Disclaimer: Helas, not mine.

Violence: Heck, yeah . Xena will be a bit less ruthless I'm afraid, but she's still the Conqueror, so I expect heads to be flying from time to time.

Subtext: No. Maintext: yes, definitely. My main characters are very much involved. If this bugs ya: shoo.

Darkness: I don't know exactly how this story's gonna turn out, I've only got small bits of pieces in my head right now. But those bits and pieces are looking pretty dreary, so I think this story will have a high darkness level. I'm sure it won't be all gloom and doom, with the little peripherals around, but Xena and Gab aren't gonna be skipping through a field picking flowers for 200 pages either, if ya catch my drift.

Author's note: OK, so this is it, the sequel to The Edge of Nowhere. I have to be honest and say I have my doubts about starting this little tale here. I'm not a very good sequel writer, I tend to put everything I've got into part number one, leaving very little to be dealt with in a possible number two. But I really loved writing these characters, so I figured I'd just give this a go and see where we end up. Okay? ... All right then, let’s get this thing started.

Path of Thorns

by AnneM

A flash lit up the barren land, reflecting against reddish rock walls. The cloud of dark blue that had appeared simultaneously slowly evaporated, revealing a well-built, leather clad god, whose dark brown eyes instantly swept over his new surroundings. He stood on a plateau, elevated high above sea level. Nothing grew there, not even a stalk of grass. The stone beneath his feet was a deep, smoldering red. An angry red.

There was only the sound of water gurgling far away and a soft, distant growling. The area was deserted, except for a single, solitary figure, standing at the edge of a crevice, staring down into its depth.

Ares felt a grin tug at his lips at the sight and he immediately headed towards where the woman was standing. He stepped up beside her, glancing down himself. The abyss was deep, and he could barely see the river flowing at the bottom of it. He glanced up at the woman next to him, then gazed back down into the crevice. "He's in there?"
Xena simply nodded.

"Heh," the god of war rubbed his hands delightedly. "That musta hurt him." He enthusiastically smacked Xena on the back. "See? I told you. Not even he can stand up to a lean mean conquering machine like you and me, Xena."
"You and me?" Xena half turned to face him, revealing a black eye and an ugly looking gash on her arm. She was leaning on her sword, to keep the weight off of her deformed knee, which was clearly dislocated. Blood was seeping from a tear in her leathers. "You and me?!" She slammed her fist against his cheek before he could even try to defend himself, sending him staggering back a few paces. "He nearly killed me! Where the Hades were you?!"
"Well, you see..." Ares eyes flicked about restlessly. "This thing came up, and I couldn't possibly..."

"Oh, shut up!" Blue eyes pinned him down with an almost lethal intensity. "You copped out, Ares. You were afraid to die, so you left me to take care of your little problem single-handedly. Don't give me any of your crappy excuses. I know better."
Ares blinked at her a few times, then cleared his throat uncomfortably. "All right... I left you hanging. I'm sorry, okay?"
"Sorry don't cut it."

Ares produced one of his charming smiles. "Oh, come on, baby." He took a sly step closer. "I know this was tough on ya, but just look..." He waved a hand at their surroundings, at the land spreading out below them. "Nothing is standing in our way now. Persia is ours for the taking." He reached out, stroking her cheek with the back of his fingers. "Tomorrow we'll start setting up our plans, and in a few days time, we'll... Argh!" Ares gasped as fingers closed around his throat, lifting him straight off his feet.

"We..." Xena stressed the word as she looked up at him. "...won't do anything." She shoved him away from her, watching as he fell back unceremoniously. Ares hastily pushed himself back up until he was leaning on his hands, looking up at her doubtfully. "We're through, Ares," Xena stated, towering over him. "You are absolutely useless to me." With that she limped past him, starting on her trip back down the plateau. "I'm taking Persia on my own."

"Bu... Xe..." Ares stuttered, clambering back to his feet. Xena didn't bother to turn around. Several more words formed and died on the war god's lips, then he just tossed up his hand angrily. "Fine! Be that way!" He pointed a finger at her back. "You'll be crawling back to me in no time, Xena! You need me!"
A humoured snort was his response.

Ares huffed out an angry breath. "Ungrateful bitch," Ares growled under his breath. "You give her an empire and what do you get?" He glanced at the crevice, then took a few steps closer, so he was peering into the deep again. A small grin tugged at his lips. "Well... I guess it got you down there, didn't it, Flameball?"

A muted roar rolled its way up the steep cliffs, making the ground under his feet tremble slightly. "Is that all you got now?" Ares laughed. "I told you not to mess with me, Fireboy. But you didn't listen, did ya?"
Another roar, this one more filled with hatred than the previous one.
The war god snorted, then leaned a fraction closer, grinning devilishly. "You were the one god more powerful than I. And now that you're out of the way..." He closed his eyes, reveling in the moment. "Oh, the possibilities." Then he opened his eyes again, glancing down. "But first..." A smirk. "Time for you to cool down."

He lifted his hands to the sky, his eyes darkening as he tapped into his powers. A cloud formed overhead, pitch black, and he watched as it slowly grew and grew, until it had darkened the entire world around him. Then, with a sudden motion, he threw the cloud down into the crevice, further and further, until it impacted with the river running below.

Ares relaxed, and waited until the cloud had dissipated entirely, revealing the river again. Only this time it was frozen solid.

Ares placed his hands on his hips, judging his handiwork contentedly. "You lose, Smokey. I win." A chuckle. "This ice will keep you locked down there until I die, and since I'm pretty immortal that'll be... oh..." A smirk. "Never."

15 years later

A small drop of water managed to loosen itself from the tip of an icicle it had been part of. It slid down the ice, growing, then transferred itself onto rock. It increased its pace, rushing down the steep cliff wall, until it finally rolled over a small extending bit of rock and was launched into the air. A soft thud sounded as it hit the ice below.

And as it did, a shadow stirred beneath the surface. Another thud followed, and another and the shadow shifted again, more restlessly now.

Puddles of water were forming on the ice, as the layer covering the river itself was now also melting away. A drop plunged into the water, and another, and another, until...

With a deafening crack the ice shattered, as a flame burst up into the sky.

It was the tiniest of sounds that woke Xena up. The Empress repressed the urge to open her eyes and look, and only listened. Silence lasted for several moments, then there was another small rustle, the sounds of feet moving over the carpet. They came closer and closer until…

"Don't even think about it."
Iona paused in mid-motion, just ready to make a jump for the bed. Xena slowly rolled over and shot her a charming smile. "Close," she drawled, popping her head up on her arm while reaching out with the other and tweaking her attacker's nose. "But not close enough."
"Ugh," Iona waved the Empress's hand away, then rubbed her nose. "Mom!"
"Heh," Xena chortled, reached out again and now ticking the girl's side. "That'll teach you to mess with the Queen."
"Aah!" Iona hopped out of the way of the wiggling fingers, then, deciding offence was the best defense, she jumped forward, landing squarely on top of her mother.
"Oef!" Xena felt the air being pushed out of her, then she inhaled sharply as Iona started tickling her. "Ugh." She caught the twelve-year old around the waist and pulled her off her body, intent on reversing their roles. "Oh, you're gonna pay for that, you little brat."

Gabrielle leaned on the doorway quietly, watching the scene with a smile on her face. A month had passed since the whole crucifixion incident, and the blond dye had now fully grown out of Iona's hair, revealing her pitch-black coupe. She now looked so much like her mother, it was scary.

The warrior couldn't repress a small chuckle as Iona nearly toppled out of the bed and Xena took advantage of this by grabbing onto one of her daughter's feet, tickling it mercilessly, making the girl squirm in an attempt to reach her mother from her uncomfortable position.

The chuckle was nearly soundless, but not soundless enough. Xena's head immediately snapped to the door. Gabrielle smiled. The Empress quickly let go of her burden, sitting up a bit and ruffling a hand through her disheveled locks in a hasty attempt to order them. "Hi."
"Hi," the warrior drawled in response. "You're not tiring yourself out, are you? Defeating you at sparring gets so easy after your daughter's beaten you up."
"Beaten me up?" Xena snorted. "Like she could even get within an inch o…Uhmph!" Her voice was muted as a pillow slammed straight into her face.

"You were saying?" Iona drawled in triumph, then hastily hopped out of the way as hands reached blindly for her. She crawled off the bed and skipped over to Gabrielle cheerfully. "See, I told you it'd work!"
"Heh," Gabrielle shared a high-five with the teenager. "Next time you be the decoy though, ‘kay?"
"Defo…?" Xena shoved the pillow out of her face. "Decoy?!" The blue eyes narrowed dangerously at the twosome.

"Would ya look at the time?" Iona backed up a pace. "I suddenly remembered I have lots of homework to do." She turned and hastily slipped out the door. "Bye!"
"Why, you little…" Xena raised her voice. "You'll regret that little stunt, missy!"

Gabrielle chuckled.
"Ow, you think it's funny, do you?" The Empress crossed her arms, glaring at the blonde.
"Yes," the warrior confirmed cheerfully, before pushing off the doorpost and lazily strolling into the room.
"Ugh," Xena rubbed a hand over her face, which still stung from its impact with the pillow. "My all-powerful advisor teaming up with my vindictive offspring. I'm not sure I can forgive this so easily."
Gabrielle smiled as she sat down on the edge of the bed. "You're not, huh?" She reached out a hand and twirled a lock of dark hair around a finger.
Blue eyes peeked sideways, at the warrior's hand, then hesitantly looked at Gabrielle. The warrior's smile grew a fraction, then she leaned closer, slowly, and gently pressed her lips against Xena's.

The kiss lasted for several moments. When Gabrielle backed away a little, she found Xena had closed her eyes. The Empress remained still for a while longer, caught in the moment, then finally her eyes fluttered open again. "You uhm…" she cleared her throat self-consciously, trying to suppress the blush she could feel creeping up her cheeks. "You're forgiven."

The blonde grinned wickedly. "Thanks." She gave the lock of hair, which was still entwined with her fingers a playful tug, then rose to her feet. "See you at the arena?"
"Hmm," the Empress just murmured.
"All right then," Gabrielle headed for the door, trying to repress a smirk.

Blue eyes followed her until she disappeared out the door, then Xena released a happy little sigh. She pulled her pillow closer, wrapping both her arms around it and resting her head on top, continuing to stare at the now empty doorframe.

After a while of pointless staring, Xena laughed a little at herself, hiding her face in the soft fluffy surface. "You are going insane," she mumbled into her pillow. "Lying here, staring at doors. You're losing your mind, Xena." She pushed herself up on her elbows. "See, you're already talking to yourself now." She rolled onto her back, then pushed herself up, neatly hopping onto her feet. "Absolutely nuts."

She headed for her closet, shedding her sleep shirt as she walked. She pulled open the double doors and let her eyes slide over her options, finally settling on an old, ripped crimson shirt and a pair of leather pants. The leather because it'd better protect her against the vicious blows she was bound to receive, and the shirt ‘cause… A grin. Well, because Gabrielle had said it looked good on her.

To say her life had changed was an absolute understatement. It was like… Well, like that idea of Plato's, where he'd claimed that, in this life, people were merely viewers of shadows dancing on walls. They believe they see the world as it is, but in fact the real world is lying right behind them and all they have to do is turn around to see it.

She'd been turned around. By Pyrron's death, by Iona, by Gabrielle… They'd all nudged her chair a bit, and now she was staring into this whole new reality. And it'd left her… thrilled. And curious. But also confused and, if she was honest with herself, just a tad scared.

In the last month she'd had to define who she was all over again. Before she'd been a ruler. The ruler. She'd been a fighter, and an occasional playmate. That had been about it.

Now, she was suddenly a mother. Officially to one troublesome teenager. But factually to one troublesome teenager, a smart but pained little boy and a bouncing, inquisitive toddler. Raising children, she'd found, was much harder than running a country. Officials tended to back down after a few threats and narrow-eyed looks. Kids didn't. Or, at least, these kids didn't.

Of course it didn't help much that the troublesome teenager was also half god, and had newly discovered powers to test, preferably on her siblings. Xena rolled her eyes as she straightened her outfit a bit, checking her reflection in the mirror.

And then of course there was her relationship with Gabrielle. Her completely insane, all logic defying and utterly confusing relationship with Gabrielle.

In all honesty, she'd never really expected the two of them to last. After she'd woken up, the morning after the crucifixion, she'd very purposefully backed off a little, afraid the steps they'd taken were merely the result of a near-death experience and other extreme circumstances. She wanted to give the warrior the opportunity to ignore everything that had happened between them.

But Gabrielle hadn't.

It had been around noon when she'd finished writing her report of the past few days. She wanted to send an official statement out through the empire, to attempt to suppress at least some of the gossip that was bound to show its ugly head throughout the nation after yesterday's events.

Yesterday… Xena rested her head on a fist warily, gazing at the opposite wall. Gods, she wished it was still yesterday. She'd happily bear the pain of nails being driven through flesh if it meant reliving those few sweet moments at the end of the day.

The Empress released a heavy breath. Yesterday was done with though, the dream was over, and she had to face up to reality. What had happened between them had been a spur of the moment thing, surely. Gabrielle couldn't possibly really be interested in her, right? Gabrielle was beautiful, and sweet and kind and… and she wasn't. And all Gabrielle's friends hated her. It would never work.

Benitor, her oldest and most loyal servant and a good friend of Gabrielle's, had stopped by earlier with a snack. It turned out the blonde had sent him, to relay a message that they needed to talk. Xena had waved him off with some vague consent, but she hadn't gone back to meet with the warrior. She could guess what Gabrielle would say, but… she couldn't deal with it actually being said out loud right now. She just couldn't.

Xena's head shot up suddenly as she heard a fast pattering of little feet, followed by some scratching against the door. Moments later the door opened and Niobe almost tumbled in, having only just managed to reach the doorknob. "Sena!" The child looked alarmed.
"What is it?" The Empress immediately rose to her feet and circled the desk.
"Isse Abby," the toddler stated, pointing back out the door. "Abby no good. Godda cum fix!"

Xena hadn't even waited for the girl to finish her warbling. She'd already rushed out the door, running down the corridor and into the main hall. Down another corridor and up a set of stairs, until she screeched to a halt near the guest room Gabrielle was staying at, grabbing onto the doorpost and swirling into the room.

She stopped then, breathing heavily, staring at Gabrielle, who was sitting up in her bed, supported by pillows, her hands folded in her lap, waiting patiently. "Wh..?"
"Sit down," the warrior stated quietly, waving a hand at a free spot on the bed, beside her.
"B…" Xena straightened a bit, trying to catch her breath. "You're okay?"
"No." Gabrielle crossed her arms. "I'm beaten and bruised and I spent the whole morning worrying what I'd done to make you want to avoid me."
Xena blinked at her, wordlessly.
"So just tell me." Green eyes gazed at her. "What did I do wrong?"
"Nothing," the Empress blurted, before she could stop herself. "You didn't…" She dropped her head. "I just thought…"
"Don't think," the warrior interrupted her sternly. "You suck at it."

Wide blue eyes shot up and blinked at her.
Gabrielle managed to keep a stern look on her face for a few more moments, then a reluctant smile edged its way through. "Come here." She reached out her hand, expecting Xena to come over and take it.
The Empress hesitated a few moments, but when Gabrielle crooked a finger at her impatiently she did walk closer, circling the bed and sitting down next to the warrior. Still, she kept a respectable distance between them, looking down at her fingers as she rubbed the skin there nervously.

She sat like that for a moment, then a hand blocked her vision, covering both her hands and squeezing gently. Xena tilted her head back a bit, peeking at the woman next to her.
"I know it's complicated," Gabrielle said softly. "This. Us. But… I think it could work. I'm willing to take a risk, and see if it can. ‘Cause I think it'll be worth it. If you don't…"
"I do," the Empress cut her off before she could go on. "I'm just…" A wry grin. "I'm just horribly insecure." A pause. "And afraid."

Gabrielle smiled a little. "This whole thing isn't doing your image a lot of good, is it?"
This actually got a small laugh out of the other woman. "I think my image is officially shattered." She sobered again. "What's left is.. is just me. I'm not sure you'll like me."
"Neither am I," the warrior answered honestly, before gently squeezing Xena's hand. "But you gotta let me find out, okay? And not just run off."
Xena folded her fingers a bit tighter around Gabrielle's in response. "Okay."

The blonde looked at her for a few moments more, then let herself fall sideways a bit, coming to lean against the Empress, resting her head on Xena's shoulder.
Xena smiled, lifting her hand and carefully wrapping it around the woman's shoulders. "I'm sorry."
"Just don't do it again," Gabrielle mumbled in response.
The Empress chuckled, impulsively kissing the warrior's temple. "Deal."

"Good!" Niobe toddled in, having waited at the door, in an uncharacteristic bout of patience. "Abby an Sena fends gain. Yay!"

The two women shared an amused look, then Xena focused on the child. "Come here, short stuff." The toddler obediently waggled over, giggling as Xena lifted her up and placed her on her lap.
Xena ruffled the dark brown hair. "You tricked me."
"Yes," Niobe admitted easily.
The Empress chuckled, then hugged the toddler a little closer. "Thanks."
The child giggled. "Yous welcome."

Xena finished her morning chores and headed out the door, in the direction of the arena. Since then they'd tried to work at their relationship, but it was hard. Not just because of the oddness of it all, but also because of all the work they'd had to deal with. In the last weeks, they'd only managed to spend a couple of evenings together. And they had their early sparring sessions of course. Xena smiled as she stepped outside, sniffing in a fresh breath filled with morning dew and arena sand. She felt up for it this morning. She flexed her muscles expectantly. This morning, she was gonna win.

"Urgh!" Xena stumbled a few paces back after the wooden end of a spear had been shoved into her abdomen.
Gabrielle twirled her weapon around expertly, allowing Xena the time to recover. "I thought you said you were gonna beat me this time, Empress?"
"I am," the Empress wiped the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. "I'm just… ya know, giving you a chance to get into the swing of things." She pushed her own spear forward, watching Gabrielle block it easily. "So you won't feel too bad when you lose."
The warrior laughed, as she swept the sharp edge of Xena's weapon aside. "Oh, you don't wanna hurt my delicate feelings, do you?"
"Exactly," Xena said, before only barely being able to duck under a spear point. "You get so moody when you lose."
A snort. "And you would know this exactly how?" Gabrielle jumped over a poke at her legs, pulling herself into a flip and landing behind Xena, leaning a bit closer to whisper in her ear. "I haven't lost to you yet."

Xena swirled around, and Gabrielle hopped back to avoid her weapon from hitting her. "I have nearly won several times," the Empress told her with narrowed eyes, as she lunged into a series of attacks.
"The keyword there is 'nearly'," Gabrielle smirked and she took another step back, ending up against the wall of the arena. She quickly glanced behind her, seeming surprised.
"Heh," Xena chortled, bringing up her spear and holding it inches from her victim's throat. "Give up?"

Gabrielle frowned, seeming to consider this for a moment. Then she grinned. "No." In a flash she grabbed onto the spear tip, allowing herself to drop down, placing a boot against Xena's stomach and pulling her attacker right over her.
"Whoa!" Shocked by the sudden move, Xena let go of her weapon, lifting her hands in front of her to keep her head from impacting with the wall.

Gabrielle rolled away, then stood and turned, a spear in each hand. "Oh, Xena?"
The Empress quickly scrambled back to her feet and turned, then her eyes widened as Gabrielle launched both weapons forward simultaneously.

She tried to duck, but it was already too late. The spear points caught hold of her sleeves and then embedded themselves in the wall, pinning her against the stone very effectively.

Laughter rose up from the stands, the spectators that tended to show up, thoroughly enjoying the spectacle. Gabrielle leisurely strolled forward, leaning against the wall next to the Empress, who was trying to grab hold of the spears to free her arms, but they were just out of her reach. "Give up?"

Xena turned her head, shooting the warrior a foul look, but Gabrielle only smiled sweetly in response. The dark-haired woman rolled her eyes, but then gave in. "Fine, fine… You win… again." With one hard tug she ripped her shirt free, leaving two small pieces of crimson fabric stuck against the wall. "You're lucky this is an old shirt."
"You could have just waited for me to pull the spears free," the warrior pointed out, as they started off back towards the palace.
"That's too much for my battered ego to handle," Xena muttered, drawing another laugh from the blonde.

"You shouldn't have let me win so much the week before last."
"Yeah right," Xena rolled her eyes. "You had just recovered from a gigantic gash in your stomach. And I was just supposed to beat you to a pulp, was I?"

"Who says you would have been able to?" Xena darted her a look. Gabrielle grinned. "Okay, you probably could have." She bumped the other women with a shoulder. "It was sweet of you not to."
"Don't insult me," Xena muttered, attempting to remain grumpy, but she couldn't help a small smile from poking through her façade. "Are you gonna join us for dinner tonight?"
"I hope so." A sigh. "I've got some tough issues to go through with the council today though."
Xena shook her head. "You've been at this the entire week already. How many tough issues are there?"
"A lot," the warrior answered wryly. "There are many things they don't agree with."
A dark eyebrow rose. "They?"
"We," Gabrielle corrected herself. "I meant 'we'."

Xena darted her companion a curious look. "Do you want me to come in around lunchtime with some major crisis and give you an excuse to leave."
"Tempting," the blonde tilted her head back and looked up at the Empress. "But no. We just… we gotta work through all this to get the council functioning properly."
A wry smile. "Democracy isn't as easy as you thought, is it?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I won't deny dictatorship is less complicated. But that doesn't mean it's better."

"Maybe," Xena allowed, stopping as they entered the palace's hall. "Try to make it to dinner though, okay? I'll get the cook to prepare your favorite food. And arrange for the biggest dessert you've ever seen."
The warrior chuckled. "You do know what to win me over with, don't ya?"
Xena smiled back. "Well, I try."
"I'll do my best then," the warrior promised, reaching out and rubbing the Empress's arm. "Good luck today."
"You too," Xena squeezed the blonde's hand gently, before they both turned and strode into opposite directions.

A tiny ladybug crawled from his thumb to his index finger. The boy laughed, kicking with his feet in the air as he lay in the grass on his stomach. The bug crawled on, down the length of his finger and onto his palm, its tiny feet tracing his lifeline. The child cocked his head, bringing his eyes as close as he could to the object of his fascination.

When the insect reached the end of his lifeline and headed forward to his wrist, a flurry of motion behind the bug caught his attention. The boy straightened up, then frowned as he saw a flame dancing at the base of a tree. There were dry twigs all around it, but for some reason the fire didn't spread, but remained a solitary flame.

The boy placed the ladybug back in his palm and closed his hand around it in protection, before scrambling to his feet. Carefully, he took a step towards the flame. It remained where it was, gently dancing in the wind.

The boy took another step closer, and another, then started to reach out his hand to touch the strange apparition, when suddenly the flame seemed to come alive. It shot forward, and before the boy could duck it impacted with his chest, penetrating the skin without leaving so much as a mark. The boy fell back from the force and thudded to the ground.

For a while he lay silent, staring up wide-eyed at the sky. A single white cloud slid past, slowly drifting towards the sun, intent on blocking its rays.

"Firouz!" A voice called out. "Firou… Ah, there you are." A girl, slightly older, slid to a halt by his side. "What are you doing lying on the ground?"
"I…" Firouz cleared his throat, which for a moment had sounded deep and raspy. "Nothing."
"Whatever…" The girl shrugged, used to the boy's odd behavior. He had always been a dreamer. "Me and the others are playing hide and seek. Do you want to come play?"
A grin tugged at the boy’s lips. "I'd love to."
"Okay, come on…" The girl ran off again, expecting Farouz to follow her.

The boy slowly pushed himself to his feet and turned, his gaze following the girl as she ran towards the forest a little way off. Without looking away, he tightened his hand into a fist, then opened it again, letting the dead ladybug fall to the ground, before he moved towards the forest himself.  

"This is unacceptable."
Gabrielle repressed the urge to expel an aggravated sigh. "It is not unacceptable, Mentius."
"Yes, it is!" The former leader of the rebel fraction pounded his fist on the table. "We're trying to turn this country into a democracy. If we can't be expecting any elections in the next two years at least, then what's our democracy worth?"

Gabrielle lifted a hand and rubbed at her eyes. They'd been at this non-stop for the last six hours and she'd very much had it with this discussion. Though the council consisted of only seven members, including herself, there had not been one issue so far that they'd all agreed on. Xena had urged her to keep the number small, and she was glad she'd agreed to that, knowing now any more members would have made the situation outright catastrophic… if it wasn't that already.

"I have to agree with Mentius," Thalia leaned back in her seat. "I understand what you're saying, Gab, I really do, but think about what democracy stands for. The rule of the people. As long as there are no elections, there is no democracy."
"But…" An older man, with only a few dark-gray hairs left on his scalp spoke up hesitantly. "But change brings chaos. Things have finally calmed down in the last few years." His brown hazel eyes slid apologetically past the resistance leaders. "We will be the first to suffer then, with the looting and all. My store hasn't been robbed in years. Not since the Empress settled here."
Gabrielle shot the shopkeeper a grateful smile. "Exactly, Theron."
"I don't even wanna think about the scum I'll have to deal with again," Alyssa, a young barmaid, crossed her arms. "Troublemakers always come to the inns. And I'll be cleaning up the mess after they've left."

Gabrielle waved a hand at Mentius. "If it was just Athens, I'd agree with you. But this is a huge country. You can't just turn it upside down and expect things to work out."
"I don't expect them to 'just' work out," Mentius countered. "I'm not an idiot."
"Really?" Another young man chuckled, as he brushed his hand through his greasy dark hair. "Could have fooled me."
Thalia rolled her eyes. "I know you don't like the fact that we're here, Odell, but deal with it, okay?"
"You thieves robbed me of my cargo," Odell shot back, his eyes narrowing dangerously. "Twice! Do you really expect me to just sit down at this table with you… rebels?" he said the word as if it left a vile taste in his mouth.
Mentius started to rise, pointing a finger at the merchant. "Listen, you son of a…"

"Enough!" Gabrielle grabbed onto the rebel's arm and shoved him back in his seat. "Who is here and how we all feel about that is not under discussion!" She pointed a finger at Odell. "What do you think about elections?"
Odell carelessly tossed up his hands, leaning back in his seat and popping his feet up on the table. "Elections are fine by me." A smirk. "Weapon trade will go up. I'm all for that."
The warrior shot a look skyward, but managed to refrain from commenting, simply turning her head to the last board member. "Megan?"

An older woman folded her hands, resting her cheek on top as she pondered over the question. "I see Gabrielle's point. I do not think we should force a democracy upon the people now."
"Thank you," the blonde nodded and wanted to move on to the next issue on the agenda.
"However," Megan went on, pensively. "We should encourage it to flourish."
"It's not a flower, schoolteacher," Odell drawled.
Megan spared a look for the merchant, then refocused her attention on the head of the council. "We cannot do nothing for two years and hope by then, elections will have suddenly become a possibility."
"I know that," Gabrielle nodded. "We can start off with little things, like just listening to what we hear on the streets, or maybe small polls or something. All I'm saying is that it's way too soon to be thinking about elections for a new head of state."

Odell snorted softly. "And your position on this issue wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that the current head of state is your girlfriend, right?"
"Hey!" Thalia rose from her seat instantly, looming over the merchant. "Shut it, grease boy."
"Why?" Odell tilted his head back and looked up at her, not intimidated. "Please don't tell me you weren't just thinking the exact same thing."
"I was not!" The redhead pointed a finger at him. "Gabrielle can…"

"…handle her own battles, thank you." When Thalia looked back over her shoulder, the warrior motioned her to sit down. The redhead looked dismayed, but after a moment she obeyed. Gabrielle managed a small smile for her, before turning her attention to the merchant slouched in the chair across from her. "You know I don't agree with Xena's methods. I was a member of the resistance."
Odell let out a short sarcastic laugh. "Oh yeah, that argument will get me right on your side."
Gabrielle did her best to ignore his comment. "I don't like what she did, but the fact is, she is now leading a stable, wealthy nation."
"Through tyranny and oppression." Mentius dropped in.
The warrior shot him a look. "I just said I don't like what she did."
"Shut it!" Thalia hissed at him under her breath.
"Did." Gabrielle crossed her arms. "She is trying to change, Mentius."
"Change, right. That's why she won't have elections for another two years, right? Because she wants to change so bad."

Gabrielle was just about to open her mouth and yell at him, but somehow managed to stop herself. She lifted both her hands and pressed them against her face for a moment, attempting to push back the wave of anger. Finally, releasing a heavy breath, she looked up again. "I think we're gonna have a short break now."
Odell smirked. "Wanna avoid the conversation, do you?"
"I want to avoid…" Another calming breath. "I want to avoid us fighting over an issue which is not part of our agenda." She glanced across the room. "Lets all be back here in half an hour."

Nods followed. Gabrielle rose to her feet as the first people started to file out of the room, and headed for the large window behind her. She leaned her arms on the windowsill and stared past the leaves of a large tree, growing right up against the wall. The city of Athens lay below her, and she could just see tiny shadows swirling through the crowded streets.

A few moments later, Thalia stepped up next to her, taking on a similar position. "He's such a jerk."
The redhead rolled her eyes. "Him too."
Gabrielle managed a tiny smile at this. "You know, I just called for this break to avoid my pushing his head into his skeleton until his lungs popped out on the other end."
Thalia chuckled softly. "I figured as much." A pause, in which they both stared out in front of them pensively. "I'll talk to Mentius." Thalia finally broke the silence. "He shouldn't be saying stuff like that."
"No, he should," Gabrielle bent her head. "He represents the younger generation of the rebellion. He has to voice what they feel."
"That's not what they feel."
"Yes, it is." The warrior turned her head and looked at her friend. "Come on, Thal. I've heard the whispering. I'm not deaf."

Blue eyes blinked at her. "I…" The redhead expelled a breath, shaking her head. "I'm sorry you heard that."
Gabrielle gazed at her friend for a few moments, then faced forward again, continuing her staring out the window. "They feel… I'm in league with the enemy." A shrug. "I would too, I guess. And they want an explanation. But I can't give 'em one." A small smile. "I don't even get it myself most of the time."

Thalia studied her for a while, then shook her head a bit. "This whole thing is so weird."
The blonde next to her chuckled softly. "Yeah."
Her friend amicably wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her a bit closer. "Fortunately, we both rule at handling the weird, huh?"
"Fortunately we do." Gabrielle half turned and fully returned the hug, comforted a bit by her friend's presence and distracting banter.
Thalia smiled, patting her friend on the back. "Gab?"
"I heard what you said, about Mentius and Odell having to express the opinions of their fellow morons…"
A muffled snort sounded from the blonde.
"But would it be okay if I beat them up anyway?" Thalia leaned back a bit and looked at her friend pleadingly. "Just for fun?"  

Xena lifted the glass standing next to her and took a sip of her water, while turning over a page of the latest report that had reached her from Britannia. It was a letter from her regent there, informing her security had been doubled and the situation was under control.

Two weeks ago she'd had word of a small anti-empire clan becoming more active in the northern highlands. Word of the events in Athens had spread like a tidal wave through all the provinces and reactions had been diverse. Areas like Chin and Egypt had remained calm, which was to be expected. They had never been countries of war, but were nations of diplomacy. She'd led some skirmishes on their soil, but had never waged huge battles, winning over most of the landowners by trade and negotiations. Cleopatra had even surrendered to her, though the Pharaoh herself preferred to refer to the document they'd signed as an affirmation of mutual understanding.

Gaul, the Norse Lands and Britannia however had been a bit restless. She'd anticipated that, really. She'd always been aware of potential troublemakers hiding away in the far north. The people living there had proven more troublesome to keep in check, because of their roughish nature and unwillingness to succumb to any type of law.

So she'd sent out orders, telling the regents to be on the lookout and to inform them that any unrest in their regions would not only cost them their jobs, but their heads as well. She'd received their reply within the week, hastily informing her security had been five-folded. The Empress brushed her nails on her shirt with a smirk. She might have agreed to some democratic reforms, but she was still the one wielding both the power and one big ass bloody sword and her regents knew it.

Xena pulled over a clean sheet of parchment and dipped her quill in the ink jar balancing on her desktop. She quickly scribbled a short note complimenting the man on his performance, then she cast a glance outside, noting the sun had passed its zenith a little while back. She blew on the ink, folded the parchment and closed the note by dribbling some hot red wax on top and pressing her seal ring into it. Tossing the letter onto a pile of other external mail she rose and headed for the door.

Servants bowed politely as she passed through the central hall, down a set of corridors, the sound of her boots on the marble tiles echoing loudly as she walked. As she passed Benitor, she crooked a finger at him, not slowing her pace but expecting him to catch up and match hers.

He did. "Is the council session finished yet?"
The older man sighed and shook his head. "There was a short recess for lunch, but they've been in there for several candlemarks again already."
Xena glanced down at him. "Lots of yelling?"
"Even more than yesterday."
The Empress winced.
"It does not seem Gabrielle will be able to make it to dinner again this evening," Benitor went on. "Do you wish for me to inform the cook?"

Xena folded her hands behind her back, considering. "No," she finally decided, stopping at the bottom of a stairwell and looking at the older man. "I have to go pick up the kids. But if they don't come out of there soon, come and find me and I'll tell you what to do, okay?"
"Yes, Empress," Benitor bowed politely.
Xena patted him on the shoulder, then headed up the stairs.

She turned one last corner, then knocked on a door on the right and pushed it open.

"Sena!" Within moments tiny feet had pattered up to her and arms were hugging her leg.
Xena chuckled, inclining her head at the teacher Linos, who smiled back at her.
"Sena, look!" Niobe held up a piece of parchment, gazing up enthusiastically. "I made picter."
"Did you now?" The Empress knelt down and took the drawing, looking at it and finding somewhat shakily drawn figures, three larger and three small. All were drawn in happy bright colors. The grass around them was green and littered with flowers, which came up to their shoulders. Xena pointed at one in the center of a group of four, who appeared to have dark hair. "Is that me?"
"Yes," Niobe nodded enthusiastically. "And thasse Caspie an Jona an me." The toddler indicated the three smaller figures surrounding her.
Xena ruffled her hair affectionately. "And who are they?" She indicated another two adults, who were beneath the line the other four were standing on.
"Isse daddy," Niobe answered easily. "An mamma."

Xena blinked at her for a moment, then she looked back at the drawing. "I see." She studied the two figures for another moment, then smiled at Niobe. "It's very beautiful."
The toddler beamed a radiant smile back at her.
"Looks like you're gonna be an artist, short stuff." Xena tweaked the girl's nose, then rose to her feet, only now sparing a look for the room’s other inhabitants.

She frowned. "Where's Iona?"
"She went to the bathroom," Linos told her, crossing his arms. "Two candlemarks ago."
"Ugh," Xena rolled her eyes. "I can't believe she did it again." She glanced at the teacher. "I'm sorry, Linos. I should have…"
"Empress, the girl has always had a complete disrespect for the rules, and that won't change now that she can use her parentage as an excuse to do so."

Xena placed her hands on her hips, darting the older man an offended look. "And what is that supposed to mean?"
"Did you ever attend school at her age?"
The edges of the Empress's mouth tensed as she considered this, then she turned her back on him and busied herself with tucking Iona's school gear back in her backpack. "Whether I did or not is irrelevant."
"Sure," Linos smirked, leaning back in his seat.

Xena darted him a foul look, then continued to ignore him, finishing packing Iona's bag and straightening, looking over at where Caspar was sitting, right in the back of the room, hidden in the shadows. "Hey, buddy. You coming?"
Brown eyes peeked up at her, then the boy nodded a little, sliding off his seat and picking his bag up from the ground.
The Empress walked over and started to help him pack his books. "How was your day?"
Caspar shrugged a little, shutting his exercise book, which Xena noted was looking conspicuously empty.
"Yeah, mine sucked too." Xena amicably wrapped an arm around the boy's shoulders. "Boring paperwork, Gabrielle probably won't be making it to dinner and now I hear Iona's run off again."

Caspar peeked up. "Gabrielle's busy still?"
"Yeah." Xena reached down and swooped Niobe up and placed her on a shoulder, waving a goodbye to a smiling Linos. "Council stuff."
"Oh," the boy considered this. "She should stop doing that. She seems very tired."
"I know. But she has to if she wants a democracy."
"Hmm," Caspar frowned. "Democracies suck."
The Empress chuckled in response. "You said it."

"Sena?" Niobe pillowed her head on Xena's. "Whe'd Jona go?"
"Good question," the Empress muttered as she led them back towards their quarters. "But you can bet that when I find out she's in a whole heap of trouble."
Niobe sighed dramatically. "Jona aways in twouble."
Xena managed a wry smile at this. "Unfortunately, yeah." She pushed open the door to their apartment with a foot, allowing Caspar to step in before her. "All right, you two, I'm gonna have to leave you here while I go and find your sister, so I can tie her up and dangle her over the pond upside down."
The toddler giggled at this, as she was lifted off the Empress's shoulder.
"If you wanna go out, just tell Benitor where you're going, okay?"
"Where would I go?" Caspar mumbled softly, before turning and heading for his own room, dragging his bag along behind him. "I gotta do my homework anyway."

Xena looked after at the boy sympathetically. "Hey?"
Caspar stopped and looked back over his shoulder.
"How about you save some of that homework for tonight? Maybe we can make some together."
A brown eyebrow rose. "You wanna do homework?"
The Empress smirked. "Sure, I do." A shrug. "Unless you'd rather work alone, of course. I'd understand if you'd…"
"No," Caspar smiled. Not a big smile, but it was a start, Xena decided. "No, I'd like that."
"Good," Xena smiled back at him, then wiggled her finger in goodbye, tousling Niobe's hair before she walked out the door.  

Iona carefully positioned a rock the size of her fist on the stump of a tree, then hopped a few paces back. She squatted down until she was at eyelevel with the stone. She sucked in a deep breath, rubbing her hands together a few times, then she focused all her attention on the gray mass, staring at it intensely.

Nothing happened.

Move. She instructed, narrowing her eyes even further. Move, rock, move.

Nothing happened.

You are going to move. I want you to move.

Still, nothing happened.

Iona straightened up, releasing a frustrated breath. Crossing her arms, she gazed down at the stone, which remained prudently quiet. "Maybe you're just the wrong sorta stone," the girl thought out loud. "Maybe you're just not the flying type or… Or maybe I can only make metal stuff fly." Iona considered this a moment, then started searching through her pockets, murmuring: "Metal, metal, something me… Ah!" Triumphantly she pulled a coin out of her pocket, hopped back over to the tree stump, kicked the rock out of the way and replaced it with the bit of metal.

Again she took a few steps backward and narrowed her eyes at the item, willing it to move.

It didn't.

"Argh!" Iona tossed up her hands. "Man, this sucks."

"Oh no, this doesn't suck." A voice burred from behind her, and Iona's eyes instantly widened at the sound. "This doesn't even remotely measure up to how incredibly sucky the rest of your day is going to be. Trust me."

Iona rolled her eyes, then turned around to face her mother. "Oh, come on, Xena. It's not like I was doing anything bad."
Xena crossed her arms, towering over her daughter menacingly. "You said you wouldn't do this again."
"But…" Iona waved a hand at the sky, which was a beautiful bright blue. "But the weather is way too nice to be stuck inside all day."
"You said you wouldn't." The Empress simply repeated.

"But it's stupid!" Iona shot back, her temper flaring. "I sat inside all morning listening to Linos go on about physics and about gravity, how all things can only fall down. But I know that's not true!" She pointed a thumb at herself. "I defy gravity."
"The only one you're defying right now is me," Xena countered instantly. "And you might be able to break the laws of gravity, but you most certainly won't be breaking my laws. And my laws dictate you have to go to school."

Blue eyes stared at her for a long moment, then Iona shook her head, snatching her coin from the tree trunk before marching past her mother. "You just don't get it."
"You bet I don't get it," Xena went in pursuit. "We just talked about this yesterday, Iona! And you told me you'd go to school."
"I went, didn't I?" The girl shot back. "I just didn't stay."
"It doesn't work like that and you know it." Xena reached out and grabbed onto the girl's arm, forcing her to turn around and face her. "I know these last weeks haven't been easy. I know it's all been very confusing, finding out about me and… and about your…" She took a moment to search for the right word. "… abilities. It's been confusing for me too, ya know? And I'm willing to cut you some slack, Iona. I already have, you know that. But… but if you keep up lying to me like this, I'm gonna have to do something very… motherly."

Blue eyes peeked up at her, the girl's nose scrunched up in dismay. "Like what?"
"Well," Xena considered this for a moment. "Like… ground you or something utterly unoriginal like that."
"Ground me?" A dark eyebrow rose in an uncanny mimic of one of her own expressions. "You're gonna ground me?"
"If I have to, yes," Xena straightened her shoulders a bit bothered by the fact that she felt utterly uncomfortable pulling rank on her daughter. "I don't want to. But if you keep sneaking out like this…"
Iona huffed out a breath. "You can't just threaten me…"
"Yes I can," Xena countered firmly. "I'm your mother."
"Oh, you've made that point crystal clear," Iona managed to shrug herself free of the Empress hold and turned, striding back in the direction of the palace. "You were a lot more fun when you weren't."

Xena gazed after her for a moment, then dropped her eyes, staring at the grass stalks silently.

Sand was pushed up as hooves slid to a sudden halt. The horse's rider, a man dressed in a thick black cloak, the hood pulled over his head, slid off the steed's back. With a negligent swipe of his hand, he pushed back the hood, revealing a young and handsome face. His curly hair reached his shoulders. He tilted his head back and sniffed the air.

He nodded a little to himself, then continued on foot, ignoring the other group of men who rode onto the village square behind him.

The village around him was completely deserted. A door had been left open and the wood was now banging rhythmically against the wall, pushed forward and back by the wind. A child's doll lay forgotten in the middle of the road. He could see the prints of hooves and feet leading out of the village, in the direction he and his men had come from.

He walked on, obliviously, following a small road that led out of town. The road circled downwards, through green pastures with large, old trees and towards a forest.

The young man headed for it, without a moment’s hesitation it seemed. As he stepped into the shadows of the trees, the world around him darkened. The sun, which has bathed him in light only moments ago, was gone, as if its flames had been blown out like a candle's. To guide him now, there was only a faint shimmer of a crimson red in the distance in front of him.

He smiled, then hastened his pace. It wasn't long before the trees grew fewer and he entered a small clearing.

It was littered with bodies. Men, women, but mostly children, their eyes staring blankly up, their faces still showing the fear they'd felt as they'd died. Some were mutilated, or had large gashes on their arms or neck. But most seemed oddly unscathed, except for a large black burn mark in the center of their chests.

In the center of this massacre sat a boy, six years old at most. He sat crossed-legged and his eyes were closed, as if he were in a state of meditation.

The young man dropped to his knees instantly, bending his head so deep it nearly touched the ground. "My Lord. You have returned to us."

The boy opened his eyes, the orbs of which were a searing orange, flames flickering in its depths. "Are you the only one who answered my call?"
The man bent his head even deeper. "There are… there are but few left, my Lord."
The small group that had been following behind now entered the clearing, and immediately dropped down to their knees as well.
"Yes," their Lord spoke, as he slowly rose to his feet. "I have felt it. The power I had has faded."
"It will be restored."
"Oh, it will," the boy folded his hands behind his back, stepping over a still body. "Before I was so suddenly taken from you, I had only one last opponent left who had powers that matched my own. This sudden release from my icy prison…" A sly smile. "… might be very, very good news indeed."

"If it is Ares you speak of, my Lord," the young man only now dared to look up. "Rumors have reached Persia that he has been slain. By the Empress, no less."
The boy cocked his head. "The Empress?" he asked, intrigued. "Xena, the Empress of Greece and the Northern Lands?"
"Not just Greece and the North anymore." The cloaked man glanced down. "She has taken over Persia, the far East, Egypt…"
"Hmm…" His Lord seemed more intrigued than surprised by this. "Xena, the Empress of the World then?" he smirked. "Well, that will make it all the more interesting, won't it?" He extended his hands and pointed to the young man who'd entered the clearing first. "I wish for you to go to Greece. Confirm the rumors. I need to know for sure that Ares is dead, before it can begin."
"It, My Lord?"
"The Downfall," the boy spoke calmly. He waved a hand at the man. "Now go."

"Okay, so, from all the suggestions Xena has made, we're now willing to agree with…" Gabrielle eyes slid down the parchment, counting. "…three." She looked up. "That's not good enough."
"Hey, we could have agreed with none of 'em," Odell drawled. "Count your blessings."
"I need something to negotiate with," Gabrielle countered, resting her elbows on the table's surface and leaning forward. "It's called a compromise for a reason, Odell."
"Hey, abolishment of the death sentence, social security…. Like I care!" He pointed a thumb at himself. "I agreed with quite a lot of our great Empress's rules. Your little rebel friends have been the ones opposing every single suggestion. Not me."

Gabrielle released a breath, leaning back in her chair again. Unfortunately, he was right. Thalia, and especially Mentius, had been far from cooperative.
"We don't just have to justify what we agree on here to ourselves," Thalia stated, crossing her arms. "There's a lot of people out there checking on what we do, and if we just go off and agree with having no elections for years to come, and leaving who gets sentenced to what all up to the Con…" With a hasty look at Gabrielle she cleared her throat. "… to the Empress, the people we represent are going to give us Tartarus."
"I believe people will judge all of us on what is decided here, not just you." Megan, who through everything seemed to be the only one who had managed to maintain her calm and rational attitude, folded her hands together.
"But it's clearly different for us," Mentius countered fiercely. "Our people have died to get this."
"Friends of mine, writers and philosophers, have seen their work burned or locked away. For some of them, that's worse than dying."
Mentius snorted. "What would you know about dying?"
"What do you know about it?" Gabrielle jumped in, turning her head to look at him. "Been crucified lately?"

The young man looked back at her, his eyes widening a fraction. "Well, no, but… I…"
"Don't talk about what you don't know, Mentius." Gabrielle interrupted his mumbling, before turning her attentions back to the group. "All right, lets try something different. From the list in front of you, pick the ten least important issues." She lifted a hand to quell the protests. "I’ll have a talk with Xena tomorrow, and I need to know what you think is important and what isn't, to see if we can accept counterproposals."

There were some unhappy murmurs, but everybody did as ordered, staring down at the parchment laid in front of them. "I guess…" Theron spoke up hesitantly. "I guess I wouldn't mind much about the Academy being restored." His eyes met Gabrielle's apologetically. "I mean, it would be nice of course, but… When there's so many important other things to deal with, like elections and laws and things…"
Alyssa nodded in agreement. "Most of the folks on the street won't care about the Academy. I know the men in my inn won't."

Megan, of course, protested, but most seemed to agree. Gabrielle glanced down at the table's surface, her face hidden in shadows. Finally, they were agreeing, and of course it had to be on the one thing she wanted the most.

Her desire to reopen the Academy wasn't for the right reasons, Gabrielle admitted. It wasn't about the democratic principle of freedom of speech or anything, it was just because… Well, just because she'd loved it so much, the one time she'd been there. She'd walked into the large marble hall, staring at the statues of great poets and writers. She remembered the smell of the library, of stacks and stacks of old parchment, filled with stories and songs she couldn't wait to read.

She didn't want to give the Academy up. But… Gabrielle closed her eyes. But she was so tired. She just wanted to get up and walk out, back to her room, and curl up in her bed. She wanted to…
She lifted her head as a knock sounded. Beside her, Thalia frowned. "I thought you'd said no one was to disturb us?"
"I did," Gabrielle nodded, but she rose to her feet anyway as another knock sounded, this one somewhat louder. She reached for the handle, and opened the door.

Benitor bowed politely. "My apologies for the intrusion." Then he stepped aside and waved the servants standing behind him inside. The boys and girls were all carrying large silver plates, stocked with a variety of nicely smelling eatables. "Make sure not to spill anything on important paperwork," Benitor warned. One of the plates was twice as large as the others, and was placed at the head of the table, in front of her empty seat. Another small plate was set down beside it, on top of it something that looked suspiciously like a giant serving of baklava.

Gabrielle blinked at the scene, then turned her head as Benitor stopped beside her.
"Your dessert had already been prepared. The Empress feared that if she threw it away, she'd be accused of wasting precious food supplies which could have gone to hungry civilians."
The warrior's lips quirked up in a faint smile. "Did she really?"
"Uhuh," Benitor nodded reverently. "She told me to apologize for the interruption, but hopes that, considering the complicated situation she found herself in, you can find it in your heart to forgive her."
A soft chuckle. "Tell her I'll think about it."
The servant smirked, then bowed his head. "As you wish, my lady."
Gabrielle poked him in the ribs at hearing the title, but Benitor's grin only grew, as he followed the servants who'd finished putting down the plates out the door, closing it behind him gently.

Gabrielle shook her head a little as she returned to her seat, sat down and picked up her knife. She then pushed her plate aside, pulled the baklava closer and cut off a big piece. She popped it in her mouth and then closed her eyes, leaning back in her seat.

Odell made some sniping comment, but she just ignored him this time, allowing herself a moment to enjoy the sweetness of both the pastry and Xena's offer.

After a moment of silent chewing, she straightened up and sliced off another bit of pastry. "I don't want to give up the Academy."
A few sighs were heard amidst the chewing.
"And I've got a lot of good reasons for that, but since everybody here is probably getting sick of trying to listen to reason…" She sliced the bit in two, then held out the first part to Theron. "…I'm going to bribe you with baklava."

For the first time that day a round of laughter rose up. Gabrielle smiled as well, holding out the next bit to Thalia, and watching her pop it into her mouth. The redhead's eyes rolled, swooning. "Ohhhh…" She hummed delightedly. "Give me another piece of that, and you got my vote."
Gabrielle joined in on the laughter this time, as she continued to share her dessert with the rest of the group, even giving a piece to Odell. His piece was conspicuously smaller and as Gabrielle held it out a large amount of honey just happened to drip onto his carefully scribbled notes, but that was pure coincidence. Naturally.

Caspar knelt down, laying a small shovel beside him. He chose a spot, then started digging a hole, until it was a bit bigger than his fist, before pulling a small pot closer, in which some forget-me-nots grew. Careful not to damage the roots, he pulled the plants free.

When he was done re-homing the plants, he sat back and judged the small blue flowers, and how the touch of blue mixed with the multitude of other colors. He nodded a bit to himself. "It looks nice like this." He glanced up. "Don't you think it looks nice?"

Two large stones stood amidst the flowers, gleaming in the dim light of the late afternoon sun. One was a bit weathered, and ivy had climbed its way up one of the sides, half covering the letters written on the surface. The other stone however was brand new.

Caspar sniffled a little. "I know you liked these, dad. We used to plant them at mom's grave together. Remember?"

The stones remained silent.

Caspar pushed himself to his feet and walked forward, stepping over his newly planted flowers and avoiding some others, before he sat down again, on the spot he'd left open in between the two stones. He wrapped his arms around himself, and leaned his head against his father's stone. "I uhm... I went to school today, like I promised. Didn't do much though. I tried, but… I kept thinking about how I'd much rather be here with you and then Xena came to pick us up and I hadn't gotten anything done." The boy's eyes followed a butterfly as it fluttered past. "Xena's trying real hard. She even took that book you have on parenting and hid it in a drawer of her desk. I saw her leafing through it a few times. She comes by every evening before I go to sleep, to say goodnight, like you used to. But it’s different. She tucks the blankets in too tight. And she won't talk to mom and you with me, like we used to talk to mom. She tried, but I could tell she was uncomfortable." He cocked his h! ead a bit. "She has a better voice than you though. I heard her sing Niobe that lullaby of mom's you used to sing, and it sounded real pretty on-key."

The boy pushed himself up again. "I gotta go. Dinner's ready." He looked down at one stone, then at the other. "I'll be back tomorrow. Xena and I are gonna do some homework together tonight. I'm not really sure I want to, but Gabrielle couldn't make it to dinner again, and I didn't want to disappoint her any further, you know?" He ran his hand over his mother's tombstone as a final departure, then he took off, hopping over his flowers and then jogging back in the direction of the castle.

Moments later, he walked into the dining room. Only Xena and Niobe were present. Xena was sitting, as always, at the head of the table, and Niobe was perched on the table itself. The two seemed to be in the midst of a deep conversation. As he entered though, Xena looked up. She smiled. "There you are."
"Here I am," Caspar confirmed quietly.

Blue eyes studied him for a moment. "Been working in your garden again?" the Empress commented, having noted his dirt-stained hands.
The boy nodded.
"Is that feverfew flowering yet?" Xena sighed. "Your sister is giving me so many headaches my supplies are starting to run low."
Caspar cocked his head at her. "Niobe?"
"Yes?" The toddler looked back at her brother innocently.
The dark-haired woman snorted. "No, Iona, of course."
"Iona's not my sister."

Xena shot him a 'we've talked about this' look, then motioned him towards a small basin standing in a corner. "Go wash your hands."
Caspar did as he was told. Xena was forced to return her attentions to the child seated in front of her, as a hand grabbed onto her cheek and her head was turned to face Niobe. "Sena?"
"Whes Jona?"
The Empress released a breath. "Iona's not gonna make it to dinner tonight."
"Why not?"
Xena ran a hand through her hair. "‘Cause I told her she has to stay in her room for the rest of the night."

"You grounded Iona?" Caspar's voice rose up form behind her.
Xena cleared her throat uncomfortably. "I'd rather not use the 'g'-word."
"Dad never grounded Iona."
"Yeah, well…" Xena rubbed at her eyes tiredly. "I'm just not as good at this as your dad."

Niobe studied the Empress, then wrapped her tiny arms around the woman's neck and gave her a hug.

Xena glanced down at the small head, then mustered a small smile, wrapping an arm around the toddler in return. "Thanks, shorty. I really needed that."
"I knews dat," the child stated, making the Empress chuckle.
"Ya did huh?"
"Yes." Niobe placed a sloppy kiss on her cheek. "Love ya."
Xena gently ordered the brown locks. "It's good to know at least someone does."

Caspar glanced up at her, then down at the table again, staring intently at the grains in the wood.
After a moment a hand touched his, and he looked up again, to see Xena watching him apologetically. "I didn't mean it like that." A breath. "I had a fight with Iona and I'm just a little… down, ya know?"
The boy nodded, pursing his lips a bit in sympathy. "She'll come around."
"I hope so." Xena squeezed his hand, then straightened again, looking up as the door opened and Benitor walked in, carrying a large tray. "Ah, food." She swung Niobe off the table and settled the child in the chair next to her.

Benitor bent his head respectfully to acknowledge the Empress's presence, then placed the tray on the table and started distributing the plates. "The cook told me to say he's tried adding a few new ingredients to the salad."
"Ah," Xena picked up a fork and poked it into a bowl, fishing a bit of lettuce, drizzled in sauce, which had tiny bits of herbs and meat sticking to it. She popped the bit into her mouth and chewed pensively, then shook her head. "It's nice, but it's not the same." She waved a fork at Benitor. "When that Amazon comes back to visit, remind me to ask her about the recipe."
"Yes, Empress," the servant responded, bowing again, before he started to leave the room.

The older man turned again, raising an eyebrow inquisitively.
"Did you uhm… Did you get her that dinner?"
"Don't I always do what you tell me to, Empress?" Benitor replied innocently.
Xena rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, you're wonderful." A pause, in which she shoveled her rice around on her plate. "Did she look… okay, to you?"
Benitor folded his hands behind his back, pensively. "She looked… a little tired."
Blue eyes gazed at him in concern. "Yeah?"
"She seemed very happy with the dinner though."
"Yeah?" This time the intonation was completely different.
The servant nodded, smothering a grin.
"Good, good." Xena murmured, more to herself than to the rest of the room, before she looked up again at the older man. "Thank you."
"My pleasure, Empress." Benitor bowed, then turned and walked out the room.

Xena allowed a small smile to tug at her lips, before she returned her attention to her dinner, happily cutting a bit of meat in two and popping one into her mouth. She leaned back in her chair as she chewed, thoughtfully gazing ahead of her.

She did this for a few moments, then her eyes focused on the here and now again, and she glanced at her dinner companions. Niobe was attacking her rice with her hands instead of her spoon, while Caspar was mutely poking holes in a bit of lettuce. Her eyes slid past them, to the chairs left unoccupied.

About a month ago, nearly every seat had been filled. But now, with Pyrron gone, Gabrielle busy and Iona grounded, the room seemed horribly empty. Xena sat for another moment, listening to the sound of a fork scraping against a plate echo through the hall, then she rose to her feet.

Caspar looked up at her, surprised.
"How about we move this dinner party outside?"
"Eat in de gadden?" Niobe asked with shining eyes, clearly liking that idea.
"Yeah." The Empress picked up both her own plate and Niobe's as the toddler slid off her chair. "The sun's still out. I can eat and work on my tan at the same time." She flashed a grin at Caspar. "That's called time management."
Caspar looked at her for another moment, then shrugged and hopped off his chair, picking up his plate and following Xena out the door. "Can we sit by the pond?"
"Sure," Xena replied easily. "As long as you sister doesn't try to feed her roasted bit of cow to the fish again."
"Ey," Niobe looked up at her indignantly. "Fishies only eat plant. Is no good." She held up a hand, her fingers spread out. "Need five food goups."

Iona sat on her bed, with her back against the wall. Her arms crossed, she stared ahead of herself grumpily. "This sucks," she spoke out loud to the opposite wall.

Beside her lay a dirty plate, which had held leftovers from the kitchen, and an empty bag. The leftovers had been brought over by Esmee, a servant in the kitchen and a friend of Iona's. The bag had been filled with her supply of candy, which she'd finished when her measly dinner had been found wanting.

So, now she'd gone from being bored and hungry to just being bored. Iona picked up the empty bag and crumpled it into a tight ball, aimed and then tossed it towards the garbage bin in the far corner. It bounced against the wall, then dropped, landing a few inches beside its target.

Iona angrily slapped her hands on her blanket. "Can't even do that right anymore," she called out, tossing her head back in frustration, right up against the wall behind her. "Crap!" The girl grabbed for her head with both hands, then after a moment of pain and anger she released a tired sigh, allowing herself to slide sideways. She ended up lying on her side, her face hidden under her arms, feeling utterly miserable.

Everything was so confusing these days. She had lost who she'd always thought had been her father, only to find out he wasn't her father at all. That her brother wasn't her brother, her sister not her sister. That the woman who'd died when she was eight, who she'd spend countless nights crying for, had never been her mother.

The first days after the revelation about her relation to Xena had been fun. She'd always liked Xena a lot, and she'd never been blind to the fact that they were a lot alike. She'd thought about what it would be like, to have a mother like the Empress, and she'd always pictured Xena as some sort of super mom. Fun, playful, not too picky about the rules… ‘Cause that's what she'd always been like before, right?

But Xena had changed. She was always asking her about boring stuff now, like homework or chores. She was always telling her to go to bed on time. Iona sighed and sat up, standing and walking to the window. She gazed out over the city, where lights were being lit to keep the darkness at bay. Before, sometimes, Xena would climb into her room through the window and wake her up at night. And they'd go outside and find some quiet place. The forest or a spot near the Parthenon Xena knew. And they'd sit there and just talk for hours, or they'd play games. One time, Xena had taught her how to hunt with nothing but a sharpened stick.

A bird flew past the window, soon followed by another, which appeared to be chasing the first. The birds twisted and turned carelessly in the air, chattering cheerfully.

Iona rested her elbows on the windowsill and propped her fists up against her cheeks. What she wouldn't give now to be a bird. To just hop out of this window and fly off. But humans weren't made to fly, unless they were named Xena or Gabrielle of course. Then again, she wasn't entirely human, was she?

Iona wondered if she could make her feet fly by looking at them, like she could make nails fly. She gazed down and narrowed her eyes a bit, half-heartedly attempting to get her feet to levitate off the ground.

Didn't work. She didn't think it would.

Iona returned her eyes to the sky. "Why couldn't I have gotten some cool powers? Like being able to shift shape, or that I could just think about some place I wanted to be and then be there." She snapped her fingers. "Just like that. Being able to move things is boring." A sigh. "Especially when it's not working."

Caspar sat in a chair and stared out the window. He was in Xena's room, waiting for Xena to come back so they could do some homework together. The Empress had said there was something she needed to take care of first, and that he should start without her and then she'd catch up when she was done.

Catching up would be easy however, since he hadn't really done anything yet. Well, he'd opened his book, placed it on his lap and turned to the right page. And he'd stared at it for a while, trying to read the words, but they kept becoming a chaotic pile of letters. So after a while he'd sort of given up and sat back, gazing ahead of himself a little and thinking about… stuff.

So there he sat, thinking. It was getting dark outside, the sun was only barely peeking over the horizon and was throwing long shadows over the land. Caspar stared out of the window, in the direction of the graves of his parents. He couldn't see those from Xena's room however. There were trees in the way, and a gigantic boulder, about twice his height. He vaguely remembered sitting there with his mother one warm day, enjoying the shade.

"Fascinating rock, isn't it?"
Caspar's head shot up, to see Xena standing next to him, looking out the window as well. "I… I wasn't really…"
"Did you know your father could lift that thing with one hand?"

Caspar gazed up at her in obvious disbelief.
"He could," Xena grinned down at him. "That's how he got to be in my army."
Caspar cocked his head and considered this, envisioning his father's slender built, and adding muscles until he felt his father would have been able to accomplish such a task.

When he'd transformed his father into a walking ball of muscle and still wasn't satisfied he turned back to Xena. "That's not possible."
Xena grinned. "That's what I thought." She hopped onto the windowsill, leaning back against the side of the window. "See, I was camped out near Sparta at the time, but to get near the city we had to walk through this pass, but we couldn't, ‘cause there'd been a cave in. This huge boulder was in the way, and none of us could move it. I'd spend hours and hours pushing and pulling at the thing, but it was hopeless. So I was pretty moody, sitting in my tent, brooding. Then in walks this skinny looking wanderer who tells me he'll move the boulder for me if I'll give him some dinner."
Xena nodded.

"But…" Caspar frowned. "But if you couldn't move the stone, how could he have?"
"That's what I thought." The Empress chuckled. "But see, back then I wasn't really smart."
Caspar blinked up at her. He clearly had trouble believing there was once a time when Xena was not brilliant.
The Empress repressed a smirk, then hopped back to her feet. "I was never much for storytelling. Lemme just show you." She walked over to her bed, motioning Caspar closer. "Try to lift up the bed."
The boy looked at the massive wooden double bed. "I can't do that."
"Just try," Xena told him, as she headed out the door. "I'll be right back."

Caspar sighed, but then did as he was told, walking to the foot of the bed, wrapping his hands around a wooden beam and pulling with all his might. The bed didn't budge an inch. As he'd expected.

Xena walked in again, carrying a staff and a helmet. Caspar looked up at her suspiciously. "You want me to scare the bed into moving?"
The Empress chuckled. "No." She placed the helmet on the floor, then wedged one edge of the staff under the bed and let the middle balance on the helmet. "Now try using that."
Caspar grabbed hold of the other end of the staff and pushed it down. And this time, the bed did move. He couldn't lift it up very high, but…

Xena lifted a finger, instructing him to stop, then knelt down and pushed the helmet a bit further towards the bed, then motioned for him to push again. So he did, and to his surprise lifting the bed was much easier this time. Caspar lowered it down again, then looked up at Xena, smiling broadly. "That's cool!"

Xena laughed, reaching over and ruffling his hair. "You wanna know how it works?"
"Yeah!" Caspar nodded enthusiastically.
"Get me a bit of parchment of my desk then. And the quill," Xena told him, as she hopped onto her bed, settling back into the pillows. "We can work here, it's more comfortable."
"Okay," the boy turned and ran out the room.

Xena watched him, then leaned her head back and regarded the ceiling. She listened to the sounds of him hastily barging into the next room and rummaging through some papers. A smile found its way onto her lips.  

The council meeting finally ended, just a little before midnight. While the council members filed out of the room tiredly, Gabrielle slowly rose from her chair, gathering her papers together and picking up her now stump pencil. No one spoke. There had been enough of that today already.

Gabrielle felt a hand touch her shoulder and she looked up to see Thalia standing behind her. Her friend had bags under her eyes and she could barely keep her eyes open. Gabrielle imagined she herself didn't look much better. "Didn't go too well, huh?" She said, trying to keep her voice light.
"I thought we were getting somewhere for a moment," Thalia replied, a bit hoarsely. "After the dessert."
Gabrielle managed a wry smile. "Yeah." She shrugged a bit, turning back to her papers, aligning the edges. "But… It's still early. These things take time, right?"
Thalia looked at her sympathetically. "Right." She wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulder, gently steering her towards the door. "Why don't you hit the sack, hmm? I'll clean up the room a bit, before I go."
"You sure?" Gabrielle looked up at her. "I could help. It wouldn't take that long to…"

Thalia lifted a hand, effectively halting Gabrielle's speech. "I have tomorrow off. You have to spend the entire day explaining all of that…" she pointed to the papers the blonde was holding. "…to our dear Empress."
Gabrielle released a tired breath. In response the redhead reached out and patted her friend's cheek. "Go on. I can handle blowing out some candles and taking the dishes to the kitchen."
"Thanks, Thal," Gabrielle gave in, pulling her friend a bit closer for a brief hug. "You're the best."
"I know, I know." The redhead buffed her nails on her shirt, finally drawing a tired laugh from her friend. "You just promise to go straight to bed, ‘kay? You look wiped."
"Oh, I promise." Gabrielle easily vowed, rubbing her eyes with her free hand as Thalia headed back towards the table, picking up one plate and placing it on top of the next. "See you at the next meeting?"
"I thought maybe I could come over after dinner tomorrow or something." Thalia leaned over the table and blew out one of the nearly burned out candles. "I know you're gonna be busy all day, and you'll probably be tired, but I only see you at these meetings these days, and they're hardly what you call fun. I figured we could talk a bit, or go for a walk or whatever."
"I'd like that a lot." Gabrielle smiled at her warmly.
"Of course you would. Who wouldn't want to spend time with me, right?" Thalia flashed a grin at her over her shoulder. "Goodnight, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, then replied a 'good night' before turning and walking out of the conference room and onto the corridor.

Her feet headed for her room on their own accord. Gabrielle lifted a hand and rubbed at her temple, trying to calm her throbbing brain. The headache had been hammering at her skull since midday. It had faded a bit after dinner, but had then returned with a vengeance. Gabrielle had deducted it was probably due to a lack of water. She had only had some water after sparring and a bit of wine for dinner, which really wasn't enough to keep her brain functioning properly. All the yelling and arguing hadn't helped much either.

Gabrielle sighed, turning a corner and then stopping, as she spotted a form hastily hopping down the stairs nearest to her room. It appeared to be…
"Benitor?" Gabrielle murmured out loud, surprised. Benitor wasn't the type to stay up late. And she had never, ever seen him hopping down stairs before. He always had more of a slow, reverent tread to him.

She gazed after the shadow for a moment, then shook her head, banning any thoughts on the matter from her mind. She could just ask him tomorrow what he'd been doing. No sense in wasting the scarce energy she had left on pondering over his motives.

Gabrielle headed for the door to her room, her fingers touched the doorknob and she turned it. She pushed open the door, her hand already reaching for a nearby torch to take inside with her and illuminate her room.

But her hand stopped inches from the torch, as the door opened and showed her bedroom already well-lit. An innumerable amount of candles were standing scattered across her room, their flames softly flickering over the interior. Apparently they had been lit some time ago already, since the candles had all but burned down.

Gabrielle blinked a few times, not quite understanding what was going on. Her eyes flicked over the room, until she spotted a single flower resting on her pillow.

A small smile tugged at her lips as she moved inside, carefully settling down on the soft, freshly washed linen, and picking up the crimson red rose. There was a small bit of parchment attached to the stem.

Judging by the yelling and screaming coming from the conference room, I figured it'd probably be night before you'd get back. And since I didn't like the idea of you walking into a cold dark room after a crummy day, I took the liberty of lighting up the place a bit. Hope you don't mind.


Gabrielle rolled her eyes, but her smile grew as she read the note again, then she looked up and let her eyes circle the room again. It'd be Hades blowing all of these out, but… It was a very sweet, not to mention romantic gesture. Gabrielle brought the flower to her nose and sniffed its fragrant scent.

She cocked her head then, as she noticed the door leading into the bathroom had been left open, and there was light emanating from inside there as well. Her fatigue forgotten, she rose to her feet and headed for the bathroom, the rose still in her hand.

Warm, steamy air hit her as she entered, and she blinked a few times to let her eyes get used to the warm fog around her. The steam was coming from the bath, which was brimful of warm, lavender scented water. A large towel and a silk robe of a deep purple color were lying over a chair next to the bath.

Gabrielle exhaled, shaking her head a little in amazement. "Xena, Xena…" she scooped a bit of water up with a hand, finding it was exactly the right temperature. "You had Benitor stay up for this, did you?" A soft chuckle. "Poor man…"

She quietly gazed at the surface of the water for a moment, considering her options. She really did feel very tired, and her body was begging her to go to bed, but…. But poor Benitor had stayed up this late for her, and Xena had clearly put a lot of effort into arranging the whole thing, and lighting the candles and… And the water did feel quite nice, and it smelled wonderful…

With a sigh Gabrielle gave in, worming her foot free by holding down the heel of one boot with the toe of the other. She almost reverently laid the rose on the edge of the tub, before she started unbuttoning her tunic.

It was a good while later before she rose from the water again. Gabrielle quickly dried herself off, then slipped into the silk robe and bundled her hair up in the towel, ruffling it dry.

She drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. The air cooled her warm skin, making her feel clean and refreshed. Tense muscles had slowly loosened in the hot water and her whole body was now pleasantly relaxed. She wandered over to the basin, grinning briefly at her rumpled reflection before grabbing a cup and filling it with cold water, which she then proceeded to down in a few large gulps.

She put the cup down and straightened up again, then paused, as she caught the reflection of the rose still quietly lying on the edge of the bath. She turned around, leaning back against the basin for a moment, staring pensively at the flower though the misty interior of the bathroom. Then, with a brief smile, she made up her mind, turning and filling the cup again, then walking back to the bath to collect her flower. Back in the bedroom she set the cup on her nightstand, placed the rose in the water, then she straightened again and headed for the door, quietly slipping out and entering the corridor.

The sound of Gabrielle's bare feet touching the marble tiles seemed loud in the silent corridors and halls. The palace was completely silent this late at night and Gabrielle felt her body immediately adjusting, slipping into stealth mode to make as little noise as possible.

Moments later she stood in front of Pyrron's former apartment, where Xena had now taken up residence. She carefully turned the doorknob and slipped inside, soundlessly weaving her way through the hallway until she stopped in front of an already open door and peeked inside.

An affectionate smile took over her face, and she leaned her cheek against the doorframe, watching the room’s inhabitants for a moment. Caspar was curled up on his side, one arm slung over Xena's leg. Xena herself had her back pressed against the wall at the head of the bed, and there were pieces of parchment lying all around her. One was still held loosely in her hand, and she appeared to be looking down at it, but Gabrielle could see her eyes were in fact closed. She was asleep.

She didn't remain asleep for long though. She stirred a little, then inhaled deeply as she woke from slumber, her eyelashes fluttering open and darting across the room dazedly, until they settled on Gabrielle's silent form. "Oh," she murmured hoarsely, pushing herself up a bit. "Hi."
"Hi," Gabrielle whispered back, continuing to watch her from her spot in the doorway.

Xena carefully lifted Caspar's hand and then slid off the bed, freeing herself from his hold. Caspar muttered something inaudible, and turned to lie on his back, but didn't wake up. Xena reached over and tugged the blankets up a bit higher, wiped some errant locks out of his face, before turning and joining Gabrielle in the doorway.

"So…" Gabrielle tilted her head back to look up at the Empress. "You finally got him to sleep huh?"
"Yeah." Xena gazed back at the boy lying on her bed. "We did some homework, but he was real tired." A wry smile. "I didn't have the heart to wake him. It's the first time in weeks he hasn't been tossing and turning, caught up in some nightmare…"

A hand found hers, and she looked down at Gabrielle, who had moved closer. She smiled, lifting the hand and kissing its palm. "Can I interest you in a nightcap?"
Gabrielle nodded, squeezing Xena's hand affectionately before letting go and turning back to close the door to the Empress's bedroom.

Meanwhile, Xena had walked into the living room and opened a cabinet, pulling out a few glasses and a corked ceramic bottle. "You want some port?" With a soft plop she uncorked the bottle. "My regent in Hispania sent me a dozen of these when he was afraid I'd fire him."
"Were you going to?"
"Nah," Xena shot her a grin. "But if this stuff is any good I'll be sure to make him think I'm gonna more often."

Gabrielle chuckled softly as she walked over to the couch and stopped behind it, her hands resting on the soft surface. Her fingers gently moved across the fabric, a touch restlessly. "I uhm…" She glanced up and watched Xena pour the first glass full of port, the sweet odor of it swiftly filling the room. "I actually came over to say thank you."
Xena looked up, inquisitively. " Thank me? For what?"
Gabrielle smiled gently, taking a step closer to her. "For the dinner." Another step. "And the candles." Another step. "And the hot tub."
"Oh, that." Xena glanced away self-consciously, a touch abashed. "I was just uhm... ya know… trying to get the hang of this relationship stuff." Blue eyes peeked back at her hesitantly. "So you didn't mind?"
Gabrielle's eyes twinkled back at her. "No. No, I didn't mind." She reached out, touching the other woman's arm. "It was really nice to walk in on that." A sigh. "Especially after today."

The Empress smiled wryly. "That bad huh?"
"It was okay… Just…" Gabrielle's gaze dropped to the floor and she shrugged and shook her head a little.

She looked up again though as fingers gently touched her cheek, and met blue eyes at very close range. Xena gently stroked a lock of hair out of her eyes, then wordlessly tangled her hands in the blond hair and pulled Gabrielle closer, resting her forehead against the blonde's. A moment of utter silence, then Gabrielle exhaled, her body relaxing as she wrapped her arms around Xena and hugged her. Xena instantly responded, pulling her closer still, her hands tracing soothing patterns on her back. Gabrielle closed her eyes. "You know what?"
"I lied."

Xena blinked, then pulled back a bit to look down at the warrior. "Excuse me?"
Gabrielle managed a smile. "I didn't come here to say thanks. I came for this." Her fingers gently ran up and down Xena's side.
"Aha." A grin tugged at the Empress's lips, as she leaned in a bit closer, dropping her voice conspiringly. "Well, you know what?"
Gabrielle smiled, lifting a hand and tracing a cheekbone with her index finger. "What?"
"I lied too." A smirk. "The candles and the hot tub had nothing to do with relationship stuff. I was just hoping you'd come over in nothing but a thin silk bathrobe to give me a hug."

Gabrielle laughed, letting herself fall forward, hiding her face in Xena's neck. Xena chuckled deep in her throat, the moving skin tickling Gabrielle's nose. The blonde responded by pressing a kiss against it.

A pause, then lips pressed a feather light kiss against her temple. Gabrielle smiled happily, as she worked her way up Xena's jawline. "You know, it's amazing how, after such a sucky day, you can make me feel so nice."
Xena smiled, then leaned down and kissed her on the lips, making the contact last. "Ditto," she murmured, when she finally pulled back. They both smiled a each other, then Xena patted the blonde's side. "How about we go slouch on the couch for a bit?" She reached for one of the glasses and held it out to Gabrielle. "Drown the suckiness of today in alcohol until it dies a panicky and airless death."
Gabrielle chuckled, taking the glass from the Empress's hands. "You're on."  

"You grounded Iona?!"
Xena exhaled. "Yes."
Gabrielle winced, as she leaned back against Xena's shoulder, her half emptied wineglass balancing on a knee. "Well, that's… I mean, I'm sure she'll…"
"It's an antiquated method, I know, I know." Xena muttered unhappily. "I just couldn't think of anything else, you know? And my mom used to ground me and that worked…" A pause. "…sometimes."

The warrior smiled, covering Xena's arm, which was wrapped around her waist, and giving it a comforting squeeze. "It'll work out. Just give her time."
The Empress released a tired breath. "It hurts fighting with her. She can scratch open my heart with one single word, ya know? I'm not used to being so…"
"Vulnerable?" Gabrielle finished for her, with a small grin.
"Unbalanced," Xena corrected, poking a finger at Gabrielle's midriff, which made the blonde laugh. "I'm the unchallenged, unbreakable, undefeatable ruler of the world, remember? Vulnerable is not in my vocabulary."

Gabrielle tilted her head back, looking up at the shadowy face towering above her. "Who kicked your butt again this morning, undefeatable ruler of the world?"
Xena just stuck her tongue out, making Gabrielle laugh again, before the warrior snuggled back down against her. Xena hugged her a bit closer, laying her cheek against the blond hair. "You really think it'll work out?"
"Sure," the warrior replied. "Things will get back to normal soon. You'll see."  

With a sigh Iona reached over and pulled her physics book closer. She opened it and flipped to the last page she'd read. Page five. The one after the introduction. Most of which she'd skipped.

She'd spend hours moping and cursing Xena's name, but finally she'd just given up on that. It was best to just do the stupid homework, even if it was useless, and mend fences with Xena, she'd decided, because this being grounded stuff just sucked.

She picked up her quill and dipped it in the jar of ink on her desk, while she read over the first assignment. Iona sighed melodramatically. Totally boring. As she'd expected. "This is stupid," she muttered to herself, scowling at the page.

"Learning is never stupid."

Iona jumped from her seat and spun around at the sound of the voice, keeping the chair as a barrier between her and the newcomer. There was a woman standing in the centre of her room, her hands folded behind her back. She had dark blond hair, which was tied back into a knot. She was dressed in a silver tunic and was wearing black boots, which nearly reached her knees. Silver bracelets adorned her left wrist and right upper arm, both shaped in the form of an owl with spread wings.

The woman looked at the book lying on her desk. "And this is physics even. True science."

Iona eyed the woman with a mixture of fright and suspicion. "How did you get into my room?"
"Well, that's hard to explain exactly." The woman sat down on the edge of Iona's bed, crossing her legs and resting her now folded fingers on top of a knee. "Do you know how you can make pins fly without touching them? Untwist ropes by just looking at them?"
Iona cocked her head. "You're… you're a goddess?"
The woman smiled. "I'm your father's half sister. Though that's not a bond I like to admit to." She crossed her arms. "Ares and I only shared a father. Otherwise we had very little in common."
"So." Iona watched the intruder quietly. "You're not here to kill me then?"
The goddess chuckled. "Hardly."

"Cool," Iona pulled her seat around to face the woman, then sat down, leaning forward with her elbows leaning on her knees. All the fear and anxiety was gone from her eyes, and she seemed more enthusiastic and intrigued now than anything. "You're Athena, right?"
"Well, I'm impressed." Athena leaned back on a hand, studying her niece. "I didn't think your mother allowed for you to be raised religiously."
"She didn't." Iona half turned and pulled open a drawer, fishing out a book and tossing it towards her companion. "I did some reading myself."

"Ah, I see," Athena shot her niece an approving look, then took the book entitled 'Tales of Gods and Heroes' and leafed through a few pages, wincing as she came upon some images of herself. "I do not have breasts that big." She leafed though some more pages. "And why is the entire pantheon walking around naked?" An indignant huff as she closed the book. "Bunch of perverts. Whoever drew these is gonna suffer some severe divine punishment, that's for sure."
"I didn't think it was a very good book," Iona agreed solemnly. "But that's all I could find, you know? It'd be much better to get my information from the source, of course, but…"

Athena looked up at her, then smirked. "Tricky. Very tricky." She leaned her chin on her folded hands. "So, you want to meet the family?"
Iona nodded her head enthusiastically.
"Well, I'm not sure that's a good idea right now." Athena rubbed her chin. "For one, I'm sure your mother wouldn't like it. And I have no intention of turning your mother into my enemy."
"You're afraid of mom?" The girl looked surprised. "But you're a goddess!"
"So?" Athena shrugged. "A very small part of fighting an enemy has to with strength, Iona. It's more about this…" she tapped the side of her head. "Intellect. And your mother is very cunning." She cocked her head. "I do hope you won't turn out like your father in the mental department." She waved a hand at the desk, at the now forgotten textbook lying on its surface. "Judging from your eagerness to learn, however…"
"I'm smart!" Iona hastily interrupted. "Mom says I am all the time!"
"Really?" Athena leaned closer, her eyes twinkling. "Prove it. I'll come back here tomorrow night. If you've successfully completed your assignments, I'll…" She paused, seeming to consider what it is she could do in return. "…I'll take you some place special. And maybe we could… work on your skills a little? It's come to my attention you're having problems mastering those."
"We could?" Iona hopped of her chair, her eyes wide with enthusiasm. "Really? You promise?"
"Oh, I promise," Athena replied with a smile, then she reached out and touched Iona's cheek. "It's been a pleasure meeting you, Iona. I look forward to getting to know you better." Then, with a poof she disappeared.

Iona glanced at the space where she'd sat for another moment, then a bright smile took over her face. "Wicked!" she chortled to herself, doing a little happy dance. When she'd finished she let her fall backwards, onto her bed. She stared up at the ceiling for a moment, happily wondering about what tomorrow would bring. Would Athena take her to Mount Olympus? Would she get to meet other gods, talk to them, ask them questions about what it meant to have godly blood. They would understand how she felt surely, understand the things Xena couldn't, or wouldn't understand.

Iona thoughts paused then, and her eyes found her desk and her opened schoolbook. But Athena wouldn't take her along if…

Hastily she scrambled to her feet and darted for her desk, sliding into her seat and pulling an empty sheet of parchment closer. She dipped her quill in ink, then hastily started scribbling.

To be continued

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