Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence –Yes, there is violence. Xena has, written into her contract, a clause that requires her to have at least one good, bloody fight every two days or so. Otherwise, all that energy gets pent up, and that's never a good thing. Xena also fights with a sword and a chakram, neither of which is a Nerf Bat. She slices, she dices, and she would probably like Julienne fries.

Subtext - Yes, there be subtext here. This story is based on the premise that it is about two women who are very much in love with each other. There is nothing more than PG-13 action, but there certainly is a lot of that. If love is illegal in your state, move. Now.

Let's see… we used Key Lime Pie last time.. so, I'll say, and if love offends you, then send me your mail address, and I’ll send you some angel food cupcakes with fudge frosting. Because if this kind of love twists your shorts, I really, really, do feel sorry for you.


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

Winter's Ending - Part 1

By Melissa Good

The fire crackled pleasantly across the warmly lit cabin, throwing dancing shadows across the sturdy furniture, and blurring the colors on the scattering of wool throws that graced the room. On the walls, cheerfully painted woven mats outlined various geographies, mountains and streams, forests and a lone stretch of desert. The large bed tucked neatly in the corner was spread with a profusion of thick blankets, which draped over the edge, and hung nearly to the floor, the colors matching the wool throws, and lending deep crimson and forest green highlights to the peaceful sense of the place. .

Near the fire, a huge bearskin was fluffed, providing an invisible resting-place for the dark furred adolescent wolf curled neatly in the center. He raised his head, sniffing lightly at the faint scratching from the quill in the hands of his companion, a woman of medium height with red gold hair who was sprawled next to him with a pile of neatly arranged scrolls, dressed in a dark burgundy wool shirt that was belted around her slim waist and fell almost to her knees.

The parchment she wrote on was bound in a fairly thick volume, and she wrote steadily for some minutes in a neat, exact hand before she paused, and set the tip of the quill between her teeth in a thoughtful motion.

"Hey Ares." Gabrielle said absently, as she raised a hand and gave him a scratch, then pushed her hair back out of her eyes and concentrated on her work again. "Mom give you the slip, huh?" She glanced up at the miffed expression on the animal's face. "You know she only tries to protect you, right?"

"Arrggroo." Ares rumbled, putting his head down on his paws, and sighing. His pale eyes kept flicking towards the door, then back to her.

The bard chuckled gently. That meant her partner was hunting down the river this afternoon, and didn't want to risk the young wolf's falling in the sometimes chancy ice that covered a good portion of the streams. She reached over, and lifted a sturdy mug, taking a sip of hot tea, then bent her head back towards her scrolls.

The weather's so lousy. I can't say how glad I am that we're here, at home.. and it's so.. weird to be saying that. Home. I look around this cabin, and it still astounds me, that this is ours… it's the first place I've ever had that was really… my own, and I’ve found that touches a part of me very deeply.

We were so surprised, when Cyrene, so smugly, led us in here after we got back to Amphipolis.. how did she know? Just in case, she'd said… that's a laugh. Just in case. They'd thrown up this cabin, near the inn, because she said she'd be damned if her daughter was going to sleep in a damn barn every time she showed up.

Xena's face, when she saw this. Ohh… gods. I've seen her a lot of things, but totally poleaxed? That was a first. And they argued… and argued… gods, I see where she gets that stubborn streak from. Neither of them was going to give in so I had to… kind of get in the middle of it. Really, all I did was say please to Xena, and she caved right in. Cyrene owes me for that, and she darn well knows it, too. I got an entire batch of hot cookies the next morning, all for me. I gave some to Xena anyway though, because she really likes them.

So here we are, about a month in, and I'm just now getting around to updating my diary, we've been so busy. Like I said, the weather is lousy, and it came on early, so part of the harvest was lost. If Xena hadn't been here… well, there would have been plenty of hungry people around; I'll say that. She's some kind of hunter, and some kind of strategist, so we're in pretty good shape for the worse weather to come. But it takes a lot of constant effort to keep everything stocked up - I've been helping organize a dry storage for the whole village, and keeping the kids occupied when the weather is really bad with reading and writing lessons.

Between that, helping Cyrene, keeping an eye on Xena, working my stories at the inn every night, and the usual daily stuff, I've been so busy I haven't really had time to think. But I love it. I’m having the time of my life - I'm part of this place, and I know everyone here, they know me, and we all work together.

I thought.. keeping Xena in one place was going to be the toughest part of this, but we’ve been lucky, sort of, because the constant hunting needs, and the fact that marauders are really active now is keeping her occupied, and interested, and she's not showing any of those old signs of restlessness that I half expected to see.

Just the opposite, in fact. I've never seen her this contented this at peace with herself, and that… makes me happier than I can possible say. She smiles a lot more, and there's this little bounce to her that.. I can't describe it, I just know it when I see it, and it makes me just want to hug her and laugh. Which I do a lot anyway. I'm really enjoying this being in love thing, and every once in a while, I catch this look in her eyes that makes me think she is too.

She's so full of surprises these days.. she made us this table, and those chairs - I never knew she could do that.. and it's not just functional, you know, I was looking closely at them the other day, and you can see the joins and the spars, they're perfect. Not a hint of space, not a bit of wobble… her attention to detail is amazing.

We both kind of picked colors we like for the stuff in here.. thank goodness our tastes are pretty much the same, because bright yellow and green, for instance.. yuck! No, it looks really nice. The bed is gorgeous, and comfortable, and I’ve finally stopped having a backache every morning from sleeping rough all this time. Between that, and just keeping regular hours and Cyrene’s cooking, I feel really great – healthy, and strong, and full of energy. I guess I didn’t realize just how much I needed this until now, but it’s really made a difference.

Of course I made the mistake of mentioning the backaches to Xena… and got a lecture from her on letting her know next time. I kind of looked at her, and figured out that she's older than I am, so.. I asked her why she never let ME know when it bothered HER.. and got that 'look' back that meant I scored one.

I discovered I can paint. Yeah, me. That girl from Potadeia. Nothing grand, but Jessan gave me the idea, to put little landscapes and things on woven reed mats. They look pretty good. Xena likes them.. she really likes the one that shows the water and the sunset that I did last week, while I was leaning against her watching the sun go down over the lake. I catch her looking at it with just this happy grin on her face.

I’ve taken over teaching sparring lessons with our little defense group. At first I thought Xena had me do that just to make me feel good, but I called her on it, and she just looked at me and laughed. She said I was a lot better teacher than she was, and way more patient. That’s true, I guess. I’m really enjoying it – but I got her to work with me one on one a little after our lessons, because the kids don’t push me hard enough. Only she does. And it was probably a good thing, because I was getting a little soft with all this hanging around inside all the time.

The kids. Will you listen to me? I guess that’s because they all kind of look up to me, a little. It’s a nice feeling, and so is the one I got when the village elders came and asked me to go over a trading agreement they made with another village – to see if it was ‘right’. It’s different from the Amazons – they listen to me because Melosa gave me that Right of Cast. The citizens here ask my opinion because they’ve come to respect me as who I am on my own. I really, really like that.

She took another sip of the hot, sweet, tea and leaned back letting her eyes wander over the snug room. A smile shaped her lips as her gaze fell on a small collection of carved animals on top of the linen press that Cyrene had given them. A quarter of a circus.. Her mind mused, identifying the horse, goat, bear, and the little pig that had joined her turtle, shaped by Xena's cunning hands. A thought occurred to her, and she bent over her diary for a minute, with an impish grin on her face.

All the scrolls say that once you… become involved with someone, after the first excitement, things start to fade. Well, they must not have known Xena, because it's been months now, and I still get little tingles up and down my back every time I hear her footsteps outside, and I look into those wonderful eyes, and I just drown. And I hope that never changes. I don’t think it will.. we just.. do things to each other… at some really deep level. It’s like.. I can look at her, and all she has to do is quirk one muscle, and I know what she’s thinking. And she looks at me.. gods.. I’m shivering now just thinking about it it’s so intense.

Ares' head lifted, and he glanced at the door, growling a little just before she heard a light knock. "Good ears, boy." She praised the wolf, giving him a pat. "Come!" Yelled at the door.

It opened to reveal Johan's weathered features, as he came quickly inside, and closed the solid wood door behind him. "The day to you lass!" He said, treading neatly across the floor. "Traders from down the road just in.. they've brought some messages for you." He handed Gabrielle two neatly folded pieces of parchment. Then he winked, and handed her a thick bundle. "And Cyrene sends this."

The bard eyed the package with a twinkle in her eye. "More taste testing?" She grinned. "She's determined to make this the party of the century, isn't she?" A lovely scent was rising from the bundle, and Gabrielle found her mouth watering. "Thanks Johan. "

He waved, already moving back towards the door. "Later then, lass. " He turned at the door. "Ah.. Gabrielle?"

"Hmm?" She looked up from opening the parchment, and met his gaze.

"Would you.. mind doing the Troy story tonight?" His gray eyes twinkled.

"No.. I'd be glad to." The bard agreed, slightly puzzled. "Any story you want, you know that, Johan." Her smile reinforced the offer.

"Thanks." He grinned, and ducked out the door.

"What.. was that all about?" Gabrielle asked Ares, who wrinkled his forehead at her. "You know, that's the same face your mom makes."

The dark head cocked to one side. "Roo?"

"Yeah, you." The bard chuckled, then shook her head, and returned her attention to the notes. She unfolded the first, with the Amazons distinctive seal on it.

My Dearest Queen, (it said)

I was most appreciative of your kind, and gracious invitation to your ceremony of joining. I would be delighted to attend, along with a few of our noble, and distinguished representatives.

Gabrielle's eyebrows rose almost into her hairline. Her eyes darted down to check the signature, then back up. No… Ephiny had signed it… oh.. wait. I get it. She grinned as her eyes picked up the next paragraph.

Are you crazy? Wild rampaging centaurs could not keep me from being there, and in fact, Gabrielle, the problem is going to be getting anyone to stay behind here. I can't believe you finally got the old war-horse to take the plunge.

Actually, Ephiny, it was her idea. Gabrielle smiled gently. I was.. surprised, to say the least. I mean.. I know what we mean to each other. A ceremony doesn’t change that one bit, but… She brought the ring Xena had given her up to her lips and brushed it with them. It puts me in danger, though. We've both kind of accepted that.

Solari and Eponin are fighting as to which one of them will get to come, because I can't take them both, one of them has to stay in charge. I think I may let them just box it out. If one or the other shows with a broken nose ignore it, OK?

I’m looking forward to seeing you, as are we all - we miss having you around, though I'm glad you've settled at least for a little while up in Amphipolis. How'd you get her to agree to that? I know you're one of the best negotiators around, but Gods, Gabrielle.

Actually, that was her idea too. The bard chuckled. They always underestimate you, my love. But I'm glad she thinks so highly of my bargaining skills.

Kaleipus sends his regards. We got a visit from him today - things are well between us, and we traded some hard to come by's to him for some of his surplus. Turned out good for both of us. I told him your good news, and he got the oddest look on his face, Gabrielle. But then he laughed, and said maybe he'd show up too.

Oh, dear.

He had his foster son, Solon with him. Nice kid,, in that growth spurt stage, if you know what I mean. He strikes me a bit familiar, but I can't place why. He sends his regards to you, and also to Xena.

I bet. Gabrielle sighed, then considered the matter, and chuckled a little. If it happens, Gabrielle, just flow with it. If Kaleipus decides to show up, with Solon.. well.. once that tyke is here, I just bet I could…

Stop. Just hold it. The bard took a breath. You know better, damn it. She's very, very touchy about that. I'd better warn her. Give her time to get a note to Kaleipus if she wants to. She bent her head back to Ephiny's note.

Otherwise, things are ok here. The weather's been tough, but you know we're mostly hunters anyway, and we've done pretty well for ourselves. No one's starving. Everyone's quiet, for a miraculous change. Even Arella has settled down pretty nicely. Her jaw and shoulder finally healed, and Eponin seems to be doing ok with her.

I'll finish now - we'll be there, OK? Take care of yourself, my friend.


"Gonna be fun, Ares." Gabrielle commented, carefully folding the parchment up and tapping it against the back of her hand. Then her head raised, and she turned towards the door, long moments before Ares' ears pricked, and he gave an eager little whine.

Bootsteps on the outer walk, whose weight and pattern curled with warm familiarity around the bard's ears. The door opened, and the tall form of her partner slid in, pushing the door closed in one smooth motion. "Well well." Gabrielle smiled lazily. "Look what the cat dragged in." She grinned at the raised eyebrow look she got back. "Nasty out there?"

Xena grinned at her. "Oh yeah." She chuckled, removing her heavy outer tunic, and hanging it on an iron hook near the door. "Not bad, though. Got four strings of salmon. Mom’ll have fresh tonight."

"Awesome." The bard responded. "I love salmon."

The warrior finished taking off her outdoor boots, and padded over, dropping to her knees and collapsing on her side next to Gabrielle. "I know.. that’s why I was fishing for it." She let out a satisfied breath and propped her head up on one hand, scratching the ecstatic Ares with the other. "Hey boy…" Her eyes lifted and scanned the bard’s face. "What’s up?"

Gabrielle handed over Ephiny’s letter without comment, and watched her face as she read it. This month’s.. been so good for her. She mused idly. No traveling, just minor fighting, a warm bed every night.. three decent meals a day…she looks fantastic. The bard let her eyes drink in her partner's form with lazy pleasure. Been about the longest time ever since I’ve known her without a bang or scratch giving her a problem, and I think she finally put back on all the weight she lost after the landslide.

Which meant her leather's didn't hang on her anymore, and in fact, Xena’s new set of leathers, dyed a rich deep blue complimented her sleekly muscular form and were a nice change from the dull, if functional brown she’d been used to. "She’s fun, huh?" Gabrielle commented, giving the message a nod, and tearing away her appreciative gaze for the moment.

"Mmm." Xena agreed absently. "I’ll get her for the old war horse comment." Her eyes flicked over the writing, and stopped, and she glanced up at Gabrielle with an unreadable look. "Chance meeting."

The bard gave a light shrug, and crawled closer, leaning her head against the warrior’s shoulder. "I figured you have time to send a note to him." She said gently, not pushing the issue.

Xena stayed quiet, obviously deep in thought, though Gabrielle could see the muscles in her throat working lightly. Finally she turned her head and studied the bard’s face with a quiet intensity. "Let’s just see what happens." Then a faint shrug. "He was probably just saying that."

Gabrielle fought to keep a triumphant little grin off her face. "Sure." She agreed, with a little sigh. "Hey… look what your mom sent over." She nudged the package closer to Xena with one hand. "Yet more variations."

"Gods." The warrior laughed, lifting the wrapping off, and examining the contents. "Wow.. those smell great." She delicately lifted one of the flaky cakes up, and offered it to the bard. Gabrielle opened her mouth obediently, and took a bite, scattering pastry crumbs all over the front of her shirt.

"Augh." She mumbled, around the mouthful of sweet dough, then sniffed thoughtfully and swallowed. "Ummm…." She leaned over and took another big bite, just missing Xena’s fingers, giving the warrior an impish look.

Xena smiled, and popped the remaining small bit into her own mouth, pausing in mid chew and blinking. "Wow." She swallowed hastily, letting out a surprised little chuckle. "Think we have a winner here."

"Uh huh. " Gabrielle fervently agreed, snagging another sample, and handing Xena one. "Are these legal?" She waited until the chuckling warrior rolled over and stretched her legs out, then settled comfortably with her head pillowed on Xena’s leather clad stomach. "Doesn’t get much better than this." She sighed happily, biting into the cake. "Warm fire, great cakes, you… what more could I ask for?"

She tilted her head, and caught the fondly indulgent smile her partner was bestowing on her. "Well?" She finished the cake, and unfolded the other parchment, recognizing her sister’s handwriting.

Long fingers brushed her cheek gently. "Not a thing, my bard." Xena smiled, as she wiped the dusting of sugar off Gabrielle’s lips. "What’s Lila up to?"

The bard scanned the note, and laughed. "Here, I’ll read it to you."

Dear Bree, (it said)

Your letter was a pleasant surprise, and so was the very nice young lady who delivered it.

Gabrielle felt Xena start to laugh and she paused. "Shh… it was perfectly reasonable that I ask Granella to deliver that message, since she was headed out that way anyway." The bard sniffed reflectively. "Besides, Lila did say she wanted to meet some of ‘those Amazons.’" She bent her eyes back to the letter.

Mother insisted that your friend stay the night, and made sure that she had a decent breakfast before heading out to who knows where.

"Granella’s gonna get you for that." Xena grinned, gently tangling her fingers in the bard’s soft hair. "Coulda been worse though. Could have been Eponin."

"Eeek." Gabrielle grimaced comically. "That would have been scary." She gave Xena a light slap on the thigh. "Shh.. let me finish."

Things have been much better here since the wedding – we’re really happy, and father seems to have found some peace, as he and mother are getting along very well, and he seems a lot happier. I don’t know what Cyrene told him before she left, but she did have a long talk with him and I think it’s done some good.

We will be there, and mother almost has father talked into it too. He is making what even I realize are token protests, and they have to do with being busy, and lack of time to travel, and things like that, and not being mad that you’re going to do this. Mother’s biggest worry is what to wear, of course. And mine might be too, because I’m taking this opportunity to warn you that you both will be aunts in due time, and I expect you’ll be good ones.

"Wahhooo!!!" The bard yelled, laughing. "You go, Lila!"

"Didn’t waste much time." Xena remarked slyly, but she also chuckled. "An aunt, huh? I can tease Toris now.. tell him I had to go and marry into another family to get to do that."

A giggle from Gabrielle. "That’s cold, Xena." She paused. "True, but cold."

The warrior made a low rumbling noise deep in her chest that made Ares lift his head up from where it rested on her arm and cock his ears. "No one ever accused me of being warm and fuzzy, Gabrielle."

The bard snorted. "Because they didn’t know you very well." She turned her head, and peered up at the expected arched eyebrow. "I know better."

Xena held the inscrutable look for a long moment then let it dissolve into a warm grin. "It’s a good act, you have to admit."

Green eyes twinkled. "It certainly is, but. it never fooled me, you know."

A nod from the warrior. "I realized that." She let her knuckles brush against Gabrielle’s soft cheek. "What uncommon vision you must have, my love, to have seen through all that so effortlessly."

Gabrielle leaned her face into the pressure of her partner’s fingers and smiled. "I don’t think it was special vision. I think I was just in love." She sighed happily. "It makes you see everything differently."

Xena let a little grin play around the corners of her mouth. "Yeah, it does, doesn’t it." She hesitated. "Gabrielle?"

"Hmm??" Green eyes lifted and found Xena’s blue ones.

"Thanks for not pushing me on Solon." Just a quiet statement. "I know how you feel, and I really appreciate that."

Gabrielle considered this in silence, then she rolled over, and pulled her partner into a hug. "You’ll make the right decision, at the right time. You always do." She felt the long arms slide around her, and just closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of leather and spice that filled her senses. For someone who didn’t like hugging, Xena was extraordinarily good at it, and she had a very nice way of using her whole body, surrounding the bard with a constant, warm pressure.

Gabrielle sighed contentedly and snuggled closer, letting her fingers play with the laces in the front of the soft leathers. This was their time, that lazy stretch after lunch and sparring practice, and before dinner. Time they usually spent discussing their separate days; or walking by the river, if the weather allowed; or laughing over some antic of Ares; or most often just curled up in each other’s arms, relaxing by the fire.

Like now. She looked up at Xena. The tall warrior was gazing with unseeing eyes at the fire, a quiet smile on her lips, her hands making slow, gentle circles on Gabrielle’s back. The bard let her gaze caress the strong planes of her partner’s face, and traced the line of her jaw with one fingertip, trailing down her neck to the hollow of her throat, feeling the steady, powerful heartbeat for a long moment. Then she idly outlined the prominent collarbone, and finally dropped her hand to rest on the soft leather covering Xena's chest, which was laced from about the middle up with tough leather strands, and knotted firmly at the top.

Gabrielle slowly worked one lace free, and found her gaze captured by Xena’s suddenly attentive glance. She grinned impishly, and found the grin mirrored by her partner, who shifted her hands lower, sliding her fingers through the soft cloth folds The bard felt the snug pressure of her tunic belt release, and she closed her eyes, savoring the knowing touch on her bare flesh. Yeah.. her mind sighed blissfully. Nothing more I could ask for. She smiled as their lips touched, and she fell willingly into a sensual haze

"You don’t have to do this." Solari said, for the fourth time. "Ephiny, for the love of Athena, there are a squad of us that would be glad to take the kids out."

The Amazon regent half turned her blond head and regarded Solari. "No kidding, really? You’ve only said that four times. " She went back to stuffing things in a pack. "Solari, give me a break, all right? I’m sick and tired of being cooped up here.. Id like a few days out in the open… is that so terrible?" She gave the exasperated Amazon a look. "This weather is driving me nuts."

Solari sighed. Not that she didn’t sympathize with Ephiny; it was just that her sense of propriety was being violated. Ephiny was the regent, after all, and she shouldn’t be gallivanting around the countryside taking a bunch of half grown Amazonettes on their first hunting trip. "Look.. Eph…"

"No, no, no and no." Ephiny stood and turned, putting her hands on her hips. "Come on, Solari. Give it up." She looked up as the door to her quarters nudged open. "Oh gods.. not another one."

Granella sauntered in, leaning against the center support post of the low thatched building. "No luck, huh Soli?" The slim, dark haired Amazon scout tossed Solari a sympathetic look.

Solari rolled her eyes. "None." She lifted her hands in a gesture of defeat. "I give up."

"Look!" Ephiny said, with an exasperated laugh. "I can take care of myself, all right?" They were sweet, she realized, but she now had a wry understanding of the little amusedly patient look Gabrielle sometimes got when Xena was hovering over her. "It’s not like I’m our queen, who has just the worst tendency to get herself in trouble."

Solari snorted. "Yeah, well, it’s not like we’re Xena, who can get out of just about anything either. Just, please, be careful, OK?"

"I will." Ephiny assured them. "Are the girls ready?"

Granella nodded. "They’re ready, all right."

Rolling here eyes again, Ephiny tugged closed the top of her bag, and slung it over her shoulder, gesturing Solari and Granella out ahead of her. "Out.. out…shoo…"

They walked outside, and joined a small group of girls, who were somewhat self consciously adjusting the straps on their backpacks and striving to look casual. "All right, everything set?" Ephiny asked briskly, letting her eyes flick over them. A group of nods answered her. "OK then, let’s go."

She led them, single file, down the well-trodden path leading to the Amazon village, snugging her cloak more tightly about herself to block out the cold wind.

They walked silently down the path, keeping single file behind her in the approved manner. She almost couldn’t hear them. If she blocked her ears with beeswax, and hummed, that is. A smile crossed her face, as she remembered her first hunting party.

It had been hot, and the dead of summer when they'd set out, and the worst enemy they had were the telltale warnings of dried leaves, curled from the relentless sun that fell beneath their feet and betrayed their passage.

There had been four of them then, with the cagey old Erin guiding them through the woods. Towards noontime, even the shaded underbrush grew breathless from the heat, and Erin had stopped them, forcing them to drink their waterskins dry and keeping them under shelter. They'd rested quietly, listening to the faint pulse of the forest around them, and had been concentrating so hard, they'd almost jumped out of their skins when a wild boar had come scrambling around the corner of a rock outcropping and snorted to a halt, staring at them.

They stared at the boar, even Erin being caught by surprise. A stunned silence hung over the small clearing, then Ephiny had let out a surprised scream, and that had been echoed by her mates in pure reflex.

The boar, overheated, overexcited, and confused, must have thought that noise was a panther or something, because his tail went up, his eyes went wide, and he scrambled backwards in hilarious haste, finally falling down hard on his rump with a grunt.

Erin recovered her composure, and grabbed a spear, causing the boar to heave itself up and haul tail in the opposite direction, which, unfortunately for the boar, was right into the rock outcropping. He knocked himself silly, and Erin had little trouble dispatching him.

They'd all sat around, looking at the boar, and looking at Erin, who grimly skinned and dressed the carcass, then sat down on top of it. "So." She'd grunted, putting her chin on her hands. "Now you lot have to help me come up with a fine tale to tell about how we got this boar, right?"

It had become legend, Ephiny chuckled to herself. How Erin had taken this group of first time hunters out, and come back with one of the most deadly prey in the forest. She'd been able to coast on her reputation for years after that, and Ephiny and her age mates had been included in every hunting party for a long time. She glanced behind her at the solemn file. Hope this outing is just as successful.

"Busy tonight." Xena murmured, putting her hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders as she passed behind her, and took a seat against the wall. The inn was full, with both locals and visitors, and the noise level was approaching deafening. Heavy clinks and bangs, of thick crockery and wooden plates against the tables, mixed with rough voices, and fair, and laughter. The air was full of the scent of fresh ale, and the fragrant smell of salmon stew, which Cyrene’s assistants were ladling over thick slices of warm bread.

"Yeah." Gabrielle mumbled, around her mouthful of stew. "Better eat yours before I do." She threatened cheerfully.

Xena snorted, and stabbed a chunk of potato, popping it in her mouth and chewing. "Now, that’s a threat." She poked Gabrielle in the side. "Good thing I eat fast.. or Id starve to death."

"Tch tch." The bard snickered, using her fork to steal a piece of fish from Xena’s plate. "Gotta be faster than that, o warrior princess."

Xena just laughed, and leaned back, dipping a corner of her bread into the stew and handing it to Ares, who was curled up around her booted feet. "Here you go, boy."

"Hey." Gabrielle stopped eating, and focused a look on her. "That’s your dinner, not his."

Xena speared a vegetable, and waved it at her. "Make up your mind… one minute you’re stealing my food, the next minute you’re yelling at me not to give it away. " She bit into the vegetable, and swallowed, making a face. "Ugh." She discarded the rest of the item, and picked up a bit of fish instead. "That’s better."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, and captured the half bite, eating it with an aggrieved sigh. "What am I going to do with you?" At least I got her to notice what she’s eating enough to know when she doesn’t like something. That’s an improvement. I guess. She looked up at the mischievously glinting blue eyes, and found herself smiling back into them. The next piece of fish the warrior stabbed was offered to her, with a twinkle.

"I have my own, Xena." She reminded her partner, but took the bite anyway. "Did you say you were going fishing again tomorrow?? "

The warrior finally concentrated on her dinner, and plowed through a good portion before she answered. "I can. But I really wanted to check my trap lines, out across the old forest." She wiped her dish with a chunk of bread and ate it, then took a deep swallow of ale. "Mmm.. mom must have tapped a new keg." She drained the mug, and debated on a second. Cyrene solved the debate by swinging by, and filling the cup, seating herself at Gabrielle’s side and nodding as a server put a plate down in front of her.

"Thank you, dear." She patted the server’s arm, and glanced at her daughter.. daughters, she corrected herself with a warm glow. And sent a thank you, once again, to whomever it was that was listening when she’d prayed that Xena would come back home.

She fondly remembered that day, when Johan had come into the kitchen and grasped her arm, and told her what the outer watch had sent back in, riding on an exultant wave of excitement. Xena, and the bard, headed towards Amphipolis. And when Argo had rounded that last turn, and ambled easily into the courtyard and shed her riders, somehow Cyrene had known. "You’re staying." She’d said, confidently, and her daughter had nodded a little. "For a while at least." Xena had said, exchanging glances with Gabrielle, who’d smiled, but later, much later that night, the bard had bent to Cyrene’s will and told her of what had happened. That she’d almost lost her daughter again, and only Xena’s stubbornness had kept her alive long enough to be rescued. That, and the love she had for this young bard, that is.

"Delightful run of salmon, dear." Cyrene patted her daughter’s arm, noting the relaxed expression on her face. She looked up as Toris pulled out the fourth chair at the table, and seated himself, setting an overflowing plate down in front of him. Oh no.. Cyrene ruefully realized. Here we go.

"Got enough there, Toris?" Xena drawled, leaning back in her chair and propping a booted foot on the table supports.

"Yes, thanks." Her brother answered, making a show of ignoring her grin.

Gabrielle tugged on her woolen sleeve. "Xena?"

"Hmm?" The warrior tilted her head back and raised an eyebrow. The bard didn’t answer, but she gave her partner her best wounded puppy dog look, then shifted her gaze to Toris, and shifted it back.

Xena pursed her lips, trying to fight off a smirk and failing, then gave the bard an indulgent nod, and kept quiet, lifting her ale up and drinking instead.

"Those were lovely stories tonight, Gabrielle." Cyrene smiled, having watched the interaction. "I really liked the one about the ship."

"You mean I earned my dinner tonight?" The bard joked, stealing the last of Xena’s bread.

Cyrene leaned over, and folded her hand in Gabrielle’s. "If you never told another story in this inn you’d have earned far more than that, and you know it." Her voice was serious. Ah… Gabrielle… don’t think for one moment I don’t know what you did.. what you do, for my daughter. She would be lost without you, was lost, and now you’ve given her a reason to keep trying to find herself. The innkeeper’s gaze covertly took in the almost startlingly open expression in the pale blue eyes across from her and smiled.

The bard’s eyes met hers, and the corner of her lips twitched in acknowledgment. "I know." And felt the warm reassurance of Xena’s touch warming her knee. She dropped her other hand under the table and clasped the warrior’s fingers with her own, feeling the pressure as Xena squeezed hard. She returned the clasp, tuning out the rest of the room for a long moment, and letting herself feel their connection. It filled a spot deep inside her, a craving that nothing else, not food, or drink, or her storytelling, even touched. She smiled at Cyrene. "Did I tell you I got a letter back from my sister?"

Toris glanced up from his meal with a grin. "She coming?"

Gabrielle laughed, and for some reason Xena laughed as well. Toris and Cyrene just looked at each other, and shrugged. "Uhm… yes." The bard closed her eyes and took a breath, wiping the silly thoughts out of her mind. "She is, and she says my parents will probably be here too."

"Wonderful." Cyrene gave her a sturdy nod. "And your Amazons?"

"Oh yeah." Xena drawled, with a glint in her eyes. "They’ll be here too." She blinked suddenly. "Uh…"

All three looked at her in puzzlement.

Xena bit her lip, and gave the bard a look. "You invited some other guests."

Gabrielle’s brow creased, and then a look of almost comical realization crossed her face. "Oh.. right.. well… we have these friends, that I told you about, mom."

Cyrene regarded her thoughtfully. "The people you stayed with… before you came here?" She flicked a furtive glance at her daughter, who had settled back in her chair with her ale, taking a deep breath that shifted the warm amber wool tunic across her shoulders. "Of course they're welcome."

Bard looked at warrior, and both sighed. "Thanks mom." Gabrielle grinned. "Uhm… they're really nice." She played idly with the fork, poking its tines into the smooth wood of the table. "They're just.. a little different."

Toris glanced up from his stew. "Of course. They're Xena's friends." He ducked too late. "Ow!" A motion so fast he didn't even see it knocked his body offcenter in the chair with stunning power. He scowled at his sister, who was watching him with a relaxed, if alert air. He briefly considered the idea of a tussle, then dismissed it, having found to his discomfort and chagrin that his sister could handle him as easily as a child if she had a mind to. "Ok..Ok… I take it back." He grumbled good naturedly, giving Xena a prod with his elbow. "I'm not tangling with you, sis."

Xena let her body relax again. She regarded her brother with some mild amusement. Every packs gotta have its leader, bro - and I’m the one in this litter, we all knew that. Even Lyceus.. though I loved him dearly, we'd have come to a conflict one day, because I’m so competitive, I can't stand the thought of an unmet challenge. Her eyes drifted to Gabrielle's face. Wonder if that's why we're so… She paused to think. Even as friends, we never competed… She had things she did well, I had things I did well.. we didn't cross each other's boundaries a lot. Maybe that's why we work as well as we do. I fight, she negotiates, I'm impatient, and she's the definition of the words gentle patience. I can't sit still.. she's a dreamer. I've never known anyone so different.. but she fits as part of me so perfectly it takes my breath away. They say opposites attract… well, she's not my opposite, but she is my better half. And I don't know which gods let that happen, but..

Their eyes met, and Xena could feel the energy passing between them again, and quietly reveled in it. "Well.." She stifled a yawn, having watched Gabrielle do the same shortly before. "I have an early morning tomorrow.. think I'll take off."

Cyrene smiled. "Hunting far tomorrow, dear?" She topped off Xena's mug, then her own.

The warrior gave her a wryly indulgent look. "Thanks. No, checking traplines in the old forest." She took a sip of the beverage. "New keg?"

Her mother chuckled. "Yes, and nice one, if I do say so myself."

They all turned as the door to the inn slammed open, and a fur wrapped form stumbled in, closing the door behind them with a loud bang. "Gods." The form muttered, and unwrapped itself to reveal a tall, dark haired man with a thick beard and bloodshot, tired eyes. "I’m perishing." He gasped, and would have fallen but for a strong hand that gripped his arm and kept him upright. He looked up into ice blue eyes and blinked. "I thank ye."

"It's all right." Xena said quietly, guiding him to a seat, and helping him into it. "What happened?" She asked, as Gabrielle crouched next to the man, handing him a mug of warm soup.

"Well.." He started, then glanced down into the bard's eyes, and seemed to lose track of himself for a moment. "Umm… ice storm." He finally said, giving her a little smile. "Took me off the road, it did - pellets the size of hen's eggs almost caved my skull in." He took a sip of the soup. "Thank you, lady."

Gabrielle laughed gently. "Just Gabrielle." She patted his leg, and waited, while Xena checked the traveler over with skillful hands. "Were you travelling alone?"

"Aye." The man breathed, never taking his eyes from her face. "My name's Rurik." He held out his free hand, and smiled when she took it gravely and shook it. "Are you traveling as well?"

The bard shook her head. "No. Amphipolis is home."

The man grunted. "Is that where I am? Amazing."

Xena finished her probing, and stepped back, regarding him thoughtfully. "Some nasty cracks there, but nothing serious. You got lucky."

Rurik looked up at her. "Aye, that I did - to get out of the storm, and wind up here." His eyes drifted to Gabrielle's face again, then back up to her. "I thank you for checking… " He paused and took the hand that was slowly offered.

"Xena." The warrior said, with a touch of amusement, watching for and getting the look of stunned surprise on his face. "You should rest, though."

"Are you…" He started.

"Yeah." She answered. "But don’t spread it around, OK? I've been having a peaceful winter." She let a hand drop and rest on the still kneeling Gabrielle's shoulder. "Glad I got you your fish today."

Gabrielle chewed her lip. "Xena, if the weather's that bad, maybe…" She stopped when she felt the long fingers tighten on her shoulder. Of course not. Weather, stop Xena? Never. She mentally rolled her eyes. She'd go out just to spite the weather.

"I'll see what it's like in the morning." Her partner reassured her, surprisingly. She peered out the window to her left, wincing as the sleet hit the waxed panes. "Feel sorry for anyone out in that."

Rurik nodded vigorously. "You're right there, ma'am. " This got him a raised eyebrow stare from the tall warrior, and a muffled giggle from the young bard kneeling at his side. Sisters? No.. they're too unlike for that, even with the dice rolls of the gods being what they are. Cousins, perhaps, see the little one's concern over the weather. Gods, she's a pretty thing… look at those eyes.. wonder if she's spoken for? Ah.. yes, there's a ring there. Pity…well, maybe he's not around.. we'll just have to see. "I've a few dinars for a room if there is one." He reluctantly tore his eyes from the vision in front of him and let them rest on the taller warrior's face.

"Mother?" Xena half turned, finding Cyrene at her back.

The older woman nodded briskly. "We have a small room available. Come."

Rurik stood heavily, and shrugged his cloak back into place with a sigh. "Thank you, innkeeper. A warm bed would go easy on these bones tonight." He nodded at Xena. "Nice meeting you." Then he smiled at Gabrielle. "And you too, Gabrielle." He looked into her eyes as long as he dared, then turned and followed Cyrene towards the stairs.

Gabrielle sauntered over and gave her partner a poke in the ribs. "Yes, ma'am." She giggled, and bit her lip.

Xena gave her a wry look. "Uh huh.. but I think he just fell for you, Red."

That got her a slap. "You die, Warrior Princess." Then a pause. "He what?" She wrinkled her brow. "Xena, you've had too much ale."

The warrior raised a lazy eyebrow, and leaned back against a support post, joined by Toris. They both regarded her with identical blue eyes bearing identical smirking twinkles. Xena rolled her head towards her brother. "What do you think?"

"For sure." Toris agreed, giving her a nod. "Fell like a rock down a cliff." He grinned at Gabrielle. "Haven't seen a lovesick expression like that since… " He thought a minute. "Since…"

"Howar." Xena supplied, with a chuckle, seeing the remembrance on Gabrielle's face. "Yeah.. you remember him… you got your own now… "

"I do not." The bard groaned. Her eyes flicked from one to the other. "Do I?"

Identical grins.

"Oh Hades." Gabrielle sighed. "Now what do I do?" She covered her eyes. "Its not like I can just threaten to knock them around a little like you do."

Xena grasped her wrist, and pushed the bard's sleeve up, exposing her arm, and squeezing the well-defined muscles. "Sure you can." She said softly, and dropped the sleeve, touching Gabrielle on the tip of her nose, then giving Toris a wink. "G'night, Toris."

She strolled past them to the door, and stood, waiting for Gabrielle with one hand resting on the wooden surface. Ares stood and stretched, shaking himself and padding over to join Xena at the door.

Gabrielle shook her head and rolled her eyes. "Gods. Why me?" She laughed a little. "Night, Toris."

"Night you two." Toris waved casually. "Careful in the storm, all right?" He let his eyes meet Xena's over the bard's head. "And you be careful tomorrow morning. If it's like this, for the love of the gods, sis, stay home, OK?"

At one time, she would have gotten angry. At another time, she would have just ignored him. Now, Xena's eyes warmed and she gave him a little wink. "Good advice, Toris." Then she settled her cloak in place, and held out one panel of it. "Get in here. I don't want you to get hit."

"What about you?" Gabrielle protested, but snuggled close, wrapping her arm around her partner's woolen clad body. "Huh?"

Xena swung the door open, and walked out, shielding her head with one upraised arm. "Hard head. No worries." She muttered, and felt Gabrielle give her a slap in the gut. "Guess she heard me." She remarked to the closely following Ares. "Keep your head down, both of you." She ordered, and felt the wolf tuck his dark muzzle against her knee. "Good boy." Then felt Gabrielle nestle into the hollow of her shoulder. "Good girl." She joked, wincing as she was poked in the side.

The storm was brutal, whipping nuggets of frozen water against Xena's body, and bouncing them off her protective arms. The ground beneath her feet was rapidly churning into an icy mud, and the darkness cloaked the buildings around the inn, the wind tearing out most of the torches, and leaving her to find their way in a cold, bitter void.

But Xena had known this courtyard from childhood, and found her way unerringly to their door, breathing a sigh of relief when she closed the sturdy wooden panel behind them. "Gods." She sighed, shrugging off her cloak, and helping Gabrielle off with hers. "Here.. I got that."

The bard willingly gave up the garment, and crossed to the fire, rubbing her hands. "This weather is very strange, Xena. It's starting to scare me a little."

"Mmm." Her partner agreed, coming up behind her and wrapping her arms around Gabrielle from behind, resting her chin on the bard's head. "I've never seen it like this."

Gabrielle didn't answer, being very busy absorbing the warmth surrounding her. She stood quietly for a minute, then slid around in Xena's arms, and snuggled close. "Mmm." She mumbled. "Xena?"

"Huh?" Xena's low voice responded.

"He really didn't… did he?" She kept her head pressed against Xena's warm chest, listening to the music of her heartbeat. "I mean.. you really don't think he has a crush on me, do you?"

"Mmm Hmm." The warrior confirmed, as she lazily tilted Gabrielle's face up and studied it. "Not that I blame him a bit." She smiled at the blush that crept up Gabrielle's fair skin.

"I'm not.. The bard stopped, and looked down, embarrassed. "I mean… I don't think I’m…"

"Look at me." Xena requested softly, and waited for her to comply. The bard's green eyes were hazy brown in the firelight, and the look she gave Xena was one of gentle, open trust. "I do." The warrior said with a smile. "Very much so."

"Do you?" Gabrielle murmured shyly.

"Think you're beautiful?" Xena laughed softly. "Yes." She lifted a hand, and threaded her fingers through Gabrielle's wind blown hair. "I always have."

"Oh." The bard breathed, feeling words drift like warm milk down into her gut. "I mean..uh.. I don't.. I think.. uh…" She stopped, and collected herself with a little shake. "Thanks." She finally managed, letting her head settle lightly on Xena's chest, and wrapping her arms around her partner and squeezing hard. "That just made me feel really good."

Xena smiled, and shook her head a little. "Anytime you need to hear that, you let me know, OK?" She captured Gabrielle's jaw again and lifted her face. "OK??"

"Yeah." Gabrielle smiled. "I will." She gently played with the collar of Xena's tunic, straightening it, then glanced up. "I love you." She said the words slowly, and tasted their sweetness.

Xena closed her eyes, and took a deep breath, then opened them again, and cupped Gabrielle's face in both hands. "I love you too." In a low, gentle tone that seemed to echo endlessly inside the bard's ears. Then reinforced that with a kiss, which the bard felt hit her spine and work up from there.

"Xena?" She asked, on an irregular breath once they paused for a second.

"Hmm?" The warrior inquired, nibbling the line of Gabrielle's neck.

"Uhh…" The bard stuttered, then focused. "What do I do with this guy?"

Xena captured her earlobe and bit down very gently. "Not this." She said between her teeth.

Gabrielle giggled, and just let her body react, giving her hands free rein to explore. "Seriously."

The warrior inched her way around Gabrielle's ear. "Well.." She drawled. "You just tell him.."

"You'll turn him into goat feed." Gabrielle finished, with a grin.

"Something like that." Xena agreed, nudging her towards the bed. "C'mon . . .it's cold out here."

"Ahh.." The bard teased, as she felt her partner react to her touch. "You don't feel cold."

That got a deep, wicked chuckle, and she was lifted off her feet, watching the room tilt and spin, as she felt the bed's softness under her back.

"Stay together." Ephiny yelled, pulling a small form close to her and shielding the girl with her body. Ice pellets stung her arms and face, and she grimaced. "Over here.. near that tree." Damn.. damn.. damn.. She cursed silently. An ice storm, of all things. She pushed the girls against the fallen tree, in the lee of the wind, and hastily unpacked her ax. "Stay down." She told them, making eye contact with the tallest, pale haired Cait. The girl nodded soberly, and put an arm around one of her smaller companions.

Thank the gods I have Cait. Ephiny mused, as she moved around to the other side of the tree, and withstood the brunt of the storm, grimly hacking off the branches whipping around her head. She began to throw them over the side of the fallen tree, and soon noticed that Cait was binding them together, forming a shield they could put against the trunk to shelter themselves under. Strange girl, the Amazon considered. You never knew what was going on behind those pale eyes. Friendly and easygoing, was Cait, but there was always a little something different lurking behind her quiet gaze. An orphan from Amphipolis, the tall slim blond already had excellent fighting skills, and a calm, sober sense that Ephiny was coming to appreciate more and more.

She finished collecting branches, and jumped behind the tree with a sense of relief, noting with approval that Cait had already organized the little group behind the screen, and was packing leaf litter around the interwoven branches to provide more protection. "Get in there, Cait." Ephiny smiled, patting her back. "Good job."

The blond smiled at her, and ducked under the leaves, crawling inside the shelter and joining her age mates. Ephiny followed; glad to get out of the stinging ice that had gotten inside her leathers and left her sore and damp. "Well, isn't this cozy." The Amazon regent muttered, pressing herself against the rough bark of the tree and ignoring the overpowering scent of bruised pine that permeated their meager shelter. "All right, everyone just relax. This can't last forever."

Five pairs of eyes looked back at her, Cait being the furthest away. In front of her were short, dark haired Megan, freckled Lista, moody Elianas, and the sunny natured Shanna. All were more or less the same age, and just on the cusp of hitting puberty. Remind me again why I thought this was such a damn good idea…hmm? Gee, Ephiny.. next time just wrangle Eponin into a game of cards, ok? "Everyone OK?"

"It's cold." Elainas sighed. "My head hurts."

"Mine too." Lista agreed, as usual. She was Elianas faithful shadow.

Megan edged closer to Ephiny. "You're all wet." She said mournfully, fingering the Amazon's leathers. "That's bad." Megan worried. A lot. About everything.

"We could make a fire." Shanna chirped, pushing her damp red hair out of her eyes. "Then we'd warm up."

Ephiny glanced over Megan's narrow shoulder, and met Cait's eyes, which twinkled solemnly back at her. Cait.. didn't need hunting instructions, and in fact was along on this trek as sort of a junior escort despite her tender age. Born in Amphipolis, and orphaned by outlaws, Cait had learned young how to find food for herself and had made her meager living catching small game and selling it to her fellow villagers.

Until Xena had come home, that is, and Cait had approached her, sensing a sympathy in the tall dark haired warrior she hadn't found otherwise in the village. Ephiny had met the girl on her visit to the ex warlord on behalf of her then Queen, Gabrielle. Cait had asked to be taken to the Amazon's village, and Ephiny had agreed, finding out later from Xena that the girl.. was more than she seemed.

She had, Xena quietly informed her, slipped into the renegade's camp after her parents had been killed and found their leader. And slit his throat for him, with no more excitement than if she'd taken a stroll by the river, and knowing that, when Ephiny looked into those pale, almost colorless eyes, she often saw glints of something very familiar. Something usually framed in a taller, darker form's vivid blue gaze. Kindred spirits, indeed, the Amazon quietly snorted to herself. Leave it to Xena to saddle me with a baby assassin.

But Cait was otherwise a gentle, helpful girl, who kept to herself mostly, but joined the other girls her age on occasion and could laugh, and joke with the best of them.

"We can't right now, Megan." Cait's clear, soft voice curled around them. "It's too wet. We'll be all over smoke." She folded her knees up to her chin, and put her arms around them. "Let's try not to think about it."

"That's easy for you to say." Elianas grumped. "This cold is just.. creepy."

"Yeah, creepy." Lista affirmed.

Continued - Part b of Part 1

Back to The Bard's Corner