Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence –Why does anyone ever disclaim violence in a Xena story? Of course there's violence. Do you think we'd put out a story that consisted of pages and pages of Xena just.. .fishing.. or something? She is a Warrior Princess, not a Mary Kay consultant. (no insult intended - some of my best co workers are Mary Kay consultants, and I purchase from them regularly) And Gabrielle is no slouch with that staff, either. So, yes - there is violence.

Subtext - C'mon. Even the show has subtext. Heck, sometimes, it's not subtext. Sometimes, it's maintext. But anyway, this is an alternative fan fiction story. That means, it's based on the premise that Xena and Gabrielle are more than just best friends. If that's not your cup of mint tea, there are many, many talented bards out in the Xenaverse who post general fiction, which does not follow this premise. Go find them. Enjoy them.

This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more.

So - having read this lovely disclaimer, if you then read the story and are shocked that Gabrielle and Xena are kissing each other, I can't help ya. If you're offended by it, send me your address, and I'll send you a bushel of citrus. We like to send that from here - we have to get rid of all of it somehow.

Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:


Promises Kept - Part 4

By Melissa Good

The long hallway ended in a sort of cul-de-sac; into which was set a broad, wooden doorway flanked by two bored looking guards. "She's in there.. ifn they'll let you in." Mestre explained briefly, then stopped, and let Gabrielle and Ares go on, eyeing the men with weary distaste.

The bard sized the guards up as she approached, and they watched her. Both young, and unkempt, with dark hair and serviceable armor. The closer one held up a hand as she moved within speaking range of them. "Go away."

Gabrielle sighed inwardly. Not a good start. "Hi." She replied. "My name is Gabrielle."

The man blinked at her. "Go away." He repeated.

"I'd really like to get in and just talk to the Princess." The bard replied, moving closer and keeping her gestures unthreatening. "You know.. she seemed kinda lonely last night… I just thought I'd try to cheer her up a little.. I'm a bard…I've got lots of stories I can tell."

"Go away or I'll cut your head off." The man replied.

Gabrielle glanced down at the dark furred wolf sitting patiently at her heels. "You know, Ares… sometimes, I'm just not in the mood for talking things out." She sighed, then glanced up at the guard. "Okay. Let me in, or I'll tell Xena you didn't, and she'll come and break both of your arms."

Dead silence, as the two guards looked at her, then looked at each other. "If she's in a good mood." The bard went on. "If she's in a bad mood, on the other hand, she'll probably break your legs, too.. though I've seen her get really in a snit and just start pulling body parts off of people she's mad at." She put her hands on her hips and waited.

The guard edged back, and smiled a fake smile at her, then unlocked the door and waved her in.

"Thank you." Gabrielle gave him her best approving face. "I really appreciate it." She slipped inside the chamber, and glanced around. It was a multi-room suite, and low, muttered voices were coming from the room she could barely see beyond a curtained archway. "Well, Ares… we're here now." She muttered, running her fingers through her hair, and twitching her tunic straight. "Let's hope she doesn't throw something at us." She walked quietly towards the doorway, and stood in it, resting one hand on the drapes that lined the opening.

The voices stopped as she was spotted, and three pairs of eyes, surprised, then hostile turned to her. The princess was there, along with a young man, and a young woman in rich clothing. They were all about the same age, and the boy was just trying to grow a moustache.

It was not a notable success, but Gabrielle had more important things to worry about. "Hello." She stood calmly, her fingertips scratching Ares' head, soothing the wolf whose hackles were rising at the perceptible dislike in the room. "I think we met last night."

The boy stepped in front of the princess. "Don't come closer… I warn you, I'm an excellent fighter."

Gabrielle laughed, her sunny voice ringing across the room. She spread her arms, and glanced down at herself. "I think you've got me confused with my partner… she's the tall, dark haired one that's into leather and kicking butt." She smiled. "I'm a bard…I tell stories."

They looked at her suspiciously.

"Really." Gabrielle let her arms fall, and regarded them. "I just wanted to talk to you."

The princess stood, and pushed the boy out of the way, advancing on the bard quickly, then stopping at arms length from her. They were about even in height, but the princess had a very slim, almost willowy build in stark contrast to the bard's sturdy, muscular poise. She looked Gabrielle right in the eyes for a long moment. "Leave us." She finally said, turning to glance at her friends. "Go on.. go get some breakfast."

The boy bristled. "Look here, Silvi… we're not going to leave you here with that barbarian."

Gabrielle scratched her ear. "First time I've been called that." She muttered to Ares, who looked up, and licked his chops. "Boy have they been sheltered if they think I'm a barbarian."

Silvi heard her, flicking a quick glance in her direction before making a hand gesture towards the other two. "It's fine… go on." She turned her russet head and regarded Gabrielle, letting her eyes sweep the bard regally from head to foot. "Get a tray, and come back. This shouldn't take long."

With dour looks, the two left, a ringing silence coloring the room in their absence. Silvi turned and clasped her hands in front of her. "What is it that you want?" She lifted her chin, and assumed a lofty expression.

"Just to talk." The bard replied with a smile. "I've never been to this city before.. it seems kind of nice."

"We don't have anything to talk about." Silvi answered. "So if you don't mind, I’m quite busy."

Gabrielle looked around, noting the fluffy frills on the bed, and the air of youth to the room's furniture, and figured that it probably was the princess's childhood room, still not outgrown. "I was just curious… actually.. last night, when you were introduced to us, you seemed friendly. After Linneus left, you weren't. " She paused, and looked at the princess. "Why?"

"Well." Silvi was disconcerted, and it showed. "I.. uh… I don't know what you're talking about. Why should I feel friendly to anyone of you? You're all pigs." She gave Gabrielle a distinctly unfriendly look. "You're friends of Garanimus the ass."

Gabrielle sighed, and wandered over to a small table, perching on the corner of it. "Not really." She fiddled with a piece of rock that was sitting on the table's surface. "It's more of a forced favor kinda thing." Her eyes lifted, and regarded the princess. "Is Linneus a friend of yours?"

"A common soldier? Don’t be stupid." Silvi answered sharply. "He just represents a more palatable faction."

Blond brows drew inward. "One warlord or the other.. what difference does it make?" Gabrielle asked curiously. "I don't understand."

Silvi came towards her. "It makes all the difference, you silly fool." She replied. "Anyone is better than what we have now.. they're horrible… I'd like to see them all dead.. and here we'd thought we had a chance to be rid of them." She glared bitterly at Gabrielle. "Until you came." The princess twisted her hands together. "You and that… that woman."

The bard regarded her quietly. "She's actually kinda nice when you get to know her."

She stared. "What?"

"Xena." Gabrielle got up and crossed her arms. "I'm assuming that's who you meant…she's not a bad person."

Pale lashes blinked up and down. "How can you say that?"

The bard exhaled, and let a fond smile cross her face. "I've lived with her for three years." She replied quietly. "Look, she doesn’t like Garanimus.. if there's a way to get him out of here, she'll find it."

Silvi paused, then moved around the bard speculatively. "Why should she? " The girl asked, her face hardening. "She's just as bad as he is.. maybe worse from what I hear."

Gabrielle exhaled. "That's not true." A pensive pause. "Not anymore."

The girl laughed shortly. "She's a whore.. they're lovers.. what do you take me f… " She stopped at Gabrielle's abrupt advance, stiffening as eyes grown as cold as a storm tossed sea halted inches from her, set in a face whose normal friendly countenance had shifted into sudden anger with startling speed.

"Don't you call her that." Gabrielle's voice had dropped, and hardened. "You don’t know her at all."

Silvi took a nervous step back. "B… " The blond woman suddenly seemed far more menacing than the guards outside the door.

The bard took a short step forward, her fists clenching. "She is my best friend, and I don't put up with ignorant little girls talking about her like that."

The princess raised her hands. "Okay.. okay.. hold on." She took a shaky breath. "Look here, I'm a royal princess.. "

"And I'm an Amazon Queen. " Gabrielle snapped back. "Your point?" She was still bristling.

"A…" The gray eyes widened. "B…"

Abruptly, Gabrielle remembered herself, and forcibly relaxed her stance. Gods.. what in Hades do you think you're doing? "C usually comes after that." She said quietly. "Sorry … I get a little sensitive when people assume things about her that I know aren't true."

Silvi blinked at her. "Are you really an Amazon Queen?"

Gabrielle rubbed her nose. "Yes." She replied. "Weird, huh?"

The girl studied her. "You don't look like a queen. You look like a peasant."

The bard refused to let the gibe get to her. "Amazons don’t live in frilly palaces." She responded evenly. "And they don’t get to rule just because they're born to."

Silvi looked stung. "You're rude."

"Honest." Gabrielle shot right back. "And not nearly as rude as you are."

The two of them stared at each other. Silvi finally let out a vexed sigh. "I don't much like you."

Gabrielle said nothing.

Long silence.

"Why would she want to help us?" The princess finally, grudgingly asked.

The bard took a step backward and settled on the edge of the table again. "It's what she does, now."

The thin, aristocratic nose lifted. "I find that very hard to believe."

Slowly, Gabrielle smiled. "So does she." The bard folded her arms. "But it's true."

A breath, and suddenly the princess looked very much like a frightened young girl, deep in a situation not of her own making. "Why is she helping Garanimus then? Can't she see how horrible he is?"

The bard stood, and walked to the open double doors that led out onto a small, curved balcony. She leaned her hands on the edge of it and looked down, to see small figures plodding purposefully around several small buildings just to the right of the castle forecourt. Her eyes immediately found what she was looking for, a confident figure standing under a nearby tree, watching. "She sees." She turned and replied to Silvi, who had walked outside and was gazing down also. "But she owes him a favor… and she takes that kind of thing very seriously."

Silvi watched the activity. "What are they doing?"

Gabrielle looked. "Washing." She replied succinctly.

A small smirk edged the princesses face. "Really." She eyed the men. "Maybe they'll all catch their deaths then, and we'll be rid of them that way." She turned away, as voices floated through the open door. "Vasi."

The man rushed through the door, has hand on his dagger, an almost comical expression of noble heroics on his face. "I'm here, your highness!" He gave Gabrielle a suspicious look. "Are you all right?" He asked the princess.

"Yes, I'm fine." Silvi assured him. "We were just discussing things." She glanced inside. "Let's have breakfast." Her eyes flicked to the bard. "Gabrielle, was it?"

A nod.

Gray eyes that now held a hint of shy, but wary respect looked back at her. "Will you join us?"

The man snorted. "Silvi, you must be joking." He gave Gabrielle an incredulous look. "You're not going to eat with a peasant, are you?"

The princess smiled slightly. "Ah, Vasi.. things are not always what they look like." She murmured. "You can leave if you wish.. you have my indulgence."

Vasi looked at her, then at Gabrielle, in confusion. "No.. no.. your highness…I would not dream of leaving you unprotected." He stammered. "Of course I will stay."

Silvi nodded. "Very well." She led the way indoors, where the other girl was waiting. "Elanora… please, let's be seated." She sat down, waiting for them to join her. Vasi and Elanora eyed Gabrielle very uncertainly as the bard quietly took her seat, motioning Ares to curl up next to her. "These are my cousins." The princess explained, lifting a flaky bun from the tray and placing it on the center of her plate. "Their father and my father were brothers."

Gabrielle studied them. "Nice to meet you.." She stated blandly.

"Mm.." Silvi hesitated. "And how do you prefer to be called… just Gabrielle?"

The bard nodded.

The princess deposited a bun on her guest's plate, and offered the platter to her cousins. "I believe you said you were a… a bard, was it?" She watched for a second nod. "So.. you tell stories?"

"Yes." Gabrielle took a sip of water from the glass in front of her. "Would you like to hear one?"

"About cows and chickens?" Vasi snickered.

Mist green eyes pinned him in place. "Actually. I was thinking more about the attempt on the life of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt.. and how it got foiled." Gabrielle answered mildly. "But I can come up with a chicken or two if that's the kind of thing you like to hear."

The three looked at her in some astonishment. "I didn't hear about that… father surely would have said." Vasi gave her a suspicious look.

"Well.. " Gabrielle laughed a little, as she picked up her roll and put a bit of butter and jam on it. "It's been kept kinda under wraps.. you don't want to advertise that kinda thing."

Elanora cleared her throat. She was a dark haired girl with a crooked nose, and overly large eyes. "How do you know about it then?" Her voice was half scornful, and half challenging.

Gabrielle took a bite, and chewed it, watching them with knowing eyes. "I was there." She replied, after swallowing. "You wanna hear about it?"

Silvi rested her chin on her hand, and nibbled her own portion. "Please. "

The late afternoon sun slanted down across Xena's back, settling a blanket of warmth across her shoulders as she watched the last of the irritable, disgusted, but clean soldiers trudge back into their now swept, washed, and mucked out quarters. She'd worked alongside them all day, dragging buckets of water, and wielding a shovel alongside to rid the place of an accumulation of dirt and scum that turned even her experienced stomach.

To the left of each hut rows of armor stood drying, the metal bits clanging disconsolately in the brisk breeze that lifted her hair up and blew a cool note across the back of her neck. At least it smells better, Xena decided, rocking back and forward on her heels, and regarding her handiwork with a satisfied smirk. From the corner of her eye she caught several locals watching with amused looks, which vanished when they saw her turn their way.

They scattered, except for one older woman, who was leaning against the well, her arms crossed over her ample chest. She returned Xena's inquisitive stare with one of her own, and the warrior ambled over, wanting to get a dipper of water while she was at it. The woman watched her pitch the bucket down the well, and draw it up before she spoke.

"'Ad em clean up, did ye?" Dark brown eyes regarded her warily.

Xena took up a scoop of water and swallowed it. "Yep." She put the bucket back on its hook and turned to face the soldier's quarters, holding the dipper in one hand and sipping from it. "Needed it."

A snort. "Bigowds, yes." A bit of silence, while the old woman studied her frankly. "They say you're from Amphipolis." She finally grunted, folding her arms.

Xena turned, surprised. "That's right." She answered slowly. "Why?"

A nod of the gray head. "Had a friend there… long time ago. Innkeeper." She watched Xena's face carefully.

The blue eyes blinked twice. "Cyrene?"

A nod. "Aye."

Xena smiled wryly. "My mother."

Both gray eyebrows jerked up. "Be damned." She looked more closely at the warrior. "Aye… it could be." Her eyes wandered. "She wasn't so tall…but.. Hades bells.. last time I seen you then you weren't but a bit of a sprout running wild in the stables." A soft snort followed. "Ye grew some now, didn’t ye?"

It was… Xena sighed. An embarrassing moment, but in a way, it also touched her. "Sounds like that could have been me." The warrior allowed. "What's your name?"

"Folks just call me old gramma." The woman answered with a dry chuckle. "I runs the kitchen." Her eyes sharply focused on Xena. "Your ma used to be quite a cook."

The warrior chuckled hesitantly. "She still is." The dipper was now empty, and she was reminded that she'd neglected to stop and eat all day by the hollow feeling inside her gut. "Speaking of which, I gotta go grab an apple or something."

"Tch." The woman clucked. "C'mon, little sprout.. I gots some bread and cheese'll do as well for ye." She pushed away from the well and limped stiffly off, motioning Xena to follow her. "Anyone's who gots them bistards to stop stinkin deserves at least that."

Feeling slightly absurd, Xena lifted her hands and let them drop, then followed her, flicking a bit of mud off her gambeson. Oh well.. no sense in arguing. I hope she doesn’t call me that in front of Gabrielle, though. I'll never live it down.

They entered the kitchen through the herb garden door, which lent its spicy fragrance to the air, attaching lingering traces of thyme to them as they passed through it. The room hushed as eyes turned and spotted Xena's tall form, and she could see outraged stares being directed at her elderly guide.

"G'wan about ye business." Gramma yelled suddenly, waving her hands. "This ain't the juggling show."

Bodies scurried out of her way, as she moved back into the pantry, pulling a loaf down from a shelf with a muttered oath. She picked up a slicing knife with an expert hand, and carved off a large section, splitting it down the middle and releasing its warm, yeasty fragrance into the air.

Xena breathed the familiar smell in deeply, and was content to watch as Gramma dipped a brush into herbed olive oil, and spread a spare layer on either side of the bread, then reached over and sliced off two large slabs of goats cheese, and laid them on top of the impromptu snack. She slapped the two sides together, and handed them over. "There. G'wan.. before this lot's eyeballs are rolling on the floor and I'll be having t clean em up afore dinner."

"Thanks." The warrior accepted it graciously. "I appreciate that."

A snort. "Y'know.. I'm the one yer mother gave that damn rooster to."

Xena's eyes widened slightly. "Sparky?" She glanced around as if the rooster, surely long dead, was going to spring out and peck her.

Gramma laughed. "Artemis the mighty, yes… nasty bit of goods he was… but a good egg pusher." She gave Xena a grudging smile. "Small world it is, eh?"

The warrior smiled back. "Smaller than you think." She tucked the bread and cheese into one large hand, then gave Gramma a nod. "Take care."

The old woman watched as she left, keeping her eyes pinned on the tall figure until it vanished through the door that led into the main banqueting hall. "Tis not I should take care, little sprout." She muttered softly to herself, giving the now openly scowling staff a vulgar gesture. "Better her a friend than enemy, ye dungheads." She spat, as she turned back to her tasks.

"Gramma how could you!" The castle steward hissed at her, wiping his hands on his apron in disgust.

"Shut up, ye dog faced whiner." The old woman shot back. "She's not one of them."

The man grabbed her arm. "Listen, old fool… he called her here, and he put her in charge of the army."

"Ay." Gramma turned, and peered at him. "But who's to say what she's goin t do with it?"

Xena was still chuckling as she slipped back into the room they'd been assigned, taking it its quiet emptiness with a small sigh of disappointment. Gabrielle must still be hobnobbing.. she realized, then set her snack down as she went to the mirror and gazed at her reflection.

Yikes. The warrior flinched, absorbing her mud-spattered form with distaste. Then she brightened. Hey.. good excuse to try out that nice bathtub… right? She grinned, and loosened the straps on the gambeson, then entered the bathing chamber, and examined it.

Ah. A stone aqueduct lead to a plugged basin, where she'd washed that morning. The plug could be removed, which would allow the water to flow into the tub. The aqueduct also ran against the back side of the fireplace for the room, so in cold weather the water would be heated. The bottom of the tub had another sandstone plug, which could be pulled up to let the water go out yet a different aqueduct, which emptied into the garderobe and out into the river that ran alongside the city, she guessed.

Nice. Her face creased into a grin, and she pulled the basin stopper out, releasing a flood of water into the large tub. She glanced around, and spotted an earthenware jug, which she plucked the top off of, and sniffed warily. Ah. The rich scent of wild flowers rose to her, dried petals evidently meant to toss in the bath. Judiciously, she put the jug down, then padded back into the main room and knelt by her saddlebags, rooting in one of them until she found a cake of their own soap, whose fragrance reminded her of Amphipolis, and her mother's kitchen in the winter when the innkeeper had poured hot water into a large tub and bathed her recalcitrant children.

Xena chuckled, remembering her mother's exasperated sigh as she scrubbed layers of mud off her. "I swear, Xena… " Cyrene had often exclaimed. "What do you do… swim in this stuff?" Keeping her in mended shirts was always tough, too, she recalled wryly. Poor mother.

A thought paused her. Would I have been as patient as she was? And a second. Will I be? She let a tiny thrill of anticipation chase up her spine. I hope so. The idea of.. in a way, starting over.. getting a second chance to do this one thing right… A long, slow breath trickled out of her lungs. I never considered myself in the least bit maternal.. .but gods..I want this.

She removed a small sack of bath salts they'd picked up in Potadeia and went back into the bathing room, tossing a handful of the salts into the water, and setting the cake of soap down as she finished unbuckling the gambeson and slid out of it, then sat and removed her boots, which she'd taken the precaution of rinsing off before she reentered the palace, not wanting to bring half the stables in with her.

With a sigh, she submerged herself in the burbling water, watching idly as the level rose to cover her thighs. She leaned back and let her body relax, relatively pleased with the day's events, and feeling a quiet satisfaction that she'd managed to achieve her objective without killing anyone.

The two broken legs and the dislocated shoulder didn't really count… she'd had to break up those fights, right? The men had started jibing each other as they scrubbed, and there were some hurt feelings… which weren't nearly as hurt as the physical injuries Xena visited on them for their angry scrapping. Ah.. the smell of wet, naked men drying in the sun… Her nose wrinkled. It had stunk worse than Ares did when he went swimming in the mud hole near Amphipolis.

"You fight dirty!" One of them had cried, bent over from a particularly vicious blow on his private parts. She'd just grinned back.

Now, she grinned again, and gazed up at the tiled ceiling. Been a long time since I spent a day in the trenches.. forgot how much I used to enjoy that. She'd ended the day by giving those soldiers who had finished their cleaning tasks a little pick up drill, trading sword strokes in the bright sunlight with some of the braver ones, who were, on the whole, not really that awful.

Bennu, the tall one, was her favorite. He was skilled, and strong, and she'd found herself having to stretch to meet his attacks, which resulted in a gentle ache in muscles she'd been neglecting for a while. Her life in Amphipolis had kept her busy, but the long days with the horses, hunting, doing healer's duty, and helping around the inn… left little time for drills. She'd been keeping up her morning runs, but her nights she'd firmly reserved for her soulmate. Period.

Despite the aches… she picked up the soap and scrubbed her shoulder. She still had it… a little rusty, maybe.. that was to be expected, but she'd felt things start to come back towards the end of the day. The moves had started to flow a little better, and she'd stopped thinking about what she was doing, letting her body work and slip back into a familiar, recognizable groove.

That wolf was still in there, and was very contented at her drills today, she realized, stretching to her full length in the tub, and watching the water swirl around her. Exercise she got plenty of, in Amphipolis and when they traveled, but this…was different. Fighting touched something very essential inside of her, relieving a pressure that had been building up for months.

A pressure she hadn't even realized was there until it was released, filling her with a quiet, feral satisfaction. She looked down the length of her body and wiggled her toes, watching the water swirl around, and sighed, idly rubbing the soap over a thin, almost invisible scar on her thigh. What was that from again? Oh right… tavern fight outside Athens, the night Gabrielle had decided to stay at the Academy. She'd gotten drunk, and let someone surprise her.

And had to make up some damn fool excuse when Gabrielle showed back up, curious as ever.

Her ears cocked, as she heard familiar footsteps coming down the hall and the door opened inward, bringing a warm presence and the tickering of wolfish toenails on the marble. "Hey!" She called out, and heard Gabrielle's direction change.

The bard trotted into the room, and stopped, putting her hands on her hips as she spotted her soulmate lounging in the tub. "Well. " A broad smile crossed her face. "I can think of worse things to come home to." She continued on, and perched herself on the edge of the tub, trailing her fingers in the scented water. "Hi."

Xena stretched her arms out along the top of the basin, and regarded her lazily. "Hi yourself."

Gabrielle reached up and brushed the wet hair out of her eyes. "How'd it go?"

A shrug. "Not bad… it's clean now." The warrior allowed. "Got a little sparring in.. not much else." A pause. "You?"

"Ah." The bard crossed her legs and exhaled. "Well, if I said the princess was a stuck up little whiner with delusions of royal godhood, would you believe me?"

"Ouch." Xena winced. "Sorry." She reached up and rested a hand on the bard's leg.

"No no… it was.. a learning experience." Gabrielle held up a hand. "And she has two cousins who are worse. We spent the day going over their royal bloodlines, and what they were going to wear for some ball that's coming up, and deciding on the color to order the kitchen to make the dessert topping."

"Ah." Xena covered her mouth to hide a smile. "Um… well, I mucked fertilizer and old garbage all day."

Somehow, Gabrielle didn't look very sympathetic. "They eat cucumber sandwiches for lunch. Xena, have you ever eaten a cucumber sandwich?"

"Um. No." The warrior replied, hesitantly. "I don't think I have."

"It's a tiny piece of stale bread, which has rancid oil on it, and a piece of lukewarm watery vegetable put on top." The bard supplied helpfully. "They think it's very aristocratic to be paper thin." Her expression told volumes about what she personally thought about that.

"The people or the cucumbers?" Xena inquired wryly. "Um… there's some bread and cheese in the other room if you're hungry."

A pause. "Have I ever told you how much I love you?" Gabrielle batted her eyelashes at her partner devotedly. "I was going to ransack your saddlebags for a fruit bar." She leaned over and kissed Xena's damp head.

The warrior laughed. "Go on.. save me a bite, but help yourself. Turns out the head cook's an old friend of mom's." She watched Gabrielle trot out, and chuckled a little to herself.

The bard returned very shortly with the sandwich and split it in half, handing one portion to Xena, and keeping the other. "Mmmm… " She took a bite, and chewed, closing her eyes in bliss. "They can take and shove those cucumbers." She swallowed. "Right up their royal sphincters."

Xena burst out laughing, struggling hard not to spit out her mouthful of bread and cheese. "Gabrielle!" She regarded her partner thoughtfully. "Well, at least you got her talking to you… did you make any progress?"

Gabrielle grinned around her mouthful and nodded. "They started off calling me a barbarian, and ended up asking my help in writing something." She took another big bite. "But gods.. " She muffled the words. "Are they young."

The warrior put a hand up on her thigh. "You're not so much older than they are, love." She reminded her gently. "And stop chewing so fast.. it's not going anywhere."

The bard sighed. "I know… to both." She forced herself to chew more slowly. "But I'm really hungry, and when I was their age, I didn't have to run a city."

"Hmm." Xena chewed her own portion thoughtfully. "That's true." She admitted. "So.." She mused. "What's her problem?"

"Oh." Gabrielle finished up her bread and dusted her hands off. "She hate Garanimus." Now her expression turned serious. "She's upset, because you're helping him keep control of the city.. they were hoping Framna would chase him off.. figured anyone was better than what they had now."

The warrior blew out a long breath, and leaned back in the water, resting her head against the edge of the tub. "Well… I dunno… he's a bastard, all right. But who says Framna's any better?" Her eyes turned to her soulmate. "Though.. I gotta tell you.. I was a lot more impressed by their emissary yesterday than most anyone I met today." She winced. "He's got a couple of decent fighters, but most of them are either complete amateurs or hacks." She didn’t spit in disgust, but she somehow gave the impression she had.

Gabrielle idly traced the fine hairs on her partner's arm. "Did you suitably impress them? I saw you supervising the cleaning effort." She grinned.

Xena grew a touch pensive. "Yeah, I think I did." She admitted. "You know, the usual knock em around a little, that kinda thing." She studied the surface of the water quietly, until gentle fingers grasped her chin, and turned her head so she had to face the now serious green eyes. "I… I.. um.. "

"You enjoy it." Gabrielle finished for her somberly. "Xena, I know you do… it's something you're really good at."

The warrior searched her face. "Yes." A pause. "And I guess it doesn't hurt to indulge in that once in a while.. not like I get much opportunity to." She hesitated, seeing the twitch in Gabrielle's facial muscles. "Or that I want to."

The bard smiled gently. "Xena… you're always going to be a fighter.. you and I both know that. Probably when you're a hundred years old you'll still be kicking somebody's butt." She combed her fingers through the damp, dark hair. "And.. I.. I kind of…I have to admit it's always been sort of exciting to watch you do it, too."

A dark brow edged up. "Really?" Xena asked, curiously. "I didn't think you…you felt that way."

A short laugh from Gabrielle. "Yeah.. me, little peace loving, gentle Gabrielle from Potadeia, of the high ideals and pristine morals. " She rolled her eyes in obvious sarcasm. "Yes..I confess… my evil, darkest admission… I think you're incredibly sexy when you fight."

Xena's face went absolutely still, as if she couldn’t figure out what reaction to have, so she compromised by having none. "Uh."

"Heh." The bard chuckled wickedly. "Gotcha." She gave her partner a chuck under her chin. "You going to finish that?" She indicated the remains of the bread and cheese still clutched in Xena's hand. The warrior handed it over wordlessly, and she smiled. "Thanks."

 A knocking on the door attracted Gabrielle's attention, and she crossed the floor, laying her hand on the doorlatch and tugging the large portal open. A very tall, well built young man stood there, with an almost painfully clean face. "Well.. hello." Gabrielle smiled at him. "Can I help you?"

He looked down at his hands, which held a stack of parchment. "Ah… the genrl asked fer these."

Genrl..genrl… general? Gabrielle puzzled over that for a minute. "Oh.. you mean Xena. " She chuckled a little "Sure.. sure… come on in." She stepped back to let him enter. "Hey.. Xena… one of… um.. of your soldiers is here."

"Yeah?" The warrior padded out into the room, only a brief piece of linen wrapped around her body. "Oh..hi Bennu… that the stuff?" She ran her hands through her hair to start it drying, and went to the table, resting a bare foot on the padded bench absently as she dried one long arm.

Bennu.. Gabrielle watched his face. So.. he has a name other than… she giggled to herself softly, seeing his eyes grow round. Dumbfounded. "You all right?" She watched his gaze suddenly flick all over the room, settling on everything except for her half-naked soulmate. Xena., Xena, Xena… "I can take those for you."

"Uh." He focused on her, finding it safer. "Yah." He handed her the stack of parchment. "'ere you go." A fly whizzed by, catching his attention, and he watched that for a while. "Everrthings cleaned up, all right. Gots most of the boys to stop bellyachin about it.. seems the village girls ha started poken their heads in, nows it doesn't smell so bad."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks. "Should have brought Salmoneus after all. " They both muttered together, then chuckled at each other. "Good.. good.. " Xena briskly took the parchment from her partner, and set them down on the table, starting to leaf through them. "Thanks, Bennu." She glanced up, seeing his blushing face. "Bennu?"

Reluctantly he pried his eyes off the ground. "Aye?"

"Let's try to keep it like that for a while, huh?" The warrior smiled at him. "I don't wanna go through that again.. we've got too much work to do in the next few days."

He nodded vigorously. " Right." Then he backed towards the door. "I'll be.. uh… goin to check on the guard."

Xena cocked her head slightly. "All right.. that sounds like a good idea." She gave him a nod, and watched him turn and slam face first into the door, then somehow get it open and disappear behind it.

A pensive silence fell. "What the heck's wrong with him?" Xena wondered, shaking her dark head and lifted one piece of parchment up to study it.

Gabrielle turned, and faced her, putting her hands on her hips and gazing at her partner. "Xena… you are incorrigible."

Startled blue eyes lifted, and focused on her. "Huh?" She looked around in a puzzled fashion. "I am? What'd I do now?"

The bard sauntered forward, and circled her slowly, trailing a lazy finger across her exposed skin. "Just stood there, half naked., looking incredible, that's all." She followed the linen's line, as it crossed the ver tops of her thighs. "Was that fair?"

The warrior glanced down. "Oh." She offered the bard a rakish grin. "Didn't even think about it." She returned her attention to the document, letting it fall to the table, and leaning over it intently. "Damn… did he forget everything I taught him?" She sighed in disgust. "Look at this…the watch is too far apart, and he doesn't have them overlapping. If one of them goes to take a… " She let her voice trail off into a mutter. "Moron."

Gabrielle eyed the parchment, then eyed her partner and smiled. She started a gentle nibbling up her shoulder, removing water droplets as she went, and by the time she'd reached the curving muscles on the side of Xena's neck, the warrior had forgotten her plans, and turned her head, willingly meeting the bard's lips.

A touch slid up her side, tugging at the linen wrap, and Xena let her hands cradle the bard's face as she felt the fabric slip loose, and gentle, knowing fingers traced the her water cooled skin., leaving trails of warmth that staggered her breathing, and sent jolts of sensation arcing u her spine. She pulled Gabrielle closer, one hand finding the knot in her belt and loosening it, the other tracing restlessly across the bard's cheek.

Gabrielle let her thumbs circle gently across her soulmate's ribs, then slid her hands upward, over the curve of her breasts, and felt a cool breeze ripple across her back as Xena eased her shirt off and their bodies brushed each other. It sent chills up and down her, and she growled softly, taking small nips along Xena's very accessible skin. The powerful arms closed around her, and she took a breath, knowing she was going to be lifted up, and anticipated the drop onto that soft, fluffy bedding.

Ah. The scent of clean linen packed with herbs rose around her, and she wriggled her body against it, feeling the coolness of the fabric warm against her skin. Then Xena's hands began a slow, deliberate advance on her most sensitive places, robbing her of breath, and thought, and her senses for a long space of time.

Gabrielle lay there in a peaceful half doze, idly tracing small patterns on her soulmate's skin. "I got asked to perform tonight." She muttered softly, hearing Xena's breath deepen as she decided to answer.

"Mmm??? Good.. better than those half assed musicians last night. " The warrior replied, with a gentle snort. "Gods… what was that?"

"It was period music, Xena." Gabrielle gave her a wry glance out of half open green eyes. "You just didn't like it because it didn't have drums."

An eyebrow cocked at her. "I didn't like it because it sounded like three cats making love in a fertilizer bin, Gabrielle."

"Three?" The bard giggled.

"Uh huh.. two of em going at it, and the third one frustrated." The warrior answered. "D'you know why cats howl when they mate?"

Pensive pause. "Nnnoooooo…"

"The guy cat's got barbs on his parts." Xena supplied cheerfully. "Like a row of thorns."

Absolute, dead, complete silence. Then.. "WHAT???? " Gabrielle got right up onto her elbows, and peered intently at her partner's face. "THORNS?? OH my gods…. " She covered her eyes with one hand and yelped. "Ow!!!" After a minute, she peeked at Xena. "Glad humans aren't like that."

A blue eye regarded her sardonically. "We'd be extinct."

They looked at each other and burst out laughing. "So.. you've gotten a royal request, huh?" Xena chuckled lightly. "What're you going to tell?"

A shrug. "I don't know yet… David and Goliath, maybe." She rested her chin on Xena's breastbone. "Unless you want me to tell one of yours." Eyelashes batted innocently at the taller woman. "I'd looovvvveee to do that."

Xena chewed her lip, then let a smile brighten her face. "Go ahead." She replied softly. "I think I'd like that."

Gabrielle stared at her, dumbfounded, then reached up and rubbed her ear. "Did I just hear you say that?" She blurted. "I can't believe it."

The warrior regarded her quietly. "I've done so much in my life that I'm not proud of, Gabrielle… it' helps to remember, sometimes, that there are things I can feel good about.."

"All right." Gabrielle exhaled, then smiled. "You're on." She blinked, and yawned, laying her head down on her partner's shoulder. "Ugh… you tired me out.. and I haven't decided what to wear yet… not that I have much."

A subtle twinkle lit in Xena's eyes. "Oh.. I'm sure you'll come up with something… you look good in whatever you wear."

Gabrielle's face turned very serious, and she lifted a hand to rest on her soulmate's forehead. "Where is Xena, and what have you done with her, you impostor."

Puppy dog eyes gazed back at her. "Can't I be nice once in a while?"

"Mph." Gabrielle subsided, and let her head back down. "Okay.. I'm too tired to argue. " She snuggled down into the feathers contentedly.

Xena stroked her hair, her face a study in quiet wistfulness. "You take a nap.. I'm gonna go.. uh… check the guard."

A faint nod. "Oh.. okay.. .if you gotta.. " The bard sighed. "But I'll miss you."

The warrior gently disentangled herself, and drew the light cover over her soulmate's bare body. "Won't be long." She promised, then rolled out of bed, and donned a dark blue, rough woven tunic, and her boots. Taking a small pouch from her saddlebag, she motioned Ares to stay put, and walked to the door. The wolf flicked his ears, apparently content to stay curled at Gabrielle's feet.

As the door closed behind her, a mist green eye peeked out speculatively, and then rotated to glance at the wolf . "Wonder what she's up to, Ares?"

"Agnrrooo." Came the noncommittal answer.

Xena trotted down the front staircase, heading for the front door to the castle. She'd almost made it when she heard her name called, and sighed. Letting her hand drop from the latch she turned, and waited. "Yes, Garanimus?"

The tall, blond man strode over to her. "Where are you going?" His eyes took in her casual garb. "Where'd you get that, a garbage dump?"

Xena just ignored him and turned to leave again, opening the door and walking out.

"Hey!" He grabbed at her shoulder, and stopped, as she stopped, and looked back at him. Slowly he lifted his hand off her. "All right… sorry."

"I'm going for a walk." Xena informed him coldly. "I did my time today, cleaning up your stinking army."

Garanimus snorted. "I heard." He studied her icy glare and held up a hand. "Truce.. truce… c'mon, Xena.. we used to be able to spend a candlemark with each other without starting a fist fight."

Xena's expression didn't change. "That was a long time ago."

A faint, wry grimace crossed his handsome face. "Still hold a grudge, huh?"

The warrior's nostrils flared slightly. "Because you almost led an entire army to their deaths? Yeah." She felt her hands closing gently into fists. "I have a long memory for that."

"Ah ah.. " He held up a finger. "You wouldn't be here bitching if it wasn't for me."

Xena's eyes narrowed, and she felt her pulse pick up. "I wouldn't have been captured if it wasn't for you.. so don't be too proud of yourself." A brief, dark memory of being lashed to a tree, pelted with stones and spikes hit her, and she wrestled it down. "You're lucky all you ended up with was broken arms."

"Mm.." His eyes studied her. "Took you a while to get over that.. they swore they broke your back."

A deep breath. Starkly remembered agony. "Not quite." Months where every movement sent daggers through every nerve. "Bet they wished they had." A thundering ride down on a sleeping camp, every plunge of the horses hooves jarring her, but she hadn't cared. And she'd killed, and killed and killed.. her sword had been drenched in blood. "You're lucky you'd gotten out of there."

"I heard." Garanimus answered shortly. "From the one or two survivors… bumped into them down south a ways after that."

She turned, and started to walk down the broad stairs, and he followed her. "For a while.. I thought that was why you'd given it up.. getting hurt like that. Then I heard about your army turning on you." He remarked, with studied casualness.

Xena's lips twitched. "They regretted that, too." She closed her eyes, and forcibly released her anger. He's not worth it. "But I never did." She reached the bottom of the stairs and took a path towards the market.

"So.. after all that.. you don't miss leading an army?" He persisted, stretching his strides to keep up with her. "C'mon, Xena… the stories I heard from the guys today… you ain't lost much."

The warrior let out a long, controlled breath. "I don't." She turned and met his gaze. "I put those skills to better use now." And how much of that was wishful thinking? She sighed inwardly. "I sleep a lot better at night." That, at least, was honestly true.

Garanimus fell silent for a long moment, as their boots kicked up dust on the trail. "You really believe you can make up for all the things you did?" He finally asked, a touch of scorn in his voice.

"No." Xena stopped, and faced him. "I don't. But that doesn't mean I'm gonna stop trying. "

He exhaled. "I don't understand you."

She dismissed him with a glance. "You never did." A shake of her head followed. "Get outta here, Garanimus.. I've got some business to attend to." She walked on, entering the rows of booths, and leaving him standing in a small dust cloud of her making.

Once past the start of the market, and hidden from his view, Xena stopped, and leaned her hand on a stall support, taking long, deep breaths, as she struggled to regain her composure. He had all her buttons down pat that's for sure… the key was to not let him know he was hitting them. Not let him know just how close to right he'd been.. guessing that injury had almost ended her warlord's career.

Only stubbornness had prevented that, and.. Xena shook off the remaining irritation. That, she had plenty of. She shoved the dark memories out of the way, and concentrated on her mission, her pale eyes flicking over the merchants with serious intent.

Ah. She spotted her target, and went on a reconnaissance patrol, circling it warily, as she examined the selection of victims. Her imagination studied angles and fit and finally she slipped out from where she was hiding behind a post and gave the cloth merchant a nod. "That one. How much?"

He jumped nearly out of his skin. "Gods!" His hand raised to his chest in a flutter. "Where in Hades did you come from?"

One dark eyebrow rose at him. "How much?"

The merchant regarded her. "Well. " His experienced eye sized her up, weighing her rough clothing against her commanding stance, and the pouch he could plainly see hanging at her belt. "Honey, that's not going to fit you." He paused. "No offense.. "

"It's not for me." Xena informed him. "And none taken."

He rubbed his hands together briskly. "A gift then.. ah yes… well, this is a lovely, lovely piece, as your pretty eyes have noticed.. " He touched the rich, shimmering green fabric with a finger. "Just wonderful.. silk, it is, from China."

Xena indulged herself in imagining the soft folds outlining her partner's body and smirked inwardly. "How much."

"Twenty dinars." He pronounced.

She looked at him, both brows lifting.

"It's from China.. that's very, very, very far away, m'dear.. it's.. why it's.." He gestured with his hands.

"I've been there." The warrior told him, deadpan.

"Really?" He breathed. "Do tell? I've heard they all keep monkeys as pets there, is that true?"

Xena almost chuckled. "No." She shook her head. "Tell you what… throw in that half cape, and you'll get your twenty."

He regarded her. "You're not from around here are you?"

The warrior gave him a look. "No.. and if the person this is for finds out you charged me twenty dinars, you won't be around here much longer either. " She reached for her belt pouch. "Deal or not?"

"All right.. deal." He smiled at her, and took the dress down, delicately folding it with experienced, gnarled hands and tucking it into a piece of undyed cloth to form a package.

Xena counted out the dinars, and was about to hand them to him, when loud voices caught her attention. She glanced over, to see two soldiers, at a food merchants booth, holding the hapless merchant against the thin walls of his shelter and yelling at him. "Hang onto that for a minute." She told the weaver, tucking her pouch away and walking towards the fight.

The two soldiers were taunting the man, holding up a large loaf of bread and demanding he stuff it with sandwich meats for them. Xena didn't even bother to ask what was going on. She tapped the closer one on the shoulder, and as he turned, slammed her fist into his face.

He dropped, and before his companion could say a word, she nailed him in the jaw with her elbow. Then she sighed, and looked around, spotting a cart and pony, laden with supplies, nearby. "That headed to the castle?" She asked the drover, who was staring at her with wide eyes. He nodded, and she grunted, then picked up the nearer man, and hoisted him in the back of the wagon, followed by his cohort. She handed the drover a coin. "Drop em off by the barracks."

He stared at the coin, then at her. "Yes, ma'am." He grabbed his pony's reins, and tugged him forward, trying to hide a grin. Xena watched him go, then shook her head, and turned back to the food merchant. "Sorry about that." She sniffed delicately at the fragrant scents issuing from his booth. "Whatcha got there?"

The man rubbed his wrist, sore from his manhandling, and took a breath. "Dumplings." He answered softly. "Stuffed wi crushed nuts, and berries, suchlike." He removed one from his pot, and offered it to her. "Would ya like to try one?"

Xena took it, and bit into it experimentally, then smiled. "I'll take some of those." She put a coin down on the narrow board that fronted his stand. "Be right back. " She finished the dumpling, which was quite tasty, and went back to her friend the weaver, once again counting out the dinars.

He took them slowly, and handed her the bundle. "You… " He fingered the coins. "You're Xena, aren't you?"

The warrior sighed a little, but squared her shoulders. "Yes."

A small crowd had gathered, and heard her response. She could sense the usual round of whispering going on. Oh well.. so much for fun.. time to get on outta here.

The dumpling maker walked over, holding a nest of his little snacks. "But… " He looked at her searchingly. "'re a hero." He burred. "What're you doing helping out the likes of him?" His head jerked towards the castle. A murmur of agreement rose around them.

A hero? Who in Hades did they think they were talking about? Surely not me.. She glanced around, and took in the gazes of the people now surrounding her, and let out a tiny sigh. Yeah. Me. They are talking about me. A sudden flash of a half forgotten memory surfaced, the inn when she was very small, and a group of her mother's friends, sitting in a circle, working on a large comforter as they talked. The oldest of them had turned to her and asked. "And what do you want to grow up to be, little girl?"

Toris had wanted to be a sailor. Lyceus a soldier.

"I wanna be a hero." She said, from a child's logic, seeing it as the best of all worlds.

Cyrene had chuckled wryly, and stroked her disheveled hair. "If anyone could, it'll be you, scamp."

A pained smile etched her face. It was a damned long road getting here, mother.. and I'm not nearly sure I've gotten to the end of it. but…I feel closer to that little girl right now than I have in a long, long time.

"Well…" She realized these people actually saw a difference between Garanimus and her. "He thinks I'm helping him. " She finally replied. "He's asked me to try and prevent him from being attacked by Framna." She paused. "He never asked me what happens after that."

Sly smiles flitted around the tiny crowd, and most of them melted off into the reddening sunset, as she claimed her dumplings, and tucked the dress under one arm. The market seemed a lot friendlier when she gave the weaver a nod, and moved on, picking up a tall, very slim man with a moustache that reminded her irresistibly of Autolycus. He walked beside her quietly, and put his hands behind his back.

"You're Xena?"

She nodded, scarfing a dumpling. "That's right."

"Mmm." He sniffed. "You travel with Gabrielle the Bard?"

That got him a smile. "That's right." She repeated.

He smiled back. "I've got something you might be interested in." He lifted a hand in the direction of what was, apparently, his merchant's area. "I saw her perform in a small town way east of here… and it gave me a notion." He paused. "I'm a silversmith."

Xena grinned, and swallowed another dumpling. "Lead on."

It was a peaceful dream this time. Gabrielle floated gently above a grassy field, with warm sunlight pouring down across her body. She was aware of being naked, but that didn't really bother her too much. Below, fluffy lambs played in the grass, kicking their small black heels up and letting out high pitched baa's that drifted up to her as she lay, relaxed, her chin resting on her crossed arms.

The sun felt like it was passing right through her, and she rolled over, letting it bathe her, and feeling her skin absorb its heat, with a sensation of being filled that was quite odd. She took a breath of the clean, cool air, sucking it down into her lungs as a wave of well being swept over her.


Birds circled overhead, and their cries nudged her slowly, reluctantly back into reality, as the cheerful call of a robin outside the castle window filtered into her ears. She opened her eyes slowly, and stretched her body out against the fluffy surface, patting it gently with one hand. "Yep.. that's close to clouds, I guess. " She remarked, amused at how the soft mattress had insinuated itself into her dreams. "Think we can talk Xena into bringing this home with us, Ares?"

The wolf's ears perked up, and he cocked his head, poking her foot with his nose. "Roo?"

Gabrielle rolled over onto her back, and nudged him. "Roo to you, too." She yawned, and pulled the covers back, easing out of bed and moving across the room to retrieve her shirt. "Gods.. am I getting lazy or what, huh?" She chuckled. "Maybe I need to eat more vegetables, what do you think?"

Ares hopped off the bed and trotted over to her, licking her bare knee.

"Gotta cut that out… can't keep up with Xena if I'm sleeping all the time." She informed the furry animal. "Not to mention the teasing I'll be starting to get pretty darn soon." She ran her fingers through her hair to order it, then sat down at the small desk in the room, and pulled her diary over, sharpening a quill absently and flipping the leaves over to find her place. "Let's see… did I record that note about Salmoneus.. " She studied her previous entry. "Yeah… but I said.. how many days was it?" She scratched her nose. "Two.. or… wait.. when did we leave Amphipolis.. "

A few pages retreated, and she studied the date, then flipped one more page back. "Yeah.. ok.. right. I remember now.. and… " Her attention was suddenly drawn by a small, almost obscured notation in one corner. She stared at it, blinking slightly, then touched it with a hesitant fingertip.

"Six days." Her voice was a bare whisper. "Six days, Ares…. We left Amphipolis six days ago… and I should have started my cycles before we left."

The dark head cocked. "Roo?"

"Couldn’t be, right? What are the odds of that, huh?" She asked the wolf, drumming her fingers on the table. "And I haven't been sick in the mornings.. except that once, and that was the herbs, wasn't it? Xena fixed that right up.?"

"Aggrroo." Ares laid down, and nuzzled her bare foot.

"Nah.. it'd be too early for any of that anyway." She decided, but a tiny grin was working its way across her face. "Better wait a few more days before I start… wondering."

Too late. She stood, and paced, thinking. "Okay.. okay… so.. I'm late." She held up both hands. "No big deal.. I've been late before." Her brow creased. "And I've been.. kinda… " She shifted a little. "Tender…up here.. so.. yeah, that must be it.. I'm just late." She looked back at Ares, who was watching her attentively. "Right?"

The wolf obligingly got up, and ambled over, then poked his cold, wet nose against her belly and sniffed. "Aggrrrrrrr."

"Just.. what.. exactly.. did you mean by that?" Gabrielle cupped his muzzle in one hand and glared at him. His tail wagged. "You're imagining things, Ares." She scolded. "I'm just… late….I haven't been sick in the morning… no cravings for weird stuff like last time…I've.. just.. been a little hungrier than usual." She paused. "But that's normal for me, right? We're out traveling, I'm always like that."

The wolf sat down. "Roo." He agreed amiably.

Gabrielle exhaled. "Right." Another pause. "I'm sure I'll start my cycles tonight.. maybe tomorrow…" She felt a distinct disappointment at the thought. "After all, no other symptoms.. and… it's only been six days."

They looked at each other. "Do you suppose they have a library here, Ares?" She mused. "Maybe they have a scroll or something that lists.. other things.. to look for."

Ares sneezed.

"Yeah.. you're right…I should just wait." The bard paced some more. "Besides, it's not me that's acting weird.. it's Xena." She considered her soulmate's recently odd behavior. "She's acting a little like a broody hen.. maybe she's pregnant."

Ares blinked, then sneezed again. "Agrrrooo."

"All right.. that would be tough, yeah… but you know what, Ares?" She sat down on the floor, and smiled, as the wolf immediately rolled over and presented his belly for a rub. "More than anything else in the world, if I could have one wish, it would be that we could share that together." She sighed gently, riffling her fingers through his thick fur. "I really love Toris.. and he's so sweet.. but… I know she's never going to have another child of her own, and I wish I could…. She still seems to be so alone sometimes, Ares… she gets this little look.. and I know she's thinking of Solon."

She exhaled a little. "I know she'll love a child of mine.. but Ares… I want it to be ours.. gods, I truly do."

"Agrrrroooo." The wolf rested his head against her calf, and sighed, gazing up at her adoringly.

"I know.. no sense in wishing for flying fishes, huh?" She laughed wryly, then powerful footsteps caught her attention, and she looked up expectantly as the door pushed open, and her partner strolled in. "Good gods in Olympus, Xena.. what did you do?" She laughed, scrambling to her feet as the warrior ambled to the table, and dropped off an armful of packages. "What is all this?"

Blue eyes blinked in pristine innocence at her. "I went shopping."

Gabrielle's jaw dropped. "You?.. " She touched a bundle tentatively. "Went shopping?"

Xena nodded, then stepped back, and let herself fall onto her back on the bed. "Yep… I just.. Um.. I thought we… well, I wasn't really shopping.. I was kinda.. looking for something specific, but… I saw some stuff we needed so.. " A tanned hand raised, then dropped onto the bed. "I went, I shopped, I'm back, end of story."

"Uh huh." The bard lifted one package up and shook it gently. "So… what's in here?" She sniffed suddenly. "Mm.. what smells?"

"Oh." Xena's eyes seemed riveted on the ceiling. "Well.. they had a few food vendors there.. thought I'd bring you back a thing or two."

Gabrielle set to work, sorting the bundles. She moved the food into one pile, and peeked inside the wrappings. "Let's see… dumplings.. nuts.. shish kebab… goat's cheese on a stick… curried lamb pockets… " She looked up. "Did you have any of this?"

The warrior licked her lips. "Um… yeah… I did." A pause. "One of each, actually."

Gabrielle burst out laughing. "Xena! You're going to be sick to your stomach… you goofy thing… "

"Nah." The warrior waved her off with a lazy hand. "I've got a strong digestion.. besides, you ate my lunch.. I was hungry." And the cool air had made everything taste really good, too. She mused, folding her hands over her belly in contentment. Better than what they were likely to get for dinner, anyway. "I think the cooks put nasty stuff in the food they serve Garanimus… that roast tasted like it had cinnamon added to it."

"Hmm." Gabrielle nibbled on a kebab. "Pretty tasty." She set the food to one side, and examined the rest of the packages. "So.. what's all this."

"Oh." Xena rolled over onto her side, and propped her head up on one hand. "You said you were worried about having something to wear tonight. I took care of that."

The bard paused, one hand resting on the linen covering. "Xena." She hesitated. "You didn't have to do that."

Pale eyes regarded her seriously. "I know. But I wanted to." She smiled self deprecatingly. "Guess I felt a little impulsive tonight." A pause. "Open it."

Gabrielle took a breath, then untied the fabric scraps that were holding the bundle closed, and released them, lifting off the covering, and letting a sigh out. "Oh gods… " She touched the silk gently. "That's gorgeous."

Xena smiled. "Put it on."

The bard did, feeling the cool, sleek fabric hug her body. "Whoa." She breathed out, turning her head to glance in the mirror. One hand drifted down her side, as she blinked at her reflection. "Um…."

A hand gently arranged the softly falling neckline, which left most of her shoulders exposed. The dress clung to her curves, but was cut so that movement was relaxed, and Xena carefully twitched it into place just so. "Not bad, Red." The warrior told her cheerfully, planting a kiss on her neck. "Siddown.. let me put your hair up."

As though she was in a dream, the bard complied, feeling the shivery tingles as Xena's hands combed and arranged her pale locks. "So.. have you decided what to tell?" Xena's voice traveled down her hearing like smooth ale.

The bard nodded slowly. "Yeah.. I did.. " She lifted a hand and arranged her crystal necklace. "But it's a surprise."

Xena chuckled softly. "Fair enough.." She finished her braiding. "There you go.. " She'd neatly twisted her soulmate's thick hair and put it up, exposing her neck to the cool breeze from the window. "You like?"

Gabrielle stood, and walked to the mirror, with Xena padding along behind her, a look of childish glee in her eyes. "I'm.. um… " Green eyes gazed back at her from the mirror gravely, looking out of a face that seemed to have acquired longer planes, and a faint, inner radiance that was just perceptible to her. "Um."

The warrior chuckled, and slipped her arms around her from the back, letting her hands settle protectively around the bard's middle, and resting her chin against the fair head. "You look great."

Gabrielle let her hands drop to cover her partner's, regarding their position thoughtfully, then she looked up over her shoulder at the sparkling blue eyes. She sorted through various plans of attack. "You're being… huggy.. lately." She decided on that route.

Xena sighed gently. "I guess I am.. does it bother you?" She had no real way of explaining why, either. Just this wistful need to cuddle that was actually somewhat disconcerting. Probably aftereffects of.. everything.

"No no… no…" Gabrielle hastened to reassure her. "Not at all… no… it's just… a little different, that's all." She chewed her lip a little. "Ares.. has been following me around a lot lately too.. you guys plotting something?"

The warrior looked genuinely surprised. "No.. I did tell him to stick close to you though… there are some nasty jerks running around here."

"Uh huh." The bard leaned back against the warm body nestled close to her own. "Hey… " She laughed lightly. "You suppose Granella's broken the news to Toris yet?"

Xena chuckled. "You think he could keep from asking? Besides.. if I noticed, I'm sure she did, too." She closed her eyes, and breathed in the bard's scent, loathe to release her. "Can't keep that kinda thing a secret forever."

A grin flitted across the bard's face. "True.. true… besides, if she's being sick all the time.. that's a kinda good indication, right?" She paused a moment. "Or those food cravings."

The warrior rocked her gently. "Well.. not always, no." She replied. "Some people don’t get sick like that… and a lot of people don’t get food cravings at all. " She reflected briefly. "I didn't."

"Really?" Gabrielle mused. "So.. how do you know then?"

A shrug. "Well.. not getting your cycles.. that’s a kinda big one. " She grinned at her partner. "Especially if you're regular, like you are." She hummed in thought., not catching the sudden flicker of emotion on her soulmate's face. "Some people get headaches… backaches… fatigue…funny dreams… their sense of smell gets stronger.. that kinda thing."

"Really." That was in a completely different tone from the previous response. "Interesting."

"Mm.. " Xena agreed. "Everyone reacts differently, I think… I got backaches, and I was really short of breath a lot.. because I.. " She released the bard, and touched her own ribcage. "I breathe in deep, mostly.. so when the baby started growing in there, it sorta crowded things."

"Oh." Gabrielle turned, and gave her a smile." I guess that makes sense, huh?" She drew one idle finger down Xena's chest, tickling her a little. "When did you start to notice?"

The warrior cocked her head at her, and a small crease appeared in her brow. "Yeah.. " She answered, drawing the word out. "It does.. um.. she must be a month or so along, though.. it takes a couple of weeks for that kinda thing to start up.." She hesitated. "Took me at least that long…probably longer.. I…don't think you can tell in a few days."

"Oh.. right… " Gabrielle laughed, slapping her. "So.. by the time we get home… it should be pretty obvious."

"Right." Xena replied. "Should be." A vague look of distraction briefly crossed her expressive face, then she smiled, and tweaked the bard's cheek. "You about ready?"

"Yep." The bard replied, leaning up and kissing her. "Thank you… I can't believe how nice this looks."

That got her a rare broadly open smile from her companion. "I can believe it… oh.. wait." Xena half turned, and lifted a much smaller package from the table, which had been hidden under the dress. "Guy saw you perform a few months back.. he made these with you as an inspiration.. apparently, they're very popular.. so he w… Gabrielle?"

The bard was staring at the small bauble Xena was holding, and blinking at the tiny ear cuff, which sported miniature quills and tiny staves as charms. "Buh." She lifted a finger and brushed them, listening to the musical tinkle as the silver bits sparkled in front of her. "Um.. it's… so .. he… I was… me?"

Xena grinned. "Definitely you.. not many other people I know mix a quill and a staff in quite that way." She reached up and fastened the bauble around her soulmate's ear, arranging the charms so that they fell evenly. "Very.. Amazonian."

Gabrielle glanced in the mirror, delighted. "Yeah.. it is…" She turned and threw her arms around a startled Xena. "Thank you.. I love it." She released her, and leaned back, so that they were gazing into each other's eyes. "I love you."

Xena gave her a contented smile. "Likewise." She gave her another warm hug, then sighed. "Guess I'd better get the armor on.. time to go practice my dour glares."

The bard snorted softly against her chest. "You need to practice those? I don't think so. You've got those suckers nailed Xena."

They both laughed.

Gabrielle took a deep breath, before she entered the torchlit room, very aware of the dark, sinuous form that shadowed her, a hand lightly resting in the small of her back. Everything seemed a little chaotic, mostly because her head was whirling with new, and sudden possibilities, and a little because she felt hypersensitive to every sound, ever smell.. even the air seemed to palpably flow over her skin, fluttering the silky fabric against her.

Heads turned as they entered, she was used to that. But the eyes in them stayed on her this time, brows edging up, expressions changing from merely curious to… She swallowed. I guess I must look ok. A mental voice chuckled wryly at her.

Fingers tickled her back gently, and she responded with a smile, as Xena guided her towards the head table, where Garanimus was standing, talking to two of his henchmen. The warlord looked up as they approached, and she saw his eyes widen, and a sly smile cross his face. "Ugh." The bard muttered. "He looks just like a weasel when he does that."

A moment of speculative silence from Xena, then. "Mmmm…. " She considered. "More like a beaver."

The bard observed. "Oh yeah.. the teeth. You're right."

They got to their seats, and Xena paused for a moment after Gabrielle sat down, resting her hands on the back of the bard's chair and catching Garanimus' eyes. "Problem?" She asked, leaking a hint of menace into her voice.

The man eased closer. "Oh no.. not at all, Xena." He leaned against the chair arm. "Hey sweetpea.. you sure clean up nice.."

Gabrielle gave him her most sincere smile. 'Thank you." She replied blandly. "I think that's a worm on your shoulder."

He jerked up, and glanced sharply at himself, brushing the insect off with hurried fingers.

Xena's face went extremely expressionless, as she clamped down hard on a fervent desire to giggle. "Can't keep a good worm down, I always say." She seated herself next to the bard, and crossed her legs at the ankles, gazing thoughtfully at her clasped hands. "Any word from Framna?" She asked, in a bored tone.

"Um.. no." Garanimus finished checking himself for more intruders, and sat down, snapping his fingers at the short, brown haired man to his right." Bring whatserface in here." He looked back over at Gabrielle. "I hear little sweetpea spent the day with the brat."

Gabrielle tried to relax, and focus on the present, discarding the recent past, and the near future. "I'm sorry?" She cocked her head inquiringly at him. "If you mean the princess.. yes, I did. We spent the day discussing history, and interkingdom politics." Well, Queen Cleopatra's tale counted for both of those, right?

Silvi was brought in, between two guards, and she seated herself with admirable dignity, gazing straight ahead as the tables filled, and Garanimus motioned for the servers to start.

"I figger he's got to do one of two things." Garanimus spoke around a mouthful of bread. "He'll either go elsewhere, or he'll just try a frontal assault."

Xena picked up a spear of asparagus, and chewed it thoughtfully. "Maybe." She dipped the end of the vegetable into a red sauce. "But if it were me… I'd call your bluff." She let her eyes slide to where he was now glancing at her. "Or I'd get someone in here to find out if it were true."

He shrugged. "I've got guards."

The warrior laughed. "My mother could get past your guards." She finished one spear, and selected another. "I'm gonna change the patrol routing so at least they don’t think we're totally clueless."

"Fine." He growled softly. "Just keep it quiet."

They finished eating, then the princess leaned over stiffly, and spoke in a low voice. The warlord listened, picking his teeth, then laughed. "Sure… why the Hades not?" He tapped Xena on the shoulder, startling the warrior who had been sitting her with fingers steepled pensively, obviously deep in thought. "Hey!"

Xena rolled her head towards him. "What?"

"Silvi wants to hear sweetpea tell a story." The blond haired man informed her.

The warrior stared back at him, stone faced. "Her name's Gabrielle."

Garanimus rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Come on, Xena… I don't give a rat's butt what you're little toy's name is.. I j.. " He stopped speaking, mostly because a hand was closing his windpipe. Xena stood, pulling him out of his chair in full view of the room and shaking him until his teeth rattled.

"You." The warrior leaned close. "Are trying my patience." Her voice was a soft growl. "Very badly." She backslapped him in the face, and sent him sprawling, and would have followed that up except for the strong hand on her arm. It was soo… close. She could feel the wildness surging in her, making her fingertips itch. Damn. She took a breath. Not usually that much out of control.. what the Hades is with me lately? With a visible effort, she calmed down, turning to face Gabrielle's concerned look. "Sorry about that." She muttered.

"Sticks and stones, and all that stuff." Gabrielle joked faintly, rubbing an undetected thumb on the inside of her agitated partner's wrist. "I think I can come up with something to tell these folks." She watched Xena give her head a slow shake, then sit down, slumping back against the chair back as Garanimus struggled to his feet, and fell into his own chair, rubbing his neck.

"Bitch." He snarled. "You'll pay for that."

Xena gave him a dour glare. "Get in line, you pitiful excuse for a half brained bastard cow." She growled back, her hand twitching again. "And shut up or I'll rip your tongue out."

A silence fell after that. "Well." Gabrielle broke it, with determined brightness. "I'll just get started then, okay?" She let her hand fall on Xena's shoulder, feeling the shifting tension under her touch with concern. Easy there tiger…don't let him get to you like that. She told the warrior silently, wondering a little at her partner's edginess. "Save me some dessert."

Xena exhaled, and gave her a wry grimace. "Will do." She replied, and watched as the bard made her way around the table and out into the center of the room. Then Garanimus faded out of her memory, as she concentrated on the lovely highlights and shadows that gently rippled across her soulmate's body, catching glints in her mist green eyes and fair hair. The bard did, truly, look beautiful, and Xena let the words roll over her, as she felt her body calm, and her attention focus on the smooth motions, and distinctive rhythm of Gabrielle's storytelling.

It did give her a chance to… think. Something had caused a tiny, niggling itch to start in the back of her brain, and now, as she watched her soulmate, and listened to the appreciative oohs and laughter of the audience, she tried to worry it out into the open. Something about her partner?

Hmm. She cocked her head thoughtfully. The bard looked normal enough… she was smiling at a comment from one of the finely dressed courtiers, and her face lit up as she moved on in her narrative. In fact, she looked.. really healthy.. almost… radiant. Xena tasted that word carefully, and stared at her partner with serious intent.

Something she'd said.. something she'd… ah. No, it wasn't something she'd said.. it was a tone of voice she'd had when uttering the word. "Really." Xena had spent three years pretty much day in and day out with the bard, and had done an awful lot of listening to her talk, babble, relate, intimate, discuss, and rehearse.. she knew every sound, every nuance of Gabrielle's voice, right down to the stresses on the syllables, though the bard would probably never have guessed that. So.. That 'really' had meant a revelation, one which Gabrielle hadn't expected, but that she was pleased with.

Hmm.. They'd been talking about signs of pregnancy.

Xena blinked, as the obvious conclusion padded up to her and tapped her on the shoulder. She felt a welcome, dizzying jolt of hopeful excitement at the prospect, then reality cut in and she sighed.

Nah. Her logic rejected that, based on time. What she'd told Gabrielle was true.. it took a few weeks for signs to start showing up.. time that they simply hadn't gone through enough of. So. If not that.. then.. Her eyes slid sideways. Could the princess… She flicked a glance at Garanimus with evil intent. So help me, if you… She promised him darkly, making a note to have Gabrielle find out if the warlord had so much as touched the young girl.

Then her eyes slid back to her partner, and she blushed a little as she found the bard smiling back, a look of gentle affection twinkling her gaze. It was all she could do not to melt right in place, and let herself dissolve into a warm pile of leather covered goo with little metal bits sticking out.

She settled on a half grin, and a quirk of her eyebrows instead. Gods… Gabrielle had been right…she'd really been a mushball lately…and this wasn't the time or place to be demonstrating that, not with Garanimus glowering at her in silence, and an army to run. Besides, the bard was busy telling stories about her, and it just wouldn't do for her to appear to enjoy them.

Too much, anyway. It was bad for the image.

Instead, she watched the audience, evaluating the stiff, polite city dwellers sitting uncomfortably with the rowdy, mostly rude soldiers. Not a good mix.. she mused, sensing the hostility, a good portion of which was directed her way, despite her earlier fight with Garanimus. Could they really want any other warlord to take his place? Granted.. he was no prize, but…it didn't make sense. Something else was going on here..she could feel it itching at the very edges of her perceptions.

A timid clearing of the throat interrupted her thoughts, and she turned her head , to see a tow haired server boy standing there, with a small platter. "Yes?" She consciously gentled her voice, seeing his unease.

He hesitantly thrust the platter at her. "Gramma says give t ye."

Xena glanced at the plate, then gave him a wry smile. "Thanks.. and tell her I said thanks too." She took it, and set it down on the table, lifting up one of the small confections on it and nibbling the edge. The boy gazed at her for a moment, then gave her a shy grin, and disappeared. Out of the corner of her eye, she was aware of Garanimus' watchful gaze, and ignored it, as she leaned back and enjoyed the treat. Bet she never sent these out for you, huh? She projected at the warlord. I always had better luck with people than you did.. at least I got respect from them, without always having to beat the crap out of everyone.

She finished the pastry, enjoying the subtle flavors and eyed the plate, then sighed, and crossed her arms, resolving to save the rest for Gabrielle.

The bard finished her last tale, and accepted the applause graciously, then made her way back and settled in the chair next to Xena, letting out a long breath. "Tough crowd. "She muttered softly. "You all right?"

Blue eyes flicked to her. "Yeah." Xena nudged the plate towards her. "Dessert."

"Thanks." Gabrielle smiled at her, as she took one. "Did you notice, Xena… they serve Garanimus' guys from different platters and stuff than the rest of the people." She kept her voice very low, knowing her partner would hear her.

Xena's eyes widened slightly, and she half turned her head to gaze at her soulmate. "No.. I didn't…are you sure?" She uttered back, a touch embarrassed. Too damn busy daydreaming.. wake up, Xena.. get your head on straight.

A faint nod. "Yeah." The bard nibbled on the pastry. "You can't really see it from this angle.. but when you're up there, you can see what's going on a lot better.. they've got one set of servers that goes to the locals, and another set that goes to the soldiers." She paused, considering. "Weird."

"Good catch." The warrior complemented her wryly. "There's more here than we're seeing."

"Mm." Gabrielle agreed. "I think we'd better start looking harder."

Gabrielle sat quietly at the desk, tickling her lower lip with the edge of her quill, and resting her chin on one fist. Her diary lay open in front of her, and she was rereading her entry so far, as the soft, rhythmic sound of a sword being sharpened rasped in the corner.

She's awfully quiet tonight. Not that she isn't usually quiet, she is, but this is that kind of brooding, mental wheels turning all over the place kind of quiet that makes me sort of nervous. I thought I did a good job with the stories.. I must have.. even Garanimus said something I suppose he more or less considered nice, but after I finished, Xena just got this grumpy mood up, and I'm not really sure why.

I don't even think she realizes she's sharpening that thing… her look says she's leagues away from here, and I'm afraid little slivers of whatever that metal is it's made of are going to start littering the floor there. If I didn't know better, I'd say she was daydreaming, but…

So… I'm feeling pretty good right now, because the dinner went okay, and the stories turned out fine.. and.. ew. This feels so strange to write.. I think it's possible I might be pregnant.

Wow. I just went back and reread that sentence about six times. I can't be sure, and all I've got to go on so far is pretty flimsy. I'm late.. by my calculations almost seven days now. A week, and add to that a bout or two of what may, or may not be morning sickness, one dizzy spell, and the fact that I've had to take naps two straight days now.

Not much to go on.. in fact, Xena's' acting way more strange that that - maybe I was right. Maybe it's her that's coming down with something.. and I'm just reacting to it. She's been so.. distracted the last few days. At first I thought it was Garanimus, and she's worse around him, but.. no, I can tell she's having trouble concentrating, and my gods.. she actually went shopping today and got me stuff. For no reason. And the hugginess, and the hovering… gods, she's petting me like a kitten lately. It's almost funny, because sometimes she doesn't realize it, and sometimes she does, and when she does, she acts like she has no idea of what she's doing.

I think she's confused. I know I am. I'm sitting here debating on whether or not just to.. bring the subject up, and kind of talk about it. I keep starting to, then I stop, and I think I realize it's because I'm scared to.

I'm scared because.. I want to be really happy about this.. and I want her to be. I don't want her to pretend to be, just to make me feel good, and I know she will, and that I'll know the difference. I want to be excited, and giddy, and hop up and down.. but I'm so afraid that I'll mention it, and I'll see.. regret in those beautiful blue eyes. It's.. kinda silly, I know - because if I am, there's nothing I can do about it, and I know she's support me in whatever… but.. I don’t just want her support. I want her to be as happy about it as I am.

Maybe I'm asking too much.

Jessan told me he and Elaini shared a lot during her pregnancy. I wonder if it'll be the same for us? At least Xena's been through all this before.. so.. actually, if I was pregnant, she'd catch the signs before I would. Right?

Unless she was distracted, which she is. Maybe I should just wait for this whole thing to be over, then, when we're out in the woods, nice and quiet, maybe over a salmon or two, I can just…kinda ease the subject into conversation.

Oh. Yeah. I can picture that. "So, Xena… wouldja look at that owl.. building a nest and laying an egg. Which reminds me… " Gods, I gotta laugh..

Well, I'd better close this up and get some sleep.. I promised Xena I'd try to find out what the townsfolk are up to from the princess. It won't be easy, though.. because they're really suspicious of her, and of me, too.

The bard laid her quill down, and folded her hands over the parchment, watching her taller companion closely. "Xena?"

"Huh?" Xena started, and gave her head a little shake. "Gods.. sorry.. I don't know where I was there for a minute."

Gabrielle closed her diary, then stood and crossed to where her partner was sitting, and joined her on the padded bench. "Are you feeling all right?"

No denial, which worried her. The warrior slowly sheathed her sword, and leaned it against the wall, then rested her elbows on her knees and clasped her hands together loosely.

"I don't know." The low voice admitted softly. "I'm having a hard time staying focused.. and I think Garanimus is really getting to me." A tiny shake of her head. "I can't believe I lost control like that in there."

The bard slipped an arm around her shoulders. "You really don’t like him, huh?"

Morose silence. "What he did… the attack I was taken in hurt me… pretty badly. It took me a while to get over it.. would have taken less time except that… as soon as I could ride I lead a force of men on the army he'd sold us out to, and.. " She stopped, then exhaled. "A lot of people died."

"So.. you really still resent him." Gabrielle theorized.

A nod.

"He's a jerk." A flat statement. "Was that the time you hurt your back?"

Another nod.

"Mm." The bard rubbed a thumb lightly against her skin. "So.. he was hoping to gain financially from betraying you.. instead, he got hurt, you recovered, and now he has to crawl around with a bunch of smelly guys and he's forced to beg you for a favor." She paused. "He lost all around."

She could see the wheels turning.

"Um." Xena took in a breath. "I never considered it that way." A half grin worked its way across her face. "I guess he did." She regarded the floor soberly. "Maybe it's just that… I'm getting a taste of the old days, and it's bringing back a lot of memories." A sigh. "The strategy.. the challenge.. there were things about it that.. pushed parts of me into achieving things I don’t think I would have in another lifestyle."

Silence settled between them introspectively.

"And then, when I start feeling frisky like that." Xena continued, relaxing a little. "I remember the bad parts. The hurting… gods.. it was so bad sometimes I'd just lay in bed at night and bite my lip to keep from yelling. That and the screams of injured men.. watching good soldiers die because we didn't have time to stop for medicines for them…" She shrugged. "I don't want that back.. and Garanimus can't understand why not."

"I doubt he could understand how to tie his own bootlaces." Gabrielle commented dryly. "But I understand how uncomfortable you are around him… I wish I could help with that." She let her head rest against the warrior's shoulder.

Xena sighed. "I'll get over it." She reached over and took the bard's hand, raising it to her lips for a gentle kiss. "Thanks for asking after me."

A sweet smile answered her. "Just part of the job." She stood, and tugged. "C'mon, tiger… I can hear that nice, soft, fluffy bed calling my name.."

"Rrr." Xena playfully growled back, allowing herself to be pulled to her feet, and gently blowing out the candles as they got into bed. She left one flickering dimly at the bedside, enough to cast faint shadows against the far wall, and dust Ares' dark fur with crimson flickers. "Hey… " She murmured, as the bard snuggled up, wrapping her arms around her firmly.

"Hmm?" Gabrielle was busy surrounding herself with warm warrior. "I'm not squeezing too hard, am I?"

"No no.. no. " Xena vigorously assured her. "Did those funny pink things taste weird to you tonight?"

"Um." The bard thought back. "I only had one or two.. they were kinda spicy… besides, you finished them off. "

"I know." The warrior answered, in a sleepily puzzled tone. "They had crushed red pepper in them."

"Yeah?" Gabrielle's brow creased. "I thought you hated red pepper?"

A moment of thoughtful silence. "I do."

"Weird." The bard commented.

"Yeah." The word rumbled through Xena's chest. "Whatever."

Continued in Part 5