The Edge of Nowhere

Part IX

Gabrielle closed her eyes, letting the soft rays of the setting sun paint the insides of her eyelids a deep red. She was riding down a forest path on Argo, an arm wrapped around the sleeping Niobe seated in front of her.

They'd spent the rest of the afternoon lounging about. Casper had told her everything about the plantlife in the area and she'd had a particularly good conversation with Niobe about sticks and why some sticks were clearly better than others. Iona had challenged Xena to a wrestling match, which ended up more of a mud throwing competition and the twosome had turned each other into walking puddles of mud with identical sets of wickedly gleaming teeth.

Xena had done a good job in hiding her connection to Iona, but once you'd figured it out, the similarities between the two were overwhelming. The way they circled each other during their fight, the way their eyes twinkled, the teasing jaunts they tossed at each other…

Which really posed a bit of a problem for her, didn't it? Because she liked Iona… And if Iona was so similar to Xena… Did that mean she'd have to like Xena too?

She glanced sideways, watching the dark-haired woman from the corner of her eye. Caspar had fallen asleep behind her and she had a hand placed over his arm to keep the boy from tumbling off. She'd refused to put her boots back on and had slung the stirrups crossways over the saddle, her bare feet dangling back and forth at an even rhythm. Her hair was pretty dishevelled, having been soaked and covered in mud and soaked again and her eyes were half lidded, the woman would seem quite peaceful to any outsider. Gabrielle, however, could detect the faint twitches and knew Xena was more than aware of everything that was happening around her.

The Empress intrigued her. She had from the moment they'd entered the palace really. Today she'd come to see the children, of course, and to confirm her hunch about Iona's parentage… But if she was being honest with herself, which she tried to be at all times, she had to admit part of her had come to see Xena. Eager to unravel another veil, mould another puzzlepiece into the right shape…

"Hey, Iona," Xena's voice drifted up softly, as to not wake the sleeping children. "Ride ahead, OK? Tell the stable boys to get things ready for the horses."
"Aye aye," Iona saluted her, then pressed her heals against Chilon's flanks and let the reigns slack a little, making the horse jump forward into a fast gallop.

"Show off," Xena muttered, rolling her eyes.
"Wonder where she gets that from…" Gabrielle raised a meaningful eyebrow.
A low chuckle. "You're right… It's my own fault, I guess…" Xena flashed her a grin, then pulled her horse to a halt and waited for Gabrielle to do the same, before holding her hands out towards the sleeping toddler. Gabrielle carefully lifted the child up and handed her over. Xena carefully placed the girl in front of her and Niobe instinctively snuggled a little closer, clutching at the Empress's leathers with a tiny hand.

Xena smiled down at the small head, then looked up again, meeting the warrior's eyes. Their gazes held for a moment, then Xena managed a half smile. "We've got a strange kind of enmity going on, you and me."
Gabrielle chuckled softly. "Yeah… Sort of…"
A moment of silence. "Do you uhm…" Xena fiddled with the reigns. "Do you think less of Iona now that you know she's…" An uneven breath. "Now that you know she's my daughter?"
"No," was the instant response. "Why should I? She hasn't changed, has she?"

Xena nodded a little, relieved. "I'm glad… I uhm…" She glanced down. "I wouldn't want her to miss out on a good friend… I know how rare a gift that is…"
Gabrielle studied the Empress for another moment. "She's still my friend," she finally said, "and I'll do anything I can to keep her out of harm's way…"
Blue eyes peeked up again. "She's never been safer in that case," Xena managed a smile, "And uhm… If you ever want to drop in and see her, you can sneak into my palace anytime you like…"
Gabrielle laughed softly. "That's very big of you…" She watched Xena smirk in response.

Another few moments passed, then the warrior tightened her hold on the reigns. "Well… I should get going…"
"Guess so…" Xena agreed softly.
Gabrielle nodded, then pulled Argo around, urging the mare forward with a clack of her tongue, heading back into the forest at an easy trot. Xena's eyes followed her until she disappeared behind the trees, then she pushed her stallion forward as well, continuing down the road.

Twilight had fallen by the time she walked through the main gates of Athens. The streets were crowded with people returning to town and merchants moving out. Gabrielle ducked out of the way to let a cart, loaded with jingling pots and pans, move past her, the wind pushed aside by the vehicle gently toying with her cloak.

A few more moments and she'd be home. Gabrielle sighed. Unfortunately, being home meant facing up to Thalia. She hadn't meant to stay out the whole day, really, and her friend was bound to ask her where she'd been.

Should she tell her the truth? Could she? The last time she'd mentioned the Conqueror in a sentence that wasn't coated in thick layers of doom and hatred, Thalia's reaction hadn't been all too understanding. If she'd tell the redhead she'd just spent the larger part of the day in a waterfight with the ruler of the known world…

Gabrielle hugged her cloak around her more tightly. She really didn't need a major argument with her friend right now. But she didn't want to lie to her either… The warrior closed her eyes. What a damn mess this was… What an incredible m…

Her thoughts stopped abruptly. Up ahead a figure had turned its head for a moment, and though the face was half obscured by a dark brown scarf, Gabrielle instantly recognised her.

Her eyes narrowed. Callisto. How had she managed to get into town? Xena had every inch between Alti's former home and the palace completely secured. Apparently though, the blonde had managed to find a way through and if Callisto was here… was Alti here too?

Another cart rattled up to her, the driver yelling loudly as he snapped his whip at the empty air. Gabrielle had to duck out of the way and when she looked back up Callisto had disappeared into the masses. The warrior increased her pace, sliding through the crowd, towards to the spot where she'd last seen the blonde, her eyes darting around incessantly. "C'mon…" She growled softly under her breath. "I know you're… Ah…" She caught sight of her target once more and quickly set in pursuit, all thought of returning home forgotten.

Callisto continued on the main road for another few moment, then she turned into a quieter street. Gabrielle followed behind, careful to leave enough distance between herself and the blonde. The tall buildings around her blocked the scarce light, throwing the street into shadows, making it harder for her to keep sight of the other woman, but luckily her other senses compensated for the loss. Another turn and another, then Callisto slowed down a little, shooting a look over her shoulder. The warrior only just managed to push herself up against the wall of a nearby building, her black cloak mingling with the darkness perfectly. From her hidden spot she could see the white of Callisto's eyes flick from left to right, then the woman made a quick turn and ducked into an alley. A few soundless steps, then Gabrielle turned the corner as well and…

Black rimmed dark eyes peered back at her from the shadows. "Boo," Alti drawled, then narrowed her eyes savagely…

Xena pulled her horse to a halt in front of the stables. She glanced over her shoulder, then reluctantly nudged the sleeping boy behind her. He stirred with a protesting murmur. "Sorry to wake you, sport, but you have to get off now... We're home..."
Caspar blinked open his eyelids, a little surprised when he noticed the world had turned dark on him. He rubbed at his eyes. "Wh..." He cleared his throat , which was still hoarse from sleep. "Did Gabrielle go?"
"Uhuh," Xena confirmed, grabbing onto his arm with a hand before gently lowering him off the stallion. "She had to go home too."
Caspar looked seriously disappointed at this. "Is she going to come back soon?"
"I don't know..." Xena admitted, sliding off her horse and then reaching up to lift off Niobe, who stayed fast asleep during this whole process. "I hope so..."

Caspar released a sad breath. "I shouldn't have fallen asleep... That was stupid..."
Xena grinned down at him, ruffling his short dark brown hair. "She said you looked cute when you were sleeping…"
"She did?" Caspar looked up at her with wide eyes, his mood cheering up considerably. "Really?"
"Yup, really," Xena confirmed, chuckling softly as a giddy smile took over his face. Then she gently shoved him towards the stables. "Go on, you... Go help your sister carry our bags inside, OK?"
Caspar pouted at this. "Can't she carry them alone?"
Xena slowly lifted an eyebrow at him.
A sigh. "OK, OK... I'll help... But just because you asked me..."
"Of course..." Xena readily agreed, then watched him run off with a smile, before handing her reigns to one of the stable boys and turning towards the palace.

After a few paces she spotted Pyrron coming towards her through the dark. "Heya Ronnie... Any news?"
"Not really," Pyrron said as he fell into pace beside her. "No sign of your shamaness, the resistance has been laying low today..."
Xena smirked, "I'm guessing that's because their little legend was spending some quality time with me..."

Both the Advisor's eyebrows shot up at this. "Excuse me?"
"Gabriele dropped by for a visit," the Empress told him. "She promised Iona she'd swing by apparently... But I'm guessing she had some ulterior motives…"
A bushy eyebrow raised in question. "What kind of ulterior motives?"
"She wanted to ask me about Iona…" Xena looked up at him. "About why there's stuff in her shampoo to keep her hair blond..."
Pyrron blinked in shock. "Oh my g... I..." He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Empress, I had no idea she'd..."
"It's OK..." Xena assured him quickly. "I uhm... I told her... And... it's good..."
Her advisor cocked his head at her. "You told her everything?"
A nod.

Pyrron sucked in a breath, considering this for a moment. "Do you think that's wise?"
"I..." Xena shrugged a little. "She wanted me to tell Iona... And... She wouldn't shut up until I told her why I couldn't, so...." She met Pyrron's worried gaze. "She gave me her word she'd keep Iona safe... I trust her..."
"She is a rebel, Empress..."
"I know," Xena hastily nodded, "but... I trust her… She wouldn't hurt Iona... I know she wouldn't..."

Pyrron considered this for another few moments as they paced towards the palace. "You two have a very odd relationship, Empress…"
Xena rolled her eyes. "Tell me about it…" A breath. "It's… It's really strange, Pyrron… When I'm with her, I feel… At ease… Even though I know she's supposed to be my enemy and she could kill me in the blink of an eye if she felt like it… I…"A shrug. "I just know where I stand with her, sort of…" Xena glanced down at her feet. "It felt good telling her about Iona… Sharing that with someone…"
Pyrron studied her for a moment, then laid a hand on her shoulder. "It's a tough secret to keep..."
"Very," Xena agreed softly.

Another few moments of silence. "Maybe it's time you told Iona…"
Blue eyes shot up at him. "Excuse me?"
Pyrron released a breath. "She's a smart kid, Empress… She's gonna figure it out sooner or later… Wouldn't it be better if she heard this news from you?"
Xena shook her head determinedly. "She can't know…"
"But y…"
"She can't know!" Xena repeated, stretching the last two words out in emphasis. "We've had this discussion before, and I told you then too… It's too dangerous…"
The Advisor crossed his arms. "It's too dangerous or you're too scared?"

Raging blue eyes shot up at him. "This is not about me!"
"Of course this is about you," Pyrron argued on calmly.
"I have always done what's best for her." Xena growled. "Even when it was hard. Even when I couldn't be there when she took her first steps, or said her first word… And I'm doing what's best for her now. And I'm telling you it's not the right time…"
Pyrron raised an eyebrow at her. "When is going to be the right time then?"
"I don't know!" Xena blurted in frustration, "but it's not…"

"Sena?" Niobe's sleepy voice drifted up and Xena looked down at the toddler she held in her arms. "Sena, be shhh… Ears owie…"
The Empress closed her eyes and forced a smile. "Sorry, short stuff…"
"'s Okay," Niobe murmured allowingly, clutching onto Xena's shoulder and hauling herself up a bit. A smile spread across her face as she spotted her father. "Daddy!"
Pyrron reached out and ruffled the dark brown hair. "Hey, you. Had fun today?"
Niobe nodded feverously. "Abby came. Caught fish…" Brown eyes twinkled up at Xena mischievously. "Big, big fish."

"Hey," Xena glanced down, trying one of her intimidating dark looks. "Are you making fun of me?"
A giggle. "Yes."
The Empress chuckled softly, rolling her eyes. "You have been hanging around your big sister too much…"
"Jona," Niobe agreed with a broad smile. "Love Jona…"
"We all do, sweetie," Pyrron told her, opening the door into the main hall and holding it open to let Xena pass. "We all do…"

Consciousness slowly started to dawn on her, and Gabrielle was unable to suppress a groan at the painful throbbing in her head. She blinked open her eyes, then lifted a hand to wipe the sleep from them… Well, that was her intent, anyway... The warrior glanced down to see her whole upper body wrapped up tightly in ropes and her ankles shackled, a chain attaching her feet together, making it impossible to escape, even for her. A look around showed her she was slumped against a stone wall at the far end of a room. There were candles burning in the centre and she could hear voices, footsteps scurrying about…

Her eyes tracked on until they focussed on a dark figure sitting on a chair nearby, the light of the flames tossing her face into shadows, but Gabrielle knew all to well who it was.
"Hello, precious," Callisto drawled, leaning her arms on her knees. "Had a nice nap?"
Green eyes narrowed. "You tricked me…"
A giggle. "Yes, and it was a lot easier then I thought it would be really… Following me down a dark alley… That was incredibly blond of you, dear… You do our hair colour no justice…"
Gabrielle gritted her teeth. "I hoped you'd lead me to Alti…"
"And I did, didn't I?" Callisto stated cheerfully, waving a hand at the shamaness. Gabrielle let her gaze follow in that direction and spotted Alti, lounging in a chair, listening to several of Xena's soldiers. Gabrielle frowned. What was going on here? Why were they…

The door opened at that moment and another man strode in. "The men are ready." He stated, striding up to the seated Alti. "They'll take out Xena's soldiers in an hour. Brutus is leading them. I've told him we'll take care of Xena."
Gabrielle's eyes widened as she followed the lieutenant across the room. "By the gods… That can't be…"
"Oh, but it is… That's our new buddy Pompey…" Callisto stood up from her chair and walked closer, grabbing onto her shoulder and pulling her up a bit straighter, so she was sitting with her back fully against the wall. "Not too clear in the brain department, but he has his moments, so we've decided to keep him…" She wiped some dust off Gabrielle's roped up shoulders, then tsk-ed at a smudge on the warrior's face. "You need to get yourself cleaned up a little, Gabby," She wetted the edge of her thumb with her tongue, then rubbed at the spot on the warrior's cheek. Gabrielle tried to duck away from her, but in her tied up state she was quite helpless. "Now, keep still," Callisto told her sternly, finishing her cleaning and then patting the woman's cheek condescendingly. "That wasn't so hard, now was it?"
"Get away from me," Gabrielle snarled, her eyes narrowed to slits.

Callisto laid a hand over her heart. "How harsh…" she mock-sniffled. "Here I am, taking care of you, like I always have and this is how you repay me?"
The warrior snorted. "Oh please… This is not about me. All you care about is yourself."
The blonde crossed her arms, considering this. "My best interest is at the top of my list, true…" She admitted casually. "But in the end, isn't that the case with everybody?" She stroked Gabrielle's cheek with the back of her hand. "Human's are selfish, Gabs. Can't you see that now, after all this time?" She pushed a lock of hair from the warrior's face. "At least I admit it… And at least I'm making sure you stay out of harm's way tonight."

Gabrielle looked up, cocking her head. "Tonight? What's happening tonight?"
"Everything," Callisto just replied with a smirk. "And you are going to help make it happen."
Gabrielle shook her head determinedly. "I'm not helping you with anything."
"Oh, not willingly, no…" Callisto agreed calmly.
Blond eyebrows frowned in question.
Callisto giggled. "You, my dear, are bait."

A soft knock on her door made Xena look up, and she smirked. "Yeeees?" She drawled, waiting patiently for the door to be pushed open and the toddler who she knew was standing behind it to come inside.
"Sena!" Niobe came tottering inside, her hair wet from the bath she'd taken to wash the fishy smell off her skin. She stopped beside her, tugging at her bare leg. "Dinner. Cum."
"Straight to the point, that's what I like about you, shorty," The Empress grinned, then got to her feet.
"Up!" Niobe ordered, and moment's later she was obediently lifted and placed on her playmate's shoulders.

"Why is it you obey a three year old without question, but you will never listen to your Advisor?" Pyrron wondered out loud, leaning in the doorway.
Xena chuckled. "Never underestimate the power of the toddler, Ronnie."
Niobe giggled, wrapping both arms around Xena's forehead for balance and leaning her chin on the woman's dark hair.
The Advisor rolled his eyes, then motioned the duo forward, holding the door open for them.

Xena walked out of the room, ducking to keep Niobe from banging her head against the doorpost. "Where are Casper and Iona?"
"Back in the livingroom, arguing," Pyrron sighed, closing the door to Xena's study behind him. "Something about fish being able to hear or not…" He shook his head. "I don't know how they come up with these pointless discussions…"
Xena remained prudently silent.
"I told them they could come to the dining hall when they were done yelling and not a moment before…"
"We won't be seeing them for a while in that case," Xena flashed a grin at her Advisor. "Those two just can't seem to agree about anything…"
Pyrron looked up at her meaningfully. "Remind you of anyone we know, Empress?"
A soft chuckle. "Not instantly, no…" Xena gazed back at him innocently. "Should it?"
The Advisor rolled his eyes as they stepped into the main hall. "Sometimes, Empress, you really tend to…"

But his sentence was cut short as the doors on the opposite side of the hall burst open and a soldier came storming in. There was a large bleeding gash on his bare upper arm and his breathing was coming in heavy rasps. "Empress," he panted, taking a shaky step towards her, "…it's…"

His body jerked forward, then went limp and he sagged onto the floor, the hilt of a knife protruding from his back.
"…me," a cheerful voice finished for him, and Xena's head shot up in shock as she recognised who it belonged to.
"Pompey?" Pyrron's eyes widened in disbelief. "But how can that be…?"

Meanwhile several guards had rushed forward, taking up defensive positions around the Empress. Xena placed Niobe on the ground, the toddler hastily finding shelter behind the woman's legs. When she looked back up she saw Pompey was surrounded by an equal amount of soldiers as well. "Well well…" She crossed her arms, letting her icy eyes track past every face slowly. "I see you found more friends willing to join you in death…"
"Oh, I'm not planning on dying again, Empress…" Pompey drawled, kneeling beside the body of the fallen soldier, pulling out his dagger. "Been there, done that, didn't like it much…"
Xena smirked at him, seemingly not worried in the slightest. "I killed you before… I can do it again…"

"We don't doubt you could, Xena," another voice joined in and Alti stepped forward from behind several soldiers. "That's why we brought a little insurance…"
"Alti…" Xena narrowed her eyes at the shamaness. "There is nothing you could possibly have that would make me…"
"Sena!" Niobe's tiny voice shot up and the toddler pointed past her. "'s Abby!"

Xena's eyes widened. It was Gabrielle. She was tied up with ropes, shackled, gagged and there was a huge bump on the side of her head, a trickle of blood seeping from her hairline and down her cheek.
"Surprise!" Callisto, who had both her arms wrapped around the warrior and her chin placed on Gabrielle shoulder, chortled. "Sorry, the wrapping is a bit bland… I tried to tie a red bow around her head, but she kept shaking it off."
The warrior growled something inaudible and struggled.
"Now what did I tell you about struggling, darling?" Callisto tsk-ed, tightening her hold on Gabrielle's waist. "Remember how I told you that was bad?"
Gabrielle jerked her shoulder back, in an attempt to push the blonde aside.
"Ow, down girl…" Callisto instructed, then slammed the toe of her boot against the blonde's unprotected calves, making her tumble to the ground and fall to her knees. Callisto chuckled in amusement, patting the woman's head condescendingly. "That's a good little warrior."

Xena watched the scene, then she lifted her head and turned her attention to Alti, working up a bored expression. "So, this is your big plan? Tempt me by threatening to kill a rebel who fights against me?" A snort. "You're losing your touch, Alti…"
The shamaness just smirked back calmly. "Perhaps…" She strolled over to the kneeling warrior, then grabbed onto the blonde's neck, forcing her chin up, green eyes lifting and meeting Xena's blue ones. "Well, if you don't care whether she lives or dies… she might as well die…"

"Bad lady!" Before Xena could do so much as flinch Niobe had darted past her legs and headed for the shamaness. "Leggo!"
"Niobe, no!" Pyrron reacted instinctively and ran forward, wrapping an arm around his daughter's waist and turning, using his body to shield her from their opponents.

His eyes widened as he felt cold metal being pushed through his skin as Pompey's dagger embedded itself between his shoulder blades. He sagged onto his knees, Niobe sliding gently onto the ground as his grip failed him. He managed to lift his head and look up at the tall dark form standing several feet away, frozen in complete shock, then his body failed him and he fell forward, thudding onto the cold stone.
Xena took a shaky step towards him. "P… Pyrron?"

Xena spun around to see Iona running forward, straight towards Pompey, her intent more than clear. Without another thought she changed direction and intercepted the girl, grabbing her around the waist and lifting her straight off the ground.
Iona struggled, her arms and legs flailing about wildly. "Let me go! Now!"
"No," Xena managed, her voice breaking down on her. "Iona, please…"
Flashing blue eyes shot up at her. "Let me go!"

"Daddy?" Niobe touched her father's face. "Daddy, cum. No sleep." A pause. "Daddy?"

"Oh, this is so good," Callisto chortled in delight, watching the whole scene with glimmering dark eyes. "You know, this would make a great play. Bit of drama, some action, lots of blood…" She leaned closer to Gabrielle's ear. "Don't you agree, dear?"

Gabrielle didn't even hear the taunting words though, her eyes filling with tears as she looked from the toddler sitting beside the body of the Advisor to the struggling Iona to the silent Casper standing in the corridor behind them all.

Pompey negligently wiped his blade clean on his sleeve, smudges of blood staining the white fabric. "Take them," he ordered his soldiers over his shoulder.
The loyal guards surrounding Xena immediately tightened their hold on their weapons, taking on defensive poses.

"I would tell them to back off, Xena." Alti commented almost casually, tightening her hold on Gabrielle's neck a fraction. "Unless you want to see more people get hurt…"

The Empress looked down at the shamaness for a long moment, then she shot a quick look over her shoulder. "Stand down."
The guards hesitated for a moment, but then did as ordered, dropping their weapons on the ground.

"Heh, told ya… Piece of cake," Callisto giggled, grabbing onto Gabrielle's shoulder and hauling the warrior to her feet. "Like taking candy from a… ouch!"

Gabrielle slammed the back of her head against the blonde's forehead, making her stumble back a few paces. With all her strength she pushed off, jumping towards the nearby Pompey, who was just waving forward his men. "OK, boys, I want the… argh!!!"

The chain Gabrielle had tied between her feet wrapped itself around his neck, the warrior dragging him down to the ground as she fell. They thudded to the ground, then Gabrielle tightened her hold on the lieutenant's neck savagely.

There was a tearing of skin, then Pompey's head dropped into her lap, rolling back until its weight was resting on his hair. "What the Hades…" He glanced around confusedly, then his mouth dropped open. "You tore off my head! Bitch!"

Gabrielle blinked at the talking head, then looked up to see Pompey's body rise back to its feet and dust itself off.
Callisto came trotting over, waving a finger at the warrior. "Didn't I tell you to not tear off body parts when in company? It's considered very improper." She reached down and lifted up Pompey's head then tossed it towards the lieutenant. "Heads up, Pompster!"
Pompey hastily lifted his hands and caught the body part, then placed it back on his neck. "I told you not to call me that!"

"Shut up, the both of you!" Alti snapped, then turned her attention to a soldier at her side. "Lock them up in the dungeons. I'll decide how to kill them later."
"Yes, Empress." The soldier bowed his head politely, then yelled out some orders to his men, who started to herd the prisoner towards the cells.

Xena looked up and locked eyes with the shamaness, her blue eyes nearly lethal in their intensity, the gaze holding promises of vengeance. Then she was shoved forward by one of the soldiers, and she turned and walked after her guards, clinging to the girl who was still struggling in her arms. Iona stared over her shoulder at Pompey, her eyes hollow, the same promises hidden in their depths.

Rattling sounded outside and Ephiny cocked her head, then pushed herself off her pallet and towards the bars, peeking into the hallway. Another few moments, then the door was opened and Gabrielle was pushed inside, stumbling over her chains.
Ephiny's eyes widened. "Gabrielle? What…" Her breath got stuck in her throat as the next prisoner was pushed in. "…happened?" she finished in a murmur, her eyes following the Empress as she strode down the hall, carrying a young blonde girl and holding the hand of a small boy, who had tears running down his cheeks. A third child was clinging to her leg, toddling along as fast as her tiny legs could carry her.

The cell beside her was opened and Gabrielle was shoved inside by a thin blonde, who followed and pulled up the warrior's upper body with one hand holding onto the ropes near her neck, pulling the gag off her head with her free hand, commenting on how much she knew Gabrielle loved to chat. Xena and the children were placed in the cell across from her, and the remainder of the soldiers was led into a fourth cell.

Iona struggled again and Xena let go of Caspar's hand to grab onto the girl's shoulder and hold her in place. "Iona, stop this… Calm down…"
"Don't you tell me to calm down!" Iona snapped back, her blue eyes flashing with rage. "Don't tell me anything! Just stay out of my way!"
Xena took a breath, trying very hard to hold her own temper. "I know this is hard, but you need to…"
"You didn't do anything!" Iona tiraded on. "You didn't even fight! You just stood there!"
"I couldn't…" The Empress tried.
"It's your fault! It's your fault he's dead!" The girl tugged hard and this time she managed to free her hand, staggering a few paces back. "I hate you!" She snapped, then stalked off and found a spot as far away from the Empress as she could manage, huddling up into a corner, pulling up her legs and wrapping her arms around her knees.

Xena swallowed, grateful for the solid support of the bars behind her, that held her upright as her legs went numb. She closed her eyes, hiding in the darkness to force back the emotions, but it wasn't working this time around. Her nerves were shattered, her brain was on overload… She led herself slide down to the ground, coming to sit on the cold stone floor of her cell.

"You tell her, girl," Callisto giggled, then strolled over to the Empress's cell peering inside with a huge grin on her face. "You know, Xena… I'm really sad right now I didn't leave a bit of golden apple for you so I could make you immortal. Then I could have watched you suffer, while I killed off your little family one…" Her eyes slid to Niobe, "…by one…" darted over to Caspar "…by one…" and finally settled on Iona. Then she looked back at the Empress with a smirk. "Then again, I wouldn't get the pleasure of killing you, which would be an awful shame, now wouldn't it?"

Xena bit the inside of her lip, keeping her gaze fixed on the edge of a stone in front of her, not wanting to dignify the taunting with any kind of response.

Callisto chuckled wickedly, then turned to a soldier at her right. "Pick two men to stay here with you, keep an eye on these nice folks and make sure nothing happens to them," she waved a hand at Gabrielle. "Watch her especially. She's tricky…"
The soldier squared his shoulders and nodded. Callisto patted him on the head, then turned and strode out of the room, followed by the rest of the soldiers

Pale, narrowed eyes watched her departure, then a hand touched her side and Xena looked down to see Caspar crawling closer in a helpless search for comfort. She released a breath, putting her hateful feelings aside for the moment and wordlessly wrapping an arm around his shoulders, pulling him closer. Caspar sniffled, hiding his face in her shoulder.

"Sena?" Niobe shuffled nearer. "Sena, go back. Get daddy… He go-ed asleep. No cum."
The Empress drew in a shaky breath, then somehow managed to produce a smile, reaching out and touching the toddler's cheek. "He…" A breath. "Your daddy had to go away for a while… He's gone to see your mom…"
Niobe's face cheered up a little. "See mom?"
"Yeah," Xena pulled her closer and into her lap, hugging the tiny body to her, as much for Niobe's comfort as for her own. "So you'll just have to do with me for the time being, OK?"
"OK," Niobe nodded, seeming to be content with this explanation for the time being. She wrapped an arm around Xena and laid her head against the woman's chest.

"Gabrielle?" Ephiny peered through the bars. "Hey, what the Hades is going on here?"
The warrior released a breath. "It's uhm… complicated…" She looked up at a soldier standing nearby. "Untie me, would you?"

"Hey, nobody's getting untied," one of the guards Callisto had left stated, crossing his arms.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Oh come on… What am I going to do to you, being locked in a cell like this?"
The guard shook his head determinedly. "I've seen you fight, ma'am… And I'm not taking any chances."

"Spoken like the wuss you truly are, Victor," a man behind her said, before stepping up to the warrior, circling her and starting to pry at the knot holding the ropes together. "I'm getting these ropes off of her… You wanna stop me? Come in here and give it a try…"

"Bu…" The guard blinked, then turned to his friends in question. They gazed back insecurely. "Fine," Victor then muttered, placing his hands on his hips. "I guess I can allow that."

Gabrielle half snorted, then glanced over her shoulder. "Thanks," She told the man, taking in his armour. "You a lieutenant?"
"I'm Dorian," the man introduced himself. "I think showing off my rank is quite useless in this situation."
"Guess you're right…" Gabrielle muttered in agreement, facing forward again to meet Ephiny's questioning gaze, realising she should offer the Amazon some form of explanation. "Alti just took control of the Empire. Some stuff happened and…" A breath. "Pyrron got killed…"

The Amazon cocked her head. "The Advisor?"
Gabrielle managed a nod as Dorian unwound the rope, freeing her arms.
"Well, good riddance." Ephiny muttered. "Another Conqueror lover less, that can only do this world some goo… Ah!!" The Amazon winced as her head impacted harshly with the bars.

Raging green eyes bore into her own. "Don't you EVER say that again!" Gabrielle hissed at her.
Ephiny blinked. "But Gabrielle, he was a…"
"He was a father of three children," the warrior cut her short in a growl. "And he was a good man. Just because he didn't agree with our way of thinking doesn't make him evil, Ephiny."
The Amazon glanced down. "Sorry," she muttered. "I uhm… You're right, I guess…"

Gabrielle released a breath, then let go of the woman's collar. "Glad we got that straightened out," she muttered, walking up to the bars. "Or I might have left you here…"

The Amazon raised an eyebrow at her. "Left me here?" She mumbled under her breath, "How are you planning on…"

"Hey, Victor, was it?"
The guard looked up suspiciously, instinctively taking a pace back.
"Aw, come on now, Victor… Don't be a bore…" She crooked a finger at him. "Come a little closer. I'm not going to hurt you."

He hastily took another pace backwards, backing up against the bars of the cell across from Gabrielle's. The warrior let her gaze slide up to meet that of an emprisoned soldier standing right behind him. The soldier grinned in understanding, then shoved Victor forward harshly, the man helplessly tumbling towards Gabrielle's cell.

The warrior grabbed into his chin, then snapped it aside harshly, breaking the man's neck. "OK… So I lied…" She whispered to him as he exhaled his last breath, reaching for two items dangling from his belt.

Before the other guards could react, a dagger hit one in the chest and the end of a whip wrapped around the neck of the other, pulling him straight up against the hard metal bars, after which he slumped to the ground unconciously.

Ephiny scratched the back of her neck. "Good plan."

Gabrielle managed a half smile for her, then turned back to Dorian. "Is there any way out of here?"
The lieutenant blinked at her. "Out? Uhm…" He shook his head, attempting to clear it. "Well, there is a tunnel that leads from here into the city." He pointed to a spot on the floor of the corridor. "The Empress had it built a few years back when the Empire wasn't so stable, in case something like this ever happened. But to reach it we'll have to get out of this cell and to get out of this cell we'll need…"

"A key?" Gabrielle finished, kneeling down and reaching into a boot, pulling the item in question from its hiding spot. "I think this might just do the trick…"
Dorian's mouth dropped open. "Bw… Y… How did you…?"
"Let's just say it's a good thing I was planning on getting Ephiny out of this place sometime soon and an Amazon friend of hers decided to lend a hand." The warrior muttered, sticking the key in the lock and turning it, hearing a satisfying click. She pushed the door open and stepped into the corridor, then stepped up to Ephiny's cell and unlocked that door as well.

Dorian followed her into the hallway, then motioned his men forward, ordering them to clear the way to the tunnel.

Ephiny stared at the key as it turned in the lock holding her door closed, stared at the door as it was pulled open. Was this really happening? Or was this one of those dreams again. One of those dreams that would leave her feeling completely horrid when she woke up… She closed her eyes. She really wasn't ready to handle one of those right now…

"C'mon," Gabrielle urged her, turning away and heading towards the next door.

The Amazon stood doubtfully for another moment then she moved forward, coming to a halt in the door opening. Tentatively, she placed a foot out of her cell, as if afraid she'd sink straight through the stone floor.

And then she was out. Out of her cell for the first time in… How long had it been? So many years, so many long, agonising…

It was… an incredibly odd sensation. A small incredulous smile took over her face, as she glanced over her shoulder at her now empty cell. Her gaze shifted to the soldiers, which were working on removing some loose stones and uncovering the tunnel, then settled on the cell opposite hers where the Conqueror…

Her eyes narrowed at the sitting figure, and she reached for the dagger Gabrielle had given her the first time they'd met, which she had hidden under her clothes. Her fingers closed over the hilt and she pulled the metal free to…

"That would be a very, very bad idea…" Gabrielle's voice growled into her ear, the warrior having managed to sneak up behind her without her hearing a single thing. She took the dagger from the Amazon's fingers, then motioned her head towards the group of soldiers. "Go help them."
Hazel eyes met hers for a moment, and Gabrielle silently dared the woman to argue with her, but Ephiny finally relented and moved away.

The warrior released a breath, then walked up to Xena's cell and unlocked the door. Tired blue eyes blinked open and met hers. "Good show," the Empress managed, not quite able to clear the hoarseness from her throat.
Gabrielle immediately felt an honest dose of sympathy for the woman. "C'mon…" She pulled the door open. "We're leaving…"

Iona immediately scrambled to her feet and ran forward, ducking past Gabrielle and heading towards the outer door, leading back into the palace. But before she could get far Gabrielle had grabbed onto the back of her collar and was hauling her back.
"We're not leaving that way," the warrior muttered.
"Let me go!" The girl struggled futily. "I need to…"
"You need to what? Go after Pompey?" Gabrielle dropped in, lifting the girl's chin up so she was forced to make eye contact. "And what are you going to do when you find him?
"I'll kill him," Iona growled, her eyes determinedly set.
Behind her, Xena flinched at the words.
"And how are you planning to do that exactly?" Gabrielle held the girl's gaze. "Iona, I pulled off his head and that didn't stop him… What are you planning on doing that will?"

"I…" Iona sucked in a breath. "I could…" She glanced down. "I… I don't know…"
"I know it's hard, but the best thing right now is to get out of here and regroup." Gabrielle gently placed a hand on her shoulder. "They're not going to get away with this, I promise you…"
Iona seemed doubtful still, but she finally nodded reluctantly, then moved past the warrior and dutifully headed for the entrance to their path of escape, without looking back at the three figures in the cell behind her.

Meanwhile Xena had risen to her feet and had helped Caspar and Niobe up. "You two follow your sister, OK? Listen to Dorian. I need to talk to Gabrielle for a moment."
Caspar nodded, wiping his arm over his eyes and pushing away the tears, then he visibly squared his shoulders and reached out to take Niobe's hand. The toddler allowed herself to be lead on, blinking up inquisitively at her brother's sad face. "Caspie? No be sad…" She patted her brother's hand. "Daddy go see momma. 's Good."

Gabrielle watched the two with a sad look, laying her hand on top of Caspar's head for a moment as he walked past, which got her a watery smile. Then she turned her attention back to the Empress, who hadn't moved from her spot. "You coming?"
Xena dropped her head, studying the stone floor beneath her feet. "I can't…"

The warrior's eyes widened. "What do you mean you can't?" She whispered back, making sure the children couldn't hear her.
Xena sucked in a breath. "Alti is after me most of all. If I leave she's going to hunt me down. Those kids have been through enough because of me, they don't need to be running for the rest of their lives."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "You're kidding, right?" She took a step forward, lowering her voice. "Those kids need you. You're right, they have been through enough, and the last thing they need right now is to lose you too."
Xena shook her head. "You don't understand..."
"I understand all too well," the warrior corrected her firmly. "You're guilt tripping. But you're out of luck, cause you're not taking the easy way out this time…"

Icy blue eyes lifted. "You've got a lot of nerve…"
"You bet," Gabrielle wholeheartedly agreed, crossing her arms "Now, you can walk out of here, or I can slug you unconscious and carry you. What will it be?"

Xena held her gaze for a long moment, trying to stare the warrior down, but she failed miserably. "Fine," she then muttered tossing up her hands. "But when you're outrunning her army, don't blame me, OK?"
"Outrunning armies is not something I tend to worry about," Gabrielle retorted easily, waving her hand towards the open cell door. "Let's go…"

Xena dutifully stepped forward and turned left, heading for the hole, where Dorian was still waiting. He politely inclined his head as she approached, then held out a hand. Xena managed a smile for him. She glanced over her shoulder for a last moment, doubtfully staring at the outer door, but then she allowed herself to be lowered down.

Dorian made sure his Empress was safely on the ground before looking up, intending to offer Gabrielle a helping hand as well, but to his surprise the warrior had turned away and was striding into the opposite direction. "Gabrielle?" he hissed after her. "What are you going??"
"I won't take long," the warrior assured him over her shoulder. The hand holding onto her dagger clenched and unclenched rhythmically. "I'm just gonna leave a message."

Gabrielle found her way through the darkness, listening to the footsteps she could hear in the distance, echoing off the thick stone walls of the tunnel. If her instincts were correct, she had left the palace grounds behind, and was somewhere near the Agora. She wanted to catch up to the group before they reached the exit though, since she'd have to lead them somewhere safe from there on.

She slowed a little, feeling a presence nearby, though the group was still quite a bit ahead. Her other senses kicked in, but really didn't provide her with much more information, which really meant it could only be one person. Moments later she stopped and looked at the shadows on her left.
"Did you find her?" A voice drifted up from where Xena was leaning against the wall.
Gabrielle shook her head, then realised that wasn't really any use in darkness like this. "No. There were too many guards walking around. I couldn't risk it."

Silence as Xena pondered over this for a moment. "Good," the Empress finally said, Gabrielle not having to see her face to picture the expression on it. "Don't try going after her again. She's mine."
The warrior considered for a moment whether to argue about that, but she finally settled on postponing the discussion on vengeance until they reached a more suitable location. "We'll talk about that later."

A resigned quietness followed, then there was a soft rustling of fabric as the Empress stepped closer. Gabrielle could see the outline of her body now, and the white in her eyes peering though the darkness. She felt a touch on her arm, fingertips warming her skin. "You're bleeding," Xena said softly.
"No, I'm not." Gabrielle denied. "That's not mine…"
"Ah…" She could see Xena nod in understanding. "So they uhm… They didn't hurt you?"
"No," the warrior confirmed. "Just a bump, nothing major…"

She could hear the dark-haired woman swallow in the silence that followed. "I'm sorry," Xena finally said, in a voice that echoed several emotions. "I never thought they'd drag you into this, if I had I'd…"
"You'd what?"
"I'd…" A sigh. "I don't know… There must have been something… Something I did wrong… Something…" A shaky breath.

Gabrielle hesitated for a moment, then she reached through the darkness, finding a hand and gently squeezing it. "There's nothing you could have done," she said, putting as much conviction into her voice as she could muster. "You need to stop thinking about what happened and focus on the now."
Xena closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. "You're right…" She whispered. "We uhm…" She squared her shoulders with a rustle of fabric. "We need to find some place to hide…"
"Just leave that up to me," Gabrielle told her, giving the hand she'd been holding onto another squeeze before letting go and heading down the corridor. A moment, then Xena followed.

They caught up to the others at about the same time the end of the tunnel was reached. The exit was hidden from sight by several bushes which had been planted in front of it, and the foliage ruffled loudly in the silent night as they all wormed their way through.

Gabrielle was the last to find her way out. She stood for a moment, peering though the darkness and trying to make out where they were, then she turned to the group waiting behind her. "OK, we're moving off in that direction." She pointed eastward. "Stay in the shadows, OK? Try not to get noticed… I doubt they figured out we're gone yet, but we can't be sure…"

Nods from the guards around her, who then proceeded on in the indicated direction. The warrior watched Xena grab onto one of the soldiers and whisper some instructions to him, after which he ran ahead, probably to scout the territory. She watched the kids walk off or be carried, each surrounded by several guards and Ephiny was…

Gabrielle frowned, then walked over to the quietly standing Amazon, who was gazing up at the night sky in wonder. "Hey? You OK?"
Ephiny sucked in a deep breath. "I'm perfect," she murmured, still staring upwards. "I never thought I'd see this again… I mean, I hoped, and dreamed, but…" A tiny shake of the curly head. "I'd forgotten how beautiful it was out here… How much space there is…" A small smile. "It's almost scary really… Just being able to walk about. No bars surrounding you, no boundaries…"
The warrior smiled at her, then placed a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry it took me so long to get you out…"

Hazel eyes tracked down and met hers, and Ephiny's lips moved several times, trying to say words that just wouldn't be uttered, then she just released a breath and stepped closer, hugging the warrior mindlessly for a long moment. "I owe you more then I can ever repay. But if you apologise to me for being a little on the slow side ever again, I will see myself forced to clobber you over the head for being such an idiot. Understood?"
Gabrielle chuckled, patting the Amazon on the back amicably. "Yes, great queen."
Ephiny snorted, then released the warrior again. "You are just as obnoxious as that redheaded friend of yours, you know that?"
"Yes," Gabrielle smirked back at her, then she motioned her head towards their disappearing group. "Come on, let's get moving, OK? I think there's someone who'll be very glad to see you."

A rapid knocking sounded and Thalia pushed herself up from her seat. "Finally," she breathed, then motioned Solari to stay put, before walking out of the kitchen and towards the door. She tugged it open, then crossed her arms, giving her friend a look. "What took you so long? We've been waiting here for…"

Gabrielle quickly made her way in, clearing the way for the people behind her, motioning them inside with hasty hand gestures.

Thalia's brows frowned, "Gab, what are these people doing w…" She staggered several paces back then, as a tall form stepped inside, pale blue eyes flicking over the interior, briefly settling on her. "Sh…" The redhead looked at her friend in shock. "You brought her here?!"
Gabrielle lifted both her hands. "Thalia, listen, OK?"
"You're betraying us?" Thalia's eyes narrowed at her. "I can't believe this…"

The warrior released a breath. "I'm not betraying anybody. The situation is just very complicated and…"
"No, the situation is really simple," Thalia cut her off in a growl. "She…" She pointed a shaking finger at Xena, "…is the one who murdered all our friends and I'm not going to stand here and..."

"Thalia," a form stepped in between Gabrielle and the raging redhead. "Back off, OK?"
Thalia blinked. "Eph? You… You got out?"
"No, I'm still locked up, can't you tell?" The Amazon drawled, then smirked, taking a step forward and enfolding her friend in a hug. "Your Gabby the Great broke me out, so if you yell at her again I'll have to pummel you, understood?"
The redhead blinked again, then looked over the Amazon's shoulder at Gabrielle, who gazed back at her with a calm, unreadable expression.

The door to the kitchen opened again. "Hey, what's all the noise about?" Solari complained. "If you girls wanna yell at each other you can do it after I…"

Her breathing stopped then, as hazel eyes lifted and met hers. Her knees buckled and she was lucky she was standing near a table, on which she hastily placed a hand to keep herself upright.

Ephiny unwound herself from Thalia's embrace, taking a careful step towards the other woman. "Hi."
Solari swallowed audibly. "Hi," she managed in a hoarse voice, then cleared her throat self consciously. "We've just been separated for three years and you're already hugging other women, huh?" She got out, in an attempt to lighten the mood. "Should I be jealous?"

"No…" Ephiny smiled, reaching out and touching her friend's cheek. "No, I don't think you should be…" She murmured, then leaned forward and kissed Solari's lightly on the lips, making the contact last long enough for the other woman to realise the gesture for what it was. Then she was pulling back again, biting the inside of her lip and praying to several deities she hadn't just screwed up big time.

Solari blinked open her eyelids, then just gazed at her for several heartbeats. Just when Ephiny was about to launch into an extensive apology, the brunette just reached out and pulled her into a hug, wrapping both her arms as tightly around her friend as possible. "I missed you so much," she managed to choak out.
Ephiny released the breath she didn't even realise she was holding, letting a happy smile take over her face. "Thanks… For being there for me all this time…"
"Always," Solari murmured, burying her face in the curly hair.

Gabrielle watched the two with a small smile, then looked up as footsteps approached and Fay walked into the room, coming to a dead stop as her eyes fell on the hugging Amazons, then slid past the group of royal guards and finally settled on Xena's quiet form. Her eyes turned from confused to enraged. "What is she doing in my house?!"

Xena closed her eyes, bending her head and staring at the floor.

Gabrielle released a breath, then turned to the Empress standing behind her. "Hey?" She lifted a hand and gently touched the woman's upper arm to get her attention. Pained blue eyes lifted and looked at her. "The kids must be getting pretty tired. If you walk down that hall…" Gabrielle instructed, pointing her in the right direction. "…then go down the stairs and turn left, my room's the second door on the right."
Xena nodded, then motioned Niobe and Caspar towards the indicated direction. She turned to tell Iona to do the same, but the girl just shot her a hateful look and stayed put, her arms crossed and her face hidden in shadows.

Xena's shoulders slumped just a little, but she kept quiet, letting her eyes drift up to meet Dorian's for a moment. The lieutenant nodded, understanding that he was to look after the girl.

"What is going on?!" Fay continued on, looking from Xena to the soldiers to Gabrielle.
The warrior sucked in a breath, squaring her shoulders. "OK, Dorian, Ephiny, Solari, Thalia, Fay... Kitchen." She ordered. "The rest of you," A pause. "Stay here until I figure out what to do with you all…"

Gabrielle watched as one by one her team headed for the kitchen. Thalia stepped up to Ephiny and murmured a smug 'Not your girlfriend, is she?' which got her a smack in the stomach. Fay looked doubtfully for another moment, but then headed for the door as well.

Gabrielle watched them all dissapear into the kitchen, then she walked over and knelt down at Iona's side. "Hey?"
Hooded blue eyes looked up. "What?"
"Could you look after these guys for me? If any of these guards is a traitor he'll try to take off. I need you to make sure that doesn't happen."
Iona squared her shoulders, then nodded, very happy to have been given a task to occupy her restless mind.
"Thanks," Gabrielle managed a smile for her, then straightened and headed for the kitchen door.

Xena tentatively pushed open the second door on the right and peeked inside, her eyes peering through the darkness, studying the interior. A bed, a desk and a few shelves littered with little personal items and scrolls. On top of the bed she spotted Gabrielle's saddlebags, affirming that this was indeed the warrior's room. She pushed the door open wider and stepped inside, placing the toddler she'd been carrying on the bed, before walking to the desk and lighting the candle resting on its surface with the two flints lying beside it.

Caspar ambled in behind her, his eyes taking in his new surroundings timidly. "This is Gabrielle's room?" He inquired, glancing from the dark blue blankets lying on the bed to the picture of a sunset over the Acropolis hanging off the far wall to the stacks of scrolls lying on the desk.
"Guess so…" Xena murmured, glancing around the room herself.

It fitted the warrior.. and it didn't… The décor was Spartan, plain functionality, the room was tidy and ordered… Yet at the same time there were little personal items lying all around. A dried flower, framed, which Xena recognised as being from the Potedeian area, a quill lying flat on the desk, the ink on the tip dried up. There were more nick-nacks here and there, hidden from plain view, placed behind a pile of scrolls, or in a forgotten corner in the shadows.

"Abby room," Niobe warbled, slapping her hands at the blankets she was sitting on, then pushing herself to her knees and crawling over to the warrior's saddlebags. She sat back down and pulled back the flap, peering inside, pulling out one of the warrior's sleep shirts and tossing it on the mattress beside her.
Xena's heard the rustling and looked up. "Niobe!" She hastily walked over to the toddler. "Don't touch Gabrielle's stuff, that's not nice…"
Niobe just giggled, digging out another item and throwing it towards her playmate.
Xena snatched the garment out of the air. "Niobe…" She growled.

"Sena! Look!" The toddler's enthusiastic voice called out then. "Shakum!"
Xena's eyebrows furrowed. "Shakum?"
Niobe nodded vehemently, then lifted the metal ring up. "Shakum."

Blue eyes widened, blinking at the ring in shock. "Chakram…"
"Shakum," the toddler repeated again, her look showing she was getting a little tired of Xena's ignorance now.

Xena stared at the metal for a long moment, then got to her senses and hastily reached out, taking the weapon from the toddler. "I'll take that, shorty… I don't want you to cut yourself."
"OK," Niobe nodded amicably, then stuck a hand in the bag again and fished for the next item.

Xena lifted the bags up with her free hand. "None of that… You can't be digging through Gabrielle's stuff, Niobe. That's bad…"
The toddler scowled in dismay.
Xena placed the saddlebags on the other side of the room, studying the chakram for another moment before placing it on top of the leather. "Get ready for bed..."

Caspar had already started to tug off his boots, placing them neatly next to each other at the foot end of the bed. He tugged off his trousers, spending quite some time on folding the garment up so the edges weren't overlapping.

Meanwhile Niobe had pulled Gabrielle's sleep shirt closer again and was tugging the garment over her head.
Xena spotted the girl doing this and released a tired breath. "Niobe, that's not yours…"
"'s Abby's." The toddler readily agreed, sticking her hand through a sleeve, the tip of her fingers only just poking through on the other end.
"That's right, so you shouldn't be wearing it." Xena told her, walking closer and tugging at a sleeve in an attempt to strip the garment off the girl. But Niobe just frantically hugged the fabric to her, pouting up at her playmate sadly. Xena released a breath. "OK, fine, keep it on then… But if Gabrielle gets mad at you it's your own fault.

Niobe produced a delighted smile, getting to her feet and wrapping her arms around Xena's neck, placing a kiss on her cheek. "Love ya."
The Empress closed her eyes, wrapping both arms around the child. "I love you too, shorty."
Niobe giggled happily, placing another kiss on Xena's cheek before backing away and crawling under the covers. Xena ruffled her hair affectionately, then turned to Caspar, who was busy arranging his socks on top of his folded pants. "Caspar?"
Dark brown eyes blinked up at her.
Xena held out a hand to him. "C'mere…"

Caspar got to his feet and walked over, just falling into Xena's embrace and closing his eyes. Xena laid her cheek against the top of his head, gently rubbing his back. They sat like that for a long while in silence, until Xena spoke up. "I'm sorry."
Caspar sniffled. "Not your fault…" he mumbled into her shoulder. "It all happened too fast…"
"Yeah," Xena agreed softly. Another long moment of silence. "Think you can sleep?"
A faint shrug. "I dunno… I…" A breath. "I'm afraid I'll have bad dreams…"
"No bad dreams…" Xena promised him softly, stroking his hair. "I'll chase them away…"
Caspar released a breath, then nodded a little, before pulling back from the Empress's embrace. "OK…"

Xena got to her feet, then helped the boy crawl into bed beside his sister, who'd already drifted off to sleep, tired from the long day. "You comfortable?"
"Yeah," Caspar murmured, fiddling with the edge of the blanket, before looking up again. "Xena?"
"What's going to happen now?"

The Empress released a breath. "I don't know, Caspar…" She admitted honestly. "Things are changing."
The boy nodded softly, gazing at the fabric of his pillow. "I miss dad," he whispered, sniffling.
"I miss your dad too," Xena told him softly. "But you know what? Your little sister is right… Your dad is with your mom now… And that is good, because he missed her very much…" She pushed a lock of hair off of his face. "I bet right now he's telling her all about you. How much you've grown, how smart you've gotten… How proud he is of you…"
Caspar swallowed, then peeked up at her. "You think?"
"I know." Xena smiled at him. "And your mom'll be glad for it, because she's been alone so long and she's missed you all so much…"

Caspar sniffled again, crawling a bit, closer and pillowing his head on her lap. "Daddy told me mom could hear our thoughts… Sometimes I'd lie awake before I went to sleep and tell her what happened that day…"
"I'm sure she liked that a lot…" Xena went along.
Caspar nodded a little. "Xena?"
"Hmm?" The Empress glanced down at the boy.
"Do you do that too? Talk to your mom?"

A long moment of silence. "Yeah… Yeah, I talk to her."
"What do you tell her?"
"I tell her…" A breath. "I tell her I miss her… And that… That I'm sorry… For all the things I did that made her cry."
Caspar wrapped an arm around her knee, hugging his pillow a bit closer. "I wish they could talk back… It's nicer when people talk back… Even if it was just to say that… that they heard you…"
"They hear you, Caspar," Xena assured him. "Don't doubt that…"
"Don't you ever doubt your mom can hear you?" the boy inquired softly.
Xena leaned her head against the back wall, closing her eyes. "No," She murmured. "She can hear me, I know she can…" A breath. "I'm just not sure she's listening…"

With a harsh scraping of skin on stone the soldier landed on his knees on the stone floor.
"Tell her!" Pompey snarled behind him.
The soldier blinked fearfully, his eyes tracking up the carpeted stairs, past the purple edge of a black toga, finally meeting blackrimmed dark eyes. "My liege…"
The back of a hand harshly slapped against the side of his face, making him lose his balance and fall onto his side. "Keep your head bent!" Pompey growled. "Just talk. Just tell her how you screwed up."
The soldier hastily scrambled back to his knees, his eyes focussed on the edges of the stone under his hands. "They escaped…" He managed in a tiny voice

"What?!" Alti rose from her throne instantly. "How is that possible?!" She spun around, narrowing her eyes at the blonde who had been standing beside the throne. "I thought you said you'd take care of security!"
Callisto hastily lifted both hands. "Hey, I placed guards in the cellblocks, outside the door, in the hallway…" She summed all the places up on her fingers. "…in front of the palace doors, outside the gates…"

"They escaped through a tunnel," Pompey informed the two, crossing his arms with a disgruntled look on his face. "There was a hidden entrance under the floor."
Alti narrowed her eyes at Callisto, the blonde tossing up her hands in response. "Ow, come on… How was I supposed to know that?!" She released a breath, circling past the shamaness and plopping down into the throne, one leg swung over an armrest. "I'm new to this taking over Empires thing, OK… So sue me…"

Alti closed her eyes, sucking in a breath, then she turned around and looked down at Pompey. "Did you send the military out to search for them?"
"Of course," Pompey stated. "I sent men down that tunnel to follow it and look for tracks, others are out combing the woods and the city…"
"Good," Alti nodded pensively, descending down the steps leading up to the throne, and stopping at the side of the kneeling soldier. She reached down, placing a finger under his chin and lifting his head, until his frightened grey eyes were looking directly into hers.

His head jerked back all of a sudden and he sagged onto the floor, unconscious again.

Alti growled. "That warrior again!"
Callisto peeked up, intrigued. "What did my Gabby do now?"
"She took out the guards," the shammaness muttered, turning briskly and pacing back up the stairs, the dark fabric of her toga swirling around with her. "She wrecked our plans again…"
Pompey pulled an item from his belt and handed it over. "I found this stuck in one of the guards in front of the prison door."

Alti took the bloody dagger from him, studying the wooden hilt, which was carved into the shape of a dragon, hollowed out eyes staring back at her. The Chinese design left no question to who the weapon belonged to. "You found this on a guard outside the prison doors, you said?" Alti asked, getting a nodded confirmation from the lieutenant. "But they left through that tunnel, didn't they?"
"There was no point to her killing him," Pompey agreed. "Or to the deaths of the other six men that were guarding the doorway. I'm guessing she just did it to make a point…"

"Heck of a point…" Callisto chuckled, tipping her head back and staring up at the marbled ceiling. "She is sooooo gooood."
Alti stopped and looked at the blonde. "Excuse me?"
"Oh come on," Callisto pushed herself upright. "You gotta give the girl some credit… Breaking out of a heavily armed prison, while you're tied up with three guys watching your every move and then just walking out the door and spiking seven guys through without anyone noticing… That's pretty damn decent…"

The shamaness crossed her arms. "Need I remind you she is the enemy?"
Callisto rolled her eyes. "Doesn't mean I can't like the girl's style… She's got class… And she's my former protégé, remember? It's nice for the teacher to see the student picked up a few nice traits…"

Pompey snorted. "I doubt your association with her has anything to do with these particular traits…"
"Oh, you doubt that, do you?" Callisto rose back to her feet, looking down at the lieutenant. "Where do you think she picked up the idea to become a warrior? Surely not from Thalia or her rebel friends…" She walked down the few steps. "Who do you think taught her to wield a sword? She might have picked up a few fancy tricks in Chin, but the basics are still mine… I sowed the seeds for her hatred… And Xena made the perfect fertilizer…" A giggle. "Nice imagery there…"

"Well, I'm glad you're proud of your little student, Callisto," Alti muttered, reseating herself in the throne. "But that doesn't mean you should rejoice when she foils our plans once again."
"Hey, does it look like I'm rejoicing?" The blonde turned around, placing her hands on her hips. "Rejoicing tends to involve more woo's and hoo's and combinations of these two." She glanced at the shamaness. "But you wouldn't know that, I guess…"
Alti shot her a bored look.
"But, no, I'm not all misty eyed Gabby took off," Callisto continued on. "This just makes things more… Interesting." A wicked grin. "I like it when things get rough… Pose a bit of a challenge… Otherwise, what's the fun?"

"Killing Xena in whatever way counts as fun in my book," Pompey deadpanned.
"I agree with Pompey," Alti nodded. "As much as I hate to admit that…"
Callisto glanced from one to the other, then snorted. "The Pomster's just pissed off cause Gabby janked off his head."
Pompey narrowed her eyes at her. "I'm quite attached to my head, OK?"
Callisto smirked at him. "Not anymore…"
The lieutenant's hands clenched to fists. "Why I oughta…"

Alti rolled her eyes. "Pompey, leave her be. Go see if there's any news on Xena's whereabouts."
Pompey growled something incoherent, shooting another look at Callisto, before sinning around and stalking off.
"Callisto, take your guard here…" Alti waved at the unconscious man slumped on the floor. "…and deal with him."
"Deal with him?" Callisto raised an eyebrow at the shamaness. "I'm assuming you mean I should kill him, preferably in some entertaining way?"
Alti nodded absently, picking up a scroll and unrolling it, scanning over its contents. "Yes…"
"Well, then just say so, sweetheart. No need to use euphemisms around me…" Callisto drawled, then grabbed onto the soldiers hand and dragged him along behind her as she headed for the door. "C'mon, soldier boy… You and me are going to have some fun…"

Gabrielle glanced around the circle of people sitting at the kitchen table, her gaze finally settling on Thalia.
The redhead released a breath. "What do you want me to say, Gab? Aw, the poor little Empress, it's a good thing you brought her here?"
The warrior ran a hand through her hair. "Thal, I know you don't like this…"
"Damn straight, I don't…" The redhead growled, her eyes flashing dangerously.
"You had no right bringing her to our home," Fay joined in, her jaw set firmly. "You risked all our lives in doing that."
Gabrielle sighed. "What was I supposed to do, Fay?"
"You shouldda just left the monster to rot in that cell," the woman growled in response.

Dorian angrily slammed his fist on the table's surface. "I have had enough of you people spitting insults at my Empress!"
"They're not insults, they're just plain truths," Solari muttered.
Dorian's grey eyes turned to her, then he huffed out a breath. "You should talk… Traitor…"
The Amazon immediately jumped to her feet. "Traitor? I'll give you a traitor, you piece of… hey!" She shot an indignant look at Ephiny, who'd just yanked her back down into her seat.
"Quiet," The Amazon queen instructed, in a no-nonsense tone.
"But he just…"
"If you go at him, Gabrielle is going to step in and I'd rather keep you in one piece, OK?" Ephiny retorted, giving the brunette a meaningful look.
Solari gazed at her for another moment, but then admitted defeat, leaning back in her chair with a scowl.

Gabrielle shot the Amazon Queen a pathetically grateful look, then returned her attention to her friends across the table. "We can't beat Alti by ourselves. We need her."
Fay huffed out a breath. "I am not working with that… that beast."
The warrior released a breath. "She is not a beast."
"She's slaughtered people," Fay spat back. "I will not have a murderer living in my home!"

A short silence followed, then Gabrielle slowly pushed herself to her feet. "Well… I guess I'm leaving then…"
Fay frowned up at her. "What are you talking about."
The warrior placed her hands flat on the table's surface, leaning closer. "I've killed seventy two people, Fay, in the last year alone." She paused briefly, waiting for this news to settle in, for the eyes to widen in shock. "And the larger part of that group were soldiers whose heads I cut off just because they were associated with her. They were men and women with families. Young people who had a long life to look forward to and I took that from them. Just because they were wearing the wrong armour." Green eyes bore into those across from her. "So don't you tell me about slaughtering, cause I know all about it…"

Fay watched the young blonde quietly for a long moment. "But you're not like her." She then stated firmly.
Gabrielle straightened. "No, I'm not," she agreed. "But… I understand where she's coming from. Partly anyway." She released a breath. "I'm sorry I sprung this on you. You're right, I had no right to bring her here. But my options were very limited, we were carrying three grieving kids along and we were being hunted down by soldiers. I did what I felt I had to do."
Fay leaned back in her chair, folding her hands together. "I understand you didn't have much of a choice… But she can't stay here, Gabrielle… We've been fighting her for years now and…"

"We haven't been fighting her." Gabrielle cut her short. "We've been fighting against tyranny. And she is not the personification of that tyranny anymore, Fay. Alti is. Alti and Callisto and Pompey. They're our enemies now." She tossed up her hands, letting her eyes glance over the whole group. "So we can sit here in this kitchen arguing about what we've done and what she did… Or we can stop this pointless finger pointing and help the people we're supposed to be fighting for."

Silence fell and lasted for a long time, so long Gabrielle was just about to give up and walk off, then Ephiny spoke up. "If I set off tonight I could reach the Amazons by noon tomorrow."
Solari's head shut up, and she was just about to protest, but Ephiny lifted a hand, stilling her comments. "Alti came down to the cells a few times… To… interrogate prisoners… She's not a nice lady… If there's anything we can do to keep her from power, we have an obligation to do it."

Brown eyes gazed at her for another moment, then Solari dropped her head in resignation. "You know I'm not letting you take off alone."
Ephiny managed a half smile, reaching out a hand and stroking a dark lock away from the Amazon's face. "I was hoping you'd say that…"

"The Empress sent a scout to check on the status of the army," Dorian said, looking up at Gabrielle. "I'll let you know when he gets back…"
The warrior nodded, seating herself again. "When I was tied up in Alti's hideout, Pompey came in and he said something about…" She frowned in thought. "About Brutus taking care of the soldiers while they took care of Xena…"

"Brutus," Dorian growled softly, shaking his head. "I should have known…" He looked up, meeting Gabrielle's questioning gaze. "Both Romans… They fought together, against Caesar. Pompey was pivotal in the battle for Rome, he saved a lot of lives in that fight, including Brutus'… Acquired a pretty loyal following back then. When the Empress killed him to save you… there were a lot of people out there who didn't like that much…"
The warrior nodded in understanding. "How many do you think?"
Dorian considered this for a moment. "A fourth of the army was loyal to him. Not more loyal to him than Xena," he quickly corrected, "but with Xena killing him for you and him coming back from the dead… He could have won them over. Brutus might have been able to turn some friends as well…"

Gabrielle frowned. "Could they have overtaken the rest of her army with those odds?"
"A large part of the army was out roaming the forest, the peninsula, looking for Alti and Callisto. There was also a lot of extra security on the streets because of you…"
Gabrielle studied the table's surface quietly.
"The palace wasn't as heavily secured as it normally is. Brutus knew that, and I'm sure Pompey did as well…" Dorian said, leaning back in his seat. "Their timing was excellent."

The warrior considered all this new information for a moment. "This does mean the legions looking for Alti don't know anything about this yet, right?"
"I think so."
"We need to reach them…" Gabrielle instructed. "Before Alti does…"
The lieutenant nodded in agreement, then stood. "I know where they're stationed. I'll send some men out."
"Make sure these men are trustworthy," Gabrielle told him. "If one of them blurts our hideout to Alti I'll have his hide. And yours."
Dorian inclined his head. "Understood."

"And what do we do?" Fay cocked her head at the warrior.
Gabrielle met her eyes calmly. "If you want to, you can stay out of this. I'm sure Agenor can find you another place to stay when he gets back."
The woman looked back at her for a long moment, then she exhaled. "I'll have to talk to Aggie. But… But I know you only did what you thought was best and you've always had good instincts, so… You can count me in…"
A smile from the warrior. "Thank you."
"I'm not liking this though," Fay continued. "I'm not liking this at all. And I don't want her to come anywhere near me or mine. Got it?"
Gabrielle nodded.
"Good," Fay rose to her feet, dusting off her apron. "There's a small stable not far from here. Friend of Aggie's. We can send those soldiers there."

Ephiny pushed herself to her feet too, soon followed by Solari. "We should head off if we want to make it to Amazon land in time. I'll talk to the Centaurs and the Pomira for you, but I can't guarantee anything on their behalf."
"I know," Gabrielle smiled at her. "Thanks, Ephiny."
"Anything for my hero," the Amazon queen smirked, then circled the table and gave the woman a hug. "Hang in there, OK?"
"I will," the warrior assured her warmly, as they parted

Solari stepped up to her and reached out an arm, which she grasped. "I am… forever in your debt…." The Amazon said softly, meeting the green eyes.
Gabrielle smirked back at her. "You better believe it…"
Solari chuckled softly.

"Be careful," Thalia muttered, as she enfolded Ephiny in a hug as well.
"You too, " The Amazon replied. "Don't you go messing things up around here while we're gone, OK?"
The redhead smirked. "We'll try to cope without your infinite wisdom, oh great queen."
The Amazon chuckled, then backed away and turned, holding out a hand to Solari. "C'mon Sol… We're going home."
A smile spread onto the brunette's face, and she eagerly took the offered hand, then followed her queen out the door.

Gabrielle watched them go, then sat back down again, taking hold of her cup of water and draining the contents in three hasty gulps.
Thalia studied her for a moment, then squared her shoulders. "I'll send word to Mentius about what's going down."

Green eyes tracked up and met hers. "You've been very quiet."
Thalia sucked in a breath. "I had nothing to say."
The warrior dropped her head, placing the mug back on the table surface right in front of her, holding it cradled in both her hands. "Are you mad?"
The fingers tightened on the wooden mug slightly.
"I hate this." Thalia continued. "I hate having her near me. I hate I'll have to work with her. Look at her. Because she is the personification of my nightmares."
Gabrielle released a breath, lifting her eyes. "Thalia, I know it's hard…"
"No, you don't…" The redhead snapped back. "If you had any idea how hard this was for me you would have never brought her here." The woman's breath was coming in angry rasps now. "I'll do this. I'll play nice and work with her, because I have very little choice. But don't ever ask this of me again."

Gabrielle watched the redhead spin around and stride out of the door, letting it fall shut behind her. Then she released a tired breath, leaning her elbows on the table and hiding her face in her hands. She bit her lip, trying so hard to keep her emotions buried, but her physical and mental exhaustion wouldn't allow it and soon enough tears rolled down her palms.

She wiped at them angrily. "Not now…" She muttered softly to herself, then stood, collecting the mugs the others had left on the table and bringing them over to the sink, cleaning them thoroughly.

She extinguished the candles burning in the room before walking out the door herself, several soldiers looking up as she exited the kitchen. Her eyes flicked over the crowd, then finally settled on Iona, who had seated herself in a dark corner and was glowering at the soldiers.
Gabrielle took a breath, then headed towards her, reaching down a hand. "Come on…"
"On to where?" Iona asked, not taking the hand.
"Downstairs… To get some sleep."
Iona crossed her arms, pressing her hands against her body. "No."
"You need to sleep." The warrior argued.
"Xena's down there," Iona said. "I don't want to see her."

Gabrielle reached out and stroked a blonde lock off the girl's face. "Iona, she couldn't have done anything."
"She didn't even try!" The girl shot back, her eyes blazing. "At least you tried, you tore his head off… She did nothing! She just let daddy…" Her breathing caught and she dropped her eyes, staring at the ground under her feet for several long moments, trying to control her emotions.

Gabrielle looked at her in sympathy, then she placed her hand on the girl's shoulder, gently squeezing it. "There's another empty room downstairs… You can stay there… You don't have to see her yet if you don't want to, OK?"
Blue eyes peeked up at her hesitantly, then Iona managed a small nod, before getting to her feet.

The girl followed Gabrielle down the stairs, into the small corridor. "Here," Gabrielle opened a door, leading her inside. She sniffed the mouldy air. "It's a bit dusty… Hasn't been used in quite some time…
"'s Okay…" Iona murmured, walking into the room and finding a spot in the shadows, sitting down and leaning her back against the wall. "Thank you."
Gabrielle watched her quietly. "If you need anything, just call, OK?"
Iona nodded.

The warrior looked doubtful, but then decided it was best to leave the girl some time to herself, so she exited the room, softly closing the door behind her.

She considered her options for a moment, but then turned and pushed open the door across the corridor, walking inside quietly. A single candle was burning, illuminating the area around her desk and a part of her bed. Two children were sleeping there, tucked tightly under the blanket.
"I hope it's OK I put them in your bed…" A voice whispered and Gabrielle looked to her left to see Xena sitting against the wall, half hidden in the shadows. She had her knees pulled up and her arms wrapped around them, a posture not unlike the one Iona had assumed only moments ago.
"It's OK," Gabrielle confirmed, walking to the bedside and looking down at the two children.
"They fell asleep pretty soon," Xena said softly, staring ahead of her. "Niobe was out a little faster… She… She doesn't really understand, I think…"

Gabrielle peeked at the dark-haired woman over her shoulder, then she pushed the covers up around the two kids, before turning and taking a few paces to Xena's side. She sat down next to her quietly, pulling up her knees as well and crossing her arms over them. "She's lucky then…"

Xena turned her head, the soft candlelight tossing her face into shadows as she glanced at the woman seated beside her for a long silent moment. Gabrielle finally turned her head and met her gaze. "What?"
"You've been crying…" The Empress murmured softly.

Gabrielle dropped her eyes, leaning her back fully against the wall again. "I…" A breath. "My friends are… upset…"
"Because you brought me here?"
A nod.
Xena sighed. "I shouldn't have let you handle this alone after everything you've…"
Gabrielle lifted a hand to stop her. "You had to take care of them…" She indicated the kids. "Besides…" A wry smile. "I think your presence wouldn't have done the situation much good anyway…"
The Empress released a small breath. "Guess so…" She studied the warrior for another moment. "You want me to leave?"

Green eyes lifted and met hers for a long moment. "No," Gabrielle finally said, managing a small smile. "I uhm… I'll deal with them…" She dropped her head, staring at the floor. "I can deal with them…"

Xena gazed back at her, then she carefully reached out, touching the warrior's cheek with tentative fingertips. Gabrielle's head shot up, the warrior clearly surprised, but she didn't seem to be moving away from the touch though. Probably from shock, Xena reasoned, stroking a grain of salt from a dried up tear off the warrior's cheek. "I'm sorry." She told the blonde softly.
Gabrielle blinked back at her. "For what?"
"For letting you go through all this on my account… After everything you did today…"
"I just did what I felt was right…" The warrior countered softly.
Xena smiled. "Ah… That doing what's right thing again, huh?"

The warrior managed a small smile as well, looking back up at the Empress. Oddly enough, Xena's was the only friendly face around right now. It felt good, not to argue for a moment, or to apologise, have hateful gazes weighing down on you… To just look into those understanding blue eyes and…

She suddenly realised she was staring and hastily diverted her gaze. Xena's fingers dropped away from her cheek at the same moment.

They both faced forward again, staring at the opposite wall, watching the tiny flecks of light from the crystal hanging on her ceiling sway across the surface. Silence lasted for a long moment, then Gabrielle cleared her throat a little. "I uhm… I 'm sorry about what happened to Pyrron."
Xena swallowed, nodding softly. "It was hardly your fault…"
A breath, as Gabrielle tipped her head back against the wall. "I let myself get caught…" She shook her head at herself. "So stupid…"

"Pyrron did what he's always done…" Xena murmured. "He defended the people he cared about. He… he lost his leg saving me… He never once regretted that, he told me… And… And I don't think he's regretting what he did today either…" A shaky breath. "I hope he's at peace now…"
"I'm sure he is…" Gabrielle said softly, glancing at the dark profile outlined in the candlelight. "At least he knows he's got the right person looking after his children…"

Xena rolled her eyes. "Oh yeah, I'm perfect for the job," she muttered sarcastically. "My own daughter won't even talk to me…"
Gabrielle looked at the woman sympathetically. "Just give her time."
Xena released a shaky breath. "She hates me…"
The warrior shook her head. "No… No, she doesn't mean that…"
A soft snort. "Yes, she does…" Pale blue eyes lifted. "I did…" She faced forward again. "When I lost my brother… I hated everything around me. Everything. And when my mother died I burned down an entire village, Gabrielle. My home village." A sarcastic smirk as she looked up at the warrior. "And I'm just a plain mortal. Just imagine what she could do…"

Gabrielle managed a small smile. "You're many things, but a plain mortal is not one of them."
Xena gazed at her a moment longer, then she dropped her head again.
"Just let her grieve," the warrior whispered softly.
The Empress released a grave breath, but then nodded in resignation. "I'll try."
Gabrielle smiled wryly at the profile, then faced forward again.

Silence lasted for another moment, Xena quietly gazing up at the ceiling, as if in a trance. "I had a crystal like that in my room when I was young," she finally said.
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at her. "Did you?"
Xena nodded softly. "My father gave it to me. It was… It was the last thing he gave me… A few days later he was gone… Left without saying goodbye…" Blue eyes followed a spot of light as it swayed gently from left to right. "Every time I stared at it before I went to sleep, I'd dream about him coming home…" A small self deprecatory smile. "I started to think there were dreams inside… All about him…"
Gabrielle gazed up at her, intrigued now.
"Then bad stuff started to happen and… My brother died and… and everyone got so mad at me… And I ran to my room and looked at it until I fell asleep, but…" A small shrug. "There were only nightmares…" A breath. "I ripped the crystal off the wall and shattered it to bits… Haven't had a dream since…"

A moment, then she looked down at Gabrielle apologetically. "Sorry… Didn't mean to go all flashbacky on ya… I uhm… I'm sure you just wanna get some sleep…"
The warrior shook her head softly. "I'm not that tired…"
Xena gazed back at her. "Well… In that case…" She reached behind her, then held up the chakram she'd placed on the warrior's saddlebags. "Feel like telling me a story?"

Continued in Part X

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