Path of Thorns - Part II

Xena stretched lazily as she strolled into the living room, still dressed in her sleep shirt. She grimaced as she darted a look out the window, to see the sun had already risen well above the horizon.

She was late. Xena snatched an apple from the fruit basket on the table and bit into it as she continued on to her own bedroom, where Caspar was sleeping. She and Gabrielle had continued talking until well past midnight, and because Caspar had claimed her own bed, she'd decided to sleep on the couch. Unsurprisingly, her normally quite dependable internal alarm clock had not woken her this time.
She rapped on the door twice, then pushed it open and poked her head in. "Time to get up, sport."
Caspar moaned and turned onto his stomach, hiding his head under his pillow. Xena grinned, then closed the door again, continuing on to Niobe's room and repeating the process. Niobe was more eager to get up and immediately jumped out of bed. The toddler was wearing a pair of pajamas with tiger stripes, but instead of looking dangerous and menacing, she just looked utterly adorable. Not that she ever looked otherwise, Xena thought to herself, grinning a little.

The three year old toddled over and then looked up expectantly. Xena reached down and picked her up, throwing her in the air a bit and then catching her again, which earned her some delighted giggling. "Hey there, tiger."
Niobe giggled some more. "I's not a tigger."
Xena settled the girl on her shoulder and carried her back into the living room. "You've got stripes, don't you?"
"Then you have to be a tiger."
"No," Niobe vehemently shook her head. "Not tigger. Got no tail."
"That's a good point," Xena grinned as she put the girl on a chair. "You want a tail? I could make you one."

Deep brown eyes immediately lit up in delight. "Tigger tail? Really?"
The Empress chuckled, affectionately ruffling the toddler’s hair. "I think that's a yes." She placed a finger on the girl's nose. "Can you set the table for me?"
Niobi cocked her head a little, considering this. "We go see Pookie tday?"
Xena thought about how that fit in her agenda, then shrugged. "Sure."
"Then I go set table." Niobe allowed, sitting down on the chair and then hopping off.

Xena watched her go in amusement, then she turned around and prepared herself for her last wake up call.

Iona. The Empress released a breath and squared her shoulders a little, mentally getting ready for either a nasty fight or a sensitive chat. She wasn't sure which one she preferred.

She stopped in front of Iona's room, and lifted her hand to knock on the door when the door was suddenly yanked open. Xena hastily took a step back as a hasty figure ran from the room.
"Oh, hi mom," Iona turned around, jogging backwards. "Sorry ‘bout yesterday."
Xena blinked at her. "Where are you off to?"
"School." Iona smiled at her. "Is it okay if I skip breakfast? I wanna go over some exercises with Linos before class."

Iona waited for an answer, but her mother just stared at her with this strange wide-eyed look. "Mom?"
Xena shook her head a bit. "Uhm, yeah…" She rubbed her eyes with a hand, expecting that when her eyes refocused this strange vision would be over.
"Excellent," Iona chortled, turning and running off again. "See you at lunch!"

Xena watched her go, seeing her daughter spurt around the corner and into the corridor. She blinked then turned her head a little, to find Niobe standing next to the table, looking back at her with an expression that betrayed a similar amount of surprise. Niobe glanced at the door again, then back to Xena. "Is Jona sick?"
"I think so." The Empress scratched the back of her neck. "From the looks of it, it might be fatal."

A moment passed, then the outer door opened again and Gabrielle stepped inside, glancing over her shoulder. "Was that Iona?" she asked as she faced forward, finding both Xena and Niobe staring at her in their pajamas. A small laugh escaped her and she hastily covered her mouth, not wanting the twosome to think she was laughing at them. Although she was.

"Jona sick." Niobe informed Gabrielle, as she toddled over, raising her arms so Gabrielle could lift her up.
"Really?" The warrior swung the girl onto her shoulder as she continued on her way into the living room. "What's wrong with her?"
"Go-ed to school."
Gabrielle actually stopped and looked up at the child. "She just ran out of here to go to school??"
Niobe nodded.
"No way!" the warrior turned to look at Xena. "She didn't!"
Xena opened her mouth to respond, but was spared the effort of speaking by the door flying open and Iona sprinting inside again, passing them all as she rushed back into her room. There was some rummaging, then Iona darted back out of her room with a bundle of paperwork. "Forgot my homework!" She called over her shoulder in explanation, before disappearing around the corner once more.

Gabrielle blinked at the empty doorway a few times. "This is not possible. We must be in some quirky alternate dimension." She tilted her head back and looked up at Xena. "Right?"
"I thought I was still dreaming," the Empress muttered. "But an alternate dimension sounds plausible too."

A moment of pensive silence fell, then a grin started tugging at Xena's lips. "You know what this means, right?"
"Do I?" Gabrielle asked, not sure of anything of anymore.
"It means you were wrong," Xena announced triumphantly. "And you too." She pointed a finger at Caspar, who had just stepped out of his room.

The boy's eyes widened at the early morning accusation. "What did I do?"
"I told you two I grounded Iona and you mocked me." The empress waved a hand at the outer door. "And look! She is now a model child!"
Gabrielle chuckled. "Well… Can't argue with that."
"Iona's a model child?" Caspar looked from one to the other in utter surprise. "Since when?"
"Since I grounded her," Xena replied smugly.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "You're not gonna gloat about this all during our run this morning, right?"
"This is my first victory as a parent," the Empress smirked. "What do you think?"
Gabrielle covered her eyes with a hand and groaned. Xena just grinned back wickedly.

"I still can't believe it."
Xena hopped over a fallen tree, then continued her running. "Yes. Quite a miracle that I actually made a decision concerning my daughter which didn't turn out completely disastrous."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and gently slapped her companion in the stomach. "You know that's not what I meant."
The Empress flashed her a smile. "I know."

"I've never underestimated your abilities as a mother," Gabrielle continued seriously, ducking under a lower branch without having to slow down much. "You're wonderful with children. I noticed that the moment I got here. It intrigued me."
Xena shot another look sideways, now taking a bit longer. "Really?"
"Yeah." A nod. "It didn't really fit with the ideas I had about who you were, how you worked. Made me think, maybe… maybe there was more to you. More than I'd initially thought there was."
The Empress smiled a little. "And was there more?"
"Nah," Gabrielle shook her head solemnly. "Besides that, you're utterly predictable."

"Hey!" Xena poked at the blonde's shoulder, which earned her a wicked grin. "You're so mean."
"Yup," Gabrielle easily affirmed, before grabbing onto a branch and using it to swing herself forward and up. She then let go again and performed a perfect flip, landing neatly on the opposite side of a small puddle, giving herself a small lead on the Empress.
Xena shot a look skyward, as she modestly hopped over the mud. "Show off."
"Hey, I gotta entertain myself somehow while I wait for you to catch up," Gabrielle remarked over her shoulder.
"Wait for me to…" Xena narrowed her eyes at the blonde's back. "Is that a challenge?"
Gabrielle turned around, continuing to run on backwards. "Do you want it to be?" She inquired with a smirk.
Xena's eyes locked with hers for a moment, then a mischievous twinkle entered the blue orbs just before the Empress suddenly sped up, racing past Gabrielle at full speed.
"I'll take that as a yes," the blonde grinned, then quickly spun around and set off in pursuit.

It was Gabrielle who reached the lake first, but only by a few inches. Stretching, she realigned her backbone with some soft pops. Xena leaned her hands on her knees and took a moment to catch her breath. "I don't get how you can run so fast with legs that short," she managed between breaths.
"How can you run so slow with legs that long?"
"Oh, very funny," Xena muttered grumpily, walking over to the waterside and sitting down on the bank. "You really are intent on completely trashing my ego, aren't ya?" The Empress undid the straps on her sandals, then stuck her feet in the water. She kicked at the liquid a little, sending ripples across the previously calm surface
Gabrielle could only half suppress a grin as she walked over and sat down at Xena's side. "You're not mad at me, are you?"
Xena glanced sideways, faced forward, and then glanced sideways again, this time with a small smile. "Nah." She wrapped an arm around the blonde's shoulders. "I don't even think I can get mad at you."
"Good." Gabrielle happily shuffled closer, resting her cheek on the Empress's shoulder.

A silence fell and lasted. Gabrielle stared out over the water and watched as the soft morning light which had managed to find its way through the thick foliage toyed with the gentle waves Xena had created. The only sounds came from the birds twittering nearby and the occasional leaf swaying down from its former place among the treetops to fall to the ground with a noise that seemed deafening amongst the silence. Gabrielle closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath of the fresh, slightly humid morning air. "I really look forward to today," she finally spoke up in barely more than a whisper, not wanting to disrupt the stillness around them.
"Me too," Xena replied softly. "Nice quiet day. No letters to answer, no petty thieves to judge, no yelling council members to keep me worrying about you."
The blonde tilted her head back a bit. "Worry about me?"
"Yeah. I mean, I know you can handle them, it's just…" Xena lifted a hand and brushed back a lock of Gabrielle's hair. "Being with them hurts you. And I don't like you getting hurt."
Gabrielle managed to keep eye contact a moment longer, then she dropped her gaze. "It's not their fault. Beginnings are hard. It'll get better."
Xena rubbed her shoulder as little. "You really think so?"

A pause, as Gabrielle seriously considered that question. "Yes." She finally replied, lifting a hand, and then letting it fall back on her thigh again. "I mean, part of the problem is me."
The Empress snorted a little, clearly not agreeing. "Oh, come on."
"No, seriously." The blonde looked up at her. "I mean, this was my dream, Xena. All the time I was fighting in the resistance, I was fighting for this. The voice of the people. A democracy. And I thought it'd be perfect." A beat. "But it's not. Because nothing is." Gabrielle shook her head a little. "It's just a bit disappointing when your dream becomes reality, but it's nothing like you'd imagined, you know?"
Xena studied the nearby face for a moment, then pulled the warrior's head closer. "I know."

Another moment passed, then Gabrielle laughed a little. "Here we're sitting, in the beautiful spot watching the sun rise and we're being all gloomy. How stupid is that."
The Empress chuckled a little, glancing at the lake before them, then up at the warrior. "Want me to cheer you up?"
Gabrielle cocked her head. "How would you suggest to do that?"
"Wellll," Xena drawled, then grabbed onto Gabrielle's arm and tossed herself into the water, dragging the blonde along behind her.

After a moment they both resurfaced, Gabrielle coughing to get the air out of her lungs. "That was supposed to…"Cough. "…cheer me up?!"
"It cheered me up," Xena replied happily as she treaded water right next to her victim.
"Oh it did, did it?" the blonde stated in a vengeful tone. "Well, if you like water so much…" And with that she pushed Xena's head down again with a splutter of surprised bubbles.  

"Excellent work, Iona," Linos said, unable to get a hint of utter surprise out of his voice. "Perfect score. I'm very impressed."
"They weren't that difficult," Iona shrugged, as she handed him her writing pad. "The next chapter was much harder."
"Th… The next chapter?" Linos blinked at her, as he took the pad. "You didn't have to do those yet."
"I know," Iona stated, then turned and went back to her desk. She sat down and picked up her book, turning over a page and continuing to read.

Linos stared at her for another moment, then shook his head a little. He got up and walked across the room to come to stand at Niobe's side. The toddler was drawing a picture, which involved some stick figures surrounded by lots of yellow scratching. Niobe shot him a look, then sat back a little and joined her teacher in observing her creation. After a moment, she cocked her head and looked up at him again. "Nees more jello?"
"Yes, definitely," Linos replied seriously.
The toddler nodded, then picked up her yellow crayon and determinedly continued her work.

Linos smiled down at her, then continued on to his last student. Caspar was sitting on his seat at the back of the class, staring out the window. "Gazing outside again, huh?" the teacher hunched down next to the boy's table, so they were at eye height. "Are trees and sparrows really that much more interesting than me?"
"Not trees and sparrows, no," Caspar muttered, not even bothering to look at the man next to him. "But that…" He waved a hand at the window.
Linos let his gaze follow in the indicated direction and looked outside as well. He frowned, rose to his feet and then stepped closer to the window to get a better look.

His eyes followed a completely soaked figure that went whizzing by, which reminded him an awful lot of the Empress. The figure was being chased by another.
"Abby!" Niobe, who had climbed onto her chair to catch a glimpse of the on goings as well, identified her. "Abby all cuvved in mud!" She giggled. "Good!"
Iona had also gotten up and moved to Linos's side. She looked at the scene for a moment, then shook her head and sighed gravely. "Children," she muttered, before returning to her seat.

Gabrielle shook her head wildly, scattering water drops all over the bathroom. She grinned, then grabbed onto a towel and turbaned it around her hair as she walked back into her bedroom. She opened her closet and selected a simple cream-coloured tunic to wear. She tossed it on the bed, sat down next to it and started to rub her hair dry.

The water fight had quickly turned into a game of mud wrestling, which had become a chase after Xena had managed to send a good amount of mud down the warrior's top. After that it'd just been a spectacle, since it turned out the entire staff had been watching them chase each other across the lawn.

Gabrielle couldn't suppress a grin. She didn't care much about the spectators however. She felt wonderfully relaxed for the first time in almost a week. Being dunked in a lake had cheered her up, though she wasn't about to go tell Xena that, of course. She chuckled as she tossed aside her towel and started getting dressed for the second time in a period of two candlemarks.

After a few moments she exited her room again. Xena had suggested doing the boring 'ruling the world' stuff in the morning, so they could relax in the afternoon and spend some time with the kids. She'd happily agreed to that, although she doubted the big gap between the wishes of the council and that of the Empress could be bridged in one morning.

As she walked through the hall, on her way to Xena's study, she paused though, and her eyes tracked to a corridor with a door at the end, leading down. Gabrielle hesitated for a moment, then decided Xena was a lot bigger and therefore had more mud to get rid off and probably wasn't finished washing yet. She had a few moments to spare.

She descended several steps. Her footsteps echoed down a torch lit corridor until finally she came upon another door. The two guards on either side saluted her as she approached, before one of them hastily opened the door for her to enter. Gabrielle stepped inside, her eyes sweeping the dimly lit interior.

"Well, well…" A voice spoke up from the shadows. "Look who's come to visit."

Gabrielle turned and faced the shadows, leaning back against the opposite cell door. "Hello, Callisto."
The sound of rustling fabric, then Callisto stepped into the light. Her tunic was a bit tattered and stained, but otherwise she looked pretty much okay. "Hello, precious. How's that hole in your gut? Still hurting?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "Not really."
"Pity." The blonde crossed her arms and stared at her visitor. "So have you come to help me escape, or just to babble at me again?"
"To babble," Gabrielle informed her cheerfully.

A depressed groan was her reply. The warrior chuckled. "I won't be too long though. I have to meet with Xena."
"Oh yes, Xena," Callisto muttered, clearly not liking the subject. "She hasn't stabbed you in the back then, has she?"
"Yeah, well, just wait." Callisto started pacing her cell. "Just at the moment things are just peachy, you're gonna find yourself locked in some dark pit for four years. Mark my words."
"Well, I'm happy you're so concerned about my well-being," Gabrielle started.
"I'm not," Callisto quickly snapped, shooting her a foul look. "I don't care about you in the slightest."
"I know," Gabrielle agreed easily.
"Then why do you keep coming here?"
"To piss you off." The warrior shot her companion a charming smile

"Figures," Callisto grumbled, then retreated back to her bed, plumping down on its surface ungracefully. "Isn't bad enough the food here is crappy. And the place stinks. And my walking talking Pompey Puzzle went off and started decaying on me." She waved a hand at an empty burley sack lying forgotten in a corner. "But now on top of it all you gotta come in here and bore me to death." She paused and cocked her head. "I wonder if you can bore an immortal to death."
"I'll gladly try," Gabrielle offered merrily.
Callisto stared at her for a moment, then shivered. "Never mind."

"That's what I thought," the warrior shot her a grin, then pushed herself off the bars and took the few paces to Callisto's cell. "Here." She unhooked a small pouch from her belt and tossed it into the cell, where Callisto neatly scooped it out of the air. The blonde opened it and peeked inside. She fished a bit of candy, studied it for a moment, then quickly popped it into her mouth.
"I'll ask the cook to prepare something nice for you next time." The warrior continued. "And I'll see if I can find you something to do in here."
Dark eyes watched her warily. "Don't expect me to be grateful or anything."
"I won't." Gabrielle shot her another smile, then headed back out the door.  

It wasn't much later when Gabrielle pushed open the door to Xena's study. The Empress was leaning back in her chair, her feet popped up on the desk and her arms crossed. Her good mood seemed to have vanished. "I see you've slipped into business mode," Gabrielle commented, as she closed the door behind her.
"I just leafed through the council's list of wishes. Or should I call 'em demands?"

The blonde exhaled, then pulled back a seat across from the Empress and sat down. "I informed them you'd never agree to this. The list is negotiable."
"Well, we'll have to negotiate at least half of these ideas into oblivion," Xena pulled her feet back and sat up straight, pulling a scroll closer and unrolling it. "Abolition of the death penalty, freedom to protest against the regime, downsizing my army… What does the council want to turn my empire into? A crime ridden nation with overstuffed jails, where half of the people are unemployed and the rest are parading around the streets blaming me for not making their lives more perfect?"
Gabrielle leaned her elbows on the desk's surface. "Death is irreversible. If you execute someone for a crime they didn't commit, you can't unkill him."
"Oh yeah," Xena snorted. "And locking 'm up is such a great idea. Look at our buddy Callisto. Was locked up for 4 years, and she turned out so well, didn't she?"
"I know you don't agree with most of the stuff in there," Gabrielle replied, remaining calm. "Both parties need to compromise."

Xena drew in a breath, and then released it. "I'm willing to do that, Gabrielle. I really am, but… But I built this nation. I smashed it to bits and then I rebuilt it and now everything is working as it should. I worked really hard to make that happen." She waved a hand at the scroll. "What you're asking me here is to turn everything upside down again. There's gonna be chaos if I do that."
"I'm not asking you, the council is," Gabrielle corrected quietly. "I know things can't change overnight. And I'll do my best to get the council to see that too. But you need to give me something to work with."
"And what is the council gonna give me in return?" Xena retorted, unrolling the scroll further. "Oh, here, I don't need to pay punitive damages to resistance groups. Awfully nice. I don't have to sell my palace, I don't have to rebuilt…"

The Empress frowned, then looked up. "The Academy? You don't want it rebuilt?"
Gabrielle leaned back in her seat. "We had a vote. The council decided there were more important things to worry about first."
Xena leaned forward and looked the blonde directly in the eyes. "And you agree?"
"Whether I agree or not is irrelevant," Gabrielle replied, then diverted her eyes to gaze out the window. "We voted. The majority decided."
"Screw the majority. I know you want the Academy. You've been talking about it for weeks." Xena rose from her chair and circled the desk, hunching down next to Gabrielle so they were at eye level. "Just say the word and I'll put it back on the list."

Green eyes studied hers for a moment, then the warrior managed a sad smile. "I can't let you do that."
"Why not?"
"Because you'll be doing it because of us." Gabrielle shook her head a little. "The council is giving me enough grief already, because they believe our relationship is clouding my judgment. If I let you do this, I'll prove them right."

Xena looked at her for another moment, then she rose to her feet. "This sucks," she cursed under her breath, as she turned and paced to the window, gazing outside gloomily. After a moment of silence, she turned back to Gabrielle. "Can't we just ditch the council? Can't it just be you and me?"
The blonde managed a small smile. "That wouldn't be much of a democracy."
"Not a democracy, no, but it'd be a lot more fun." Xena sighed, but then regretfully trudged back over to her desk and plumped down in her seat. "All right…" She pulled the council's scroll closer again and scanned the text. "I'm willing to make some short term changes in the justice department. But only some. The rest of these suggestions are either long term, or impossible."
Gabrielle nodded. "Some is a start."

It was a few candlemarks after noon when Gabrielle strolled onto the Agora. Her meeting with Xena had been long and filled with heavy in depth discussions, but in the end it had been fruitful. The council wouldn't be content yet, but Gabrielle hoped that when the members saw the concessions the Empress had made, they too would be a bit more forthcoming.

Gabrielle sucked in a deep breath and enjoyed the mixture of scents filling her senses. The marketplace was filled with stalls offering items from all over the empire. From fruits and
vegetables to freshly baked bread, from Egyptian artwork to Chinese incense.

This last offering was what she'd come to the market for. Gabrielle stopped in front of the stall and politely greeted the merchant from Chin in his own tongue. The merchant smiled at her, and bowed politely. "Ah, Gabrielle. It's been a while since I saw you last."
"I've been a bit busy," the blonde told him, as she selected some scented cones.
"I'm not surprised. Ruling the world must be time consuming." The merchant chuckled as she shot him a look. "How was the medicine I gave you? For your wounds?" He vaguely indicated his palms
"Great," Gabrielle said, as she handed him her selection of incense cones. She lifted a hand and showed him her palm, where a scar could still be seen in the centre. "It still looks ugly, but it hurts less."
"That's good to hear," the Chinese man placed her purchases in a bag and handed it to her with one hand, while he received some coins in the other. "If you need more, just tell me. I will have the herbs sent here."
"Thank you," Gabrielle smiled at him, then turned to continue on her way.

Her little conversation had drawn the attention of other shoppers however. It probably wasn't often people saw a white skinned woman speaking fluent Chinese. And by now she would have most certainly been recognised.

Gabrielle tried to ignore the hushed whispering which drifted up as she passed. People were watching her, though they pretended not to.

She knew all the rumours already of course. How Xena had her drugged to get her to cooperate, how she was not really Gabrielle but an evil twin who does the Empress's bidding, how both their relationship and the introduction of Xena's daughter was all an elaborate scheme to improve the Empress's image.

It was strange. Strange to think how she and her relationship were the topic of conversation in many households. Gabrielle grimaced as she added some other purchases to her bag. It was strange and she didn't like it one bit.

With a sigh Gabrielle went on, allowing her eyes to slide past the crowd. Past a group of talking women, past children running around, past…

Gabrielle frowned, as she saw a young man observing her from a respectable distance. A cloak was draped across his shoulders, but the hood was swiped back to reveal a handsome face and curly hair reaching down to his shoulders. Though he must have noticed he'd been spotted, he didn't flinch or turn away, but kept looking straight at her with deep, piercing brown eyes.

A group of soldiers marched past, obscuring her line of sight for a moment. When they'd strode past, the young man had vanished. Gabrielle searched for him for a moment amongst the masses. After a moment though she shrugged it off and continued on her way, back towards the palace.

The Empress unrolled her scroll a bit further and continued reading.
"Xena!" A hand tugged insistently on her sleeve.
With a sigh she looked up at the anxious Caspar. "Yes?"
"Would you please tell her to stop?" The boy pleaded, pointing.

Xena eyes tracked in the direction he was indicating to see Niobe clinging on to a tiger's ear with one hand and its nose with the other, dangling back and forth. "Why?" The Empress asked, turning back to her reading. "She's fine."
"She's hanging onto the ear of an animal with sharp fangs and deadly claws," Caspar retorted sharply. "She's not fine. She's in mortal danger."
Xena looked up into the serious brown eyes and couldn't repress a chuckle. "You are so much like your father it scares me sometimes." She grabbed onto the boy's shirt and tugged, catching him as he lost his balance. She tickled him, making him squirm.
"Xena!" Caspar tried to look stern, as he unsuccessfully attempted to repress a giggle.
The Empress rolled her eyes. "Fine, fine…" She brought two fingers to her mouth and whistled.

The tiger's head shot up in response and then he jogged closer, a delighted Niobe still clinging onto his face. He stopped in front of Xena and sat down, looking at her with large greenish-brown eyes. He glanced at the toddler's hand wrapped around his nose, then back at the Empress with a meaningful look.
Xena grinned wickedly, but straightened and detached Niobe from her pet. "C'mere, shorty. I think you've tired Pookie out."
The tiger snorted in dismay and turned his back on the Empress. He took a few steps away from the threesome then dropped down and stretched lazily.

Niobe didn't seem too troubled to have been separated from her pet and instantly started crawling up Xena's long body until she was face to face with the Empress. "Lo."
"Hi," Xena drawled in response. "Having fun?"
"Yes," Niobe confirmed. "Hey Sena?"
"Was Abby doin?"

Xena glanced to her left, where at a distance from them Gabrielle and Iona were sitting cross-legged, clouded in the gentle fumes of incense. The warrior's hands were resting on her knees and her eyes were closed in meditation. The Empress smiled and faced forward again, leaning back against the rock she was propped up against and closing her eyes. "She's making stuff float."
"Ah." Niobe nodded in perfect understanding, before stretching lazily and closing her eyes as well. "Kay."

Gabrielle slowly drew in a breath, then exhaled again, focusing on nothing more than her breathing. Sounds died away, smells became indistinct and finally she couldn't even feel the wind blowing over her skin. She imagined herself alone in a dark, soundless room, where everything was still and peaceful. Then she thought about the apple she'd placed in front of her feet before she'd started meditating, and the apple appeared. She thought about how it ought to float, and moments later it drifted up from the ground.

"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?" Odell's voice rang though her head, as his smug face appeared in her previously still and peaceful dark place.

Her hovering apple instantly shot upwards and blasted straight through the roof of her room, allowing the bright light of the outside world to pour inside.

Gabrielle blinked open her eyes and looked up, to see the piece of fruit soaring higher and higher, until it was only the tiniest of dots in the clear sky. "Oh crap."
Iona was sitting across from her, looking straight up as well. "You just launched my apple into outer space." The twelve year old mumbled, before facing the warrior. "Why?"
"Sorry." The blonde rubbed a hand over her face. "Remaining pent up frustration. I should've taken a bit longer to clear my mind." Gabrielle pulled an orange closer and placed it on the spot the apple had occupied moments before. "OK, let me try this again."

Iona watched as the warrior resumed her meditative pose and sat perfectly still. She remained like this for quite a while, then suddenly the orange drifted up from the ground. It remained elevated above the grass for a while, then slowly drifted forward until it was right above Iona's hand. It floated for another moment, then fell right into the girl's palm.

"Awesome," Iona grinned, before she started to peel the skin off their practice object. "There's something I don't get though."
"What?" Gabrielle asked as she opened her eyes again.
"Well, Xena said your teacher smacked her all over the room." The girl stated as she chewed on a slice of orange. "I'm assuming mom didn't wait around for her to meditate for a quarter of a candlemark so she could get beaten up."
Gabrielle chuckled. "Lao Ma was a lot more skilled at this than I am. She could reach a state of perfect stillness in mere moments. I'm just not that good." The warrior hopped back to her feet, then reached down a hand to help Iona up. "I don't think I'll ever be as good as she was. But I'm just gonna keep practicing, see how far I can get."
"Yeah, well, at least you made something fly," Iona muttered as they headed for Xena and the others. "My piece of fruit didn't even tremble."
"You'll get there." Gabrielle gently squeezed her shoulder. "These things just take time."
The girl scowled. "I don't like things that take time. I like things that happen the moment I want them to happen. They're much more fun."
"Impatience and a need for instant gratification," Gabrielle rubbed her jaw, pretending to be in deep thought. "Now who else do I know with those character traits?"

"If you're referring to me," Xena drawled, keeping her eyes firmly closed. "I'll have you know I'm a very patient person."
Gabrielle snorted, as she watched Iona detour towards the sunbathing Pookie, creeping through the grass so the tiger wouldn't hear her approach. Niobe, who'd had enough of lying still, took this as her cue and got up as well, following her big sister willingly into mayhem. The blonde shook her head a little, then came to Xena's side and sat down. "You are not patient," she stated, looking up at the drowsing Empress.
"Yes, I am," Xena simply retorted, before lifting her hand and holding it out. Moments later, an apple dropped right into her palm. She opened her eyes and extended the piece of fruit to the warrior. "Want a bite?"
In reply, Gabrielle simply leaned forward and bit through the green skin.

"Guess you do," Xena mumbled, before bringing the fruit to her own lips and taking a bite as well. "So how did the meditating go?" She managed around a full mouth. "Not counting the space apple, of course."
"Pretty much okay," Gabrielle muttered, crossing her arms and watching Iona charge Pookie, who rolled away just in time so the girl landed flat on her face in the grass. "I'm having trouble focusing though. Takes a long time before I can clear my mind of all the stuff that's going on."
"Well, there's a lot to clear," the Empress reasoned, holding out the apple to Gabrielle again and allowing her to take another bite.
"True." Gabrielle placed her hands behind her head and leaned back. "What about you, Caspar?" She directed at the boy sitting with his arms wrapped around his knees on Xena's other side. "You enjoying yourself?"
The boy sighed dramatically. "I wish they wouldn't play so rough," he said, indicating where Pookie was running from his two pursuers. "It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye." A wince. "Or a head."
Gabrielle chuckled softly. "Don't you worry. If the tiger goes all wild, I'll rescue them."
Xena smirked. "You gonna wrestle a tiger, are you?"
"Sure," the warrior confirmed easily. "Not like I haven't done it before."

Caspar instantly pushed himself up, staring at Gabrielle with wide eyes. "You fought a tiger?"
"Unfortunately," the blonde confirmed, lifting up her right sleeve to show him and Xena four parallel scars across her biceps.
"Ouch," Xena winced at the thought of the wound that the large cat must have caused. "Bet that was a nasty fight."
"Wasn't my most pleasurable memory, no. You can't really pin those animals down like humans, they can squirm out of any hold." The warrior pointed a thumb at her back. "Got a nasty set of bite marks too, when she managed to get past me."
"Did you kill it?" Caspar inquired curiously.
"Nah." A shake of the blonde's head. "I was walking through her forest. Got too close to her cubs. I would have attacked me too." She grinned. "I punched my fist into her face and then I ran real fast."

They all laughed at this. Xena finally shook her head a little. "Getting slugged by an elephant, wrestling a tiger… You always have these amazing travel stories." She looked at her friend. "You should write 'em down sometime."
"Yeah, that'd be cool," Caspar agreed eagerly. "Your stories are the best."
Gabrielle shrugged a little and diverted her gaze a touch shyly. "I'm not sure that's a good idea," she murmured as she watched Niobe and Iona chase their pet. "Writing takes a lot of time and… And the words sort of have to come to you." She glanced back up at Xena. "I don't think they're gonna come. I've tried a few times before, but… Well…" Another shrug.
"I could find you someone you could tell them to, and then he could write 'em down for you." The Empress insisted. "You like that Homer guy, right? I'm sure if I pull some strings…"

Gabrielle gently smacked her hand against the other woman's shoulder. "Xena!" She darted her companion a look. "My stories aren't that exciting. I mean, who wants to hear about some dumb blonde nearly drowning in stupid wild river currents.
"You got carried away by a river?" Caspar asked incredulously, sitting up.
"Well, there's one," Xena drawled, receiving another poke from the blonde.
"You're both biased," Gabrielle accused, but leaned closer and gave them both a kiss on the cheek anyway. "Thanks for the vote of confidence though. If I ever do write it all down, you'll be the first to read it. Promise."
"I guess we can live with that," Xena allowed with a grin, then glanced down at Caspar. "Right?"
"Right," the boy murmured dreamily, a hand pressed against his cheek. After a moment he shook his head though and hastily crawled back to his feet. "I uhm…I really gotta go and… go." He stuttered, then quickly ran off.

Xena chuckled as she watched him run into the palace. "He is still so hung up on you." She leaned a bit closer and dropped her voice to a whisper. "Not that I blame him."
Gabrielle leaned back a little against the Empress's body and exhaled. "You really should talk to him sometime though."
"Me?" Xena innocently pointed at her own chest. "Why me? It's you he's in love with."
"Yes, but it's because of you I'm no longer single," Gabrielle easily retorted, shooting the Empress a grin over her shoulder.

The Empress rolled her eyes. "That's so sneaky," she accused, poking the blonde in the side playfully, for which she was rewarded with a tickle under the sole of one of her feet. Another poke. Another tickle. Gabrielle tilted her head back and looked at her companion with mischievously twinkling green eyes.

It only took moments before they'd started a chase of their own, which Iona, Niobe and their tiger happily joined.

Night had fallen, and now only the moonlight illuminated a small room in an Athenian inn. The door opened and the young man with brown curly hair stepped into the room. He untied his cloak from around his neck and tossed it on the bed. He knelt down beside the fireplace in the centre of his room, taking a flint and striker from over the mantel.

It took a moment before the sparks finally ignited the tinder. The man added some logs and then took a step back, waiting patiently as the fire slowly grew and grew, until something suddenly exploded in the flames and they flashed an ugly, poisonous shade of green.

“My Lord,” the young man knelt down and bent his head respectfully. “I have arrived in Athens.”
“Is he dead?” A voice inquired from the flames, one only he could hear.
“Yes. The rumours are true.”
“Perfect.” The delight in his Lord’s voice was clear. “So it begins then.” A pause. “The first step will be fear. I believe it is time to inform Xena of my return.”

“Inform her?” The young man frowned. “But then she’ll have time to prepare for your arrival. She will try to prevent it.”
“Yes, she will try. And fail.” The voice was calm. “Xena only defeated me, because she got lucky. She was in the right place, at the right time and I made the wrong move. But while she has gone and conquered the world, I’ve had time to think, locked up in my icy prison. I’ve thought of my mistake and learned from it. And I’ve thought of my revenge.” A dark chuckle. “My sweet revenge.” The voice paused a moment, as the deity reveled in his thoughts of destruction, then he spoke up again. “I want Xena to suffer. I want her to hurt. And I want her to know that that is what I want. That I will come to Greece to destroy her and everyone she cares for.” A flame reached forward and caressed the young man’s cheek. “You will be the one to tell her. You will be my deliverer.”

After dinner Xena had retired to her study. Not because she really wanted to, but all the talk about council stuff and playing with Gabrielle had left very little time for her to deal with current issues in her empire. Some of those could just not be delayed.

Xena tapped the top of her quill against her jaw, then nodded a bit to herself and leaned over the parchment, adding some lines to the writing and finally signing it. She blew the ink dry then folded the document up, dripped some wax on the top and pressed her seal ring into the hot liquid. Placing the letter aside she pulled another closer and started scanning the contents.

She didn’t get far however, since a knock on the door forced her to pause her reading. “What is it?”
The door opened and a red haired head poked in. “Hi.”
Xena blinked several times, before she finally managed to speak. “What are you doing here?”
Thalia rolled her eyes. “Yes, it’s lovely to see you too.” She opened the door a bit further and slipped inside, darting another anxious glance back into the hallway before closing the door. “I’m not here ‘cause I suddenly decided I like you or anything, okay?”
“Good. I was starting to get worried,” Xena drawled, leaning back in her seat and crossing her arms.
“Let’s save the pleasantries for later,” the redhead retorted. “I need to talk to you about Gabrielle.”
“Well, that’s a coincidence. I need to talk to you about Gabrielle too.” Xena leaned forward, her eyes darkening dangerously. “Specifically about how you forced her to give up the Academy.”
“Forced…” Thalia spluttered, then shook her head vehemently. “Hey, I didn’t force Gab to do anything! The issue came up, the council voted…”
“Oh, screw your freaking council!” Xena made a wild gesture with her hand. “She’s been working her butt off for that stupid democracy of yours. She’s selflessly slaving away and the only thing she really wanted for herself was that academy reopened. And she doesn’t even get that?” A snort. “I’ll stick with tyranny any day.”

Thalia opened pointed a finger and opened her mouth to start yelling back, but somehow she got herself back under control. “Look,” she managed in a voice not quite devoid of anger. “I didn’t come here to defend my views on government. I hate you. You hate me. We’re clear on that. Right?”
“Definitely,” the Empress shot back.
“But we both like Gabrielle. And she’s why I’m here right now. So just shut up, and listen for a moment.”
Xena growled something under her breath, but otherwise she remained quiet.
“Okay, so…” Thalia moved a bit closer. “You probably know Gabrielle’s birthday is in three days from now.”
The Empress blinked at her. “Birthday?”
“Ooookay, so you don’t know,” Thalia muttered, scratching the back of her neck. “I thought you had all this stuff noted in those files of yours.”
“I do, I just…” Xena slapped herself in frustration. “I completely forgot.”

“Miss genius forgot. It’s a miracle." Thalia mumbled, then hastily continued when Xena shot her a foul look. “Anyway, I invited some friends for a big party. You’re right about the council stressing Gab out. And I figured she could use a good party to get her to unwind.”
“You’ve clearly spent a long time in the company of Amazons,” the Empress commented.
“But the thing is,” Thalia continued, completely ignoring her. “Gab has quite a lot of friends. I need a nice spacey location to have the party at…”

“Ah, I see.” Xena smirked. “And you figured a palace would do nicely, did you?”
The redhead simply nodded. “I’m sure you have some big room for party purposes around here somewhere. And it wouldn’t be too hard to get Gab in there. We could make up some story about a new location for a council meeting or something. That way it could be a surprise.”
“You want to surprise an experienced warrior with sharp senses and well honed reflexes?” Xena crossed her arms. “That could prove to be lethal, you know?”
“I’m willing to take a chance.” Thalia placed her hands on her hips and met Xena’s gaze with a determined one of her own. “How about you?”
The Empress stared at the redhead across from her for several moments longer, then she inclined her head in consent. “All right. You can have your party here. Under one condition.”
“I’m invited.”
“Oh, naturally,” Thalia easily consented. “Wouldn’t be fun without you, now would it?”

“Okay, this is scary,” a third voice mingled its way into the conversation. “You two in the same room for no obvious reason, talking.”
“Gab!” Thalia hastily spun around and produced a huge fake smile. “You’re here!”
“Yeeees,” the warrior drawled, eyeing her friend somewhat suspiciously. “I am. And you are here, ‘cause…?”
“Well, we…” The redhead stuttered. “We were going for a walk, remember?”
“I didn’t know our walk was going to take us into Xena’s room.” Gabrielle deadpanned, crossing her arms and shooting her friend a look. “What’s going on here?”

Xena repressed a smirk at Thalia’s panicky behaviour. She enjoyed letting the redhead babble on unintelligently for another bit, then decided to intervene. “I called her in here.” Both the other women turned and looked at her, Thalia with wide blinking eyes and Gabrielle with a raised, questioning eyebrow. “I wanted to talk to Thalia about the Academy,” Xena continued calmly, folding her hands together.
Gabrielle exhaled and shook her head. “Xena…”
“I didn’t do it for you,” the Empress smoothly cut the blonde’s accusations off. “I did it for me. Because I think the council’s decision sucks and I needed to yell at your friend here and tell her it sucks.”
Gabrielle studied her for another moment, seemingly not quite convinced, but finally she seemed to cave in with a small shrug. “So you feel better now that you’ve yelled?”
“Oh yes,” Xena beamed a smile at her. “Yelling at Thalia always gives me this warm fuzzy feeling inside.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the Empress, then headed back out the door. “Come on, Thal.”
“Right behind ya,” The redhead called after her, then quickly turned back over to Xena. “I’ll handle the guest stuff, you do the catering,” she ordered, before dashing out the door in pursuit of Gabrielle.
Xena waved a salute at the now empty doorframe, then circled her desk and dropped back into her chair. She popped her feet up on the table’s surface and gazed out the window pensively. After a moment ideas started to form, and a hint of a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

“So… Did you finish that homework?”
Iona started and spun around, then a smile spread across her face as she recognized her visitor. “Sure did.” She bunched some parchments together then handed them to Athena. “I’m a chapter ahead of schedule even, because I was enjoying all that learning so much.”
The goddess repressed a chuckle as she took the scribblings. “I’m sure you were.”
Athena took her time reading through the various assignments, ignoring Iona as the girl impatiently tapped her foot and drummed her fingertips on her desk. Finally she looked up. “And you did all of this in one day?”
Iona nodded. “It wasn’t that hard. I mean, the physics stuff was sorta complicated at times, but I like languages.”
“So I see,” Athena drawled, pointing to the words ‘Cogito, ergo doleo’ scribbled in a corner of a page filled with formulas. “I think, therefore I am depressed?”
“Caspar wrote that,” Iona stated with a straight face. “He’s a rebel.”
The goddess actually laughed at this. “Sure.” She placed the writings back on the desk. “Okay. You held up your end of the bargain. So it’s my turn now. Where do you want to go?”
Iona’s answer was instant. “Olympus!”
“Erhmmm…” Athena waggled her hand, not sharing her niece’s enthusiasm. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. The family’s a bit… edgy right now. I don’t think you’d like it much.”
“Oh,” the girl sighed, clearly disappointed.
Athena pensively tapped her chin with her index finger, then an idea seemed to spring to mind. “I might know a nice alternative though.”
Iona cocked her head in interest. “What?”
“You’ll see when we get there.” Athena smiled at her, then held out her hand. “You’ll like it. Trust me.”

“And then she tried to set me up with some guy from the north side of town and I spent the whole night listening to him explaining the intricate process of basket weaving.”
Gabrielle laughed, then quickly lifted a hand to her mouth. “Sorry.”
Thalia shot her a look. “No, you’re not.”
“I am.”
“You’re not,” the redhead insisted. “You’re getting a perverse pleasure out of watching me suffer.”
Gabrielle grinned, unable to deny the accusation. “Have you told Fay you don’t appreciate her matchmaking?”
“A thousand times.” A helpless sigh. “I mean, I love her like a mother, ya know, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotta start acting like one.”
The warrior chuckled softly, folding her hands behind her back as she walked. They’d chosen an old route along a hillside just outside of town, which offered a great view over the city. Athens was magical at night, with all its tiny lights chasing away the darkness. “I’m sure Fay means well.”
“I know, I know,” Thalia muttered as she kicked at a pebble and watched it tumble down the hillside. “She doesn’t want me to be lonely, she says.”
Gabrielle turned her head and studied her friend. “Are you?”
There was a long moment of silence, as the redhead pensively gazed up at the starlit sky. “No.” She finally said firmly. “I mean, sometimes, sure. Everyone is lonely sometimes, right?” Another pause, as Thalia carefully considered her words. “I’m just… I’ve been out of this whole social loop for so long, ya know? When I meet someone new, I just stare at them suspiciously and when they say something I don’t like I snap at ‘m and send them screaming into the night.”
“And you claim this is a new development?” Gabrielle murmured, then coughed as an elbow poked her in the stomach.
“No witty comments from you, keeper of the dark and murderous glare,” Thalia scolded.
“Sorry,” Gabrielle smirked at her friend, then reached out and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “There’s nothing wrong with your social skills, Thal. If someone had bored me all night talking about basket weaving, he wouldn’t have been able to run screaming into the night, ‘cause he’d have no tongue left to scream with.”
“Oeeeehhh,” Thalia purred, her eyes lighting up mischievously as she mentally de-tongued Mr. basket weaver. “Vicious. I like it. Next time Fay brings someone over for dinner, I’m giving you a call.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “If it’s bugging you that much, why don’t you move out? Get a place of your own?”
“I tried that.” Thalia sighed. “But Athens is a crowded city, you know? More people than there are rooms.”
Her friend considered this. “Well… I could probably find you a spot in the palace, but…”
“But then I’d have to socialise with Xena even more than I already do, which would not be a good thing, I assure you.”
Gabrielle released a breath, shaking her head a little. “I wish you two would get along.”
“Yeah, and I wish the earth wasn’t flat and could spin around in circles,” Thalia muttered sarcastically, then darted her friend an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, Gab. I’d pretend to like her, for your sake, but… I just can’t. I mean, we can have a conversation now without yelling and wanting to tear each other’s heads off. That’s something.”
The blonde nodded a little, her eyes fixed on the ground under their feet.
Thalia glanced up at the shadowed profile, her friend’s sadness clearly visible. “Look… If it means anything… I get why you like her now.”
Gabrielle cocked her hear. “You do?”
“She understands stuff I can’t. Big bad… ultimate warrior… stuff.”
The blonde snorted.
“And she looks out for you. I mean, just now, about the Academy. She was really mad. Just because it was something you wanted, she got upset.”
A smile tugged at the corner’s of Gabrielle’s mouth. “She can get a little... over protective.”
“Anyone who’s protective of you gets bonus points.” The redhead stated simply. “And then, last but not least, there’s still ‘the thing’.” Thalia drew quotation marks in the sky.
A chuckle. “You still haven’t figured that one out, have you?”
“Nope. You?”
“No,” Gabrielle admitted with a smirk. “But as soon as I do, I’ll let you know.”

Iona shielded her eyes from the bright light that surrounded her. She felt her feet leave the ground, but only moments after they touched earth again. Iona stumbled, but a hand on her shoulder steadied her and kept her from falling. “Are you okay?”
The girl blinked away the aftereffects of the flash, until finally she could make out her new surroundings.
It was a lush green forest she was standing in, totally unlike any of the Greek forests she’d ever been in. Branches and roots, covered in thick layers off moss, curled up and down in nearly impossible twists. Delicate swirls of mist circled among the trees and bushes, leaving the air slightly damp and somewhat chilly. The air smelled of growth, of wet earth and fresh leafs.
“Do you like it?” Athena inquired gently.
“It’s beautiful,” Iona murmured, before looking up at her divine companion. “Where are we?”
“This is the Isle of Shadow,” Athena informed her, her eyes taking in her surroundings in obvious appreciation. “It’s an island near Britannia. It was my home for many years.”
Iona frowned. “Your home? But… you live in Greece.”
“I fled when my brother took the throne,” Athena stated, as she placed a hand on Iona’s back and guided her through the thickly grown forest. “After he’d killed our father, I knew he’d be coming after me next. We’d never much liked each other. We are both gods of war, but… I was the one that tended to win.” The goddess flashed her niece a grin. “Ares couldn’t stand that. Nor the fact that I was father’s favorite.” Athena fell quiet for a moment, looking down at the moss-covered earth pensively. “I loved my father very much. When I heard what Ares had done… I wanted nothing more than to fight him. To avenge Zeus.” A shake of the dark blonde’s head. “But I knew I’d only die trying. Ares had a hind’s blood dagger, I didn’t have anything to use against it. I decided to bide my time, to hide somewhere Ares wouldn’t look until I found a way to take him out. So I came here.”
“Why here?” Iona asked, quite intrigued by the story.
“Because a friend of mine lives here,” Athena said, before pushing some leaves away.
The road sloped downwards and into a wide clearing, in which a castle stood, completely overgrown with mosses and poison ivy. The branches of a tree curled protectively around one of the towers. In front of the castle a small group of men was performing a complex sword drill, the polished blades reflecting the gentle sunlight beautifully.
As they walked closer, Iona noticed a woman with bright red curly hair pacing around the training men and shouting out instructions now and then. She was tall, nearly as tall as Xena, Iona thought. She seemed pretty strong too. The sleeveless leather vest she was wearing revealed strong shoulders and muscled upper arms.
A few moments later the woman seemed to hear something and looked up, spotting them. She straightened fully and a smile crossed her face instantly. “Athena!” She walked towards them and met them halfway, clasping Athena’s upper arm in an amicable gesture. “I didn’t expect you back this soon. How are things?”
“Complex,” Athena told her, before waving a hand at the girl at her side. “I want you to meet my niece. Iona, this is Scathach. She’s a goddess too.”
“Hi,” Iona managed a smile and extended her hand, which Scathach took.
As their hands touched, the Celtic goddess frowned though. “You’re mortal.”
“She’s Xena’s daughter,” Athena said calmly. “And Ares’.”
Scathach’s eyes shot to Athena’s. “Ares? You bring the daughter of Ares to my island?!”
Iona winced and quickly took a step back, glancing away guiltily. Athena wrapped an arm around her shoulders though and pulled her closer. “The sins of the father are not those of the child.”
Scathach looked doubtfully at her for another moment, but then gave in. She knelt down next to Iona and looked up at her. “My apologies.”
The girl glanced down at the goddess, still a little uneasy. “I’m…. I’m sorry if Ares hurt you. But I’m nothing like him. Really.”
The Celtic goddess smiled. “I believe you.” She straightened again and motioned them forward. “Come. Let me show you around.”

The guard standing at the palace’s front gate lifted a hand to his mouth to suppress a yawn. It was late by now, past midnight surely, but he still had a long shift ahead of him. Still, being a guard at the palace was a great honour, a job only given to the very best of Xena’s soldiers, and no matter how tired he was, he wanted to make a good impression on the queen.
Confidently he squared his shoulders and grasped his spear a little tighter, his eyes scanning the surroundings attentively. Not that there was much to impress the queen with, the guard had to admit, as he saw only darkness around him. No one dared to sneak into the palace, and visitors at this time of night were…
His line of thought stopped then as suddenly a figure emerged from the dark. The guard couldn’t see his face, as it was hidden in shadows by the hood he had pulled over his head.
Remembering protocol, the soldier quickly thumped his spear into the sand, blocking the visitor’s passage with the weapon. “Halt. Identify yourself.”
A low chuckle drifted up, then the stranger slowly lifted his right hand. His cloak’s long sleeve slid down and revealed a large golden ring on his finger. The moon appeared from behind a cloud and its light reflected on the metal, shining into the guards eyes.
The soldier’s eyes widened instantly. Not taking his eyes off the piece of jewellery he fumbled with the lock and opened the gates.

Scathach had turned out to be very nice after all, Iona decided as she wandered along by herself through the goddess’s grounds. She had told some awesome stories about battles she’d been in, had showed Iona a great technique to take down an opponent in three moves, no matter how big the guy was, and she’d given her cookies. Three clear indications of niceness.
This goddess wasn’t at all what Xena had said gods were like. She wasn’t ego-tripping power-hungry or manipulative. Scathach had been very friendly. She’d even seemed impressed when Athena had related the story of how Iona had rescued Xena and Gabrielle from the cross.
Now Athena and Scathach had settled down outside the castle and were talking about something that Iona had soon qualified as boring, so she’d decided to go for a bit of a stroll. Scathach’s island was very green and vibrant, and the few structures she had built seemed to have completely integrated into the landscape. The Celtic goddess had mentioned something about how her people lived very close to nature, an ideal which appealed to Iona, who’d always enjoyed the outdoors.
The sun was setting now, coloring everything in a soft orange. Birds twittered above her, flying back and forth busily as they prepared for the nightfall. Iona looked up as she walked and followed their flight for a moment, but then faced forward again.
She stopped and cocked her head. There was a slight incline up ahead, encircled by large trees. The branches of the trees extended over a circular stone structure, in an almost protective manner. Iona curiously moved closer. The structure turned out to be a well, Iona found, as she peeked inside and saw her face reflected on the calm surface of the water.
She reached inside and stirred the water a bit with her fingers and was just about to turn away, when a voice spoke up in a whisper. “I know who you are.”
Iona looked up and scanned her surroundings. “Where are you?”
“I know who you are,” the voice repeated, and Iona now realised it was coming from inside the well.
“Who am I then?” she asked, narrowing her eyes, trying to see if someone was hiding under the water’s surface.
“You are light,” the voice replied. “And you are darkness. You are strong and weak. Night and day.”
Iona gave the water a puzzled look. “Excuse me?”
“You are the one,” the voice continued, sadly now. “He will come for you. And you will lose. One way or the other, you will lose.”
“Iona!” Another voice called out to her, but this one she recognised as Athena’s. “We need to get back now!”
Iona ignored the goddess however and kept her attention fixed on the well. “What are you talking about? What do you mean, I will lose?”
There was no response.
“Come on!” The girl angrily slapped her hand onto the water’s surface. “Tell me!”
But nothing came from the well now, except the sound of water swirling up against the stones.
Athena called out to her again, somewhat more impatiently now. Iona bit her lip, staring into the rippling water for another moment, but then she turned and ran off, to where Athena’s voice had come from.

The palace was only dimly lit, which suited his purposes perfectly. He slid along the walls, his dark cloak making him practically invisible in the shadows. It wasn’t far, he knew. He passed one door, and another, then he stopped in front of the Empress’s chambers. He glanced around him, just to make sure he was alone, then he very carefully reached for the doorknob and started to twist…

“Whoa!” Strong arms caught him around the waist and dragged him to the ground. He struggled and nearly managed to crawl away, but his attacker grabbed onto the back of his cloak and jerked him back with such force he actually flew for several feet before he impacted with a wall. “Calaica,” he managed to curse in his own tongue, before his chin was grabbed and he was lifted clean off his feet. Moments later he was staring into raging green eyes.
“I don’t know how you managed to get into this palace, but sneaking up on the Empress… Bad idea.” Gabrielle growled, tightening her hold even further until he gurgled. “What are you doing here?”
Unable to speak, her victim lifted his hand. The dim torchlight reflected off the golden ring on his finger.  
The warrior looked at the ring, then back up. “So… You have a fancy ring. Remind me why this should convince me not to strangle you?”

The door behind them opened and Xena stepped into the hallway, dressed in only a faded blue sleep shirt. “What’s going on out here?” She muttered sleepily, ruffling a hand through her disordered dark hair. She stopped as she noticed the cloaked figure pinned up against the wall. “Aha… So what’s Mystery Boy here done?”
The cloaked figure tried to speak, but could only manage a gasp and some gurgling.
“I caught him outside your doorway.” Gabrielle said, not taking her eyes off the man. “He was trying to sneak inside.”
“I see.” Xena strolled closer and with a rough gesture pushed the man’s hood back, revealing his face.

Gabrielle frowned. She’d expected the attacker to be the man she’d seen a glimpse of in the marketplace. But this wasn’t him. This man seemed only a little younger than Xena. He had black hair that reached his shoulders and his skin was lightly coloured. He was a handsome man, with quite a slender built it seemed, though his cloak hid most of his body.

Behind her, Xena crossed her arms. “Well, well… Trying to sneak up on me, were you?”
The man’s eyes narrowed in annoyance. “Xena!” He managed to hiss, motioning frantically towards his neck, which Gabrielle still had a firm grip on. “Need air!”
The Empress continued to stare sternly at him for another moment, but she couldn’t manage that too much longer and soon a laugh escaped her. “Put him down.”
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at her, not too eager on letting some guy go, who nearly made it into Xena’s quarters unnoticed.
“It’s okay,” the Empress assured her with a grin. “I know him.”

With a sigh Gabrielle drew back her hand, dropping the man back to his feet unceremoniously. He drew in a deep breath and quickly reached for his throat, rubbing the soar skin. After a moment though, he looked up at Xena. “So this is the welcome I get? After all these years, I nearly get butchered in the hallway?”
“Butchered gets far more bloody,” Gabrielle commented dryly as she crossed her arms. “I’d be happy to give you a demonstration.”
The man shot Gabrielle another look, then quickly shuffled a few steps in the opposite direction, taking up a more secure position at Xena’s side. He leaned a bit closer, dropping his voice. “Are all your guards this bloodthirsty?”

The Empress snorted. “She’s not my guard.”
“Well, that’d explain why she didn’t recognise my ring.” He waved a finger at the Empress. “Whatever she is, you’re supposed to remind her that this is supposed to get me in anywhere without getting squashed into a pulp. I mean, really, I could have just…”
Xena just smiled back at him. “Odilon, I’d like you to meet Gabrielle.”

The man fell instantly silent. He turned and stared at the warrior for several heartbeats, then he shot a glance over his shoulder, back at Xena. “No way!”
The Empress grinned.
“No way!” Odilon repeated in total shock. “You mean I just got shoved up against the wall by your girlfriend?” He faced forward again, his eyes slowly traveling down Gabrielle’s form, with far more interest. Finally, he smirked. “Well, at least I get what you’re keeping her around for now.”

“Excuse me?” Gabrielle shot him a deadly look. “Xena, who is this?”
“Odilon is my…” The Empress chose her words carefully. “Information manager.”
The warrior raised an eyebrow. “He’s a spy?”
Xena smirked. “That’s another way of putting it.”

“I heard you let her beat you up,” Odilon meanwhile continued obliviously. “Didn’t think you were still into that, Xena.”
Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed even further and she was just about to open her mouth and start yelling at him, when Xena smoothly intervened. “I’m sure you must be thirsty after such a long trip.” She indicated the door to her study. “Go inside, Odie, pour yourself a drink.”
Odilon placed his hands on his hips. “I told you not to call me that.”  
“Well, I’ll stop calling you that when you stop accusing me of being ‘into’ things I was never into,” Xena easily retorted, before waving a hand towards the door. “Go.”
“Yes, your highness.” Odilon bowed with exaggerated humbleness, then did as he was told, disappearing into the study and closing the door behind him.

“What a pig!” Gabrielle blurted instantly.
Xena pretended to rub at her chin in an attempt to hide her grin.
“He gets what you’re ‘keeping me around for’? I mean, what does he think I am, your love slave?” Gabrielle went on, her eyes flashing. “And then he goes on and accuses you of…”

A kiss put a sudden halt to her ramblings. “Thanks,” Xena murmured as she pulled back, her arms wrapped around the blonde’s waist. “For… trying to protect me from ‘the pig’.” She reached out and gently stroked a lock of blond hair back behind an ear. “I feel very safe right now.”
Gabrielle bent her head a little, unable to repress a shy smile. “It was luck, really. I just came over to say thanks. For today.” She looked back up again, meeting bright blue eyes. “I had a good time.”
“You wanna do it again tomorrow?” Xena instantly suggested, drawing a laugh from the blonde.
“I can’t,” Gabrielle said. “But… maybe the afternoon. I think Argo needs to stretch her legs a little. She was getting restless.”
“Well, you know what they say. Like horse, like…”
The warrior poked her in the side. “Shut it.”
Xena laughed softly.

They were silent for a moment, Gabrielle idly plucking at a loose thread on the Empress’s sleep shirt. “He’s…”she finally started. “He’s not really a friend of yours, is he?”
Xena smiled. “I’m afraid he is.”
Gabrielle huffed out a frustrated breath. “But he’s such a…”
“He’s okay,” Xena cut her short gently. “He can be a little… tactless, true. I like that about him though, makes me know where we stand.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t care where he stands. As long as it’s not near me.”
The Empress chuckled softly. “It’s nice of you to prove how open-minded you democrats are.”

“He’s sending off bad vibes.” Gabrielle muttered in dismay. “And I tend to trust my instinct.”
“He’s supposed to do that,” Xena replied. “He’s not just any spy, Gabrielle. He’s THE spy. That ring he flashed at you, that’s one of my seal rings. There are only three of those. Every official and soldier knows what it means; that the person who wears it can speak and act on my behalf. Odilon can sign decrees, proclaim death sentences, even overthrow local governments if he wants to. He’s not just a friend. He’s one of my most valued allies.”
“If he’s so powerful, why have I never heard of him?”
A shrug. “Because he’s a spy. Actually, you’re now one of the merry few who know his actual name.”
“Yippee,” the warrior drawled sarcastically.
Xena smirked, then turned more serious. “I should… really go meet with him now. He doesn’t visit often, so he’s probably here for a good reason.” A slight hesitation, then she continued. “You can come in and join us, if you want to. You can hear whatever he has to say.”
Gabrielle actually smiled at this. “Thanks. But I think I’m a bit too edgy for a politically correct conversation right now. If he has anything important to say, I’ll hear about it tomorrow, right?”
“You bet. We fighting tomorrow?”
“Of course,” the warrior grinned at her, before leaning closer and placing a kiss on the Empress’s lips. “See you in the arena?”
“Uhuh,” Xena managed to murmur. Gabrielle smiled at her and was just about to walk away, but then she seemed to reconsider and turned back around. “Xena?”
“He has a ring, and I’m guessing you do…” Gabrielle looked at her inquisitively. “Who has the third?”
The Empress released a breath, then produced a sad little smile. “Pyrron did.”

“So… I’m THE spy, am I?”
Xena closed the door to her study behind her. “You’re not supposed to listen in on my private discussions.”
“Sorry, force of habit,” Odilon took a sip of wine before placing the glass back on the table. “And rampant curiosity, of course.”
“Of course,” Xena smirked, then closed the distance between them and pulled him into a hug.

“Well, well,” Odilon murmured in amusement. “If I knew I’d be getting hugs from you, I’d have come back sooner.”
Xena drew in a deep breath and then released it again. “I’m just…” She pulled back a little and clasped his shoulders. “I’m just glad you’re here.” A smile as she patted him on the cheek affectionately. “You look good.”
“Of course I do,” Odilon replied mock-haughtily. “Can you remember a time when I did not look utterly handsome?”
The man stuck his tongue out at her, after which they both laughed.

“I see you’ve tried the wine,” Xena went on after the laughter had wound down, walking towards her liquor cabinet to fill a glass of her own. “Good stuff, isn’t it?”
“Rich, fruity…” Odilon took a sip of his glass as he strolled through the room. “African?”
“Yep,” Xena confirmed as she poured out some of the deep red liquid. “Still the expert, I see?”
“When you’ve been to as many places as I…”

Odilon left the thought unfinished as his eyes found something of interest. He reached up and took a picture off the wall, studying it with a mixture of interest and sadness.
Xena looked up at him, then gazed back down at the gently rippling surface of the wine. “Niobe drew that.”
“Niobe,” Odilon repeated thoughtfully, as he studied the stick figures drawn above and below the line of green. “The child which was both a blessing and a curse.”
“She was just a blessing,” the Empress corrected softly. “She couldn’t help that her mother was…”
“I know, I know,” the young man cut her short. “I just…” A sigh. “You know how I felt about Ismene. I knew her the longest. She was like a sister to me.” He gently let his fingers run over the two figures drawn under the grass. “She loved him so much. I wanted to take her with me. Let her see the world. But…” He shook his head. “She told me he was her world. I never really understood that.”

Xena settled down on the edge of her desk, studying him quietly. “I’m assuming you know.”
“I know,” Odilon said, the emotion barely audible in his voice. Xena could detect it though.
“I tried to contact you. But you’re a pretty tough guy to get a hold of.”
A small smile. “Sorta the point.” He looked up. “I couldn’t believe it, when I heard. I mean, of the three of us, I always guessed Pyrron’d be the last to croak. He was always the quiet, reliable guy who tried to avoid danger and risky situations. Getting into trouble was always our forte.”
Xena folded her hands and rested them on her knee. “I miss him so much. He was…” A breath. “He was my lifeline, ya know? Everything I screwed up, he fixed. And whenever I wasn’t sure, I could just talk to him about it and that’d clear the whole thing up. He made stuff simple.” She rubbed at her eyes tiredly. “Now everything is so complex.”  

Odilon looked up from the drawing, studying his friend for a moment. Finally he walked closer, leaning against the desk next to Xena. He carefully placed the drawing down beside him, then wrapped an arm around her shoulders. The Empress glanced up at him hesitantly for a moment, then gave in and laid her head on his shoulder, exhaling as she closed her eyes. “I missed you, Odie.”
“Yeah, well… Who wouldn’t?” Odilon drawled, smiling a little as Xena chuckled faintly. “So…” He rested his cheek against her hair. “What do you wanna talk about first? The democratisation of that nifty dictatorship you had going on, your aggressive girlfriend or your daughter.”

Xena actually laughed at this. “I bet you want me to start with the daughter.”
“I can’t believe you managed to keep that from me,” the spy retorted somewhat grumpily. “My pride was severely bruised when I found out.”
“Only Pyrron knew. Not even Ismene figured it out, and she was around Iona every day.”
“I know, I know, but still,” Odilon muttered. “Me being THE spy and all.” A shake of his head. “It just never even crossed my mind, you know. You’re not exactly the family type. Or at least, so I thought.”
Xena shrugged. “I’ve changed.”
“Is it possible?” Odilon countered with a frown. “Possible to change that much in one and a half year?”
The Empress shook her head a little. “It started before you left.” A small smile. “About ten years before that.”
“With Iona?”
A nod. “With Iona.”

Gabrielle woke up a few moments before dawn. She stretched, then lazily rolled over and hugged the covers a bit closer, closing her eyes for another few moments.

She was getting lazy and she knew it. Gabrielle smiled a little. The luxuriousness of the palace was intoxicating, with its thick sun proof curtains and feather-soft beds. And it didn’t help much that Xena was spoiling her with scrumptious meals and healthy servings of baklava.

With a sigh Gabrielle pushed herself up and unwillingly left her warm nest of slumber. It was probably all a plan of Xena’s. Stuffing her with food and all that, to make her lose her edge in battle.

Well, it was not going to work, she told herself as she walked into the bathroom. She was healthy and healed from nasty sword wounds, she was strong and focused and she was going to…

“Ouch!” The warrior groaned and lifted a head to her aching forehead, which had just collided with the open door of one of the cabinets. “Great mother of...” she glanced at her reflection in the mirror, scowling at the red spot which was bound to become a nasty bump in the very near future. “Yes, this is just wonderful, thank you very much.” Angrily she jammed the plug in its spot in the basin and let it fill with water. “A nice throbbing headache was just what I was going for this morning.”  

She scooped up two handfuls of water and threw the cold liquid into her face unmercifully, ignoring the goose bumps and jolt of pain emanating from her bump-to-be.

She cleaned, then dressed in a pair of black leather trousers and a simple red shirt which had a black leather dragon running up its length. She cast one more look in the mirror, darting a foul look at the nasty red spot on her forehead, before heading for the door.

She went straight to the arena, even though Xena wouldn’t meet her there for another quarter of a candlemark. She intended to use the leftover time to train a little. Work off her frustration and glue some shattered pieces of ego back together.

With determined paces she strode into the arena, expecting to find it empty. However….

“Well, hello,” a cheerful voice rang out, echoing a little through the emptiness.
Gabrielle looked up, then narrowed her eyes as she spotted Odilon looking down at her, lounging in one of the many seats. “What are you doing here?”
The dark haired man grinned in amusement. “Good morning to you too.”

The warrior gazed at him for another moment, then released a breath. “Sorry,” she said, meaning it. “Good morning.”
“Better.” Odilon smirked, before rising to his feet. “And in answer to your so tactfully posed question as to why I’m here,” he continued, while he slowly descended the steps towards her. “Xena told me about these little… catfights. I figured that’d be worth getting up early for. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Xena fight.” He cocked his head a little in thought. “The last time… ah, yes, the last time was a soldier who’d tried to sell her out. Unfortunately for him, I found out about it.” He chuckled a little to himself. “She fought with a rage. A fire. Afterwards he was less of a man and more of a… pulp.”
Gabrielle crossed her arms and stared at him, trying not to visualize what human pulp would look like.
“Of course, that was nothing compared to the massacre at Persepolis. Carthage. And oh…” he hummed to himself in delight as he reached the bottom of the steps. “Rome. Gorious Rome.” Another soft chuckle. “I forgot how many she killed there, but… I can remember the streets littered with bodies. Crying children bent over their mother’s lifeless shapes, men pinned up against…”

“What’s your point?” Gabrielle interrupted him in a hiss, her eyes shimmering with a deep anger.
Odilon looked at her for a moment, with a piercing direct look, then he smiled charmingly at her. “You believe there’s a point to this? I can’t just be… reveling in old memories?”
Gabrielle just continued to stare at him, not dignifying that remark with an answer.
The young man laughed softly, clearly enjoying himself. “I guess my point was to illustrate how much I look forward to watching Xena win.”
“I might have to disappoint you then. She hasn’t defeated me yet.”
“Ah yes, I’ve heard you’re supposed to be quite good. I don’t quite trust rumors though. People can be so easily manipulated.” Odilon smiled at her, leaning his arms on the wooden railing separating them. “I’ve seen Xena lose, you see. Several times even. Whenever it somehow suited her purposes to make her enemy believe she was weak, she would…”

Gabrielle snorted. “She’s not pretending to lose. Trust me.”
“I’m afraid I can’t,” Odilon retorted pleasantly. “I trust no one but myself. If I haven’t seen something with my very own eyes…”
“Fine. Come on then.” Gabrielle took a step back and motioned him forward. “Come find out for yourself.”
Odilon’s face lit up with a big wicked smile. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Gabrielle measured him up as he hopped over the railing and headed towards her. She realized this was exactly what he wanted, though she didn’t have the faintest idea why. And, basically, she didn’t care. Her head hurt and he’d trampled all over her last nerve. She had the feeling though that beating this smug man up a little was bound to make her feel lots better. “Choose your weapon.”
“Oh, I don’t have to choose,” Odilon replied easily, pulling a blade from a sheath dangling from his belt. “I only really know how to use this one.”

He held the weapon up, letting the soft morning light reflect off it. It was quite a large blade, one side bent into an angle and the other sharpened side curving down. It was forged from strong steel. “Falcate,” he explained. “Only two good things came from Iberia. Me,” he smirked. “And this blade.”

“Good is such a subjective word,” Gabrielle retorted, turning her back on him and walking over to the weapon storage. She gazed at her options for a moment, then decided to go for a quarterstaff. Not the easier weapon to wield against someone with a big sharp blade, sure, but that would ensure this battle would be somewhat interesting for her, even if the guy was a sucky fighter. Which he was bound to be, compared to Xena at least.

Odilon tsk-ed at her as she turned back around to face him. “Underestimating your opponent, Gabrielle?”
“I normally don’t,” the warrior replied easily. “But for you, I’ll make an exception.”
The man chuckled in amusement. “Ah, punning before the battle. The trademark of any hero.” He flexed his hands around his weapon as he took a step closer to her. “Yes, the great Gabrielle who overcame crucifixion and internal torment, came back here to restore the rule of the people, but then somehow also restored the conscience and conquered the heart of her greatest foe.” He frowned thoughtfully. “You know, someone should really write that all down. It’d make a riveting story.”

Without any warning he swung his weapon at her, which Gabrielle only just managed to duck under. “Too bad it’s a lie though.” He leashed out at her again, failing to his her a second time. “‘Cause that’s not why you came back, is it?”

Gabrielle rolled away when the blade came for her a third time, creating some distance between her and Odilon. She hastily got back to her feet, taking on a defensive position. “What are you talking about?”

“You’d know better than I,” the spy smirked, then came at her again, but this time Gabrielle was ready, and she easily sidestepped his attack and then swept the falcate aside with her staff. This created an opening, and she greedily took advantage of it, getting in three hits against his chest and shoulder, driving him several paces back. She tried to swipe the legs out from under him, but he’d regained his composure and smoothly hopped out of the way.

This left Gabrielle, who’d been kneeling to execute the swipe move, somewhat compromised, and Odilon didn’t waste time to counter attack. He lifted his weapon up, but before he could bring it down on her, Gabrielle swung her body up on her hands and kicked out, hitting him square in the chest and sending him flying back several paces.

Odilon landed flat on his back, his breath pushed out of his body with a loud ‘ugh’. Meanwhile, Gabrielle neatly finished her move, pushing her hands off from the ground and landing neatly on her feet again. She kicked her staff up with the tip off her boot and neatly scooped it out of the air.

“Nice,” Odilon commented, as he scrambled back to his feet. “I have to admit, you’re no disappointment. Fast, graceful, agile… Quite a difference from Xena’s previous interests. She must have special plans for you.” A beat. “Or is it the other way around?”

With a growl Gabrielle launched a new attack, slamming her staff into one side of his body and then the other. Before he could recover she ran for him, walking up his body and kicking him harshly in the head.

She flipped backwards and landed solidly, then watched him stagger back. Disoriented he reached for his nose, where blood stuck to his fingers. He looked up, meeting fiery green eyes. “Stop talking in riddles,” Gabrielle instructed him. “They piss me off.”

Odilon managed something between a cough and a laugh as he wiped his arm across his face, swiping some of the blood down his cheek. “Fine. Truth then.” He straightened and looked at her, calmly. “You’re not who you pretend to be. I know. I know everything.” He swiped a hand at the area. “Everybody thinks you’re a liberator. A woman of peace. But it’s a lie.” He started to circle her, almost predatorily. “I know about what you did in Chin. I talked to people who actually shivered when I said your name. I know about the soldiers you picked off in Macedonia, one by one by...”

He gasped in a breath as the tip of a staff was shoved against his throat. “You don’t know anything,” Gabrielle hissed at him. “You stay the Hades out of my business.”
Odilon flashed a grin at her. “I’m afraid I can’t.” In a lightning fast move he ducked away, then half turned and slammed the hilt of his sword against the bump on her forehead.

The pain seared through her head. Flecks of light played before her eyes and for a moment she was blinded by them. She saw a shadow approach and tried to defend herself, but the staff was useless against the power of the falcate. It cut through the wood as if through butter, neatly slicing the weapon in half.

“You see, Gabrielle,” she heard Odilon speak in a smooth voice. “When you decided to get close to Xena, you became my business. Now, I might not be as fast as you, or as strong, and I might not be as good a fighter.” A shove against her shoulder sent her crashing to the ground. A knee pinned her body to the sand, while a strong hand grabbed onto her wrists and held them tightly above her head. Gabrielle blinked and when the flecks of light faded she looked up into Odilon’s dark eyes, staring back at her from a very close range. “But every ‘hero’ has a weak spot. An Achilles’ heel. You can be sure I’ll find yours. It’s what I do, you see?” He leaned even closer, dropping his voice to a dangerous whisper. “And once I’ve found it, you can be sure you’ll regret I did.”

“What’s going on here?” A third voice suddenly joined in, and Odilon lifted his head to see Xena standing in the arena’s entrance, hands on hips.

Gabrielle didn’t bother looking up, but simply used the moment to retaliate, raising up an unsecured leg and swinging it around Odilon’s neck. With a gurgle the man was yanked to the ground and off the warrior, who wasted no time in getting to her feet.

When Odilon tried to stand a knee shoved up against his chin sent him stumbling back again. A fist impacted with his face and another and another. When he was just about to fall onto the ground again he was forced back to his feet and an elbow jabbed at his chest shoved up against the arena wall mercilessly. He yelped as one of his arms was twisted up behind his back, in a way arms aren’t supposed to be twisted. Blood seeped down his lips and into his mouth. His eyes sought Gabrielle’s and he found them darkened with a deep, simmering rage. With a jerk she pulled his arm a bit higher, making his face contort in pain.

Hasty footsteps rushed closer and moments later Xena slid to a halt behind them. “Okay, I think that’s about enough of these pleasantries.” She paused, waiting for Gabrielle to back off, but she didn’t. Carefully, she took a step closer, laying both hands on the warrior’s shoulders. “Gabrielle?”

Odilon dropped to the ground as he was suddenly released. Gabrielle twisted away from Xena’s touch, spared the Empress a single stormy glance, then strode off, out of the arena.

Xena watched her pace away in total bewilderment, then her attention was forced back to the battered form of a man lying at her feet. Odilon managed to push himself up a bit, ending up leaning back against the wall, breathing heavily. “Well,” he managed between breaths, as swept the back of his arm over his forehead, mixing blood and sweat. “That was… interesting…”
“What did you do?” Xena asked him, then hastily lifted both her hands. “Never mind, I don’t wanna know. I expect to see you in my office in a candlemark, Odie.” She turned and ran out of the arena herself. “You’ll be lucky if I’ll let you get off as easy as she did.”

Odilon gazed after her, then shook his head a little. “So,” he pushed himself up, wincing as the bruises on his side and face stung. “Angered the two most renowned warriors in the known world,” he analyzed calmly. “Fine start of the day.”

The door to the stables creaked softly as Xena carefully pushed it open. When she’d exited the arena, Gabrielle was nowhere in sight. Which had to mean she’d gone into the stables, since Xena had followed her almost instantly and the stables were the nearest building.

Inside, it was mostly quiet, but Xena could hear the soft sound of a brush not too far away. When she took a few steps closer, surely there was Gabrielle cleaning off Argo with fast somewhat impatient strokes. The mare was eying the warrior somewhat worriedly.

Carefully the Empress moved closer, until she was almost next to Argo’s box.
Hearing something, the mare looked up, then immediately laid back her ears and bristled angrily. Xena merely narrowed her eyes at the animal.

“I just don’t get it,” Gabrielle spoke up, keeping her eyes on her task. “I just don’t get why he is your friend.” She tossed her brush into a corner and reached for a softer one to continue her work. “I mean, he’s ignorant and insolent and he believes the whole world just revolves around him.”
“No, he doesn’t.” Xena ignored Argo’s angry snorts and leaned in the doorway, watching Gabrielle work. “He knows full well the world revolves around me and me alone.”
The warrior shot her an angry look. “Don’t turn this into a joke. This is not a joke.”  

The Empress released a breath, her eyes dropping to study the straw under her feet. “So… Is that why you’re mad at me? Because he’s my friend?”
Gabrielle’s hands stilled and she glanced over at Xena again. Finally she released a tensed breath. “I’m not mad at you.” She dropped her brush and walked closer to the Empress, covering her hands with her own. “It’s not you, it, it’s…” A breath. “It’s me.”

Blue eyes peeked up at her somewhat suspiciously. “This is sounding a lot like we’re breaking up.”
A smile tugged at the warrior’s lips. “I’m not breaking up with you.”
“You sure?” Xena asked, not looking too convinced.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, then stepped even closer, placing a kiss on the Empress’s lips. “I’m not breaking up with you,” she repeated softly into Xena’s ear.
“Good,” Xena mumbled back, wrapping her arms around the warrior’s neck. “I’d really miss you, you know?”
Gabrielle looked kind of charmed by that. “Would you?”
The Empress just nodded a little. “I mean,” she hastily amended. “I don’t wanna get all dependant and everything, but…” she paused, then frowned. “What happened to your head?”

“Huh?” Gabrielle blinked at the sudden change of subject.
Xena reached out and carefully touched the angry red bump on Gabrielle’s forehead. The warrior flinched at the touch. The Empress’s eyes darkened a fraction. “Did he do that?” She huffed out an angry breath. “When I’m through with him, he’s gonna…”
“No, no…” Gabrielle hastily shook her head. “That wasn’t him. It was… I…” She stopped her stuttering and released a breath. “I walked up against a door.”

Xena just stared at her. “You what?”  
“I got up and I was telling myself how great I was and how I was totally gonna beat you today and… And I didn’t see the open cabinet door and I sorta…” She made a vague motion with her hands.

Xena attempted to repress a laugh. “You walked up against a door?” She failed. “Really?”
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at the Empress.
“Sorry,” Xena weakly apologized. “It’s just… The one person I can’t defeat in battle gets beaten up by a door. It’s funny.”
“It’s painful,” The warrior muttered. “For both head and ego.”
“Poor thing,” the Empress gently placed a kiss on the bump. “Better?”

Gabrielle finally managed a smile as well, then pulled the other woman into a hug, laying her head against a sturdy shoulder. “Yes. Thank you.” A breath. “I’m sorry I took my frustration out on you. That wasn’t fair.”
“It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not,” Gabrielle replied immediately. “It’s not your fault Odilon is such a jerk.”

The Empress pulled back a little, looking down at her inquisitively. “What did he say that upset you so much? I mean, it was clear you didn’t like him before, but you totally pulverized him just now.”  
“Just…” Gabrielle shrugged a little. “Stuff. About me. About you.” A sigh. “I was having a lousy morning. I guess he just got to me.”
“Well, I’ll tell him to keep his distance,” Xena said, having decided not to push the issue. “You probably won’t have to put up with him long. Odilon’s a drifter. He doesn’t usually stick around for a long time.”  She wound an arm around the blonde’s shoulders and steered her towards the stable door. “C’mon. I wanna take a look at that bump of yours. Might have some herbs to reduce the swelling and the pain.”
“That’s be great,” Gabrielle groaned, as she pillowed her head on Xena’s shoulder. “My forehead feels like a horse just danced the salsa on it.”
Behind her, Argo snorted indignantly.

“No offence, girl.” Gabrielle turned and stroked the mare’s head. “I’ll be back later, okay”
Argo glanced at the Empress, then her eyes went back to Gabrielle accusingly.
“Now, don’t get jealous,” Gabrielle waved finger at the horse, then gave her a last pat before turning around and joining Xena. “All right, Empress. Let’s go, so you can do your magic.”

“Gladly,” the other woman wrapped an arm around Gabrielle as they walked, then peeked back over her shoulder at Argo. She stuck her tongue out at the mare. The horse actually hissed back at her. Xena just chuckled in response, facing forward again.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” Xena replied innocently, steering Gabrielle out of the stables and closing the door behind them.

“Good morning,” the soldier said cheerfully as he pushed open the door with a foot, while carefully balancing a tray. “I take it you’ve slept well.”
Callisto bared her teeth at him and hissed.
“That’s good to hear,” the soldier smiled charmingly at her, clearly enjoying himself. “Now, this lovely morning the cook has prepared some excellent porridge for you.”

“Gee, porridge… How delightful,” the blonde muttered, having had the same breakfast for a month now.
“We noticed how much you’ve enjoyed it the last fifty days, so we figured, what the hey… You know what we say at the Palace Inn: we’ll do anything to please our guests.”
“Yes, you’re a doll.” Callisto shot him an icy stare. “You really are. I’m sure you have one of those little strings on your back that you need to pull each morning to make you talk.”

“Tch…” The soldier wagged a finger at her. “Sticks and stones…”
“You just wait till I get my hands on some of those sticks,” his prisoner grumbled. “I’ll spike one up your nose and push till it comes out of your ear. And I know a nice place to put those stones too.”
“Ah, yes… And you’ll be doing that when you’ve served your sentence for trying to kill the Empress? When was that again, somewhere next millennium?” He shivered purposefully. “Golly, I’m so scared.”

Callisto shot him a look. “Just gimme the damn porridge.”
“What do we say?”
“Just gimme the damn porridge, you idiot.”
The soldier chuckled, then lifted a hand and motioned her back. Callisto hesitated for a moment, but then complied, walking to the back of her cell. She leaned against the back of the wall, then watched as the guard opened a small hatch and slipped the tray through. The soldier rose back to his feet, then flashed a bright smile at her. “Enjoy your breakfast.”
Callisto produced a similar smile in response. “Piss off.”
The soldier laughed, then wiggled his fingers at her, before starting back toward the door.

Callisto quickly moved closer, squatting down next to the tray and dipping a finger in the porridge. She stuck the finger in her mouth and tasted the substance, grimacing at the complete lack of flavor. It was only then that she noticed some other items on her tray. “Hey, clown fish?”
The soldier who’d just reached to door stopped and turned. “Excuse me?”
“When did parchment and charcoal enter the menu?”
“The men… Ow, that.” He shrugged. “Her majesty’s adviser asked me to give that to you. She said something like that this’d be a good time for you to take up an old hobby or something. There’s a small jar of honey too, for in the porridge. Apparently you complained about the taste.” The guard turned back toward the door, pushing it open. “The cook was crushed.”

Callisto ignored him, as she hastily poured honey into her breakfast, then took another try. “Hmm,” she mumbled, finding the whole mixture somewhat more edible now. “Well, I’ll be. Some honey from my honey.” She giggled, then turned her attention to the paper and charcoal. She frowned. “Gabby couldn’t have just gotten me a pencil, could she? Pencil is a sort of stick. I could have had some fun with that.” Callisto swallowed down another spoonful of porridge as she absently started drawing lines on the parchment. Another bite and some more lines. “Huh,” the blonde smirked, as an idea arose and she started connecting some lines to each other, drawing a outline of a man’s body dressed in royal uniform. Then she drew a pointy stick. Callisto grinned widely. “No 3D puzzle. But this’ll do.”

Gabrielle gulped down the foul tasting mixture, then closed her eyes and leaned back in Xena’s desk chair. “Ugh… And now I need to puke. Thanks for adding that to my list of morning troubles.”
Soft footsteps sounded behind her and a moment later a cold cloth was gently placed against her forehead. “Try not to. I just had the carpets cleaned.”
The blonde leaned into the cloth, its coolness soothing against her skin. “You care more about your carpets than me?”
“Well,”  Xena drawled, placing a kiss on the warrior’s temple. “Thing about carpeting is, it just absorbs the mess… You create it.”

Gabrielle leaned back a bit and gazed up at her. “Please tell me you didn’t just use puking as a metaphor.”
The Empress grinned. “Didn’t mean to. Must be that bard thing of yours rubbing off on me.”  
“Bard thing?”  Gabrielle shot her a look. “I don’t have a bard thing.”
“Sure you do,”  Xena smiled, then laid a hand on her shoulder, to keep the blonde from turning around fully. “Now sit still. You need to give the herbs some time to kick in.”

The blonde sat back, staring ahead of herself pensively. “How do you know?”
“That you have a bard thing?” The Empress considered this a little, then shrugged. “Well, I read your application to the Academy. And some other stuff you wrote back then, for the resistance.”
“That was before.”
“So?”  Xena took the cloth off Gabrielle’s forehead and walked back to the basin to pour some more cold water on it.
“So… I don’t think…”  the blonde sighed. “I don’t think I can do it anymore.”
“I don’t buy that,” the Empress stated bluntly. “I mean, I may be the invincible and feared conqueror of the world now…”
Gabrielle snorted.
“…but that doesn’t mean the insecure village teenager I used to be isn’t still a part of me,” Xena continued on obliviously. “I still know how to milk a cow or herd sheep or brew ale.”
“I don’t think brewing ale and storytelling fall into the same category, Xena.”
“They’re both forms of art,” the Empress deadpanned. Gabrielle rolled her eyes, shaking her head as little.

Xena smiled as she made her way back over to the warrior, kneeling down in front of her so they were at eyelevel. She gently placed the cold cloth over the bump on Gabrielle’s forehead, using her free hand to push a lock of blond hair off her forehead. Green eyes lifted and they just looked at each other for a moment, until Xena finally broke the silence. “Look, I…” A pause. “I don’t want to pressure you or anything. Just because I think you can do something doesn’t mean you should.  If you don’t want to write, then you shouldn’t write. The gods know I don’t ever want to be milking cows again.”
The edges of Gabrielle’s mouth edged up a bit.
“It’s just…” the empress shrugged a little. “I mean, I know you feel you lost stuff. Before. I did. And… when things calmed down in my life, when I settled down here in Athens, I remember wanting to find those things I lost. I felt they could make me happy.” Xena ran a hand through the blonde locks. “I think this can make you happy. And that’s what I want for you.”

They gazed at each other for another moment, then Gabrielle covered Xena’s hand with her own, pulling it closer and kissing the palm. “Thank you. For caring.”
The Empress smiled. “It’s in my job description.”
“Good thing you’re such a dutiful employee,” Gabrielle said, leaning forward and capturing Xena’s lips.
“I live to serve,” the Empress mumbled, as they separated.
Gabrielle smirked. “Right.”

Silence fell for a moment, then Gabrielle drew in a breath. “Xena?”
“Did you find it? The things you’d lost?”
Blue eyes peeked up at her, a touch hesitantly. “Yes. And no.”
Blond brows frowned. “What did you go looking for?
Xena sucked in a breath, and then released it again. “Home.”

Gabrielle pursed her lips. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, no, it’s okay.” The Empress interrupted her. “It’s good you did. ‘Cause…” A breath. “I mean, it was hard. Going home and then realizing… Realizing it wasn’t my home anymore. That my mother felt ashamed to be my mother, to such an extent that she…” Xena had to stop and swallowed the lump in her throat. “But I’m glad I did go back. It taught me something.”
“How strong a blood bond can be.” Xena managed a small smile. “‘Cause I still love her. In spite of what I did and what she did and what we did to each other, I still wish she could be here now. And… it strengthens me to know, that’s the same sort of bond I share with Iona. That, in spite of everything I did and will do, she can still love me. And that I’ll love her back, no matter what.”
“That’s beautiful,” Gabrielle said softly.
“It is,” Xena replied with a smile. “I…”

She stopped talking then as both she and Gabrielle looked towards the door. “Company,” Gabrielle murmured. Xena just nodded, as she removed the cloth and took a last look at Gabrielle’s injury. “You gonna be okay?”
“Medicine is kicking in,” the warrior confirmed. “I already feel much better.”
“Good,” Xena rose to her feet and tossed the cloth back into the basin.

Meanwhile the door behind her opened and Caspar came running in, followed only moments later by Iona, who was chasing after him with a furious look on her face. Caspar instantly sought shelter behind Gabrielle.
“Come here, you little vermin,” Iona hissed as she made a grab for him, but missed. Caspar ducked out of the way, using Gabrielle as a barrier between him and the furious girl.

Gabrielle’s eyes followed the children speeding by as they ran circles around her, then she leaned back and closed her eyes. “Getting nauseous again…”
“Hey!” Xena decided this was a good moment to intervene. “Hey!” When there was no response she extended her arm and waited. Moments later Caspar bumped into it, and shortly after that Iona bumped into Caspar. “Okay, what’s going on here?”
“Look what he did!” Iona lifted up a piece of parchment she’d been holding for her mother to see. The parchment had scribbling on it, but a huge blob of black ink mostly covered the writing. “It’s all over my homework! Now I’ll have to do it all again!”
“It was an accident!” Caspar immediately defended himself.
“Was not!”
“Was too!”
“And there’s that headache,” Gabrielle muttered as she massaged her temples.

“All right, that’s enough.” Xena straightened and crossed her arms. “Caspar, apologize to Iona.”
The boy looked at her in utter indignation. “But…!”  
“I don’t care about the but,” Xena cut him off. “Whether it was an accident or not, you spilled ink over her homework and you should say you’re sorry.”
Caspar huffed out an angry breath, trying to bend Xena’s will with a foul look. He realized soon enough he was fighting a lost battle though and turned towards Iona. “I’m sorry, okay?”
“Like you mean it,” Xena hummed melodically.
Caspar rolled his eyes, but then dutifully tried again. “I’m sorry I spilled ink over your parchment. I didn’t mean to.” A breath. “ Honest.”
Iona crossed her arms. “I don’t believe you.”
Xena shot her daughter a look.
“…but… I accept your apology.” She said, before adding softly under her breath. “This time.”

“I guess that’ll do,” Xena allowed, counting her blessings for having ended the argument in a relatively short amount of time. “Now, back to the order of the day, hmm? Where’s your…” the door was pushed open again and a sniffling Niobe entered the scene. “…sister.”

“Hey sweetie,” Gabrielle got up and lifted the toddler off her feet. “What’s the matter?”
“Caspie and Jona go scream and run,” Niobe sobbed, rubbing a chubby hand at her eye. “Make towew wi wocks. All fall down. No good.”
“I didn't realize...” Caspar hastily walked over, looking up at his sister apologetically. "I’m sorry, Niobe."
“Bad,” the toddler reiterated for good measure.
“I know,” the boy said. “We can build another tower. Together. You want to do that?”
Niobe sniffled again, but nodded. She looked at Gabrielle, who gave her a hug and then placed her on the ground again. Caspar took his sister’s hand. “No more crying, okay? We’ll make an even better tower this time.”  
Niobe’s eyes lit up. “Big towew?”  
“Bigger isn’t always better,” her brother informed her as they headed out the door.

Iona watched the two go. For a moment there seemed to be a hint of sadness in her eyes, but then it disappeared again as she returned her attention to her inked up homework. She turned to Xena questioningly. “Can you fix this?”
“Let me see,” Xena said, darting a smile at Gabrielle as the warrior exited the room also, in pursuit of Caspar and Niobe. She studied the parchment for a moment, then shook her head a little. “I know a way to dissolve the ink, but that’ll make all your writing disappear as well.”
Iona sighed miserably. “I spent so much time on that.
“You already did the thinking. That’s still in your head. You just need to write it down this time.” Xena told her. “I can help if you want.”
Iona managed a smile at this. “I’d like that.”
“Good.” Xena smiled back at her. “I uhm… You’ve been really working hard on your schoolwork these last few days. I’m… impressed.”
Iona’s smile widened considerably. “You are?”
“Yeah, I am. I mean, I know it can be hard studying, when there’s all this fun to be had outside.”
“It’s not too bad,” Iona shrugged a bit, but she was clearly pleased by the compliment though.
“Yeah, well… Still…” Xena drew in a breath. “I’m proud of you.” She ruffled her daughter’s hair playfully, trying to make light of the comment. “Sorry about all the yelling and the grounding you and everything. Consider yourself ungrounded.”
Iona diverted her eyes, managing a half grin. “Thanks.”

“Come on, let’s get some breakfast, hmm?” Xena nudged her daughter in the direction of the door. “I’ve had a rough morning. Need some nutrition.” The Empress considered her options for a moment. “How about pancakes?”
“We can put whipped cream on ‘m.” Iona put in. “For extra calcium.”
Xena grinned wickedly. “I like the way you think.”

About half a candlemark later Xena pushed open the door to her office, to find Odilon sitting in her chair, his feet propped up against the desk. “Since I’m never late, you must be early.”
Odilon smirked. “I’m early,” he confirmed. “I figured we could just get the yelling and threatening over with fast, so we can get down to business.”
“All right then. First off,” Xena said and then raised her voice. “Get the Hades outta my chair!”  
Odilon didn’t seem very impressed, but did get up and circle the desk, limping slightly.
“Secondly,” the Empress continued, moving towards him menacingly. “If you ever, ever try to hurt Gabrielle again, I will tie a rope around your head, get my horse, find a rocky path and drag you across it. Repeatedly. Until all the skin has been peeled from your body. Do I make myself clear?”

“Nice imagery there… Very terrifying,” the spy stated calmly. “If I would think for even one moment you’d actually do that to me, I’d be petrified. Really.”
Blue eyes flashed at him. “I’m serious, Odilon.”
“Yes, I know.” Odilon leaned back against the desk in a relaxed posture. “That’s what intrigues me. I mean, in the last letter I got from you, you spoke of a new ‘toy’, and now you’d sooner skin-peel me than let anything happen to her.” He folded his hands together, studying Xena calmly. “Now either there’s a plan to all this which I for some mysterious reason am not seeing, which would be bad for my reputation as a top class spy, or you are actually in love with this woman, which would be bad in general.”
The Empress crossed his arms. “What makes you say that?”  

Odilon rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t take a spy to see things aren’t adding up here. I mean, here you have a woman who was in the resistance, who you crucified, whose friends you had executed, who became a warrior, a killer, only so she could one day take you on, who blamed you for every single rotten thing in the world.”  The spy waved a hand at the air. “And now all of a sudden she’s completely smitten with you.” He leaned a bit closer and dropped his voice. “‘Could you explain to me how that works? Cause I made some very attractive enemies and I wouldn’t mind them crawling all over me next time I meet them.”
Xena darted him a deadly look. “It’s complicated.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that.”
“You weren’t here,” Xena shot back. “You didn’t see her with the kids, or fighting Pompey, or saving me from Alti.”
“I’m not saying she’s isn’t smart.”

“Argh!” The Empress wildly tossed up her hands before turning her back on him. “What do you think she’s here to do? Hmm? Do you think she’d stay with me for an entire month if her only goal was to screw me over? To betray me? I mean, she already knows I trust her completely. She’s free to roam my palace, I leave her with my kids. All she has to do is ask the cook for a knife, walk into my study and end it. I wouldn’t have a defense against her and she knows it.”
“That’s right. She does,” Odilon agreed. “So there’s no need for her to rush.”
Xena huffed out a frustrated breath.
“But that’s not the point,” the spy continued on calmly. “This isn’t about her. It’s about you.”

The Empress swirled around and looked at him. “What?”
“I know you, Xena. And when you do something, you do it right. You put everything you’ve got into it, body and soul, your entire being. That’s what has made you as successful as you are. And it’s what makes you weak.”
Both eyebrows rose. “Excuse me?
Odilon pushed himself up, looking her straight in the eyes. “I was there with you, remember? I was there after M’Lila died and you went berserk and killed everything in sight. And after we left Lao Ma, when you sat huddled in your tent for days on end, not speaking to anybody? I was there in that centaur village when you found your kid and just broke down completely.”

“My son died!” Xena hissed. “What did you expect me to do?”
“Well, I sure didn’t expect you to shove a dagger into your gut!”

Xena turned away from him, correcting softly: “It was a Japanese tanto, not a dagger.”
“I don’t care what the Hades it was,” Odilon fired back. “It was sharp and you pushed it into your stomach.”

Xena didn’t respond for a moment, then finally spoke up in a voice filled with emotion. “Why are you dragging all this up?”
Odilon released a breath, then circled the Empress, coming to stand in front of you. “I’m accusing you of what most likely no other person would ever think to accuse you of.” He reached out and touched Xena’s cheek. “You love too much. Too fully.” Stormy blue eyes peeked up at him. “And for a while you weren’t close enough to anyone for that to matter. But now you have a daughter, two kids and you’re in love. And that makes you more vulnerable than ever.”

“Gabrielle won’t hurt me,” Xena managed, quite firmly considering her emotional state.
“Maybe not intentionally,” Odilon allowed. “But she might get sick. Or she might die. One of those kids could get hurt. And then what? You barely survived the last time.”  
The Empress stared at the ground for a moment, then looked back up at him. “I was… very confused back then. Lost. It’s different now.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Odilon said. “But every time someone you love dies, a piece of you dies too. And I’ve seen too many pieces of you die, Xena. You’re my friend.” A wry smile. “You’re pretty much my only friend. So I gotta take good care of you. You’re special. Okay?”

Xena stared at him for a moment, then shook her head disbelievingly. “How do you that?”
“Sweet talk you out of thinking I’m the world’s largest jerk and into believing I’m the most wonderful person imaginable?”
The Empress grinned. “Yeah.”
“It’s my gift,” Odilon drawled, before pulling Xena into a hug. “Meant every word of it though. You are very special.”
“I’m the ruler of the world,” Xena deadpanned.
“There’s that, yes.” Odilon agreed with a smirk. He gave her a final pat, then backed up a bit. “Go on, sit down. You look a bit pale.”
The Empress waved him off. “I’m fine.”
“Yeah, well, you’re about to get paler once you hear some of the news I got for you.”
Xena frowned. “What?”
Odilon flashed her a wicked grin. “Guess who’s coming to visit?”

To be continued

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