Additionally, the story below contains references, explicit and implied, of a sexual relationship between two consenting adults of the same sex. If you are not of legal age to read this story, or such material is illegal where you live, or you do not feel comfortable with such content, please refrain from reading this story.
Timeline Notes: None
Sittin' in a
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Xena and Gabrielle arrived back at the tavern from their shopping trip. The crowd gathered was thick enough to prevent their return easily to the tavern. Senses already on alert, Xena put a light hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Xena?"
"I'll find out what's up." The taller woman adjusted her gambeson, squared her shoulders and moved into the midst of the throng. Gabrielle spotted a couple of men taking exception to Xena's quietly murmured, "Excuse me." They turned to look at the source of the intrusion -- and found themselves disarmed by a firm hand the daggers they'd started to pull from their belts, and crystal clear blue eyes behind a dangerously glinting smile.
Neither man said anything but separated, giving the dark-haired warrior a wide clear path between them. A buzz circulated and the path continued to clear.
As Xena reached the far side of the crowd, Gabrielle had a clear view of the center of the throng's attention. She moved forward quickly watching the confused expressions of the crowd.
A well-dressed young man with ash blond hair was directing a couple of younger males in fine clothing trimmed in purple and midnight blue. They hefted several bags, carrying them into the tavern.
Gabrielle's smile widened when the ash-blond man turned around and she saw the rakish stubble of beard on his cheeks and twinkling hazel eyes. "Philemon!" She dashed forward and pulled up short as a horse danced in front of her. She looked up a skirt covered leg to a tall brunette with eerily familiar flashing blue eyes looking down from beneath a purple traveling cloak's hood. "Diana?"
Philemon came up, and Gabrielle stepped back as he helped the cloaked figure from the horse. The hood fell aside as she was jostled, revealing a shining tumble of ebony hair.
"Princess Diana!" This came from the other side of the horse and Gabrielle had to step back further as Meg, skirts threatening to trip her up, dashed from the tavern doorway. "You should have called me that she'd arrived," she admonished a startled Gabrielle.
"I only just..." Gabrielle's explanation halted in mid-sentence as the princess of Treus and the tavern owner fell into an exuberant embrace. "I'll..." Oh, boy. She'd turned around and her own Xena had walked up. Being surrounded by duplicates of Xena made Gabrielle's head spin uneasily. "I think I'll ..." No one was listening, and she just excused herself quickly into the tavern.
Behind her Meg, Diana, and Xena stood in a small circle studying one another with smiles. Xena's was understated; mostly evident in her eyes. Meg's smile was endearing, piquant as she nibbled her lower lip. Diana's was sweet, open and honest, like the woman herself. Philemon stood next to his wife, holding her elbow. If not for the princess's very pregnant condition, even evident under the thick cloak and the obvious distinctions by clothing, the three women were absolutely identical. "Are ye sisters?" someone shouted.
"I wish that I had a sister as sweet as Xena," Diana replied briefly over her shoulder. Her soft tones were a remarkable difference from the known bawdy tones of the tavern's owner. "It's good to see you again, Xena," she murmured in a hushed tone to the warrior, who was taller only by a slim margin. She turned to Meg, exactly of a height with her. "Thank you for inviting Philemon and me to the wedding."
The bride-to-be was speechlessly happy. An amazed, almost reverent hush fell over the crowd when Diana grasped Meg's elbow and led the tavern owner into the tavern's quiet interior. Xena, following behind, pulled the door shut.
As she watched the crowd dispersing, Gabrielle saw a lone figure come up the street from the direction of the temple. "Leah's here," she told those inside as she felt a broad hand settle on her shoulder and watched the overly spooked villagers just take off running. "We're about ready to start."
Gabrielle turned and looked up into the soft face. She started to lean forward into a hug which she felt she needed, when she realized ... no leather. She caught herself quickly and said, "Oh. Hi. Diana."
"I'd have taken a hug, Gabrielle," the princess chuckled. "But I think you want her." She gestured over her shoulder to where Xena was settling at the bar, requesting a mug of sweet ale.
Gabrielle flushed and hugged Diana briefly. She did not leave Diana's side. Instead she took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. It just really weirds me out."
Diana nodded. "It's taken me some time to get used to too," she admitted, tugging off the rich purple cloak. "And Philemon always cloaks me whenever we travel... so no one thinks I am Xena."
"Been having trouble, Diana?" a deeper, richer version of Diana's voice interjected. Both Gabrielle and Diana turned. Xena walked up with a mug in hand and smiled from the princess to the bard. "This is for you," she passed over the drink and warmly held Gabrielle's hands around the mug's thickness. "I thought you might want something."
"Please don't worry about it," Diana urged. "Philemon is overprotective because of the baby." Xena and Gabrielle watched her gently rub her extended belly and sigh. "It's nice to get out of Treus for a bit."
Xena looked over to where Philemon sat with a wide-eyed, nervous-as-a-cat-in-a-room-full-of-rocking-chairs Joxer. Obviously the happily married man was assuring Joxer that he'd be happy married too.
"Still. I'd better make it a point to talk to Philemon later." She smiled at Diana. "Catch up on the news in Treus."
Gabrielle fought off the sense of déjà vu that always disoriented her when she switched her gaze from Diana to Xena and offered. "You think it could be a problem?"
"Just as many enemies as friends know what I look like, Gabrielle," the warrior replied by way of answer.
Diana offered a small "oh" and pursed her lips in a thoughtful pout. "I hadn't thought of that."
Xena realized she'd thrown a pall over things and sought to repair the situation. "You're here," she said. "You're safe. That's what matters."
Diana smiled, thankful for Xena's thoughtfulness and touched the warrior's arm. "You've really been a wonderful friend to have when there is trouble, Xena."
Abashed by the praise, Xena just flashed a half-smile. She gestured and Gabrielle picked up on the hint that Xena was done with her intimate conversation. The bard touched Diana's arm, drawing the princess's attention to herself. "Let's go talk to Meg. Leah's with her. Things'll probably get underway soon."
Gabrielle's hand, light on her shoulder as she passed, comforted Xena, whose thoughts had turned to serious things. She hadn't really thought about it, but Philemon was right to be concerned. Looking like Xena was a danger to the princess, especially in her delicate condition. Enemies thinking she was the warrior would not hesitate to threaten harm to Philemon and Diana's children in exchange for a fulfillment of demands.
The same things that kept Xena from openly acknowledging personal feelings for Gabrielle, or anyone for that matter, was the danger enemies posed. Callisto had been proof of that. Now Gabrielle understood what being close to Xena meant. And she chose to continue. Diana and Meg had made close ties with people not thinking anything of it. Because they didn't have enemies. She did.
She looked around at the tavern. Meg had worked hard for this place. And Joxer was now a part of that happiness she'd earned. But should some enemy of Xena's mistake Meg for the Warrior Princess... all of this would be threatened.
She'd warned Meg about it the last time they'd seen each other. But Diana... Xena looked over as the elegantly dressed Diana bent close to the jumpy, nervous and excited Meg, whispering something. Diana had never intentionally gone out and tried to be Xena without Xena knowing everything about the situation.
Xena's eyes flickered over her berobed twin. Leah had tried to be Xena, and that had trapped her in a situation which the real Xena could have easily fixed, but which the Virgin High Priestess of Hestia had seriously required nearly divine intervention... and a lot of luck.
A small bit of commotion had all eyes tracking to the bottom of the stairs where a doting Philemon held the hand of a very small, slight little girl, brown hair curling around her face as she tried to navigate the last step. The sweet-faced toddler held her father's hand firmly as she walked around on still uncertain legs. Diana began to stand, waiting for the girl's arrival. The girl however spotted Xena first, let go of her father's hand and ran across the short space, launching herself at the leather-covered legs.
"Mommy!" Gods. Xena practically fell down to her knees and opened her mouth to explain when the girl just latched onto her neck and hugged fiercely. "Gracie wuv you!"
"Gracie." Philemon came rushing up on his daughter. "That's not --" He halted at the sharp shake of Xena's head.
Gently Xena pulled the girl's arms off her neck, careful not to let any of her sharp bits nick the child's tender skin, and turned Grace around pointing to a table where Leah, Meg and Diana sat. Gabrielle stood behind Meg, her hands resting on the chair's low back. All four women had heard the girl's exuberant yell. Gabrielle's green eyes met Xena's worried blue, and immediately it was as if the space between them vanished. The bard gave the warrior a small nod. Xena's shoulders straightened a bit and she scooped Grace into her arms and said quietly. "My name is Xena. Your mommy is over here."
The girl's brow furrowed and then dark brows drew together as she looked more closely at the woman holding her. "No. You mommy," she affirmed succinctly.
Xena holding Grace, and Philemon walking beside her, the trio approached the table. Grace looked from one face to another again and again. Xena stepped up and Diana reached out for her daughter. "This is your mommy." Grace looked from the face of the woman she was handed to, back up to the face of the woman whose hands she'd left. "See?"
Grace ran a hand over her mother's jaw, tugged on the dark hair, looked for a long moment into deep blue eyes as the group held its collective breath. Then she looked back up at Xena briefly before turning and hugging her mother. "Yes. Mommy." Now her immediate confusion cleared up, Grace asked the other two brunettes, "Who?"
Leah introduced herself first. "I'm Leah."
Meg looked at Grace and Xena caught the shadow of disappointment, cause unknown, crossing the tavern owner's features. The little girl met her blue-eyed gaze and asked again, "Who?"
"Oh, I'm Meg." She gestured around. "This is my place."
Grace looked around. "My place."
That drew a chuckle from everyone and the tension seemed to dissolve. Meg and Leah and Diana, with Grace, walked together to a room under the staircase. "We've got to get you in your dress, young lady," Diana informed her daughter.
"My pretty dress?" Grace asked owl-eyed, her gray-blue eyes sparkling with excitement.
"Yes, a vewy pwetty dwess," Leah assured her. Grace giggled, though no one seemed to find anything funny and figured it was just the toddler's way.
Philemon looked at Xena and started to say something. The warrior shook her head and waved him away with a brief hand motion. She leaned against a support beam for the roof and watched the trio of women and little Grace disappear.
"You all right?"
The warrior looked down across her shoulder and arm as Gabrielle pressed up against her right side, looking up. Concern was clear in the translucent green depths.
"Umm hmm," she replied quickly. "Never better." She looked at Gabrielle's hand on her arm, the slightly more golden color of the bard's creamy coloring contrasting with her nut brown tan. "Grace's mix-up. She's only two, right?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes, she is." Saying nothing more, though a wealth of understanding seemed to pour from her eyes, the bard pulled Xena to the upstairs room they shared. "Time to get changed for the wedding."
Gabrielle took a deep breath, reexamining her appearance in the reflective glass propped on a table in the room she shared with Xena. She pulled the belt from her daily wear skirt and cinched in the dress at the waist. As she straightened the top line of the aquamarine cotton dress, she could see Xena approaching from behind.
"It goes off the shoulder," the warrior said, gently tugging the blouse off Gabrielle's left shoulder. She met the bard's gaze in the mirror and smiled, laying her warm hand on the bare skin. "There. Perfect." She brushed the fingers of her right hand through the bard's blonde locks. "I like what you've done with your hair."
Gabrielle studied her slightly changed hairstyle. Her usual temple braids were gone in favor of a soft band of matching aquamarine fabric lacing through a single braid down the center, trailing to her shoulders. "It was Leah's idea."
"I'll have to remember to thank her for suggesting it," the warrior murmured, ducking her head and tasting the skin at Gabrielle's nape.
Gabrielle turned around in the warrior's embrace and looked up into Xena's eyes. The striking, absorbing blue was alight with a rare pleasure. "How are you doing?"
Xena stepped back, keeping Gabrielle's hands in her own, allowing the bard's gaze to take in her entire figure. "What do you think?"
Gabrielle trailed a finger over Xena's tan cheek and into the dark tresses pulled back from her face. The thick band lacing through her hair circling her crown hadn't been worn since Xena returned home the first time four years ago. A pale blue ribbon that Gabrielle had presented to her, and which matched her eyes, had been threaded along with the leather. Her gaze traveled back to Xena's and she raised to tiptoe, lightly planting a kiss on Xena's lips. "I like it."
"What about the dress?" the warrior reminded wryly.
"You could go in a sack and still be the most enticing woman there."
"There are going to be three other women who look exactly like me, Gabrielle. Isn't that a bit far-fetched?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "Not a chance. There is just..." She rubbed Xena's bare arms. "Just something about you, love, that makes everyone notice." Then she did turn to the matter of the warrior's attire. "Who loaned you the dress?"
"Diana," the brunette admitted even as Gabrielle guessed.
"At least the coloring suits you."
"You don't like it?"
Gabrielle looked up even as she brushed her fingers over the neckline. Xena's eyes had taken on a gray cast of worry. "I love it." She smoothed the sheeting effect covering the warrior's ample breasts. "It's just very different." She brushed Xena's cheek, drawing a smile back into her lover's face. "I bet you're not used to it either." Xena shrugged, or tried to, nonchalantly. However when she raised her shoulders, the neckline of the dress slipped further down both shoulders, revealing the well tanned swells of her breasts. Gabrielle's eyebrows waggled appreciatively and she squeezed Xena's hands as they kissed again. "That's a much better look for you," she confirmed. She slid a hand along the warrior's waistline, feeling the black-dyed leather belt hugging the brunette's hips.
Relief swept through Xena's frame, relaxing it considerably. And it was, to the bard, as if years fled the warrior. Her smile actually used all of her muscles, crinkling the corners of her eyes, even creating a soft ridge in the bridge of her nose as her eyebrows drew together and the corners of her mouth curled up into enticing dimples. Gabrielle held her breath at the sudden pleasure coursing through her at Xena's transformation.
"We'd better get downstairs," Xena said, accepting another kiss.
"I can't wait to see this," Gabrielle
expounded as they closed the door to their room and proceeded down the
At the top of the stairs, Xena scanned the assembling crowd below. Incredible. The amount of people filling the ground level floor of the tavern astounded her. She studied faces as she and Gabrielle moved down the steps quickly. She wished she'd brought at least one weapon with her, but Gabrielle had pressed the issue. "It's a wedding," she'd said, her voice tinged with exasperation. She put a hand on Gabrielle's back discreetly nonetheless.
"Just helping you navigate," she assured the bard. "You don't usually wear a long skirt."
Gabrielle slipped her right hand behind her back and grasped Xena's along her waist. "Gotcha," she responded, already turning her gaze back as they reached the bottom of the stairs and were greeted by other guests.
A portly man, who proclaimed loudly that he was the one who sold Meg the property for the tavern, winked and smiled at Gabrielle, until Xena's stern look sent him scurrying for other company.
"What'd you do that for?"
"You wanted to spend the evening entertaining him? Sorry. I'll go get him," Xena remarked with a lighthearted edge of sarcasm.
Gabrielle flushed. "Oh, he thought I...." Nothing else could be said. She moved with Xena to the front of the gathering up where Priestess Leah stood.
The Hestian priestess was outfitted, not in her daily robes, but in a thick profusion of linens of multiple hues, from pale yellow, representing the sun, to red for heart to orange for passion and promise. She gazed steadily at them with a smile as they slid onto a bench seat. The warrior returned the gaze and nodded briefly offering a quick smile. The priestess' own posture relaxed ever so slightly even though she toyed at her bottom lip with even white teeth. Xena realized the woman was nervous. This ought to be interesting she decided.
Gabrielle turned slightly on the bench resting her palm against the wood, looking at the back of the tavern. "Okay. Here comes Diana."
Xena turned to see the princess of Treus lower herself slowly in a loose robe which fell open around her expansive waist and revealed her straight-line gown in midnight blue. While holding Philemon's hand, she tucked an errant blonde curl out of Grace's face. The two-year-old in a sunshine yellow dress held a handful of pink flowers in tiny hands. "Oh, she's adorable," she heard Gabrielle say.
The little girl was more than that, Xena thought. Precious, precocious, and so beautiful it made the warrior's heart ache just looking at her. Though she said none of this to the bard. "Diana shouldn't bend that far," she remarked, even as Philemon quickly and gently helped the princess back up.
Gabrielle nodded. "It couldn't have been easy to travel in her condition. But obviously she and Meg are very close."
They turned around as Diana, Philemon, and Grace, the latter picked up in her father's arms, moved quickly to their seats on a bench on the opposite side. The rest of the guests filed in quickly afterward and Joxer entered from a room near Leah.
He stood quickly hands laced first behind his back, then he fidgeted, bringing them in front of his waist. Instead of his armor, like Xena, Joxer had left that behind in his room, wearing instead a midnight blue tunic over a crisp white linen shirt with billowing arms, and a pair of black loose-fitting pants which slid into knee-high shined ebony boots.
A lute player stepped from the same room and began to play a gentle tune. Those seated swiveled and watched when Meg appeared at the end of the room.
The gown was stunning, accentuating the tavern owner's voluptuous figure. Her brunette hair cascaded down over her shoulders and back, curling from beneath a soft blue cloth trailing down to her shoulders. Xena brushed a hand over Gabrielle's shoulder, warmed unaccountably by the happiness and innocence shining out of Meg's usually world-wise, life-shadowed face. Her smile, usually hiding some mischievous machinations, was open, youthful, and full of an amazing promise of future happiness.
She lifted her eyes and looked down the aisle. Her gaze caught Xena's briefly and she flushed prettily. Then she moved on to Diana, who smiled, her daughter's face glowing next to her own. At last the walk began up the aisle and Xena noticed Meg's steps moved very precisely -- Xena herself did it when she couldn't control her nerves -- never let 'em see ya sweat, she mused.
Everyone's eyes followed Meg's progress. She finally reached Joxer's side, and the groom, wearing the most serious face Xena had ever had the pleasure to see, offered his elbow. When she had passed her profusion of peach and pink rosebuds to one of the Hestian virgins, Meg took Joxer's elbow and they both took the two steps to reach Leah's feet. Kneeling carefully they both lifted their eyes to the priestess.
Leah smiled at both of them and took a water bowl from a tray held out to her by an assistant. She dipped her fingers in the liquid and sprinkled it over both the bride and groom. "May your new life together be as life-giving as the water of the earth. The promises of friendships, the warmth of a winter fire, comfort and sustain you in the years to come.
"The union between mortal souls was promised to each of us from the day of our birth. That special person we will find to complement our strengths, to forgive our weaknesses, and bolster our journey through this life." She gestured to Meg and Joxer. "Rise and offer, in words, the devotion of your hearts."
Gabrielle's hand slipped into Xena's as Meg and Joxer came to their feet.
Imposing in his garb, Joxer straightened his shoulders and took Meg's hands in his own. "Through confusion I found you, Meg, and through truth I learned your heart. I found it twining with my own. You saw me as confident, noble, and loving. I will continue becoming better only through your love." He paused and grasped her hands, lifting them to his lips for a kiss. "Please say only that you will share your life with me."
Xena found herself moved by the words, thinking of how much Gabrielle's love had given her the same confidence, sense of noble purpose, and steady heart. She squeezed the bard's hand gently, drawing her green gaze. "I love you," she mouthed.
Gabrielle flushed and returned the squeeze. "Always," she mouthed in return before they both turned back to hear Meg's vow.
Joxer had released the brunette's hands. Tears glistened on her cheeks as she offered her own vow. "If I saw wonderful things in you it is only because you found things to love in me. I had people come and go in my life, until you, Joxer. You looked at me and saw not the thief, or the trickster, or even an orphan. I was more than a woman. You made me a person. Because of you I have glimpsed a future I never knew was possible. Please say only that you will journey to see it with me."
Gabrielle took a deep breath, moved. Joxer and Meg really were made for each other. Each saw not the façade they had presented the world, but the person struggling through life beneath. There were no lies between them, only truth, and promises intended to be kept. She squeezed Xena's hand resting on the bench between them and glanced over her shoulder to see Xena, eyes brimming with tears, struggling with a quivering lip. Abruptly the warrior turned her face aside, so no one, other than Gabrielle right beside her, saw the tear escape and roll down her left cheek.
Oh wow, Gabrielle thought. She felt tears begin to choke in her own throat, as love for Xena squeezed her chest tightly, like a hug.
Leah took a large thin stemmed brass cup in exchange. "Share a taste of your future together." She held the cup as first Joxer then Meg had it tipped to their lips and sipped the rich plum-colored wine.
Passing aside the cup, Leah took a tray of fresh fruits in exchange and held it aloft over the bride and groom's bent heads. "Sweetness of life, the gift of you great Hestia, is offered here in search of blessing for this couple." She switched the tray entirely to her right hand and swept her left across the contents. A flash of light and a flame appeared in the middle of the tray. Gasps released throughout the room. "Smell the sweet savor of eternal life." She passed the flaming tray in front of Joxer and Meg who sniffed dutifully and smiled.
Gabrielle had been surprised by the sudden flame, but Xena's fingers rubbing inside her palm soothed her. She watched as Leah passed away the tray, with a smile, and then reached down and grasped Meg and Joxer's hands in her own. "Rise with me to lighten your heart with Hestia's love."
Meg and Joxer stood, their hands linked with one another as well as with Leah. The priestess lifted her chin, closed her eyes and began intoning in the Hestian holy tongue.
Most in the crowd did not follow the prayer, or convocation, but everyone was suddenly very aware of the trio at the front of the room, as they seemed to straighten further, their shoulders lifting. Then someone noticed their feet leaving the tavern's sturdy wooden floor. They were levitating.
Joxer and Meg, apparently reassured by Leah earlier in the day, merely closed their eyes and let the magic carry them aloft. Leah's voice continued, rising in tandem with the physical displacement.
Gabrielle leaned close and whispered. "By the gods."
"Certainly appears Hestia approves," replied Xena quietly, unable to keep the awe from her voice.
Then Gabrielle saw a soft glow, starting around the Hestian priestess and then growing to encompass Joxer and Meg. Whoa. She spared a glance at Xena then at others in the room. Grace was smiling and gesturing while her father shushed her quietly. Diana was as transfixed as Xena and herself. Other women in the crowd apparently saw the soft light too as they remained quiet, jaws working but nothing coming out. The men however seemed unaffected.
Leah's prayer began to soften, and as it did, the trio slowly lowered back to the tavern floor. At the highest point, Joxer, Meg and Leah had been about half a body length up in the air. Without another word, she leaned forward and kissed Joxer's right cheek, then Meg's left, before turning them around with a gentle hand on each shoulder, so they faced one another.
"According to Hestian custom and promises you have made to one another, I find utmost pleasure granting you both the goddess' protection, united forever in life... as man and wife." She bit her lip, winked at Joxer and said, "You may kiss the bride."
Joxer pulled Meg into an all-encompassing embrace and bent his head down to claim her lips. It was a kiss full of both tenderness and passion, of promises kept and promises yet to come. As they parted, Meg's eyes glazing slightly in reaction, those assembled, led by Diana, Philemon, Xena and Gabrielle, stood and applauded.
Meg took back her bouquet. Then, their faces aglow, Joxer and Meg led the way to the exit, as the humanity poured out into the street out front.
Xena and Gabrielle hung back a moment, the blonde offering the warrior a small, discreet linen. "That was something, huh?" the warrior tried for nonchalant.
"Beautiful," the bard replied. "Let's go watch the rest." She noticed Leah standing behind Xena. "It really was stunningly beautiful, Leah."
The Hestian priestess nodded. "Go on. I have to get the help started cleaning up in here for the dinner."
Their hands linked gently, Xena and Gabrielle emerged just in time to see a blur heading for them. The warrior's reflexes reacted and her hands came down... with the bride's bouquet. Startled she looked at Gabrielle, who stifled a giggle. "Good catch, Xena."
"Here," she handed the bouquet to Gabrielle, and though the act, to all present, appeared nonchalant, only Gabrielle caught the sparkle in the warrior's eye, and felt the promise as their fingers met under cover of the peach and pink flower petals.
Switching the bouquet to her far hand, Gabrielle laced her fingers through Xena's and the pair stepped through the throng to watch Joxer take the cloth from Meg's head and toss it toward a collection of young men. A young man, face framed with short brown hair, caught it and endured ribbing from his neighbors. Immediately he sought out a young woman of golden brown hair, likely his love, and tied it gently over her locks. Cheers arose.
"Looks like the tradition is meant to identify the next wedding couple," Xena said, leaning close to Gabrielle.
The bard held the bouquet up and sniffed it while people began dancing in the streets around Joxer and Meg. "Does that mean we're next?" she mused, in a voice only loud enough for the warrior to hear.
Xena grasped Gabrielle's hand, lifting the bouquet (and Gabrielle's gaze), and pulled her close for a hug. Swirls of visions, and swells of emotion filled her, making her voice soft and sincere when she said, "It does... if you want it to."
Occasional glances toward Joxer and Meg found the newlyweds looking a little dazed, but deliriously happy, drowning in each other's regard. Diana and Philemon danced with Grace slowly. The little girl giggling and kissing her mother and father's cheeks in turn as her father held her up between their bodies.
Xena and Gabrielle's gazes returned from their travels over the crowd and fell into one another. Their hips touched briefly and a blush spread over the bard's cheeks. Xena's palm cupped the delicately pinked skin, and she bent forward, claiming Gabrielle's lips in a kiss leading the bard into a gentle dance.
Dinner was replete with every dish that made Meg's tavern kitchen famous. Gabrielle left Xena's side, while the warrior was talking with Joxer, and walked with Meg through the service line at the bar.
The bard studied the ebullient Meg out of the corner of her eye, then seeing a small smile change in character to a broad sexy smile she'd seen the ghost of on Xena's face from time to time, wondered at it. "Meg?"
"Mmm," said the new bride, lifting a capon onto her plate and another further up her arm, for Joxer. "Yes, Gabrielle?"
"What are you thinking about?"
The woman lifted her eyes from the
food and met Gabrielle's green gaze. "Oh, this and that," she said, sounding
remarkably shy. Ahead of Gabrielle in the line, Meg let her blue eyes drift
out onto the tavern room. Her traveling gaze stopped and the smile
quirked up in the corner.
And that, Gabrielle thought, was enough. She didn't want to know any more. She remembered the night before, when Xena and she had been dropping off to sleep. She shook her head to clear her mind of the image... and the sounds. Her eyes widened a moment, then Meg must've caught her look, for the usually bold woman flushed and quickly turned away.
What a difference a day makes, thought the bard, giving in to an amused quirk of her own lips and the two women completed their trip through the line and returned to Joxer and Xena, stopped every few steps with congratulations for the bride and a smile or two of greeting for the bard.
Gabrielle decided she liked this. She wasn't the center of attention, nor was Xena. Which in itself was a remarkably pleasant experience for the warrior. The blonde paused several paces away from Xena and studied the conversing brunette.
Yeah, just something... she mused, glancing up to Meg, who'd been stopped again for a series of well wishes from a cluster of the tavern's regulars. Nothing against you, Meg, Gabrielle thought. But Xena is just so different from everyone.
Her partner's blue dress accentuated every curve, raising Gabrielle's blood pressure a notch in reaction. Her hands were gesturing casually in front of her, conveying something to Joxer. The bard knew the warrior's voice would burr softly, not willing to be overheard in the crowded room. Whenever the woman's voice hit that low register... Gabrielle shivered in pure sexual reaction and couldn't have stopped the desire rising in her eyes had she wanted to.
"Gabrielle?" Meg bent close to the bard and whispered into her ear. The voice quality was strikingly similar and the bard turned in shock. The tavern owner blinked and Gabrielle came to her senses. "Ah, I can see what you were thinking about," Meg remarked with a twinkle.
"Um, we'd better get the food over there," the blonde replied, her voice not quite as normal as she'd been hoping for.
Meg chuckled. "Yeah. Food." Gabrielle flushed, unable to help herself. She was so unused to being read so easily by anyone other than Xena. "C'mon," the tavern owner nudged her elbow. "Jox is hungry. I can see the hole in his stomach from here."
Gabrielle chuckled. The two women walked around several clusters of wedding guests and came again into the open just a pace away from both Joxer and Xena.
"Meg," Joxer acknowledged, seeing them first, and interrupting Xena's comment with a hand on her arm. The warrior turned around and caught Meg's and Gabrielle's gazes in turn before extending a hand and feeling Gabrielle slide into her embrace, holding out the plate of food they were to share.
She picked up a dumpling from the plate and watched Meg and Joxer's greeting. The bride and groom ducked their heads together and exchanged kisses lightly. Then Meg put Joxer's plate into his hands, which had been trying to go around her waist. "C'mon," she said with a twinkle. "You need your strength."
Nibbling on the dumpling, Xena kept a straight face though the image was hard to ignore as she instantly recalled the noise next door to their room last night. Out of the corner of her very focused gaze, the warrior caught Gabrielle's glance up. She brushed her hand at the bard's waist, letting her thumb smooth the fabric of the blonde's dress against the muscles of her stomach. Gods, the warrior thought, feeling the desire well up from the pit of her stomach. What Meg and Joxer have is catching... She swallowed the dumpling and reached for another treat from the plate in Gabrielle's hand.
She gave up her serious image for the briefest indulgent smile and twinkle of promise in her eyes as she glanced down into Gabrielle's upturned face. She brushed her lips across Gabrielle's lightly as the bard chewed on a tiny sweetcake. The sugars invited her tongue and turning more fully, she darted the tip of her tongue over the pink surface.
When she caught herself reflected in Gabrielle's wide-eyed smiling green eyes, she drew back slowly. Turning, she caught Joxer and Meg studying them.
"Leah's still here," Joxer said, with as nonchalant as tone as possible.
Meg laughed and kissed Gabrielle's cheek then patted Xena's stomach with a casual backhand. "You two wanna duck out early?"
Xena felt the edges of her ears pinken and she cleared her throat. "Aren't you two headed out soon?" she replied evenly, feeling Gabrielle's hand squeeze hers. But she permitted them to see the twinkle of amusement as she acknowledged that she'd just committed a very uncharacteristic public display.
The calm reaction startled Joxer and michievously Meg took a dumpling from his plate and popped it into his partly open mouth, from his dropped his jaw as he contemplated saying something. He looked at his wife in surprise and then simply chewed and swallowed.
"Actually, Xena," he said, as he returned his brown eyes to the warrior. "I wanted to make sure you knew where all the stuff I handle was."
Gabrielle pushed the plate into Xena's hands before the warrior and groom walked away. Meg was studying her when she tore her gaze from Xena's departing back. "Yes, Meg?"
"I should probably make sure you know where all the stuff is too."
"Yes. What is it you expect from us while you're gone?" Gabrielle and Meg started moving through the crowd again. The bard visually picked out Philemon helping Diana settle onto a bench. Grace clambered up onto her mother and Gabrielle remembered the little girl's confusion earlier that day. The whole thing had really disarmed Xena, the bard thought. She unconsciously drifted toward the small family and Meg followed.
"Most everyone already knows their business," Meg assured the bard. "You've just got to make sure that the money ends up in the bags and not someone's pouch."
Tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, Gabrielle nodded. "I think I can manage that. Anything else?"
"Brigid may ask for help expelling a drunk from time to time."
Gabrielle smiled. "Xena's department."
Meg shook her head. "No. Yours." Gabrielle looked up in surprise. "I run a polite place, Gabrielle. I worked hard to earn that reputation. I don't want anyone roughly tossed out if it can be helped at all."
Gabrielle pursed her lips and then nodded. "All right." That prompted a question. "What does Joxer do then?"
"He manages the entertainment." That surprised the bard. She didn't have time for a response however before she and Meg had reached the table occupied by the Treusian royal family. "Diana. Philemon." Meg bent down and picked up Grace who was nibbling chunks of a soft bread roll. "Having a good time?"
Diana smiled warmly. "Meg, this is really turning out to be great. My back hurts a bit though. If it's all right, I think I'll retire soon."
Meg nodded quickly. "Of course. Your usual room is ready anytime you want to go."
Gabrielle asked, "How often have you and Philemon visited Meg, Diana?"
"At least once a moon," Meg replied, exchanging a glance with the princess.
"Papa always has me bring back a dish of the leftovers." Diana shifted, trying to get comfortable. "He never really got over your leaving, Meg."
"Well, yeah." Meg paused. "I had things to do, people t'see."
"More likely you couldn't stand Milo, the kitchen cat," Philemon scoffed with a chuckle.
Gabrielle marveled at the ease with which the trio of adults bantered. It really was great to see them all doing so well. She caught Grace's eyes on her.
"You Gab'ielle, right?" the girl said. "You Xena's f'end."
The bard flushed a bit under the child's very direct regard. "I'm Gabrielle. Why don't you come with me, leave Mommy and Daddy to their dinner and you and I can find a corner where I'll tell you a story?" She looked at Philemon then Diana who both nodded.
"Go ahead, Grace," Diana said. "We'll find you later."
Grace moved from Meg's grasp into Gabrielle's arms and the bard welcomed the girl's solid weight against her hip. She took a deep breath suddenly, immediately thrust back to the time she'd held a seemingly innocent Hope in the same way. But she bit her lip, gazed into the girl's crisp blue eyed gaze and thought of how much she'd grow up looking like her absent partner.
Which reminded her, and she turned, scanning the room to see if Joxer and Xena had returned.
Across the room, Xena was at another section of the bar, foot propped up on the base of a stool, drinking quietly from a large tankard. The drink returned to the bar surface and her ebony head swiveled around, piercing blue eyes finding the bard in an instant.
And then shifting to the girl in her arms. A faint flicker of some emotion somewhere between pain and resignation crossed the warrior's features before it steadied into a quiet calm and blue eyes shifted to Gabrielle again, resting there.
"We'll be back later," the bard explained to Grace's parents. "C'mon, Grace. Let's go visit Xena."
"Just be back in about a half candlemark. We'll do the final toasts and send the newlyweds off to Athens," Philemon replied.
"We'll do that," Gabrielle smiled. "See ya."
Xena watched her partner cross the room, and felt the dismaying reaction of a desire to go elsewhere seep into her stomach. She steeled herself ruthlessly and stood tall as Gabrielle and Grace came within arm's reach.
"Xena, Grace wanted to say hello."
The warrior warmed her expression as she moved it to the two year old. "Hi, Grace." She noticed the roll still clutched in the small hands. "Enjoying the food?"
Grace giggled and waved the roll. "Not food. Bread."
The very literal interpretation made the warrior's smile broaden unknowingly. "All right. Is your bread good?"
Gabrielle seemed content to watch the interaction as she continued to hold Grace securely, the little girl's legs straddling her hip. The picture really shook Xena and she tried hard not to show it.
She should have known better. "Xena, this isn't Hope. It's Grace," the bard informed her gently.
Then again, everything the bard did was gentle, the warrior thought as she sheepishly met the blonde's sparkling green eyes. "I know," she said softly.
Grace had seemed content just to sit on Gabrielle's hip nibbling on her bread until that. She piped up. "Are you two going to kiss like Mommy and Daddy do after a fight?"
The warrior and bard's gazes shot to the innocent blue-eyed girl. "What?" they said together.
Gabrielle chuckled. "I think Xena needs a kiss," she said finally, grasping the warrior's arm, just below the elbow, bringing Grace, and herself into Xena's intimate personal space, before wrapping her arm around the warrior's back and lifting her head and lifted herself onto her toes. Caught in the green gaze, Xena heard the bard say, "How about you, Grace?"
"Okay." The girl threw down her bread and wrapped her arms around the warrior's nearby throat, planting a crumbly kiss on Xena's soft cheek.
Gabrielle felt the arm around her waist tighten in reflex and she squeezed back, pleased at how well that went.
The party began to wind down and finally, back across the room, Philemon stood, clapping Joxer loudly on the back. The slim-built groom's petulant "Ow! Hey!" drew everyone's attention more effectively than anything Xena could have thought up. She had taken Grace off Gabrielle's hands and the two women, with the toddler half-asleep on the warrior's broader shoulder, watched as Philemon led the final toast.
"We've all had a great time, Joxer, but it's time to send you and your new bride off on your trip," Philemon began. "It's easy to think that this was the best part of your marriage. The food, the laughter, the good friends and the conversation." He lifted his mug of ale and with a nod to Meg, standing now at Joxer's side, he said, "But the future is the best part. You've found a real gem, there, my friend. May you find the happiness I have." He bent down and kissed Diana with a twinkle in his eyes. "Cuz I tell you, we have married the two finest beauties in the entire province." He returned his gaze to Meg. "Inside and out," he said sincerely to the tall gowned brunette.
"Hear, hear!" chorused around the room and ale was tipped back to waiting throats.
Gabrielle's nose crinkled as her smile brightened her face further. Xena put a hand around the bard's shoulders, drawing the woman's gaze up to hers. "They got nothin' on you," she told the blonde in a whisper.
The irony of that statement broadened Gabrielle's smile still more.
A woman next to Meg raised her mug next. "My turn." Gabrielle remembered her as Charity. "Joxer, Meg. Life is fun, make sure you share the laughter a little every day."
"Hear, hear!" circled the room again and more ale flowed.
More toasts and a couple roasts followed, charging the light-hearted atmosphere still further until a man stepped into the tavern from the street outside and announced the arrival of the wagon. Joxer and Meg then began thanking everyone and the couple departed upstairs to change.
The tavern was lively still. Joxer and Meg had departed hours ago and now dawn was rapidly coming to the small valley town. Gabrielle, Philemon and Xena were busy moving among all the patrons. Revelers had settled or now slept in every visible corner of the tavern.
Gabrielle studied the crowd from her vantage at the corner of the bar. A tray rested under her forearms on the surface.
"Need 'nother round," a gruff, obviously drunk voice grunted from somewhere behind her.
"I'm sorry, but the bar's closed,"
the bard turned around and fixed her green gaze on the visibly swaying
"Come back again."
"I want some brew now," he replied obstinately.
"The lady said the bar's closed."
Gabrielle looked up to see Xena coming over from near the front door. She had her blue gaze fixed firmly on the soused patron.
"Hey yah, Meg. C'mon give a man a drink." He stood and made to wrap an arm around the tall brunette's shoulders, bare from the off shoulder blue dress.
Xena started to reach around in preparation of flipping the sod on his very plump butt. But Gabrielle gave a quick shake of her head.
"What?" the warrior mouthed. "He deserves it."
"Yeah, Meg... listen t'ya girls. We all knows you wuz married las' night, but this ol' tavern still needs yore luvin' 'tentions." He pawed her chest and breathed across her collarbone, the smell assaulting the warrior's nose.
Xena didn't think. She hauled off and flung him across the room. His flight was brief, but effective. In transit, he slid through four chairs, broke two tables and then slumped against the wall by the door unconscious.
Xena was already crossing the room to throw him into the street, Gabrielle trying vainly to grab her arm followed behind.
The warrior lifted the man up by his tunic laces and growled in his face. "I am not Meg. You don't paw me or any woman in this tavern, got me?" She reached around past him and flung open the door to the establishment. "Now get out," she hissed, pitching him into the street.
When she had turned around, to face Gabrielle's startled face, the murmuring had begun. The two women, one still steaming and the other chagrined, stood in silence and let it flow over them.
"Wow, someone just got thrown out."
"What's the hospitality industry comin' too."
"Thought Meg loved all her customers."
"Well, boys, I think it's time we left Meg and her pals to their version of fun."
"I hear Bitus across town has a good establishment."
"And willing women."
Giving the tall dark woman a wide berth, the revelers vacated within a matter of minutes.
Philemon came out of the kitchen with his hands buried in a towel. He scanned the empty room. With a twinkle in his eye, he studied the two silent women at the front door, who turned at the sound of his boots. "You certainly know how to bring the house down, Xena."
With that he turned around and retreated to the kitchen. The tension broken, Gabrielle giggled, which gave Xena over to a rueful grin.
"That's my Xena," the bard said, wrapping her arms around the warrior's waist. "And in a dress, no less."
"Think Meg'll be upset?"
Gabrielle pulled back, leaving only her left arm around the warrior's waist as they crossed back to the staircase. "I think they were drunk. They'll be back by the end of the week."
Xena pursed her lips and shook her head. "I should have handled that better."
"We're all a bit tired." The bard saw Philemon peek out from the kitchen. "C'mon," she waved him over. "It's all clear."
"Yeah, I can see that." Philemon grinned, and Xena flushed. "I'd better see how Diana fared through the night."
"That's right. She retired because of a backache."
"If she needs something you let us know. We can help."
The dark blond nodded and trotted up the stairs ahead of them. "Sure." He paused at the top of the stairs. "We'll probably head out later today."
Xena nodded. "I'll be sure the stablemaster has your team ready."
He shook his head. "It can wait. Nobody's had any sleep, so we'll catch a few hours then move on."
Gabrielle snuggled into the curve of the warrior's body, reveling in the feel of the soft thin fabric rubbing over Xena's warm skin. "I think I could use a few hours in a bed." She watched Xena glance up and shook her head. "I waited until he was out of earshot," she quietly informed the slack-jawed brunette.
"I'm glad you did." Xena pulled Gabrielle close, and lifted the bard's feet from the ground, carrying her up the last few stairs to set her lightly down on the upper landing. "Philemon is a nice guy."
"Yes, he is."
"Diana's very lucky."
"Have a soft spot for him yourself, eh, Warrior Princess?"
Xena laughed. "Only soft spots I have are for you, my bard."
The bard dropped her hand to their doorknob and let them into the small room. A small candelabrum stood burning on the small table next to the bed. "Oh, one of the girls must've thought about that."
Xena reached out and moved the light out of the way, over across the room so the light didn't reach the bed except in faint glowing rays. She pulled back the covers and cotton sheet, and turned around, finding herself soon sitting with the bard sliding languidly in her lap, arms wrapped around her chest and working the lacings on the back of the blue dress.
"Hey," the brunette managed between kisses. "I just lost Meg some business. Aren't you mad at me?"
"I'm too tired to be that mad." The bard nibbled the warrior's bottom lip. "Besides, you look absolutely wonderful in that dress," she said, kissing along as she slid the fabric from the warrior's arms.
Xena laid back and stroked the bard's shoulders, lowering her dress by degrees. "You've had a lot of the wine too, hmmm?"
Gabrielle gave the warrior a cocky grin. "Oh yeah."
They sank together onto the bed, the warrior rolling the bard to her side. The dresses were carefully discarded so no hems or seams ripped, and the warrior used her uncanny aim to toss them over the back of a nearby chair without leaving the bard's side.
"Many skills," Gabrielle whispered, nuzzling the warrior's throat before moving lower.
Xena sighed with pleasure and couldn't have cared less about her many skills at that moment. Only those that Gabrielle would want called into play mattered to her. She found ways for them both to share intimacies, and to bring Gabrielle pleasure over and over again that communicated itself back to Xena, sending the warrior over the edge time and again as well.
Entwined and damp, the warrior and bard finally surrendered to a few hours of sleep.
She heard the rap on the door before the sound stopped echoing. Gently disengaging from Gabrielle's nude form, Xena pulled the covers around her lover before reaching for a wrap and turning to answer the door.
"Yes?" she asked, opening the portal a small distance.
It was Philemon. "Um. Xena... It's Diana."
"I don't know. The pain won't go away." His eyes searched hers. "It's too early."
The warrior drew herself up business like despite her thin wrap. "Only by a few weeks, right?"
"Yes, I suppose."
"Well, relax. I'll take a look. All right?"
The Treusian prince nodded and ran a big hand through his curly hair. "I guess... Yeah, it'll be all right."
"That's good. Where's Grace?"
"Sleeping in a pallet on the floor."
"Well that room's going to be too busy to sleep in very shortly. Collect her up and take her in to Gabrielle."
Xena put a hand on his shoulder and could feel the muscles shaking beneath his rumpled tunic. "She'll be fine, Philemon." She took a deep breath. "I promise." You hear that Diana? Don't you dare make a liar out of me.
Philemon led the way to the room he and his family shared, pushing the door wide so that Xena could precede him. She took stock of the situation immediately, spotting Diana fitfully squirming on the bed. Then beyond she caught sight of the sleeping Grace, who so far had managed to remain sleeping through her parents early discomforts.
"I'll get her," Philemon said unnecessarily as Xena went to Diana's side, grasping the woman's hand firmly in her own.
"Diana... shh... Listen to me." The pale, pain weary blue eyes tracked up to her face. "It hurts huh?" Xena tried for lightness, feeling the painful squeeze when the princess reacted to the contraction.
"Guess it's all the excitement."
"You pushed yourself rather hard," Xena agreed quietly. "But Meg is all married now. Time to take care of yourself, and the new child."
Diana closed her eyes, squinting hard against a contraction. "I suppose."
"Yeah, I suppose," the warrior grinned, giving the woman a reassuring squeeze back. She looked over her shoulder and saw Philemon departing with the sleeping Grace cradled against his chest. Another painful squeeze on her hand and she knew the contractions were too close together to be any other than impending delivery.
"Diana." The blue eyes opened again. "Sh... now listen to me. Don't fight the contractions. Come on, you've done this once already."
Gritting her teeth and not fighting the next contraction, Diana confessed, "I passed out while delivering Grace."
Xena waited until the princess' eyes opened again. "You didn't."
Diana nodded, accepting another contraction. "I did."
Xena sobered. "If I'd passed out, I think I'd have lost Solan."
Diana looked up into Xena's face surprised. "You?"
"I had a son while I was a warlord. Gave him up to the centaurs." Diana looked confused. The warrior swallowed and answered the unspoken question. "He died last year."
Diana, her thoughts obviously tracking to the pain she'd feel if it were Grace, bit her lip. "I... I'm sorry to hear that. Was he a happy boy?"
Xena wistfully smiled, remembered her brief conversations with Solan. "Yes. I think he was."
"That counts for something then. Right?"
Xena nodded. "Yes. I suppose it does." Shaking her head as Diana struggled through another contraction, the warrior turned back to the matter at hand. "I've got to get some clean cloths."
"In my pack. I keep extra cloths for Grace."
"Great." Xena stuffed a pillow behind Diana's lower back and fetched the pack. She spied the wash basin and the clean water bucket propped against the wall just inside the door. Quickly she crossed with the cloths and lifted the bucket, leaning out the door.
She caught one of Meg's employees walking down the hall. "Nala," she called.
"Xena," the warrior supplied informatively. "The princess is having her baby. Heat this water and bring it back quickly. Then fetch my partner, Gabrielle. Grace should be sleeping. Tell her I need her help."
Nala, her expression growing wider, finally snapped out of her absorbing reverie. "The princess is having her baby? Oh good gods!"
"Don't go rushing around and hurting yourself," the warrior tempered the younger woman's start of a panic attack. "The princess is fine."
Nala nodded, took the bucket and the cloths and departed quickly.
Xena spotted Philemon leaning on
the door of her room.
A blonde head popped out next to him. She smiled at Gabrielle as the bard grabbed the blond man's arm. "C'mon," she said.
Gabrielle and Philemon hurried down the corridor and entered the Treusians' room.
The prince immediately went to his wife's side. Diana was breathing slowly, tensing only slightly as the contractions took hold.
"How's she doing?" Gabrielle asked. "I gather it's time?"
"A little early, but babies don't wait," the warrior said unnecessarily, suddenly afflicted by the impending birth as much as Philemon was... she was beginning to feel just a slight floating sensation. Has to be the ale, she thought. I can't be getting this nervous over a birth.
But she was. Despite the fact that things seemed to be going smoothly, she was overjoyed--careful to control it--when Nala returned with the heated water and cloths.
"All right," Gabrielle said. "Time to get down to business." She gestured to Philemon pacing in the corner. "Should I get him out of here?"
Xena nodded. "But just to the hallway. He'll wear a hole in the floor anywhere else."
Gabrielle grinned, patted Xena's shoulder, realized the warrior was virtually naked and added, "I'll come back with a sleep shirt for you, at least."
Xena nodded, already walking away and disengaging Philemon from his wife with strict directions to "go with Gabrielle."
The bard received Philemon and escorted him to the hallway before dashing down to their room and fetching a big tunic from Xena's bag.
"Here," she offered, tossing it at the warrior, who had, in the space since Gabrielle and Philemon left, had stripped everything from the bed, except the pillows and a sheet she threw across Diana's legs.
Catching it absently, Xena quickly ducked behind a screen, tossing out the wrap. She emerged garbed in the shirt and waved to Gabrielle who winked.
The bard cast a glance up at the princess' face. Diana's jaw was white from the pressure she was exerting to keep from crying out. "Hey, Diana," she encouraged, drawing the woman's blue eyes to her. "See you soon."
The princess smiled determinedly and then panted rapidly.
"Ah, yep. Very soon now," the bard realized, withdrawing to keep Philemon under wraps.
Out in the corridor wasn't a whole lot better for the agitated prince. He still paced. He just paused frequently pressing his ear to the door and wincing. Gabrielle tried to draw his attention away from the door when the first groaning scream came, and he went white as a sheet. "Hey, Philemon, what're you going to name this one?"
The prince turned around, a blank stare on his face until his mind registered her question. "Um... if it was a girl, we were going to name it after her mother."
"And if it's a boy?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Haven't thought of a name for a boy yet?"
"All the midwives back in Treus think it's going to be a girl."
"Well babes have a way of surprising us," the bard said. "Better come up with a good couple of girl names in the meantime."
Philemon paced, then took a deep breath, seeing reason and calming for the first time in almost an hour. "All right."
"So, no Philemon Junior, hmm?"
The man shook his head. "I wasn't crazy about the name as a kid."
Gabrielle laughed. "All right. How about Jason? Or Midas."
"How about Mica?"
"Or Michael? Very modern."
Philemon nodded. A genuine smile, not tinged with worry for the first time, creased his tired face.
Gabrielle was squeezing his arm supportively when the sound came through the door.
A plaintive whimper and then a full-blown cry. Philemon's went red then white. Gabrielle barely managed to keep the new father on his feet as he swayed and blacked out. She chuckled as she lowered him to the floor. "Xena?" she called through the door. The warrior appeared at the doorway. In her arms was a tightly swaddled bundle and the bard came to her feet, breathing hard, the scene was so sweet. The babe's fists were pressed against the warrior's chest, kneading slightly. "Oh, Xena."
"It's a boy," the warrior told the unconscious Philemon. "What happened to him?" she asked her partner.
"Um... he got a little overexcited."
"Well, get him in here." She nudged the baby's fingers and was rewarded with an instinctive grip. "I've got to give him to his mother for feeding."
Gabrielle's grin broke out the instant the warrior turned her back. "Glad everything went well," she commented, as she pulled a dazed Philemon to his feet. "Come on," she nudged the prince. "Your son awaits."
Philemon went to Diana, who was receiving the baby boy from Xena at the other side of the bed. The princess looked tired, but happy. She glanced across the room as Xena left the bedside and caught Gabrielle's gaze.
"He's beautiful, Diana," the bard said.
Diana didn't speak. Her eyes grew misty and she smiled as tears streamed down her face.
When Xena was next to Gabrielle, the bard reached out and drew the warrior in for a hug.
The tableau broke only when a knock came at the door. It was Nala.
"The princess all right?"
"Yes," Gabrielle supplied. "She had a boy."
"What's 'is name?" she asked, directing her question to the couple at the bed, as she peered around the door.
"Mica," Philemon responded.
Nala nodded and disappeared. Everyone returned to the peaceful absorbing quiet, each alone in their thoughts.
"Momma!" Gabrielle turned to see Grace push her way into the room, trailing her blanket.
"Grace, you should go back to sleep," Xena suggested quietly.
"I wanna see my baby brother," the girl replied obstinately.
"All right, Grace," her mother said quietly from the bed. "Just for a moment though. Then off to bed with you."
Grace bounded around Gabrielle and Xena and clambered up onto the bed beside her father. The girl's oohs and aahs were the only sound for a long moment until Mica objected to her hand in his face and let out a hearty wail.
Which sent Grace into tears.
Xena's eyes rolled. Gabrielle fetched Grace from the bed and she gestured that they should leave.
The warrior escorted Gabrielle and Grace back to the room down the hall. By the time they reached it, Grace's sobs had subsided.
"The baby doesn't like me," she pouted.
"Grace," Gabrielle tried reason. "The baby doesn't know you yet." The girl's bottom lip protruded in a beautifully dainty little pout. "Why don't you get some sleep and then I bet if you see him again, Mica will even smile at you."
Grace laid down. Xena and Gabrielle settled on the edge of the bed. The warrior stroked the sleepy girl's blonde hair and studied her profile as she closed her eyes.
"You too, Warrior Princess," Gabrielle suggested. "We've all had a busy night."
Xena smiled, picked up Gabrielle's hand and kissed the knuckles. "I love you."
Gabrielle ran a light hand over the warrior's hair, before leaning close and kissing her cheek. "I love you too."
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