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

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

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

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

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

mailto:merwolf@bellsouth.net

 


Promises Kept - Part 9

By Melissa Good

The stable had been turned into a makeshift healer's room, since there was plenty of space there, and it was quiet. Pallets had been hastily set up for the few wounded of their forces, and a separate area was set up for the wounded retrieved from the enemy forces that had fallen within the walls.

Two of the city's healers were working with the tall, skinny man who served as the army's first aid attendant, and they were kneeling over a pallet in the corner, liberally splattered with blood. As Xena and Gabrielle approached, the closer one nudged his partner aside, and they moved to make room for her.

Xena dropped to an armored knee beside the fallen warlord, and put a blood covered hand on the edge of the pallet. Garanimus' eyes were half open, and he had one hand curled up near his ribcage, where a huge wound was pumping blood out liberally. He slowly focused one her face, and a tiny quirk appeared on the corner of his lips. "F.. f. felt g...good to... " His other hand awkwardly found hers. "be.. on .. the winnin... side.. again."

"You fool." The warrior sighed heavily. "Damn it, Gar...what in Hades did you think you were doing?" She didn't attempt to staunch the wound, seeing its hopelessness instantly.

"S..tory my life." He coughed. "Almost.. got out, Xe... " His face tightened into a grimace. "Almost... "

"Damn." Xena cursed softly, aware of the gentle hand resting on her shoulder. "Since when does a warlord go out to the front lines, huh? What was that, Gar? "She reached over and set a pressure point, relieving some of his pain.

"F..forgot you c.. could do that, Xe..." He blinked up at her glassily. "An.anybody.. you... want me to... say hello to in Tartarus?" A ghostly smile now.

Xena's face twitched. "I'll see you there, someday, Gar... we'll talk." She felt Gabrielle's fingers tighten convulsively, but pushed that to one side of her awareness.

He nodded weakly. "Be like old times." His fingers tightened on hers. "Sorry I sold you out, Xe... thanks.. for comin here." Long pause. "Left.. you... with a mess... sorry..." His breath shuddered. "But... I... I got a.. great.. story to tell em when.. I get there.."

The warrior circled his shoulders with one strong arm, and pulled him close in comfort, as his body arched in pain. He let out a wordless cry, and buried his face into her armor, his fingers digging into her arm. "Easy." She muttered softly. "It's almost over."

One last shudder, and his body relaxed, slumping against Xena's lifelessly. She rolled him back over, and straightened his now still limbs, reaching over and shutting his eyes with faintly trembling fingers. "Goodbye, Gar." She uttered softly. "Have a safe passage."

The healers were silent, not looking at her, and she rested her forearms on her knee for a long moment, before exhaling. "Have his body wrapped for a pyre."

The older healer glanced up. "You'll tell his kin?"

Xena studied her battle stained hands. "He has none." She paused. "He's an orphan.. his parents were killed in a raid, along with his brothers, and sisters, when he was ten."

An awkward silence fell. "Where is he from?" Gabrielle asked, to fill it.

Xena lifted the edge of blanket over him and covered his face. "Amphipolis." She replied quietly.

With that, she stood, and took a breath, turning her head towards the door. "I'm going to go have a talk with Framna."

Gabrielle stayed mostly silent as she trailed along after her taller companion, out the large door to the barn and across the small courtyard. Halfway across Xena changed course, and went to the well, pulling the bucket up with short, sharp gestures, and dipping the water out with a soft splash. She drank with her eyes closed, but Gabrielle could see that her hands were shaking.

"Hey." The bard gently rested her head against one grimy shoulder, and wrapped an arm around her. "Iím sorry."

Xena let the dipper fall into the bucket, and turned around, sitting down on the edge of the well and resting her elbows on her knees. "No one was supposed to get hurt, Gabrielle." She uttered, softly.

"I know." Gabrielle rubbed her back. "I didn't know he was from home."

A faint shake of her dark head. "He was... just a kid.. when he followed me." She whispered. "I think he did it just because there was nothing else for him.. or maybe.. he thought it was exciting... " A long pause. "He was never that great a fighter.. mostly just lazy.. he loved making a big score, then just laying back for a while."

"You guys must have fought like Amazons and Centaurs, then." Gabrielle responded, gingerly brushing the hair out of her eyes.

"Mmm." Xena agreed softly. Then she sighed wearily, and stood up. "Let's get this over with.. " She glanced down. "I need to.. " Her body was covered in blood, and bits of gore, and black soot from the fires. She didn't finish the statement, though, she just shook her head and started walking.

Gabrielle sighed, then grabbed her staff, and hurried after her.

The two guards outside Silvi's quarters snapped to attention as they headed towards the door, their eyes regarding Xena avidly as she approached. "There inside, general." The taller of the two said, a nervous note in his voice. "Four people watching them."

"Thanks." Xena replied. "Open the door." She waited for them to do so, the entered, with Gabrielle at her back.

Inside, Silvi was seated on a banquette, her tear streaked face angry and upset, and the four soldiers had Framna pinned down in a corner, tied to a column. His face showed that his treatment hadn't been the most gentle. The soldiers turned as they entered, and grinned.

"There.. you and your stinkin army... ya weren't nothing against our general." The eldest of the guards grunted. "Smarmy bastard."

Framna stared out at the tall, dark haired warrior that faced him, all her exhaustion vanished, and her cool, intent gaze pinning him firmly down. She was covered almost from head to foot in battle gore, but moved with the easy grace of a large cat as she focused on him, and advanced.

Xena stopped a foot from him, and put her hands on her hips. And just stared.

"I didn't order that." The tall warlord rasped. "Linneus was acting on his own."

Pale blue eyes glinted. Armies sometimes turn, remember, Xena? "So he said." The warrior replied.

"Bring him here... he'll tell you." Framna insisted. "I didn't know."

"I can't." Xena answered him calmly. "He's dead."

Silence.

"I cut his head off." The soft, even voice continued. "Along with ten score others... so you better hope you didn't know about it, because if you did.. and that bloodshed is on your hands, Iím gonna cut them off." This last came out in a snarl.

Framna's nostrils flared hard. "Two hundred dead?"

"I lost count after that." Xena replied, flatly.

His hazel eyes clouded. "I"ll go out and talk to them. Get them to surrender." He mumbled, quietly.

"Yeah, you sure will." The warrior replied. "Or I'll come out after them, understand me?"

Framna looked at her. "I didn't before. Now I do."

Xena nodded, then turned her attention to the princess, who shied away from her gaze. "They destroyed the entire marketplace.. a lotta people died out there." She told the girl, shortly. "And the gates took a little fire damage, but other than that... " She exhaled. "Your city's in one piece. "

Silvi stared at her. "They were supposed to be our friends."

Gabrielle moved over toward her, and knelt down. "It didn't work out that way, your highness."

The girl gazed into the mist green eyes with a crestfallen look. "You were right." She told Gabrielle sadly. "It is all in how you look at things, isn't it?" Her eyes drifted to Framna, then dropped. "I thought you were foolish.. but you're not."

"Well.... " The bard watched her soulmate step closer to the captive warlord, and speak to him in a low voice. "I've seen a lot of things... I believe he didn't know this was going to happen, though."

Pretty eyes pinned her. "Really?"

Gabrielle gave her a smile. "Really." She replied. "Xena thinks so too."

Silvi regarded the tall ex warlord. "She killed all those people, didn't she?"

The bard exhaled. "She.. did what she had to do, yes."

Now the princess looked at her fully. "Were you fighting too?" One fingertip reached out and touched the bard's tunic. "You're all dirty."

"I was... fighting, yes." Gabrielle admitted. "I usually.. stick around Xena.. make sure no one clobbers her from behind, that kinda thing."

Silvi stared at her, pensively. "Isn't that dangerous? You could get killed."

Gabrielle felt exhausted. "It's dangerous.. but I'm really careful, and Xena kind of watches out for me, too." She looked up as a shadow fell over her, and found herself captured by serious blue eyes. "Are we done here?"

"For now." Her partner replied, crouching down next to her. "Time to go get cleaned up." She rested her weight on one knee, and met the princesses' wary eyes. "Garanimus is dead."

Silvi gasped, and covered her mouth with both small hands. "I hated him." She blurted breathlessly. "And now he's gone... I am glad."

Xena dropped her gaze to the floor, and shook her head, then she pushed herself up to her feet, and offered Gabrielle a hand up. The bard accepted, and allowed herself to be pulled upright, balancing against her staff. "Ow." She winced a little. "Forgot about that."

They made their way back down the hallways to their quarters, and Gabrielle was glad her taller partner deliberately slowed her steps. "I stopped thinking about this stupid knee of mine during the battle." She commented, glancing up.

Xena blinked a few times. "Yeah.. " She sighed heavily. "It's like that.. you .. lose track of the hurts until it's over."

Green eyes studied her face intently. "And.. it's over now, huh?"

"Oh yeah." The warrior exhaled, as they reached the door and she pulled it open, to let Ares run ahead of them. "Got a lot to do though... yet.. I just want to get some of this blood off me."

A blond brow quirked, as Gabrielle accepted that unspoken challenge. "Uh huh." She propped her staff up next to the bed, and put gentle hands on her soulmate's back. "Donít' stop here." She pushed her into the bathing area, and bent down briefly, pulling the stopper from the warm water basin. "C'mere."

Xena mechanically stripped her armor off, dropping it in pieces on the floor and finally stood in just her leathers, while her partner regarded her. "I'm a mess, huh?"

The bard just stepped up, and slid her arms around her, hugging her very gently. She heard the slight noise as Xena swallowed, then the warrior returned the embrace. "Thanks." She murmured in the bard's ear.

"Anytime." Gabrielle answered, then backed off and unhooked the straps on her leathers, stripping them off of her, and hissing in sympathy as she saw the marks on Xena's tanned body. "Ouch."

"Mm." Xena eased herself into the water, which immediately turned pink and crimson as the blood washed off of her. She quietly took up the soap, and started cleaning herself, rubbing the clean smelling stuff down her arms and removing layers of soot and grime. She was vaguely aware of Gabrielle slipping around behind her, and felt the bard's hands on her hair, but the night's efforts were catching up to her now. She closed her eyes and tried to blink away the heaviness, but had little luck, and just finally kept them closed, working her way along by feel.

"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice sounded against her hearing.

"Yeah?" She reluctantly opened her eyes, and looked back over her shoulder, to see a concerned look on the bard's face.

"You all right?" The bard's hands felt gently around the lump on the back of her skull, and rinsed her hair gingerly.

What can I admit to.. and not worry her? "I'm a little tired." She confessed. "Rough night." And that, she judged, was mostly what the problem was... she'd overstressed her body beyond even her limits, in fighting off.. gods.. had she really done that? "Gabrielle?"

"Hmm?" The bard leaned on the back of the tub, and kissed her ear.

"Did I really stop an army tonight?"

Gabrielle leaned her head against the wet, dark one in front of her, and sighed. "Yes, you did."

"A whole army?"

"The entire thing, tiger." The bard assured her.

She thought about that for a long moment. "No wonder I'm so tired."

That forced a tiny chuckle from the smaller woman, who wrapped a warm arm around her neck. "Xena.. Xena.. Xena....come on, get out of that tub, and let me get something on some of these cuts... gods... there are a half dozen I'm going to have to stitch."

Obediently, Xena complied, pushing the memories of what she'd done out of her mind, and concentrating on the warmth of the fire, and how good it felt when Gabrielle draped a soft, linen shift around her. "Sit down." The bard requested, and she did, leaning her head back against the high back of the chair, and barely feeling the sting as gentle fingers attended to her wounds.

Gabrielle worked quickly, watching her soulmate give up the struggle to stay alert with an amused eye. The cuts were mostly superficial, and the bruises nothing more than what Xena usually had to deal with. They didn't worry her.

"Anything you need to do before you go to sleep?" She commented, biting off a grin.

Blue eyes popped open. "I'm not sleeping."

The bard gave her a look.

"The smoke got in my eyes.. I was just resting them." Xena protested, lifting her hands and rubbing her face. "Stings like crazy."

Gabrielle moved her hands away, and examined the body parts in question. "Wow.. yeah.. they're all red." She exclaimed, apologetically. "Gods, Xena.. you must be miserable."

She got the expected shrug in return. "Nah... I'm all right... just little stuff." The warrior told her, then fell pensively silent, studying the small nicks and cuts along her knuckles.

Gabrielle kept working as she saw the somber look take over her soulmate's face, and she waited a long moment, before breaking the silence. "You want to talk about it?" An old, old signal between them, almost since the beginning of their relationship.

The warrior gazed at her mutely, as though debating with herself, then finally spoke. "I hurt inside." She said, quietly. "I used to live for that feeling of utter rage, Gabrielle.. knowing I was unstoppable.. that was incredible." She exhaled. "And now it just leaves me feeling very empty ."

The bard stroked her cheek. "You've changed." She replied, simply.

Xena sucked in a breath. "You know.. I used to debate that with myself... but sitting here, feeling like I do right now.. I know I have." A slow shake of her head. "The old Xena would be slugging down a few ales with the troops, exulting in killing gods only know how many men." Her eyes seemed to focus on something very distant. "They all think I did some great, wonderful thing, Gabrielle."

"And you don't."

Blue eyes met hers directly. "I slaughtered other human beings."

"Xena... " The bard found herself in the odd position of defending violence. "They were trying to kill you, remember?" She reminded the taller woman. "And everyone else here, for that matter."

"I know." Xena sighed. "But what a senseless waste."

"Mmm." A soft agreement. "But how many more people would have died if you hadn't been here?" She stroked the soft cheek. "Those soldiers had a choice, Xena... the townspeople didn't.. they would have gone through those living areas.. all those innocent farmers.. and children.. they would have died, or been beaten.. their houses put on fire.. their possessions stolen..."

Xena gazed at her. "Pity I didn't think about that when I was doing it for ten years."

"Xena." The green eyes remonstrated her.

"I know." The warrior exhaled. "That was a stupid and pointless thing to say." She leaned into Gabrielle's touch. "Gar was wrong... he wasn't on the winning side.. he was on the right side, for a change." She paused. "And it does feel good."

Abruptly blue eyes flicked up and held hers. "You know what?"

"What?" The bard smoothed some antiseptic on a bad cut across her neck.

"I really like being a hero."

Gabrielle stopped, dead still, and just looked at her. "You're just right now getting around to deciding THAT?"

A tiny shake of her head. "No.. I'm just right now getting around to accepting it."

The bard smiled at her. "Will wonders never cease." She touched the end of her nose with a playful finger. "How are you feeling.. a little better?"

Lashes blinked. "Yeah...It feels...good to talk about it." She mumbled.

Gabrielle patted her belly. "After three years, you're finally catching on to that. "

Xena smiled a little, and looked down at her bruised and scarred hands. "Thanks for putting up with me all that time." She reached up and rubbed a spot of soot from the bard's forehead. "Time for your bath, Red."

"Tell you what." The bard replied. "I'm just going to wash off, and change, then I'm gonna come back here, and we'll share some tea, and I'll tell you a story. How about that?"

The warrior gazed fondly at her. "You're gonna make a great mom, you know that?" A tinge of wistful sadness crossed between them, acknowledged, but not voiced.

"I've had a lot of practice in the last three years." Gabrielle teased her gently. "Little sprout."

"Augh." Xena felt a blush color her skin. "Not you too." She glanced down, then lifted her hands. "Gabrielle, I am not little." A pause. "And I'm certainly not a sprout."

The bard chuckled, and stood up. "I.. " The room whirled, and she grabbed at the couch back, as Xena's hands caught her. "Whoa..." She murmured, as the world faded in and out. "Dizzy."

"Hey." Xena's voice sharpened, and she pulled the bard back down onto the couch, and cupped her face, patting her cheek lightly. "Stay with me."

Gabrielle's eyelids fluttered, and she clung to the tanned forearms bracing her. "Okay.. I'm here.." Xena's grip disappeared for a moment, disappointing her, then came back.

"Here."

Fingers touched the bard's lips, and she opened them in pure reflex, tasting something cool and sweet on her tongue. "Mm." She chewed the slice of plum, and swallowed, then opened her mouth for more. A larger piece obligingly appeared, and she sucked on that, swallowing the juice contentedly. Her head cleared, and she took a relieved breath as she focused her eyes on her soulmate's face. "Sorry about that."

Xena handed her another chunk of fruit, her own hurts forgotten. "Better?"

Gabrielle's brow creased, but she nodded. "Yeah... guess Iím just a little tired myself... " Wow... glad I picked now to do that.. not in the middle of the battle. Her body seemed to have settled down, though, and she returned her attention to her target. An idea surfaced. "Would you mind giving me a hand washing up?"

A charmed smile was her answer. "Sure." Xena carefully helped her up, and draped a supportive arm over her as they walked back into the bathing room. The warrior solicitously filled the basin with warm water, and got the soap, taking the bard's grimy tunic from her and tossing it over a sculpture of stork standing nearby.

"Stand still." The warrior gently ordered, as she carefully lifted the faintly giggling bard into the tub, and hung onto her as she sat down in the warm, softly burbling water. Xena perched on the side, and started an industrious washing as Gabrielle leaned back , closing her eyes in utter bliss.

"You got kicked." Xena growled, in a disapproving tone, as she traced a dark bruise along her soulmate's ribs.

"That's from yesterday." Gabrielle mumbled, as she stifled a yawn. "They were too busy going after you to notice me tonight." She focused one green orb on her partner. "I surprised a lot of them.. there they were, swinging away, and all of a sudden.. " She splashed. "Bam!"

"Swept away by the attack of the superbard." The warrior drolly agreed. "Dunk your head."

The bard did, surfacing with a splutter. "Pah." She finished rinsing, and climbed out of the tub, suffering a brisk rub from her towel wielding partner. "Boy, I'm tired."

The warrior ruffled her damp hair. "To bed with you, my bard." She took a deep breath, and ran a hand through her own drying locks. "I wanna go check the outposts... make sure we're not gonna have any more surprises."

"Mmmhmm." Gabrielle wandered back into the main room, and retrieved a clean shift, which she snuggled into. "I.. thought you assigned someone to do that, before we came up here."

A nod. "I did... but it never hurts to be sure."

The bard nodded, then leaned against her, feeling the warmth as their bodies connected. Xena's arms reflexively wrapped around her, and she sighed, as she breathed out against the warrior's skin. "Okay.. but... " She paused, deliberately. "Will you just stay with me until I fall asleep? Please?"

"Sure..." Xena agreed readily, moving towards the bed, relieved that Gabrielle wasn't protesting her leaving. "You lie down, here.. " She tucked the bard into bed, and relaxed next to her, smiling a little as her younger partner snuggled up next to her, and wound a persistent arm around her middle. She gently brushed the damp pale hair off the bard's forehead, and kissed it. "You need your rest, love... gotta keep your strength up."

Gabrielle nodded against her, nestling closer and sighing in contentment. "Feels good just to lie down." She murmured drowsily. "Relax." She felt Ares jump up onto the bed, and curl up against Xena's side, resting his muzzle on her hip. "Even Ares thinks so."

"Yeah." Xena agreed absently, watching the gently moving flames over Gabrielle's shoulder. The outlines blurred for a moment, and she blinked, wincing at the irritation from the smoke. The stinging forced her to simply close her eyes, which let her concentrate on the soft breathing that warmed her skin with hypnotic regularity.

Her own breathing slowed to match it, and she felt a warm blanket of comfort settling over her, separating her from the stinging cuts, and aching bruises she'd acquired in the fight. Her conscience made a feeble effort to rouse her, but her body simply settled further into Gabrielle's embrace, demanding more rest instead.

Oh well. A few minutes wouldn't...

One mist green orb appeared, and rotated up to observe the now soundly sleeping warrior, then blinked. "Heh." Gabrielle smirked quietly to herself. "Stubborn thing." She exchanged a look with Ares, who yawned, and licked his chops, then she firmly closed her eyes, and let sleep take her, as well.


The soft knocking almost didn't wake her up. Gabrielle pried her eyes open in the gloomy darkness, and blinked, then took a breath as she recognized what the sound was. Startled, she glanced up to where her soulmate was still asleep, realizing just exactly how tired Xena must have been for the knock not to have woken her.

Wow. She slowly disengaged herself from Xena's warm embrace, and tumbled out of bed, tugging the blankets up around the warrior's sleeping form. She padded to the door in her bare feet, and put one hand on her staff before she cracked the door open. In the flickering torchlight of the corridor, she recognized Bennu's tall form.

Sort of, because the muscular warrior was drenched, and even his eyelashes were dripping water. "Um.. hi." Gabrielle kept her voice down. "Is everything okay?"

Bennu muffled a sneeze. "Aye.. aye... grand news. They're gone."

"Excuse me?" The bard stared at him. "Who's gone?"

"T'army." The man sniffled. "After it started raining, they ran off. I thought they we're just hidin.. so I ducked off after em... they split up.. arguin about who was gonta be in charge and all... said they were headed down Thebes' way."

"Wait." Gabrielle held up one hand." Framna's army?"

He blinked at her. "O'course Framna's bleeding army.. who'd you think.. ours?" He scowled.

"So... Xena gets to sleep in this morning, is that what you're telling me?" Gabrielle focused on the important details. "Because if there's no army out there, we don't have a problem that I need to wake her up for, right?"

"Ar... right." Bennu agreed slowly. "Other than what t'do about th' market, and the damn bastard prisner we got, and that girl hollarin t'let him go, and the stockyard floodin cause of t'rain."

"After breakfast." The bard pronounced. "Right?"

He exhaled. "Aye." A pause. "Y'know she's in charge, right?"

A nod. "I know that...but I also know it's easier to make good decisions when you're rested." She looked pointedly at him.

"Ah." He grunted. "I'll jest go take a nap, then."

"Good boy." Gabrielle smiled at him. She closed the door, and let her breath escape. Whew. Her eyes turned to the window, which was half closed, and spattered with heavy rain. A low, rumbling thunder crashed outside, and if it was close to dawn, you wouldn't know it.

With a yawn, she trudged back over to the bed and climbed into it, immediately finding herself surrounded by a net of warm, muscular warrior, complete with glinting blue eyes that peered at her in the semi darkness. "Hi."

"Hi." Xena replied, her voice still rough with sleep. "What's up?"

"You scared em off, tiger." Gabrielle informed her. "The army all ran away."

An eyebrow hiked up. "Really?"

"Uh huh." The bard snuggled closer. "That's the good news."

Momentary pause. "What's the bad news?"

"I think they voted you in as Queen." A pause, in which several soft oaths fell. "Ooo.. I've never heard that one before... what does it mean?"

"Something you should never do with a dead fish." Xena grumbled, the sighed. "I guess I"d better..."

"Oh no." Gabrielle tightened her grip tenaciously. "Queens don't go wandering around drafty castles before dawn. It's a rule." She felt the hesitation and pressed her advantage. "Come on, Xena.. " Her voice gentled, and took on a serious tone. "You put yourself through a lot yesterday, and Iím sure there'll be plenty of mess ups to solve today... give yourself a break, and just get some more rest, okay?"

No answer, which meant she was at least thinking about it. Gabrielle reached up and brushed her fingers against her cheek.

"Gabrielle, I feel fine." The warrior finally responded. "I just... I consider myself responsible for what's going on here."

The bard sighed inwardly. "Okay... but.. you can wait until the sun comes up, Xena." She insisted. "If you can't rest, at least let everyone else get some."

"Hmph." There was a soft sound as Xena's head hit the pillow. "Yeah.. I guess you're right about that." She admitted.

A small silence fell. "How are you feeling?" Gabrielle asked quietly.

Xena shrugged. "Eh... I'm all right... " She lifted a hand to touch the back of her neck. "Neck's stiff...but that's about it." She gazed back at the bard. "How about you?" She slipped a hand down and patted the bard's belly gently.

Gabrielle captured the hand, and laced her fingers with Xena's. "Would you be at all surprised if I told you I felt great, but that I was hungry?" She admitted with a sheepish grin.

"Shocked." Xena assured her solemnly. "Do you want me to go get you something?"

"NO!" The bard poked her gently in the ribs. "I want you to just quietly lay there, and rest."

Xena sighed heavily, but remained quiet, her eyes drifting closed again. "You tricked me into falling asleep before." She accused, in a mumble.

"I did nothing of the sort." Gabrielle defended herself, stifling a yawn. "All I did was lay down, and ask you to keep me company until I fell asleep." She snuggled closer again. "It's not my fault you were over tired, and succumbed to this nice, soft, comfortable bed." She yawned again. "Can we get one of these at home?"

Xena's eyes were now firmly closed. "Could be trouble... I'd never get out of bed." She muttered.

"Annndd... that would be a bad thing?" Gabrielle teased. A cool, damp breeze blew in, carrying the scent of rain and wet stone to her. She gratefully burrowed deeper into the soft covers, inhaling a breath of clean linen, and her soulmate's skin with pleasure. A crack of thunder made her jerk, and Xena's arms tightened in reflex. "Glad we're not out there in this."

"Me too." The warrior agreed, then sighed. "I'm getting real soft in my old age."

Long pause. "Xena?"

"Huh?"

"Stuff a sock in it, you blue eyed, leather covered fraud."

Longer pause. "Gabrielle?"

"Yeah?"

"What's a sock?"


It was still raining hard when they woke up later, the dull gray light edging grudgingly across the floor and spreading across the pale covers. Gabrielle had gotten up, and donned a warmer tunic, then sat herself down at her diary, and scribbled for half a candlemark trying to get details of the previous day down before she forgot them.

Xena put together two cups of hot, herbal tea that smelled of apples and cinnamon, and was leaning against the balcony door, watching the rain fall and sipping her cup. "It's a mess out there."

Gabrielle glanced up at her. "Yeah... there's gonna be a lot of work to do after this stops."

The warrior nodded absently. "Well, we have lots of brawny soldiers... I'll put em to work." She stretched, and rubbed her neck. "I'm gonna go downstairs.. see if I can wrangle us some bread and cheese, or something."

A knock on the door prevented Gabrielle from answering. She traded looks with her partner, then put her quill down. "Come in."

The door opened wide, and a barrage of faces looked in. Two ladies in morning gowns entered, and motioned for a group of servants to follow. Two maids, two valets, and a woman with a tray wafted in, stationing themselves unobtrusively. The woman with the tray curtsied, then set her burden down on the small table near the window.

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged bewildered glances. "Um... good morning." The bard folded her hands over her book.. "What's all this?"

One of the women came forward. "I am Nancia." She informed the bard, stealing a quick look at Xena. "Her highness has sent us.. to properly care for you. She feels she has been.. remiss.. in attending to your needs."

Xena muffed a grin, and wandered over to the smaller table, plucking the linen off the tray and idly examining it. The girl who had brought it in, stood stiffly by, trying not to look at her. "Hey... look.. I think these are cucumber sandwiches." She called over her shoulder to the bard, who made a strangled noise. "At least.. they're green." She picked one up and examined it curiously.

"Um.. Nancia... it's.. that's really nice of the princess.. but .. um.. we're.. we can take care of ourselves just.. er.. fine." Gabrielle stood, and leaned against her desk. "I"d.. uh.. hate to think.. we were.. taking up your valuable time.. um.. right?"

"Tch tch." Nancia, lifted her prominent chin, and blinked her dark brown eyes at the bard. "Her highness was correct...I am needed here." She glided to where the bard was standing, and plucked at her sleeve. "What is this?"

Xena leaned against the doorframe, and just watched, munching idly on the little sandwiches. "These aren't that bad, Gabrielle." She commented. "But I donít' think they're cucumbers."

Green eyes glared at her. "This.. is a shirt." Gabrielle folded her hands together. "Is there a problem with it?"

Nancia sniffed. "Perhaps we can find you one which fits."

Xena came to the rescue, seeing the creeping red line on her soulmate's fair neck. "Oh.. she's got plenty that fit." She informed the woman. "That one's mine." She consumed another sandwich.

Nancia turned her attention to the taller woman, who returned her gaze evenly. "Yours?"

Xena stepped away from the door frame, and spread her arms, indicating her body. "Mine."

"I see." The woman sniffed again. "Well.. don't you have something a little more... " Her nose actually twitched. "Decorous?"

The warrior swaggered forward, ending up at arms length from her, and put both hands on her hips. "Lady, I'm a fighter. I don't do frills." Her voice was flat. "But I got something nice in leather if you're interested."

Nancia regarded her witheringly. "You are going to be difficult, I see." She turned her attention to the rest of the room, then let out a little shriek. "There's a dog in your bed!!"

Ares' eyes widened, from his comfortable position, and he lifted his head. "Roo?"

"He's not a dog, he's a wolf." Xena and Gabrielle muttered, simultaneously.

Nancia wafted over. "Shoo!" She waved her handkerchief at the somnolent wolf, who lowered his head and growled at her. "Stop that!"

Gabrielle took the opportunity to escape to her partner's side, and ducked behind her, examining the tray with a judicious eye. "Those aren't cucumbers." The bard gave her a look. "That's jellied grapes."

Xena licked her fingers. "They're good." She muttered in an undertone, keeping an eye on Nancia. "And those little cup things are, too."

The bard nibbled one, then shot her an indulgent look. "You and your sweet tooth." But she ate the rest, then poked through more of the tray.

"Leave the wolf alone." Xena sighed, moving forward. "Look.. I appreciate the princesses' thoughtfulness, but we're really fine, all by ourselves." She let a hand drop to Ares' head, and he licked her fingers eagerly.

Nancia tapped her on the shoulder with her folded fan. "I have my orders."

Xena's eyebrow rose. " I told you we're fine." Unconsciously, her voice took on a harder edge, and she straightened to her full height, which topped Nancia by a good half a foot.

"Tch." The woman fanned her. "You might, perhaps intimidate the little boys with their toy swords, but you do not intimidate me."

Suddenly, the vaguely amused, mildly frustrated woman she'd been facing vanished, and Ares' Chosen stood in her place. The blue eyes had gone ice cold, and Xena's whole posture had changed dramatically, from relaxed, to a fine, triggered tension that filled the suddenly quiet room with an uneasy chill.

"On second thought." The woman edged a polite smile onto her face. "Perhaps you do."

One brow quirked up. "Smart lady." Xena replied, quietly.

"Nevertheless." Nancia continued, bravely. "I have my instructions. "She clapped, and the two maids stepped forward. "You may give them anything you need cleaned. "

"Oh.." Gabrielle stuffed a small meat pie into her mouth, and dusted her hands off. "Ok.. we can do that." She limped across the room, and ducked into the bathing area, coming back with her tunic, and grabbing a few other pieces of their clothing. "They any good at getting blood out?" She held up her garment, which was richly stained with rust.

Nancia glided over, glad to be away from Xena's menacing form, and claimed the item. "We will do our best." She handed it, and the other few things to one of the girls, and shooed them out. "Now.. Petres here will take your boots, he can have them cleaned, and mended for you."

Gabrielle gave her soulmate a questioning look. Xena shrugged one shoulder. "All right." She pointed them out.

"Excellent." Nancia was recovering her composure nicely. "Now.. Selene here will take your underthings, and attend to them."

Warrior and bard looked at each other. Gabrielle put a hand on one hip. "This comes under sensitive chats, doesn't it?"

Xena's eyes twinkled mischievously.

The bard sighed, and scratched her head. "We.. um... " She looked up, to see Nancia waiting patiently, her hands folded over her petticoated waist, eyes blinking. "Let's just skip those, okay?" She nibbled her lip. "We.. um.. we prefer to take care of that, ourselves." A pause, and a disbelieving stare from Nancia. "It's.. a personal thing."

The silence continued. "It's... well, it's like Xena's weapons... she kinda doesn't like anyone else to touch them, you know what I mean?" Gabrielle went over to the pile of armor near the fire, and picked up a bit. "You wouldn't want to touch her weapons, now would you?"

Xena folded her arms across her chest, and fixed her best, bored, I donít' wanna hear it, don't wanna know about it ex warlord look on her face.

"You.. consider underthings a weapon?" Nancia asked, carefully. "Oh my."

"Well.. now.. it depends on whose they are." Gabrielle was aware that she was getting in deeper and deeper. "Xena here.. well, she can make a weapon out of just about anything." She turned in desperation to her partner. "Isn't that right, Xena?"

"Right." The warrior nodded. "We can take care of those, ourselves.. but thanks for asking."

Nancia relented. "Very well." A brief pause, and a sniff. "Are you two ladies sisters?"

Blue and green eyes met. "What clued you in.. the family resemblance?" Xena inquired, deadpan.

"A similarity in traditions." Came the politely worded response.

Gabrielle bit her lip to keep from laughing, but took a moment to reflect that, even with their differences, she and Xena were really more alike than either of them probably realized. Certainly, they were more like each other than they were like the snooty, primped up lady in waiting. "We're busted, sis." She remarked to the warrior, who had wandered back over to the tray and was scavenging ruthlessly.

A flicker of amused blue. "You'll have to tell mom that when we get home."

Another knock at the door, this time heavier. "C'mon in." Xena leaned against her favorite doorjamb again.

The door squeaked open, and Bennu poked his muddy head in. "Ah."

"Bennu!" A devilish grin crossed Xena's face. "Get in here...and bring your buddies with ya."

The tall fighter complied, tromping across the floor and shedding mud, leaves, rain and little twigs at every step. "G'mornin, Genr'l."

Xena eyed the look of absolute horror on Nancia's face, and chortled silently. "Siddown." She invited the walking mud puddle cordially. "Want some grapes?"

He squelched into a chair, and took one, gingerly. Xena dropped into the chair across from him, and slung one leg over its arm, leaning back and folding her hands over her belly. "So... how're things in the stockyard?"

A scent wafted over the room, causing the palace workers to edge towards the door.

"Messy." Bennu nibbled his grapes. "Damn beasties mucked up everywhar...gots dung to yer kneecaps, ye do." His eyes fell to his liberally coated boots.

Nancia fanned herself. "We... we will return.... Later." She shooed the remaining girls out, putting a hand to her mouth. "To.. to clean."

The door slammed behind them, and Gabrielle burst into giggles.

Bennu eyed her. "Was I interruptin somethin?"

Xena raised her eyes from where they'd been hidden in one hand. "Oh yeah." She nodded. "Good job."


The main hall was filled with sweating, damp, frustrated people by the time Xena and Gabrielle sauntered in, dressed in clean tunics, and short boots. Xena had decided to forgo her leathers in favor of something less abrasive on her abused body, and Gabrielle had just decided to wear one of her soulmate's comfortable old shirts because she could.

The merchants who had escaped the attack the previous day were clustered in a large group, many of them injured to some degree, and all of them furious about the loss of their stalls, and goods. A few of the castle stewards were talking to them, but it was obvious that the men, and a few women craftsmen were beyond soothing.

The more substantial citizens were in another group, equally upset, and they were casting looks of mixed fear, and intrigue at the soldiers who were clustered about, idly enjoying their changed status, that from occupying army to defensive force.

Silvi and her ladies were clustered around the head table, along with her cousins, and a few of the older nobles. Framna was not in view.

The chatter stopped as soon as Xena crossed the threshold, and all eyes turned to her as she crossed the stone floor, with Gabrielle at her heels, limping slightly. The warrior mounted the steps to the dais the head table was positioned on and ended up directly behind the chair Garanimus had used, her hand resting lightly on it's finely carved back.

Xena let her eyes drift across the room, studying the silent, and tense occupants, then she half turned, and took a step back, pulling a chair out and motioning her smaller partner into it. "Siddown." She told the bard, giving her a little pat on the shoulder when she complied, and placed parchment and her quill case on the table in front of her.

Then Xena moved in front of the large chair Garanimus had used, and put her hands on her hips, striking a challenging pose. "All right." I guess they're waiting on me. The warrior mused. "Bennu, bring him in."

The tall soldier saluted, then exited, taking two other men with him.

Xena evaluated the different groups as she stood waiting, noting the wary looks from the nobles, the suspicious looks from the merchants, and the smug grins from her troops. Her troops. Xena sighed. This wasn't going to be easy.

Gabrielle sat quietly, watching everyone else watch her partner. She felt almost invisible, which was all right, because there was so much anxiety in the room, she could almost smell it. She was content, for the time being, to observe Xena's handling of the situation, not willing to interject her diplomatic skills just yet.

In fact, she reflected, she was perfectly content to let Xena handle the whole thing, finding in herself a quiet need for peace and the security of the taller woman's presence that was almost disconcerting. The gentle, offhand pressure of the warrior's hand on her shoulder was very welcome, and she found herself unconsciously leaning against the pressure, wanting more.

As though reading her mind, Xena stepped closer, bringing a hint of their soap, and the herbs her tunic had been packed with to the bard's sensitive nose. She could also detect the faint, but pungent scent of the antiseptic she'd spread on her soulmate's cuts, and the warm spiciness that was just Xena.

It was a strange sensation, almost like being bathed in a sensual essence that got past her normal, everyday senses to some deep place, one she'd never really paid attention to before. She shook her head a little, and blinked, paying more attention as Bennu returned, with a bound Framna, bringing him precisely to the center of the room, and giving him a shove forward.

The tall warlord was in fairly good condition, though. Xena had left orders to that effect, and now she regarded him with a pensive look. "Your army took off." Her voice was noncommittal, but there was a perceptible hint of sympathy there, which Gabrielle could hear plainly.

He'd apparently heard this already, and had time to think about it. "Yes."

Xena leaned on the table, her weight resting on her fingertips. "Linneus admitted he did this on his own." She stated. "He said there was no way he was going to stand by and keep hands off when there was so much to be taken."

Framna winced. "We'd argued about it." He admitted. "I thought I'd convinced him."

The tall ex warlord nodded, and straightened. "Well, he's not around anymore. If I let you go, you could catch up with them, and take them back." A pause. "Probably a little wiser for the error." She waited for a reaction, seeing the stiff coldness in his face. "Is that what you want to do?"

He took in a breath, then released it. His eyes raised to meet hers. "No."

Xena let a brow curve up, and let her glance flick around the room, observing the range of looks the warlord was getting. "No?"

Now his eyes went to Silvi, who was studiously not looking at him "No... I... I'd rather stay here."

Well, well. Xena's other brow joined it's mate. "Why?"

Framna exhaled. "I just would. I don't expect you to understand."

Xena's laughter surprised him. He jerked his gaze to her, and watched in bewilderment as she chuckled.

"Framna, I'm probably the only person in this room who does understand." The warrior informed him wryly. From the corner of her eye, she could see Gabrielle's smile, and she shook her head. "Lotta people around here might have a problem with that, though."

He gave her a puzzled look, but nodded in understanding. "I know that." His shoulders slumped. "It wasn't supposed to be this way."

His humility was having an effect, Gabrielle noted, the merchants, while still angry, were murmuring amongst themselves, and the nobles were shifting uneasily. Silvi's face had taken on a half hopeful, half frightened look, and she now had her eyes pinned on Xena.

"All right." The warrior folded her arms across her chest. "This is what's gonna happen. I'll let you go, but... " She nudged Gabrielle. "Write this down." She waited for the bard to dutifully prepare a quill. "You can't leave the city, without the princesses permission. You can't go form an army. You can't go find your old one. You gotta stay here, and live." A tiny smirk curled one side of her lips. "Deal?"

Framna was looking up at her in complete disbelief. Then his own lips twitched. "Deal."

Xena half turned. "All right with you, your highness?"

Silvi got caught staring at her, and she blushed. Her cousins looked furious, the nobles looked uneasy. She only looked radiant. "Yes, I believe it is."

Xena hid a grin. "Good." She waited for Gabrielle to finish writing, the plucked the quill from her soulmate's hand, and scrawled her signature on the bottom. She motioned for Framna to come forward. "C'mere."

He stumbled to the table.

"Put your hands there." She pointed. He complied.

Xena reached behind her to where Garanimus' sword had been left resting against the chair, and pulled it from it's scabbard, then raised it over head and brought it down on the chains binding him with a thundering boom of steel on wood, and shearing of metal.

Everybody jumped, even Gabrielle, who knew by her soulmate's body language what she was intending. She glanced up. "I could have found you the keys." She muttered, in a low tone.

"Where's the fun in that?" Xena muttered back, then pushed the parchment across the table. "Sign."

Framna pulled bits of chain link off his skin and glanced at her, then took the quill she was holding out and complied. "I... never suspected you had a... "He stopped, glancing up at Xena speculatively. "Sentimental side."

Ice blue eyes stared intimidatingly at him. "Who says I do?"

Uncertain, the warlord glanced down at Gabrielle, who winked at him, then took the parchment back. "Uh... right."

She motioned him off. "All right.. now that we got that over with." Her eyes fixed on the merchants. "C'mere."

Warily, they approached her, some less than others, who recognized her as a friendly patron from a few days prior. The leathercrafter stepped forward, his arm in a sling. "We lost everything."

Xena studied him. "You're alive." She pointed out, simply. "Sometimes you can't predict what life's gonna hand you... ya just adapt." She shifted her gaze to the troops lounging around in the back of the room. "You'll get some help to rebuild your huts... but you're gonna have to pool your resources to get stock to sell."

They looked at each other. Some shook their heads.

Xena turned her formidable gaze on the nobles. "Healthy market's real important for a city this size." She commented. "It's to your advantage.. " She paused, and gave them a wolfish smile. "To help out."

"We... " An older man started, then subsided at her raised brow and nodded reluctantly. "Something can be arranged."

"Good." Xena bestowed a smile on him. Then she glanced down at her peacefully watching partner. "How 'm I doing?" She whispered.

"Mmm.. you haven't threatened to hit anyone.. not bad." The bard teased her. "You're getting better at this kinder, gentler thing."

A soft snort was the answer.

"Why don't you guys.. " She pointed at the merchants. "Get together with those guys.. " She pointed at the nobles. "And figure out what you're gonna do. " Now she motioned for Bennu to move forward. "We all okay?"

The soldier nodded briskly. "Aye...t'barracks are secure...we pit buried what was left from last night...so's they wouldn't start stinkin, and I got a bunch of us what would be animal wranglers to get t'beasties back into t'stockyard."

"Good." The warrior looked pleased. "After it stops raining, we go out and clean this place up... I'm gonna need woodcutters to go out, bring back some logs... we'll need the stuff to rebuild the market."

He looked at her, and nodded. "Alright."

She met his gaze. "They gonna have a problem with that?"

His pale eyes glinted softly. "Nah.. but we'd like to be speaking w'ye when ye gets a chance."

The warrior slowly nodded. "All right."

They filed out, small groups that produced a buzz of conversation, the nobles stiffly approaching the group of merchants, and gesturing them towards a smaller, more private room. Xena sat down in the chair, and watched them go, bracing one foot on a table support and wrapping an arm around her knee. "That worked."

Gabrielle leaned back, and watched as Silvi spoke with her cousins and retainers, with Framna watching quietly several bodylengths away. "They don't like him staying, not one bit." She commented softly.

Xena's mouth quirked. "I know."

"You're such a troublemaker." The bard accused with a grin. "And a romantic troublemaker, at that."

Blue eyes opened wide and innocent. "Me?" Xena pointed at her own chest. "Oh no. .I don't think so... not romantic. Nuh huh... not me."

Gabrielle gazed at her. "So.. you admit to the troublemaker part, though, huh?"

"Well." Xena remarked, reasonably. "I am an ex warlord. It kinda goes with the territory, y'know?" She buffed her fingernails on her tunic. "Rough, tough, mean... rude.. crude... it's kinda like a trademark."

"Ah." The bard folded her hands together. "I'll try to keep that in mind the next time you leave a rose on my pillow."

Xena gave her a look. "Um.. well.. I left the thorns on."

"No you didn't." Gabrielle shook a finger at her. "Smooth as a baby's butt."

Another look. "Hmph."

She was rescued by Silvi's approach, trailing a number of her retainers. The princess stopped in front of them, giving Xena a wary little smile. "Hi." The warrior gazed benignly at her. "Something we can do for you?"

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Silvi, thank you for sending people to see if we were doing okay.. I .. we.. really appreciated that."

Silvi beamed at her. "Is it all forgiven then? We truly were just trying to do what was best for the city."

"Sure." The bard smiled. "I don't hold grudges."

Everyone's eyes went to the darkly glowering Xena, who raised one icy eyebrow at them.

"She doesnít either." The bard patted her soulmate's thigh in a friendly manner. "Really."

Everyone looked highly doubtful.

"No.. really." Gabrielle insisted. "She's much nicer than she looks."

Both of Xena's dark brows shot up at that, and she gave her partner an outraged glare.

The bard glared right back. "You're making this tough, Xena."

The warrior subsided, and crossed her arms. "I'm fine, Silvi... sorry it worked out the way it did." She hesitated, aware of the bard's fingers drumming on the table. "No hard feelings."

"See?" Gabrielle gave her a smile, then turned to the princess. "So.. what's on your mind?"

Silvi clasped her hands together. "Your mother must be so proud of you two." She beamed. "Nancia told me all about you're being sisters.. I think it's wonderful that you're traveling the world together.. it's so... so... family oriented."

"Oh yeah." Xena muttered, after a frozen moment in which she and her soulmate shared several of the same pungent, if silent, curses. "Definitely family oriented., right sis?"

Gabrielle rubbed her temples. "Absolutely."

"Oh yes.. it made everything make perfect sense, you know." Silvi smiled at them. "I can' t think why it didn't occur to me before." She put a hand on Gabrielle's arm. "Imagine, me thinking you were a slave... how silly of me... I have no siblings, you see." She paused. "Curious that you didn't mention it when we were speaking of your other sister, though>"

"Well. um.. " The bard scratched her jaw. "I was getting around to it."

"Whatever." The princess shrugged. "What I came to tell you was, a royal council has been called, and Edgevar.. he's my uncle.. he said I should command you to be there." This she directed at Xena, who blinked at her. "In one candlemark."

"Edgevar." Xena pronounced the name carefully. "He's Vasi and Elanora's father, by any chance?"

Silvi put a hand up to her mouth. "You're so clever." She exclaimed. "That's exactly right."

"Uh huh...and what's this council for?" The warrior inquired.

"Oh.. well, you see, since my father died, we've been in the middle of deciding who is to take his place.. no one's been able to agree on what to do. " Silvi explained. "Now, Edgevar seems to think he has an idea we'll all like." She smiled at the warrior. "And he wanted you to be there."

Oh boy. Xena blew out a breath. "Why me?"

The princess blinked at her. "I have no idea." She shrugged. "It will be in the small hall... please don't be late." She gave Gabrielle a little wave, then turned, and glided away.

"What was that all about?" Gabrielle muttered.

"I'm nicer than I look?" Outraged blue eyes locked onto her. "What kind of crack was that?"

"Tch." The bard patted her hand. "I was only joking." She hesitated, realizing her partner was actually hurt by the comment. "Hey.. hey... come on now... this is me, remember?"

"Yeah... I guess that's why I didn't expect it." Xena replied, shortly.

Gabrielle gazed at her quietly. "I'm sorry." She curled her fingers around Xena's wrist. "I forgot about the tease threshold."

"It's not that." The warrior very obviously wanted to jerk her hand away, but was forcing herself not to. She paused for a long moment, then sighed, and dropped her head. "Wait a minute...what in Hades am I overreacting to this for?" She muttered, rubbing her temple.

They both looked at each other. Gabrielle grimaced. "Sorry." She muttered, as they both came to the same conclusion. "Guess we're sharing that, too."

Xena's arm muscles relaxed, and she turned her hand over, collecting the bard's fingers and clasping them. "At least we realize it." She sighed. "Sorry about that."

Gabrielle felt the warmth from her clasp travel up her arm gently. "Yeah... me too." Without thinking, she lifted their joined hands to her lips, and brushed them across the back of Xena's knuckles, then turned her head as a throat cleared. "Oh hi."

Gramma was standing there, her gnarled hands clasped behind her. "I hate t'be interrupting such a lovely scene."

Both women blushed. Gabrielle went to let go of her partner's hand, but found her fingers clasped firmly. She glanced over at Xena's face, which was quietly intent, then let her hold resume as she looked back at Gramma. "It's all right."

Xena rolled her head to one side. "Thanks for that warning last night.. you probably saved the city."

The old woman snorted. "Nowt the way I'm hearing it, sprout." She motioned behind her. "Heard you got those damn grape bits for yer breakfast.. thought I'd bring something more that would stick to your ribs like."

A tray magically appeared, and the scent of freshly baked bread penetrated the damp heat. "Thanks." Gabrielle grinned at her. "Those things were.. um... they tasted okay, but there weren't much to them."

Gramma gave her a doting look. "Aye, and you having an extra mouth to feed, too." She chuckled at the bard's blush. "G'wan wi ye.. have at it." She stumped away, leaving them in an isolated peace up on the dais.

Gabrielle's brows creased. "Xena.. how did she know?" She gave her soulmate a bewildered look. "I know I don't look pregnant."

Xena broke off a portion of the fresh loaf and spread a bit of butter and honey on it one handed, then offered it to the bard. "Here."

Instead of taking it, Gabrielle nibbled the bread from her fingers, keeping her eyes firmly on her partner's shadowed face. She wondered briefly if anyone was watching them, then decided she really didn't care. As she finished the tidbit, she licked off Xena's fingers, and then kissed them.

A slow, charmed smile replaced the look of pensive anxiety on the taller woman's face. "You'd think someone here'd realize we're not sisters." The warrior commented, with a smile.

"They can bite my bardic butt." Gabrielle answered acerbically.

"Not unless they wanna live the rest of their lives toothless." Xena replied, wryly. "I hope this council thing isn't what I think it is." She added, stifling a yawn., then fixing the bard another piece of bread. "I don't wanna sit there an listen to them tell me why I should stick around here."

Gabrielle considered that. "You think they will?"

A shrug. "Maybe."

Green eyes regarded her. "Do you want to stick around here?"

Xena blinked, a little surprised. "No... why?"

'Just asking... I thought you were having a pretty good time with all the fighters... I mean, this isn't such a bad place, if you wanted to hang around here for a while and kinda... " She paused, then went on. "Kinda get a little of that back, again."

Xena went very still, and just looked at her for a long moment. Then she exhaled. "No." A tiny shake of her head. "I want to go visit the Amazons.. have a great festival, then... " A breath. "Then go home."

"Xena.. it's all right... I really donít mind it here." The bard said gently. "We're close to home... you could stay here and spend some time working with these guys.. I think you'd like that."

Surprisingly, the warrior shook her head. "No... I mean it, Gabrielle." She replied with quiet firmness. "After last night.. I've had my fill." She took a breath. "It got too close..to the edge for me."

Gabrielle understood immediately. "Okay.. I've got you." She replied. "Home it is." She tore off a bit of the bread and offered it to the taller woman, waiting for her to start chewing before she continued, picking her way delicately. "Xena.. .can I ask you something?"

Blue eyes showed faint alarm. "Sure."

The bard looked around, then gazed at her. "When we were at... um.. Garanimus' bedside.. you told him.. you'd see him in Tartarus."

Xena's breathing increased visibly. "Yeah."

"Did you really mean that?"

Long, long silence. Finally the warrior's pale eyes closed. "Yes." Her voice rasped gently.

"Xena... " The bard found herself at a loss for words. "I thought... "

"That was before I made... all those mistakes... again." Xena managed to get out, in a clipped tone. "And.. I don't think I can make up for them.. that's all." Her fingers were clenched tightly around the bard's. "So.. but.. don't worry about it, Gabrielle.. I'm... I try not to think about that."

"I think about it sometimes." The bard quietly whispered. "I think about... how you can't really expect to get into the Elysian Fields if you do something like... kill a child."

Xena's face went absolutely blank for an instant, then she leaned forward, and released the bard's hand, bringing both of her own up to cup the younger woman's cheeks. "You.. are going to the Fields." Her voice brooked no disagreement. "Don't you even think for one instant otherwise."

Tears filled the bard's eyes. "Not without you I'm not." Her voice shook. "I can't make it on my own... I need my champion with me."

I never realized she felt... oh Gods. Xena felt a pain deep inside her. It's not my choice anymore, is it? "Gabrielle, listen to me."

Anguished green eyes blinked at her.

"I will always, always be there for you, understand me?" She wiped the tears from the bard's face. "Even in death, I will never leave you." She paused. "Ever."

A tiny nod. "Promise?"

"No." The warrior replied. "I don't promise. I swear." She stared intently at the smaller woman. "I swear to you, on all that I am."

All of a sudden, the damp, uncomfortable air of the room disappeared, and Gabrielle felt like she was floating comfortably on a cool cloud. Her heart took in the words, and snuggled itself around them, forcing a smile to her face as the dark anxiety dissipated.

She had no idea if there were more people around them, or if they were being watched, and she had to admit she couldnít have cared less if there were, and they were. It wasn't important.. Only those blue eyes mattered, and the voice that told her what her soul craved to hear.

"Thanks." She replied finally, very simply.

And Xena merely nodded.


Gabrielle had found a nice, soft, padded bench outside a recessed window, and was curled up on it, just watching the rain fall. She'd left Xena to go make the rounds of her troops, and exchange grubby fighter stories, which she didn't have a taste for listening to. Just how you chopped someone's leg off...ugh. She didn't mind detail, but they took such glee in it.. and she knew her soulmate tended to get a little enthusiastic in return. Ares had elected to remain with her, and was curled up under the bench, his long tail poking out on the flagstones and only his yellow eyes peering forth from the gloom .

Ugh. She tucked her legs up under her body, and leaned against the stone sill, watching the sheeting rain fall against the water darkened wood and thatch of the city buildings. From here, this high up, she could see outside the walls, to the belt of rich green forest beyond, and the ruins of the market which squatted, charred and lonely, just outside the gates.

Rain had an interesting smell, she decided. Kind of rich, and spicy.. and it made the stone she was sitting against give off a brittle scent as well.

She reviewed the last conversation she'd had with Xena, and decided that emotional pregnant thing was definitely getting to both of them. What in blazes had made her bring up the whole subject of dying? Again? Not that she didn't appreciate.. no. Not that she hadn't needed to hear what Xena had said.. she had... but right there? In the middle of a banquet hall? Gabrielle. You need to get a grip on yourself.

She sighed, and rested her head against the cool stone. Got more than a promise though, huh? A tiny grin surfaced. Wherever we go, we go together, Xena.. just you get used to that idea, okay? And I don't care what you think...that place isn't going to be Tartarus.. and even if it is, with both of us there... we'll turn the place upside down.

Her hand dropped unconsciously to her stomach, and she exhaled. Does the baby change that? She regarded the rain in silence, as a soft spray of it touched her face. Last night, she'd gone into battle not even thinking about that, and she suspected Xena hadn't thought about it either. The warrior had seemed genuinely glad to see her there, and hadn't once told her to remove herself from the fighting.

Not that she would have, of course. Someone had to protect Xena's backside, and darned if she was going to let anybody else do that.

At least for now, anyway. She knew she'd have to stop doing that at some point, Xena's stories notwithstanding, since physical reality would eventually result in her doing probably more harm than good. But for now.. until it got too awkward, she had every intention of keeping up her martial skills.

Xena did say the better shape you were in, the easier it was, right? And she oughta know.

But the physical issues notwithstanding, what responsibility did she have to the baby? Would she back out of a fight to protect it, at Xena's expense?

No. The decision came easier than she expected. The baby had to take it's chances, just like she did. Just like Xena did.

She'd always said, where Xena went, she would go. Would she back off from that now? What if Xena died... would she stay, because of the baby? What if Xena had been killed last night? She forced herself to consider the possibility, because she knew, and Xena had admitted, that if she, Gabrielle, hadn't intervened, that would have probably come true.

What would she have done? Stood over Xena's body until they took her too?

She tried to imagine what it would have been like, and felt the horrible emptiness, remembered the pain of grief that had overwhelmed her when she'd had to spend a week enduring the reality of the warrior's death.

Would she deliberately stay alive, just for the baby's sake, and suffer that? What about after it was born?

She laid her cheek against the damp, rough surface of the rock, and sighed again. I'm in a morbid mood today, huh? Why not think about how great it's going to be to have a child, instead of wondering what I'd do.... Maybe it's the weather. Her eyes drifted out to the gray landscape, watching the gusts of wind blow thatch across the narrow city streets.

The warm presence caught her by surprise, and she turned her head, as Xena joined her in her little alcove. The warrior sat down, and gathered her up, pulling her into an unexpected, but very welcome hug. She cuddled against the dampish linen tunic, and let herself feel the reassuring strength of her partner's arms.

"Hey." Xena relaxed her hold, but didn't release her. "Whatcha doin?"

"Just thinking." Gabrielle replied, drinking in the sight of the warrior's dark good looks. Xena's hair was damp as well as her tunic, and she had a smudge of mud on her left cheekbone. The bard reached up and rubbed it off. "You done with your gory stories?"

The warrior gave her a sheepish look, and chuckled a little. "Yeah..." She looked over her shoulder. "Getting ready for that damn royal conference... wanna come with me?" Her eyes twinkled. "I might need protection." A grin. "You know the troops idolize you... said you did more damage with your little stick than ten of them with swords."

Gabrielle blinked in surprise. "Uh.. but I wasn't.... trying to do that, all I was doing was..."

"Protecting my butt." Xena nodded. "I know.. I told them that...it didn't help...it just made it worse, because they thought that was so... um..." She sniffed, and rummaged around for a good word for it.

"Romantic?" The bard teased gently.

"They didn't use that word." Xena muttered, chewing her lip. "More like a mother wolf defending her cubs." She paused. "Fierce...that's what they called it."

Gabrielle reached up and fluffed her bangs. "Well.. you are kind of cute.. like a cub." She picked up one of Xena's hands, and examined it. "Nice big paws, too." She tickled the palm, and watched the fingers twitch in response. "Fierce, huh?" Her face scrunched. "I don't know."

Xena grinned. "Yeah... I think that's a good description." She studied the smaller woman. "You all right? You look a little down."

I can't believe she noticed. Gabrielle marveled, as she pulled herself together. Used to be I'd have to practically break down in tears before she'd figure out something was wrong. "Weather, I guess... giving me gloomy thoughts."

Xena's brow creased, and she glanced outside, and Gabrielle amused herself by idly imagining that her soulmate was trying to figure out a way to change the offensive weather. That made her chuckle, and she patted Xena's chest. "Just a mood.. I'm over it." She put her arms around the warrior's waist, and leaned against her. "So... what are you going to do with those guys?"

"Oh." Xena left off trying to imagine a solution to the weather, and settled back, cuddling the bard to her. "I forgot about that.. yeah.. apparently Gar surrounded himself with lazy bums like he was... they like this place." She regarded the rain idly. "They were looking forward to kinda settling down."

"What?" Gabrielle picked her head up from the warrior's shoulder and looked at her in confusion. "Xena, they're an army..what do you mean they want to settle down?"

A shrug. "Happens..sometimes. You know, Gabrielle.. armies like that.. they're made up of kids, mostly.. or older men who get forced off the land.. but not professional soldiers. Most of these guys come from... well, kinda the same sort of places you and I did."

"Hmm."

"It's been a tough couple of years... Gar wasn't stupid.. he discussed his whole plan with his battle leaders before he brought them in here. They were in with his plan."

"Hmm." Gabrielle repeated. "So.. now what?"

"Dunno." Xena shrugged. "I got surrounded in the barracks.. they.. um... "

"Would follow you anywhere." The bard completed the sentence wryly.

"More or less." Xena chuckled sheepishly. "But given a choice.. they'd kinda like to settle down."

"Hmm." The bard said, for a third time. "So... we have to get the city to want to keep them., right?" She drummed her fingers against Xena's linen clad stomach. "We have to make those dumb stuffed shirts see the value in having a loyal fighting force, who, in addition, are burly cute guys who can move logs."

"Right." Xena agreed amiably.

"So.. what's the plan?" The bard asked.

"I was hoping you'd tell me." Xena replied, with a grin. "That's more your area of expertise than mine."

Gabrielle looked at her. "My plans somehow have ways of not working out, lately."

Xena looked right back at her. "I'm counting on you to come up with one."

"You're doing this on purpose." The bard accused, uncertainly.

No answer.

"You really drive me crazy sometimes, Xena."

Still no answer.

A sigh. "All right.. I'll see what I can come up with.. but no promises."

Xena bestowed a dazzling smile on her. "C'mon.. you can think about it while we listen to them babble at us." She stood, and offered the bard a hand up. "Honestly, Gabrielle... I'm about outta patience with these people.. I'm likely to just pick one of em up, and pound them to get what I want.. not a real good idea."

Gabrielle straightened her soulmate's tunic, adjusting the belt, and finally relaxing into a grin. "Yeah.. I could see you twitching with Silvi.. all right.. I see your point... let me shake my diplomatic skills out and put them to work." She was rewarded by a hug, which made her body tingle all up and down it's length as she found herself surrounded by slightly damp, but warm warrior. Xena's hands rubbed their way down her back, releasing tension , and she felt her dark mood dissipate completely, replaced by her more normal optimism.

"Come on, tiger." She finally, reluctantly pulled free. "Let's not keep the snoots waiting."

Xena slid an arm over her shoulders as they squeezed out of the alcove together. "Wonder if they'd catch a clue if I walked in there with you in my arms.. ya think?"

Gabrielle snorted. "No." She glanced up. "Sisters? Great Hera, Xena... I look as much like you as I look like Ares."

"Roo?" The wolf glanced up at his name, and wagged his tail.

"Not that it isn't a compliment." She hastily added, with a grin. "But I mean.. .what's that all about?"

Xena shrugged. "People see what they want to see, Gabrielle." She chuckled. "I could probably profess undying love to you in the middle of the banquet hall, and they'd all still think it was a touching exhibit of deep, sisterly affection."

"Clueless." The bard rolled her eyes.

"Oh yeah." Xena answered. "You got that right."


The older man's voice droned on, and on, and on. Gabrielle rested her chin on her hands and listened, as he went over the exact amounts, and conditions of the loans they were going to offer the merchants, at which percentage points, and to what terms they'd be held to.

She kept her eyes forward though, because she knew if she glanced sideways at Xena, and saw the warrior ripping a piece of her parchment up into tiny little bits, then pushing them around in to weird patterns, she'd start laughing.

Not good.

Xena got bored easily, she'd long ago realized, unless whatever was being discussed interested her. Which this didn't , or the bard either, for that matter, but Gabrielle had developed a tolerance for this kind of thing during her long stints with both the Amazons, and in Amphipolis.

So.. her soulmate was bored, and when she was bored, Xena tended to fidget. The bard knew if she passed a quill and larger piece of parchment over, the warrior would start doodling, making crosshatched squares and filling them in randomly. The bits of parchment she was fiddling with now were a substitute, something to keep her restless mind occupied with while the noble went over the list of merchants...

Again.

"I still.. don't know if this is prudent." He finally summed up, with a sigh.

"Actually." Gabrielle cleared her throat. "You'll see a good return from that... I know from experience that people around the area will come to the market as soon as it's rebuilt, hoping to get bargains from merchants desperate to make up for their loss."

They all turned and looked at her, then at each other. "Really?" The noble murmured. "Bargains, did you say?"

The bard nodded. "Sure." She interlaced her fingers. "You'll also attract new merchants, who will see an opportunity to fill in the gaps."

"You've.. seen this happen?" A younger man spoke up, leaning forward. "In other places?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "Yes... it's not a nice consequence, but it's kinda basic to human nature, you know?"

Attention shifted her way. "Tell us more." The older man identified as Edgevar murmured.

As Gabrielle cleared her throat to start speaking, Xena smirked, and continued her obsessive patterning, shaping the bits into the head of a cat. She listened to her soulmate's descriptions, and was semi aware of the murmur of agreement from the nobles.

She needs this. Her eyes flicked quickly to Gabrielle's profile, then back to the table. I'm worried about her. It wasn't normal for her to have to push the bard into getting involved, and she'd felt a little guilty about it, but in truth, she really didn't have the patience for it, and she really wanted Gabrielle to regain confidence in her own judgment.

She turned her head slightly to watch the bard's body language, seeing the shift of bone and muscle across her shoulders under the rough linen of her tunic as she gestured, and the expansion of her ribs as she took breath to continue her argument.

Xena nudged a bit of paper into the shape of an ear, then put a whisker in place. Besides, Gabrielle was making some very good points, some of which hadn't occurred to her at all, and the nobles were sounding more and more enthusiastic about the rebuilding of the market. The bard slipped in a few verbal jabs about the troops doing the work, and she smiled to herself. That's my girl.

"Donít' you think so, Xena?" The bard's voice, addressing her, caught her offguard, and she looked up guiltily.

"Right." She knew by the quirk at the corner of Gabrielle's mouth she'd been caught daydreaming though, and she mustered an apologetic grin. "Whatever you say, Gabrielle."

"Oh... I'll have to remember that." The bard's eyes twinkled, then she returned her attention to Edgevar "Basically, if you set the festival right after the rebuilding finishes, you'll get the most response, and make the most profit."

The older man nodded respectfully at her. "Sound advice, madam." He turned to Xena. "And how long will it take for rebuilding, do you think, general?"

Xena nudged a tail into place. "Oh.. that depends on the weather." She thought a minute. "If we can get wagons to go to the forest to bring the logs back, shouldn't take too long to finish up."

"Excellent." He paused, then exchanged looks with three of the older nobles, who nodded. "Now, we can move on to our next agenda item.. the regency." He straightened his ornate surcoat. "Silvi, you know that since your father's death, I have been your regent"

"I know." The girl smiled at him. "I think you've been splendid." She stood, and folded her hands. "And once I marry, I want you to know, you will always have a place here."

The older man winced, then forced a smile. "Thank you, your highness."

"I knew you must be worrying about that." Silvi went on. "But I want you to know, once my sweetheart and I are wed, and I am queen, I will make sure you have lots of things to do."

Gabrielle let her gaze flick to her soulmate's face. The cat was forgotten, and Xena was now listening, a look of sharp alertness etched into her angular features.

"That's... good of you." The man answered, slowly. "Am I to understand you believe you will be... marrying soon?"

"Oh yes." Silvi sighed happily. "Now that things are settled, we can be wed anytime... of course, it will have to wait until my dress is made, but... " Another sigh. "Framna will make a splendid consort... he looks so well in a uniform."

"Silvi... " Edgevar folded his arms. "After what happened... do you think he is appropriate for you to elevate him so?"

She looked confused. "But.. it all turned out fine.. we are free of that animal.. and it wasn't his fault, you see. He couldnít stop that army from attacking.. we were just fortunate someone was here who could." She gave him an unhappy look. "He felt horrible about it, truly.. he's a good man, uncle."

"We will speak of this later, in private." The older man pursed his lips. "I do not think I wish to hand over a regency to a man who could not even know the temper of his own army."

"He's got a point." Xena leaned over and whispered. "That was really shortsighted of him."

"Mm." Gabrielle leaned back. "I don' t know.. but I seem to remember falling in love doing some pretty strange things to a certain ex warlord of my acquaintance." She got a look. "Especially in the absentmindedness department."

"I wasn't that bad." Xena muttered. "Was I?"

"I remember the night you fed Argo those stewed tomatoes." Gabrielle replied, keeping an eye on the low dialog between Edgevar and another older man. "Boy was she pissed off."

Xena chuckled. "Oh gods.. I remember that." She glanced up at the unhappy looking Silvi and sighed. "Okay.. okay.. so he get an allowance, but still."

"He loves her." The bard stated, gently.

"Yeah.. I know." The warrior rumbled. "I don't much like the uncle."

"Me neither." Gabrielle made a face. "Let me see what I can do."

Xena leaned back, and watched as her soulmate stood up, and paced over to where the nobles were clustered, running a hand through her fair hair and clearing her throat as she came up to them. "You go, Gabrielle."

"Listen, guys.. " Gabrielle started.

"Ah.. madam bard...we were just speaking of you." Edgevar interrupted smoothly. "Your contributions today were most valuable."

"Um.. thanks." Gabrielle mustered a smile. "Listen, about Framna... he's not so bad."

They exchanged glances. "We.. are not terrible concerned about that right now. " The regent rubbed his hands. "Actually, we were considering sidestepping the issue, and naming a different heir.. as you know, my son is of royal blood, and he is much better suited that his little cousin for the throne."

"Is he now?" Gabrielle put her hands behind her back. "Well.. um.. it's none of my business.. but.. isn't that kind of a hasty decision?"

"No no." Edgevar gave her a frosty smile. "It's been spoken of before.. we were just troubled about finding young Vasi a suitable wife to be his consort.. there is a.. dearth.. of such qualified ladies in our midst." His eyes fastened on her hungrily. "Now.. I believe we have found such... certainly you will agree that you, madam bard, would make a splendid consort."

The bard stared at him. "What?" She shook her head rapidly and rubbed an ear. "Did I hear you right.. you want me.. to marry your son?"

He smiled at her. "Exactly... and, donít worry.. we intend to offer your sibling a very comfortable office... as commander of the city guard." He patted her arm. "You won't be separated from your family.. I know, myself, how important that is."

Gabrielle licked her lips and blinked. "Excuse me a minute." She executed a precise about face, and made a beeline for the casually watching Xena.


Continued in Part 10