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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 ĖWell... this is a more or less violence lite story. Now.. you've got Xena in it, and Amazons, and Gabrielle with that staff.. so it's not all sweetness and light, but no one gets their heads cut off in this one. (Sorry MaryD)

Subtext - Do I really still have to disclaimer subtext? Someone asked me if I thought Xena: Warrior Princess was a romantic show. My answer was, when a show has one main character state in no uncertain terms to the other main character that she would rather die at her side than live without her, that show cannot be defined as anything less than a romantic tale. Yeah, there's subtext.. maintext... under the table text.. whatever you wanna call it.

This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more. That never changes.. for those of you who are waiting for me to stick in a rip roaring, no holds barred graphic orgy scene, make sure you have plenty of coffee and doughnuts handy. And a comfortable chair.

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:

mailto:merwolf@bellsouth.net

 


Festival

By Melissa Good

The waterfall tumbled across rocks worn smooth and slick from years of bearing up under the weight of the stream that carved them in odd, sinuous shapes. Thick moss grew on the edges, and the small pool it splashed into was cold, and clear, and sparkled in the late afternoon sunlight broken only by the dappled shadows of leaves from the trees bordering it.

At the base of the falls, on a sun warmed rock, a large black wolf was curled up, his tail tucked neatly over his nose, and his yellow eyes fastened on the top of the falls with an expectant look in them. Behind him, in a small open glade, a butter colored mare was grazing, pulling up thick tufts of green grass with contented snorts.

A small campsite could be seen just behind the horse, a neatly made fire circle with a large black fur spread to one side, and a cluster of saddlebags resting against a tall oak tree. It looked like a comfortable setting, but right now it was completely empty, as it's occupants were perched high above it, on the top side of the waterfall.

"Xena, I don't know about this." The speaker was a young woman of middling height and sinewy build, presently naked and dripping with water. She was standing on a rock, her arms folded over her chest, the sunlight making the droplets of water scattered over her richly tanned skin sparkle like diamonds. She sighed, and pushed damp reddish gold hair off her forehead with one hand, and regarded the object of her frustration with a doubtful frown.

"C'mon.. Gabrielle.. it's fun. Would I steer you wrong?" The tall, sleekly muscled woman who responded was seated on a flat rock in the onrushing water, her weight braced on both hands, and her midnight dark hair plastered down her back. Vivid blue eyes twinkled back at the reluctant bard, matching the stream's chuckling waters almost exactly.

"'Fun' for you is not always 'fun' for me, is what I'm thinking" Gabrielle responded wryly. "We can't just go over the waterfall, Xena.. what if there are rocks and things down there... we're gonna get hurt."

The warrior rolled her eyes. "Gabrielle.. I've done this a million times. C'mon.. I'll hold onto you.. nothing's gonna happen." She coaxed her, letting a grin crease her face and bring a mischevious glint to her eyes. "You'll love it... I'm telling you."

The bard drummed her fingers against her thigh, then lifted both hands, and let them drop. "Once." She gave the older woman a warning look." Just once." Carefully, she picked her way over to where Xena was sprawled, and splashed into the swiftly running water, wobbling a little until a warm hand closed firmly around her lower leg and steadied her. "Thanks." She reached down and patted Xena's head, as she seated herself gingerly in front of the warrior, and let the cold, sparkling water run over her legs. "Ooo... that feels nice."

"Uh huh." Xena snuggled up to her from behind, and wrapped long arms around her slim waist. "How's that?"

Gabrielle closed her eyes, reveling in the contrast between the cold of the water and the warmth of her soulmate. "What was the question again?" She finally asked, resting her head against Xena's chest and looking up.

A soft chuckle answered her. "Okay.. now.. I'm gonna push off.. and we're gonna slide down that chute there and into the pool. You ready?" Xena whispered in her ear.

"I'm closing my eyes, so you better steer" The bard replied firmly.

Xena released one arm, and reached behind her, pushing off from the rock they were seated on with a powerful shove that dropped them into the swift current now up to their breasts. The water shoved them along, into a narrow chute between the slippery rocks and the warrior resumed her hold as they reached the edge of the waterfall and plunged over.

"YAAAAAAAAA!!!!" Gabrielle let out a startled yell, as she was suddenly airborne, falling through a thick rush of water with Xena's grip still firmly holding her. The thundering water blocked her hearing and pummeled her body gently, though, in a not unpleasant sensation.

She got her eyes shut just as they hit the crystal clear water of the pool, and plunged down into it, the roar of the waterfall all around her. She felt Xena touch bottom, and held still as the warrior powered them both back towards the surface, feeling the warrior's strength uncoil in an impressive surge.

They broke out into the sunlight just outside the crashing water, and Xena released her, as the warrior floated free and shook her head to clear her hair out of her eyes. "Wasn't that great???"

Long moment, when mist green eyes stared fixedly at her. Then Gabrielle's face relaxed into a big grin. "Yeah... it was." She admitted, flipping over and dunked her head, then surfacing, and letting the water run down off her hair. "Can we do it again?"

Xena chuckled happily. "Told ya." She put her hands behind her head and swam backwards a little, kicking with her feet to keep herself from sinking. The sun and shadows alternately dappled her tanned body in fanciful patterns, which were then broken as she dove under the water, and erupted out of it, throwing her body into a wild flip that landed with a huge splash.

"Hey!" Gabrielle ducked the wall of water, and dodged out of the way, laughing. She waited for Xena to emerge from the water, then splashed her. "Cut that out!"

The warrior blinked, and snorted, then splashed her back. "You brat!"

"Me?" The bard cupped her hands, and threw a double handful of the cold water at her. "Oh.. I donít think so, Xena... " She ducked under the water as a wave headed her way, and swam vigorously, heading for deeper blue. She could sense Xena behind her, and she pushed herself to swim faster, ducking under a submerged log, and dodging a trout who took one look at her and bolted for cover, it's frilly fins fluttering in agitation.

Ah... She spotted a rock she could get around, and swam for it, feeling the sudden rush of water behind her as Xena caught up. She headed for the surface, breaking it and taking a huge lungful of air, as she reached the rock, then slipped around it, and put it between the warrior and herself. "Hah!"

Xena paused, her hands on the surface of the rock, a wildly mischievous grin on her face. She feinted one way, and the bard immediately shifted in the opposite direction. Feinted to the other side, same result. "Tricky.. very tricky.. Gabrielle.. " She purred.

"Heh." The bard chortled. "Thatís an old trick I used to play on Lila.. she never did figure out if she wanted to catch me, she'd have to keep me away from trees."

"Oh yeah?" The warrior crooned. "Y'know.. I just bet Lila couldnít do.. " A sudden surge as Xena's body erupted out of the water, and both hands hit the top of the rock, vaulting her up and over, and bringing her down into the water so close to the bard the impact dunked her. Then Xena got a grip on her, and they tumbled through the pool, half laughing, half gasping, until they surfaced near an old oak tree, whose branches drooped near to the water and brushed their heads with fragrant leaves. "That." She finished triumphantly, cradling the bard in a firm grip.

Gabrielle caught her breath, then laid her head against Xena's water-cooled skin, and smiled. "Um.. no." She breathed quietly. "On a good day, she could jump rope. On a bad day... ehhhh...." She licked a cold droplet off Xena's chest, then snuggled closer, sighing in perfect contentment. "That was fun." That part of her still a child was kicking up its heels in delight, and she smiled up at her blue eyed playmate happily. Gods.. I've missed this.

Xena took in a deep breath of air, and released it. "Yeah." She agreed softly, taking a moment to enjoy the rustling breeze that stirred the leaves and brushed against their skin. Then she waggled her eyebrows at the bard in invitation. "Wanna do that again?"

The bard nodded. "Oh yeah." She waited for her soulmate to release her, then swam steadily for the shallows, and the small rock path that led up to the top of the waterfall.


The camp was a peaceful oasis, shady and calm with the sounds of leaves rustling, and Argo's gentle snorts in the background. Gabrielle stifled a yawn, as she twisted her mostly dry hair up and out of her face. They'd made their way out of the pool, and spent some time sunning, drying off in the late sunlight and cool breeze. Now, as they reached their nearby campsite, she trotted ahead, and examined the bubbling contents of the stew pot she'd left on. "Mmm.... Almost ready."

"Yeah?" Xena stepped up behind her and sniffed. "Wow.. that smells great." She complimented the bard. "What's in there?" She peered at the bubbling goo with interest.

"Ah.. my secret." Gabrielle informed her, loftily. "But donít worry, you'll like it." She leaned back and bumped into the taller woman. "Y'know, this sharing of symptoms thing is great.. I've finally gotten you to try some stuff you'd have just thrown at me before." She remarked teasingly.

"Ha ha." Xena rolled her eyes. "Very funny." She snapped the bard's backside with her piece of linen, and received a startled yelp in response.

"Brat." Gabrielle rubbed the spot, and stuck her tongue out. She watched the taller woman chuckle, then wander over to their pack, kneeling beside the saddlebags, and rummaging in them. She took a moment to admire the warrior's muscular back, and note the healing scars there from their latest encounter, a bear who had gone mad with hunger, and attacked a family just up stream from where they'd decided to stop.

One little boy had been hurt, but Xena had gotten the bear distracted, while Gabrielle got the rest of the family out of danger, and then had turned to see the animal bowl her soulmate over, it's jaws thick with white foam, and it's eyes red as the sunset she was currently watching.

She'd rushed forward, somehow jamming the end of her staff into it's mouth, and had the weapon jerked out of her hand as the animal bit down, and shook it's huge head. It gave Xena, however, the opportunity to get both feet up against the bear's chest, and shove off, throwing the beast back against a tree stump and knocking the wind out of it.

Xena had bounced to her feet, blood inching down the dark leathers that covered her back, and unsheathed her sword, advancing on the bear with murderous intent. It had been preposterous, really, the bear was eight feet tall when it stood, and probably five hundred pounds, and it was being threatened by this relatively puny human.

It had roared.

Xena had snarled, and let out her yell.

And the damn bear had took off running. Gabrielle had almost laughed, in surprise, and utter relief, and she saw by the mildly startled look on Xena's face that she was just as surprised at the bear's retreat. She'd shifted her sword from one hand to the other, then glanced back at Gabrielle with a mild, bewildered shrug.

The bard had just been very glad it was gone, and she'd wrangled her partner into accepting the pathetically grateful family's offer of a hot meal, as she carefully cleaned and dressed the raking claw marks that covered most of the back of one shoulderblade, while Xena briskly took care of the little boy's wounds.

Healing, too, had been their awe when she revealed who they were, and the children's eyes had lit up like tiny stars. She'd told a few stories, and the kids had cautiously crept closer and closer to Xena, finally ending up practically in her lap, and asking if they could touch her chakram, her sword.. her armor... the poor warrior had almost looked alarmed at the flood of piping requests.

And, in the end, there were only those few scratches to show for it, the bard mused. They'd been traveling towards the Amazon's territory for a week now and they were drawing close, as the land was starting to slope up into foothills which would eventually form themselves into the mountain highlands that provided a home for the tribe. A week of mostly peaceful journeying, with good weather, and few distractions, just the two of them out alone in the wild, in the peace, and solitude that she'd come to regard as a dear friend.

Xena was always more.. open. More playful out here, when it was just the two of them. There were no enemies to intimidate, and no reputations to live up to. The owls didnít care who they were.. and crickets would jump on the warrior's outstretched hand all unknowing just who they were making such a bold transgression on.

Now, she glanced over to where the taller woman had collapsed on their joint bedroll, and was puzzling over a small wooden item held loosely in one hand. "Any luck?" She chuckled, shaking her head. A small traveling caravan of merchants had coughed up a set of six cleverly carved wooden puzzles, and she'd gleefully bought them for her partner. Xena had figured out three of them already, and was now engrossed in the fourth, a six sided star, with interlocking parts that somehow came apart.

"Hmm?" Xena looked up, startled. "Oh.. um.. not yet." She gave the bard a sheepish grin, then went back to the puzzle, not moving any part of it, just studying it from all angles with intent, interested blue eyes.

Gabrielle laughed to herself, then gave the stew a brisk stir, dusting a bit of dried spices into it. Once she was satisfied, she pulled her diary out, and joined her partner on the bedroll, curling up on her side and withdrawing a quill from her quill case. She flipped open the bound parchment, dating the entry with a neat script, and pausing as she collected her thoughts.

Today I got to go over a waterfall for the first time. It was more fun, and less scary than I would have guessed, but then, I had Xena wrapped around me, so how dangerous could it be anyway?

I thought... at one time I thought I would never feel like this again, but... I can't sit here and deny it - I"ve come back to where there is no safer place in the world for me than in her arms. I know.. I know I should remember differently, because I know better. I know what she is, and what she's capable of, and what she did to me when she was so angry, and so hurt.. but.. it's like my mind is forcing that out somewhere, because it can't handle thinking about it. I know that's bad.

But I can't help it, and what's more important, I donít want to help it. I want this feeling of safeness, of security so badly, I'm willing to risk.. everything. Again. My heart won't accept anything less.

So.. I guess that's what I'm going to do. We'll see what happens.

We're almost to the Amazons, but.. I have to admit that I've been enjoying our traveling so much, I almost regret that. It's not that I don't want to see everyone, I do - and the festival is going to be fun, and all that, but...

But.

At least poor Xena's had to deal with less of that nagging nausea.. she bears up under it with better humor than I probably would have, but I know it bothers her. I've taken to keeping a pouch of the herbs close by so that when we wake up, I can just take a look at her face, and know. And get some stuff mixed up fast.

As for me.. well, not much new there. I'm still starving all the time, and I get tired a lot more easily than I used to. Xena says it's because my body's really busy doing stuff, so that's taking a lot more energy. I decided to walk most of the time to keep my strength up, so even though I feel like I'm eating most of the day, it's like I'm barely keeping even. I thought I was going to have a problem with gaining weight.. well, right now I'm having a problem with losing it.. Xena says she's going to start putting me up on Argo while we travel if that keeps up, she says it's dangerous to deprive my body of the stuff it needs while it's doing all this mysterious rigamarole.

Whew. It's complicated. But interesting, and we've been taking it easy on the trip up here, with plenty of rests, and stopping early, like we did today, so I haven't felt really overtired, which is good.

"Hey, Xena?" The bard sucked on her quill tip idly. "It's been a nice trip up here, hasn't it?"

The warrior glanced up at her words, and paused a moment. "Yeah.. it really has been... " She replied, with a faintly surprised note in her voice. "Not too much stuff to worry about... weather's been great... yeah." A slight nod. "Why?" She rolled over onto her back, and crossed her ankles casually, regarding the bard with interest.

"No... well, nothing really... I've just been enjoying it, that's all." Gabrielle responded, with a grin. "I really have."

The breeze lifted a lock of dark hair and brushed it across Xena's face and she raked it back with a lazy hand. "Yeeaaahhh.... " She drew the word out. "I guess I have too."

The bard chuckled, and put her diary aside. "C'mere.. time to give you a trim." She ordered, patting her lap. "C'mon.. c'mon... it was driving you nuts today, so just get over here and get it over with." She leaned over and dragged one of their smaller saddlebags over, digging in it and retrieving the small pair of clippers they both used to trim unruly hair.

Far from protesting, Xena put her puzzle down and squirmed over, laying her head in the bard's lap and folding her hands across her stomach with a complacent look. "Make em straight, now."

"Tch tch tch... listen to you.. " Gabrielle ran her fingers through the dark locks, and pulled a thick thatch of them up. "How bout I trim the top real short, and make this bit stick up like this?" She posed the hair. "Like.. what's that bird?"

"A woodpecker." Xena replied, dryly. "Xena, warrior woodpecker... oh yeah, that's got a nice ring to it."

Gabrielle giggled. "Aww.. it would look cute... "

One eyebrow quirked at her. "Weeeeell... tell ya what, bard of mine.. we don't have mirrors out here, so you'll be the one looking at it." Xena's lips edged into a grin." Besides, the first town we go into, I'll hafta fight every living thing in over the wisecracks."

"Hmm." The bard fluffed her bangs. "Maybe not." She chuckled, then set to work, clipping the dark strands neatly, and brushing the soft shorn bits away off her partner's skin. She took the opportunity to study the familiar angular planes in loving detail, watching the sunset dapple her face in tones of crimson and gold.

It had taken what seemed like forever, but the dark shadows were gone from under her soulmate's eyes, and the drawn, tense look had faded, erasing the ever present crease in her forehead, and lessening the haunted look that had become almost engraven on her the past few months. She looked, at least for the moment, at peace, and that made Gabrielle feel good, because she knew a lot of that had to do with them. With her.

She finished her trimming job then amused herself by ruffling her fingers through Xena's hair, searching intently.

"Find any?" The warrior lazily inquired, after a few minutes of this.

The bard made her wait, scratching all along the clean scalp teasingly and receiving a contented murmur in response. "Nope." She finally replied, bending over and touching her nose to the warrior's forehead. "Not a one."

Xena let her eyes drift open, and gazed quietly into the bard's green ones at close distance. "Any day now." She grumbled. "Saw some on Toris before we left."

Gabrielle let her lips brush gently against the warrior's, then came back for a more prolonged contact. "I don't know, Xena.. mom's still mostly dark.. and he's older than you are... I think.. " She kissed her again. "You're just looking for a little sympathy from me."

"Oh yeah?" Xena interlaced her fingers with her soulmate's, that had drifted to rest against her chest. "Did it work?" She inquired hopefully.

"Oh... " The bard freed one hand and gently cupped her cheek, peering at her with wryly mock concern. "You.. poor.. thing... " She let her fingers slid across the warm skin, tracing Xena's jawline. "We'll have to get you a cane next." She tasted the faintly metallic hints left from the spring as she continued her exploration. "Or Ares can pull you around on a little cart.. how bout that?"

Xena burst into chuckles. "Okay.. okay.. okay.... " She rolled her eyes, then sat up, and pulled the bard into a more comfortable position as she relaxed onto her side and let her hands gently roam under the loose fabric of the shift Gabrielle had slipped on. Her fingers drifted across the bard's muscular waistline, and traced her ribs, causing the warrior to pause in her nibbling, and produce an intent sober stare at her younger partner. "You're riding tomorrow." She nipped the bard's nose. "No arguments, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle juggled the pros and cons of debating, then nodded quietly. "Okay." She stroked the warrior's cheek, then drew her face close, and resumed kissing her, until they both were breathless. Then she paused, and exhaled, tucking her head against the taller woman's shoulder. "Sometimes, being out here does suck donkey's ears, Xena."

Xena let a soft chuckle evolve neatly into a sigh of agreement. "Yeah.. I know... but Ares is out hunting, and I just don't know this area well enough..." Regretfully, she slid a warm hand across Gabrielle's thigh, and rubbed a thumb against the skin of her knee. "We'll have plenty of time once we get home, my bard."

"Mm." Gabrielle pouted, then rolled over onto her back, looking up at the canopy of leaves. "Know what I feel like?"

"A warm, and very sexy person?" The warrior answered helpfully, as she traced a path up the bard's side, leaving trails of shivering sensations behind her.

Gabrielle turned her head and regarded her fondly. "Thanks.. but actually I was thinking more of... figs." Her brow creased. "Do we have any?"

A brow quirked. "Um." Xena drummed her fingers on their sleeping furs, thinking furiously. Finally, she glanced up. "Donít go away."

"B... Xena.. " The bard yelped, as the warrior pushed herself to her feet, and retrieved her boots, pulling them on and lacing them with quick motions. "Come back here.. I didn't mean for you to... oh for... Xena!!"

Too late. The warrior grinned, and winked, then fastened a belt around the old shirt she was wearing and trotted off into the underbrush.

Gabrielle sighed, and stared up at the leaves, drumming her fingers against her stomach. "Never do that, Gabrielle.. you know better... that was very dumb... that was like yelling 'Fire!' in the Palladium during a summer festival." A rustling in the grass jerked her attention away from her partner, and she rolled onto her stomach, pushing off the ground with one hand and reaching automatically for her staff with the other.

"Roo?" Ares trotted out of the underbrush, looking well pleased with himself. A few, errant feathers were stuck to his muzzle, and he sneezed, sending them wafting across the dark sleeping fur.

Gabrielle dropped her staff and relaxed, collapsing back onto the furs with a grunt. "Ares... don't do that to me, all right?" She settled on her side, and propped her head up on one hand, the other hand idly playing with one of the feathers. "Hey.. these look like chicken feathers. " She gave the wolf a direct look. "Where did you find chickens?"

"Agorrroo?" Ares cocked his dark head to one side, and regarded her, poking his tongue out and panting.


Xena slipped through the trees, her eyes flicking among the branches automatically. She really had no idea if she could find a fig tree handy, but getting out of those nice warm sleeping furs had seemed like a good idea at the moment. Otherwise.. she sighed wryly. Otherwise she'd been well on her way to breaking their Rule, and that just wasn't... smart. Lately, though, she'd been leaving smart behind somewhere, and allowing her more impulsive side to surface almost uncontrollably.

The playfulness was delighting Gabrielle, she realized, having seen the bard get almost giddy during their fun in the water earlier, and to be honest, she couldnít pretend that she hadn't enjoyed it just as much, but that, combined with the almost irresistible urge to cuddle with her... Xena sighed. She felt awkwardly out of control, and more open than she was really comfortable with. Not a good combination headed into Amazon territory.

She knew Gabrielle's pregnancy had a lot to do with it, but she also knew she had to find a way to get a handle on that before she put them both in danger. Or before they got to the Amazons, where she'd be subjected to so much teasing...

A sigh, and a pause, as she peered through the branches. False alarm. Everyone there always expected her to act a certain way, and she just couldnít walk around the place all day in a daze. For one thing, Pony would take the opportunity to ambush her, and while she knew she was in no danger from the feisty Amazon... letting her get the drop like that...

Uck. Xena paused again, this time lifting her head to catch the wind. "Ah.. " She muttered softly to herself. "Lucky me." She pushed through the underbrush, carefully avoiding the poison ivy wound around the tree trunks, and arrived at the base of a squat fig tree with a satisfied grin. "Perfect." Abruptly she glanced down at her hands, then up at the tree, and gently thumped her head against a low branch. "Good thing you were on the ball as usual and remembered something to carry them in, right?"

With a sigh, she put her hands on her hips, and turned in a circle, regarding the foliage. Tiny leaves. Nope. She glanced up at the figs, evaluating them. They were large, and plump, and she found her mouth watering just looking at them, which eliminated the possibility that they just weren't worth the effort. "Perfect example, Xena.. perfect example of your brain being off somewhere else... damn it."

Her eyes flicked to her shirt, then her head cocked, and she chuckled. "Well... it's an old one." She firmly grasped the half sleeve on one side, and jerked it, tearing it off at the shoulder. Then she tied a knot in the lower part, and surveyed her basket. "I guess that'll do."

Climbing the tree and retrieving the figs didn't take long, though it probably would have taken less time if she hadn't eaten one for every one she put in the sleeve. The tasty treats restore her good humor, as she imagined Gabrielle's delight in them, and finally, she cheerfully dropped off the lowest branch, landing on the leaf littered ground with her booty secured.

She made her way back to the campsite, forcibly keeping herself from whistling, and paused just at the edge to watch her partner, momentarily unaware of her presence. The bard was leaning against the tree their bedrolls were spread out under, and had her diary out on her knees. She was gazing off into the sunset, chewing on a quill with a dreamy expression on her face, and a soft smile on her lips. Nearby, Ares was curled up, his yellow eyes flicking around the camp alertly.

Xena made no move, made no sound, but as she watched, Gabrielle came back from wherever her thoughts had taken her and glanced around, her eyes fastening on the silent warrior instantly. A look of half welcome, half remonstrance took over her expressive face. "Xena!"

The warrior padded over, dropping to her knees on the fur and holding out the sleeve. "Figs?" She felt a grin take over her face without permission. "They're nice ones."

"You are.. " The bard set her writing down and rolled over, taking the improvised pouch. "You did NOT have to do that." She scolded, glancing inside the bag. "Ooo.. but I'm glad you did." She selected a plump fig and bit into it, her twinkling eyes forgiving her partner easily. "Mm.. these are great.. hey.. didja see any chickens out there?" She mumbled around a mouthful, watching the warrior amble over to the fire and examine the stew.

Xena glanced over. "Chickens? Gabrielle, we're in the middle of the forest.. where in Hades would you expect me to find chickens?" Her brow creased, wondering if her soulmate was going to ask for that next.

The bard held up a feather. "Same place Ares did."

The warrior had filled two of their wooden bowls with the hot stew, and carried them over, handing one to the bard, and keeping one for herself. She settled down cross-legged at Gabrielle's side and selected a bit of meat from the bowl. "Chickens." She mused, chewing thoughtfully. "Wild chickens?" She glanced over to see the bard wolfing her stew down, and chuckled. "Hey.. chewing is allowed, there.. slow down, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle paused, and swallowed. "Make up your mind.. I don't eat, you yell. I eat, you yell." She pointed her fork at the warrior.

Xena blinked, feeling an irrational twinge of hurt. "I wasn't... yelling.. I just ... didn't want you to choke." She protested.

The bard rolled her eyes. "Xena, I've been eating all my life, and I've managed to do it without choking yet.. will you calm down please? You're making me nuts."

It was, she realized, the wrong thing to say a second after it left her lips. She saw the flutter of emotions cross her partner's face, then her expression settled into a quiet, pensive stillness.

"Okay." A shrug, and Xena was turning her attention to her own bowl. "Sorry." Damn. I have got to cut that out... she is a perfectly competent adult, remember?

Gabrielle sighed inwardly. "Hey.. I don't meant to sound like an ungrateful pig... it's just that you shouldn't worry so much.. okay?" She put her fork down and reached over, circling Xena's wrist with warm fingers. "You're gonna wear yourself out."

Xena nodded slightly. "Gotcha." She replied, poking at her food and not looking up. She took a breath, and squared her shoulders, raising her eyes with an obvious effort. "So.. what are you writing?" She asked, in an even, interested tone.

Mist green eyes captured hers effortlessly. "Are you mad at me?" Gabrielle asked, quietly. "I'm sorry.. that came out sounding a lot bitchier than I intended." She rubbed a thumb against Xena's wrist, squeezing her gently in mute apology.

A sigh. "No.. I'm.. I know I've been acting like a broody hen. I just... " Xena exhaled, and rubbed her eyes. "I can't seem to help it." She propped an elbow on her knee, and rested her chin against her fist, her other hand pushing her food around aimlessly, caught in the bard's light grasp.

"Well.... " Gabrielle hesitated. "I mean.. everything's going fine, right?" She asked, in a small voice, sensing that her soulmate was treading a delicate balance.

Xena swallowed. "Maybe that's the problem. Every time things go right, I just... " Long pause. "I guess I'm waiting for the worst to happen, because it always seems to when I'm involved." Now she looked up. "And this time, I don't want it to. I don't want anything bad to happen to you I .. I just..."

The bard made a soft sound of startlement, then put her bowl down and crawled closer, throwing her arms around the taller woman and hugging her. "You can't think like that."

The warrior exhaled. "Yeah, I know... but it's like I don't dare be happy about something.. because every time I let myself do that, disaster strikes." She glanced up as she felt the tension in Gabrielle's body. "Hey.. hey.. I'm sorry... listen to me with all this crap." She gave the bard a gentle squeeze. "Didn't mean to unload all that on you." Damn, Xena... get control of this... come on now.

Gabrielle sighed, resting her head against her partner's shoulder. "No.. it's okay... if there's something going on with you, I wanna know." She objected quietly. "I'm sorry .. I really didnít meant to come off so snippy sounding.." She poked her tongue out and bit down on it. "Bad bard."

That got a smile back. "You gonna kill me for being such a worry wart?" The tone was light, but there was a wistful quality to the warrior's voice.

The bard rubbed her arm. "No.. not unless you're going to kill me for calling you on it once in a while." She answered wryly.

Blue eyes flickered. "Deal." They touched foreheads, then Gabrielle tilted her posture and stole another kiss, tasting the rich flavor of the stew. "Mm.." She pursued her gentle attack. "Tastes better on you than in the bowl." She told the warrior teasingly, as she backed off, one hand stroking her face. "Xena... " Her tone went serious. "Please don't be afraid to be happy... if something happens, it happens... enjoy right now."

Silence, then a hesitant nod. "I'll try." The warrior promised. "Now... eat."

Gabrielle paused, then laughed softly, and picked up her bowl, remaining where she was and leaning against her soulmate's warm body as she resumed her chewing.

Xena slid an arm over her shoulders and ate her stew one handed. "This is great." She commented, pausing for a minute. "You were right.. I do like it a lot." She offered the compliment with a smile.

"Thanks." Gabrielle mumbled, busy swallowing, but she lifted her gaze and turned an affectionate look on her soulmate. "Coming from you, that really is nice to hear." She acknowledged Xena's faint blush with a twinkle and mercifully changed the subject. "So.. we're almost up there." She bit a carrot in half and chewed it. "Now that you've been teasing me for a week, what's the festival really like?"

Xena smiled, and bit down on her fork. "Um.... Actually, Gabrielle, I have no idea."

The bard looked at her.

"No, really." The warrior insisted. "My... " A pause. "Prior involvement with the Amazons didn't.. it wasn't really... let's just say I wasn't invited to any festivals of theirs, all right?"

Gabrielle scraped out the bottom of her bowl. "Prior involvement... that was.. during the Centaur war?"

Xena kept her eyes strictly on her hands. "Around that time, yeah." She pronounced the words carefully, her good mood vanishing.

The bard stood, and walked to the fire, filling her plate again, and returning to settle back down at her partner's side. "Okay." She drew the word out after it became obvious Xena wasn't going to continue. "If you... " She fell silent. "If you ever want to... to talk about it, you can, with me.. you know that, right?"

The warrior rested her head against the bard's. "I know.. I just... I don't want to rake that up right now." Or ever. Not even for her. "But.. anyway, I really don't know what their traditions for this are."

Gabrielle accepted the change of subject gracefully, tucking away her curiosity for a later time. "Well, if it's anything dumb, I'll tell Ephiny forget it. I'm not going to have you subjected to stupid Amazon tricks."

Xena glanced at her with a smile. "Who's being overprotective now?" She teased gently. "C'mon, Gabrielle.. I'm a big girl... I can take it." She shrugged. "How bad could it be, anyway? I'm not gonna get all bent out of shape because of some crazy Amazon rules."

The bard poked her lower lip out. "What if it's something like you said... that I have to kiss everyone in the village? Frankly, Xena.. I'd rather you get outraged over that, okay?"

"Oh." The warm arm around her shoulders tightened it's hold. "Well, Gabrielle.. you are the queen, remember? You can just say no."

Unaccountably, Gabrielle's shoulders slumped. "Yeah, I guess."

Xena watched her face, puzzled. What'd I say now? Then she realized and almost slapped herself across the back of the head. Hades.. I'm an idiot. "Uh.. on the other hand, I could make em the same deal I made Toris at your birthday party." She offered, thinking fast.

Gabrielle frowned. "I don't remember... what was that?"

"They're welcome to kiss you.. but they've gotta beat me in single combat first." The warrior chuckled. "That way.. you abide by the tradition.. but... "

Grudgingly, a tiny smile edged the bard's lips. "I guess that would solve the problem... no one would bother."

"What? I figure I'd end up fighting the entire Nation, are you kidding?" Xena's voice went very serious. "Gabrielle?"

Green eyes peeked up at her. "Yes?"

"Did you really think I'd stand by and let an entire village of rampaging Amazons kiss you?" She lifted a hand and tilted the bard's chin up. "Do you think I'd stand by and let ONE Amazon kiss you? "

Pale eyelashes fluttered as the bard blinked something out of her eye. "No?"

"Eph's gonna be lucky if she gets to shake your hand." A pause. "With gauntlets on."

At last, a smile creased Gabrielle's face. "I'm being overly sensitive, aren't I?" She queried wryly. "We both are." And where did that little bout of insecurity come from? Gods... poor Xena.

Are we? Xena sighed inwardly. Yeah, I guess we are. "If you want the honest truth.. " The warrior admitted quietly. "I think I'd rather just stay out here, alone, with you than go up there." She exhaled and glanced off into the trees. "I know things... are different than last time, but.. maybe it's getting on my nerves a little."

"Me too." An even quieter admission. "I'm looking forward to seeing everyone, but... I always feel like I'm on display there." She paused, thinking. "I don't know if... for some reason, that's just spooking me this time." Immediately she felt better, having gotten that off her chest and she could see a gleam of relief in the taller woman's eyes as well. "Does that make any sense?"

Xena nodded. "Sometimes... " She paused, and considered. "I feel like an onion with one too many layers peeled off when we're with them."

Gabrielle blinked, surprised at the comment. "Xena, there are a lot of people in the Amazon tribe who not only like you, they admire you... I think you know that, right?" She put a hand on her soulmate's arm, feeling the muscles contract a little under her fingertips. "And you have nothing to prove to anyone there, you hear me?"

The warrior remained silent for a bit, toying with her bootlace. "It's not that... It's... " Xena sighed. "Most of the places we go.. people take who I am.. what I am.. for granted. I... with the Amazons.. it's like they're always testing me.. prodding me.. like they want to prove I'm not as good as I think I am."

The bard was honestly shocked. "Do you really feel... " Then she stopped, and considered, remembering the constant challenges from Pony, and others. "Honey.. I don't think they're testing you.. I think they're testing themselves." She replied thoughtfully. "It's kinda like those people who climb mountains for fun, just because they're there? I think you're like that for them."

Xena's brow creased in puzzlement. "Huh?"

Gabrielle chewed her lip. "They're warriors." She drew a line in the earth near the sleeping fur. "It's what they're born to... what they train for... not like ordinary soldiers at all.. and you... Xena, you're the best warrior any of them have ever known, or ever will.. you're their high mark." She paused. "What they aim for.. so of course they have to measure themselves against you." She shrugged a little. "They're jealous.. and you challenge them like crazy."

Xena considered that quietly, her brow knitting. "You do realize an entire army of grungy mercenaries are easier to deal with than your Amazons, right?" She remarked wryly. "I just had to kick their butts once, and I was home free."

The bard quirked a grin, and leaned against her. "Tell you what, partner...you keep the amorous Amazons away from me, and I'll put shackles on Eponin's ambushes, okay?"

The warrior let out a sigh. "All right... that sounds good to me."

Gabrielle studied her. "Oh yeah.. I almost forgot ...will you promise me something?"

Xena blinked. "Um.. okay."

One slim finger lifted and pressed itself against her nose. "You will NOT tell them it's my birthday the day after tomorrow."

Blue eyes twinkled at her. "All right, Gabrielle. I promise that I will not tell them that it's your birthday the day after tomorrow when we get there." Worded that right... considering I told Eph before we left the last time. "Okay?"

The bard's eyes narrowed as she studied her partner's innocent look. "Or at any time AFTER we get there." She added, suspiciously, seeing that imperfectly hidden gleeful glint in those pale blue orbs.

"Or any time after we get there, gotcha." Xena nodded briskly. "I promise." She patted her chest above her heart.

Fingers drummed against her knee restlessly. "Why do I get the feeling you're up to something?"

"Me?" A thumb pointed at the warrior's fabric covered chest. "Gabrielle.. we haven't even gotten there yet.. how could I be up to anything?" The warrior protested reasonably. "I haven't seen or talked to Eph or any of them since they left Amphipolis, and you know it."

Mollified, the bard settled down to finish her stew, not without shooting her soulmate a few wary looks. "You promise, right?" She insisted. "I mean.. I just don't want a huge deal made out of it, Xena... you know how they are. "

Xena nodded solemnly. "I promise." She cleaned her own plate, then set it aside and leaned back against the tree, tugging Gabrielle back against her, then winding her arms around the bard's body as they both watched the sunset. "Nice." She commented idly, gazing at a sky painted in layered streaks of color, which bathed them in a gentle glow.

"Mm." Gabrielle agreed, her eyes closed, and her fingers flexing gently against the warrior's skin. "Very nice."

Xena smiled contentedly.


A soft rustling brought Xena out of sleep abruptly, snapping her head up, and causing her pale eyes to rake the surrounding darkness rapidly. She could make out the low burning embers of the fire, and see the faint reflection of the light against Argo's pale hide, but the mare seemed to be sleeping, and not moving around.

Slowly, she focused her senses, hearing the faint rustling again after a tiny wait. Her hand went to her chakram, placed next to her hip and she curled her fingers around its familiar shape. She glanced around for Ares, but the wolf was nowhere to be seen, and she felt her heartbeat pick up. At her side, Gabrielle slept on, the bard's body tangled with her own, and she hesitated, then decided not to wake her just yet.

Instead, she carefully turned her head, locating the suspicious noise, and training her eyes on the spot, which was a dark patch in the surrounding forest.

The rustling grew louder, and Xena felt her pulse pick up, as she remained perfectly still, only her thumb moving, gently caressing the metal as she waited. A scuffing sound, and her shoulder muscles tensed.

A light clicking, and her forearm muscles contracted, her wrist cocking slightly.

Another rustle. Xena's eyes now had adjusted to the darkness, and she could see a shadow moving.

Then, in a brief burst of movement, something was plummeting towards her, and she reacted, sharply honed reflexes responding without hesitation as she flung the chakram forward with a flick of her wrist.

There was a strangled sound, then a thud nearby, and the warrior blinked as a feather wafted down and landed, with exquisite precision, on Gabrielle's nose. The bard's eyes snapped open, and she glanced up at her partner, then looked out towards the fire. "What was that?" She ducked as the chakram came skimming back to the warrior's hand.

Xena eased herself up onto one elbow, and examined their attacker. "Um... " A crumpled white body lay between her and the fire. "Breakfast." She muttered, scratching her head. "It's a chicken."

Gabrielle released her, then rolled over, and examined it. "Yuck.. a really dead chicken, Xena... did you have to.. um... " She peered back over her shoulder. "Cut it in half?" She saw the grimace on her soulmate's face. "Whoops.. bad timing?"

Xena curled up into a ball and fought to maintain control over her stomach. The nausea was so bad, she had to clench her jaw tight as her body violently protested. She remained that way for what felt like a lifetime before a gentle touch on her jaw made her eyes flutter open. Gabrielle was kneeling at her side, a traveling cup in her hand. Gratefully, she allowed the bard to pour some into her mouth, and she swallowed it quickly, clamping her jaw down again as it threatened to come right back up.

But it didn't, and after a moment, she was able to drink the rest, as the spasms subsided and her body relaxed. "Damn." She panted weakly. "It's getting worse."

The bard stroked her hair. "I'm sorry." She slid down and pulled the warrior half into her lap, rocking her gently. "I'm so sorry, Xe." Gabrielle's voice broke in quiet anguish. "It's all my fault."

"No.. don't be sorry." Xena sighed, uncurling from her ball to soothe her upset soulmate. "It won't last forever.. just a little stomachache.. that's all." She peered over the bard's shoulder. "Where in Hades did that damn chicken come from?"

"More to the point, why was it attacking us?" Gabrielle asked, her brow creasing. "I've never heard of a violent chicken, Xena."

"You never met Sparky." The warrior informed her, drolly. "I don't think it was attacking us.. I think something scared it." They both looked out into the woods. "Um..."

Gabrielle released her, feeling the shift as her partner's muscles contracted bringing her up onto her knees, one hand wrapped around the chakram, the other reaching for her sword.

Argo started violently, and reared, snorting in surprise. It brought Xena up standing, and she took three steps towards the mare, then her eyes grew wide. "Yow!"

With a thundering roar, a flock of chickens rolled over them like a tide.

In pure instinct, Xena turned, and threw herself over the bard, landing on her elbows and knees and knocking Gabrielle to the ground with a startled gasp. Flying bodies slammed against her, and scratching claws bit at her skin, as a loud series of squawks assailed her sensitive ears.

Then, like a mist, they were gone.

Xena spat a feather out of her mouth, and sat up, dumbfounded. "What in all the murky depths of the River Styx was THAT?" She examined her arm, which had a long, wicked scratch on it, then glanced down at Gabrielle, who was lying peacefully still, her ankles crossed, and her hands folded across her stomach.

"I don't care.. it can come back if it means I'm going to get surrounded by lots of warm, heavy breathing, heart pounding warrior." The bard informed her with a smile. She reached up and tickled Xena's belly through the soft linen of her shirt. "C'mere, chicken.."

"Gabrielle, I .. " Somehow, Xena found herself easing down at her partner's side, as Gabrielle curled herself around her. "I should.. I... " A peaceful warmth enveloped her. "But the.. the chickens.. " Her arms wrapped around Gabrielle's body and she forgot about the chickens.. all that mattered was the smooth skin under her fingertips, all thoughts of the danger evaporating into a warm fog that took her over and made her stop caring about anything except what she was feeling.

"Xena." A voice softly in her ear, and a gentle shake on her shoulder With a start, she woke, and blinked her eyes open into the misty light of an early dawn, meeting slightly concerned green ones peering back at her.

"Uh." She croaked, very confused.

"You okay?" The bard asked gently. "You were talking in your sleep.. something about chickens." She hesitated. "I didn't... I mean.. you don't usually do that."

Xena rubbed her temples with one hand. "Dream." She muttered. "Really strange.. wh.. " She half sat up, and spotted Ares curled up neatly at her feet, his eyes watching her. "Ares... I woke up.. he.. was gone.. but there were these noises.. and.. " She felt her own chest in confusion. "It felt so real... I heard a noise.. then this chicken attacked us.. and.."

"Whoa.. whoa.. tiger... " Gabrielle eased her back down, pressing on her shoulders. She'd woken to find her soulmate's whole body twitching in agitation, and soft mumbles coming from her, which had scared the bard half to death. "Easy.. " She relaxed back down next to her, slipping a comforting arm across her stomach. "It was just a dream."

"It was so real." Xena commented softly. "I even... I was sick to my stomach, and you... " Confusion was painfully evident in her eyes. "I don't usually dream like that." She reflected soberly. "I donít think I like it."

The bard pursed her lips. "Well.. that stew was kinda spicy last night.. maybe.. "She gave her soulmate a pat on the belly. "After all, you had two plates of it.. could it have been something in there? I know I had mushrooms.. but they were the safe ones you showed me."

Xena exhaled, considering that. "Maybe." She acknowledged wryly, then yawned, as she regarded the misty dawn. "Well, time to get up anyway... we should make it to the Amazons today." She picked up her chakram, and examined it curiously. No trace of blood marred its surface. "I killed a chicken in my dream."

"Listen.. you must have remembered me asking you about them last night, that's all." Gabrielle laughed. "I told you Ares caught one.. and you asked what chickens would be doing out here in the forest, remember?"

The warrior snorted softly. "Yeah.. I do." She sat up, and checked her shoulder, finding soft, umarked skin, and just shook her head. "It was just so vivid...maybe you're right.... I shouldn't have had that second plate." She sighed wryly. "It was really good, though."

The bard stretched, then gave her thigh a gentle squeeze.. "Thanks.. but less spices next time, I think... if it's gonna cause you problems." She looked up. "I don't think you'll have that problem in the village."

"Ah... no.. " Xena broke into a grin. "Not with your Amazon cooks, my bard." She stood, then extended a hand down to her partner. "C'mon.. let's get going."


"Eponin, what are you doing here?" The hazelnut haired Amazon guard gave the dour weapons master a look. "Did you run out of students to pummel or something?"

They were crouched under a tightly woven canopy, which covered the small lookout post. A heavy, thick rain was drumming down on all sides, rattling the leaves with enthusiasm. The lookout post was set in a squat tree which stood on a small outcropping that overlooked the valley below, and was the main entry point for the Amazon's territory. A path meandered away from them down the hillside, and disappeared into the thick foliage.

Eponin leaned back against the tree bole, wrapping her sturdy arms around her knees as she sat stolidly looking out. "Just thought I'd drop by... something wrong with that?" She commented, a challenging note in her voice. "You guys playing cards out here or something? Am I interrupting?" She let her caramel colored eyes flick first to the shorter woman, then to the tall, lanky brunette behind her.

"Get outta here." The shorter woman snorted, giving her a slap on the knee. "But youíve been out here four times in the last three days... what in Hades are you waiting for?"

Eponin's sharp eyes focused on something, and a small, relieved smile edged her mouth. "That." She jerked her chin towards the path, and they turned to look.

A pale yellow horse was picking it's way gingerly up the muddy track, followed by a wet, muck covered wolf. "Ah hah." The sentry chuckled. "Mystery solved."

Eponin smiled, as she studied the oncoming Argo, who was tossing her head against the rain. Xena was seated far back in the mare's saddle, and Gabrielle was tucked in front of her, snuggled under the taller woman's cloak with just her head peeking out. She was leaning back against the warrior's body, and occasionally turned her head to look up, as she explained something.

The weapons master sighed in silent relief. Even from here, she could see the grin on the bard's face, and the relaxed set to Xena's shoulders that meant everything was still just fine... not that she'd expected any different, but... you never knew. Not with these two, anyway.. and she was really just glad to see them. As she watched, Gabrielle made some point or other that caused the warrior to burst into laughter, which she joined with her own.

Xena evidently was holding on to her, because she tugged her closer, and the bard looked up at her face with an expression of such total adoration, it was almost embarrassing to witness. "Gods." Eponin muttered. "They're a regular walking advertisement for Aphrodite, ain't they?"

The sentries chuckled, and shook their heads, as the tall warrior returned the look with an affectionate smile, and brushed her lips over her partner's tousled and damp hair. Then her sharp, pale eyes lifted, and looked directly into Eponin's, even though the weapons master was sure she couldnít see her. That gaze held however, until she cursed gently and leaned out, waving a hand at the visibly smirking Xena. "Damn woman can see through rocks, I swear." She muttered, getting a muffled snort from the sentries.

Now Gabrielle was waving back, a bare arm poking out from under her little cloak cave, since Xena's hands were, apparently occupied. With an aggrieved sigh, Eponin tugged up the hood on her own cape, and slipped out from under the leafy canopy, dropping down into the damp leaves, and jogging down the path towards the oncoming pair.

"Hey.. look who we rated as an escort." Gabrielle commented, as she watched Eponin emerge from the trees. "That's a compliment."

Xena kept her thoughts to herself, but snuggled closer to the bard, enjoying the warmth of their contact, and the smooth shift of Gabrielle's body under her securely wrapped arm. Actually, she reflected, she was glad that it was Eponin that was waiting for them, since she'd developed a fondness for the usually surly Amazon and felt more at ease with her than any of the rest of them. Now she let a half grin edge across her face as the muscular woman trotted down the path, and pulled up, slipping a little in the mud next to Argo's shoulder. "Well well.. look what the rain washed down the hillside." She drawled, exchanging brief, warriorlike nods with Eponin.

"Hey!" Gabrielle pushed the Amazon's hood back and ruffled her hair, smiling in genuinely happy greeting. "Whatcha doing out here?" She briefly considered jumping down from Argo's tall back, but she was really very comfortable where she was, and it didn't look like Xena was going to let her go any time soon, so.. She leaned back against the solid security behind her and chuckled as Eponin tugged her hood back up.

"My queen." Eponin smiled impishly. "Eph sent me out to keep an eye poking around looking for you." She patted Argo's shoulder. "She was hoping you two would make it up here in time... but we weren't sure when you left Amphipolis, so..." Now her head tilted up. "Lo, Xena... you look like a half drowned water weasel."

A damp, dark eyebrow lifted. "Likewise." The warrior drawled, nudging Argo a step closer to the sturdy woman. "How's Eph?"

Eponin glanced away, then back up. "She's fine... looking forward to you both visiting." She replied quietly. "Everyone is... haven't heard them talk about anything else for a fortnight cepting this festival."

Gabrielle's fingers found her partner's hand, and squeezed it, getting a tightening of muscles in response. "Great... let's get going.. we've been riding in the rain most of the day.. I feel like a raisin."

They picked up an honor guard halfway back, alerted by signal from the lookouts, which formed around them with soggy efficiency as Eponin led the way up the long, narrow path into the village. Gabrielle kept up a gentle stream of small talk, exchanging pleasantries with the guard, and relating a story or two as they walked.

Xena remained silent, listening to her soulmate's clear voice and watching the forest around them. Her defenses were up, and solidly in place despite the knowledge that she was going into the camp of allies. Too much history, she reflected wryly. I don't think I'll ever feel totally comfortable here, not anymore. She let out a small sigh, and rested her cheek against the bard's damp hair. Gabrielle felt it, and her voice faltered for a moment, but then went on, as her fingers twined silently with those of her soulmate.

At last, they were entering the archway, through which a soggy, if active scene was going on as the village prepared for dinner, workers running through the rain with woven mats over their heads, and scouts hurrying around clothed in waterproof cloaks.

The Amazon village was a roughly two large circles joined in the center by the communal dining hall. Around the center of both circles were living quarters, and the huts dedicated to the healers, the craftswomen, and at one end, quarters for the regent and queen.

Hails started up as they were spotted, and Xena, being taller, had the advantage of seeing Ephiny's unceremoniously jogging form seconds before her soulmate. "Hey.. " She nudged Gabrielle's shoulder. "You wanna get down?"

Gabrielle half turned, and looked her right in the eye. "No." She stated firmly. "I really like where I am."

Xena blinked at her, faintly startled.

"But I guess I gotta, huh?" The bard continued, with a sigh, as she released the edges of Xena's cloak and let the rain hit her body. She eased one booted leg over Argo's neck, and took the warrior's offered arm, which lowered her to the ground neatly. "Hey Eph!" She hastened forward to meet the regent, throwing her arms around her happily. Ephiny chuckled as she gave her a return hug.

"Well well.. you made it." The regent grinned, grasping her shoulders and holding her out at arm's distance. "Gabrielle, you look great." She gave the younger woman an approving glance. "Wet, but great."

Gabrielle smiled back. "So do you." She returned the compliment. "Those are new leathers, huh? I like them... that color is great on you."

Xena watched for a moment, then kicked her boots free of Argo's stirrups and slid down, landing with a faint splash in the muddy ground, as she neatly settled her cloak.

Ephiny gently nudged the bard out of the way and closed in on her taller partner, holding out a hand. "Hello, Xena.. welcome back.. it's good to see you."

Definitely different than last time. The warrior reflected wryly as she met the regent's grip and was startled when the smaller woman pulled her into a brief hug. She returned it with a slight awkwardness, then released a held breath. "Good to see you too, Ephiny." She grinned, and jerked her head to the left. "Thanks for sending a welcome party."

The regent chuckled. "No problem... but let's get outta this rain before we all get sick."

"Yeah.. good idea." Eponin glowered at her. "Didn't you have a cloak last time I saw you?"

Ephiny acquired an innocent look, as she took Gabrielle's arm and started guiding her towards the end of the circle. "So.. Gabrielle... what's up?" She grinned at her friend.

Xena fell in behind them, leading Argo as Eponin joined her, shaking her head and muttering. "Hey." The warrior nudged her. "You're talking to yourself. Not a good thing." She glanced up as footsteps neared. "Hello Cait."

"Hello." The girl pattered to a halt, giving her a big smile. "It's great to see you.. can I take care of Argo?" She'd grown a bit, Xena noticed, and she was starting to fill out a little, under the Amazon's hard regimen. Her pale blond hair was braided back, and her gray eyes sparkled.

"C'mere." The warrior motioned her over, and when she gladly joined them, she put an arm around her and hugged her. "Sure... you doing okay?"

Cait returned the hug enthusiastically. "Gosh, you're awfully squishy.. have you been in this weather all day?" She asked. "Everything's super, thanks." She grinned. "Can I take her? I'll make sure she gets dried off, and get the muddy bits from her feet."

"She'd like that." Xena replied, handing over the reins, and reaching up to unhook the saddlebags the mare carried. "Hang on.. lemme get these." The warrior swung them over a shoulder. "There ya go...thanks, Cait."

"Great.. I'll stop by later and say hello, all right?" The girl clucked at Argo, who nuzzled her familiarly. "Come on, Argo... we've got some nice, dry hay for you."

Xena watched them move off into the mist and turned back to the quietly waiting Eponin. "Things been okay here?" She asked, casually, as they started after the bard and regent, who had moved out of earshot ahead of them.

Slight hesitation. "Yeah.. things are fine.. well, I mean, you know us, Xena... bicker bicker like a pickled box of chicken livers, but... " The weapons master lifted a hand and let it fall. "It's been quiet... peaceful for a change, really." She glanced up at the angular face watching her. "We're all looking forward to the festival.. I'm glad you guys showed up for it."

"Glad we could too." The warrior mentally sorted through a few options, then modulated her tone to a calm interest. "So.. how's Eph doing?" She regarded a small bird over head as they walked, feathers fluffed and head tucked against the rain. "She heal up okay.. no headaches or anything?" She watched the dark haired Amazon from the corner of her eye, knowing she had a legitimate reason for asking, since she'd been the healer who had treated the Amazon regent after her vicious attack in the slaver's camp.

"Oh.. yeah.. yeah.. she's great." Eponin answered. "Great... no headaches.. in fact, she hasn't had so much as a hangnail since we got back.. it's been great."

Xena walked a few more paces, watching a lizard scoot past her dark, mud covered boots. "But?" She stated quietly.

Pause. "But what?" Eponin answered slowly.

Xena looked at her, one eyebrow lifting. "But you're acting skittish as a mare in season in a herd of stallions, so.. is there a problem? " She replied, bluntly.

Eponin exhaled loudly. "Not fair, Xena... you're not supposed to do the sensitive chat thing.. you're weirding me out."

They walked on silently for a few paces. "Everything's fine.. honest." The Amazon finally added firmly. "I... I guess I took your advice... after we got back, and stuff worked out.. I'm... it's been good. Fine. Really."

Xena clasped her hands behind her back, and nodded amiably. "Great to hear."

"So... how are things?" Ephiny asked, tilting her head and regarding her friend and queen.

Gabrielle grinned quietly. "Really good." She paused, collecting her thoughts, opening her mouth to elaborate, then closing it. A faint shrug. "Really good... we.. just left a city west of here... they had a whole load of problems we had to straighten out, and there was this army Xena had to stop, and then.. "

"Whoa." Ephiny clapped a hand over her mouth. "Army. Xena. Stopped." She paused. "Details."

The bard chuckled. "Later.. I'll tell you the whole story.. it's a long one. " She assured the Amazon. "I feel great, Xena feels great... what more can I say?" She regarded the regent thoughtfully. "So.. how are you doing? You feeling okay? You look a lot better."

Ephiny paused, then gave a slow nod. "I'm doing fine." She stated soberly. "I um... I had kind of a tough little time when we first got back, but Pony was really there for me, and... it worked out... she's been a real lifesaver." She glanced behind them with a warmly appreciative smile, then flicked her attention back to Gabrielle. "Things are all right."

Gabrielle put an arm around her shoulders. "That's great to hear, Eph... I was kinda worried about you.. Xena was too." She smiled at the regent. "It's good that Pony was there for you... that's so important." She stated quietly. "I'm so glad you two have gotten so close.. it makes me feel good for both of you."

The regent smiled wistfully. "Yeah."

The bard's eyes flicked to her face, reading conflicting emotions there, and her brow creased slightly. "You guys doing okay?" She asked, after a slight hesitation.

"Oh yeah!" Ephiny's expression lightened at once. "No one believes it, but... yeah, we... it's been great." She turned abruptly. "Hey... speaking of which, where are those guys? Don't tell me Pony dragged Xena off to the armory already..."

Then she spotted the two dark haired warriors strolling along slowly behind them. "Hey you two!" Ephiny's voice rang out, and they both glanced up to see both the regent and the bard standing in front of Gabrielle's assigned quarters with their hands on their hips. Xena let Eponin off the hook temporarily and lengthened her strides, catching up to them quickly.

"Okay.. okay.. " The warrior lifted a wry hand. "Had to make sure Argo got taken care of."

Ares caught up with them and shook himself vigorously. "Hey!" Ephiny yelped, dodging the flying mud.

They ducked under the overhang in front of the queen's hut, and stood for a moment, glad to be out of the rain. "Listen.. why don't you guys get settled in, then c'mon over to the dining hall.. dinner's almost ready. We can catch up then, okay?" Ephiny ran a hand through her curly blond hair, and shook some of the water out of it. "I can fill you in on the festival plans."

"Sounds good." Gabrielle grinned, patting her stomach. "Especially the dinner part. " She gave them a little wave as they ducked back into the rain, and jogged off side by side, then turned to her partner and cocked her head. Blue eyes and green met in wry understanding.

"Something's up with them." They both said, simultaneously, then chuckled a little. Xena pushed the door open and gestured her inside. "C'mon, Red... I'm drenched." She followed the bard inside, and shut the door, glad to be out of the weather. The hut looked much the same as the last time, a spare, but comfortable bed up against the back wall, a small area where several people could sit and talk around a low table, and a working desk with a sturdy chair behind it. The warrior dropped their gear on the floor near the window, and knelt, digging her flint and steel out.

Gabrielle watched as she lit the several candles about the hut, and the interior grew golden with light. "So... you get anything out of Eponin?" She asked, slipping up behind her and unclasping her cloak, which she took and set in the small chamber that connected to their quarters that held a wash basin and cleaning area. "I don't think it's... well, I don't know what I think, really. What do you think?"

Xena pulled a set of dry clothes out for both of them, and tossed the bard hers. "I think you'd better get out of that wet stuff, is what I think." She lifted a brow meaningfully at her soulmate. "As for what's up... I dunno... maybe they got an issue." She took a piece of well used linen and rubbed Ares' sodden coat roughly, making it stick up in all directions. "There ya go, boy."

Gabrielle paused in the act of removing her skirt, and cocked her head to one side. "An issue?" She carefully spread the fabric out to dry in the small antechamber, and added her brief top to it. "What do you mean by that?"

The warrior glanced up, a quirky smile taking over her face as she regarded her partner's naked and candlelit body. "Dunno.. but it sounded good, huh?" She muttered, standing up and stripping off her armor. "Maybe they're still working stuff out with what happened to Eph, or something." She shrugged. "We'll find out sooner or later."

The bard sauntered forward, and tugged at the straps on her drenched leathers. "Here.. let me do that."

"Gabrielle.. I'm perfectly capable of undressing myself." Xena remarked, but let her hands drop quietly anyway.

"Oh.. I know." The younger woman assured her. "But you donít have.. " She slipped one strap off, and kissed the bare skin it revealed. "Nearly as much fun." The other strap and another kiss. "Doing it as I do." Now she slid the leathers down and stepped close. "Mmm."

Xena watched the goosebumps run up the bard's arms. "You cold?" She rasped softly, as she circled Gabrielle's body and pulled her into solid contact.

"Nu uh." The bard breathed, warming a patch of Xena's skin around her breastbone. "Not at all." She let her hands move slowly up Xena's back, feeling the ripple of movement as the warrior drew an unsteady breath, mildly intrigued that after everything that had happened, they could still do this to each other so effortlessly. Her turn to gasp now as Xena's body shifted and she was leaning against a muscular thigh whose warmth sent jolts through her

Well, they had time before dinner, right?

With a faint shrug, Gabrielle relaxed her defenses, and allowed her body full rein as it eagerly responded to her soulmate's gentle touch. A hand laced itself behind her neck, and she tilted her face up willingly, meeting the warrior's lips which captured hers, then went on to explore every inch of her jaw, nibbling lightly on her earlobe and forcing a soft sound from the depths of her throat.

Xena drew back a bit, watching her, eyelashes fluttering against her sensitized skin. "You all right?" The whisper was almost inside her ear, and the sounds seemed to go right through her.

"Y.. yeah." She managed a stammer, pressing closer. "I.. I just.. " Fingers danced across her skin and her throat caught, stopping her speech.

"You like this?" Xena's question warmed the side of her neck, as she gently stroked. A soft, incoherent word was her answer. There was a low, padded bench under the window, and she lifted the bard up, then stretched out fully across it, never stopping her attentions. "Keep watch, Ares.. " She paused for a second, breathing unevenly. "Any damn Amazon comes close you bite em in the butt, got me?"

The wolf sneezed, then trotted over to the door and lay down in front of it.


Just a few more minutes, Xena promised herself. Then we'll get up, and get dressed, and go entertain the Amazons. They really should have gotten started a half candlemark ago, but it was just so comfortable lying here entangled with Gabrielle's sleeping body that she hadn't been able to prod herself sufficiently to get moving yet.

Besides, she rationalized, knowing the Amazons, it was going to be a long night. Better Gabrielle get some rest first, right? She was lying on her back, half reclining against the couch's low padded side with the bard sprawled over her, red gold hair tumbling in disarray over her chest and shoulders.

The few minutes passed peacefully, as the warrior idly watched the candle nearby flicker. It was risky, Xena knew, as she stifled a lazy yawn. Sooner or later Ephiny or Eponin or both, or one of their lieutenants would come sniffing around, looking for them. Personally, the warrior didn't object to being caught snuggling naked with their young queen, but she knew Gabrielle would care.

She'd blush like crazy, in fact, and give her partner grief for letting her sleep so long. So... Reluctantly, Xena ran a fingertip down the bard's back. "Gabrielle?" She pitched her voice low, to avoid startling the smaller woman.

A muffled noise escaped from the bard, who tightened her grip. "Gabrielle's not here.. you can leave a message." She muttered, nuzzling Xena's bare skin drowsily.

"C'mon... gotta go meet folks." Xena's voice held a faint chuckle.

"They can meet my butt." Gabrielle replied, keeping her eyes firmly closed.

"Well." Xena lifted her head in mildly amused observation. "If they walk in right now, they sure will." She reached over and tickled the bodypart in question. "And it's a cute one."

A green eye appeared, and fixed on her. "Meanie." The bard grumbled.

Both dark eyebrows lifted. "Me? I'm just trying to keep you out of trouble, love... imagine Eponin walking in right now."

Gabrielle sighed, and opened her other eye. "Keeping yourself out of trouble too." She groused. "Tell me you wouldn't be embarrassed."

Xena chuckled, and made a show of letting her eyes wander down their intertwined bodies. "Nah." She replied cheerfully. "You're the best looking thing in this place.. wouldn't bother me a bit. " She gave the reddening bard a grin. "Talk about enhancing my reputation..."

Gabrielle cleared her throat. "So. What are we gonna do about Eph and Pony?" She changed the subject with forceful intent, as she waited for her blush to fade.

Her partner laughed.

"That's not an answer." The bard poked her in the chest. "We have to have a plan." She insisted. "And anyway, maybe if we keep them busy enough, they'll forget they have to get us back for that blue frosting thing."

Xena rolled her eyes. "Right.. I forgot about that.. but.. " She brushed the loose strands of hair out of Gabrielle's eyes. "They'd be after me for that.. not you., remember?"

Gabrielle regarded her seriously. "Xena, there is no me and you here. There's just us." She reached up and stroked the warrior's jaw as her breathing caught, then resumed. "And they know that." She let her head rest down on the smooth skin for a bit, just reveling in the closeness.

Xena hugged her for a long time. "Come on." She finally said softly. "I think I hear Ephiny's voice, headed this way."

For a moment, she thought Gabrielle was going to rebel. The bard remained still, only her hands tensed, as though she didn't want to let loose her grip. Then she sighed gently, and pushed herself up, standing and walking over to their gear to retrieve a fresh set of clothing.

"Casual tonight, huh?" The bard looked over her shoulder with a wistful look. "I'm not in the mood to get into the leather stuff"

"You're the Queen." Xena reminded her with a smile, tugging a linen tunic from her own pack and pulling it over her head. She let the folds settle around her body, then tied the worn belt snugly around her waist. The ends of the garment fell to mid thigh on her and she straightened the sleeves a bit as she watched Gabrielle don one of her older shirts, which reached knee length on the younger woman, who had to roll the sleeves up one turn as well. "I'm just gonna have to get the weavers to make your new shirts two sizes up, that's all." She chuckled.

"Tch." Gabrielle hugged the soft, nubbly fabric to her. "Not the same thing, Xena, and you know it." She sniffed her sleeve, then smiled. "They smell like you... and I know you wore them.. it's... I can't explain it."

Xena chuckled, standing and walking up behind her, then circling her for a brief hug. "You go ahead... I think you look cute in 'em." Then she waved a package before the bard's eyes. "Hey... I wonder what this could be?"

Gabrielle's eyes lit up and she made a grab for it, but the warrior pulled it back, and danced out of her grasp. "Where did you get that?" The smaller woman demanded, whirling to face her.

The warrior grinned, tossing the package from hand to hand. "Oh... I dunno."

A green eye glare. "Is that what I think it is?" The bard put her hands on her hips.

Xena batted her dark lashes innocently. "Maybe."

"Xeeeeennnnnaaaaaaaa....." Gabrielle bounced forward. "It's not nice to tease me about that.. especially when I'm hungry."

The warrior skipped back a pace, sniffing the package. "Hmmm..... I think I smell... walnuts.. cinnamon... "

The bard lunged forward and made a grab for the package, growling as she missed her partner's elusive form. "Come back here, you fink."

Ares' yellow eyes widened, and he scurried under the bed, blinking out at them from relative safety.

Intently, Gabrielle stalked her prey, dodging back and forth in a calculated attack intended to trap her soulmate in a corner. She worked her past the desk, and towards the rear of the room, then grinned as she stepped into the space between the bed and the working area, blocking any further escape. "Gotcha."

Xena bounced a few times, and waggled the package, her eyes glinting with pure mischief and a teasing grin on her face.

The bard took two paces, then suddenly attacked, aiming not for the bundle, but for her taller partner, bowling her over and landing them both on the hearthrug as she straddled Xena's laughing form triumphantly, and lunged again for her prize. "Ahhhh HAH!!!"

"Gabrielle.. this is lunacy!!" Xena laughed helplessly, pinned to the ground.

The bard snatched the package. "Hello, Lunacy. My name is Gabrielle, and we're gonna be great friends." She greeted it cheerfully, tugging the wrapping off one end. "For a very short time, that is, until I eat you." She grinned demonically. "Oooo... it's got little bits of fruit in it, and nuts... and spices.. Xena, this is my very favorite kind."

The warrior put her hands behind her head, and gazed fondly up at her. "No... really?" She inquired wryly, having requested it specifically from the baker who had been traveling with the merchant train they'd passed two days prior.

Gabrielle bounced up and down, causing the warrior to yelp. "Oh yes, really." She grabbed Xena's dagger, which had been setting on the desk, and placed the nutbread on the warrior's chest. "Hold still now, Lunacy.. don't wiggle around any." She seriously addressed the nutbread, as she neatly sliced a piece off. "Mmmm..." She bit into it happily, dropping tiny crumbs all over her partner.

"You could let me up now." Xena commented.

"Nf wry." Gabrielle shook her head, and bounced. "Comfrrtlf." She broke off a piece and offered it . "Wfmrf?"

"No.. no.. Lunacy is all yours." The warrior chuckled, crossing her ankles and relaxing as best she could. Most of the bard's weight was actually resting on her own knees, thereby allowing Xena to breathe and she merely watched as crumbs drifted down, lodging themselves into creases on the front of her tunic. Experimentally, she picked up a tidbit and nibbled it, raising an eyebrow.

A throat cleared itself nearby, and they both looked up to see Ephiny standing in the doorway, a look of intrigue mixed with disbelief and a little embarrassment thrown in for good measure. "Everything okay in here?" She studied the two of them, noting Xena's relaxed posture despite the fact that Gabrielle was crouching over her with a sharp knife in one hand. This threatening scene was modified somewhat, however, by the loaf of brown nutbread resting squarely in the center of the warrior's chest.

"Sure, Eph." The warrior drawled. "I double as a table all the time. C'mon over and join the party." She chuckled a little at the visible blush rising up Gabrielle's neck as the regent gingerly crossed the floor, and settled down cross legged on the fur rug.

Gabrielle covered her embarrassment at being caught playing by slicing off another piece of the nutbread. "Here.. have a piece of my friend Lunacy." She handed it over.

Ephiny took the offering cautiously, looking from one of them to the other as she nibbled an edge. "You named your nutbread?" Her blond eyebrows hiked up sharply, then she decided against pursing the concept. "We... are about .. um.. to have dinner, you know that, uh.. right?"

The bard cheerfully bit into another piece. "And you point is what, exactly?"

Ephiny shrugged and grinned. "Sadly blunted, apparently." She regarded them with interest. Xena's expression, muted as always, showed nothing but a fond tolerance, and the blue eyes kept flicking to Gabrielle's face with a gentle sparkle in them. Gabrielle, for her part, was seated atop the warrior in utter unconcern, completely at ease. Something's changed again, the regent mused, muffling a smile as Xena opportunistically took advantage of the bard's lack of attention to reach up and tickle her side.

Gabrielle yelped. "Hey!" She gave her partner a mock scowl. "You're in a pretty compromising position here, my friend... not to mention vulnerable."

A dark brow edged up. "Think so, huh?"

"Whoa.. whoa.. whoa.... " Ephiny scrambled up, recognizing the glint in those very blue eyes. "I'm getting outta range if you two are gonna start scrapping." She warned. "But make it fast, because they are expecting us in the dining hall."

Bard and warrior exchanged glances, then Gabrielle reversed the dagger, and touched Xena's nose with the hilt. "You got off easy." She picked up and hugged the nutbread to her breast, then stood, allowing the warrior to roll up onto her feet in one smooth, easy motion.

Xena shook herself, and twitched her tunic back into some semblance of order as crumbs cascaded down around her and bounced merrily onto the floor. Ares took the opportunity to crawl out from under the bed, and snuffle around at her feet, licking up the nutbread bits enthusiastically. "Sorry about that, Ephiny.. we were just headed over there."

"Uh huh." The regent chuckled, watching Gabrielle carefully put away her prize. "Nah.. nice to see you two having a little fun.. last few times we've been together were a little.. uh... "

"Stressful?" Gabrielle looked over, as she ran her fingers through her fair hair to straighten it. "Yeah.. we're looking forward to just having a nice, relaxing time here this round... right?"

Ephiny nodded. "Yeah... tomorrow I've got some things to go over with you... amendments and treaties and stuff.. but we've got a great party planned, and a bunch of competitions arranged for your.. mm... enjoyment."

The bard grinned. "That sounds great." Her ears twitched. "Competitions?" Unconsciously, her eyes drifted over Ephiny's shoulder to the tall, dark haired woman behind her. "Like what?"

The regent chuckled, and tucked a hand around her elbow, guiding her towards the door as Xena strolled along in back of them. "You'll see.. and you.. " Here she turned, and gave the warrior a mock stern look. "Have to promise to stay out of them to give everyone else a chance."

Gabrielle felt a faint smirk tugging at her lips. Getting that admission from the Amazons felt... very sweet. Her soulmate's face remained more or less expressionless, but she saw the slight crinkle at the corners of her eyes and the tensing of jaw muscles that meant Xena was holding back a grin herself. So far, she mused, so good. This visit was definitely looking up.


Continued in Part 2