The Longest Night - Part 5

Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

Cyrene lay for a while, just regarding the sunlight streaming in the window of her room, bringing to life the rust and forest green blanket that draped the sturdy bed, and painted a mellow stripe across the wooden floor that was broken up with woven rugs whose color matched the bedclothing. She mentally reviewed what still had to be done for the party they were planning.. now, she mused, that most of the guests were here.

And able to be drafted to help, she grinned quietly to herself. It would be fun, if hectic time, with the joining, then the celebration, which would also be a birthday party for her somewhat reluctantly agreeable daughter.

Gabrielle had wanted it to be a surprise, but… Cyrene knew Xena, and managed to convince the bard that if her partner knew in advance, she might possibly be persuaded to enjoy herself. A surprise.. with that many people.. and Xena in the limelight… ah… no. Not a good idea.

And at first, the warrior had resisted, stating that the joining should be reason enough to celebrate.. on top of Solstice itself. But little by little, they'd worn away her resistance, until just last week, she'd shown very muted, cautious interest in the plans, especially when Cyrene revealed all the goodies she was planning on making for the party.

She'd kept that stolid, reserved, almost bored expression during the discussion, but she couldn’t keep the little sparkle from lighting up her eyes, or prevent that little half grin from appearing, despite her best intentions, and Cyrene had winked at Gabrielle, who had mouthed a silent "Got her." In return.

Now, she yawned, and turned the covers back, easing reluctantly from her warm bed and shrugging on her robe against the chill, sighing against the ache of her aging bones and moving slowly across the room to put the water pot on the fire.

Then she heard a thump.

A loud one.

Followed by another thump, and a muted scream. Casting her eyes to the ceiling, she ran her fingers through her silvered dark hair and headed for the door which lead into the small passageway that separated hers and Toris' rooms from the main part of the inn. She padded down the hall, and turned right, then pushed open the kitchen door and barreled inside, stopping short at what she saw.

Eustase was backed against the storage shelves, holding the coal shovel in a very threatening position, aiming with deadly intent at the tall, menacing fur pile that was facing her.

"Look.." The furry form was saying, spreading his large arms out in an apparent attempt at reassurance. "All I wanted was some oatmeal. Honest.. I don't eat people.. especially not in the morning. It's really bad for your digestion."

"Get out, yer beastie thingie ye!!!" Eustase huffed, making a move with the shovel.

Cyrene sighed, and rubbed her temples. "Eustase, put that damn thing down."

The cook's eyes widened. "Careful ma'am! He's dangerous!!!"

The innkeeper studied her guest. "Are you?" She asked mildly. "Dangerous?"

The forest dweller straightened up and poked his chest out. "Of course." He smiled, showing all his fangs to their best advantage. "But only after I've had breakfast." He patted his stomach, and wrinkled his muzzle at her, a twinkle apparent in his golden eyes.

"Mmm… I see. '" Cyrene muttered wryly. "Eustase, please calm down. This is.. " She peered closely at him. "Jessan. He's a friend of my daughters."

The cook stared at him in disbelief, but slowly put the shovel down, with a metallic tang as it hit stone floor. "Mercy of the gods on us." She breathed, leaning against the shelving. "Gave me quite the start, he did."

Cyrene put her hands on her hips and sighed. "Do you always snoop around in the morning and scare people, Jessan?"

The forest dweller blinked at her. "Um.. no, actually." He gave her a sheepish look. "I really didn't mean to be scary." He perched on a corner of the table and cocked his head. "I left Elaini upstairs to sleep a little longer." He grinned. "She's expecting, and she needs the rest."

The innkeeper's eyebrows jerked up. "Oh.. well, isn't that nice… " She collected a pair of bowls, and scooped some of the cereal bubbling untended on the stove into a smaller pot. "Well.. will you join me for some breakfast, Jessan?"

The toothy grin startled her. "Sure." He stood, and towered over her, then gently took the pot and bowls from her hands. "I'll get that."

They walked into the deserted dining area, and sat down at one of the tables near the fire. Cyrene neatly served two portions into the wooden bowls, and pushed one over to him, then handed him a spoon. "Here you go." She sat down and took her own, absently taking in a spoonful while she watched him do the same. In the light of day, she was able to get a better look at his features, which had mostly been hidden in firelight and shadows the night before. He was.. She knit her brow. Interesting looking, was the best way to put it. His head was large, and covered with fur, his jaw protruded slightly with his nose to form a muzzle, and his thick beard flowed down his neck onto a massive chest and shoulders.

But the eyes were intelligent, and now that she was watching closely, his face did shift and move, expressing his emotions in a manner not unlike her own. "So… Jessan." She said, taking a bite of cereal and chewing. "How was your trip here?"

The forest dweller looked up, and grinned at her. "It's ok…you don't have to pretend I'm not a seven foot tall walking carpet with fangs." He swallowed his mouthful, and glanced across the room, where a server was hesitating, carrying a pitcher. "I swear, I just eat oatmeal. And carrots."

She looked at him.

"Ok, and steaks." He admitted. "But I like them well done."

Cyrene let a smile form on her lips. "I can see why you and my daughter get along." She motioned the server over. "Come on.. before we die of thirst here."

Jessan kept chewing, and waited for the server to leave before he cleared his throat a little. "Thank you.. this is really great." Another mouthful. "I kind of… well, let's just say my parents are letting me be the.. uh… "

"Icebreaker?" Cyrene supplied, taking a sip of her cider.

He rocked his head from side to side in a yea/nay gesture. "Sort of.. they're not used to humans.. it's a little spooky for them."

"I see." The innkeeper sucked on her spoon thoughtfully. "And you are? Used to humans, I mean?"

Jessan gazed up into her eyes, all traces of humor now absent. "I had a very… very.. good teacher." He paused. "Someone who taught me that.. our differences don't mean nearly as much as our similarities."

Cyrene nodded in understanding. "I believe I owe you a debt of gratitude."

The big forest dweller twirled his spoon in the cereal for a moment, then scooped up a mouthful and ate it. "I am.. really glad I was there." He mumbled, his muzzle coloring slightly. "But she did it more than I did."

They ate for a short while in silence. Then Jessan paused. "Did Gabrielle…"

"Yes." Cyrene answered shortly. "Right after they got back here." She tapped her fingers on the table. "But..she tends to leave out parts she thinks will upset me. So.. why don't you tell me what really happened?" Glancing up, she captured his eyes with her own, and waited.

Jessan carefully laced his fingers together in front of his bowl, and rested his weight on his elbows. "Are you sure you want to hear? It's over… no offense, and there's really no need…" Oh..oh.. I'm in trouble.. I should have stayed upstairs and just nibbled on the nuts in my backpack, I knew it.

Cyrene reached out and put her hand over his, feeling the unfamiliar coarse texture of the fur and the warmth of the skin under it without flinching. "She's my daughter, Jessan. Yes, I want to know."

So he told her, all he knew, sparing nothing. His voice was low, and raspy, and at certain points strained with emotion. When he finished, he just sat there quietly, staring at his hands, then sighed. "So.."

The innkeeper finally started breathing again, gazing over the tall forest dweller's shoulder as she tried to absorb all the details he'd given her. She'd known it was bad, yes.. but… oh, Xena.. how hard that must have been on you.. "Thank you." She said softly.

An awkward silence fell, until Jessan finally cleared his throat. "Do me a favor?"

That got a startled look from Cyrene. "Um.. sure.. if I can…"

He shook his head. "Don't let on that I told you.. ok? She'll kick my butt." His muzzled wrinkled up into a rueful grin.

The innkeeper's eyebrows rose, and she looked Jessan up and down. "Really?"

He propped his jaw on his hand, and gave her a wry chuckle. "Uh huh." He sighed. "She's awesome."

Cyrene smiled at him, then glanced up as footsteps sounded across the room and she spotted Toris ambling in, rubbing his face and yawning. "Morning." He sat down and propped his chin up on both hands. "Hi Jessan."

"Hi." The forest dweller replied with a grin. "So.. like, what happened yesterday? I know I found you guys in a pig trap, but…"

"Pig trap?" Cyrene interjected, her lips twitching. "I didn't get to hear this."

Toris sighed. "Well, we were trying to get home after getting caught in that snowstorm… and that was after the mud bath thing, so we were kind of stumbling along this.."


A hand on his arm. "Mud bath?"

He let out a piteous groan. "It was nasty. All fishy..and clammy.. cold.. ugh.. then we hid in a log, but it started snowing, so then we headed here, but someone must have trapped the path, because we fell in, then there were these thorns, and they had some nasty stuff on them, and it kind of knocked us out for a while.. " He looked up to see both his mother and Jessan staring at him. "What?"

Jessan cocked his furry head to one side, and blinked his golden eyes. "It's a family thing, right?" He looked inquiringly at Cyrene. "Right?"

"Oh no." Cyrene held up a stern hand. "You're not blaming me for this, sorry." She stood up and dusted herself off, her fluffy robe making this gesture a bit too cute for good effect. "I'm going to go get dressed, and get things started for tomorrow." She gave Toris a pointed look. "You have stuff you promised to do, my son. I don't want to find you out.. giving tours." A meaningful eyebrow.

Toris winced, and gave Jessan a wry look. "Yeah..I'm the decorating committee. I know." Then his eyes brightened. "Hey.. wanna help?"

Jessan grinned and stretched a long arm up. "I'm great at hanging banners." He stood up, as Toris did, then glanced aside. "Just don’t ask me to make any of those little paper things." He paused. "You know what I mean."

"You mean the folded thingies." Toris replied.

"Yeah, those." Jessan agreed. "It's.. I just end up making something that looks like a cow pattie."

Toris laughed. "No.. that's ok.. Nella said she'd do that for us."

Cyrene's head oozed between them. "Who?" She inquired archly, sounding like a doting owl.

"Um." Toris blushed.

"That's what I thought." His mother chuckled, giving him a pat on the belly. "You know, you blush just like your sister did when I let her know I figured her out, too."

"Mom…" The dark haired man muttered. "Cut that out." He reached out and tugged Jessan's roughly woven dark blue tunic, which matched the cut of trousers he was wearing. "Come on." Then he looked down. "Hey.. don’t your feet get cold?"

"Nah." Jessan assured him, as he ambled alongside towards the door. "Fur is where it's at."

A sharp glance thrown at him. "Right." Toris murmured. "I'll have to remember that." He added, as they opened the door and passed outside, heading for the small workshop where he'd stored his decorations in progress.

Lila wasn't really sure why she'd woken up.. though, she reflected wryly, it might have been anything, from the unusual place she was sleeping, to Lennat's absence, to some weird noise… whatever.

She lay quietly on the straw in the back of the wagon for a while, listening to the very early morning sounds outside, which consisted mostly of the distant chuckling of the stream, and the wind brushing through the dried branches overhead. Turning on her side, she lifted the flap of the canvas covering the wagon, and poked her nose outside, wrinkling it at the damp cold she encountered. Oh gods.. not another storm. She sighed, and snuggled back into the hay, wishing Lennat hadn't had to finish that big job and been able to come with them.

Then she cast an eye at the interior of the wagon, and grinned wryly. Of course, there really wouldn't be any room for him… her parents were lying quietly asleep towards the front of the cart, up against their bags, and she was at the other end of the cart. Not much space left.

Sighing, she returned her attention to the outside, peering into the fog shrouded air at the first glimmerings of a gray dawn. She could see the remnants of the fire glowing through the eerie mist, and then shyly glanced further, where she could just make out where her sister and her partner were sleeping.

Wryly, she spared Gabrielle an envious thought.. though she was settled into this mostly warm, and fairly comfortable wagon, she had no doubt the bard wouldn’t have changed places with her for any amount of dinars. Her sister was sprawled half across Xena's body, using the warrior like a body pillow, and Lila could see the blissful grin on her face from where she was. Then her eyes crept up and she froze, when they were met by a steady blue stare.

But Xena merely raised an eyebrow, and stretched a little under her thick fur blanket, then let a half grin cross her face, daring Lila to object, as she pulled Gabrielle a little closer.

Lila smiled back, and ducked under the canvas, shaking her head a little and settling back into the straw with a sigh.

The warrior chuckled quietly to herself, and let out a quiet sigh as Gabrielle mumbled a little under her breath, and tightened her grasp, tangling her fingers in the loose leather laces that were dangling down the front of Xena's chest. She looked fondly down at her partner, admiring the way the growing pearl gray light was slowly revealing the smooth lines of the bard's face, and catching tiny sparkles in her eyelashes.

She loved watching Gabrielle sleep.. she always had, when just the sight of the bard's peaceful face would bring her some much-needed peace of her own. Because then she could let down her guard, and be free to gather in the warmth of what she felt for the girl, and let it wash over her, knowing Gabrielle was safely dreaming and unaware.

It had been a bittersweet feeling, especially after the whole mess with her being.. killed, and Velasca and all that. When she knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the depth of the feelings that Gabrielle had for her in return, which had made things much harder in one respect, but.. Xena smiled, remembering that night after she'd come back, when she'd spent the long hours before dawn just holding Gabrielle in her arms, letting the exhausted bard sleep peacefully, her hands gripping Xena's leathers. She'd thought about a lot of things then.. but her mind kept coming back, like a little kid's, to the single wondering revelation that Gabrielle was very much in love with her.

It had been worth coming back for, that long night when she'd let all her defenses down, and accepted what she felt between them.. though the following hardships had almost wrecked that, again. But it had felt so good, that night, just to know.. that she'd come back for the right reason.

And it had felt.. so right.. so real it was almost painful in its intensity. That Gabrielle had been in such pain.. and she'd been able to take that away, and leave in its place that little, wondering smile that broke down all her defenses, that was the best feeling in the world.

And now.. Xena mused happily. I get to feel that all the time. Where do I come off being this lucky? An incredulous little grin formed on her face. I don't deserve this.. but mother was right. When happiness comes along.. you just gotta grab it and hold on.. and ride it for as long as it takes you. Damned if I'm not going to do just that. She let her head rest back against her folded cloak, gazing up at the cloudy sky with an irrepressible sense of well being, as she felt Gabrielle's body stir gently against her own.

Sleepy green eyes blinked up at her. "Morning… "

"Hey." Xena replied with a grin. "How are you feeling?"

The bard stretched her body out along Xena's length, then relaxed again with a satisfied smile. "Great." She playfully nibbled her partner's collarbone. "Do we have to get up?"

"Weeeelll.." Xena chuckled, "You know there's nothing better I'd like to do than spend a nasty, cold, rainy day like this is going to be snuggling in bed with you, but.. um… " She bent her head and got her lips down near the bard's ear. "I think your parents would be a little uncomfortable with the idea."

"Centaur poop." Gabrielle giggled. "I forgot about them." She turned her head and cast a glance back at the silent wagon. "Oh well." She returned her eyes to her partner's face. "And besides, we gotta get home.. tonight's Solstice Eve." She slipped her hand inside Xena's leathers, and stroked the smooth skin lightly. "Mmm.. you're warm."

Xena chuckled and took a deep breath, trapping the bard's fingers inside the snug-fitting garment. "Gotcha." She teased playfully.

"Oh yeah?'" Gabrielle challenged with an impish grin. "Just how long do you think you can hold your breath?"

A feral smile answered her. "I dunno.. let's find out." She ducked her head and captured Gabrielle's lips, keeping up a teasing exploration until the bard was forced to break off and take a quick breath.

"You win.." Gabrielle admitted, as the pressure on her hand lessened, and she felt the smooth ripple of muscles under her fingertips as Xena pulled herself up a little bit and glanced around at the damp and foggy morning. "Time to make the tea, huh?"

"Stay here." Xena smiled indulgently at her, brushing the top of her head with a light kiss. "I'll do it."

"Mmm…. " The bard protested. "That means I gotta let you go, right?" She sighed, and gently tugged the Xena's laces closed, fastening them lightly. "I'll get up and help.. no sense in getting teased by Lila more than I have to. " She gave Xena a wry look. "I was never a morning person."

"Really?" Xena asked, in an ingenious tone. "I never would have known." She chuckled at the bard, who poked the tip of her tongue out in response. "And speaking of teasing.. " She plucked Gabrielle's sleeve. "I thought your ribs didn't hurt you anymore."

The bard gave her an indignant look. "They don't!"

"Uh huh. " Xena drawled. "So.. you're still wearing my shirts because… ??"

That got a blush, and a sheepish grin. "I like them." She stuck out a lower lip and pulled the collar of the sleep shirt up around her neck. "You got a problem with that?"

Xena studied her, then burst out laughing. "No… but you kind of have to leave me one or two so I don’t have to walk around in this weather naked, OK?"

Gabrielle sniffed reflectively. "I'll think about it." She replied, in an arch tone, as she reluctantly rolled off her comfortable spot, and sat up. "Though..I don't know.. you.. naked… there's a concept there somewhere…"

Xena rolled her eyes. "Gabriellle…."

"Yeah, yeah.. I know.. I'm moving.. " The bard replied cheerfully, as she scooted out from under the blanket, and shivered. "Ugh."

Xena also stood, and draped the fur over her partner's shoulders. "Here… go siddown by the fire, ok? I'll go get some water to heat up." She glanced down at Ares, who was still curled up on the edge of their sleeping fur. "You coming?"

The wolf untucked his nose from his furry tail, and wagged it. "Roo." He scrambled up and trotted over to her, nuzzling her knee affectionately.

"Yeah, roo to you, too." Xena chuckled, as she slipped her boots on, and tugged the laces tight. Then she grabbed a pot and ran her fingers through her hair, settling the long locks into some semblance of order. "Be right back."

Gabrielle watched her trot off, then break into a light jog as she headed into the gray mist that hugged the ground around their campsite. The thick billows swallowed her up, just as the first feeble rays of sun started to try and slither through the building clouds. Sighing, she exchanged her blanket for a warm tunic, another one of Xena's older, heavier ones she noted with a giggle, and started building the fire back up. At the sounds of wood hitting wood, Lila's head popped out, and she stared at her sister in amazement.

"You're up?" The dark haired girl asked, in an incredulous tone. "Gabrielle, it's not even sunrise." She scrambled out of the wagon and walked over to where here sister was crouched, adding wood to the slumbering campfire. She'd put on her own heavy jacket before emerging, and now hugged it to her body as she approached. "What's gotten into you?" She gazed at her sister's slim form appraisingly. "Where do you get all that energy?"

Gabrielle finished her task, and straightened up, holding her hands out over the fire and rubbing them together. "Well.. we kind of compromised… " She smiled. "I like to sleep late, and Xena always gets up before dawn. So.. we kind of settled on just after sunrise.. and we both just kind of.. adjusted." She went to their supplies and pulled out a couple of the cooked fruit, nut and grain bars that Xena had made for trail snacks, and offered her sister one. "Here… and needing all that energy is why I eat all the time.." She grinned.

"Wish I had that excuse." Lila took one gingerly and nibbled the end, then smiled. "Wow.. that's pretty good…what's in it?"

"Berries… nuts… some cooked grains.. honey… " Gabrielle smiled. "Xena makes them up.. it's one of her three or four specialties." She took a big bite of hers and chewed, enjoying the familiar taste. "Mmm… " She licked her lips appreciatively. Xena had put a touch more honey in this batch, throwing up her hands and surrendering wryly to Gabrielle's teasing pleas, then having the grace to at least blush when the bard caught her sucking the excess honey off her fingers a short time later.

Hecuba and Herodotus chose that moment to climb out of the wagon, wincing and blinking in the now misty sunlight. "Morning." Herodotus said gruffly, straightening his back with a groan. "That wagon's a poor excuse for a bed." He glanced up at his elder daughter. "To think of you on the cold ground, Bree… for shame."

Gabrielle let a grin curl her lips. "Oh.. no, actually, I slept just fine…" She fiddled with the fire a bit, then handed around trail bars. "I guess I'm just used to it."

Lila snorted softly, and poked her in the ribs. "Yeah.. and if I had that kind of mattress, I'd be pretty comfortable too, big sister." She whispered. "I saw you guys…"

Gabrielle blushed. "Lila…" She blurted, giving her sister a slap on the leg. Gods.. not in front of them, for Hades sake, Lila…

Lila laughed, and chewed on her bar much more cheerfully. "Aw.. it was cute, Bree… you had the goofiest smile on your face."

The bard flushed a deeper shade of red. "C'mon… cut it out." She saw her parents staring at her out of the corner of her eye, and winced. Damn… now's not the time for this.. Her stomach lurched.

"Oh no.. " Her sister chuckled. "I'm going to enjoy this.. what a cute shade of.. "

A voice whispered into her ear, sending ice-cold shivers down her spine.

"If you don't stop teasing her, I'm gonna introduce you to this really big pot of really cold water."

Lila swallowed. "Uh.. hi…sure… um… I was only joking." She eased away from Xena's menacing form, and sat down on the other side of the fire, chewing her bar with a chastised look on her face.

Xena hefted the water pot onto the fire, and gave Hecuba and Herodotus a nod. "Morning."

Hecuba looked up from her bag, where she was digging out something. "Oh.. good morning to you, too, Xena." She gave her a game smile. "Sorry.. we're not really used to this outdoor life."

Herodotus walked over and rubbed his hands over the fire. "No.. been a long time since I've had to sleep under the stars." He sighed. "Breakfast here, then on the road, I take it." He cordially deferred to the warrior.

"Mmm..'" Xena agreed, measuring a portion of herbs carefully, and putting them in the bottom of a pot they kept for tea. "You can use this water to wash up.. once it's heated."

The man looked at her damp hair in question. "What did you use.. no.. the river?" He snorted. "Hades balls.. it's half frozen."

The warrior shrugged. "I'm used to it." She finished her task, and seated herself on a half log next to Gabrielle, holding the pot loosely between both hands. Think..I overstepped the protective bit there… guess I should apologize. "Hey." She said softly, as the others bustled about pulling out clothes. "Listen, sorry about.."

A hand on her leg stopped her, and Gabrielle raised her eyes to meet her own. The reluctant sunlight caught the depths of them for a moment, bringing out the golden sparkles that winked in the soft green "No.. don't apologize." She answered, very quietly. "Um.. yeah, I can take care of myself, and that's my sister, and she was just joking, and it wasn't meant to hurt.." The hand squeezed gently. "But.. it came from around a blind corner, and I was really glad you stopped her."

"Oh." Xena took a relieved breath. "Well.. anytime.. all right?" She felt a little smile cross her lips. "I think I scared her, though."

Gabrielle grinned, and finished packing up the sleeping roll. "Probably. Don’t worry.. she'll live."

They finished a spare breakfast, and headed out, the wagon driving the fog aside in lazy billows, their cloaks pulled tight to keep the clammily cold air from chilling them, as the sun grumpily faded back behind the growing clouds, and the wind began to pick up.

"To the right." Granella said, holding up two hands and framing a sign between them with a calculating eye. "No.. the other right." She corrected the movement. "Yeah.. that's better."

Toris climbed off the chair he was standing on, and stretched his back out. It was late afternoon, and most of the decorations were done. "Looks good." He decided, putting his hands on his hips, then turning his head as a waft of air from the kitchen drifted out into the dining area. "Gods.. that smells great." He sighed. "She must be baking those little cakes."

Granella wandered over and took a whiff. "Oh.. wow… " She groaned. "We have to wait until tomorrow to eat those?"

Toris waggled his eyebrows. "Maybe not.. let me go see what I can mooch." He gave her a virtuous look. "After all, we've been working hard all day, right?"

She nodded solemnly. "Right."

The door opened, admitting Hercules, Iolaus, Jessan, and Elaini, with Elaini being the only one uncovered by smudges of rich brown earth. "Ok..ok.. now explain to me what that was for, again?" Jessan asked, as he settled his bulk a chair carefully, wincing at the protesting creak.

"It's a roasting pit." Cyrene answered him, as she pushed the kitchen door open and joined them in the main part of the inn. "Eustase showed me an old recipe her people used to do.. and it seemed like a really good thing to try for a big party."

"Uh huh." Hercules rubbed his jaw, turning it a dark brown. "You do.. uh.. realize the weather's getting.. kind of bad again, right?"

Cyrene sat down with a sigh, and put her elbows on the table. "No problem." She waved a hand at them. "I've got Johan and two of our kitchen people loading the bottom of it with wood right now.. you start the fire, and let it burn all the way down.. then you wrap whatever you want to cook in wet straw, and put it in there, then cover the whole thing up with dirt."

They all looked at each other. "Dirt?" Iolaus' brow furrowed. "Uh.. but… I don't.."

"Hey.. " Eponin took a chair out from the end of the table, and turned it around, settling on it and resting her arms across the top. "You doing a pig roast?"

Cyrene nodded.

The older Amazon grinned. "Whoa.. haven't had one of those since I was a girl."

Eyes shifted her way.

"Don’t say it." Eponin warned.

Eyes shifted away in silence. "That's great.. you take a pig…" Eponin explained.

"A whole pig?" Jessan inquired, with a fascinated look on his face.

Eponin nodded, waxing enthusiastic for a change. "Sure… and you gut it, right? Then stuff it with fruits and stuff.. and sew it back up. Then you put it in the pit, and put herbs all around it, then cover it up and let it cook slow."

Iolaus drummed his fingers on the table. "That doesn't sound half bad." He glanced at Hercules. "Huh?"

"No… " The demigod said slowly. "Not bad at all.. in fact, that sounds pretty damn good."

"Think so?" Cyrene asked, casually.

They all nodded.

"Great." The innkeeper smiled at them. "Who wants to kill the pig?"

Toris suddenly looked at his mother. "Oh.. gods.. not.. that… pig…??"

His mother shrugged. "Gentius donated it for the party.. I'd hate to disappoint him."

Hercules exchanged glances with Iolaus, then with Jessan. "Um.. how bad could a pig be? I mean.. I guess I could… "

"Hera's right bosom." Hercules breathed, shocking Iolaus. "Son of a stinking bacchae… would you look at that."

Pig was a relative term, Iolaus thought, as he hung over the second railing around the sturdily built pigsty on the far boarder of the town. As in, this was a relative of a pig.. relatively the size of a small hut. The animal's back reached to Hercules' waist, and it was longer than even Jessan's outstretched arms. The forest dweller had joined them, accompanied by Elaini, and a silent, but raised eyebrowed Lestan.

"Ahem." Lestan cleared his throat. "That's um… "

"Yeah." Hercules agreed. "It certainly is."

The pig stared at him with an evil eye, then suddenly charged at the demigod, whose more than human reflexes were the only reason he managed to remain standing. He hopped up onto the railing, and let the pig thunder underneath him, and crash into the sty wall, throwing Iolaus back several feet right into Elaini, who caught him gingerly.

"Whoa." Hercules breathed. He decided to stay where he was for the moment, and considered his options. Then realized he had very few. "Ok.. so.. I'm open to any good ideas." He winced, as the pig snorted right under him, snuffling at his boot heels with unconcealed hostility.

Iolaus wandered closer. "Don't suppose this is a good time to mention those are pigskin boots, right?" A little.. humor? To lighten it up here…

"No.'" Hercules glared at him.

Eponin sniffed reflectively, and drew out her long belt knife, testing its edge carefully. "Well, we need to slit its throat."

Hercules glanced at her. "Ladies first." He muttered.

She glanced at him, and bit off a wry grin. "OK.. I'll do it.. but you've got to hold.. She peeked, "Her still." She half turned as Ephiny arrived, a thick woolen muffler firmly wrapped around her neck. "Um.. hi, Eph."

"Hi." The Amazon regent regarded the scene quizzically. "What's up?"

They all looked at Hercules, who sighed, and put his hands on the top railing. "We're trying to kill this pig."

Ephiny studied him. "By jumping on it?" She heard a muffled snort, and saw Elaini clap a hand over her mouth quickly. "Well, that's different." She leaned on the railing next to Eponin. "Hey." That, softly, to the weapon's master.

Eponin grinned a little. "Hey.. what are you doing up?" She glanced up. "Thought you'd stay in on a nasty day like this."

Ephiny gave her a gentle smile. "I got bored.. and I heard the lot of you were out here… it's ok, I'm just tired." She took a cautious breath, and was relieved when there was no urge to cough. But the unnerving exhaustion that she'd been plagued with the last few weeks was back, and she felt somewhat lightheaded.

But not as disoriented as she'd been when she'd woken up, still cradled in the sleeping Eponin's arms. Her body hadn't known what to do with the myriad of signals dancing across the surface of her awareness, and had simply shut back down, slipping her back into a twilight realm that had swirled with warm currents. When she'd woken again, she was alone on the bed, and Eponin was fixing more medicine in a brisk, but somewhat flustered manner.

They'd been delicately dancing around each other since, and Ephiny was finding the situation equal parts funny, and arousing.

"Well, don't overdo it." Eponin reminded her. "Now.. I gotta go help kill this damn pig." She grabbed the top bar of the sly, and hoisted herself up, swinging her legs over and sitting on the bar, waiting for Hercules to make the first move. 'Well?"

Hercules hesitated. "I'm not sure…"

Eponin sighed. "Come on,'re half god, for Hades's sake."

"And that's all killer pig." The demigod reminded her. "It's my other half I'm worried about."

Jessan wiped his face with one hand, as though trying to wipe the scene out of his memory. "Ok..ok.." He vaulted the top rail and landed in the pit. "Come on.. I'll help."

He lunged for the pig, and Hercules dropped down from his perch and lunged at the other side. The pig squealed angrily, and made a rush at the bigger Jessan, who jumped over its head, and got an arm around its neck, trying to pull it down.

But the pig had an excellent center of gravity, and it just kept moving, dragging a surprised Jessan behind it for several yards of muck before Hercules caught up and threw an arm over its neck from the other side. This was too much for the pig, and it bucked, kicking out with its sharp hooves and landing several effective blows before Jessan, in desperation knocked its legs out from under it and the pig half jumped, half rolled over on top of him.

"OOF!!!" He grunted, winding an arm around one front leg. "Help!!!" He felt himself sinking down into the ooze, and briefly considered the possibility of drowning in pig muck. "Help!!!" His cries were drowned out by the furious pig, who was squealing at the top of its lungs.

Hercules got a muscular arm locked around the pig's other front leg, and got his leg around its hind one, pinning it on its back in outrage. "Hurry!!!" He yelled, closing his eyes as the pig thrashed from side to side, its slavering snout and sharp teeth searching for his flesh.

Eponin's boots landed inches from his head, and he heard the grunt as the Amazon grabbed the pig's waving snout and pulled it towards her, then heard the tearing rasp as the knife plunged home, showering him in a sudden bath of warm, harshly metallic blood.

Abruptly the pig stopped struggling and went limp. Hercules cautiously let go his holds, and slipped out from under its huge body, letting it roll off Jessan.

Blood. Hercules shivered as the scent traveled up his nose and into his brain, bringing a wave of seductive memories, of sweat soaked skin, and this same, brassy tang. He heard the anguished cries echoing… and remembered being excited by it.

A hand touched his arm, and he looked down, startled, at Iolaus' concerned face. "Um.. hi."

"You all right?" The blond man asked quietly. "Did it bite you.. or… "

Hercules glanced down at himself and wrinkled his nose. "No.. no.. I.. it.. I'm fine.. just a mess, Iolaus." Firmly, he pushed the memories out of his mind, and looked around. Jessan was slowly getting to his feet, his fur plastered with pig poop, mud, and rusty splotches of blood. "Well, that's done."

Eponin wiped her blade neatly on her boot and sheathed it. "Nice pig." She muttered, giving it a prod with one toe. "Guess we' gotta get it back to the Inn now, huh?"

They all looked at each other. Finally, Elaini fingered her pale, golden beard. "I'll go get Eris."

Jessan nodded. "Good idea."

"Eris?" Eponin queried

"My horse." Jessan answered. "To pull this thing."

The weapons master considered this. "Damn good idea." She paused. "I suppose we'll figure a way to get it through the door?"

They all looked at her.

"Maybe not." Eponin amended.

"Seems very quiet." Xena commented, as she glanced around her at the restlessly stirring branches. The weather had begun to worsen, and the air was so heavy with moisture, it felt like a wet, cold dishcloth was being run over their bodies at every step.

"Everyone's inside by the fire." Gabrielle commented, with a sideways glance at her partner. "Roasting chestnuts, probably."

"Think so?" The warrior idly asked, pulling a pair of chestnuts from her pouch and cracking them open for the bard, presenting them with a flourish. "I'll save some of these for later tonight..when we're home then."

Gabrielle munched on the nuts, watching her partner from the corner of her eye. "You're in a good mood." She commented, briefly glancing back to the huddled forms in the wagon following them.

Xena considered that. "Yeah, as a matter of fact, I am." She cracked open another nut and handed it to the bard, then ate one herself. "In spite of the weather, and the glares I keep getting from Lila." She gave Gabrielle an apologetic look. "I think I really ticked her off."

The bard bumped her gently. "Nah.. you just did a Warrior Princess on her, and she wasn't expecting it..I think she'd kind of gotten out of the habit of thinking of you that way." She gave Xena an affectionate look. "That happens to me sometimes."

Xena let out a breath slowly and turned her head. "What do you mean?"

A light shrug. "Well, its just sometimes I forget… " She paused, and smiled a little. "A lot of times, lately… I mean, you're just you.. my.. friend, my.. partner… you're funny, and nice, and sweet.. " She gave a short laugh. "I forget the rest… and I start doing dumb things like worrying about you going out into the forest hunting all alone.. until I have to kind of stop, and hit myself, and say what am I thinking??"

Xena walked along in silence for a while, thinking about that. Mom did that too… and Ephiny. She mused thoughtfully. Have I changed that much? She glanced down at herself doubtfully. I look the same.. I think… oh Hades, I'll just ask. "Gabrielle?"

"Hmm?" The bard looked up at her.

"Have I… um.. changed that much?" Her eyes flicked to Gabrielle's face. "Mom's started doing that too, and.. I'm wondering."

Gabrielle remained quiet for a time, considering her answer, and Xena just waited. Finally the bard took a breath, and moved closer to her. "Not.. I mean.. oh,'s so hard to explain." She knitted her brow. "You smile more." She said quietly. "I used to.. oh.. just wonder what you were thinking a lot of the time.. and.. now I don't wonder.' She paused. "I know.. but I'm not sure if that's something different about you.. or something that's changed in me." She let out a sigh. "Yes, you've changed.. but.. I think it's just that other people are getting to see a side of you that I've been lucky enough to know for quite a while now."

She watched Xena absorb this, and saw the gentle shift of emotions across her face. "Does that bother you?"

Gods know it should… Xena mused, and for a minute, she tried to force a concern that somehow..she just didn't feel. "No… " She felt a smile coming on and just let it happen. "I.. for a while, you know.. I thought I was putting on this.. nice act.. and sooner or later.. you'd all see through it.. and find out… " She stopped. "Anyway.. somewhere along the line.. I realized.. um.."

The bard gave her a smile. "That it's not an act?"

A rueful half grin. "Something like that. yeah."

Gabrielle laughed. "You could have just asked me, you know.. I figured that out a long time ago."

Blue eyes sparkled at her. "Yeah? When? I used to treat you pretty bad, my friend." A spear of honest regret there now.

The bard tucked her hand around Xena's arm. "When you let me convince you to let me stay with you." She glanced down the road, seeing the beginning of the curve that would lead them down by the river, and then home. "Why did you?"

Xena smiled and shook her head. "Damned if I know… " She fell silent. "No.. I guess I do know.. I think it was because I had convinced myself that there wasn't much worth left in me.. and when mother… " She sighed. "It was just confirmation.. when that mob came in, I.. thought I deserved whatever it was they were going to do to me." A room full of hostile faces, and her mother's not the least of them. It had been the final straw piled on a will that had finally, quietly given up the struggle, and bowed to the realization that her debts were about to come home to her. And, wearily, fatalistically, she'd been ready to offer up as payment all she had. It would have been fitting… she'd thought, to have ended it right there.. where it had, really all begun.

And then..into all that anger and hostility had come Gabrielle. Whose eyes had held faith, and belief, and who had offered up to her a friendship she knew she had no business accepting.

Gabrielle turned her head to stare. "Xena, they would have stoned you to death."

Her partner looked straight ahead. " Yeah, I know."

"You would have let them.." A soft whisper.

Xena nodded and swallowed audibly. "Yes." She studied the ground before them and idly kicked a pebble out of her way. "And then.. a relative stranger came in and stood up for me when even my own flesh and blood wouldn't." She reached over and covered the bard's fingers with her own. "So when you asked me to help change your life… how could I say no? You'd already changed mine."

Gabrielle twined her fingers with Xena's and smiled. "I'm glad I was there." She glanced up at her partner's relaxed face. "I must have driven you crazy, though, right? "

Xena shook her head wryly. "No..I drove myself crazy… I had all these arguments as to why I should take you back to Potadeia.. but…you'd just say something or do something.. and they'd just evaporate." She made a little flicking gesture with her free hand. "Just like that.. I had no idea what the Hades was going on with me."

The bard sighed, chuckling a little. "I don't know how many times I'd wake up, and wonder what in the world I was doing.. out there, on the ground.. " She rubbed her thumb against the back of Xena's. "Then I'd just look over at you… and there was no place else I wanted to be." Her lips twitched. "I wondered what the Hades was going on with me, too."

One raised eyebrow. "I guess we know, now."

Gabrielle let out a burst of laughter. "I guess we do."

They smiled at each other, and walked along on in silence.

"Herc?" Iolaus looked up from his position prone on the bed. "Hey, Herc???"

"Ugngh" The grunt wafted over, along with the slight sound of water moving. "Huh?"

Iolaus glanced at the ceiling, and sighed, then rolled over, and got to his feet, padding barefoot over to the large tub and tapping one apparently lifeless arm. "Hey… come on.. don’t' fall asleep in there.. you'll drown or something." Interesting question.. can a demigod drown? Iolaus eyed his companion thoughtfully. Let's not find out. "C'mon.. wake up."

Hercules rolled his head to one side, and pried open an eye to regard his friend. "Wha?? Oh." He blew his wet hair out of his eyes, and dragged himself upright, blinking, and yawning. "Sorry." He levered himself out of the tub and grabbed a linen towel, drying himself off then tying the fabric around his waist and running his hands through his shoulder length hair to start it drying also. "Did I get all the gunk off?" He turned in a circle, then peered back at Iolaus with a questioning expression.

"Ummm… " Iolaus checked twice. "Yeah, looks like you got it all." He walked over to their packs and knelt down, digging in his. "That was some pig, wasn't it?"

Hercules groaned, then glanced up. "Hey.. is that a spider?"

Iolaus came to stand next to him. "Nope.. just a crack in the wood."

The demigod rubbed his eyes. "Could have sworn I saw a spiderweb. Oh well.. " He trudged over to the bed and flopped down on it. "You think Xena'll make it back here on time..or is she deliberately dodging this little party?"

Iolaus laughed, and sat down on the bed next to him. "Ehhh….. no bets from me, big guy." He shook his unruly head. "But… I really don't think she'd deliberately give this a miss.. not with all of us here. They were probably just held up by the weather."

Hercules closed his eyes, but nodded. "Yeah.. you're probably right."

Iolaus hesitated, then picked up something he'd taken from his pack and cleared his throat. "Um…. Herc?"

The demigod opened a lazy eye and peered at him. "What?"

"Well.. it's nothing really… I was just, well, you know how it is, what with all the stuff going on here..and tomorrow's Solstice, and.."

"Iolaus.. get to the point." Hercules laughed. "What's going on?"

"Umm.. well, like I said, tomorrow is Solstice, and we'll be real busy,so… IguessI'lljustgivethistoyounow." He rattled off the last bit, then put a small, wrapped bundle down on Hercules' broad chest. "Here." He sat back and crossed his arms, waiting.

The taller man stared at the bundle, blinking. Then turned his pale blue gaze on Iolaus. "Iolaus, you didn't have to get me anything… "

"Yeah, yeah..I know… but it's all this partying, and preparing… it's contagious." Iolaus waved his hands around. "And I was out with Toris and Granella getting something for Xena for her birthday, and well…"

"Did you?" Hercules asked, fingering the wrapping curiously. "Get her something?"

Iolaus gave him a rakish grin. "Um.. yes."

"Good..good.." The demigod answered absently, as he unwrapped the bundle, and shook out a small leather bag. He raised an eyebrow in inquiry at Iolaus, who nodded. With a slight grin, he untied the laces and opened the neck of the bag, and shook out its contents.

"Oh.. wow..." Hercules turned the silver piece over in his fingers and studied it. It had blue stones of many hues set in the face, all faceted to reflect the light, and interlaced with thin wire filigree, in the shape of a soaring bird. A clasp in the back would allow its use as a pin, or a cloak fastener, and the sight of it brought a warm smile to the demigod's face. "It's fantastic… " He looked up. "Thank you, Iolaus… "

The blond man gave him a satisfied grin. That worked better than I expected…I'll have to take Toris' advice more often. He watched as Hercules got up, cupping the pin in his hand, and walk over to his bag, kneeling down for a minute, then straightening up again.

"As a matter of fact.. it must be contagious, because I picked up something for you, too." Hercules said casually, tossing him a wrapped package.

The item hit him in the chest, surprising him with its weight. "Oh.. uh.." He felt a light blush creeping up his neck and hoped his friend didn't notice. "Hey.. thanks.." Like a kid, he pulled the wrapping off, and blinked. In his hand was a new belt knife, with an intricately tooled leather sheath, and a carved bone handle. "Wow…" His face broke into a broad grin. "Just what I needed!"

The demigod shrugged. "I knew you lost yours during that fight.. figured you needed another one." He pulled out a fresh set of clothes, and put them on, using the linen wrap to towel his hair dry. "Well, let's head on down..I think we earned our dinner today, right?"

"Right." Iolaus answered absently. "Umm… thanks." He looked up with a grin, then joined Hercules at the door, tugging at his belt to add his gift to it as he walked.

"I'm really glad that's over with." Eponin sighed, as she half dropped half fell into the large chair beside the fire in Ephiny's room. "Good Artemis, Eph…I've never seen a pig that huge in my life… that'll feed the entire lot of us for six days." She laughed and lifted her hands, letting them fall against the chair arms with a thump.

Ephiny was tinkering with the small packets and jars on the worktable, and glanced up. "You're right.. listen, Pony.. can you do me a favor?"

The dark haired Amazon was on her feet and at Ephiny's shoulder in an instant. "Sure.. what is it?"

The Amazon regent held up a small jar. "Could you ask Cyrene if she has any more of this?"

Eponin shrugged. "Sure… " She took the jar and turned to go.

"Oh.. and ask her what time the party's going to start tomorrow." Ephiny drummed her fingers on the table. "And..uh.. can you find out what Cait's been up to? I haven't seen her since yesterday, and I'm getting a little worried."

"Right.. sure.. ok." Eponin nodded, then slipped out the door.

Ephiny turned and leaned back against the table, crossing her arms and counting under her breath. At thirty, a soft knock came at the door. "Come." She called, grinning when the door cracked open and Cait's blond head poked in. "C'mon in, Cait."

"Hello." The girl smiled, as she moved all the way into the room. "I''ve got it." She held up a package with a triumphant air. "Is that the one you were thinking of?"

Ephiny took it from her, and smiled. "Exactly the one.. good job, Cait." She examined the fabric with a chuckle. "Everyone should have at least one nice set of clothes, right?"

Cait smiled back. "Yes..and that's super… it'll look ever so nice on her." The girl's eyes twinkled, then sobered. "Oh..look, but I've got some other news.. the outer watch post reported a large bunch of folks headed this way… and they don't look happy."

Ephiny's head snapped up. "What?" She sighed, and carefully folded the brightly colored fabric, tucking it away in the bottom of the clothing press "Gods.. it's always something, isn't it?" She rolled her eyes. "Now what???" Her brow creased. "And where the heck is Xena?" She eyed Cait. "After all this, that woman had better not miss this party."

Shaking her head, she circled Cait's thin shoulders with an arm, and steered her towards the door. "C'mon.. let's go see what's going on."

Toris was standing near the door, his cloak wetly wrapped around his legs and a grim expression on his face. A lightly drenched Jessan was standing next to him, with his fur plastered down against his body.

"Is it raining??" Ephiny asked, as she and Cait came even with them.

Jessan glanced her way. "Not yet.. I was just trying to get all the crud out of my fur." He sniffed. "Excuse me a minute." He walked outside the door and shook himself vigorously, scattering water droplets all over the porch, then he ambled back inside. "That's better."

Ephiny chuckled. "Glad you didn't do that in here."

The forest dweller raised a fuzzy eyebrow. "You think my mother raised me in a tree?" He turned to Toris. "Any further word?"

Toris had his head cocked in a listening attitude. "No.. but a scout's on his way in to give us the details.. I have no idea what this is. Just a big group of mad people headed this way."

Now a crowd was gathering around him, and Cyrene pushed her way through. "What's going on?"

Toris wiped the hair back out of his eyes and shook his head. "Who knows? The outer watch just reported a big group of strangers headed this way, with torches, and weapons, mostly pitchforks and staves and the like."

They all looked at each other. "Headed this way? What did we do?" Johan asked, from behind Cyrene's shoulder. "D'you think this has anything to do with… "

Cyrene gave him a sharp look. "After all these months? Why?" She let out an exasperated sigh. "On Solstice Eve, yet. What gets into people? All right.. we'd better get ready for whatever this is." She gave Johan a grim look. "Josclyn told me that group of people that settled her a week back has been stirring up some trouble..they seem to think we're in some kind of danger from my daughter."

They all looked at her. "I know." Cyrene waved them off. "But they don’t know her."

Johan snorted. "Idiots.. and I bet this is another pack of them.. well, I'll call out the guard."

Hercules held up a hand. "Wait.. maybe we can talk to them… find out what the problem is."

"Great.. you're elected, then…." Cyrene muttered. "They'll listen to you… right?"

A shadow crossed the tall demigod's face. "We’ll see."

They looked out the window, where the wind was whipping the dead branches in fitful starts, and the setting sun was firmly tucked behind heavy clouds. Torches were already being lit around the courtyard, and villagers were beginning to head towards the inn with nervous, but purposeful strides.

Xena, of course, heard the sound first. "Someone's coming." She muttered, cocking her head to listen. She idly played with the cart horse's mane, darting an occasional eye towards the two dimly seen figures standing under a mostly dead tree just off the road. Gabrielle had finally taken the bull by the horns, so to speak, and was talking with Lila.

Hecuba was rummaging in her pack, while Herodotus was leaning against the horse's other side, chewing on a thick piece of bread his wife had handed him. They'd decided to take a short break, before starting the last short distance into Amphipolis, and now Xena straightened up as the sound began to take on a familiar pattern. "Centaur." She muttered. Can't be.. but then, with our usual luck, it probably is.

Out of the gathering gloom on the fork they'd just past, a shadowy figure was slowly resolving, and Xena heard Herodotus stop chewing and let out a soft curse. "Relax." She turned her head and advised him, in an expressionless voice. "He's a friend."

"A friend?" Hecuba peered nervously down the road. "Oh.. my goodness."

Now the trotting Centaur was close enough for Xena to see the slim arms clasping him around his waist, and she felt a warmth start in her gut as she spotted Solon's head slip around his father's shoulder, and peer ahead.

She stepped away from the wagon, and put her hands on her hips, letting a grin cross her face as the Centaur pulled up, and waved, and Solon slipped off his back and bolted for her with a delighted yell.

"Mom!!" He launched himself at her from several feet away and laughed in delight when she snatched him out of mid air and tossed him up, then caught him into a big hug.

Hecuba looked at her husband, who looked back, his half-chewed bread forgotten in his mouth. "Did that child just…" She blurted. Herodotus nodded, then belatedly finished swallowing. "Oh my." The woman muttered.

Xena indulged herself in a long hug of her son before she let him down and extended a forearm to the chuckling Kaleipus. "We meet in the strangest places, eh?"

The centaur laughed. "Nothing surprises me with you anymore, Xena." He returned the clasp, then cocked his head inquiringly at the cautiously watching older pair.

Oh boy. Xena took a breath. "Hecuba, Herodotus, this is Kaleipus.. "She tilted her head towards the centaur, who gave them grave nods. "And this is my son, Solon." The words tasted strange and sweet on her tongue. She put a hand on Solon's shoulder. "Solon, this is Gabrielle's mother and father."

The boy grinned and stepped forward, gravely offering a small hand. "Hello." He took first Hecuba's, then Herodotus's gingerly extended hands and gripped them firmly, then glanced shyly over his shoulder at his mother. "Where's Aunt Gabrielle?"

Xena saw the twin flinches on the bard's parent's faces and sighed inwardly. "She'll be back in a minute, Solon.. she's just over there talking with her sister, Lila." She picked him up again, and settled him against her hip, cradling his body easily in the crook of one arm. "See?"

Solon draped his arms happily around her neck and nodded. "I see. " Then he put his head close to hers. "H'come those people look like they got the colic?"

Xena bit her lip and hugged him. "Well.. it's been a rough few days.. they've been sleeping on the ground, you know how it is." She whispered. Perceptive little rascal, isn't he? "I see you're dressed nice and warm." She grinned at the deep blue woolen tunic that matched his eyes, and hers.

He grinned and hugged her. "Yeah.. thanks… that was a great surprise." He peered over her shoulder. "Oh.. here comes Aunt Gabrielle… hey.. she's lots prettier than her sister."

"Shh." Xena scolded him. "That's not nice." She paused as their eyes met, and quirked an eyebrow.

"Yeah.. but it's true." Her son giggled, bouncing in her arms.

Xena's eyes twinkled. "Go say hello." She let him down, and watched as he broke into a run towards the oncoming bard. She sighed, shaking her head and giving Kaleipus a look.

The centaur held up his hands and shook a finger at her. "Ah..ah..ah.. don’t look at me, Xena." He trotted closer and patted her back. "He's… definitely… your son."

The warrior sighed. "You ever going to forgive me for this, Kaleipus?"

The centaur shrugged. "Depends on how good the party is." He sniffed. "Thanks for the clothing for him, by the way. He outgrows his every few weeks, it seems."

They both realized Hecuba and Herodotus were staring at them. "We ready to go?" Xena asked, blithely ignoring the looks.

"You want some of this?" Gabrielle offered Lila half of her trail bar, watching her sister's tight, closed expression carefully.

"No thanks." Lila answered, making a show of examining the bark of the tree they were standing under. "What's up?"

Gabrielle leaned against the tree, and crossed her arms. "That's my line, right?"

Lila gave her a quick glance. "I don't know what you're talking about."

The bard rolled her eyes and sent a quick prayer to the gods for patience. "Look.. don’t be mad at Xena, all right? It's like this reflex she has… this over protective streak.. we argue about it sometimes."

The dark haired girl snorted, and shook her head. "Bree, I'm your sister. I shouldn't have to worry that someone is going to knock me around if I tease you.. all right? She's real good at that intimidation thing… makes me wonder about the two of you." That was out before she could think about it, and she saw the cold anger respond in Gabrielle's green eyes. "No no..wait.. I didn't mean that." She waved a hand.

"Yes you did." The bard snapped. "It's what you think.. it's what we were brought up with after all, right? That she has me scared of her… so I'll do whatever she wants.. maybe she kicks me around a little.. maybe I like it that way??" Gabrielle's voice dropped into a deep, angry pitch.

"Bree…" Lila put a hesitant hand out.

"Don't call me that." Gabrielle spat back. "I hate it."

They stared at each other, breathing hard. "Gabrielle… " Lila started again, uncertainly. "Gods.. uh...wait." She sat down, and hugged herself. "Look.. no.. I didn't mean that… I really, really didn't.. I know.. your relationship isn't like that.. honest, Br.. Gabrielle, please, believe me… "

Gabrielle stared at the ground, trying to control her anger. Where did that come from? Come on, Gabrielle.. for the gods sake, this is your sister. "Sorry…I'm… Lila, I know you don’t believe that." Slowly, she slid down the trunk of the tree, and wrapped her arms around her upraised knees. "Look.. Xena knows.. I have.. some unresolved issues with.. what happened to me at home. And with dad.. and… " She took a deep breath. "And she.. does feel very protective of me. . sometimes .. that drives me a little crazy" She paused. "But sometimes I like it.. and this morning was one of those times."

Lila stared at her with a quivering lip. "Did you… I was only teasing, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle sighed. "I know you were.. but… " She paused for a long moment. "I'm still trying to get used to us.. and you know it makes mom and dad uncomfortable."

Lila looked at the ground. "I know.. I'm sorry." She sighed. "I wasn't thinking.. I just sort of forgot about that.. I mean, it didn't seem strange to me.. just kind of.. um.. cute."

The bard glanced up at her, with a faint smile. "It's… weird. We decided.. actually, I decided on the way here that I didn't want to have to worry about… acting differently than we normally do." Her expression turned a bit rueful. "But I don’t' want to rub their noses in it."

Her sister picked up a bit of twig, and twirled it in her fingers. "Yeah… Lennat and I have talked about that… we feel kind of uncomfortable doing anything other than holding hands in front of them."

Gabrielle looked up, with a surprised chuckle. "It's not just me, then?"

Lila shook her head. "No.. but they won't snipe at you.. like they do us." Now it was her turn for a rueful smile. "Sometimes the intimidation is a good thing, you know?" She sighed. "It was.. I was more embarrassed than anything else, Br.. Gabrielle." She dropped the twig and dusted her fingers off. "It was like.. I was mad because she was acting like she had a right to get between us.. like she knew you better than I did."

Gabrielle started to speak, then stopped.

Lila gazed at her. "Then I kind of realized.. well, she does." A light shrug. "Maybe I'm jealous of her.. of that."

That.. was probably true, the bard reflected. "You're still my sister, Lila… you know that hasn't changed." She put a hand lightly on the dark haired girl's arm. "That wasn't a serious threat… she just wanted you to stop teasing me.. and sometimes her approach is kind of.. um.. direct."

Lila studied her hands for a minute. "I guess she doesn't do tactful comments, huh?"

Gabrielle's lips quirked. "No…not very well." She admitted. "I kind of do the sensitive chat thing."

"Like now?" Her sister hazarded, a tiny smile beginning to form.

The bard sighed. "Well, I'm not sure how sensitive this has been.. but yeah." She paused, and glanced up. "Can we just start this conversation over?"

Her sister smiled. "Just like we used to?" That was the way fights were ended between them. "Yeah… we'd better, before they come looking for us." She stood, and peered across the windswept ground. "Is that a Centaur?"

Gabrielle jumped up and looked. "It's Kaleipus." She smiled. "C'mon.. let me introduce you to him, and Solon."

"Your stepson." Lila said, straight faced. "Right?"

The bard smiled. "Right."

Cyrene looked nervously out of the window, hearing the beginning sounds of a large number of people approaching. The wind had really picked up, and the torches were fluttering all over the courtyard, and random pieces of debris were rolling across the hard, bare ground. As she watched, the growing glow of approaching firelight appeared from around the bend, then a large, marching group entered the wide, open area.

"All right… let's go see what this is all about." Hercules remarked, and opened the door, moving out onto the porch with Iolaus and the Amazons. The forest dwellers, by common consent, remained comfortably seated inside the inn, sipping ale.

The demigod stood by the porch railing, and waited. Eventually the huge mob ground to a halt, and they observed each other before one large, bearded man stepped forward. Apparently a spokesman.

"Now look here." The man stated, putting his hands on his hips. "We've been suffrin all this winter from bandits of all sorts.. and we know the one place they don't ever go is here." There was a palpable sense of anger rising above the group of people that put Hercules' nerves on edge.

The crowd muttered their agreement. Johan and Cyrene joined the group on the porch, along with Josclyn, who stood quietly near the innkeeper, his dark eyes watchful. Around the peripheries of the crowd, the Amphipolis watch began to form a loose cordon, hands holding worn staves with rough familiarity.

"That's right." Johan cleared his throat. "So what's yer point? We've worked hard to make it that way."

The man snorted. "I don't think so.. in fact, we've figured out your little trick, laddie." He looked around, taking courage from the angry faces around him. "They don't come here, cause ye're giving them a home. And we've come to stop it."

Silence fell, as they all regarded each other. "You're crazy." Johan laughed. "We're not giving any outlaws safe harbor here."

"Don't you lie to us, you bastard." The man snarled, and now the mob moved forward a few paces. "I can see what you've got staying here." He gestured at the warily watching Amazons. "We've had enough… "

Hercules held up a hand. "Hold on here… no one from this village has done anything to you."

The man's already small eyes narrowed, and he casually spat on the ground. "And we've heard about you, too." The crowd moved closer, an angry growl beginning to rise. "My brother's wife got caught in that damned mine."

The demigod paled, and took a shaky breath. Iolaus crossed behind him, and laid a hand on his back in unthinking comfort, his normally open, agile face tightening in to a frozen mask of anger at the words. "Bastard." He growled under his breath, not seeing the quietly startled look from the demigod.

"Come on, let's get this over with." The bearded man turned to the crowd. "We burn this place, we may last the winter out. You with me!"

A huge roar answered him, and he turned and took a step towards the porch, raising his pitchfork.

And found his way barred, and his weapon no longer in his hands, but sailing sideways, to come clattering down on the hard ground not far away. A gentle sigh of relief went through the Amphipolis residents.

The silvery point of a sword rested against his chest, and he looked up, into ice blue eyes that studied him as though he were an insect, in a face that was all planes and angles, framed in a mass of dark hair that whipped about in the wind.

The crowd stopped short, and a silence fell, where they stood frozen, eerie plumes of vapor trailing from their open mouths. Xena had stripped off her tunic, and stood in her leathers and armor, wanting to be sure that there was no mistaking her intent, as the torchlight glanced off her in metallic glints, and bronzed her skin to a deep, burnished glow.

"You know.. " Xena said quietly. "You're lucky you're wrong." She sheathed her sword in one quicksilver motion, and grabbed his tunic, lifting him off his feet in one surge, and tossing him back, to land on his rear with a sodden thump. "What were you gonna do if you were right?"

She stepped forward, the crowd stepped back, an uneasy murmur beginning to rise.

"I'll tell you what you were going to do." She continued. "You were going to die, all of you." She looked at them. "What was the point?" Damn.. that was… idiotic… what's gotten into these people?

"We would.. we should…. We have to…" The man spluttered, a confused look coming onto his face. "They said.."

Xena crouched down next to him, very aware of the ring of still armed, still angry villagers, and feeling the warm security of Gabrielle's watchful gaze at her back. "Who said?" She pinned his eyes with her own, focusing on him.. trusting Gabrielle's solid skills to make sure the crowd didn't take it into their heads to attack her while she was distracted. She felt the gentle displacement of air and the soft whistle of the bard's staff moving and sensed the crowd moving back a step. And smiled.

"Tthhey said.. we'd… it was the only way…" He stammered, looking around him for support.

"Who said?" Xena repeated softly, grabbing his collar and pulling him closer. The torchlight skittered rippling reflections off her body as she moved.

His eyes turned inwards. "I don’t…" A nervous glance. "remember." He finished. "Just.. someone said that this was the place causing all the raids… and.. we'd have to…" He stopped speaking, and rubbed his eyes hard.

Xena let him go, and straightened up in one smooth movement. "Go home." She told the crowd, planting her fists firmly on her hips and giving them all a look. "And just be grateful you got lucky.. and it wasn't true. Whatever.. or whoever.. is causing these raids isn't from here."

Another man edged forward, holding a torch, and a short scythe. "How do we know you're telling the truth?"

Xena just looked at him. "Because if I wasn't, I'd have just ordered my… '" She rolled her eyes and cast a glance over her shoulder. "Army here to just make fertilizer out of you." She slowly stepped back until she bumped into Gabrielle, who grounded her staff, and leaned on it.

"Xena, what the Hades is going on?" The bard whispered fiercely. "These people.. it's like they're infected with anger… I don’t' understand."

"Yeah." The warrior muttered back. "I don't know what's happening, but I think we need to find out." She sighed, as the Amazons joined them at the foot of the stairs, along with a very quiet Hercules and a nervous Iolaus. "Hi." She patted Iolaus' knee lightly. "Glad you guys could make it."

The crowd slowly, grudgingly dispersed, beginning to head back down the road they'd came from, and Josclyn joined them, his hands shaping an argument as he escorted them away.

Cyrene had slipped off the porch once Xena had things in hand, and retrieved Hecuba, Lila and Herodotus, along with Kaleipus and Solon whom she'd spotted at the back of the crowd and urged back to the inn, and now they all met at the stairs. "Come on, all you lot." Cyrene muttered. "Inside.. it's freezing out here." She plucked at Xena's leathers. "And you, put a shirt on, for Hades sake." She glanced down at Solon, who was hanging onto her hand and smiled. "Come on, honey.. I have some cookies for you."

Xena spared her an amusedly tolerant look. "Yes, mother." She turned and motioned for everyone to precede her. "You OK?" She said in an undertone to Hercules as she stepped up even with him on the stairs.

"Yeah." The demigod answered shortly. "Nice timing." He held the door and ushered her into the warmth of the inn, where he was surprised by Xena's letting out a delighted laugh.

"Jess!" The warrior broke into a real smile, and crossed the room, to be engulfed in a massive hug. "Wasn't sure you guys were going to make it."

Jessan squeezed her hard. "Wouldn't have missed it." He whispered in her ear, then released her and held her out at arms length. "Wow.. you look great." His golden eyes twinkled. Ah.. Xena… my friend… what a change I See. "This place has been good for you, huh?"

The warrior gave his chest fur a tug. "It's been a trip, I'll say that." One eyebrow curved up. "How's everything by you?"

He leaned close. "I'm gonna be a daddy." His furry muzzled tickled her ear.

"Oh yeah?" Xena whispered back. "Well, c'mere and let me introduce you to my son."

They both looked at each other and burst out laughing. "Ok..ok.. you win." Jessan admitted cheerfully.

Hugs were exchanged between the rest of the forest dwellers and both Xena and Gabrielle, as the inn's servers bustled around, pushing tables together.

"Lucky." Xena shook her head, then pulled a seat out and put a booted foot up on it as the rest of them settled wearily into chairs. "So.. sorry it took us so long." She apologized. "How's everything been here?"

Ephiny looked at Eponin, then at Hercules, then at Cyrene. "Um.. quiet. Very quiet." Her hazel eyes flicked to Toris. "Right?"

Toris rubbed his nose. "Uh.. yes. Very quiet." He forced a grin. "How about you guys.. nice trip?"

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances of their own. "Oh.. yeah.. very peaceful. No problems."

An uneasy silence fell, until Cyrene slapped the table. "Come on, everyone sit down and let's have some dinner. We can talk about all the news later."

It was much later, and Xena was leaning back in her chair, regarding the crowd around her with some bemusement. What a mixture of… people. Her mind speculated quietly. To her right, Gabrielle was leaning against the table, listening to Jessan and Elaini fill her in on what had been going on with the forest dwellers the last few months. To her left, Hercules was listening quietly to a story Eponin was gruffly relating, and casting the occasional glance down the table to where Cyrene was trading news with Gabrielle's parents. Lila was deep in animated conversation with Granella and Toris, and Kaleipus was having a quiet discussion with Ephiny.

She herself had just taken Solon up to a guest room, and put him to bed, after she spotted him valiantly trying to stay awake and listen to the conversation from his seat next to Cait. He had made a token protest until she picked him up and carried him up the stairs, then he snuggled happily into her arms, and wormed a short tale out of her before he consented to be tucked in.

Introducing everyone to everyone else had been… oh gods. She was glad Gabrielle was there, and had taken charge of that, because the constant confusion and din were starting to get to her, and she was content to just sit back, and watch the unforeseen interaction between her friends.. and her family.

Friends and family.. was a time.. She sighed quietly This would have been a pretty empty table. Now, with the impression of Solon's warm body still fresh in her memory, she looked down the table and smiled. Cyrene caught her eye and smiled back, then got up and sauntered around to her chair, leaning against Xena's back and putting her mouth close to her daughter's ear.

"Nice group of friends you have here, dear." She gave her a little pinch. "You could have given me a tad more warning about Jessan and his family, though." She reached across and picked up the ale pitcher, pouring some into Xena's almost empty glass.

The warrior put a hand on her arm. "No more, mother.. I've had more than enough." She'd felt the faint, disconnected buzz starting in the back of her mind as she was finishing her last glass, and had no intention of getting drunk in front of all these potential teasers. That, I'll never live down. She reminded herself, but took a sip of the fresh ale anyway. "And.. sorry about that… we just tend to.. um.. forget how different they are sometimes."

Cyrene patted her shoulder. "I'll cope." Then she paused. "So.. it was a quiet trip?"

Xena felt a prickle of conscience. "Mostly." She glanced up at her mother's face. "We.. pulled some folks out of the river first day.. and.. ran into some raiders, small stuff."

The innkeeper let out a long breath. "Yes.. your river victims showed up here." She gently brushed off Xena's leathers. "I was.. a little concerned… you hadn't gone back to see how they were."

Xena's fogged mind struggled to come up with a good answer. "Um.. we .. got carried downstream a ways.. I guess.. we didn't see them when we walked back up the road." True, all of it. Just not all the truth. "Glad they made it up here safe."

Cyrene squeezed her shoulders, and reached behind her to the service bar, picking up a flaky pastry and putting it down on the plate in front of Xena. "Here.. you deserve it for being such a hero." This in a very low voice.

Xena rolled her eyes. "Mother." She sighed, but couldn't keep a grin from quirking across her mouth.

The innkeeper chuckled, and brushed the top of her dark head with her lips. "I need to go get some sleep." She straightened up. "I'll get Gabrielle's parents and Lila settled, all right?" She moved off, stopping at Hecuba's chair, and leaning close to speak.

"Your mother's very sweet." Hercules said quietly, cupping his big hands around his ale mug, which had been drained quite a few times that night. "Everyone here's been great… I'm glad I got a chance to meet them all."

Xena studied his face carefully. "I'm glad they got a chance to meet you." She replied in a gentle voice, recognizing the anguish evident on the demigod's face. "Herc… listen, I know that jerk upset you."

Pale blue eyes lifted to meet hers. "Upset me? Why should it?" He dropped his gaze back to his mug.

A hand wrapped around his wrist, and tightened. "Hey, try that routine on someone who doesn't know what it feels like OK?"

Grudgingly he looked back at her. "Ok.. " He sighed, and rested his head on one hand. "I'm not sure how to cope with this. I''ve started.. remembering.. what it was like.. what I was like."

Xena winced. "Gods.. " She blew out a breath. "Herc, I'm sorry."

He gazed into her eyes. "How do you stand it?"

She took a breath, then another. "I.. " A shrug. "Sometimes I don't." She fiddled with her own glass, and took a long drink of its contents. "Sometimes.. the past comes up and just… swallows me whole." She slowly shook her head. "The only thing you can do is hang on to the positives." Now she looked up at him. "And you have a whole lot of those, my friend. "

He thought about that for a minute, taking small sips from his glass. "I'm afraid to sleep at night." A quiet admission. "I keep seeing.. things.. I did."

Xena clasped a hand over his in sympathy. "Why don’t you… have you spoken to Iolaus about it? He's your best friend.. maybe it would help.." She broke off as the demigod slowly shook his head. "What?"

"I can't talk to him." Almost a whisper. "Xena..I think.. I may have.. one of the memories…" He turned heartsick eyes to her. "He's got these marks on his back.. and.. he says guards did it.. but.. I have a memory of me looking at.. someone.. with those same marks." His voice broke. "And I made them."

Xena felt her heart speed up, as she tried to figure out what, if anything she could tell him. Damn..I hadn't expected…he never said word one… oh Hades balls. "Herc.. he told me you never touched him." She assured the tawny haired man. "I.. don't think he'd.. I mean, there would be no point in him lying to me." A subtle squeeze on her knee told her Gabrielle was following the conversation and she felt a rush of gratitude for the bard. "And.. even if you did.. he knows that wasn't you."

A long silence, while he turned his gaze inward. "Yeah." He finally said, sighing deeply. "I guess you're right." He paused. "But… I.. don't want to remember that." He hesitated, and almost whispered. "I don't know if I could live with it."

Xena's face tensed in commiseration. Gods.. are there ever things I wish I could just forget… "Do.. do you want me to find out.. I mean.. ?"

He winced. "I.. I think I have to know." He finally got out, giving her a grateful look.

The warrior nodded quietly. "All right.. we'll get this sorted out." She put reassurance in her voice. "In the meantime.. just relax… it'll work out, Herc."

That, finally, got a hint of a smile on his handsome face. "Or else, huh?" He squeezed her fingers. "Thanks for inviting me.. it's been.. really nice just being here with all the friendly faces." He cocked his head. "And that's a great kid you got there." Now he really smiled. "He looks just like you."

Xena chuckled a little, relieved, and ducked her head. "Thanks." She finished off her ale. "Watch out for him though.. he's got a mean sense of humor."

"Really?" The demigod asked, with a quiet grin.

The warrior gave him a raised eyebrow. "Imagine me at twelve."

"Ooooo.." Hercules laughed gently. "Warning taken."

They looked at each other. "Well, I think it's time we wrapped this up." Xena said, gazing down the table, where most of the occupants were obviously trying to stay awake. "Hey… go to sleep, all of you." She ordered in a crisp tone.

A hand circled her wrist, and she glanced to her right, to see Gabrielle's mist green eyes pinned on her. "You too." The bard warned, in a quiet voice.

"Only if you join me." Xena replied, watching the blush travel up her partner's face with an affectionate look.

"Someone's got to make sure you make it back there all right." Gabrielle laughed. "I think you're..''"

Xena put her fingers over the bard's mouth. "Shh." She glanced around. "Don’t say it." Slowly she removed her hand, and the bard gave her a look.

"Why not?" Gabrielle whispered.

Xena propped her chin up on one hand. "Because if you do, then the Amazons are going to start something, and I'll have to do something stupid like win a knife throwing contest to prove I'm not."

Gabrielle chewed her lip. "Good point." She gave Hercules a smile, and he started laughing. "All right.. come on everyone.. bed time."

Xena stepped outside into the cold, wet air, letting the icy fingers shock her into a semblance of alertness, and clear some of the alcohol fog from her brain. Several deep breaths, and she felt her senses settle into a more normal range, as she waited for Gabrielle to finish one last exchange of plans with Ephiny, and join her for the short walk to their cabin. The bard stepped up next to her, and tucked a hand firmly into the crook of her elbow as they started to move.

"That was really nice.. I can't believe we have all of them here in one place, Xena." The bard kept an eye on her partner, relieved when Xena showed very little signs of the ale she'd been drinking all night. "Did you have a good time?" This with a teasing grin.

Xena wrapped an arm around her shoulders and smiled. "Yeah.. except I'm kind of worried about Herc."

Gabrielle pursed her lips. "Hmm.. yeah, I was listening.. what are you going to do?"

"Wait until tomorrow, when I can think straight." Xena confessed, giving her a relaxed grin. "I shouldn't have had that last glass."

The bard giggled. "So you are drunk." She wound her arm around Xena's waist.

The warrior waggled a hand. "Not… well, let's just hope Pony doesn't decide to try an ambush tonight." She chuckled softly. "One of us is going to regret it."

"Ahh.. no chance of that" The bard smirked. "She doesn't leave Ephiny's side."

They exchanged significant glances. "Oh.. really?" Xena grinned. "Well, they have been busy…haven't they? Gran's attached herself to Toris, or didn't you notice?"

Gabrielle led her up the porch to their cabin and opened the door. "You know, we really shouldn't be indulging in gossip." She stated. "But… " She slid around and waggled her eyebrows at Xena. "Did you see that nifty pin Herc was wearing?"

Xena let herself collapse on the bed, and cocked her head. "Yeaaaahhh…" She drew out the word as she let Ares greet her enthusiastically. "Hey.. Ares.. take it easy.. "

Gabrielle slid onto her side next to her, and propped her head up on one hand. "Solstice gift.. from.. " She paused dramatically. "Iolaus."

The warrior considered this, and gave her a half grin. "Doesn’t mean anything." She sniffed. "Ummm…. Maybe he just likes blue." Her eyes danced.

"Mmmm… " Gabrielle lifted a hand to brush the tangled dark hair from her partner's forehead. "I don't know about him.. but I think it's become my favorite color."

Xena trailed a fingertip across the bard's cheekbone. "Funny..I prefer green, myself." She replied lazily, then shook her head. "Gods.. I gotta get up and get out of this armor before I pass out." Rolling over, she pushed her body upright, and got to her feet, reaching for the buckles and unsnapping them with practiced hands.

"Here…" Gabrielle stood and padded over, followed by a curious Ares. "Let me help." She unlaced a bracer while her partner lifted the heavy chest armor off, and laid it gently on the worktable.

"Gotta make some adjustments on that." Xena remarked idly, while working off an upper arm protector as the bard set upon the other bracer. She waited until Gabrielle was finished, then sat down and started unbuckling the leg armor, feeling the familiar scrape of the worn leather straps against the iron buckles as the heavy pieces came free, lifting the familiar weight off her legs.

She put the pieces next to the chest piece on the table, then started unlacing her boots, looking up as Gabrielle wandered over and draped a clean scented linen shift over her shoulder, and slid her arms around Xena's neck, working the laces on the top of her leathers. "Glad we're home" She mumbled into the warrior's nearby ear. "It just started… either raining ice or snowing, I can't tell."

Xena finished pulling off her boots, and stood, pulling her now loosened leathers off and laying them over the chair, then doing the same with her undershift.

Gabrielle sucked in a breath, and traced her fingers gently over an ugly bruise between her partner's shoulder blades. "Xena… damn.. why didn't you tell me you got hurt?" I thought.. we were past that already. Guess not.

The warrior blinked, and looked over her shoulder in puzzlement. "I don't… oh, Hades.. that pike hit. Yeah.. I forgot." She flexed her back and winced. "Thought I was just stiff… didn't realize… sorry."

The bard slid her hands over the smooth skin, then bent forward and kissed the spot, "You gotta duck faster, love." She laid her cheek against Xena's back and let her hands slip around to circle her waist in a hug, then released her with a gentle pat.

Xena pulled the clean sleep shirt over her head and sighed as the fragrant fabric settled over her body. "You'd think I'd have learned that by now." She gave the bard a wry look, and watched as the smaller woman changed into her own shirt. Or to be more precise, another one of Xena's. It brought a somewhat silly smile to her face, and she had to work to wipe it off before the bard turned around.

Then she decided she really didn't care, and just left it there, accepting the responding giggle she got in return. "Oh.. yeah." She remembered one detail she'd been meaning to take care of. "Uhm.. m tomorrow's going to be a pretty busy day."

Gabrielle poured two large glasses of water and handed one to Xena. "Here… you're always telling me to drink water."

Xena accepted the glass, and took a long swallow. "Thanks." She studied the liquid. "Anyway, um.. " She walked over to the small chest on the linen press and tugged out the bottom drawer, pulling out a piece of parchment and looking at it. "I know.. I mean, I'd like to give this to you now, because.. well, tomorrow's gonna be kind of busy, and…" Running out of words, she simply shut up, and handed Gabrielle the folded parchment. "Solstice gift."

Gabrielle gingerly took it from her, and watched as Xena wandered over to the bed and sat down, leaning back against the headboard and waiting, her long hands folded quietly on her stomach. Slowly, the bard unfolded the parchment and read it, having to go back and reread it three times before the meaning began to sink in. She looked up. "Xena? This is from the Academy" She paused. "In Athens." She ran a finger over the ornate seals on the bottom.

A slight nod. "I know."

To the most excellent bard, Gabrielle, (it said)

This is to advise and confirm to you that your original story scrolls, submitted to this institution, have been accepted and approved for both teaching texts, and for distribution as part of the curriculum of the Academy of Bards, in Athens.

We wish to inform you that we are very pleased, and honored that you have chosen to submit the texts to us, and hope fervently that you continue to do so. Please understand that you will be given full, and complete credit for these stories no matter where they might be related.

Congratulations on your fine work, and may the Muses always smile upon your talent.

Gabrielle slowly walked over, as if in a daze, and sat down next to her partner on the bed. "Xena?"

"Yes?" The warrior gazed at her.

"My stories?" The bard's voice was no more than a whisper.

"Yes." Xena confirmed. "I thought.. well, I wanted to get you something kind of.. " She paused. "Having your name be passed down through the ages.. well, that seemed like a good thing to get for.. you.. it's a kind of.. um.. immortality, I guess, and I thought.. uh…"

"Xena?" The bard interrupted her.

"Huh?" The warrior peeked at her, wistfully. "You're not mad, are you?"

Green eyes met hers, brimming with tears. "How?" She managed to blurt.

Xena relaxed a little. "Oh.. well, it was.. all I had to do was get copies made.. so.. I did, and then.. just get someone to go to Athens, and I did that..wasn't much." She paused. "Really." She took a breath. "I mean..I've got some other stuff for you.. but I kind of wanted to give this to you while we were alone.. I wasn't sure how you were going to react so.. oh."

The bard had carefully put the parchment aside and launched herself at her partner, catching her in a bear hug and burying her face into Xena's chest. "Guess I did ok, huh?" Xena grinned at Ares, who wagged his tail back. She felt a bubbling buoyancy fill her, as Gabrielle's mixed tears and delighted laughter fell on her ears and she squeezed Xena's ribs so hard the warrior could swear she heard them creak.

It took a long time before Gabrielle finally lifted her face and gazed up at her smiling partner. 'Thank you." She said, simply.

Xena grinned happily at her. "You're welcome." She stroked the bard's face gently, and tugged the covers up over both of them. "C'mon.. we've got a big day tomorrow."

Gabrielle studied her. "Is it after midnight?:

The warrior cocked her head slightly, puzzled. "Mmmm…yes."

That got a slight nod from the bard, as she slid up and wrapped her fingers in Xena's dark hair, pulling her partner's head down and kissing her, letting long candlelit moments pass as she felt their connection wash over them.

"What was that for?" Xena asked softly as they took a second to breathe.

"Your birthday." The bard answered, starting on the warrior's left earlobe and working down, giving her tiny nibbles. "I'm gonna make sure it's the best one ever."

Xena felt her fatigue vanish instantly, as her body responded to the bard's familiar, gentle touch. She let her hands slip under Gabrielle's shirt, and felt the bard's breathing change as slid her fingertips up her ribcage. "It already is." She breathed into the nearby ear. "I love you."

She felt the sudden warm moisture of Gabrielle's tears against her cheek, and smiled, as she removed the rest of them, glittering in the candlelight against her lashes. "Always getting me wet for saying that… huh?"

That got a gentle, half sob, half laugh from the bard, as Xena reached out and doused the candle, leaving them in shadowy darkness, with only the fire's deep glow to cut the night.

Continued in Part 6

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