The Longest Night - Part 4

Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

"I can't believe it's still snowing." Hecuba sighed, as she peered out of the glazed window into the darkening outdoors. She turned and glanced back into their home, where her guests had settled quietly in the larger living area after they'd finished a leisurely dinner.

It has been.. all right, she mused. A little tense, but that was to be expected… and surprisingly enough, it was Xena who relieved some of that tension by coming up with gently amusing remarks, and allowing herself to be talked into telling a pirate story that was, frankly, ribald and hilarious, and almost made her husband choke on his soup. She had been scandalized, but she'd caught Lila snickering, and Lennat had been taking obvious notes for retelling to his mates at the smithy.

Her older daughter had taken the opportunity to eat her dinner, sneaking her partner quick, encouraging looks from time to time but remaining silent, until the story was over, when she leaned over and whispered something to the taller woman which brought a slight, but noticeable blush to her dark features. That little touch of humanness suddenly made her seem younger, and Hecuba had slowly started to see past the intimidating persona and catch a glimpse of the wryly witty and mischievous person her daughter chose to make her life with. It had been.. a learning experience.

Now she watched Gabrielle pour hot water over a large pot of tea, smiling as her daughter lifted a hand and moved the pale hair out of her eyes and behind an ear in an absent gesture. She's grown so. Her mind sighed. Physically she even seemed taller, though Hecuba suspected that was more an indication of self confidence than anything else. Certainly, she seemed very comfortable in her body, and she held herself with a muscular poise that seemed very strange to Hecuba's motherly eyes. Gone, too, was all the adolescent awkwardness that had still been very much a part of her before she'd left home, and along with it the air of brashly youthful inexperience.

The candlelight in the room clearly defined the graceful, sure movements as Gabrielle let the tea steep, and took cups to the rest of her family, saving her own and her partner's for last. She was dressed in a woven wool outfit, that outlined her slim form with delicate precision, and caught the warm highlights of the room on the linked metal belt clasped around her waist, the filigreed ring that graced her hand, and the faceted crystal necklace she wore around her neck. She was, Hecuba noted with some pride, quite beautiful.

And looking surreptitiously to her right, she noticed that she wasn't the only one who thought so. Caught in a single, unguarded moment, she found a quietly adoring look on Xena's face, as she sat with her back against the hearth watching Gabrielle. It dissappeared as the warrior blinked, and focused her eyes on fire, but Hecuba knew what she'd seen.

"Any idea where all these outlaw groups are coming from?" Herodotus asked idly, leaning back in his favorite chair as he watched his older daughter settle down on the hearth rug next to Xena, taking back her mug from her partner's waiting hands.

Xena stretched her long legs out, and slid one arm to the side, allowing Gabrielle to lean back against her. She ignored the startled glance from her partner's parents, and cheerfully settled the arm snugly around the bard's waist, taking a sip from her mug before answering. "Weather might have something to do with it." She reflected thoughtfully. "They seem to be younger kids mostly… maybe their villages just didn't make it."

An awkward silence fell. "That's a possibility." Lennat said, smoothly slipping both arms around Lila and pulling her closer to him on the chair they were sharing. "They didn't look really old.. even their leader, that woman, looked pretty young."

"She was snotty." Gabrielle pronounced, sipping her tea and relaxing into the safety of Xena's arms. She made a note to give Lennat a special thank you later, because his obvious acceptance of their snuggling had made her parents relax noticeably She turned her head towards her partner. "Imagine.. her thinking you didn't look very tough."

One dark eyebrow curved up. "Must be all that coddling I get from you." The warrior drawled in an amused tone. "Turning me into a pile of lamb's wool." They exchanged grins, then Gabrielle bounced gently against Xena's sturdy shoulder and shook her head.

"Long way to go for that." She teased, giving the warrior a poke in the belly. "Ow." Getting a raised eyebrow in return, and poking the tip of her tongue out.

Xena rolled her eyes and gave an aggrieved mock sigh. "Any of them familiar from around here?"

Herodotus pulled his lip between his forefinger and thumb. "No.. not that I can recall." His eyes kept fastening on them and then darting off. "They don't even seem very organized.. there's just a lot of them." He watched Gabrielle let her head drop back to rest on the warrior's shoulder, treating her partner as though she was nothing but a large pillow specifically put there for her convenience. He found that the sight made him.. uncomfortable, though he wasn't really sure why.

Then he realized what it was. He hadn't believed before now that what his daughter felt for this dark, cold person could possibly be love. Hero worship, sure. An adolescent crush, sure. Love? No.

But looking at the expression on Gabrielle's face, and, he admitted, on Xena's, he had to force himself to realize that what he was looking at was.. love.

"So.. " Hecuba decided to change the subject. "Tell us, Bree.. what have you two been up to?"

Hmm. Gabrielle swiftly ran over her latest exploits. Xena's cave in.. no. The soul bonding ceremony. No.. Hercules' capture.. no.. her kidnapping. Definitely not. "Um.. it's been really quiet since we saw you." She felt Xena chuckle silently. "Right?" She poked the warrior in the ribs.

"Right." Xena replied dutifully. "Very quiet. We've just been lounging around at home."

"Really?" Hecuba replied, folding her hands in her lap. "That's very nice.. I thought you were always out and about.. what made you decide to settle down?" Her brow creased. "Not that I think that's a bad idea, right?" She glanced at Herodotus. "Right?"

"Right." Herodotus agreed, drawing the word out thoughtfully.

"Um.." Gabrielle hesitated, trying to decide what excuse to use. Damn.. we should have thought about this…

Xena came neatly to her rescue. "Actually, it was my idea." The warrior informed them. "I knew it was going to be a bad winter.. and I thought it would be best if we stayed close to Amphipolis.. my mother's getting on now, and we just wanted to make sure things went ok for her."

Gabrielle almost bit her lip through to keep from giggling. Well, it was better than telling them the truth, she decided. Gods.. they'd go crazy. "Yeah, and it was a good thing, too.. you know, the harvest failed, and Xena's really been making sure folks around there stay fed." She gave her partner a little pat on the leg. "And then, well, the Amazon regent, Ephiny, had a little accident, and she's been staying by us for a few weeks now." There.. that was a safe thing to tell them.

"Accident?" Lila asked. "What happened?" She leaned forward, her eyes alive with interest.

"Hmm.. well, " Gabrielle composed the story. "She was.. out hunting with a group of younger Amazons.. and.. she fell through the ice into a half frozen river."

Gasps all around. "My goodness." Hecuba exclaimed. "Was she all right?"

"Oh.. sure." Gabrielle reassured her. "See, Xena was there, and she just dove in and got her."

Eyes flicked to the warrior, who affected a bored expression. "She hadn't gone far. Under the ice." Xena supplied helpfully. Whoops.. she realized, seeing their widening eyes. Wrong thing to say.

Gabrielle gave her a playful slap. "Who is telling this story?" She sighed. "Anyway, Xena got her out.."

"Were you all right?" Lennat asked, having some idea of what she'd done.

The bard snorted. "Who, Xena? Sure.. she swims like a fish. Anyway.." She ignored the flutter as she felt Xena's silent laughter again. "She got her out, and had one of the Amazons ride back to Amphipolis with Ephiny, while she brought the rest of their group in. But Ephiny was already sick before she got wet, and she got really bad with the coughing sickness, so it's been a hectic couple of weeks." There.. that should hold them.

"Wow.." Lila shook her head in sympathy. "That's bad… do you have a healer by you?"

"Yep.. we do, but. " Gabrielle's eyes wandered back to her partner. "My friend here is a pretty good healer herself.. and besides, she had a good supply of the stuff we needed.. " Uh oh.. another near death experience we can't tell the folks. "Um.. because she just.. um.."

"Likes to be prepared." Xena supplied, patting the bard's stomach. "Right?"

"Right." The bard agreed, turning her face so that only Xena could see it, and biting her lip in wry humor. She took a breath, and turned back towards them. "But other than that, it's been peaceful." A glance at Xena. "Right?"

"Right." The warrior agreed amiably.

"I see." Herodotus studied them for a moment, then rubbed his nose. "So.. it was some other Xena, then who broke up a slaver ring just south of Amphipolis?"

"Oh." Gabrielle said. Centaur poop.

"That." Xena added. "Well, no.. that was me." Her eyes flicked to his. "Us, actually."

The older man's eyes glinted. "Did you know two of those kids were from here?"

You sly devil. Xena chuckled internally, letting her amusement show as a twinkle in her eyes.

"You know, I was wondering.. " Herodotus studied them. "If that.. incredibly brave Amazon princess they were describing might possibly have been my daughter." He paused. "The description fit."

Gabrielle turned brick red, and just hid her face in Xena's shirt. "Gods." She muttered, and felt her partner's arms close around her in a comforting hug.

Xena gave Herodotus a wry smile over the bard's shoulder. "She hates being the subject of her own stories." She remarked quietly, noting Hecuba's shocked expression, and the stunned look on Lila and Lennat's faces. So.. he didn't tell them, either, huh? "She got herself, and those kids out of there.. I just.. " The warrior gave a light shrug. "Made sure it wasn't going to happen again."

"What.. wait.. just a minute." Hecuba held up a hand and turned towards her husband. "What happened? Why didn't you tell me about this?"

Herodotus lifted a hand and let it fall. "Didn't know for sure."

"Well.. tell me now!" The woman exclaimed, exasperated.

Gabrielle took a breath, and pushed herself away from the safety of her partner's embrace. "It's.. not that big of a deal." She sighed. "I just didn't want you to worry." She combed her fingers through her disordered hair, and, after a moment to compose herself, started to speak.

Hecuba was gnawing on her knuckles before her daughter finished, in a quiet, gentle voice, telling of her dark and harrowing adventure. That cool, clear tone shaped the horror of the camp, and the danger of the slavers in skilled detail, downplaying her part in the story with natural modesty.

"So.. then.. I just.. I got tired.. " She finally wound down. " He got my staff away from me, and then he stood over me and asked if I was ready to die."

Dead silence from the room, as her family stared at her in absolute horror.

But a smile etched across her face. "And then, out of the darkness, there came this voice… " She twined her fingers with Xena's. "And it said. "Are you?" " Now the bard was openly smiling. "And I looked up, and I saw the most wonderful sight in the world." She gave a light shrug. "And that was that." She yawned. "I was safe.. except that I was dumb, and tried to help out in the fight, and got a few cracked ribs." She looked up and caught their expressions. "Don't look at me like that.. this wasn't even out on the road someplace.. it happened right here. It could have been anyone."

"Gods, Bree." Lila breathed. "Weren't you scared?"

Her sister gave her a look. "Do you think I'm stupid? Of course I was scared."

Herodotus studied her quietly, thinking of the things she'd left out, that the two kids, young men really, who had witnessed it had told him. Of the long day spent strung by her neck in the rain, which she had stood with silent dignity. Of her victorious staff battle, and the courageous dash for freedom. That most elusive of gifts, courage, than ran in his slim, strong daughter in a measure he'd never expected. He chuckled quietly to himself. That story was an evening favorite at the inn.. the two lads were always asked for it. He was going to enjoy filling them in on the identity of their mysterious heroine.

"Gabrielle, :I'm appalled." Hecuba fumed.

"Leave her be." Herodotus ordered quietly, forestalling the warning glint in Xena's very blue eyes. His wife subsided, but her eyes were still angry.

Xena felt the fierce tension in her partner's body, and sighed. "Listen.. we need to get an early start tomorrow.. we'd better get back to the inn."

Herodotus nodded. "We've got a wagon set to go with us.. best go early, with this gods be damned weather."

"Tch. Hero." Hecuba gave him a look.

He raised both eyebrows at her. "I think they've both heard that term before, wife."

"Oh yeah." Gabrielle muttered as she stood, and reached for her cape. "In fact, Xena can say that in..oh.. nine or ten different languages.. along with other choice little tidbits which she refuses to translate for me."

That, finally, got a chuckle from all of them, including Xena, who was fastening the clasp on her own cloak. "You have very tender ears." The warrior joked, sharing a grin with Lennat.

"Right.." The bard answered, with a touch of sarcasm. "Remind me to entertain you sometime with stuff I learned on Cecrops ship."

"What.. playing with the squid?" Xena teased gently.

"No.. but it has some.. of the same characteristics." The bard replied sweetly, as she neatly draped the long cloak over her partner's shoulders and fastened the clasp.

Xena gave her a look, then chuckled. "Thank you for inviting us over." She said to Hecuba, who still looked rattled over the bard's story. "I'm glad we had a chance to.. um.. visit."

Herodotus rocked on his heels, clasping is hands behind his back. "Eh.. yes. It was very nice." He cleared his throat. "Glad you'll be keeping us company on the road."

Xena sighed ruefully to herself. I never had to.. go through this before. The warrior quickly ran though all her previous relationships. No.. no… no nervous parents, no uncomfortable dinners.. just whack them on the head and throw them over the horses hindquarters. A very brief, nostalgic wave traveled through her. Then Gabrielle's mist-green eyes caught hers, and she let a rakish smile shape her lips. On the other hand…none of the others were worth going through this for, were they? "Well, we're glad too." She curved an eyebrow at the bard. "Right?"

Gabrielle swallowed a giggle at the expression on her partner's face. "Right." She agreed solemnly. "Night mom.. night dad."

Hecuba gave her a hug. "Goodnight, Bree. Keep warm."

"I always do." Gabrielle answered without thinking and caught her sister's scandalized look from the corner of her eye. "I mean.. um… Xena's.."

"Very good at making campfires." The warrior completed her incoherent sentence, and grasped her by an elbow. "Night."

They walked out into the still snowing weather, though the flakes seemed to have slowed considerably, and now were just laying a dusting on their heads. Xena stopped for a minute, shaking her head to rid her dark locks of the covering, and drew up Gabrielle's hood. "Glad we left Ares in the room.. he'd be going nuts out here." She commented wryly, as they started walking again.

Gabrielle bumped her gently. "Nice dinner." She mouthed, barely audibly.

Xena rolled her eyes, and gave the bard a behind the back kick in the behind, somehow managing to neatly ruffle her cloak and not entangle her legs. "You always keep warm, huh?"

The bard giggled softly. "I can't believe I said that."

They walked Lila and Lennat home, exchanging small talk with them, leaving them with a cordial good night and heading towards the inn. Xena gazed quietly down at the frost dusted head bowed thoughtfully at her side, and put an arm around her partner’s shoulders. "You OK?" Gabrielle had grown very quiet since they'd left her parents house.

A short nod from the bard. "Yeah."

They walked a few more steps. "You’re lying." Xena remarked casually. She felt the shoulders slump under her arm. "Hey.. it’s not so bad being a hero.. that’s what you tell me all the time."

"I don’t feel like a hero." The bard muttered, letting out a big sigh, and leaning against Xena’s warmth. "It feels weird."

Xena gently blew the snowflakes off her cloak and smiled. "Can I tell you a secret?" She whispered.

Gabrielle glanced up, an unwilling grin etching her face. "Sure."

"I never do either, and it always feels weird for me, too." The warrior confided, watching her breath come out as frost in front of her, and listening to the unfamiliar crunching of her boots against the snow dusted walk. The snowflakes continued to fall, and she watched Gabrielle lift a hand, and catch a particularly big one.

"I"m glad." The bard finally said, gazing at the lacily filigreed flake, which melted to nothing against her warm hands. "That does make me feel better." Another flake dropped in front of her eyes, then was gone, as Xena snapped it up with her tongue.

She giggled, watching her partner catch a few more, then tried it herself. "Ooo.. that feels.. " The cold of the snow was abruptly replaced by the warmth of Xena kissing her, and for a long moment, the cold weather just… vanished. "You know.. " She sighed, as they paused. "That always makes me feel better."

Xena chuckled deep in her throat. "I should hope so." She teased. "C’mon, let’s get out of this stuff before we freeze solid." She guided the bard through the empty, silent paths of the half frozen village towards the solid bulk of the inn. The trees in the courtyard were empty and stark, and even the wildlife seemed subdued, only a solitary, well fluffed owl was perched high on a limb, it's beak tucked firmly against it's chest. It hooted solemnly as they passed, it's round eyes watching them with idle curiosity.

The wind had died down, and a gentle flurry of white cascaded around them, frosting Xena's dark head and laying a blanket across their wool covered shoulders. "It's so quiet." Gabrielle murmured, tucking her arm firmly into the crook of Xena's elbow. "Noticed you didn't eat much dinner." She observed. "It wasn't that bad… was it?"

Xena shrugged. "We snacked all damn afternoon at your sisters… " She grinned at her partner "I think she even out ate you, though."

Gabrielle laughed gently. "Yeah, she said being pregnant was making her pig out.. " She shook her head. "It's weird.. she always teased me about being the one who's constantly eating." Her lips quirked. "I get my revenge now, I guess."

Xena chuckled as she guided her up the steps to the inn, and pulled the door open. "Don’t be too mean, Gabrielle.. she can't help it."

"Oh.." The bard snorted, as she preceded the warrior up the stairs. "Like I can?"

"I didn’t say that." Xena objected, smothering a grin.

"You implied it." Gabrielle growled, as she pulled open the door to the room they'd rented.

"I did not." Came the instant response, as Ares came bounding over to greet them. "Hey boy.."

The bard turned, and put both hands on her hips, raising one eyebrow. "You got a problem with how much I eat, partner?"

"No." Xena replied, bursting out laughing, ruffling the wolf's fur with one hand.

Gabrielle strolled forward, putting a finger on Xena's chest and poking her. "You eat as much as I do."

The warrior stepped up next to her, and made the most of their height difference, putting her own hands on her hips and looking down. "I should hope so." She drawled, looking the bard up and down. "Considering how much bigger I am."

Pale brows knitted. "Are you trying to intimidate me?"

Xena poked a thumb at her own chest. "Me? Intimidate? You?" She arched an eyebrow.

"You got the essentials." Gabrielle's green eyes sparkled at their banter. "Guess you haven't been hit one to many times in the head after all." She sensed the movement before she saw it, and took a breath. "Just… " Kidding. "Ooof."

Xena slid two strong hands around her waist and lifted up. "Here.. c'mon up here where I can see you." She grinned when she felt Gabrielle's arms circle her neck. "You squirt."

"Who are you calling a squirt?" Mock outrage and dancing eyes. "You calling me a squirt?"

Xena gazed at her. "Yep.. but you're my squirt." She laughed as Ares gave them both a snort, and curled back up in front of the fire, tucking his nose under his tail and sighing.

Gabrielle's eyes and voice softened. "Oh.. have you ever got that right." She slid her fingers up to tangle in Xena's dark hair and pulled herself closer, letting her lips meet her partner's, as she felt Xena's arms draw them closer into an embrace. She lost track of time, and had no idea how much later it was when she finally pulled her head back and gazed dreamily into the blue eyes facing her. "You can let me down now."

"Huh?" Xena mumbled, taking a deep breath. "Oh.. right. Sorry." She gently set Gabrielle down onto her feet, and untied the bard's cloak. The room was lit by a double handful of candles, and the warmth of the fire, which gilded them both in crimson highlights as she removed her partner's cloak and took her own, and tossed them lightly over the back of the rough hewn wooden chair that stood sturdily near the bed.

Then she lifted a hand and traced the fine planes of Gabrielle's face with gentle fingers, and the bard leaned into her, letting her hands start to work on Xena's heavy shirt, tugging at the laces that held it closed as the warrior let her free hand fall to the linked belt at her waist and unclasped it.

"Xena.." The bard murmured, as she felt the knowing touch through the roughly nubbled texture of her shirt.

"Mmm?" The warrior responded, smiling as she felt the bard's body arch against her touch.

"It's freezing cold outside.. how come you got such warm hands." The bard breathed against her ear, as she nibbled down Xena's jawline.

"S'easy." Xena lifted her up again, and sauntered over to the bed, falling onto her side, and rolling over, settling the bard's body on top of hers. "I just think of you. No problem."

"Ooo.." Gabrielle giggled softly. "It's the Warrior Princess of Romantic lines… " She deftly unlaced Xena's shirt and started nibbling at her belly button.

"Gabrielllleeee.." A low, raspy, rumbling growl.

"That.. was a snowflake." Eponin speared Hercules with deadly hazel eyes.

"No it wasn't." Hercules shook his head. "See? There's nothing there." Another flake drifted in and lodged itself in his tawny, but mud streaked hair. "Um."

Ephiny sighed. "You know, I'm getting the feeling that I might be caught in some odd, fevered dream here. " She paused and looked around. "Right?"

No answer.

She sighed. "Well, it was a thought. Ok.. I think we'd better get going back to Amphipolis.. even if we could find Xena, which, when I think about it, is a pretty unlikely thing, we'd probably do more harm that good at the rate we're at." And oh, do I ever not want to stumble onto them when half of us look like a bad experiment from a hearth cleaning expedition.

Eponin laid her dark head back against the tree and sighed. "She's right." She rotated her neck to loosen the crick she'd gotten from being pulled up the ridge and rubbed her temples, smearing yet more mud over herself. "It's just not our day."

Ephiny chuckled softly, and reached a casual hand over and massaged Eponin's neck, feeling the muscles tense tighter for an instant, before they responded to her strong fingers. "Relax.. we'll get back, and have a nice mug of ale, and it'll all seem.. um.. funny."

Hercules lifted a hand in agreement, and let it fall against his leg. "We'd better get going before the weather gets worse, then."

They scrambled out of the shelter, and set off down the trail, Hercules leading the way and taking the brunt of the wind and weather on his tall frame. Toris strode along next to him, one arm raised to block the snow. The rest of them clustered closely behind the two larger men, and Ephiny found herself firmly enclosed between the other two Amazons. She briefly considered objecting, then just shook her head, and kept her silence, glad for the warmth of her companions.

"The Gabrielle effect, huh?" Ephiny muttered, and saw Eponin's lip quirk. "I feel like I've been under that blanket since I… " Almost died. Her mind finished quietly. Another few minutes.. She'd found out that the soreness in her ribs wasn't totally due to her coughing, when Gabrielle had gently explained that Xena had been forced to.. Damn. This isn't the time for that, you idiot.

"Hey." Eponin's voice ghosted near her ear. "You OK?"

Ephiny quietly locked that nightmare away, for another time. "Sure.. just thinking." She gave Eponin a smile as she blinked against the falling snow. Forget it, Eph. It didn't happen. "Hot wine'll taste good tonight, won't it?"

Eponin's warm hazel eyes studied her, and a tiny, worried crease appeared in her forehead, but she didn't press the issue. "Sure will." She moved a bit closer, and tugged Ephiny's cloak further up around her neck. "Damn, Eph.. whose idea was this nutty caper anyway?"

The regent rolled her gray eyes. "Pony.. just.. don't go there, all right?" She blew the curly blond hair out of her eyes with a puff of breath.

They never felt the ground drop out from under them. One moment they were stumbling along, the next they were falling through space into a well dug, oderous pit, the cold and startlement freeziing even the honed, experienced bodies of the Amazons.

Thorns bit them, piercing flesh and delivering their insidious cargo, which sent even Hercules into first a fuddled fog, then a helpless sleep in a matter of minutes.

The demigod fought against it, clawing his body around to glance up, and seeing through blurred vision the shattered poles settling down on top of them, providing, at least, a little shelter from the now insistent snowfall.

He felt a freezing lethargy stealing over him, that numbed his limbs, but his mind stayed fuzzily aware. He was on his back, and Iolaus was sprawled next to him, one hand loosely clutching his shirt, the blond man's breathing labored. He moved a hand with agonizing slowness, fumbling his fingertips against his friend's pulse, and feeling the reassuringly steady beat.

He blinked, and managed to focus on the silent still forms of the Amazons, Eponin huddled protectively over her regent, and Granella curled up in a ball next to her. Toris, he noted, was still feebly moving, edging his body forward with a grim, fierce, and very familiar determination.

A trap. His mind howled. But..why? He panted, and then suddenly stiffened, as a dark, oily wave of memory ooozed over his dazed thoughts. They'd been coming more frequently.. short, nightmare flashes of things.. and places.. and.. feelings he could scarcely believe were his.

The dungeon. He was learning to hate the sight of that place. A woman's face, begging him. Her eyes widening.

The ethereal sound and intense tactile feel of bones crunching under his fingertips. No.. the whisper was wrung from his numb throat. "No..I didn't do that… please.."

Now a darker scene… flickering torchlight reflecting on a back facing him, slick with blood from the flexible leather whip in his hand. Hair drenched with sweat and stained rusty trailed in lank curls, bisecting the raw stripes he'd carved there.

His stomach rebelled, and his whole body arched, as he fought the retching in his guts until dark flashes took over his vision, and he surrendered at last to the horrible pit his mind was constructing.

Bunnies. Gabrielle relaxed into her dream, enjoying the soft grass under her tucked legs, and the several bunnies clustered around her, nibbling the milky green shoots eagerly. She lay down on her side, and propped her head up onto her hand, and just watched them in simple delight.

One of them hopped up next to her and flicked his ears, sniffing curiously at her bare midriff. She giggled gently as his whiskers tickled her skin.

He sniffed again, and she giggled harder, loving the warm feel of his soft, furry body against hers. Curious, he licked her belly button, just barely emerging from her tan Amazon style wraparound skirt.

Wait a minute. Gabrielle thought fuzzily. Licked?

She let her eyes drift open, and was treated to the sight of her partner's smiling face, nestled against her belly, with a mischevious glint in her blue eyes. "Did you just lick me?" The bard asked, in a softly incredulous voice.

Xena just grinned. "Had to get you up somehow." She drawled softly, watching goosebumps travel up Gabrielle's bare stomach in the wake of her warm breath.

"Mm… " The bard yawned, and gently untangled Xena's unruly hair. "I was dreaming you were a rabbit." She regarded the warrior with fond thoughtfulness. "He was cute, but you're cuter."

Xena snorted softly. "Thanks." She replied, sliding up along the bard's body until she was settled next to her, resting easily on her side. Gabrielle immediately rolled over and snuggled up against her, letting her body find familiar spots and letting out a contented sigh. "We really have to get up, Gabrielle." The warrior muttered.

"Uh huh." Her partner agreed amiably, gently nibbling on a convenient earlobe. "Whatever you say."

Well.. a few more minutes wouldn't hurt, Xena considered, reasonably. The sun was just lightening the eastern sky, and silence still reigned out side their window, and it really was just easier to curl her arms around Gabrielle's warm body, and let her soul bask in this wonderful peace for a little while longer.

A glance down showed her the tiny, impish grin on Gabrielle's face, that found a mirror on her own, a she tucked the bard's head under her chin and closed her eyes, reflecting again on just how wonderful this felt. She watched the sky pale from black, to gray, to a sombre pale pink, letting the peace of their connection invade her soul before she finally gave Gabrielle's back a gentle pat. "C'mon, Red."

That got one very sharp, very unsleepy green eyeball staring at her. "Y'know.." The bard mumbled against her chest. "I'm gonna have to come up with something.. reallly.. really.. good to call you."

Xena shrugged. "I'll answer to just about anything, love… I think someone's called me just about everything there is."

"Mmm.' Gabrielle considered this. "Bet no one ever called you.. Cuddles."

A hand slid up, and grasped her chin, lifting it and making eye contact. "I bet you're right." The warrior snorted. Both of Xena's dark eyebrows were almost invisibley hidden in her disordered hair. "More than once, anyway. Or that lived."

Gabrielle poked out her lower lip in a pout, and turned her gaze wistful.

Xena sighed. "Why do I think I'm going to make an exception for you?" Cuddles? Oh gods… I know I'd sacrifice anything for her.. but… Hades.. that's.. Ewww…

The bard grinned.

The warrior tucked her lips down near the bard's ear. "You call me that in public, and you realize I'll have to go and do something horrible and warlordlike such as strangle a rooster in cold blood, right?"

Gabrielle convulsed in silent laughter. "Oh gods." She finally gasped. "What a way to wake up." She gave her partner a gentle belly rub. "Ok.. don’t worry.. no cuddles. But I've got to think of something." Her lip quirked. "I know you don't like to shorten your name…let me think about it."

"Mmm… " Xena forced her eyes back open. "Roosters all over Greece are thanking you." Reluctantly, she released the bard, and sat up. "C'mon, we really gotta go."

They got dressed, gathered their stuff and Ares, and headed downstairs.

Eponin thought, for a minute, that she was trying to swim through honey. That's what it felt like, her brain all gluey and full of fluff, and the effort it took just to force one eyelid open.. gods.

But she did.. and realized it was mostly dark. And very, very silent. Memory slowly filtered through, and she remembered what had happened, and a frantic hand darted out, colliding almost immediately with a warm arm inches from her. She let her fingertips explore, feeling the size of the arm, and the smooth, firm tone of the muscles under the soft skin, and let her hand slide down until she felt the pulse point at the wrist, and let out a tiny sigh of relief.

"P.. pony?" Ephiny's faint voice responded to her touch. "Oh.. Artemis.. " The regent groaned softly. "What in the bloody Hades boots happened?" And she'd thought having the coughing sickness felt bad. Oh no..that was a picnic compared to this.. it felt like a centaur had pooped on her head, then sat on it for good measure.

"Ugh." The weapons master grunted. "Fell.. in a pit." She peered into the darkness. "Boar pit, I think."

She heard a faint, light, thump as Ephiny let her head fall back against the beaten earth. "We fell in a pig trap." The regent sighed. "Pony, I want my mommy." That got a faint, muffled snort from Eponin. "Or at least, I want my stuffed duck, and a blanket."

Another muffled snort. "Sorry." Eponin sighed wearily. "I can't believe this is happening." Agonizingly, she pushed her body upright, holding her head in one hand. "Good gods and Bacchae, what was on those damn thorns?" She felt around her for her pack, and pulled a torch out of it. "Got your striker?"

Ephiny rolled over, and fumbled with her belt pouch for a minute, then handed Eponin the requested item. She heard the sharp blow, and smelt the tangy sting as the torch ignited, bringing their dark prison into shadowy relief. She blinked and peered around them, letting her lips quirk into a weary smile when she spotted Granella's still form, protectively encircled by Toris' long arms. Then her eyes flicked over and spotted Hercules, slumped against the pit wall, with his friend stirring feebly next to him. "Iolaus?" The regent called.

"Ungh." Came the fuzzy answer. as the blond man grabbed his head and moaned. "Zeus.. whatinthe Hades happened." He dragged himself up onto his elbows, and lifted his eyes, gazing first at them, then over at his companion. The demigod's eyes were closed and his breathing seemed uneven. Iolaus dragged himself closer, and shook Hercules' shoulder gently. "Hey.. Herc..." No response, so he shook harder

One pale, bloodshot eye opened, and stared dully at him, then it blinked, and both eyes opened, this time recognizing Iolaus. "This.. " Hercules' voice rasped. "Is not turning out to be a good day." He got both hands under him, and shoved himself upright, letting his back slump against the earthen wall and gazing out at them. "Can I just go back to bed and start over?"

"Good idea." Iolaus muttered. "Y'know, I did offer..."

"I know." Hercules sighed, as he looked up. "How long have we been here?"

"It's... after midnight." Toris answered groggily, rolling over and onto his back, and gazing through the small openings in the collapsed roof of their prison. "Where are we?"

"A pig trap." Ephiny replied, pulling her pack towards her and dragging out a packet of waybread and dried meat Cyrene had given her before they'd left. She handed out the food, and Granella passed around a waterskin, wincing at a pulled muscle in her shoulder.

Toris made a faint squealing sound. "My sympathies to the pigs." He looked up. "Good thing this stuff collapsed on top of us.. we'd have frozen otherwise."

"Good thing we aren't sharing this with any real pigs." Eponin replied, taking a bite of her waybread and chewing. "I hate pigs."

Dead silence fell.

"You know." Ephiny sighed. "If a damn boar had dropped into this pit, Pony, we'd have to have killed you."

The warrior snorted. "It's midnight, Ephiny. It's snowing, and it's the middle of a damn forest. Where would a boar come from?'
The snow suddenly cascaded down on top of her, hiding the surprised weapons master from view, and a furred, scrambling form landed right in her lap.

"YAAAAA!!!" Eponin yelled, throwing the creature from her, and towards the back of the pit.

Toris scrambled up, pulling his sword out and holding it in front of him, wavering on unsteady legs. "Careful.." He yelled, as the rest of them ducked.

The animal sat up, and chittered angrily at them, lofting its bushy tail over it's head.

The tall dark haired man sat down with a thump. "Squirrel." He put his aching head in his hands. "Damn."

Granella put a hand up and gently massaged his neck. "I felt safe." She bumped him with an elbow. "You go, Tor."

Everyone laughed in silly relief, except Hercules, who sighed heavily and let his tawny head rest back against the muddy wall. He held the waybread in his hands, finding no desire to eat it, and trying to force the ugly memories that had begun to surface out of his thoughts.

"Not hungry?" Iolaus asked, scooting over and putting his back against the wall next to him. Just pretend everything's fine, Iolaus... don't ask him if he's OK. He passed the waterskin over. "Here..have a drink."

The demigod took the waterskin, and unstopped it obediently, taking a long drink of water and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, staring at his mud stained skin thoughtfully. "Thanks, buddy." He glanced up and regarded Iolaus' tired face, and felt a gentle gratitude for the uncompromising friendship that was providing a lifeline for him at the moment.

Ephiny let her forearms rest on her knees, and hastily stifled a cough. Gods.. let's not start that up. "After we all feel a little more human, we'd better get started back there." Her eyes lifted and met Hercules' in wry candor. "I really don't want to be the subject of yet another search party."

The demigod laughed softly. "With our luck today, they'd fall in here too." Then he clapped his hand over his mouth with a comical expression.

Dead silence and widened eyes

Lila snugged her cloak closer about her body as she cast a sidelong glance at her sister, who was walking alongside her down the wind swept road leading away from Potadeia. "Where did Xena get off too?" She asked in a low voice, looking around as though she expected the warrior to pop up from under the wagon rumbling at their heels.

Gabrielle shrugged. "Checking things out." In point of fact, she knew exactly where her partner was, could feel her warm presence just off to her left in the deep thicket they were passing. "You know, scouting around, looking for bad guys, that kind of thing." Looking for nuts, actually, since she'd heard the bard's belly rumbling after the long hours of walking they'd endured so far. "Can't be too careful."

Lila nodded earnestly. "That's a good thing, then." She walked a few more paces. "Bree, don’t you .. get.. tired, or anything?"

"Hmm?" Her sister looked up, surprised. "What? Oh.. well, sure." She laughed a little. "All the time.. I mean, we all do, right?"

Lila combed her hair back off her forehead and sighed. "Well, we've been going all morning, and I've had to stop and get on the wagon five times." She gestured to Gabrielle's easily moving body and smiled. "But not you…"

Gabrielle considered that for a minute. "Not a fair comparison, Lila.. after all, I mean, you're pregnant, and I… " She took a breath. "This is what I do, remember?" She moved her staff ahead of her, in a smoothly familiar motion. "Anyway, I've been kind of taking it easy this trip.. I'm still a little sore from that.. fight."

They walked in silence for a bit. "Mom and dad are really upset about that." Lila finally said. "They think.. they're really scared about.. you.. and stuff."

Gabrielle swallowed, and took a deep breath, feeling the faint ache against her chest. "I know." She admitted. "That's why I didn't say anything about that whole thing."

"I figured." Lila replied softly. "So.. what else aren't you telling us?"

The bard gazed at her, feeling a knot form in her gut. "You know, it's really funny." She commented. "I used to never understand why Xena never wanted me to tell… a lot of our tales when we're at home." A slight nod of her red gold hair. "Now I do." Her green eyes met Lila's hazel ones. "What would be the point, Lila? To get you all even more upset? I'm not going to stop doing this." She darted a glance at her parents, who were seated comfortably in the wagon, her mother with her hands folded neatly in her lap, and her father holding the reins loosely in his big hands. "Sometimes.. it's better not to know."

Her sister studied her. "So there are things you… don't mention."

Gabrielle prodded a stump with her staff. "Yeah." She quietly admitted.

Lila grasped her arm. "Look, Bree.. I just.. if anything happens.. like, I mean to Xena or ha.."

A hand gripped hers with an iron clasp. "Don't." Say that. Gabrielle's mind closed.

"Come on, Bree.. its not like you guys are.. merchants.. or.. I mean, it's possible.." Lila insisted

Gabrielle stopped in the road, and let the wagon pass, ignoring her father's startled look, and cradled her staff, grabbing Lila's upper arms and looking directly into her eyes. "Lila, don't make me say this twice, all right? I know.. what could happen. I live with that possibility every minute of every day." She took a breath. "I lived through it once, and came close I can't tell you how many times. Just… drop it, OK?:

Lila stared at her. "I.. just want you to know, Bree.. you've still got a home with us, if you need one." She finally said, very quietly. "That's all."

The looked at each other for a timeless moment. "Thanks." Gabrielle sighed, and released her. "And..if anything ever happens.. you have the same with us." She curled her lips into a wry smile. "Because I intend on living a long time. And so does Xena."

Lila let out a slow breath, then nodded. "I'll hold you to that." She reached out and straightened the collar on Gabrielle's heavy tunic. "You're the only sister I have."

Gabrielle turned, and tugged her arm, leading her after the slowly rumbling cart. "Well.. not technically." She grinned slyly. "Not if you count the Amazons."

"The Amazons?" Lila repeated, in a startled voice. "All of them?"

The bard chuckled. "Yep." She turned her head and watched as Xena came loping out of the trees, with Ares bounding next to her. The warrior's long, powerful strides ate up the distance between them, and Gabrielle found her eyes glued to her partner. "Hey." She smiled as Xena slowed to a halt and joined them.

"Hey, yourself." Xena replied, pulling out a handful of walnuts and juggling them. "Look what I found."

Lila laughed. "But they're in a heavy shell."

Gabrielle and Xena exchanged looks, and Xena smirked, as she held up a hand with several of the nuts in it, and closed her fist, tightening her grip and producing a series of loud cracks. She opened her hand, and presented Lila with the neatly split nuts. "No they're not."

Lila took one, then glanced up as Xena's body stiffened, and her expression came alert. "What?"

The blue eyes were fixed on the road ahead, and Xena muttered a curse as her vision picked out the approaching band of roughly armored men approaching. The warrior shook her head and sighed. "Well, I wanted a workout." She poured the rest of the nuts into Lila's startled hands and dusted her fingers off, giving Gabrielle a somber look. "There's only a couple of them.. you want to pass?"

Gabrielle felt a smile pluck at her lips. "Nope." She hefted her staff. "I need the work more than you do."

Xena hesitated, then ducked her head slightly in reluctant agreement. "Ok..let's go get this over with." She gave Lila a look. "Stay close by the wagon, all right?"

Lila nodded, as they came even with the cart, which Herodotus has stopped on seeing the approaching men. "Trouble." He grunted, tying the reins off against the footboard and preparing to get down.

"Don't worry about it. "Xena advised him as they passed. "This won't take long." She headed out down the path, very aware of Gabrielle's sturdy form pacing along just behind her. "You know, I really can handle this…" She stopped when she felt the light sting of the bard's staff against the back of her shoulder. "Ouch."

"I know you can." The bard muttered, as they drew close to clustered riders, who had stopped in the middle of the path, and were watching them approach with amused looks on their faces. "That's not the point."

Xena shrugged her shoulders, moving her cloak back and exposing her sword hilt. "All right… just… " She blew out a breath. "Be careful, OK? You haven't done a whole lot of this lately." "

"You too." Gabrielle muttered. "And stop coddling me."

Damn. Xena sighed to herself, sizing up the more or less leader of the bunch of outlaws, who was kneeing his scruffy looking horse forward to meet her. She's right.. I need to cut this damn mother hen act out before she gets crazy with me. "Hello, boys." She remarked to the raiders.

"Well.. what do we have here?" The man drawled, studying her closely.

"More trouble than you want to get into this morning." Xena answered dryly. "Take off."

"Grrr." Ares agreed, lowering his ears, and staring up at the raider with slitted yellow eyes. His heavy ruff stood up, outlining his big head, as he watched the man make a threatening gesture towards Xena.

"Insolent.." The man raised his mace, and aimed a blow at Xena's head, swinging the weapon down and grabbing suddenly at his horse's mane when the attack missed, and he overbalanced.

"I'm really not in the mood for this." Xena growled, grabbing the back of his dirty leather coat and pulling him off the animal's back. She dumped him on his head, then picked him up and tossed him a few yards, where he landed on his back in a small puff of dirt.

With a scramble of hooves, the rest of the group charged, and Xena found herself in a circle of slashing swords and yelling men.

Damn.. damn.. damn.. She sighed. I really don't want to cut this scum to pieces in front of her family. Leaving her sword sheathed, she grimly dodged a snorting horse, feeling the sharp impact of a pike blow against her back, and moving with it, reaching up and grabbing the weapon, then pushing back against it and throwing it's owner out of his saddle, hearing him hit the ground with a satisfying thump.

She turned and ducked another blow, catching the man behind the sword with a savage jab in the kidneys that made him double over. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Gabrielle neatly unhorse one of the others with a skillful sweep, and bit off a grin at the man's look of astonishment. The bard glanced quickly towards her, and winked, then started working on the last raider, who was trying to bash her over the head with a mace.

Xena returned her attention to two of her now unmounted adversaries, who were attacking her with swords, which she ducked under, then leaned back and kicked the first's out of his hand. "Told you to take off." She growled, grabbing the man's arm and nailing him in the chin with an elbow. He grabbed onto her, and swung around, putting her in the direct path of the other man's sword.

Ares rushed past them, and launched his furry body through the air, grabbing the raider's sword arm in his teeth and shaking his head hard, sending his adversary stumbling forward, and screaming with pain.

Xena slugged her tenacious opponent in the jaw, and had the satisfaction of seeing his eyes glaze as his hands uncurled from her shirt and he slid down her body bonelessly.

Gabrielle pinned Ares' victim to the ground with the end of her staff. "Ares." She called. "I got him."

The wolf released the raider's arm and backed off, growling hideously. Xena dropped to a knee next to him, and stroked his fur. "Good boy." She said softly, and he relaxed, his tail sweeping up and his ears cocking forward. He turned his head, and licked her hand with a tiny grumbling noise. Slowly she stood, and put her hands on her hips, studying the mostly still, groaning forms scattered around them. Four for me, two for Gabrielle, one for Ares. Not bad. "Now, unless you want me to render you all unable to move, you'll take my advice, and take off." She pitched her voice in a low growl, and most of the men started scrambling away.

They stood and watched them limp off, then turned and walked back towards the wagon. "Nice sweep." She offered, giving Gabrielle a quiet look, and clamping her jaw down on her almost unconscious urge to see if the bard was all right.

"Thanks." Her partner replied, then winced and pressed an elbow against her side. "I should have listened to you, though.. " She sighed. "I don't think I was ready to go full out yet." Her look turned apologetic. "Sorry.. I was so stubborn.. I don't.. I just wanted to.."

A hand against her back, rubbing gently. "It's all right. I'm guilty of that myself once in a while."

They looked at each other. "OK, a lot." Xena amended, with a rueful grin. "Let's find a place to take a break and grab some lunch." She gave Herodotus a nod, and he picked up the reins and slapped them on the horse's back. "You all ready to stop for bit?"

Hecuba leaned down and gazed at her daughter. "Are you all right?" She demanded, her voice tense.

Gabrielle gazed up at her with unconcerned cheerfulness. "Sure… I'm great. Just hungry." She yawned, and bounced up and down on the balls of her feet. "Maybe it's all this fresh air." Knowing that would, at least, get a laugh from Xena, and it did.

"Oh.. yeah.. right.. " The warrior snorted, slinging an arm over her partner's shoulders and steering her off the path. "C'mon.. there's a nice spring inside that stand of trees."

"All right." Ephiny sighed, rubbing the back of her neck. "We'd better get going."

Hercules stood slowly, and leaned against the dirt wall, gazing up. "Ok.. I'll boost you guys out of here." He lifted a hand and moved aside a piece of the thin lattice that they'd fallen through, allowing a cascade of snow to pour in and cover him. He let out an exasperated breath, sending a small cloud of fluffy wet powder gently spraying over Iolaus.

They looked at him, and Ephiny clamped her jaw down hard to keep from laughing. He looked like a snowman, with little wisps of hair poking out from the wet white blanket, and frost clinging to his sandy eyebrows.

Iolaus snorted, then clapped a hand over his mouth. "Sorry, big guy. " He apologized, reaching up and dusting a layer of snow off his friend.

Hercules gave him a look then, suddenly, shook himself vigorously, and scattered snow all over them.

"Hey" Eponin yelped, as she was hit in the face with a white blob.

"Yow!" Iolaus hopped up and down as he tried to get the snow out of his shirt.

The demigod grinned. "Sorry." He apologized, then turned and glanced up again.

A wild, feral face looked back at him, with glowing eyes, and large fangs.

Hercules swept his arm back, and tossed Iolaus against the back of the pit, as he moved backwards, spreading his arms wide in a protective gesture in front of the rest of his companions. "Zeus.. what is that?"

The beast glared at them, then lifted itself up and jumped down into the pit, scattering a pile of snow everywhere.

"Stay back." Hercules warned, feeling his heart begin to race. Eponin stepped up next to him, and put a hand on her sword, swallowing hard.

It was a wild tableau, the six of them outlined by the torchlight, facing the tall, thickly furred creature who studied them with evident intelligence, and who towered over even Hercules, and dwarfed the demigod in sheer size and weight.

Then it smiled, and showed inch long fangs in a powerful jaw and spread its muscular arms out wide, displaying heavy claws at the end of huge hands. "Amazons. How cool is that?" Its voice was deep and raspy.

Ephiny opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again, and turned to look at Eponin. "Did he just say what I think he just said?" She muttered in a low voice.

Eponin tore her eyes from the frightening creature and nodded.

The creature put it's hands on it's hips and studied them, swaggering forward until it was about a foot from Toris, and peering at him. "I bet your name's Toris."

The tall dark haired man forced a grin. "I bet you know my sister."

The creature grinned right back. "I bet you're right." He glanced around. "Relax..I'm not gonna eat you." He stuck a hand.. paw.. whatever.. out to Toris and blinked. "My name is Jessan."

Toris cautiously took it, and shook gingerly. "Hi.. Um…" He sniffed. "This is.. mm… Ephiny, and Eponin.. and Granella.. " His hand moved and pointed in back of the tall creature. "And that's Hercules and Iolaus."

Jessan wheeled around, his eyebrows hiking up. "No centaur poop? How cool!" He grinned. "You guys here for the party?" Hercules' mind tried to deal with the concept. Oh.. right. "Uh.. yes." He moved closer. "Um… what.. I mean.. " He stopped. "You are.. a friend of Xena's, I take it?"

The furry creature nodded. "Yep.. well, actually, they're both members of our clan." He paused, and blinked. "Can I ask.. uh.." His eyes roamed curiously around the pig trap. "Why you are.. um.."

"No." Six voices chorused.

"Ohhh Kayy… " Jessan lifted a hand in defense. "Got that." He turned and walked to the edge of the pit. "Hey dad… you'll never guess who I found in here."

"Dad?" Iolaus whispered to Hercules. "Do you have any idea who.."

"No." The demigod whispered back. "Leave it to Xena." He sighed. "Never a dull moment." He shook his head. "She's got some of the weirdest friends." Abruptly he glanced around. "Present company excluded, I mean."

They edged closer, staring up as the stars overhead were suddenly blocked out by a large, fanged head. "Ares' balls.. what have we got h… Beg your pardon, ladies." He poked a long, powerful arm down into the pit. "Want a hand up?"

Eponin slipped closer to Ephiny and watched as first Toris, then Hercules were hoisted up as easily as if they were children. "Do you know who.. these.. people.. are?"

The Amazon regent cocked her head thoughtfully. "I think so, yeah." She murmured. "Gabrielle told me.. something about how she met Jessan.. and they visited them not too long ago." So.. these are the friends she went to .. who helped dig Xena out of that damned mountain. Wow.I see why.. they look like they could move a pile of rocks in a hurry.

"Next." Jessan called, glancing back into the darkness of the pit. "C'mon.. I don't bite.."

Ephiny strode forward, beating Eponin by a few steps before the weapons master could forestall her. She walked right up next to Jessan, and gazed up at his face. "Y'know, Gabrielle said you were cute."

Even in the semi darkness she could see his muzzle color, and she smiled.

Cyrene stirred restlessly in bed, and sighed, glancing out the window in irritation. "Where in the Hades are they." She spoke to the ceiling, not expecting an answer. It wasn't bad enough she had to worry about Xena and Gabrielle off somewhere in the wilderness. No.. now she had six other people to worry about in addition. "What did I ever do to deserve this?" At least Xena, she knew, was completely able to take care of herself, and her partner.

Right? She sighed, uncomfortably aware of her growing understanding of just how fragile her seemingly invulnerable daughter really was. And, she reflected, physically she had no fears for her.. Xena was, and always had been a tough, strong, very resilient person as far as that went. But emotionally.. Cyrene thought about the night she'd come back, with Gabrielle missing, and had sat in her kitchen one slim footstep away from shattering into pieces, because her relationship with the young bard was the only stability she'd allowed herself in half a lifetime.

Xena had, Cyrene knew, blocked everyone and everything out with brutal thoroughness for a very long time, and now that she'd finally let those barriers down, she'd opened herself up to an almost painful extent, and the depth of her emotional attachment to Gabrielle above and beyond their romantic relationship was almost frightening in it's intensity.

As for the bard… Xena was her one port of safety in a very unsafe world, and despite her happy and confident nature, the innkeeper knew that Gabrielle depended very much on her daughter's powerful presence in her life, and would be lost without it.

It was both charming, and scary; beautiful but frightening. On one hand, she was incredibly happy to see they joy they had in each other. On the other hand, it scared her half to death thinking about what would happen if anything befell either of them.

Of course… Cyrene wryly admitted to herself, I could have not let her back into *my* life.. and then I wouldn't have to worry about any of this. She reflected quietly on that. But no, it was worth it, a thousand times over, and I bet she'd agree with me.

With a sigh, she pulled the covers back, and got out of bed, shrugging a thick wooly robe on and snugging the belt closed, smiling as she rubbed a thumb along the collar of the cheerful crimson fabric, a recent surprise gift from Xena. Then she padded out of her room, and into the kitchen, moving towards the hearth and putting a pot on the fire.

She walked over to the window while she waited, and gazed out, seeing the dim reflection of moonlight against the soft coating of snow that made the courtyard almost unrecognizable. She could feel the cold through the glazed window glass, and her breath frosted against it as she stood quietly, watching. Gods.. it's late.. midnight's long past. Where in the Hades are they? I can't believe they got… ah."

Her eyes had caught the sight of dark, shrouded forms moving towards the inn slowly from the road. Then her jaw tightened. Too many.. and the silhouettes were too large.. and mounted. But no alarm… then she saw the guards pacing along with them, the fluttering torchlight giving her very brief glimpses of huddled forms. She cursed softly, and headed towards the door, reaching it just as the small group arrived at the entrance to the inn.

The small clearing in a sheltered dell was mostly clear of snow, Xena mused, though the cold air still bit, even through her thick shirt and leathers. Herodotus had pulled the cart neatly under a thickly branched tree, and had unhooked the horse who was pawing a layer of snow off the mostly dead grass, while Hecuba had arranged sleeping space for herself, Herodotus and Lila in the bed of the cart.

Xena had forestalled his embarrassed question by casually stating they'd be setting up their stuff on the far side of the firepit she'd dug, in a sheltered nook surrounded by dense, stubborn bushes. That had gotten her an impish smile from Gabrielle, who had cheerfully unhooked the pack from her partner's back, and carried it over to the specified spot, dropping to her knees in the dull brown grass and starting to spread out their bedrolls.

The atmosphere was.. tense. Xena realized they were upset about the raiders, since knowing Gabrielle did that sort of fighting was one thing.. witnessing it was quite another She collected wood and started a fire, then crouched quietly, watching it flicker as Hecuba hesitantly approached bearing a small pot. "You want to set that here? " She asked the older woman.

"Well, yes." Hecuba paused, then watched as Xena expertly drove two forked sticks into the packed earth, and held up a third. "Here.. put the handle on this." She waited patiently for the woman to hand the pot over, then suspended it above the fire.

"It's soup fixings." The older woman commented. "You're welcome to have some."

Well, that was civil at least. Xena mused. "We brought, thanks." Mostly dried trail rations.. her eyes flicked to Gabrielle's quiet form. She needs more than that. Now she studied her other charges. So do they. "I'll be back." She stood and dusted her hands off, then crossed to their bedrolls, and dropped to a knee beside her partner. "Listen.. I'm gonna go get something hot for dinner."

Gabrielle looked up, surprised, from the scroll she was working on. "What? Oh.. Xena, you don't have to.. we've got stuff.. "

The warrior reached out and smoothed the hair from her partner's eyes. "I know.. but they only have some soup.. it's too cold for that. Our bodies need more."

The bard paused, and studied her face. "You're not going..oh.. fishing.. by any chance?" Her green eyes twinkled.

One eyebrow curved up suggestively. "Why do you ask.. " She slid a hand up Gabrielle's leg and tickled her side. "You in the mood for some fish?"

Gabrielle muffled a laugh and slapped her hand. "Stop that." She glanced over Xena's shoulder. "You're going to scandalize my parents. " She paused and sighed. "More than they already are."

Xena's eye's dropped, and she took a breath, then released it. "Sorry." A hand curled firmly around hers, and she looked up, to see the wry look on her partner's face. "I know I.. "

"Not your fault, Xena." The bard said gently. "They'll get used to it.. they're just not… they're just scared for me." She let her face relax into a grin. "Besides.. to be honest.. I'm glad you're going fishing.. or whatever."

"Yeah?" Xena replied, with a slight smile.

"Yeah." Gabrielle sighed. "I forgot just how hungry I get when we're out here." She gave Xena a little embarrassed grin. "I wasn't really looking forward to dried venison."

The warrior chuckled. "Your wish is my command, your majesty" She teased gently, tickling her again. "Be right back."

Gabrielle watched her stalk out of the campsite, Ares trotting happily at her side, ignoring the sideways looks she was getting from Herodotus and Hecuba. The bard sighed, and bent her attention back to the scroll in front of her, biting the tip of her quill lightly She'd gotten a few more lines inscribed, when she heard quiet footsteps approaching, and glanced up to see Lila standing a few feet away, her hands gripped in front of her. Damn. "Hey.. sit down." The bard patted the soft surface of the bedroll next to her.

Lila hesitated, then settled herself on the very edge of the bedroll, and took a deep breath. "Hi." She'd hardly spoken to her sister all afternoon, having spent most of the time riding in the back of the wagon while Gabrielle and her partner ambled on ahead. "So.. where'd she disappear to now?" An attempt at light humor.

"Fishing." The bard answered, scribbling a few words more, then blowing her parchment to dry it, and rolling it up. She glanced up to see Lila's surprised look. "For dinner."

Her sister's brows creased. "Bree, she wasn't carrying a fishing pole."

The bard wiggled her fingers in front of her sister's eyes. "Nope.. she just uses these." She grinned as Lila's jaw dropped. That's better.. the bard mused. "I'll have to get her to do it for you's really something to watch. "

"Wow." Lila laughed. "You're on." She paused, and glanced at her hands, twisting into each other, then looked up into Gabrielle's eyes. "They're pretty spooked." She gave her sister a rueful glance.

Her sister sighed, and rolled over, staring up at the sky. "Why? By a couple of dumb outlaws? They were nothing.. Lila, nothing." She lifted a hand and let it fall on the fur. "It was hardly even a challenge… you saw Xena, she could have done that asleep."

"Mmm.. that's true." Lila agreed. "It wasn’t Xena who spooked them, Bree. It was you." She lifted an idle hand, and gave Gabrielle's shirt a tug. "Have you… no. .that's dumb. You haven't ever seen yourself do that, right? It's scary.. you move that stick so fast…"

The bard rolled onto her side and settled her head on her hand. "Me?" She shrugged. "No I don't.. it's just…I mean, I'm all right with it, but …"

Lila shook her arm hard. "Stop it.. stop it, Bree.. I was there.. I saw it, remember? You… you have to understand what it looks like to us.. or… I mean, I expect that from Xena. Not from you.. not from my gentle big sister… it.. scares me."

Gabrielle sighed, and closed her eyes. " it's like this. Being gentle and kind doesn't do you any good sometimes when people are trying to bash your head in OK?" Her brow furrowed. "Look.. I don't enjoy doing that.. but it's part of the price I paid to stay with Xena. " She hesitated. "Because we do live with a lot of danger.. and Lila, if I can't take care of myself, that means she has to, and it makes it a lot more dangerous for her." She bit her lip. "Bad enough she keeps one eye on me in a fight as it is."

"Yeah, I noticed that." Lila said quietly. "She always kept you in her line of sight."

Gabrielle laughed softly. "I forget that sometimes.. and I'll just be whacking away… and all of a sudden this elbow will come flying in.. and bam, I have an ex opponent." She sighed. "She's… really, really good at that… I mean, more than just any average veteran fighter would be."

"Did she ever… I mean, you guys practice together, you said.. did she ever.. hit you?" Lila asked carefully.

Green eyes became lost in a memory. "Only once." The bard sighed. "And that was my fault."

"Bree… " Lila started.

"No.. no.. " Gabrielle held a hand up. "It really was… and it scared her so bad she wouldn't spar with me for over a month.. until I finally just kind of forced her back into it."

A midsummers day, with a high, warm sun, and a half day with nothing to do. They'd taken care of one small matter in the morning, then had the afternoon free to themselves, and decided to just relax and spend a little time getting caught up on chores, and a host of little things that had piled up waiting for a space of time to do them in.

Gabrielle had updated all her scrolls, and fixed some stuff that needed it, watching Xena go through her own tasks. Then she'd coaxed the warrior into a hand to hand sparring match, her feeling very feisty, and Xena a touch on the distracted side. They'd wrestled and played for quite a while, when Gabrielle had gotten it into her head that she wanted to try some of the roundhouse kicks Xena was so very good at.

Unwilling, but in an unusually amiable mood, Xena had finally allowed herself to be coaxed into a coaching role, and they kept at that for a while, then Gabrielle decided to try her new skills out on her sparring partner.

She was never sure, later, whether she did the move wrong, or she was out of position, or what… but one minute she was going through the motion, full speed, and the next thing she knew, something exploded against her face with a force so strong it rattled every bone in her body. A dull red flare burst behind her eyes, then darkness slowly took her.

She came slowly back to awareness, disoriented by the darkness around her, and realized it was now night. Her head throbbed agonizingly , and she couldn't move her jaw without bright sparks of pain dancing through her skull. She heard a quiet movement to her left, and slowly turned her head, to see Xena seated cross-legged on the ground nearby, her elbows resting on her knees, and her hands loosely clasped between them.

Then her eyes lifted and she saw the expression on the dark warrior's face, and it almost wrung a cry from her. It was a look of combined anger, self-disgust, and an almost aching grief, and when Xena turned her head, and their eyes met, the warrior flinched and looked down, unable to maintain the eye contact.

It hurt, but she forced her throat to work, and made her jaw move and whispered her friends name, seeing the skittish flinch as Xena heard her. Another call, and now the warrior had to look up, and she did, and Gabrielle stretched a hand out with a pleading look.

Reluctantly, Xena complied, moving close enough for Gabrielle to touch her, but not reaching out to take the bard's hand. So Gabrielle let her fingers fall on the warm knee, and closed them, feeling the skin flinch under her grip. "Guess I forgot to duck, huh?" She managed to get out, rubbing the soft skin with her thumb. "Xena, that wasn't your fault."

No answer, while warrior just sat, and stared at her hands, fairly radiating guilt. Finally she'd started to speak. "I had.. this .. there was a dog, in the barn, who had puppies." Her voice was almost unrecognizable. "And.. I was… just petting them.. that's all.. and I picked one up, and.. " She stopped speaking for a long minute, and Gabrielle could see her chest heaving with uneven breaths. "I.. should.. just stay away from little, gentle things.. Gabrielle. " A long pause. "They just end up getting hurt."

Gabrielle had ignored the pain, and the pounding in her head, and had rolled up onto her elbow, taking Xena's big hands in her own, and ducking down to force eye contact. "Listen.. you… " She'd said, firmly. "I asked you to do that, all right? It was my fault, Xena.. my fault, for being in the wrong place, and getting in your way, when I know better." She tried to lighten her tone. "Hades, Xena.. if that's what it feels like to get hit by you, it's no wonder nobody ever gets up for a second round."

No answer. "Xena?" Gabrielle said softly, curling her fingers around the warrior's unresponsive ones. "Hey?" She gave the hand a tug. "Don't make me chase you down.. wherever you got off to, OK? "

At that, strained blue eyes lifted and searched her face wearily. "Gabrielle, I'm so sorry."

"It's all right." The bard had assured her. "Really, Xena.. I mean that. It's all right." She reached up and gingerly felt her jaw. "You gotta teach me to duck those, OK?"

The warrior had gazed at her, then shook her head. "No more, Gabrielle." She'd replied quietly. "No more… I can't….."

"Sure you can." The bard had answered. "But not tonight, I've got the worst headache."

A tiny joke, that managed, finally, to coax the tiniest of hesitant smiles from Xena, who had finally just curled up and fallen asleep where she was, leaning against an old oak log, with Gabrielle's fingers clasped firmly inside her own.

Lila chewed on that for a while. "Why her?" She finally asked, quietly. "Don't get me wrong, Bree… I owe her everything. two are so different. Why her?"

A sigh. "Oh Lila." Gabrielle shook her head slowly. "You don't choose who to fall in love with.. it just.. happens. I felt something the very first time I saw her."

"I remember." Lila replied softly. And she did, the slavers, and the hot, dusty day, and her sister bravely standing up for them. And then the tall, dark haired woman had appeared, as if from the ground itself, and laid waste to their captors, and in the middle of that swirling, dust ridden mess, she'd seen her sister and the woman fighter lock eyes. For a long enough time to let a lucky slaver bash Xena on the back of her head and take her down.

Now, years later, and knowing who, and what Xena was, she realized just how significant that one, lone, frozen moment had been. "No, I suppose you don't." She finally admitted. "So.. how come it took you two so long to mmm…"

Now, Gabrielle smiled. "We're both pretty stubborn." She chuckled. "And.. well, she was afraid of exactly what you and mom and dad are afraid of.. that me being with her is dangerous." It felt.. good.. to be able to talk openly like this with Lila, she realized. "But I finally convinced her I wasn't going to go away, so…" She cast a glance at her parents, who were seated in somber solitude on the other side of the fire. "Wish they'd chill out about it, though."

Lila sighed, and relaxed onto her side next to her sister. "Well.. give em time, Bree." She counseled. "Remember.. wasn't that long ago that they were determined to marry you off to someone completely different." She gave Gabrielle a wry grin. "At least they talk to her now."

"Mmmm… that's true." Gabrielle admitted, stifling a yawn. "Listen.. I know you guys worry.. and I appreciate that." She covered Lila's hand with her own. "But.. life anywhere is kind of dangerous.. and when I'm with Xena, I feel as safe as I could possibly feel." Time for a change of subject, I think. She considered. "So.. think of any names yet?" She reached out and gave Lila a gentle poke in the belly.

Lila seemed to welcome the change also. "Nope.. not yet..we haven't even started talking about that yet; Lennat thinks it's bad luck." She chuckled a little, and patted the barely noticeable bulge. "I can't decide if I want a boy or a girl more."

"So long as it's healthy, right?" Gabrielle smiled. "Well, he or she will have lots of doting aunts and uncles, you realize." She almost laughed at Lila's consternation. "Besides me and Xena, there's Toris, remember."

"Oh yeah.. " Lila replied in a surprised voice. "Forgot about him.."

"Right.. and he'll probably have an uncle Hercules, and an uncle Iolaus… " She hesitated. "And an uncle Solon."

Lila's eyebrow quirked. "Who's Solon?"

"My stepson." Gabrielle replied, with a deadpan expression.

Long silence from Lila. Then: "What??"

The bard shrugged and grinned. "You'll get to meet him at the ceremony. You'll like him.. he's really cute. He's got Xena's eyes, and her sense of humor."

Another long silence. "You're doing this just to drive me crazy, aren't you?" Lila finally responded, collecting her jaw from the bedroll.

"Not really." Gabrielle laughed. "I just didn't want you to be totally surprised when you see this kid calling Xena mom in Amphipolis." She let one hand play idly with the fur. "He's twelve… when he was born, Xena was.. " A shrug. "Not really into raising a child. She gave him to Kaleipus the Centaur, who's raised him since then." She gazed up into Lila's shocked eyes. "It's.. it was the right thing to do, Lila. " She paused. "We met him a year or so back.. rescued him and the centaurs from the Great Centaur.. and I think he kind of guessed.."

"You mean he didn’t know?" Lila managed to reply.

"No." Gabrielle confirmed. "He.. well, he heard we were living in Amphipolis and decided to come visit.. he was picked up by the same slavers we were.. and he ended up back home with us."

Lila kept silent.

"So.. Xena decided, since you can pretty much guess to look at him whose kid he is, that she'd better tell him before someone else did." She took a breath. "So she did."

"And… he.. what?" Lila asked slowly. "Still lives there.. or??"

The bard sighed. "No.. we talked, and we all agreed that it's not really stable enough for him to be with us. " She considered. "Yet… but.." Her grin returned. "It's looking more and more like we're really going to settle down there. So.."

"Really?" Lila asked curiously. "I mean, that's great, Bree.. but I didn't think.. " She sighed. "Well, it's going to be an experience, seeing your.. home."

Gabrielle didn't answer, as she turned her head and gazed into the darkness of the surrounding forest, a smile etching her face as the leaves parted, and Xena glided into the firelight, which danced silvery shadows off the six fish she was carrying, and glittered of the dampness of her legs and lower arms. "Well, well. " The bard drawled. "Quite a catch." She caught her father's eyes watching in idle interest and grinned.

"Oh yeah? You can come over here and fix them up." Xena replied, holding up the double string of fish.

"Roo!" Ares agreed enthusiastically, bouncing up and down next to her and leaping for the catch.

"Ares, cut that out." Xena held the fish up out of his reach. "Gabrielle.. " She turned her eyes on the bard, who scrambled up from her comfortable nest and took the strings from her.

"Nice." She complimented the warrior, giving her a wink. "One for each of us." She let her gaze travel up Xena's windblown form, and finally rest on her fire-shadowed face, where she could see a twitching half grin forming. "Too bad you didn't snag some lemon grass while you were at it."

Xena smirked, and dipped a fist into her belt pouch, pulling out a handful of green stuff, and waving it at her.

The bard laughed, and quickly prepared the fish, gutting, then stuffing them with the herbs, and setting them on sticks to cook in the fire. She found herself crouching next to her mother, and gave Hecuba a quick smile. "Xena thought.. with this weather, we'd better have something more substantial than our trail stuff, and soup."

Hecuba put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. "That was very thoughtful." She said softly. "Gabrielle.."

"It's my life, mother." The bard answered quietly, staring into the fire. "Don't tell me how strange, or how dangerous, or how different it is, OK?" She turned her head, and looked right into Hecuba's eyes, and had the satisfaction of seeing her mother drop her gaze first. "I chose this."

The older woman sighed heavily. "All right."

It was a quiet dinner, though Hecuba and Herodotus were almost effusive in their compliments on Gabrielle's fish, which got an embarrassed grin from the bard, and a smiling agreement from her partner.

Gabrielle took a couple of her older stories out of the cupboard and had them all finally chuckling, especially over the tale of Sentaclese, which she loved telling at this time of year.

"You bought a donkey?" Lila giggled. "Oh, Bree.. how could you?"

"I couldn't let him go to the tanners, could I?" The bard protested, spreading her hands out. "He was so cute.. he was all furry, and had really soft ears."

Her sister rolled her eyes. "Oh gods… " Now she turned her gaze to Xena. "Didn't you want to kill her?"

Blue eyes regarded the storyteller thoughtfully. "Nah." Xena laughed. "It was too much fun watching Gabrielle talk to it."

"Him." The bard scolded, giving her a poke. "And you deserved me buying a donkey for not telling me it was your birthday."

Three pairs of eyes turned to the warrior. "Winter Solstice's your birthday, Xena?" Lila asked, with a surprised tone.

An aggrieved sigh. "Yeah." Xena gave Gabrielle a mock-annoyed look. "It used to be a nice, quiet day. Now half of Greece knows."

The bard poked her tongue out impudently, then settled back against Xena's chest with a contented look. The warrior gazed at her with amused tolerance, and slid a protective arm around her waist.

Hecuba and Herodotus exchanged looks, and Herodotus cleared his throat a touch nervously. They were seated around the fire, the older people seated on logs, and the rest of them on the ground, and the cold settled like a frost blanket on their backs as they warmed their faces by the flames.

"Herodotus." Xena drawled, out of the semidarkness.

"Yeah?" The man replied, shifting a bit and putting his elbows on his knees.

An ethereal smile from the warrior. "You said Gabrielle here was named for a character in a story." She felt the sudden jerk in her partner's frame, and felt the gently wandering fingers suddenly clench on her hand.

"I guess I did." Herodotus replied, stiffly.

A feral grin that glinted up into her eyes, as her hand quietly stroked Ares fur where the wolf was lying curled against her. "So.. let's hear it."

His murky green eyes fastened on hers in hostile intent. "I'm not a storyteller."

She shrugged. "So? Neither am I, but you got one out of me last night." She felt Gabrielle's whole body tense, and rubbed a gentle thumb against the bard's belly. Shh.. it's all right, love.. take it easy. I know what I'm doing here. A niggling thought bothered her. I hope. "What about it?"

Their eyes fenced, through the licking flames. His nostrils flared, then his eyes closed, and his head dropped. "All right." He finally said, lifting his gaze again and taking a deep breath.

Xena smiled, and took a sip of her tea.

Cyrene blinked. Then she rubbed her eyes, and blinked again. What on earth… Pounding footsteps, and then Johan was standing at her side, also staring. Also blinking. They looked at each other.

Three Amazons, covered in mud. One demigod, ditto. One demigod's friend, ditto, with the added bonus of having been rolled in hay bits, which were sticking out all over his head. Her son, who just looked exhausted. And.. and…

"What are those?" She whispered fiercely to Johan.

"Damnedest thing I ever saw.. looks like big stuffed kid's toys. " He paused. "With fangs and claws."

Toris trudged up onto the porch and sighed. "Hi mom. I'm home."

Cyrene reached up and pulled his ear down. "Listen, I know I used to be very tolerant with your sister about bringing.. things.. home, but honey, this is ridiculous."

Toris gave her a wan smile. "They're friends of Xena's, mom."

Cyrene closed her eyes, and muttered several things under her breath, then stepped to the edge of the porch. "Hello. " She gave the creatures a brave smile, then glanced down at Ephiny. "You look.."

"Don't say it." The Amazon queen warned. "Please?" She'd never been so exhausted in her life, and wanted nothing more than to collapse on that nice soft bed she'd grown used to the last few weeks. She'd made the last little bit into the village on pride and will power alone, and she'd been working hard at not allowing herself to cough, lest Eponin catch on as to just how exactly lousy she felt.

The innkeeper nodded. "OoahhKay." She gently grasped Ephiny's arm. "Come on inside, all of you." She watched them file past, even Hercules looking beat, and then held her breath as the tall shaggy forms came up onto the porch.

She found herself staring up into a pair of deep mahogany eyes, whose intelligence belied the fierce exterior. "Hello." She said quietly. Friends of Xena's. Oh boy, am I going to have a word with that girl when she gets back here..

A massive hand appeared in front of her. "You must be Cyrene." The voice was deep, and rumbling and made her ears vibrate. "My name is Lestan." He took her hand and gently gripped it. "This is my lifebond, Wennid."

Now her eyes found a shorter, more delicately made.. person. She smiled at her.

"And this is my son, Jessan, and his lifebond Elaini." Two more tall figures came up the steps, and Cyrene extended an arm first this time.

"Mm.. Xena has spoken of you." Her lips twitched. "She just never mentioned.. well, but that's not unusual." She sighed. "Welcome… come on inside. I've got some soup on."

Ephiny felt a grip on her arm as she crossed the threshold, and turned her head to see Eponin's concerned eyes inches from her. "Hey." She considered bluffing, but decided she was just too tired. "I'm beat."

"So I see." Eponin moved closer, and slid an arm around her shoulders. "C'mon.. to bed with you, before you fall down."

The Amazon regent hesitated, then bowed to reality and her rubbery knees and nodded her head. "Right." She allowed herself to be led into the small room she'd been calling home the last few weeks, and gratefully collapsed in the large chair near the fire. "What a day."

Eponin snorted softly, and shook her head, as she walked to the fire and stirred it to life. "A day and a night. " She put a water pot on to heat, and hefted a bucket, glancing at Ephiny in question. "Want to some hot wash water?"

The regent pried one eye open and gazed at her, then let her lips quirk. "Well.. I wasn't the one who fell into a mud bath… you might want to use some first." The weapon's master's skin was stained almost a dark purple from the river mud, and her leathers were coated in the stuff. "And get out of those leathers before they stiffen up so bad you can't move."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Eponin grumbled. She fiddled with the fire a bit more, then sighed, and sat down with her back against the warming stone of the hearth, wrapping her arms about her knees and letting her head rest back. "Artemis the Mighty… have you ever seen anything like those.. mm.. people?" She paused. "They really friends of theirs?"

Ephiny coughed lightly, unable to suppress it any longer, and let out a soft breath. "Yeah.. they really are, if what Gab told me was true, and I'm sure it was." She coughed again, and glanced up, startled, as Eponin put a hand on her knee. "What's wrong?"

"You are." Eponin growled, starting to work on the laces of one boot. "Damn it, Eph, if you get sick again from this, I'm gonna go crazy." She stripped off the leather boot, and started on the other. "Besides which, Xena's gonna kill me for letting you romp around out in this damn weather."

I should make her stop. Ephiny mused, closing her eyes, and letting her fingers come lightly to rest against the weapon's master's hair. "Pony, now I know how Gabrielle feels.. "Really.." She sighed. "I was only going for a walk.." She felt the other boot slide free, and gathered her energy to stand up and make the short trip to the bed. "Wonder if I can use that same innocent look.. nah.. wouldn't be the same."

Eponin got an arm under hers, and half lifted her up. "C'mon, your majesty. Bed time for Amazons." She paused as Ephiny wrapped an arm securely around her waist, then took a deep breath and moved the few steps to the cot. "Down you go."

Ephiny slowly let herself relax against the soft surface, guiltily glad she was here in Amphipolis, and not home at the Village, where, she knew, the village healers would be crawling all over her. Literally. Bad enough Eponin seemed to have developed a severe case of mother hen… Curiously, she gazed at the dark head, which was bowed next to her as the weapon's master tucked the covers in with infinite precision. Or was it? A delicate warmth began to trickle down her spine, and she let a small, very wry grin shape her lips. Let's just see.. hmm? "Hey Pony…"

The dark haired Amazon looked up, blinking her eyes a little in the firelight. "Huh?"

Ephiny reached out and brushed a stiffened bit of mud off her face. "Thanks for taking care of me." Her smile twitched a bit broader when she saw the flush of color creep up the other Amazon's cheeks. Well, well.

"No problem." Eponin replied gruffly, taking a last twitch at the blankets. "Go to bed, would you?" She stood and moved away, kneeling by the fire and moving the bucket around. "I'll uhm…."

"Don’t' go far." Ephiny smiled up at the ceiling. "There's an extra cot over there… feel free."

Silence for a minute, then the quiet trickle of water as Eponin washed the mud off herself. "Well, sure.. especially with all these strange people around.. can't leave the Queen unguarded." Came the answer finally, and Ephiny let her held breath out.

"Right." She briskly agreed, and bit her lip. "Umm.. there's a couple of old sleep shirts in that press… help yourself. " She paused. "I'd get one.. but I'm just too beat."

The slithery sound of the leather catch on the press opening, and then the faint rustle of linen being shaken out, and put on. She heard the quiet pops as Eponin's joints protested the overhead motion. "Ouch..I heard that." The regent called out casually.

"Ugh." The dark haired Amazon grunted. "Tell me about it… I see those kids and it reminds me of just how old I am."

Ephiny chuckled ruefully. "Oh ..don't I know it." She glanced up as a shadow fell across her face, and cocked her head as Eponin knelt at her bedside. "That looks better."

"Yeah.. " The weapons master nodded. "You sure you don't want to.. " She held up a second shirt. "That looks a little uncomfortable."

The regent sighed, and regarded the shirt. "Yeah, I probably should." She concluded, and raised her self up on an elbow, then stopped as a sharp coughing fit took her, tearing at her lungs and leaving her breathless. "Damn." She gasped, holding onto the arm Eponin had thrown around her in support. She closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing. "Think I'd better get down some of that nasty stuff."

Eponin eased her down gently, and stood, moving to the small table. "Is it these packets?"

"Yeah." Ephiny wearily unlaced her thick tunic, and tugged it over her head, replacing it with the thin linen shirt, which felt worn and comfortable against her skin. Wincing, she eased her leggings off, and folded both neatly, putting them on the floor next to the bed. "Gods.. you were right.. this feels a lot better." She started coughing again, and gripped the bedframe until the spasm left her.

"Here." Eponin said, her voice a touch nervous, as she knelt back down beside the bed and offered Ephiny a mug. She slid an arm around the regent's shoulders for support while she cautiously drank the brew, then took the cup back, and studied the blond Amazon's face anxiously. "Stuff smells like dead cats."

Ephiny's pale eyebrow curved up. "Thanks." She joked weakly. "Works though.. " She felt her eyes drifting. "Better put me down before I pass out."

Silence so thick she could hear own heart beating. Then Eponin spoke hesitatingly. "Um.. well, now.. I had always heard it's bad to lie flat with this kind of thing..I could um.. well, that is.. if you .. "

Ephiny smiled as she let herself relax against Eponin's shoulder. "Nope.. not unless you mind." She replied softly, as the herbs overrode her conscious will, and took her into a warm fog of sleep.

The fire popped, benign sentinel over the small room as a peaceful quiet descended, broken only by the whispery harsh clicks of dead branches dancing outside the window, and the patter of leaves against the wooden walls.

"It.." Herodotus started, for the fifth time. "It's not a story I heard." He finally continued, not looking at any of them, but rather at the tall guardian trees that ringed their small campsite. "Just.. something I remembered."

Now he stood, and paced into the cold wind, while silence waited for him. "There was.. a kingdom. A long, long time ago."

Gabrielle was holding so tight to her partner's arm, it was a wonder Xena hadn't lost feeling in her hand. She put her cup down, and brought her other arm around the bard's body, surrounding her with warm strength.

Herodotus caught the moment out of the corner of his eye, but ignored it.

"And the kingdom was ruled by a very dark, very wicked king.. who had killed his own father for the throne, then conquered the next kingdom over, and stolen the most beautiful princess in that realm to be his wife."

The queen was very young, and very frightened, but she was of noble blood, and so she survived the capture, and the forced wedding.. and became with child to the evil king, who was well pleased with her, having a need for an heir, and because she was very lovely to behold, having pale blond hair, and beautiful gray eyes."

Herodotus paced, casting back through the darkness for the details long forgotten.

"The king went about his kingdom, with a bunch of his soldiers, and he extracted a birthing gift.. thirty percent of everything his subjects had, in honor of his child. They bled, his people did.. but they paid the fee, for they knew the penalty would be dire. "

A deep breath, then he went on.

"Then.. the child was born, and the king was furious, for it was a girl child, and in his rage, he almost dashed the tiny infant to the earth. But the princess begged and pleaded with him for her life, saying she would put the girl aside and bear him a male heir as surely as the sun rose in the morning."

"So the king spared the child, and gave her back to her mother, saying he wished not to see her face, nor hear her voice, for as long as she might live. "

He cleared his throat self consciously, and stared out into the forest.

Xena felt Gabrielle's body slowly relaxing, and she rubbed the bard's chilled arm and squeezed her fingers, getting a squeeze back in response.

"Her mother named her Gabrielle." Herodotus continued, sparing a glance for his eldest daughter, whose attention was totally focused on him. "For in the language of that time, and that people, it meant "Strength of the Light." And that's what the princess thought her daughter would need, to withstand the cruelties of the world… ' His voice faltered a little. "And the evilness of her father."

He paced some more.

"The princess was as good as her word. She bore the king a son the next year, but her confinement was dire, and she died not long after he was born." He paused. "And the girl, Gabrielle, was brought up by the castle staff, being hidden amongst them and raised as a villein, all unaware of her royal parentage."

Now he sat down, and stared at his hands, idly rubbing his fingers together. Hecuba sidled closer, and watched his face anxiously.

"She was a lovely child, and grew into a beautiful woman, as her mother was." He glanced up, caught by a mist green gaze that seemed to bore straight through him. "But she was sad, because the evil king was very hard on his people, and took from them without giving even the barest of law in return."

His head cocked. "And then one day, a prince came from a kingdom on the other side of that land, and saw her going to market with some of the other servants.." A barest quirk of a smile. "The prince was a very great warrior, and he was very much feared on the field of war. But he was a smart man, and one who ruled his people with kindness, as well as strength. "

Gabrielle swallowed, and wrapped her hands more firmly around Xena's, glad for the warm security of the warrior's body behind her. Her eyes flicked to Lila, who was seated next to Hecuba with her arms wrapped around her knees, just listening in quiet amazement.

"The prince took a liking to the girl, and found a way to slip into the castle, posing as a merchant, to see her. She fell in love with him, admiring his strength, and his honesty, and his honor, for he told her who he was as soon as he saw how it was with her, and how he knew it to be with him. He didn't promise her a kingdom, for she was a servant, but he did promise her his heart, and for her, that was enough."

He paused.

"And then, the king caught them, down in the cellar, making plans to get away. He threw the prince out of the castle, and punished the girl, chaining her up in the dungeons, hoping she'd wither away and die there."

He stood and paced again.

"But she was named well.. and her heart was strong with the love she felt, and she survived, until the prince came back with a mighty army, and captured the kingdom, felling the king himself over the richly carved throne that had cost many of his subjects their lives from starvation. "

Gabrielle felt a tiny grin forming, as she glanced back and saw the look of angry indignation on Xena's face. That.. would be you, love.. do you realize that? She snuggled a little closer into her partner's chest, and sighed contentedly.

"So the prince rescued the girl, and was going to carry her out of the kingdom, and back to his own, when a very old servant stepped forward, and revealed the truth, and said that the girl's place was with her people. " He paused. "And the prince could see the right of it, but it broke his heart to think of leaving her there."

He sat down and clasped his hands between his knees.

"But the girl.. she said she'd give up her crown, and the kingdom, and the riches of the castle to go along with him just to be a servant in his own kingdom, because she said, love, is all the wealth I have ever needed."

Now he stopped. Silence fell, and lasted a good long while.

"So.. what on earth happened?" Hecuba asked in an exasperated tone.

Xena's low, vibrant voice eased across the campfire. "He took her home, and made her a princess of his own kingdom, and they lived happily ever after."

Herodotus bit his lip, but couldn’t prevent a slight, almost impish grin from forming. "You've heard the story." He remarked dryly.

The warrior gazed at him. "I always like the ones with a happy ending." But her eyes twinkled with suppressed amusement. "Thanks, Herodotus." No.. I haven't heard that one.. but… I think I'm living it. Wonder if he realizes. She took a close look at his shadowed eyes. Hmm…

He shrugged. "It's just an old wives tale." He remarked briefly, then glanced at Gabrielle. "I liked the name, so…" Abruptly he stood and stretched. "I'm going to get some water." He grabbed the pot, and strode out of the firelight, headed towards the river.

Gabrielle tapped her partner's hands, and felt their grasp loosen. "I'm.."

"Be careful." Came the quiet response.

The bard gave her a small grin, and stood, grabbing her staff and trotting after her father's stocky form. "Hey..wait up." She heard, rather than saw him stop and half turn towards her. "It's dangerous around here." She fell into step beside him as he turned and walked on.

The fire crackled, and sent up a shower of sparks as the logs fell into each other. Xena pulled a knee up, and circled it with a long arm, as she gazed at the equally silent Hecuba and Lila. Oh boy. Isn't this fun? What small talk can I come up with.. So, Hecuba, what are eggs going for these days, huh? Xena sighed inwardly. "We should be in Amphipolis by dark tomorrow, if the weather holds." She finally dredged up.

"Bet you'll be glad to get home." Lila offered, with a wry smile.

Xena stopped and thought about that for a minute, letting her fingers idly play with Ares' fur. "Yeah, I will." She answered finally, surprising herself. She was suddenly aware of just how comfortable she'd become having her family around her again, and how secure she'd started to feel there. It was a very scary thought. "Thanks for coming.. I know it means a lot to Gabrielle." She finished quietly.

Hecuba stood and dusted her hands off, then walked quietly over to where Xena was sprawled on her bedroll and stiffly knelt down until she was looking the warrior in the eye. She folded her hands together, and stared at them for a moment, then sighed. "Xena…I know this is a little difficult for all of us." She peeked up into the quietly watching blue eyes. "And… I want you to know that.. if we seem upset, it's not you we're upset at." She took a breath and went on. "I don't.. we don't.. I understand that my daughter cares very much about you.. but it's very hard for parents to watch a child change.. the way she has. And to know she goes into danger all the time.. we've very frightened for her."

Xena regarded her thoughtfully. "I know." She fell silent for a moment. "And sometimes I think.. it would have been better for her if she'd never met me." Stark honesty. "Or.. more to the point, since our meeting had a purpose in her life, it would have been better if I'd never let her go with me.. if I'd returned her here all that time ago."

Hecuba studied her, seeing the quiet bleakness in that ice blue regard and swallowing with difficulty. "In some ways… I think that's true." She admitted.

The warrior nodded slowly, then sighed. "But I didn't." Her eyes met Hecuba's. "For.. whatever reason… I let her stay until it was too late." She took a breath. "Until we became a part of each other. "

Hecuba bit her lip. "Did she ever want to… come home?"

Xena tilted her head. "She did.. once, and I didn't stop her. And again with Perdicus.. I never wanted her to share this life, Hecuba." A lift of her hand. "But I never stopped her from coming back, either.. not sure I could have."

The older woman blinked, then sighed. "She's a very stubborn girl." Now her eyes found Xena's, and there was a little twinkle in them. "And when she wants something, nothing stops her."

That got a wry grin from the warrior. "Very true."

"I some ways what you said was true." Hecuba went on. "But in a lot of other ways, important ways…and much though it hurts me to say this, I think.. her finding you… was the best thing that ever happened to her."

Xena blinked at her, stunned.

"I know, you didn't expect me to say that." Hecuba smiled shyly. "But I had time to think about it.. after you two left us.. and I realized something." She sighed. "It had been a very.. long… time since I'd seen Gabrielle happy.. and, Xena, you make her that way." She shrugged lightly. "Everything else.. I just have to hope for the best for."

Well, I'll be damned. Xena sighed to herself. "Um.. thanks." She replied, feeling a light flush color her face. "I'll try to keep her out of trouble."

Hecuba patted her shoulder, hesitatingly. "Good luck." She smiled, and stood, walking back over to the wagon and beginning to prepare their sleeping pallets.

Xena watched her go, then exchanged glances with Lila, who gave her a shy smile, then got up and went to help her mother. "Well, Ares…"

"Roo?" The wolf looked up at her inquiringly, then crawled over to her and started licking her face with energy. "Arufghhtt." He mumbled, shoving his nose against her belly, and snorting.

"Hey.. cut that out." Xena laughed, grabbing his nose. "Ares…"

"Argggrrrroooo.." He scrabbled forward eagerly, knocking her over onto her back and getting both paws onto her shoulders, as he pursued his facial cleansing. "Grrr…"

"Augh.. Ares… come on.." The warrior sighed, trying to evade the huge pink tongue. She was startled by a thump and squeezed one eye open to see her partner's grinning face inches from her. "Hi."

"Hi.. need a rescue?" Gabrielle teased gently.

" I'm fine." Xena assured her, as the wolf moved his attentions to her left ear. "Ugh… loving every minute of it."

The bard glanced over at the wagon, where her parents were snugging down to sleep, and inched closer. "Mmm…'' She mumbled, as she started in on Xena's right ear. "I see why he likes this.. tastes sweet.."

Xena blushed a dark red, pulling aside the wolf's foreleg to peer across the campsite. "Gabrielle!!!" She lifted Ares off her chest, and held him down, but the warm, soft, licks continued, sending jolts down her spine. She turned her head to take her ear out of the bard's range, and found her lips being explored instead.

Oh.. damn.. um…. The assault was so sudden, and so unexpected, it slipped past her defenses with seductive ease and she felt her hands slide up to cup Gabrielle's face, brushing her hair back, and drinking in the scent of her warm skin. "Um.. you know.. "

"Shh." Gabrielle's fingers slipped under her tunic and touched bare flesh, letting her hands explore for a few aching moments, then she sighed and tucked herself up tight against Xena's body. "Sorry."

"Why?" Came the husky answer. "You all right?" Xena's body arched as she lifted herself up and peered across the campfire. "He didn't…"

"No." The bard mumbled, squirming closer. "He just… he makes me feel like a little kid sometimes… like a punk tag along."

Xena growled, deep in her chest, an eerie sound that was echoed by the suddenly alert Ares. "Let your mother work on him." Was all she said, though.

Gabrielle arched her neck, so that she could look her partner in the eye. "What?"

The warrior drew their furry blanket up around them, sleeping in her leathers as she did sometimes when they were in a dangerous area. "Mmm… yeah, we had a talk while you were gone.. seems she thinks I've been.. um.. good for you."

A small, delighted giggle exploded gently from the snuggling bard. "Snowballs must be falling in Hades. You'd better ask Hercules to check." She idly began playing with the laces in Xena's leathers. "Here… let me make you a little more comfortable." She commented, loosening them, then laying her head down against her partner's shoulder, where she could hear the steady, powerful beat of Xena's heart. "Xena?"

"Mmm??" The warrior was rubbing her back gently.

"You don't.. think.. um.. still think I'm a kid, do you?" Came the tentative question.

Xena's brows creased, and she half lifted her body up to stare down at her partner. Then she let herself down, and shook her head. "Gabrielle.. you're an Amazon queen, a respected bard, a skilled negotiator, and the partner of one of the most feared fighters in all of Greece." She pronounced in drawl. "Pretty precocious for a kid."

"Oh.. so.." The bard smiled against the spicy scented leather.

"No." Xena assured her. "I don't." She slid her hand up to Gabrielle's neck and scratched gently. "What brought that on?"

"Nothing." Was the quiet answer. "Just feeling a little insecure, I guess."

Xena regarded her half hidden face for a moment, then stretched a little, and wrapped her arms more securely around Gabrielle's body, flexing her shoulders, and squeezing the younger woman tightly, hearing the subtle pops as her spine cracked all down it's length.

"Oughhh…" Gabrielle moaned, burrowing closer. "That felt great." She nibbled her way through the loosened laces and gently nipped Xena's neck. "I won't admit it to Lila, but that all day walk's got me aching."

"Tsk." Xena slid her hands down her partner's back and began a gentle massage. "Why didn't you say something?"

"Mmmmm…" The bard sighed, flexing her fingers against Xena's chest. "Waited till you could do something about it.. besides.. I didn't.. um…"

"Want to admit that in front of your family." The warrior finished, giving her a knowing grin.

Gabrielle nuzzled her. "Something like that." She confessed. "It's that image thing." A pause. "You know."

This got a darkly amused look from Xena. "Yeah, I know." She worked her fingers up across the bard's shoulderblades. "I think they'd understand, though.. I mean, they know you were hurt and all."

The bard let out a long breath. "I don't want to go into that either." She mumbled. "Now I know why you never want me to tell stuff to your mom."

"Mmhmm." Xena agreed, working back down the bard's tense spine. "They worry too much." She fell silent for a bit. "Took me a while to get used to that…" A tiny grin crept across her face. "Now I… kind of like it." That last in a soft mumble.

Gabrielle suppressed a giggle, and peeked up at her. "I don't believe I'm hearing this." She said softly. "Gods, are you ever mellowing out." She felt Xena draw in breath, and slowly let it out. "Does that bother you?"

Long silence, with only those powerful hands working on her, and Gabrielle almost thought her partner just wasn't going to answer.

"It.. scares me, a little." Xena finally admitted, in a low voice. "I get.. worried that if I let my defenses down too far something will happen.. and I won't be ready for it." She swallowed, and felt Gabrielle run her fingers lightly down her arms in a comforting gesture. "But.. it feels so good just to live.. " She paused, searching for a word. "Almost normally… that I can't.. I don't think I want to give that up again."

Gabrielle thought about that for a while, as she let the warmth of their connection sink through her. "Good." She finally said, with a contented sigh. "Because I don't either.. and I like what being home has done for both of us." She rested her chin on Xena's chest and gazed up at her. "It makes me feel really good when I see you happy." She grinned. "And I like feeling good."

The warrior gave her an affectionate look, and brushed a few wisps of hair out of the bard's eyes. I can do this for her.. and if I'm really honest with myself, I'd admit just how little of a struggle it's been to accept. She studied Gabrielle's healthy, relaxed face and sparkling eyes and smiled in quiet acceptance. This was the right thing to do. "Guess we'll have keep it up then, huh?"

The bard beamed quietly at her, and rubbed her cheek against Xena's leather clad stomach. "I love you."

Xena tangled her fingers in the long, red gold hair spilling across her chest, as she felt her body begin to relax into sleep. "I love you too, my bard." She whispered, as Gabrielle inched further up, and settled in her familiar spot tucked up against one shoulder. In a short time, she felt the world begin to slip away, leaving only Ares' watchful eyes over the campsite.

Continued in Part 5

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