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 4

By Melissa Good

Gabrielle blew a thick wad of thatch off her nose, and turned, glaring up at her taller partner as the ribald yells continued around her. "You're gonna die for this, O Warrior Princess of broken promises." A ragged chant of 'happy birthday' rose around her, and she felt a blush start up her neck.

Xena's face froze for a long instant. "Um… I… "

"Just kidding." The bard relented, slapping her on the butt. "I knew you were up to something.. you sneak…I know you had to have said something before.. even the party Amazons couldn't have arranged all this in one day." She ducked under another bucket of stringy thatch, and waved at the chorus. "Thank you.. .thank you.. this is incredible.. thanks…" A very young girl sidled up to her, and grinned, then put a circle of woven flowers over her head, laying a gentle blanket of soft, sweet scent about her. "Um.. thanks.. " She smiled at the girl, who blushed beet red, and dropped her eyes, then ducked away, rejoining a table of Amazonettes, who were watching her with wide, appreciative eyes.

Oh… bowlegged piggy wonks. The bard sighed, but had to laugh, as she turned in a slow circle and studied the almost unrecognizable dining hall.

The room was filled with colorful drapes of fabric, and seemingly unending drifts of the shredded straw, which was rapidly getting everywhere, shedding it's dusty load of colors on the room's occupants, and turning them into walking, sweating rainbows.

Gabrielle observed the stripes, and felt a giggle surfacing, her tension dissolving a little under the absurdity of the situation. She knew she wasn't finished dealing with what had happened, but she decided to put that off for a little while, until she had peace, and quiet, and could sit with her diary and order her thoughts.

Most of the village was in here, where tables had been set up all around, and the various crafts had set up shop. Each craftswoman had conjured up something that could be presented to her as a gift, and as she circled the room, a dark shadow following silently at her heels, she found it impossible to be mad at her soulmate for spilling her secret.

After all, she'd done the same thing, right? She felt Xena edge up next to her, and she paused, cocking her head and peering up at the taller woman with a gentle twinkle in her eyes.

"You mad at me?" The warrior whispered, audible even though the room was crowded, and noisy with excited Amazons.

"How could I be mad at you?" Gabrielle answered softly. "Besides, I'll just get you back at Solstice." She warned, smugly.

"I remembered you telling me last year was your first real birthday in a while.. wanted to make sure… " Xena broke off, and shrugged. "Thought this would be a good place for it."

"Stop apologizing." Came the serious response. "They're having a great time… and I… " She leaned against the warrior's tall form. "I don't mind this.. not right now."

Xena put an arm around her. "Glad to hear it.. let's have a good time." She paused, and lowered her voice. "We’ll talk it out later, okay?"

"Okay." The bard glanced around, peering up at raffia wrapped objects hanging from the rafters. "What in Hades are those?"

"Ah." Solari popped up on the other side of her like an excited gopher.. "That was my idea, actually… see, what you do is you get blindfolded.. "

"Blindfolded?" Xena and Gabrielle answered together.

"Uh huh.. and then you swing around with your staff.. I knew you were pretty good at that, though after today.. well.. anyway…you swing around and crack them open." Solari finished, with a satisfied look. "Stuff goes flying everywhere, and whoever gets it, keeps it."

"Oh." Gabrielle gazed up with interest. "Hey.. that does sound like fun." She turned and grinned at Xena, who was ducking uncomfortably under the swinging objects and closing her eyes briefly against the warm, crowded closeness of the room. "In fact, let's do that right now." She turned and gave Solari a bright smile. "And Solari?"

The Amazon turned, from where she'd been retrieving a staff and a blindfold. "Huh?"

The bard leaned close. "Open the damn windows before we all pass out."

A wad of thatch fell on the dark haired Amazon's head, dripping down into her eyes. "Uh… right." She handed the bard her burdens, then ambled off towards the outer walls. Gabrielle shook her head as if to clear it, then turned to a more important subject. "Honey.. come over here." She tucked her staff under her arm and took Xena's elbow with her free hand, guiding her over to the front table, which was placed under a fairly large window. She patted the chair back nearest the opening with one hand, then went to the wall and opened up the panels, which had been closed to contain the party noise, and let in a cool breeze. "Ahh… that's better."

Xena joined her at the window and stood for a moment, just gazing out, taking several deep breathes. "Steamy in here." She commented quietly, observing a blue jay land on a branch right outside. The bird hopped from branch to branch, and opened his beak, clucking at her, and turning it's head to one side to peer suspiciously at the odd creatures looking out.

The warrior held out a hand, and made a low, almost muttering noise. The bird hopped closer, then flittered off the branch and onto her hand, nibbling her skin with it's beak curiously. Xena pulled her hand in closer, and regarded the bird amiably. "Hey there." It hopped to her index finger, and chattered.

The breeze disordered her bangs, and Xena sucked the fresh air in, glad to have her back turned on the crowded room. She knew she'd have to chase her little friend off and rejoin the party in a moment, but she used the diversion to settle her nerves down, and allow her defenses to rebound before she reluctantly lifted her arm and sent him on his way. She turned to find Gabrielle watching her, a tiny, worried crease wrinkling her brow. "He didn't have a party hat. Had to go." She explained, with a quirky grin.

That surprised a laugh from the bard, who relaxed, and handed her the blindfold. "Give me a hand with this?" She took advantage of the chaos to put a hand on her soulmate's back and give it a gentle rub. "You okay?" She asked, softly.

"Loving every minute of it." Came the droll reply, as Xena took the blindfold, and turned the smaller woman around, to face the room. She carefully tied the fabric around the bard's head, checking it to make sure her vision was completely obscured. "Okay… how's that?"

Gabrielle swung around, almost clocking her partner with the end of the staff she was carrying.

Xena ducked, putting a hand on the bard's hip. "Whoa!" A round of laughter circled the room. "Aim up, Gabrielle.. up.. okay?"

"What?" The bard turned again, causing her soulmate to dodge wildly, lunging out of the way and causing another round of laughter. "Hey.. where'd you go?" She scowled, as she sensed the warrior's absence.

Xena slipped up behind her, and grabbed the end of her staff, holding it still. "Right here." She patted the bard's back. "I'll aim ya, and you swing.. how about that?" She guided Gabrielle to the center of the room and watched, as a grinning circle of Amazons formed around them. Carefully, she pointed the staff in the general direction of one of the hanging items. "Okay.. now.. swing."

Gabrielle did, with gusto, and felt her staff crack against a hard object, which gave under her attack and shattered, sending a scattering of sounds across the wooden floor. "Did I get it?" She heard a chorus of laughter, and faint scrabbling sounds as the Amazons dove for the booty.

"Yeah." Xena rubbed her head, where one of the little wrapped items had hit it. "You sure did." She glanced up as Ephiny joined them. "Cute, Eph." She commented to the grinning regent. "Watch out.. "

"Ephiny?" Gabrielle swung around, sending both regent and warrior diving out of the way. "Hey.. what's going on?" She felt Xena's hands on her shoulders again, and tried to turn, but was held firmly in place. "Xe?"

"Yeah.. it's me." Her partner chuckled. "Okay.. ready for another one?" She aimed the bard towards another object, which was swinging faintly. Xena cocked her head, and patted Gabrielle's back. "Ok.. up.. now swing… yow!" The bard's backswing caught her in the shoulder, and she winced.

"Oh.. gods.. " Gabrielle swung the other way in consternation, knocking a jug of fruit juice off the nearby table. "Hey.. " She whirled around, and nailed a hanging object which exploded, and sent a shower of glass beads everywhere. "What the… "

Ephiny lunged for the pitcher, and hit a patch of beads, slipping and colliding with Solari, who grabbed the edge of a table, catching the cloth covering it and tugging it's contents down with her. "Bacchae!"

"Whoa!!" Gabrielle took a step, and slipped, sliding across the floor, frantically trying to catch her balance with the staff. Amazons dove of her way in panic, and Xena hopped over them like a demented rabbit trying to catch up with her soulmate. She grabbed one of the bard's arms, and Gabrielle swung around as she recognized the touch, thwacking the warrior in the head with the staff and sending her tumbling against one of the craft tables.

Unfortunately, it was the mask maker, and feathers went every where, exploding across the room as though a herd of chickens had plowed through it.

Gabrielle caught her balance, and felt the staff knock against one of the hanging canisters. With a grin, she smacked it, then yelped as the packages inside fell on top of her. "Xena?" She abruptly felt the staff taken out of her hands, and she groped around, her fingers impacting familiar flesh. "Ah.. there you are."

A burst of giggles greeted this, and she realized where her hands had landed. "Oh.. centaur farts." She sighed, blushing furiously. She felt the shudder as Xena started laughing, and she decided to find safety, as she wrapped her arms around her partner's sweating torso, hanging on for dear life. A gentle pressure against the back of her head, then light flooded her eyelids, and she blinked her eyes open, peeking out from around Xena's biceps. "Uh oh."

Amazons covered with sticky fruit juice and feathers grinned back at her. Ephiny blew a bit of down out of her eyes and put her hands on her hips. "That's our queen." She remarked, with a irrepressible grin. "Would you please go siddown before we all end up buck naked and painted in honey?"

"Is there a problem with that?" Xena drawled, relatively unscathed, to a round of ribald chuckles. "I can give you some ideas for the feathers." Another round of snickers, and she could almost feel the heat as Gabrielle turned brick red, hiding her face against the taller woman's chest.

"Oh really?" Ephiny teased, giving her a sultry look. "And here I thought you did the leather thing." She glanced over. "Hey.. cover those kid's ears, will ya?" She grinned as the Amazonettes burst into giggles.

Xena chuckled.

Gabrielle peered at her. "What leather thing?" She asked, puzzled.

The room exploded into laughter.

"Tell ya later." Xena assured her, then saw the scowl forming. "Remember that gag we played a week or so ago?"

"Gag.. gag… "The bard muttered. "I don’t remember a…" Her face cleared. "Oh." She chuckled softly. "That gag." She waggled her eyebrows. "Yeah.. I remember that… the whip.. and the… " Her fingers traced Xena's collarbone unconsciously. "Yeah.'

The room burst into giggles again, and people started moving, trying to unstick themselves from the colorful feathers and beads. Xena guided her soulmate back to the front table, and settled into a chair with a tiny sigh of relief.

Gabrielle ran her hands through her hair, and watched the merriment for a moment, then turned her head. "Hey.. " She lifted a hand and touched the warrior's temple, which was sporting a reddening lump. "Where'd you get that?"

Xena flicked her eyes at her. "Um… I kinda tripped.. fell against a table."

"You tripped." The bard repeated, disbelief coloring her voice.

"Yeah.. all those beads.. you know." The warrior explained, not about to tell her that she'd been the one who caused the lump.

Gabrielle settled back in her chair, and stifled a yawn, then sighed. "Party tonight.. more games tomorrow… Xena, I'm gonna need a vacation after this." She rolled her head to one side, eyeing her partner. " Archery and swordfighting this afternoon, then all the crafts competitions tomorrow… which are you going to do?"

Xena glanced down at her hands for a moment, then looked up. "Think I'll give em a miss this time, love… "She shrugged. "You take the laurels."

The bard leaned on the arm of her chair. "Whoa.. whoa… are you okay?"

Serious blue eyes regarded her. "I'm fine, why?" Xena replied. "I just don’t feel like getting involved in that, this round."

Gabrielle blinked at her, obviously surprised. "Um… okay… " She agreed, slowly. "It just kinda startled me.. that's not like you." She reached over and circled Xena's wrist with a hand. "I guess I'm so used to you being so competitive.. seems weird when you're not.. but.. ." A shrug. "Great.. you can sit and watch with me tomorrow.. I like that."

Xena smiled, and relaxed, leaning back and trying to find a comfortable position for her stiffening back. "Good… I think I'd… what?"

Green eyes were now inches from hers, intently looking at her face. "What's wrong?"

The word nothing formed on her lips, but it never sounded, as she let out a short breath instead. "Just a little sore." She admitted quietly. 'That pile on before.. you got some chunky subjects here, your Majesty." A wry joke, which didn’t get so much as a smile from her soulmate. "Gabrielle.. relax, all right? I'm fine.. .siddown and let them put that plate on the table."

"Hey.. everything all right?" Ephiny's voice interrupted them, as the regent joined the table, thumping down on the other side of Gabrielle with a sigh.

Gabrielle gave the warrior a 'just you wait till later' look, and reseated herself. "Mostly." She answered Ephiny, hearing a faint chuckle at the word. "So… birthday party, huh Eph? Where's Pony?" She hadn't seen the weapons master since before the staff bouts, and she wondered if she was still upset at her partner.

Ephiny sighed, and rested her head against her hand, fingers raking through her curly blond hair. "Off sulking." She admitted. "I yelled at her for busting Xena's chops… she went off to go hunt something down. " A wry look crossed her face. "She'll be all right.. she'll come back with a bunch of rabbits.. or a basket of fish.. covered with mud, but in a better mood."

The bard smiled. "Oh.. she does that too?" She edged away from the subtle poking in her ribs. "Especially the mud… Xena gets mud in places I didn't think it was possible to." She closed her eyes as she realized how that sounded. "Um.. I mean… nevermind that." She waved off their grinning faces, and nodded a thank you as a server put a huge plate of assorted goodies down in front of her. "Mm."

"Oh..while you're working on that, the kids made up a song for you." Ephiny smiled sweetly, oozing with eagerness. "Okay, you guys… get over here." She waved over the group of girls.

"A song." Gabrielle repeated, nibbling on a chunk of vegetable spread with a thick, garlicky goat's cheese.

"Mmmhmm… " Ephiny took a round of bread and dipped it in a small crock of spiced, ground peas. "You know.. it's words, set to music."

Gabrielle bounced a pea off her nose. "Ephiny. I'm a bard. I know what a song is." She rolled her eyes. "A song, huh?" She glanced to her left, where Xena was busy whispering to Solari. "And.. what are you up to?"

Two guilty faces glanced her way, then Xena bestowed one of her more charming smiles on her. "Us?" She shook her head, crossing her arms over her chest. "Nothing."

A sigh. "You are so busted." A pea made it's way in Xena's direction, and the warrior neatly snapped it out of mid air with a flash of white teeth, which then grinned at her. "Nice." Gabrielle turned to face the fidgeting girls, who were smiling shyly at her. Oh… pigtails. She rummaged around for something to say. "Um… hi… did you have.. something you.. " A hand lifted. "Wanted to um… "

The girl who'd given her the flowers stepped forward. "It's a song.. we made it up for you."

I'm gonna die of embarrassment, right here. "Oh.. wow..that's.. great." She managed to croak. "Very.. um… artistic of you."

The girl beamed. "Ready?" She polled her colleagues, who produced a mouth harp and a pair of bongos. "Okay.… a one.. a two.."

Twanging and boinging filled the air, along with the voices of eager, yet untrained singers.

Boing… tudda tudda tudda…

We love you Queen Gabrielle,

Oh yes we dooo…

Boing.. tudda tudda…

We don’t know anyone,

Who's quite like yoouuuu…

Boing boing bong boing… tudda tudda…

When you're not with uss… we're blueeee….

Oh Queen Gabrielle, we love you!

Boing! Thump!

Xena had a very powerful ability to concentrate. At the moment, she was concentrating on the rafter above her head, focusing all her thoughts, and all her vast physical and mental control on not bursting into hysterical giggles. Her jaw muscles were firmly locked, and she was counting her breaths, in.. out…in… out… and actively thinking of depressing things.

She imagined a dirty sheep, it's oily, smelly coat leaving dark streaks against anything it touched. Then the sheep poked it's tongue out at her and crossed it's eyes, and she almost lost it, deciding to simply close her eyes, and pretend she was somewhere else instead.

Gabrielle wasn't sure exactly how she managed to keep a straight face. Maybe it was professional courtesy.. she knew she'd have hated to have someone laugh at her for a performance. "Hey.. that was really nice." She told the girls sincerely. "I've never had a song made for me before.. it was really.. unique."

"Would you like to hear it again?" The girls beamed at her.

"Um.. sure… how about later.. during dinner?" The bard quickly told them. "In fact.. you can teach Xena here how to sing it.. "

Wide, round, outraged blue eyes fastened themselves on her in startled alarm.

She smiled sweetly at her soulmate. "You'd sing that for me, wouldn't ya?" She gave Xena her best wishing look.

Xena appeared as though she'd swallowed an entire lemon, peel and all, but she rose to the occasion. "Sure." A pause. "If you play the bongos."

The bard turned her head and regarded the delighted group. "Can we borrow those later?"

The warrior leaned close. "You don't know how to play the bongos." She muttered in protest.

"For that, I'll learn." Her soulmate replied. "Can you play that mouth harp thing?"

A dark brow edged up. "I can think of better things to do with.." A hand clapped over her mouth and she grinned mutely at the bard, her intensely blue eyes sparkling.

Gabrielle gave the avidly listening audience a weak smile. "Her time… better things to do with her time.. she's a busy person." She bit her lip as Xena nibbled the soft skin on her palm. "Thank you.. is there.. " She turned to Ephiny, who was almost purple from laughing. "any cold water around here? I'm really hot."

Not much useful got done after that comment.

"We've got a little while to relax before the archery.. " Ephiny leaned over, as the party was winding down. "I'm gonna go take a bath.. you interested?"

Gabrielle chewed the last of her nutty pastry, and considered the question. "Mm… I need to go back to my place first… gotta take care of something." She patted the regent's arm. "After that.. sure.. that sounds great." Her diary was on the top of the list, along with a little pampering of the unsuspecting Xena.

"All right.. I'll meet you there." Ephiny stood, and stretched, her amber leathers making a soft creaking complaint, then she shook herself a little, and edged around the table, exchanging wry comments with the Amazons on either side.

Gabrielle watched her friend with a fond smile, then leaned back and regarded her quietly observing partner. "We're invited to the baths." She reached out a hand and wiped a bit of blue dust off Xena's arm. "Probably a good idea."

Xena nodded. "Yep… sounds good." A warm bath sounded… wonderful, actually, even though they'd have to share the place with the noisy, avidly watching Amazons.

The bard stood, and held a hand out, faintly surprised when the taller woman took it without hesitation, and allowed herself to be tugged upwards. Gabrielle didn't miss the well hidden flinch, but she kept quiet, and merely led her soulmate out of the dining hall, and into the warm sunlight.

It was quiet out here, as the Amazons dispersed to prepare themselves for the afternoon's games, most also making for the bathing area to clean off the dust and goop that had been scattered liberally over them at the party. The breeze had picked up, and was scattering leaves about the compound, bringing to them the rich, tangy smell of woodsmoke from the pit where dinner was being cooked. Gabrielle tucked her hand in the crook of her partner's elbow, and took a deep breath. "That smells great."

Xena smiled down at her. "You hungry again already?" She teased gently.

"Tch.. no.. " Gabrielle snorted softly. "It just does.. the wood burning… I think they added hickory to it."

A delicate sniff. "You're right." The warrior replied, approvingly. "Did you like your party?"

Gabrielle bit back a yawn, sternly telling herself no naps. "Loved it… so much stuff, though.. but did you see those chobos?" She grinned a little. "Will you teach me to use them?"

"Sure." Xena draped an arm over the bard's shoulders, and felt a returning clasp circle her waist. The warmth of Gabrielle's arm felt really good against her bare back and she sighed quietly, as the nagging soreness raised it's cranky head again.

Sitting for all those candlemarks hadn't helped, and what she really felt like doing was curling up in a ball, preferably with Gabrielle, and letting herself relax for a while. Not gonna happen, so just suck it up, Xena… She sternly told herself, as they ducked inside their quarters.

"Hey.. where is Ares?" Gabrielle asked, as she glanced around, looking for the wolf. "I saw him after we left Menelda's, then he disappeared."

Xena's brow creased. "Um…. Oh, right.. I sent him off hunting.. he was getting kinda excited with all the fighting going on.. I didn't want him to sink his fangs into one of your opponents." She chuckled a little. "Though.. on the other hand…."

Gabrielle laughed. "Ah.. okay. He should be back anytime now." She pushed the warrior towards the bed. "Lie down."

Xena blinked at her in puzzlement. "Huh?"

The bard was kneeling beside their saddlebags, and digging in the one they kept Xena's healer's supplies in. "Lie down, and I'll give you a backrub." A pause. "Go ahead.. tell me you don't want one." She peered knowingly up at the taller woman.

The warrior bit her lip, a disconcerted look on her face. "Um… you don't have to…" She stopped and regrouped. "It's not that bad, Gabrielle… it's just a little… "

Green eyes were gazing fondly at her, as the bard juggled her little earthenware container of liniment. One blond eyebrow lifted in question.

Xena chuckled a little, and capitulated, having run out of lame excuses. She padded over to the bed, and dropped onto it's surface, removing her boots then lying down on her stomach, and curling her body slightly to reduce the strain on her aching back. She felt Gabrielle slide into bed next to her, and then smelled the sharp, distinctive scent of the liniment as the bard put a little on her hands.

The warrior's eyes closed in utter relief as Gabrielle started her work, proceeding in silence for a few moments as her fingers found the tense area that was warm to her touch. "It's a little swelled up here." She murmured, watching the dark head nod slightly. "Really knotted."

Xena's ribs moved as she inhaled. "Yeah… I had to tighten up like anything.. I think I got a knee there, too." She sighed. "My fault… stupid game."

"What… a half naked Eponin along with half the Amazon nation chasing us for stealing their clothing?" The bard murmured, as she gently probed the sore area, in the lower part of the long muscle that paralleled her partner's spine on the left side. "Wonder if they'll add that one to next year's festival in your honor?" She smiled as she felt the reluctant chuckle under her fingertips. "Does it hurt a lot?"

Xena shrugged. "Not really.. more just annoying… just got stiff sitting around in that party." She felt her body respond to the bard's hands, the muscles loosening and relaxing as if by magic. The liniment helped, but she knew most of that was just Gabrielle's influence, and always had been even before they advanced their relationship. A faint smile crossed her face in memory as she recalled a cold, wet night, a long two years ago.

The rain had kept up all day, and they'd been out in it most of the time, being in the lowlands without so much as a decent tree to shelter under. No towns, no caves… just about every single thing they had was drenched, and the temperature had been dropping all day as the storm passed over.

Xena had, somehow, managed to find enough semi dry wood to burn to produce a small fire, but it had done little to warm them, and even Argo's saddle blankets were drenched through. She'd hung them against a nearby rock to dry, but that wouldn't happen until the morning, if they were lucky.

Gabrielle had maintained a miserable silence since after lunch. The warrior could see the goosebumps all along the young girl's skin, and there was a hint of blue around her lips. She sat as close to the fire as she could, her arms wrapped around her knees, as she tried to dry her short, Amazon style clothing.

Xena had felt… bad. She'd known if she, herself was cold, Gabrielle must by definition be freezing and she cast around for some kind of relief. As she watched her companion, she could see the faint vibration as she clamped her jaw shut on its involuntary chattering, determined not to let a word of complaint pass her lips.

Which had made Xena feel even worse, as she realized guiltily that the girl had decided she couldn’t show any weakness, lest she be chased off, or left behind or..

She hadn't realized, yet, that she'd dug herself into Xena's heart so firmly, the warrior could not more have chased her off than picked up and carried Argo.

And the warrior had felt like she was tied up in knots herself. The tension of being chilled had given her a pounding headache, and every touch of the cooling breeze on her skin only made it worse. Even hot tea hadn't helped, and there wasn't enough fuel to do any serious cooking, so they'd had to make do with dried meat and some withered fruit that they'd had in a saddlebag.

She'd studied Gabrielle for a very long moment before making her decision, then spread her sleeping fur, the larger of the two, as near to the fire as she dared. Gabrielle had glanced up, then reluctantly risen, trudging over to get her own bedroll, stopping when Xena had held up a hand.

"Hold on."

They'd looked at each other, and Xena clearly remembered an odd, tickling nervousness as she'd cleared her throat. "Listen.. it's too cold out.. we're gonna have to stick together tonight or neither of us is gonna get any sleep." She tried to make the prospect sound.. ordinary.. offhand.. sensible. No big deal.

Gabrielle's brows had knit, and she'd glanced at the bedroll, then at Xena for a long moment before gravely nodding. "All right." She'd replied softly. "This stuff's all wet anyway." She regarded her blankets with a frown. "Probably make me even more cold."

Xena had taken them from her. "G'wan.. lie down. I'll get these drying."

The bard had given her a grateful smile, then returned to the fire, laying down hesitantly on Xena's thicker fur, which had been tucked under the saddlebags, and was mostly dry. She'd run her fingers over the surface in faint wonder, and a tiny quirk had twitched at her chilled lips.

Xena had taken a breath, feeling a churning in her guts that had really startled her as she dropped to her knees, and settled down at Gabrielle's side. She could see the shivers passing over her young companion's body which was facing the fire. Xena had curled up on her side, then put a hand on the chilled arm next to her. "C'mere."

The usually talkative bard had been speechless, as Xena had folded her arms around her and pulled her body close. Gabrielle had huddled against her, and she'd felt a rapid pounding of the girl's heart that had brought a tiny, knowingly wistful smile to her own face as she'd pulled the still damp blanket over both of them and their bodies felt each other's presence in intimate contact for the very first time.

It had been like magic. If she closed her eyes, Xena could still feel that scary, wonderful moment, when her startled body had reacted, sending a wild pumping of blood to her skin that had chased away her shivers, and brought a strong rush of warmth that had sent chills of a different kind up and down her back.

She'd lain there, knowing it could go no further, knowing it was just the cold, and the damp, and her dire need to make sure the poor kid didn't freeze to death; knowing Gabrielle certainly wasn't interested in her, but in that moment, she really hadn't cared.

Her body had relaxed completely, and she'd felt Gabrielle's heart slow, as the girl stopped her shivering, and let out a soft, relieved breath. "Better?" She'd asked, nonchalantly, rubbing the bard's arm. "You were kinda cold."

She hadn't seen Gabrielle's face, but she'd felt the muscles moving against the skin of her neck where the bard was nestled as she smiled. "Um." The warm breath had tickled her. "A lot better. Thank you." She'd pressed her hands very gently against the soft leather covering Xena's stomach. "You're nice and warm." There had been a rare, shy note in the bard's soft voice. "That's really amazing."

Xena, who had been chilled to the bone minutes earlier just shrugged the comment off. "Ya get used to being outside…it's… " Timidly, Gabrielle's arm pressed against her waist, and Xena had heard her own voice waver just a tiny bit. "It's…just one of those things." She'd tucked the bard's head under her chin, and breathed out, letting herself absorb what she was feeling for a timeless instant.

It was so sweet.

She'd spent such a long time keeping everyone out, everyone at arm's length from her. It had felt so damn good just to feel that simple, human contact. Undemanding. Freely given. So full of trust.

It had been very warm moment in a very cold life.

 "Hey.." A soft tug on her hair brought her attention back to the present.

"Mm? Sorry… I was .. um… " She cast around for some reasonable excuse. "Ah.. I was…"

"Daydreaming." Gabrielle supplied, with an indulgent grin, having seen the faraway look in the pale blue eyes. "Hope it was a good one"

Xena nodded. "Very pleasant memories." She slowly rolled over, stretching a little. "Mm… that's a lot better… thanks." A tingling warmth had replaced the nagging ache, and she took a happy breath as she regarded her soulmate. "You know most of my best ones are of you."

An indescribable look of quiet joy settled on the bard's face. "Likewise."

The warrior plucked the jar from her fingers and tapped her chest. "Lie down… bet your shoulders are a little tight after all that activity this morning."

Gabrielle shifted a little, and gave her a rueful grin. "Yeah… " She gratefully settled down, sprawling over Xena's body with a contented sigh, as strong fingers went to work , starting on her lower back, and working their way up over her shoulderblades. The tension that had been coiling through her dissipated, replaced by a peaceful lassitude that allowed the sleepiness she'd been holding at bay to gain a foothold. "Mmm…. Y'better stop." She sighed reluctantly. "We've got a busy afternoon ahead of us."

"Mmhmm.." Xena agreed, not slowing down for an instant. "And an even busier night… good time for a nap."

"No… no.. it's okay… " Gabrielle felt her eyes closing against her will, though, as the mere suggestion of a nap took control over her. "Wanted to write in my diary a little… "

"You got time to do that later." Xena murmured softly. "Come on now… gives me an excuse to be lazy for a little while, okay?" She slowed her motion deliberately, becoming more soothing as she hit familiar points on Gabrielle's back.

The bard smiled. "You need an excuse these days?" She teased gently. "Thought I'd done a better job on you than that."

The warrior chuckled wryly. "Too true." She admitted. "When I've even got Pony telling me I'm getting soft, it's pretty scary." Her hands worked across the bard's neck. "I always said you were a bad influence."

A green eye opened and peered at her speculatively. "You don't seem too upset about that." Gabrielle commented in mild surprise.

A moment of silence, as Xena reviewed the concept. Then she shrugged. "I'm not." She told her partner seriously. "I think I've decided it's time I stopped pushing myself so damn hard, Gabrielle."

A gentle smile rewarded her. "Never thought I'd hear that from you… but I'm glad." She closed her eye and let out a contented breath. "However, while we're on the subject, tiger, in this outfit any half blind idiot can see she was just trying to piss you off." She tickled Xena's exposed ribs and yawned, giving up the struggle to stay awake. "Don't let her get to you." She mumbled, her words trailing off. "I know better."

Xena indulgently watched her breathing deepen, and slow, and felt Gabrielle relax bonelessly against her. She spent a few minutes stroking the bard's hair, ordering the strands idly as sleep claimed her soulmate, and she felt the relaxed tendrils snaring her in as well.

She was, she conceded, perfectly content to lay right here and not move an inch, cuddling the bard's sleeping body against hers for a long as the younger woman needed her to. It was an odd and slightly disconcerting feeling, to have her natural restlessness tamed like that, as it certainly hadn't been during her own pregnancy.

If anything, she'd been more antsy, irritated at her growing inability to control her body, and frustrated by the constant demands on her energy and reserves. This was… a lot nicer, she admitted privately, enjoying the warm peace that was insidiously stealing through her. Good thing we're going home next… my reflexes have definitely been sharper…feels so damn strange to not.. She could hardly even pinpoint what the lack was… she just knew it was an incredibly peaceful feeling.

She'd always been… aggressive, for lack of a better term. It was a deep seated, energetic drive within her that emerged as a restless, seeking spirit always looking for new challenges, new obstacles… making it hard for her to wait… making her impatient, and short with people… she'd never been content to sit still, even for a few minutes.

It was like this had taken that away, taken away the perpetual anger, and the insistent urge to be moving, doing, fighting… leaving behind a quiet peace that frankly… scared her a little. She wasn't used to this lazy, contented feeling, experienced before only in tiny increments, for very short periods of time. It felt too good. She could easily get lost in it, and then where would that leave her?

She sighed, and decided to worry about that later. Right now she let her eyes drift shut, and put her senses on alert, letting the sounds and the scents of the village register, noting the thunks of arrows hitting their target from the archery range, and the soft, distinctive clash of swords , which carried over the rustle of the wind stirring the branches outside their quarters. A gentle waft of woodsmoke came in the window, bringing a scent of roasting meat to her, and all around was the rich, heavy smell of the forest.

She stayed like that for a while, floating somewhere between sleep and waking, in a murky twilight, until approaching footsteps brought her eyes blinking open, and she turned her head to see the surface crack open, and a familiar head poke in. Xena jerked her head, but motioned for quiet as Ephiny slipped in, and glided across the room.

The blond Amazon perched on the edge of the bed, and smiled a little, gazing at Gabrielle's sleeping form indulgently. " She okay?" She asked, in a low voice.

The warrior nodded, absently stroking the soft hair. "Yeah… she just gets tired a lot faster now…I thought it would be a good idea for her to get some rest before tonight." She gazed affectionately at the younger woman, until a hand on her arm made her look up at Ephiny. "Sorry… what?" She gave the regent a tiny, sheepish grin.

"Xena… " The hazel eyes studied her in mild concern. "Are you all right? " She pitched her voice very low, to avoid waking Gabrielle. "You've been so quiet.. it's not like you."

The warrior paused, deciding what to tell her , then merely shrugged. "Didn't know I was particularly noisy… thought I stirred up enough trouble this morning.. didn't I?"

Ephiny's brow crinkled. "That's not what… " She stopped. "Well, never mind.. maybe it's just my imagination." She chuckled a bit. "Listen… things are on track for tonight.. do you wanna know what to expect?"

Mild, blue eyes regarded her with faint amusement. "If it's gonna involve anything physical, better tell me now, so I don't take someone's head off." She warned half jokingly.

"No… we know better." The regent smiled. "Besides, frankly, no one wants to face Gabrielle if anything happens to you, so… you're safe." She laced her fingers together and cupped them around her knee. "It's a simple ceremony… two of the elders preside over it, and ask a couple of questions, then the two partners exchange vows, and that's pretty much it." She sniffed reflectively. "In your case.. it's a bit different, because you'll be adopted into the nation at the same time… " Her lips twitched. "Menelda is grumpily, unwillingly, crankily… agreed to just let the inevitable happen, but she wants everyone to know it's because of Gabrielle, not because she's suddenly developed a liking for you."

Xena rolled her eyes.

"Yeah.. yeah.. I know… " Ephiny sighed. "And I got the elders to agree that having you fight someone is just really a pointless waste of time, so it's going to just be recorded that you know the right end of a sword to pick up."

Another rolling of very blue eyes. "And?"

The regent took a breath. "And.. then you swear personal fealty to her, and that's… that."

Xena regarded the contentedly sprawled form of her soulmate, then cocked an eyebrow at Ephiny. "To her?' The warrior asked, quietly intent.

The regent understood. "Yes… to her, specifically." A tiny grin formed. "Spent a while in the archives digging up the rules.. it's been a while since a sitting Queen took a consort outside the Nation."

The warrior grinned. "I can do that." She rubbed the bard's back, causing her partner to murmur, and tighten her grip. "No problem." Privately, she was relieved. She would have done it regardless, but knowing it was to Gabrielle personally and not to the Nation as a whole…made her feel a lot better.

"I figured." Ephiny commented. "We're just about ready to get started for the afternoon… you joining us or… " She let her eyes flick to the now stirring bard. "Well, hello."

"Mmph." Green eyes peered up at her, then lifted to study the angular face above her own. "Time?"

"Yep." Xena confirmed, wishing it wasn't. She found herself becoming fascinated in the sunlight trickling in the window and catching the fine, downy hairs on the bard's cheek until she blinked, and gave her head a little shake to clear it. Damn… snap out of it, willya?

Gabrielle rolled over and stretched her body out. "Okay… " She patted her partner's stomach. "Thanks for the pillow." She commented, letting her touch linger, and trace the muscles visible just under her tanned skin as she propped her head up on her other hand and eyed Ephiny, noting the tense look on the regent's face. "Everything okay?"

Ephiny hesitated, then nodded. "Yeah… yeah.. sure… everything's great." A pause. "Why?"

"You're fidgeting." The bard replied, watching the regent's fingers knot convulsively.

Hazel eyes blinked at her. "You don't miss much." Ephiny said, quietly.

A faint smile crossed Gabrielle's face. "Practice." She let her eyes flick to Xena's face, then back to the regent's. "So… spill it."

Ephiny folded her hands under her arms. "Nothing.. it's.. I just wanted you to kind of be there for the competition.. .I've.. um… I got something I need to take care of." She kept her gaze on the floor, regarding the colorful, woven rug that covered a good portion of it.

Blue and green eyes met in complete understanding. "So." Xena crossed her bare legs at the ankles. "Pony come back?"

The startled jerk of Ephiny's head was an answer in itself. "How did you… I mean… " She fell silent, then got up, frustrated, and went to the window, putting her hands on either side of the frame. A long exhale followed. "I should just ignore it.. she's out there sulking… I should just let her go." Ephiny stated, quietly. "Anyway, it's not something you two need to worry about." She concluded, peering out at the busy compound.

Xena pointed silently at her soulmate, both eyebrows going up in question.

Gabrielle gave an exasperated nod. "Sensitive chat. I know." She mouthed inaudibly, then pointed back. "If it doesn’t work, you are going to find her." She added in mime, with a stern look.

The warrior nodded, and got to her feet, carefully stretching out her back and smiling in reflex at the much reduced twinge. "I'm gonna go get… " A quirk. "Warmed up for that archery thing.. that'll draw her out." She picked up her boots, and ambled outside, leaving the regent and bard alone.

From the outside, the rock overhang looked solid. It was covered with a sheen of dusky moss from the nearby river, and hung over the water, providing a perch for bored hawks looking for fish. Thick bushes grew around it, and a person would be hard pressed to see the small opening that led into a roughly circular, dirt floored cavern that was underneath.

Eponin tucked her knees up, and rested her forearms on them, as she gazed out at the river, watching the water pass her by, carrying the odd branch and bit of flotsam in its wake.

It was quiet, and she came here when things were tough, just to sit and watch the ever-changing river, and sit in peace. She'd found this little hideout when she was a kid, and used to sneak off with her friends to escape the elder's endless, boring tasks.

She glanced around, hearing faint echoes of her childhood, when she'd played swords and arrows in this small cave, her boots sinking a bit into the sandy floor, and her breath coming in gasps as she fought heroic battles with sheared off branches.

It seemed such a long time ago.

Most of her friends were gone.. or dead.. victims of either wanderlust or war, some gone out into the world into different lives, some to different Amazon villages.

She'd chosen to stay, even through all the turmoil, through the changes, through Melosa's death, and the ascendancy of a strange, young outsider she'd started off disdaining and ended up… admiring.

Envying, if she was honest with herself, but not for the Queen's mask.

Damn it. She was supposed to be the toughest, meanest warrior in the Nation.

And.. most of the time, she was, y'know? After all, she'd taken this stupid, asinine.. .damned.. adolescent crush she'd somehow developed on Ephiny and just… stuffed it down somewhere, out of the way. It just wasn't gonna happen, not in this lifetime, so she'd settled for the woman being a friend, and that was that. Right? Right.

Then the damn woman had to go and kiss her. She hadn't expected it, not in a million years, and it had knocked her on her butt, both physically and every other way so bad it was a wonder she hadn't spent the next two weeks banging into walls.

Instead, she'd spent the next two weeks in some kinda dream, not quite believing what was going on, but willing to stay happily deluded for a long as she could. All her previous relationships had been strictly casual, mostly for companionship, just fun and laughs… nothing serious, nothing lasting.

She'd wanted this to be different.

And it had started to be, a little… kind of sweet, and gentle… Ephiny had started sharing stuff with her… little stories of her life, her hopes.. how she'd never imagined herself in the position she'd ended up in.

She'd let herself believe… until they'd hit a disaster again, and had to go through that whole thing with what had happened to Gabrielle… and after that, it had changed. Eph had still enjoyed their time together, but… she'd stopped sharing.. . stopped…

Eponin had pushed her, just a little… being confused.. and the regent had told her she just didn't want the risk.

Didn't want the risk. She hadn't expected it to hurt so much. Maybe it was because she'd let herself hope. Not that she regretted what they had.. she didn't. It was warm, and friendly, and she liked having someone to share a bed with and all… Ephiny was funny, and witty… sometimes wryly sarcastic, and smart. She was a great friend, and a better lover, but.


But the truth was, her feelings went so much deeper than that… she loved Ephiny with a kind of almost helpless intensity she'd seen only a few times in her life. It was the kind of love she saw between Gabrielle and Xena, and it hurt to know she wasn't ever going to get that back.

Mostly, she just tried not to think about it. But when she saw the two of them together, saw how Xena dropped all her considerable defenses and let the bard wind her around her little finger.. how she grudgingly cracked open those armor plates and let everyone see the old softie inside… well, damn.. she wished she could do that to someone.

So yeah, she was jealous of Xena, big time, and that's mostly why she constantly nagged the taller woman, challenging her… trying to maybe to prove to herself that what Xena had wasn't so damn far out of her reach. Which was, she knew, kinda stupid, but she couldn’t seem to help herself.

She kicked a rock, trying to keep herself mad at the warrior, for pulling that damn fool stunt but it was hard, since she really, truly, did like Xena, even with that damn, too tough for my leathers attitude of hers. She sensed a warm, kinda nice person under all that warrior crap, which made sense cause Gabrielle had to see SOMETHING in her, right? Besides those incredible eyes, that is.

She'd give anything to have someone… ok, Ephiny.. look at her the way those two looked at each other.

Well, not much chance of that, specially after today.

The rock was cool against her head, as she leaned it against the granite shelf and regretted her sharp words, as Ephiny had yelled at her. She knew the regent was right… she knew she should just leave Gabrielle's sometimes dangerous, sometimes unpredictable partner alone, and not wave damned stupid red flags in her face all the damned time.

She shouldn’t have told her she got more of a response from Xena than from her, huh? She'd seen the look of sharp hurt in the regent's hazel eyes, before she'd just turned, and left, and Eponin tried to call her words back, but it was too late. Then she'd felt just damn rotten.

So, here she was, alone. She knew she should go back and join the games, finish what she started, but somehow her heart just wasn't in it. She'd go.. she'd compete… Athena knew she'd win, since Xena was declining to enter anything but the archery, and even that she had a pretty good chance on, since the warrior had stated bow wasn't one of her better weapons. But what was the point? It would just feel kind of empty, and she'd had enough of that, lately, to last a feathered lifetime.

Dully, she took a sip from the skin she'd brought with her, wincing at the sharp burn as the potent drink trickled down her throat. This was probably stupid too, but she just didn't know what else to do, and she was damn tired of hurting. At least the liquor dulled that, for a little while.

Besides, she'd been so good lately. Eph had made her promise to cut that down, after she'd gotten a little too wild at a campfire one night and ended up burning down the bathing hut. She hadn't really tied one on since… Hades, it was about time, and after all, it was the Dionysus' festival, right?

Right. She took another, deeper swallow, and rested her head against the rock. "Maybe I should get a dog." She remarked to the uncaring river.

A dark, furry head popped up next to her, and growled, causing her to hurl herself backwards, smacking her head against the low roof of the cavern with a wild yell. "Son of a Bacchae!!!" She stumbled backwards, and landed with a thump on her backside, blinking at her assailant. "Gods be damned you furry tailed piece of…"

"Roo?" Ares tail thumped, in a pleased sort of way.

"Centaur dung." Eponin finished, with a disgusted snort. "What in Hades are you doing here?"

Yellow eyes blinked at her, and the wolf panted, sniffing about the floor with interest. "Agrrrerrr.." He trotted over to her, and licked her face, then decided to explore the little cave. The woman's smell matched the scent the Leader had given him, and then said 'Find."

He'd found. That meant cookies, and he'd smelled the ones he liked in the Leader's bag. Now he just had to wait. "Agrrooo." The Leader had told him "Protect." He settled down in the sand comfortably, his front paws crossed , and his rear legs curled under him, with his tail spread neatly out behind.

"Getoutahere." Eponin growled, throwing a handful of sand at him. "Damn little sneak, you scared the feathers off me."

"Grrr." Ares growled, then sneezed, as the sand got into his nostrils.

The weapons master studied him crossly. "She didn't send you, did she?"

The wolf panted.

"Hmph. Bet she did, the old battle axe."

Ares yawned, showing very white fangs, then put his head down on his paws and sighed.

Eponin was caught between irritation, and a smidge of flattery. If Xena had sent the damn furball out after her, then the warrior wasn't too pissed off at her for the wrestling stunt, and wanted to make sure she was okay. "Awww… isn't she sweet?" She snorted at the wolf, who batted dark, long lashes at her. "Just a pile of mush, huh dogface?"

Ares head lifted, and he twitched his eyebrows, looking uncannily like his tall, dark mistress. One corner of his lip raised in a snarl.

"Ahh.. shut up." Eponin groused, but found herself scooting a little closer to him, until she could reach out and touch his fur, which was thick and clean feeling, and a tiny bit bristly. He was nice to pet, so she did, for a surprisingly long time, her wineskin forgotten in the corner.

"You'll just have to stay here until I get back." Cait paced back and forth, ignoring the fact that Paladia was huddled over her workbench, and pretty much not paying any attention to her. "I won't be long, all right?" She glanced at the taller woman. "Hello?"

The renegade gave her a surly look. "Yeah?"

"Stay put." Cait gave her an exasperated look.

Paladia scowled at her. "Not going anywhere." She returned her attention to her work, and moved her charcoal carefully, wanting to get the basic outlines of what she'd thought of out before the light failed.

Cait was about to leave, then curiosity got the better of her. She edged around to one side, and peered at the parchment. "What's that?"

Gray eyes glowered at her. "Thought you were leaving."

"What's that?" Cait merely repeated the question.

"Fox." The renegade mumbled in reply.

"That's quite lovely." The girl stated, approvingly, giving her a pat on the shoulder. "But why a fox?"

Another shrug. "Just something I saw."

Cait studied it, then gave her another pat, this time leaving her hand on the taller woman's shoulder for a moment. "Right… well, I'll be right back… just wait for me."

Paladia snorted, as she left. "Wait f'you… oh.. right, like I had a choice." She shook her head, and returned her attention to her work, carefully shaping a large, cupped ear.

Cait left the hut, and straightened her leathers, checking for her various daggers as she meandered across the compound, casually heading towards the upper trails which started past the archery grounds.

She paused, with a small group to watch as the competitors warmed up, her eyes finding the tall, dark haired form in their midst easily. Xena was leaning quietly on a long bow, waiting her turn, her pale eyes flicking over the entire compound with unhurried, but through intentness.

Eventually, those eyes fell on her, and instead of moving on, Xena picked up her bow, and walked towards her, moving out of the direct sun and into the dappled shade they all were standing in. Cait knew she was getting furtive looks from her companions, who envied her acknowledged relationship with the intimidating warrior, and she unconsciously straightened up as Xena neared and it became apparent she was headed right for Cait.

A flick of the pale eyes towards the crowd, then a second flick towards a more open, empty area. Cait swiveled a little, and padded ahead of her towards the spot, turning as they reached it and glancing up. "Hello."

"Hey." The warrior replied, then fell pensively silent.

"Well." Cait sighed, after a period of quiet, in which the birds twittered happily. "I suppose it was a bit funny."

Xena considered this. "It coulda been less embarrassing."

"Hm." The girl chewed her lip and nodded a little. "I expect she'd hesitate quite a lot before ragging you again like that."

The warrior grunted in assent. "My point."

"Quite." Cait replied. "She hasn't got back yet."

Xena glanced around, and fiddled with her bow. "I sent Ares after her." The warrior muttered. "She'll be all right."

That got her a smile from the girl. "I thought you were ever so mad at her."

The warrior shrugged. "Nah." She looked up at a hail, then nodded, and pulled an arrow from the quiver slung over one broad shoulder. Idly, she lifted the bow she was carrying, and dropped the arrow into place resting against her fist. With almost negligent strength, she drew the tightly strung gut back, and sighted down the shaft, pausing a moment, as the wind shifted and blew her hair back, then releasing the bowstring smoothly.

The arrow planted itself firmly in its target, a stuffed boar. It wasn't the best shot, but it wasn't the worst , either, and Xena let the bow drop, with a satisfied air. "Not bad… " She mused. "Gods know I don’t get to shoot often."

Cait glanced at the pig, whom someone had painted lurid lips on. "Well.. if you'd hit me there, I'd be quite upset." Then she sidled closer. "Will you teach me to catch arrows?" She coaxed persistently, a subject she'd been worrying the taller woman about for quite some months. She'd decided all was forgiven, or would be, if Xena would only give her some hints.

A lazy smile warmed her. "All right… we'll work on it tomorrow, okay?"

The girl beamed. "Great." She hesitated, then edged forward, and gave the warrior a hug. "Thanks, Xena."

Xena patted the back of her head in rough friendliness. "Were you headed out to find Pony?" She muttered, ducking her head so that only the girl could hear her.

Cait giggled softly, reveling in the contact. "Well… you have to keep an eye on these Amazons… they get into all sorts of trouble, you know." She released her hero, and backed off. "I… I'll just take a quick scout round. "

Blue eyes twinkled knowingly at her. "Be careful."

Cait turned, and walked toward the trails, turning and gazing back at her. "Where's the fun in that?" She asked, innocently, then let a mischievous grin cross her face, as she broke into a jog towards the trees.

"So… anyway, she told me about this story, with a pack of rats?" Eponin was lying down on her side, with her head propped up on one hand, facing Ares. "And the rats got into this bunch of grain, so they got real fat, and got stuck inside these grain jars, so they knocked them over, and the girl came in and saw them rolling around by themselves, right?"

"Roo." Ares licked his chops.

"So she thought they were haunted."

Ears pricked.

"Yeah.. so she called the arbiter.. and he fined her twelve dinars for being so dumb."

Ares sneezed.

"Yeah." Eponin reached out and scratched his nose. "You're a great listener, Ares."

The wolf panted, and spared her a lick on the hand.

"You don't even mind when you hear stuff over and over again huh?" She chuckled a little. "Bet you get to hear a lot of "I love yous" doncha?"

Ares cocked his head, and gazed at her, his ears pricking up in interest. "Grrrroff." He wagged his tail

Eponin sighed, and let a quiet smile tug at her lips. "Yeah…I bet you do." She fell silent, and in that quiet, heard the faintest rustle of something out of place. Puzzled, she sat up, and tilted her head, straining to hear past the ceaseless rippling of the water. A crackle, a soft clicking of leaves against each other, so slight it could have been a small animal, or the wind…

Eponin's hackles rose, and she crept to the edge of her hideout, listening hard. The sounds were gone, but she still felt uneasy, and she carefully edged out into the open, looking around her tensely. The forest was quiet. Too quiet, she realized, her nostrils flaring in sudden alarm. She reached for her sword an instant before she sensed the movement, and had it drawn as she whirled and caught the downstroke of a tall, grubbily dressed man with a club. " Bastard."

He took another swing, and she parried it, crashing through his guard with a skillful stroke, then kicking the club out of his hands. A flicker of motion behind her warned her, and she whirled, in time to meet two others, then saw dark forms pouring out of the underbrush and knew she was in trouble.

She cleared a circle, and fought them off until they overpowered her with sheer numbers, bearing her down to the ground under a pile of unwashed bodies that punched and kicked her until she lay very still. Her sword was torn from her grasp, and she closed her eyes in anger, as hands grabbed roughly at her, and hauled her upright.

Angry, ugly faces surrounded her, several of which had blood running from wounds she'd dealt them. She struggled against the two men who were holding her, and got kicked for her efforts, then the circle parted, and a tall, broad form sauntered forward.

"Isn't this special."

Eponin's chest clenched, in anger and betrayal. She fastened cold eyes on the newcomer, and knew she was in a lot of trouble. "Arella." She spat, her mind racing.

The woman chuckled. "And I've been waiting to do this, 'teacher.'" She cocked a fist, and slugged the smaller Amazon, sending her crashing unconscious to the ground. "Whew.. that felt good." She looked up cheerfully. "Tie her ugly butt up.. and let's spread out.. we've got work to do."

Gabrielle decided to let Ephiny be the one to start talking for a change. She walked over to the wash basin, and doused her head in the cool water, letting it trickle down her neck as she retrieved the soap bar sitting next to the cistern and rubbed the dust and dirt off of her arms.

The breeze in the room felt good after that, as it dried her skin, and she wiped off the excess water with a small piece of linen. Patience, she chided herself, as she felt the urge to start in. You learned that from Xena, remember? She dug in her saddlebag for a thin piece of leather, then used that to tie her hair back out of her face, pausing a moment as the pack gave up the familiar scent of her soulmate. Impulsively, she tugged the neatly folded shirt on the top out, and rubbed it against her cheek, breathing in the smell with a sense of quiet pleasure.

She'd felt bad for days, sniffling, and with her head pounding dully, reluctant to complain to her taciturn companion until she started shivering so badly, even in the noonday sun, that Xena noticed and put a rough hand on her forehead, then sighed.

They'd been near a town, and she hardly remembered the last half day's travel to get there, mostly fading in and out in a feverish fog, holding on to Argo's saddlehorn for dear life.

It had been an unknown amount of time, then, when she just remembered sweating and shivering, tossing around in a strange bed, suffering lurid nightmares that made her scream in terror until a warmth would close over her, and pacify her frazzled nerves.

The next coherent memory she had was waking up, as sunlight entered the room she found herself in and covered the bed. A spicy, familiar scent had surrounded her, and as she let her dazed eyes focus, she realized it was because she was wearing one of Xena's sleeping shifts.

She'd hugged herself weakly, and breathed the smell in, not really sure what was going on, but glad she was still around to figure it out. She'd rolled over, and stopped, startled at the sight of a pale, exhausting looking Xena sprawled in a chair at the bedside, dark shadows under her closed eyes.

The blue eyes had opened, wearily, and they'd stared at each other for a long, breathless instant.

"Wow.. " Gabrielle had managed to say. "I feel like I've been run over by a chariot."

The warrior had leaned forward, and rested her arms on the bed. "If you don't tell me instantly the next time you feel sick, I'm gonna… I'm… " She stopped, at a loss for an appropriate threat. "Of all the dumb things to do… "

The bard had gazed at her, not even intimidated, not after seeing the strain in Xena's familiar face. "How long… " She glanced around.

"Three days." The warrior answered, shortly.

"You were here the whole time, weren't you?"

No answer, just a glower from the tall woman.

Gabrielle had just nodded a little. "It was really scary.. but whenever it got too bad, something chased the scary stuff away.. and you're the only person I know who could do that." She'd looked up, to see an unusual look on her companion's face. "Thanks.. I'm sorry about all this.. I didn't mean to be such a pain." She'd plucked the front of the shift, and huddled inside it, just closing her eyes and wanting that scent around her forever.

And then, out of the blue, she'd been captured in a gentle hug so wonderful she'd wondered afterward if it had been real, or just the remnant of a dream.

A faint sound made her look up, to see Ephiny leaning against the sill, watching her.

Gabrielle rested her face against the fabric again, then let out a sigh and tucked it away, standing up and brushing off her leathers, settling the bands around her biceps a little self-consciously. "These still feel a little weird." She altered her attack, moving to a more indirect approach. "Kinda strange wearing stuff that doesn't give… I always wonder how Xena puts up with it after I've worn these for a while."

"Guess if you're used to wearing armor, a little leather doesn't bother you much." Ephiny replied, as she crossed to the low bench near the window and dropped down onto it, leaning her head back against the wall. "She probably thinks it's comfortable."

"Mm." The bard pulled her diary out, and put it down on the worktable, then settled into the chair behind it. "She does…I remember the one time I had to wear her stuff.. it was so hot.. and so uncomfortable.. I almost went crazy… not to mention that armor is really heavy." She chuckled a little. "I think it's just what you get used to… after last winter, it took her a while to adjust back into wearing them… now I think she gets out of them a lot more.."

Ephiny nodded, studying the ceiling. "She looks a lot happier.. " The regent's hazel eyes flicked to her face. "So do you."

Gabrielle folded her hands together. "I am." She smiled at her friend. "In some ways… it's weird, but we're even closer now than we were before."

The regent snorted a little. "Gabrielle… you two were so close before a mosquito couldn’t have found a way to squeeze between you."

A shrug. "That's true.. but it's different now… more equal, more… I don’t know…more real, I guess." She paused. "It's like.. we went through all that, and now, we're together, but not because it was just something that happened. Now it's because we made a decision, both of us, that we wanted to be together more than anything else in the world." She smiled slightly. "So we are."

Ephiny digested this. "Do you worry about…." She hesitated. "About something like that happening again, Gabrielle?"

Shadows chased themselves across the bard's green eyes. "Sure." She replied candidly. "I'd be stupid not to." She regarded her diary, rubbing a finger along its bound edge. "We talked about it." A shrug. "We both decided it was worth the risk."

"Can I ask you something?" Ephiny's voice was very quiet.

"Sure." The bard responded.

"You two… you were friends before, right?" The regent's voice was hesitant.

Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah… we were.. and… well, that's what kind of kept us apart as long as it did, I think... we.… I mean, I depended on her friendship.. it was so important to me.. I was afraid to mess that up."

"But you knew… I mean… you knew you were in love with her, right? For a while.. before… "

Gabrielle leaned back. "Yeah." She blushed a little. "For a while."

Ephiny took a breath. "What would you have done if she didn't feel the same way about you?"

That hit Gabrielle hard, bringing back a long stretch of anxious memories. "For a long time I was convinced she didn't." She managed to keep her voice even and quiet. "We're… so different." Long pause. "I was so sure of that… I left her."

Ephiny looked shocked. "What?"

"Boy I grew up with… from Potadeia." The bard replied. "He asked me to marry him, and I said yes, because I… it made me feel.. wanted, and loved., and I was afraid I'd never..."

"But… " The regent shook her head in disbelief. "What.. I … what happened?"

Gabrielle swallowed a few times, then exhaled. "He died… Callisto was on the rampage, and I guess she…wanted to hurt Xena through me, like usual."

"By killing him?" Ephiny's brow creased. "That doesn't make sense."

"To her it did…she thought I'd hate Xena because of that… she thought I'd give up my… beliefs." A quiet, solid memory of her decision in that cave waved tantalizingly in front of her. "I have to live with that, though… knowing that because I was… because I did that, he died." She looked right at Ephiny. "I'll always regret that, Eph…just like I'll always regret the year I spent in misery, because I was afraid to say something.. afraid to take a chance on her… on us."

"For you it worked out.. but… what if she really didn't feel like that?" The regent asked, softly. "What would you have done?"

Gabrielle's entire face tensed. "I… I don't know." She finally stammered. "Been miserable, I guess." Her eyes searched the regent's face. "Eph… "

"No…" The older woman held up a hand, then let it drop, a weary look crossing her face. "Don't start on me…it's not the same thing."

An uncomfortable pause. "You.. don't love her?" The bard's voice was very quiet. "I.. I'm sorry.. I thought… "

Ephiny let her head rest against the wall, and exhaled. "You know.. I still miss Phantes."

Gabrielle kept silent, surprised by the change of subject.

"That was such a surprise… falling in love with him.. " The regent went on, in a remote voice. "It knocked me head over heels…. I was lost in it… I never thought about what it would be like.. what problems we'd encounter…it just felt so wonderful I didn't care." A pause. "Watching him die in my arms… almost killed me.. it was like having part of myself go with him.. and you should know what I'm talking about." Her eyes turned fiercely on Gabrielle.

The bard dropped her head. "I do." She admitted.

"I am not going to subject myself to that again, Gabrielle… It's just too much." She stopped, and regarded the younger woman. "You're gutsier than you know."

Gabrielle cocked her head, and let her strong fingers drum against the diary. "So… you're just going to keep things casual.. well… that's not so bad." Different tack, different angle. Retreat and redirect, another lesson from the Warrior Princess. "I understand."

Ephiny straightened, obviously surprised by the bard's capitulation, but relieved. "It's… we have a good time… we like each other.. it's nice to have someone around to talk to.. yeah." A tentative smile crossed her face.

"Yeah… and you can go your own way.. not worry about each other… have your own lives… it's got it's points."

The regent inclined her head. "It does… it's just kind of comfortable."

"Uh huh…and you're tied up in knots here, considering chasing off into the forest exactly.. why?" Gabrielle inquired, her eyes glinting a little, with a faint, knowing grin edging her lips. "I'm not sure I got that part down right…but it sure sounds like something I'd do."

Ephiny's jaw sagged slightly, and she stared at the bard, caught flatfooted by her question. "I was…. It…" Her mouth worked a few seconds without emitting an intelligible words. "Gabrielle, damn it, that's not fair."

The younger woman bestowed a charming smile on her. "Eph… you want cool practicality, you gotta go bug my other half. " She propped her chin up on one fist. "I'm a bard.. and I believe in the power of love, and you're not gonna get any of this rough, tough, stoic Amazon crap from me, okay?"

Ephiny scowled at her.

"I think you're in love with her, and I think she's in love with you, and I think the longer you two try to ignore that, the more miserable you'll be." Now Gabrielle's gaze turned kindly. "I should know."

The regent stood, striding over to the window, her body tense. "I don't know what you want from me." She muttered.

Gabrielle joined her, and put a hand on her back. "It's really simple.. I want to see you happy." She felt the skin flinch under her touch. "That's not so much, huh?"

Their eyes remained locked for a long while, as errant sounds from the outside washed against them. At last, Gabrielle felt the muscles under her fingers relax, as the regent's gaze softened. "You're a good friend, Gabrielle."

The bard smiled at her. "Likewise." She gathered the Amazon into a hug, and felt the release as Ephiny gave in. She rubbed the regent's back gently. "Come on… let's go find Pony, and get this thing going."

Ephiny released her, then chuckled wryly. "And you can tell your blue eyed chicken she can come back now.. the gushy stuff's over." She wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's slim waist, and guided her towards the door.

Xena finished her round, performing respectably, all her arrows hitting some sort of target or other. It was the consistency, she decided, that bugged the Amazons. Other competitors had better shots, more accurate… one had even hit the damn pig in the eye, giving it a lopsided leer that almost made her chuckle to look at it.

But she'd hit either the pig, or the buck, or the… Xena peered at the third target again. The blue chicken every single damned time. It drove them nuts. Solari had attached herself to the warrior and watched her intently as she drew and released, muttering to herself every single time. "Y'know.. I could get a complex." Xena remarked wryly, as she observed her latest effort, which had nailed the chicken right in the tailfeathers.

"Just trying to get some pointers." Solari protested, twisting her long, dark hair back out of the way as she lifted her own bow. "Do you just… like… sense the wind shifts or something? Because you compensated for the one that just happened after you shot the arrow. How do you do that?"

Hm. Xena consider the question, leaning on her bow thoughtfully. Finally, she shrugged. "I dunno." She watched the Amazon carefully aim, and shoot, taking an ear off the stuffed buck. "Whoops."

Solari winced. "Y'know what I'd really like you to show me.. .how you catch the damn things."

The absence of sound startled Xena, and she whipped her head around, her skin prickling as though in warning. The Amazons were standing around with apparent nonchalance, every ear turned her way. "Um." The chicken, buck, and pig were forgotten. "Well… "

Even the referee ambled over. "Yeah.. how do you do that?"

It would be, she supposed, good practice, since she'd decided to attempt to show Cait anyway so… "Um.. it's not so much a… " She stopped, then handed her bow to Solari. "It's easier to show than to tell. "

The ring formed around her so fast it startled her, and she had to stop for a moment, and decide how to proceed. "Okay. " She backed off, motioning the woman behind her to move away. "Don't stand behind me."

They scattered.

She had her back against a tree now, and made sure if any arrows went astray, they wouldn't nail some poor, passing Amazon. "It's more a question of… being able to sense the world around you.. the air.. the… " She lifted her hands. "G'wan… shoot one at me."

They all looked at each other.

"Solari?" Xena gave the dark haired Amazon a wry look.

Reluctantly, the woman passed Xena's bow to a companion, then pulled an arrow out of her quiver, and nocked it, taking a deep breath. "Xena, I just want to say something before I do this."

A dark brow lifted in question.

"Please catch the damned thing.. I don't want the Queen coming after my butt, all right?"

The warrior chuckled. "Relax." She nodded. "Go ahead."

The Amazon drew her arm back, pointing the arrow directly at Xena's body, and released it, wincing and closing her eyes as she did so.

Xena's hand flicked up and caught the shaft, stopping it inches from her chest, her arm moving so fast it was only a blur. "Like that." She briefly examined the arrow. "What I do is… I can sense an area around me.. to a certain distance. When something enters that area, my reflexes react." She closed her eyes. "Shoot again." Curiously, she found herself enjoying the lesson, showing off something she was furtively damn proud of. It had taken… gods.. forever for her to work out the technique… hours upon hours of just sitting, schooling her innate restlessness to utter calm, so she could sense the world around her.

Solari swallowed, and exchanged glances with her companions, then shrugged and nocked another arrow, raising her bow and aiming it at the warrior. Xena was standing in a very relaxed pose, but even from here, they could see the faint tension along her arms, and shoulders as she waited. "Okay." Solari called, then released the arrow, this time not closing her eyes, but watching.

Another blur of motion, then the arrow was resting in the warrior's other hand, in front of her left shoulder. She let her eyes open, and regarded them. "You just feel it coming." Then she smiled in pure reflex as her senses detected a familiar presence behind her. "Works on other things, too."

Gabrielle emerged from behind the tree, and sauntered over to her. "Did you guys run out of targets, or something?" She eyed them curiously. "She's kinda big for that, isn't she?"

A round of chuckles answered her. "Just demonstrating the arrow thing." Xena informed her, the warrior's eyes drifting over her partner's head and spotting Ephiny, then returning, a brow lifting in question.

Gabrielle blew on her fingernails, then buffed them on her leathers. "So…you ready to take a break?" She glanced at the referee. "Who won?"

The woman consulted her list. "Well.. we weren't quite finished… " She scribbled a few comments, then lifted her head and looked at Xena.

The warrior rubbed her nose. "Um.. yeah.. a break sounds good… we can let these guys go on." She gave Solari a crooked grin, and the Amazon shook her head.

"Nah.. we know when we're beaten." She cheerfully responded. "Tell you what… you can make it up to us tomorrow with another lesson on that stuff." She looked around, and received nods of agreement. "Okay?"

The warrior hesitated, then lifted a hand in capitulation. "Okay." She watched them cluster together, a buzz of interested discussing rising, and turned her attention to her soulmate. "What's up?"

Gabrielle glanced around. "We're gonna go find Pony." Her green eyes lifted and met Xena's. "Maybe you can wangle her into a sword demonstration.. hmm? "

Xena regarded her, evaluating her choice of words. Then her lips twitched. "I think I can do that." A demonstration, not a competition… with her making the irascible Amazon look good in the bargain… yeah. "See if Cait's around… I know she was going out to scout a little."

The bard's eyebrow lifted, as she caught her partner's meaning. "Oh.. right.. okay.. I'll be right back." She gave Ephiny a grin. "Don't go away."

Ephiny watched her go, then turned her attention to the tall, silent form next to her. "So." She muffled a wry grin. "How's the weather up there?"

"Shhh." Cait hissed, closing her hands firmly on Ares' muzzle, as she lay almost on top of him. They were huddled under a thick bush, as dusty boots clustered around them. "Look.. you've simply got to be quiet.. there's too many of them."

She'd slipped up on the clearing as the fight was starting, and had almost thrown herself into the fray when she saw the wall of reserves breaking through the trees. She'd grabbed the bolting Ares as he passed her, jaws snapping, and pulled him under the bush. His biting at this point would only get him stabbed, and if she could take a few out, it wouldn't help Eponin any.

Arella! Her chest burned with anger. "I knew I should have stuck her in the eye when I had the chance, Ares… I knew it."

"Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr" Ares struggled, his eyes reddened with fury, as they watched the men drag Eponin away. His paws scrabbled in the dirt, as he tried to get away from the girl.

"Stop that!" Cait grimly hung on, as she watched Arella direct her troops in a circling motion, then followed them out of the clearing, her tall, swaggering form disappearing last between the broken branches. "We've got to get back and warn everyone… you understand, Ares?"

"Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr" The wolf protested.

They waited for the sounds of motion to disappear, then she cautiously released Ares, and wriggled out of the bush, glancing around quickly to make sure they were alone.

She never even heard the arrow coming, as the wind was blowing away from her. She only felt the tremendous impact against her chest, then the pain which exploded through her entire body. Without a sound, she pitched forward, curling into a helpless ball as she faintly heard mocking laughter float back to her.

Somehow, she grabbed Ares leg, and the wolf anxiously licked her face. "Find… Xena." Her voice sounded strange, and remote to her, as the world started to darken around her. It was a curious feeling, like the sun going down very fast, and the last thing she heard was the rapid patter of pads against the leaf, heading away

Continued in Part 5