The Longest Night - Part 8

Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

Cyrene quietly gazed out the kitchen window, basking in the sunlight pouring into the room as she absently stirred a steaming cup that sent up the tickling scent of mint to her senses. Sleeping in had felt… very good. She let out a gentle sigh, and leaned against the sill, slowly sipping the tea and hugging her robe to her, enjoying the quiet, peaceful stillness of the inn.

All in all, she reflected a good party. Despite the weather, and her daughter's evening ending, wildly chilling snow fight, which had sent a slide of the icy stuff down her own back, not to mention everyone else's, and resulted in a lot of… seeking of warmth after the two celebrants had left.

The innkeeper chuckled softly, thinking of her own, unexpectedly active bedtime. Who knew Johan had such skilled…hands? Definitely a pleasant surprise, once they'd both gotten over the almost goofy adolescent bashfulness of the moment. What had gotten into them? She took a sip of tea and sighed happily. Who cares?"

Must have been watching that dancing, she reflected with a rueful grin. Good grief, those Amazons shook things she never thought were meant to move in quite that manner. And her daughter… Well, Cyrene mused, those muscles must come in very handy for things other than fighting.. She let that thought force a muffled snort, then paused. Had she heard something?


She had. Cyrene slowly turned, and her eyes widened as a hooded and cloaked figure edged its menacing way through the door. Grimly, her hand felt behind her for a knife, and she felt her fingers curl around a familiar thick shaft. "What do you want?"

The figure paused and thrust a bowl towards her. "What was in this?" Came a muffled voice.

Cyrene's eyebrows hitched. "Ephiny?" She dropped the knife hastily behind her and set her cup down, padding across the floor and examining the bowl gingerly. "What… what's going on? This is my frosting bowl.. I was wondering where it disappeared to last night." She took it from the Amazon's hands, then paused. "Uh… " A glance up. "It's empty."

"Yeah." Ephiny muttered. "Um… what was in it?"

The innkeeper studied her shrouded face. "Why?" Then she glanced down and laughed gently. "Oh.. goodness.. did you.." She sighed. "Well, if it didn't give you a bellyache by now, it probably won't kill you." She tried to glanced up under the hood of Ephiny's cloak. "What are you doing all bundled up like that?"

The Amazon held her silence for a long, suspenseful moment, then reluctantly put a hand up and swept the hood back.

Cyrene clapped a hand over her mouth and bit her lip. Ephiny was covered with… stripes. Sort of .. wavy, kind of almost artistic.. stripes and dots, and.. oh, was that a little curly cue? All in mottled shades of blue, which contrasted oddly with her pale hair and eyes. "What.. on.. earth????"

Ephiny ground her teeth. "Just…tell.. me… how.. to.. get… it.. off." She said the words slowly, enunciating each one as though tasting it.

And it must have tasted very bad, judging from the sour expression on her face.

"Um." Cyrene looked at the bowl, then at her. "Well… it's um… "

The door swung open, and Jessan ambled inside, stifling a yawn behind one huge hand and stopping dead in his tracks when his golden eyes fell on Ephiny.

"One word, and you're a rug." The Amazon regent stated calmly.

A squeak issued as Jessan closed his mouth so fast he forgot to pull his tongue in and it ended up sticking out in a comical gesture, poking from between his curved fangs.

Cyrene rubbed her temples, then clasped her hands together. "Were you.. um…oh.. I…" She watched a slow, helpless, pleading look leak into the blond woman's eyes. "Practicing… Amazon.. um.. traditional.. body decorations?"

A dead silence, then a sigh from Ephiny. "Hadn't thought of that one." She admitted, sitting down on the bench with a thump. "Ok..ok.. um… m.. Cyrene, how do I get this stuff off?"

The innkeeper straddled the bench across from her and rested an elbow on the table, studying Ephiny's face. "Oh boy." She sighed. "Well, it's oil based, unfortunately."

Jessan slowly sank down on the other side of the table, and rested his chin in his fur-covered hands, peering with interest at the side of the Amazon's face. "Gosh.. how'd you get that stuff all the way in there?" He asked curiously.

Ephiny glared at him. "Don't you have something more interesting to do?"

The forest dweller grinned, showing the tips of his fangs. "More interesting than this?? Gosh no." He poked the tip of his tongue out at her. "Blue painted humans before breakfast just tickle my furry ears."

Cyrene sighed. "Well.. I'd better go get our healer.. maybe he.."

"Uhhhh… no.. no… please." Ephiny winced. "I don't wanna have to explain this to…um… a guy."

"Hey!" Jessan objected, his muzzle coloring. "I'm a guy!"

"You don't count." The Amazon growled.

The innkeeper nibbled her knuckle. "Well… then there's only one person really who… might be able to come up with something."

Ephiny closed her eyes and let her head rest on one hand. "I was afraid you were going to say that."

Cyrene lifted her hands and let them drop. "Well, dear, she does have many skills." She turned her head towards Jessan. "You want to go wake her up?"

Golden eyes flicked from one woman to the other. "Uh.. no." Unless.. well, maybe they're already awake.. He focused his Sight quickly. OH…bloodystripedoneballedhorseshooves. "Uh…" I think my fur is smoking.

Ephiny's eyebrows quirked. "Oh.. come on.. she's not that bad to wake up.. you don't have to do much.. just.. oh, breathe, thirty or forty feet away."

"She's up." Jessan muttered, his muzzle flushing a dark red. "I'll just… uh… ok.. uh.. fine.. I'll be right back. " He stood, and bolted out the door, slamming it behind him.

Ephiny and Cyrene gazed at each other in silence. "Kind of.. skittish.. for someone that ferocious looking." Cyrene commented wryly. "Um… do you mind if I ask.."

Pale eyes gazed plaintively at her. "Yes." She groaned, then her shoulders slumped. "Oh.. Hades… we were just.. " She let her hands lift and drop. "Playing around." She drummed her fingers on the table, wondering just how long the fuming Eponin would last before she stopped trying to scrape the stuff off with a piece of soapy leather and decided to come storming out here. Not.. Ephiny had to privately admit, that it wasn't funny.. it was.. she just wished it someone else it had happened to.

Serves us right for being such hedonists, the Amazon sighed, having told Eponin exactly that when they'd woken to mutually widened eyes and horrified expressions. Oh well.. She looked up as Cyrene set a large bowl of steaming, nutty smelling cereal in front of her and handed her a spoon. "Might as well, huh?"


Gabrielle idly watched the stripe of sunlight move lazily across the room, sneaking up the side of the bed and slithering across their cuddled forms like an ethereal serpent, painting a golden warmth along her arm and highlighting the fine, pale hair. A few dust motes drifted indolently in the light, and the bard merely watched them float, not having the inclination or desire to move a single inch.

Instead, she let her gaze drink in her partner's sleeping form, enjoying the sun's patterns which alternately brought out the mahogany highlights in the dark hair, and threw shadows across her sharp profile, which, even relaxed in sleep still held a hint of tension, the faintest twitch of a muscle just under her skin on the side of her face paying witness to the fact that on some level, there was awareness there. Of her, of the cabin.. of birds outside, probably.

"How do you do that?" Gabrielle had asked, in all innocence, when they'd just been travelling together a short time.

Xena had looked up, with that sharp, impatient look she sometimes… a lot of times, got. "Do what?"

She'd been ambling along on Argo, and suddenly pulled the mare off into the shadow of a few trees, dragging Gabrielle by the shirt along with her. Long minutes had passed, and Gabrielle had been about to burst into a demand for explanation, when the warrior had unceremoniously clapped a hand across her mouth.

Then, at the very edge of her hearing, she'd detected hoofbeats, and they'd watched in silence as a legion of king's guards rode past, their ribald manner indicating a meeting would not have had a happy conclusion.

"Wow." She'd said, in laughing delight. "That was amazing." And she'd asked. "How do you do that?"

Xena had given her a dour look, and hadn't answered, just started off again.

But much later, that night, when they'd been lying on their bedrolls for a while, she'd heard a quiet, almost discorporeal voice float across the campfire. "It's.. not magic, if that's what you're thinking."

Gabrielle had had to dig through her memory to figure out what the woman was talking about, then nodded quietly to herself. "No.. well.. I mean, I really didn't think so, because… I don’t know.. it's just like… you just do it."

A sigh. "I had to learn to do it. When.. I was… well, before… just about everyone around me was an enemy." Xena had explained in an almost toneless voice. "I learned to.. always keep a guard up.. so if .. someone came after me.. or tried to.. in the dark.. or when I was asleep, I'd have a chance at stopping them."

It was one of her longest speeches ever, and Gabrielle gave it a respectful period of silent contemplation. "I won't ever try to hurt you." She finally said, glancing across the flames, seeing the quirky half grin that briefly lightened the warrior's face.

"I wasn't really worried about that, Gabrielle." Xena had answered, with a touch of wry amusement. "But… um… you don't have to worry about anyone jumping you at night either.. it kind of covers you too."

The bard had rolled over onto her side, and gazed at her friend. "I never worried about that." She'd even laughed a little. "You always make me feel safe.. I trust you completely." It had seemed.. then.. an obvious statement, and Gabrielle hadn't thought twice about it.

But Xena half raised her body, the firelight gilding her dark features, and looked at her. "Gabrielle.. you hardly know me." The warrior had protested.

And she'd just shrugged. "I know.. but I can't help it. I feel like I've known you forever."

The warrior's eyes had studied her for a long, expressionless moment. Then the lashes had dropped, and she'd tilted her head and gazed at one hand, absently ruffling the fur of the bedroll she was lying on. "That's a crazy thing to say." Xena had said, softly, then looked back up. "I'm glad you haven't."

And Gabrielle had understood what Xena had meant, but had tried to put her whole heart into her answer, hoping her taciturn, and often cold companion would understand her. "It wouldn't have mattered. We'd still have been friends."

That.. had gotten her that little half smile as the firelight reflected off those clear blue eyes of hers. "Think so?" Xena had commented wryly.

"Yeah." Gabrielle had answered with quiet confidence. "One way or another."

And Xena had just nodded, a little.

Now the echo of that simple statement reverberated around her, and she smiled, breathing in the familiar scent of her soulmate, and reveling in their close contact. That's never changed. She mused, with a contented sigh. This is still the safest place in the world.

Her eyes slid down her partner's body, taking in every line and curve, resting lightly on the faint scars, and the notch her thumb could barely feel in her bottommost rib that had been broken months ago. Her chest rose and fell with a strong, rhythmic regularity, one which Gabrielle's own breathing matched perfectly, and now the bard felt the subtly coiling tension start in the muscles resting under her arm that meant her partner was waking up.

Sure enough, when she tilted her head and looked up, sleepy blue eyes were gazing back at her, and a lazy half grin was shaping Xena's lips. "Morning." The warrior drawled, sliding a hand up the bard's back and gently rubbing it.

"Uhnngh.." Her partner groaned. "Too much dancing last night… gods, I'm stiff." She arched her back under Xena's touch and stretched against the dull ache.

Xena let the grin proceed, as she attended to the tight muscles she could feel under her fingertips. "Look at you…" She clucked under her breath as she worked. "Dancing, huh?"

"Mmmm… yeah.. dancing.. and other things.." Gabrielle mumbled blissfully, closing her eyes and sighing. She let her body slowly move against Xena's, and rubbed her cheek against the warrior's shoulder. "I think I'm the one turning into a house cat." She confessed. "I feel.. very spoiled right now."

"Oh yeah?" Xena rumbled, deep in her throat, a sound more felt than heard. She let her other hand join it's mate, and expanded her gentle massage, teasing and touching until Gabrielle was warming her chest with her breathing, and the bard's own hands had begun to roam, gliding softly across the warrior's hip and down her thigh.

"Xena?" The bard whispered, as she nibbled the warrior's jawline, and felt the flutter of her pulse under her lips, which twitched into a smile as she sensed the coil and shift of muscles under her fingertips as they moved.

"Uh..?" One blue eye cocked its attendant eyebrow at her.

"H'long you think we got.." Gabrielle's lips moved on, capturing a tasty earlobe. "For Eph comes after us?"

Xena just shook her dark head, and chuckled deep in her throat. "Dunno.. but anyone comin barging in here's gonna get a chakram up their.."

"Xena!" Gabrielle growled in a giggling manner.

"Nose." The warrior finished, gently biting down on her partner's, then kissing it. ""Sides…she won't come out in public."

Gabrielle had to take a few moments to breathe, completely distracted, before she had the presence of mind to think about that. "What.. how much.. um.. uh.. oo.. that's nice. Um.. blue stuff did you put on her?"

"Dunno." Xena said again. "Depends on how creative Pony was."

Gabrielle paused, and looked down into her clear, blue eyes. "Xena.. she was drunk." In a faintly scolding tone

A dazzling, mischievous smile. "I know." Xena then took the opportunity to investigate her partner's navel, which she privately regarded as quite cute, besides being one of the bard's most ticklish spots.

"You… are a very, very bad girl." Gabrielle informed her, struggling to maintain a severe expression. "Auggh… Xena..stop that!!!" She bit her lip to keep from giggling helplessly. The truncated noise came out as a gurgle.

"Heh.. you bet your bardic butt I am." Xena chuckled, nibbling a path up the bard's chest and listening to her helpless giggles. "Relax… I have something that'll get the stuff off.. " She reassured her partner. "Let's just see how long it takes em to break down and ask for it."

"Oh.." Gabrielle ducked her head to one side, and gently nuzzled her partner's neck. "So it's not permanent?" That came out very muffled. She let out a half incoherent growl as Xena's hands slid across her.

Then her head cocked gently, and she listened for a moment. "Hmmm… " No further sound came, and she chuckled, then captured the bard's lips , giving it her full attention for a long space of time, sparing not one thought for the drowsing fur covered form sprawled indolently on the porch of their cabin.


He really hadn't intended on falling asleep, but the sun, and the cold, crisp air and the late night previous combined to allow his senses to drift off, as he curled up on the now snow free porch. He found himself dreaming, little, nonsense dreams of times spent with his friends in childhood, bounding around the high grassed clearings near his home village.

Squirrels were fun to chase, and they had, racing through the chest high river grasses that whipped against his thick fur as the scent of summer warmed earth rose to his acute sense of smell, the slightly musky hint of the river joining it. He padded to a halt, breathing in the warm air and feeling the grasses tickle his face around him.

He brushed them back, but they persisted, managing to get inside his left ear and nearly drive him to distraction.

His eyes popped open, and he jerked his head around, slapping at whatever was tickling him. A low laugh answered, as his eyes met Xena's, who was reclining next to him on the porch, a bit of straw neatly tucked in hand. "Oh..uh…hi."

The warrior regarded him in some amusement. "Hi." She reached out and tickled his nose with the straw, beating his reflexes easily. "Thanks for waiting." She bared her teeth in a devilish grin, chuckling as she watched his muzzle darken, and his lips scrunch up in a scowl.

Jessan sighed. "You knew I was out here, huh?" An eyebrow cocked at him. "Never mind.. scratch that. Of course you did." He felt his blush fade and drew a knee up, wrapping his long arms around it. "So.. um.. good morning!"

Xena stretched her shoulders out and gazed across the courtyard. "Yeah.. it is." She returned her glance to the forest dweller. "Haven't had a chance to talk to you… it's been kinda busy." She studied the straw bit in her hands. "Glad you guys could make it."

Jessan smiled. "Glad we could too.. it's been fun.. even mom and dad are having a good time." He rubbed his nose. "My mom really likes your mom."

They eyed each other. "That could be dangerous." Xena commented wryly, then gave him a light slap. "I hear you're going to be a father."

The forest dweller sniffed at her in mock outrage. "Oh.. yeah? Well, I hear you're a mother!" He snorted. "Talk about keeping secrets… damn, Xena!" He grinned at her faint blush. "He's really cute… looks just like you."

She shrugged lightly and laughed. "Yeah.. well… I.. " She sighed. "He makes a good target, Jess." She nodded a little "He's better off with the centaurs.. at least for now."

One golden eyebrow arched slightly. "For now?" His eyes glinted at her. "So.. how're you liking this taste of retirement?" That with the barest teasing barb in it, as his Sight flicked over her. Ah… my friend… so you've known peace here, have you? For a little while, at least. It does my heart good to see that. "Not that I blame you.. it's nice here."

The warrior gave a negligent nod. "It's.. been all right." She allowed. "I did it mostly for Gabrielle.. " A slight quirk of the lips. "It's been good for her." A waggle of a long fingered hand. "Settling down in one place for a while.. I think she's missed that."

Of course. Jessan gazed at her in wry knowledge. And Gabrielle would insist on the opposite, naturally.. but that was a harmless self deception on both parts. "Oh.. and poor Xena's just been grumping along, right?" He bit his lip, and gave her a teasing grin.

A low chuckle. "Nah.. all right.. I've been having a pretty good time, too." She glanced up as Ares came trotting up onto the porch, and settled behind her, resting his muzzle on her side and glaring at Jessan. "Hey boy.."

"Rrrrr.." The wolf rumbled at Jessan.

"Rrrrrrr." Jessan rumbled right back, lifting his lips and exposing his fangs.

"Cut it out, both of you." Xena sighed, giving Jessan a poke. "Don't start with him." She idly scratched the wolf's ears. "So… what'd you think of Ares?"

Jessan stopped growling, and blinked. "Well.. he's cute… " He remarked. "Why do you ask?"

Xena rolled her eyes and glanced at the ceiling. "I meant the God of War." She sighed.

"Oh." Jessan muttered. "Um.. that was.. unexpected.. I knew..I mean, I'd heard you guys.. kind of knew each other.. but I thought it was um… a little more.. uh.." He waved his hands. "Formal?" He sighed. "He was just.. kind of like one of us, except that he disappeared in a blue flash, and healed Iolaus." He paused. "It was… just kind of weird." He paused again. "Dad was impressed."

Xena snorted softly. "He.. " She sighed. "Every once in a while.. it pays to know him."

"Mmm." Jessan agreed, studying her profile, and remembering the shivering sense of likeness he'd seen as his friend and the god of War had stood facing each other, in their build, and stance, and the hawks sharpness of their eyes. "Yeah, but that can go both ways."

The warrior sighed. "Don't I know it." She stretched again, and twitched the edge of her tunic into order, arranging the rust colored fabric with idle fingers. "So.. you camping on my porch for a reason, or is it too noisy over there?"

"Ah." Jessan settled his wide shoulders more comfortably against the wall of the cabin, and rolled his head towards her. "… there was a kind of… accident."

A dark eyebrow rose. "An accident?" Xena's gaze grew thoughtful. "What kind of.. accident?"

The forest dweller opened his mouth, then shut it a few times, then uncrossed and recrossed his arms and sighed. "Um…well, apparently your mother left some of her… I have no idea what it was but it was blue.. something or other.. and apparently… a couple of the Amazons kind… "

Xena grinned. "Were practicing ceremonial body painting?"

Jessan let out a breath. "Yeah.. how'd you know?"

"Old custom." Xena assured him soberly. "So… you came to get me to do… what?" She paused. "Judge the competition?" Oh..gods.. this is almost as much fun as beating up people. And I end up with less aches from it.. unless you count the stomachache from laughing.

The forest dweller giggled. "No no.. your mother was hoping you'd know some way to get the stuff off."

"Hmm." Xena glanced up as Gabrielle appeared, closing the door and walking over to them, dropping down to settle cross legged on the wooden floor. "What do you think?"

"About what?" The bard asked reasonably, her green eyes sparkling in the sunshine. She was dressed in a pale blue shirt whose sleeves were rolled halfway up her arms, and whose ample folds were gathered in at her waist by a leather belt.

"They want me to come up with some kind of concoction that'll remove blue pigment from skin." Xena explained with a deadpan expression. "Apparently some of your Amazons got into mom's frosting."

"Really." Gabrielle drawled, matching her expression with delicate grace. "Um.. well, you know, Xena.. I really can't have.. uh.. MY Amazons parading around… " She glanced at Jessan.

"Stripes." He supplied succinctly. "And.. some dots, a few swirls… one really interesting curlicue.."

Xena and Gabrielle gazed at each other, identical muscles jerking in both sets of jaws.

"Right." Xena stood and brushed herself off. "Gotta go." Oh..I gotta see this…

"Me too." Gabrielle agreed, rising with her. "Moral support."

Xena chuckled, then put a hand on the porch railing and vaulted over it, landing lightly in the still banked snow and plowing a determined path towards the in. Ares scrambled after her, bounding in her shadow with an eager growl.

Gabrielle laughed softly, shaking her head, as she exited the porch the more common way, with Jessan ambling at her side.


" Ephiny… I guess you all will be heading home now." Cyrene paused, and chewed a mouthful of cereal. "Once we get you clean… um… fixed up."

The Amazon sighed, a faint smile twitching at her lips. "Yeah.. we were packing stuff.. time for us to get back to the village.. see what's been going on there." She glanced up. "Thank you.. for extending your hospitality, by the way. I know we've been a pain."

Cyrene did her best not to let the blue dot on the point of Ephiny's nose force her into helpless giggles. "It's been fun, actually.. been a while since I've had so many young folks around the place." She patted the Amazon's arm. 'You've given me a lot of good memories to think about."

Ephiny smiled quietly. "Thanks…same here." She ate another spoonful. "They've been telling me I needed to take a break for a while.. this wasn't exactly what I had in mind, but.. but um…" Her eyes sparkled gently "It's something I won't forget very soon."

The innkeeper chuckled. "None of us will, I think." She fiddled with her spoon. "Do you.. have family.. back home, Ephiny?" Do they have families in the Amazons? I should have asked Gabrielle

"Besides the entire Nation, you mean?" Ephiny replied with a smile. "I have a son, yes… " She glanced up at Cyrene. "His name's Xenon, as a matter of fact." She smiled at the innkeeper's look of surprise. "Named for the person who helped bring him into the world."

"Hmm…" Cyrene remarked. "I don’t think I've ever heard that story… " Then she chuckled. "Gabrielle must have not been there."

Ephiny stopped eating, and stared at the table, remembering. "Oh.. no, she was there." She replied carefully. "It.. was in Thessaly.. during the civil war there. She got.. hurt."

Ah. Cyrene considered that. "I had heard.. that war stopped suddenly.. right when the Minoans were about to declare a total victory. Marmax just.. stopped.. his troops and sued for peace."

Ephiny nodded. "Oh yes.. he did.. he got his brains rattled by a certain mutual acquaintance of ours until he was made to realize what price he was paying for victory." She took a breath. "In a healing temple.. Xena stabbed him, and brought him there to see if she couldn’t get him to turn his attitude around. " She paused. "She did."

"Oh.. well, I'd think she'd be quite proud of that." Cyrene stated, reasonably. "It certainly saved a lot of lives."

Ephiny took a breath, and pursed her lips. "But it almost cost her Gabrielle." She replied quietly. "And I don’t think she would have counted that an acceptable trade off." She sighed. "I don’t think she likes to talk about it because of that." Then she brightened. "But.. she did manage to put everything right.. and I ended up with little Xenon.. " She glanced down with a smile. "And a scar to prove it."

Cyrene's eyebrows jerked up, as she was distracted from thinking about what had happened. "She had to… oh.. goodness." She patted Ephiny's hand. "You poor thing."

"Well..' Ephiny admitted, frankly. "His father was a centaur.. I'm not sure it wasn't for the best."

Cyrene's jaw dropped, as her mind tried to imagine just how… "A… centaur??"

The Amazon smiled sadly. "Phantes.. yes." She looked up as the kitchen door opened, and winced as a familiar pair of ice blue eyes met hers. "Oh.. hi."

I am a warlord. Xena reminded herself fiercely. I have been fighting since I was fifteen. I have stood up in front of the God of War himself and kept control of myself. I am NOT going to burst into giggles. I am not. "Hi." One eyebrow quirked up. Breathe… no giggling.. breathe… "Nice..stripes." Breathe… "Morning mother." Get the scowl in place, that's it. Whew.

Cyrene got up, her mind still busy contemplating centaurs, and pushed Xena towards a chair. "Sit down, dear." She moved around towards the stove, almost colliding with Gabrielle and Jessan, who entered and stopped short.

"Whoa." Gabrielle blinked at Ephiny, who was blushing, making her blue stripes stand out vividly. "Um.. Eph… those are… um.. " Abruptly, she turned to her partner, who had seated herself across from Ephiny and was seriously engaged in appearing as though Amazons with painted faces sat in her mother's kitchen every day. "You know, Xena.. I think it reminds me of that fish you caught from the ocean that time." She smiled sweetly at her partner. "You know the one. With the puckery lips."

Xena closed her eyes. Thanks, Gabrielle. You had to remind me of the clown fish.. right? And it's little, comical face and it's goofy bugged out look. She lifted one hand and covered her mouth, then peeked over at Ephiny's face, biting her lip to keep from laughing.

Ephiny dropped her chin into her hand and sighed. "Go ahead, laugh." She gazed at the warrior's twitching face. "I deserve it… I can't believe I did something this stupid."

Xena felt a sharp prod against her ribs, and sighed inwardly. "Hey.. Eph.. I.. uh.. got some stuff to take that off." Another prod. "Uh…I'll go get it." She felt the bard's forearms settle on her shoulders, and leaned back, feeling the gentle warmth of Gabrielle's body pressing against her own. She resisted the urge to close her eyes and belatedly wiped the silly grin from her face when she saw Ephiny's smirk. Gods.. I gotta put a lid on that. What kind of reputation is that going to get me? Xena, Warrior Mushball.

"I've got a better idea." The bard commented. "How'd you like a nice, hot mineral bath?"


"I can't believe you talked me into this." Eponin growled, as she pulled her hood closely around face, and kicked viciously at a rock that dared to be in her path. "I don’t want them to see me."

Ephiny sighed. "Would you relax, please? It's just Xena and Gabrielle." She cast a glance at their two companions, who were strolling ahead a few bodylengths, talking in low tones to each other. "And Xena's got the stuff to get this crap off. So.. just take it easy. They've already seen it.. they don't care."

"Xena.." Gabrielle moved closer, and tucked a hand around her partner's arm. "Will that stuff really take the blue off?" She glanced behind them. "Pony's really pissed off." She paused. "I can't believe you did that."

Xena let out an exasperated breath. "Gabrielle, I didn't do ANYTHING… I really was tied to you all night, remember? All I did was.. um.. leave that where it was.. accessible. I didn't MAKE them eat it.. I certainly didn't MAKE them use each other for… artistic.. purposes."

Gabrielle giggled softly. "I know..I know… " She tightened her grasp and sighed. "Maybe this'll make it up to them."

They reached the cave with little incident, and even Eponin's grumpy mood improved when she saw the steaming pool and let the spicy scent fill her lungs.

"G'wan" Xena motioned for them to enter the pool. "I've got to mix up this soap." She spread her supplies out on a flat rock, and knelt beside it, unclasping her cloak and laying it to one side. She concentrated on her task, aware on the periphery of her senses of the subtle whispers of fabric against skin and gentle murmurs as her companions took off their clothing, then the arrhythmic sound of the water being disturbed as they entered, along with soft mutters of pleasure at the sensation.

She smiled quietly, casting a quick glance over her shoulder at the blissfully sighing Amazons and the fondly amused look on her partner's face as she watched them. Gabrielle was leaning against the near wall, her arms outstretched on the edge of the pool, and Xena took a moment to appreciate the supple and graceful body the bard was swiftly growing into. Damned if she doesn't put those Amazons to shame. The warrior chuckled quietly to herself.

Her hands shaped the ingredients into a soft soap, and she stood, enjoying the sweet, pungent scent of the stuff before she crossed to the pool, and dropped to one knee, offering the soap to Eponin, who was closer to the edge. "Here."

Eponin cocked a dark eyebrow at her, and reached up, taking the soap gingerly, then in a flickering motion, snapped her other hand up and grabbed Xena's arm, pulling hard, baring her teeth in a feral grin.

Xena felt her body jerk off balance, and compensated automatically, tensing her thigh muscles to hold her in place. She returned Eponin's grin, which widened as the Amazon let out a disgusted breath and released her. "Nice try." She drawled, shaking her arm to rid it of the water droplets from Eponin's hand. "Be glad.. if you'd dragged me in, and made me walk back in this weather in that wet stuff, you'd have the wrath of her majesty there to face." She jerked her jaw towards Gabrielle, who smirked.

"She's right." The bard agreed, leaning back indolently, and resting her head on her hands. "You joining us?" This was directed at her partner. C'mon, Xena… I love showing these oh so tough Amazons what the baddest thing going looks like. She let a half grin quirk her mouth, and was rewarded by its twin appearing on Xena's face.

"Yeah.." The warrior rose and dusted herself off, then crossed to where she'd left her kit, and packed it up, setting it to one side as she unbuckled her tunic belt and pulled it off over her head.

"Here.." Ephiny shook her head and scrubbed the soap over Eponin's face, leaving a blue tinted lather behind. The caramel eyes glanced sheepishly at her. "You just can't resist, can you?" The regent muttered softly

"I had a good chance…" Eponin mumbled back. "Can't help it if the damn woman outweighs me." She sighed in relief as the soap removed the blue stains on her arms. "That was starting to itch."

The suggestion immediately made a ticklish shiver run up Ephiny's spine. "Thanks." She gave Eponin a wry smile. "I needed to hear that."

"Sorry." The weapons master mumbled. "Here." She handed Ephiny half the soap, and scrubbed herself industriously, glancing over Ephiny's shoulder and pausing. "Damn." One eyebrow rose.

Ephiny's brow creased. "What's wrong?" She looked over her shoulder, then chuckled. "Oh." Xena was entering the pool, her attention on her partner, who was dodging flicks of water from the warrior's fingers.

The regent took the opportunity to study the long, lean body with suitable appreciation, having lived her life amongst warriors and having an eye for the subtle strength of a female form. It was, she mused, the proportions that were just so right about Xena… she wasn't overwhelmingly muscular like some of the Amazons.. like Arella, for instance. But all her parts were of the right size, and the right length, and she fit together with unerring precision, with a sense of solidity that spoke of long years of constant use of her body.

Taller than average, sure… a good part of that length her legs, which were so muscular they might have looked ungainly, save that her upper body was long enough, and well developed enough to balance that off neatly, and had the odd contrast of a woman's curves, overlaying the shadowy shift and movement of a warrior's uncompromising power underneath.

Seductive and scary, alluring and intimidating… she stood there half submerged, her skin collecting the firelight of their torches like some kind of bronze statue. Totally unconscious, Ephiny mused, of the sense of power she was giving off.. her attention riveted solely on Gabrielle, as she allowed the bard to tackle her, and take them both into deeper waters.

Fearless. Ephiny shook her head, as she watched Gabrielle maul her partner about like a favorite plaything, grinning as she ducked Xena's dark head under the water. The most dangerous fighter in this, or any other part of Greece, and the girl just pounces on her like a kitten with a ball.

"Hey." Xena spat out a mouthful of water, and shook her dark head, scattering drops of warm water everywhere. "Was that necessary?" She gave the bard a sly look, then splashed her with a quick movement. "Look.. no more painted Amazons." She observed, leaning back against the far wall of the pool, and folding her hands across her stomach. "You're lucky we got outta there before everyone else woke up."

Eponin grunted. "For sure." She gave Xena an evil look. "Word of this gets out, and I swear…"

Xena snorted softly. "Well.. let's see.. mom knows.. she's pretty good at secrets."

"Is that where you get that from?" Gabrielle asked innocently, as she settled in by Xena's side.

'Gabrielle… would you like your mother to hear about the Bacchae?" Xena threatened.

The bard grimaced. "Ok..ok..I'll be good." Noo…. I think we'll skip telling the folks about that one… it still gives me the willies.

"We'd like to hear about the Bacchae." Eponin and Ephiny stated in perfect concert. "Please?"

Gabrielle sighed. "I'm gonna hurt you." She paused. "Or better yet. .I'm gonna tell them who it was that left that bowl in their room." The words slipped out before she could think better of them, and she winced in reaction. Centaur poop. Sorry love… Her eyes apologized as she saw the warrior sigh.

Xena gazed at her in silent appeal, as she peeked over the bard's shoulder and spotted two really mad Amazons rising up out of the pool. Well.. I had my fun…. She slipped out from under Gabrielle's grasp, and ducked under the water, as two flying bodies hit the space she'd been in. C'mon, girls… gotta be faster than that.

Laughing, she surfaced and faced them. "Hey.. I didn't make you eat the stuff." She ducked again as Eponin lunged at her, water exploding everywhere as she slid under the water, and kicked off the side of the pool, gliding under the thrashing bodies and coming up on the other side. "Or use it for… finger-painting."

Then she was out of space, and they had a grip on her, as she flung herself across the water, dragging them behind. It was deeper here, and abruptly she realized her mistake as a heavy body landed on her shoulders, forcing her underwater, and the darkness closed in on top of her. No!

She barely heard Gabrielle's warning yell before her body lost the ability to tell the difference between friend and enemy, and her senses reacted to the sudden sensation of being trapped and unable to breathe. The force holding her down became more insistent, and she could feel hands gripping her neck with savage power.

Xena freed an arm, and hooked it around the body on top of her, pulling down with all her strength, then shoving her opponent away, as she broke the surface of the water and took a ragged breath, which was expelled as a growling roar. Her senses automatically found a target, and she surged half out of the water, heading towards the far wall.

Then arms were around her neck again, but this was a touch her body recognized and she made no move to stop Gabrielle from sliding inside her defenses. No move to stop her hand from stroking her cheek gently, either, as she fought to get her rage under control. "Easy.. easy…" The bard breathed softly into her ear. "It's all right.. it's just Pony.. she got over enthusiastic… "

Xena felt her body start to relax, fighter's instincts subsiding as she gazed coldly over her partner's shoulder, to where the stunned Eponin was blinking quietly in Ephiny's grasp, having slammed off the cavern wall and back into the water from the force of the warrior's movement. "That was really stupid." Xena spat out. "What the Hades were you thinking?"

Gabrielle sighed, as she half turned, and gazed at the other two Amazons. "That really was dumb." She kept up a gentle, soothing rub against Xena's side, feeling the deep, almost involuntary twitching begin to ease. That's it… easy there, love… She waited for her own nerves to stop jerking, and her heart to slow its rapid pace that had started up as soon as she realized what Eponin was doing. Ephiny had started to help, but Gabrielle had grabbed her, and thrown her out of the way split seconds before Xena's powerful body had erupted out of the water, flinging Eponin like some kind of child's rag toy across the pool. "Really dumb." She repeated, meeting Ephiny's shocked eyes.

"Gods.. sorry.." Eponin coughed. "Xena.. sorry.. I didn't realize what in Hades I was doing." She lifted her eyes and met the warrior's cool blue ones. "I didn't mean to trap you under there.. I wasn't thinking.. I… forgot who I had my damned hands on." She glanced at them. "Lucky I still have them." She gave Xena a wry, frankly apologetic look. Whoa. That shove had felt like being fired off a catapult, and the Amazon winced as she moved her shoulder, which had crashed against the rock wall. Of all the idiotic, crazy things I coulda picked to do.. that ranked right up there. She exchanged a grim look with Ephiny, who was watching Xena with wary eyes, aware of the still palpable, still edgy tension rolling off the warrior in waves that reached across the pool with ease. "Sorry." She muttered finally, softly.

Xena leaned back against the wall of the pool, as a wave of weary relief overtook her. I could have killed Eponin. Her mind dully noted. She had no idea what she was doing to me. Her eyes lost some of their icy hardness, and she sighed almost soundlessly. It's been… so easy.. to forget just how thin the veneer is .. I think I almost even fooled myself into thinking I could just be… oh damn.. just forget it. "It's all right, Eponin." She finally said, quietly. "My fault."

The Amazon snorted softly. "I don't think so." She eased back into a sitting position, trying not to wince. "I was the stupid one who decided to jump on your back and hold you underwater. I think I've been hit in the head one too many times." She moved the wrong way and groaned.

Xena eyed her pensively. I owe them an explanation. Damn. She glanced down into Gabrielle's concerned eyes and gave her partner a smile she hoped was reassuring, then raised her gaze up to meet the wary faces across the pool. They're my friends, right? I can't keep this hidden forever "I… have a problem with enclosed places." Xena finally said, in a quiet tone, and felt the start run through Gabrielle's body at the words. Didn't expect that, huh, my bard? "I've.. had it since I was a kid. I can't always control my reaction to it… you got lucky." She finished, and felt the bard's arms tighten in a strong hug around her, bringing a tiny smile to her face.

Eponin blinked at her in startlement. I can't believe I'm hearing that. Did she just admit to being… Damn..I think she did. She felt Ephiny's astonishment as she and the regent exchanged glances. Wow. That took guts. Of a sudden, her mind slipped sideways, as she tried to readjust her mental image of the tall, dark haired warrior across from her. I had a cousin who had that… couldn’t stand crowds.. small rooms.. Her eyes flicked around the cavern, and remembered the close quarters of the party last night, and a new respect dawned her eyes as she gazed at Xena. Damn.

Ephiny had an abrupt flash of memory, of Gabrielle's gentle voice relating their last adventure, and now it took on new meaning, as she realized the hidden toll it must have taken on Xena. Courage, her mother had once told her, was not simply the fact that you weren't scared of anything.. it was being scared, and doing whatever it was anyway. Courage was dealing with your fears, and not letting them rule you. She'd found that out for herself… might as well share her own burden "Yeah well… " She met Xena's wary eyes. "I've got a problem with heights. Makes all that tree climbing business a pain in the ass."

Gabrielle laughed gently, leaning against her partner. "Me too." She laid her cheek against Xena's arm, and kept up her quiet, gentle stroking, as she felt the warrior's body relaxing. "I think everyone has something." Thank you Ephiny… her eyes sparkled at the regent.

They all looked at Eponin, who shifted to more comfortable position in the water, and scowled. "Bugs." She finally muttered. "But don't you dare tell anyone.. or I'll have all the damn squirts in the village putting beetles in my bedcovers."

Xena let out a low burst of laughter, and the tension surrounding them dissolved, as they all joined in. "Sorry.. Pony.. " Xena finally sighed. "Hope I didn't shake you up too much." She slid an arm around Gabrielle's body, and let out a long held breath, feeling the bard's fingers move in a light tickle across her ribcage before resuming their slow patterns across her belly.

The Amazon grunted. "Nah.. in fact, I think you did me a favor.. knocked my damn spine back into place. I had a crick in it since this morning."

The warrior gave her a wry look. "Always glad to help."

Ephiny cleared her throat. "Now.. about this blue stuff??" She put her hands on her hips, and gave Xena a stern look. "That really wasn't nice, Xena." Let's change the subject, hmm? Besides… She watched Xena's calming expression with somewhat amused interest. Looks like Gabrielle knows exactly how to handle her.

"Hey." Gabrielle forestalled her partner's speech. "She just had to find a safe place for that bowl… I didn't see her forcing anyone to consume the contents." She faced them squarely with a challenging expression on her face. " she certainly didn't give any… direction.. as to the placement of the.. decorations." One hand drifted out of the water and shook a finger at them. "So.. knock off the accusations." She folded her arms. "Or else."

They all looked at her, Ephiny and Eponin with bemused expressions, Xena with a delighted grin.

"Besides.." The warrior commented, sliding both arms around the bard's midsection and pulling her closer. "I didn't have to do a thing.. just provide the.. means.. and let human nature take its course." Her blue eyes twinkled.

The two Amazons gazed at each other. "She's right." Ephiny sighed. "Serves us right for being hedonistic little piglets." She grinned at Eponin's scowl and blush. "So.. next subject… " She glanced around the chamber. "You.. wanna compare scars or something?"

"No fair." Gabrielle objected, with a mock scowl. "I have a disadvantage."

"Mmm.." Xena agreed, touching the single, deep scar on her neck, and letting her hand trail down to the smaller, lighter one on her biceps. "I intend to keep it that way."

Ephiny snorted. "Here here." She leaned back. "Besides, my biggest one you gave me." She glanced down at her belly, and traced the slim, neat line with her eyes. "Not that I'm complaining, mind you." She yawned, and raised an arm out of the water, gazing at her own shoulder. "This one, on the other hand, was from a wild boar."

They looked at her with respect. "Really?" Eponin grunted, examining the pale pattern on Ephiny's tanned skin. "Bit you?"

Ephiny pursed her lips for a minute, then smiled. "Ran over me. I tripped and fell in front of it.. damn thing was running away from a forest fire." She gave them all a sheepish grin. "So that's my most embarrassing one." She turned her head. "You?"

Eponin scowled, then sighed, and lifted one leg out of the water, exposing a muscular calf and pointing to a half moon shaped scar . "I was out hunting… and I found a honeycomb up in a tree. Climbed it, smoked the bees out, and had my hands on it when a damn magpie flew right into my face and made me lose my grip on the damn tree."

"You scrape you leg coming down?" Xena queried, with a grin.

"No." Eponin gruffly answered. "Didn't want to let go of the honeycomb, so I.. uh.. .bounced a little…" She ignored the quickly muffled snorts of laughter from the others. "Rolled down the embankment, and into a gully."

"And you.. cut yourself on a rock?" Gabrielle hazarded.

"No." Eponin replied. "Shot across the gully, and landed in a rabbit warren."

"Umm.. branch punctured your leg?" It was Ephiny's turn, and she carefully examined the scar after she asked.

"No." Eponin grunted. "Rabbit bit me."

They all looked at her. "Rabbit." Xena repeated. "They can be dangerous."

"Right." Ephiny nodded sagely. "Vicious."

Gabrielle just burst out laughing. "Oh… wow… a bunny bite." A giggle. "That's berry bunny."

Eponin sighed in a martyred fashion. "Knew I shouldn’t have told that one."

Xena gazed at her with some sympathy. "Don't mind her." She casually dunked the still giggling bard under the water, and pulled her up spluttering. "Really."

Gabrielle splashed her. "Ok, Warrior Princess of snarky remarks, which is your most embarrassing scar?" Then she wondered briefly if Xena was going to let her get away with that… sometimes, she knew, she walked a fine line between getting her partner to loosen up, and pushing too hard at Xena's sometimes unpredictable sense of personal dignity. The body under her hands didn't tense, though, so she figured she got away with it this time.

The dark haired warrior contemplated her in silence for a long moment, then let a faint grin quirk her lips. "Well…" A shrug. "First time I ever got drunk.."

Eponin groaned softly, and studied the ceiling. "Oo… don't go there."

Xena chuckled. "Yeah, well… it was here.. at home. A bunch of merchants came through, we had a big festival.. things got kinda out of hand." She paused, remembering. "It was… couple years before Cortese, I guess… one of the merchants was a knife thrower on the side.. bets, that kind of thing."

Gabrielle rolled her head back and gazed up at her partner's profile. "Let me guess… you challenged him."

She got a mild look back from the warrior. "Nope." Xena cheerfully disagreed. "He challenged me." A twinkle of blue eyes. "I won."

"Ooo.. big surprise there." Ephiny laughed, sending over a splash of warm water.

The warrior grinned. "But on the downside, I got bought a lotta drinks… which wasn't a good thing. So.. I managed to wander out of the inn and went into the stable.. intending to hide out until my head stopped spinning." She sighed and shook her head. "I forgot I'd just gone through a growth spurt.. and managed to walk right into a pitchfork." One hand dropped to rest on the curve of her right breast and tapped the small scar there. "Damn, did that ever hurt."

Gabrielle winced, and examined the scar. "I always wondered about that."

A snort from the warrior. "Yeah.. I was too embarrassed to get mom to look at it.. so I tried to sew it up myself." She grimaced. "Not a success."

Eponin laughed. "Bet you were cursing a streak." She watched Ephiny bite her lip as she imagined the scene.

"Oh yeah." Xena rolled her eyes, then let them rest on Gabrielle's damp head. "What about you?"

Gabrielle smiled, and let her head rest against Xena's shoulder. "Hmm… I don't think I have any permanent marks that are.. embarrass…oh… well… " She blushed. "Remember Tympani?"

"Your pony." Xena provided, exchanging a grin with the Amazons. "Gabrielle had a pony once."

"Really?" Ephiny crossed her arms. "Thought you didn't like horses."

"He bit me." The bard replied solemnly. "Probably that's why I have this thing about them."

"Bit you???" Xena sat up and regarded her. "Gabrielle, I gotta tell you.. I've NEVER had a horse bite me."

The bard snorted. "I'm sure you haven't.. oh Warrior Princess of all stubborn animals. They all love you." She flicked a bit of water across the surface of the pool, then realized what she had said, and how that might be interpreted, and winced, seeing the highly amused looks on her friends faces. "I am not stubborn."

Even Xena laughed, fending off Gabrielle's attempts at splashing her. "Hey.. hey.. you said it!!" She protested, then ticked the bard underwater. "So.. where'd he bite you?"

"Yeah.. where?" Ephiny asked, putting her hands behind her head and floating contentedly.

Gabrielle's face screwed up in an embarrassed half grin. "Um." She chewed her lip. "On my butt, actually."

A momentary silence, then they all started laughing, causing Ephiny to half submerge and get water up her nose. She surfaced coughing. "Gods."

Xena watched the blush trace up her partner's neck, and briefly considered the notion of displaying the scar. Not. "So.. that's what that is." She drawled instead.

The bard's blush deepened, and she ducked her face against the warrior's shoulder. "I can't believe I said that." She muttered, in a low tone.

"S'allright." Xena murmured back, her voice covered by the laughter and spluttering from across the pool. "It's cute." She slid a hand down the bard's back and gently traced the scar in question. "I've been meaning to ask you about it."

They floated for a while longer, until Xena realized how late it was getting. "Hey… they're probably waiting for you two." She commented, as she nudged the half dozing Gabrielle, who was snuggled close, with her arms wrapped loosely around Xena's waist.

Ephiny rolled her head over and gazed at the dark haired warrior. "Yeah.. hey.. if you two are going to be around here so much.. you'd better visit us more often.. no excuses."

"Right back at you." Gabrielle shot back. "But not so dramatically next time, ok Eph??" She gurgled in surprise as Xena stood up, cradling her and walked out of the water towards where they'd left their stuff. "Show off." She hissed at the smirking warrior, giving her a poke. "Let me down."

"I'll try." Ephiny groaned, as she hauled herself out of the pool and took the piece of linen Xena was holding out, toweling herself dry vigorously. "Believe me, I had no intention of causing myself an enforced vacation for nearly a moon." She glanced up. "Not that this last bit hasn't been fun."

Xena glanced up, a wicked glint in her eye. "Even falling in the mud?" She chuckled at Eponin's mortified expression. "Weren't going to tell us about that little escapade huh?"

"Damn." The dark haired Amazon growled. "All right.. who squealed… " She pulled her shirt on over her head and tied it off with a jerk. "Hercules??"

Xena shook her head. "Nope.. he's the soul of discretion." She informed the woman soberly.

"Iolaus?" Eponin's next guess.

"Nope." Xena replied, getting her own clothing fastened, and handing Gabrielle hers.

"Well… " Eponin suddenly turned and glared at Ephiny. "It was…"

The regent held up her hands. "Not me, my friend." They looked at each other, then both turned and looked at Xena. "Toris."

Xena grinned.

"He's toast." Eponin rumbled, getting her belongings together. "I'm gonna go find him and…"

Xena held up a hand. "Ah ah…. Hold up…." She wagged a finger at Eponin. "He's my brother.. and I'm not gonna stand by and watch someone clean the floor with him." She paused. "That's my privilege." She paused and gave them a sly grin. "Besides… I think there'd be another Amazon standing in your way."

Ephiny sighed, but smiled. "We're losing another member of our Nation to Amphipolis, aren't we?"

Gabrielle laughed gently. "Think of it as… um… a kind of permanent outpost… how about that?" She flicked her hair out to start it's drying. "At least we can send messages faster."

The regent considered this, and finally nodded. "All right… " She started out the tunnel. "C'mon, Pony.. let's go home."

Lila sighed, as she tied up the last item in her pack, and secured the flap. Their stuff had been loaded on the wagon, and now as she looked up, she spotted her sister returning from some place up in the hills, accompanied by her partner, and two of the Amazons.

For a long moment, she envied Gabrielle, envied her the freedom she so obviously had, and the total acceptance of who and what she was that was very evident here. Her home, Lila realized sadly, in a way that Potadeia never had been, where everyone respected her, and where Xena's family loved her as one of their own. Where no one made her be something she wasn't, or punished her for being something she was.

Not that Lila would have wanted that life, no.. she was happy with Lennat, and content with her future as his wife. It was just that…kids have dreams, of what they want to do when they grew up. Hers had been of being a princess.. in a castle far away. Gabrielle's had been of adventure, and storytelling, and meeting famous people and going amazing places. And damned if she wasn't living those dreams.

It had been.. damn.. it had been the night before the slavers had caught them. They'd been in their room, watching the moonlight track across the floor from the high, small window. It had been a pretty good day, because their father had been away to market, and wasn't due back until tomorrow morning. Gabrielle had even relented, and told her a story that night, a short, wistful one about a boy who had gone out adventuring and found his destiny.

"It's a nice story, Bree." She'd whispered, peering at the pale, quiet face on the other bed. "I like the bit about when he finds the princess and slays the dragon. " But she had been a bit anxious about her older sister.. who had recently gotten very quiet. Some of the sparkle had gone out of her pale green eyes, and Lila had caught her simply sitting on a rock overlooking the river, just gazing into nothingness several times recently.

"Thanks." Gabrielle had said, in a toneless voice. "I think I'm going to stop telling these dumb stories though." She had finally admitted.

Lila had sat up, and leaned over, grabbing at her sister's arm in disbelief. "No. Bree! You can't.. they're so cool.. how could you just stop telling them?"

Her sister had closed her eyes, and shook her pale head. "Lila.. I can't.. it just hurts too much.. telling stuff about things I can't ever see.. or ever feel." Then she'd propped her chin up on one hand and gazed at the younger girl. "I'm tired of fighting all the time, Lila.. it's just too hard."

"But… " Lila had protested. "Bree, they're just stories… what's the big deal?"

And her sister had chewed her lip a minute before answering. "Just stories.. to you. But not to me.. to me, they're real, Lila.. they're these.. amazing.. vivid.. pictures in my head of something I can't have…" Her eyes had filled with tears. "Places I'll never see.. emotions I'll never.. feel.. Lila, I want to go out and find treasures, and do things.. and be.. I want to make a difference to someone.. to anyone… "

"Bree.. you make a difference… you make a difference to me.. and to mother.. and someday you'll be married, and.. you can make a difference there too." Lila had said, thinking to comfort her older sister.

Never understanding the bleak, far off look in Gabrielle's eyes. "Yeah." She'd finally sighed. "You're right, Lila.. I'll.. just do what I can with what I've got, right?"

But a light had gone out, somewhere deep inside those pale eyes that were so different from her darker ones, and Lila had felt, in her heart, that her sister was losing something…hope, maybe.. or she didn't know what. And she knew… it would be easier on Bree if she did cut out her storytelling.. and just settled down, try to fit in, and not make waves.

Then that following night, when she'd woken to see Gabrielle packing her few, meager belongings. "What are you doing?" She'd whispered, frantically. And when her sister had looked up, and faced her, that light had returned, and was blazing so brightly she could hardly stand to look Gabrielle in the eye. It was as though all the stories.. and all the dreams had come back, and were burning inside her.

"You know I'm not like anyone else in this town, Lila." Gabrielle had said, and her sister had wondered how much of that was true, and how much if it was what Gabrielle had wanted to believe. Everyone wanted to think they were special.. but her sister had gone farther than that. She'd seen a picture of what she wanted to become.. and then.. just gone out and threw herself into the becoming.

It had been a desperate act, a shocking one. But now, as Lila gazed around the courtyard, which was filled with Amazons, and forest dwellers, and the centaur, who mingled with her, and her family with easy familiarity she almost had to laugh. "Was this what you had in mind, Bree?" She mused with a shake of her head. She would have to ask her sometime.

They'd thought, for a long time, that Xena had lured the young girl away. That she had kidnapped her for her own, dark purposes. But Lila had finally understood that it was the other way around, and the purposes were far from dark.

Now she stood by the wagon, and watched them approach, focusing her gaze on her sister's strong, confident stride as she matched paces with her taller companion. Gabrielle fairly radiated with both self confidence and happiness, and she once again found herself feeling jealous of Xena. She missed her sister.. missed having her around to confide in, to plan with.. She sighed. I'm glad she's happy… that's the important thing.

"Ah.. there's your sister." Hecuba commented, as she tucked a few things away in the wagon. "I was wondering where she disappeared to." Cyrene had been.. vague.. about where the bard and her partner had gone.. something about Amazon rituals, and bathing. She wasn't sure she wanted to know any further details, having come to the conclusion that there were some things about her daughter's life that she had no interest in knowing.

Gabrielle and Xena changed their direction to meet up with them, while the Amazons went on to where the rest of their party were gathered, assembling supplies.

"Looks like your family's waiting to take off." Xena said softly, giving her partner a nudge towards where the wagon was waiting. "I'm going to go dig up my son."

Gabrielle sighed. "Is he buried somewhere?" She asked facetiously. "Never mind… I'll catch up with you in a bit." She savored the quick touch on her neck of long fingers, then headed towards her sister.

"Hi." Her eyes found Lila's, as she came even with the wagon. "You guys about packed?" She leaned her forearms on the edge of the wooden cart, and laced her fingers together, studying her sister with a mild expression. "Did you.. have fun last night?"

Lila hitched herself up onto the backboard of the wagon, and swung her feet. "Yeah..I did.. " She gave Gabrielle a smile. "You certainly have an interesting bunch of friends." She looked around. "And.. it's nice here."

The bard grinned. "Hey.. we've been so busy, I haven't had a chance to show you our place… c'mon."

Lila hopped down and followed her sister willingly, as they kicked through the knee high snow towards their small cabin. "It.. was a surprise.. when we got back here." Gabrielle explained, as she led the way up the stairs and opened the door, standing back for her sister to precede her, then followed her inside.

"Oh…" The dark haired woman let out a surprised laugh. "Gabrielle.. it's so cute!" She turned around in a circle. "I like the colors." Her face broke into a smile as she walked around the room, touching a few knickknacks with gentle fingers. "Oh.." Her eyes trailed respectfully over Xena's sword, in its scabbard on the linen press, and the heavy armor draped over a small chair next to it. She lifted the edge of the armor, then dropped it. "Wow.. that's… how does she ever wear that, Bree? It's heavy as all get out."

The bard chuckled softly, and joined her, lifting a piece of the armor up lovingly. "She says.. it weighs less when you wear it.. but.. I had to do that once, and it felt like I was being driven into the ground, so I don't know."

Lila blinked at her. "You had to wear it?" She lifted the breastplate up and held it up against her sister's body. "You're joking, right?"

Gabrielle pulled a bracer on and grinned. "Nope." She waggled and eyebrow at Lila. "You should see me with dark hair.. and dressed in those leathers."

Her sister laughed. "Why on earth did you have to do that"

A shrug. "Well.. I had to.. I mean.. she couldn't.. and I.. " She fell silent.

"One of those things you don't mention?" Lila replied quietly.

Callisto, and the dart, and that dark, horrible moment when she'd thought she'd lost Xena. "Something like that." She admitted in a small voice.

Lila rolled her eyes. "Gods, Gabrielle… do you think I'm a kid? I can take it.. what's the problem?"

The bard turned and faced her, giving her sister a direct, open stare. "Can you? Can you, Lila.. hear stuff like the fact that I was almost taken by Morpheus, or survived two Amazon challenges, or was almost burned alive by some corrupt wanna be king, or got shot in the Thessalean civil war.. can you hear that and not freak out?"

She held her bracered arm up. "I had to do this because Xena had been shot.. by the person who killed Perdicus." She paused and stepped closer to her sister, who was standing with a frozen look on her face. "Callisto, who almost killed me.. what.. twice now? And then there's Velasca, who I took the Queen's Mask from and who became a god, then chased me half across Greece before Xena figured a way to get her and Callisto trapped in burning lava." Another step. "You wanna know what my life's like, little sister? Do you? Really?" And then held her breath for the answer, hoping Lila wouldn’t back down.

Lila swallowed, and stared at a face gone strange, and eyes that bore no resemblance to the ones she'd thought she'd known. "How do you stand it?" She asked softly, wanting to understand the person her sister had become. Afraid that the gulf was too wide for her to jump, even now.

Gabrielle smiled. "I love it." She said in a half whisper. "I love the challenge… I love finding a way to fix things. I love.. winning." She let out a long breath. "I love making a difference… in my life, in other people's lives… changing things for the better… I love.. making the stories." How else to explain the wonderful feeling she had at the end of a long, dusty day, when she was tired, and sore, but could look back on the faces of people she'd helped? Or see the look of bemused wonder on Xena's face when some little kid came up and hugged her.. for saving his family's only mule?

That had been during a flood, she remembered. And.. oh.. gods… for four days they'd done nothing but digging out this one small village which had been mostly buried in mud.

Black, nasty, clinging, stinking mud which had become her whole world, until she'd have been very happy to never see another clump of the stuff ever. Xena had taken off her armor, and was working in just an old, ragged tunic, as she doggedly pulled out item after item, working alongside the villagers but outstripping them in both strength and stamina.

They'd looked at her in uneasy fascination, knowing who she was, and Gabrielle had seen those shoulders tense, and the muscles in her jaw clench as she tried to ignore the barely suppressed anxiety. It had made the bard angry, and she'd set to work going person by person, and relating stories that painted Xena in a different light than the one their memories shone down on her. And as the days went by, and they watched her, the attitude shifted quietly.

The mule, though… gods. It had been mired up to the shoulders in mud, and unable to move… and it had panicked, plunging up and down in the sticky stuff until it was exhausted, then struggling wildly again once it had caught it's breath. Xena had taken a quarterstaff, and cleared some space around the edgy animal, then simply jumped down into the mud with it, trying to calm it down so she could work it's shaking limbs free of the sucking ooze.

But the mule… didn't understand she was trying to help, and started kicking. Gabrielle had lunged forward, seeing her companion go down under it's hooves twice, but Xena held onto it's scrawny neck grimly, and finally got the animal to still, then with steady, patient digging, managed to get it free.

She'd never seen Xena look quite so exhausted as she had when the warrior had glanced back up at her out of that stinking pit. She'd put her hands on two half mired pieces of wood, and hoisted herself up, but Gabrielle had seen the limp, quickly disguised, when she started walking back towards them. The mule had kicked her twice, and the bard could see one angry mark, just above her right knee that was seeping blood, almost invisible against her mud darkened skin.

But a patter of tiny footsteps had caught both their attentions, and Xena had stopped walking, and watched, warily, as a small girl, dressed in woolen tatters pattered over, and flung her arms fearlessly around the warrior's mud encrusted knees. "Dank you!" The child warbled, as Xena dropped to one knee to study her. "Nice lady!"

That got a wry grin. "That your mule?" The warrior asked quietly.

The girl nodded vigorously. "Wrocked."

Xena quirked a brow. "What? Is that his name?"

"Wrocked." The tiny tot reached way up and rapped a small fist against Xena's dark hair. "Wrok.. head."

"Rock head." The warrior repeated with a smile. "That fits." She glanced over at the tot's parents, who were watching with timid smiles. "Better go wash him."

"Stinkies." The girl agreed, and pattered away, catching up to the mule and hanging on to it's ragged tail.

Xena had slowly stood up and gazed after them, then let her glance idly drift around the rescued village, where the looks now turned on her were ones of gratitude, and subdued admiration. Then she'd looked up as Gabrielle had drawn close, and given the bard a weary half grin "I'm about ready for a long bath in the nearest source of water I can find."

And later that night, much later, after hours spent removing mud and letting the cool, running water soothe aches that Gabrielle swore were bone deep, they lay at last, in a fragrant, newly sprung meadow, where the scent of jasmine and clover finally took the stench of the river out of their noses.

Where the stars twinkled overhead, and the campfire crackled nearby, as the bard curled up next to Xena on their bedroll, and gently replaced the cold water soaked cloths over the ugly bruise from Rockhead's errant hoof. "That looks like it hurts a lot." She commented, watching Xena struggle to keep her eyes open, for once not even dragging out her tough warrior routine.

"Yeah." Her companion sighed. "But Gabrielle.. those people.. they have.. almost nothing.. it was worth it to get them back some of what they worked all their lives for." Unfinished, was the sad knowledge that she had once spent her time taking just that something away from just this kind of people, quiet memories shadowing the bright blue of her eyes.

"I like that part too." Gabrielle had replied, scooting over and patting her lap. "Here… put your head here and let me put a stitch into that cut on your head.. it's still bleeding a little." And for once, she hadn't gotten an argument, as she felt the weight settle quietly onto her legs. "Is that why you do this? Because it makes you feel good?" She asked, more to distract Xena from the thin needle in her hands than anything else. The warrior was skittish about sharp objects near her face, though the bard knew she trusted her completely.

Xena had remained quiet for so long, eyes closed, that Gabrielle had thought her sleeping, as she carefully stitched up the spot where the mule's kick had sliced through part of the skin covering her temple. She found herself wistfully enjoying the feel of Xena's clean skin under her hands, and the cool dampness of the warrior's river chilled back against her thighs. Finally, Xena took a deep breath, and glanced up at her, and Gabrielle realized she'd been thinking about the question the whole time.

"No." Came the thoughtful answer. "I used to think I was doing it as some kind of punishment.. for all the stuff I'd done before." A slight shrug. "Then I thought… I had an obligation to do it.. to Hercules.. to you… to all the people I hurt."

Gabrielle had stayed still, only her fingers idly moving, riffling through Xena's dark hair absently. "And now?"

Another shrug. "Now.. I just do it because.. it feels like the right thing to do. I .. I don't really think about it." She'd glanced up. "Crazy, huh?"

"Nope." Gabrielle had answered, then stopped, realizing what her hand had been doing, and knowing it was just the warrior's sheer exhaustion that was keeping her from reacting. Awkwardly she stilled her movement, then took a deep breath. It was getting.. so.. hard not to do that. "I think… um…I mean I don't…" It had been no good.. those blue eyes had captured hers, and rendered her tongue tied. "Uh." Frantically, she grabbed control of her tongue back. "Hey.. that's why I do it too. It feels like the right thing to do."

One dark, teasing eyebrow curved up, and a corner of Xena's mouth twitched. "It does, huh?"

"Uh.. yeah." Gabrielle had answered, not really sure of where her companion was coming from.

"Then you should keep on doing it." Xena had replied, gravely, as she closed her eyes and folded her hands across her stomach.

Gabrielle had sat there, bemusedly wondering if it was remotely possible that she was being flirted with. Nah. She concluded, but then one blue eye popped open and regarded her, with a very suspicious twinkle. Tentatively, she resumed her gentle riffling, and the eye closed contentedly. "I will." She'd whispered softly, and seen the gentle grin twitch across Xena's face in answer.

Lila set the piece of armor down, and took a breath. "Gabrielle.. this .. all .. scares me half to death, I won't lie about that." She met the intense green eyes with determination. "But.. I still want to know.. about what you do, and the things that happen to you. No matter how scary they are.. I want you to know you can always tell me about them." She stepped forward, towards Gabrielle, and lifted a hand, putting it on her sister's cheek. "You're my sister.. and I don't care how many gods there are after you, or how many warlords… I'm not going to let that change."

Gabrielle smiled. "Thanks." She replied, simply. "I was hoping you'd say that." She wrapped her arms around Lila and hugged her. "Maybe.. when we're here.. we can visit more often."

Lila returned the hug, feeling the sleek, muscular body under her hands and shaking her head a little. "I'd like that." She replied as they released each other and stepped back. "So.. where do you guys go off to this morning?" She took a step and sat down on the edge of the bed, bouncing a little. "Hey.. pretty cushy, sis."

The bard grinned, and sat down next to her. "Yeah.. it is, I know.. Xena gave me a hard time about that when we first got here.. but I think I've gotten her addicted to it now." She patted the fabric. "Um.. well, there's this cave that has a hot spring.. we kinda went up there just to unwind a little."

"Ah." Lila commented. "So.. that whole rigmarole about the Amazon rites was just squirrel droppings right?"

Gabrielle rubbed her nose. "Well.. kind of. Ephiny and Eponin had gotten some of m.. Cyrene's blue dye on them.. they had to get it washed off." No sense in shoving that in her face… right? "It was kind of a.. practical joke."

Lila's expression perked up. "Really? Who'd have the guts to play a practical joke on those two?"

The bard gave her a wry look. "Who do you think?" She stood and stretched. "Come on.. mom and dad will be wondering where you got off to."

Lila got up and put a hand on her sister's shoulder. "Wait a minute.. you're not telling me Xena does that kind of thing are you?" She waved her other hand. "No way, Bree,, she plays jokes??"

Gabrielle sighed, and tugged her along. "Oh yeah… big time.. she's the worst." She felt Lila stop and turned to look at her sister's confused face. "Look.." She lifted a hand and let it fall on the brass armor "She didn't.. I mean, she's been fighting most of her life, Lila… since she was just a kid…and sometimes, when I first met her, I'd look into her eyes, and if I was lucky, and really quick, I'd see that kid kind of wistfully looking back out at me." She paused, and traced the swirling patterns on the armor idly. "But I thought.. the same thing you did. That there was just no way this tough, mean fighter could ever let her guard down enough to even enjoy.. " She waved a hand. "A sunset.. or.. a beautiful flower." She sighed. "Much less play jokes on anyone."

"So.. what happened?" Lila asked gently, curiously. "You know.. you're kind of like that too." She hesitated. "A little..I mean, not cynical, or anything.. but.. you always acted grown up."

Gabrielle stared thoughtfully at her. "Yeah, I guess I did." She let a smile shape her lips. "There was just this one day.."

It had been a very quiet, very beautiful day, in fact. They'd been walking through a wild section all day, and not seen a single other person. And that had been all right with her, really.. no people meant no one annoying Xena, and that was always a good thing.

Just curious squirrels, the odd rabbit or two, birds keeping an eye on them…and the intoxicating scent of the spring's first flowers rising over them as they walked through the newly colorful wild fields, the cool breeze bringing a smile to even Xena's dour face.

She'd just felt like.. it had just felt so good to be alive, and there.. breathing that air, and feeling the sun shower over her, that she'd grabbed up a handful of the compact purple and white flowers she'd named snowballs, because of the fine, feathery outer leaves which detached and floated away at the slightest breath.

Then she'd walked right up to Xena, who'd been standing, leaning against a moss covered tree and watching Argo drink from the nearby brook, and.. without really thinking about what she was doing, she blew the whole handful of the things right into the warrior's face.

Where they'd lodged in her dark hair and brought a startled look to those usually cool blue eyes.

They'd stared at each other for an endless moment, and Gabrielle had held her breath, realizing she was walking a tightrope between a very bad mistake, and something… else.

Then one dark eyebrow had edged up, and a tiny, wicked little grin had taken over that oh, so serious face, and the next thing Gabrielle knew, she was being rolled in snowballs, the fluffy white stuff coming down over her like a cloud as she was picked up and gently tossed into the nearest cluster of them, surprised by the solid thump as Xena landed next to her, as the petals floated like snowflakes between them.

And then she was regretting that damn new Amazon style outfit, that exposed her belly because Xena was tickling her unmercifully until she was gasping for breath from giggling, realizing that Xena was laughing too, trying to defend herself from Gabrielle's wild thrashing.

It had felt so good, it had almost brought tears to her eyes. They'd finally both collapsed in the grass, looking up at the cloud scattered sky, as the last of the snowball's fluff settled around them. Gabrielle had taken a half guilty peek at her companion, sure that Xena was going to be mad that she'd egged her into letting her guard down, hardly believing that it had worked in the first place.

Her breath had caught in her throat, though, at the sad, almost lost look she'd seen looking back at her, that had disappeared in the blink of an eye, to be replaced with a more normal, daunting glint. She watched the kid slowly fade back into whatever dark place Xena kept her, and felt a pang of loss.

Which must have shown in her eyes, because the kid stopped, with the door almost shut tight, and hesitated. Then left the door just.. slightly… open.

"That was fun." The bard commented.

A quirk of that damn eyebrow was the answer, and the barest hint of the return of that wicked grin.

"After that… it got easier.. I just kept digging and digging and just got her to open up. " Gabrielle sighed happily. "It was pretty tough.. but it was worth the effort."

Lila smiled. "So I see." She tucked her hand into Gabrielle's elbow and moved towards the door. "I'll have to remember that.. and watch out for her." The dark haired woman laughed softly. "You guys will.. come visit sometimes, right?"

"You bet." Gabrielle assured her, as they exited the cabin.

Xena paused, as she put a hand on the door to the stable, her senses coming alert at the tiny, squiggling sounds of a small body hiding inside. A grin etched itself across her face, and she pulled the door open, sauntering inside with a blithely unconcerned air.

She made her steps towards Argo measured and deliberate, letting her hearing filter the soft sounds of hay moving stealthily, and the almost silent breathing, and the whisper of cloth against skin.

"Hey there girl." She greeted the mare, who whuffled and shoved her nose into Xena's belly. Now soft boots were creeping across the barn floor, the soles oh so gently rasping against the loose hay and chaff scattered about. "You in the mood for a little ride later?" She bent her head down to the horse's forehead. "I know..I hear him." She whispered into the golden ear, which was flicking forward and back.

A rush of soft footsteps, and she waited until her silent ambusher was almost on her, then launched herself ceilingward, flipping into a backwards summersault as a small body rushed under her and collided with an amused Argo's forelegs. She landed with a springy hop, and grinned as Solon put his small hands on his hips and glared at her.

"No fair!!" He accused. "I was being really quiet."

Xena matched his stance, putting her own hands on her hips and giving him a raised eyebrow stare. "Oh yeah? You'll have to practice more than that… let's see, you started out behind that saddle over there, then crossed over to where the table is, then ducked under the railing." She grinned. "Right?"

He grinned back. "Wow.. you are the best." He ran at her and leaped, laughing as she caught him, and tossed him up, then gently launched him into the loose hay, diving after him and starting a long, exhausting, thorough, tunneling tag game in the haybale, which resulted in both of them coming out the other end covered in hay dust and bits of loose grain.

Solon blew his hair out of his eyes and grinned in delight, then scrambled across the shifting surface and snuggled up against his mother, who wrapped long arms around in obligingly and settled back into a comfortable nest in the hay.

"So… you all ready to go?" Xena asked quietly, reveling in the warmth of his small body tucked against hers. "You'll have lots of company on the way home."

He let out a sigh. "I'd rather stay here with you." His blue eyes looked up plaintively at her.

Damn. Xena brushed his hair back gently. "Soon, Solon… Gabrielle and I have some stuff to do.. places we have to go to and we'll be leaving here pretty soon. But when we get back.. " She smiled tentatively at him.

"I can come live here?" He asked softly. "Really?" He wriggled a little. "It's.. mom, it's not that I don't love pappa. I do." He scowled. "And.. I like the centaurs.. a lot.. and all my friends.. and even some of the Amazons." He paused, "Sometimes."

Xena smothered a grin. "Yeah.. me too." She admitted. "Sometimes. But they can get a little weird."

"Yeeeaaahh.." He agreed, with an impish look. "Boy.. do they ever like you." He informed her, momentarily distracted. "They think you're hot."

"Solon!" The warrior found herself blushing. Gods.. he is growing up.

He giggled. "They do!!!" He quieted suddenly. "Mom?"

Xena caught his change of mood and peered at him. "What?"

His hands played with her tunic laces and he focused his gaze on her collar. "Um.. I heard Iolaus talkin to Hercules.. last night. He was talking about Gabrielle.. and he said.." His voice stopped.

The warrior gently cupped his chin and tilted his face up. "What, Solon.. what did he say?"

"He said her pappa hurt her." The blue eyes searched her face anxiously. "That’s' not true, right?"

Oh boy. Xena swallowed, suddenly out of her depth. "Um…" She blew out a long breath. "Solon.. that's… " I have so many unresolved problems with that.. gods only know how she feels about it.


He blinked slowly at her. "It is true." His face fell. "I don't want it to be.. that's not right."

She nodded unhappily. "Yes.. it's true.. but Solon, you can't say anything about that.. please… especially not to Gabrielle." She hesitated. "She's.. it's something that bothers her a lot."

"I won't." The boy replied slowly. "Mom.. she's so nice.. how could anyone want to hurt her?"

Why. Damn good question. "I.. don't know.. " She finally said. "He's.. he was an angry person, I guess.. and he just.. struck out at anyone.. and at anything he could. " She sighed deeply. "And.. she was just… a target." It's why I gave him to Kaleipus, isn't it? Wasn't I afraid I'd do.. worse?

Solon snuggled his head against her shoulder. "Are you mad about it?"

"Yeah." Xena replied quietly. "Mad that it happened, and that I couldn’t prevent it… yeah."

"But.." Solon's brow creased. "He's here.. so.. is it ok now? How'd she get him to stop?"

The warrior smiled a tiny smile. "Well.. Solon.. um.. she left home, and she found this.. grumpy old warlord to hang around with." She let out a soft sigh. "And um.. well, she knows.. and.. um he knows, that I'm not ever going to let that happen again, all right?"

He looked up at her soberly. "I think she made the right choice." He announced, studying her face. "And I don't think you're old and grumpy at all."

Xena smiled gently at him. "You don’t, huh?" '

"Nope." He shook his head vigorously, then gave her a sly grin. "And I bet Gabrielle doesn't think so either" His face grew serious again. "You… won't let anyone hurt her again, right?" He screwed his face up into a scowl. "Cause I really like her, and I don't want bad stuff to happen anymore."

Xena tucked his head under her chin, and rocked him quietly. "Son.. what we do.. what.. Gabrielle.. and I do.. we.." She hesitated. "We try to make things better for people who can't do that for themselves." She felt him nestle closer, and sensed he was hearing her. "And sometimes.. that's dangerous for us.. but.. we have to do it anyway.. because we think.. that it's worth our risking stuff so that other people can have better lives." Do I really believe that? Good gods… I can't believe I just said it. "Do.. you understand what I'm saying, Solon?"

'Yeah.." He mumbled softly. "I know.. but.. I.. I.. was scared.. when we were in those cages.. they were so mean to her.. and she was so brave.. I don't want anything to happen to her.. or to you.. not.. not now." His voice caught. "I.. I want.." His hands clenched on her tunic. "Mom.. I just found... you.. I don't want to lose you again."

Xena felt her heart jump, then stumble forward. "Solon.. hey.. " She sighed. "Look.. I promise you. .I'll do the best I can to make sure that nothing happens to either of us.. OK?"

He looked up. "You promise?"

The warrior nodded seriously. "I promise."

"Mmm.." He thumped her shoulder a little. "That's ok then.. cause you're the best there is." He looked up with a determined air. "Nobody's tougher than my mom."

Xena squared her shoulders under his worshipful gaze. Yeah.. maybe. Now all I have to do is make sure it stays that way. She sighed inwardly. "I do all right." She allowed, giving him a hug. "Come on.. let's get you cleaned up and ready to go." She stood up with him in her arms, and bounced out of the hay pile, making him giggle in reaction, then let him down and brushed him off before guiding him out the door.

"Hey.. Cait!" Solon called, as he got outside and spotted his friend. "She's all right. For a girl." He confided to his mother.

"Oh really." Xena commented, as the thin blond came trotting up. "Hello, Cait."

"Hello… super party." The girl smiled. "Do I ever have stories to tell the others when I get back.. it'll take me days."

Xena winced. "Um… well.. great." She sighed. Great. Just.. wonderful.. I always wanted to be story fodder for a pack of moon crazed Amazonettes. " take care on the ride home, OK?"

The girl grinned. "I will.. don’t you worry." Her eyes found Xena's and they shared a quiet exchange. "Come on, Solon.. give me a hand with our stuff, will you?"

Xena knelt, and Solon threw his arms around her, hugging her fiercely. "Remember.. you promised.. right? " He whispered fiercely in her ear.

The warrior let her eyes close, and tried to memorize the feel of him against her. He felt so.. small.. and fragile. "I remember." She said into his ear. "See you in the fall." She paused. "Or maybe sooner.. you never know."

He gave her one last squeeze, and broke off, grinning at her. "I love you, mom."

She smiled at him. "I love you too, Solon." And stood, watching him run off to join Cait, who was struggling to lift a heavy Amazon pack up onto one of the horses. She turned to see Ephiny watching her. "Hey."

The Amazon walked over and stood next to her. "He's a sweet kid, Xena."

The warrior glanced over at her. "Can't believe he's mine, huh?"

Ephiny snorted. "Something like that.. he's kind, loving.. innocent.." She was enjoying a rare moment of having Xena off balance.

One dark eyebrow curved up. "He's the one who put the bowl in your room." Xena drawled, crossing her arms and bouncing a bit on the balls of her feet. Heh. Gotcha.

Dead silence for a minute. "Damn." Ephiny finally laughed. "Nut doesn't fall far from that tree, does it?"

Xena slowly turned and gazed at her. "I hope that's the only similarity we'll ever have."

Ephiny stepped forward, matching her serious expression. "Too late for that, Warrior Princess." She looked Xena right in the eye. "He's brave, and loyal, and loving, and has a great heart. And I know exactly where he got all of those things from." She paused. "Even if you'd rather ride a Bacchae bareback than admit it."

The warrior studied her in silence, the barest flickering of emotion crossing her face. Then the cool look dissolved into a warm grin, and she clapped Ephiny on the shoulder. "Thanks, Eph." She jerked her chin towards the rapidly assembling party. "You got everything you need?"

"Yeah." The Amazon nodded, then looked down. "Listen.. I also wanted to say thanks." She looked up at Xena's face. "Thank you for saving my life.. and risking yours in doing it." She blinked. "The Amazons owe you yet, again. "

A shrug. "Glad I was there, Ephiny…sorry you had to end up getting so sick.. I know that was rotten for you."

"Mph.." Ephiny waggled a hand. "Being sick wasn't fun, no.. but… " She leaned back against the stable wall and crossed her arms. "I've been feeling kinda lousy lately.. just real tired, and I kept getting these headaches all the time." She admitted quietly, glancing up and grimacing at Xena's concerned look. "Yeah, yeah.. I know.. .don't bother.. guess it was my body's way of telling me I needed a break. Well.. this wasn't what I had in mind.. but it seems to have worked.. besides the coughing, I feel great." She shrugged. "So..I dunno.. maybe it ended up being for the best."

Xena studied her closely. "Maybe." She drawled slowly. "You'd better take care of yourself.. or I'll have to tell your boss about that."

Ephiny arched a pale eyebrow at her, and snorted. "MY boss?" She snorted softly. "As if… as if she doesn't have you wrapped around her little finger." She bumped Xena gently with an elbow. "C'mon..admit it."

The warrior raised an eyebrow at that, but said nothing, preferring to gaze across the courtyard at the activity around the assembling group.

Whoops.. a little too far, I think. Ephiny sighed to herself. Me and my big mouth. "Look.. sorry.. inappropriate comment"

Blue eyes suddenly caught hers, then Xena's mouth twitched into a wry, reluctant grin. "No…you're right." She lifted her shoulders in a light shrug. "Just takes some getting used to.. it's a first."

Ephiny blinked at her. "C'mon, Xena.. surely you.."

A hand interrupted her, touching lightly on her shoulder. "Not like this." She hesitated. "Listen.. Ephiny.. can I ask you a favor?"

The Amazon's brow contracted. "Sure.. you know you can."

Xena's face went still for a long moment. "Look… things happen, right?" She said, in a low voice. "Ephiny, if something ever happens to me, she's going to need a friend. Would you.."

"Stupid question." The Amazon regent replied shortly. "You know better, Xena." She paused, and put a hesitant hand out, then drew it back. "But.. let me tell you something, OK? I was there.. the last time.. and… I felt pretty helpless."

The flickering light of the candles revealed a quiet, somber form to Ephiny's eyes as she entered the Queen's quarters, just after sundown. The mask.. had just been taken.. and now all that remained was Xena's funeral pyre the next sunrise, and then…

But looking at Gabrielle's still face, Ephiny had realized that things were far from being resolved in her young friend's mind. She'd noticed how pale the bard was, and how dark the circles under her eyes were, and how she hugged herself unconsciously as though she were in pain.

Which, Ephiny sighed. She was. And she realized it would take a while.. Great Artemis.. the two of them were close.. an unlikely pair of friends, but friends they had been, connected by their travels and adventures, and by a deep, underlying current of affection that disregarded their differences as a pay no mind.

She'd walked over, and put a gentle hand on Gabrielle's upper arm, startled to feel how chilled she was. " OK?."

For a long moment, Gabrielle hadn't answered, then she swallowed, and nodded. "Yeah.. sure.. I'm fine. Go.. on to bed, Ephiny.. it's going to be a long day tomorrow." Her voice had sounded a touch strained, but she'd managed a smile for the Amazon, which somehow hadn't been convincing.

"You.. sure you don't want someone to stay here with you?" Ephiny had asked quietly. "It's no problem, Gabrielle.. this must be pretty strange for you."

The bard had looked up into her eyes. "Everything's strange, Ephiny. I ..I just have to get used to it, that's all."

She had felt deep compassion for the girl, and was quietly amazed at her bravery. "Gabrielle.. I know it's very hard for you right now.. but.. things will get better… it just takes a little time."

The bard had nodded slowly. "I know.. someday it'll hurt less." She'd paused. "Someday I'll stop listening for her voice."

Ephiny had felt like a fist had grabbed her heart, but she stayed silent, and waited.

"Someday, I'll stop looking up and expecting her to be there." Gabrielle went on, in a soft, almost distant tone. "Someday I'll stop waking up and wishing I hadn't." She'd stopped talking, as s gentle tear rolled down her cheek. "Ephiny, I miss her so much." This last came out in a rough whisper, and the Amazon had put her arms around the younger woman, and just hugged her.

"I know you do." She'd answered sadly. "And I think she knows that too."

"I'd give anything to have her back." Gabrielle had cried softly. "Even.. just for a minute… just so I could.. just.. say goodbye.. there's just so much.. I want to say to her."

"I know." Ephiny had sighed, and rubbed the bard's back lightly. Poor kid. She'd thought. She really did love the old war horse. "Hey.. you need to get some rest…why don't you come back to my place, huh? It's not good for you to be all by yourself like this."

She'd felt the bard take a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "No." Came the calm, almost distant answer. "That's something I have to get used to."

The Amazon had backed away a step, and grasped her by the shoulders. "Gabrielle, you won't always be alone.. you know that."

And those green eyes, older now by far than the ones she'd first known, had looked into her own. "Part of me always will be, Ephiny." Her eyes had then focused on something distant. "The part of me that's her… that's gone now." Then she'd squared her shoulders. "Go on.. you get some sleep."

Ephiny had nodded, and released her hold. "You too." She'd said, but as she'd walked out, leaving behind that silent, lonely form, she'd had a feeling her advice would go unheeded.

Xena waited for the Amazon to finish speaking, to finish relating events which she.. had been a silent witness to. "I know.. she was having a really rough time." She said quietly, remembering herself looking down on the bard after Ephiny had left, watching her curl up in a huddled ball with her little sheep. Wanting so desperately to reach out.. to do something.. anything… hearing every lonely thought in the bard's exhausted mind because they were, almost all of them, directed to her.

Ephiny regarded the warrior's face. "That's… it's why you came back, isn't it?" The question was out before she could censor it, and she winced.

Xena studied her for a long moment, her face an expressionless mask, then she sighed, and he blue eyes closed, and Xena ducked her head in a minute nod. "That's the only reason that mattered." She answered quietly, then paused as a familiar presence made itself felt.

"Hey!" Gabrielle's voice broke the silence. "What're you two looking so serious for?" She glanced from one to the other, before she slipped in next to Xena, and tucked a hand around her partner's arm. "Please come say goodbye to everyone.. they think you're sulking. " She paused. "About what, I have no idea."

"Me? Sulk?" Xena took a steadying breath, then gave her a hurt look. " Nah. C'mon, Ephiny."

The Amazon smiled quietly, and headed towards the departing group, leaving them to walk more slowly behind. "Everything… all right?" Gabrielle ventured, her brow creasing a bit. "You looked pretty grim." She hesitated. "And I um… " She patted her belly in the unconscious signal they both used for the connection between them. "I thought something was bothering you."

The warrior walked a few steps in silence. "Yeah.. Eph was just thanking me." Xena replied slowly. "You say goodbye to your folks already?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah.." Subject change.. do I let it go? Yeah.. for now. "It's been nice seeing everyone." She paused.

"But?" Xena prodded, with a knowing grin.

The bard let out a gentle sigh. "Peace and quiet's nice too."

"Mmm." Her partner agreed solemnly. "You think I could interest you in a nice, quiet evening by the fire?"

Gabrielle grinned quietly to herself, thinking of the first night they'd spent in their new home.

"Xena, get over it." The bard had sighed, rolling her eyes at her grumpy partner, who was pacing back and forth across the newly laid floor of the cabin. "C'mon… it's nice here." It was long after dinner, and she'd coaxed the warrior back to the cabin, where Xena had started grumbling about the soft comforts her mother had provided.

"I didn't say it wasn't." Xena had growled. "That's not the point.." She'd waved her hands around. "I can't believe I let myself be talked into this." Tension had rolled off the warrior like water, splattering to the floor and making Gabrielle wince in reflex.

She known talking wouldn't do it… so she'd quietly just gotten out of the way, and set a pot of water on, measuring out and pouring herbs into two cups while her partner continued to pace, and fume, and shake her head.

Waited till the water boiled, she had, then let the herbs steep, mixing in a couple of spoonfuls of honey for good measure. Then she picked the cups up, and walked over to the low table in front of the fireplace, and set them down.

"Xena?" She had absently fluffed one of the pillows on the comfortable looking couch.

"What?" Had come the exasperated reply from the still pacing warrior, who walked over and glared at the bed, poking it and shaking her head.

"Could you come over here a minute?" The bard had asked softly.

The warrior had let out a raspy sigh, then stomped over, putting her hands on her hips and cocking her head at Gabrielle. 'What?" She asked again.

Gabrielle had seated herself, putting her hands in her lap and peering up at her partner with a quietly pensive look. It had worked. Xena had dropped down onto the couch next to her, setting her elbows on her knees, and studying her hands. "Sorry." She'd apologized after a tensely silent moment. "I must sound like an ass."

The bard had bit off a tiny grin. "No.. you sound scared." She'd paused. "Is… this all too much for you?"

Dead silence had fallen for a long time, while Xena had gazed at the wooden floor. Then she'd finally lifted her head, and propped her chin on one hand. "Maybe." She'd blown out a long breath and looked around, drinking in the cozy space, then letting her eyes rest on Gabrielle's firelit features. "Been a long time since… home… meant anything."

Gabrielle had slid close, picking up one of the mugs and holding it out, then folding Xena's fingers around it. "I know." She had answered simply, watching her partner take a sip, then glance around the room again. "But.. give it a little time. I think you'll get used to it."

Xena had leaned back slowly "I don't know about that, Gabrielle.. I think I've been living rough too long." She'd sighed. "I don't think I can handle the domestic life." She'd taken another sip, then glanced at the bard. "Mm…" She stretched out her long legs and crossed them at the ankles. "This tastes great." She'd sighed and let her head rest on the couch back.

Gabrielle had studied her sprawled form with some amusement, watching the blue eyes blink sleepily at the friendly, crackling fire. "Well, Xena.. I'm sure you'll give it your best effort." She'd commented, taking a sip of her own tea. "It'll be tough for you."

"Yeah." Came the soft response. "Could take a while."

"Mmmhmm." Gabrielle had answered, as she slid her free hand down the back of the couch and gently kneaded her partner's neck. "Well, you just work on it."

"Uh huh." Xena had mumbled, her eyes slowly closing. "I'll try."

Now the bard laughed to herself. "I'd love to." She sighed happily, and leaned her head against her partner's shoulder, as they walked over to say goodbye to their guests, who were mounting up and making ready to go out along the road.

The weather was.. perfect. Naturally. The sun had burned off a great deal of the drifts, and what was left was a healthy, but manageable covering that draped off the buildings and the stark branches of the trees. The wind was light, and though the air was cold, it was tempered by the sun, which peeked merrily out from between sparse white clouds.

They endured a round of hugs from Jessan and his family, the tall forest dweller stopping short from lifting Xena off her feet as he remembered getting the same treatment the last time he tried it. "I really don’t' want you picking me up in front of all these Amazons." He whispered into her nearby ear. "Bad for the image."

"Yours or mine?" Xena muttered back, with a feral grin, as she gave him a slap on the side and released him. "Thanks for making the trip, Jess. I'm glad you were here."

"Xena.." He laughed softly, fangs flashing. "I wouldn't have missed it… and what stories I have to tell when we get home."

She winced. "Oh.. great.. Not you too." She sighed and accepted a hug from Elaini. "Take care of him all right?"

The forest dweller grunted. "I'll try.. it ain't easy." She snorted softly "You warrior types are a pig's hind foot to deal with."

Gabrielle gave her an appreciative glance. "Oooo… Elaini.. good one. Can I use it sometime?"

At last, they were off, and clattering down the half frozen road, bits of snow being driven out of their path home.

Xena sighed, and settled an arm around Gabrielle, as she let her other hand drift down to rest on Ares' dark head. "That.. was quite a party." She yawned. "Wonder what was up with Hercules.. Toris said they got some message right after dawn and took off."

The bard shook her head. "I'm sure we'll hear about it." She gave Xena's arm a gentle tug. "C'mon.. I hear lunch calling."

A soft snort. "You always hear lunch calling." But Xena allowed herself to be steered towards the inn. "What about that sparring you wanted to do?"

"Mmm… after lunch?" Came the innocent answer. "We could go for a walk up in the hills.. there's um.. some… rocks I wanted to show you."

"Rocks." Xena stated, giving her a look. "Why do I think this is a thinly veiled excuse to spend the day loitering around with you in the forest?" She clucked her tongue at the bard. "You're getting pretty lazy, there, Gabrielle."

The bard bumped her lightly. "Complaining?"

A low, throaty chuckle was her answer. "Nope… loving every minute of it." Xena replied, as she opened the door to the inn and gestured for Gabrielle to precede her. She followed the bard in, then almost crashed right into her. "Hey!"

"Uh." The bard was standing just inside the doorway, hands on hips. "Xena?"

Toris and Granella were seated at a nearby table, arms crossed, glaring at them.

Eyes vividly in relief against blue faces.

Toris stood up, and grabbed a bowl on the table, dipping his hand inside it. "Y'know sis.." He started to walk towards them. "I just got this.. urge…. "

"Toris." Xena growled in warning, counterpointed by Ares nervous accompaniment. "I didn't do it."

"Of course not." Her brother smiled, getting a large glob onto his fingers.

"Uh oh." Gabrielle muttered. "Hi Gran."

The Amazon glared at her. "Gabrielle, I am blue where… people.. really.. shouldn't.. be… um…"

"Blue." The bard finished. "Xena?"

"Gotcha." The warrior replied, and bolted out the door, hauling her along easily "Maybe a walk in the hills wasn't a bad idea."

Gabrielle glanced behind her, to see Toris and Granella pelting out of the inn. "Walk?" She tugged on Xena's sleeve.

"Right." Her partner answered, as they both broke into a dead run, and headed up the snow covered path out of the town.

"Did you…" Gabrielle started.

"Nope." Xena replied shortly, lengthening her powerful strides.

"Then..?" The bard asked, keeping a nervous eye on their pursuers.

"Solon gets it from me." Xena muttered.

"Yeah?" Gabrielle answered, confused. "So?"

"Where do you suppose I get it from?" Her partner sighed, as they rounded the corner and started up the steep path away from Amphipolis.

The End. - Thanks for hanging in there folks….see you again shortly.


PS - No, Toris and Granella didn't catch them. They tripped, and ended up throwing the contents of the bowl over a sheep. Cyrene decided not to try and get the color out, and sheared the sheep instead, then had a weaver make a sweater out of it.

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