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Disclaimers: Okay folks here goes nothing... The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Lysia, Diana, Meg, Solari, Philemon, Autolycus, Hercules, Iolaus, Salmoneus, Palomon and Vidalis all belong to MCA/Universal as I'm sure they are *very* happy about. I don't think I forgot anybody.

I like the subtext, it's fun, so I went just a little bit farther with it, but not much. There's also a bit of violence, but this is mostly about how to love again once you've forgotten how.

But... the sequels for this are very adult, so be warned.

Finally, this is my first shot at this, so leave me comments if ya want at

Have fun!



by shatterpath

(the artist formerly known as walksfar)

"I'm the only one the Amazons will listen to. I hate it, but..."

"I know."

Again the silence stretched endlessly between them. Xena glanced down at the lowered blonde head and felt her heart constrict even tighter. What could she say to cover the chasm that this conflict had torn open between them? Finally she hopped down from Argo's tall back and grabbed Gabrielle's arm. Those beautiful green eyes were nearly gray with suppressed emotions. No words, no comfort, no way to make this any easier. So Xena did the last thing either of them expected. A quick bend of the knees and Gabrielle's smaller frame was wrapped up in a desperate hug. In the dappled winter sun they clung to one another.

"I'm going to miss you," the Bard whispered in Xena's ear before pressing a kiss to her warm skin. Sudden movement nearby pulled them apart long before they were ready. Two Amazons materialized from the trees and waited at a respectful distance away. A soft touch on her cheek deepened Xena's stricken look and made Gabrielle's eyes water.

"Go and help Diana, and I will return to your side by the time Winter Solstice arrives."

So much unsaid, so much undone and no guarantee they would ever get that chance. Xena had never felt so vulnerable and dimly wondered when she had willingly given her heart to this woman. Her world stopped for long moments when Gabrielle stretched up to brush a sweet, heartfelt kiss across her lips. Yet once again there was no time for more. Just no time. There was a quiet acceptance in the Bard's expressive eyes as she stroked the bronzed cheek again.

"Winter Solstice. Promise you'll wait for me."

"I promise."

And then Gabrielle was gone.

It had only taken Xena a week to beat some sense into the offensive idiot who fancied himself ruler of the land. Kassius had been just like every other bullying warlord who had angered the woman Warrior. He had stupidly tried to take advantage of the recent death of King Lias and the kingdoms' low morale. Just Xena's presence alone had frightened most of the mercenary army away. She had, however, willingly thrashed the few too stupid to run. Soon enough the next egomaniac would reunite the army and once again lead them to trouble. It would not be Kassius. After briefly knocking him unconscious, Xena stripped him to his shorts and had made him march out of town in chains. The kingdoms' subjects had greatly enjoyed heaping him with enough humiliation to make him at least *think* about changing his career plans. Now she waited at the castle as she had promised Gabrielle she would, seemingly so long ago.

"Good evening, Xena. Beautiful evening to be out beneath the skies."

The contemplative Warrior glanced over at the mirror image standing beside her and smiled faintly. Only Diana's pale unmarred skin and elegant clothing showed they were indeed two very different people. Sensing she could approach, the Queen moved to Xena's side until their elbows touched. Xena was mildly surprised at her absolute lack of physical reaction to the invasion of her personal space. In a strangely comfortable silence the two women gazed across the darkening lands.

"What are you thinking about?"

Diana was surprised at the soft question. Could it be the stoic Warrior was finally ready to instigate a friendly conversation?

"I miss my papa. This was always his favorite time of year. I had really hoped I would have had one last Solstice with him."

The quiet pain in Diana's gentle voice made Xena awkwardly wrap a strong arm around her shoulders and squeeze. Surprised by the contact, Diana allowed it and even scooted a tiny bit closer.

"What about you?"

"I miss Gabrielle... desperately."

Did she really just say that so calmly, so easily? Diana's blue eyes looked to her with sympathy and Xena was suddenly anxious to pour her heart out to somebody. Perhaps the ache of keeping her feelings bottled up inside had long since outweighed the risk of exposure. As if sensing the struggle, Diana waited patiently despite the creeping cold. Long minutes passed while Xena stared off into the distance, and then removed her comforting arm from Diana's shoulders. Diana was disapointed until seconds later, a soldier clanked by on patrol.

"Good evening, Your Majesty. Xena"

They nodded as he moved on and solace settled around them once again. Orange light from the fading sunset threw Xena's features into stark relief as she leaned forward to cross her arms on the stone parapet.

"Do you remember the tale Gabrielle told of my death and the rampage of the Amazon, Velasca? Well, she never told it from my point of view, because I've never been able to share it with her, and I wish I had. I found myself in Hades' realm, tied to that cursed cross and ready to give in. Then poor M'lila appeared and told me that when the living think of the dead, the dead can hear their thoughts. Then I could hear my sweet Bard trying to say good-bye. At that moment my heart was no longer my own. Her strength was what brought me back from death. Now, I don't know how to be without her. It feels as if I'm missing the other half of my soul."

Tears welled up in Diana's eyes at her friend's quiet, poignant confession. "You really love her don't you?"

Xena sighed shakily and rested her head on her crossed arms. Why deny it?

"Yes, I do."

Now it was Diana's turn to give her a quick, heartfelt hug. Meg stirred from the doorway where she had been listening. It was time to break this up before Xena became any more upset and threw Diana off the wall in a fit of temper. With a chuckle she approached the two women whose features she shared so closely.

"Enough of the mushy, girly stuff, Queenie. Both of you come inside and eat. Nothin' will get solved sitting out here in the cold. Gabs will be here soon and will want to see you fit 'n' healthy as a horse, Warrior. Now c'mon." Diana covered her mouth and tried unsuccessfully to smother her giggles. Were they going to get away with teasing the mighty Xena, Warrior Princess!? She took one look at their identical smiling faces and gave in with a heavy sigh. Calloused hands were offered to the two scamps and she let them drag her off to dinner.

"We leave at first light."

It was obvious that Gabrielle was taking her separation from Xena worse and worse as time went by. Ephiny and Solari looked at each other and then back to their agitated Queen. As much as they felt loyalty and perhaps even love for their young liege, she could be amazingly transparent. It was painfully obvious to the older Amazons how she felt about her dark Warrior. "I can't stay inside any more. I'm going for a walk." Gabrielle fretted as she bolted out the door. She nearly plowed through Lysia and her third in command, Tomyris. Both of the tall women sidestepped neatly.

The four Amazons took a deep breath and let out a collective sigh. Solari snorted sarcastically and muttered under her breath, "Where's a tall, statuesque ex-warlord when you need one? That girl desperately needs to get laid."

Ephiny gasped in horror at her childhood friend. "Solari!"

Tomyris and Lysia stifled their laughter as they heard Solari's comment. Then an uncharacteristic smile gentled Lysia's serious face as she asked, "we've finished. Do you want to see them?"

Solari chuckled. "Of course. I waited my whole life to see Eph dressed as the horny old goat she really is."

"Ha, ha, ha. *Very* funny," Ephiny growled darkly.

Solari cheekily ignored her and once again adressed Lysia. "What about the one for Gabrielle? We haven't seen it yet. Will it fit?"

"I have a good eye for physique," Lysia drawled.

The sarcasm dripped off the walls.

Lysia pretended to ignore their laughter and reached into the sack in her hand to pull out what appeared to be a fitted suit of multi-colored leather scales. "Ephiny, you're closest in size to your little Queen. Come here, I'm going to use you as a model."

"Yuck, what a drag. Do I look like a beauty contestant to you? Hey, you three aren't going to stand there while I change?" Their droll expressions were answer enough. "Okay, you asked for it." As Ephiny teasingly stripped and put the costume on, the others howled in appreciation.

"WOW!" Solari crowed. Ephiny eyed the mask in her hands and chuckled, "I can't wait to see her in this. I hope both of them appreciate all the trouble we've gone through to see their stubborn hides happy." With a sigh, Ephiny let Lysia poke and prod at the colorful leathers. Now she was all business. "Are we ready for our journey? We have only two days to make a three-day trip. The horses will not be happy."

Winter Solstice had arrived. Xena had never seen so many of her friends in one place. Diana had really outdone herself. Already she had seen Salmoneus and Autolycus in the kitchens and Palamon outshining the local soldiers beside a much thinner Vidalis. As she stood there anxiously, Hercules and Iolaus walked in through the archway. Hercules almost hoped that Xena had not heard them walk up. She had. With that distinctive battle cry, she jumped and started a spinning kick, pulling it a mere finger width from Hercules' raised arm.

"Well I'm happy to see your reflexes haven't slowed," he laughed.

Xena gave him her best don't-mess-with-me look. "Most men who attempt to sneak up on me don't live to tell about it." Hercules laughed again and pulled her into a bone creaking hug. As Iolaus looked on, he noticed a totally unexpected sheen in those arctic blue eyes. Were those tears?

"Hey, are you all right?"

Hercules realized that Iolaus' soft-spoken question had made Xena tense. He carefully held her away from his embrace and looked into her distraught eyes. Something was very wrong indeed. Concerned, he cupped one hand around her cheek and spoke to her in his gentlest voice. "What's wrong?" Xena made a supreme effort to hold herself together, but the slight tremor of her clenched jaw gave her away.

The two men suppressed their concern at the display of emotion. Without hesitation, Hercules roughly yanked her back into his arms. Hades, that bruising grip of hers was going to break his neck. Then he heard a choked sob and his stomach turned to ice. Only one person could cause this kind of reaction in the Warrior. Again he asked his question.

"What's wrong?"

Her iron self-control cracked further. "She's not here!" Hercules barely heard the strangled whisper. "She said she'd be here today." Tears fell unheeded down her bronze cheeks. "She promised me! I waited and waited and now I'm scared to death. What if I never see her again and I have to live with the fact that I never showed her how much she means to me? What if..." A crushing squeeze stopped the torrent of words before she completely lost control and he gave her a moment to catch her breath.

"Do you honestly think there's any power in this life or the next that will keep her away from you?"

 Xena thought about that for a long minute and her heart rate began to subside. Iolaus gave his partner a long, signifigant look and excused himself silently.

 "How did you know?"

 "To quote Aphrodite, 'Duh.' I care about the two of you, and I try to pay attention to my friend's well being. If you'd let me, I'd keep a closer eye on you, but I know better." He grunted and chuckled when she smacked him solidly on the back.

 "Damn you for always being right. Now shut up or I'll really get your shirt wet. Gods, I hate losing my self-control like that, but I can't seem to help myself."

 After brusquely wiping her face on Hercules' shirt, Xena leaned back and gave him a melancholy smile. The soft look in her eyes made him smile back and kiss her on the forehead.

 "She'll be here."

"LYS!! Pull up!!" Gabrielle screamed. The big gelding reared up in mid-gallop as Lysia yanked his head back roughly. She knew the sickening thunk of arrows in flesh and the shattering scream of pain from her mount. With an explosion of energy, she leapt free of the falling animal. "Look out!" Solari called out to Tomyris as a second arrow sang past her head and into the undergrowth. Little Ophelia cried out as her mother went down in a roiling cloud of dust. Horses scattered away from their injured bother and crashed into the heavy undergrowth. Gabrielle tucked into herself as her white mare stumbled and threw her inexperienced rider into a tree.

"Over there! Ephiny! Look out!" Tomyris' warning was well timed as two armed men leapt from behind the trees. A practiced flick of the wrist sent the rope and hook into the forest canopy and both warrior and child were swept upward. Lysia stumbled painfully to her feet and charged into the forest. Now those snipers would pay dearly for endangering her family and killing her prized mount. Someone dropped down beside Gabrielle's wheezing body and spoke to her urgently. "You okay?" Gabrielle accepted Solari's helping hand and followed her further into the trees. The sounds of violence made the Bard hang back. A minute later a bloody Lysia and Solari walked out of the small copse with flat expressions. Tomyris charged up as Ephiny dropped gracefully from the canopy overhead.

"Momma! Momma! You're hurt!" Lysia forced a smile and tousled her daughter's fair hair. "I'll live. We need to go say good-bye to Geode." Mother and daughter headed for the road where they could still hear the wounded gelding crying out in pain. A quick glance was all that was needed and a quick sword thrust put the big animal out of his agony. It hurt Lysia more than she thought it would as she watched the life drain from his eyes. Tomyris put a sympathetic hand on her shoulder and stroked Ophelia's lowered head.

"Your young Queen saved my life," Lysia said somberly, "I won't forget that. Where is she?"

"Damn, she was right behind me," Solari fretted and Lysia automatically took command. "Tomyris, see if you can find the horses. Ephiny, you take the high route and Solari and I will cover the ground."

Ephiny spotted Gabrielle first, using her white mare as a crutch. "Amazing. The one lousy horsewoman in the bunch and you've kept your mount." As the curly-haired Amazon dropped from the trees, she froze at the blaze of emotion in Gabrielle's expressive eyes. Sadness, anger and pain all warred there with frightening intensity as tears welled up.

"We'll never make it, Ephiny. I made her promise she'd wait and now we'll never make it..."

The last rays of daylight faded as Ephiny leapt forward to catch her collapsing friend. Gabrielle clung to her with a strength borne of desperation. How Ephiny ached for her.

The longest night of the year had begun.

Now things were hoppin' at ole' King Lias' place. Music, feasting and dancing in honor of Winter Solstice. Soon their liege would make her appearance with her shadowy double and the party would begin in earnest. Upstairs, things were getting interesting. Xena stood quietly with her hands laced at the back of her neck while Diana brushed her hair and Meg fussed over her costume. This must be how prized livestock felt.

"All right, it's on, but..."

"This is it? Most of the Amazons are wearing more than this."

"Quit fussin'. This is modeled after my best man-killer..." Both of Meg's doubles glared at her sharply. "Err... man-catcher outfits. Better? Guaranteed to score or your money back." Xena snorted and Diana giggled.

"Okay, okay enjoy your fun at my expense while you can. Get dressed Meg. Diana come here and let's get that stuff settled on you correctly."

"Yes ma'am!" They barked in chorus.

It was going to be a long night, Xena sighed to herself.

Where were those girls? Dinner would be over before they made an appearance! Just as Philemon was ready to work himself into a fit, there was a ripple of response in the assembly. There was Xena skulking down the stairs like a great dark wolf. The armor was different, torchlight glittered in the gold-fringed skirt and off claw-like plates on her shoulders and created a shimmering waterfall of sparks down her back and arms. Heavy leather gauntlets complemented the inky black of the unfamiliar armor and the animal half-mask of midnight feathers. It was an unsettling vision and a heavy silence settled over the dining hall. Hercules glanced up from his ale at Iolaus' gasp and they both gaped in astonishment.

"Damn her, couldn't she have come up with *anything* else?" Hercules hissed under his breath.

Xena paused at the foot of the stairs like a wary animal and her hands twitched reflexively. Then a radiant figure in white stepped from the shadows and carefully took the Warrior's tense arm. Draped folds of silky material fell about the Queen's body like soft birds feathers. A white swan half-mask added to the stunning picture they made. A cheerful wave and smile to their friends immediately lightened the mood and Philemon sighed in relief. Trust those two to make an entrance! As they regally walked to the royal dais, Meg stumbled out behind them, almost unnoticed, the young Princess draped negligently on one arm. Gauzy waves of bright peacock colors flowed from her shoulders, back and hips. Another of the half-masks partially obscured her features, this one in gaudy bird feathers.

"There you are! I was beginning to worry you would miss all the fun," Philemon beamed at his masked wife.

Diana released Xena and leaned over to peck her husband on the cheek. "Sorry my love. Girl talk you know." Meg blew kisses to the handsome men and pranced over to the head of the banquet table. "Sorry we're late Phil, but here's the little darlin'."

"Well, you three are in good moods tonight!" Philemon exclaimed. The Queen, the Cocquette and the Conqueror merely looked at one another and swallowed laughter.

When the six Amazons rode back onto the main road, they were a striking sight indeed. Three statuesque women wearing the skins of the beasts of legend, one small girl and two formally garbed Amazons. Tomyris had found only two of the missing horses, so they were forced to double up. Gabrielle hung onto Ephiny's slim waist and wished it was Xena she was nestled up with. The closeness to the tall Warrior was the only thing that made riding enjoyable. The young Queen had been surprised when her second had explained that the Solstice gathering was a costume party. Then Lysia had produced the multi-hued costume and effectively quashed Gabrielle's half-hearted irritation at them. Ugly grey clouds were rolling in from the south and Gabrielle wondered if anything would work in their favor that night. Soon the towering battlements rose into the dark sky and the riders pushed their winded mounts just a bit harder. Two guards stepped from the shadows as they thundered up to the gates.

"Halt! State your business."

To Ephiny's surprise, Gabrielle calmly motioned the soldier over. Her voice took on an authoritative tone the older Amazon had never heard from the Bard. "I am Queen Gabrielle of the Amazons. I am a friend of Queen Diana and her Warrior Princess protector. Let us pass." To emphasize her point, she raised the animal mask and stared steadily into his eyes. That seemed to be good enough for him and he smiled at her. "Of course, your Highness. Xena described you well. Have a merry Solstice." With his gesture, the gates creaked open. Ephiny chuckled as they cantered the exhausted horses into the courtyard. "That charm of yours is amazing." The compliment earned her a tired hug from behind.

"Wow, this place is huge."

"You just don't get out of that forest often enough, Solari." Gabrielle sounded anxious and heartsick. Now that she was so close, she felt exhilarated and confused and her ribs ached to distraction. She had not told her companions of her pain. They would worry and the delay would have made them even more late. "It must be near midnight." Gods above, Ephiny winced at that strained tone of voice in the normally eloquent Bard. They had to find Xena. Quick.

A girl of some ten seasons eyed them warily from the nearby shadows and trained hunter's eyes spotted her. Once again Gabrielle pushed back the mask, but smiled in earnest this time. "Hello. Are you caring for the horses this evening? Ours are quite tired as you can see." Now that the frightening figure of woman and beast had a face, the girl stepped closer.

"I'll take extra special care of them, I promise. Merry Solstice." That earned Gabrielle's best endearing smile. "And a merry Solstice to you." Each of the Amazons pushed back their masks to smile and wish the girl a good holiday. She glowed under their combined attentions and led the three horses away to the stables.

"I guess we need to find them. Follow me."

Once inside the castle proper, Gabrielle realized how little she knew about the place. Then she heard laughter from down the hall to her right. Thank the Fates, she was not going to lose face in front of her fellow Amazons by getting lost!

"This way."

Conversation trailed away into quiet as figures stepped silently into the warm dining hall. Two Amazons, one tall and one smaller efficiently flanked the archway and snapped around to face one another. Formal leathers of deep, natural colors hugged them closely and the headdresses were magnificent. Now the scattered party-goers were paying them their undivided attention and shifting about for a better view. Both Amazons drew their swords and came to full attention. A ripple of response went through the hall as a curvy satyr with a familiar fighting staff in hand strode boldly into the room and looked around. It took a moment before anyone realized it was someone in an elaborate costume and mask. A brightly dyed vest hugged her torso and dark sheepskin with black leather boots clung to her shapely legs. Black gloves and a goat mask with mane and beard completed the illusion. Spontaneous applause and appreciative laughter greeted the stranger and she bowed in acknowledgment before stepping to the tall Amazon's side. Shadowing her was a tall figure with a bull's head and a broad chest. Gauntlets and bracers and an armored belt and loose pants tucked into heavy boots confused the assembly. Then Hercules figured it out and called out, "it's the minotaur!" The androgynous figure nodded its horned head and stepped over to the smaller Amazon guard. A small child in a cloth calf mask scampered out to cling to the minotaur's leg and laughter broke out again. Anticipation rose higher, it was obvious the proud women were building up to something special. Then she stepped into the light and the room went silent.

There were no words to describe the sight. Tall boots and elbow-length gauntlets had been tooled to look like multi-hued reptile scales. Fine leather scale mail wrapped sensuously around her muscled torso, framed tanned cleavage and brushed against strong thighs. Straight horns swept up from a trailing mane of rainbow streamers that framed a majestic reptilian face. Hands rested easily on her hips beside sword and throwing hook. After pausing in the archway for dramatic effect, the sexy dragon stalked arrogantly towards the dining table. A surprisingly life-like tail slithered sinuously to the sway of her hips. All five of her companions saluted her as she moved past them. The assembly was silent as the dragon drew her sword with the ring of steel in scabbard. The fine, narrow blade was raised respectfully to the gathering before being laid on the table.

"It is the eve of the Winter Solstice. The longest night of the year." Armored shoulders shrugged and a chuckle escaped the wooden mask.

"Sorry I'm late."

That broke the tension. A roar of approval went up the assembled heroes and vagabonds. The Bard-voiced dragon swept into a shallow bow and removed the heavy mask with a flourish. Xena felt her heart pound at the sight of Gabrielle's familiar face, framed by neatly braided gold hair. As the other Amazons joined her, their Queen strode down the left side of the huge table. Every person had a word or a friendly touch for her. Autolycus blushed when she gave him a strong hug while he sat, and Salmoneus preened under the same gesture. She had a kind word or a holiday greeting for every person at that table and Xena could only watch her work. Hercules pulled her into his lap and gave her a gentle hug before handing her to Iolaus who did the same. Palamon enthusiastically shook forearms with the Bard and she giggled for a moment with Vidalis. Philemon stood to greet her as the royalty she was.

"Welcome back, Gabrielle. That is an amazing piece of work you're wearing." Gabrielle gestured to where a bare-headed Lysia was chatting animatedly with Hercules. "It was a gift from a new friend." The new king realized she was looking past him so he smiled and stepped aside. Observant sea-green eyes swept over the women who looked so much alike. All three froze under her gaze as a long moment passed in pregnant quiet. Then a slow smile relaxed her features and a gauntleted hand was held out to the woman dressed as the dreaded Conqueror of Nations.

"You wear armor with more ease now, you Highness."

Diana pursed her lips in a petulant expression before responding, "drat, you *did* figure us out. We were hoping to fool you for a little while."

"You did. For a *little* while." A graceful handclasp and Gabrielle turned to Meg as Diana. "Thanks for the letters, I've kept them for future reference. It's good to see you again Meg."

Surprisingly, Meg stood and hugged the small woman tightly. Her brassy voice whispered quietly in Gabrielle's ear, "I'm really glad yer here, Gabby. She's missed you an awful lot."

"Thanks. It was mutual."

Every ache and pain, every sleepless night, every hour of isolated loneliness shone in thier bright eyes. An eternal moment passed between them, told them how much they needed each other. Tentatively, Gabrielle reached out to stroke Xena's cheek and push the peacock mask back. Xena shuddered in reaction to the carved wooden claws against her skin and the intense look in her Bard's eyes. That sweet, loving smile stole her breath away.

"Once again I return to your side. Nothing would keep me away, I swore that. Soon, very soon, I will show you exactly how much I missed you. Until then, just a bit more patience, keeper of my heart."

Xena was stunned by the heat and promise woven through Gabrielle's soft voice and eloquent eyes. She was even more stunned when the young Amazon leaned down and kissed her softly but thoroughly before turning and striding back to her sisters. It took a moment for Xena to realize she was gawking like an idiot and pull herself together. What had come over Gabrielle? Who was this seductive stranger? Gods above she was overcome by that little display. Meg was looking at her knowingly out of the corner of her eye and Xena flushed before pulling the mask back into place. Minutes later the six Amazons were eating ravenously and attempting to be social with the rest of the table. It was obvious they were all exhausted and travel-worn and very hungry. How hard had they ridden? Xena wondered to herself. And who were those tall women and the child? It would be some time before she received any answers and she would have to be patient indeed.

After a hurried meal and some bracing drink, Ephiny and Solari approached to say hello to the Warrior Princess. It was a bit of a shock to Xena how glad she was to see them. Intent on watching the three interact, Gabrielle was startled when Ophelia suddenly crawled into her lap and begged, "please, please tell me a story, auntie Gab. Momma says I need to sleep, but I'm sooo 'cited." Every ear in the place tuned in at the girl's words and the assembly quietly took thier seats. Gabrielle swallowed in pain at the child's body jostling hers and wracked her mind for a tale she had not told the youngster in the last month. So she told the story of the long day when Warrior and Bard had been forced to deal with giants and warlords and lightning storms. As she described the two friends finding patterns in the stars, Ophelia fell sound asleep in her arms. That pretty much signaled the end of the evening for everyone. Quiet goodnights bantered about and Lysia collected her slumbering daughter. Regret sobered Gabrielle as she realized how much time she had missed out with these people this night. Fortunately, her gift for Xena still awaited her patiently.

A deceptively casual gesture from the Amazon Queen brought her Regent to her side. "Can you do me a favor? First, don't say or do anything when I tell you I'm in terrible pain from being thrown earlier." Reaction flared in Ephiny's eyes and her smile faded. "Secondly, there's a cloth sack in my horse's saddlebags. I need it. Thirdly, help me to my feet?" Then Ephiny saw the pain in Gabrielle's eyes and marveled how well the Bard had hid it until now.

"You have become truly extraordinary, my Queen."

"Flatterer. Help me up."

As the crowd slowly dispersed, Xena suddenly looked around in a near panic. Gabrielle was gone! Then a presence at her elbow stopped her up short. While Solari's face was serious, her dark eyes danced with mischief. "My Queen has instructed that I bring you to her. Please follow me." That left little choice but to follow the woman. Soon they stood outside the suite Xena had been occupying during her stay at Diana's castle. Confusion must have shone on Xena's face because Solari chuckled as she took a sentinel post at the heavy door. After a moment a rain-drenched Ephiny stepped out and nodded at the Warrior. "You may go in. Oh, and Xena? Happy Solstice." She took the opposite side of the door and settled herself in for a long morning and possibly afternoon.

Something made Xena hesitate only briefly before stepping into the room. What could they be up to? Candles were lit all over the room, leaving the space in warmth and shadows. A blissfully familiar voice spoke from the dimness of the huge four poster bed Xena hated. "Wait right there for just a moment. Gods, you're beautiful. Come closer, slowly, so I can look at you."

It did not even occur to Xena to question the soft but firm directions. This new side to the gentle storyteller was far too intriguing. The young woman's reclining form was gradually revealed, propped up lazily on the bed. White teeth flashed and a gloved hand waved to dark cloth laid neatly on the blankets beside her. "Your gift." Xena curled her fingers into the material and held it up for inspection. "Try it on for me Xena, please?"

Could she ever deny this woman anything?

Dizzy from the evening's surprises, the bewildered Warrior began to strip. Then she heard Gabrielle catch her breath and realized suddenly that the feelings between them did indeed run a very similar course. So she turned the gift into a tease. Bit by bit Xena's gorgeous physique was exposed and shone golden in the flickering candlelight. Then the familier blue clothing Gabrielle had been working with for weeks took shape perfectly. Its deep color brought out the Warrior's stunning eyes and the simple but elegant cut of the fabric made her look surprising feminine. She was incredable. Then Xena's deep voice spoke shyly and shook the Bard out of her staring. "Gabrielle, this is beautiful, thank you. Now this time I get to ask if you'd like some help with *your* armor." Through her hidden pain and gnawing desire, Gabrielle smiled at the soft joke.

"First, come here and let me finish dressing you."

Xena hitched up the loose pants and gingerly straddled Gabrielle's thighs, glad the tail had been removed. Surprisingly deft clawed fingers worked the laces to the dark brown bodice. Shadowed green eyes intent on her task, Gabrielle spoke softly. "I knew this color would be perfect for you. And it even fits right, my memory of you served me well." Some unspoken emotion hovered between their two bodies. It prompted Xena to speak up. "You looked incredible tonight, I had no idea armor would suit you so well. You were, are, regal and commanding and I..." A slow grin shifted Gabrielle's features and she reached up to draw a single wooden claw down Xena's strong throat and to the shadowed valley at the collar of the new shirt. Breathing stopped for a long moment as sharp arousal flared up from the odd feeling. "I liked it a lot," she finished breathlessly as blue eyes darkened with feeling.

Now both hands wandered, the claws contrasting with warm kidskin palms. They wandered through her dark hair and stroked her serious face. "Did I mention how much I missed you?" Gabrielle whispered. "Every night I would lie awake for hours, listening for the sound of your breath, watching for the firelight to pick out the light and dark of you. Every day I kept expecting to hear you suddenly say something or chuckle or comment on some new accomplishment. So I imagined you doing all those little things and somehow kept my sanity."

Once again tears filled Xena's startling eyes. How could she express herself like that? The answer was simple. She could not. So Xena the only thing she could and poured all her emotions into her blurry gaze and leaned down. Gabrielle's gentle hands on her neck encouraged her closer. Once again the brave Warrior's courage failed her and she paused a breath away from her friend's gentle smile. Green eyes turned knowing and one leather clad arm snaked around her strong neck. "Come here and let me try kissing you without that damn mustache. Really kissing you." They had barely touched when Xena's forearm brushed against the scale mail and Gabrielle flinched away. It surprised Xena how much that subtle rejection hurt her fragile heart.

"No wait Xena, I'm not pulling away from *you*. My ribs just hurt, that's all. Come here." Once again Gabrielle coaxed the dark head close and she pressed a kiss to the hollow of nose and cheek. The gesture not only earned a smile, but a soft chuckle as well. So she trailed tiny kisses over the strong cheekbone and across ebony brows before tracing the pulse of Xena's unsteady heart nestled between tense cords of tendon and muscle. Tiny hairs stood on end as the Bard's seductive voice whispered in her ear, "I love you. I think I've loved you since the day you rode into Poetidea and thrashed those slavers. Only now things have changed between us. You feel it too."

Not a question but a statement. Xena could barely think, much less talk, but managed to whisper, "I desperately want to hold you close right now, but you're acting like you're hurting more than you're letting on."

"So lie flat, you won't break me. Just stay away from my lower back."

"First you need to get out of this outfit and let me look. I thought earlier that you were moving a bit awkwardly but I wasn't sure."

Xena pulled her head back to gaze into disapointed blue-green eyes. A lingering kiss silenced her sensitive Bard and that impossible energy flared between them. Once again Xena had to focus her attention and she stared intently into Gabrielle's warm eyes, growling, "I need to check those ribs and then no force among man or god will keep me from being in your arms." That earned a satisfied smile as Xena gave her a significant look and climbed off of the bed. When she yanked the door open, both Ephiny and Solari jerked away as though burned.

"Don't do that!"

The big Warrior's grin calmed them both quickly. "Could one of you track down some lengths of bandages and the salve the soldiers use for broken ribs? I don't think her injuries are that serious, but..." When Ephiny moved to go, she was stopped by her old friend. "I don't think you should be running around soldiers dressed like a satyr Eph." That red flush and Xena's unexpected laughter made Solari smile hugely as she trotted away.

"Well at least you haven't lost any weight." That comment earned a scowl from Gabrielle and a snort of laughter from Ephiny. The taller Amazon had been drafted to act as nurse. Her Queen leaned back heavily on her while Xena unlaced the patterned boots.

"This really is amazing, even the boots have toes and claws. Sturdy suit of armor too."

"It's a bit gaudy."

"Sure, but think of the potential ceremonial value."

"Maybe, but I'm not sure the Queen of Artemis' Amazons wants to be known as a dragon."

"Hey, don't underestimate the majesty of dragons."

"Have you seen one up close?"

"Uhh, yeah. I'm surprised the Bard here hasn't told the tale of Xena and Hercules freeing Prometheus."

"Oh yeah, I do remember that now. But didn't he try to stop you?"

"Well, yeah, he *tried*."

Gabrielle relaxed into their rambling conversation until Solari finally returned with the requested items. "Okay, Gabrielle stand up and let me take a good look at that bruising. Solari can you grab me a candle? Thanks." Gabrielle tried to relax into Ephiny's comforting embrace but was distracted by the cold stone floor and the nubby vest rubbing against her bare breasts. Xena knelt behind her and traced feather-light fingers over her sore lower back. Each touch made Gabrielle flinch and clench her teeth. Solari had never seen Xena the Healer. She had no idea the intimidating woman could be like this. Finally Xena rested gentle hands on Gabrielle's hipbones and began to speak in a low, sensuous voice.

"I need to be sure they're not broken, but it's going to hurt like Tartarus. Hold on tight to Ephiny and just listen to my voice, Gabrielle. Just listen to my voice..."

Those deep tones were hypnotizing and all three Amazons grew still. Suddenly, Xena's right hand swept firmly across the discolored flesh, expertly flexing searching fingers into the hurt. Gabrielle cried out in pain, and Xena quickly smeared the salve across her back and wrapped both Queen and acting Queen in powerful embrace. "Oh Gabrielle, I'm so sorry... But that's the only way. How I hate hurting you."

Now her voice was shaking and Ephiny wriggled an arm loose to stroke Xena's arm comfortingly. Inside her mind, Xena added the curly haired Amazon to the list of people who no longer made her body jump and flinch. It was a very short list certainly, but she had actually learned to care about those few people enough to give them her trust. Ephiny was surprised and pleased by Xena's strong hand stroking her head. Untill Gabrielle's trembling slowed, the three women remained tangled together while Solari looked on. Finally the Bard spoke quietly in a ragged voice. "All done? Because if you are, could you wrap me up before I pass out?"

"Of course, love." Xena pulled away and once again knelt. The older two Amazons shared a knowing look over the endearment they were sure Xena had not even realized she had voiced. As Xena's powerful, gentle hands wrapped the lengths of soft cloth around her, Gabrielle kept clenching her strong hands into the bruises she had already left on Ephiny. Somehow Solari sensed the new bond that Ephiny had been included in and quietly excused herself to resume her post at the door. They wished her a good night and scattered thanks.

When Xena stood again, Gabrielle finally tried to take a deep breath and was immediately surprised by how little air she could draw in. Comforting hands and bodies soothed her panic. "Shh, Gabrielle it's all right, just keep your breathing slow and steady. That's it..." Moments later she was on the bed with their four hands soothing her to sleep. That left Ephiny and Xena to look awkwardly at one another over her prone frame. Perhaps it was only Gabrielle that bonded the two warriors. Perhaps it was more. Regardless, Xena was too tired to argue over the new connection. She merely asked quietly, "stay with us? It's cold and you have to be at least as tired as Gabrielle." There was no mistaking the flare of reaction in those hazel-gold eyes. Xena moved to a small trunk and removed a handful of white cloth to toss at the Amazon. Then she began to strip again and Ephiny went to the door to speak with Solari. Mischief and envy danced in her friend's dark eyes, but for once she did not tease.

When Ephiny turned back to the room, Xena was just dropping a white shirt over her head. Suddenly awkward and shy, the blonde's deep voice quietly carried to the Warrior.

"Are you sure you want me here?"

Despite herself, Ephiny flinched away when Xena strode purposefully over to her. For a long moment the tall Warrior gazed down at her before gentling. "Over the last few weeks I've realized there are less than a handful of people that my body's paranoid reactions utterly ignore." Ephiny squeaked in shock when she was suddenly swept up into a crushing hug. "You are one of those few. It's been too many years since I've loved or trusted anyone, but I'm relearning. Now change and come to bed and help me keep your Queen warm." With one last squeeze, Xena set a very flustered Ephiny back down and went to the bed.

Gabrielle woke with a start when her beloved Warrior snuggled up behind her and held her close. "Are you really here?"

"Yes, love. Ephiny will be close in a moment and we'll keep you warm and safe."

Moments later, another warm body cuddled up to Gabrielle and she was comfortably spooned between them. With a contented sigh she nuzzled into Ephiny's curls and draped a possessive hand over Xena's hip. Powerful arms cradled both exhausted Amazons close and stroked their different shades of golden hair. "Happy Winter Solstice," Xena breathed across her soulmate's ear and Gabrielle smiled happily before falling into an easy sleep.

>>>ALL NEW<<<

Gabrielle shows a surprising facet to her personality and catches Xena completely off guard.

"Don't you understand how much I need you? Emotionally, mentally, physically. And as soon as my body's up to it, I fully intend to have my way with you. Just remember that Warrior Princess."

And Xena's just along for the ride.

"I never would have expected such a kinky streak in you Gabrielle."

But what do Xena and Gabrielle want with Ephiny?

"I'm almost ready to beg... almost."


(or whenever...)

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