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 2

By Melissa Good

The rain had slowed to a fitful spatter as they walked across the windy compound, and Xena allowed her partner to walk a little ahead with Ephiny as she studied her surroundings. There was a perceptible energy to the village, easily sensed and different from the usual atmosphere, and she decided it was probably more due to the Harvest celebration than anything else. It was an edgy, restless feeling, enhanced by the cheerful voices being raised all around, as Amazons trotted here and there, bringing supplies towards the central hall and rolling barrels of ale and wine towards the cleared area around the huge firepit.

Things seemed more.. colorful, Xena mused, and she heard more laughter than complaining, a rare thing on her previous visits. On one side of the compound Amazons were setting up low platforms, which would be covered with furs for everyone to sit on, as they watched the dancing and various demonstrations of crafts that would take place at the following day's dinner.

Xena's eyes paused, as she spotted several familiar forms, and she watched warily as Cait trotted across the far end of the compound, followed by their onetime enemy Paladia. The tall woman's arm was still in a sling, but she was dressed in plain, unornamented leathers, and scuffed, well used boots, and she'd lost a lot of the softness that had layered her body the last time Xena had seen her. She went about the village unrestrained, which faintly surprised the warrior. The renegade leader kept her eyes down, focusing on her destination, and she nodded at something the smaller Cait remarked on.

Guess that's working out better than I'd anticipated. The warrior blinked in mild surprise. Guess Gabrielle was right after all. She smiled to herself, and made a note to compliment her partner on her intuition. As they got closer to the dining hall, more and more people looked up and recognized them, and voices lifted in friendly and respectful hails.

Gabrielle waved back, a smile crossing her face, and glanced behind her, inviting Xena to catch up with a bat of her fair lashes. "Hey… " She tucked a hand around the warrior's arm as she complied. "Everyone's in a great mood, huh?" This in an undertone.

"Mm." Xena agreed, as they approached the door to the dining hall. "Amazons, parties… you know how it is."

"I heard that." Ephiny commented, but grinned, as she held the door open for them to enter. "You'd think that's all we lived for."

"It isn't?" Gabrielle and Xena spoke simultaneously.

"Veeerrrryyy funny." The Amazon gave them a tolerant look. "Well, we'll see how you feel afterwards… you might learn to like them yourselves." She shook a finger at them. "All work and no play… you know?"

Blue and green eyes met, and twinkled. "Hey.. we like parties." Gabrielle protested. "Really.. Xena's quite the party animal…she knows all kinds of tricks to show people."

"Party animal?" Xena muttered, almost subvocally. "Oh..yeah.. right.. right… um…juggling, for instance."

Ephiny paused, and put her hands on her hips. "Juggling?" Her voice was full of doubt. "Uh.. right. Sure."

The warrior paused, as they were meandering across the crowded floor, and picked up three coconuts, then continued following Ephiny and her now giggling soulmate to the front table where Eponin and Solari were already waiting. The other Amazons stood as Gabrielle approached, and gave her a little bow.

"Hey." Gabrielle grinned at them, then blinked as her chair was gently pulled out for her. "Thanks." Her eyes went to Xena's, half shadowed in the torchlit hall, and she blushed a little at the warrior's grin. Xena had put her coconuts down, and now seated herself at Gabrielle's side, leaning back and resting her forearms on the chair's, watching the bard as she took a deep breath, and reaccustomed herself to the Amazon's scrutiny. Unobtrusively, she scratched her partner's back, feeling the warmth of Gabrielle's skin through the fabric of her tunic.

She herself was collecting furtive stares, but she was more than used to that, and the looks weren't as hostile as they were the last time, in fact, she saw very few unfriendly eyes, chiefly from Menelda and her cronies and a few others who had no reason to remember Xena with any good will.

That was all right, she decided. She was here, she was their Queen's chosen partner, and if they didn't like it…too damn bad. She turned her head as Eponin poked her in the ribs. "Yeah?"

The dark haired Amazon leaned closer. "What's with the coconuts?"

Xena eyed her solemnly. "Weapons. Just in case." She picked them up and juggled them for a moment, attracting disbelieving stares from her table neighbors, including Solari, who knocked over an entire pitcher of water as she bent forward to watch.

Eponin's nostrils flared, and she let her eyes narrow. "Getouttahere."

"Can't be too careful, with you Amazons." Xena insisted, continuing her juggling "Lovely bunch of coconuts, huh?" She let them drop to the table, and arranged them into a triangle.

The Amazon peered at them. "They look like hairy monkey's butts to me." She replied dryly.

"How would you know?" Xena answered, mildly. She picked up one of the globes and shook it gently. "They make great weapons.. good catapult shot, because they shatter when they hit and slice everyone up." She managed to keep her face cool, and businesslike, having made that all up off the top of her head.

Eponin eyed her. "Really?" Her voice was tinged with hesitant doubt.

Xena nodded. "Sure… and the juice gets everywhere and makes things stick together."

The shorter woman's dark eyebrows knit, as she considered that. "Huh…yeah… maybe…. " Her lower lip poked out. "Maybe I should send a collection party out to go get some… "

Xena's eyes glinted with pure mischief. "You know, the milk.. if you let it ferment.. " She dropped her voice to a mere rumble. "It's an aphrodisiac."

Caramel colored eyes fastened on her face. "Yeah?" Eponin's voice was suddenly alive with interest. "No kidding?"

Xena nodded, pursing her lips judiciously. "Mmmhmmmm… " A pause, as cool blue eyes regarded her thoughtfully. "You.. um… having problems?" She inquired diffidently.

Eponin snorted, and tossed her dark head. "No!" She barked, fiercely, making Xena's eyes widen. "No way in Hades no how, not even.. don't you think about it, lady."

"Okay.. .okay.." The warrior held up a hand, biting the inside of her lip to keep from laughing. "Just asking… take it easy."

A hand curled around her wrist, and she turned her head to see Gabrielle's mist green eyes fixed on her. One blond eyebrow was cocked, and the bard had an impishly stern look on her face. "Are you causing trouble?" She inquired suspiciously.

"Noooooooo" Xena answered, her voice a low rumble. "We're just… discussing weapons.. um.. potency." She heard Eponin snort. "And um… unconventional strategy."

"Uh huh." The bard drawled, obviously not believing a word of it. "I see."

"Hey, your Majesty…" Eponin piped up. "You like coconuts?"

Gabrielle's eyebrows knit. "Um.. sure…I love them, why?"

The weapons master nodded sagely. "That explains a lot."

"What?" Gabrielle's voice was puzzled, glancing up at her now blushing soulmate. "You gonna open those, or juggle them, by the way?" She indicated the coconuts. "I'd love some of the milk if you decide crack them." This for some reason made the warrior's skin deepen another shade of bronze. "Are you all right?" The bard murmured, eyeing her in concern.

Xena let out a breath, and shook her head. "Oh yeah.. I'm just fine." She patted the bard on the hand, and gave her an engaging grin. "Perfect.. great.. wonderful… no problem."

Gabrielle gave her a strange look, then shook her head and turned back to Ephiny. "So.. what's the plan?"

The regent poured herself a cup of fruit wine, and did the same for the bard. "Well… " She took a sip and smiled. "That turned out okay this year." She paused, waiting for Gabrielle to try it. "Go on… I think all the weird weather last year helped the grape crop."

Gabrielle picked the cup up, and sniffed it, then darted a look at her soulmate. Xena held up one hand off the table and placed her thumb and forefinger a small amount apart. She smiled in acknowledgement and took a tiny sip. "Wow.. that is nice." She fully intended to let Ephiny in on her little secret, but not in the middle of a crowded banquet hall, when explanations were going to have to be made.

"Okay.. " Ephiny took her cup and leaned back. "Here's the proposed schedule.. tonight, just a casual dinner." She toasted the room full of hungry, noisy Amazons. "Tomorrow, we have a full day of exhibitions, competitions, and games planned… and tomorrow night three different groups'll be competing to be named best dancers." She paused. "Tomorrow night's the big pit roast, too, and a couple of different ceremonies will be held."

"Sounds great… what kinds of competitions?" Gabrielle leaned forward on her forearms.

"Ooo… " Ephiny looked up as servers arrived at their table, unloading two large steaming crocks, and three platters covered with a selection of roasted birds, chunks of fish, and vegetables. "Well, cooking competitions.. " She grinned at Gabrielle. "You wanna judge those?" She joked gently. "Weaving, weapon's making, woodcarving, fishing, wrestling, archery, and a staff competition."

"Wow.." Gabrielle laughed. "That sounds like a lot of fun!"

"Mm." Ephiny agreed, enjoying the delighted look on the bard's face. "We have about a dozen youngsters who need to be formally confirmed into the nation, and a few joinings to celebrate." Her eyes twinkled gently at Gabrielle. "We've also got a bunch of games for the kids planned, races, hide and search, that kind of thing."

Let's see.. Ephiny said Xena couldn't compete, but… "I'd like to enter the staff competition. " Gabrielle stated firmly.

Ephiny blinked, obviously startled. "Um… " She considered the request. That Gabrielle was competent wasn't in question. The bard most certainly was, in fact, she'd handily defeated a good handful of the nation's best staff wielders the year previously. "Sure… I don't see why not… " The regent decided, with a grin. Might be good for everyone.. She mused. They don't tend to see her as a warrior.. maybe this'll open some eyes.. and while I'm at it… "Matter of fact… you can tell the o… Xena over there she can enter any of the non fighting stuff, okay?"

A blond eyebrow quirked. "All right.. it's a deal." She grinned, thinking of at least one her partner had a good chance at. She was about to help herself to some of the fragrant vegetable soup when a dipper appeared and served some into her bowl, and she glanced up to see the warrior's quiet wink. "Thank you." Her voice was pitched low, but she knew Xena heard it.

She took several selections off the big platter, and served Xena the same, ignoring the warrior's rolling eyes when she added beans and peas to her plate, along with steamed grains. Her soulmate's eating habits occasionally drove her crazy; Xena tended to crave sweets and spicy meats, although, as a healer, she knew they weren't the best things for her. Gabrielle was on a stubborn campaign to get her to eat more vegetables, and welcomed public dinners like this where the sometimes recalcitrant warrior would just consume what was put before her, and not protest.

Too much, anyway, she chuckled, as she caught Xena sneaking a piece of carrot back onto the bard's plate. She gave the warrior a scolding look, and received a charming smile in return that evoked a similar response from her own face. Ephiny cleared her throat after a moment of that, and she turned back to the regent with a sheepish grin. "Sorry, Eph.. were you saying something?"

"I said.." The blond Amazon rested her chin on her hand and bit into a pigeon wing. "A male bull gave birth to a pair of rabbits in the firepit."

"Really?" Gabrielle responded, then did a double take. "What?" Her brows knit immediately. "How did that happen?"

Ephiny chuckled, and waved her wing at the bard. "It didn't… but that's how I knew you were off somewhere else.. you didn't react to it." She shook her head in mild disbelief. "So.. how are things back at home?"

"Hmmm… well.. how does… 'Aunt Ephiny' sound to you?" Gabrielle responded impishly.

A brow edged up. "Argo's pregnant?"

Gabrielle burst into laughter. "Oh gods.. Eph… where did that come from?? No.. no no… Xena thinks.."

Ephiny sat up straight. "Xena's pregnant?" She interrupted, lowering her voice. "Gabrielle.. that's fabulous.. I didn't think.."

The bard slapped her hand over her friend's mouth. "Nooooooo" She sighed. "Xena thinks… that Gran is."

"Ofmn." Ephiny nodded her head, then licked her lips a little as Gabrielle released her. "No kidding?" Her eyes lit in pleased delight. "Wow.. that's great news.. though I wonder if she thinks so."

Gabrielle leaned forward a little. "What do you mean?" She asked, curiously, darting a glance towards her soulmate. Xena was engaged in an amiable conversation with Solari and Eponin, in which the words 'battle unit' and 'blood' figured prominently. She turned back to Ephiny. "You don't think she wants kids?"

"Oh… " The regent waved a hand. "Yeah.. yeah.. I think she does.. or she will.. I mean, once it's happening and all that.. I just don't know if she…thought about that." She paused, and took a big forkful of her dinner, and chewed thoughtfully. "I mean.. " She swallowed. "You never thought about having kids, did you?"

Gabrielle nibbled on a bit of roast bird, and glanced down. "Yeah.. I did, actually." She answered honestly. "We were talking about it before we left home last year."

A hand touched her wrist, and she looked up to see an apologetic look in Ephiny's pale eyes. "Gabrielle.. I'm sorry.. I didn't meant to.. "

A shrug. "No.. it's all right… things… " A tiny grin edged her lips. "Worked out." She exhaled. "I think Gran and Toris really wanted kids, though.. I talked to her about it when we were home last." She took another small sip of her wine. It was cool, and bore a hint of apples and pears over the smooth sweetness of the grapes. "Xena said when she mentioned the possibility to Toris, he went goofy on her."

"Well." Ephiny grinned, obviously relieved. "That's great to hear…I'll have to take a visit down there… she loves getting advice from Granny Eph." They both laughed, then Ephiny let out a breath. "Sometimes I think of… " She fell silent, then just shrugged a little. "Anyway, we've got some previews of the dancers for tomorrow." Now, she lifted a hand and gave a tiny wave, and two of the younger Amazons waved back and disappeared out the door. "Thought you'd like to see them."

Gabrielle studied her profile. "Yeah.. I'd like that." She leaned back in her chair, steepling her fingers together and pressing her lips against them, as she let her eyes roam around the room.

Drums started in, a deep, rhythmic sound that filled the room, and quieted the buzz of relaxed conversation. Xena felt the atmosphere change, and rested her head against the chair back, grateful that the Amazons had taken her advice and banned the backless benches for long dinners. The energy in the room became almost sensual, as the dancers entered in full regalia, and started their patterned steps. The warrior lifted her goblet and sucked a mouthful down, idly enjoying the graceful, muscular performers as they paced through a dance that had been in the Amazon's traditions for many generations.

A cool breeze circled the dancers and watchers, fluttering the torches around the perimeter of the room, and lifting long hair up, mingling a few strands where the women circled close together. The low moan of a pipe erupted, and soft chant rose to meet it, spiraling up towards the ceiling and beating out an insistent rhythm. The dancers paired off, and eased into choreographed battles, fanciful passes and parries slipping into exaggerated reactions as the music rippled through the watchers as seductively as the wine they were drinking.

Gabrielle found her imagination caught by the dance, her bard's mind twisting and shaping the sights and the sounds into a gentle poetry that left her wishing for her quills and parchment to write it down on. It was very primal, and had a rich, earthy energy to it that intrigued her, and she paused, considering, before she tugged on her soulmate's sleeve.

Xena leaned over, surrounding the bard with her familiar scent and knocking her thoughts off subject for a long, sensual moment. Then she circled her partner's upper arm with one hand and sat up straighter, bringing her lips near the warrior's ear. "Can you remember something for me?"

Pale eyes colored a rich violet in the torchlight flickered, and a smile edged the warrior's lips. "Sure." Xena's voice was deeper even than the drums, and caused a shiver to creep down the bard's back. "Go on."

Gently, softly, she repeated the poetry, shaping the words with quiet sureness.

Xena smiled when she finished. "I think I can remember that." She told the bard. "You like?" Her jaw indicated the dancers.

Gabrielle very deliberately shifted her position so that she could lean against the taller woman's shoulder and rubbed her cheek against Xena's upper arm. "Mm." She exhaled softly. "I do."

Xena's eyebrow lifted a touch, as a brief, sultry grin crossed her face. Around them, the rest of the Amazons were watching with hooded expressions, and many of the audience were now paired off in quiet corners, as the torches burned lower, and the drums slowed, and became more rhythmic. This was, after all, the Harvest Festival, dedicated to the fertility of the earth, and the fruitfulness of the populace. Amazons did, perhaps, celebrate it a little differently than say, Amphipolis, but…..

The intent was certainly there. Xena could feel her partner's warm breath against the skin of her arm, and smiled quietly as the intense animal attraction that she'd always felt for the bard growled deep, and padded into the flickering light, thrumming her nerves to the rhythm of the drums, and the low, tonal chanting.

Gabrielle's eyelashes fluttered, and she glanced up. "You think I could try to dance like that?" She murmured teasingly, watching the shift of the light as Xena's jaw muscles bunched and moved.

"Nope." The warrior uttered back. "Cause if the rest of this room was lookin at you the way they are at those dancers… " She let her voice drop to its lowest register. "I'd hafta do something about it."

A faint, sultry smile edged Gabrielle's face. "Really?"

"Oh yeah." Xena assured her, only barely keeping herself from nuzzling the bard's soft skin. "There'd be feathers everywhere, got me?"

Gabrielle felt a warm wave of satisfaction at the warrior's words. She'd always known that Xena would defend her life, but this was something else entirely, and it felt almost shamefully good. She was aware of envious glances in her direction and for just a moment, she allowed herself to revel in them. "I got you." She enunciated the words with pleasure.

Xena leaned back, and chuckled softly, leaning her head against the bard's. She glanced up as Eponin poked her softly. "Yeah?"

The Amazon jerked her chin at the snuggling bard. "Can I have your coconuts? You sure as Hera's left tit don't need em." The woman's chestnut hair rippled as she shook her head vigorously.

The warrior gave her a look, then chuckled wryly. "Sure."

Gabrielle glanced over inquiringly. "What?" She tugged her soulmate's ear. "What is it with these coconuts?"

"Tell you later." Xena muttered, with a grin.

Gabrielle looked up, as the moon emerged from the scattering of clouds that were left from the storm. The wind had picked up a little, and it was even a touch chilly which made her glad she had a full length tunic on instead of her usual brief halter. She spared a glance for the slim blond woman pacing at her side, and sorted through her available conversational openings. "Nice dinner." She finally decided on a noncommittal one.

Ephiny took in a breath of the clean, cool air and nodded. "Thanks… I always like this time of year.. the harvest fruits, all that stuff.. you know."

They were walking on one of the slim, silvered paths just outside the village, alongside the brook that provided the Amazons with fresh drinking water separate from the more robust creek to the east that was the source of their other liquid needs. The dancing had gone on for quite a while, until Ephiny had reluctantly called a halt to it, telling everyone to go to bed and rest up for the following day. Low chuckles had met her words, and she'd just waved them out, then paused, and eyed Gabrielle uncertainly.

Might as well get this over with, the bard had decided, leaning over and telling Xena she'd meet her back in her… no, their quarters. Then she'd smiled at Ephiny, and said she was sleepy.. and would the regent like to accompany her on a little walk to shake the cobwebs out?

The regent would, indeed.

So here they were. "I… like this time of year myself. " Gabrielle replied, reaching up and pushing the fair hair back from her eyes. "It's not so sticky…kind of refreshing." She angled her steps towards a low shelf of rock and sat down on it, patting the stone at her side. "Turned out to be a nice night… thanks for inviting us, by the way."

Ephiny relaxed a little, as she settled on the cool surface. "Inviting you? Gabrielle… catch a clue here… you don't need an invitation, remember? You belong here." She gave her friend a smile. "Everyone's glad you're here…you should have heard those kids all excited about dancing in front of you… it was a riot."

Gabrielle gazed at her evenly, green eyes a murky hazel in the silver moonlight. "Yeah? What do they think about my choice of consorts?"

A moment of pensive silence, then Ephiny chuckled softly. "Right to the point as always, huh, Gabrielle?" She put a hand on the younger woman's shoulder. "I made a point of going over our laws as soon as I got back here last time, just to check stuff out… and I found there are three requirements for a royal consort."

Gabrielle folded her arms across her chest and lifted her chin. "And?"

A faint smile flitted across Ephiny's face. "One, they have to be healthy." They exchanged knowing looks. "Two, they have to uphold the warrior standards of the Nation." Another exchange of looks, and this time Gabrielle's eyes twinkled a little. "Three.. " Now Ephiny bit her lip a little. 'They have to publicly swear fealty to you.. . as the embodiment of the Nation."

Gabrielle rubbed her jaw thoughtfully. "Well, I don't think the first two are a problem." She smiled, and looked out at the brook's restlessly burbling water. "She's definitely healthy, and I don't think there's a doubt about her fighting skills." She exhaled. "As for that last… well, I'll ask her… see what she says." She chewed her lip. "If it was just me, I don't… well, I don't think there'd be a problem, but in front of everyone… I don't know."

The regent pursed her lips and slowly nodded. It was more or less what she'd expected to hear. "I figured." She paused. "As for what everyone thinks… Hades, Gabrielle.. there isn't a person in this Nation who doesn't know that you two are inseprable.. I mean… " She sighed. "Yeah, there are people who hold a grudge against her for a lot of things… for old history, and for Velasca… for what happened last year.. what happened earlier this year…but when I stood up in council and told them…" She paused, studying the ground. "The prevailing attitude was that it was better for us to have her as an ally.. as a citizen of the nation.. then to force her to stay on the outside.. especially considering your relationship."

The bard let out a long breath. "Well. That's better than I could have hoped for, I guess."

Ephiny clasped her hands together. "Look.. Gabrielle… I know you want everyone to see her like you do.. but that's just not possible, and I think you know that."

A brief nod. "I know that." The bard admitted quietly. "But that doesn't mean I'll ever stop trying."

The regent gazed at her with a wistful grin. "After that little nutbread escapade, I don’t really think I need to ask this, but is everything working out all right between you two?" Her eyes studied the bard's face intently. "You both look a lot more relaxed."

Gabrielle let a more natural smile crease her face. "I have to admit Eph… there was a time when I was convinced it would never be the same. " She closed her eyes, and breathed in deep. "But I was wrong, and you have no idea how wonderful it feels to be able to say that."

Ephiny gazed at her. "I thought maybe that was the case… you've got that little sparkle back in your eyes that I was missing the last time I saw you." She gave the bard's arm a squeeze. "And that, my friend, looks very good indeed."

The bard nodded slowly. "Thanks." She glanced aside at the regent's tense profile, outlined in silver, and decided on the direct approach. That usually worked with Xena. "Ephiny, what's wrong?"

The Amazon started, then looked back at her with an unsure expression. "What do you mean?" Her brow creased. "What makes you think anything is? Things are going great, Gabrielle…barring the usual round of minor squabbles, and stuff of that nature." She let off a small laugh.

A tiny shrug from Gabrielle. "Just my intuition talking, I guess… you just seem kinda sad."

"Nah." Ephiny smiled and jostled her lightly. "Your famous imagination, huh?"

"Mmm…. Yeah… " The bard half turned, giving her a direct look. "Except that Xena thinks so too, and… "

A sigh. "And she has no imagination, right?"

Gabrielle sensed her friend's unease, and felt reluctant to push her too hard. "Well, that's not true.. " She chuckled a little. "She does.. it's usually focused on planning, and strategy, and stuff like that, not personal things." She paused. "She can imagine what opponents are thinking, and work around that, or imagine solutions to problems.. but she usually doesn't see things that aren't there." At her last words, she looked right up into Ephiny's eyes. "But if you don't want to talk about it, that's okay… I just wanted you to know I'm here for you if you need me."

Ephiny remained silent, then exhaled. "Thanks." She finally replied. "I'm all right… I… had a really tough time of it after.. what happened, and I think it just made me.. " A pause. "It's just different."

Gabrielle pulled one leg up and wrapped her arms around it, resting her chin on her knee. "Things okay with you and Pony??" She inquired, keeping her voice mild.

"Oh.. yeah… " Now the regent smiled. "Yeah, that's been… it helped, it really did.. I mean… it's nothing like what's between you two.. we're mostly good friends, with a little… " Her lips quirked. "Anyway, not like what you have… but just having her around was great… it took a while, but.. "

The bard nodded a bit. "Well, we didn't start out that close, Eph.. it kinda grew on us after a while.. maybe.. "

" " The blond Amazon quickly interjected. "Neither of us… we… Gabrielle, don’t take this the wrong way, all right? But what you and Xena have.. it's so damned intense.. so..overwhelming… it's almost kind of scary." She hesitated. "It does scare me.. I'm not sure I can handle something like that, and I don’t think Pony can either."

Gabrielle straightened up, gazing at her thoughtfully. "Ah." She nibbled her lip. "It's… yeah, when things go bad, it's very bad, Ephiny.. I won't lie to you about that." She paused. "But believe me when I tell you that all the bad times don't matter at all when I think about the good times." She put a hand out and rubbed the regent's arm gently. "Eph, it's worth the risk."

But the older woman shook her head. "No, my friend… I'm content to just watch the two of you.. that's as close as I want to get to that head over heels thing." She chuckled quietly. "Listen.. thank you though.. it makes me feel really good to know you're thinking of me… I appreciate it a lot."

Green eyes studied her with a little challenging glint to them, but Gabrielle merely smiled. "Anytime." She conceded the round graciously. "Speaking of which… remember we were talking about Aunt Ephiny?"

The regent tipped her curly head back and laughed, very obviously relieved at the change of subject. "Oh yeah… I can't wait to razz Gran about that… good thing she couldn't make it up here - she'd go nuts to not be able to compete in the games."

"No?" Gabrielle put her news on hold for a minute. "Why not? She's only a month or two into her term… "

Ephiny shook her head. "Oh no.. uh uh.. not fair - she'd be the first to agree. You have to say if you're handicapped in any way, and that counts… her opponents would make allowances, and then what's the point? Pregnancy changes your balance a little..sometimes your perspective.. I went a little color blind during mine."

"Oh." The bard rubbed her jaw. "For everyone?"

The regent shrugged. "Mostly.. nothing really big, but you know how much timing matters, especially in stuff like wrestling and staff… her opponents would be nervous.. it's just not worth it. Besides, we'd have way too much fun pampering her and making her sit on soft cushions.. she'd kill us all by the end of the festival."

Gabrielle drummed her fingers against her leg. "Xena said she fought right up until practically the last minute."

Ephiny rolled her eyes. "Why am I not surprised?" She muttered. "She's a special case, Gabrielle.. she's so skilled she can compensate for any weaknesses or mistakes before someone can take advantage of them." She explained. "She's also really strong, so she can power her way through momentary balance problems and if her timing's off a little.. it doesn't matter too much." The regent paused, then looked intently at her friend. "You were being straight with me in there, right? She isn't pregnant, is she?"

"Um.. no.. no.. she isn't." Gabrielle answered honestly. "I was just using her as an example.. not a very good one, I guess." She grinned sheepishly. "So.. you'd have banned Gran from the competition?"

"Yes." Ephiny assured her. "And it would drive her nuts.. she loves to compete." She paused. "Was there something you wanted to tell me about her? You started to."

Gabrielle took a breath. "Um… no I was… thinking.. about what to get her for the baby…presents.. thought maybe you'd have some ideas."

Ephiny gave her a relaxed grin. "Do I? Sure." She stood, and stretched her body out. "C'mon.. my butt's freezing out here… can I interest you in some mulled cider, and cookies?" She plucked the bard's sleeve and gave her a stern look. "I realize this probably isn't your shirt, but you do look kinda thin."

The bard adjusted her belt with a little laugh. "We've been pretty active lately… takes a lot of energy out there." She stood up. "Cookies sound great…and it is a little chilly." She motioned Ephiny to head up the narrow path before her, and followed behind, her green eyes very thoughtful.

Xena had wandered down to the stables, quiet now in the late evening hours and spent some time with Argo, unnescessarily currying the mare's gleaming coat, and idly checking her feed bucket with curious fingers. Ares had joined her, and was curled up in the straw, his large ears swiveling back and forth to capture the soft sounds going on around them. "Hey girl… you got a snarl there." She clucked softly, and worked the tangle with her fingers, letting the horse's calm presence soothe her, as she leaned against the big, warm body and breathed in the scent of summer stirred by Argo's hooves.

A soft footfall caught her attention and she looked up, resting her hands on Argo's broad back as the stable door opened and Solari slipped in.

"Thought I'd find you here." The Amazon grinned, and padded closer, a conspiratorial look on her face. "I'm in charge of the party within a party, so to speak."

Xena grinned back. "Do I wanna know the details?" Her brows lifted.

Solari patted Argo's smooth coat. "Mmm… you might… we've got a little presentation planned… some of the kids wrote a song.. "

"Oh great gods of Olympus.. " Xena winced, covering her eyes. "She's gonna kill me." She peeked out at the Amazon. "She made me promise not to tell you guys it was her birthday."

Solari snorted. "So much for that."

The warrior shrugged. "She didn't make me promise till yesterday… little late, huh?" She chuckled. "Thanks for storing the presents I had for her here.. she'd have found em otherwise."

"No problem.. I think Eph's gotten her a set of chobos.. nice ones, all carved and stuff.. and I know I saw lots of practical stuff being wrapped up like herbs and quills and junk." She stroked Argo's back. "Argo's gonna hate us, that's for sure, since she's gonna have to carry all of it."

Xena leaned against the mare. "Maybe we can leave some of it here." She mused quietly. "It's her second home, in a way." She let her eyes drop to the golden hair under her brush as an awkward silence fell between them.

"Um." Solari shuffled her feet in the straw finally. "It's none of my business, or anything, but I personally think that um… she's a lot more attached to you than to us." The Amazon cleared her throat, not looking at Xena. "And… she woudn't consider anyplace you weren't welcome any kind of home at all."

Blue eyes studied her in pensive silence.

"So… " Solari struggled bravely on. "I guess if you want to not drag a ton of stuff around, you'd better get used to being okay with being here, you know?" A pause. "Because we're okay with you being here." Another pause. "Okay?"

Xena rested her chin on her forearm, which was laid across Argo's back. "I… think I get the picture." She bit off a wary smile. "Thanks."

Solari breathed a visible sigh of relief. "Good." She gave the warrior a brisk nod. "Now… what's her favorite color?"

The warrior's brows knit. "Hmm… she's got a couple… red.. that kinda deep purple.. sea green.. why?"

"Cake." The Amazon answered, succinctly. "They did up a big one, with a couple different layers, and fruit filling.. cook's gonna get someone to decorate it nice with frosting." Her mouth suddenly quirked. "Hey.. speaking of which… "

Xena held up a hand. "Nope.. nope..I'm sworn to silence."

Solari grinned evilly. "Hey.. then it is true… thanks, Xena." She chuckled. "I'll have to remember that one."

An idea struck the warrior. "Just so you didn't hear it from me." She regarded the dark haired woman idly. "Seeing how things were, I just couldn't resist."

Solari relaxed, and played with Argo's tail. "Oh yeah… I saw that coming, we all did, really… Pony's been stuck on her for years… all it took was a little judicious push, for which we all thank you, by the way. Eph's been alone too long.. she really took Phantes' death hard."

"Mmm.. I remember." The warrior commiserated. "That little time we spent with her in Thessaly." She mulled that around for a minute. "She kinda thought that whole thing was her fault.. because Phantes died protecting her."

Solari sighed. "Yeah… I think… maybe that's why.. " She fell silent for a moment. "She was really gone on him."

Parts of the puzzle slid neatly into place behind Xena's gently glinting eyes. "Hmm… it's tough when you lose that.. you don't want to risk it again." She made the statement calmly, almost offhandedly, and waited for Solari to respond.

The Amazon peered up at her in something like relief. "Yeah… it's a shame, you know? It's like they want to be so much more to each other, and they're just scared to." She paused. "You're pretty smart about this stuff, Xena."

The warrior assumed an inscrutable expression. "Been there, done that." She commented wryly.

Solari's brows knitted, then she looked up. "Oh. Yeah. I guess you have, huh?" Her voice sounded surprised.

"Uh huh." Xena agreed, briefly.

"Mm." Fingers drummed on the mare's back. "Hey.. listen… a bunch of us are getting together over at the scout's fire.. we've got some wine mulling.. you interested?"

Both dark brows shot up, almost into Xena's hairline. "You sure your friends would appreciate that?"

Solari grinned, and put her hands on her hips. "You don't know much about Amazons, do you?" She surveyed the taller woman appraisingly. "Before this little problem became the top talk round the fire, our favorite conversation was the two of you."

Xena modified her expression into a stolid sternness. "I'm not into gossip, Solari." She warned.

A shake of Solari's dark head. "Not gossip, strategy." She corrected the warrior firmly. "C'mon… If you brush her any more, her hair's gonna all fall out anyway."

The warrior regarded her for a long moment, then she tucked the currycomb into Argo's tack bag, and stood, dusting her hands off. Oh well… a little good relations can't hurt… Gabrielle'll be happy.. maybe happy enough not to kill me when she finds out about her party. "For a little while, sure." She grudgingly agreed, then knelt again, digging in their gear. She pulled out a skin bag, which gurgled invitingly. "I'll bring this along." She stood and raked a hand through her hair, motioning the Amazon to go ahead of her, as Ares stood and stretched, then glued himself to her knee.

Solari tugged the bag from her fingers and unstoppered it, sniffing delicately. She jerked backwards in startlement. "Wow!" She gingerly took a sip. "Great Hera, Xena.. what is that?"

The warrior chuckle dryly. "Something I picked up in Britannia.. they make it from barley." She took a sip herself, and felt the hot burn as it slid down her throat and into her belly, advertising its potency vividly. "You like it?"

The Amazon grabbed the bag back, and took a longer swallow, concentrating. "Mm… kicks.. goes down hard.. but after a few seconds… " She paused, thinking. "Nice."

Xena grinned, almost invisible in the darkness as they exited the stables and headed across the now dry ground towards the flicker of the watchfire that could be seen between the trees. This visit was definitely looking up.

Gabrielle stifled a yawn, as she made her way back in the dark towards the far end of the compound. She' d spent a nice candlemark just chatting with Ephiny about Amazon matters - they'd both steered clear of more personal subjects as though by silent, mutual consent. Eponin had ambled in towards the end, shaking out her cloak and scattering a few pine needles on the floor from her evening rounds. She took the security of the village seriously, and she just as seriously reported the peaceful status to both regent and queen, who smiled benignly at her and handed her a hot cup of wine.

Then the bard had felt the long day nibbling at her reserves, and she excused herself, wanting nothing more than a warm bed, and the presence of her absent soulmate, who had made herself scarce since dinner. Gabrielle mildly wondered what trouble the warrior was getting herself into, then smiled as she opened the door to her quarters and saw the half shadowed, half candlelit form sprawled on the low, padded bench near the window. "Hey."

"Hey." Xena responded, blinking at her lazily.

She curled up on the bench next to the warrior, and leaned against her thigh. "So.. what have you been up to?"

The taller woman grinned. "Getting your Amazons falling down drunk." She waved the now empty wineskin in front of the bard's startled eyes. "I was bad."

Gabrielle chuckled softly. "You were, huh?" She gently lifted a hand and grasped her soulmate's chin, turning her head towards the light to look at her eyes. "Had some of that yourself, didn't cha?" Not too glazed, really, just gently inattentive, a state in which Xena could function almost normally. "Am I gonna hear about this in the morning?"

"From me?" The warrior asked lightly. "Nah.. I had a few mouthfuls… then I stopped because things were getting kinda fuzzy." She explained. "When I left, Solari was balancing an egg on her nose."

"She was?" Gabrielle muffled a giggle.

"Well.. " Xena laughed herself. "She was trying to, anyway." She tucked an arm around the bard's body and tugged her closer. "Found out a few things."

"Me too." The bard responded, willingly wrapping herself around Xena's relaxed form. "Eph's scared." She nibbled her lip. "She wants to keep things very remote.. she's afraid to get hurt."

The warrior nodded solemnly. "Pony's had it bad for her for years… now she doesn’t know what to do with herself… she's all confused."

Gabrielle rested quietly in the warrior's strong arms. "Let's see.. after all we've done, I think we can handle this little problem, don't you?" She smiled. "Titans, giants, gods, warlords… two lovesick Amazons should be a snap, right?"

Xena gazed at her. "All they need is to find the courage to take a chance." She murmured, lifting a hand and stroking her soulmate's face gently. "Shouldn't be hard, right?" Her eyes studied the bard's candlelit face with wry wistfulness. Only took us two damn years, she sighed silently.

"Right." Gabrielle answered in quiet understanding. "We can do that.. we're experts at it." She took the wineskin from Xena's hand and sniffed at it. "Ew… what is that?" She touched the tip of her tongue to the edge of the spout, and winced, as it went numb. "Xena, you didn't drink this stuff really, did you?"

Blue eyes peered sheepishly back at her. "Didn't taste that bad… everyone else had some too." Her voice took on an apologetic tone, odd to Gabrielle's ears. "It… was all right… with them .We had a… a good time."

The bard gently cupped her face. "Hey… that's great…you have no idea how glad I am that you're getting along with the rest of these guys, okay?" She laughed softly. "Here I am worrying about how I can get them to relax around you, and you go and handle it yourself by getting them drunk… how cool is that, Xena?"

A relaxed grin crossed her soulmate's face. "Cool, huh?"

Ye gods.. she is drunk. Gabrielle giggled silently. "C'mon, tiger… let's get to bed… we're gonna have a long day tomorrow I think."

Obligingly, Xena stood up, pausing a moment to catch her balance before proceeding across the room to her saddlebags. She thumped down next to them, pawing at the nearest one with an intent look on her face. "Wait… "

Gabrielle stopped to pet Ares, who was curled up on the bed, before she wandered over to her partner's side and knelt down. "Whatcha doing?" She let her chin rest on the warrior's shoulder.

Xena yawned, then pushed the fingers of one hand through her dark hair. "Lookin for something." She continued to riffle through the bag, then, impatient, she simply dumped the contents between her spread legs. "Ah." She picked up a small package, wrapped in thick brown parchment. "Here." She handed it to the bard.

A small hand took it, then Gabrielle settled down at her side, amidst the clutter from the saddlebag, She looked at the package for a long time, turning it over and over in her fingers, then looked up at the quietly waiting Xena. "What's this for?" She asked softly.

Blue eyes blinked twice. "It's.. your birthday." The warrior replied. "You.. didn't think I'd forget, didja?"

Gabrielle reached over and picked up her hand, which had been resting on her muscular thigh and pressed it against her lips. "Xena, I already got what I wanted." She uttered softly. "I have us back."

That got a quiet grin from the taller woman. "Yeah, I know.. but ya can't wear that, so.. " She shrugged a little. "It isn't much.. we've been kinda busy lately."

The bard grinned back, and tugged at the wrapping. "That's okay, I… I mean, that surprise I got last year was really sweet, but it kinda emb.." Her voice trailed off to nothing as she studied the tiny, exquisitely crafted rose cradled in the palm of her hand. The petals were a mixture of pinks and deep, blood red, and the tiny, perfect leaves were a sunny green. She touched one with a fingertip. "Oh… how pretty." She said, faintly.

Xena scratched her jaw. "No thorns." She commented stolidly. "Won't wilt, or die.. seemed kinda practical to me." She shrugged, stuffing the scattered contents of the bag into its depths again. "Got a thing or two more… I'll just hang onto that till tomorrow, I guess." She finished her task and hoisted herself to her feet, then stopped, aware of pale green eyes regarding her with a look of deep love in them. "Like it?"

Gabrielle reached up and grabbed her tunic hem, then pulled herself up Xena's sturdy form until she ended up with her arms wrapped firmly around the warrior's neck. "Yes." She paused a moment, looking up into the faintly surprised blue orbs. "Thank you." A gentle pressure, and Xena ducked her head, as their lips met. She could taste the strange liquor, but more prevalent was the hints of honey and spice from the dessert they'd shared earlier, and she closed her eyes in pure enjoyment. "Mmm."

They tumbled into bed, dislodging the startled Ares, and Gabrielle found herself enveloped by powerful arms that lifted her as easily as a child and she abandoned herself willingly, trusting her partner, and her heart, and the binding of their souls.

A bird called. Gabrielle resentfully pried one eye open, and peered through the gloom towards the window, where she could, just barely, see the outline of the feathered pest against the mostly gray light outside. She was curled up on one side, her back pressed against Xena's body, with the sleeping warrior's arms wrapped snugly around her and she was in no mood to move an inch.

The bird fluffed its feathers and opened its beak, warbling impudently in profile.

"Ares." Gabrielle muttered, watching the wolf's dim outline shift as he turned to peer up at her. "Look… breakfast.." She whispered, pointing a finger at the window.

"Aggrrr?" Ares' eyes flicked to the window and his ears pricked up. Carefully, he crept across the floor, keeping his body close to the ground, until he was crouched in front of the bench, his tail twitching.

The bird clicked it's beak, then let out a harsh call, shifting it's tiny, three toed feet on the sill, and pecking at the edge of it.

Ares paused, then lunged, hurling his body up onto the couch and half out of the window, his jaws opening wide and capturing the shrieking bird efficiently, then dropping back down into the hut with a snort.

"Good boy." Gabrielle winced, at the feathers sticking out of the wolf's mouth. He trotted over and stood up, with his paws on the bed. She sensed Xena stir behind her, and felt the warrior's grip tighten. "Shh… go back to sleep, tiger.. it's not even light out yet."

"Mmm." Came the sleepy response, but Xena shifted a little and blinked. "Hey Ares… whatcha got?" The warrior's voice was full of just awakened huskiness, and she cleared her throat a bit.

The wolf opened his mouth, and the bird tumbled out, covered in slimy goo, landing in front of Gabrielle with a squawk. "Roo?" A big pink tongue lolled out happily.

"Uck." The bard made a face, as the unhappy bird shook itself, scattering bits of feather and saliva all over her. "Ares.. "

"Giving you a birthday present." Xena mumbled, nuzzling the back of her neck. "S'cute."

The bird let out a peep and took off, flapping over the bed. Ares' brows shot up, and he lunged after it, scrambling over the bed and launching himself up as they both crashed into the wall with a bang, then fell back on top of the bed's occupants, the wolf's jaws snapping, and the bird running for it's life across the blankets.

"Hey!" Xena yelped, grabbing the bird. "Ow! Damn thing.. " She jerked her hand back as the bird bit it, then got a better grip and whipped her arm forward, flinging it out the window. Ares sat up with a disappointed look on his face. "Gabrielle… it bit me." The warrior muttered, in displeased surprise.

The bard took the injured hand in hers, and examined it. "Ouch." She flinched in sympathy, as the bird had nipped her soulmate right in the soft spot where her thumb joined her hand. "Sorry about that.. I was trying to keep the darn thing from waking you up." She raised the hand to her lips and gently kissed the spot, then hugged Xena's arm to her and tugged the blankets up more snugly. A thought occurred to her and she turned her head a little. "You feeling okay?"

Xena paused. "Yeah… more or less." She finally grumbled, stretching her body out then curling up around the bard again. She shifted her hands and tickled the bard's belly. "Did you tell Eph?" She felt Gabrielle take a breath, as she modified her tickling to a gentle rubbing.

"Mm." The bard just enjoyed the sensation for a moment, before she gathered her courage, and rolled over, facing her partner. "No… no I didn't." She admitted. "And… I.. um, I'm going to wait until tonight.. before I do." She was aware of Xena's arms draped loosely over her back, as the warrior regarded her from half closed eyes.

"Okay." Came the slightly puzzled answer. "Any… I mean, is there a problem?"

Gabrielle put her hands flat against her soulmate's skin "No.. it's not exactly… there's going to be a whole list of competitions tomorrow."

Xena's brows knit. "Yeah… Solari was telling me."

The bard studied the thin, almost invisible scar that traced along her partner's throat, meandering along her collarbone for the span of a hand. "I'm going to enter the staff challenge."

Xena's body shifted, and she removed a hand from the bard's back, grasping her chin and lifting her face so their eyes met. "What?"

A hand lifted. "Wait… wait… don't go nuts on me, okay?" Gabrielle searched the pale blue eyes, seeing the gathering storm clouds there. "Just listen…it's not a big deal… I'm not doing it to beat everyone, I just.. "

"Gabrielle, you are not going to put yourself into that kind of situation." Xena uttered, her voice very serious. "Are you crazy?"

"Xena, just hold on, all right?" The bard swallowed. "I really want to do this.. it's not dangerous, it’s a lot less dangerous than fighting for real, and I did that back in that city, remember?"

The warrior's eyes closed. "That was different.. you didn't… you had to do that, Gabrielle.. you don't have to do this.. the Amazons don't expect you to."

Gabrielle felt an irrational urge to pull away, scramble out of the bed and stalk off, but by force of will she made herself resist that. Instead, she moved even closer, marshalling her arguments. "Look… I've always felt… I know they listen to me, Xena… they do what I say because I accepted that mask.. but I've always felt there was a.. well, that they don't really think I earned it."

"That's not true." Xena protested. "Gabrielle, they respect your authority, and your skills… you know that.. you don't have to go beat up on them… you're better than that."

The bard sighed, and let her head rest gently against her soulmate's chest. "Xena… they respect me here." She tapped her forehead. "Not here." She touched the skin above her heart. "Not the way they respect you." Now she looked up. "Don't tell me that's not true, because I know it is.. I've just got to watch them watch you."

"So?" Xena's voice took on a hurt tone. "What I can do.. this damn violent crap.. it's not worth anything, Gabrielle.. nothing compared to what you bring to the Amazons… you've got nothing to prove in that." She stroked the bard's face wistfully. "It doesn't matter."

"It does to them." Gabrielle responded softly, giving her soulmate a pleading look. "I just want to get in a few quick bouts.. I can handle that, Xena… you said yourself I could give anyone here a run for their dinars…"

A long sigh. "I know I said that.. and I meant it… I just… " Xena exhaled, and let her head drop onto the pillow. "Gabrielle, it could be dangerous… if you get hit in the gut.. what's the sense in risking that?"

The bard's shoulders slumped in quiet defeat. "I…" She had no argument for that, knowing in her heart her reasons for wanting to enter the games were mostly invested in her own pride. She sighed, burrowing her head in the crook of Xena's arm. "I've been wanting to do this for a year now… just come back here and show them, on their own terms, that I really was capable." She closed her eyes. "Guess I was just a few weeks too late."

Xena felt horrible. Not only because a wave of nausea was swamping her, but because she understood only too well what was driving her younger partner in wanting to prove her skills, it was a burning desire she was very familiar with, and seeing Gabrielle so dejected was doing nasty things to her insides over and above her shared symptoms. She stroked the bard's soft hair gently, and struggled with her conscience.

Would a few quick drills really hurt? Gabrielle was skilled, and careful, and if she just made sure no one got inside her guard…would it be more dangerous than her own sparring sessions? The warrior sighed. It was really a perfect chance for the bard to show off, in a setting that was safe, and fun… and gods, it was her birthday.. she just wanted to have a good time. "Hey." She made her decision, with certain reservations. "Gabrielle?"

Slowly, the bard opened her eyes, and looked up. "Hmm?"

Xena put one finger on the tip of her nose. "Two conditions."

Green orbs brightened warily. "Yeah?"

"One, you get a single twinge, feel a single pop, or get the slightest bit out of breath, you stop." The warrior told her sternly.

A sweet smile began to edge its way across the bard's face. "All right."

Xena held up her hand. "Two, you tell Ephiny before it starts, and get her approval."

Gabrielle's face fell. "Xena, that just tears it all to pieces."

The warrior leaned over, and touched her forehead with her own, peering into her eyes at very close quarters. "She doesn't have to tell anyone else. But it's their tradition, Gabrielle, and you're asking to be accepted into their society… I think you can talk her into keeping her mouth shut if you really want to do it." She paused. "Besides, she'd be pretty hurt if you didn't confide in her.. you know she kinda likes you."

The bard's lips pursed, and she spent a moment considering her soulmate's words. Xena was, she grudgingly admitted, right. Not only would the regent be hurt, she herself had felt really uneasy about keeping her condition silent after she'd heard the Amazon's comments about Granella. Honesty, she mused, was a better choice. "Okay." She finally agreed, glancing up at the dimly lit face above hers. The pre dawn light clearly showed her Xena's profile, and she saw the sudden shift as her jaw clenched, the muscles jutting out and her skin tensing in discomfort. "Hang on.." She patted the warrior's shoulder, then rolled out of bed, and padded across the floor, finding Xena's healer's kit by touch and retrieving the herbs she needed.

A quick stop at the water basin, and she was swirling them into a cup, then crossing back over to the bed and slipping back into it as Xena sat up, wincing. "Here you go." She held the cup as the warrior sipped from it, then eased a hand behind her neck, and worked at the tension there. She watched her partner finish the cup, then lean her head against the cool surface. "You okay?"

Xena reached over and set the cup down on the bedside table, then slumped back onto the bed, tugging the bard closer. "Yeah… I'll live." She muttered.

Gabrielle curled around her, pulling her head down onto her own shoulder and stroking her hair comfortingly. "How long does this part last? I hate seeing you like this."

The warrior sighed. "Varies." She reached around the bard's body and hugged her. "Two, three months I guess." Her eyes flickered past the bard to the window, where dawn was making its appearance in a smudge of pale gray. "You think Pony's gonna be out there expecting me?"

Gabrielle snorted softly. "Yeah… probably."

A blue eye twinkled at her. "Good." Xena replied, letting out a contented sigh as she tucked the blankets around the bard's shoulders and snuggled down next to her. The Amazon's bedding wasn't as comfortable as their own at home, but after a week of sleeping on the ground it felt wonderfully decadent and she wasn't about to budge.

"You are so bad." Gabrielle chuckled quietly, as she yawned, and let her eyes drift closed. "Hey… Xena?"



"What for?" The warrior mumbled, welcoming the gentle lethargy that was stealing over her.

"Just… thanks." Gabrielle replied softly. "For understanding me."

Xena let her eyes drift back open, and she regarded the younger woman wrapped around her in mild wonder. Understand her? Was a time, my friend, I thought I had no chance in the world of ever coming close to that. "You're welcome." She murmured, then lifted her eyes, and stuck her tongue out at the coming dawn.

"Where are you going?" Ephiny kept her eyes firmly closed, and simply reached out to catch an errant bit of leather. "It's dark, it's drizzling, and we've got a Hades of a long day ahead of us."

"Yow." Eponin lost her balance, and fell back onto the bed, getting tangled up in her lover's limbs. "Lemme go… I'm just… I… "

"You're going to go out, and run around in the mud, trying to get the drop on Xena." The regent informed her drolly. "You never do, you just end up frustrated, and covered in centaur poop." She got a firm hold on the older woman, ignoring her squirming. "C'mon.. c'mon… give the old war horse a break, huh?"

Eponin scowled, and relaxed, glaring up at the dimly seen thatch roof of their joint quarters. "Not fair, Eph… you banned her from the games… what am I supposed to do?"

The regent reached over and patted her on the head. "Don't worry… you'll have some competition.. Gabrielle's gonna enter the staff bouts."

The weapons master rolled over, and peered at her in surprise. "Gabrielle?"

One pale eye emerged. "Yeah… a little shorter than me, reddish blond hair, green eyes… nice body.. hangs out with the tall, dark, and dangerous number with those baby blues from Hades?"

"Thanks." Pony rolled her eyes. "I knew who you were talking about.. I was… just kinda surprised, that 's all." She shrugged. "She never seemed… I mean, poop, Eph, I know she's good with that staff, but.."

Ephiny rolled over as well, so that they were facing each other. In the pre dawn gloom, she could barely make out the snub nosed features of her lover, but her imagination filled in the details easily. "But what?" She propped her head up on her hand. "You know she kicks butt.. might be good for some of these featherheads to see that."

"Mm." Eponin's caramel colored eyes were mere glints in the darkness. "Hard for me to think of her like that… I mean.. I know better, right?" The last was almost a mumble. "She looks like she's doing pretty good."

The regent sighed, plucking at the blanket that covered her idly. "Yeah.. she sure does… a lot better than when we saw her last month.. and I walked in on the two of them playing around like a couple of kids.. like they used to." A faint smile tugged at her lips. "Did Solari tell you they got Xena to hang around the scout campfire last night?"

"Damn.. I missed that?" Pony groaned. "How'd Solari managed that one?"

"Just asked, I guess. " Ephiny shrugged. "She brought some kind of bacchae brew and got them all half tanked, didn't say much, but.. Soli said it was all right." She paused, and laughed softly. "That is, when Soli gave up trying to either balance or suck an egg, I can't tell you which." She saw the flash of white as Eponin grinned in response, and reflected again on how nice it was to have someone to share this kind of talk with. She hadn't realized how much she missed it until her relationship with the tough weapons master evolved from a rowdy friendship to something a little closer.

Which was, she sighed, the start of another problem, as she knew Eponin's feelings went a bit deeper than her own did, and she'd deliberately kept everything at a solid, but superficial level between them. She felt bad, because sometimes, when she looked into Pony's disarmingly guileless eyes she saw an echo of something quietly familiar, and found herself wanting to give into that, but whenever she was on the brink…

Something stopped her. Maybe it was fear, maybe… Artemis knew she still saw the horror of Phantes' dying in her arms, and if that wasn’t bad enough.. there were the haunting memories of Gabrielle in shattered pieces, not once, but twice.

She was the regent of the Amazons. Her life was too complicated as it was, and she just couldn't add a personal, emotional load to all that.

No way. Not even when she felt an almost overwhelming sense of longing when she saw the loving closeness in the two couples who were going to be joined at her hand tonight. Or when she saw Gabrielle and Xena together, when the tall warrior was off her guard and the strength of their connection was so apparent it seemed to make them both glow.

She sighed, putting the thought away. "So yeah, you missed some fun, I guess." She ruffled the disgruntled Eponin's dark hair. "Hey.. I'll tell you what.. I'll make an exception.. she can enter the archery competition.. I know you're itching for a rematch."

Eponin gave her a grumpy look. "Well… at least I got a chance of winning that one." She grumbled.

The regent chuckled, and let her fingers run through her lover's long, dark hair. "What're you worried about? You'll probably win most of them… I'm looking forward to putting the wreath on you tonight."

A short silence. "Is that why banned Xena from the games?"

Ephiny chewed her lip. "Not exactly, no." She finally replied. "Things are getting better… with everyone's attitude towards her.. but that much competition… things get outta hand sometimes, and I didn't want any accidents."

"Mmph." Eponin grunted. "Makes sense."

"Tch… did you really think I'd wrangle it just so you'd win?" Ephiny scolded her. "Gimme a break, Pon."

They looked at each other in the gray light, two wily Amazon warriors. "Alright… so I had that idea in the back of my curly blond head, so sue me." Ephiny growled, a faint, guilty grin crossing her face. "You mad?"

Eponin's snub nose wrinkled into a shy grin. "Nah… thanks for thinking of me, though." She stifled a yawn. "Damn… I gotta get up and get moving." She let out an aggrieved sigh. "This tougher than leather attitude reputation crap sucks centaur hooves sometimes, y'know?"

Ephiny ambushed her, wrapping her lazily up in the blankets and her arms, and started a light nibbling on her ear. "Poop on your reputation.. let Xena go out and get drenched.. I got better things to do before the sun rises."

Pony capitulated helplessly, hoping the tireless warrior would assume she was just plotting some new way of catching her offguard. Yeah. Let her worry.

Cait headed purposefully across the compound, the early morning sun splashing across her body as she rounded a corner. She was dressed in typical Amazon gear, though with a few eccentricities that often earned her the dour looks from the elders who were responsible for the education of the younger girls.

Like the twin daggers she wore in the small of her back, for instance. But having not been born an Amazon, she was allowed certain liberties not granted to her more native sisters, and being, in a way, a protegee of Xena's didn't hurt.

She was proud of being from Amphipolis, and of her association with the tall, mostly silent warrior. Even in the bad times, after Solon's death, and the estrangement between her two personal heroes, she'd still been glad she stuck by them, never speaking out against Xena, and often defending her reputation with her fists.

Xena had come through for her, was what had happened, and now everyone had to kind of apologize to her for being so ratty. That felt good, and she often wanted to simply poke her tongue out at all of them and announce. "I told you so."

But she didn't, because that's just not how Cait was. Instead, she threw herself into her current project, which was guarding their erstwhile captive and enemy, Paladia. It had taken quite a long time, but she'd eventually decided that the tall renegade had possibilities, and was perhaps worth salvaging rather than killing outright. But that had taken a lot of deciding, and sometimes when she caught sight of Ephiny, and remembered cradling the regent's battered head in her lap, she often got an itch to reverse her decision.

Xena had said… everyone deserves a chance. And that she, herself, would be dead if Gabrielle hadn't also believed that. Cait didn't for one second put the tall warrior and the renegade in the same category, but she did understand that her hero had done some pretty terrible things, and that Gabrielle's faith in her really mattered.

She'd also visited Gabrielle in the purging hut, and seen just how devastated her young queen was without the love that had bound her and Xena together. The lost, anguished look in those green eyes had broken Cait's heart, and she had gotten her things, prepared to leave the Amazons and go in search of Xena, when the warrior had returned at last. Even through the anger, and the fear, she'd known that their only real chance was together. And she'd been right, she had. The two of them had done her proud, not only surviving, but rebinding themselves together stronger than ever.

Poking her tongue out indeed. And she'd gotten a hug from Xena yesterday, which was always a treat, just to make things extra pleasant. Now, she straightened her shoulders, before she put a hand on the door of the small hut where Paladia was assigned, and pushed it open.

As she suspected, the tall woman was still sleeping, on the thin pallet that was part of the room's spare furniture. There was also a worktable that looked out the small window, a low linen press for her few pieces of clothing, a washbasin, and a comfortable chair against the back wall. Very much like Cait's own quarters, actually, since Paladia was being treated almost exactly like any other person who aspired to joining the Nation.

She spent a moment studying her project. Paladia's short hair had grown out a little, and was due for a trim as the front tended to get in her eyes. A bandage circled her arm, where the break was slowly healing, and stood out starkly on her sun burnished skin. She was taller than most of the others, and almost gawky, now that she'd shed a good portion of the extra weight she'd allowed herself to gain while holed up in her mountain hideout. But she was not ill favored, and sleeping here, without her habitual scowl, Cait almost found her quite nice looking.

Then the picture was ruined as the ex renegade sensed her presence, and opened her eyes, achieving her usual dour expression in the blink of an eye, and putting up a guarded front. "It's you."

Cait shrugged. "You were expecting Plato, then?" She ambled to the worktable and glanced at it. "Oh.. that's a pretty one." She looked over her shoulder encouragingly. "Is that a real place?" The picture, half finished in rough charcoal was a waterfall, cascading over a set of rocks with thick foliage in the background. The renegade had an undeniable talent for drawing, though she perversely refused to do it on command, saying she only did it for her own amusement.

Paladia rubbed her eyes, and sat up, cradling her arm awkwardly. "Nah." She swung her long legs over the edge of the pallet and eyed them as they splayed across the woven mat floor. "Party today, huh?" Slowly, she'd given up her nastier comments, having gotten either no response from the slim Cait, or a response that scared her silly, as she tried the girl's patience and tasted the edge of her steel for it. Privately, she was convinced that Cait was a little nuts, and when she'd heard where she came from, well… that kinda tied it up for her.

But.. if she was forced to admit it, she had to agree that the Amazons weren't all that bad. Her one year sentence of captivity had been a civilized one so far, more geared to making her productive than punishing her, which had surprised the renegade no end. Practical, Solari had told her. They didn't have the resources to keep her under guard all the time, but they always needed another set of hands.

Hand, anyway. Paladia snorted to herself. She'd gotten used to the icy looks from the Amazons, but lately… well, they were all pretty straightforward, and seemed to think she could contribute if she really wanted to, and were willing to put aside how they felt about what she did to their precious regent. She'd thought, real briefly, about trying to escape, but a little chat with Eponin had convinced her that, at least for now, that would be a bad idea. The gruff Amazon had informed her, in words clearly intended to intimidate, that if she left the village, Eponin would hunt her down, and rip her to pieces. Looking into those cold, dark eyes, she'd believed it, especially when everyone made a point of telling her just how much the goofily named 'Pony' was stuck on her precious Ephiny.

And just to annoy the crap out of her, they'd assigned young Cait to be her watchdog. She'd groaned inwardly, preferring anyone else, even the fanatic Eponin, who at least kept her instructions to a few short syllables and didn't go on, and on and on.. gods, the girl was persistent, and annoying, and totally incapable of being either intimidated or ignored.

She let her gaze rise grudgingly to watch the girl as she observed her work, outlined in the early morning sun, which picked up the pink of her cheeks, and the delicate structure of the bones of her face. How can one person look so fragile and be so damned strong? Paladia mused, not for the first time recently. Cait could beat the crap out of just about everyone, and was supposed to be inducted formally into the Nation that night at their little celebration.

She'd never admit it, but she was actually looking forward to the day. The games sounded fun, and she liked the dancing, and when she was just sitting on the verge there, she could almost feel what it would be like to really be a part of who the Amazons were.

And she realized that.. under different circumstances, this could truly have become a home for her. A Nation of strong, independent people, who protected each other, and tried to have as comfortable a life as they could. She'd been watching the dancing last night, and felt an intense regret that she couldn't go back and just change a few things. Like what she'd done to Ephiny, for instance. Not the beating… she fully believed the Amazons, being warriors, could have forgiven her that.

But the other. Something that a society of fiercely independent women hated and resented above all else. Had she beaten Ephiny in a fight, they'd probably have admired her. Stupid. Like they admired Xena, who had, by all accounts, done lots more nasty stuff both to them, and to other people but who was accepted here in her own right, by their ridiculous standards.

Paladia sighed. When she'd finished her punishment, after this season ended, she'd probably be kicked out, and then what?

Guess she'd worry about that then. Cait was starting to talk, and Hera knew, she'd better get it the first time, and not have to ask her to repeat herself.

"Yes… quite a party, actually." The slim girl seated herself, and braced her elbows on her knees in a pose reminiscent of her tall, dour hero. "Lots of things will be happening."

"You getting feathers or something?" Paladia inquired, mildly interested.

Cait nodded. "Yes… they'd usually wait another year, but I suppose they consider me quite grown up by now." She observed her clasped hands. "I'm glad it's this festival, though."

A knowing smirk appeared on Paladia's face. "Cause Xena's here to see it?" She'd deduced that her young captor had a certain infatuation with the tall ex warlord, and she lost no opportunity to tease her about it.

Cait gave her an exasperated look. "Must you think everything I do involves her? No.. I'm just glad because this winter, I'll get to do neat stuff, and not get stuck inside weaving floor matting, is all." Inwardly she grinned, though, since Paladia's comment had hit its mark quite squarely. She was glad Xena would be there, and the queen as well, since they were, in effect, her sponsors to the Amazons. "Do you need that bandage changed?"

The taller woman turned her head and observed her arm. "It's okay." She shifted the limb and winced. "Little better today… yesterday it was killing me." She was usually careful not to admit to that when other Amazons were around, because it generally got her told she was real lucky that's all she got, considering it was Gabrielle she'd tried to choke. They were funny, like that. One minute they grumbled that Xena was this unpredictable, dangerous person, walking around like a cocked crossbow, a danger to the Amazons that was barely tolerated, then next minute they were telling these weird, outlandish stories about her and how she fought in their behalf, and saved their queen, and blah, blah, blah.. and how dedicated she was to Gabrielle.

Weird. She wasn't sure if they hated Xena, or loved her, or something in between. Maybe a little of both. What they all agreed on, though, was that Gabrielle was so completely, blindly, unbelievably in love with the woman it went beyond anything they'd ever seen. And they mostly all liked the little queen, respected her for her ability to negotiate, and had a healthy respect for her courage in standing up to her enemies and theirs. They also thought she was something else for capturing the heart of the dour ex warlord, but that was another story.

Stories. She'd heard enough of those to last her a lifetime. Cait's favorite one was just the sappiest tale which had Xena diving in front of a crossbow at the very last minute, saving Gabrielle's life from someone who hadn't liked the young queen's style. After the damn woman had been ambushed by a bunch of Amazons, no less. That was part of the weirdness. Love, hate… the renegade just shook her head. It was too complicated for her.

"Well, it does take some time to heal." Cait commented. "When Xena does something, she's usually rather thorough." The girl stood. "Come on then, get dressed. We've got lots to do today."


They emerged into the sunlight, with Paladia in her plain leathers, more or less matching Cait's practical outfit. As they headed towards the dining hall, Cait's purposeful strides hesitated, then she grinned as she spotted Xena and Gabrielle also headed in that direction.

Paladia gave a cursory look over, and paused, her brows lifting in mild surprise. Instead of her usual dark leathers and armor, the ex warlord was dressed in leathers not unlike her own, but in a deep, blood red that bared most of her muscular body to the warm sun. She was weaponless, but the total confidence in which she carried herself made you forget that, and just concentrate on the fierce, vital presence that seemed to roll off her effortlessly. "Huh." She muttered, impressed despite herself.

"Goodness, I like her in those." Cait chuckled. "I think everyone else does too.. gosh… poor Solari.. she just crashed into that wall."

"Mm." Paladia, for once, merely agreed with her, continuing to watch as Gabrielle, who had stopped to talk to a passing Amazon, trotted over and caught up, twitching a little at her own rust colored leathers, and looking up at Xena as she asked something or other. The bard looked… The renegade's brows knit. A lot older dressed like that than she had deep in their stronghold. Gabrielle's compact body showed a sinuous strength thus displayed, and as she moved, her well defined muscles shifted under her golden tanned skin with a smooth intensity.

Ephiny came up just then, and hailed them, and the three women stood briefly in the center of the compound, exchanging words. Xena gave Gabrielle a little nudge in Ephiny's direction, and the shorter bard gave her a wry look, then complied, leading the regent off towards the dining hall. Xena paused for a moment, and shook her dark head, then glanced up to see Eponin trotting by, her mind obviously preoccupied.

Paladia watched in frank fascination as the warrior slipped towards the gruff Amazon, her body seeming to move in the rhythm of nature, with the wind, and the leaves that moved constantly around the village. At last, she was right up alongside Eponin, though the woman had no idea anyone was trailing her. Xena reached out with one hand, and tugged on an errant braid, then slipped around to Eponin's other side as the Amazon whirled around, the warrior still silent, and grinning in startling mischief. She tugged on another braid, and finally, with a yelp, Eponin spotted her, causing the shorter woman to trip on a root and almost go sprawling.

A soft chuckle escaped the renegade's chest, catching Cait's attention. "Something funny?" The girl asked, crisply, having missed the interplay.

"Nah." Paladia cast one glance back at the now furious, hands balled on hips Eponin and bit her lip. "So… what's next on the list of stuff to carry, move, clean or fix?"

"Breakfast first." Cait informed her. "Come along.. I think they're making biscuits today… we're off cereal since they found out the queen hates it."

A soft snort. "Hey… she can visit anytime then."

"It's not that bad." Cait remonstrated her. "It's… "

"Glue." Paladia provided in a dry voice. "Stuff hardens, and they use it for putting up walls, I seen them do it." She shifted her arm inside her sling.

Cait rolled her eyes and pushed the door aside to the dining hall. "Come on, or I'll ask them to make you some up."


"So… where's tall dark, and leatherclad off to?" Ephiny asked, as they sat down at the front table amidst a buzz of friendly, excited chatter. "She afraid to cause a stampede in here or something?"

Gabrielle snorted softly, and chuckled a little. "She's so frustrating sometimes… it's like… ok, so she puts those things on, and she looks… gods, Eph." The bard covered her eyes. "Anyway, and she's like.. 'what are you all staring at?"

Ephiny motioned a server over, and relieved her of a platter containing grilled meats, biscuits, eggs, and fruit slices. She plopped it down in front of Gabrielle with a flourish. "Here… they knew you were coming."

Unaccountably, the bard blushed. "Um… thanks." She was starving, as usual, and paused, as she decided where to start devouring the nice smelling items.

"Yeah.. I know what you mean about Xena, though." Ephiny continued, helping herself. They were relatively isolated, and the wall of sound around them afforded them a good degree of privacy. "She's really unconscious of the fact that she makes half the nation slobber when she walks by. " She paused, spreading a thick fruit jam on a biscuit. "Among this group of rampant egotists, that's kinda nice."

Gabrielle smiled. "You're not rampant egotists." She bit into an egg covered roll. "Mm." She swallowed. "Listen.. Eph… I um… remember what we were talking about yesterday?"

The regent picked up a mug, and poured a fragrant stream of cider into it, passing it over to her table companion. "Yeah.. well, I mean, we talked about a lot of things." She glanced up, as she poured a cup for herself and took a long swallow. "Anything in particular?"

The bard finished her biscuit and prepared another while she considered how to proceed. "Um… the competition." Her growling stomach settled down a little, and she started taking time to chew her food before swallowing it.

Ephiny's brows lifted in relief. "Ah… yeah, I do.. listen, if you decided you don't want to, that's perfectly okay, Gabrielle.. no one's expecting you to do that."

Nibble. "No… no.. I do.. I do.. " The bard took a drink. "But.. remember what you were saying about handicaps?"

The regent cocked her head, intrigued. "Eyahh… " Then her face grew concerned. "You're okay, aren't you?" She let her eyes scan the younger woman from head to foot. "What is it?"

"Relax.. it's… " It's almost funny, Gabrielle thought to herself. "There's nothing wrong with me, exactly, I just.. "

Now Ephiny was really alarmed. A thousand things popped to mind, ranging from effects of one of the numerous injuries she knew Gabrielle had suffered, to a legacy of the whole Dahok thing. "Hey… " Her voice gentled, but there was a distinct undercurrent of strain. "Look.. if it's something you need to talk to the healers about… I know Menelda's been asking to see you anyway… whatever it is, we can take care of it… is it… I mean, surely Xena.. "

"Ephiny." Gabrielle put her biscuit and cup down, and faced the regent, putting both hands on her shoulders. "Please shut up."

Worried amber eyes searched her face. "But…."

"I'm not sick. I'm just pregnant." The bard finished.

Ephiny's face was a study in expressions, morphing neatly from relief, through puzzlement, through disbelief, to just plain confused. "What?" Her eyes went to the bard's midsection, then back up to her face, then to either side of them, before blinking. "What? You mean pregnant as in… pregnant?"

"Yeah." Gabrielle had to work hard to keep a grin off her face at her friends obvious befuddlement. "It's that having a baby thing, you know… nine months, all that?"

"I remember." Ephiny nodded, in shock. "Um… I… Ga… Uh… buh." She licked her lips. "Wh… " Her eyes darted over Gabrielle's shoulder and then to the window. "Does uh… I…"

"Of course she does." The bard correctly interpreted the question. "We planned this."

"Planned." The regent examined the word. "The two of you?"

Gabrielle nodded gently. "Yeah."

Hesitantly, a smile edged onto Ephiny's face. "Wow." A pause. "So… is she the father?"

The bard burst out laughing. "Ephiny!!!" She covered her face with one hand. "Come on now… think about that a minute, okay???"

The Amazon shrugged. "I don't put anything past her." She objected, mildly. "Hey.. I mean.. you're serious? You're really pregnant? How long.. can't be much the way you look."

"A few weeks." Gabrielle confirmed with a shy grin. "I'm really…. I'm excited, and … gods." She took the regent's hands in her own. "So's she."

Ephiny let a real grin out now. "That's fantastic." She squeezed Gabrielle's hands. "Oh wow… hey, listen. Two questions. One.. who's… um.. you know. And two, why didn’t you tell me before?"

Ah. Gabrielle took a breath in. "Well, to the first, it's Toris."

Ephiny's eyes widened. "No centaur poop.. " She thought about that for a minute. "Good gods, Gabrielle.. that was smart… the closest you could get, huh?" She grinned. "He must be strutting around like a prize rooster."

"He doesn't know about me yet… " The bard smiled. "We just figured it out a week or so ago… and.." She fastened her eyes on the regents. "I didn't tell you yesterday, because of something you said."

Blond brows contracted in puzzlement. "Huh?"

"Eph.. I really want to compete in that tourney." Gabrielle told her, softly. "I feel like I have something to prove here, and it's very important to me." She watched the expression in the regent's eyes change. "Important enough that I was considering not telling you."

A breath. "What made you change your mind?" Ephiny asked quietly. "You know there are damn good reasons for that rule, Gabrielle… and your being the queen doesn't give you free rein to ignore them."

A faint smile played around the bard's face. "I talked to Xena about it… I had to convince her first, and then she made two conditions, which I had to agree to." Se hesitated. "The second one was that I told you and got your okay."

Ephiny exhaled, and leaned back a little. "She agreed to it?"

A nod.

"I need time to think about this." The regent said, soberly. "I .. Gabrielle, I understand why you want to do it.. believe me I do.. and I supported that, because I think it's time this Nation understood just what kind of person they have to deal with in you." A shake of her head. "But… to deliberately endanger… how responsible is that?"

Gabrielle stared pensively down at the bench she was seated on. "I could say… life is sometimes irresponsible, or remind you of how we found you outside Thessaly, or mention Xena fighting in actual battles right up until she delivered, or tell you that I stood with her, alone, against a couple of hundred soldiers just a week or so ago." She looked up. "It's just a few practice bouts, Eph… it's about a dangerous for me as walking in the woods, and we both know that."

An eyebrow lifted wryly. "For you, that can be damn dangerous." She reminded the bard, who smiled briefly. "I'd have to keep it secret until after the competition, you realize that. Is that fair?" She sighed. "What if something happens?"

A shake of the head. "The other thing I had to promise Xena was that if I feel the smallest twinge of anything, I have to stop right then, and forfeit." She gave Ephiny a wry look. "One of the side effects of this whole thing is that her overprotective streak went off the scale." She lifted a hand and measured as high as she could reach. "Really."

Ephiny drummed her fingers on the table. "I'm gonna get my butt kicked for this, if I let you do it, you know that, right?"

Mist green eyes gazed at her with gentle entreaty, and Ephiny suddenly had a good idea of just how her young friend managed to wrap a crusty, ill tempered ex warlord so firmly around her little finger. "Your main competition in the staff is Pony.. and if you beat her, and then I have to tell her the news, I'll never hear the end of it." She protested.

"I'll let her win." Gabrielle told her reasonably. "I'm not looking to beat the world here.. just demonstrate a little competence."

The regent studied her pensively. It sounded so harmless…but then, this was Gabrielle she was dealing with, who could turn a piece of toast into a war zone. Half of her said no way.. no how… stick to the rules. The other half…

Ephiny sighed. "You're gonna owe me big time, my friend. Very big time. I'll have to spend a few candlemarks coming up with what this is gonna cost you."

A sweet, gentle smile crossed Gabrielle's face, lighting it up and dancing through her clear green eyes with pure delight. "Anything." She promised. "Thanks, Eph."

A soft snort. "Gods know, you never ask for much, do you?" She lifted a hand and gripped the bard's sturdy shoulder. "Be careful, that's what I'm asking. Don't make me look back on this and kick myself, okay?"

"I promise." The bard replied, just as seriously.

Slowly, Ephiny smiled. "You little sneak… listening to me go on about Gran last night… that's really what you were going to say, wasn't it?" She patted Gabrielle's cheek. "Presents, huh?"

The bard blushed a little, and grinned. "Yeah.. well… I had to think of something… " Phew. That was easier than I thought it would be. She studied her hands, then glanced up at the regent. "It'll be fine, Eph… I feel great."

A faint grin tugged at the Amazon's lips. "That explains the glow, then. " She teased gently.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Oh no.. don't you start that too… it's bad enough coming from Xena."

"Someone mention my name?"

A low, vibrant voice answered her, and she turned with as her soulmate joined them, settling down at her side with an indulgent grin. "Hey."

Xena studied her face, then leaned forward and caught Ephiny's eye. "Talked you into it, huh?"

The regent shrugged ruefully. "It's what she's good at." She gave the warrior a quiet smile. "Congratulations, by the way."

"Oh yeah, tell me about it." The warrior replied, getting a nudge in the ribs for her pains. "Hey.. you are." Then she returned Ephiny's smile "Thanks." For a moment, she allowed her joy to show, then dropped her gaze, and composed her expression.

Gabrielle returned to her breakfast, sharing it with her partner. "What's first on the list, Eph?" She swallowed a mouthful of eggs, and delivered a slice of melon to the amiably waiting Xena, who consumed it.

The regent watched them with an indulgent smile, then sighed. "Running… we set up a course that goes halfway round the mountain and back. The contestants have to go to the end point, find a special item, and bring it back to prove they were the first ones there."

"Oh." Gabrielle nibbled a biscuit. "Hey.. that's not a fighting thing… you can enter that one." She gave her partner a poke.

Xena batted her eyelashes and chuckled, propping her head up on one hand. "Not after this breakfast I can't." She advised the younger woman. "Let the kids have their fun." She neatly bit another piece of melon in half. "Besides.. Eponin roped me into the archery one." Her eyes found Ephiny's in wry amusement. She'd briefly thought about entering a few of the games, but… maybe it was the nice warm sun… or the alcohol last night, or whatever… her body was sternly resenting the thought of putting forth all that effort at the moment, and she was in no mood to argue with it.

What she really felt like doing was sneaking away with Gabrielle, and spending the day snuggling and playing with her, but she knew that wasn't going to happen. And she really didn't mind watching the Amazon's games, but she felt no urge to join in, which was an odd feeling for her, but one she suspected she'd be getting used to for the next few months. It was a strangely peaceful sensation, and after a moment, she decided she liked it.

A finger. "My fault." The regent admitted, a little surprised the warrior had declined to enter any others. "Wanna go watch?" She inquired. "They're doing the wrestling at the same time, here in the compound." A chuckle. "The staff bouts are just before lunch."

The bard finished up, and dusted her hands off. "Sounds good to me.. let's go."

Continued in Part 3