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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 - Part 7

By Melissa Good

"Gabrielle?" Xena ducked her head close, and glanced around as they made their way across the village towards their quarters.

"Hmm?" The bard looked up.

"There are guards everywhere." Came the mildly amused answer. Every doorway, every entrance, every remotely clear spot seemed staked out by a fully armed, very serious Amazon warrior. "What's up?"

"Paranoia, and a good dose of serious embarrassment." Gabrielle replied wryly. "I mean.. here they are, rough, tough Amazon warriors and all that poop.. and they get caught with their.. um... leathers down like that." She exhaled. "You should have heard Eponin reading them the riot act."

Xena absorbed that thoughtfully. "Well.. yeah.. I guess.. I can imagine how I would feel if it'd happened to me." She offered, amiably. "I'd be pretty embarrassed, too."

Green eyes flicked her way. "As if." Gabrielle backhanded her in the gut. "And besides.. you're more dangerous wet, naked, and covered in soap than the rest of these guys are fully armed like a porcupine."

The warrior smirked a little. "Think so, huh?" She hated being complimented like that, usually, but somehow when Gabrielle did it... Xena sighed happily, and just enjoyed the warm, fuzzy feeling.

"Tch." Gabrielle tucked her hand inside her partner's elbow and hummed. contentedly. "Yes.. I do think so." She giggled softly. "Did you know you held off a couple of hundred slavering, well armed, berserker warriors today?"

"Augh... " Xena rolled her eyes. "Gabrielle, c'mon now.. if there were thirty of those guys, it's a lot.. and they had rusty armor, and half of em had... " She caught the impish smile on her soulmate's face. "You little fink.. you're pulling my leg."

"Heh." The bard did a little wiggle as she walked. "Am I good, or what?"

The warrior let out a sheepish chuckle. "You got me, all right." Her gaze dropped. "Hey.. can I see that little move again? That was cute."

Gabrielle blushed a little. "No.. now that you mentioned it, I won't be able to do it again." She muttered, as they reached their door and Xena pushed it open. "You think it's safe to go take a bath? I feel like a six day old mud puddle."

"Hmm... " Xena stepped closer, and peered at the bard's ear intently, then reached her hand out, and with a lightning quick gesture, captured something. "Maybe you better. " She replied seriously, opening her hand and displaying a tiny pollywog. "If you got these in there... "

The bard's eyes widened as she stared at the creature, which wriggled in her partner's palm. "Oh... centaur poop.. that's gross!" She reached up and grabbed both ears, searching in agitation. "Xena.. see if there any more.. uck.. if that crawls up my ear, I'll go nuts.. I... "

She looked up and saw the mischievous grin.

"You.... You... " The bard spluttered.

"Gotcha." Xena grinned, picking up the pollywog and tossing it out of the window.

"Auggghh!!!" Gabrielle hurled herself on top of her soulmate, and they tussled, ending up crashing onto the bed in a pile with the bard making a determined effort to pin the taller woman's arms down, and tickle her. "I'm gonna.... Augh... yow.. cut that... Xena.....Aiiieeeeeeeeeeeeeeee"

"I love that squeal." The warrior whispered in a sultry tone, just outside her ear.

Gabrielle paused in her attack, and glanced down at the very blue eyes inches from her own. "You do, huh?" She lowered her head a trifle and tasted Xena's lips, as she felt the tickling fingers switch to a more soothing stroke. "Can I interest you in a nice, warm, private regal bath with me?"

"Mm." Xena felt a grin edging its way along her face. "It's good to be the Queen, huh?" She nibbled the bard's neck, working gently up across the line of her jaw.

Gabrielle let herself get lost in a mild haze for a minute. "Queen? Of what?" She mumbled finally, lolling her head to one side, and peering at her partner with a silly grin.

"Of my heart?" The warrior replied lightly.

Blond eyebrows lifted, and a hand came to rest gently on Xena's tanned forehead. "Funny.. you feel cool... " The bard commented wryly. "That was an amazingly sappy thing for you to say, Xena."

"Yeah... " A sigh. "I know." Xena rolled over onto her side so they were facing each other, stretched out full length on the bed. She crossed her ankles and wiggled a booted foot. "I think you're rubbing off on me."

"Hmm." Gabrielle considered this, as she studied Xena's face minutely. "Took me long enough." She grinned.

Xena grinned back.

"You know... " The bard hesitated, then took a breath and went on. "I'm really glad we're friends."

The warrior blinked at the unexpected statement. "Well...I am too, but... where did that come from?"

"When I was little... " Gabrielle traced out an idle pattern on the blanket. "There were two other kids in the village... and they were really good friends. I used to play with them every once in a while.. and I liked them." She paused, and collected her thoughts. "But I always felt.. when I was with them, that I was... well, kind of a.. an intruder, I guess, or..just.. extra, and even though we had fun, it was also sort of sad for me."

"Mph." Xena made a small, encouraging sound.

"And I asked one of about it... you know... and they told me it was just... well, they were best friends, that was all, and everyone else was not... a part of them." Gabrielle sighed a little. "I didn't understand... I didn't know what it was like..."

She looked up. "And now I do." She reached over and curled her fingers around Xena's. "It's always having someone to turn to.. always having a shoulder to cry on... knowing someone who you don't have to pretend with."

Blue eyes watched her silently, and she heard the soft noise as Xena swallowed. "Someone who knows all the bad parts about you and doesnít care." The warrior whispered.

Gabrielle bit her lip and nodded. "Someone you can tell anything to, and share everything with." She tightened her fingers. "So many people don't know what that is, Xena."

A slow exhale. "I know."

"I'm really glad I'm not one of them anymore." Gabrielle concluded, lifting their linked hands, and brushing her lips against Xena's fingers, smiling as she detected the subtle scent of herbs from the healer's hut on them.

Xena smiled. "Me too." She stroked the bard's cheek gently, feeling the softness of her skin with a quiet sense of pleasure.

They laid there quietly for a few moments, simply reflecting on that, then Gabrielle let out a quiet sigh. "Shall we? I think the bathing hut is about empty... Eponin instituted strict schedules. No more than two at a time, for a quarter candlemark."

The warrior burst out into a laugh. "Is she standing there timing them?"

"Probably." Gabrielle rolled her eyes, then sobered. "What are we going to do about her and Eph?"

"We? " Xena's brows arched. "Us?.. Gabrielle, they're both grown women, in case you hadn't noticed." Gods... matchmakers to the Amazons...I'll never live that down.

"Who are acting like stubborn teenagers." The bard replied, with a snort, as she rolled off the bed, and tugged Xena with her. "Ooof.. come on.. you're too big for me to be hauling you around like a sack of potatoes."

"Fortunately." Xena smirked, as she scooped the bard up and cradled her. "I can't say the same for you." She started for the door. "One hot bath, coming right up, your Majesty."

"Xeeeennaa..." Gabrielle tugged at her shirt. "Now.. come on.. you can't just waltz around the village carrying me!"

The warrior skillfully opened the door with one booted foot. "And why not?" She asked, reasonably, as they emerged into the damp air, which was almost, but not quite dripping with rain. "Now that's the kinda service the Amazons should be giving their Queen.."

"Oh stop it." Gabrielle laughed, giving up and just clasping her arms around the taller woman's neck as they made their way towards the bathing hut. Amazons on guard around the compound blinked, then hid grins as they went by. "Xena.. they're snickering."

Xena stopped, narrowed her eyes, and made a slow, complete turn, glaring at everything in her path. Bodies jerked to attention, and faces froze into stern seriousness instantly. "No they're not." She informed her silently convulsing soulmate. "See?" She padded on, with a satisfied grin.

The bathing hut was almost empty, as Gabrielle had predicted. Only Ephiny was there, quietly soaking in private, regently splendor, a thick sponge resting on her forehead. She rolled her head to one side, and peered at them as they entered. "Oh..." Then she straightened, with a mildly alarmed look. "Hey.. Gabrielle, are you okay?"

The bard wiggled her feet, and gave what she hoped was a sufficiently haughty look. "Of course... isn't this how the Amazon Queen always travels?" She tapped Xena's shoulder. "Down, please." She regally ignored Ephiny's burst of laughter.

The warrior let her down gently, then walked over to where buckets sat against the fireplace, heating. She grabbed two of them, and walked over to an empty tub, dumping them in and going back for more.

Gabrielle leaned on Ephiny's tub with a friendly grin. "Bet that water feels good."

The regent let her chuckles wind down, and nodded. "Oh yeah... I finally got all the mud out of... um... everywhere." She turned her eyes to Xena, who was steadily completing her task. "Hey... if you get a chance, could you hold Pony down and check that cut on her neck? I think it's really sore..but... "

Xena paused, and rested her arms against the tub, then crooked a finger at her soulmate. "Sure... " She replied. "Probably needs some cleaning... we weren't real careful about that during the fight... I had a Hades of time getting the dirt outta my scratches."

"Who did?" The bard asked, archly, as she tested the water with one finger. "Oo.."

The warrior ruffled her hair. "Okay..you did." She splashed a handful of the stuff at her. "C'mon.. in you go."

Gabrielle willingly removed her leathers, and hopped into the tub, sighing in pleasure as the warm water covered her. Xena unbelted her gambeson and joined her, settling behind the bard and leaning back against the edge of the tub. She took a bar of herb soap she'd brought with her, and started on the bard's back. "Talk about mud... gods, Gabrielle.. you've got an outline where your leathers were."

The bard didn't answer, being far too busy enjoying the strong, massaging fingers across her back. Xena kept up her work, but turned her head towards Ephiny. " Things getting back to normal?"

The regent shrugged. "More or less... it's gonna be moons before everyone's ego gets out of the manure pile..." Her hazel eyes glinted a little. "But I gotta tell ya.. it sure was nice to be one of the rescuers for a change... damn, that's a good feeling."

Xena chuckled. "Yeah... I know." She scrubbed behind Gabrielle's ears and shook her head in mock despair. "I think I found another pollywog in there." She teased softly.

Gabrielle turned her head, and gave her a look out of one half-open, green eye. "I'll give you pollywogs...I'm gonna put some in your bed later on." She ran her fingers up Xena's inner thigh. "Let them wriggle around."

The warrior snorted a laugh, biting her lip. "Cut that out."

"Ooo... " The bard grinned evilly. "Found a spot, did I?" She ran her other hand up the other thigh, then did them together, feeling her partner's body convulse. "Heh."

"Gabriellleeeee.." Xena pleaded, through clenched teeth. "You're gonna regret this.... "

"Hehehehehehheheh" The bard chuckled, tickling harder. "I don't think.. whoa!" She found her hands grabbed, and held, and then long, agile fingers were finding her most ticklish spots . "Aiieeeeeeee!!!!"

"Shhh!" Ephiny hissed. "You're gonna freak out the guards, Gabrielle! They'll have a fit!!"

The bard bit her lip hard, and squirmed, sloshing water out of the tub as she struggled. "Okay..okay... " She gasped. "I give!"

Xena stopped immediately, and pulled her back, to rest against her, both hands circling her waist and squeezing a little. "Good."

Gabrielle relaxed, letting her damp head rest against the warrior's chest, as she gazed over at Ephiny. "Sorry." She grinned wryly. "We get carried away sometimes."

"Just like a couple of kids." Ephiny watched them, feeling a touch of unexpected envy grab her chest. Gabrielle had a quiet, contented look on her face that matched the peaceful indulgence on her partner's and the two of them together presented a picture of... gods, was it possible they were happy? Xena rested her chin on the bard's head, and smiled, the muscles of her shoulders tightening as she drew Gabrielle closer.

They were happy. Ephiny sighed inwardly. Even after everything. She tilted her head back and regarded the ceiling, counting the splices as the thatch met, and overlapped. Despite everything. She let her eyes drift over, and saw Xena close hers, as she listened to something Gabrielle was saying in a voice too low for Ephiny to hear. The warrior chuckled softly, deep in her throat, and her partner produced a slow, easy smile in response.

It brought her own dilemma squarely into focus, and she remembered something Gabrielle had said, about why they'd decided to move their friendship into a deeper realm. "Xena said.. .she just got tired of fighting it."

Yeah. You could get tired of that. Ephiny admitted to herself. You could get tired of a lot of things. "Well... I'm gonna get dressed, then I've got... something I gotta do." She announced quietly.

"Anything urgent?" Gabrielle questioned, enjoying her soulmate's soaping. "Need help?"

Ephiny smiled ruefully at the thatch. Probably. "No.. nothing big... you guys finish up.. and we're gonna do a potluck tonight, until the kitchen gets back into order." She turned to Xena. "Don't suppose that'd include those fish you're so good at catching, huh?"

Xena lifted a brow. "I think that can be arranged. " She admitted.

The regent nodded, then hoisted herself out of the water, and wrapped her body in a large linen sheet., tucking the ends in neatly. "Good.. see you in a little while."

They watched her leave, then eyed each other. "Something's up." They pronounced in serious unison. Xena chuckled. "Guess we'll find out later."

Gabrielle snuggled closer, and began an attentive cleaning of her partner's skin with her lips. "Much later." She carefully avoided the arrow wound and worked her way up. "Much.. much.. later." Her lips brushed against the warrior's. "Is that okay?"

Xena laughed softly, her hands already starting a gentle wandering over the bard's body. "You're the Queen."


Ephiny took her time going across towards her quarters. She made a point of examining the place, making sure that things were being put back the way they should be, and clean up was proceeding at a good pace. Several Amazons were busy rebuilding the huge firepit, and they waved at her as she walked by. "Make it nice and big." The regent called, with a grin. It would take them the rest of today, and part of tonight to get things back on track, but damn it, they were going to celebrate this festival if it was the last thing they did.

Celebrate the harvest, and the year to come. And fallen friends, she regretfully noted. Of the sentries, two had been killed, and the rest were in various stages of recovery, as they had taking Arella's appearance on trust, and let her in, some greeting her as a friend. She cursed herself again for not seeing this coming, for believing that the woman would just meekly go off into the hinterlands, and behave herself.

Ah well... not like they give you training for that. She reasoned. You just have to make the best decision you can, and live with it.

Yeah. She paused on her own doorstep, and turned around, leaning against the wall for a long moment and just breathing. The damp breeze brushed against her skin and pushed her curly blond hair back, as she rehearsed what she wanted to say. What she wanted to explain. Finally she exhaled and straightened up, then nodded a little, and entered the hut.

Eponin was seated at the worktable, her right fist tangled in her hair as she propped her head up. She was working on a set of parchment pages, her quill held firmly in her left hand. That has always intrigued Ephiny, because as a fighter, the dark haired Amazon was strictly right handed. She shot her bow, handled her sword, and a staff all the conventional way, but had admitted to being naturally left handed when the regent had caught her doodling one time. She stood for a moment, studying the weapons master's snub nosed profile, then edged her face into a smile, and settled in the seat across from her. "Hey."

Eponin started, then glanced up. "Gods, Eph... ya nearly scared the feathers off me." She blinked. "Didn't hear you come in."

"So I see." Ephiny rested both arms on the table, and plucked at the corner of the parchment. "Whatcha working on that's so interesting?"

Pony looked down at her hands, and smoothed the feathers on her quill. "Um... " She studied the document. "Oh..it's... they're nothing.. just reports.. stuff.. I wasn't really... I was kinda just thinking about something else."

Ephiny gazed at her quietly. "Yeah? Like what?" She kept her tone light, sensing her lover was distracted by something.

A faint shrug. "Just stuff... about what happened, and... just... I don't know."

The regent exhaled, then stood and moved around to where the linen press was, pulling open a section of it and removing a light shift, which she replaced her towel with. She folded the damp fabric in half, then draped it over a bar set in the wall for that purpose. Then she gathered herself together, and crossed back over to the worktable, settling onto the arm of the chair Eponin was seated in, and resting one forearm on her shoulder.

For a long moment, the dark haired woman didn't move, then she hesitantly looked up.

Ephiny blinked. She'd known Eponin most of her life, and had seen many, many expressions on the older Amazon's face, ranging from anger, to happiness, to disgust, to sadness. But this was the first time she'd ever seen fear in those warm, honey colored eyes. In reflex, she reached out and gently cupped her cheek. "What's wrong?"

The muscles under her fingertips worked, but Pony just shook her head a little. "Nothing.. w.. what do you mean?"

She could have been imagining it, true... Ephiny reasoned, except she could see the flutter of Pony's heart against the pale skin of her neck and knew she wasn't. On the other hand, getting her stubborn lover to admit something was wrong was pretty scary territory, so she decided to go ahead with her little, prepared, speech. "Listen... I know it's been pretty rough for us lately."

Eponin's face went very still. "Still mad at me for going off on Xena, huh?" She whispered wryly.

Ephiny's brows drew in. "No... no.. that's... that's over with, right? Hades, you got her to apologize, which I thought was a likely as Mount Vesuvius spouting honey wine." She shrugged a little. "I know how it is with you."

The dark haired woman's eyes dropped, to some place near the floor of the hut. "Yeah.. I...should have realized that would...I guess it just got too... I'm sorry."

"It's all right." The regent collected her thoughts again. "Anyway, I know it's been tough... and we haven't been having such a good time, and I... " Ephiny stopped, seeing the sudden shift of light as her lover's jaw muscles clenched so hard, she could trace every ridge from her chin to her ear plainly. A glance down showed her the weapons master's fingers wrapped around he quill, her knuckles standing out in stark relief. Her whole attitude, Ephiny realized, was very much like someone waiting to be hit.

Bracing against something that was going to hurt, very much. Her heart clenched, and she slipped off the chair arm, and knelt, so that Pony was forced to look her in the eye. "What on earth is wrong?" She kept her voice very gentle. "Come on now... you're scaring the crap out of me."

Pony swallowed audibly, then sucked in a breath and forced an almost surreal calm. "Hey..." Her voice broke a little, then steadied. "It's no problem, Eph... I under.. understand." She licked her lips. "We're probably better off anyway... I mean.. you must get tired of all this... "

Ephiny curled a hand around hers, and held it. "What are you talking about?" She felt the convulsive tremors under her grip, and she frantically tried to work out what the heck was going on.

"I mean...I figure.. you're going to... a ask me to leave, and I.. .I don't blame, you, so.. it's okay." Jaw muscles clenched again, but a lifetime of being a warrior kept a stolid, calm look on a face so tense with anguish it hurt to look at.

Ephiny slowly let her head rock forward and rest against the chair arm. Oh gods... what have I done to her? How could she think.....what if that's....what she w.. The regent exhaled softly I've been so blind. She rolled her head to one side, and opened her eyes, peering up at the still, quiet face. "No.. I wasn't going to ask you to leave." She replied gently. "I was going to ask your forgiveness for what I've been putting you through."

Eponin blinked a few times, as though her mind was having trouble encompassing Ephiny's words, so sure had she been of what they were to be. Finally she released a held breath. "Oh." One word, full of such unutterable relief, it was painful to hear. "Donít worry about it." She added, in a mumble.

How typical. Ephiny found a tiny, sad grin somewhere, as her trepidation dissolved away. "I... um.. I want to worry about it." She paused. "I want.. to worry about you."

Startled, caramel colored eyes darted to hers.

"You.. spent an awful lotta time worrying about me... and.. .I figured... I think first of all, I wanted to thank you for... being there.. and ... putting up with all the poop I had to go through, and all that stuff." Ephiny felt, for a moment, like her tongue was being twisted into knots. Gods.. how in Hades does Gabrielle come up with this stuff? To hear her it's easy.. damn it, Gabrielle, it's not easy! "And I know it's been rotten, and you... I mean things got kinda weird after what happened with them.. and...and I know I hurt you." There. That was out. "I'm sorry." That too.

"Um... " Poor Pony looked overwhelmed. "No.. no.. it's.. it was okay... I.. um... I'm a big girl, right?" She picked up a fringe on her leathers and dropped it. "Mean, tough.. Amazon...I can handle stuff." Her eyes flicked over the room, then settled on Ephiny's face. "But.. um.... I thought you were worth it." Eponin produced a tiny, hopeful smile, which faded quickly. "Course, I never really understood why you.." A hand lifted shakily and indicated the village. "You have your pick."

A wry, sad look slid on to the regent's face. "You're so damn modest."

Eponin scowled.

"It's one of the things I love the most about you." Ephiny felt the words come out easily, before she could measure their meaning, or judge their impact., and she found herself looking into a face so stunned, and so open, it was heartbreaking.

"W...w... one of the th..th..things?" Eponin stammered softly.

It was, Ephiny decided, the sweetest of feelings. "One of the many things, yeah." She laced her fingers with the older woman's. "You're not gonna hit me for saying that, right?" A pause. "Pony?" Longer pause. "Hey... " Ephiny leaned forward, concerned, at the wide open, stunned expression. "Po?"

A look of childlike wonder and delight transformed the dark haired Amazon's face. "I didn't think you...." She breathed out quickly. "I mean... we... uh... I just thought..." She ran out of words and just collapsed against the back of the chair, relief turning her muscles to water.

Ephiny sat down cross-legged on the floor, and leaned her head against Eponin's hip, circling a hand around her knee. "I was just so convinced I couldnít... risk... caring too much." She admitted softly. "I'm sorry... I swear I am."

Eponin's fingers found their way into her hair, stroking it gently. "What.. made ya change your mind?" Her voice was hoarse, but not with tension.

The regent smiled sadly. "The Queen."

A ragged sigh. "She talked ya into it, huh?"

Ephiny shook her head. "No." She shifted, and turned to look up . "She didn't have to say a word." Glinting tracks of wetness trailed down Eponin's face, and as she blinked, a droplet fell and landed on the regent's arm.

Eponin stared at it in puzzlement, then rubbed her face in irritation, sniffling self consciously. "Sorry." She mumbled. "Last time I did that was when that boar nailed me in the butt."

"Here." Ephiny offered her a sleeve, which necessitated her getting up, and perching on the chair arm again. And then it was just easier if she wrapped her whole arm around Eponin, to give her more fabric to work with.

That somehow turned into a very satisfying hug, which warmed her from the inside out, in a very odd, and very special way.

Funny. Ephiny thought to herself. Melosa taught me about courage... but she never did tell me that sometimes... the most courageous thing you can do....

Is surrender.

Hey. A mild, amusing thought chased that one. And it didn't even take me two years to figure that out.


 Running footsteps alerted her. The Amazon trotted closer, calling out. "Queen Gabrielle!" and had made it to the front entrance of the queen's quarters when a large hand covered her mouth unexpectedly. "Qufmf flf" The woman's eyes widened, until she caught sight of her assailant.

Xena removed her hand cautiously. "Shh." She scowled. "What they Hades is all the noise?"

"Sorry." The Amazon reached up and scratched her ear. "The elder's council is meeting... they sent for the regent, but... "

The warrior's dark head cocked to one side. "But?"

"Um... she told me to.. um... " The woman hesitated. "She was busy."

"Busy." Xena repeated slowly. "Whadda they want?"

The Amazon snorted. "You think they tell me?" She sighed. "Anyway... I thought I'd find Gabrielle, instead." Her eyes flicked to the door. "Is... she in there?"

Xena nodded. "Uh huh.. but she's.. um... busy." Her blue eyes twinkled, as she saw the woman's shoulders slump. Actually, her soulmate was fast asleep, and Xena fully intended on her staying that way. "So I guess they'll get me instead."

The woman started, then peered uncertainly up at the taller woman. After a moment her lip quirked. "Okay."

The warrior patted her on the shoulder. "Let me just drop this off." She hefted the staff she was carrying, and ducked inside the door, sparing a moment to gaze at the still form on the bed. Gabrielle was curled on her side, one arm tucked under her head, and the other curled around the edge of the pillow. Xena had covered her with their blanket, the dark, furry surface making her fair hair stand out where it spilled over the edge.

She fought an insidious urge to join the bard. Her body suddenly craved the contact and wanted nothing more than for her to crawl into bed and wrap her arms around her sleeping partner, as her mind already heard the contented murmur Gabrielle would make when she did. It took a stronger effort to deny the need than she'd anticipated, and she closed her eyes for a long moment in concentration before she let them drift open again. Damn. C'mon, Xena.. let's have some discipline here. You can't spend your whole day snuggling.

And why not? Her obstinate conscience retorted. With a sigh, she set the staff against the wall, and pointed at Ares, who was curled up next to the bard with his head draped over her knees. "Take care of her, okay?" The wolf's ears flicked at her, and she smiled, then turned and rejoined the impatiently waiting Amazon.

They walked along in silence, until the woman cleared her throat. "That was a really great idea, that tunnel."

Blue eyes flicked to her in mild amusement. "Thanks." What was her name? Kisi? Pisi? Oh.. right... Dosi. Damn Amazons called themselves the weirdest things sometimes. She suspected that wasn't the woman's real name, but one she'd taken on joining the Nation. "Glad it worked."

Dosi nodded. "Yeah.. we heard noises in the cellar.. we figured an animal had gotten in there." She nibbled her lip. "Then after a bit, it sure sounded like a huge animal.. scared the feathers offa us."

Xena paced along. "So.. what were ya gonna do if it was an animal?" She queried. "And how'd ya figured it got in there?"

The Amazon scratched her head. "Beats me... I think the frustration level was so high, we were hoping it was some animal just to be able to do something besides sweat, stink, and make snitty comments about each other's anatomy."

Xena burst out laughing, then stifled it. "Sorry.. I know it really wasn't funny."

Dosi scowled, then grinned herself. "Yeah it was." She sighed, as she reached out to push open the door to the council chamber. "Well, good luck."

The warrior gave her a look. "Thanks." She left the Amazon behind at the door and entered, aware of the sudden silence as her tall frame filled the doorway. She stopped just inside, and let her eyes move around the room.

A dozen surprised, and faintly uneasy faces looked back at her.

"Something you need?" The warrior asked, her eyebrows lifting.

The woman in the center seat stood. "Um... we... weren't really... I thought we asked.."

Xena shrugged. "Ephiny's otherwise occupied, and Gabrielle's sleeping." She paused. "I'm not waking her up... so, if you need something.. you're stuck with me." She ambled to a stool set in the center of the semicircle that was defined by the council tables, and perched on it. It was obviously set there for people being interrogated, but she claimed it with such utter confidence, it was more like they were being reviewed by her.

Exactly how she intended it to be. She crossed her arms over her chest, and raised one eyebrow in question at them, as she crossed her legs at the ankles. "Well?" Hmm.. she glanced around. Been a long time since I was the youngest person in a room. It made an odd little grin tug at her lips.

"Ah." The oldest of the elders put her fingertips on the table, and leaned forward a little. "I see." She cast about, obviously at a loss. "Is the Queen all right?" She finally asked. "I wasn't aware she was injured in any way... "

Xena relaxed a little. "She's fine." She assured the woman. "Just taking a nap."

"Good.. good.. " The woman responded. "Ah.. well... " She squared her shoulders and took control of herself. "This is a bit awkward, Xena... the subject we wanted to raise with either Ephiny or Gabrielle was.. um... well, it was you."

A lazy smile formed on the warrior's face. "I figured." She drawled. "Who better to answer your questions, then?"

The elders all looked at each other, then most of them shrugged. "Good point." The senior woman stated frankly, and sat down. Her eyes studied the tall, quiet form before her judiciously. Xena had put her gambeson back on, not feeling like subjecting her body to the abrasion of leather due to the myriad of cuts and sore spots, and the Amazon seemed to find the garment fascinating. "I understand you came up with the plan to dig into here?"

Xena nodded amiably. "Seemed like the quickest way." She inspected her fingernails, which despite her long bath were still stained with red clay. "Not the most fun I've ever had, but it worked."

A small silence. "You are injured." The elder motioned towards her leg, where a bandage stood out, stark white against the warrior's tanned skin.

"Got a few nicks... nothing major." Xena replied, blithely, mentally cursing herself for allowing Gabrielle to industriously plaster her with neat bandages. She'd felt like a walking advertisement for a cut rate herbal salesman before the bard had finished. "Gabrielle wanted to make sure they stayed clean this time." She offered, wryly, remembering the look of peaceful absorption on her soulmate's face as she'd simply relaxed under the younger woman's ministrations. The bard got such a kick out of taking care of her...as though she were a prize stallion or something, that Xena usually found herself submitting to her just to watch her smile.

"Ah." The elder nodded. "She... feels very strongly about you."

Xena didn't feel that needed an answer, so she simply nodded in confirmation.

"Frankly, we were a little surprised when Ephiny told us you two were planning on... going through with a joining ceremony here... I know relations between us haven't been cordial lately." The woman spoke quietly, steepling her fingers and resting her lips against them. "I couldnít imagine you voluntarily wanting to become part of us."

Xena considered the question, taking her time. The silence in the room didn't bother her, though she could see it was making some of the elders a little restless. Finally she just shrugged. "Neither could I." She answered, honestly. "Your... infighting.. the attitudes... you drive me nuts most of the time."

They blinked at her, not expecting the frank admission.

"But this is a part of Gabrielle's life.. and it's something she really wants me to share so.. " Blue eyes twinkled wryly. "So...what the Hades."

One of the other elders, a short woman with rusty gray hair that once must have been red, leaned forward. "So.. that's it? That's why? Not that you want to help the Nation.. not that you have anything to offer.. not that you think we would be good allies... just... just because she wants you to?"

Xena grinned. "Yep." She settled back and regarded them mildly.

The woman snorted. "And we have to take you on your terms, is that it?"

The warrior gazed at her. "Yep... cause I'm not changing any time soon."

Now the silence was definitely chilly. "That.. is not the way we do things." The gray haired woman stated. "Not even for our queen." She glanced at her comrades. "What guarantee do we have.. "

Xena stood, and glided over to her, making the most of her greater height as she leaned on the table, towering over the other woman. "You don't." She deliberately lowered her voice. "The only guarantee you have is this - as long as your best interests match hers, I'm right there, understand?" She powered her eyes around the table, letting the darker, edgier side of her personality show clearly. "I don't need the Amazons, all right? But in the past three years, you sure have needed me, and on more than one occasion. "

Silence greeted that.

"So let's cut the poop." Xena finished. "I'm not here to be judged by you."

 The gray haired woman looked her right in the eye. "You're not much for diplomacy, are you, Xena?"

A crooked grin quirked the warrior's lips. "I leave that to Gabrielle." She was aware of the women circling the table, and forming around her, but she stayed still, and waited.

They were close, so close she could smell their leathers, and she straightened up, letting her arms fall to her sides as they closed around her. She kept her breathing even, but her hackles rose, and she couldn't prevent the tiny shiver of response that tensed the muscles just under her skin and brought her senses to painful alertness. I hope they don't try something stupid. I'm not in the mood.

The silence thickened. Twelve foxy old Amazons surrounded their prey, hands slipping to weapons. Xena topped them by a full head, and outweighed most of them , but they didn't appear intimidated. "I don't think we like your attitude." One of them drawled.

Xena chuckled humorlessly. "I don't think I give two pig's feet if you do or not." Privately, she admired the group for their aggressiveness, something she usually found lacking in their younger comrades. However, it was late, and she really didn't feel like getting into an all out, knock down drag away fight at the moment.

"You're pretty tough sounding for someone surrounded by armed warriors." The shorter woman remarked, in a faintly humorous tone.

The warrior lowered her head slightly, and felt her hands tense. "If you intend on finding out just how tough I am, get it over with, and I don't wanna hear about it if people get hurt." There was no humor in her voice now. Her bodyweight shifted over her center of balance, and she put her defenses on hair trigger.

"You're unarmed, and surrounded, and you 're warning us about getting hurt?" The woman countered.

"Yeah." Xena replied.

"And what if it's you that gets hurt, Xena?" The eldest member said softly.

The warrior smiled easily. "Then you're gonna have to deal with Gabrielle, aren't you?" Xena reminded them. "And let me tell you... if you think I'm rough to handle, you ain't seen nothing yet."

They all paused, and looked at each other. The eldest, Rena, scratched her head. "Poop. She's right." She drummed her fingers on the table, then gave Xena a wry look. "Called our bluff, huh?"

A dark brow lifted in response.

The woman started laughing, and at that, the rest of them did too. One reached out and slapped Xena on the back, startling the still tense warrior into almost backhanding her into the wall. "Xena, if you could put a cupful of your attitude into this bunch of little puppies we got here, you'll be worth every single aggravating minute of it."

Xena slowly relaxed, and let a grin creep across her face. "If you all haven't.. what chance do you think I've got?" She put her hands on her hips. "They are a little wimpy, huh?"

"Uch." Rena threw up a hand in disgust. "I don't know what's wrong with these kids today.. to let themselves be caught like that? Hades.. in my day.. " She sighed. "Of course, we had to be up at the Centaur village, making patty cake with Tyldus when the whole thing happened or let me tell you... it woulda been a different story." She sighed aggrievedly. "We got back just in time to see you holding off that pack of smelly pigs.. but boy, if we'd been here..."

"Uh huh." Xena leaned back against the table and let out a silent sigh of relief. She scanned the feisty, tough looking faces, and grinned quietly to herself. These, she realized, were Amazons. Like she remembered them. "S'allright.. we took care of it."

Rena snorted. "No kidding... that kid from Potadeia's got more spunk in her than half the damn Nation... wow.. can she use that staff... nice work, Xena."

The warrior grinned. "She's pretty good, huh?" A look of pride crossed her face. "You should see her go up against guys twice her size... just bam... down they go."

"Yeah... and centaur farts, can you use a sword... " Rena brandished an arm. "Hey.. introduce us to that fuzzy buddy of yours... he's pretty damn good too."

"Sure." Xena agreed readily. "Come on... I think I saw him over in the dining hall." They clustered around her, discussing the battle with enthusiasm, nudging her mood up yet another notch. Heh. This might not be so bad after all.

"Oh..oh.. wait, hey, Xena, did you realize you cut that big, ugly guy all the way in half?" A tall, wizened woman tugged at her sleeve. "How did you get through his spine? I've never been able to do that." She swung her arms in a half arc, and stopped. "I always get the metal stuck in the bones...drives me nuts."

"Well, it's mostly in momentum." The warrior began to explain, clasping her hands together as though she was holding a sword hilt, and pausing, as she spread her legs and moved her balance forward. "You gotta... " She powered her body around as they jumped out of the way and slammed both fists into the door, shattering it and sending splinters everywhere.

Silence fell.

"Whoops." Xena dusted her hands off. "Didn't mean to do that."

Rena looked at the door, then at her. "Needed a new one anyway." She slapped Xena on the shoulder. "Come on... let's get the woman a drink."

The cheerful group marched off towards the dining hall.


Gabrielle woke with a start, missing her partner's presence with a sharp pang of anxiety that faded as she took in the armor draped neatly over the chair, and felt Ares warm body tucked against her knees. She lay for a moment, letting her heart settle back down as her fingers smoothed the fabric her head was resting on. She'd replaced the Amazon's blanket with one of their own, and both that, and the shirt she was wearing carried Xena's scent, calming her as the last wisps of a disturbing dream evaporated. She let her eyes drift around the room then, taking in her staff leaning against the door, and the fact that Xena's weapons were still there, and concluded her partner had merely stepped out on a short errand or something.

Or something. That started her curiosity going, and she wondered what Xena was up to, hoping it was something pleasant, and not something that involved her getting into trouble. The tall warrior was really good at getting into trouble, lately, and combined with the fact that they were with the Amazons...

Gabrielle sighed, and contemplated getting up, though her body really wanted to remain where it was. She decided to compromise, and slipped out of bed, padding over to the desk and picking up her diary and quill case, then returning to the blanket's warm comfort and huddling down into them again. She drew her knees up and rested her diary against them, setting the quill case out next to her and opening it up. Her fingers lifted a quill out and sharpened the tip automatically, as she tried to focus her thoughts.

They weren't cooperating much, and she let her head fall back to rest against the backboard. A scent distracted her, and she looked over, to see a cup of tea, lukewarm now, resting there. She picked it up and sipped it, smiling as the taste of honeysuckle and mint wound its way down her throat.

So.. here I am, updating. Since the last time, as usual, lots of stuff has happened. I won a staff battle, but that feels like it was weeks ago, not yesterday. I did win, though, which was interesting, but kind of disappointing, too. I expected to be happy, or satisfied, or... something. What I ended up being was kind of sad, because everyone thought it was so great that I could beat up someone.

Xena understood, though. Which was really weird, because if anyone is competitive, it's her.. and she never minds entering those wrestling things at festivals, or archery, or .. whatever, and she always likes winning. But she understood, and she hugged me, and told me it was all right, and that I'd never really be like the Amazons because I felt the way I did.

I can remember a time where that would have bothered me, but now... it kind of made me feel really good. I mean, not because Iím ashamed of that. I'm glad I can work my staff as well as I can, and that I can take care of myself, but I'm also glad I can feel compassion for the other person, and that I don't want to hurt them, if it's not real.

Whew. That was complicated to work out, and my brain's still kinda fuzzy. The Amazons got ransacked yesterday, captured, and locked naked in the kitchen by Arella.

I just reread that, and it's so funny sounding, I almost took it out, but I'm going to leave it in because aside from the people who got hurt, and the two people who died, it was a kind of funny thing to happen. Xena, of course, came up with an idea to get everyone free - we tunneled into the storage cellar under the dining hall, and everyone got out, then they beat up Arella's goons, and now they're our captives, just like she is.

That was a really smart idea of Xena's. I liked it, even though I still have clay caked about everywhere... gods, I've never been so dirty in my entire life. For a while, I thought I was going to have to turn myself over to Arella.. just because she said she was going to start killing people otherwise... and I really thought I was going to do it, but then Xena asked me not to.

Not... demanded, like she used to, and not told me not to .. she asked me not to, because it would be too hard on her. Wow. And I realized something... because she asked like that, I wouldn't have done it. Greater good, or no greater good...something about the way she did that just grabbed hold of me, and wouldn't let go.

There's still some little raw places in both of us, I think. Like when I just woke up, and she wasn't here. Or those dreams about betraying her I still have. I guess that was one of her raw spots.. I think she still has nightmares about things happening to me and her not being able to stop them.

That's not really fair for either of us, but.. healing from that is going to take time. It's incredible that we've come as far as we have, and sometimes I have to remind myself of that.

Let's see.. what else. Oh yeah.. Jessan, Elaini, and their kids are here. Those kids are sooooo cute I can hardly stand it.. all furry, and adorable...they're like puppies, only smart. Xena found them out in the woods last night.. they were headed for Amphipolis.

Jessan told me he'd heard about what happened to us, and was coming to see if we were okay. That's so amazingly sweet of him, considering how dangerous it is for him to travel around like that, so far from home. He's a good friend, and I think he was really happy to see things were all right.

So am I, of course. In fact, until he and Elani showed up in the cave last night, me and Xena were the two least messed up people there. I told her that, and she almost blew water out her nose, because she was drinking when I said it.

That was funny. But it was true, though, and even she agreed. She said she hoped Eponin and Ephiny got things worked out, because she really thinks they belong together. That was a weird thing for her to say, but I think she's right.

We talked, just a little, about the baby. Nothing really new on that subject from me, which is okay, but I managed to get her to at least consider the idea that... oh gods, this is so weird I can hardly write it. That Toris might not be the father. I know it's crazy, I know... I know... and maybe Iím just lying to myself, and deceiving myself because...

Because I donít know why. I'm starting to suspect it might be guilt over Solon, and that's not really fair to either of us, or Toris for that matter, but...

But. The fact of the matter is, if I was about to start my cycles, and I was, that day - then the chances of him being the father are about the same as Argo being the father, according to Menelda, who I talked to the day before yesterday. I haven't said that to Xena.. I wonder if she realizes. I thought she might.. when I told her that first time and she got this real strange look on her face. She's a healer, and she knows more about that stuff than Menelda ever will, so I bet she does know.

I should be scared witless. But I know in my heart that there is only one other possibility, and Iím just going to hold that close to me, and believe it. We'll just wait and see...it'll take a couple of years, probably, but if that kid starts to ride full size horses at the age of three, then we'll know.

Just kidding, I think.

Now, my worst problem is what to do with Arella. I need to talk to Xena about that.

Gabrielle looked up as a faint , hesitant knock sounded on the door. "Come on in." She called out, tapping her quill against her jaw.

The door edged open, and Paladia poked her blond head in, hesitantly.

"Hey." Gabrielle motioned her in. "It's okay.. come on." She pointed to the chair. "Sit down."

The tall woman eased inside, and trod cautiously across the floor, seating herself gingerly. "Hi."

The bard studied her. "Hi."

"You're in charge here, huh?" Paladia reached up and pushed the long, straight hair out of her eyes.

Gabrielle waggled her hand. "Yeah.. more or less... I mean, there is a council, and Ephiny's the regent, but... yeah." She put the diary down and turned on her side, leaning on one elbow and giving the tall woman her whole attention. "Do you need something?"

Paladia stared down at her boots in sullen silence for a bit, then looked up at her. "Change my penalty."

Mist green eyes regarded her warily. "I wasn't the one who decided that." She replied. "But considering what you did the past few days, Iím sure I can work something out with Ephiny... we can probably just end your sentence, if that's what you want, or... "

Paladia shook her head. "Naw." She looked everywhere but at the bard. "I didn't say I wanted to... I mean, I know I did stuff that was bad.."

Gabrielle slid down and propped her head up on one hand. "Oh." She felt a smile tugging at her lips, and she surrendered to it. "I get it.. you want to stay here."

"Didn't say that." Paladia protested, grumpily.

"Didn't have to." Gabrielle shot right back, with a gentle twinkle in her eyes. "You forget who I live with."

The gray eyes peered at her, then the faintest hint of a smile pulled reluctantly at Paladia's lips. "You were always nice to me." She commented. "I don't understand that.. I messed you up."

The bard chewed at her quill, and smiled absently at the taste of cinnamon. "I guess I just believe you have to take chances on people... and that you should treat them... like you'd want to be treated, even if they don't feel the same way."

Paladia blinked at her. "That's nuts."

Gabrielle sighed. "Sometimes, yeah." A vision of Arella danced mockingly in her eyes, followed by a haunting, brief shot of Hope's infant face. "But mostly...it just makes me feel good to think that way."

"Huh." The taller woman pursed her lips, and peered at her own, clasped hands. "Whatever."

The bard gazed at her, feeling older than her years. "I tell you what... I'll fix it so you can stick around... if you go and apologize to Ephiny." She waited for Paladia to look up, her eyes startled. "And you have to mean it."

"B..." Paladia objected. "You can't apologize for that, are you crazy?" She subsided, with a tired sigh. "Forget it."

Gabrielle slipped out of bed, and dropped one knee, putting a hand on the ex renegades arm. "Paladia, believe me. You can apologize for anything." She said, her voice soft, and sincere. "And be forgiven for anything."

The blond woman stared at her, expressionless, for a long moment, then she stood, and merely nodded, before she turned and left.

Gabrielle sighed, and sat back on her heels as she watched the door close. "She's pretty stubborn, Ares."

"Agrrroo." The wolf licked his lips, then put his head back down on his paws.

"But not as stubborn as I am." The bard went on, pushing herself to her feet, and sitting on the bed, one hand scratching the dark ears. "And besides, I've got a lot of experience with those tough, silent types."

"Rrrr." Ares licked her leg.

"Yeah, rrr... and speaking of tough, silent types, I wonder where your mom is?" She drummed her fingers on her leg. "I think I'd better go find her.. no telling what kind of trouble she's gotten herself into." She studied her garb, and decided the Amazons would cope with her wearing an oversized shirt for the nth time. They probably think I just don't know how to shop for myself.

With a wry chuckle, she rummaged into her pack for a leather belt Xena had made for her, and wrapped it around her waist, sliding the end through the sturdy ring, and tucking it into a knot, then bending down to pull on her boots. "C'mon, Ares." She called, as she stood up, stamping her feet to settle the leather. "Let's go."


Paladia ambled across the compound, muttering curses to herself. It drew odd looks from passing Amazons, but she was used to that so she ignored it, preferring to keep to herself as she usually did. She really had no destination in mind, so she was surprised to find herself in front of the healer's hall.

She scowled at it, then sighed, and figured she might as well go in and say hello to Cait, considering the girl was the only person in the village who would talk to her. Aside from Xena or Gabrielle, of course, and she sure didn't want to go talk to them. Once was enough. Though Eponin had talked to her, a little, which was okay, but she guessed it was because she let the older Amazon loose from that tree.

But other people... nah.. they avoided her, unless they couldn't help it, or they needed something carried, or moved or... Paladia sighed, as she pushed the door open. She had no idea why she wanted to stick around here anyway.

Inside, the room was dark, and mostly quiet. Eight of the ten pallets were occupied, and the three or four healer's assistants were moving around, changing bandages, and carrying bowls of whatever. They looked up as she entered, then went back to what they were doing, in silence.

That was all right. She didn't have anything to say to them anyway, so she just turned to her left, then edged down the row where Cait was lying, crouching down next to the girl's pallet and settling awkwardly on the tiny stool that had been left next to her.

Cait's shoulder was bared, and her bandage had just been changed, as Paladia could detect the sharp scent of the cleanser they used. The girl's disheveled blond hair, usually pulled back into a braid, hung loose about her head, soft waves of it brushing across her chest. Her face, while still very pale, had started taking on a hint of its usual color, and Paladia figured that by now, if the kid wasn't dead, she was probably going to be okay.

The ex renegade considered how she felt about that, and decided she was all right with it. Cait really wasn't so bad, once you got over her talking all the time, and how pushy she was. Paladia regarded the still form, and her brow creased as the girls' eyes slowly opened and met her own. "Hey."

Cait was silent, obviously gathering strength. "Hello." She finally whispered.

"You missed tons of good stuff." Paladia informed her bluntly. "Still hurts, I bet."

Cait nodded faintly to both. "Hear...you've been quite busy." She was quiet for a while, then took a breath. "Could have gone."

The ex renegade looked with disinterest across the room, where Menelda was struggling to her feet, pushing away the help of one of her assistants. She shrugged. "Yeah, I know." One hand lifted and scratched the back of her neck. "Figured I owed them a couple of things... they coulda had me flayed alive for what I done." That sounded better than the simple fact that she'd wanted to find Cait, and talk her into leaving with her... and had stumbled into the raider's camp purely by accident. "Had to stick around to give you a hard time anyhow."

Cait stirred a little at that, and turned her head, studying Paladia intently. "You have to tell me everything, at once." Her weak demand sounded ridiculously imperious.

Paladia shrugged again. "Don't remember, really.." She remarked offhandedly. "Happened so fast."

Cait's eyes pinned her. "Paladia, come on now... please?"

Please.. that was new. The taller woman's eyes brightened a little in interest. "What's in it for me?" She inquired, seriously.

"What do you want?" Cait countered, just as seriously.

To go back, and make things different. Her mind answered. "I don't gotta hear that story no more." Was what she replied audibly.

The girl sighed. "All right."

"What do you like that one so much for, anyhow?" Paladia asked, with a scowl. "Always ends the same way... and it's so damn goopy."

Cait looked a little sad. "Because it always ends the same way.. and it's so goopy." Her eyes blinked, and her face tensed in pain. "Maybe I wish it was my story."

Paladia stared at her, not expecting that answer. The kid usually came back with sarcasm, or some nasty remark, but never stuff about herself, or..all at once, she felt bad, and she had no idea why. "Uh...right.. okay, well.. if you're gonna be like that about it, I guess I can remember some stuff."

The girl's pale eyes warmed. "Super."

"What are you doing here?" A gruff, sharp voice interrupted them, and they looked up to see Menelda standing there, her eyes fastened coldly on Paladia.

The ex renegade bristled defensively, but was kept from having to answer by Cait's soft words.

"Keeping me company... is there something the matter?" The girl asked, warily. She was well aware of the healer's sometimes unpredictable moods, and her steadfast dislike of Cait's personal hero. That marked her down as a bad egg in the girl's book, but she tried to be as respectful to her as possible, because otherwise, it just got very ratty.

"I don't need any more criminals in here. There must be things for you to do, to get this place back on track. Go do them." Menelda replied, crisply.

"Actually. " A very cold, brittle voice inserted itself. They all turned to see Gabrielle standing there, her green eyes snapping. "I think you need more time to recover from your injuries, Menelda. Go to your quarters and lie down."

"Your Majesty... " The healer protested indignantly.

"Go." Gabrielle answered, in an inflexible tone. "Or I'll have you taken there." She paused. "That wasn't a request."

Menelda hesitated, then turned, and left without another word, and a heavy silence fell over the room.

"Gosh." Cait finally rasped.

Gabrielle raked a hand through her fair hair, and knelt down beside Cait's pallet. "Sorry about that.. I'm not really sure I know what her problem is."

Paladia snorted softly. "I could give you a clue." She muttered. "Thinks everyone else in this place owes her."

"Well." The bard sighed. "I think she's a little behind in the news... I'm not sure if she knows exactly what's happened the past few days."

"She wouldn't give two squats." The ex renegade shook her head. "Still talks like crap about Xena... think she's just got a pair of peach pits shoved up her... " She stopped, at the bard's raised eyebrow. "Whatever."

Gabrielle nibbled her lip, managing to keep a grin off her face by sheer force. "She's kinda on my bad side for that, really." She admitted wryly. "How are you feeling, Cait?"

Cait offered up a weak smile. "Not bad, actually." She lied with a straight face. "Ephiny said she and I have something in common now.. " Her eyes dropped to her shoulder, then back up at the bard. "I think Menelda's just pissed off because Xena's such a smashing healer, and she isn't, not really."

"Mm... " Gabrielle considered that. "That's kinda silly, though, huh?"

"Too right." Cait replied, with a wince. "Thank you for sending her away."

The bard leaned on her knee. "You're welcome." She replied softly. "Speaking of which... has Xena been by here? I'm looking for her."

Cait shook her head regretfully. "I've been out, really... " Her eyes went to Paladia's face in question.

The tall, blond woman scowled. "Nah... " She knit her brows in thought. "Saw her on the way over here.. headed towards the dining hall with a pack of the oldsters around her."

"Really." Gabrielle answered, biting her lip in thought. "Wonder what that was all about."

Paladia shrugged. "Someone was yelling about getting weapons or something.. " She remarked. "Didn't really... " She looked up as Gabrielle stood, surprised at the dark expression that had settled on the bard's face. "Uh."

"Excuse me." The bard gave them both a nod, and headed for the door.

"Gosh." Cait murmured. "She got awfully mad, awfully fast, didn't she?"

"Huh." Her taller companion grunted. "Was gonna tell her they looked like they were having a good time, but... "

"Right." With a fiercely determined look on her face, Cait pulled herself up a bit. "Now... you were about to tell me everything." She hesitated. "And don't leave out any of the good bits."

Paladia rolled her eyes.

Cait slid a hand out from under the covers, and gently clasped Paladia's wrist. "And don't leave out any of the parts you were in." She set her jaw in a determined look.

"I didn't... " Paladia protested.

"That.. is not what Xena said." Cait overrode her, implacably, then waited.

The ex renegade groaned. "Aw... " But she knew she couldn't get around that one. If Xena said the sky was bright purple with pink spots... Cait would be arranging her shirts not to clash. "Okay... " She finally agreed, grudgingly. "But you gotta shut up and just listen."

Cait smiled, and settled herself back expectantly.

But she didn't release Paladia's wrist, and for some reason, the taller woman couldn't seem to find a reason to make her.


"Awright..look..." Xena backed a little, trying to get some room to move. The group ignored the attempt, though and just clustered closer. The warrior felt her shoulderblades press against the wall, and she sighed. Not that she minded the enthusiasm, but... She swept her arm out, and twisted the hand that held the weighted club used for sword practice. "If you keep your hand this way.." She held her hand up and down, at an angle to the floor, and rotated the club. "You can defend against downstrokes a lot easier, because that's how the joint works."

"Well.. yeah.. " Rena leaned forward and studied Xena's muscular forearm "But what about a side swipe?"

"You just.. " Xena angled her hand. "Like that."

"Xena, that won't hold against anything strong..." The elder objected.

The warrior handed her the other practice sword. "Go on." She kept her hand still, as they finally... finally backed off a little and gave Rena some space.

"I'm not a lightweight." The stocky elder warned.

Xena's brows lifted wryly. "Neither am I."

"Mmph." Rena chuckled, then swung, a short, powerful movement that brought her sword against Xena's at about waist level. "Damn!" She dropped the club, shaking her hand. "That stings like crap, you... you... "

A chuckled met her words. "Yeah, it can hold, if you train your muscles the right way." Xena remarked. "I beat a stick against a barn wall for..." She chewed her lips. "Gods... a year? More, maybe...until I made it so I could take a hit from that direction, with my hands still in this position, and it makes a difference."

"Huh." Rena boldly took Xena's hands in her own, and examined them, turning them over and touching the thick tendons that joined them to her powerful wrists. "And here we always thought it was just some kinda magic... what a party pooper you are, Xena... telling me what it takes is just old fashioned hard work."

The warrior smiled. "Sorry."

The elder sighed, then picked up her club again. "What about... well, you don't have the problem, I guess.. but most of us are shorter than a lot of the fighters we go against...what do you do for that?"

Xena tapped the bench, and indicated that she should get up on it. "Same thing Gabrielle does." She waited for Rena to climb up, cursing, before she waved her on. "Go on.. "

The Amazon wrapped both hands around her hilt, and slammed a blow down, which Xena caught with her arm half raised, letting her shoulder take the brunt of the impact. The club stopped a foot from her head, and she locked in place, as she heard the door open, and a warm, familiar presence made itself known.

Xena had looked up at the sound of the door opening, and felt her eyes widen at the sight of the dark blue clad, furious looking woman who was headed in her direction, both hands balling into fists, and sparks of anger flashing form her mist green eyes. Uh oh. She realized their position was somewhat compromising, and quickly dropped her guard, stepping back as Rena turned in confusion.

"There better be a damn good reason for what I'm seeing here." Gabrielle barked, as she reached the outer ring of elders and starting shoving people out of her way. The first few resisted, then saw who it was and started scrambling out of the way of the golden haired younger woman in her progress towards the tall warrior.

"Gabrielle.." Xena began, struggling to keep a grin off her face. When Gabrielle was angry, it lent a fierce, fiery glow to her that enhanced her natural good looks and seemed to roll off her tanned skin like water.

"I don't know what the problem is with you people.. what do you have to do, bleed on top of Artemis' damn altar at high noon dressed only in feathers before.. " The bard spat out, as she continued forward.

"Gabrielle." The warrior tried again, as her partner reached her, and swiveled, putting herself between the startled elders and her soulmate. Xena dropped her practice sword and put both hands on her partner's shoulders. "Hey..."

"Damn it! I want to know what the Hades is going on here!" The bard yelled, scaring everyone into taking a step back.

Xena sighed. Sometimes, she reflected, there really was only one way to shut Gabrielle up. Fortunately for her, of course.

"All right... you te..." The bard had turned, and faced the warrior, only to have her words cut off with a gentle, sensual kiss. She blinked as Xena reluctantly broke off, and they looked at each other. Gabrielle's eyes softened, and her body relaxed as she read the lack of tension in her soulmate, and realized she'd probably over reacted.

"It's all right." The warrior said quietly. "I was just showing them some techniques."

Gabrielle exhaled. "Oh." She glanced around at the wide eyed circle of older women. "Sorry."

Xena had kept one hand tangled in the bard's pale hair, and now she scratched her neck gently. "Thanks for coming to my rescue, though." She looked at the elders, who swiftly hid knowing grins.

"Whew." Rena wiped her brow. "Ya saved us from a fate worse than honey and feathers, Xena... we owe you one." She gazed at Gabrielle with a look of healthy respect. "Didn't meant to upset you, your Majesty."

The bard chuckled ruefully. "My fault.. I shouldn't have assumed the worst... I guess I.. just got used to doing that for a while." She gave her partner an apologetic look, receiving another neck scratch in response and her body reacted as it slid closer, and she tucked herself against Xena's side with an abashed expression.

Xena settled down onto the bench behind her, and patted the surface next to her. "We were about done anyway... share a cider with me?" She could sense her soulmate's embarrassment and wanted to ease it.

"Cider?" Rena pounded on the table. "Aw..c'mon, Xena.. you're not gonna sit there and tell me you don't like a good cup of ale."

The warrior chuckled. "I do.. but my friend here can't indulge.. so.. " She gave Gabrielle a fond look, and circled the smaller woman's shoulders with an arm. "Cider's fine with me.. especially if it's cold." She felt the bard settle against her, the warm stream of her breath stirring the hair on the warrior's upper arm.

The elders glanced at each other, then at the bard. "You... allergic to ale?" Rena hazarded, curiosity evident in her eyes. "Your Majesty?"

Gabrielle rested her cheek against the warrior's shoulder, enjoying her warm, musky scent. "Hmm?" She finally responded, realizing they were talking to her. "Oh.. no... no.. I'm not allergic..." She paused, thinking. "I mean, I am allergic to some stuff, Xena says... like pickles, for instance." She wrinkled her nose. "I get hives."

"Umm.....you...have some sort of ... moral thing?" Another elder offered a guess.

"What?" Gabrielle chuckled. "No... well, yes, I have a moral objection to drinking bad ale, of that's what you mean... we were at some village way in the north once, and the stuff smelled like old cheese... it was gross."

Winces all around. Rena tried again. "The gods forbade you?"

"Oh.. yeah .. right... " The bard rolled her eyes. "Gods no.. nothing like that. I'm just pregnant." She replied, offhandedly "Xena says it's not good for the baby."

Eyes shifted from the bard, to her warrior, then back to the bard. Then to Xena. Eyes widened.

Xena gave up, and just leaned back with a smug look. Let em think whatever the Hades they want to think.

"So." Gabrielle decided to break the frozen silence. "How about those centaurs, huh?" She tucked a hand inside Xena's elbow and rubbed the soft skin with her thumb.

Rena leaned forward. "Excuse me... your Majesty... did I understand right.. you're expecting a child?"

The bard nodded. "Mmmhmm." She eyed them. "Is that a problem?"

The elder slapped her hand down on the table. "Well, then... this is going to be quite a festival." All the other elders nodded, and a buzz of discussion rose. "That changes... everything."

Gabrielle gave them a confused look. "I don't understand.. what does my being pregnant have to do with anything?"

"Gabrielle.. it's the harvest festival... we're celebrating fertility, and hoping for the fruitfulness of the coming year... to have you.. our Queen, come to your first festival blessed with new life... it's a great omen for the Nation." The tall, spare woman told her, with a frank grin.

"You tell her, Visti." Rena nodded. "Better than slaughtering a pig to Athena."

"Thanks." The bard replied. "I think." She looked up at Xena, who was keeping a carefully blank expression. "I'm glad to hear that." She leaned over. "Aren't I?" A bare whisper she knew the warrior would pick up. She got a puzzled shrug in response and sighed.

"Oh yeah.. and we'll have to have an initiation ceremony now." The eldest elder stated, to a round of ribald chuckles. "This is gonna be wild."

Gabrielle glanced at them. "What... kind of ceremony are we talking about?"

Another round of chuckles. "Now.. don't you worry about it, your Majesty... we'll take care of the details." Visti assured her. "I wonder if I still have that body paint." She muttered, rubbing her jaw.

The bard gave her partner an alarmed look. Xena cleared her throat to get everyone's attention. "Excuse me." Her voice was low, and even, and got everyone's attention effortlessly.

They all looked at her, breaking off their excited discussion. "Yes?" Rena asked.

"Whatever happens to the queen here, also happens to me." The warrior announced. "And I really, really hate being embarrassed, you catch my meaning?" Her voice dropped to a menacing growl.

"Xena... come on..it's tradition." Rena laughed.

Cool blue eyes held hers unrelentingly.

A sigh. "All right..nothing horrible." The elders grumbled about youngsters, and no fun, and stuffy. "Can't you take a joke?"

The warrior looked right at her. "No." She replied flatly. Then she arched an eyebrow. " But I sure can play one." A wicked grin shaped her lips. "Got me?"

They regarded her warily, then glanced at Gabrielle, who smiled endearingly.

They all nodded.

 


 "Eph?"

The regent decided to try and ignore the sound, even though it was being created inches from her ear. She was in a warm, very comfortable spot, and had no intentions of leaving it.

"Eph?' This time a gentle shake was added, and she groaned inwardly.

She resentfully pried one eyelid open, and regarded her assailant. Rats. No one she could yell at. "Hi." She mumbled. "Village burning down?"

Eponin snorted softly. "No..."

"Good. Gobacktosleep." She let her eyes close again in relief, and snuggled closer to her lover, luxuriating in the sensation of being totally relaxed for a change. No disasters, no problems, the village was retaken, she'd gotten a sensitive chat under her belt.. life was good.

 "Um..." Eponin shook her again lightly. "I'd love to.. but I can only put everyone off for so long."

A hazel eye reopened, and Ephiny gave her a puzzled look. "What?"

"The elders were looking for you." Pony mentioned.

"So?" The regent let her eye slid slut. "Told em to get lost."

"Yeah.. well, the messenger got told to come back, so she decided to try and get Gabrielle to take care of whatever it was instead."

"Good girl. She gets a cookie." Ephiny muttered.

"Cept that Gabrielle was asleep." The dark haired Amazon went on, playing idly with Ephiny's blond curls.

"Lucky her." Ephiny remarked, pointedly.

"So Xena went instead."

Both hazel eyes popped open. "Don't tell me that." Not with the elders... gods... they wouldn't take the warrior's superior attitude kindly.

"Sorry." Pony traced a finger down the regent's bare shoulder, an absorbed, wondering smile shaping her lips. "Menelda was looking for you, too."

"Whoa." Ephiny held up a finger. "Go back one..okay? What happened with Xena and the elders?"

Eponin shrugged. "I don't know...but I heard someone talking about some kind of commotion in the dining hall, and then.. the reason I mentioned Menelda is because I also heard she was sent to her quarters."

Ephiny stared at her, aghast, then looked up at the window, where the last rays of the sun were staining the sill a blood red. "But it's not even dinnertime yet." She mumbled. "I wasn't asleep that long, was I?"

"Bout a candlemark." The older Amazon confirmed. "Didn't want to wake you up.. you look kinda wiped." She neglected to mention her own fatigue, naturally, and the nagging pain from her knife wound.

The regent's brows creased. "I am." She confessed wryly. "I feel like I haven't slept for about a week." But she sighed, and hitched herself up on an elbow. "Guess I'd better go see how much damage was done." She gave Eponin a rueful look. "How bad could it be, right? They decide they don't want Xena to be admitted to the Nation... and get their collective wrinkled butts kicked by Gabrielle."

Pony grinned. "I'd pay to see that." She admitted. "I get tired to death of Rena callin me 'kid'."

Ephiny took in the snub nosed face and her eyes twinkled. "Can I call you kid?"

Caramel colored eyes went comically round. "Aw... Eph...." She groaned. "I bet Gabrielle doesn't call Xena 'kid'"

A chuckle. "Mmmm... no... actually, she calls her 'tiger.'" She lowered her voice. "I overheard 'em."

"Really?" Eponin's brows hiked up. "Heh."

A knock sounded, and they looked at each other. "Here we go." Ephiny sighed. "Come on in."

The door opened, and a pale, familiar head poked in. "Hey." Gabrielle smiled at them kindly.

Ephiny felt a faint blush color her cheeks, but she waved the bard forward anyway. Gabrielle eased inside, pushing her fair hair back, and tugging the hem of her dark blue shirt to straighten it. "What's up?"

The bard settled in a comfortable chair next to their bed. "Um... where do I start... okay, first off, we need to talk about Menelda." Her face was serious. "What's up with her, Eph?"

Ephiny debated getting up and discussing the matter, but it was just too comfortable where she was, and Gabrielle didn't seem to mind, so... "What's up with her... well, that's kinda a long story." She paused. "You mind if I ask you if I'm gonna be jumped by the elder council when I poke my fuzzy blond head outside, first?"

"For what?" The bard asked, puzzled.

The two Amazons glanced at each other. "Uh... I heard Xena went to talk to them?" Ephiny replied, hesitantly.

"Yeah... so?" Gabrielle answered. "Gods... please.. don't you think it's possible she could handle a simple conversation without causing mayhem?"

They looked at each other again. "With our elders? No." The regent advised her.

Gabrielle chuckled. "Well, she did... I think they like her. They had her in the dining hall demonstrating with a couple of sticks." She shook her head. "All of them glued to her like honey on a bear's paw."

A third exchange of glances. "Uh oh." Eponin muttered. "That could be worse."

"Mmm." Ephiny agreed. "Well... anyway... I'm glad to hear that." She collected her thoughts. "Menelda." She paused, and watched Gabrielle pull her legs up and tuck them under her, as she settled down to listen. The sunset painted the bard, gilding her hair with crimson, and throwing half her face into shadow. "She's Melosa's sister, you know."

A shake of Gabrielle's head. "I didn't."

"Mm." Ephiny sighed. "When Melosa was killed by Velasca... some people expected her to make a fuss." The regent's eyes went to the wall, studying the framed, matted painting there. "She didn't... and I didnít find out until later it was because she.. well, let's say that Velasca's aims had a fairly wide base of support in the Nation."

Gabrielle nodded. "I knew that." She fiddled with her necklace, which shone almost red in the light. "But she didn't actively join Velasca's side... I would have remembered."

"No." Ephiny agreed. "She didn't.. but she wouldn't have been unhappy if... things had turned out differently." She considered. "I think she's always borne a grudge against Xena, by the way, for beating Melosa, and proving your right... it's kind of complicated with her."

"Hmm." The bard mused. "Yeah... I can see that." She thought a minute. "She... never seemed part of Arella's group, during that whole thing, though.. I'd have thought.. I mean, Arella's ideas were along the same path."

"Ah... well, no... " Ephiny murmured. "I think she felt that.. if anyone was going to head up that kind of faction.. it should be her. And Arella never got on with her.. called her an old, toothless wanna be."

Gabrielle's brows creased. "But. She's not even a warrior.. I don't understand."

"She was." Eponin interrupted, unexpectedly. She'd been lying there quietly, providing a pillowed surface for her lover, and just listening. "And a good one... some people say she would have received the right, instead of Terreis, but she made a big mistake."

"Mm.. yeah." Ephiny agreed, with a pensive sigh. "She and a close.. friend... had headed up across the mountains, towards Amphipolis during the cold season.. no one's really sure of what happened, but the end result was they got into a rock slide. The other woman, a girl, really, was killed, and Menelda got broken up pretty bad.. she never recovered all the way. "

"Oh." The bard's eyes focused on something beyond sight.

"Yeah... she can do most stuff, but her strength never came back, and she has very little stamina... it kind of took away her only real talent, I guess.. so she fell back on healing." Eponin went on, somewhat somberly. "She's not bad, but it's not her heart's choice, and it shows."

"Yeah." Gabrielle murmured.

"And then, ya know.. " Pony gave the bard an apologetic look. "No offense, but someone like Xena comes along, who... I mean, feathers, Gabrielle, is there anything she doesn't do good?"

"Cook." The bard replied, succinctly. "And a number of other things, but I get your point."

"I'll take your word for it." The weapons master sighed. "But here.. I mean, she's carved out a niche for herself, knowing what might have been, and I think she can handle it with most of us, but when Xena's around, it just chews at her a lot. " A shrug. "Hades.. I feel like that sometimes... like... I don't know, defensive, I guess...so for her it must be a lot worse."

The green eyes cooled a degree. "So... she's supposed to pretend to mediocrity when she's here?"

"Gabrielle..come on now, that's not what Pony meant, and you know it." Ephiny gave her a look. "It's not a problem."

"Ephiny, it is a problem." The bard objected, leaning forward. "Every time we're around you guys, it becomes one big competition... don't you think she gets tired of that?" Her eyes turned to Pony. "She did her damnedest not to have that happen this time, and you wouldn't let her get away with it... and frankly, I don't see that changing just because she joins the Nation."

"I didn't..." Eponin started, then stopped, and sighed. "She coulda just said no."

"No she can't." Gabrielle responded, gently. "She can't say no, she can't back down, she... " The bard exhaled. "We talked about it on the way up here... she says, this is the only place where she has to prove her self over, and over, and over again. "

They all looked at each other, in consternation. "What are you saying, Gabrielle... you donít want to go through with the ceremony?" Ephiny asked, quietly. "You don't have to, you know.. it's not like everyone doesn't know you two are..." She hesitated, looking for a good term for it.

"Soulmates." The bard pronounced the word carefully, tasting the flavor of its meaning.

Ephiny took a breath. "Soulmates." She nodded a little. "That's a nice word." She smiled at her friend. "Look, I think I know what you're saying.. but I think the more time you spend with us, the less that'll happen, because everyone'll just get used to things, you know?"

Gabrielle propped her chin up on one hand. "You think? I'm a little nervous about it... I'm not much into ceremonies and stuff."

The Amazons chuckled. "Oh..nah, donít worry about it, Gabrielle...you'll do fine. It's a breeze... it hardly takes a minute, and then it's over with." Ephiny assured her, feeling a sense of relief flow over her. "Really easy."

"Good.. good... then you guys won't mind joining us, right?" Gabrielle replied, with a bright smile.

"Sure."

"Sure"

They answered together, then halted in shock, and looked at each other, openmouthed.

And Gabrielle, Bard of Potadeia and Amazon Queen, buffed her nails against her soulmate's dark blue shirt and stood. "Great. I'll go tell the planners. See you guys at dinner. Bye." Green eyes sparkled in the waning light, joined by an impish smile, which vanished in the blink of an eye as the door closed behind her.

Total silence reigned.

"That little... "

"I don't believe it..."

They studied each other for a moment then Eponin lowered her gaze, and started to scramble out of bed. "I'll go haul her down... before she.."

Ephiny lifted one hand and covered her mouth, using the other hand to hold her in place. "You didn't mean it then?" She asked, softly.

Pony's eyes grew rounder, and she slowly let herself back down onto the pallet. "I..." She searched Ephiny's face with a wondering look. "I meant it."

The regent smiled, throwing caution to the wind. "Well then... we can't disappoint the queen now, can we?" It was a very peaceful feeling, and they basked quietly in it for a minute.

Then Eponin took a deep breath. "She's good." She commented wryly.

"Oh yeah." The regent ruefully acknowledged. "She sure is."


Continued in Part 8