The Longest Night - Part 6

Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

"Ma'am, it's snowing out.' Eustase fluttered over her shoulder, as Cyrene finished tying the strings on the last package in a small pile next to her on the table.

"Thanks for the weather bulletin, 'Stase. " Cyrene muttered absently, as she gathered the bundles into a basket, and crossed an item off the list she had on the table. "I appreciate it."

"But.. ma'am.. surely you're not going out in this weather?" The cook protested. "The sun's not even up yet."

Cyrene looked up. "Of course I am. " The innkeeper gave her a look. "Great Hera's undershorts, Eustase, I'm just going across the courtyard.. I'll be right back." She got up and wrapped her cloak around her, pulling the hood up, and fastening the clasp. "I haven't had a chance to do this for Solstice in far too long.. I've already dropped off Toris', and Solon's.. I'm just going to bring over my daughters.. and I'll be right back."

She picked up the basket, and edged out the door, raising an arm against the whipping snow, and forcing a determined way towards the cabin, whose dim outlines she could barely see in the faint light reflecting off the snow covered ground. She moved along carefully, mindful of the ice patches, until she gained the relative security of the cabin's porch. Great Hera's undershorts indeed.. her mind marveled. Glad everyone 's here.. it's a perfect day to stay inside and have one, big, all day, warm party. And what a coincidence.. that's exactly what we're going to do. She chuckled softly, thinking of the pit they'd already loaded with pig and sealed before dawn.

She pushed open the door, and slipped inside, closing it after her carefully, and put her basket down on the small table, where she ran her fingers lightly over the gleaming armor before glancing up towards the bed, which was very dimly lit by the dull red glow of the fire, and the first pale indications of the coming dawn. Ares was sprawled across the foot of the bed, his dark head resting on his paws, his eyes a glint of light as he watched her. His tail stirred lightly, but he remained still, as she moved a little closer, and studied the other occupants of the bed with a warm smile.

Seeing her daughter's peaceful face, the strong features relaxed in sleep, with Gabrielle's fair head tucked against her shoulder. The faintest of smiles on both faces that brought a fond echo to Cyrene's own.

So unlike that last Solstice before Cortese. Cyrene sighed in memory, dredging up a quiet image of gently entering her young daughter's room, to find her huddled, sleepless and silent in the pre dawn darkness.

There had been, she knew, no way to warn Xena of the dangers of the heart.. what would one say? Not to trust? Not to let your heart open up to another? She could have said, she supposed.. but.. that was a risk everyone took, and most learned, after a while, to guard themselves more closely or endure the pain of it.

Xena's problem had been that she'd believed others would do as she did, to trust in all honesty and completeness, with no thought to deceive.

It had been.. hard on her to find out how quickly an offered hand of friendship could turn to a mocking slap, a warm smile become a jeer, and her first venture into love had been thrown back into her face as nothing but a dare taken.. a bet won by a lad put up to it by his mates to see if the girl none of them could beat in the youthful sparring lists could be won over another way.

Lyceus, of course, in his adolescent ardor had bristled and half run out of the house when he'd heard.. intent on extracting a price for the hurting of his precious sister. But Xena had stopped him, a strong hand gripping his sleeve and her voice quietly toneless. "I took care of that." And had just let him go, and gone to her room, curling up under the covers and shutting them all out.

Now she'd gone to the bed, setting down her little bundles, and sat on its edge, gently stroking the soft, dark hair back out of those pale, bleak eyes. "Honey, it won't always be like that." She'd told her, gently. "You'll see."

But Xena had shook her head, minutely, with a child's absolute determination. "Never do that again."

And for that disillusionment in her daughter's eyes, Cyrene could have gone out and killed that damn kid herself. And knowing how the girl was hurting had made what happened after much worse.. seeing the coldness settle over those eyes, and her good nature turn to anger, and ruthless savagery…

Cyrene sighed, and let the image evaporate, replacing it with what she saw before her now, that young girl who had somehow.. reached back inside herself and opened a door long closed, taking a fearful risk on the off chance that what Cyrene had said might possibly be true. And it had been true, thanks to the Fates, and Gabrielle.

After a silent moment, she turned, and gently opened the basket, setting out its contents on the table quickly, then closed it again empty, and moved towards the door, stopping with her hand on the surface to turn and look back, committing the sight to her memory. Then she smiled, and slipped out the door, back out into the cold of an early Solstice morning.

Iolaus reluctantly allowed the real world to intrude on his mostly pleasant dreaming as he sensed morning approaching. He became lazily aware of his surroundings, the pleasant soft popping of the banked fire, the clean, comfortable blankets tucked around his nice warm body, the faint patter of snow hitting the glazed window.. Hercules' fingers wrapped firmly around his upper …

Pale eyes popped open so fast the room spun, as Iolaus felt his heart almost come out of his ears in its haste to get blood to his brain. Cautiously, he rolled his head to the left, and blinked at the tawny hair tucked against his shoulder in a vague sense of panicked shock.

Breathe. He sternly instructed himself. He was drunk or dreaming, it's nothing. Just calm down. Breathe. That's it…in, out, in, out….ok. Slowly his racing pulse settled, and he took a second look. Ok.. ok.. it's no big deal… he just rolled over in his sleep and grabbed onto something by reflex.. it's just my arm. Nothing exciting here… move along, move along, that's better.

Ok. Now he stared up at the ceiling, and considered his options. He could.. move, and wake Hercules up, which would cause a scene and embarrass his friend a lot. He could..gently wake the demigod up.. and have the same effect. Or he could.. just go back to sleep and pretend nothing happened. When Hercules woke up, he'd extract himself with a minimum of embarrassment to both of them.

He studied the tense, exhausted look on the demigod's face, and sighed, wishing there was something he could do for Hercules.. but the man wouldn't even talk to him about what was bothering him.. he'd hoped maybe Xena… well, he'd seen them talking last night, and Herc seemed a little more cheerful after that so…

Go back to sleep.. That seemed… Iolaus considered. to be the best possible solution. He let his eyes slide shut as his body started to relax again, soaking in the warmth from his companions larger body in idle pleasure. Well, this seems harmless enough.. his mind muzzily decided, as he fell back into a light doze.

Xena was vaguely aware that she was dreaming, in an odd, and off center kind of way when the fluffy stuffed animal she was holding started to talk to her. She listened to it for a minute, but it was only reciting a recipe for sausage, lamb sausage, which seemed pretty dumb to her since it was a stuffed lamb that was talking.

She put it down, and wandered around in her dream, chasing a few ducks, which incongruously were wearing scarves, and finally sitting down in a pile of flower petals, which wafted up and half covered her with their fragrant softness. She laid back, and let the warm sun soak into her, hardly realizing it when the dream drifted into reality, and the warmth of the sun was replaced by the warmth of the fire in their cabin, and the flower's softness eased into the gentle pressure of Gabrielle's lips on hers.

She opened her eyes, and gazed right up into mist green pools looking back down at her, and smiled in pure reflex. "Hey." She cleared her throat gently, blinking sleepily at her partner. What a nice way to wake up.. "Morning…"

Gabrielle smiled back, and kissed her again. "Happy birthday.. happy Solstice." She replied, as she leaned back and propped herself up on an elbow, studying her, then cast a glance over her shoulder at the window. "You won't believe the weather."

Xena tilted her head and regarded the window, then slowly raised her body up and peered outside. "Good." She grunted, and let herself back down again, pulling the bard closer. "If that's the worst thing that happens to day, I'll take it." She felt a dreamy lassitude nibbling at her, and relaxed into it, enjoying the simple sensations of the bed's warmth, and her partner's presence.

Gabrielle's eyebrows curled up, as she snuggled closer and slid her hands over Xena's relaxed body, running sensitive fingertips over the faint scars across her ribs. "You think something bad's gonna happen?" She tickled the warrior's belly button gently, and saw the brief grin that crossed her face, which she echoed on her own.

The warrior shrugged. "With our usual luck… sure." She chuckled. "I'll take a snowstorm.. what about you?"

The bard nibbled her collarbone. "Mmmm… good point." She glanced up, then her brow creased ."Xena?"

"Hmm?" Came the lazy answer. Gods..I need to get moving here… c'mon now.. She forced her eyes open and turned her head towards Gabrielle, admiring the firelight's twinkling refection on her face.

"What's that on the table?" The bard's eyes went in that direction, and she edged up onto an elbow again. "Wasn't there last night."

Xena blinked, then looked, then blinked again. "Um." She sat up, then swung her legs off the bed and stood, walking over to the table and putting her hands on it, studying its contents. "Um."

Gabrielle joined her, rubbing her cheek against Xena's upper arm and sliding a hand across her back. "You said that already." She commented. What's up with this?

The warrior gently touched the packages, and sighed. "I don’t… oh damn.. I haven't… " She sat down on the chair next to the table, and rested her forearms on it. "She used to do this for us when we were little." She looked up at Gabrielle, who had taken the seat next to her, and was examining the small piles with interest. "It's.. they're just little things.. frivolous stuff… a bag of nuts, a little toy.. that kind of thing. We used to wake up on Solstice morning and have these on the ends of our beds." And she got these in here without me knowing.. damn. I must have been drunker than I thought. She looked accusingly at Ares. "Not even a growl?"

The wolf wagged his tail, and nuzzled her elbow, begging for a treat. Xena sighed and scratched his ears. "You're getting to be as lazy as I am, boy." She gave Gabrielle a faintly sheepish look. 'Mom must have brought these in this morning."

The bard laughed in delight. "That's really sweet." She touched the packages with a fingertip. "We never did that." Her smile slowly faded. "We didn't do much.. for Solstice." Her eyes dropped to the ground. "We'd.. kind of get up, and.. get.. oh, judged, I guess. If we'd been good, we got something, if not… " She shrugged. "I didn't get many presents."

Except that last Solstice.. the one before she'd met Xena. He thought he'd broken her that year.. she hadn't told anyone a story since before Spring, and she'd kept to her assigned routine. Cleaning. Helping. Speaking when spoken to.

She'd gotten up that morning and gotten dressed, before anyone else was up, and sat quietly in the front room, looking out the window at the fitfully blowing trees on that gray Solstice morning. Feeling as gray as the clouds overhead.

But she'd gotten presents… new skirts, and shoes.. an apron.. some ribbons for her hair. She'd thanked him carefully, tucking them away, and sitting in quiet stillness, looking at the floor. And later, after he'd gone to the inn, Lila had crept up next to her where she'd sat on her bed in their room, and begged her in a whisper for a story.

And none had come to her.

She'd just felt.. empty.

Xena took her hand in her own and rubbed it gently. "I think that's about to change, love." She smiled at her partner. "Why don't you start on these while I get some water on? I think.. " She peeked inside the basket on the table. "Uh huh.. mom also brought some goodies." She pulled a muffin out of the basket and offered it to the bard.

Gabrielle's face slowly eased back into a smile, and she took the muffin, nibbling an edge. "You're on." She leaned back in the chair, and pulled her legs up, crossing them and piling the small bundles with her name on the into her lap. Xena set the water pot on, then lifted a shawl from the linen press and tucked it around Gabrielle's shoulders, as she joined her partner in opening the little presents.

A gentle chuckle. "Oh.. Xena look. " Gabrielle held up a tiny squirrel grasping a quill. "It's sooo cute.."

Xena examined the stuffed toy with interest. "Hey… it kind of looks like you." She teased, then held up her own toy, a fierce looking rabbit holding a miniature sword. She set the rabbit down next to the squirrel, and they both laughed at the sight. "Gods." Xena sighed. "I guess that's us, huh?" She stood and poured the now boiling water over the herbs she'd set into two large mugs, and stirred them, while Gabrielle continued her exploration, munching on a muffin with one hand and unwrapping with the other.

She sat back down, setting the bard's tea down on the table, and just watched her for a while, fingering the packages on her lap, but really preferring to enjoy Gabrielle's delight. The bundles were, as she'd remembered, little frivolous things, bags of roasted nuts that had been rolled in honey and spices, carved bone buttons, the stuffed toys… and then Gabrielle unwrapped a tiny bag, which she opened, and emptied out onto her palm.

It was a small brass key. The bard's brow creased. "I don't… Xena, what do you think this is for?" She looked up, into a pair of warm blue eyes, which dipped to gaze at an item in the palm of Xena's hand.

"I think it's for this." The warrior quietly replied, holding out the tiny brass heart shaped lock. She watched as Gabrielle gently inserted the key, and the lock sprang open.

They looked at each other. "I guess that about says everything,." Xena said, with a little smile, as she took the key back out and handed it to the bard. "C'mon.. let's get dressed and get over there.. everyone must be up by now."

Gabrielle nodded, then took the key, and carefully unfastened her silver necklace, stringing the key onto it and refastening it around her neck. Xena grinned, and did the same with her tiny lock, then stood and held out a hand to her partner. "Shall we?"

"Mmm…" Gabrielle allowed herself to be hauled up. "We'd better… all those guys trapped inside that one small inn… this could get crazy." Then she stepped forward, and threw her arms around her partner, squeezing as hard as she could. "This is going to be the best Solstice ever."

"It's snowing." Eponin announced, as she gazed out the window in Ephiny's room.

"Mmhmm." The regent agreed solemnly, as she buttered a muffin, then drizzled a little honey on it and handed it to the dark haired Amazon. "Here."

"Thanks." Eponin sighed, as she returned her gaze moodily to the window. "I wanted to get out for a run… looks like I'd freeze solid trying, though."

"That'd be a bad idea." Ephiny commented, walking up behind her and studying the window. Let's see.. I've about had enough of this adolescent flirting. Time to put my Regent's dinars where my mouth is. "You'd look really dumb frozen, Pony. We'd have to thaw you out, and that could get ugly."

The weapon's master laughed softly. "Yeah, you're probably right.. I just get antsy stuck indoors all the time." She nibbled on the muffin thoughtfully.

"Hmm… " Ephiny leaned against the wall, moving her body closer. "I think you need to develop a hobby, Pony."

The nibbling stopped, and wary caramel eyes were regarding her. "Yeah? You mean like… carving.. or something?" Another nibble, and a swallow. "Or cards?"

Ephiny moved closer, and saw the flutter at the dark haired Amazons' pulse point. And grinned. Now or never.. hope I'm not wrong about this. "Nah..I was thinking something more along these lines." She leaned over and kissed her gently, enjoying the subtle taste of honey still on her lips from the muffin.

Then had to lunge forward and catch Eponin, as her legs gave out and she headed towards the floor. They ended up in a heap, with Ephiny laughing. "Well.. I gotta tell you.. that's certainly never happened before." She commented wryly, studying the newly pale face in front of her. "Hey.. you ok? I didn't meant to.. "

Eponin's face flushed, and she ducked her head, mumbling something incoherent as she struggled to sit up. "I… uh… " She stammered, refusing to meet Ephiny's eyes.

"Hey.." The regent cupped her face with one hand. "It's ok… listen, I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry."

Eponin stopped struggling for a minute, then glanced up, meeting Ephiny's eyes shyly. "I'm not." She waved a hand. "You.. just caught me by surprise.. that's all."

"Oh yeah." The regent chuckled softly. "I forgot.. you hate surprises." She reached up and rubbed the back of Eponin's neck, and smiled as she felt the dark haired woman's body shift. "Now that you've been warned.. and since we're already on the floor, wanna try that again?"

Eponin's hand slid up her arm for an answer, and she ducked back down, tangling dark hair in her fingers and pulling the other Amazon closer, and this time Eponin responded enthusiastically. Ephiny had no idea how much time had gone by before they paused, curled up with each other on the soft rug near the fire.

"Think you were right about that hobby." Eponin muttered.

"Glad you think so." Ephiny breathed in response, as she stretched out onto her side, and ran her fingers down Eponin's ribcage. "I think I'll take it up too."

Xena pulled the cloak around her and headed into the snowfall, one arm tucked around Gabrielle's woolen clad form, the other shielding her eyes against the wet snowflakes. Ares trotted ahead of her, sneezing as the snow landed on his nose, and shaking his fur rapidly to rid it of its covering.

"Hold up." Xena steered her partner over to where she'd spotted a small group clustered around an area in the back of the kitchen. "What's going on?" She poked her head forward. "Mother?"

"Just checking the pig, dear." Cyrene idly tossed a wad of snow at her daughter's face, unsurprised when it was deflected neatly away by a casual swipe of one hand.

Xena peered down at the half-uncovered pit in the ground curiously, and exchanged a bewildered look with Gabrielle, who shrugged under her heavy cloak. "Uh… mom.. that's a hole in the ground."

Cyrene crossed over to her, and stood in the convenient shelter of her tall form. "Yes, I know.. and in that hole is a pig, on top of a long smoldering fire, stuffed with all the dried fruits I could scrounge, and wrapped in wet straw."

"Oh." The warrior gave a surprised chuckle. "And by the way.. " She enveloped her mother in a hug. "Thanks for the stuff."

Cyrene smiled against the thick fabric of Xena's cloak. "Brought back good memories.. " She released her daughter and was immediately enveloped in a second hug from Gabrielle. "Hey, cutie.. did you like the squirrel?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Yep… I loved everything… that was really nice." She sighed happily. "How are things going in there?"

Cyrene pursed her lips. "Well… I've got two additional helpers… your mother, and Jessan's mother, who is very nice." She eyed them. "She's been telling me some very interesting stories."

Blue and green eyes met. "Oh no." They muttered in concert.

The innkeeper put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Honey, I don't think your mother is quite.. um… as used to the kind of things you girls get involved in as I am."

"Um… no.. no.. she's.. pretty sheltered." Gabrielle winced. "Whoops.. I forgot about that."

Xena slung an arm around her and pulled her close. "Well, look at it this way." She let her head rest against the bards. "After this party.. you probably won't have to worry about it."

"Mph." Gabrielle backhanded her in the stomach. "Thanks." She sighed. "C'mon.. let's go inside.. I'm freezing."

The warrior immediately enveloped her in her cloak, wrapping her securely in fabric, and bringing their bodies into contact. "Better?" She inquired, ignoring her mother's smirk. "Everyone up?" She directed the question to the innkeeper.

Cyrene studied them with an affectionate look. "Well, no.. actually… you're some of the first, as a matter of fact." She tugged her own cloak close, and steered them towards the kitchen door. "I was kind of surprised… I guess everyone's sleeping in today.. must still be tired after all the trouble the past few days."

Xena held the door open, and exchanged a wry glance with her partner. "Um.. trouble? Fill me in.. we haven't had a chance to catch up on the.. uh.. news yet." She glanced up and gave Hecuba an nod, and smiled at Wennid, who was slicing vegetables into unlikely shapes with a wry smile on her face.

"They haven't told you about the pig pit then?" Wennid asked, casually, flicking a bit of root into a pot of water next to her. "Mmm…. "

Hecuba perked up. "Pig pit? I haven't heard about that either."

Xena shed her cloak, and relieved Gabrielle of hers, as the bard joined the two women at the table and picked up a bit of carrot, chewing on it thoughtfully. "No.. haven't heard that yet… I hear our guests are sleeping in today.. must be the weather." The fair haired woman commented, brushing a bit of remaining moisture off her rich green woven shirt.

Significant glances all round. "Who's still in bed?" Xena casually asked, poking her head out the door into the dining area and counting heads. "Hmm.. Herc and Iolaus.. Ephiny and Eponin.. and Toris and Granella." Her lips twitched, as she spotted Kaleipus deep in conversation with Herodotus and Lestan in the corner, and Cait entertaining her son with.. Her eyes strained. Hmm. A trap laying lesson. Oh well.

She turned her attention back to the kitchen table where there were smirks all round, and raised her eyebrows. "C'mon, folks.. it's a great day for sleeping in.. the weather, we had a late night last night…" She made a show of straightening the cuffs on the burgundy tunic she was wearing.

They all looked at her with wry expressions.

Xena shook her head with mock severity. "Such minds we got here… I had purer thoughts around me when I was leading my army." Been a long time since I could joke about that.. But she saw only an indulgent expression on her mother's face, and a muffled grin from her partner.

Wennid snorted softly. "Do you want to hear about the pig pit or not?" She scraped a carrot into little curls, and set them into a bowl of water.

Xena leaned back against the counter, and crossed her legs at the ankle, picking up a muffin and nibbling at it. "Love to."

"Where are you off to?" The question surprised Jessan, who was just tying the laces up on his thick woolens shirt. He turned and glanced down.

"Oh.. hi Iolaus." The forest dweller's brow creased. What was up with him? "Um.. I was going out to check the horses.. why?"

"I'll join you." The blond man stated, with a nervous nod. "Let's go."

"Uh.. sure.. " Jessan said, gesturing him down the stairs. "Uh.. are you .. um.. sure? I mean, it's snowing pretty hard out there.. uh…it's kind of deep in some places.."

Pale eyes glared at him. "You saying I'm short?" Iolaus growled.

Jessan widened his eyes. Boy does he look hot and bothered. "Uh.. no! No.. um.. not at all.. well, most humans seem that way to me, y'know.. I mean, here I am, right? Seven feet tall…" He peered at Iolaus' face. "You feeling OK?"

Iolaus took a deep breath, feeling a strong flush still going through him. "I'm .. fine.. " A warm thought skittered down his spine seductively. "Just need some fresh air." Going back to sleep had been.. a bad idea. He shivered.

"Ah." Jessan half closed his eyes, and extended his Sight, then quirked a furry eyebrow and smothered a grin. "Sure… no problem, Iolaus.. let's go." He clapped the smaller man on the back, and steered him out the door and down the steps, ducking his head against the snowfall.

They plodded along in silence until they reached the barn, and slipped inside, and Jessan smiled as his nose was assaulted by the warm smells of hay and horses. "Hey guys.."

Eris whickered, and picked his head up to snort at the two humans, then hung his neck back over the stall partition and nibbled at Argo's wheat colored mane.

Iolaus rubbed his hands briskly, and laid them onto the rough wood of the stall. "They know each other" He asked Jessan, more relaxed now.

The forest dweller patted the black stallion affectionately. "Yep.. Xena bred her to Eris when she came into season last. " He ruffled the stallion's mane. "So they're an item… " Then his eyes took on an amused glint. "Lot of that going on around here, I noticed."

Iolaus gave him a cold stare. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Innocently blinking golden eyes faced him. "Um… nothing.. well, you know I noticed Xena's brother and that Amazon… and those other two Amazons.. it's kind of cute." He grinned, showing the tips of his fangs.

"Oh. Right." Iolaus laughed in relief. "Yeah, they do make nice couples… " An awkward pause settled. "Um.. so, how long have you known Xena and Gabrielle?" He settled himself on a hay bale, and chewed on a bit of it.

Jessan set to work feeding the horses. "Well, not that long, actually. We kind of met by accident."

Iolaus relaxed further. "That happens a lot." He nodded. "They get around."

The forest dweller smiled unseen. " I hear. Anyway, I got myself into a little bit of trouble and Xena happened along and got me out of it.. "

A soft snort from the blond man. "That happens a lot us, too."

Jessan glanced at him. "I've heard that, also." He settled some grain into a bucket for Eris and Argo to share, then went on to his father's horse. "They ended up visiting us a few times… and we all just got to be friends." How's that for the short version?

Iolaus nodded quietly. "We heard about Cirron." He kicked his boots against the haybale, then jumped off of it and walked to the hayrack. "Here.. let me give you a hand with that." He lifted some hay up and walked over, settling it in the manger, the repeated the act for the next stall.

Before he knew it, he was talking, telling the forest dweller the whole of what happened in the mine, to a silent audience who padded about the barn, listening but not interrupting. "That's.. what that comment was about yesterday.. " He finally wound down, as he sighed, and stroked Argo's smooth sides. "I know it's killing him.. I just wish there was something I could do."

Jessan sat down on a bale, and laced his big fingers together, thinking. He'd heard the bare bones of the story from Toris while they were decorating the day before, and had been meaning to ask Xena about some of the details. Especially Ares' involvement. But this… what kind of thing could that have been to have subverted a person like Hercules? And.. his mind added quietly, been beaten by Xena. "Iolaus.. " He shook his head slowly. "This is way past my experience.. what does Xena say?"

The blond man lifted his hands, and let them drop. "They talked last night.. I don't know.. " He gave Jessan an apologetic look. "Sorry.. didn't mean to take up your time here." He glanced around. "Looks like we'll have to get water."

The forest dweller nodded. "Yeah.. I'll get some buckets." He paused. "And.. you didn't waste my time Iolaus.. .I wish there was something we could do.. but your best bet is to let Xena deal with it." He gave the smaller man a wry look. "She's really good at that kind of thing." He paused. "Problem solving.. I mean.. she sure was for us. "

Iolaus considered that, and felt his anxiety ease a little. "Yeah.. I know.. it's kind of strange though.. we're usually the ones solving the problems. " He let out a worried little sigh. And what am I gonna do if he remembers everything that happened? He chewed his lips. The marks on my back.. yeah.. but what about the rest? He closed his eyes wearily, starting when he felt Jessan's hand on his shoulder. "Sorry… buckets, right?"

Jessan studied him quietly. He needs to talk to someone. An image formed in his mind of fiery golden hair and smiling green eyes, and he felt a sense of relief. Yeah… that's the ticket. "Uh.. buckets. Uh huh..if you want to grab those two, I'll get an axe for the ice."

"Wait a minute." Gabrielle held up a hand, laughing softly. "They fell into a boar trap, after falling into a mud hole?"

Wennid flicked a carrot into the water. "Apparently." She sniffed. "They certainly smelled like it when we found them." She wrinkled her muzzle at them. "Imagine my surprise.. here we are, marching through the snow, and we find.. a hole in the ground filled with heroes and muddy Amazons." She paused, and glanced up at the silently listening Xena. "And your brother."

Xena laughed, and eased her body off the counter, snagging another muffin and tossing it in the air. "I'll be back." She advised them, as she exited the kitchen, and entered the main dining area of the inn. Solon spotted her immediately, and scrambled to his feet, heading over and throwing himself into her arms with childish abandon.

"Happy Solstice, mom." He grinned, then scowled at her, and tugged at her tunic collar. "You didn't tell me it was your birthday." He accused.

Xena sighed, and carried him over to a chair in front of the fire, settling into it and curling her arms around him. "I know.. sorry.. " She stared pensively at him. "I'm not really used to everyone knowing."

He seemed to accept this, and snuggled down into her arms. "Grandma gave me a bunch of neat stuff." He looked up at her. "It was really cool."

That got a smile from his mother. "Yeah.. she gave us some neat stuff too." The warrior answered, brushing his hair out of his eyes. "We've got some stuff for you too… for after the ceremony." She grinned as he bounced excitedly on her lap. "I'm glad you could come."

He beamed at her. "Really?"

She touched his nose with a fingertip. "Yeah." Guess I can give him one thing now.. Hope Gabrielle was right, and it's something he really wanted. Her eyes studied his. "Listen… um…we've got some stuff to do in the summer.. maybe in the fall you could come back here.. stay with us for a while."

She felt his breathing catch, and saw his eyes widen. "You think you'd like that?" She asked softly, wistfully.

"Yes." He answered in a choked tone, and buried his face into the fabric of her shirt, his hands clenching on the soft wool.

Xena hugged him close, and tucked his head under her chin, rocking him slowly back and forth. "Solon.. I'm sorry.. for a lot of things." She sighed. "I'll try to make it up to you, I promise."

He clutched her tighter, and sniffled. "You're the best Solstice present." He mumbled softly.

The warrior smiled sadly, and gazed into the fire for a long moment, until hands dropped lightly onto her shoulders, and she looked up into Gabrielle's concerned eyes, colored a pale amber in the soft firelight. "Hey."

Solon looked up too, and smiled. "You guys are getting joined today, right?"

Gabrielle nodded. "That's right… well.. officially." She exchanged a grin with her partner. "Why?"

His eyes brightened with mischief. "So.. after today, can I call you mom, too?"

The bard laughed softly. "Sure.. why not? " She reached over and tweaked his nose, then gave Xena a wry look. "My parents can't get any more freaked out than they already are." That's.. going to feel very strange the first couple of times, I think.. but… She let a shiver pass down her spine. Kind of nice.

Solon gave her a satisfied grin, and nestled back down into Xena's arms.

Xena peered down at him. "So.. this all going according to plan?" She asked, with a sly grin.

He blinked up at her with innocent blue eyes. "Plan?"

She cocked an eyebrow at him, and he giggled.

Gabrielle leaned over and pinned him with a stare. "Solon.. you may be a really smart kid.. " Her voice dropped to a whisper. "But don’t forget where the smart came from, OK?" She winked, and jerked her head in Xena's direction. "Don't try to fool her. It doesn't work. I should know."

He giggled harder. "Ok." He blushed a little, and peeked up at his mother, who was smiling at him. "Yeah.. it's going just like I wanted it to."

Xena kissed the top of his head. "Good." She tilted her head back and regarded Gabrielle's face. "You done gossiping in the kitchen?" She teased gently. "Think it's time to.. wake.. Eph up?"

"Mmm…I probably could get away with that." Gabrielle grinned, spotting the yawning Amazons descending from the upper floor of the inn. "Before the rumors start flying rampant." She cast a glance over her shoulder to where Lila and Elaini were comfortably sitting and snacking. Probably exchanging pregnancy tips. The bard mused, then eyed her father, still in conversation with Lestan and Kaleipus. Hey.. this might actually work out. "Ok.. I'll go do the dirty deed."

Xena watched her moved towards Ephiny's room, idly admiring the way the firelight slid over her form and collected as a glow in the gold of her hair, and the way the snug fitting tunic outlined the slim lines of her body. Gabrielle's walk had a… her mind searched for a comparison. Almost a seaman's roll to it, a rhythmic, gentle swagger that had more to do with her growing mastery of her body than anything else. Xena found it cute in the extreme, but knew better than to mention that to her partner, who tended to be a little self conscious sometimes. Right now, it just brought a private grin to her face as she watched.

Solon's voice tickled her ear. "I think she's really cute."

Xena muffled a surprised laugh, then glanced at him. "You do, huh?" She ruffled his hair and ducked her head close to his. "So do I." They grinned at each other conspiratorially.

Then her ears cocked, and Solon felt her body stiffen. He listened too, but… "Is that a wolf?"

Xena stood up swiftly, and let him down, listening intently. The rest of the inn had paused, seeing her sudden motion, and Gabrielle started back towards her with a concerned look on her face.

The sound came again, and now she was sure. "Ares." She muttered, breaking into a run towards the door, as people began to move in confusion around her. She dodged them, and launched herself over the table blocking her way, twisting her body into a flip that landed her near the door, then she worked the latch and dove through it, out into the thickening snowfall.

The wind hit her full force as she hurdled off the porch, and started towards the sound at full speed, her boots sending clumps of snow flying as she dug through the knee deep drifts that mounded across the courtyard.

Another couple of steps, and her body's reactions caught up with her, sending a surge of energy into her limbs that neatly combated the icy chill, and drover her forward at an ever faster rate. She cleared the courtyard, and headed down the river path, angling towards the sound she'd heard faintly, a howl from Ares, abruptly cut off.

Her steps almost faltered as, unbidden, a dark memory surfaced, one of her at a much younger age, rounding the edge of the inn into the very same courtyard, to see the tiny, scrap of unmoving fur that was her little Digger. No. Her mind firmly locked that out. No time for that now.

Resolutely, she pushed the memory down, and hurdled a downed tree, which had collapsed under the unexpected snowfall. As her boots hit the ground, she slipped, and lunged, flipping in mid air and catching her balance, then landing, keeping her body moving towards the water.

Concentrating, she kept her strides loose, trying to anticipate the slippery patches, and managed to keep at almost full speed until she topped the rise that lead down to the river basin, and saw moving forms.

A number of them, attacking a tall, furred figure who was sweeping the area around him with a bare branch, as a dark, swirling body lunged underneath him and snapped at their armored adversaries.

Now energy of another sort bolted through her, lifting the hairs on her neck, and sending a wave of shivering anticipation through her muscles that also brought a wild yell to her lips. "Jessan!" That got the forest dweller's attention, and he swung with more determination, stepping forward and driving his now distracted enemies back a pace.

She picked up a branch as her strides brought her within reach of the closest of them, and as he turned and swung his sword, she caught his wrist with the end of the branch, and heard the sodden crack as the thick wood hit yielding flesh and bone. He dropped the weapon with a scream, and drew a dagger with his other hand, but she was already on him, and her elbow was smashing his jaw with all her momentum behind it.

He dropped like a stone and she jumped over him, deflecting the sword thrust of the next with a downward sweep, and using the other end of her branch to slam into her adversary's head. She caught the next one, rushing forward, on her boot, and kicked him backwards, sending him and the man he crashed into sliding to the ground in a heap.

Another kick, and she was facing the nominal leader of the bunch, who circled with her in deadly intent, his sword held with a master's skill.

Dancing blade against unbalanced wood, but still she prevailed, as her strokes deflected his with casual grace, her weight easily withstood his powerful lunges, and his speed was matched with her own.

Finally, his blade caught in the wood's bulk, and she jerked his weapon hard, disarming him and sending the sword flying past where Jessan had finished with his last adversary and was now kneeling in the snow. "Jess.. you all right?" The warrior called, keeping her eyes on her still dangerous opponent, who had drawn a long, curved belt knife.

"I am." The forest dweller replied wearily. "But Iolaus isn't. You'd better hurry."

Damn. Xena heard the approaching footsteps as help finally caught up with her, but kept her attention on the man before her, whose dark hair and dark eyes seemed to absorb the wan light. He was dressed in dusty leather armor and dark furs, but the blade he held was well cared for and glinted in the light reflected off the snow with an uneasy glare.

He lunged, and his hand moved like quicksilver towards her body, but she dropped her limb and caught the hand instead, surprising him. "This has been fun. "She growled, as she twisted the powerful wrist and he dropped the knife with a yelp. She released him, and flung his body back against the tree, stooping and picking up his blade before advancing on him. "But I'm outta time. So let's just get some questions answered. What are you doing here?"

Dead eyes looked back at her, and the man laughed. "Killing him." He said, with a voice that was half growl, and half rasp.

Xena moved closer, and touched the tip of his blade against his chest. "Why?"

"Why not?" Came the taunting answer.

The blade tip pressed closer. "Who sent you?"

A nasty smile. "You don't have the capacity to understand even if I told you. So I won't."

Xena leaned into the blade, slicing through his leather armor. "You won't have the capacity either if I cut your head off." She gave him a feral grin. "So why don't you just try me."

He laughed again. "They said you were good." He spat on the ground. "But don’t worry.. your turn will come." He leaned back against the tree. "My part's done.. your little friend there has gone to your… Hades."

"You're right." Xena softly answered, as she heard the sounds of several voices, then was aware of the solid, warm presence at her back. "Your part is done." She raised the sword, and he closed his eyes. Her muscles tensed, and the dark energy flowed as she prepared to exact justice.. or was it revenge? Did it really matter?

Then a cool thought interrupted. He wants me to kill him. And that spawned the inevitable question. Why? Slowly, like a pot taken from the fire, her anger simmered down, and became a cold, icy burn.

With a solid sureness, she powered the weapon around, slamming it into the bark of the tree he was standing against and sending a cascade of wet snow down on top of him, burying the blade of the weapon inches deep in the wood, and trapping his thick armor under the blade, pinning him in place.

A moment's silence, then Xena stepped back, and released the hilts, leaving the weapon buried in the tree. "You're wrong.." Her voice was quiet, and drifted to him like one of the sluggish snowflakes. "There'll be no dying today." She dusted her hands off. "The law can take care of you for all I care."

And she turned her back on him, and walked to where several huddled, snow covered forms were clustered around Iolaus' still body, her eyes meeting Gabrielle's, where the bard was standing with her staff ready, watching the snow covered raider's form. Ares crouched at her heels, growling weirdly at the dark figure, the wolf's heavy, snow dusted ruff thickly raised around his head.

Xena dropped to her knees in the snow, pressing aside Toris' shoulder to get a better look at Iolaus. Aw Damn…She winced in reflex as she saw the blood stained snow and the horrified look on Hercules face as he cradled his friend in his arms. Saw the pale skin, and erratic breathing, and the surge of blood from between his fingers at every heartbeat that made her own heart sink low. The sword cut had entered just below his ribcage, and he was losing too much blood, too fast.

No chance. Her mind cried softly. But she took a double handful of snow, and piled it over the wound. "Pack as much snow in there as you can, and get him back to the inn." They scrambled to do her bidding, with Jessan lifting the smaller man easily in his huge arms and Hercules walking alongside, putting pressure on the snow with his hands.

Gabrielle watched them go, and put a hand on Xena's arm. "You can save him right?"

Blue eyes gazed sadly at her. "Go on. I'll be up there in a minute." After I make sure this guy remembers what he did here.. for a very, very long time. She lifted a hand and stroked the bard's stricken face. "Go be with him."

The bard put her hands flat on Xena's belly, and leaned close. "You come too.. don't.. " Her eyes flicked over Xena's shoulder. "Leave this… they need us more.. than you need to… " She stopped speaking, and reached up to gently stroke Xena's face. "Please?"

Xena felt the wolf come tamely to Gabrielle's gentle hand, and she let her anger go, feeling the sorrow seep in and chase the dark fire out. "All right." She put an arm around the bard and hugged her close for a long moment. "Let's go."

From the whiteness of the drifts, came a clapping. Xena turned, as she felt a familiar presence, and moved away from Gabrielle, putting her hands on her hips as the dark, shrouded form came close. "Well.. might have expected you."

Ares sauntered up to her, giving Gabrielle a fake little smile over her shoulder. "Good work. " He gazed at the trapped raider. "Been trying to catch one of these guys for a while." He gazed appreciatively at Xena. "You're having a party, and you didn't even invite me. I'm shattered, Xena."

Ares the wolf came trotting over, sniffing at his namesake's boots and wagging his tail. He stood up on his hind legs, and put his big paws against Ares' leather clad chest, snuffling at him with a friendly whine.

"Cut that out." The god hissed, but scratched his ears, and got a lick on the nose for his trouble. "Xena, you trained him to do that." The god looked up and saw the grim look on her face. "What's the matter, sorry you missed out on killing someone?" He patted her on the cheek. "Don’t' worry.. it was a good thing." He glanced at the closely watching raider, who now had a distinctly nervous look on his face. "You did me another favor, Xena.. this is getting to be a habit of yours."

"You want him." Xena asked, tonelessly, jerking her chin towards the still trapped raider. An idea was forming.. it was.. dangerous.. and possibly.. stupid. But it was the only chance Iolaus had.

Ares nodded. "You got it, babycakes." He turned to move towards the raider, but was stopped by a strong hand on his shoulder.

"There's a price." Came Xena's voice, soft and dangerous.

Ares stopped, and stared at her. "You.. are going to ask a price of ME?" The god sauntered over to her, and stroked her cheek with the back of a knuckle "What did you have in mind, blue eyes?" He smiled. "You wanna ravish me? That'd be a price I'd be willing to pay.. hmm? Tired of your little girlfriend there?"

Those eyes looked right into his. "The price is a life."

A thickly dark eyebrow raised, along with a corner of his mouth. "Wh.. oh, Xena.. no no no.. not the little man there, no… can't do it, baby.. he's like this with my brother, and you know.. we just don't get along. Nope.. sorry, can't do it."

"Come on, Ares. I know you can do it. "Xena asked quietly, a tiny quirk twitching her lips. "Consider it.. a birthday present."

The War God opened his mouth, then shut it again. Then opened it. "Xena, do you have any idea how much trouble I could get into with Hera for doing this?" He shook his head. "Nope.. sorry, kid."

"But.. his death serves their purposes, Ares." Xena tried her next to last card. His face remained expressionless. She pulled out the last one. "Please?" Consciously softening her voice, and gently tugging on the darkling strings that bound them together. Dangerous.. oh boy was it.

Their eyes locked for a long moment, while snowflakes drifted between them.

"Birthday present, huh?" Ares finally sighed. "All right.. but if any word of this gets back, you're all in for a six month tour of the ugly side of Tartarus. Got me?" He stomped towards the inn, then turned and threw a bolt of energy at the tree, slamming the raider to it. "Don't go anywhere." He patted Gabrielle's head as he passed. "Hi kid." Then he glanced at Xena. "Someday, you're gonna let me in on just what you see in this little brat, right?"

Xena gave him a look, and he laughed. "Ares, I'd bother to explain, but you'd never understand." She rolled her eyes. "Just what the Hades is going on with all this.. " She gestured around her "Weather, and these damn raiders, and that necklace.. it's all connected, right?"

The god stroked his beard thoughtfully. "That's.. what I'm trying to find out. " Now his deep voice was serious. "And.. if it's what I think it is.. well, you might want to reconsider rejoining me, sweet thing. Cause I think we're gonna need each other."

Xena flicked a glance at him, aware of the sudden pressure of Gabrielle's fingertips on her elbow. "Nice try, Ares."

Surprisingly, the god didn't answer, he just kept walking, as the wooden planks sounded hollow under his boots on the steps leading to the inn.

Cyrene opened the door as the small group approached, her heart in her throat as she spotted the limp form cradled in Jessan's huge arms. "Good gods.. what happened?" She hurried ahead of them, and helped Ephiny move the hearth table out of the way, so they could put him down next to the fire, on the thick rug. Hercules dropped to his knees and let the blond man's head and upper body rest in his lap, as he kept pressure on the wound.

Elaini opened her healer's kit, and set it down, gently moving Hercules' fingers. Her face went still, and she let out a soft breath in dismay at what she saw, but remained silent, and just took out a pad of clean linen, and pressed it against the gaping slice under his ribs. Her eyes lifted and met Jessan's, and he, too, sighed softly.

"They were after him." The forest dweller said heavily, looking up at his father's touch on a shoulder. "We just went to get some water.. for the horses." He shook his big head. "One minute, they weren't there, the next… and gods.. it was as if I wasn't even there."

"Who were they?" Cyrene asked quietly, her eyes fastened on the pale, silent face.

Jessan shook his head. "I don't know." He watched Elaini carefully pack the wound with moss, and cover it firmly with a bandage. Knew it was useless. "Maybe Xena knows now." He looked up at Hercules' tense face. "Why were the after him?"

The pale eyes blinked. "They weren't." His voice was ragged. "They were after me." He paused. "They always are."

Ephiny laid a hand on his shoulder, and rubbed it gently. "Everything's going to be all right, Hercules."

He looked at her. "No it's not. His heartbeat's fading." He clasped a hand on the smaller man's shoulder. "Xena knew. She just… didn't want him dying out there in the cold." His voice fell to a whisper, as the sudden, ugly burst of memory that had caught him unaware outside returned.

And he remembered what he'd done to the blond man, who rested now so trustingly in his hands. Iolaus was bleeding on the outside. Hercules was bleeding on the inside, aching with the knowledge that any apologies were now probably going to be made in another place. Another time.

"No." Cyrene settled on the other side of him, and put a hand over his. "She has a plan, or she'd be here. You have to believe that." I know my daughter. "Hang in there."

A heavy silence dropped over them, until it was broken by the sound of footsteps outside the door. All eyes went towards the sound, as the wooden portal opened, and three people stepped in. Two, they knew. The third.. dark haired, dark bearded, a hawk like profile and cruel eyes, sent s shudder down all of their backs. Save Hercules, who felt only weary hatred. "Ares." He said the word like a curse.

"Let's get this over with." Ares grumbled, waving a hand at them. "Hi, hi, howareya, rotten to see you, Hercules, hello." He pushed Ephiny aside, and dropped to a knee beside the stricken Iolaus, pulling aside the hands pressing his wound closed. "That's messy. " He looked up. "Nobody get any ideas, all right? This is a private thing between the Warrior Princess and me, so don't expect any repeats, or think I'm getting nice, or anything. All right?" With a disgusted look, he put a hand over the wound, and concentrated, his eyes closing half way, and his lips moving in set of syllables that none of them could catch.

When he pulled his hand back, the wound was gone.

"There. All done. Have a rotten Solstice, everybody." He looked up at Hercules, who was staring at him. "Especially you." He blew Herc a kiss, then stood and backed, right into Xena. "Whoops.. oh, it's you." He turned and grinned. "You can put your hands on me, any day blue eyes."

Xena gave him a long, appraising look. "Thanks." She finally said, letting a smile cross her lips. "Happy Solstice, Ares."

The tiniest quirk of a smile twitched at his face. "Happy birthday, Xena." Their eyes met, and his right one barely winked, then in a flash of blue he was gone, leaving behind a set of stunned faces.

Xena's eyes met Hercules, over Iolaus's still form, and she gave him a little shrug. "Called in a marker." Her eyes dropped. "Sorry if it's not quite the route you would have taken."

The demigod, put a hand on his friends steadily moving chest, and swallowed. Talk about the end justifying the means.. he hated owing Ares.. but.. damn it… "Xena.. I don't care. It worked." He let out a shaky sigh. "Does he have any idea what in Hades is going on?"

Xena pulled out a nearby chair, and dropped into it, running a hand through her disordered dark locks and shaking her head. "No… he's trying to find out." She looked up as Solon circled her arm with his small hands. "Hey there… "

The boy gazed at Iolaus, then at her. "That was scary." He sniffed. "But grandma said you'd make everything ok, and she was right." He looked at her with bright eyes. "Did you beat up all the bad guys?"

A shaky, relieved chuckle ran around the room. Gabrielle settled down on the chair next to her partner's and put a hand on her back. "She sure did, honey." The bard assured him. "No problem." She moved her fingertips in a gently circular motion, and felt Xena take, and release, a long, steadying breath.

Cyrene walked over. "I've got a plate of cookies to settle everyone down. Would you help me get them out here, Solon?" She held out a hand to the boy, and gave Xena and Gabrielle a tiny wink when he took it. "All right folks.. excitement's over.. we've got a party to get rolling."

Iolaus became foggily aware of his surroundings as he felt his body being moved, and then felt a soft surface yield under his back. He forced his eyes open to see Jessan's distinctive head backing away, to be replaced by the concerned face of Hercules. ".." He reached for his head. "Wha happened?"

Then a familiar voice cut in, and he felt the pressure of a hand against his shoulder. He looked over and recognized Gabrielle's gentle gaze. "Iolaus, what's the last thing you remember?"

He blinked at her, then looked around. They were in the room Ephiny had been using, and he realized he was tucked in her bed, with Gabrielle kneeling at his side. Hercules walked over to the chair in the room, and quietly sat down, next to where Jessan was seated on the rug. "Uh… well.. " his brow creased. "We were.. hmm… getting water… right?"

Jessan nodded. "That’s right."

He closed his eyes against the lightheaded feeling that cascaded over him. "Right.. and.. uh… oh! We were attacked." He rubbed his head. "Who were those guys?" He muttered. "Well..I remember getting hit.. " Slowly, his hand drifted to his ribcage, and touched the smooth skin there, then he lifted his head, and stared down. "I thought I remembered getting hit." His brow creased. "What… "

Gabrielle rubbed the edge of her thumb against his bare shoulder, and looked over her own. "Can you guys excuse us for a few minutes? I'll bring him up to date."

Hercules looked relieved. "Sure.. sure.. that's a good idea." He rose and gave Iolaus a wave. "Take it easy, buddy." He waited for Jessan to walk through the doorway, then followed him and closed the door behind them both.

A small silence fell, as Gabrielle and Iolaus regarded each other. "So… what's up?" Iolaus asked, guardedly. "You're making me nervous.. the fact that it's you here.. means something needs to be broken to me gently, and that's very scary, Gabrielle." He took a shaky breath. "Cause if it was no big deal, Herc woulda just said, or I'd have Xena in here with her usual 'this is what it is so just get used to it' style."

Gabrielle pulled the covers up and tucked them around his chest. "All right." She smiled. "I guess you've got a point there. " She took his hand in hers. "You were hit… and they kept fighting with Jessan and Ares until.. I guess.. Ares must have howled, and Xena heard him. So she took off and found you guys, and did her usual bag of tricks.. but.. mm… you'd been hit pretty bad."

"O..K…" Iolaus felt his midsection with a puzzled look. "So… what happened?"

"They.. took you back up here." Gabrielle answered carefully. "Um.. you were dying, Iolaus."

His eyes widened. "Oh." Then he felt his stomach again. "Um… so.."

Gabrielle gave him a little bright, comforting smile. It scared the daylights out of him. "Well, Xena kind of… um… called in a favor." She waved a hand. "And.. sort of got you healed.. you know Xena.. she's got lots of folks out there that owe her one. " She paused. "Or several."

"Healed me." Iolaus said slowly. "Gabrielle, that required a god."

The bard drummed her fingers on the edge of the bed. "Uh.. yeah." How do I get talked into doing this stuff? I gotta stop falling for that 'you do the sensitive chats' routine. "That's right."

"Well." The blond man closed his eyes. "That's… " His eyes popped open, and found Gabrielle's in horror. "Oh no.. don't tell me.. " Only one god I know of who's likely to just pop by at Xena's request.

She patted his arm gently. "Weeeelll…. " The bard sighed. "He happened to show up.. and.. he does owe her one..and…she kind of talked him into doing it as kind of a birthday present."

"A birthday present." Iolaus echoed, shaking his head. "He really does have a soft spot for her, doesn't he?"

Gabrielle pursed her lips and sighed. "Yeah, I think he really does, sometimes. When he doesn't want to kill her, or get her back to his side." She let the silence settle between them again for a few seconds. "So… how's it going with you guys? I haven't had much of a chance to talk to you since we got back."

His eyes shifted away from hers. "Fine..we're fine… how'd things go for you?" He cleared his throat gently. "I heard you had a little adventure while we were gone.. you know, Gabrielle, you really do have a knack for that kind of thing. " Now he gave her a brisk smile. "Glad you got out ok."

The bard settled down next to him on a small stool. "Thanks.. yeah, it was pretty scary, but it worked out all right." She took his hand in hers. "How's Hercules doing? Xena told me what happened."

His jaw tensed. "Oh.. he's.. doing all right… I guess.. you know, it was a pretty big shock for him, and… but he's a tough guy.. he'll be fine."

"Iolaus?" Careful now, Gabrielle… don't spook him.. but he's off balance right now.. maybe you can get him to open up.

"Yeah?" He gave her a wan smile.

She leaned on her elbows, and gazed at him. "What really happened to you in the mines?"

He was trapped there, caught in that mist green regard that seemed to look right through him. "Wh…what makes you think anything happened?" Try a bluff first.

"Hercules thinks something did." She answered gently. "And so does Xena, who has the imagination of a sea turtle." She chafed his hand lightly "C'mon, Iolaus.. this is me, remember? We do the same thing… right? Maybe I can help.. I've got the insight.. the sidekick thing down pat, OK?" He remained silent, staring at the wall.

Damn.. damn… ok.. time to bring out the big stick. "Iolaus, I know how you feel." She put a gentle hand on his chest. "I know what it feels like when someone you love and trust hurts you."

Slowly he turned his head. "Xena would never do that to you, Gabrielle "

The bard's eyes glittered with unshed tears. "No.. she wouldn't.. Iolaus.. but someone did.. and I know how much that hurts." She gazed at him intently. "C'mon.. talk to me."

His eyes blinked slowly. "It wasn't his fault." It came out in a whisper. "I was just… another .. prisoner." He let out a shaky breath. "Just… another.. adjustment. " He felt a squeeze on his fingers and returned it. "I got.. whipped." He shrugged and turned his head. "Knocked around.. beat up a little." He paused. "Then.. he put me in this cage.. kept dousing me with cold water all time… I lost track of when.. where… of who I was for a while."

Gabrielle gently stroked his arm, but kept silent. Damn.. Xena was right… poor Iolaus.

"Came to a point.. I had to choose between.. " His jaw worked for a few seconds. "Giving in..and becoming.. something.. I don’t want to think about.. or hating him.. or escaping, and finding some way.. some…person.. who could stop him." Now his eyes met hers. "And one night.. when I was in that stinking cage, freezing… shaking so hard I couldn’t sleep.. I realized that I.. did.. know.. a person.. who.. could stop him." He stopped, then went on. "And.. I hung onto that thought…did what I had to do to get out of there."

The bard sighed. "Iolaus.. did he.." Her eyes unhappily found his. "Force you?"

He blushed. "No.. no… wasn't his.. style."

So. She mused. Xena had been right about that, too. One good thing. "I'm glad." She squeezed his shoulder. "And you're right.. that wasn't him.. it wasn't his fault at all, Iolaus.. you know Hercules would never hurt you.. not on purpose."

He nodded . "I know.. but.. Gabrielle, that's what's scaring me.. if he remembers this.. what will that do to him?" He gazed at her in distress. "What am I going to do.. I can't tell him… he feels so bad about the whole thing to begin with."

Gabrielle patted him soothingly. "Let's let Xena deal with that."

Iolaus' expression brightened slightly. "She has a plan?"

Now the bard smiled. "She always has a plan."

The blond man gave her a relieved grimace. "Gabrielle.. does… Xena know what happened to you?"

She nodded quietly. "Yes.. it happened before I met her.. in fact, it was one of the reasons I left Potadeia in the first place." She paused. "But.. it was a long time before I.. told her.. just recently, as a matter of fact."

Iolaus absorbed that for a minute. "Did it.. were you relieved when you did?" He gave her a crooked smile. "It sure just made me feel better.. just to tell someone."

Gabrielle paused and remembered. "Yeah… it did.. and it was kind of a… well, I always trusted Xena with my physical safety, right? I mean.. I always knew she'd do her best to make sure I didn't fall off a cliff.. or if I did, she'd just catch me.. know what I mean?"

Iolaus smiled. "I know exactly what you mean."

The bard nodded. "But.. I learned not to trust anyone with what was really inside me.. because when someone knows all that, it's really easy for them to hurt you with it." Her eyes drifted around the room, then returned to Iolaus' face. "I was really scared.. when I told her. Because it was like giving up a part of myself."

"What did she do?" The blond man asked curiously.

Gabrielle smiled. "About what you'd expect. She got really, really mad that someone had done something to hurt me, and she couldn't do anything about it." She got up and scooped a bit of hot soup into a mug, then returned and kneeled back down, handing it to him. "Here.. Xena says you need to get some liquids into you.. there's kind of.. a lot of blood missing in there." She tapped his chest. "And.. of course.. " She continued her previous statement. "She went and made it very clear to the person who had done the.. well.. you know Xena.. she did her best to make sure it wouldn't ever happen again."

Iolaus sipped his soup, and gazed at her. "I'm surprised.. I mean, forgive me, Gabrielle.. but I'm surprised she didn't just… um… " Take a more direct approach.

The green eyes met his quietly. "It's my father."

Iolaus' face stilled into a gentle anguish. "Oh.. Gabrielle." He put the cup down, and reached for her, pulling her into a hug. "I'm so sorry." He rubbed her back as she returned the hug. "That's rotten."

She released him, and smiled quietly. "It's all right.. we've.. kind of worked things out, mostly." She gazed at him. "But.. being able to tell Xena.. that really helped me to come to terms with the whole thing.. she.. gave me a safe place to be in that made all the difference." Now she clasped his arm. "So.. remember that your friends are here for you, Iolaus… there's a safe place if you want one."

The blond man studied her for a long while, then smiled a little. "Thank you, Gabrielle." He dropped his gaze and blushed a little. "I think I owe you an apology, by the way.. I um… I though you were.. um…"

A soft laugh reassured him. "I know.. Xena told me." She patted his shoulder. "It's all right.. " She put the soup back in his hands. "Sorry you had to find out that way.. but Xena certainly did enjoy herself doing it."

Iolaus rolled his eyes. "She sure did." He sighed, then gazed at her attentively. "Hey.. I heard you got hurt during your little adventure.. you feeling OK now? " He gently patted her ribs, then his eyebrows rose. "Wow.. you're pretty solid!" He laughed. "What have you been doing, lifting logs?"

That got an impish grin back. "Yep.. I'm fine, thanks.. just a few cracks… spent a week in bed and that was about it." She stretched. "And as for the other.. well, yeah, I've been working pretty hard.. takes a lot to keep up with Xena." She chuckled. "But then.. you should know about that, right?"

The blond man took a big swallow of soup. "Oh.. yeah." He took a deep breath. "You got that right.. hey, so tell me.. was Xena just trying to impress me, or does she always go non stop like that?"

Gabrielle stretched her legs out in front of her and leaned back on her hands. "Always. She's like this unstoppable never-ending energy ball." She yawned. "I get tired just watching her.. especially when she's taking off and doing backflips and stuff while I'm still trying to open my eyes." Her gaze dropped, and her face took on a pensive look. "But.. she was probably in kind of a hurry coming back."

Iolaus took her hand in his and rubbed it. "Can.. I.. Gabrielle, do you two…um.. it seemed to me like Xena somehow.. knew.. about what was going on with you.. hey, I know that's crazy sounding but…" He let the sentence drift off, and watched her face.

The bard hesitated a long moment before answering. "Um… " Unconsciously, her fingers went to her throat, and curled around her necklace. "Yeah, well.. it.. we… it's kind of hard to explain." She finally finished, somewhat lamely. "But.. um.. yeah, we can usually tell when stuff is going on."

"Stuff?" Iolaus asked cautiously.

"Stuff." Gabrielle confirmed. "Real strong stuff.. like.. " Her eyes found his. "I felt it when she touched that necklace."

His eyes widened in amazement. "Really?" He let out a breath. "And she knew you were in trouble."

Gabrielle nodded slowly. "Yeah."

"Wow." The blond man sighed. "That's really strange."

The bard smiled a little. "Strange.. I guess.. but.. it's also kind of nice." Her face relaxed into a grin. "Certainly comes in handy sometimes."

He laughed. "I see your point." He slowly sat up. "Hey..I better get you back out there.. aren't we supposed to be having a joining ceremony?"

The bard got to her feet. "You sure? I mean.. it's OK, Iolaus.. you probably need to rest."

He waved her off. "Nah.. I'd rather be out.. " His voice faltered a little. "Out there where all the action is…besides, I don't want to miss this… " He carefully got his feet under him, and stood, wavering a little until Gabrielle got his arm slung over her shoulders and wrapped a supportive grip around his waist. "Wow.. " He laughed, squeezing the muscles in her upper arm. "You could probably just carry me out there."

"Iolaus." The bard sighed, and rolled her eyes.

"Can I get you to beat people up for me?" He teased her.

"Iolaus!" She growled in return, as she got the door to the room open.

The inn was now packed, with villagers and guests, most of whom were scattered about in small groups chatting, and enjoying ale and cider, which they used to wash down an assortment of tidbits supplied by Cyrene's kitchen.

"Nice crowd." The innkeeper muttered to herself, leaning against the service bar, and studying the shifting groups. She spotted her daughter sitting quietly in the corner, sprawled on a heavy bench, listening to Kaleipus relating some tale or other.

Solon was sitting next to her, his legs tucked up under him on the bench, his head resting against her shoulder, and one arm wrapped around Ares, who was curled against Xena's side with his dark muzzle laying on her thigh. Cyrene smiled at the picture they made, feeling her heart twinge again at the boy's uncanny resemblance to Lyceus.

Then her mind turned to recent events. So.. She mused. That was the God of War. Her brows quirked. She'd heard rumors about her daughter's involvement with him for many years… and certainly, there had been a… mmm.. certain air of mutual.. not respect, but a kind of acknowledgment between them. He had, after all, wished her a happy birthday, and she had, somehow, talked him into saving Iolaus' life.

Interesting. She sighed, as she eyed Hecuba's still upset face. The woman was standing next to her, watching the activity with a disturbed expression. "Hecuba, will you please calm down."

Gabrielle's mother turned to her in outrage. "Cyrene.. that was the God of War."

Cyrene shrugged. "I know." She sniffed reflectively. "I dunno.. I kind of like a nice beard on a man. He's kind of cute."

Hecuba stared at her. The two women had become fairly close during Cyrene's visit to Potadeia, and Hecuba liked the innkeeper a lot, but sometimes her sense of humor was a bit.. on the startling side. "What?"

"You don't think so?" Cyrene smirked quietly. "I know his reputation.. but after all, he did save poor Iolaus."

Hecuba drummed her fingers on the counter. "But…"

"C'mon..c'mon… you didn't think he was good looking?" Cyrene coaxed.

Gabrielle's mother glanced around cautiously. "Well… " She sniffed. "That was a lovely vest he was wearing." She admitted grudgingly. "And he has interesting ears."

Cyrene's dark eyebrows arched towards her hairline. "You noticed his EARS?" A wicked smile crept across her face. "Why.. Hecuba.. I never figured you for an ear woman."

Hecuba gave her a little, stuffy sneeze. "Hmph." But her expression relaxed a little and she sighed. "I suppose I'm going to have to get used to all this." She lifted a hand and gave it a little wave, indicating the room. "It's.. just very strange."

They both turned as the door to the small room opened, and Iolaus and Gabrielle emerged, the fair haired bard supporting the still pale Iolaus as they moved slowly across the room, where he was greeted with enthusiasm by their friends. Gabrielle got him settled right next to Hercules, who leaned over and clouted him on the shoulder with rough affection. The bard watched for a minute, then patted the blond man's shoulder, and headed the short distance to where her partner was lazily sprawled.

Solon had gotten up, and was headed across the room towards them with Cait, both of them giggling as they dodged the groups of people between.

"Your grandson is quite handsome" Hecuba leaned over and mentioned to Cyrene, as they watched the two children approach.

Cyrene smiled mischievously. "Well.. Hecuba.. you do realize that after today.. he's your grandson also, right?"

Hecuba gave her a stunned look. "What?"

The innkeeper gave her a cheerful smile, and turned to greet the two. "Hi you two.. what are you up to?"

"You were right." Gabrielle sighed, as she slid onto the bench next to her partner and leaned back. "On both counts."

"Mm." Xena acknowledged, sliding an arm across her shoulders and pulling her closer. "Figures." She stretched out her long legs and crossed them at the ankles. "All right.. I'll … talk to him tomorrow.. no sense in doing it today." She reached out a hand and plucked a tidbit off the tray at her elbow, and offered it to the bard.

Gabrielle accepted the treat neatly, and chewed. "Mmm…" She opened her mouth for more and smiled around a mouthful as her partner complied. "Gods." She sighed, as she swallowed, and nestled her head against Xena's shoulder. "I gotta stop that.. I'm gonna explode before the end of the day otherwise." She plucked at her tunic. "And this doesn't have a lot of spare room."

Xena ran her eyes down the bard's body. " but it does look good on you." She dusted a few specks off the bard's sleeve. "Save some space in there for that pig mom has roasting.. I stuck my head out the door a little while ago when they were testing.. gods, that smells great."

Gabrielle smiled and wrapped an arm around her, glancing up. "Well, you worked up an appetite.. " She looked across the room to where Jessan was seated, gesturing with one fist in an animated conversation with Eponin. "You should have heard them cursing when you took off. " She snitched another tidbit and nibbled it, then plucked another and popped it into Xena's mouth. "It was funny… I mean… well, so did I… " She paused, giggling at Xena's raised eyebrow. "Take off, I mean.. not curse at you.." She bit her lip. "I grabbed my staff and jumped over that table.. and I beat Eponin AND Granella out to where you guys were." She stopped and gave Xena an impish look. "Eph's been having a really good time teasing them ever since… if they don't eat a thing tonight, it's because she's been hinting that all this lazing around is starting to slow them down a little."

Xena laughed. "Oh.. great…poor Eponin… first me, then you…" She offered the bard another snack. "Bet you felt good about that though, didn't you?" Her eyes regarded her partner with a twinkle of pride. "They'd better work harder if they want to keep up with their Queen."

The bard chuckled. "Uh huh.. and you should have heard them talking when you were taking that guy on with a piece of wood.. they went on, and on, and on.. and finally, Jessan shut them up by telling them that was nothing.. they should have seen you take on three hundred slavering wild six armed soldiers at Cirron."

Xena winced. "Three hundred? Six arms? " She groaned. "Gabrielle!!!."

"Mmm…" Gabrielle rubbed her belly gently. "Of course, they all turned to me to see if it was true or not."

"Oh.." Xena chuckled. "So… you said…?"

The bard looked up at her affectionately. "I said yes, absolutely."

The warrior gave her an outraged look and got a mischievous little giggle in return. "You're gonna get me in trouble one of these days, bard." Xena sighed, but couldn't keep a grin from appearing on her face. She looked up as footsteps approached, and gave Josclyn a quiet nod.

The village reeve settled in a chair across from them, and pulled out a stack of parchments. "Well.." He gave Xena a straightforward, but slightly shy look. "Would you like to get the paperwork out of the way now?"

Xena nodded, and straightened up, leaning her elbows on the table's surface and lacing her long fingers together. "Good idea… I think it might get a little.. " Her eyes traveled around the room. "crazy around here later."

Josclyn chuckled, and cleared his throat. "Glad to be inside today… it's worsening out there.. and I fear the night will be indeed a long one tonight.. your mother is preparing some extra pallets and things in case we have to house folks overnight here."

The warrior grunted an agreement and waited patiently for the reeve to assemble his parchments, as Gabrielle watched curiously over her shoulder.

"Aye.." He pulled out a quill and ink, and settled them, carefully sharpening the quill and dipping it precisely into its stain. He pushed a few strands of gilded silver hair out of his iron gray eyes and cleared his throat again. "Xena, I know you were born here…" He made a mark. "And you're from Potadeia, is that right, Gabrielle?"

The bard nodded. "That's right."

"Mmhmm. " The reeve made another mark. "Xena, you know your mother has named you and your brother as equal heirs to all her land holdings here, right?"

"Yes." Xena answered quietly. "Have you drawn up the document I asked you about?"

He nodded, and drew out a cleaner, newer piece of parchment, scanned through the writing once, and handed it to her. She read through the language, and gave a little nod. "Fine."

"Wait." Gabrielle put a hand on her arm. "Xena, what is that?"

Xena took a breath, and studied her hands a minute. "My will." She answered, giving her partner a brief smile. "Not that I have much… well, not that I have many possessions to leave."

The bard took the paper from her, and examined it. "You need to change this." She finally said, quietly.

The warrior's brow creased. "Gabrielle.. it's…. I have to leave this.. stuff.. to someone."

Serious green eyes met hers. "I know." She paused. "But it should be someone who's going to be around to take it." She swallowed. "Leave it to Solon."

Just like that. Matter of fact, and straightforward and it took Xena's breath away. It sent an ache through her, a sense of pain that Gabrielle had actually looked inside herself to make that decision.

What would I do? Suddenly the room closed in on her, and she closed her eyes. No question. She let her eyes open and met Joscyln's concerned gaze. "Amend it." She said in a very soft voice, as she felt Gabrielle's hand curl around hers and squeeze.

The reeve nodded, and took the parchment from her, bending over it, and concentrating on changing the text.

"Sorry." Gabrielle whispered. "Xena, I didn't mean to… "

Xena leaned over and kissed her lightly, stopping her speech. "No explanations, Gabrielle." She answered back. "I should have thought about that, and spoken about it with you." A quiet pause. "I'm sorry."

Gabrielle remained silent for a few breaths. "You still don't believe that would be my choice, do you?" She finally asked, a note of pain in her voice.

Xena stared at the table's surface, counting the cracks in the woodgrain with infinite concentration. "I do believe that, Gabrielle. What I don’t believe is that I'm worth that decision."

The bard studied her partner's quiet profile until the parchment was ready. Then she took it from Joscyln's hands, and put it between them carefully. "You don't have to believe it, Xena. I believe in it enough for both of us."

A cock of that dark head, that allowed her a glimpse of crystal blue eyes and a hint of a smile. "I know." She replied, then took the quill from the reeve's hand, and inscribed her signature on the paper, blowing gently on the ink to dry it before handing the parchment back.

"Right." He said with a sigh, slipping the document into his leather case. "Gabrielle, do you wish to become a citizen of Amphipolis?"

The bard nodded. "Yes." They'd talked about that before today. "I.. um.. I know I don't have a lot to.." She jerked to a halt as Xena covered her mouth with a hand.

"Mark down that Amphipolis is now host to an Amazon Queen, and a published scholar of the Performing Bards Academy in Athens." She smiled at the blush she now felt coloring the bard's fair skin.

Joscyln's mouth twitched, and he glanced at Gabrielle with a look of fond amusement. "Can't slip past that one, your majesty." His gray eyes twinkled. "Gabrielle, you would have been welcome here had you been a common milkmaid, never you fear. But don't sell yourself short, lass. "

Gabrielle bit back a smile, and gazed shyly at the tabletop. "I.. know I tend to do that." Now her eyes turned to her grinning partner. "But I don't get away with it much anymore."

Xena's eyebrow rose. "Three hundred? Six arms? Fair is fair, my friend."

Josclyn laughed, and passed a short document over to Gabrielle. "Sign this, if you please." The bard did so, in her small, neat hand. Citizen of Amphipolis. She giggled quietly to herself. I like the sound of that. Then she caught sight of the gentle, wondering look on Xena's face and realized that all her worldly experience notwithstanding, her partner was as new to this process as she was.

Now the reeve's face became quietly serious, and he pulled a last document from the case, holding it in his hands as he looked Xena right in the eye. "Xena… there's a lot of water that runs under the bridges we're standing on."

Xena felt a touch of nervous tension tighten her gut. Well, I knew the past wouldn't stay buried forever. Amphipolis.. has a big claim on me.. if they want to press it. "That's true." She replied softly. Didn't think he was going to.. but… I guess I deserve it. Gabrielle must have felt her sudden worry, because the bard slid a hand to rest on her knee, and she felt the gentle pressure of her partner's thumb rubbing in a comforting motion against her skin.

Josclyn nodded. "I am the reeve of this township.. and that means I represent the law here, Xena. You know that. It falls to me to judge the claims of the law against any of the citizens here, and pursue them to justice."

Xena took a deep breath, and returned his gaze evenly. "I acknowledge that." She felt tension coil down her spine but stayed motionless. "I submit to your judgement." A razor's edge of uncertainty pressed at her, knowing by law, by the things she'd done, Josclyn could pronounce a penalty of.. anything. Even death, but she didn't think that's what he had in mind, else he wouldn't have waited until now to do so.

"Xena." Gabrielle's voice was sharp, and worried. She glanced at Josclyn in building outrage, her green eyes beginning to snap with a fiery indignation.

The reeve looked up in surprise as Gabrielle stood, and bristled, her temper beginning to flare. Xena reached up and clasped her shoulder, pressing her back into her seat. "Gabrielle.. please."

The bard subsided, but her eyes held his with unnerving sharpness, and he smiled inwardly at the Warrior Princess' unlikely champion, as he turned his attention back to the paper he was holding. "Xena… I studied the past, and reviewed the present, and thought about the future, because Amphipolis has charged me with the responsibility for that. " He paused. "It seems to me that my scales are balanced… what happened in the past is long gone, and what is happening in the present counterweights that. As for the future.. " Now he smiled at her. "I think Amphipolis does well to have you amongst us.. and my charter is well served when I set my name to this scroll that gives you right to free and clear citizenship here. "

He took a breath, and let a small silence settle, then he laid the parchment in front of her, with small, precise movements as he looked back up. "Welcome home."

Xena sat there and let the words roll over her, unsure of how to respond having never remotely considered the possibility of hearing them. Her eyes tracked to the parchment, seeing not only Joscyln's name, but the elder council's as well. Most of who had good reason to know her crimes firsthand. I can't believe this. Her mind whispered. It can't be happening. This all must be a dream.

Gabrielle's cheek pressed against her shoulder, and she felt bard's grasp tighten on her, anchoring her in a swirling sea of glad chaos. . Oh.. gods.. if it is a dream.. please.. don't let me ever wake up. She sent a silent, heartfelt plea up, then managed to regain control of her voice. "Thank you."

Josclyn nodded quietly. "You're welcome." There had been.. far less debate than he had thought there might be.. even from the elders, who certainly remembered what she'd cost them. In fact, he'd detected a very faint, well-hidden streak of half-guilty pride in her that had.. surprised him. And most of them had newer memories to consider… of her saving them from Draco.. and again.. of Xena's tireless efforts to feed the village this winter.. and her dauntless courage in defending them, especially that dark night when two outlaw bands had descended on them.

She'd stood out in that courtyard, armed with nothing but her blade and a thin tunic, and stood off all of them, fighting like nothing they'd ever seen. Or would again, he hoped. Never stopping until the last ragtag of them ran like weasels from the village, leaving behind injured comrades and frightened horses.

Never once touching her. And she'd picked up the outlaw leader, and shook him like a dog. "This is my home." She'd told him. "And nobody comes in here. Nobody. Got me?"

From that day forward, no one had.

And it had been what one of the outlying farmers had told a visiting merchant at the bar. "Sure.. she's dangerous, that one. She's a right terror, no doubt about it." He'd said. "But she's our terror."

That had about said it all. In a dangerous world, you took what safety and security you found and were glad of them. And he was glad of her. "If you citizens are ready, I'll get me things together, and we can put the ceremony behind us, so I can start taking part of yer mother's fine ale."

Xena smiled, and studied her hands, then glanced towards Gabrielle. "You ready?"

Her answer was a laugh. "Am I ever."

"Is it still snowing?" Hercules asked, peering cautiously outside the kitchen door.

A slithering sound greeted him, and he yelped as a pile of snow cascaded off the roof and landed on his head.

Cyrene turned, from where she was poking a cautious prong into the ground. "Yes." She deadpanned; gazing in startled amusement at the snow covered demigod, who was licking the frosty stuff off his nose. "Here." She walked over, and used a piece of linen to wipe the ice crystals off his head. "Don't suppose you want to help me get this pig out, huh?"

Hercules gave her an easy smile. "As a matter of fact, that's why I'm here." He brushed the snow off his muscular arms and sighed. "Xena said you probably could use a hand.. though..I think she's just kind of trying to get everyone out of the way in there."

"Hi." Jessan popped his head out.

The demigod glanced over his shoulder. "You get sent out here too?"

The forest dweller grinned. "I think we're too big… " He eased out the door. "It's getting a little close in there."

"I bet I know who'll end up out here next." Hercules laughed gently, shaking himself to rid his thickly clad shoulders of incessantly falling snow.

"Bet you don't" Xena's dry voice cut through the weather. The tall warrior slipped outside the door, and joined them. "Oh..mother.. um… " Xena glanced over her shoulder, then back at Cyrene. "Just..what.. were they supposed to be doing with that cake frosting?"

Cyrene straightened up with a jerk. "What?"

The warrior solemnly licked off a thumb. "And how did you get it that color?"

The innkeeper brushed by her, giving her daughter a slap on the leg. "They'd better not have dropped that bowl." She paused, and tugged on Jessan's tunic. "Give me a hand for a minute, will you?"

Jessan gave Xena an amused glance, then followed her inside, leaving the two of them quietly looking out at the falling snow.

An awkward pause fell, then Hercules cleared his throat. "You holding up ok? It's.. kind of crazy in there." He gave her a tentative smile. "I know how much you love crowds."

Xena leaned back against the wall of the inn, and crossed her arms. "Yeah… just needed a little fresh air I guess." She studied him. "How are you doing?"

"Me?" The demigod shrugged, and crossed his own arms, leaning back next to her and gazing out at the snow. "Fine.. fine… why?"

Her cool, analytical gaze swept over him. "You flinch every time you look at Iolaus."

He looked down at the ground, and pushed a clump of snow around with his boot. "I.. um… " He closed his eyes. "Remembered.. what I did." His speech halted. "To him."

The warrior sighed. "After the fight?" She hazarded a guess, remembering the sudden wave of horror that had swept over his face.

He nodded. "Yeah… when he was lying there, in his own blood." The demigod slowly shook his head. "Xena, I can't look him in the eye.. what am I going to do? For the sake of the gods, he's my best friend."

Xena pursed her lips, and considered the problem. "He.. told Gabrielle this morning." She said slowly. "And.. she said.. he was more worried about how you'd take it than what had happened." She put a hand on his shoulder. "He's a good friend, Hercules… he knows that wasn't you.. that it wasn't your fault." She paused, then went on carefully, picking her way with caution. "It.. could have been a lot worse."

"Yeah? How?" Hercules asked shortly, letting out a heavy breath. "How could I possibly top beating, than caging someone who's supposed to be a close friend of mine?"

The warrior rolled her head to one side, and regarded him. "If you don't cut that self pitying crap out, I'm gonna havta knock you around a little, Herc." She spoke the threat with casual menace. "You could have done.. a lot worse to him.. and to those others. What you did… nothing was.. permanent, all right? It was.. nasty, sure… uncomfortable.. but.. you didn't kill anyone, and everything you did was fixable."

Hercules' gaze turned as frosty as the weather. "As opposed to what?"

Now Xena turned to face him, and captured his gaze with her own, leaning forward and letting the wolf loose at will. "As opposed to what I.. would have done. " She stepped closer, poking his chest with a long finger. "You're a good person, Hercules. Nothing can change that.. even in the worst of circumstances.. so don't you forget it." She let her voice drop. "It's over… it happened, but it's over.. Iolaus forgives you.. he understands what happened. If you let this come between you..if you let it destroy your friendship, then you'll hurt him a whole lot more than anything you could do to him physically, got me?"

Hercules remained silent, his face tense.

Damn. Xena cursed silently. I am not good at this. "Look.. he cares about you, Hercules. That hasn't changed."

Now the demigod's eyes lifted and met hers. "I know.. " He clenched his jaw. "That's a problem too."

Xena's eyebrow rose. "What?" I knew there was something else going on with them….

"It's.." He lifted his hands and let them drop against his sides. "People assume things, Xena. You.. should know that better than most."

Now her eyebrows contracted. "Well.. um.. sure… I do know that.. but.. " Where is he going with this???

"No buts." Hercules said with a sigh. "Idle talk.. but it's gotten back to both of us.. that the rumors are.. uh…. " He stopped, and his face colored.

Xena wiped a grin off her face. "That you two are lovers?" She asked quietly.

His face now turned brick red. "We're not."

The warrior put a calming hand on his arm. "Relax. It never crossed my mind.." She smiled at him "You two.. are really not.. um… each other's type." She finished kindly. They're both cute, but they have as much chemistry together as a duck and a pig would. No.. sparks.. there.

He peeked at her. "Really?" He cleared his throat. "I mean, of course not." He waved his hands. "But it's… " He sighed. "Xena, I envy you."

An eyebrow curved back up. "Me?" Xena pointed at her own chest.

He nodded. "Yeah..look.. you're tough.. you're mean.. nobody in his or her right mind would look at you cross-eyed and live… but you can just.. " He stopped and gazed unhappily at her.

Ah.. I see his problem. She stroked his arm gently. "I can do that."

Hercules nodded. "Yeah.. and not have to worry about your image."

"Mm." Xena considered this. "It's a girl thing, Herc."

He sighed. "I know." Now he tramped around in the still falling snow, shaking his tawny head to clear the flakes. "But it's getting us both paranoid.. it bugs me, and I know it bugs him.. it's gotten so that I don't even go near him without us both getting this uncomfortable…." He paused. "And it's not… damn, Xena! Friends should be able to.. " He put a hand on the warrior's shoulder, and squeezed it. "Do that, without feeling guilty.. or ashamed.. or.."

Xena ran her fingers through her hair, scattering snowflakes around her body. "Have you talked to him about it?" That seems like a reasonable thing to ask… but boy, oh boy, am I out of my depth here.

The pale eyes blinked at her. "Talk to him?" His voice rose in amazement. "About this?"

Xena walked over and tucked her arm into his. "Let's go inside before we freeze into statues.. and yeah, talk to him. " She paused with her hand on the door. "You guys do talk to each other, right?"

Oh.. this is rich.. me giving him a lecture on communication. Gabrielle would be rolling in the snow if she'd heard me. "Right?"

"Uh." Hercules gazed at her, an embarrassed look on his handsome face. "Not.. exactly." And found himself gazing into appraising blue eyes. "Well… I… Xena, it's a guy thing. We just don’t' talk about stuff like that."

She opened the door, then remembered something, and paused, pushing him gently against the frame. "Hold on." She said quietly, unlacing the collar on his tunic, and pulling the fabric aside.

"Xena I…" He fell silent as she hissed under her breath. "Yeah.. I.. it…"

The warrior rolled her eyes. "Come on." She tugged his arm. "This'll only take a minute, and I wanted some fresh air anyway." She headed away from the inn, leaning forward and moving with determined steps through the thigh high drifts towards their cabin.

"So.. you having fun?" Gabrielle asked, as she slid herself down into a seat next to her sister. "Elaini's pretty neat, huh?"

Lila grinned. "I was.. kind of intimidated at first… gods, Br.. Gabrielle.. " She got no further, as her sister, laid a hand on her arm."What?"

A shrug. "You can call me Bree if you want to, Lila." The bard sighed. "It's all right."

Her hazel eyes met Gabrielle's mist green ones. "But you said you don't like it." She paused. "Xena never calls you that."

Gabrielle studied her hands. "No.. she doesn't.. she.. asked me if I wanted her to, and I just said.. no. " A glance at Lila. "I just like my whole name better.. "

Her sister smiled. "Especially the way she says it… gods… you guys don't have nicknames for each other, do you?"

The bard shook her head. "No.. sometimes when she wants to be extra irritating, she calls me Red. But… otherwise.. no.. " She paused, and grinned. "And yeah.. I love listening to her talk. I've got these.. scrolls, in another language, that she translates for me.. and just sitting there listening to her.. " A dreamy grin crossed her face. "I just love it."

Lila smiled at her "You've really got it bad, don't you?" She gave her head a minute shake. "What a goofy look."

Gabrielle leaned her head back against the wood of the chair and let out a happy sigh. "Yeah, I know." She laughingly admitted, as she selected a tiny sandwich from a tray resting near Lila's elbow and munched on it, reaching down with her free hand to tickle Ares' ears, as the wolf curled up around her feet. "Hi, Ares.. where'd your mom go?"

"Roo." The wolf lifted his head and licked her knee. "Arrggrrrr." He eyed her with a hopeful look, and wagged his tail when she offered him the end of her sandwich. "Grrr." He delicately took it with his teeth, and swallowed it down without chewing.

She laughed gently at him, then glanced up at her sister's indulgent look. "He's cute, isn't he?"

Lila smirked. "Yeah, he's cute…and he's got you wrapped around his little paws."

The bard snorted. "Me?" She indicated herself with a finger. "Oh no.. you should see him with Xena. He gets about half of every meal she eats out of her." She looked down at the shaggily dark wolf whose ears had perked up at the sound of Xena's name. "Yeah, you know who I'm talking about, don't you?"

"Grrrrrr.." Ares replied, settling his muzzle down on her foot with a little sigh. Gabrielle eyed him a minute longer, then looked up to meet her sister's appraising eyes. "So… how was the freak out level when Ares the Elder showed up?" She asked wryly.

Her sister waggled her hand. "Weeel… Da was all right with it.. he just kind of crept up in back of me and sort of watched with that kind of 'I'm interested but pretending not to be' kind of look." She replied slowly. "Mom.. almost passed out, but Cyrene took hold of her and dragged her off somewhere." She took a breath. "I was…kind of .." She pursed her lips. "He scared me."

Gabrielle nodded solemnly. "He scares me too." She fiddled with her belt clasp. "He even scares Xena."

Lila raised an eyebrow. "Couldn’t tell."

The bard gave her a half grin. "She's got that "I'm too tough for my leathers' routine down pretty pat." But I know every twitch.. every breath that's out of place now…

Her sister thought about that for a minute. "So.. that's all an act?"

Gabrielle eyed her. "Well.. no, not really. She really isn't afraid of a whole lot… but she knows people expect her to act a certain way, so she does, most of the time." They stopped to watch Josclyn start to clear a small area near the fireplace, and put out his scrolls, along with a strip of very white linen, and some other small items they couldn't distinguish. "Guess it's almost time." She took a steadying breath. "Um… you ok here? You need a drink.. or more of this stuff?" She indicated the sandwich platter.

Her sister rolled her eyes, and gave Gabrielle a rueful look. "I have one question."

Gabrielle cocked her head inquiringly. "Yeah?"

"You've been here for.. what..over two months?" Lila asked.

Her sister nodded, puzzled. "Um.. yeah.. " She selected another sandwich and bit into it. "What's your point?"

"My point is.. with all this great cooking around here.. I want to know what the Hades you do to stay so skinny." Lila cocked an accusing eyebrow at her. "Don't tell me that life on the road story, sis… cause you're not out there now."

Gabrielle blushed lightly, then glanced up at Lila, and gave her a little, crooked grin. "Do you have any idea just how much energy it takes to keep up with my partner?" She laughed gently. "Seriously.. I do put on a couple now and then.. it just never sticks… we're just constantly getting involved in stuff.. and then I have to fight just to stay even." She yawned and leaned back. "And Xena's worse… " She closed her eyes and imagined her partner's sleek, muscular body, and felt an appreciative grin tugging at her lips, along with a gentle warmth tingling up her spine. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes and turned her head to face Lila. "We just keep busy."

Lila sighed. "I'm jealous." She shook her head. "You're disgusting."

The bard snorted. "Thanks." But they grinned at each other.

Lila leaned forward. "I know she gave you that ring… you going to give her one?" She asked, curious, watching Gabrielle's expressive face. "You are.. aren't you?"

The bard dug into the small pouch attached to her belt, and came up with something, which she studied, before opening her hand fully and extending it towards her sister. "Yeah." She bit her lip as Lila gently took it in a thumb and forefinger and brought it closer to her eyes for an inspection.

"Oh.. my gods….. " Lila breathed, staring at the glittering piece. At it's interlaced and woven gold, which cradled two brilliant diamonds, bracketing a richly blue sapphire. "Gabrielle, that's gorgeous." She looked up at her sister, astounded. "Where in the world did you get it.. and gods, it must have cost the earth!"

Gabrielle folded her arms across her chest and gave her a tight smile. "Yeah.. took a long time, and a lot of saving up from telling stories across half of Greece for that.. but… I think I picked one that she'll like." She let out a long breath. "It was a really hard decision.. cause she doesn't go in for jewelry at all."

Lila carefully put the ring back into her sister's palm. "If she doesn’t… she's crazier than I think she is." Then she looked up, impishly. "So.. what else did you get her?"

The bard tucked the ring away and laughed. "Oh.. a whole bunch of little stuff.. practical things.. stuff I know she needs.. you know."

Lila nodded. "Yeah.. Lennat and I exchanged ours before we left… he got me a bunch of new.." She rolled her eyes and stroked her belly gently. "Bigger tunics and things… stuff like that. I got him new work clothes, and a new leather apron." Her eyes examined Gabrielle curiously. "Is that a new outfit??" She grinned. "It looks really good on you."

One hand drifted down and touched the soft, woolen material. "Yeah.. one of my early Solstice presents from Xena." She grinned impishly. "She hates waiting."

Lila's face lit up. "Oh really? What else did you get?" She scooted forward, and leaned towards her sister, glad for this chance to exchange normal sibling talk.

"Mmm… well, stuff I needed.. lots of parchment, and quills.. a little kind of lap board so I can sit out in the grass and write.. if this weather ever clears up.. " She rolled her eyes. "Um… and a surprise she pulled on me last night.. " With an embarrassed blush, she pulled out the much folded piece of parchment Xena had handed her and gave it to Lila, playing idly with Ares fur until she heard her sister gasp.

"You brat!!!" Lila squealed, giving her a slap. "Da!" She called, spotting their father crossing the room in search of a hot mug of something. He detoured and paused by them, resting his hands on the back of Lila's chair. "I can't believe you've been sitting on this all day and didn't show anyone." The dark haired girl groaned in exasperation, as she handed their father the parchment. "Da, will you look at what this little brat has been hiding?"

I'm going to kill her. Gabrielle sighed inwardly. I didn't want him to… oh well. Slowly, she looked up, feeling her gut twist as she studied his quietly inexpressive face, suddenly wanting her partner's comforting presence as she felt her mouth go dry.

Herodotus read through the document several times, as she herself had, then glanced down at her, folding the parchment and handing it back to Lila. "Go show this to your mother." He said in a gruff voice.

Lila gave him a wary, suddenly uneasy look, but stood and edged around the chair, her eyes catching Gabrielle's in silent apology.

The bard closed her eyes briefly in acknowledgement, and jerked her head a little, letting her eyes follow her sister as she gently eased through the gathering crowd towards the kitchen. Then she swiveled her head, and met her father's gaze.

They examined each other for a long, silent moment, while the happy din of the room rose like a curtain around them, and the fires subtle popping seemed to sharpen.

Herodotus rubbed the side of his nose, then studied his interlaced his fingers thoughtfully. "You look very nice today." He commented dryly.

Gabrielle studied the floor. "Thanks." She replied quietly. "Are you having a good time?"

Her father nodded shortly. "Some very interesting people here." He glanced around. "They all have a very high regard for you."

Yeah… and how far away from home did I have to go to find people who did? "They're… all good friends." She replied in an even tone.

Her father sighed softly, and regarded his thumbs. "And I'm not a friend… I know that."

She didn't answer, just watched him, her guard firmly up. Under her drifting fingers, Ares lifted his head, and stared at Herodotus, his ruff puffing up as he sensed the roiling emotions just under her tightly held reserve. The wolf's lip curled, exposing his white, sharp teeth as an almost soundless growl vibrated his body.

Herodotus studied the wolf in silence. Then he grunted. "He think he's your protector?"

Gabrielle stroked the wolf's coat soothingly. "He takes after his mom." Now she looked up, meeting his gaze squarely.

He nodded slowly. "She made that pretty clear." His voice was calm. "Gabrielle, I'm not going to bother apologizing to you.. because that really wouldn't mean anything.. I did what I did, and I can't change that." He cocked his head at her. "To say I would have.. is probably not the truth, and we both know that."

The bard regarded him quietly. "I don't want an apology from you."

He sighed. "This isn't.. the life I would have chosen for you.. but you know that." He swallowed. "I've.. come to terms with the fact that, for better or worse, you've chosen a hard.. dangerous path.. one that puts you in harms way for reasons I can't begin to understand."

Gabrielle ducked her head in quiet acceptance. "I… don't expect you to understand it."

The sound of his intake of breath, and the soft scrape as he rubbed his hands together. "What you've become.. is your own doing, and none of mine." He stated quietly. "But.. regardless of that.. and of the unhappiness that sits between us and probably always will, I find myself.. to be very.. " He hesitated, and waited until she glanced up, until their eyes were fastened on each other. "Very proud of you." His mouth twitched. "I'm.. glad you asked us to be here.. and that I've had an opportunity to get a glimpse of your life."

She sat, hardly breathing, unable to believe what she was hearing. What she'd wanted to hear for so long she couldn't…

He sighed. "You're a remarkable person, Gabrielle. I wish I could take some kind of credit for that, but I can't.. all I can do is regret a lot of things.. and hope that one day, maybe, you'll look at me and not see only a person who hurt you."

Gabrielle absorbed the words, as she looked down and riffled her fingers through Ares thick fur. The only way to break the cycle of hatred and violence is through love..and forgiveness. Isn't that what I said to Xena? Isn't it? She took a deep breath, and looked up, right into his warily guarded eyes. "I already do." Her Solstice gift, in a way. "You're my father, and I love you."

She caught him by surprise, she knew… his jaw sagged quite outside his control, and she could see the startled, blinking reflex as his eyes widened. She almost would have giggled if the situation hadn't been so deathly serious. "I need to go talk to Josclyn.. " She stood and pressed a hand against his shoulder. "Thanks."

And she walked away from him, giving him space, and a chance to collect himself, and to think about what had just happened. Because she needed that too.. needed a moment's peace to settle her thoughts and to savor the quiet sense of redemption his words had given her. Solstice.. she reflected quietly Was a good time for that.

Continued in Part 7

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