< Melodia: Music Capital of Love >

Rating: nc-17      Disclaimer: I own nothing. I just played around with Xena and Gabrielle because it's fun, and it was a challenge.

Summary: What if the trip to Melodia made the warrior princess and Amazon queen face some feelings they'd had for a while?

“Can you believe that after all this time Draco is still infatuated with me?” Gabrielle asked, voice brash and irritated as the two women entered their room that evening.

Xena looked around the room that was theirs for the duration of their stay in Melodia. It was pleasantly spacious. The four walls housed a fireplace, a table, two hardback wooden chairs, a rocking chair next to the hearth, and a full sized bed. It was by far on of the nicest establishments they had ever stayed in. The warrior surveyed the area, satisfied that the thick cedar door would keep out any unwelcome visitors.

Gabrielle had memorized her traveling companion's routine by now. Still, for some reason, it was bothering her that Xena had gone into perimeter protection mode when she was trying to have a conversation with her. “Xena? Did you hear what I said?”

Xena sighed heavily. Of course she had, but an entirely different thought had been plaguing her thoughts, and she didn't think she could allow it to rest any longer. “I heard you, Gabrielle.” She paused for a minute, taking a breath and continuing before the blonde could say anything else. “Do you know what I have a harder time believing?”

“What's that?” the bard asked, sitting on the edge of the bed and beginning to unlace her boots.

“How jealous you were over Joxer catching Amoria's eye,” she said simply, left eyebrow quirking up, half joking and half serious. “Something you wanna tell me, Amazon?”

Gabrielle's jaw dropped as she looked up at the tall, dark haired woman, stunned at the suggestion. “you...You think I'm into..” she gulped, “Joxer? Xena? Just saying that sentence made me feel sick.”

“You were the one who was so jealous over the two of them,” Xena muttered, removing her breastplate. She frowned at the newly purchased piece of metal, longing for her other one, but her stomach only allowing this one. Deciding that the room was too cold, and the conversation too heavy, she crossed the floor to the fireplace.

“By the gods,” Gabrielle inhaled in surprise. “Xena! You're jealous!” she exclaimed, amused by the reaction of the warrior princess.

“Me? Jealous? Of what?” Xena asked, tone defensive as icy glaciers narrowed to look into moss green.

“Because you think I'm jealous over Joxer,” Gabrielle replied, the right corner of her mouth up in a half smile. She crossed the floor, resting a hand on the pregnant woman's arm gently. She waited, silently willing the raven hair woman to respond, but found herself only met with Xena's trademark stoicism. “It wasn't jealousy,” she said softly. “It was concern, Xena. Joxer may be irritating...extremely irritating, but he's still our friend. Amoria's a user. I didn't want her to hurt him.”

“So you weren't jealous?” Xena asked softly, lifting her eyes to look into Gabrielle's sea green depths.

“No. I wasn't,” the bard assured her. “But you are,” she said gently, placing a hand lightly on each of Xena's cheeks. “Why?”

Xena's breath caught in her chest as she stared into the blonde's eyes. She took a deep breath, and slid the tip of her tongue over her lips to respond.

A quick knock at the door interrupted any hope for a continuance of their conversation.

Xena reluctantly pulled her face away from the warmth of Gabrielle's hands, grabbing her breastplate out of habit, holding it to her chest. Cautiously, she tugged the door open, freeing it from the latch.

“Mom!” she said, voice littered with shock. “Oh, please not another suitor,” she groaned, stepping aside to allowed her mother entry.

Cyrene chuckled mischievously. “No more suitors,” she promised. She looked past Xena. “Gabrielle, I see that you were finally able to shake Draco.”

“Not soon enough,” Gabrielle mumbled.

“Yeah. You danced like a trained monkey first,” Xena teased.

“Oh, hush,” Cyrene reprimanded her daughter good-naturedly. As if noticing the way Xena was holding her the piece of metal to her chest, for the first time, Cyrene heard the breastplate snapping into place. “Am I interrupting something?” she asked, looking between the bard and Xena.

“No!” the women said forcefully, voices ringing out in unison. The guilty look on both of the girls' faces told Cyrene that she had interrupted a more intimate moment than either was ready to admit.

“Alright,” Cyrene said evenly, watching both women smile shyly at each other before averting their gaze to the floor. The look spoke volumes to the woman, and made her question how her message was going to be received. “Xena, Amoria is looking for you. She asked that you join her in the dining area.” the warrior princess's mother announced, oblivious to the conversation that had happened just before she'd entered the room.

Gabrielle turned to look at her companion. “Amoria?” she echoed, feeling her pulse quicken in rage.

Xena shrugged at her friend, a goofy grin igniting on her face, as if offering a polite “Sorry”. “Come on, Gabrielle. We can talk about this later,” Xena said, motioning for the bard to follow.

Cyrene winced slightly. This had been the part she was dreading. She knew Xena never went anywhere if Gabrielle wasn't at her side. “Gabrielle, I so sorry,” she spoke softly. “She specifically asked to see Xena alone.”

“Alone,” Gabrielle repeated, as if the word was foreign. “She does know that we're practically glued at the hip, right?”

Xena placed a gentle hand on the Amazon's shoulder. “Look, I'll make it a quick trip. It'll give you time to look over your scrolls. You haven't been able to do that in a while, right?” she attempted to appease.

“Xena? Alone. With Amoria,” the bard challenged again, anger welling inside of her at the thought of the other Amazon near her warrior princess.

“Yeah. I've got ears. I heard that part,” Xena said softly.

“Ugh!” Gabrielle growled in disgust, feeling like she wanted to hit something. She looked down at the floor, unable to look at Xena before lifting her eyes to meet hers again. Xena stood calmly a couple of feet in front of her. “Fine. Go,” she spat, head rising defiantly at the warrior.

Xena looked at her apologetically, placing a hand tenderly on her shoulder. “I won't be gone long,” she promised. “We can talk when I get back.”

“As long as I'm not asleep,” Gabrielle retorted, voice heated.

“When I get back,” Xena repeated pointedly.

The thick wooden door sank against the frame with little noise, the warrior's footsteps disappearing further and further down the hall until they could be heard no longer. That was when Cyrene noticed Gabrielle's countenance.

“Gabrielle? What's the matter?” she asked gently.

Gabrielle shook her short blond locks. “I just don't like her. That's all,” came the lame reply.

“Xena?” Cyrene asked, surprise evident in her voice.

“No. Amoria. Something about her just...eats me alive inside.”

“I'm sure that's a big part of it, dear, but that look playing across your face suggested something a bit more substantial,” came the older woman's wisdom.

Gabrielle blushed lightly, realizing for the first time where it was that Xena had inherited the gene to read her thoughts and emotions just by looking at her. She swallowed hard, trying to muster her courage. “Cyrene, I...I,” she tried. She shook her head in frustration. “I'm sorry. I just can't talk about it,” she said quietly, her face dark and pained before turning her back to the other woman.

“Oh, nonsense,” Cyrene encouraged, placing a hand on the bard's shoulder. “You can talk with me about anything,” she assured her.

“You sure about that?” Gabrielle asked, turning to face Xena's mother.

“Of course,” Cyrene nodded, squeezing the blonde's hand warmly, and focusing all of her attention on Gabrielle.

“Okay. Here it goes,” the storyteller said nervously, wringing her hands and taking a deep, nervous breath, heart fluttering wildly. “I...um...I think I'm in love with your daughter.”

                                     

<

Hey, Xena!” the voice flowed over the din of the tavern. It was lively that evening. The red faced barkeep was desperately trying to keep up with the constant flow of ale from the barrels as mugs clanged together and men laughed boisterously about this and that.

Xena smiled at the dark skinned Amazon. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this little meeting?”

“Oh, we've got plenty of time to get to that, girl. Let's get you a drink first. What'll ya have?”

Xena looked down at her taut, rounded stomach, desperately wishing for a mug of port, but settling on a glass of milk.

Amoria chuckled, extending a hand and rubbing it lightly over the warrior's shoulder. “Don't worry about it. I'll buy you a glass of the hard stuff when the time's right.”

“Gee, thanks,” Xena replied playfully.

Amoria waved her hand, a cheeky smile on her face. Taking a quick sip of port, she swallowed it, clearing her throat afterwards.

Xena watched as the woman in front of her seemed to mull the words over in her head before she spoke them. No doubt getting ready to touch on a sensitive subject.

“Gabrielle was okay with you coming to meet me?”

Um...no, Xena thought quietly, but willing herself to verbally respond otherwise. “Gabrielle? Why wouldn't she be?”

Amoria shrugged. “I just didn't know how tightly she held your reins,” came the nonchalant reply as she lifted the mug to her lips to hide the smug smile crossing her features.

Xena's top lip curled into the slightest hint of a sneer. “Gabrielle doesn't have me on reins,” she said, voice as cool as ice as she downed the last of the milk in her glass. “Why in Tartarus would you think she did?”

“You mean you two aren't...” the Amazon flicked her wrist, her nose wrinkling as she searched for the words. The warrior's response was nothing like the script that she'd outlined in her head.

Xena stared at her blankly, an expectant look on her face. “Well?”

“Damn,” Amoria muttered under her breath, running a hand nervously over her hair, unsure of how to complete her thought. The last thing she'd want to do was to upset a pregnant woman who could kill her with two fingers. Giving up, she settled on bluntness. “You sleep with your sidekick, right?”

Blue eyes narrowed, and an eyebrow shot up, a movement which made Amoria's blood freeze for just a second. “And if I do?” the warrior princess asked coolly.

The girl wasn't as easy to crack as Amoria had thought. She'd wagered on being able to manipulate Xena easily, but of course, she wasn't that lucky and Xena wasn't that stupid. “Your answer is what determines whether or not I tell you why I brought you here tonight.”

Eyeing the Amazon cautiously, Xena motioned the barkeep over for another glass of milk.

Amoria wiggled nervously in her seat as the two sat in silence, waiting for the flustered man to leave.

Xena, still eyeing the Amazon took a deep swig of milk, contemplating how to put her relationship with Gabrielle into words. “Gabrielle isn't a sidekick,” she said, holding her best friend in esteem. “She is the one of the best, just, and most courageous fighters that you could ever hope to meet.” She eyed Amoria hard. “In answer to your question, no. We share a bed. We huddle for warmth, but nothing beyond that. Why?”

Amoria smiled, mood brightening as she relaxed a bit. She'd been worried that she would have to seduce the warrior from the pocket sized Amazon queen. A little seduction still might be fun, but for now, she could tone it down.

“I want you to join us, Xena” Amoria said, newfound confidence shining in her voice.

Xena looked doubtfully. “You want me to become an Amazon? Amoria, my thighs wouldn't fit into one of those outfits in my current condition.”

“Girl, not the Amazons,” she replied, smacking Xena's arm lightly. “After this whole battle of the bands competition, the girls and I realized that we want to tour the known world and share our tunes with everyone.. We would love for you to join. Your voice is spectacular, Xena.”

“You know, I'd love to help you out, but I'm still pregnant.”

“That's just a small hindrance,” Amoria grinned convincingly. “If you're worried about it, you can join us after the baby comes. It would be such a shame to let those amazing pipes of yours go to waste.”

Xena thought for a moment, flattered by the compliments. It would be nice to make a living without having to kill one warlord or another every now and then. Her child would be able to see any destination it wished, and they would have some stability. There was just one problem. “I do enjoy singing,” Xena agreed. “Of course, I'd have to see how Gabrielle would feel about us being on the move all the time.”

“Gabrielle?” Amoria asked, rolling her eyes. “What's she got to do with your decision?”

Xena smiled. “She's my life. She has everything to do with it.”

“Xena, don't you think it's time for a clean break? You've got a baby coming. Don't you think it's time for you to start a new life? To let her start hers? To allow her to do all the things traveling with you has held her back from doing?” Amoria pressed.

Xena held a hand up to silence the Amazon, her heart aching. She just couldn't handle anymore of the conversation. Leaving her would tear my heart from my chest, but maybe it would be the best thing for her, Xena thought. “I'm not saying yes just yet, I need to think about this. If I do decide to join you, it would definitely be after the baby is born.” Every since finding out about her pregnancy, she had pictured her returning to camp from hunting to find Gabrielle telling a story to the bundle she brought into this world. The evenings of them spent laughing teaching the baby to speak. To walk. Trading all of those dreams in would allow Gabrielle to be the traveling Bard that she had always wanted to be. “I'll think about it,” she reserved quietly.

“You rock!” Amoria exclaimed, throwing her arms around a very surprised warrior princess.

“I said I would think about it,” Xena pointed out.

“And that's enough for me.”

 

>

It had been at least three candle marks since Xena had gone to meet Amoria. Gabrielle had been counting every drip of wax. She paced about the room, recounting her previous conversation with Cyrene. The older woman had been understanding about her feelings for Xena, and even believed that Xena might feel the same. However, Gabrielle had mentally reasoned that Cyrene had only said the latter to make it easier for her to confess her true feelings to the warrior.

Finally, the sound of footfalls on wood floorboards met her ears. She recognized the heavy thump of Xena's boots, a sign that her feet were beginning to swell from carrying her own weight and the unborn child's. She recognized this pattern, just as well as she knew the warrior princess's lower back would be aching. She reacted quickly, throwing herself into the bed and clenching her eyes shut. She couldn't have Xena thinking she'd waited up for her.

“Sisters are doin' it for themselves...standin' on their own two feet,” the taller woman warbled softly as she opened the door.

She's singing? Gabrielle thought to herself. She never sings. Well...Unless someone is dead. Uh oh. I hope no one is dead, she thought frantically, eyes opening. Of course not. She's far too happy. Way too happy.

“Xena?” she called out, attempting to make her voice sound groggy, as if she'd been fast asleep.

“I'm sorry, Gabrielle,” Xena said, tone hushed. “I didn't know you'd be sleeping.”

“It's late,” the bard pointed out, sitting up and tousling her short blonde hair with her fingers.

“Go back to sleep. I'm sorry that I woke you,” the warrior princess apologized again, shedding her breastplate.

“No,” Gabrielle responded. “It's fine. I'm awake now anyway,” she said, rising from the bed, and ushering her expectant friend to sit.

Xena gifted the blonde with a half smile. “So you are.”

Gabrielle knelt to the floor in front of Xena, busying her fingers with the laces of the warrior's boots, slipping one off and then the other. Just as she'd thought, her feet were swollen.

Xena stood, thanking Gabrielle softly. She busied herself with shedding her leathers while the blonde settled underneath the quilts again. When she'd disrobed into her under-shift, she join the bard in the bed.

Gabrielle shifted, giving Xena a little more room to get comfortable before resting her head against the taller woman's shoulder and running a finger gently over the swollen curve of Xena's belly. “What did she want?” she asked softly, voice sounding vulnerable as it touched the hollow of Xena's ears.

“Hm? Who?” Xena asked, the bard's nearness distracting her momentarily as her fingers sifted gently through Gabrielle's hair.

“Amoria,” the reply was low and insecure from the bard.

“Oh,” Xena said, sighing deeply. “We talked about the band battle. I guess it helped her realize a dream of hers.”

“I understand that,” Gabrielle said softly.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“How do you mean?” Xena asked, re-positioning her arm so that it was around the bard, holding her close.

“It's embarrassing,” Gabrielle admitted, a light blush tinting her cheeks, but going undetected in the soft glow of the candlelight.

“Embarrassing? Gabrielle, we've been though talking lice, foot rot, and Joxer's soup recipe together. How much more embarrassing can ya get?”

Gabrielle laughed, moving closer and enjoying the warmth that Xena offered. “I guess your right,” she conceded. “Do you remember when I went to the academy in Athens?”

“Yeah,” Xena said, heart twinging at the memory of the blonde's absence.

“I've always wanted to be a bard. I love telling stories. In a weird way, putting that show together brought that passion back out in me. Seeing all the talent out there, or lack thereof in most cases, stirred something in me that had been sleeping for a while. It made me think about a new kind of storytelling. A new kind of theater where people not only speak words while they're onstage, but they sing and dance too.”

“Musical theater,” Xena said approvingly, a smile on her face. “That could really catch on.”

“Yeah, but with a better name. I'm still working on it,” she said, her nose crinkling in thought.

I'd like to see you do something that you really enjoy like that. I want to see you happy.”

Gabrielle nodded against Xena's shoulder. “Just think about it Xena. If you ever wanted to settle down, stop traveling so much, we could have a really good life here in Melodia. I could write a few plays, and your voice is like a siren's call. You could help me with the musical aspect of it, or even be in the plays if you wanted. We could settle down, right here, in the music capital of Greece.”

Xena's heart ached at the tenderness in Gabrielle's words. “It sounds like you've thought a lot about this,” she commented, swallowing hard.

“I have. No warlords chasing after us. The baby could have a regular life with friends, a good school,” she continued wistfully. “We could get some land and build a house, exactly the way we want it.”

Xena allowed the bard's word to weave a beautiful tapestry through her mind, leaving no corner untouched. It sounded so nice. So perfect. Still, the invitation from Amoria nagged in the outermost recesses of her mind. She had pros and cons to sort through for certain, but at this moment, Amoria's biggest con, was no Gabrielle. Gabrielle's biggest con was...there wasn't one, except the thing Xena feared. Holding Gabrielle back. She didn't want her to be pinned down here if she was destined for greater things.

“What do you think?” Gabrielle asked softly, rubbing Xena's stomach gently with loving caresses.

“I think it sounds wonderful,” Xena admitted truthfully.”I'll tell you what. If you want to try this new theater, you and I can start working to make it happen. You can work on some scripts, and we can put our heads together for some songs. We'll start there. As for long term, let's get this baby out of me, and then decide the future.”

“Okay,” the Amazon smiled, giving the warrior a quick kiss on the cheek. “Goodnight, Xena.”

“Goodnight, Gabrielle,” she replied, snuggling closer to the bard, allowing the woman's body heat to envelop her and dispel the rest of the cold night air grasping at her skin.

Soon, the two feel into a deep, fast sleep. One dreaming of becoming a successful playwright with her warrior princess at her side, and the other dreaming of being in the center of an unstable roped bridge with an Amazon shaking each side.

<

Gabrielle sat in a quiet, dimly lit corner of the tavern, quill flying furiously over the scroll in front of her. Her conversation with Xena the night before had left her in good spirits, feeling as if she could actually accomplish her dreams.

“How's it going?” a voice asked, startling her from her intense concentration.

“Xena!” she jumped, voice breathless, and heart racing in her chest. “It's going pretty good,” she smiled. “Ready to work on some music?”

The warrior looked at the space next to the bard, eyes falling to the a chair pressed against the wall. Sitting atop of the chair, a rather large, discarded collection of crumbled up parchments. “What are those?” she asked curiously.

“Oh, bad ideas,” the blonde said simply.

“Ah,” Xena signaled her understanding with a nod. “Hey! What if we do something completely off the wall?” the taller woman asked, pulling a chair from the table and sitting close to Gabrielle.

Gabrielle shivered lightly at the nearness of the warrior princess. Clearing the thoughts coursing through her body, she coughed slightly.

“You alright?” Xena asked, placing a hand lightly on her friend's shoulder.

“Oh, yes. I'm fine,” Gabrielle assured her with a smile. “Off the wall? What did you have in mind?”

“Well,” Xena began leaning close, urging the bard closer. “Think of this,” she said excitedly. “We have a bunch of people dressed as cats who sing and dance. We tell this whole untold story about the things they do in secret,” she offered, smiling affectionately at the image in her head.

Gabrielle sat, looking at Xena in disbelief. “Xena...that's a...wow. That's...” she searched. “That's a terrible concept. No one would ever pay to see a musical play about cats. It would never take off.”

Xena bit her lip, looking down toward her knees. “Yeah...maybe you're right,” she conceded, surrendering the thought.

“I know I am,” Gabrielle said with a confident nod of her head.

“Hey, Xena!” Amoria called from across the quickly crowding room, waving when she caught sight of the bronze woman sitting in the corner with the bard.

Gabrielle's breath hitched sharply. Cutting her eyes to the side, she gazed at Xena, skin crawling as the warrior smiled and offered a quick, friendly wave to the Amazon.

“Pop that baby out yet?” Amoria continued, setting Gabrielle's teeth on edge.

“I wish,” Xena grumbled as the ebony skinned woman approached her and rested a hand on her arm, rubbing her thumb along the warrior's skin. An action not going unnoticed by Gabrielle.

“Well, get cracking, mama. I can't wait to start exercising those pipes of yours,” Amoria said silkily, giving the warrior princess a wink as she turned to walk away.

Wait just a minute. No is is exercising Xena's anything but me, she thought, gritting her teeth. Looking over at Xena, she took note of the slightest hint of a blush covering her features. “Xena?” she asked, touching the other woman's arm gently, visibly yanking her out of a deep thought.

“Hm?” Xena asked, appearing to be more distracted by the other Amazon than her blonde companion liked.

“What was all that?” Gabrielle asked quietly.

Xena's eyes darted around the room with lightning speed, and her tongue slipped forward, moistening the contour of her bottom lip nervously as she reached for an answer. Gabrielle had a right to know about Amoria's proposition, and Xena knew that. She knew she'd have to tell her eventually, but right now, the time wasn't right.

“Xena?” Gabrielle tried again, shaking her friend's arm gently.

“Sorry. I thought I saw a scuffle starting over there. What did you ask me?” She hated playing dumb with the bard, but at the moment, it was all she had.

“What was that about...with Amoria?”

“Oh, that. She's just been teasing me about my singing. Something about me not being such a tough warrior if I can sing,” she said, smiling at the other woman. “What's wrong?” she asked, seeing the look of disapproval on her companion's face.

Gabrielle shrugged, avoiding Xena's eyes. “Maybe I don't want anyone else teasing you,” the Amazon queen said, voice so soft it was barely audible, but it didn't go unnoticed by the other set of ears at the table.

Xena looked at her, a surprised expression crossing her face like the rising sun beginning to cover the land of Greece. She opened her mouth to reply to the seemingly hurt blonde.

“Girls! I was hoping I'd find you here,” Cyrene's voice carried through the room, interrupting the conversation for the second time in two days.

Xena groaned audibly, and this time, Gabrielle fought from expelling a vocal protest of her own.

“Mother,” Xena said curtly, turning around and dragging her eyes to meet echoing azure ones.

“I know,”Cyrene said, holding up her hands in surrender. “All I wanted to do was tell you goodbye. I'm checking out first thing in the morning.”

Xena softened, feeling instantly guilty for the irritation she'd felt toward her mother. She pulled the older woman into a hug. “Mom. I'll miss you. I'll be sure to bring the baby to see you as soon as I can,” she assured her.

Cyrene looked over Xena's shoulder, locking eyes with Gabrielle, who had now risen to bid her farewell. “You make sure you do.”

“I promise we will,” Gabrielle said, standing to embrace the woman. “Thank you for everything,” she whispered.

“Just remember what I told you,” Cyrene said, speaking only for Gabrielle's ears to hear.

“Don't wait until it's too late to do something about your feelings.”

“What are you two whispering about?” Xena asked, splaying her hands over her aching lower back.

“Just a little girl talk,” Cyrene answered, expression innocent. “You girls be sure to take care of each other. I love you both,” she said, blowing each of them a quick kiss and exiting the room.

“Ya know,” Gabrielle said, a light smile on her face as she rested an elbow on Xena's shoulder. “I'm going to miss your mother,” she realized.

“Yeah. Me too,” Xena agreed, putting her arm around the bard. “So...about those singing cats.”

>

They'd been at it for about four hours, and Xena was getting hungry. And Gabrielle, well, she was desperately seeking for a hit. Her mind was distracted, however, riddled with the looks that Amoria had cast in the direction of her warrior princess earlier.

Xena shook her head. “Gabrielle, I can't hit another high note,” she said breathlessly. “I need food, and so does baby Xena,” the dark haired woman said, voice on edge, as she pushed herself up from her chair. “Want to come with me to get a bite to eat?”

“Maybe for dinner,” Gabrielle replied, trying to concentrate on the parchment in front of her.

“But it's lunch time,” Xena pointed out, stomach growling in agreement.

“I'm on a streak. Maybe bring me something back?” the blonde offered, attempting a compromise.

Xena shrugged. “Suit yourself. I'll be back in a bit. What do you want me to bring you?”

“Surprise me,” Gabrielle smiled, looking briefly into Xena's eyes before returning them to the parchment on the table.

In all honesty, Xena was glad that Gabrielle wasn't accompanying her. There was a stop she needed to make first, and she could only imagine the tense air that would follow if the bard were with her.

Closing the door behind her, Xena walked purposefully down the hall, halting a couple of doors down. She raised her hand, preparing to knock, but the door opened before she could complete the action.

“Xena,” Amoria said, flashing her teeth in a surprised smile. “What brings you to my door?”

“Amoria,” Xena said calmly, offering a smile in return. “I was actually hoping that the two of us could talk.”

“That would be good. I want to know where your head is at,” the Amazon ran a hand lightly down Xena's arm, clasping it gently. “I really want to give you whatever you want, so that you'll want to travel with us. Why don't you come in?” she stepped back, offering the taller woman entry.

Xena smiled, swallowing hard at the nearness of the other woman. She fought not to take a step back. “I know you want to give me what I want,” she replied, wincing as her stomach growled angrily at her. “Right now, what I really want is a salt pork, fish, and raspberry jam sandwich. Want to join me for dinner?”

Amoria wrinkled her nose in disgust at the pregnant woman's cravings, slightly disappointed that her invitation inside had been declined. “Maybe with a different flavor combination, yeah. I'd love to join you. Let's go,” she answered, weaving her arm through Xena's. They made their way to the dining hall, exchanging small talk along the way.

They'd been at it for about four hours, and Xena was getting hungry. And Gabrielle, well, she was desperately seeking for a hit. Her mind was distracted, however, riddled with the looks that Amoria had cast in the direction of her warrior princess earlier.

Xena shook her head. “Gabrielle, I can't hit another high note,” she said breathlessly. “I need food, and so does baby Xena,” the dark haired woman said, voice on edge, as she pushed herself up from her chair. “Want to come with me to get a bite to eat?”

“Maybe for dinner,” Gabrielle replied, trying to concentrate on the parchment in front of her.

“But it's lunch time,” Xena pointed out, stomach growling in agreement.

“I'm on a streak. Maybe bring me something back?” the blonde offered, attempting a compromise.

Xena shrugged. “Suit yourself. I'll be back in a bit. What do you want me to bring you?”

“Surprise me,” Gabrielle smiled, looking briefly into Xena's eyes before returning them to the parchment on the table.

In all honesty, Xena was glad that Gabrielle wasn't accompanying her. There was a stop she needed to make first, and she could only imagine the tense air that would follow if the bard were with her.

Closing the door behind her, Xena walked purposefully down the hall, halting a couple of doors down. She raised her hand, preparing to knock, but the door opened before she could complete the action.

“Xena,” Amoria said, flashing her teeth in a surprised smile. “What brings you to my door?”

“Amoria,” Xena said calmly, offering a smile in return. “I was actually hoping that the two of us could talk.”

“That would be good. I want to know where your head is at,” the Amazon ran a hand lightly down Xena's arm, clasping it gently. “I really want to give you whatever you want, so that you'll want to travel with us. Why don't you come in?” she stepped back, offering the taller woman entry.

Xena smiled, swallowing hard at the nearness of the other woman. She fought not to take a step back. “I know you want to give me what I want,” she replied, wincing as her stomach growled angrily at her. “Right now, what I really want is a salt pork, fish, and raspberry jam sandwich. Want to join me for dinner?”

Amoria wrinkled her nose in disgust at the pregnant woman's cravings, slightly disappointed that her invitation inside had been declined. “Maybe with a different flavor combination, yeah. I'd love to join you. Let's go,” she answered, weaving her arm through Xena's. They made their way to the dining hall, exchanging small talk along the way.

<

Gabrielle couldn't deny her growling stomach the pleasure of food any longer. Xena had been gone about an hour now, and from the second the bronzed warrior left the room her concentration had been broken, and she hadn't been able to write anything past the word “the”.

“Maybe I will join Xena,” she muttered to herself, placing her quill in her nearly empty ink jar. “I'm not accomplishing much without her here.”

Lacing up her boots, she grabbed her coin purse, hoping that she could coerce Xena into the two of them making a run for a jar of new ink after lunch. A smile crossed her lips as she began thinking about the future shopping trips for herself and Xena in the heart of Melodia.

The smiled stayed on her lips as she walked the long hall from their room, but fell as she descended the stairs and entered the dining hall. Her eyes fell on a scene that made her blood begin to boil like lava spewing from a volcano. Before her eyes sat Xena, who was laughing genuinely as Amoria touched and rubbed her arm. She watched the two laugh together, stiffening at each giggle escaping their lips. Calling upon every fragment of self-control, Gabrielle fought the urge to retrieve her staff, and return to beat the other Amazon with it.

She cringed as Amoria leaned close to Xena, whispering into her ear and causing the pregnant woman's smile to widen. Unable to handle any more of the spectacle, she turned on her heel, appetite vanished, and stormed off, barely hearing her name as she ignored the summoner.

“I should go see what's going on with her,” Xena told Amoria, eyes following Gabrielle's retreating back.

“If you want to leave such a good time. You do whatever you need to do, warrior queen,” came the honeyed response.

“Thanks,” Xena smiled tightly, the laughter from earlier quickly forgotten when she'd seen the look of anger on the bard's face. “We'll finished this later,” she promised.

“Oh, I'm counting on it,” Amoria smiled.

Xena cast a grateful smile at her newfound friend before following after the bard.

The Amazon chuckled quietly to herself, watching as Xena followed after her sidekick. “Oh, Amoria, you are so good,” she complimented herself. Pretty soon she would have a wedge driven between the two companions so deep there would be no coming back from it. Any day now, she would have Xena eating out of the palm of her hand.

>

“Ugh!” Gabrielle yelled, throwing her scroll angrily, listening for the satisfying thud of the object hitting the wall. Her head whipped around quickly when the sound didn't come.

“Hey,” Xena said softly, holding the scroll in her hand and tapping it into her open palm gently.

“Hey,” Gabrielle replied stiffly, folding her arms across her chest tightly and looking at the floor. “Why aren't you with Amoria?” she asked softly. “You two looked pretty...friendly,” the last word passed bitterly between gritted teeth.

Xena crossed the floor toward Gabrielle, reaching for her shoulder gently, flinching with hurt when the blonde jerked away from her touch. Sighing deeply, she slid past Gabrielle and sat on the bed. “What's wrong with you? Why are you acting this way?”

“What way?” Gabrielle asked, not meeting her eyes. “I don't know what you're talking about.”

“Oh cut the horse dung, Gabrielle,” Xena said, patience thinning.

The bard remained silence.

“Okay, I can play this game,” Xena acknowledged, reining in her irritation. “What way? Let's see. Maybe the way you get any time Amoria comes anywhere near me. You suddenly go all...Prometheus in chains any time that I try to talk to her.”

Gabrielle thought hard for a minute, wrapping her arms tighter around herself for comfort. Finally, grudgingly, she settled on an answer. “I just don't like her,” she said softly.

“She's a nice person, Gabrielle,” Xena pointed out. She eyed the bard for a minute before realization crossed her features. She saw it written on Gabrielle's face. Jealousy. “Is this still about Joxer?” she asked.

“Jox-” the bard stopped herself. “Gods, Xena! It isn't about Joxer. He isn't even in Melodia.”

“ Doesn't mean the jealousy isn't still there,” the warrior princess pointed out gently.

“It is not Joxer!” Gabrielle ground out, angry and hurt. She felt betrayed by Xena, and wasn't even sure why. It wasn't like the dark haired woman knew she had feelings for her, so how was she to expect her to not fall for someone else?

“Then what?” Xena pressed.

Gabrielle took a deep breath, urging her temper to not flare at the denseness of the former warlord. Taking a deep breath, she took a seat on the bed next to Xena, taking note of the wince on the other woman's face as the bed jarred. “Is your back hurting again?” she asked, anger melting into concern as she moved to a position behind the warrior.

“Yeah. Considering I have a boulder attached to my gut,” Xena replied, groaning with pleasure as Gabrielle began kneading her fingers into her lower back.

Gabrielle couldn't resist a smile at the pleasure layering Xena's voice. “You asked what was going on with me,” she began softly, concentrating on her ministrations. “Can I ask you something before I give you my answer?”

“If you keep that up, you can ask me whatever you want to,” came the reply.

Gabrielle smiled warmly, giggling just a little before turning serious again. “Why have you two been talking so much all of the sudden? And why is she constantly flirting with you?”

“'Cause I'm the hottest mama jammer this side of Thrace?” Xena grinned, attempting to lift the tension, but the stiffness that overtook the bard's hands informed her that she had failed at her task. She sighed. “She's not flirting with me, Gabrielle. She's just being nice.”

“Oh, yeah, Xena. Real nice. She's a total bacchae. A blood-sucking, evil little bacchae. That's exactly what she is.”

“What has gotten into you?”

Gabrielle groaned in frustration, both at herself and the words that refused to flow from her lips. She'd be willing to bet all of their dinars that Amoria would have no problem letting words of passion flow from her lips like tree sap. She ceased the massage, fidgeting as she readjusted to sit beside Xena once more. She leaned a head on her shoulder, clasping her hand gently. “Just,” she paused briefly, “tell me why she's hovering around you like a bird of prey.”

Xena contemplated her response, taking note of the anguish in her traveling companion's voice. It'll only be harder later, she reasoned with herself, seeing no other way around it. She took a deep breath. “Amoria is getting ready to leave Melodia.”

“Oh,” Gabrielle smiled, her mood lightning considerably at the news. “I feel better already,” she said, rising from the bed.

“And I might be going with her,” Xena finished quietly, feeling shame at the words as her eyes began tracing the grains in the wood floor.

The smile fell from Gabrielle's face almost as quickly as her mood had brightened up. “What?”

Focusing on her weapon roughened skin of her hands, unable to meet the bard's eyes, knowing, sensing the hurt that would be clouding them. “After the baby is born,” she continued quietly.

“I don't understand,” Gabrielle whispered, a tear slipping down her cheek as she felt her heart wrench tightly in her chest. “I thought things were good between us. I thought you were happy.”

“Gabrielle, they are. They are so good. And I am happy, but I feel like I'm holding you back. I feel like there is so much out there the world can offer you, and I'm this big rock slide blocking your path. I don't want to do that to you. When I met with Amoria the other night, she asked me to join her band, and go travel with them for a while. If I do that, it'll free you up to do all those things you've always wanted to do.”

“What about us?” Gabrielle asked, voice little more than a wisp of wind.

“Look, I promised that I'd be here to watch your first play, and I will be. Right there in the wing cheering you on. After that, I don't know what I'm going to do. I haven't made a final decision.”

“You want to leave me?” Gabrielle choked out.

“I want what's best for you. If this musical thing doesn't work out in your favor, I...well I want you to have the option of being a traveling bard like you wanted.”

“No, Xena. This isn't right. Where you go, I follow” Gabrielle said, turning hurt sea green eyes to Xena, tears spilling over the red rimmed lower lids. “Now you, what? Want to go with Amoria? She's your new...companion?” she spat.

Xena winced. She had known this conversation wasn't going to be an easy one to have, but she didn't anticipate her hurting as much as it did looking into her best friend's eyes as they appraised her with betrayal in the depths. As for Gabrielle's reaction, she hadn't thought that through at all. She ducked quickly as Gabrielle's coin purse whizzed by her head.

“How could you, Xena?” Gabrielle shouted, past the point of hurt. Past the point of anger, as her chest heaved and tears streaked steadily from her eyes.

“Gabrielle, take it easy now. Don't get crazy,” Xena lifted her hands in defense. “I haven't even made my choice yet.”

“Haven't made a choice? Xena it sure seems like you made a choice already for you and for me, or you wouldn't even be entertaining the thought,” Gabrielle hurled, verbally assaulting the warrior princess, crossing the floor and heading for the exit, her tears turning the door into a leviathan blur. “Regardless,” she spat.

“Gabrielle! Regardless of what?” Xena called after her, voice wracked with desperation to know what thoughts were cycling through the bard's head.

The blonde paused, hand on the doorknob. “Regardless of if I'm in love with you or not,” she said softly, tears slipping down her cheeks as she jerked the door open and exited the room.

<

The ebony skinned Amazon felt a hand grab her arm, twisting it roughly in its grip.

“We need to talk. Now.”

A sly smile twisted across Amoria's lips. She'd been waiting for this. She'd practically tasted it for the last couple of days, but it had happened much sooner than she anticipated. “Sure,” she agreed, turning around. “What's up, Gabrielle?” she asked, voice syrupy sweet.

“Not here,” Gabrielle said, teeth clenched together, taking a look around the room at all the spectators.

“Lead the way,” Amoria said, finishing off the last bit of her port.

Gabrielle wiped her hand against her skirt, desperately trying to wipe off the filth that she felt from touching Amoria. The two women walked outside, the night air pricking their skin as the sun sank below the horizon. The blonde watched as the street keeper began lighting the torches of the city, ensuring the travelers or villagers out at a late hour would make it safely back to their dwellings.

“You said you wanted to talk. Are you going to, or are you just wasting my time?” Amoria said snidely.

Gabrielle took a deep breath, fighting to not land a punch hard against the Amazon's nose. “I don't think I need to remind you that I am an Amazon Queen,” the bard said coldly.

“I'm aware, Queen Gabrielle,” Amoria said, an amused smile spreading sinisterly over her lips.

“Then you're also aware that Xena is my champion,” she continued, ignoring the lack of respect for her title.

“But she is not your consort,” Amoria pointed out, causing Gabrielle to set her jaw in irritation, an action which Amoria didn't miss.

Gabrielle shook her head irritation, attempting to shake the anger away. “There's no way that you can know that for sure. You have no idea what goes on in the bedchambers of the queen,” she said, lifting her chin in defiance.

Amoria mimicked a yawn. “Maybe you can deceive yourself, blondie, but Xena is the one that told me that you two weren't...intimately involved,” she smiled, watching embarrassment color Gabrielle's face.

“No. She isn't my consort,” she gritted, “but as my champion, we share a bond that is forbidden to be broken by another Amazon.”

Amoria chuckled at the tiny queen. “Oh, I know,” she said, patting Gabrielle's shoulder.

“Good,” Gabrielle nodded, a self-satisfied smile on her face as she turned to leave.

“That's why I'm challenging you,” Amoria raised her voice. “To the death.”

>

Xena paced the room anxiously, the conversation with Gabrielle running laps through her mind as she picked apart every word, every detail, every glance. Had she heard right?

Regardless of if I'm in love with you or not, the bard's words resounded in her head as if bouncing off the walls of a cave.

“Gods, what's wrong with her?” Xena grumbled. Part of her as ecstatic at the blonde's admittance, and part of her was terrified right down to her boots. All of that talk from Gabrielle about settling down appealed to her, much more than touring the known world.

She smiled as a blissful image unfolded within her mind's eye. The picture in her head showcased a home, just large enough to meet their needs with a barn in the back for Argo. An area for cooking, a separate one for sitting around a cozy fire when it was cold, a guest bedroom on the opposite side of the kitchen for whenever her mother or Gabrielle's family decided to visit, a niche for Gabrielle to sit and work on her scrolls or plays, a room for the baby right next to hers and Gabrielle's. She could imagine coming home from the theater every night with the blonde to discuss the day. Watching the baby take its first step, or having its first solstice. She and the bard exchanging smiles as they shared the feeling of accomplishment when the child did something new or wonderful.

Xena raised her eyebrow, surprised by how lost she had become in her reverie. “Well, look at that, Destroyer of Nations,” she said to herself. “You're really in over your head now.” Lowering her voice, she spoke in sweet tones to the unborn child within her, “I think auntie Gabrielle might need her head checked out. She's in love with your mommy. Now what kind of crazy person does a thing like that?”

A commotion outside interrupted her soliloquy to her child. She ignored it, figuring it to just be a drunken dispute.

“But the problem isn't that Gabrielle loves your mommy,” Xena continued, sinking to the bed as a realization hit her heavily. “The problem is that your mommy feels the same way about her.”

“Fight! Fight!” an excited male voice crashed through her thoughts.

“Well, I guess telling Gabrielle will just have to wait,” she sighed, standing from the bed and grabbing her chakram.

<

Gabrielle had chosen staffs. She watched the other Amazon as they circled each other menacingly, the darker of the two bearing her teeth like a wolf ready to attack its prey. Gabrielle's eyes were locked on her, watching for the slightest signal of a move from her.

The mocha skinned woman swung the staff hard at Gabrielle's middle, but the blonde side-stepped it easily.

“Xena is so excited about starting a life with me,” Amoria taunted, back hunched low and knees slightly bent. “After lunch today, before you showed up, her excitement was...stimulating,” she said, the words melting over her tongue like butter. “For both of us.”

The queen swept the staff low, letting out a cry of anger, as she attempted to cause Amoria to lose balance. Gabrielle's mind cluttered in anger and frustration as she tried to block out the jeers from the other woman. She would much rather Amoria be bludgeoning her with the staff than giving the details of her alone time spent with Xena. The latter hurt much more.

Amoria laughed, connecting a backhanded smack to Gabrielle's cheek, the creamy colored skin turning noticeably red, even under the cover of twilight. “And the apples. Do you know how much she loves apples? She nearly devoured all of mine the first night we talked,” the gibes flowed.

In that instant, something inside of Gabrielle snapped. Hardening every muscle in her body, she jolted her staff forward, bringing the head of it straight into the other Amazon's face, causing blood to gush from a now injured nose, a mere second before delivering a swift hard kick to her middle.

“Xena wouldn't touch your apples with a ten foot staff,” she sneered, clubbing the woman on the shoulder. Usually, her fighting style was disciplined and calculated, but Gabrielle was feeling anything but that. Right now, she felt herself fighting with passion and hatred.

Amoria fell before her, lunging forward as Gabrielle landed a blow to the back of her head. Stars exploded behind her eyes as a white hot pain filled her skull. She'd heard it crack under the swing of the queen's staff. She lay on the ground, hurting, terrified, and embarrassed that this little waif of a girl had beaten her. She swallowed hard as Gabrielle placed the butt of the staff against her neck, pressing into it slightly, holding her like a moth to a pin.

“You challenged me in a fight to the death. That's what you wanted,” Gabrielle said, voice filled with shards of ice and disdain for the life in her hands. “So now, I'm at a crossroads. Do I snap your neck, or do I show you mercy?” she asked, voice becoming regal as the judgment and hate fell to the wayside. Her anger, however, was still palpable, and she was certain every person in Melodia could feel it. She scanned the crowd, scanning it for Amoria's sister Amazons, but her gaze stopped as she caught a familiar pair of cerulean blue eyes.

“M-m-mercy,” Amoria stuttered out, voice shaking in fear and humiliation.

Grudgingly, the blonde queen stepped back. Even though she had been angered enough to take the other Amazon's life, she knew that was a road that she didn't want to walk again. She pulled her staff away. “You mark this, Amoria. I will show you mercy, but you will leave. If I ever see you again, I will end you.”

“The victor, Queen Gabrielle!” a voice rang through the crowd as an auburn haired Amazon signaled the end of the fight, causing cheers to erupt among the onlookers.

Gabrielle quickly realize that the only person not pleased in the crowd was Xena, who was shaking her head, face flushed with frustration. The bard watched as rage filled icy blue depths, and the warrior reached for her chakram.

“Ya!” Xena yelled, throwing the metal disc with strength and speed.

Gabrielle's eyes widened in fear as she waited on the slice from the deadly weapon. It didn't come. Turning around, she looked to see what Xena had thrown it at, but it hadn't been a what. It was a who. There, laying at her feet, was Amoria, lifeless eyes staring at the heavens, with Xena's chakram buried deep within her chest. Her limp right hand held a freshly sharpened, dual edged dagger, that had, without a doubt been meant for the Amazon queen before Xena had struck the would be murderer down.

       >

“What in Tartarus was that?” Xena demanded, slamming the door closed after returning to the room with the bard.

Gabrielle turned to face the taller woman, voice raising slightly. “Xena, she challenged me for possession of my champion. I had to fight her!”

“You fought over me like I was a prized cow!” Xena shouted at the blonde.

“I was challenged!” Gabrielle yelled back, reiterating her point and slamming her hand onto the desktop hard, rattling the contents of the table. “You should be glad that I won.”

“Oh, yeah, Gabrielle. I'm so ecstatic that a woman is dead because you couldn't back down from a challenge. A thousand pardons, Queen Gabrielle,” the warrior princess bowed mockingly. She straightened up, squaring her shoulders. “I wasn't aware that I should be thrilled about being owned. Thank you for helping me see the light,” she shot sarcastically.

“You appointed yourself as my champion against Queen Melosa. That was your choice. Not mine. By Amazon law, like it or not, that makes you bound to me, as my champion until death. Would you rather have been Amoria's?” she asked, voice cracking as she ended the question. “Oh, that's a stupid question. Of course you would have.”

“I wouldn't have followed Amoria!” Xena growled out, stinging with the accusation from the blonde.

“Then you'd die!” Gabrielle shouting, tears springing to her eyes at the thought, watching as realization widened Xena's eyes. “That's right,” Gabrielle said, schooling her tone back into a hushed timbre. “Not following your liege is punishable by death. If she had won...if you had told her that you wouldn't comply, she would have had them kill you. That would have been her right. Can't you see that? Xena, I can't bare to lose you. Not again.”

Xena softening, lowering her voice and holding Gabrielle's eyes with her own, anger and pride vanishing into the background. “Then they would have had to kill me,” she said softly.

“Xena, don't say that,” Gabrielle said softly, tears spilling over, unable to bare the thought.

“Where you go, I am at your side.,” she said gently, wiping a tear from the blonde's cheek tenderly, placing her other hand lightly on Gabrielle's hip.

“Xena,” Gabrielle whispered, reaching out and running a thumb softly over the warrior princess's cheek.

“You're my home, Gabrielle. I realized, just before your challenge, that for me, it's always going to be you,” Xena continued, inching her face close to the blonde's, their lips a breath away from each other.

“I should have told you before. I know I should have,” Gabrielle said quietly, reaching up to cover the hand Xena hand placed on her cheek. “I'm in love with you, Xena, and I think I always have been."

<

The warrior princess would have been lying if she'd said the blonde's admittance hadn't frightened her. It was wonderful, but it was terrifying, and all of those things she'd dreamed of saying to Gabrielle lost their way on the journey to her lips.

“Are you going to say anything?” Gabrielle asked softly, pinning sapphire eyes with her own.

“I'm trying,” Xena assured her, not wanting the bard to feel as though she didn't reciprocate her feelings. She looked into the hopeful eyes of the Amazon, golden flecks chasing out the more familiar green hue.

“Maybe I shouldn't have said anything,” Gabrielle said, voice soft, the slightest bit of shame tinting her voice, as she backed away from her friend.

Xena grabbed her hands gently, urging her to stay close. “Please don't think that,” came the answer.

Gabrielle lifting her eyes from their position on the ground, seeing Xena's emotions playing through the other woman's eyes. She allowed herself to be pulled closer, the swell of Xena's stomach, bumping gently against her.

“I don't know how I would ever begin to walk through this life without you,” the warrior said, voice tender and mellow. “I kept searching over and over for a way to do that. For a way to allow you move on with your life, but I couldn't. You're a part of me.”

“Xena-”

“Shh, let me finish,” Xena shushed the blonde gently. “I may never be able to get it out if I don't now.”

Gabrielle nodded in understanding, knowing well that her friend often fell short of speech when emotions were involved.

“I've told you before that you were the best thing in my life, and I meant every word of that. Me leaving was never about Amoria. It was about you, and caring about you enough to let you go. It wasn't because I didn't want to be with you. I did want to be with you. I still do. If you only knew how much I fought myself over the decision. When it came down to it, I couldn't leave. I never could have left. I kept picturing this perfect life, and at every bend, in every nook, there was you. I love you, Gabrielle. With all of my heart and soul,” Xena said, voice filled with emotion as she leaned close, brushing her lips tentatively against the bard's, caressing them softly with her own.

Gabrielle felt a wave of fire shoot straight to her heart. Every element within her body responding to the tender kiss of the woman she had grown to love. She kissed Xena back, their lips dancing in a slow, soft, seductive rhythm, passion slowly spilling forward.

Xena pulled the bard toward gently, closing the remaining gap between their bodies, as much as her girth would allow.

The kiss broke slowly, neither woman wanting it to end, but knowing that it needed to.

“That, was...amazing,” Gabrielle whispered, eyes closed as she laid her head against Xena's chest, trying to steady her breathing.

“Not so bad yourself,” the warrior teased, stroking a hand gently down the bard's back.

“What was that?” Gabrielle asked, stepping back slightly.

“That,” Xena said calmly, “was the baby kicking. It seems that the little one is awake,” she commented, placing a hand gently on her belly. “Want to feel?”

A smiled brightened Gabrielle's features as she nodded. She offered Xena her hand, watching as the taller woman led it to her stomach.

“Give it just a second. It's getting close to time to eat,” she explained.

Gabrielle waited, breath slowing as she anticipated the kick. It was as if she was doing it for the first time. The excitement, the eagerness. She had felt Hope kick, but her pregnancy so was swift that she hadn't gotten to savor it. She'd been too busy running for her life. A gentle nudge moved against her hand, followed immediately by a hard, stronger one. Her smile broadened, and she rubbed the taut stomach lightly.

“I think it's time for some food,” Xena admittedly, accompanied by her growling stomach and an insistent tug on her intestines.

“Now that you mention it, I'm a little hungry myself,” Gabrielle agreed.

“Well, if you would have come and had food with me earlier...” Xena trailed off, a playful smile on her face.

“I hear you,” Gabrielle smirked. “Come on, warrior princess.”

Xena stood, eager to order a full meal that she could sit comfortably through, and feed herself and the baby.

“What'll it be tonight? Chicken gizzards and sheep stomach?” the blonde teased.

“Oh, that sounds really good,” Xena agreed, licking her lips.

“Or maybe some pureed cow tongue and mint radish relish? Or some squid with garlic infused cherries?” she asked as the two exited the door.

“Gabrielle...”

>

Dinner had been wonderful, and the two women were enjoying each others' company. As luck would have it, an establishment had opened just down the road from the inn where they were staying. The building specialized in cuisine from every area of the known world. It was the first of its kind in Greece. Finally settling on a plate of thick, hearty venison steak with a side of steamed vegetables, Xena had enjoyed nearly every bite of it, eating until she was so full she was miserable. Gabrielle, on the other hand, had chosen a portion of something called pasta, which was topped with chicken and a light sauce. She enjoyed it, but after consuming the herb bread brought to the table, she couldn't even eat half of it.

“So what kind of play do you want to write?” Xena asked the bard, running her hand lightly over Gabrielle's.

“I know I want it to be about love. But I haven't figured much out beyond that,” Gabrielle admitted.

“What about-”

“Please don't say cats in love,” Gabrielle interrupted, grasping Xena's hand firmly. “I don't think I could handle it.”

Xena snickered softly. “Well, it seems like a good idea.”

“Xena, we've been through this. It wouldn't even get off the ground. It would be the ground.”

“Okay, I get your point,” Xena said, hands up in surrender. “What about the one I suggested about the masked guy?”

“The one that teaches the young girl how to sing? Xena, what is an opera anyway?” Gabrielle asked.

“I don't know, but it sounded really neat,” the taller woman responded, a goofy smile on her face.

Gabrielle raised a light tan eyebrow in the warrior's direction, a soft smirk on her face. “No.”

“Maybe if we made him fall in love with her?” the warrior princess suggested.

Gabrielle fixed Xena with a mock serious face.

“Okay. No masked guy,” Xena agreed, giving in to Gabrielle's resolve face.

Gabrielle leaned forward, giving Xena a quick kiss on the tip of her nose. “Thank you,” she smiled.

“But it would be a hit...” Xena added softly.

“Xena?”

“Hm?”

“I love you.”

A grin split Xena's face. “I love you too,” she said softly, looking almost shyly at Gabrielle.

The blonde felt her skin flush as heat raced through her body when Xena's eyes met hers. “Why don't we pay the tab, and head back to the room?” she said, voice growing slightly husky.

Xena nodded quickly, feeling a blush climb her neck slowly under the bard's gaze.

<

Xena groaned low in her throat as Gabrielle's fingers and hand trailed over her skin. When the two had returned, her lower back had started aching on the walk back to the inn, and when her blonde companion had offered to give her a massage, she hadn't denied herself the opportunity.

“You know what we're going to need? A nice slow love song. Something to really make our play stand out,” Gabrielle said to the woman face down on the bed.

“Like something mushy?” Xena asked. “Are you one of those people?”

“One of what people?” Gabrielle asked, stilling her hands to hear the warrior princess's response.

“Ya know. The ones that fall in love, and then everything is mushy. Their heart, their brain, everything..”

“My heart, nor my brain are mushy,” Gabrielle pointed out, resuming the massage, much to Xena's delight.

“Ah, come on, Gabrielle. You know your heart's a little mushy for me,” Xena said, changing the position of her head.

“Maybe,” Gabrielle said, watching with amusement as Xena settled her head back onto her arms, a cocky smile on her lips. Unable to resist, Gabrielle landed a hard smack to the warrior's hindquarters.

“Hey!” Xena said mock disapprovingly. She rolled over quickly, the blonde above her almost falling off, but maintaining enough balance to straddle Xena's thighs.

“Relax,” Gabrielle soothed, running her fingers lightly over the taller woman's sides.

“I'm very relaxed,”Xena answered, smiling at the smaller woman above her. “Thank you for the massage.”

“You're welcome, Gabrielle answered, voice low. She shifted off of Xena, rearranging herself on the bed so that she was laying beside the warrior princess. Laying her head on her shoulder, she traced Xena's collarbone with her finger gently. “I like this,” she said softly.

“What?”

“Just this. Laying here with you close to me,” the bard explained.

“Yeah. It's nice,” Xena commented, feeling at ease.

“Maybe when we get our place we can have beds like this one. It's really comfortable,” Gabrielle said, allowing her mind to slip into the future.

“That would be nice,” Xena agreed. “Which reminds me. I have to go ask Marcus when our stay is up.”

“It was really nice of them to put us up for no cost,” Gabrielle pointed out.

“It was. I guess putting that battle of the bands together did have its perks after all,” Xena commented.

“That was a good idea, Xena. It was smart.”

“It was a way to keep a war from happening. You taught me how to avoid those,” the warrior replied, the admittance soft.

“You've taught me a lot too Xena. Like without my dark, I can't appreciate the light side of my soul.”

“Gabrielle, you have very little dark in your soul.”

“I have a lot more in there than I think either of us realizes,” the blonde said softly, enjoying the feel of Xena wrapping an arm around her and holding her close. Placing an arm over Xena, she felt the baby kick in protest to the weight. The small movement plummeted her into a barrage of thoughts and regrets.

“What are you thinking?” Xena asked, noticing the light crinkle of the bard's eyebrows beginning to knit together.

“Honestly?”

“Well we know where lying got us the last time, so yes,” Xena said.

Gabrielle nodded. “I was thinking about Hope,” she answered, feeling the pregnant woman stiffen.

“What about her?” Xena asked, swallowing hard.

“We don't have to talk about this, Xena,” Gabrielle said, starting to sit up until her arm was caught by the warrior princess.

Xena looked into the hurt filled pools of Gabrielle's eyes, seeing remorse and sadness deep within. “If we're going to do this, we should be able to talk about anything, right?” she questioned, searching the girl's face.

Gabrielle nodded, swallowing the lump that had formed in her throat. “Sometimes I can't help but wonder what she would have been like if I had been the one to raise her. If Callisto hadn't found her. Maybe something I could have done or said...”

“There was nothing you could have done,” Xena said softly, fighting with the anger attempting to rise up within her. A tear escaped her eye, trailing unbidden down her cheek.

“I know,” Gabrielle comforted. “The memory still hurts. It hurts me too.”

Xena felt a twinge of pain thrum through her heart like a taut bowstring. The memory of Solan's lifeless body painting vividly in her mind as if it was only yesterday. Hope, Gabrielle's daughter, had taken his life, and Xena had blamed the bard for that for a time because the younger woman refused to take her daughter's life when Xena had instructed her to do so. “That's all behind us now,” Xena said softly, placing a kiss on the top of Gabrielle's head.

Gabrielle allowed her body to sink into Xena's, thriving on the warmth and comfort offered.

“You know,” Xena began, “this baby is going to be just as much yours as it is mine. I'm more than willing to share if you want the responsibility.”

Gabrielle smiled, bringing her head up to plant a soft kiss on the warrior's cheek. “I think I'll take you up on that,” she agreed.

“Good. Because if you didn't, that was going to be a lot of linen changes that I had to look forward to..and I wasn't looking forward to them.”

>

“Xena, I really don't think you should go out hunting,” Gabrielle said, voice filled with concern. When she'd awoken that morning, she'd found the warrior dressed, boots laced, and about to walk out the door.

“I'll be fine, Gabrielle,” Xena promised, frowning at the protective nature of the blonde.

“I know, but what if some barbarians jump you or something?”

“I think I handled things pretty well while you were locked up in that cage,” she said defensively.

“I'm not saying that you can't handle yourself. I I just don't want anything to happen to you. Plus, in your condition, if you bring down a deer, you don't need to be carrying it back.”

Xena smiled tightly. On the one hand, she was appreciative for Gabrielle trying to take care of her and her unborn child, but on the other, her pride, her stubborn pride couldn't allow that type of weakness. “I'll just go fishing. Is that okay? Can I carry a couple of fish back?” she asked sarcastically.

“Xena...I didn't mean-” the bard was cut off by a heavy sigh from the other woman.

“I know,” Xena said gently. “I appreciate you looking out for me, but I won't break. I've done this before.”

“I know,” Gabrielle responded, voice calm and even.

“Good,” Xena said. “I won't be long. I just have to get out of here. I'm going crazy. Same four walls every day. I can't handle it.”

“Maybe we should get a different room,” the blonde suggested.

“Maybe,” Xena agreed. “I don't think any of the others are as nice as this one. I'd really like to keep this one until the baby comes. It's got enough space for a cradle for the first couple of days.”

“First couple of days?” Gabrielle asked.

“Yes. It's very important that the baby be kept inside for the first couple of days. Out of the weather, until its body has time to adjust to the surroundings of the outside world,” the warrior explained, grabbing some fishing twine from the saddle bag.

“Huh. I didn't know that,” Gabrielle said.

“It's because not a lot of people do it,” Xena replied, looking at the bard. “Have you seen my hooks?”

“Left pocket,” the bard answered. “Why don't more people do that?”

“Gotcha,” Xena said triumphantly, grinning at her treasure of five hooks and a couple of lures. “People are concerned with showing off the kid. Not about the kid itself. It's kind of messed up really.”

“Yeah. That is messed up,” the Amazon agreed.

“I'll see you in a while,” Xena said. “I'll probably be gone for a couple of hours. If you need anything, I'll be at the stream about a quarter mile due east. Right before you get to Chertomlik pass.”

“I'm not familiar with that pass.”

“And you call yourself an Amazon,” Xena teased. “You'll recognize it if you go too far. The rocks are red, and the hills steep.”

“Red rocks? And hey! I am an Amazon! I just don't understand what Chertomlik pass has to do with them.”

“It's a piece of sacred ground. The first Amazon temple to the goddess Artemis was there.”

“Then why not call it Amazon Pass?”

“Chertomlik was the name for Greek Amazons. It was changed by one of their queens. Today, they call them Amazons, but in a time much longer ago, they were Chertomlik.”

“I didn't know that,” Gabrielle said.

“See? I can still teach you a few things,” Xena smiled. “Now, I better get out there before the fish stop biting.”

“Want me to come with you?”

“Nah. I think I'll take Argo out. It's been a few days since I talked to her, and I'm sure she's ready to leave the stable for a little bit.”

Gabrielle nodded, feeling disappointment at the thought of not being able to spend the time with Xena.

As if reading her thoughts, the warrior crossed the floor, placing a hand gently on Gabrielle's shoulder. “Why don't you work on the play? I'll try to think up some music while I'm fishing.”

Gabrielle nodded in agreement, thoughts turning to the parchment on the table. “Okay. I'll work on some dialogue.”

Great,” Xena smiled tightly. “See you in a bit.”

Gabrielle watched as the taller woman exited the door, missing her presence already. She sighed, turning to look at the parchment on the table.

“Let's see. What kind of story do I want to tell?” the bard said aloud, pulling the chair from beneath the table.

>

The ride to the stream had been nice. Xena had chatted with Argo, who gave supportive neighs in reply to the warrior princess's questions.

“How do you feel about settling down with Gabrielle?” Xena asked, leading the mare to the stream to drink, sitting on a large boulder near where the blonde horse gently lapped the cool, clear water.

Argo raised her head, a low neigh coming from her throat.

“Yeah, me too,” Xena replied, resting an elbow on her knee and propping her chin on her fist, a distant smile on her face. “I just don't know,” she said softly.

Argo huffed at her lightly, tapping her right hoof gently on the ground.

“Because I don't know how much I can handle of conversations like the one before I left the inn,” Xena responded. “Now don't look at me like that,” she said to the mare. “For the last five years, I've been the one taking care of her. I don't know if I like it when the shoe is on the other foot.”

Argo neighed, lifting both front hooves off the ground slightly as she dipped and nodded her head at the former warlord.

“No. I'm not saying that,” Xena said, watching the horse settle a bit. “I'm just saying that maybe I'm not ready to have a relationship. Maybe I never will be. I'm just too accustomed to my rough edges.” She tossed a baited line into the water. “What if this whole thing is going too fast?” she whispered.

Argo stepped close to her mistress, settling her snout lightly on Xena's shoulder.

Xena reached up and lightly stroked the mare's neck. “I don't know what to do. I love Gabrielle, and I know that. But what if my darkness drags down her light? What if love just isn't enough to...” she trailed off, leaving the rest of her sentence clinging to the still air.

<

Gabrielle's nerves were getting the better of her. Xena had been gone longer than the two hours that she'd said, and she was starting to worry. She tried her hardest to concentrate on the story she'd began crafting. She had all of the elements outlined. The basis. What type of song she wanted where, and she knew what the songs would be about. Now, however, she had thoughts of the warrior plaguing her mind, and something didn't quite feel right.

The door of the room inched open slowly, as the smell of now dead fish assailed the bard's senses. “Xena,” she said happily, reaching a hand to her face to pinch her nose off from the stench.

“Hey,” Xena replied, greeting Gabrielle with a faint smile on her face.

“I smell that you caught something,” Gabrielle commented.

“Yeah. Just a few trout. The last one was a clever one, but I finally got him.”

“Of course you did,” the blonde smiled. “Let me put these things away, and I'll season them up. Did you want them for lunch or dinner?”

“We still have fourteen meal tickets for the tavern. We can use those for lunch if you want to.”

“We have fourteen?” Gabrielle asked surprised.

“Yeah. Marcus said he was more than happy to cover our stay for another couple of weeks because the concert was the 'best thing in Melodia since the lyre.' He also said that if we needed extra time, he'd give us that too...because we left the lyre here instead of taking it out of the city.”

“That's really nice of him,” Gabrielle commented, taking the fish from Xena.

“Yeah. I also think it might have a little something to do with my mother telling him that I was available. I think his hopes are up.”

“But you aren't available anymore,” the bard pointed out.

Xena smiled, looking at the ground before clearing her throat. “So, how far along did you get with the play?”

Gabrielle quirked an eyebrow in confusion at the warrior's strange reaction. She let it go, for now, but she couldn't help but feel a twinge of hurt course through the halls of her heart at the lack of reassurance. “I've got everything ground out, I think. At least a story concept, and what I feel the music should be about.”

“That's good,” Xena said supportively. “Looks like you don't need me to help out as much as you thought,” she smiled, taking her breastplate off.

“I do need your help. Especially with the music. It just isn't my strong area.”

“I'll help you with it,” Xena promised. “But first, I think I'm going to have a bath,” she said. “Gotta get the smell of fish guts and worms off of me somehow.”

“Okay,” Gabrielle said. “Want some company?” she asked the tall, dark haired woman.

“No. I mean, I'm going to think for a little bit,” Xena said, tripping over her words.

Gabrielle looked as if she'd been struck across the face. “Okay, Xena,” she said quietly.

“I'll just be a little while,” the warrior promised. She watched as Gabrielle nodded her understanding before turning and heading for the door.

“Xena?”

The taller woman stopped in her tracks, her eyes closing tightly for a moment. Please don't say it, she thought, turning around to face Gabrielle.

“Is everything okay?” the bard asked.

She said it, Xena thought. “Yeah. Everything is fine. I just have a lot on my mind with the baby coming and all,” she said, forcing a smile. She walked toward the Amazon. “I'll be back soon, and smell a lot better,” she said, placing a quick kiss on Gabrielle's forehead.

The blonde stood there for several minutes after Xena had made her way down the hall. “Something isn't right,” she articulated to the empty room. Deciding that she'd let it slide for now, she busied herself with digging in the saddle bags for the salt and other spices they carried with them. She seasoned the fish, deciding to let the flavors permeate them before she fixed them for dinner. She stored them in a floor cupboard, remembering how pleased she'd been when she'd first discovered it. It would keep them cool, but still allow the flavors to meld together.

Grabbing the tackle bag the warrior had taken with her to the stream, she began to clear it out, allowing the hooks to dry so they didn't rust. After retrieving the last hook, the bard reached in once more to get Xena's gutting knife. As she closed her hand around the handle, she heard a familiar sound. The crinkling of a scroll. Freeing the parchment from the confines of the bag, she began to unroll it, eyes flicking over the writing, and noting that it was Xena's. Not hers.

“Gabrielle?” the warrior princess's voice heralded her from the doorway.

“Xena!” she said startled. “I was just setting your hooks out to dry off,” she explained, panic settling inside of her like an icy dagger as the warrior's blue eyes stared her down.

“Thanks,” Xena replied, watching the bard slip the scroll she'd been writing on back into the bag. “Where are the fish?”

“In the cupboard marinating a little.”

“Good,” Xena said, mouth smiling, but her expression blank. “How about that lunch, huh? I'm so hungry I could eat a hydra.”

“Let me get my boots on,” Gabrielle said, turning to clean her hands in the wash basin. “I'll just meet you down there, if you want,” she said over her shoulder.

I might not be the smartest out of the two of us, but there's a snowball's chance in Tartarus that's gonna happen, Xena thought to herself. “No. I can wait,” she said to the blonde.

Damn,. I really wanted to get my hands on her scroll, Gabrielle said silently. “Great. I really wasn't looking forward to walking down there by myself,” she covered.

Xena's smile broadened, pleased with herself that she'd out-smarted the Amazon. “I wouldn't dream of leaving you behind. I'll walk with you every step of the way.”

>

The women shared lunch in silence, and it was noticeable. Today had been one of the quietest days the tavern had seen during the lunch hour.

“Did Argo enjoy her ride?” Gabrielle asked, breaking the silence.

“She always does,” Xena responded, setting her glass down.

“Good. I'm sure she needed to get out for a while.”

“She did,” Xena said, taking a bite of roasted chicken.

“Good,” Gabrielle answered, feeling the discomfort around the table, such a huge contrast from their dinner the night before.

Xena must have felt it too, because she finally attempted a full conversation. “So what's your idea for the play?”

The bard's face lit up. “Well, there is this handsome young man who falls in love with this woman. The two of them begin as friends, and then it becomes more,” she trailed off, eyeing Xena shyly, thinking of their newfound love for each other. She was only greeted with an expectant expression from her best friend.

“Then what happens?”

“Okay...As it happens, the woman he falls in love with is actually a goddess, but they can't stand to be apart so she gives her godhood up for him. That way they can always be together.”

“That's really good,” Xena smiled. “I mean it's no 'Message of Peace' but...” the warrior trailed off, a smirk on her face.

“Hey!” Gabrielle interjected, settling into the friendly banter. “That play was well thought out!”

“Clearly,” the warrior princess smiled tightly, thinking about all of the skulls she had to crack to save the blonde.

“You didn't even kind of like my casting for Xena?” she asked innocently.

“You mean Paulina? A rock could have made a more convincing me.”

“A rock couldn't do all of those acrobatic things you do,” the bard pointed out.

“Few things could,” Xena commented.

“I did the best I could without having the real thing there,” the blonde defended herself, enjoying the exchange.

“'You are right, Gabrielle. How could I have been so blind?'” Xena responded, quoting Gabrielle's play in a perfect imitation of the Xena impersonator.

Gabrielle couldn't hold the laugh back. It seemed to bubble out and trickle through her body, and before long both women were laughing so jovially that their sides began to ache.

>

It had been over a week now, and it wasn't unnoticed by the bard that Xena had been keeping her distance. Even in slumber, when the two usually cuddled close, she felt the stiffness in her friend. She must have uttered the phrase “I love you” to the warrior at least a dozen times, only to be met with silence, or a quick smile before the dark haired woman averted her gaze. It hurt, and it made her nervous. What made her even more nervous was the fact that she knew she was going to have to talk to Xena before it drove her insane.

The warrior princess was in a particularly cantankerous mood this morning. She felt irritable, confused, and her entire back felt as if her spine was being entirely removed from the rest of her body. Worse, she could sense in the air that today was the day that Gabrielle was finally going to break her silence and attempt to figure out what was going through her head, and to be honest, she didn't know if she was ready to admit what she'd been feeling the past few days.

“Good morning,” Gabrielle said softly, rolling over and snuggling into Xena's side.

“Morning,” Xena said, voice short.

The bard blinked at the abruptness in her companion's tone. She chose to ignore it. “How did you sleep?”

“Like I took a nap on a bed of rocks,” the warrior replied.

“Your back?”

“What else?”

“Here. Let me massage it for you,” the blonde said softly, shifting to her knees as she gently rolled the other woman to her side, since her swollen stomach was an increasing issue.

“I'm ready to get this thing out of me,” Xena admitted, groaning with pleasure as Gabrielle's hands began relieving the tension in her muscles.

“Any day now,” Gabrielle said softly. “We'll have a perfect, little bundle of joy to enjoy life with.”

“Gabrielle, look,” the warrior said rolling over carefully, looking at the bard. “I know this baby didn't fit into your plans. So if you want to do your own thing, I'll understand. You don't have to give up your dreams for me and this baby.”

“Xena, I'm living out part of my dream with you. The baby is an added bonus,” came the light voice, as Gabrielle caressed Xena's face with her hand.

“But your plans-”

“Plans don't always work out, nor do they come as expected,” the blonde cut her off. “I didn't plan to fall in love with you, Xena.”

The warrior dropped her eyes, focusing on the hollow of Gabrielle's throat as she watched the inhales and exhales of the bard. “I had hoped you were smarter than that.”

“Hey,” Gabrielle said, taking the warrior's hand gently, and urging her to look into her eyes. “Falling in love with you is the smartest thing I've ever done. You're wonderful, Xena, and my world is so much brighter with you in it. My choice to give my heart to you was the smartest thing I've ever done. I will always believe that. Even if you don't feel the same way,” she said, watching as realization dawned in sky blue eyes. “Yes, I've noticed the change. I've noticed the way you've been distancing yourself. The way you barely touch me...”

“Gabrielle, I...” Xena began, searching for words. She didn't want to admit what she knew could no longer go unsaid. “I'm scared,” she said softly.

“Scared? You? Xena, of what?” the blonde asked, voice surprised.

Xena took a deep breath, tears filling her eyes. “Because I do feel the same about you. I'm scared of loving you, and I'm scared of being loved by you.”

“Why? I don't understand,” Gabrielle whispered, tilting her forehead to meet Xena's.

“Because of the person that I was, and the person that I can still be. You are everything good, Gabrielle. You're light. I'm just a slumbering warlord with a dark side the size of the Aegean. I'm so scared that one day, the old Xena is going to rise up, and destroy everything that I could possibly build with you.”

Gabrielle was touched by the honesty. She wiped the tears from Xena's cheeks as they spilled over. “Xena, I love you, and no matter what Xena I wake up with in the morning, I'm always going to love you. I've seen you, Xena. I've seen you at your best, and your worse. I've watched you sacrifice yourself time and time again to save me. You've been loving me all this time, my warrior. Now let me love you back,” she said softly, pressing her lips to Xena's in a tender, sweet kiss, stroking her fingers through long, raven tresses.

Xena responded to the kiss with every inch of her body, aching to leave no space between herself and the bard. She ran a hand down Gabrielle's side, tracing small circles on the blonde's hip. “I love you, Gabrielle,” she whispered, breaking the kiss, and trailing a light line of kisses down the bard's neck, illiciting a soft moan of pleasure from the other woman.

“I love you too,” Gabrielle responded, desiring to feel the warrior's lips on other areas of her body. She rotated her neck slightly, unable to stop the soft sighs escaping her throat.

Xena's fingers began creeping beneath the hem of the bard's under-shift, the tips of her fingers tantalizing the flesh of Gabrielle's thighs. Then, all motion ceased as a white hot pain surged throughout her body, and she let out a cry of pain.

“Xena?” Gabrielle asked, head hazy and voice confused. “Is everything okay?”

The warrior shook her head quickly, causing the bard to forget about the arousal she'd felt. “What's wrong?” the blonde asked, eyes wide with worry.

“The baby. It's coming. Now!”

>

“She has your eyes,” Gabrielle smiled softly to the bundle in her arms. She ran a fingertip tenderly over the new life's cheek, just before a tiny cry filled their ears.

“Yeah, and your temperament when you're hungry,” Xena quipped, reaching for the baby. “Come here, Evie,” she cooed, covering herself and the baby, with a blanket, to feed the insistent pint-sized addition.

“Why don't I send word to your mother?” Gabrielle offered, rising from the bed, allowing the mother and daughter to have some time to bond.

“Amphipolis is at least a two day journey from here. You could tell her that we can meet up with her there next week,” Xena suggested.

“Well, you know...it's a funny story really...”

“Gabrielle? Just spit it out.”

“Right. Okay. Alright,” the blonde paced, tousling her short hair with her fingers. “Okay. Xena? Do you honestly think that your mother would have gone all the way back to Thrace, knowing that she had a grandchild on its way?”

“Well, my mom has done stranger things.”

“I know. I've met her,” Gabrielle smiled, stifling a giggle.

“What's so funny?” Xena asked, cocking an eyebrow at the bard.

“You have to promise not to get angry,” the blonde prefaced.

“Okay, Xena acknowledged, handing the now full, and placated, baby to Gabrielle so she could fix her clothing.

Gabrielle placed the infant over her shoulder, patting her back gently. “The night that your mom came to get you for Amoria...she and I talked.

“Oh?” Xena questioned. “About what?”

“Just little things,” Gabrielle responded, eyes crinkling in mischief. “The contest. The baby. I told her I was in love with you. There was a nut bread recipe exchanged-”

“You told her what?” Xena squeaked, eyes widening.

“Now, Xena, you wouldn't hit a lady with a baby, would you?” Gabrielle reasoned.

“I may be moved to make an exception.” came the dry reply.

<

“Oh, Xena! She is perfect!” Cyrene breathed, taking her granddaughter into her arms and holding her close. “And this outfit is just adorable. I can't believe you made this,” she said, admiring the soft yellow and green gown the baby wore.

“What can I say, Mom?” the warrior responded, twirling her sword around in the air, satisfied with its perfect balance. “I have many skills.”

Gabrielle felt a shiver of excitement travel, unbidden, up the length of her spine and spread like wildfire through her body at Xena's words. She'd heard them from the warrior princess's lips plenty of times, but today she found herself distracted by them, and on some other plain of existence, while wondering, and nearly salivating, over what Xena's other skills might entail. She blushed profusely, attempting to silence her overly imaginative mind as mother and daughter exchanged words of admiration over the baby. Her concentration became left her entirely as her ruthless mind took a nosedive, and images of more intimate situations with the warrior became clear.

“Right, Gabrielle?” Xena asked, a sneaky smile touching the corners of her mouth, as she took note of the blonde jolting to attention.

“Gods, yes!” Gabrielle nearly shouted, surprising both women. “Wait. What?”

“I was just telling mom that we're going to do a play about musically inclined cats,” Xena said playfully, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

>

They'd settled down for the evening, and Eve was fast asleep in her crib, while the three women talked as they ate supper.

“So,” Xena began, eyeing the other two slyly as she took a sip of her long awaited port. “You two little schemers want to tell me exactly how it was that you set me up?”

Gabrielle blushed, but Cyrene remained calm, and met her daughter's gaze with a smile.

“Oh, Xena, what does it matter? It worked, didn't it?” the older woman asked, giving Gabrielle a quick wink.

Xena looked over at her best friend, who was even more red than before. “Yeah. It worked, but I still don't understand how you two set this thing up. Gabrielle and I had only made it through part of the discussion before-”

“Xena!” Gabrielle yelped, face crimson and embarrassment settling in as she thought about the session of kisses in the bed.

“Before Eve decided that she needed to eat,” Xena finished, looking questioningly at the bard. “Yes?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Gabrielle said, shaking her head.

“Yes, babies do decide to do that,” Cyrene agreed, head nodding.

“So, spill it,” Xena said.

“Gabrielle?” Cyrene asked, smiling at the other woman.

“Yeah, Gabrielle,” Xena said, smiling sweetly at the blonde.

“What do you want to know?” Gabrielle asked evenly.

“For starters, what made you so sure that she wasn't back in Amphipolis?”

“That part is easy. She's your mom, and you were ready to deliver her grandchild. You should know she wouldn't uproot, if she knew you were going to be here for any amount of time.”

“Well, yes, but she made with the big goodbye, and I didn't think anything else about it,” the dark haired woman said.

“Okay, this should be simple to explain, but it's difficult,” Gabrielle said, looking at Cyrene helplessly.

“Xena, maybe Gabrielle would have an easier time if this discussion happened without m being present,” Cyrene offered.

“No,” Gabrielle shook her head. “It isn't that. This is just...hard.”

Xena took the blonde's hand gently, bringing it to her lips and kissing the backs of her finger gently, a gesture which touched Cyrene. “Go ahead,” Xena said, tone gentle.

Gabrielle nodded, feeling better at the reassurance from her partner. “You...um...you remember when I told you that I had feelings for you?”

“You mean the big speech or the 'regardless of if I'm in love with you or not' speech?”

“The second one,” the bard answered, watching the warrior nod in response. “Before that, when Amoria sent your mom for you, Cyrene told me that she wanted to ask you a pretty serious question. I was jealous, and I thought she was going to ask you to be her consort, ad I wasn't that far off,” Gabrielle said, thinking of her discussion with the other Amazon. “After everything with Joxer, the way that she dragged him around, and seeing how fake it was, it was driving me crazy to think that she wanted you like that. The thought of her with you was driving me mad, especially after seeing the way she kept looking at you when you two were around each other.”

“Yeah. I can relate. I lived through the Najara thing, remember?” Xena pointed out.

“Xena, Najara was nothing to me. There was never anything there, except me wanting to help heal people,” Gabrielle explained.

“It was really just the hospice?” Xena asked.

“Of course it was,” Gabrielle whispered, reaching out to cup Xena's cheek tenderly. “Xena? How do you think I could possibly want to be with Najara when I've been in love with you this whole time?”

“Call it my own insecurities,” Xena answered.

“Well, stop it,” Gabrielle smiled. She glanced over at Cyrene, who had busied herself with refilling everyone's drink.

Xena nodded slightly. “Go on,” she encouraged.

“Why don't I intervene here,” Cyrene offered, casting a look in Gabrielle's direction to see that the blonde needed to a moment to collect her thoughts.

“Please,” Gabrielle gestured.

“After Gabrielle told me of her feelings for you, I told her to go to you and tell you how she felt,” Cyrene explained, meeting her daughter's sapphire eyes with her own.

“But she didn't tell me that night,” Xena pointed out.

“Xena, I tried so hard. I really did, but I kept losing my nerve,” Gabrielle said, eyes searching Xena's. “Plus, it didn't exactly make it easier with your mom in the same place. So we came to a compromise.”

“Oh?” Xena's eyebrow quirked.

“I was worried about the delivery being so close, but I was also worried about that snake sinking her fangs into you,” Cyrene said, tone disgusted. “Gabrielle promised she wouldn't leave your side during the delivery, and I agreed to go stay at the new tavern on the other side of town. In exchange, she agreed to let me know when the baby was born. I knew I could trust her.”

“And now, you love me,” Gabrielle singsonged.

“It's not like this was the first time I've ever told you that I loved you, Gabrielle,” Xena pointed out.

“Yeah, but this is a different, 'I-wanna-roll-around-in-the-hay-with-you kind of love,” Gabrielle said tone giddy, until she caught Cyrene's surprised look. She'd forgotten the other woman was present.

“Gabrielle!” Xena gasped, noting the reddening of the blonde's cheeks. She gave her a coy smile, “Beds are much more comfortable than hay.”

Cyrene found herself chuckling, and watched with joy as the younger women followed suit. “Oh! What am I going to do with you two?”

>

The next few days came and went and in a blur, as the two women settled into motherhood. Both exhausted, both in need of a bath, and both completely in love with the new addition to the family. Gabrielle would become frustrated occasionally when Xena would insist on taking care of the baby, and refused to receive any help from the blonde

Sensing the desperate need for the two to have some alone time, Cyrene had offered to take the baby for the night, and after much coaxing from Gabrielle, the warrior princess had eventually caved.

“She eats every four hours. Sometimes three and a half, depending on how hungry she is,” Xena was saying as Cyrene tried to go back to her own room. “Make sure she keeps her blanket with her, it helps her sleep.”

“Okay, Xena,” Cyrene agreed.

“Oh, and make sure that you hold her head. She tries to hold it up by herself, but she can't quite get it. And her bottle, make sure that the-”

“Xena,” Gabrielle said firmly, placing a gentle hand on the taller woman's arm. “I'm sure she's got it. After all, you survived.”

Xena nodded, looking at the bard. “Okay,” she said softly, looking at Cyrene. “Thank you. I'll see you tomorrow morning. Goodnight, Eve. We love you.”

“I'll see you then,” Cyrene promise.

The room was silent as the door clicked, closing softly behind the older woman, as the baby slumbered peacefully in her arms.

“It was really nice of your mom to take her for the night,” Gabrielle said softly, wrapping her arms loosely around Xena's waist and resting her cheek against her back.

“I can't believe she said I needed rest. I'm perfectly fine,” the warrior replied, clearly disgruntled.

“You're a new mom again, Xena. You've been running yourself ragged for the last five days trying to take care of Eve. You need some rest,” Gabrielle pointed out.

Xena placed a hand against her forehead. “Maybe you're right. I am tired,” Xena agreed. “However, I think Mom just wanted to give you and me some time to talk,” Xena remarked, turning around and shooting a look at her companion.

“It could have been part of her goal,” Gabrielle agreed, blundering just a little. “But Xena, what do we have left to talk about?”

“For starters, how long have you felt this way? About us?”

Gabrielle's eyes found the floorboards as she ducked her head to avoid the inquisitive gaze of the taller woman. In some ways, being much shorter had its advantages. “Gods, Xena. I wouldn't even know where to begin. We've seen so many adventures together. I'd be a fool to attempt to find one that made me fall for you.”

Xena smiled wistfully at the bard. “That long, huh?”

“It was at least the first season we were together,” the blonde admitted.

“Yeah. For me too,” the warrior smiled, looking almost shyly at the floor.

“Xena, you're smiling, but the tone of your voice betrays you. What is it?”

Xena took a deep breath. “I need you to understand something,” she said, reaching to caress the bard's cheek.

“Okay,” Gabrielle agreed softly, taking Xena's hand in her own. She pulled the weapon roughened hand toward her, pulling it around her own waist so their bodies could press close together, enjoying the newfound intimacy with the taller woman.

Xena was nose to nose with Gabrielle, and her breathing was swimming through the water of nervous anticipation. She looked into clear emerald eyes, laced with honeyed flecks.

“What is it, Xena?” the Amazon asked, feeling the emotion coming from the warrior princess.

“My relationships end badly. If I were to ever lose you...it would destroy my soul,” she finished in a whisper.

Gabrielle's vision was blurred by tears at the admittance. “Xena, you and I were made for each other. It's going to be different that all the others,” the bard said intimately.

“You got that right,” Xena agreed, a trademark, half cocky smile on her face. “For starters, you're a woman. That's new.” She pressed closer to Gabrielle, forcing the last space between them away. She pressed her lips softly against the blonde's, again and again, in a kiss that lasted until Apollo chased Artemis from the sky.

>

Gabrielle smiled as she watched Xena coo and make funny faces at Eve. It was so uncharacteristic of the warrior, but she seemed to be surprising the bard more each day.

“Okay, Eve. I need to have a talk with Gabrielle, so why don't you take a little nap okay? Yeah,” Xena said, smiling at the bundle in her arms. Her smile widened as she watched a chubby fist rub across tired eyes.

Gabrielle placed a gentle kiss on Eve's head as Xena carried her across the room to the makeshift crib the warrior had made. Her eyes took on a faraway look that went unnoticed until Xena returned.

“Whatcha thinkin'?” Xena asked, taking a seat across from the bard.

Gabrielle smiled, and shook her head slightly, as if clearing the thought away. “It's nothing. It's foolish, really.”

“Try me.”

The bard wrapped her arms around her body loosely. “I was thinking about Hope,” she admitted quietly, eyes tracing the grains in the wood floor.

Xena felt a twinge of pain thrum through her heart at the memory of Gabrielle's daughter. Hope had slaughtered Solan, and Xena had blamed Gabrielle for that for a short time because Gabrielle had not taken her child's life when the warrior princess had commanded her to do so. She placed a hand softly on Gabrielle's shoulder.

“I'm sorry,” the warrior said softly. “I know the memory still hurts, Gabrielle, and I truly do wish that it had ended differently. I know how hard it is to lose a child.”

“It was my daughter's fault that you know that loss,” the blonde answered.

“But it wasn't yours. You hurt every bit as much as I did, and that's a pain that I would never wish upon you.”

“Xena? Do you still think about it? About Solan?”

“Every single day,” the taller woman admitted, standing before coming to rest on her knees in front of the Gabrielle. “I mourn him every day, and I mourn Hope every day. I mourn what could have been if she hadn't been created for Dahak's purpose.”

“Really?” Gabrielle asked, tears slipping over her cheeks.

“Oh, Gabrielle, yes,” Xena said, voice close to a whisper. “She was your daughter. She may have been evil incarnate, but a part of her was still you, and that, I mourn daily,” she said, kissing the bard's hand tenderly.

“I love you, Xena,” the Amazon replied, eyes shining with how overcome she was with emotion.

“I love you too,” the warrior princess replied, cupping Gabrielle's cheek softly. “You know,” she said, clearing her throat, “Eve is going to be out for a while. Why don't we go for a walk, and see if Mom would pop in and watch her for a little bit.”

Gabrielle smiled warmly at Xena. “I think I'll take you up on that.”

Xena returned the smile, settling into the comfort of their banter. The two had enjoyed a week of domestic bliss. They'd shared a kiss here or there, but neither had pressed for anything further, or brought up their feelings. However, snuggling together at night, while trying to obtain normalcy was proving to be difficult, especially since the two were feeling anything but normal. More often than not, the two women forced themselves to sleep because their desire ratcheted to a feverish level. Banter had saved them more often than not, especially when the baby was sleeping.

“Speaking of your mother, I haven't seen her in a couple of days.”

“Oh, I told her to take a break. She's been running herself ragged trying to see the baby every chance she gets.”

Got it. Who's taking care of her tavern while she's here?” Gabrielle asked.

“Her sister,” Xena said, rolling her eyes.

The bard laughed. “Don't seem so thrilled.”

Xena winced. “I've never cared much for her, and her son owes me six dinars,” she added.

“What?”

“I was four, and he was eight. He told me he'd give me six dinars for my solstice present. He never did.”

Gabrielle laughed. “Why not just go find him and make him give you the money?”

Xena shrugged. “Eh, I killed him a long time ago.”

The smile dropped from Gabrielle's face as she searched Xena's for a hint of joking and seeing none. “Over six dinars?” she asked, eyes wide.

“What? Gods, no. He took Argo for a ride without asking. I thought he was an invading warlord. I put the pinch on him, and by the time I got his helmet off to see who it was...it was too late,” the dark haired woman explained.

“That's terrible,” Gabrielle said, sucked into the story. “How did your aunt and mom react to that?”

“They eventually understood why I did what I did,” Xena continued, standing to walk over to the fireplace.”I felt terrible, but it was Argo,” she said passionately, propping her elbow on the mantle and covering her face with her hand.

Gabrielle's heart went out to the woman as she saw her shoulders begin to shake and her breathing coming in quick bursts. She crossed the floor, patting Xena's shoulder gently before wrapping her arms around the taller woman's waist in a comforting hug.

Xena couldn't hold it in any longer. A loud burst of laughter escaped from her before she was able to stop it, running through her and growing louder each time.

“Xena?” Gabrielle inquired, pulling away from the hug, and coming up beside the warrior.

“I'm sorry, Gabrielle,” she said between breaths. “Andros is alive. He's a very successful merchant in Athens.”

“You ass,” the bard said, punching Xena on the arm good-naturedly. “You set me up for that, and you knew I'd fall for it.”

“Gee, Gabrielle,” Xena said, eyes feigning innocence. “Don't be so gullible, and maybe the next time I won't pull one over on you.”

“Oh, you think you're funny, do ya, warrior princess?” the Amazon asked. “You want some of this?” she asked putting her fists up, setting up to fight with Xena.

“Oh, please. You can't handle the heat,” Xena said coolly.

“Oh yeah?” Gabrielle asked, jutting her chin upwards in defiance.

“Yeah,” Xena said, rising to her full height and standing closer to the bard.

“Yeah?” Gabrielle repeated.

“Yeah. So whatcha gonna do about it, hm?” Xena asked.

Gabrielle, looked into Xena's eyes, seeing the playfulness laying in the depths. Every ounce of humor faded from the amazon as she flung her arms around Xena's neck, capturing her lips in a heated kiss, both women fighting for control.

Xena broke away, pulling air in deeply. “Gabrielle,” she panted. “Maybe we should slow down,” she gasped.

“Are you not healed, from the baby?” Gabrielle asked, searching Xena's face. “Or do you just not want this to happen?”

“I very much want it to happen,” Xena said quickly. “And I'm recovered from the baby. I just want to be sure you want this.”

“I do, Xena. You have no idea how much,” Gabrielle whispered, her fingers twining through Xena's hair, pulling her into another feverish kiss, slipping her tongue between her lips, and finding the inquisitive muscle welcomed inside by the warrior princess.

Xena broke away again, placing her hands lightly on Gabrielle's shoulders. “I love you, Gabrielle,” she murmured, lifting a hand to gently cup Gabrielle's cheek.

“I love you too,” the blonde responded, placing her hand over the warrior's.

“I want you. I want this, but let's wait to go any further. This is new, and I want to make sure that you're sure,” Xena said, voice soft.

“I know what I want, Xena,” Gabrielle spoke, voice sure and certain. “We can wait, if it makes you feel better, but my mind won't change.”

“Just for a little while,” Xena replied. “I promise it won't be long. For right now, how about that walk?”

<

Cyrene had been all too pleased to keep an eye on her sleeping granddaughter, and wished Xena and Gabrielle a wonderful afternoon. Now the day found the two women following the trail of a babbling stream in what had been described to Xena as “Melodia's best kept secret”.

“This is beautiful,” Gabrielle smiled, taking in the tall trees surrounding them and the small pool the stream fed into.

“It is,” Xena agreed. “There's something a little further along that I want to show you,” she said, face lighting up like a child's on Solstice night.

The bard couldn't help but giggle a little. “How much further? Maybe I don't want to walk that far.”

“Trust me, you do. It's just over this hill,” Xena promised, pointing at the swell of the rise they were ascending.

“Okay, Xena,” Gabrielle agreed, taking the warrior's hand in her own. “We should have brought Argo. I bet she would have enjoyed the ride.”

“She would have,” Xena concurred. “We can bring her along the next time,” the warrior said, topping the hill. “But I wanted you to see this first,” she said.

Gabrielle gasped, “Gods! Xena! It's beautiful here!”

“It's ours,” the warrior princess said softly. “It's not much, but with a little fixing it up.”

“No,” the bard breathed. “Xena, it's perfect, but how did you....”

“I took care of a band of horse thieves that were snatching horses from King Kartos. I also found out the whereabouts of his daughter that had disappeared.” the warrior explained. “He rewarded me well, and I had enough to get this place, a few furnishings, and some food. There's some leftover, if you want to get a few things. I know how you like to shop,” she babbled, her nervousness getting the better of her.

“Xena, I love it. I can't believe you did all of that,” Gabrielle said, placing a hand on the warrior's smooth cheek.

Xena's face tinted the slightest hint of pink. “You wanna look inside?”

The bard nodded excitedly, a grin spreading ear to ear across her face. The house was small, made from some sort of creamy colored stone with heavy cedar shutters that latched upwards on the windows. As she looked up, she saw that the roof seemed to be fortified with pitch, so as not to leak during the rainiest of seasons. The door wasn't a standard rectangle, but a beautifully crafted arch with patterns carved throughout the cedar.

Xena opened the door for the Amazon, allowing Gabrielle to step through first. She smiled as she heard the tiny gasp of awe from the smaller woman.

“Xena,” the blonde breathed. “I don't know what to say.” The warrior had thought of everything. The entrance led straight into a sitting area, where a table sat surrounded by six chairs. Behind that was the kitchen, and there were two different sized pots and pans hanging over an archway that was to be used for cooking. As she walked throughout the house, Gabrielle realized that there were three doors leading from off the main room. She chose the one on the right first, and stepped into a simple room with a bed, large enough for two people to sleep on with heavy furs, two pillows, and a well stuffed mattress. Her curiosity was peaked as her eyes fell on yet another two doors within the room. The first one she opened was a closet for storing clothing or blankets, and the second led into a small, but well lit room, that housed a desk, ink well and quill already sitting atop it, and a straight backed chair.

“Xena,” she repeated, voice equally as breathy as the time before.

“You can say something besides my name, can't you?” the warrior teased.

“I'm...speechless. It's beautiful,” she said, eyes in amazement as she trailed her fingertips over the new quill and desk.

“There's more,” the warrior said smiling.

“More?”

“Not much. Eve's room is next door to ours, and there's an extra room with a double and single bed in it. Just in case your family ever decides to visit,” she smiled.

Gabrielle smiled, feeling tears pool in her eyes at the thoughtfulness of her companion. “I'll write to mother, and tell her that we're settling here. Maybe they'll plan a visit.”

The warrior princess grinned. “I wonder if we could convince my mother to visit.”

“The better question would be if we could convince her to leave,” the bard chuckled.

“You might be right,” Xena agreed.

“Anything else I'm missing?”

“A stable in the back. A well. An outhouse.”

“Maybe we'll skip the outhouse,” Gabrielle said, wrinkling her nose.

“Did you see the view?” Xena asked, gesturing to the window in the nook of the bard's work space.

Gabrielle looked out the window, pleasantly surprised that she could see the stream winding by and hear it. So serene. She could imagine countless hours of time spent here working on her scrolls or new plays, and taking in the sounds of nature outside.

“And all the shutters lock automatically when they're closed,” Xena said. “I thought that would be a nice little security measure.”

“It is. Especially since this place isn't that far from the center of town. It's almost like it's an entirely different region.”

“But it's not,” Xena grinned. “See? You aren't the only person that knows how to shop for a bargain.”

“I still can't believe you could afford this place,” Gabrielle said disbelievingly. “How much did King Kartos pay you?”

“Sixty thousand dinars,” Xena said.

“Sixty thousand?” Gabrielle yelped.

“Yeah. The house and land cost twelve thousand dinars. I got a good deal because I did a lot of the repairs on my fishing and hunting trips. I made the beds. All of them are a little different. After the mattresses, the cookware, the food, and the rest of the furniture, I spent about eight hundred dinars. I didn't know what else you would want, or need, so I was really careful,” the warrior admitted.

“Xena? This place is amazing, and I can't believe you put all of this together. I love it, but I want you to know, at the end of the day, all that I could ever want, or need, is you and Eve in my life. You're my soul, Xena. Thank you for this, and thank you for loving me.”

Now it was Xena's turn to be speechless as emotion overcame her and tears of joy slipped down her cheeks.

>

One hundred and fifty dinars later, and the women had procured a cart from the market place, along with a deep chocolate colored stallion with a brilliant white lightening bolt trailing down his nose. Gabrielle had fallen in love with the stallion at first sight, and the two believed that it would be much easier to make a commute, with Eve, in a cart, as opposed to on foot.

Gabrielle settled against Xena as the two made their way back to the inn to collect the baby and their belongings. “I'm curious, Xena,” she broke the silence.”

“About what?” came the gentle reply. Xena seemed more peaceful than either could remember her ever being.

“Sixty thousand dinars is a huge sum,” Gabrielle acknowledged. “Those horses must have been worth a lot to the king.”

Xena chuckled softly. “The horse thieves being brought to justice was a small part of it. His daughter going missing was the thing of the most value to him. That's where the other thirty thousand dinars came from.”

“You found her?” Gabrielle asked, looking up at the other woman as the cart jostled over the road gently, lulling the two of them into comfort.

“Yes. As it turns out, she'd fallen in love with a peasant in the town, and the two ran off to be married. I found her in the village market when I had new shoes put on Argo.”

“Did she not want to face her father?” Gabrielle asked, looking to Xena. In honesty, she'd been having the same anxiety about facing her own parents.

“I think she was afraid because their social statuses were so different, but it all worked out for the best. King Kartos was just happy that she was safe and happy, and he welcomed the guy into the family. He really just wanted his daughter back. So that's why my reward was so substantial,” Xena explained, calling the horse to a halt when they reached the tavern.

“I can't believe you took a reward.” Gabrielle said surprised because things of this nature, Xena usually did as a way of atoning for previous torments that she'd exacted on various groups of people.

“I wouldn't have if I hadn't wanted to buy that new place,” she admitted. “If we're going to settle down here, I want to do it right. I want us to have some stability, and the first way to do that is having a place that's ours.”

“Ours,” Gabrielle tried the word on her tongue. “I like that.”

“And I like you,” Xena said, kissing the tip of her nose gently, and giving her a quick squeeze. “Okay. Let's get inside, see that baby of ours, and tell mom the good news.”

“You mean, you didn't tell her yet?” the bard asked, voice surprised.

“Nope. It's our place. I figured you should know about it first,” Xena smiled.

Gabrielle tapped her lightly on the arm. “I love you.”

Xena draped an arm loosely around the blonde's shoulders. “I know,” she smirked. “And I like it.”

The two nodded to the tavern keeper as they passed on their way to their room, but they were stopped before they got much further.

“Xena!” the awkward looking owner called.

“Hey, Marcus,” the warrior princess replied, giving him her attention.

“Spiro said that you paid for your room. I told you it was taken care of.”

“And I appreciate that more than you could know,” she said, resting a hand on his forearm gently. “I accepted two weeks of free living from you. It wouldn't be right to accept more. I paid for everything past those two weeks. Thank you for your hospitality.”

The man blushed lightly, taking his hat off and turning it in his hands. “If you ever need it again, you just shout.”

“I will,” the tall woman responded. “In the meantime. We're going to be heading out.”

“You're leaving Melodia?” Marcus asked, brow wrinkled in discouragement.

“Not quite,” Gabrielle answered, looking adoringly at Xena.

“I've lost your meaning,” the man responded.

“The place near the stream, I bought it,” Xena said simply.

“You mean Sophocles' old place?” he gasped.

Gabrielle looked up to see a wide eyed Xena shaking her head quickly, only to halt abruptly and cut her a tight smile. “Sophocles? The playwright?”

“Yes,” Marcus said excitedly. “He lived there, and abandoned that place a long time ago.”

“Sophocles?” Gabrielle asked Xena, disbelief in her voice.

“Um...Surprise?” Xena said, a goofy smile on her face.

“But I thought the king owned that spot now,” Marcus commented.

“He did. I did him a favor, and he sold it to me,” Xena replied.

“It's nice. It has everything. Good sized rooms, a barn, a well, an outhouse, that bonus-”

“Marcus,” Xena cut him off quickly. “We really need to go get my mother and daughter. Thank you for the hospitality again. If you need me, you know where you can find me now.”

“Xena? Have you ever noticed that, even when we wandered around, anyone who was looking for us always seemed to know where we were?” Gabrielle pointed out.

“Huh. Come to think of it, yeah,” Xena said, furrowing her brow and looking around. “It's like our every move is being dictated and we're just pawns or something. Like there's some all seeing eye watching out every step.”

The trio grew silent and thoughtful.

Gabrielle began to laugh. “Oh, we're being ridiculous.”

“Maybe you're right,” Xena agreed. She turned back to face Marcus. “You've been a good friend,” she said earnestly. “Thank you for giving us a place to stay.”

“No trouble,” he blushed, tugging his hat back on. “Well, I guess I'd better get back. It's almost supper rush. Before you leave, if you want to come by the counter, I'll have some food for your first night in your new place, if you want it.”

“We would love it, Marcus. Thank you,” Gabrielle chimed in, touching his shoulder. She watched as the man nodded and walked away with a bounce in his step. “It didn't take much to make him happy,” she offered.

“Yeah,” Xena said. “He's one of the nice guys.”

“Well, don't let one of the nice guys sweep you off you feet and take you away from me, warrior princess,” Gabrielle teased as the pair topped the stairs.

“I wouldn't dream of it, Amazon,” Xena assured her, wrapping a hand around the door handle, and pushing her way into the room.

“Xena,” Cyrene announced, turning to look at her daughter, and jostling the baby gently in her arms, a tall man looming behind her in the corner of the room.

“Mom,” Xena said coolly, lifting her chin and acknowledging the man in the back of the room. “Herodotus,” she nodded.

“Father,” Gabrielle whispered, hand coming up to cover her mouth.

<

The bard's father stared the warrior princess down coldly, his jaw clenched, and arms folded across his chest.

Xena felt the muscles in her body tense, almost as if they were anticipating a fight, but she knew that she would never strike the man who raised her beloved. She watched her partner cautiously, as Gabrielle unfroze from her moment of shock.

The blonde crossed the floor, eyes lighting on two additional people in the room. “Mother?” she whispered, tears springing to her eyes. “Lila?” Her feet moved faster across the floorboards as she covered the distance to embrace both women, clinging to them as the tears spilled over her cheeks.

“Oh, my darling,” her mother whispered into Gabrielle's short blonde locks. “I'm so happy to see you.”

“I've missed you,” Gabrielle said, leaning back from the embrace and reaching to clasp her sister's hand. “Both of you,” she said, directing the phrase at Lila, and looking her in the eyes.

“We've missed you too,” Lila replied, smiling at the older young woman, her own tears of happiness pooling from her eyes.

“Lila. Hecuba. Good to see you again,” Xena said warmly, crossing the floor to take the tiny bundle from Cyrene's arms. “Have you met my daughter?”

“Oh, Xena, she's just beautiful,” Hecuba gushed. “May I?”

“Of course,” the warrior princess replied, transferring Eve from her arms those of the bard's mother.

Gabrielle watched as her sister and mother cooed over the infant. She joined them, softly stroking the dark crown of hair on Eve's head.

“Xena, I'd like minute with you alone,” Herodotus snapped, causing a worried look to arise from his wife.

“Is everything alright?” Gabrielle asked, eyes lifting to meet his as she searched for some hint of what was in the farmer's head. She chanced a quick look at Xena.

“Outside?” he asked, ignoring the blonde.

“After you,” Xena said, her expression blank and tone even. She followed the lanky man out of the room, send a quick smile of reassurance to Gabrielle before she closed the door behind them.

“Now look-”

Xena held up her hands, cutting the older man off. “I've been traveling with your daughter long enough to know that the second she thinks it's something she isn't supposed to hear, she eavesdrops terribly.”

He grinned tightly at the thought. “She gets that from her mother.”

“Why don't we take a walk? I'm certain that you don't want her to hear whatever it is you wish to discuss with me.”

“Alright,” he agreed, nodding in compliance, and following the warrior down the stairs.

A slight breeze brushed hair away from equally tensed foreheads as the pair exited the inn.

“We've come to take Gabrielle home, Xena,” Herodotus announced, wasting no time.

The warrior princess pursed her lips. “I see. What makes you think she's going to want to come with you?”

“A girl her age has no business traipsing across all of Greece, and the gods only know wherever else you've taken her. She should be home. Cooking with her mother and sister. Mending clothing. Learning how to be a wife and mother. She needs stability. Not to have her life ruined by the likes of you.”

“That 'girl', Herodotus, has become a woman. She's a skilled fighter. She mends. She cooks. And she has stability now,” Xena protested.

“Oh really? Because it looks like the two of you are just wandering around the known world like you have for the last five years.”

“We've just bought a house,” Xena blurted, eager to prove her worthiness of the bard to the blonde's father. “We've only just stayed in the inn until I had finished the repairs.”

“You bought a house?” he asked in disbelief.

Xena nodded, looking him in the eyes. She would only tell him what was necessary. She didn't want Gabrielle having any surprises when they returned. “We were just returning to the inn from me showing it to Gabrielle. She hadn't seen it, and I wanted it fixed up first. We were going to load up my mother and the baby, and go that way. There's plenty of room if the three of you would like to stay.”

“You bought a house?” he repeated.

Xena placed her hands on her hips in irritation. “Yes, I bought a house.”

“But you're a woman!” he protested.

“The last I checked,” she answered. “Look. The king asked me to catch some thieves for him. He paid me, and the house was part of the bargain. Gabrielle loves it, Herodotus. Really. You should have seen her face light up.”

“I don't see why you couldn't have gotten her one in Potedeia near her family,” he said shortly.

“Because as much as she loves all of you, she doesn't want to be in Potedeia. She loves Melodia. She has a new form of theater she's introducing. She working on a play. We're really trying to make a good life here, which is what she wanted.”

“We?” the man spat the word.

“She wanted me to stay. I'm her best friend,” Xena replied. “Plus, I needed help with the baby, and Eve adores her. With my mom in Amphipolis, running the tavern, I can't rely on her, but I can provide a home with enough space to house anyone who wants to come and visit us. We would love to have you, Hecuba, and Lila come and visit for Solstice. Our home is always open to you,” she continued, looking hopeful.

The man set his thin lips in a grim line, his eyes holding no flicker of understanding or happiness. “I don't like this. I don't like this at all,” he said, voice angry and choked, as he turned on his heel and re-entered the inn.

>

“He just stormed off!” Lila gasped, closing the shutter quickly.

“Oh, I wish we had been able to hear was they were saying!” Gabrielle lamented, bouncing Eve gently as she absentmindedly kissed the infant's temple.

“Your father,” Hecuba began, sitting in the desk chair slowly, “he's not a bad man. He just lacks a little understanding.”

“Understanding?” Gabrielle echoed.

“About yourself and Xena. I understand the depth of friendship between you two,” the older woman answered.

“You know we're lovers?” Gabrielle's eye shot up in surprise.

“You're what now?” Hecuba asked, leaning toward her oldest daughter.

“Um...” Gabrielle stammered. “I thought you were talking about...well...uh...we um...”

“Aren't lovers technically,” Xena responded.

The blonde looked around, surprised to see her soul mate crouched in the window. “Xena?”

“Your father is on his way up. I told him where we were this afternoon. I just didn't want it blindsiding you,” she explained to the bard.

“Oh. That's...good,” Gabrielle replied.

Xena turned to look at Hecuba. “We haven't shared intimacy, so technically we aren't lovers. I didn't tell your husband that we were together. I think it best that it come from Gabrielle when she's ready.”

Hecuba was staring back and forth between the two women. Certainly there friendship had appeared to be more than a casual camaraderie between friends, but she'd just been grateful the gods had sent someone that could help her daughter fulfill her dreams of being a traveling bard. She'd had no clue that anything else had developed between the two.

“I'm going to come up the stairs. Gabrielle, count to five to get yourself together, and he'll come through the door.”

The bard nodded, watching as the warrior princess cast a quick smile her way before dropping from the opened shutters. She rushed to look over the window ledge, satisfied when she saw Xena running inside the tavern. She latched the shutters down, just as the handle to the door turned. Gabrielle cleared her throat as the man entered the room.

Herodotus crossed the floor quickly, clutching Gabrielle's forearms in his grasp as he searched her eyes. She'd remembered him grabbing her and looking at her like this once before. It had been shortly after she'd been freed from Draco's henchman Hector. After Xena had saved them. The look was concern, not anger or malice. It was worry.

“Gabrielle, we haven't much time before she comes back. Answer me. Is that warrior woman keeping you here against your will?” he tightened his grip.

“Keeping me...” Gabrielle trailed off, searching his eyes for some form of meaning. Then, the realization struck. “Father. No. No, she isn't keeping me here against my will. Xena would never do anything to hurt me, or make me do something I didn't want. She...she takes care of me. We watch out for each other,” she said softly. “If I ever wanted to go, she'd let me. Just as she has before when I returned to see you. You remember the Maleager fiasco?”

“Ha!” Lila chimed in. “That man couldn't hold anything but his port before Gabrielle gave him a talking to.”

“And that I learned from Xena,” the blonde continued, agreeing with her sister. “Father, you and mother raised me to be a good person. A woman with integrity. But Xena, she makes me an even better one,” she said quietly, placing a hand softly on his shoulder. “She's good for me, father.”

“We miss you at home,” Herodotus said earnestly. “The village, the house...it just isn't the same without you. She took you from us.”

“I chose to go,” Gabrielle pointed out, “and I've chosen to stay.”

“She's old enough to make the choice on her own, Herodotus. She's grown into a pretty incredible woman,” Xena said from the doorway.

Gabrielle looked past the tall, spindly man into the eyes of sky blue. She smiled warmly at the warrior, before switching her gaze to meet her father's warm brown eyes. “We've got a house just on top of the hill. Come and stay with us for a couple of days before your journey home. Xena and I had just returned to get Eve and Cyrene. We'd love for you to join us. If that's okay,” she said, shooting a questioning look at the warrior princess.

Xena smiled tightly at Herodotus. “Please. We would love to have you.”

“You got a house without telling me?” Cyrene asked, smacking her daughter repeatedly on the arm. “How could you not tell me? I'm your mother!”

“I was just a little one!” Xena said, raising her hands in defense to block the onslaught of the smaller woman's flailing hands.

<

“This is beautiful!” Cyrene gasped. “And small? You said it was small, Xena. It's anything but small!”

“Sophocles lived here,” Gabrielle smiled, jumping down from the cart and reaching her arms up to Xena to take Eve.

“You could fit two of our houses in here,” Lila said softly to Xena, not wanting her mother or father to hear.

“I got it cheap. I did the repairs on my own. Built a lot of the furniture,” Xena said, hopping down, and reaching a hand up to help her mother.

“It's so calming here,” Hecuba said quietly.

“I know. And listen to that stream. I could sit and listen to it while I work on my scrolls for hours,” Gabrielle said dreamily.

The faraway and satisfied look on the blonde's face didn't go unnoticed by her father. In truth, he was pleased to see his daughter so peaceful and happy. It was entirely opposite from the feeling he'd gotten from her last visit. She hadn't seemed herself, and he'd been quick to blame the warrior princess. Maybe it had been the stress of the monster that had wreaked havoc on Potedeia, maybe she was searching for another answer entirely, but this Gabrielle was his daughter. Carefree, happy, and looking at the tall bronzed woman adoringly. He wasn't able to move past his anger toward Xena, this he knew, but he was grateful for her keeping Gabrielle safe for all of these years.

“Let me show you where you can sleep and put your belongings down,” Xena told Hecuba, placing a gentle hand on the woman's arm and steering her inside.

“Xena?” Hecuba asked when the two of them were out of earshot from the crowd.

“Yes?”

“What Gabrielle said earlier about the two of you...” the older woman trailed off.

“About us being together. Yes?” the warrior asked, casting a curious eye in her direction.

“Do you love her?” she blurted. “I mean, do you really love my daughter? Because when Gabrielle loves, it's with her heart and soul. It's her everything, and I don't want her hurt. If she loves you as she says she does, I need to know, for my own sanity if you love her.”

Xena stepped into the house, allowing Hecuba to follow. Once inside with the doors shut, she came to a stop, halting the other woman with her, and placing a hand on each of her shoulders. “Hecuba, I assure you, I love Gabrielle with every essence of who I am. I'm not perfect. I've done terrible things in my past, and Gabrielle and I have caused each other pain before. You know that relationships are not always smooth, but I promise you that a day will never go by that she isn't completely sure that I love her.”

The aged woman stared at Xena, searching the azure blue depths for the slightest hint of deception, and finding none. “Okay,” she agreed, sensing the sincerity of the warrior princess's words. “But if you hurt her...”

“You can run me through with my own sword,” Xena said, a charming smile crossing her features.

“You know her father isn't going to like this,” Hecuba added.

“I know, and honestly, she's terrified to tell him,” Xena admitted, leading the woman through the house. “Gabrielle doesn't know it yet, but there's a hidden room back here. I didn't get to show her everything. You and your husband can sleep in there. There's another spare room next to it, and my mother can stay in there. Do you think Lila will mind sleeping in the sitting room?” Xena asked.

“I don't see why she would,” Hecuba replied, sitting her bag with her knitting down on the bedside table that Xena had carved out of a supple oak tree. “I'll be sure to get her bedroll out of the cart.”

“Oh, she won't need that,” the warrior princess smiled. “Come with me, and I'll show you a little contraption that I cooked up.”

Hecuba followed obediently, weaving back through the short corridor and into the sitting room.

“See this portrait here?” Xena asked, pointing to a large stretched canvas that was covered in a brilliant blonde mare.

Hecuba immediately recognized the horse as Argo, and smiled at the thought of this once angry warlord thinking highly enough of her horse to have a portrait done of her four hoofed companion. “Yes.”

“Notice how the picture juts out of the wall?” Xena question, a look of mischief in her eyes.

Gabrielle's mother craned her head, noticing for the first time that the image stuck out from the wall a considerable deal. “Yes,” she said again.

“This branch here at the top,” the dark haired woman said, reached for the branch, “all you have to do is tug it, and...” with a light tug, Xena revealed a bed that folded away neatly into a shallow cove in the wall.

“That is amazing!” Hecuba exclaimed, touching the soft mattress gently, her voice holding awe at the creativity of her daughter's chosen partner.

“Xena has a way of coming up with things no one else could possibly think of,” Gabrielle's voice said from the doorway. She crossed the floor to join her mother and partner. “I don't remember seeing this before,” she said, giving Xena's upper arm a light tweak.

“Well, you were so excited about your writing room, that the rest of the house kind of fell from your mind,” the warrior princess teased.

“You have a writing room?” Gabrielle's mother asked surprised.

“Oh, mother, it's beautiful!” Gabrielle gushed.

“Why don't you go and show her. I'll go help mom and Lila get their stuff in,” Xena offered.

“Okay,” Gabrielle agreed. We need to talk later,” she said pointedly.

“I figured as much,” Xena responded. “After supper, okay?”

“Perfect,” the blonde smiled softly, before turning on her heel to steer her mother in the direction of her writing nook.

The warrior princess drew a deep breath, and went outside to face her greatest challenge yet.

“Xena, Eve's fallen asleep,” Cyrene said softly, so as not to wake the baby.

“Let me show you her room,” came the quick reply.

“I can do it. I heard Gabrielle explain where it was about three hundred times on the way here from the tavern,” Lila chimed in.

Xena nodded. “Thank you. I'll grab your belongings,” she said.

She watched as the two women scampered in the direction of the house to find a place for the baby to sleep..

“Now don't you go getting any ideas in your head about my Lila,” Herodotus said gruffly. “She's not leaving Potedeia.”

“I wouldn't dream of taking her away,” Xena answered, holding her hands up in surrender.

“Good.”

“I'm not opposed to her coming for a visit now and again. I mean, she is Gabrielle's sister, after all,” Xena pointed out innocently, grabbing one of her mother's satchels.

Herodotus only met the warrior with silence. He couldn't put his finger on what was going on, but her knew something was off. “Where are you putting us up? In the barn?”

Xena looked questioningly at the man, seeing the briefest glimpse of, what appeared to be guilt flash across his features. “What?”

“That's where we made you stay. Where I made you stay,” he said, tone irritated and flat.

“Look, Herodotus. I know you don't see things my way, and I know you never will, but you have ears so you can hear this. I consider Gabrielle my family, and because you're her family, that makes you part of my family too. No family of mine is going to stay in my barn when I have plenty of room to spare in my home. I have a room fixed up for you and Hecuba to stay, whenever you like, and you'll be staying there. Unless, of course, you'd rather sleep on hay with the asses,” she finished, eyebrow quirking up in question. When she was greeted with a surprised silent look, she knew the man had taken her hint. She also knew that, on some level, she'd just gained the tiniest bit of respect from him.

He nodded curtly. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

“It's here whenever you need it,” Xena said. “Come inside, and I'll take you to your room.”

Herodotus followed Xena silently, watching the warrior princess carefully, and contemplating the woman in front of him. He'd heard of her heroics in Potedeia, and he was grateful to her for keeping his wife and daughters safe during Draco's attack, and again during the attack of that terrible creature. It had been Lila that had informed him that Xena had rescued her from falling to her death when the bridge gave way on her walk with Gabrielle. Lila's explanation as to why her sister hadn't saved her had been a simple one. She'd said the blonde was merely not feeling like herself. He had treated the once warlord terribly, and yet she invited him into her home with open arms, and called him family. He was not a cruel man, but he was prideful, and this warrior was good for no man that had any pride.

>

“Xena,” Gabrielle whispered to her companion, pulling her to the side once the warrior entered the house behind Herodotus.

“Look, I didn't say anything,” Xena whispered back.

“No. It's not that. What Marcus sent over...it's not enough food for all of us, and we're all out of flour,” the bard informed.

“I have to make a run to town anyway,” the warrior said. “I can grab a couple loaves of bread and some vegetables.”

“Thank you. That would be wonderful,” the blonde said.

“I shouldn't be but about twenty minutes. Will you be alright until then?”

“Yeah. I'm good.”

“Okay. I'll head out. When I come back, I'll try to see if I can work on some venison. That way there's plenty, and enough for stew,” Xena said, tone hushed.

“Maybe you could take father hunting with you. He's a really good shot with a bow,” the blonde offered.

A tight smile stretched across Xena's face. “Your father. Great. It'll be a great time.”

Gabrielle's eyes twinkled as mischief sparked through them. “You two will have fun.”

“You know what I think?” Xena asked, leaning even closer to whisper into the bard's ear.

“What?”

“I think that you're trying to get him to go with me so that you don't have to tell him about your naughty feelings for me,” Xena said, turning on her heel and heading out the door, leaving the blonde standing in the middle of the sitting room with everyone else putting their items away.

Xena began whistling as she approached the cart, deciding to lead the other horse to the barn so she could attach Argo and let the other animal rest. After the golden mare was hitched and the chocolate colored one boarded in the barn, she climbed onto the seat of the wagon.

“Xena!”

Her head whipped around quickly as she heard a familiar voice. She looked to see a smaller woman running toward her.

“Hey! I'm glad I caught you. Would you mind if I went with you to the market? Mother needs some new sewing twine to stitch Father's other shirt,” Lila spluttered quickly, red faced from running from the house.

“Of course,” the warrior princess replied, stretching her hand out, and helping the brunette aboard. She waited until Lila was settled before clicking her tongue lightly at Argo to signal the mare to begin their journey.

“I really like the new house,” Lila said, breaking the silence between them as the homestead faded from view.

Xena smiled. “Thank you. You should have seen Gabrielle's face when I surprised her with it.”

“I would think so,” the younger woman agreed. “I'm really glad she's happy, Xena. I'm sorry about Father.”

“Eh,” Xena said, lightly flipping her wrist at the bard's sister. “Men are just like that. I don't pay any attention to it.”

“Men from Potedeia,” Lila muttered.

“Men everywhere. Not just Potedeia,” Xena corrected her.

“Maybe you're right,” Lila sighed heavily. “Father just seems like he's getting worse lately. We've all missed Gabrielle, but it's been a little worse on him lately. I don't know if it's just age, or losing the farm, or that his favorite cow ran off, or-”

“Lila?” Xena cut her off sharply. “What do you mean he lost the farm?”

Blue eyes widened to meet blue eyes as the young woman realized what she had said. “Gabby doesn't know. Neither does mother. I overheard him talking to the tax collector. Our crops and livestock haven't had a very good year for the last three years or better, so we haven't had enough dinars coming in to pay taxes. The land in Potedeia is staring to dry up. There hasn't been a lot of rain. Barely any.”

“How much are you behind?” Xena asked, pulling Argo to a stop outside of the marketplace.

“I think the taxpayer was demanding five thousand dinars, or he would assemble the council together to smoke us out of the dwelling.”

“They're going to burn your house down?” Xena asked, eyes flashing in anger.

“If we don't pay, then yes, and right now, we don't have the money to pay it,” Lila replied.

“That would break Gabrielle's heart,” the warrior princess said quietly.

“And mother's,” Lila added as they began weaving through the crowded market.

“I'm guessing your father wouldn't accept any help,” Xena said dryly, picking up a handful of carrots.

Lila giggled. “Are you mad? He'd die first. He's so worried, and feeling like such a bad provider. He's searched all of Potedeia for work, odd jobs, but trade is down so badly over the city, no one will chance taking a worker to pay wage to.”

“Well, we'll have to figure another way out of it, won't we?”

“I don't see how. Mother and Father keep talking about moving near Athens where trade is a little better, but our father is a farmer. He doesn't really know much in the way of trade.”

“Huh..” Xena said, gears winding in her head. “I wish I could help.”

“If anyone can, it's you, Xena. At least, I know my sister would seem to think so,” Lila commented.

Xena continued piling vegetables in her arms. “About your sister. Are you...do you still resent me for taking her away from you? I know your father does, and I know you and Gabrielle exchanged a few words when she visited without me the first time.”

“That was a long time ago,” Lila said, busying herself with sewing twine. “I don't resent you. You've been good for her, and she loves being with you. I think I was just hurt over her leaving to begin with, but that's a part of life. I understand that now a lot better than I did then.”

“Good. I'm glad to hear that.”

“Now this business of you two being in love...”

Xena froze in her tracks for a moment. She couldn't take a rejection of her relationship from Lila. She knew Gabrielle loved her sister dearly, and for that reason, it was incredibly important for her to have her blessing. “Yes?”

“I'm glad that the two of you are happy, and I wish I could say that it surprises me. It doesn't. In all honesty, I'm pretty sure I've known longer than Gabrielle has.”

“Oh really?” Xena asked raising an eyebrow. She handed the sum of dinars for both her items and Lila's to the merchant and began walking back to the cart.

“Yeah,” Lila said following behind. “I pay attention, Xena. I saw the way she looked at you, the way you looked at her. Let's face it. What young woman leaves her family to travel the world with someone she's never met before?”

“Your sister,” Xena replied, a smirk on her face. “She's headstrong. She's so stubborn. Smart.”

“She can be a little air headed at times, and the constant talking,” Lila continued.

“That's a lot less than it use to be. She's grown up a lot, but then again, she hasn't had much of a choice. She's so compassionate and kindhearted,” Xena said reflectively, as the wagon began its trek down the road.

“You really love her, don't you?” Lila asked, ears picking up the dreamlike tremor of the warrior princess's voice.

“More than I would ever be able to put into words.”

<

Gabrielle's face lit up as she saw Xena come through the door carrying three burlap sacks of vegetables.

“I grabbed you some salt pork,” Xena smiled at the blonde. “I figured you'd want it for breakfast.”

“Thank you,” Gabrielle responded, touched that the warrior woman had thought of her favorite breakfast food while getting some staples.

“And your basket of eggs, Miss Playwright,” Xena teased.

“Why thank you, warrior princess. You mean you didn't crack them over the heads of some bad guys on your way back?” the bard teased.

“Not this time. The next time, they might not be so lucky,” Xena replied. Setting the items down, she crossed the floor to an intricately carved door on the wall. Opening it, she revealed a shallow cleft, and retrieved two quivers and two bows from the hideaway.

“By the gods,” Gabrielle said. “Is there any end to the hidden areas of this house? There was an entire room in here that I didn't know existed.”

“Well, I didn't give you the complete tour,” Xena razzed. “Maybe tomorrow, if you're up for it. The sun's pretty high, so I'm guessing it may be close to lunch time. There's some bread, cured meats, and cheeses in one of those sacks if you want it for lunch,” Xena paused as she watched Herodotus come out of one of the back rooms. She cleared her throat. “I was going to go out for a hunt to see if I could get a stag. I wanted to see if you'd come along, Herodotus. Between the two of us, maybe we can kill something,” Xena offered a smile.

“You got an extra bow?” the man asked, voice quiet as the silence from the others filled the room, sensing the tension between the warrior and the farmer.

“With your name on it,” Xena said, holding up the other bow and quiver.

“Let me get my hat,” he said, nodding his head in finality and turning to go back into the back room.

Xena turned to face Gabrielle. “I doubt you'll have a problem with her being unattended with my mother here, but take care of our baby.”

“Like I'd let anything happen to her,” Gabrielle said, a light laugh to her voice.

“We shouldn't be long,” Xena said, bending at the waist and brushing her lips lightly over Gabrielle's, the motion quick, so as not to be caught by the blonde's father.

“Thank you,” Gabrielle mouthed as her father returned.

Xena smiled in acknowledgment before turning to face Herodotus. “Alright. Let's go show those deer who's in charge.”

The uncomfortable duo exited the dwelling, never uttering a word between themselves. Xena crept up the gentle slope of the hill, Herodotus following closely behind, bow at the ready.

“What'll it be? Quail and venison, or pheasant and venison?” Xena asked, scanning the brush carefully.

“Quail?” Herodotus asked, looking puzzled.

“Coming right up,” the warrior princess said, pulling the bowstring taut and letting an arrow sail towards a target that the older man still hadn't seen..

He watched as Xena crept through the bushes and retrieve her arrow, which had cleanly glided through three plump quails. “How did you...” he trailed off, voice holding a glimmer of surprise.

“Lots of practice at killing things,” Xena shrugged as she used a bit of twine to tie the birds together. “Now Gabrielle...used to, she couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with a bow and arrow,” the warrior smile softly. “And now, she's almost as good with a bow and arrow as I am.”

Herodotus chuckled a little, as a memory from the recesses of his mind lifted and flowed through his brain tissue. “When she was younger, maybe nine summers or so, I took her out to teach her how to shoot. I had wanted a boy, like every other man in the village, and I was determined to teach my little girl how to be a little boy. Well, Gabrielle was interested in shopping with her mother at the market. She liked to just go and look at the fabrics while Hecuba would get grain or something like that.”

“I feel your pain. She still likes looking at fabric. For hours at a time,” Xena answered, voice flat and irritated, but surprised at the amount of time the man was spending in conversation with her.

“Some things will never change,” he agreed.

“I interrupted. Finish telling me your story,” Xena encouraged. “Please.”

He nodded, the smile creeping back across his face, causing the sparse wrinkles across his face to deepen. “One day, I decided to keep her home with me, and teach her how to shoot. I wanted her to know how to kill things just in case something ever happened to me. She threw such a tantrum. Finally, she agreed, and grabbed the bow I had made for her. I'd carved it, and it was just her sized. She was so mad. She was a spitfire then, you know.”

“Still is!” Xena agreed, nodding and laughing a bit.

“So we go out into the barnyard, and I have this target set up on a hay bale. The animal pen, at that time, was on the east side of the house, and the haystack was on the south side. I showed her how to draw back the bow, how to put the arrow in, and she did it perfectly. But when it came time to let it fly, she aimed as carefully as she could for that target, and still ended up killing my prized goat in the animal pen!”

Laughter erupted from both parties, and resounded throughout the wood.

“Was she really that bad?” Xena asked between bursts of air escaping her lungs.

Herodotus nodded, face reddened with laughter as he struggled to catch his breath again. “The harder she aimed, the worse she got!”

The laughter kept flowing, weaving up and into the trees until it finally subsided, leaving both beings with aching sides. Suddenly Herodotus became very quiet, and his eyes widened. He held a finger silently to his lips, catching Xena's eyes, and gesturing for her to look over her shoulder.

Behind Xena stood a stag. The creature was magnificent, thick and muscular with a large rack of antlers sitting atop his head. He was distracted by something, staring off in the distance as if the two humans weren't even in existence. She watched as Herodotus crouched, drawing his bow. The warrior princess readied her own arrow in case the farmer missed, but she lowered it as he shook his head. She watched him aim carefully, pulling the string tight, the feathers from the arrow gazing his lower jaw lightly. As the arrow sailed through the air, Xena watched in awe as the man, sunk the arrow deep into the hollowed area under the deer's ear, the animal dropping instantly without any of the suffering that would have accompanied Xena's standard shot through the heart.

“How did you...” she began.

“Lots of practice killing things,” he smiled, returning her words from earlier.

“A long time ago, when I was a little boy, I realized that sometimes animals suffer so we can eat. I don't like causing them pain, so I figured out a way that they don't feel anything,” he explained.

“Shooting them under the ear,” Xena said quietly.

“Less suffering,” he answered in agreement.

Xena placed the unused bow into her quiver, running a hand lightly under her nose to ease the tickle that had come from nowhere. “Ya know, Herodotus... Our new place is, um, big. I'm not all that great at growing stuff or animals, except horses kind of. I could, I mean, if you want to. I mean,” the warrior princess took a deep breath, not used to tripping over her words. The man was looking at her attentively. “Look. Gabrielle misses her family, but she doesn't want to stay in Potedeia. She loves it here. If you want to stick around and help out around with the growing things and the animals, I could really use the help.”

Herodotus paused for a moment, giving Xena a strange look. “You want us to live with you?”

Xena was getting frustrated. “If you don't want to you don't have to. I know how you and Hecuba feel about me. I won't take offense. I was just kind of hoping that the two of you and Lila would stick around for Gabrielle's sake, and to help out with the goats, and milking the cows and pigs and getting the eggs when the roosters lay them, and stuff.”

“Xena, stop,” Herodotus smiled, placing a hand on the warrior's shoulder. “I'll stay and help out around here.”

“Great,” Xena smiled, feeling very accomplished, and excited to tell Gabrielle.

“We'll stay, but I need you to do something for me first.”

“What's that?” the warrior princess asked, folding her arms across her chest, eyebrow quirking. She was ready for the standard Herodotus speech of needing her to leave Gabrielle.

“I need you to learn that you can't milk a pig or get eggs from a rooster.”

>

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