt entered the bard's demeanor. "I'm keeping you up, aren't I?" She sighed. "Sorry about that.. I just can't seem to get this part right…and I need to, to tell this story effectively."

Figuring she'd never get to sleep otherwise, Xena shed her furs and stood, then padded over to the bard's side of the fire, and collapsed on top of her sleeping roll, taking the parchment from her hand and studying it. "All right… look… "

She'd taken a breath, and sang the first few notes, then looked at the bard, wanting her to repeat them.

And found warm, interested green eyes fastened on her face in a kind of trance. "Gabrielle?"

The bard had shaken her head rapidly. "Uh.. sorry." She'd giggled. "It's just so interesting when you do that…I never expect it." She returned her attention to the parchment. "Okay.. what was that again?"

Xena had sighed, and repeated the notes. "Go on.. you try." Her face had contracted involuntarily at the result. "Uh… "

Gabrielle had sighed, and touched the page. "Gods, Xena.. if I only had your voice for a few minutes… you make this sound so beautiful, and I know I never will."

And Xena had shrugged. "If I could just give it you, I would… doesn't do me much good."

The bard had fingered the page. "I think I'll just give up on this one." She'd glanced up at Xena's face. "Let you get some sleep."

That had touched something in her. "I'm not tired." She'd lied firmly, then returned her attention to the song. "C'mon… you can get this."

It had taken half the night, of Xena going over the notes, and the bard repeating them in pure mimicry, until she could finally follow the tune through to the end without eliciting a flinch from her companion. "Oh.. wow… Xena.. that's incredible…. Thank you."

A hand on her arm. Those green eyes pathetically grateful to her. How incredibly good that had felt. "One more time." She'd gruffly responded, pointing at the page.

Gabrielle sighed, but she straightened up like the warrior had taught her, and drew in breath from her belly, and started to sing.

Xena had softly joined her, and their voices had mingled into a magic she hadn't expected, that had lent depth, and color to a silly, child's song as she'd found it incredibly easy to harmonize with the bard.


They'd finished, and looked at each other, and a delighted grin had split Gabrielle's face. "Hey.. that was pretty good!" She'd laughed, curling a daring hand around Xena's and squeezing it. "We make a great team."

Xena had chuckled wryly at her enthusiasm.

But somehow had seen no need to correct her.

Now, a green eye opened, and rotated up to peer at her. "Y'need to go give em some singing lessons, Xe." The bard reached up and rubbed an ear. "Sounds like mating ducks."

The warrior smiled, and inhaled. "I'll block em out." She started singing softly, the tune from her memories.

Gabrielle smiled in sleepy delight, and after a moment, a soft, burred voice joined hers in a harmony deliciously familiar.

Dusk was falling as they made their way across the compound, walking with what seemed to Gabrielle ridiculous slowness. Well. She considered the solicitous arm resting around her shoulders. It could be worse. She could be carrying me.

A very pleasant, cool breeze drifted across the open area, bringing tantalizing hints of roasting meat and the smoky flavor of the fire. Amazons dashed past them, most of them laughing, all of them in good spirits as they headed towards the gathering place.

"Nice." Xena commented, as they cleared the dining hall and could see the festival area. It was decorated with huge strings of flowers, lending their fragrance to the air, and featured low, padded platforms to sit on, with a wide, cleared area in front of the fire for the dancers, and other performers.

Musicians were practicing off to one side, the odd sound of flute and lyre punctuated by sporadic drumbeats. Already, volunteer extra servers were passing around the assembling women, carrying trays of mugs and little snacks, which were being grabbed up with eager greed. As they entered the circle of firelight, calls went up, and they were greeted enthusiastically by the crowd.

They both were. Gabrielle bestowed a big, happy grin on them at that, and she tucked her hand inside her partner's elbow as groups of women swirled around them, many asking after her heath. "No, I'm fine.. thanks for asking… nothing really, just a little dizzy spell… " She repeated that about twenty times, then found herself being gently guided towards the front platform, where pillows had been added solicitously for her comfort. "Oh… centaur farts." She rolled her eyes, as Xena arranged a nice little nest for her to sit in. "Would you all cut that out!"

The warrior grinned, and bowed her to her seat with a flourish, then dropped neatly to a cross legged position next to her, and observed the crowd. "You want a drink?" She asked, as one of the servers trotted up, her entire body jiggling in excitement. Xena drew in breath carefully, as she tried not to burst out laughing.

"Would you like some cider?" The Amazon asked, proffering the tray. "Or.. something stronger?" Now her eyes went right to Xena, and she raised a brow in question.

"Cider's just fine." The warrior responded, selecting two cups and giving her a nod. "Thanks." She handed one to Gabrielle, then leaned back onto one elbow as she sipped her own. They'd both fallen asleep and woken up in the last rays of sunset, deciding to just put on a pair of nice tunics which coincidentally matched, instead of their usual outfits.

That was all right, Xena decided. She hadn't really been in the mood for strapping on all the armor anyway, and it was her opinion that it was a little too drafty for Gabrielle to be out half naked. Of course, the bard disagreed, but… So they were in rich shades of purple and bright blue, with matching embroidery chasing around their sleeves and across the thigh length hems. Xena had chosen the pair of soft, indoor boots she carried with them, and she extended her long legs, crossing them comfortably at the ankles as she watched the crowd.

Gabrielle settled herself on her pillows, feeling very decadent as she tucked her legs up under her, and leaned on an elbow near her soulmate, close enough to nibble her hair if the mood should strike her.

It struck. She moved down a little and tasted an ear, then leaned back, sipping her drink. "This is going to be fun."

Xena eyed her, noting that Ephiny and Eponin were making their way over, stopping every few feet to return enthusiastic greetings. The two Amazons looked great in their almost matching colored leathers, Ephiny's fair features contrasting nicely with her lover's dark good looks. Pony was fiddling with something around her neck, and she kept glancing at it, then shaking her head with an almost audible mumble.

"Well, well." The regent smiled, as she stepped up onto the upper platform and seated herself. "Don't we look cozy?"

Gabrielle let her head rest against Xena's shoulder, and smiled back. "We are… it looks great out here, Eph… and it smells great, too."

Ephiny chuckled. "Should.. considering all the flowers we ranged far and wide for… the bees are gonna be pissed off at us, let me tell you." She accepted a cup from one of the servers and took a long drink. "This is long overdue."

Xena let the chatter pass over her, as she regarded the milling group. Several Amazons were passing amongst the crowd, delivering a colorful necklace to each celebrant, consisting of flowers and bits of fabric. As the necklaces were offered, the women kissed, and hugged each person, then went on to the next. A few of the necklace bearers were gathered just off to one side, and were eyeing them with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. Uh oh. The warrior glanced at her sometimes shy partner. "Gabrielle?"

The bard broke off her discussion of the decorations and leaned closer. "Hmm?"

Blue eyes flicked to the necklace carriers, then to the women who accepting the items, along with their attentions, then returned to the bard's face. An eyebrow rose in question.

Gabrielle watched the process, then her face scrunched as a faint blush covered it, and then she sighed. "I'll manage." She muttered. "But if I start pulling on my ear, will you do that jealous Warrior Princess glowering thing you're so good at?"

A brief flash of white teeth. "Sure."

"Thanks." Gabrielle turned back to Ephiny, then paused, and returned her attention to her soulmate. "And, Xena?"

"Mm?" The warrior nuzzled her ear a little.

The bard closed her eyes momentarily, then opened them. "Try not to make anyone pass out, okay?"

Xena pointed a finger at her own chest. "Me?" She batted her dark lashes innocently. "Gabrielle, I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Uh huh." Gabrielle gazed fondly at her. "Let's see how many of them have the guts to come up to you." She shook her head, and turned back to Ephiny, keeping a nervous eye on the flower girls.

The warrior chuckled to herself, and leaned back, looking up as a server knelt beside her, offering her a selection from a tray full of tidbits. Xena took a handful for herself, and one for Gabrielle and gave the Amazon an appreciative smile. "Thanks."

The woman, more a girl actually, blushed and returned her smile, then got up and moved on to her next target, casting a shy glance at Xena over her shoulder. She had long chestnut hair, braided with slim ribbons, and a cute, upturned nose, and it drew an engaging grin from the warrior.

The girl blinked, then tripped, almost plunging off the platform and sending tidbits everywhere. One landed in Eponin's top, making her squawk, and causing Ephiny to playfully try to extract it.

Gabrielle turned, and gave her partner a look.

"What?" Xena protested. "I didn't do anything!" She hoisted herself to her feet, and strode to the edge of the platform, kneeling and helping the flustered server to her feet, then collecting her tray for her. "Here you go." She handed it to her, and watched as the girl unsuccessfully tried to muffle a nervous giggle.

"Nothing, huh?" Gabrielle teased her, as she rejoined the bard, and appropriated an unused pillow to lean against.

"Absolutely nothing." Xena stated gruffly, passing her some tasty tidbits. "Here."

The bard nibbled the treats, then paused as the flower girls approached the upper platform. She stood quietly as the girls approached, and gave the closest one a gentle smile. Weird. She mused. Her hands are shaking.

The girl carefully stepped up onto the wooden deck and took one of the flower wreaths from around her neck, offering it to the bard shyly.

Gabrielle stepped forward, ducking her head to receive it, then looked the girl in the eye, and whispered. "I'm not going to bite."

The Amazon giggled softly, then screwed up her courage and gingerly gave the bard a kiss, followed by a tentative hug, which Gabrielle returned with more confidence. Then she released the girl, and stepped back. "There.. that wasn't so bad, was it?" She sniffed the wreath and grinned. "Boy, that smells nice."

The Amazon gave her a big smile, then bit her lip. Gabrielle noted that Ephiny and Eponin already had their wreaths, and the girls were staring in obvious trepidation at her soulmate.

Who, the brat, was stretched out like a large jungle cat, watching them with predatory blue eyes that twinkled wickedly in the firelight. Gabrielle put her hands on her hips. "Xena, c'mere and get your flowers, honey."

It was perfect. It broke the girl's nervousness, and got a startled blush from her soulmate, who gave her a mock glower before she got to her feet gracefully and padded over, ducking her head considerably to accept the sweet smelling blossoms.

The girl hesitated as the warrior straightened, and Gabrielle sensed it was a totally different nervousness than she'd shown towards herself. Xena stepped forward, with that relentless, powerful motion so common to her, and took control of the situation, ducking her head again to lightly kiss the girl on the lips, then giving her a brief clasp of the shoulders in lieu of a hug.

A moments pause, then Gabrielle grabbed her arm as her knees unlocked, and she almost lost her garlands. "Easy there." She patted the girl's arm, giving her soulmate a wry look.

Xena sniffed a flower residing gracefully around her neck, and winked at her, then returned to her place and settled onto her chosen pillow, extending her long legs again and resuming her attack on the appetizers.

"Brat." The bard muttered under her breath, startling the other Amazons. "Thanks… they're really beautiful."

"You're welcome, my queen." The girl said softly, still looking a little overwhelmed. She backed off, and moved on to the next platform, where Jessan and Elaini were camped, tiny tots exploring the padded surface energetically.

Gabrielle watched her approach the two forest dwellers with confidence, then she sat down, and eyed her partner. The colorful flowers contrasted with her tanned skin, and purple tunic, and the bard reflected on just how good looking the taller woman really was.

The sky was dark, now, and stars arched over head in a sparkling blanket as a slow, even drumbeat began, accompanied by a haunting pipe. Amazons in brief, cloth outfits circulated, passing trays of various hand foods, more substantial than the appetizers, but still able to be picked up and nibbled.

Gabrielle leaned back against her pillows, enjoying the music and watching curiously as the first set of dancers wound into place, their sinuous bodies matching the notes. Her senses seemed heightened as she became aware of the close presence of her partner, and her nostrils flared, catching the warm, spicy scent of Xena's skin.

The warrior selected a piece of venison, and dipped it in a rich, fruity sauce before she offered it to Gabrielle, smiling as the bard gently took it in her teeth and bit off a chunk.

"Mm." Gabrielle eased closer, suddenly craving contact with the older woman. Xena obligingly curled around her, giving her a comfortable nest to lean into, as she draped her arms over the warrior's body. Maybe it was the music, she reflected, absorbing the warmth that surrounded her.

She picked up a flaky piece of fish, and presented it to the warrior, who gently closed her lips around it, and nibbled the bard's fingers at the same time. The pale blue eyes were darkened in the firelight, and her dusky hair shadowed her face, adding a sense of mystery to it. Gabrielle smiled, and traced the soft skin, opening her mouth agreeably when Xena presented her with a bit of cheese, and a stern expression.

They shared back and forth, watching the dancing, listening to the music, exchanging idle chatter with Eponin and Ephiny, who was cuddling Xenon to her, and leaning against Pony's legs. After the next round of tidbits, the rhythm changed, and now another group entered from the side of the circle, this one very different.

Armed to the teeth, in full Amazon regalia, complete with intimidating, black as night masks. The group of eight took possession of the central area, and the two lead Amazons strode forward, spears in hand, directly towards Gabrielle.

They reached the edge of her platform, then had to stop because a tall, dark haired form rose up before them, blocking the way with negligent menace. Xena had concluded this was part of the ceremony, but it never paid to take chances, especially not with her beloved soulmate. She faced the two Amazons down, ignoring their bristling arms and armor as she stood without so much as a belt knife to defend herself with.

It was, Gabrielle decided, surreal. She leaned over and tapped Ephiny on the shoulder. "This is part of the plan, right?"

Ephiny nodded immediately. "Oh yeah… it's a ceremonial challenge.. no problem."

The bard sighed. "You should have warned us."

The regent laughed. "C'mon, Gab.. it's part of the fun."

Green eyes studied her. "It's not going to be fun if Xena breaks someone's arm, is it?"

But the warrior had realized there was no evil intent, and now decided to have some fun with the Amazons, the foremost of whom she recognized under the feathers as Rena. "Whadda ya want?" She put her hands on her hips and challenged the elder.

Rena snorted, audible even through her mask. "The Queen has said she wishes to take a life partner." She stated loudly. "I am here to judge if she is worthy."

"Oh yeah?" The warrior inquired, raising a brow. "How?"

One hand rose, producing a long, black feather. "The tickle test."

Concluded in Part 11