Path of Thorns - Part IV

Xena stood and applauded as the actors bowed. Though she wasn’t much for the arts herself, she recognized talent when she saw it. And these young people had captured their audience, even though they’d had little time to practice.

“That was beautiful,” Gabrielle commented next to her. “You know, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice was always one of my favorites.”
“It’s sad.”
“That’s why it’s so good,” the warrior told her. “It’s got tension. Drama. People really feel for Orpheus. Trying so hard and failing. People recognize that.”
“Is that so?”
A nod. “I can remember the look on people’s faces. I told it once or twice. Before.”
“Tell it to me again sometime?” Xena asked, as she pulled back the curtain separating their balcony from the hallway, allowing Gabrielle to pass before her. “I bet I’d enjoy it even more if you told it.”
Gabrielle snorted softly. “I doubt that.”
“I don’t,” the Empress responded easily, then took her hand. “Okay, let’s talk strategy.”
Green eyes blinked at her? “Strategy?”
“Yes. Our aim is to get though the mob of people who really want to talk to us  as fast as possible, but in such a way that they don’t get boiling mad at me.”
“Here’s what you do.” Xena went on, businesslike. “You smile, you wave back at people who wave at you. If anyone asks to see you, you say ‘I’m sure we can arrange something, send me a formal request by mail’ and they’ll either forget to send one or we’ll forget we ever received it. And whatever you do, don’t stop. They’ll crowd you in. Keep walking.”
“Uuuhm, right…” Gabrielle managed to say, before they turned a last corner and entered the main hall.

The noise of applause and people yelling for Xena was overwhelming. Gabrielle almost had to shield her sensitive ears from the noise.
“Did you like the play, Empress?” a voice yelled out.
“Loved it, Victor,” Xena yelled back easily, somehow finding the person who’d asked the question in the masses and winking back at him. “I’d love to meet the actors later sometime, if you can arrange it.”
“You know I can arrange anything,” Victor responded, getting a laugh out of the people around him.
“Empress, Athens Daily.” A young woman shoved her way up the front. “It’s said this is the start of many reforms in the empire. Can you indicate what’s next on the agenda?”
“Next on my agenda is a nightcap and a nice fluffy bed,” The Empress grinned politely. “We’re still discussing other matters. But ask some of the council members present here tonight. Most of this was their idea, so it’s only right you give them the credit, not me.”
Gabrielle almost jumped as a voice shot up next to her ear. She looked to her left to see an older, bespectacled woman standing next to her, quill in hand. “Reporter for Helios. It has come to our attention there has been a breach between you and former resistance members.”
“Wh…” Gabrielle blinked at her. “What are you talking about?”
“You don’t deny it then.” The reporter made a note. “Is it true you and the Empress are sharing a bed?”
Gabrielle turned and faced the reporter. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
“The people have a right to know,” the reported replied calmly, jotting down more notes.
Green eyes looked at her in outrage. “The people can take their right and…”
“…do whatever they want with it,” Xena smoothly intervened, grabbing onto Gabrielle’s arm and pulling her along. “‘Cause I’ve been told my country is a free one, these days.” She tossed a look over her shoulder at the Helios’s reported. “I thank you for your interest in the people’s rights. It’s good to know someone else cares about that as much as I and Gabrielle here do.”
“What are you…?” Gabrielle hissed at her, but Xena cut her off again.
“Smile and wave, remember?” The Empress murmured under her breath, as they reached the doors of the theatre. They swung open, letting in a gust of fresh air that was welcomed by Gabrielle.

There was more yelling outside. Xena responded to some more comments, then opened the door to the waiting carriage. Gabrielle stepped inside, Xena followed and swung the door shut behind them. Immediately the carriage was set into motion, driving them away from the theatre and the noise.

“The nerve of that woman!” Gabrielle spat out.
Xena smirked. “Told you to keep walking.”
“What right has she got, prying into my personal life?”
“You’re the one who wanted free press.”
The warrior tossed up a hand in frustration. “To ask questions about what we’re doing for the empire. And what we’re not doing for the empire. Not about what I may or may not be doing in your bedroom. Why would anybody be interested in that?”
“Tension, drama,” Xena drawled. “People love a good story, remember?”

Gabrielle looked at her. She managed to keep a frown on her face for a few more moments, then a smirk cracked through. Xena started laughing and Gabrielle joined in. They ended up slumped together in the middle of the carriage, trying to catch their breath. “Gods,” Gabrielle sighed, holding onto her stomach. “I don’t ever wanna do that again.”
“I’m afraid that’s standard,” Xena murmured. “If you ever wanna go out with me again.”  
“Which I do, obviously.” Gabrielle released a breath. “Damn me and my free press.”
“Ah, you’re starting to think like a dictator,” Xena chuckled. “I like it.”

“You were good in there though,” Gabrielle sat up a little. “How long have you been at this?”
The Empress shrugged a little. “The press thing is new, obviously. But these public displays… I guess since I was twenty or so.”
“You must hate this more than me then?”
Another shrug. “You get used to it.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
A faint smile. “Yeah, I don’t like it much either. It hurts my ears.”
“Mine too,” Gabrielle joined in. “And I don’t like small spaces much. The crowd made me wanna lash out.” She glanced up. “Thanks for saving me. I was about to say something stupid.”

This got her a full smile. “No problem.” A smirk. “This must rate high on your list of lousy dates though, huh?”
Gabrielle snorted softly. “You don’t know the extent of the lousiness of previous dates.”
“That bad?”
“I was betrothed to some village boy who bored me, I had a crush on Callisto for a while and I was in love with a woman who couldn’t love me back.”
“Ouch,” Xena winced. “Our relationship is beginning to look more sane by the second.”
A smile. “I don’t think love is supposed to be sane.”
Blue eyes gazed back into hers for a moment. “No,” Xena responded softly. “I don’t think it is either.”

They stared at each other a moment, then Gabrielle frowned as she cast a look out the window. “We’re not heading for the palace.”
Xena glanced out the window as well. “We’re not? Oh yeah, we’re not. I uhm… I asked the driver to take us someplace… quiet. You know, ‘cause we were going to have to… talk. ‘Bout stuff.”
“You asked the driver?”
A nod.
“When?” Gabrielle looked at her curiously. “You didn’t just now when we got in.”
“Well, no…” Xena scratched at her neck. “No, I… I asked before…”
“Before your brother came along?”
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at her inquiringly.
“I just…” Xena scowled. “I just wanted to have some time with you. Just you. I figured that after our ‘perfect’ date I could take you someplace nice. But the perfect date sorta got washed off and… and, well I kinda forgot to tell the driver plans changed.”

“I’ll live,” Gabrielle smiled, thoroughly charmed. She shuffled a little closer, leaning against the Empress. “You know, you’re really good at this romantic stuff. First with the candles and the hot tub. And now this…”
“This? You mean the chaos and me forgetting to instruct the driver properly? That’s romantic?”
“Uhuh,” Gabrielle smiled happily. “Very.”

“Hmm,” Xena wrapped an arm around her. “Imagine that.” She gently ran her fingers through the blond locks. “You know, I’d really hate to ruin this talking about my brother. He’s not worth it.”
“If you’d rather not talk about it, you don’t have to.”
“No, it’s not that,” Xena hastily corrected.  “I want to tell you, I just… I don’t wanna dwell on it too long. It’s not that big of a deal, really.”
“Okay,” Gabrielle said. “So what did he do then?”
“He tried to kill me.”
Gabrielle tipped her head back, looking up with wide eyes. “What?!”

Thalia let the door to the inn fall shut behind her. He hadn’t been there. Thalia ran a hand through her hair, trying to think of where else Toris could have gone, after he’d stormed out of the theatre. She finally decided on heading east on blind luck.

Xena’s brother. Thalia rolled her eyes at herself. She finally, finally found a guy she liked and he turned out to be Xena’s brother. She was cursed. She was sure of that now. This couldn’t be just a mere coincidence. There was no such thing as coincidence.

“Whoa!” The horse that had nearly crashed into her reared on his hind legs as he was pulled to a sudden halt. The cart the animal was pulling tipped back a little and some of the bags lying on top of it fell off. “Damn it,” Toris cursed as he jumped off. “Watch where you’re…!”

He stopped then as he caught sight of Thalia’s face. “Oh…. It’s you…”
Thalia swallowed, then straightened herself. “Where are you going?”
“You heard her highness,” Toris grumbled, as he tossed one of the bags back up on the wagon. “Out. Out of Athens.”
“Just like that?” Thalia took a step closer, sounding a little outraged. “You’re just gonna run off?”
“I’m not running!” Toris snapped at her. He paused a moment, then shook his head, turning from her and picking up another bag. “I’m just… I’m jut being sensible. You don’t pick a fight with Xena. I learned that the hard way.”
Thalia stopped next to the horse, absently patting the animal’s neck. “Are you…. Are you her brother?”
“Wish I weren’t.”
The redhead watched him, curiously. “What did she do?”

Blue eyes glanced up at her, then away again. “She killed our brother. And our mother.”

“There was this warlord. Cortese.”
“I remember that name,” Gabrielle murmured. “He came to Potedeia. Asked for half our crop for him and his army. I remember my dad was scared. His army was huge. We couldn’t really spare the food, we’d never make it through winter, dad said. We’d have no choice but to give it to him though, or he’d kill us. But… he never came back.”
“He made the bad mistake of going to Amfipolis first.”
Green eyes peered up at her. “You fought him? But… you couldn’t have been more than…”
“Sixteen,” Xena spared her from doing the calculus. “We had a lot of veterans living in Amfipolis. A lot of strong young men and women. I knew we stood a chance. Toris didn’t agree though. He said we had to run.”
“Sixteen…” Gabrielle murmured softly, still haven’t gotten over that fact.
“He ran. I stayed. So did my other brother Lyceus. And my mother.”

“It was the worst mistake they could ever make,” Toris stated. “She won, like she said she would, but… The price was high. Lots of young men lost their lives, including… including our brother.”

“Mom was broken. Lyceus was the youngest. Her baby. She cried, she yelled at me.” A sigh. “I couldn’t take it. There was too much… pain. Guilt. I made up some excuse about… About a buffer. A buffer around Amfipolis, so we wouldn’t get attacked anymore. I rallied my first army around me. And we left.”

“She just left mom. Just like that.” Toris shook his head. “I thought about going home. But I didn’t want to walk back in empty-handed. Cortese had made it out of the fight alive. So I decided I would go after him first.”
“Did you find him?” Thalia asked softly.
“Yes,” the young man muttered. “But not before Xena had gotten to him.” He leaned his back against the cart. “I’d failed. Again. I wandered around a bit after that. Thinking about what I should do now. I finally decided I needed to go home. I needed to help mother. So I went home and…”

“…she’d hung herself. She left a note, blaming me for the world’s woes,” Xena murmured, her eyes focused on a tiny fleck of light dancing across the bench across from them. “I thought I could just ride in there. That they’d welcome me. That I could make things right.” A soft snort. “What a fool I was.”

“There was nothing left. Nothing but ashes, when I finally found my way back. She’d burned it down. She’d burned down our home.” The hate was now evident in his voice. “I found the charred remains of our mother dangling from a beam in our inn. I buried her. Next to our brother. I slept next to her grave for days.”
“I’m so sorry,” Thalia managed, her voice thick with emotion.
“Not your fault,” Toris managed a wry smile for her. “It was hers. I realized that then. That everything that happened had been about her.”

“He walked into my camp about a fortnight later. He said I was the only family he had left now. That he felt guilty about mom.” Xena rolled her eyes. “A load of crap. And I bought it. I was hurt and I wanted…” A sigh. “I was grasping at straws. Everything was unstable at that time. And I wanted something solid. So I invited him in.”
“But…” Gabrielle frowned. “I just saw him for a moment there, but… He’s no warrior. How could he ever get close enough?”
“I don’t know,” Xena managed with a small smile. “I really don’t know. I just know that one moment I turned from him, and the next I had a dagger stuck in my side.”

“It should have killed her. I’m no fighter, but I know how a human body works and…” Toris shook his head. “If she’d been anyone but my sister, she would have died.”

“Instinct kicked in. I slammed him right through the tent. Next moment I remember, Pyrron is leaning over me and I’m lying on the ground.”  
“How bad was it?” Gabrielle asked softly.

In response, Xena reached behind her and unbuttoned her dress far enough so she could reveal her side. Gabrielle gasped in a breath as she saw the huge scar running from her hip halfway up her torso.
“Yeah, nasty huh?” The Empress said with a wry smile. “Hurt like Tartarus too. I wouldn’t admit that though, obviously. I told Pyrron to wrap me up, washed the blood off, and then I walked outside.”
“You got up and walked outside?!” Gabrielle stared at her with wide eyes. “With a wound like that? Are you nuts?”
“Yes. Nuts and stubborn as a mule.” Xena gazed back at her. “I couldn’t let him win, Gabrielle. I couldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he hurt me.”

“And then there she was.” Toris tossed up a hand. “She just walked out of there, as if nothing had happened.” A shake of his head. “She just smirked at me with that arrogant little smile of hers. Said she gave me every opportunity to kill her and I hadn’t even managed to do that . I was a failure. And I wasn’t worth killing. So she banished me.”
“And then you left?”
Toris nodded. “I wanted to get as far away as I could. Went to Jappa. That’s about as east as you can get. Took some stuff with me from Greece and made some good money selling it there. That’s how I got into trading. Traveling around was good. Made me harder to keep track of for her.”  
“So…” Thalia took a step closer. “Why did you come here then? If you aren’t allowed to come back here.”
“I was on my way to Egypt. Gotta hand these to a salesman there I know,” he said, pointing at the bags on the back of his cart. “The ship I was sailing on had some trouble. Sail tore. We needed to stop over here. And I figured I’d take a chance.” A wry smile. “Tempting fate. Stupid, I know.”

“I didn’t think it was stupid at all.”
Toris glanced at the woman at his side, who was staring down at the ground. “No, you’re right. Wasn’t all bad.” He turned to her fully, laying his arms on her shoulders. “I really wish I could stay longer.”
Dark eyes peeked up at him. “But you can’t.”
Toris shook his head. “She said she’d kill me if I showed my face again. I’m not sure why she just let me go this time, but... Can’t risk it.” He moved a little closer. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make things more complicated for you.”
“I know,” Thalia muttered. “It’s just me. I’m cursed.”
“You’re not cursed. I am.” Toris countered. “I’m related to her after all. It’s probably better you find out now. Before...” A small shrug. “Well...”

Dark eyes gazed up at him. “Before… what?”
Toris’ eyes searched hers for a moment, then he leaned closer, gently kissing her. “Before that.” He murmured, as he pulled away.
“Oh, that,” Thalia swallowed. “Yeah, good thing we didn’t do that…”
Toris grinned, then sobered up again. “I’d better be going.” He took a step back from her, then pulled himself onto the cart, picking up the reigns. He glanced down at her a last time. “Bye.”
“Bye,” Thalia managed to get out as the cart started moving, soon after disappearing into the night.

“So, I laughed at him, exiled him, then I walked back into my tent and passed out.” Xena leaned her head back against the cushions. “Apparently I was out for several days. Pyrron told me later it was touch-and-go for a while.”
Gabrielle stared at her for several moments, then shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
A shrug. “Not a lot to understand. I got stabbed, I got better.”
“No,” Gabrielle argued. “It’s not that simple.”
“It’s not?”
Gabrielle looked down at her own fingers, which were twisting together and apart. “You’re smart.”
“Well, thank you.”
“You’re too smart,” Gabrielle went on. “If you were stupid enough to believe blatant lies and let someone with questionable motives get that close to you… You would have never gotten to where you are now.” Green eyes glanced back at her. “So why did you?”

Xena frowned, not sure where this discussion were going. Gabrielle’s eyes were unreadable, a mixture of sadness, anger and… disappointment? “I told you…”
“No.” Gabrielle shook her head. “He got that close, because you let him. And you must have known. You told me once you could spot an assassin. They had a look… Did he?”
Xena stared at her a moment, then turned away. “I don’t remember.”
“You remember everything.”
“I wasn’t feeling too swell at the moment!” Xena shot back.
“You let him in, BECAUSE you knew,” Gabrielle countered, her eyes fiery now. “You didn’t want to stop him. Did you?”
The Empress tossed up her hands. “Where is this coming from?”
“You know, I always wondered why you let me in so easily. Gave me all this freedom. I thought it was just play… boredom… But maybe it wasn’t.”

Xena was just about to respond when the carriage pulled to a halt. Xena looked outside, trying to make out where they were, then turned to look back at Gabrielle. But all she found was an empty seat and an open door. “Damn it.”
“Empress?” The driver was holding the door open for her.
Xena sighed, then stepped out herself. “Women are very complex creatures sometimes. Have you noticed that?”
“Never say that out loud, Mistress.” The driver closed the door behind her. “It will only make things worse.”  

Xena managed a chuckle. “Ah, an experienced man you are, Andreas.” She glanced around her a moment, taking in her surroundings. It was dark, but the clouds had dissipated, partially and there was a full moon. It reflected off the seemingly endless stretch of water before her, rippling softly as waves gently sloshed between the rocks.

She spotted Gabrielle, a mere outline standing on an outcropping not too far off. She drew in a breath, closing her eyes as the salty sea smell entered her nostrils. Then she turned back to the driver. “Leave one of the horses here. We’ll find a way back on our own.”
“I could come back for you, Highness?”
“Nah,” Xena shook her head. “Don’t know how long this’ll take.” She waved a hand at him. “Go.”
The man inclined his head politely, then headed for the horses and started to unbuckle one of the leather strips.

Xena turned her back on him and headed forward. Her feet crunched softly on grains of sand and tiny shells scattered about. This place was slightly elevated above the water and as she headed for the edge she could look down and see small spurts of water shooting up from between the rocks, the foam clearly visible in the night.

A few more steps, then she stopped, a little behind where Gabrielle was standing. The warrior stood silently, her arms wrapped around herself, staring out over the water.

“I used to come here quite often,” Xena broke the silence. “After I moved to Athens, I needed a spot to reflect. Think about things. I couldn’t do that in the palace. There was constantly someone knocking at my door. Drove me nuts.” A pause. “So I came here. I stood just about where you’re standing. A little closer to the edge actually.”

Gabrielle didn’t speak, but just kept staring in front of her. Xena glanced at the still profile, watching her jaw moving, hearing the soft sound as she swallowed. The Empress closed her eyes, then spoke up again. “I did a lot of stuff I’m not proud of. And… And I’ll admit, there have been times that I toiled with the idea of… of ending it. I actually did more than toil. I could show you another nasty scar, on my stomach. Got all hari-kiri there for a moment. But I got over it.” Xena hesitated a moment, then stepped forward, circling around Gabrielle to come and stand before her. Gabrielle diverted her eyes. “You’re right. I didn’t make it this far by being stupid. I know that letting people get close to you, that’s dangerous. And I tried shutting everybody out for a while. But… I ended up caring for some people, in spite of myself. And then, when those people… disappeared from my life. I got lost a little.”
A moment, then green eyes peeked up at her. “What about me?

“You.” Xena repeated softly, with a small smile. “I care about you. I don’t think I even tried not to.”
“But what if Odilon is right?”
“He’s not.”
“How do you know?” the blonde countered, somewhat angrily now. “You let me get so close, right from the start. I could hurt you.”
“Yes, you could.” Xena easily allowed.
Green eyes searched hers seriously.
Xena shook her head a little. “You can’t have one thing without the other.”
“But… What if…” The blonde continued. “If I was pretending? If I was hiding stuff?”
Another smile. “We all hide stuff, Gabrielle.”
“I mean, serious stuff.”
“Like…” Gabrielle swallowed. “Like stuff I did. Before. In Chin.”

Xena cocked her head a little. “Could whatever you did change anything? Now?”
Gabrielle released a breath. “Odilon seems to think so.”
“Forget about Odilon. What do you think?”
The blonde looked up, meeting her eyes for a long moment. She hesitated. “I’m not sure.”
The Empress cocked her head a little, thinking. “Lemme rephrase that question. If I were to tell you something I did. Something bad. Could that change anything between us?”
“I know you did bad stuff, Xena. I knew that when we got involved.”
“And you think I didn’t?” the other woman snorted softly. “You’re a warrior, Gabrielle. I know you weren’t picking daisies all the way back to Greece. You fight. And… when you fight somewhere along the line something can go wrong.”

Gabrielle stared at her another moment, then looked down, her fingers fumbling with the edge of her tunic. “Did… Did you ever go back to Chin? After Lao Ma?”
“Sure,” Xena replied. “To conquer it, obviously. And then a few more times. Last time was… 8 months ago or so.”
“Did you happen to pick up a local story? About The Shadow…”
“Yeah, I heard that,” Xena recalled. “A myth. A story to scare their kids with.”
A wry smile tugged at Gabrielle’s lips. “Yeah. Funny, really, isn’t it? Here in Greece, people see me as this… savior. And there I am the thing that scares children.”

Xena blinked. “You? You’re The Shadow?” A nod. “Well…” She frowned. “So you did something that rates a myth and a scary nickname? Must have been big. Must have been something I’d have heard about. Must have happened in the last year...” She started puzzling the bits together, but Gabrielle decided to just supply her with the answer. “Did any of the Chinese officials ever inform you about something that happened in Huong?”
“The massacre of Huong?” A shake of the dark head. “I didn’t hear about that through any officials. Through the army. I had a large force stationed there. One of my best generals. Palaemon.”

Gabrielle drew in a breath. “Was he the one with the scar?”
Blue eyes met hers. “Yes.”
The blonde nodded a little. “He was very good. He was one of the first ones I killed.” She diverted her eyes, looking out over the ocean. “That’s why I remember him. Because he was one of the first. After that… There were so many. I wasn’t really prepared. I just…. Went on automatic.”

There was a deafening silence behind her. Then a short question. “Why?”
Gabrielle shrugged, an almost hopeless gesture. “I was mad. And grieving. I…. I wanted someone to hurt… more than me.” She swallowed, trying to get the lump out of her throat. “I… I don’t remember any of the villagers dying. Just… at a certain moment I heard his outcry. And I snapped out of the haze I was in and…. And I saw… All the blood and… And then I just ran. Into the forest. And then I threw up. Repeatedly.” She shook her head a little. “I couldn’t cry though. I remember being so frustrated I couldn’t cry.” She turned around, facing Xena. “I mean… That’s something you ought to cry about, right? If… If you were normal?”

Xena gazed at her, hesitantly it seemed. “It was you? Alone?”
A faint nod.
“I had a legion stationed there.”
Another shrug. “I don’t remember.”

For a moment Xena hesitated, torn between the memory of Palaemon and the pain she could feel emanating from the woman before her. Paleamon hadn’t been a friend, exactly, but he’d fought with her in many battles and she’d trusted him to some extent. He had been loyal and pleasant company. A good man.

>From the past she focused back on the present, on the blond woman standing in front of her. She should be mad, maybe. Put some distance between them. Think things over. Maybe….

But then green eyes looked up at her, a barely veiled look of hopelessness in the green irises. And all thoughts of distance would have flown out the window, if there had been a window to fly out of.

Xena leaned forward, placing a kiss on the blonde’s forehead. Gabrielle let her head fall forward and it came to lean against Xena’s shoulder. The Empress responded by wrapping an arm around the blonde. She felt a sob shake the warrior’s body. “We cry too, Gabrielle,” She murmured, running a hand through the blond locks. “Us warrior oddballs. Sometimes… Sometimes it just takes a few years.”
Gabrielle tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress another sob. Xena just wrapped her arms around her more tightly, pillowing her head on top of the blonde’s.

They stayed like that, until Gabrielle’s tears finally ran out. The warrior wiped an arm at her eyes. “Sorry.”
“No apologies.” Xena told her. “I pride myself on having a good shoulder to lean against.”
“You do,” the warrior murmured, leaning forward and pressing a feather light kiss against the shoulder in question. She then tilted her head up, looking up at the Empress. “So… Was Odilon wrong? About this… creating a distance between us?”

Xena smiled at her, reaching up and twirling a lock of blond hair between her fingers. “What distance?”
Gabrielle laughed softly, finding Xena’s hand and winding her fingers around it. “No matter what anyone else says… I’m really glad we happened.” A breath. “You make me happy. For a while, I didn’t think I deserved to be happy again.”
“You deserve to be happy.” Xena instantly countered. “Being miserable gets you nowhere.”
“I just…”  A sigh. “I feel like I have to make amends. Pay for what I did.”
“Getting crucified twice isn’t enough, huh?”  
The warrior shot her a look. “That’s different.”

Xena absently let her hands run over the warrior’s shoulders. “There’s still friends and family around of the soldiers who died there. Or I… I could arrange a trip to Chin, sometime soon. There’s not a lot left to see there, though.”
Gabrielle drew in a breath and released it again. “I’ll have to think about it.”
“Take all the time you need.”
Gabrielle managed a smile. “Thank you. For understanding. And for not being mad I ruined this otherwise lovely evening.”
Xena waved her off. “You didn’t ruin anything.”
“You take me to this beautiful place and all I do is get mad at you and then sob all over your dress.” She absently rubbed a bit of the black fabric between her fingertips. “What did you have planned here, anyway?”
“Planned?” The Empress inquired, innocently. “What makes you think I had anything planned?”
The blonde rolled her eyes. “You always have something planned.”

Xena chuckled. She bit her lip, clearly hesitating for a moment, then she took Gabrielle’s hand in hers and turned. “ Come with me.”  

They walked along the cliffs, away from the road. Gabrielle now finally allowed herself to enjoy in the beauty of the place. The sea was calm and the rushing sound of the waves was soothing. She’d always liked the sea, the endlessness of it. When she’d just come to Athens she’d written many poems about it. Just childish things, not any good.

Xena stopped then. Gabrielle looked around. This spot seemed no more remarkable then the one they’d been at before. Xena led her to the edge of the cliff and peered down. Gabrielle did so as well. It was a steep drop down to the waves, which were smashing up against the rock face. “Wait here,”  Xena instructed, letting go of her hand. She peeked down one more time, then put another foot forward and fell off the cliff.

“ Xena!” Gabrielle eyes widened, and she ran to the edge of the cliff. She stared down at the waves, but saw nothing. “Xena!”
“Shh!” The Empress’s head suddenly appeared from the solid stone surface. “Don’t yell. I’m here.”
Gabrielle frowned, then dropped down to lay flat on her belly and peer somewhat farther over the edge. She could now see Xena was standing in some kind of small cave, struck in the rocks surface. “Zeus… You could have warned me about that!”
A smirky grin flashed back at her through the darkness. “And ruin the surprise?”

“How do I get down there?”
“Well, it’s kinda tough,” Xena admitted. “There’s this small ledge halfway and you have to sorta…”
“Ah, I see,”  Gabrielle interrupted her, hopping back to her feet. She jumped, turning in the air, then reached out, grabbed onto the ledge and used it to shift her momentum and swing into the cave. She added a little flip for good measure, then landed solidly next to Xena.
Xena rolled her eyes. “Yeah. Like that.” She muttered, before turning and walking somewhat deeper into the cave.

Gabrielle turned to look out over the water again. The cave was about halfway up the cliff so she was much closer to the water now. The sound of the waves was much stronger here and the occasional drop of water splashed against her bare arms. There was a large pillar standing a little way out into the water and the waves crashed up against it, sending white foam flying right up in front of her. It was gorgeous in a simple, primal way.

Light suddenly came from behind her and she turned around. Xena had lit a first candle and her dark form was now dimly outlined in the gentle light. A smile crept onto Gabrielle’s face as she watched the dark outline gracefully move through the shadows and light another candle.

How much had changed in so little time. Only two months ago, she had hated Xena with a passion and now… Gods, she was gorgeous. She’d realised that back then as well, obviously, but now the thought was accompanied by this warm glow inside her belly and these small emotions tugging at her heart.

Xena lit a third candle and the combined light now actually managed to illuminate the cave a little, showing Gabrielle that the place was actually sparsely decorated. There was a blanket and some cushions lying on the floor to sit on, there was a small table and on top of it sat a bottle of what appeared to be red wine.

Xena turned and faced her, spreading her arms out. “So… This was the plan. You, me, a bottle of wine, the sea, the moonlight…”  She watched Gabrielle as she made her way further into the cave, towards her. “Nothing too fancy.”
Gabrielle stopped in front of her, reaching out a hand and touching the Empress’s side, her fingers sliding over the soft fabric. “Have I told you how beautiful you look?”
Xena seemed a little taken aback. “Uhm… Yeah… At the start of the evening.”
“Hmm, so I just told you once?” Gabrielle murmured. “How silly of me.” She moved a little closer still, tilting her head back to look up at the Empress. “You are beautiful.” She shot a glance at the cave. “And this… This is beautiful. When did you do this?”
“Last night,” was the soft response.
“You drove all the way out here just to lay out some candles and cushions?”
A small shrug.
Gabrielle laughed softly. “What am I going to do with you?”
Xena smiled back at her. “You could start by having a drink with me?”
“That would be a good start.”

Gabrielle walked over to the pile of cushions and sat down, leaning back and looking outside, out over the water. She closed her eyes for a moment, just listening to the sound of the waves. A sound, which was only interrupted for a moment by a soft pop as Xena uncorked the bottle of wine.

When she opened her eyes Xena was settling down beside her, holding out a glass to her. “Thanks,” she said, as the Empress gracefully settled down beside her. She took a sip, letting the warm red liquid roll around in her mouth before swallowing. “Hmm. Nice.” She twirled the stem of the glass between her fingers. “To think I almost missed out on this.”
“Wouldn’t have let you,”  Xena responded, leisurely stretching out. “Didn’t drag all these pillows out here for nothing. You have no idea what a hassle it was getting them all down here.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “Well, know it’s appreciated.” She said, turning her head and looking down at the woman lying next to her. Xena looked up, blue eyes twinkling. It was enchanting and Gabrielle found herself unable to look away.

She only barely heard the question, and responded with a faint “Hmm?”
“Have I told you how beautiful you look?”
A smile tugged at her lips. “Yes. At the start of the evening.”
Xena reached out, stroking her cheek. “So I just told you once?” She murmured. “How silly of me.”

The kiss was soft, soothing and passionate at the same time. Gabrielle hardly even noticed as the glass of wine was taken from her hands. She slid her hands up the Empress’s sides, wanting the contact. “You are beautiful,”  Xena whispered in her ear, before she claimed her lips for another kiss and words became completely irrelevant.

With a flash of light Athena and Iona appeared in Iona’s room.
“That is so cool!” Iona said, her eyes wide with enthusiasm. “So could you teach me to do that too? That would be so handy.”
Athena chuckled softly. “All in good time.”  She knelt down next to the girl, patting her on the cheek. “You did good today. I’m very impressed.”
“You are?”  Iona smiled broadly.
“Yes,”  Athena nodded. “I can see you have a lot of power, for a demi-god.” The goddess seemed a little surprised by this herself. “But that probably has to do with your father being who he was. And maybe even with your mother being who she is.” She spared this another moment of thought, then rose back to her feet. “Now, it’s late. You have to go to sleep if you want to be up on time for school tomorrow.”
Iona made a face, but Athena wagged a finger at her. “None of that. And remember to practice what we learned today.”
“When will I see you again?”
Athena considered the question. “I’m afraid I will be busy for the next few days with… other matters. But at the start of next week, I hope.” She smiled down at the girl. “Don’t worry. I’ll be in touch.”
“Great,”  Iona reached out, impulsively hugging the goddess. “Thanks. For helping me today. I feel a lot better now.”
Athena somewhat awkwardly patted her on the head. “You’re very welcome.” She took a step back. “I will see you soon.” She said, then vanished with another flash of light.

Iona let out a happy breath. “Excellent.”  She murmured happily, letting herself fall back onto her bed. She lifted her feet, staring hard at her boots. Moments later they thumped onto the floor next to her bed. “Totally excellent.”

Xena allowed herself to drift in the pleasant haze for another moment, before regretfully lifting her head and taking a peek outside. She spotted some of the stars and constellations, judging the time. She grimaced unhappily. “Bah.” A light kiss was pressed against her collarbone. Xena smiled, lifting a hand and lazily tracing a fingertip down Gabrielle’s bare back. “Did I wake you?”
“Wasn’t really asleep,” Gabrielle murmured, her eyes still closed. “Just.... lingering...”
“Hmm... Yeah...” The Empress pillowed her cheek on top of the blond hair. “I’m afraid we have to get up though. It’s an hour’s ride back.”

The warrior exhaled unhappily, then with obvious effort managed to lift her head and rest her chin on Xena’s shoulder. “Do you think anyone would notice we’re missing if we just stayed here for... oh... a week or so?”
Xena chuckled softly. “I think your friends would be disappointed if they showed up for your birthday and you weren’t there.”
“They can wait a week,” Gabrielle countered instantly, her hands absently tracing patterns on the Empress’s stomach.
“The kids will be worried when they wake up this morning.”

Gabrielle released a breath, then regretfully pushed herself up a little. “All right.” She stole another kiss, before standing up completely. “Let’s get going then.” She started moving around the cave, picking up pieces of clothing here and there. As she came to the edge of the cave she peeked a look outside. “I’m afraid that shoe of yours is a goner. Sorry about that.”

She paused as she got no response, turning around and finding Xena hadn’t moved an inch and was just watching her with a dreamy expression. She placed her hands on her hips. “I thought we were getting up?”
The Empress grinned. “Sorry. Can’t help myself.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, then tossed one of the Empress’s garments at her, hitting the other woman square in the face.

Getting dressed took a little longer than normally. Xena had come prepared and had worn a light tunic under her dress. Gabrielle however was not so fortunate. “If you would have warned me I would have picked something more fitting to wear.” The warrior muttered as she impatiently riffled the fabric of the dress into place. “It’s gonna be tough climbing back up in this thing.”
“I could help you with that,” Xena supplied helpfully, pulling a small knife out of a strap around her ankle. “I’m known in haute couture circles for my minimalist design.”
“Nuhuh,”  Gabrielle waved a finger at her. “You have no idea how long it took me to find a dress I liked. I’m not going to let you rip it to shreds.”

“Suit yourself,”  Xena placed the knife back in its place, then rolled up her own dress and tied it around her waist. “You go first. That way I can catch you if you fall.”
Gabrielle snorted softly , then studied the rock wall above her, pinpointing a hold. She then leaped up and grabbed on with one hand, easily pulling herself up.
Xena shook her head a little, amused. She then turned, sparing a last look for the cave’s interior, before blowing out the last candle.

They found their horse grazing near the road. Xena walked over and started untangling the animal’s reins from the branch they were tied onto. Gabrielle meanwhile turned towards the ocean, gazing out over the endless waters a last time.

What a night this had been. She couldn’t repress a big grin at the thought. She’d managed to stuff the whole emotional spectrum in one night, going from mad to sad to scared to deliriously happy.

This hadn’t been planned. Well, the location and the pillows and everything had been thoroughly planned obviously, but the thought behind all that hadn’t just been seduction, it’d been… It had just been Xena being Xena.

There were so many facets to the Empress, so many things she would have never expected Xena to be. There was always a surprise right around the corner, which was part of the fun of being with her.

But this was getting to be more than fun. Xena was (maybe subconsciously) steering them towards deeper waters. And she was willingly following her there, but… But there was a part of her that was a little afraid. Afraid of the speed in which things were going.

Gabrielle turned around to find Xena seated on the horse, waving her over. Obediently she walked closer, stopping next to the animal. “Just the one horse, huh?”
“Yep,”  Xena confirmed, then held out a hand.

It was again that oddly familiar sensation, as she took the outstretched hand and allowed herself to be pulled up on the horse. She ended up seated in front of the Empress, her legs on one side of the horse, due to the fact that she was wearing a dress. Gabrielle wiggled in place a little, not used to these seating arrangements. “Dresses and horses really don’t mix.” A hand wrapped around her waist, holding onto her as the horse started walking. Gabrielle glanced up at the dark profile, shuffling a little closer. “Though… there are some advantages.” She murmured, laying her head against the Empress’s shoulder.
Blue eyes glanced down at her, then softened. “Happy birthday, Gabrielle.”

It was about a candlemark before daybreak when they arrived back at the palace. The guards at the gate looked somewhat surprised when they came riding up together, but an icy stare from Xena made them keep any comments to themselves and open the gates.

“Can I take the horse from you, Highness?”  A guard inquired helpfully.
“Are you that bored, Pyraus?”  Xena flashed him a smile.
“It’s a quiet night, Empress,” the man retorted. “As always.”
“Don’t jinx it.”
The guard laughed softly, as he led the horse towards the stables.

Gabrielle was already making her way up the stairs and Xena jogged after her to catch up. They both entered the hall together. The hall was quiet. The only sounds were some faint noises coming from the direction of the kitchen, where the morning staff was starting their shifts.

Xena stopped and Gabrielle followed her example. They both smiled a little, somewhat nervously, not sure where to go from here. “So…”  Gabrielle finally spoke up softly. “I guess asking you up for a nightcap would be a bad idea, huh?”
Xena laughed softly. “You have no idea how tempting that sounds, but…”  A breath. “Niobe sometimes wakes up real early in the morning, like this and… I don’t want to not be there.”
The blonde nodded a little. “Do me a favor?”
“Talk to Caspar. About us.”  Gabrielle took a step closer, laying her hands against the thin fabric of the Empress’s tunic. “Keeping this from him was hard enough, but now it’s gonna be practically impossible.”
“Hmm,” Xena absently twirled a lock of blond hair around her fingers. “I see what you mean.” She leaned closer, kissing the warrior on the lips. “I’ll talk to him tomorrow.” She murmured as they parted.

“Thanks,” Gabrielle responded softly, peeking up. “And… Thanks for tonight.”  She smiled, almost shyly. “This was the most romantic, amazing night. Thank you for making this so special.”
The Empress released a happy breath. “Gabrielle, we could have been in a tar pit and it would have been special.”
“Well…” Green eyes blinked at her. “Yes, that would have been quite unbelievable too. Not to mention messy.”
Xena laughed under her breath. “No, I mean… I just mean it is special no matter what. ‘Cause you’re special. To me.”
Gabrielle smiled, utterly charmed. She decided on how to respond to that, then decided that actions spoke louder than words and captured the Empress’s lips for another long moment.

They finally regretfully broke off. “See you in the arena in a candlemark or so?”
“Absolutely,”  Xena responded. They gazed into each other’s eyes for another moment. Then Xena gently squeezed her hand, before turning and heading towards her chambers.

Gabrielle stared after her another moment, then with a small sigh turned as well, heading for her own room.

As she ascended a stair and left the hallway, Cleopatra stepped from the shadows, her features darkened in dismay.

The air shifted as Gabrielle spun her nanchuka around her body in easy circles. She’d always had a fondness for the simple Chinese weapon, made of two sticks attached together by a short bit of chain. Her tutor had been a master, and it had taken her ages to get the hang of the weapon. But that only made being able to now all the more fun.

Xena danced on the balls of her feet, shifting the hold on her staff a little. “You ready, or do you need some more time to prepare, grandma?”  
Gabrielle smirked at her, flipping the weapon over her shoulder and catching it under her arm. She then swept her arm sideways, sending the nanchuka flying in Xena’s direction.
“Whoa!”  The Empress only just managed to hop back in time to avoid the edge. “Nasty.”
“Why, thank you,” Gabrielle drawled, flipping the weapon over her head while turning, wasting no time in attacking Xena’s other side.

The Empress brought up her staff, prepared this time. The wood thunked into each other. The impact resonated through Xena’s arm. She tried a quick counter, using the length of her staff to enter the warrior’s defenses. But before it could get close, Gabrielle easily kicked the weapon aside, using the wooden surface to jump up from and kick out at Xena’s chest. Her boot impacted harshly with the light leather armor the Empress was wearing, sending her staggering back several paces.
“Grandma, huh?”  Gabrielle chuckled, advancing forward again as Xena hastily regained her balance.”
“You’ve been working out,”  Xena accused, spinning her staff around her body protectively.
“Well, obviously,”  The blonde wiggled her eyebrows, making Xena grin broadly.

At the sidelines Odilon leaned on a railing, looking out over the arena. As always, a lot of soldiers were present as well. The younger ones stood at the bottom of the arena, cheering the fighters on. Some of the older ones stood near Odilon, watching the spectacle from somewhat higher up, enjoying the tactics more than the flurry of action.

“Good battle today, sir,”  one commented, wincing then as Xena received a hard blow to the shoulder. “Gabrielle seems very focused today. More so than her Majesty I’m afraid.”  
“Yes,”  Odilon muttered, agreeing. “You have a keen eye. I might have a job for you.”  
“A job, sir?”  the soldier frowned. “Doing what?”  
Odilon darted him a smile. “Never mind.”  

He paused then, noticing a younger soldier who’d joined them. He wore light Athenian armor like the rest of the men did and had a black cloak swung around his shoulders. His curly hair reached his shoulders. Odilon frowned. “Do I know you?”

The young man seemed a little apprehensive as he answered. “I don’t think so, sir. I’m… new here.”
“Hmm,” Odilon looked at him another moment, then shook his head a little. “I must be thinking of someone else then.”
“Must be, sir.”  The young man agreed, returning his eyes to the battle continuing below. He frowned a little. “It appears the Empress is losing.”
“Again,”  the other soldiers stated in unison.
“Yes again,” Odilon muttered in clear discontent. He paused a moment, then added. “But that is only to be expected of course. Gabrielle is a very strong warrior. I heard her boasting a few days ago of this heroic battle in… Huong or something like that.”

He worked very hard to keep his eyes focused on the fight, as he felt several soldiers next to him tense up at his words. “Did… you say Huong?”
Odilon turned to them casually. “Why, yes. You’ve heard of it?”
“I’m afraid so, sir,”  the soldier’s eyes turned back to the battle one last time, following Gabrielle’s movements, but now with much less appreciation. “Pardon me, sir,”  he then excused himself, before he and his companions walked off, towards their barracks.

Odilon smiled to himself, then politely nodded to the young soldier, who had remained on the stands, before descending down the stairs himself.

The soldier frowned a little, seemingly intrigued by these events. He darted another glance at the blonde warrior. Gabrielle’s nanchuka just wrapped itself around Xena’s staff and she tugged, making the weapon fly from Xena’s hands and into her own. She laughed wickedly.

“Interesting,” the young man murmured, before pulling his cloak over his head and vanishing into thin air.

“Well, it wouldn’t do to have you lose on your birthday, right?”
Gabrielle chuckled, darting the Empress an allowing smile. “Right.”

Gabrielle continued walking, then suddenly realized she was in fact being addressed. “Oh sorry, yes?” She looked inquisitively at the young prison guard who’d walked up to her.
“I thought you’d want to know… the prisoner is asking to see you.”
Both Gabrielle’s eyebrows hiked up into her hairline. “That’s odd.”
“That’s why I thought you might want to know,” the guard said.
“You’re right, I do,” she smiled at him. “Thank you. I’ll be right there.”

Xena crossed her arms. “You still bothering with Callisto?”
“I’m not bothering with her,” Gabrielle corrected her. “I just go and see her once in a while. She’s funny. When she’s behind bars anyway. Besides, we do have a history. I can’t just pretend we don’t.”
“Sure you can,” Xena disagreed. “It’s easy. You just ignore her.”
“Now, don’t be jealous,” Gabrielle drawled, reaching up and placing a kiss on her cheek. “I’ll see you at breakfast.”
“I’m not jealous!” Xena called after her, getting a chuckle from the blonde as she walked away. She grumbled another ‘I am not’ under her breath, then stalked off herself.

“You called?”
Callisto, who was lying on her pallet, turned her head to see Gabrielle standing behind the bars. She was dressed in a simple dark red tunic and liberally covered in sweat. “Well, you sure made an effort to get here fast,” the blonde drawled. “Nice to know I still have that effect on women.”
“I just finished sparring with Xena.” Gabrielle explained with a smirk. “So I’m afraid if there’s anyone having any effect on me, it’s her and not you.”

“Well ouch,” Callisto giggled, rising to her feet and then lazily stretching out in a somewhat catlike manner. “So tall, dark and murderous is still your favorite, huh? Even though she’s got her Egyptian to play with now? Pity. Crawling doesn’t become you.”
Gabrielle smiled indulgently. “Oh, nothing wrong with a little crawling. It’s good exercise.”

“Hmm,” Callisto looked at her in dismay. “You’re happy again. I don’t like it.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” Gabrielle leaned against the bars. “So, is there a point to me being here, or did you just feel like a chat?”

“What’s the date?”
Gabrielle frowned at her. “Huh?”
“What’s the date?” Callisto repeated. “Just a simple question, precious.”
The warrior told her.
“Thought so.”  Was the short response, then Callisto plucked something from her belt and handed it to her. “Here.”

Gabrielle eyed her a moment, then gingerly reached out and took the offering. “What’s this?”  
“You blind? It’s a bit of paper.”  
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, unfolding the folded piece of paper. She looked at the lines drawn on it a moment, then started laughing. “Gods, that’s brilliant.”  It was a caricature of Xena, her hair standing out in all directions and her chakram balanced on her head. Her teeth were bared, but seemed more like fangs.
“It’s for practice. You can pin it on the wall and throw daggers at her head. Then when she dumps ya, ya can kill her in one clean toss before you start getting mushy again.”
Gabrielle shook her head a little, still laughing. “You really are insane.”  
“Well, darling, I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me,”  Callisto drawled. Then almost off-handedly handed her another bit of paper. This one was tied up with a small strip of paper which she’d charcoaled a deep black.

Gabrielle took this one as well, hastily untying the bindings, expecting another similar drawing of Xena or herself maybe.

Her fingers stilled though as she found a much more lifelike image staring at her. She looked up, finding Callisto leaning against the bars on the side of the jail, looking anywhere but at her. Green eyes tracked back to the image, remembering.

It had been her first birthday in Athens and she’d been looking forward to it. At home, birthdays had never been much fun. They’d been poor and since her birthday was in springtime and lambing was also, her father was often away and they were all busy managing the farm without him.

Here in Athens though everything was different. She still had to work hard of course, and they weren’t wealthy either but… The resistance was more of family than hers had ever been, in a way. Fay had baked her a cake, and there were decorations and candles to blow out. Gabrielle’s eyes shone with delight. It was more than she’d ever had. She’d gotten the nicest presents too, even though she’d told every one there was no need. Thalia had given her a new quill, and Naxos had given her a beautiful wooden case to keep her parchments in.

It was almost perfect. Almost. Because Callisto wasn’t here.

To everyone else, that was probably a blessing, but to her... Gabrielle absently poked holes in her cake with her fork. To her, it just wasn’t.

She looked up to Callisto. She was a strong, independent woman. She could fight fast and graceful, and, no matter what anyone else thought, she was really smart. If she’d sauntered past Potedeia some day, Gabrielle was sure she would have followed her anywhere.

Sure, she’d made some bad decisions in the past. Well, the recent past. Just last week actually. She’d chopped the head of a guard right outside the palace gates, which had led to a hunt for anyone associated with the resistance. Ten people had been arrested so far.

But she was sure Callisto hadn’t meant to. Not really. She was just… confused. A lot.

“Don’t you like the cake, dear?”  
Fay’s voice brought her back from her pondering. She looked down to see she had poked her cake full of holes. “No, I love it, I’m just… airing it.”
Fay chuckled, shaking her head a little. “You’re an odd girl.”  
“Take it as a compliment,”  Thalia suggested to her as she plumped down in the seat beside her, leaning back and propping her feet up on the table. “I’ll rid you of that cake if you’re not interested.”  
Fay darted the redhead a look, then gave her chair a little push, making both chair and inhabitant fall backwards, Thalia flailing her arms in the air in shock.

Gabrielle started laughing, as did most of the others around her in the small room. She stood and extended her hand down to her friend, to help her up. “Very graceful,” she commented, smirking down at the redhead, who took her hand.

She suddenly noticed the room behind her had gone quiet. She turned her head to see what was going on.

With a thud, Thalia was sent crashing back to the ground. “Hey!”  The redhead tossed her hands up. “What…” She paused then as she saw the crowd part and Callisto walked in. “Oh, brother…”

Gabrielle fumbled with her hands, shifting from one leg to the other, unsure of what posture to take. “Hi,” she finally managed to say. “Can I get you something to drink, or some cake or…”
“No,” Callisto cut her off, walking up to her with business like paces. “It’s your birthday?”
Gabrielle could only nod.
“Thought as much.”  The blonde stated, then pulled something from behind her back and practically threw it at the young girl, who could only barely catch it.

The puppy in her arms squeaked in shock, wiggling around restlessly until finally he found a comfortable spot and calmed. Gabrielle gazed down at the small animal and the animal gazed up at her. The puppy then tentatively licked her nose. Gabrielle chuckled. “Thank y…”  She looked up, only to see the door to Fay’s small house fall shut.

Gabrielle reached out, tracing the edges of the drawing with a fingertip. It was a perfect image of the young dog Callisto had once given to her. She looked up at her former fellow rebel again, who still was looking in the opposite direction. She patiently kept up her staring though, and finally the blonde could do nothing but look back. “I got tired of making pictures of rats and you, so I switched to dogs.”  She said, in explanation. “See how pathetic this place is making me? You should really let me out.”

Gabrielle wrapped her hand around the bar, leaning her head around it. “I really loved that puppy. He followed me everywhere. I called him Plato.”
“Pluto?” Callisto frowned. “What kind of a name is that for a dog?”
“No, Plato,”  Gabrielle repeated. “You know, the philosopher?”
“Sure,” Callisto said, clearly not having the faintest idea. “So, what happened to him. Did your lover crucify him too?” She spared a giggle for the thought of a dog being crucified. Funny image.

“No, he… At a certain time we all had to try hard to keep hidden and it was hard for him, ‘cause he wanted to play.”  Gabrielle smiled faintly at the memory that surfaced. “I met this little girl who told me her parents were robbed and she was scared to go to sleep at night. I gave him to her, so she wouldn’t be scared anymore.”
“Urgh,” Callisto stuck her tongue out in disgust. “How putridly moving.”  She lazily sauntered closer. “So that’s what you did with my gifts, huh?  Give ‘em to stupid little girls.”
“Sometimes,” Gabrielle drawled.

Callisto moved closer still, but Gabrielle didn’t move away from the bars. “Can I ask you something?”
The prisoner considered this a moment, then shrugged. “Sure.”
“You know I had a crush on you. Right?”
Callisto giggled. “Well, yes dear. You weren’t very subtle, you know?”
The warrior smiled. “No, I guess not.”  Callisto was only inches away now. “Were you ever in love with me? Even just a little?”

Callisto seemed surprised by the question, blinking at her a few times. Instead of producing a snappy retort she then cocked her head, seeming to seriously consider the question. “I wouldn’t know,”  she finally replied, seriously. “I don’t know what that is.”
Gabrielle nodded her head a little, apparently understanding.
“I didn’t hate you,”  Callisto continued then. “Which was weird since you were so annoying and good natured.”

Gabrielle chuckled softly, then almost absently lifted her hand and caught Callisto’s arm as the blonde tried to wrap it around her neck and slam her against the bars. She gave her an indulgent look. “Had to go and ruin a perfectly nice moment, didn’t ya?”
“Well, you know me, precious… I just love ruining things. It’s what I do best.”

Gabrielle lifted the drawing a little, sparing it a fond look. “You just keep telling yourself that.” She let go of Callisto’s arm, then patted the blonde’s cheek. She distanced herself from the bars again before Callisto could slap her hand away. “Thank you for the present.”
“Hope your birthday sucks.” Callisto retorted snappily.
Gabrielle just laughed though, wiggling her fingers over her shoulder.

When she entered the dining room it was empty. Gabrielle frowned, walking further inside, her footsteps echoing through the empty room. The large doors into the garden were wide open. She peeked outside and then grinned, spotting Xena and the kids sitting in the grass in the sunshine.

“Abby!”  Niobe was the first one to spot her and scrambled to her feet, running over as fast as her little feet could carry her. Gabrielle caught her before she could plow into the warrior’s legs, swooping her up and hugging her. “Hapsy biddays!”  the girl squealed enthusiastically, pressing a sloppy kiss on Gabrielle’s cheek.  
The blonde chuckled. “Thank you, sweety.”
“Hey, Gabrielle!”  Iona waved at her, but continued slouching in the sun. She pointed at a spot in the grass where a lot of daisies grew. “Look, we decorated your seat for you.”
Xena laughed under her breath, looking up and meeting Gabrielle’s eyes.

Their gazes held and after a few steps Gabrielle had to consciously remind herself of the fact that she was walking and it was nearly time to stop doing that.

So she sat down in the designated spot. Niobe crawled onto her lap and sat down, happily wiggling herself into place. Caspar had bothered to get up and walked over to her, gently kissing her on the cheek. “Happy birthday, Gabrielle.”
“Thank you, Caspar.” She reached out and gently squeezed his hand. “How did you sleep?”
“Not bad,” he replied, smiling a little. “You?”
“Oh… Uhm,” Gabrielle tried looking everywhere but at Xena, who she just knew was grinning broadly. “Short, but… well.” She rubbed her cheek, trying to hide the blush. “So, what’s with the change of breakfast scenery?” She then quickly changed the subject, hearing Xena snicker in response.

“Weather was too good to be stuck inside,” Iona said, leaning back on her hands and gazing up into the sun. “We made some sandwiches and moved out here. Want one?” She pointed at the bread lying on the plate they were gathered around.
Gabrielle nodded. In response, Iona tilted her head and narrowed her eyes at the bread. The next moment, a sandwich rose from the plate and floated over to Gabrielle.

The warrior blinked, then shot a look at Xena, who seemed as surprised as she was. “Nicely done!”  She grabbed the sandwich from the air. “You got the hang of it, huh?”  She smiled at Iona. “How did you do that?”
“Oh, I just… practiced a lot.”  Iona said, shrugging a little. “Tried a bunch of different stuff, finally found something that worked.”
“Well, good for you.” Gabrielle said.

A quick look at Xena showed the Empress was a little more doubtful about this development, but she quickly hid that as Iona turned to her mother. She winked at her offspring, who smiled back proudly. Xena then returned to the order of the day. “Niobe?”
The toddler looked up, finding her playmate crooking a finger at her. She hastily stood and waggled over to Xena. Xena pulled a nicely wrapped item from behind her back and handed it to Niobe. The toddler took it, then quickly went back over to Gabrielle. “S pressent for you.”  
“From you?”  Gabrielle inquired, getting an enthusiastic nod from the child. “Help me unwrap it?”
Niobe happily plumped back into her former spot on Gabrielle’s lap and started ripping at the paper enthusiastically to uncover a clay creation.  

Gabrielle had learned that toddler creations required tactful responses. You never really could be sure what they were exactly, while in a child’s mind it was all so obvious. This little statue seemed to have four legs and something that resembled a head, so she had the vague idea it was a creature of some sort. “That’s beautiful, sweety. I’m going to put this in the best spot in my room. What do you think? By the window?”
“Yes,”  Niobe nodded seriously. “Pookie like look outside.”

Ah, Pookie, the pet tiger. Gabrielle took another look at the figure and could now make out some stripes on the back. That made sense. She carefully placed the statue next to her, then wrapped both her arms around the toddler and hugged her. “Thank you.”
“Love ya,” Niobe warbled back happily.

Caspar pulled a small box from his pocket and handed it to her. “It’s not much.” He murmured as he handed it to her. “But I hope you like it anyway.”
Gabrielle carefully pried open the paper, which had been meticulously wrapped around a small paper box. She opened the box , then paused. “Caspar… It’s beautiful.”  She gently reached inside, lifting up the silver necklace from which a pendant dangled. It was a small gem, a deep black with bright white spots. The spots had a funny shape, almost like snowflakes.

“It’s obsidian. That’s what the rock is called.”  Caspar shuffled his feet a little. “I found it when I was walking in the mountains with Linos. I though it was pretty. So… I thought you should have it, ‘cause you’re pretty. I mean,”  he stuttered as he turned a deep red. “I mean you would look pretty. Wearing it.”  

“I love it,” Gabrielle replied, holding the necklace out to him. “Help me put it on?”
He nodded hastily, taking the piece of jewelry from her and circling around her. With tentative fingers he circled it around her neck and fumbled with the lock, breathing a sigh of relief as he managed to lock it in place.

Xena watched the whole exchange in amusement, then gently poked her daughter with the tip of her toes. Iona peeked over her shoulder questioningly. “Go save your brother, would ya?” She instructed in a whisper.
“Why?” Iona responded innocently. “It’s so much fun to watch him make an idiot of himself.”

Her mother raised a meaningful eyebrow at her. Iona rolled her eyes, then reluctantly got up and walked over to Gabrielle. “Hi.”  
The warrior turned her attention to the twelve year old. She studied the girl a moment. ”Should I be afraid of whatever it is you’ve got behind your back?”
“Verrrry,”  Iona purred in a manner very much like her mother, making Gabrielle chuckle. “Nah,”  the girl then denied with a shrug. “I was nice. I want you to stick around.”
“I think that’s one of the nicest things you’ve said to me,” Gabrielle drawled.
“Don’t get used to it,” Iona countered with a smirk, then pulled a small wooden box from behind her back and handed it to the warrior.

Gabrielle opened the lid to find a rolled up scroll inside. She shook her head, allowing a smile. It seemed Xena had recruited her daughter in her subtle attempts of prodding her to write again. But then as she unrolled the scroll she found it was already written upon. She frowned a little, then started reading the first few lines.

Let me tell a story, great muses, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what has been done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of a woman, Gabrielle of Potedaia, from losing their due meed of glory.  Let me start where other scrolls end, with her return to the City of Athens.

“Mom says history is made by storytellers,” Iona said as Gabrielle’s eyes scrolled further down the page. “It doesn’t matter what you did, it’s all about how it’s put into words. And there’s all these scrolls around about you when you were a rebel and all. But there were none about what happened after. About how you ended up with us. So… now there is.”
“When… How did you do this?”  Gabrielle looked up at Iona in astonishment.
“Well…” Iona scratched the back of her neck. “You know I can’t write anything sensible, so I figured I needed someone who could. So I got some of my history books and picked the one I liked best and sent a letter to the author. Some fellow called Herodotus.”
“You did not!”  Gabrielle blurted.
“Sure I did,” Iona shrugged, as if it was no big deal. She pointed at the scroll. “This is just the start, obviously, ‘cause he didn’t have time to write the entire thing. He’s a nice guy, but… kinda slow in the writing department.”
Gabrielle snorted, turning her eyes back to the scroll and then back up at Iona. “Come here.”
Iona happily walked over, giving Gabrielle a hug. “This is insane,”  the warrior told her in a whisper. “But great. Thank you.”

The Empress watched Gabrielle and the children from her place on the opposite side of the breakfast buffet. The kids were clustered around her, talking, and Gabrielle was laughing.

She seemed happy. The kids seemed happy. Xena sighed. Ah, these sweet moments of normality, where everything was just as it ought to be. Green eyes looked up, twinkling. She smiled back, allowing herself to just get lost in the loving gaze. Pure perfection.

A throat cleared beside her then and she looked up to find Linos looking down at her meaningfully. “Oh, Linos, sorry.” She hopped to her feet. “Time for school, guys.”
Three disappointed, pouty faces were her response. “We can’t leave yet,” Caspar countered. “You still have to give Gabrielle your present.”
Xena smirked cheekily at Gabrielle. “Maybe I already did.”
“You did?”  Caspar turned to the warrior. “What did she give you?”
Gabrielle cleared her throat. “Xena uhm…” She shot the Empress a look, but Xena was quite content to lean against a tree and watch her struggle. “Xena let me win our fight this morning.” She then said to Caspar, quickly taking a sip of her orange juice to hide any sort of expression that might betray the lie.
“Oh yeah,”  The Empress drawled. “Gabrielle wanted to come out on top. So I let her.”
Gabrielle choked  on her drink, then started coughing.

“That’s a stupid present,” Iona said, ignoring the warrior’s coughing fit. “You always beat Xena up anyway.”
“Yes, I do,”  Gabrielle managed, drawing in a deep breath and narrowing her eyes at Xena. “As your mother will find out in a most painful manner tomorrow morning.”
Dark eyebrows wiggled at her.

After some more urging from Linos and the promise they would get the afternoon off in honor of Gabrielle’s birthday, the kids followed their teacher inside. Gabrielle rose to her feet, then almost predatorily stalked over to the Empress. “You… are very, very mean.”

Xena chuckled wickedly, patiently waiting for Gabrielle to get closer. “Why? Because I tell my children the truth? I would say that’s a virtue.”
“You know what I’m gonna make you do with that virtue?” Gabrielle threatened, as she pinned Xena against the tree.
“No,” the Empress drawled, enjoying the tension between them immensely. “But I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.”
The warrior tried to stare her down for another moment, then she just gave up, practically falling forward and capturing the Empress’s lips for a long moment.
“Hmm,”  Xena hummed happily. “You can do that to my virtue anytime.”
“Shut up,”  Gabrielle scolded her, but the kisses being pressed against her neck took any sting out of the comment.

They spent a few leisurely moments making out, then Gabrielle leaned her forehead against Xena’s collarbone, her arms wrapped around the Empress’s waist. “I hate this,” she murmured with a sigh.
“You… hate this?”  Xena frowned at her, not sure how to interpret that.
“No, I don’t mean… Not this…” The blonde hastily corrected herself. “I mean…”  A small sigh. “I can’t think straight. I keep plowing into things. I let the basin run over.”
“Oh, that, yeah.”  Xena shot her a wry grin. “I tried brushing Niobe’s hair with a toothbrush this morning.”

A soft chuckle in response. Gabrielle tilted her head up to look into Xena’s eyes. She reached out a hand, carefully pushing a dark lock out of the Empress’s face. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this before.”
Xena closed her eyes, leaning into the touch. “Me neither.”
“Are you scared?”
The Empress opened her eyes again, looking down at Gabrielle seriously. “No,”  she stated firmly. “I feel safe with you.”
Gabrielle smiled at her, clearly charmed with that answer.

>From the corner of her eye, she spotted Cleopatra making her way over, but she chose to ignore her, reaching up and claiming the Empress’s lips another time. “Do you really have to go and work?”
“Yes,”  Xena replied, regretfully. “There’s some stuff I need to go over and sign today. And there’s that mess with my brother…”
“Hmm. Yeah.”  Gabrielle regretfully unwrapped herself from Xena’s embrace. “Alright, fine… Go. I think I need another bath before Thalia shows up. A cold one.”

Xena chuckled, lifting her hand and pressing a kiss against it. She then turned her attention to the regent. “Good morning, Cleo.”
“It is not,”  the Egyptian stated, clearly miffed. “Are you done?”
“Unfortunately… yes.”  Xena stated, squeezing Gabrielle’s hand softly before letting go. “I’ll see you this afternoon.”
“Definitely,” Gabrielle said, before heading back towards the palace.

“Hey!” Xena called after her after a moment.
The warrior turned around again inquisitively.
“I do still have a present for you.”
“Yeah? What?”
“I’ll show you later.”  Xena told her, receiving a somewhat disappointed look in return, but Gabrielle did turn around and continued her way inside without further comment. “Ah,”  Xena breathed out happily, as she headed towards her chambers. “Love, love, love…”
“Barf,”  Cleopatra muttered under her breath, following the Empress with a foul look.

Thalia sighed unhappily for the fifteenth time in the last ten minutes.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Thal, it’s my birthday. Be cheery. Please.”
“Sorry,”  the redhead muttered. “I just… I really liked him. I really, really liked him. And then it turns out he is her brother!”
“Well, it’s good to know we have similar tastes.”
Thalia shot her a bored look. “Not funny.”
“Sorry,”  Gabrielle in her turn apologized. “I really am,” she added for good measure. “I haven’t seen you this excited about someone since… well… years. I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
“It didn’t work out because your girlfriend chased him off.”
The warrior sighed. “He tried to kill her.”
“She killed her mother. And her other brother.”
“It’s a little more complicated than that,”  Gabrielle countered, already tired of the conversation.

Thalia, knowing her friend well, could hear that in her voice and looked up apologetically. “Sorry. I’ll drop the subject until after your birthday, okay.”
“Thanks,”  Gabrielle smiled at her, gratefully.
“So did you get the necklace from Xena?” The redhead changed the subject, pointing at the piece of jewelry.
“No. Caspar.”

Thalia rolled her eyes. “Is that boy still hooked on you?”
“Xena said she was going to talk to him today,” Gabrielle said, twisting the rock between her fingers. “I feel bad. He’s such a sweet child.”
“He’s not bad, no,” even Thalia had to admit. “He’s smart though. I’d be surprised if he didn’t have a clue already. You two aren’t really subtle about it.”
Gabrielle frowned at her. “What do you mean?”
“Hello!” Thalia waved a hand in front of her face. “You, her, market square full of Athenians? Ring a bell?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah…” Gabrielle rolled her eyes with a smirk. “That was a long time ago.”
“It was a month ago.”
Gabrielle smiled a little. “Seems a lot longer than that, doesn’t it?”
“Hmm,”  Thalia nodded faintly. “It does. We’ve gotten a lot done in so short a time.”
“Not as much as we planned on.”
“Oh, drop it.”  Thalia shot her friend a look. “Two months ago I was locked in a jail and there was no resistance to speak of. Now we’re co-leading the country. You made that happen, Gabrielle.” Her friend started to protest, but Thalia cut her off. “Don’t try to be modest. You are magic and you know it.”
The warrior managed a faint smile. “Magic, huh?”
“Yes,” the redhead confirmed firmly. “In spite of all the bad stuff that’s happened, this last month had been… amazing. Having you back has been amazing.” She reached over and took Gabrielle’s hand. “Thank you.”  A faint smirk. “For bringing back the magic.”
Gabrielle chuckled, shaking her head a little. “It’s been fun.”  She turned serious. “And amazing, yes. Being back here. It’s like… some pieces of my life are falling back into place. It’s nice, not having to run anymore.”
“Yeah,”  Thalia confirmed.

They both pondered on that a little, then Gabrielle decided to change the topic to something lighter. “So, who else is coming over?”
“Oh, some old friends from the resistance, mostly,” Thalia stated, leaning back in her seat. “And some council members. Megan couldn’t make it, she said, and Odell passed, but the others are coming.”
“Too bad about Megan,” the warrior said, not too worried about Odell. “I kinda like her. Though…” She frowned a little. “ Something weird happened a few days back.”
Her friend looked at her, curiously.
“I bumped into her in the hallway. And then she warned me about Odilon. Which was weird, ‘cause… I didn’t think that many people knew of him being here.”
“She can act a little weird,” Thalia agreed. “And she’s missing a lot. She wasn’t at the theatre last night either.” A shrug. “But besides that, she seems nice. She’s smart.”

Gabrielle nodded in agreement, then returned to birthday matters. “So anybody else coming besides them?”
“Those kids and her High and Mighty of course,”  the redhead said. “And that teacher, Linos. Some other members from the household here too, I think. That’s about it. I didn’t want to make this all too big, you know?”
“Sure,” Gabrielle nodded, though she had been kind of hoping on seeing Ephiny and Solari again. She hadn’t seen the two Amazons since they’d departed for the new Amazon lands. She and Ephiny had been keeping contact through several letters they’d written to each other and she’d found the Amazon Queen to be a smart, sensible leader, who had a really funny sarcastic sense of humor. “It’d be hard for anyone from out of town to come over anyway. With so much going on these days.”
“Right,” Thalia agreed, repressing a smirk. “Right.”

Xena straightened her dress a little before looking up at Benitor. “What’s the word on my present?”
“Preparations are on their way, but naturally it will not all be ready for this evening.”
“What? People don’t perform unaccomplishable tasks for me anymore just because I ask them to?” Xena feigned offence. “What is this world coming to?”
“I think your Lady will understand the gift for what it is though,”  the servant continued, then he held out a small velvet box to her. “I hope this is adequate?”
Xena took the box from him and carefully opened it, smiling at what was inside. “That’ll do nicely.”

The Empress looked up to find Caspar peeking inside. “Hey buddy, come in.”  She turned back to Benitor. “Excellent work. Thank everyone who helped. And tell them they all will be awarded accordingly.”
“We all feel a great affection for Gabrielle, Majesty. It was gladly done.” The servant bowed politely, then walked away, passing Caspar as the boy entered the room.  

The boy closed the door behind him. “You asked to see me?”
“I did.” Xena gave herself a moment to order her thoughts as she opened a desk drawer and placed the small box Benitor had given her securely inside.  “Sit down, would you?”
Caspar obediently walked over and hopped up on the chair on the other side of the desk, his feet dangling a little above the ground. His head barely peeked over the desk’s surface.

Xena picked up her own chair and walked to his side of the desk, placing the chair in front of his and sitting down. She leaned her elbows on her knees, so they were just about eye to eye. “I think we have a problem.”
“We… we do?” Caspar looked surprised and just a little scared.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” the Empress hastily added. “I think… I think I did something wrong. And I need to talk to you about it.”
“You did something wrong?”  the boy repeated, clearly not believing a word of that.
“Yeah, see…”  Xena rubbed at her neck, trying to find the right words. “We’re friends, right?”
“And you like Gabrielle, right?”
The boy blushed a little. “Well… yes. Of course I do. She’s nice.”
“And pretty,”  Xena added, looking at him meaningfully.
The blush spread. “Well…”
“It’s okay to say that, ‘cause…”  Xena drew in a breath. “‘Cause I think so too. And that’s the problem, see?”

Caspar stared at her a few moments, then shook his head. “No.”
Xena rubbed at her face., trying to find a tactful way to explain things to the boy. “Well… You like Gabrielle. In a certain way. And I like Gabrielle. In the same certain way. And she can only like one of us back in that certain way.” A breath. “So I’m afraid we have to fight it out.”

Caspar blinked at her. “Fight?”
“Yeah, a duel,”  Xena clarified. “You know, like in the stories. We fight, and whoever wins, gets the girl.” She stood. “So I’ll let you pick the weapon, then we can settle this right now.”
“I don’t want to fight you,”  Caspar said, abhorred.
Xena sat back down. “I don’t want to fight you either. But I don’t see another way to solve this problem.”

Caspar looked down at his fingers, which were fumbling with the edge of his tunic. “I…”  He looked up at her. “I don’t think there is a problem.”
A dark eyebrow rose at him. “No?”
“No,”  he shook his head. “‘Cause… Gabrielle doesn’t like me. In that certain way I mean. She likes you.”

A smile twitched at Xena’s lips. “You think so?”
“Yeah.” Caspar sighed a little. “She keeps looking at you all the time. Especially when you don’t know she is.” His brown eyes looked up at her. “We don’t have to fight if she likes you back anyway, right?”
The Empress considered this seriously for a moment, then shook her head. “No, I don’t think we do.” She reached out and squeezed his knee. “You mad at me?”
“Why would I be mad at you?”
“‘Cause…” Xena shrugged a little. “‘Cause I knew you liked her. And I started liking her too anyway.”
Caspar smiled a little. “It’s hard to not like Gabrielle.”
“Tell me about it,”  Xena grinned then reached over and hugged the boy. “Thanks, buddy.”
Caspar hugged her back, then hopped off his chair. “I have to go change. For the party.”  
“Yeah, I have to finish dressing too,”  Xena agreed. “What do you think? Hair up or down?” She twirled her dark locks into a knot and looked at him inquisitively.
“Doesn’t matter. She will think you look pretty either way.”
Xena reached down, patting him on the cheek. “I’ll see you there.”

It was the third bath that day. Gabrielle smirked at the thought, before dunking her face underwater and rinsing out her hair. But the weather had been warm and humid today. And she wanted to look nice when her guests came. It wouldn’t be a big deal of course, but still. She’d not seen some of them for a while now, with being so busy and all.

She rose from the water, reaching for a towel and wrapping it around herself. A cold breeze fluttered in through the windows, pleasantly cooling her warm skin. She peeked outside, where darkness had fallen by now and the moon was particularly clear. It seemed like a nice enough evening.  

She walked back into her bedroom, then stopped. It was more the feeling something was out of place than anything else. Her eyes scanned the room, then fell upon something unfamiliar lying on her bed. A dress, a deep burgundy one. She frowned, then her head snapped up as she heard the faintest of sounds from the shadows next to the window.

A moment, then Xena gracefully slid from her hidden place, the moonlight reflecting beautifully off her silver dress. “I’m getting better at sneaking up on you.”
“You are,”  Gabrielle easily agreed, closing the distance between them. “But somehow I don’t seem to mind that much.”
“Really?” The Empress slid her hands up against the rough fabric of the towel, pulling her closer and kissing a drop of water from her neck.
Gabrielle smiled, happily leaning against her. “What’s with the dresses?”
“It’s your birthday. So we dress up.” A hand slid between the folds of the towel and found bare skin. “Though… dressing down is also a nice option.”
“There’s people waiting for me,” Gabrielle objected faintly, kissing the Empress’s collarbone.
“You have patient friends, right?”
The warrior chuckled, her breathing already uneven. “Not that patient.”
Xena huffed out an unhappy breath, then relented. “Fine. They can have you.”  She pushed a lock of blond hair back. “For now.”

Gabrielle smiled at her, then turned toward the dress, dropping the towel as she walked.
“You’re not helping,”  Xena muttered, folding her fingers, who seemed to have developed a will of their own, behind her back.

Gabrielle pulled the soft silk fabric over her head, darting a look at the mirror to judge her reflection. “It’s a little fancy.” She commented, darting a look at Xena. “It’s just a small gathering. Isn’t this overkill?”
Xena shrugged casually, finding an interesting spot on the ceiling to stare at.
The warrior narrowed her eyes at her. “What are you not telling me?”

The Empress sneaked a peek at her, stared up at the ceiling for another moment, then sighed in defeat. “Well… maybe this… gathering… is just a little more fancy than planned.”
“It’s not that spectacular, really,”  Xena hastily added. “Just a few people… We just switched the location to the ballroom and told everybody to dress up.”  The Empress looked at her apologetically. “It’s been a while since we had a chance to celebrate anything. The kids were really looking forward to a big party. They were so excited. I couldn’t say no.”
“You’re a wuss,”  Gabrielle told her, but the smirk on her face took any sting out of the comment.  

Gabrielle finished her preparation and they both walked out the door and down the hallway, towards the ballroom. “I’ve never been to the ballroom before.”  Gabrielle commented.
“We don’t use it much. It’s not that spectacular. And sorta dusty by now. But it’s nice and big. I hate feeling crowded.”
Gabrielle agreed with a nod. They came near the door and Xena pulled her back in front of it. “Now… This was supposed to be a secret and everything. So… Can you just pretend to be surprised? Thalia is mad enough as it is, with the whole mess with my brother and all that.”
“Don’t worry. My second choice in the arts department next to writing was acting.”  Gabrielle said, straightening her dress a little. “Okay, let’s do this.” She walked over to the door and pushed it forward, stepping inside.

And she stood in awe then as bright candlelight filled a gigantic ballroom, riddled with crystal chandeliers which sent sparks of light flying across the room. Even though the ballroom was huge, it was chockfull of people, who instantly greeted her warmly, hundreds of voices calling out to her. She knew them all. People from the city, from the staff, people who she’d met on her travels and who she knew had come from very far, old acquaintances and new friends.

“You clearly missed your calling,”  Xena’s voice burred in her ear. “You do surprised very well, I have to say.”
Gabrielle managed to dart an incredulous look over her shoulder at Xena, who just grinned back at her. Before she could retort though, she was engulfed by people wishing to congratulate her.

Xena contently stood at the door, watching Gabrielle being led away.
“Did she suspect anything?” Iona commented as she stepped up to her mother.
“Not a thing,” Xena replied easily, sharing a high-five with her daughter.

A familiar voice rose above the others.
“Ephiny!” Gabrielle called out in delight as she spotted her the Amazon Queen in the crowd. The Amazon easily stood out, since her outfit was quite different from the others. All beads and strips of leather.
“Surprise,”  Ephiny commented dryly, as the blonde hugged her enthusiastically.
“You look great,”  Gabrielle smiled broadly at her. “I was so looking forward to seeing you again.”
“I feel great,”  the Amazon squeezed the blonde’s shoulders. Then took a step back to let Solari pass, who clasped hands with the warrior. “Good to see you, Gabrielle.”  The brunette replied curtly, in her characteristic grumpy tone. “Happy birthday.” The amazon was looking distinctly uncomfortable in her dress, fumbling with some of the beads
“Yes, happy birthday,”  Ephiny joined in. “I’m sure I don’t want to know how ridiculously young you are?”
Gabrielle chuckled warmly. “I’m sure not telling.”
“Thalia knows.”
“She’s sworn to secrecy,”  Gabrielle told her solemnly, looking around. “Where is that friend of mine anyway? I need to torture her for this.”
“You won’t get a present with that attitude, missy,”  a voice behind her drawled and Gabrielle turned to find Thalia standing behind her with a big smirk on her face.
Gabrielle reached over and pulled her into a hug. “How on earth did you manage to do this?”
“Well, I’d love to take the credit, but I had a helper with some connections,”  Thalia smiled. “I teamed up with my greatest nemesis for you, Gab. So you’d better show some gratitude and cut the torture threats.”

The redhead circled over to Ephiny’s side, standing on her tiptoes and whispering something in the Amazon’s ear. The woman looked at Thalia, then at Gabrielle, then at Thalia again. “No way!”
Thalia nodded gravely.
“No way!”  Ephiny repeated again, in an even more incredulous tone. “You’re that young?” Gabrielle just smiled at her sheepishly. “Ugh,”  the Queen hid her face in her hands. “I’ve been wasting my life. Now I’ll be depressed for the rest of the night.”

Gabrielle was soon surrounded by many people wanting to talk to her and engulfed by presents. The room around them was busy, serving staff walking around with snacks and drinks. A band played in the far corner, the cheerful music echoing beautifully through the hall. The crowd was buzzing, busy chatting and catching up with old acquaintances.

So busy in fact that no one noticed two small flashes in a corner of the room, hidden from sight partially by some curtains. A moment, then the curtains were pushed aside to reveal two figures. One was a young man with short blond hair. The other was a blond woman, dressed in a bright pink dress.

“Wicked!” The woman called out enthusiastically, her eyes sparkling at the sight of the party. “Nice shindig!”
Her companion wiggled his shoulders a little, clearly not happy with the jacket he was wearing. “Why do they not create tuxes for guys with wings,”  he muttered, clearly unhappy. “My feathers are getting all ruffled.”
“Oh, shush, Cupid. You should have just let me poof those wings of yours. Could have shrunk them to a nice maintainable size.”
“Mother, do you remember the last time you tried that?” Cupid shot her a meaningful look. “I was stuck on earth for weeks.”
“Yeah yeah yeah, minor detail.”  Aphrodite’s eyes searched the room. “Now where is she…?”
She turned to her son. “Let’s split up.”
“Gladly,”  Cupid muttered, as his mother went left and he therefore turned right.

“Oh my gods! Lila!” Gabrielle smiled broadly as she spotted her younger sister making her way through the crowds with some trouble.
“Gabrielle,”  Lila wrapped her arms around the blonde and squeezed tight. “It’s so good to see you!”
“You too,”  Gabrielle held her sister at arms length. “Did you come here with mom and dad?”
Lila shook her head. “Nah. You know them. Just the thought of the city makes them freak out.”  She gave her sister a knowing look. “Mom made me promise to remind you of the virtues of the simple village life.”
“Urgh,”  Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “They will never give up, will they?” A frown. “So they let you come here on your own?”
“Uhm… no…. not exactly.” Lila seemed somewhat uncomfortable. “You know, when you visited us after you’d just come back to Greece… Well, you left so quickly again, I didn’t have time to tell you all sorts of stuff. Like…”  A breath. “ Like how I got married.”
“You got married?” Gabrielle’s jaw nearly dropped open. “Who on earth to?”

“Hello, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle’s eyes widened a trifle at the familiar voice, then looked up. “P… Perdicas?”  Her eyes shot back to her sister for a sec, then back to the young man standing at his sister’s side. “Perdicas,”  she repeated again, somewhat resigned. “Hi.” She held out her hand.
He shook it, somewhat coldly. “You look… well.”  He managed.
“You too,”  Gabrielle answered politely. “So… I hear… congratulations are in order.”
“You’re a little late with those, but thanks.”  Perdicas turned to his wife. “Lila, when you are ready to leave, I’ll be over there.”

Gabrielle watched him walk away through the crowd, then turned back to her sister. “You have any more surprises for me?”
Lila rubbed her neck uncomfortably. “I think I might be pregnant?”
Gabrielle winced, then grabbed onto her sister’s hand and dragged her off. “Let’s sit down and talk. Before I keel over.”

Iona circled her way through the masses, quite enjoying the party. The fact that she had to wear a dress was a bit of a bother, but there was music and dancing and there was nice food. It wasn’t a bad party all in all.

Gabrielle’s friends seemed nice. She’d talked with some of them a little and heard some great stories about Gabrielle to tease the woman with. About when she’d first come to Athens and kept stumbling on her dress. Iona giggled at the mere thought. It was so funny to think of Gabrielle like that, considering who she was now.

There had been some other people too, who’d said bad stuff about Xena. A slightly chubby woman had said something particularly nasty. So Iona had responded by narrowing her eyes at a bowl of baklava and making the honey pastry drizzle all over her. All sticky. That had been fun. And no one could ever know it’d been her.

Iona giggled. Being a half-god ruled big time.

A voice behind her made her turn. Her eyes tracked up, past a set of leather pants, a muscled chest and up to a handsome face.
“Are you Iona?”
Iona swallowed, just staring up at him with wide eyes.
“Are you Iona?” The stranger repeated, a little louder now, probably assuming the bur of noise around them had kept her from hearing him the first time.
“Uhm… yeah. Yes, I am.” Iona hastily straightened, running a finger through her hair and quickly ordering it. “Do I know you?”
“No, but I’ve heard a lot about you.”  He held out his hand and she took it. It was warm and strong. She instantly blushed a deep red.
“Are you… a… a friend of Gabrielle’s?”
“Well,” he drawled. “Kinda. Sorta. It’s complicated.” He held out his hand again. “Wanna dance? I’d love to get to know you a little better?”
“Sure,”  she managed to gasp before she was led towards the dance floor.

Xena propped her foot up against the table, leaning back in her seat and taking a sip of her wine. The party was in full swing now. People were dancing and drinking and laughing. Her daughter had disappeared in the masses. She’d sent a reluctant Niobe off to bed, and Caspar had gone with her. He wasn’t much of a party animal, that boy.

She grinned. But then again, neither was she. There was too much noise for her sensitive ears. And she’d always hated crowds. She’d learned to deal with them, she’d had to, but if she could avoid them, she would. Especially crowds like these.

Xena sighed. She’d gotten quite a few narrow eyed looks tossed at her and picked up some snide remarks. She was used to those, but still… it always stung a little.

Gabrielle was having fun though, and that’s what mattered. She tipped her head back, staring at the ceiling, watching flecks of light travel across its surface. She’d found herself a spot in a corner, out of the way, where it was somewhat more quiet. She could ride out the rest of the night tucked out of sight.

“Do you mind if I sit here?”
Xena looked up to find a young man standing before her. He was handsome, with strong features and shortly cropped dark hair. Xena shrugged. “Siddown.”
“Thanks.” He did, his eyes scanning the room a moment, before he spoke up again. “Are you a friend of Gabrielle’s?”

Xena tried to repress a smirk. This fellow clearly had no idea who she was. That was a rarity. “Nah. We’re more like faint acquaintances.”  She drawled. “You?”
“I grew up with her,” he said.
“Ah,”  Xena nodded, understanding completely now. “You’re from Potedeia.”
“Yeah. Beautiful place.”  He said,  smiling at the thought of his home village. “Have you ever been there?”
“No, just missed it, sadly.”
“It’s much nicer than this city.”  He grimaced. “It’s so busy here. Crowded. And smelly.”

He paused for a moment, thinking about this, then turned back to her. “So… Gabrielle… seems to have a lot of friends.”
“Yeah. She’s very popular for some reason.”
“That sure changed. Back home she was always more of a loner.” The young man crossed his ankles, staring intently at the tip of his boot as he wiggled his toes. “She didn’t much fit in.”
“I bet,”  Xena murmured, imagining Gabrielle as a younger girl in a small, narrow-minded village. What an odd picture that made.

“Is she… involved with someone?”
Oh, this is getting better by the second. “Yeah, she’s dating some woman I heard.”
He didn’t seem too surprised by this. “Thought as much. That short woman, with the curly hair and all the leather I bet. Gabrielle always did have a thing for leather.”
Xena nearly choked on her sip of wine. “Uhm.” She cleared her throat. “No, not her. Some dark haired type. Haven’t seen her around yet. You’ll recognize her the moment she walks in though.”  She leaned closer. “Just between you and me… ug-ly…”

Breathe. Iona instructed herself sternly. You need to breathe.
“So,”  her dance partner, spun her around playfully, then continued dancing to the rhythm of the music. “You’re Xena’s kid, huh?”
Iona looked up at him and blinked, momentary diverted. “You know about that?”
“Sure,” he laughed.

Iona sighed. His laugh was so cute.

She shook her head a little, trying to rid herself of the thought. Cute was not a word in her vocabulary. People were either really cool. Like Gabrielle or Xena. Or they were lame. Like Caspar. They were not cute.

“You really are her spitting image. It’s almost scary really.”  Another laugh.

Iona sighed again. He was so cute.

“Cupie! You found her!”
Iona was thrown from her daydreaming as a woman came bounding closer, smiling broadly.

She was… Iona blinked a few times. … very pink.

“Hello sweetie,”  the pink lady squeezed her cheek affectionately. “Well, aren’t you the cutest thing?”
“Mother,” her dance partner scolded the woman, pushing her back a little to Iona’s relief. “Give the girl some space, would you?”

“Mother?”  Iona repeated, glancing from the young man to the not much older woman.
“I was a teenage mom,”  the woman informed her, then giggled. She cast a glance up at her son. “She really looks nothing like him, does she?”
“Not at all,”  he responded, with a smile. “All the better.”
“Yeah. Totally,”  the woman grimaced, her cheery attitude receding a little. “Wouldn’t want to be reminded of that every time.” She turned back to Iona. “You ever feel like… you know… waging war and taking over the world or something?”
“Uhm… no,”  Iona looked at her funny. “That would be stupid. Mom already did that.”

“Super!”  The woman looked up happily. “No megalomaniac tendencies in there.”
Her son rolled his eyes. “You deducted that just by asking her two questions? You’re quite the psychologist.”
“Not a psychologist, sweetie. A loooove doctor.” She giggled again, then her attention was diverted to a young couple dancing past, holding each other somewhat awkwardly. “Oh no, honey. You can do better than that.”  She instructed the young man after he’d passed, before lifting a hand and waving it at the back of his head. A small poof of pink smoke erupted from her index finger and drifted over to the couple, swirling around them a few times. The cloud then split into two equal halves, one half zooming in on the man’s heart, the other finding the woman’s.

The next moment the woman grabbed a flower from a nearby vase and stuck it between her teeth, before her partner grabbed onto her tightly and swept her over the dance floor.

“Yeah, baby!” the blond woman did a little happy shuffle. “Still got it.”

“I can’t believe this,” Gabrielle rested her chin on her folded hands and stared at her sister.
“He’s a good man,”  Lila said softly.
“He’s Perdicas,” her sister replied to that, somewhat exasperated. “Remember how we used to laugh at the silly lovesick things he used to do?”
Lila lips quirked up a little. “Yes. I remember.”  She released a breath, then looked back at her sister. “Look, it’s a good marriage, okay? I don’t have to live with mom and dad anymore, for  one. He treats me well. And… And his father owns the property next to ours. So when Perdicas inherits it…”

“Dad will have exactly what he wanted,”  Gabrielle finished for her, shaking her head in disgust. “The eldest wouldn’t cooperate, but fortunately he had two daughters.”
“Don’t say that.”  Lila reached over, taking her hand. “It’s not like that, Gab. It’s really not. I mean,” she consented. “It’s not like I love him. And he doesn’t love me. But we like each other. That’s something.”
“Oh, Lila,”  Gabrielle squeezed her sister’s hand gently. “You have no idea what you’re missing out on.”

“Really?” Lila studied her curiously. “I picked up some gossip in the inn we’re staying at. About you and a certain Empress?”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle responded, unable to repress a happy smile.
“You seem happy.”
“I am,”  her sister confirmed. “It’s really strange for me to say that, ‘cause… happy wasn’t in my vocabulary for the longest time. And it’s not always easy, me and her, but… she looks at me and I feel I can fly.” A small laugh. “It’s so weird.”
“Last time I saw you, you ran off to kill her, if I recall correctly…”
Gabrielle sighed. “It’s a really long story,”  Reminded of Xena, she looked up, her eyes scanning the crowd. “You mind if I tell you later? I think I need to go find her, actually.”
“Sure,”  Lila released her with a smile. “Promise we’ll talk tomorrow or so though? I’ve missed your stories. No matter how long.”
Gabrielle darted her a smile as she got up. “Promise.” She said, before turning and disappearing into the crowd.

“Oh yes. She was always very vindictive,”  Perdicas said,  taking another sip of his wine. “This one time this fellow from the neighboring village said something nasty about her sister and she slugged him. Just like that. Very improper for a young girl.”
“Oh yes. Very,” the woman next to him drawled.

Someone cleared their throat softly right behind them and Perdicas’ eyes moved away from the woman sitting beside him to find Gabrielle standing in front of her.
“Hi,” the blonde greeted them both politely. Perdicas gave her a curt nod. She then extended her hand with a smile. “Dance with me?”
Perdicas laughed wryly. “Gabrielle, I don’t think…”

“I’d love to,” Xena responded, reaching out and taking her hand. She cast a look over her shoulder at Perdicas, who was watching them both with wide, confused eyes. “It was nice talking to you.”
“Uhm…”  Perdicas blinked at her, still not comprehending what was going on. “Yeah…”

Xena allowed herself to be dragged towards the dance floor.
“Do you know who you were talking to?”
Xena chuckled wickedly.
“Thought as much,” Gabrielle sighed, rolling her eyes.

The Empress smiled, then moved closer a little, dropping her voice. “You might wanna back out of this dancing idea.”
“‘Cause…” Xena shrugged a little. “I don’t want to ruin a good thing. I’m not the most popular girl at the party, you know?”

They reached the dance floor and Gabrielle turned around to face the Empress. “Well, what can I say…?”  She moved closer, sliding her arms around Xena’s neck. “I’m a rebel…”
The Empress chuckled deep in her throat. “Well, you’d say people here should be able to respect that at least.” She laid her cheek against the other woman’s hair. “So. You… Him… Explain that to me, would ya?”
The warrior exhaled. “Not a lot to explain. We were about the same age, his parents liked my parents… you know…”
“Ah, very romantic.”
“Romance is not a word that Potedieans are familiar with.”
“Their loss,”  Xena murmured.

“Yeah,”  Gabrielle agreed. “I feel bad for my sister though.”
“He said they were… content.”
The warrior sighed, leaning back a little and looking up, meeting blue eyes. “Is that enough?”
“Not for us,” the Empress smiled a little. “But for some people…. Yes.”

Gabrielle considered this a moment, then moved closer again, resting her head against Xena’s shoulder. “I don’t get that.”
“It’s all about how you wanna live life. For people like you and me… It’s all or nothing. We go for the extremes. There’s no such thing as just content. When we’re happy, we’re… ecstatic. But when we hurt, we hurt bad.”  A shrug. “Some people just don’t want to take that risk.”
“I don’t get that,”  Gabrielle repeated. “ But it’s good that you do. You… you get people. Different types of people. You understand how they work. I don’t. I don’t get why people don’t feel the same way I do.”
A chuckle. “Who’s the megalomaniac now?”
Gabrielle smiled. “Maybe I am.”

They both fell silent, just swaying to the music. Gabrielle allowed her eyes to wander, absently scanning the crowd. They appeared to be the center of attention, people looking at them and whispering to each other. “Thank you. For the party.”
“Hardly did a thing. Your friend Thalia did most of the work. I just provided a room and ordered people to order people to do the catering.”
“Sure,” Gabrielle drawled, not believing a word.

“Really,”  Xena said, and was about to continue, when she spotted movement from the corner of an eye. “Uh oh.”
“I think your ex just caught on,”  the Empress murmured with a smirk. “He’s marching over here.”
The blonde peeked over Xena’s shoulder, seeing him as well. “Good,”  she stated. “He’ll get a front row seat for this then.”
Xena frowned. “For wh…?”

She was unable to finish her question as Gabrielle pulled her head down and lips captured hers. For a moment she was too stunned to react. Then she did, wrapping her arms more tightly around the blonde and enjoying the kiss for several long moments.  

As she pulled away a little, green eyes twinkled mischievously at her. The room around them had gone suspiciously quiet.

Then there was a soft thud. The two women both looked down, to see Perdicas lying slumped on the marble tiles.

“Huh,”  Xena murmured, clearly amused. “I guess that was too much for him.” She turned back to the blonde standing next to her, dropping her voice to a whisper. “Subtlety… Not your thing, is it?”
Gabrielle just grinned back at her deviously.

“Now there’s two people who don’t need divine assistance in the love department.”

The comment was a mere whisper, but Xena heard it nevertheless. She turned towards the sound, her eyes quickly zooming in on the speaker. Hey eyes narrowed and darkened. Without a word she let go of Gabrielle, stalking towards the woman dressed in pink.
“Xena?” The blonde frowned, not sure what had just happened.

Aphrodite glanced around, in the hope the menacing woman was heading for some other goddess, but she was the only one around.
When Xena had nearly reached her, the Empress gracefully reached down and plucked a dagger from its sheath strapped against her leg. The next moment she had a hand wrapped around Aphrodite’s throat and shoved the goddess against the wall.

“Whoa! Hey!” Aphrodite stared at her with wide eyes as she lifted the dagger overhead. “Time out! Time out!”
“Mom!” Iona called out in shock. “What are you doing?”
“Get away from my daughter!”  Xena hissed, then shot a furious look over her shoulder at Cupid. “Now!”
Cupid hastily lifted his hands and backed up a pace. “Hey, chill! We were just having a friendly chat.”
“Xena!”  Iona called out again. “They weren’t doing anything bad! Let her go!”
Xena turned her attention to her daughter. “Iona, get away from him.”

The girl stared at her a moment in complete confusion, then she shook her head determinedly. “No.”  She took a step closer to Cupid. “I was just talking to them, mom.”
“Step away from him,”  Xena repeated again, her eyes bearing down on the girl.
But Iona resisted, not intimidated by her mother’s dark stares. “No.” She said firmly, meeting identical blue eyes in a battle of wills.

Meanwhile Gabrielle came running closer, looking highly confused. “What’s going on here?”
Xena darted a look over her shoulder at the blonde. “Get Iona.”  She instructed.
Gabrielle hesitated a moment, unsure, but then she decided to just do as Xena requested and ask questions later. She turned towards the girl, holding out a hand. “Iona, come over here. Please.”

The girl was looking desperate now, her eyes darting between her mother and the warrior. Gabrielle took a few steps closer, reaching for her. “No!” Before Gabrielle could get close enough Iona lifted a hand. With a surprised yell the warrior was hurdled backward, flying through the air a few feet before crashing into some spectators.

Iona turned back to her mother, raising her hand again. The next moment the hind’s blood dagger went soaring through the air, thudding in a wooden pillar in the center of the room.
“Whoa,”  Cupid blinked, clearly impressed. “Nifty.”
“Let her go,”  Iona warned her mother, her eyes narrowed dangerously.

Aphrodite saved her the trouble though, disappearing from Xena’s grasp in a flash of pink and reappearing next to her son and behind Iona. “Family-in-law,” she muttered, rubbing her painful neck. “Why are they always a bother? Hmm?”

Xena looked at her daughter with a mixture of disbelief and outrage. Meanwhile Gabrielle had scrambled back to her feet and stepped up next to Xena, her expression quite similar to that of the Empress.

Aphrodite hesitated a moment, then decided to intervene. “Hey now.” She moved up next to Iona. “Where’s the lovin’ ?” She tried a smile, but Xena just narrowed her eyes further at her. “I’m not trying to hurt your kid, Xena. Honest to… me, I’m not.” She looked at the Empress pleadingly. “Come on, you know me. Goddess of Love, remember? Not of Kidnapping. I just wanted to see her. She’s family.”
“I don’t want her to have any contact with you or any other members of your family.” Xena growled.
“Yeah, well I do!”  Iona snapped back, her eyes blazing. “Doesn’t it matter what I want?!”
Xena huffed out a frustrated breath. “Iona, I’m warning you…”

But she never got to finish that threat as suddenly on the other side of the room the large glass windows exploded inward, sending fragments of glass flying through the room.

The crowd, who’d been merely confused, now panicked and all ran to get as far away from the windows as possible.

“What the…” Xena frowned, forgetting about Aphrodite and Cupid for a moment and turning to this new commotion.

As the last shards of glass rained onto the marble floor, a man entered from outside. It was just a simple man, dressed in a worn, light-blue, hooded robe. His reddish, curly hair reached down to his shoulders.

“I’ve seen him,”  Gabrielle whispered beside her. “I’ve seen him in the market square a few days back. He was following me, I think.”
“Quite an entrance for a stalker,”  Xena muttered, then squared her shoulders. “Watch Iona and her new… friends. I’ll deal with this.”

The stranger took a few steps inside, the glass shards crackling under his boots. Xena walked up to him, stopping between him and the watching crowd. “Hey, aren’t you taking the phrase ‘crashing the party’  a bit too literally, hmm?” She crossed her arms, darting him a pointed look.

The young man looked up, studying her for a moment, before smiling at her. It wasn’t a nice type of smile.

There was something very eerie about this fellow. She didn’t know him, she was sure of that, but there was something familiar about him. A nasty gnawing in her gut, alarming, but she couldn’t pinpoint what it was. “Come on then,” Xena dared him, circling a little closer. “I’m assuming you didn’t blow up my ballroom just to smile at me.”

“No, I did not,”  the man spoke for the first time. He had a strange accent. He looked like a man from Britannia, but there was also a hint of something from the orient in his voice. “I have come to deliver a message to you. On behalf of my Lord.” His smile grew. “I have been chosen. Selected from many of his followers to tell you of his coming.”
Xena looked at him, puzzled. “What are you talking about?”
“The end is near,”  the young man said, his eyes darkening. “The old, crippled, blind, maimed, your so-called gods… All will be destroyed.  Cleansed by the fires of war.”

Xena stared at him another moment, then she snorted, amused. “Look, buddy, I’m sure your Lord has big plans and all, but any cleansing by war is gonna be done by me.”  She took a step towards him. “Leave. Go tell your lord to bugger off.”

In response the stranger moved his hand forward. A blast of air shot from his palm, sending Xena flying back. The Empress crashed harshly back on the marble tiles, sliding along the slippery surface until she finally came to a halt.

Gabrielle watched the whole scene with wide eyes. Her first instinct was to rush to Xena’s side, but the Empress had asked her to watch over Iona. Reluctantly she stayed where she was.

Xena scrambled back to her feet. The guards who’d been posted outside the door came rushing to her side. Without a word she grabbed a spear from one of them and moved towards the stranger again. The young man watched her approach, not bothering to grab for a weapon of his own. “You are pissing me off.”  Xena hissed at him, pointing the tip of the spear at him. “Who are you? And who’s your lord?”

The young man laughed. An unpleasant laugh, dark and menacing. His dark eyes glinted right into hers. “I am Khrafstar, high priest of my Lord, the One God, the dark force that will sweep this world.”
Xena’s eyes widened as realization hit her. She instinctively took a step back. “Dahak,”  she managed to say in barely more than a whisper.

To be continued

Return to the Academy