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For Better or Worse - part 3 of 3

Chapter 18 - Ready to Travel

Days passed slowly for the weary group but to their relief, the bard grew steadily stronger. Raiz had returned to Amazonia to inform the tribe their Queen was recovering and the remaining Amazons would be escorting their recovering Queen back to Galisar, wherever that was.

By their seventh day by the caves, everyone including the bard was anxious to travel. That is, everyone except the Warrior Princess.

"Any idea when we are going to be ready to travel?" Sustra asked with a mouth full of bread during breakfast, earning an annoyed glance from the Warrior Princess.

"I am ready to travel now," Gabrielle relayed enthusiastically as she started to lean to her side to stand up. She groaned slightly, the pain in her back reminding her to take it slow.

"What do you think you are doing?!?" Xena blurted with great exasperation, grabbing the bard's shoulder, keeping her put.

The uneasy Amazons quickly looked at each other with wide eyes and suddenly found some chores they had to do...elsewhere.

"I'm trying to stand, which I'm finding rather difficult with you continuing to hold me down," Gabrielle snapped, eyeing the warrior's hand on her shoulder then the warrior.

"Gabrielle, you are pushing yourself too fast. We are GOING to wait until you are stronger," the determined Warrior Princess informed the weak bard.

Helping Gabrielle up on Argo, Sustra cringed, noticing a very disgruntled Warrior Princess scowling down at her. However, after receiving a smile from her Queen when she got settled in the saddle, Sustra considered the scowl a small price to pay. Though, wisely electing not to push it, Sustra quickly left their company for her horse.

When Xena carefully slipped her arm around Gabrielle's waist, she felt the bard's fingers capture her's. As Gabrielle cautiously leaned back into her with a contented sigh, the warrior shook her head with a small smile.

"Are you ok?" Xena asked.

"More than," Gabrielle responded softly with a smile.

The group rode for hours before stopping at a clearing for lunch. Though she was not about to admit it, Gabrielle was thankful for the break from the painfully bumpy ride on Argo.

In the middle of their lunch, Xena saw Gabrielle grimace slightly as she shifted to a more comfortable sitting position.

"Gabrielle, you should take a nap after lunch. Sleep is important to recovering quickly," Xena informed the bard as inspected the bard's bandages again.

The Amazons exchanged glances.

"I don't need to take a nap Xena," Gabrielle countered with a restrained grimace as the warrior touched her near the wound.

"Gabrielle, you're exhausted and need to sleep," Xena quickly responded in a stern voice.

The Amazons quietly wrapped up their food and put it away, except for Sustra, who was hungry and still enjoying her lunch.

"I can SLEEP on Argo as we ride," Gabrielle responded with increasing irritation.

The Amazons started to look around for something to do...elsewhere. "You want to practice?" Eponin asked Trayla, who nodded vigorously and blurted "YES!"

Ephiny opened her mouth to ask Solari, who agreed before the words escaped. "Great idea! Let's practice!"

The four abruptly got up and left their picnic site. Sustra looked up from her bread to find the Amazons had abandoned her. When the Warrior Princess and Queen looked at her a moment, Sustra smiled weakly and unenthusiastically bit into her bread.

"I know you can sleep on Argo Gabrielle, but you will be more rested from a nap here," Xena continued her discussion with the stubborn bard, pointing to the grassy patch they were sitting on.

"Please?" The Warrior Princess added softly, surprising Sustra, who finished her lunch and nonchalantly pulled out her sword and inspected a spot on it.

Sustra breathed over that spot and tried to rub it off. It needs polishing, she concluded. That would be a nice quiet activity that wouldn't disturb her Queen, she considered, pulling out a cloth.

"All right, all right..." Gabrielle responded, lifting her hands up in defeat, making the Warrior Princess smile. "But you need a break yourself," Gabrielle relayed with concern. Sustra quickly glanced up at the two, now also concerned.

"I don't need..." Xena relayed with a furrowed brow. Sustra's glance returned to her sword, which she more vigorously rubbed with her cloth.

"Xena...go for a SOMETHING," Gabrielle interjected. Sustra's eyes widened with fear as they looked up at the too-helpful Queen, then drifted down to the sword in her lap.

"I know you need a break from this..from me," the Queen argued.

"I don't want to leave..." Xena countered.

"Sustra will be here. I'll be fine," Gabrielle argued to quell any further objections. Sustra held her breath, hoping.

"You sure?" Xena asked.

Letting out a long and relieved exhale, Sustra silently thanked the Gods, all of them, for the reprieve from practicing with Xena. As she stared at her sword with that spot, she felt cold and discriminating eyes on her. When she dared to look up, her suspicions were confirmed, the Warrior Princess was glaring at her.

"Absolutely," Gabrielle blurted with conviction, drawing the warrior's gaze back to the bard, who beamed at her success when the warrior rolled her eyes. Xena shook her head as she got up.

Looking in the direction of the Amazons' sudden retreat, Xena unsheathed her sword. "I'll see if they are interested in practicing...with me," the Warrior Princess relayed with a wild twinkle in her eyes and an enthusiastic grin on her face.

As she watched the Warrior Princess disappear into the forest, Sustra was not so upset anymore that her sisters abandoned her.

"Uh, maybe I shouldn't have suggested she take a break," Gabrielle noted, looking at Sustra with a guilty grimace.

"All I can say is I'm glad I'm here and not there," Sustra admitted.

"Me too," Gabrielle responded warmly before laying back and closing her eyes for that nap. Soon, she was sound asleep.

Sustra looked upon the Queen for a thoughtful moment, then smiled and proceeded to polish her sword.

Gabrielle woke to the sound of the Warrior Princess, who was humming as she strolled back from the forest. The bard yawned as she sat up, expecting to find the other Amazons following her warrior. When they didn't appear she looked over to Sustra, who shook her head and shrugged.

"Xena?" Gabrielle asked, watching her carefree warrior approach.

"Yes Gabrielle?" The Warrior Princess responded with a warm smile as she sat down next to her bard. As the warrior lounged back on her elbow, Gabrielle noticed how incredibly... relaxed...Xena was.

"Where is everyone?" She asked, her concerned eyes darting back at the forest. As the Warrior Princess opened her mouth to explain, Ephiny appeared.

Shooting a cold glare at Xena as she emerged from the forest, Ephiny silently passed them, clenching her aching right side with her hand. When she sat down next to Sustra, the smallest of moans escaped.

Gabrielle turned to Xena. "Xena?" Gabrielle asked, interrupting her Warrior Princess' tenacious inspection of her nails.

"Hmmmm??" Xena responded softly, looking up from her nails with a warm smile for the bard, who now watched Trayla emerge from the forest. The Amazon held her hand against her eye, using her remaining good one to coldly glare at the Warrior Princess.

Sustra started to giggle, successfully drawing the glaring eye towards her. Sustra's giggles were promptly extinguished.

Gabrielle's eyes widened. "Xena," the concerned bard once again started to question her warrior when she saw Eponin helping a limping Solari from the forest. "Solari! Are you all right?" Gabrielle gasped.

"Except for my sprained ankle, I've never been better," Solari responded dryly as Eponin helped her sit down. " that my ARM is fully healed," Solari snapped, her narrow eyes glaring at the Warrior Princess, who slightly cringed with a twinge of guilt.

"What a coincidence," Eponin relayed, rubbing her sprained left arm. "My arm has just started acting up," she mentioned, also glaring at the Warrior Princess.

As they rode towards Galisar, Xena couldn't stand the silence.

"I SAID I was sorry," Xena repeated to the bard. The bard responded with another sigh. "Gabrielle, they are warriors, they are used to getting a few bumps and bruises," Xena explained. "It keeps them on their toes...." Xena added to her defense.

Gabrielle looked over her shoulder at the Warrior Princess with an open mouth, about to respond, but then elected not to. Sighing, she shook her head as she turned her gaze forward to survey the damage riding in front of them.

Ephiny was leaning at an odd angle in her saddle. Solari's left ankle was wrapped and too swollen for her to bother trying to place her foot in its stirrup. Eponin held the reigns with one arm, the other wrapped in a brace, which the recently experienced Solari helped put on. Trayla continued to hold her hand to her eye.

"I said I was sorry..." Xena muttered.

As they rode in the front gates of Galisar, Gabrielle's family gasped at the sight of the group. "Gods, it must have been some battle," Lila blurted in amazement to Sarah. Gabrielle's parents looked at each other briefly before returning their concerned gazes towards the riders.

When the sisters called out Gabrielle's name, the bard smiled.

"What happened?!? Xena left a WEEK ago! We were so worried," Sarah blurted, watching her sister dismount with some difficulty. Lila noted the other Amazons also having difficulty dismounting.

"Nothing to worry about now, so how are the wedding preparations coming along?" The bard responded.

"What happened Gabrielle," her mother approached her and asked calmly. "Did you fight that Gurda woman?" She questioned, surprising Gabrielle, who looked at her sisters. They shrugged.

"Yes mother," Gabrielle admitted with a sigh, bracing herself for another lecture on the evils of fighting.

"Are you all right?" Her mother asked softly and reached out to squeeze Gabrielle's forearm gently. A surprised Gabrielle smiled.

"I'm fine, now," Gabrielle relayed, glancing back at her warrior, who sighed. Feeling more tired than she realized, Gabrielle started to sway. Xena quickly caught the bard before she tumbled over.

"She still has a lot of healing to do," Xena informed the older woman, who suspected Xena was not one for exaggeration and looked at her daughter with greater concern. Gabrielle sighed heavily.

"I bet you're going to still say that a YEAR from now," Gabrielle blurted, looking up at her warrior.

"Gabrielle, it's only been one WEEK since you got hurt," Xena responded with annoyance. "You're pushing yourself TOO hard" Xena blurted.

The Amazons shifted uncomfortably. Sarah and Lila looked at each other. Gabrielle's parents quietly watched the Warrior Princess and their middle daughter.

When Gabrielle opened her mouth in protest, Xena interrupted. "Don't argue," Xena snapped. "Now let's get unpacked and ready for dinner," Xena instructed her, grabbing their saddle bags then the bard's shoulder. "Come on," Xena quickly added as she pointed the bard towards the castle and prompted her along. "You should also take a bath."

Gabrielle's mouth dropped. Her mother and father silently looked at each other, then watched the two women as they left for the castle.

The youngest Poteidaian turned her curious gaze to the Amazons and ventured a question that weighed on her mind since she saw them dismount.

"What happened to you?" Lila asked Trayla, who's eye was now very puffy and taking on a rather unattractive hue of purple. The good eye glared at the youngest Poteidaian, making her uneasy. Lila felt relieved when that good eye turned on Sustra, who struggled unsuccessfully to muffle her giggles.

"Ambush," Solari offered with a casual shrug, shocking the Poteidaian family. Ephiny, Eponin and Trayla nodded in weary agreement. Sustra grinned.

"Well, Gabrielle has once again managed to arrive just before meal time," Sarah relayed to the Amazons with a grin. "You ALL are welcome to my table for a welcome back dinner," Sarah announced warmly.

The Amazons smiled.

"Of course, dinner will be AFTER you...ladies...freshen up," Sarah's mother relayed to them with a polite smile.

The Amazons' smiles were gone.

Chapter 19 - Ready for Bed

"I should take a bath? I should take a BATH?!?" Gabrielle repeated in irritated amazement as the Warrior Princess guided the bard to sit in a chair.

"Gabrielle, you should. So should I," Xena relayed nonchalantly as she knelt down and took the bard's boots off.

"Must you ANNOUNCE that to the entire kingdom??" Gabrielle blurted as she raised her arms as the warrior took the bard's tunic off. Xena grinned and checked the bandage. Gabrielle muffled a moan.

"Did it hurt you this bad during the ride?" Xena asked with concern, carefully touching the skin around the bandage yet evoking another grimace.

"Nah," Gabrielle responded with a shrug. "YeeeOW! Stop poking me!!" She blurted, swatting the Warrior Princess' hand away.

"I can't believe you! You should have said something," Xena scolded her as she went to her saddle bag for salve and an herbal remedy to ease the bard's pain.

"It's nothing...really," Gabrielle responded casually with a shrug and stood to take her skirt off. When she bent over, the jolt of pain in her back caused her to moan and start to tumble over.

"Gabrielle!" Xena caught her.

"OK,'s something," Gabrielle gasped. "But it only REALLY started to bother me this morning," she admitted.

"Gabrielle, why didn't you tell me? Your wound may not be healing right..." Xena relayed with concern, helping her sit back in the chair.

"It looked ok when you looked at it yesterday, right?" Gabrielle asked as Xena checked her for a fever.

"Yes and thankfully it looks ok now," Xena admitted. "But I don't want you to take any more risks, Gabrielle. You should stay in bed until you heal."

"But..." Gabrielle relayed with annoyance.

"No buts, you need to stay in bed. Please don't fight me on this Gabrielle. You know I'm right." Xena responded, eyeing her and making the bard sigh.

"Fine, but what about that bath I so desperately need?" Gabrielle blurted.

"I'll give you a sponge bath," Xena responded as she retrieved a sponge and bowl. "Besides, your wound will heal faster if you keep it dry..."

"Really?" Gabrielle asked with interest, making Xena sigh and nod. Gabrielle's eyebrow raised considering she really wouldn't mind that.

"What about dinner?" The bard asked. "I'm famished," the bard admitted.

"I'll bring you dinner," Xena relayed as she came back to the bed with the bath supplies and a robe for her bard.

"Really?" Gabrielle asked with a grin as the Warrior Princess knelt down beside her bard. Xena looked up and nodded, then began her task. The long, slow strokes of the sponge over down her arm made the bard almost forget her next question.

"Can I write in bed?" Gabrielle asked with a raised eyebrow.

Xena nodded, continuing to diligently wash her grinning bard. Gabrielle gasped when felt the gentle sponge grazed over her sensitive flesh. Xena nonchalantly cleared her throat as she tried to ignore the two erect results of her touch.

"Hmmmm...I think I'm going to like this," Gabrielle responded in a sultry voice, making Xena look up find intense desire in those green eyes. With Xena momentarily distracted into inaction, the bard reached out and invitingly caressed her warrior's face.

Drumming all the strength she could, Xena grabbed the bard's hand.

"Gabrielle, there are many things you can still do in bed... but this is not one of them," Xena sighed, placing the bard's hand to the bard's lap.

"How do you know?" Gabrielle challenged with a sly grin.

"Not until your..." Xena was interrupted when the bard kissed her forehead. "...better," Xena blurted with a crack in her voice.

Gabrielle smiled and traced her fingers down her warrior's cheek to her lips. "You know Xena, it's amazing how much better I'm feeling already..."

With a frustrated sigh, Xena once again grabbed the bard's distracting hand. "Gabrielle, stop it NOW or I'm going to get your mother to give you ALL your baths," Xena threatened.

The warrior had no more trouble bathing the bard.

Waiting for the warrior to come back with dinner, Gabrielle had a few ideas she wanted to capture on parchment. She got out of bed to get her writing supplies. Looking around the room, she quickly discovered she couldn't find her bag, which she remembered leaving on the table. Perhaps it was in the other room, she questioned her memory, scratching her head.

"Gabrielle!" Xena barked upon her return, causing the bard to nearly jump.


"What are you doing out of bed?" Xena placed the tray of food down on the table.

"Looking for my writing supplies...I could have sworn I placed my bag right here," Gabrielle responded, absently touching the table top.

"You agreed to rest," Xena reminded her cooly.

"You said I could WRITE. I was JUST looking for my ..." Gabrielle responded with annoyance.

"I'll find your bag," Xena interrupted. "Just get back to bed...please Gabrielle."

"Since you are SO intent on waiting on me hand and foot, I guess I should let you..." Gabrielle muttered as she returned to the bed.

"I'll check the other room," Xena sighed, leaving in search of the bard's bag.

The bard sighed as she laid in bed. A gust from the open window escaped from the drapes and sent a shiver through her. "Ughh," she moaned as she pulled the blanket up. Another gust sent a second shiver through her. "Gggods..." she blurted with annoyance. She flung the covers off her and got out of bed with a slight groan to shut the window.

Hearing the door open, Gabrielle's eyes widened. "Uh oh," she blurted. "I was ONLY..." The defensive bard turned towards the door.

"Mother!" the bard blurted in surprise.

"What a chill in this room!" Her mother complained, moving past her daughter to the window. "I can't believe SHE didn't make sure this was could easily catch cold," her mother complained as she shut the window.

"Mother," Gabrielle blurted with annoyance, heading back to bed as her mother straightened the curtains.

"There...much better," her mother relayed with a nod and turned towards her daughter with a content smile. Gabrielle grimaced as she climbed in her bed.

"Are you alright dear?" She asked with concern as she helped pull the covers up over her injured daughter. Gabrielle sighed at yet another overprotective person.

"Yes...thanks to Xena," Gabrielle noted.

"Thanks to Xena!?!" Her mother blurted in amazement as she sat on the edge of the bed. "How can you THANK her for THIS?" She asked incredulously, motioning towards her daughter's wounds.

"You are talking to me NOW because of her," Gabrielle bluntly informed her.

"It's because of HER you lead this dangerous life," her mother snapped.

"You're wrong mother," Gabrielle countered forcefully. "It's because of her I'm alive today," Gabrielle revealed.

"How many serious injuries like this have you gotten since you left Poteidaia?" Her mother challenged.

"You don't want to know," Gabrielle blurted truthfully, adding to her mother's conviction.

"Gabrielle," her mother sighed and took her daughter's hand, determined to reason with her stubborn daughter. "Don't you SEE how dangerous it is being with her...she's a warlord for Zeus' sake."

"EX-warlord, mother...she has done more good in the past three years than most people do in a lifetime," Gabrielle responded with an obvious admiration.

"She has done more harm in her life than good," her mother argued, disturbed by her daughter's blind allegiance. Gabrielle exhaled heavily, determined not to lose her temper.

"She knows that, and it tears her up inside. But she is doing everything in her power to change that," Gabrielle informed her unimpressed mother.

"She has tortured...and KILLED so many Gabrielle, HOW can you possibly," her mother paused awkwardly. "...TRAVEL with... a woman like that?"

"Why don't you just say 'love' ?" Gabrielle asked with annoyance. "Because that's what it is,'s LOVE."

"For Gods' sake Gabrielle...why?" Her mother asked, making the bard tense at that question.

"Why..." Gabrielle repeated that seemingly innocent word as she stared at the foot of her bed. Gabrielle started to smile warmly as she thought about her warrior. Looking up at her mother, her smile faded. "Unlike you, I KNOW her. Better than myself sometimes," Gabrielle responded, unflinchingly meeting her mother's gaze.

"When she looks at me with those blue eyes, I see her love for me, and I have no doubt of where I belong...I belong with her," Gabrielle spoke with conviction as she smiled warmly at her mother, who stiffened at the words she didn't want to hear.

"Her love for me is so deep, and so true, I sometimes fear sleep. I couldn't bear it if I woke to find this all just a dream," Gabrielle admitted to her mother, who had no doubt of her daughter's love for this warrior.

"She could have let her past destroy her future. But she didn't," Gabrielle spoke with great admiration. "Within her is this incredible strength...a strength which she needs to battle that past every day and move forward with her life. Most people would tire quickly of that constant battle...but then Xena is not like most people," Gabrielle grinned knowingly. Her mother sighed and considered she would have to agree on that point.

"She helps people," Gabrielle smiled broadly. "All KINDS of people, from peasants to Kings, from mortals to Gods. She helps, not because of money or glory, but because it is the right thing to do," Gabrielle spoke with conviction. Her mother sighed again.

"You asked me why I love her...I wish it was enough for you to know that I do. I wish you could just be happy that I am happy," Gabrielle relayed sadly. When her mother continued to sit quietly, the bard sighed and shook her head with disappointment.

"I really want to be happy for you dear," her mother finally relayed and got up from the bed and kissed her daughter's forehead.

As the older woman left the room, she passed the Warrior Princess, who entered with the bard's bag. They exchanged quiet glances, for there was nothing to say. After the older woman left, Xena walked over to her bard, who looked up at her concerned warrior.

"I think I'm wearing her down," Gabrielle relayed with a convinced nod and grin, confusing the warrior.

"Gabrielle...she didn't sound," Xena relayed, realizing she had just admitted eves dropping. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have been..." Xena apologized with embarrassment.

"That's ok," the bard grinned. "Saves me the trouble of having to repeat everything," she relayed warmly. "You got my bag!" Gabrielle blurted enthusiastically as she grabbed her bag and inspected it. "Where was it?"

"In the other room on the table," Xena relayed with a sigh. "Gabrielle...don't you want to talk about...."

"Do you want to talk about it?" Gabrielle asked the surprised warrior.

"Shouldn't we?" Xena questioned, wanting to provide the emotional support her bard needed. However, her bard was not making that easy.

"Xena...I would love for my parents to accept you as the person I love. And I'm not going to give up hope because I'm convinced that once they get to know you, they'll love you like I do," Gabrielle relayed confidently with a loving smile.

The Warrior Princess smirked and raised a questioning eyebrow.

"You KNOW what I mean," Gabrielle blurted with annoyance. Xena grinned.

"Where was I?" Gabrielle asked, rolling her eyes.

"You were saying to know me is to...," Xena spoke dryly.

"Yeah, well, until they do...I'm not going to let them interfere with my happiness. And for your information Xena, I am VERY happy," Gabrielle smiled warmly.

"Me too," Xena responded and leaned in, kissing her happy bard tenderly on the lips. When the Warrior Princess pulled back, the bard sighed with frustration.

"Did I mention I was very VERY happy?" Gabrielle offered with a familiar twinkle in her eyes.


Chapter 20 - The Orchid and Egg

For the third night, Xena entered the kitchen to retrieve the bard's dinner. She found Gabrielle's father stirring some soup with Meleager next to him, ready to add salt when the older man requested it. The three exchanged glances and nods as they quietly went about their business in the kitchen.

Xena's curiosity got to her. "I don't suppose you have a poem yet," she asked Meleager, looking up from the tray she was preparing.

Meleager grinned. "I'm all set," he responded cheerfully, surprising the Warrior Princess.

"I could take a look at it if..," she offered nonchalantly, though amazed he had actually finished the poem.

"No...uh.. no need, but thanks," Meleager interrupted her offer. "All I need now is an egg and a flower."

"Orchid," Xena and Gabrielle's father corrected him. Xena noticed the older man grin as he returned his attention to his soup.

Bursting into kitchen, Sarah almost skidded when she abruptly stopped, finding her father, Meleager and Xena staring curiously at her.

"Oh, hi," she attempted a casual greeting as she glanced over her shoulder.

"You know mother's looking for you," her father relayed and sipped a spoonful of soup. He nodded to Meleager, who smiled at Sarah and almost missed his cue to add salt.

"Really?" She relayed innocently, plastering on a smile. Her father nodded and stirred. Meleager just kept to himself and his salt, having found that the safest response.

"So Xena, how is Gabrielle?" Sarah asked.

"Difficult," Xena blurted as she stared down at the tray with two pieces of nutbread. She sighed and added a third piece, hoping THAT would help satisfy the incredibly famished bard's appetite. She somehow knew it wouldn't. Gabrielle's father grinned as he sipped another spoonful of soup.

In the distance, the voice of Sarah's mother could be heard, calling for Sarah.

"That's know...I JUST remembered something I need to do, excuse me," Sarah relayed unconvincingly and dashed out of the kitchen.

Xena's eyebrows raised as she looked at Gabrielle's father, who seemed more preoccupied with the soup than his oddly behaving daughter.

"Needs salt," he responded. Meleager nodded and quietly added another pinch.

"Sarah?" Sarah's mother called as she entered the kitchen. "Oh," she relayed flatly. "Hello Xena." Her unenthusiastic greeting was followed by an excruciatingly polite smile.

Xena nodded quietly.

"Have you seen Sarah?" The older woman asked the three.

Before Xena could open her mouth, the woman continued. "I still have some details I need to go over with her...the wedding is almost here and she STILL hasn't made a decision on the flower arrangements, musicians or her DRESS for Gods' sakes. She's acting like this the wedding is MONTHS away! I really don't think she is taking this seriously enough."

Xena watched as Gabrielle's father stir the soup. "Yes dear," he responded, handing the soup spoon over to Meleager, who diligently started to stir.

"First she was busy with Walsaian business, then it was this Amazon thing, now she says this GALISAR business requires her attention...If she spent even a FRACTION of the time focusing on the wedding that she has devoted to the this Amazon business, she would be DONE by now. Where ever did she get this knack for procrastination, I'll never know...."

"Yes dear..."

"Well, if any of you see her, tell her we MUST get the arrangements finished," she informed them. "They are all important to the are the Traditional items," she added, delivering a warning glare to Meleager, who cleared his throat and continued to stir the soup.

"Have faith dear," her husband responded warmly.

"Yes dear," she sighed. After a peck on the cheek, she left the kitchen.

Xena gave a questioning looked to Gabrielle's father as he got another spoon and took another sample of the soup. He looked up and gave her a familiar, warm smile.

"Even skilled Amazon hunters couldn't get that egg," Xena informed him, causing Meleager to look up with surprise. Meleager the Concerned looked over to the older man.

"I'm not surprised," he grinned.

" will Meleager get the egg if they couldn't?" Xena asked with a raised eyebrow.

Meleager looked at her, then the older man, considering that a good question.

"Just got to know where to look," he explained, intriguing the Warrior Princess. Meleager eyed him, considering that made sense, then shrugged.

"Meleager and I will be going on a hunting trip tomorrow," he relayed, making Meleager smile. "You're welcome to join us," he added, the invitation surprising Xena.

"What about the Orchid?" Xena asked, Meleager looked at the older man hoping that too would be as easy as getting that egg seemed.

"The Red Orchid of Love?" He chuckled warmly.

"Yeah, where do you get that?" Xena asked, finding his behavior odd.

He looked at her curiously for a moment.

"Are you asking for Meleager...or yourself?" He questioned her with formidable words and an unwavering gaze.

"Does it make a difference?" Xena challenged him, her steely gaze meeting his.

He sighed.

"To Gabrielle it does," he answered thoughtfully, surprising the warrior. He returned his attention back to the soup.

Returning to the bedroom with the tray full of nutbread and some dinner, Xena sighed as she gazed upon her bard, who was writing in bed.

"Hey, you said I could WRITE...remember???" Gabrielle blurted defensively, then raised a suggestive eyebrow. "And I'll have you know...I'm feeling much much..."

"Gabrielle...," Xena interrupted gravely, immediately alerting the bard.

"What?" Gabrielle put her quill down. She watched with concern as her warrior quietly placed the tray on the night table and sat on the edge of the bed.

"Your father and Meleager are going hunting tomorrow to ..."

"GO!" Gabrielle suggested enthusiastically. A little too enthusiastically she realized from the surprised look on the warrior's face.

" would give my father a chance to get to know you," Gabrielle explained only part of her enthusiasm. She didn't see the need to mention she wanted a break from her incredibly overprotective warrior, with an incredibly annoying will of iron.

"Yeah...I was kinda thinking that too," Xena relayed. "You sure you'll be..."

"FINE! I'll be fine! Don't worry about go, make sure Meleager gets those items," she enthusiastically encouraged her warrior with a warm smile and pat on the forearm.

Xena's eyes narrowed. "Gabrielle, I don't want you pushing your..."

"I won't," Gabrielle quickly interrupted. Xena's eyebrow raised skeptically. "I PROMISE," Gabrielle blurted then sighed, once again bullied into a promise by the Warrior Princess' eyebrow.

As Xena, Meleager and Gabrielle's father were preparing to depart on their very early morning quest, Xena stood off with Argo, patiently waiting for Sarah and her mother to say goodbye to their loved ones.

Xena looked up at the bard's empty window, reminding herself how adamantly she had insisted that Gabrielle should stay in bed and rest. 'It's foolish to loose sleep just to see me off,' the warrior remembered one of her convincing arguments.

Returning her gaze to the couples, she scratched Argo's neck. She sighed with disappointment that this was one of the rare arguments she actually won. Yet, Gabrielle did need her rest, Xena reminded herself.

With the couples finally done with their good-byes, Xena let out a relieved exhale as she started to mount Argo, anxious to depart.


Everyone turned towards Lila, who ran towards them. "What's wrong?!" Xena asked with concern.

"Nothing, as long as I give you this," Lila responded, displaying a piece of parchment neatly folded into quarters. "She said she'd kill me if I didn't get this to you before you left," Lila blurted as she handed over the note to the warrior. Everyone curiously watched as the Warrior Princess opened up the parchment.

Gabrielle's mother witnessed a dazzling smile light up the stoic warrior's face as she read its short contents. The transformation amazed the older woman, who had never seen the Warrior Princess genuinely smile before.

Xena anxiously looked up from the note to the bard's window, finding it no longer empty. Standing at the window, dressed in a simple green dress, was Gabrielle. The bard slowly lifted her hand and waved goodbye to her warrior, who gently waved back.

Xena reluctantly broke her gaze, returning it to her quiet riding companions. "We should get going," she quickly suggested to them, intending to follow the instructions in the bard's note - Don't be long.

The oldest Poteidaian sighed heavily as she watched the travelers ride off. Sarah and Lila looked at each other and took the opportunity to quietly step back and head back towards the castle.

"Hold it RIGHT there, young ladies," she snapped, interrupting their retreat and making them cringe. Their mother turned towards them. "We've got to get ready for the guests, get the kitchen staff set up and a MILLION other things..."

Xena was surprised when Gabrielle's father started to dismount. "Why are you stopping?" Xena scanned the area.

"There's still time to get to the caves and get in some hunting in before dark," Meleager added, making the older man chuckle softly.

Meleager and Xena looked at each other, both confused by this Poteidaian.

"We won't need to go to the caves," he spoke nonchalantly.

"So we're going to get the orchid today instead?" Meleager asked, wanting to understand.

"We'll get the orchid after we get the a couple days...can't rush these things you know," he slowly laid out a blanket to sit on.

The warriors dismounted and joined the older man sitting on the ground. After a moment of thoughtful silence, the older man finally spoke to the curious warriors.

"Gabrielle is the bard of the family, but I will do my best to explain," he smiled at Xena. "Traditions have their purpose," he spoke wisely. "What I am about to tell you has been passed down from father to son...," he started, then paused. He looked over to Xena, slightly perplexed.

"Do you want me to leave?" Xena asked flatly.

"No Xena," he said softly, with a warm smile. "Hmmm," he thought a moment and continued his lesson on traditions. "...passed down for generations in confidence, which I trust you two will maintain?" He asked.

Meleager nodded quickly, very interested in what this man had to share. Xena eyed the older man suspiciously and slowly nodded in agreement.

Bursting into Gabrielle's room, a panicked Sarah rushed in with Lila closely behind. "It's a DISASTER!" Sarah blurted to Gabrielle, who was writing at the table.

"Mother TOLD you not to wait until the last moment," Lila enjoyed mentioning, drawing a death glare from Sarah.

"What's wrong?" Gabrielle put her quill down on the table, turning towards her sisters.

"My Traditional gown maker is dead!!" Sarah blurted.

"WHAT?!? What that happened?" Gabrielle asked, shocked at the horrible news.

"When Sarah finally got around to making the arrangements, she found out that Rena, the dress maker, died in a freak farming accident a year ago and her daughter, who took over the business, apparently left for a vacation in Athens," Lila spoke flatly.

"I'm doomed!" Sarah blurted as she flopped onto the bed, face down.

"Well, the Traditional gown has been made by other dress makers before...what about the Walsasian dress maker who made the bridesmaid dresses?" Gabrielle asked helpfully.

"I'm doomed...," Sarah muttered into the pillow.

"Mother suggested that, but she left to visit her sick brother in Marapolis," Lila relayed. "Then there's the matter about the kitchen staff...," Lila added with a shrug.

"We'll just have to elope," Sarah rationalized, rolling on her back and staring at the ceiling.

"What about the kitchen staff?" Gabrielle asked with concern.

"You know, this whole thing was to please her...I never really WANTED this Traditional wedding," Sarah blurted with great annoyance to the ceiling.

"They quit...again," Lila added, ignoring her eldest sister.

"So I PROMISED her...I think promises are actually over rated...and WHO made up that STUPID rule that promises are not supposed to be broken??" Sarah asked the ceiling.

"Why?" Gabrielle asked, ignoring her older sister.

"At least Mother should be pleased...she'll get to spend the REST of her life saying I told you so," Sarah muttered.

"They didn't appreciate finding out they would have to cook for 300 people four days before the wedding," Lila relayed with a shrug.

"I'm doomed," Sarah muttered gravely as she rolled over, face first into the pillow.

"Don't panic Sarah, we'll get through this. I've got an idea..." Gabrielle blurted confidently.

Sarah lifted her head, glanced at the bard, rolled her eyes and buried her face back into the pillow.

"I'm doomed..."

Chapter 21 - The Dress

Two days before the wedding, the three hunters finally rode back to Galisar, with Traditional items in hand. Xena wanted to come back sooner, however, Gabrielle's father insisted they stay out or the whole purpose of the Traditional Items would be lost.

For the sake of future generations of Poteidaians, Xena reluctantly agreed to abide by the "Traditions."

When they dismounted and took their horses to the stables, Xena was immediately alarmed when she spotted a half-dozen Amazon horses in the stalls. Xena quickly exited the stables and spotted a familiar Amazon hauling a sack of flower over her shoulder.

"Sustra!?! Why are you here? What's going on?" Xena asked anxiously.

"Been to get to the kitchen...Gabrielle's in Sarah's room," Sustra blurted and left the Warrior Princess without a satisfactory answer.

On the way to Sarah's room, Xena passed Solari, who was carrying a large vase. "She's in there," Solari informed her, motioning to Sarah's room with her head, as she hobbled past. Grimacing guiltily, Xena went to the room and paused at the door as she listened to the lively discussion.

"Why is this train so huge? It will take days to attach the beading...Look, you could make a whole other dress out of this material," Lila blurted holding up only part of it.

Sarah sighed impatiently, tired of standing up and being poked at with pins by Gabrielle. "We could SKIP the beads," Sarah suggested.

"We could, the dress already looks wonder...," Gabrielle added enthusiastically.

"We can't skip the beads! You girls know the beading is Traditional...stand straight dear," her mother casually instructed Sarah, who sighed heavily with her sisters.

"Almost done with the pinning," their mother mentioned, sensing the frustration level in the room rather high. She looked up at her eldest daughter with a warm smile, amazed how much work they had already accomplished on the dress.

"Ow...," Gabrielle blurted, recoiling after she poked herself with a pin.

"Gabrielle, don't you DARE bleed on my dress again!!" Sarah warned.

"I'll try to control my bleeding better this time," Gabrielle snapped back, sucking her bleeding finger.

"Lila dear, please get me more pins," her mother asked.

"Do you know how hard it was to get that last blood stain out?" Sarah blurted.

"I KNOW...I cleaned the sleeve!" Gabrielle snapped. "How people can do this for a living and survive the blood loss is beyond me," Gabrielle muttered, inspecting her finger.

"Trust me Gabrielle, the way you've been poking me, you wouldn't have to worry about your blood loss because you wouldn't have any customers," Sarah retorted, drawing an annoyed look from Gabrielle.

"Perhaps now you girls will better appreciate sewing and THOSE who can sew WELL...I TRIED to teach you girls," their mother relayed with a sigh, then continued to deftly pin the hem.

Xena stood at the door, still debating whether to enter or not.

"XENA!" Gabrielle blurted when she glanced up at the door. Jumping up and almost knocking Sarah over, Gabrielle rushed to embrace her warrior. Surprising her mother and disappointing the warrior, Gabrielle stopped herself. Sarah rolled her eyes with amazement.

"Uh...Did Meleager get everything?" The bard asked awkwardly.

"We wouldn't have come back if he didn't," Xena relayed flatly. Seeing the bard's mouth open to ask her the obvious question of how, Xena continued. "What's going on? I past Sustra and Solari on the way here..."

"Just some last minute wedding problems they are helping with ...we've got everything under control now," Gabrielle spoke confidently.

Finishing up pinning the hem, her mother looked up at the bride-to-be. "Alright dear, we can sew the hem now, then apply the beading...the sooner we start...," the older woman relayed as she looked at the huge train and sighed at the daunting task ahead.

"Stand up straight dear..."

"Queen Sarah, more guests have started to arrive...what do we do with them?" Sustra popped her head in the room and asked.

"Uh...Lila could you greet them and show them to their rooms?" Sarah asked, slipping out of her not yet finished gown. Lila nodded and started to leave.

"And oh,'s not that big a deal but...Eponin said we are out of nuts for the nutbread," Sustra relayed, causing the Poteidaians to glare at her. "We were going to just make the bread without them..."

"NO!" The four Poteidaians blurted in an annoyed unison, startling Amazon by the intensity of their glares.

Sustra looked over to the Warrior Princess.

"You need the nuts," Xena explained helpfully, making the Amazon roll her eyes.

Sarah threw on her robe. "There are PLENTY of nuts in the store room," Sarah blurted, tying her sash. Sustra shook head and shrugged. " will be easier if I just show you," Sarah relayed with an irritated sigh.

"Wait a minute!" The eldest Poteidaian protested. "How am I supposed to finish the hemming AND all this beading if you girls keep running off on me? With only two of us," she eyed Gabrielle and sighed heavily. "We might not finish it in time..."

"Grab a needle," Gabrielle blurted as she grabbed the warrior's hand and pulled her towards the dress.

"Don't tell me SHE can sew," Gabrielle's mother snorted skeptically.

"She's better than I am," Gabrielle snapped.

"I'M better than you are," Lila relayed. "And I stink," she added.

"Just a few little blood stains...and there GOES my reputation," Gabrielle responded with feigned annoyance, amusing her sister and mother.

"I'm going to see to the guests," Lila announced and left with Sustra.

"I'm going to get the damn nuts," Sarah muttered and left in her robe.

Gabrielle's mother eyed the Warrior Princess, who selected a needle from the sewing box. "I didn't realize a warlord would had time to sew," she relayed coldly as she took the dress to the table.

Gabrielle's angry eyes narrowed. Before she could respond, the warrior spoke.

"It came in handy," Xena relayed nonchalantly. "Still does," the warrior added, quickly glancing at the bard's back. She returned her gaze to the older woman, who nodded uneasily as she sat down at the table.

"If you and Gabrielle would start on the beading on the train, I'll finish up the hem and start on the beading on the sleeves," she suggested, surprised to find the warrior nod and sit down, diligently beginning the task.

Gabrielle smiled broadly as she sat down between her warrior and mother and picked up a needle. "Ow!" Gabrielle blurted, managing to stab herself again. "Are you SURE beading is really necessary?" Gabrielle asked, once again sucking on her bloody finger.

After a few hours of sewing, the bard finally stopped stabbing herself. Xena grinned as she eyed her bard, who had fallen asleep. However, as much as Xena enjoyed the slumbering bard being nearby, Gabrielle's head was resting on part of the train that still needed beading.

"I'll be right back," Xena spoke softly as she got up. Effortlessly, Xena picked the bard up in her arms and took her to her bedroom. Though the older Poteidaian knew of Xena's strength, the gentleness with which the Warrior Princess accomplished her task was surprising.

Having tucked her bard in bed, Xena returned and quietly resumed her task with efficient skill. As Xena attached bead after bead on the train, the older woman gazed with appreciation at the warrior's nimble fingers. When she looked up, she found an intense look concentration on Xena's face.

Feeling the stare, the warrior looked up from her work to meet the woman's gaze. They looked at each other a moment before the older woman silently lowered her eyes down to her own work and attached more beads.

Xena sighed and silently continued her task.

"Who taught you?" Gabrielle's mother finally asked, motioning to the sewing.

It wasn't exactly the question the warrior was expecting from the bard's mother.

"My mother," Xena relayed softly. "She always told me a woman needed to have many skills."

"She must be proud," the bard's mother relayed, considering all the skills this Warrior Princess was said to possess.

"I wouldn't say that," Xena said flatly, her eyes on the work at hand as she attached another bead.

A long moment passed before the older woman spoke again.

"Do you want her to be?" The older woman asked another question that surprised the warrior.

Xena paused a moment, still looking at the material in her hands. "A few years ago, I didn't want to hope for something I thought was impossible. Now...," Xena relayed, looking up at the attentive woman. "I want that very much," Xena admitted. Feeling very uncomfortable under the woman's gaze, she looked back down to her work and added another bead to the train.

"What made you change your mind?" The older woman asked, sewing on another bead.

"An extremely stubborn bard who believes in the impossible," Xena answered with a small smile as she threaded her needle.

After silently attaching a few more beads to the dress, the older woman looked up at the warrior.

"Do you know how much she loves you?" The older woman challenged the warrior, who finally received a question she was expecting.

Xena looked into the woman's eyes and silently nodded.

"Good," she blurted firmly and continued her sewing.

"Do you know how much I love HER?" Xena countered, surprising the older woman, who eyed her a long, silent moment.

"Well, there IS one way I would know for sure," the older woman offered cooly, saying no more.

Surprising both the warrior and the bard's mother, the warrior's needle slipped. As the warrior grimaced and sucked on her bleeding finger, a small grin formed on the Poteidaian's face.

Chapter 22 - The Rehearsal

"Finally got one to agree to have a Traditional Wedding, aye?" The priest smiled to Sarah's father, who nodded as he escorted him and Meleager's father and brother to the Grand Hall for the rehearsal.

"Good for you...too many young people are ignoring the traditions," Meleager's father relayed with appreciation.

"Sarah has done well for herself," Meleager's brother, Willis, noted to Sarah's father, appreciating the castle's rich interior. Sarah's father nodded and escorted Meleager's family to the side to watch.

"Guess you are pretty proud to have a daughter of your's become a Queen," Willis added with a smile, noting the fine Athenian marble of the altar.

"I'm proud of all my children," Sarah's father stated simply, making the Priest nod and smile.

Meleager and Xena came in and stood on the side of the altar. As Meleager smiled at his father and brother, Xena looked around the large room and yawned. The work on the wedding dress with Gabrielle's mother was catching up to her. They had worked on the dress through most of the night and just finished up before the rehearsal. If she never saw another bead, it would be too soon.

"What do we do?" Xena asked through another yawn, watching the musicians set up.

"I don't KNOW. I've never BEEN through one of these before," he snapped, then felt a cold gaze burrowing through him.

"Sorry...I'm just nervous," he blurted awkwardly.

"Meleager, this is only a rehearsal...this is a GOOD thing," Xena informed him.

When the musicians were finally set up, Meleager noticed Sarah's mother go over to discuss something with them. Meleager found Sarah's mother a natural when it came to bossing others...which worried him more and more as he found more and more similarities between Sarah and her mother.

Xena watched the woman, impressed she showed no signs of fatigue considering the incredible amount of work she had done to get this wedding back on track.

When the music started to play, Lila came down the center of the aisle with a basket on her arms, looking annoyed as she pretended to spread petals on the path to the altar.

"Lila dear, you're supposed to step WITH the music...step and step and step," her mother blurted out, embarrassing the young woman, who finally got back in step. "Very GOOD dear," her mother encouraged her.

Meleager and Xena grinned with amusement. Lila stopped in front of the warriors, gave them a cold warning glare and moved to other the side of the altar to await her sisters.

Gabrielle came down the aisle with a pitcher in her hands.

"Gabrielle dear, WHY do you have a pitcher in your hands?" Her mother called out to her.

"It's my bouquet," Gabrielle responded with a shrug.

"Just don't throw it..." Lila relayed with feigned concern.

"Lila, the BRIDE throws things not the Matron of Honor," Gabrielle corrected her sister. "However, in your case I could make an exception." Gabrielle called to her sister with a thin smile.

"You can TRY Gabrielle, but I know you throw even worse than you sew," Lila countered with a satisfied grin.

Meleager and Xena looked at each other and returned their patient gazes to the young women.

"That's probably a good thing, FLOWER GIRL, or I'D be tossing those stupid petals," Gabrielle relayed, annoying her sister.

"Girls, Girls! Settle down!" their mother responded, clapping her hands impatiently. "Lets get back to the business at hand...shall we?" Their mother relayed with a glare, and motioned to the musicians to start again.

As the bard passed the warriors, Xena yawned again. Gabrielle stopped and frowned. "Bored already? I hate to tell you...this is the best part," she whispered loudly.

"I'm just tired," Xena admitted through another yawn.

"Too bad. Did I mention I'm feeling much MUCH better?" Gabrielle relayed nonchalantly. Suddenly the Warrior Princess felt more alert for some reason.

Meleager stared at his feet and tried to ignore the two.

"Gabrielle, keep it moving dear," her mother called out, motioning to the musicians to continue playing.

"You know, I'm not sure what to do tonight now that the dress is done," Xena complained. "And you know how easily I get bored," she added with a shrug and sigh as the sympathetic bard nodded thoughtfully.

Meleager rolled his eyes and sighed.

"Well, I'm pretty sure we could probably find something to do...together," a helpful Gabrielle relayed confidently.

"GABRIELLE!!" Her mother barked, making the bard grimace and reluctantly leave her grinning warrior to continue to join her sister on the other side of the altar.

Finally, Sarah appeared at the end of the aisle and was ready for her big entrance. The musicians started to play and Sarah began her march down the aisle, in step with the music...the WRONG music.

"WAIT!" Her mother blurted and rushed over to the musicians to discuss their mistake. Gabrielle handed her pitcher to Lila and joined her mother when she seemed to be taking a long time.

" are supposed to play the Poteidaian Entrance Hymn...the Traditional hymn when the bride comes down the aisle," the woman once again informed the musicians, her polite smile fading quickly.

"Ma'am that is not what we were contracted for...but if you want the Poteidaian Entrance Hymn, we can play the Poteidaian Entrance Hymn," he relayed, making the woman smile broadly. "...but it will cost you 300 more dinars," He added bluntly.

"WHAT!" The woman snapped. Meleager and Xena looked at each other then back at the bard's mother.

"Look Lady, as I see it you're damn LUCKY you got a Poteidaian group on such short notice. Now, if you now want that Entrance Hymn, it will cost you 300 dinars...."

"You are not a musician...You're a THIEF!!!"

"Fine Lady," he blurted as he started to pack up his sheet music with the other musicians. "You can take your Traditional Wedding and sh...."

"Please...Wait a minute...please..." Gabrielle interjected with a friendly smile. "We are all under a lot of pressure here," Gabrielle admitted to the lead musician. "Are you married?" The bard asked, surprising her mother and the musician.

The musician nodded suspiciously. "Well then, you really DO know what kind of pressure a wedding is," Gabrielle relayed wearily. The musician shrugged with a knowing nod. Gabrielle's mother quietly watched her daughter, who sighed dramatically.

"Nothing has gone right. First...the dress maker died..." Gabrielle spoke gravely, shaking her head sadly.

"Oh gods....really?" The lead musician blurted in shock.

Gabrielle's mother was also in shock at this amazing tale of woe her daughter was telling. When the musician looked at her, she just nodded, considering, after all, the dress maker DID die.

"And then, the kitchen staff just upped and QUIT!" Gabrielle blurted with an innocent shrug.

"No food?" He asked, looking at his concerned fellow musicians.

"Oh we have food, but we had to find last minute help...and they didn't even know you needed NUTS in nutbread!" Gabrielle relayed to the amazed musician.

"But you've GOT to have nuts," he repeated incredulously. Gabrielle nodded knowingly.

Watching how her daughter so blatantly manipulated the truth amazed the older woman. She was so proud.

Meleager and Xena eyed each other then back at the musicians considering they were woefully out matched in this encounter.

"Now," Gabrielle sighed wearily. "No Poteidaian Entrance Hymn..." Gabrielle whimpered. "Sarah will be crushed," Gabrielle relayed to her mother who, inspired by her daughter, put her protective arm around Gabrielle.

"I know dear...It's just too bad," the older woman sighed patting her daughter on the shoulder. "But Sarah is strong...She survived the loss of her first husband and only child, and an attempted takeover of her kingdom...she'll survive this," the woman and her daughter took deep breaths.

"It will be easier if we both tell her there will be NO music," Gabrielle's mother relayed, surprising her daughter with that risky position. As they turned to walk towards the impatient and curious bride-to-be, the musicians nervously looked at each other.

"Wait a minute," the lead musician blurted uneasily. "Uh...there's always room to negotiate," he offered. Gabrielle and her mother stopped and looked at each other with satisfied grins.

Finally, hearing music again...the correct music, Sarah started down the aisle. All eyes were on Sarah, except for Xena's. She was busy enjoying Gabrielle's smile.

With then entrances finished, the priest looked down on the small group. "First, I must say I am very pleased you decided to carry on the Tradition," he smiled warmly at the couple. "...and it is not often I get a chance to have a Traditional Wedding outside of Poteidaia," he added. "In fact, I've never...."

"Father...please?" Sarah blurted impatiently.

"Oh yes...sorry," the priest relayed with a cough, then proceeded to run through the steps.

"After the bride arrives, I will lead the welcome prayer. Once the prayer is over the guests will be seated. Then I'll ask for the Traditional items. Who is standing with Meleager?" the priest asked, looking at Meleager and his family curiously.

"Xena," Meleager blurted to the yawning Warrior Princess.


"He asked who was standing with me," Meleager informed her.

"Oh," Xena relayed, looking around at all the eyes uncomfortably on her. "Guess that's me," she looked up at the priest with a polite smile.

"Well...uh...Xena...I will discuss the meaning of each of the Traditional items and then ask that you retrieve each out after I discuss it...the Furry Wegget egg will be first," he relayed as the Warrior Princess' eyes rolled.

"After retrieving the egg from Meleager's father, you'll hand it to me and I'll place it right here," he added, pointing to a spot on the table.

"Then I will discuss the Red Orchid of love...You'll go retrieve the Orchid from Willis," he looked at Xena, who nodded with a sigh. "...give it to me and I'll place next to the egg."

"Then I will ask Meleager to recite his wedding poem to Sarah...then I'll pronounce them man and wife..." The priest smiled at the couple who looked at each other with happy smiles.

A smiling Warrior Princess looked over to her bard. Xena's smile faded when she noticed the sadness in Gabrielle's eyes as the bard watched her sister and Meleager. Witnessing the evaporation of the warrior's smile, the bard's parents looked at each other.

"Now...doesn't that sound easy?" The priest announced happily.

Chapter 23 - The Last Supper

At the dinner table, the diners happily chatted as the food was being served. Xena was content to just quietly watch. On her immediate right, at the end of the table as dictated by Tradition, sat the Poteidaian Matriarch. She was engaged in an animated discussion with her husband and Meleager's father, which Xena found eerily similar to the animated discussion on her left lead by Gabrielle.

Willis and Meleager struggled unsuccessfully to keep up with the sisters in their conversation, the Warrior Princess noted with a grin. As she watched Gabrielle enjoying talking with her sisters, Gabrielle quickly looked at her with a happy smile without missing a beat in the conversation. It was amazing how that smile made her heart beat faster, the warrior mused as she gazed at her bard's profile with great appreciation.

"You were a big help with the dress Xena, thank you," Gabrielle's mother quietly spoke, interrupting Xena's bard gazing. Xena nodded, feeling oddly self-conscious. The woman smiled warmly and returned to chatting with her husband and Meleager's father.

As the women served Meleager and his brother, Gabrielle looked across the table to Sustra and Solari with a grateful smile.

Solari sighed heavily. Sustra winked and smiled happily at Gabrielle, while pouring a curious Willis some wine. As Sustra continued to serve Meleager's family, Gabrielle's mother noticed with amusement how intently Xena was eyeing that winking Amazon.

Leaning across the table towards Sarah, Willis whispered to his future sister-in-law. "Sarah, did you realize your servants look like Amazons?"

"Really?" Sarah relayed innocently, attempting a discrete yet closer look at the help. Gabrielle smiled and sipped her water.

"They ARE Amazons," Xena flatly relayed to Willis, who's mouth dropped.

"Really?" He asked, taking another look. "How on Earth did you get Amazons servants?"

"Their Queen was nice enough to persuade them to fill in for my normal staff," Sarah relayed and looked to Gabrielle, who's eyes rolled as she ate a piece of nutbread. "Rather fortunate for me that Gabrielle is their Queen, wouldn't you say?" Sarah added with an amused grin.

"You're an Amazon Queen??" Willis looked at Gabrielle with amazement and new, appreciative eyes. Gabrielle raised her eyebrow at the comment. "I didn't mean...I is hard to envision one so beautiful...uh...not that Amazons aren't...," Willis blurted out awkwardly.

"Thank you...I think," Gabrielle smiled warmly. Gabrielle's mother sipped her wine, watching with amusement how Xena's eyebrows furrowed.

When the Amazons came back to serve the main course, Sustra came around and served Gabrielle. She placed another large basket of nutbread on the table for her appreciative Queen, who smiled up to her. Sustra leaned in and whispered something in Gabrielle's ear, making the bard laugh heartily.

Apparently something extremely humourous, the Warrior Princess noted with a scowl.

When Sarah and Lila looked to Gabrielle for an explanation, Gabrielle shrugged and chuckled. "I've been reminded of a promise I've made. So tell me attached are you to the name of that road going through the middle of town? What's its name?" Gabrielle asked innocently. Sarah's eyes narrowed.

"Main Street?" Sarah relayed bluntly. "Why? What do you want to name it?" Sarah asked cautiously.

"How about 'Sustra's Way," Gabrielle informed her. "Kinda catchy don't you think?" Gabrielle added with a grin, looking over to the interested Amazon now serving Meleager's father.

Gabrielle's mother refrained from chuckling when she watched the Warrior Princess attack the helpless meat on her plate with her sharp knife.

"That's a great name!" Lila blurted enthusiastically, making Sustra smile.

"If I agree, will you STOP renaming things on me?" Sarah blurted in exasperation. "I don't even know where I live anymore," Sarah muttered, still not ready to admit she liked Galisar better than Walsas.

"Why are you renaming things?" Willis asked, intrigued by this Amazon Queen.

"Don't you like Sustra's Way?" Gabrielle responded.

"Oh, no...I mean...yes, I like it very much. I'm sure any other names YOU come up with will be just as interesting," Willis added with enthusiasm, making Meleager's eyes roll and Gabrielle's sisters grin and shake their heads. "I'm just curious...why," Willis added and gazed upon the bard with a smile.

"It's a long story," Gabrielle answered politely with a wave of her hand to dissuade further interest. Sipping her water, she nonchalantly looked over to Xena, who was boring holes into the table with her intense gaze.

"But I thought bards like to tell long stories...I'd love to hear you tell me one, or two, or..." Willis suggested playfully with a grin which faded when the Warrior Princess' unamused gaze now focused on him. "Or not..." Willis wisely added, nervously clearing his throat.

Sarah and Lila looked upon Willis sadly, having found him a rather pleasant fellow. Meleager sighed, considering he probably should have warned his brother, then grinned.

The Poteidaian Matriarch looked to her husband, who smiled warmly and nodded.

"Well now, now that we are finishing up dinner," the matriarch stood at her table to the relief of the diners, especially Willis.

"I would like to take this time to express my personal thanks to the Amazons for helping us out at the LAST moment," she relayed, eyeing Sarah, who rolled her eyes, expecting her mother to get around to saying 'I told you so.'

Solari nodded and sighed heavily, retreating back into the kitchen to join the other Amazons. Sustra smiled and stayed put, enjoying herself too much to miss anything.

"It was wonderful that Meleager's father and brother were able to join us for the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner," she smiled to Meleager's family. Willis smiled weakly as he wiped the sweat from his brow, trying to ignore the continued stare of the Warrior Princess.

"And thank you Father Tehrus for also coming in on such SHORT notice," she relayed, eyeing Sarah again, who sighed. Lila and Gabrielle giggled.

"I am especially pleased tonight that I am able to make another announcement," she smiled warmly down at her daughters, who looked apprehensively at each other. Gabrielle hoped to find a reassuring smile from her sisters but instead found wide eyes and ignorant shrugs.

"As I had done with great pleasure so many years ago for my middle daughter Gabrielle," the Matriarch paused as Lila and Gabrielle turned towards their mother with an queasy feeling in their stomachs.

"I am pleased to once again announce Gabrielle's Xena of Amphipolis," the Matriarch declared happily.

Gabrielle blinked slowly, not sure she heard correctly.

Xena's cold glaring of Willis was interrupted as her gaze shifted to the grinning Poteidaian Matriarch. The diners maintained a nervous silence, except for the sound of silverware dropping on the dinner plates.

Sustra grinned, considering this well worth the trouble of being kitchen help.

"MOTHER!" Gabrielle cried in disbelief as she angrily bolted up from her chair. "You had NO right THEN and you have NO RIGHT NOW! I can't BELIEVE you!!" Gabrielle looked at the still shocked Warrior Princess. Feeling embarrassed, horrified and really really angry, the bard quickly stormed off.

As the initial shock wore off, Xena looked at the woman with narrowing eyes. It was quiet clear to the Warrior Princess where the bard got her devious trait from.

"You'd better go after her Xena, or she might get the idea you don't want to marry her," the bard's mother relayed innocently.

Slowly standing up, she gazed over the stunned group.

"Gods Xena, she's probably made it to AMAZONIA by now!" Lila finally blurted, rolling her eyes.

"What ARE you waiting for?" Sarah questioned indignantly.

"GO for Artemis' sake!!" Sustra yelled at her.

Xena looked at Gabrielle's father. He smiled and nodded.

She returned her gaze to the older woman. "You are a formidable woman Hecuba," Xena admitted cooly to the satisfied Poteidaian Matriarch.

Sarah, Lila and Meleager nodded knowingly.

A slight grin emerged on the warrior's face before leaving to find her bard.

Chapter 24 - Why?

Staring out over her balcony at the garden below, Gabrielle's emotions were in turmoil. How could her mother DO such a thing, she asked herself angrily. She felt like crying but she was just too angry.

"Why do I want to cry?" She silently asked herself, though she knew the answer. It was because her mother knew. She knew how much Gabrielle loved Xena and how much she wanted.... "No!" Gabrielle blurted.

Gabrielle sighed again. She had no RIGHT to want so much. Just like her mother had no right to make that embarrassing announcement, she thought angrily. "GODS", Gabrielle blurted angrily. What WAS her mother trying to prove? She wondered.

Xena loved her and she didn't need a ceremony to prove that to her. Life with Xena was WONDERFUL! Gabrielle considered, then sighed. Wonderful, except in public, when the bard had to restrain herself from those things that came so naturally to her...a casual touch...holding hands...hugging. That was so very hard, she considered as her eyes moistened. But that was the way things were. The bard would have to accept that, and she would, for her warrior.

Her warrior, who she now felt standing near.

"Tell me Xena, will you think any less of me if I kill her?" Gabrielle asked nonchalantly as she stopped her pacing and wiped the tears from her eyes. She still stared out at the garden below, not ready to face her warrior yet.

Xena quietly stepped behind her and slid her arm around the bard's waist, pulling her close. Gabrielle struggled to contain her tears but failed miserably and started to sob, startling the Warrior Princess.

"Gabrielle?" Xena asked with concern.

"I'" Gabrielle blurted between sobs as she turned and buried her face in the Warrior Princess' chest and continued to cry.

"For what?" Xena asked.

"Every...thing!!" Gabrielle cried, her answer muffled by her sobs into warrior's chest.

"You know," Xena uttered softly as she gently stroked the bard's head, which seemed to calm the bard. "I kind of hoped you would be HAPPY to marry me," Xena relayed with a grin.

"That's not funny!" Gabrielle snapped angrily, pulling back.

"I'm not laughing," Xena responded.

"Xena, she is NOT going to force or guilt us into marriage," Gabrielle started to pace again as the Warrior watched. "You shouldn't do something you don't want to do just because you think it will make MY parents happy."

"Will it make you happy?" Xena asked softly.

"Huh?" The bard stopped her pacing. "Xena, I'm not ABOUT to make you do something you don't want to you just to please someone else..."

"Gabrielle, where do you keep getting the idea that I don't want to marry you?" Xena countered with a little frustration.

"Huh??...Xena, you don't want public displays of ..." Gabrielle blurted with annoyance.

"I was wrong about that. I was trying to protect you," Xena admitted. "Now I realize, you're going to get into trouble no matter what I do," Xena responded dryly. Gabrielle stared blankly at her.

"I wasn't being fair to you...or us," Xena offered.

Gabrielle looked up at the starry sky and let out an angry groan.

"Oh I get it...this is just a dream...well, nightmare. Yeah...that WOULD explain a lot," Gabrielle blurted, lifting her hands to cover her tear stained face. "Challenges, dead dress makers, you admitting you're wrong...," she muttered into her hands.

Gabrielle dropped her hands from her face and looked back to the Warrior Princess, who now held out a single red orchid with satisfied grin, which faded when the bard started to chuckle.

"And, OF COURSE! The Red Orchid of Love, yep...definitely a dream," Gabrielle sighed in defeat, rubbing her temples as she left the balcony.

"Gabrielle??" Xena called out in confusion, finding herself alone on the balcony. She looked down at the orchid in her hand then back towards the room with a furrowed brow.

"Gabrielle!" Xena blurted with annoyance as she entered the bedroom.

The bard sat on the end of the bed and started to take her boots off with a sigh.

"Yes Xena," Gabrielle exhaled wearily as she took her second boot off. Xena rolled her eyes, amazed at how bad this was going. She knelt down to face the bard, determined to have her undivided attention.

"Gabrielle, this is NOT a dream, or a nightmare," Xena blurted with exasperation.

"Here," Xena held out the flower forcefully. "Would you take the damn flower?"

A surprised Gabrielle looked down at the flower then into her warrior's intense blue eyes for a long moment. When she finally took the flower from her warrior, a shy smile emerged on the bard's embarrassed face. A relieved smile emerged on Xena's face and they chuckled. After the chuckles subsided, Xena's face grew serious.

"Would you marry me Gabrielle?" Xena asked softly.

"I don't understand," the flustered bard responded.

"It was a 'yes' or 'yes' question Gabrielle," Xena answered with a grin, which disappeared. She realized Gabrielle was going to wait patiently for an answer.

Xena sighed and thought a moment before responding. "We belong together," Xena answered confidently.

"We ARE together," Gabrielle countered softly. Xena's eyebrow raised as she realized with a sigh that, as with everything else, Gabrielle was going to make this difficult.

"Well dear, our eldest is going to be married tomorrow," Sarah's mother relayed, patted her husband's arm as they strolled arm in arm through the garden. She looked up at the stars and smiled.

"Yes dear," her husband relayed with a nod.

"And Gabrielle will be next," she grinned. He looked at his wife.

"Seems so," he smiled.

"You're idea was...inspired dear," she squeezed his arm affectionately.

"It was in the execution dear, masterfully done," he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it gently. She was amazed how, after all these years, his touch could affect her so deeply.

"Now all we have left is Lila," she sighed. "You know, Willis isn't a bad looking fellow,"

He looked at his wife and sighed. "If you say so dear."

"Oh, well, I'm sure there is someone out there for her," she relayed optimistically, smiling.

"Yes dear," he grinned.

Xena broke her kiss from the bard to catch her breath before engaging more discussion, on the bed.

"You know, you promised you weren't going to do this again," Gabrielle relayed as a matter of record as Xena swept her up in her arms.

"I never promised," Xena reminded her of that technicality and laid her bard on the bed. She proceeded to silence her mildly protesting bard with a kiss as she deftly removed her bracers.

"You agreed," the bard relayed, helping the Warrior Princess remove her armor between kisses. "Not to try..." Gabrielle continued as Xena started to crawl into bed.

"...would you PLEASE remove your boots?" Gabrielle blurted with annoyance. Xena sighed with exasperation, quickly took her boots off and rejoined the bard on the bed.

"Where were we?" Xena relayed mischievously, lifting the bard's tunic over her head, flinging it to the floor and recapturing her mouth in one swift motion. Breaking the kiss to take her leathers off, she grinned as Gabrielle dutifully helped.

"You SAID you wouldn't try to manipulate me this way again," Gabrielle reminded her, then smiled when the Warrior Princess tossed her leathers to the floor next to the bard's tunic.

"You think I'm trying to use this..." Xena questioned her bard innocently as she gently traced her fingers over the bard's neck down to her firm breasts. "Or this..." Xena replaced her fingers with a trail of gentle kisses. "To get you to marry me?" She asked, looking up from the inviting flesh.

Gabrielle gasped when Xena began to tease her responsive skin with her warm tongue. "YeEEEsss..."

"You mean 'yes' you think I'm trying to manipulate you or 'yes' you will marry me?" Xena asked innocently as she continued her attention to the erect flesh.

"The maNIPulate part!" Gabrielle blurted stubbornly, as the teasing turned into gentle biting.

"Gabrielle, this is entirely different," Xena spoke in a silky voice as she slowly slid up Gabrielle's body, stopping when she came face to face with her love. Gabrielle shivered from the contact of her warrior's body pressed to her's.

"How??" She quickly challenged before Xena kissed her hungrily. As quickly as her mouth was captured, it was released. The bard ached for much more.

"Before, I tried to manipulate without you knowing," Xena whispered in her ear.

"Say yes," Xena added, looking sincerely in the bard's eyes.

Gabrielle slid her hand behind the warrior's head and tried to pull her warrior back, not quiet done with the last kiss. Xena resisted.

"Say yes," Xena added, quickly brushing her lips against the bard's eager lips.

Gabrielle moaned in frustration. "And it's OK now because I KNOW you're trying to manipulate me???" She questioned.

"Exactly! Completely different," Xena grinned as she traced her fingers over the side of her bard's face.

"Say yes," Xena added, kissing the bard's cheek.

Gabrielle giggled. "That is the most ridiculous argument I have ever heard."

Xena sighed heavily, rolling off her bard and stared at the ceiling.

"You really don't want to get married, do you?" She uttered with irritation.

"Xena, I DON'T want to get married..." Gabrielle spoke as she turned to the warrior and propped herself on her arm. Seeing the hurt on Xena's face at the apparent admission, Gabrielle quickly continued. "...unless I know you really want it too."

"Gabrielle, I do," Xena looked at her with unquestionable conviction which melted the bard's heart. The bard smiled as she traced her fingers over the Warrior's face. Xena smiled and closed her eyes, enjoying the sensation. Gabrielle grinned.

"You sure?" Gabrielle asked, making the warrior open her eyes again. "You're not just doing this for me?"

Xena eyes narrowed, hating compound questions. "Yes, I'm sure and NO, I'm not just doing this for you," Xena spoke firmly. Gabrielle grinned at the warrior's careful response.

"Really?" The bard asked, just to be sure.


"You're really sure?"


"Xena, you know...I REALLY think we need to discuss this further..."

Chapter 25 - The Big Day

Arriving at the altar with Meleager, Xena yawned, exhausted from the extensive and multiple discussions she had with her bard the last evening.

The guests arrived in waves, in numbers that startled both Meleager and Xena. "Do you know who any of these people are?" Xena asked, only remembering a few.

"Most, uh...some, uh...oh...there's my Dad and Willis," Meleager blurted happily and waved at them. Xena sighed and kept her eyes out for Lila at the end of the aisle. "Oh, and there's Cumae," he proudly identified the old woman as he nudged Xena as she yawned.

"She said yes?" He whispered as he looked out over the growing crowd.

"Not exactly," Xena relayed honestly, making Meleager concerned, but not as concerned as he became when the musicians started playing the incidental music.

"Oh Gods," he blurted.

"You're not going to get sick are you?" Xena asked.

He looked at her and quickly and unconvincingly shook his head no.

"You know Gabrielle, you're going to have to talk to me someday," her mother patiently informed a stubbornly quiet Gabrielle as she finished mending the seam of her yellow bridesmaid dress.

"The music has started," Lila announced to Gabrielle and her mother as she rushed in Sarah's room. "Where IS she!?!" Lila blurted anxiously, looking around the room.

"What do you MEAN where IS she?" Her mother snapped indignantly. "She should be with you!"

"Well she's NOT!" Lila snapped back. The three women looked at each other a moment when the realization of what happened set in.

"Oh Gods, she has cold feet," Gabrielle blurted for all of them.

"Spread out, she couldn't have gotten far in that dress," their mother added.

"Nice tune," Meleager he mentioned as he started breathing again, feeling more comfortable with the incidental music that was being repeated.

Xena looked up at the priest who started to look around anxiously and concluded something was definitely wrong. Her eyes drifted back to the end of the aisle, which was not supposed to be empty.

"So, what do you mean by 'not exactly?" Meleager asked the Warrior Princess, who sighed heavily.

They found Sarah.

"Gabrielle, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have left her in there alone," Sustra relayed guiltily.

"Sustra, this isn't anyone's fault except Sarah's," Gabrielle blurted with annoyance.

"Sarah, the music has started! Come out of the kitchen," Lila pleaded through the door, glancing at her sister, mother and Sustra.

"No! I'm not coming out! It's all a HUGE mistake," she sobbed into a plate of nutbread. The women on the other side of the door rolled their eyes.

"Sarah, it's not a mistake. Now come out of the kitchen!" Gabrielle blurted impatiently to her sister.

"NO!" Sarah countered.

"Young lady, you take down those barricades from these doors right this minute!" Her mother ordered her.

"NO!" Sarah countered.

Gabrielle pulled everyone away from the door. "I've got an idea..."

"Fire?" Lila guessed eagerly. "We could SMOKE her out!"

"LILA!" Gabrielle and her mother blurted with annoyance.

Sustra grinned.

" ..Hmm," Meleager happily hummed the incidental tune, drawing an amazed gaze from the Warrior Princess.

"Really catchy...isn't it?" He smiled.

"Sarah dear, least tell me why you don't want to get married...Meleager has a right to know," her mother pleaded through the door.

"How do I know its ME he really loves and not my KINGDOM!!" Sarah sobbed.

"What was that dear? I can't hear you very well through this door," her mother relayed.

"So, did you try, 'we BELONG together,' that's always good one," Meleager added helpfully, then started to hum again.

Xena looked at him blankly.

As Sustra quickly checked the other entrances, the matron of honor stood on the flower girl's shoulders outside the highest kitchen window. Gabrielle quickly peaked in and saw Sustra unsuccessfully try to open a ground level window on the other side of the kitchen. Sustra shrugged.

"This is the only entrance that isn't locked," Gabrielle whispered her report to her sister below.

"Gabrielle, I can't keep you up like this! Climb IN or DOWN!!" Lila snapped, feeling her legs wobble under the weight of her sister.

"Just a moment more...when she moves to the door," Gabrielle relayed.

"What about 'you love her and you want to marry her?' Simple yet to the point," Meleager the Helpful offered, making Xena cringe.

"Meleager...don't you think they are taking a long time?" Xena asked, ignoring his advise. "I should check on...." Xena started to leave.

"Don't leave me!" Meleager blurted fearfully, grabbing her arm.

"Meleager!" Xena snapped through clenched teeth as she yanked her arm free.

The commotion between the two drew a concerned look from the priest. Meleager and Xena looked up at the priest with plastered-on smiles.

"Please...don't leave me," he blurted through his smile, making the Warrior Princess groan.

Hecuba sighed, rubbing her temples. No matter what she said, she was unable to convince her daughter to be rational. She prayed Gabrielle would be more successful with her bardly skills. Hearing a loud crash of pots, a very concerned mother pounded on the door.

"Girls! Girls! What's going on in there? Gabrielle! Sarah! Your DRESSES!!" She blurted through the still barricaded door.

"Gabrielle?!?...My Gods, are you ok??"


Hecuba heard more pots drop.

"Sarah, you are GOING to MARRY him!"

"NO! You can't make me!!"

Hecuba rubbed her temples again. So much for Gabrielle's bardly skills she was counting on.

"Look, he's waiting at the ALTAR! He loves YOU and he's willing to marry YOU...Gods only know WHY."

"That's the PROBLEM!"

"Stop acting like an idiot...marry the guy!!"


>From the metallic clinks, clangs, and clatter mixed in with the sounds of various clay objects shattering from behind the barricaded door, Hecuba hoped the wedding presents would include a lot of kitchenware.

Lila and Sustra rushed to Hecuba's side. "What's going on in there??" Lila asked, hearing the commotion. She looked to her mother who just kept shaking her head.

"Gods, what did I do to deserve this?" Hecuba sighed. "They will probably kill each other. Well, at least we don't have to plan the funeral...everyone's here already."

"There's always smoke," Sustra suggested with a grin, eyeing Lila, who smiled shyly, suddenly feeling flush.

Hecuba looked at the two and rolled her eyes.

When the commotion in the kitchen stopped, the three women looked at each other. Hearing the wooden barricades being removed and dropped to the floor with thunks, they anxiously eyed the door.

"Or you could write her a poem," Meleager happily suggested, continuing to hum with the music.

"That's it!" Xena hissed. "I'm going to see what is taking them...," Xena blurted in frustration.

"Look...There's Lila!" Meleager interrupted with relief, stopping Xena's attempted escape.

"Finally," Xena sighed with relief, hearing the mind-numbing incidental music stop and the Poteidaian march finally start.

The tired guests all turned to watch Lila. Except Xena, who noticed an extremely weary looking Hecuba join her concerned husband in the pews. After whispering something in his ear, she kissed him on the cheek and they turned to watch the aisle.

When Lila began her march down the aisle throwing petals down, Xena noticed something very wrong. The youngest Poteidaian was wearing a pink dress. As she passed Meleager and Xena, Lila stopped for a moment.

"Don't worry, everything's," Lila relayed.

"What HAPPENED?" Xena whispered with irritation, eyeing the pink dress.

Lila looked at Meleager and plastered on a smile. "Everything's fine now...gotta go," she whispered uneasily, and moved to the other side of the altar.

Xena looked down the aisle for her bard, who was next. After a few moments, Gabrielle finally a pink dress. As she marched down the aisle, Xena noticed the bard's forced smile.

"What HAPPENED?" Xena whispered to the bard, eyeing that...dress. She really hoped Gabrielle wouldn't ask her how she looked in it.

Gabrielle looked at Xena, then her dress, and sighed heavily in defeat as she shook her head and proceeded to join her sister at the altar.

The musicians finished the march and looked for a cue from the priest for the Entrance Hymn. When the priest saw Sarah at the end of the aisle, he nodded and the Hymn started.

"Gods," Meleager gasped with awe. "She's so beautiful," he blurted, making Xena grin at her friend.

As Sarah limped by with the long train flowing behind her, Xena noticed that a large number of beads were missing. Hearing an odd sound, plink...plink...plink, plink plink plink...Xena's gaze dropped to the floor to find a trail of beads.

Xena's eyebrow raised as she looked up at the bride, who smiled warmly at Meleager as they clasped hands and stood together at the altar. With a questioning look to Gabrielle, she saw the weary bard mouth "Don't ask."

"Welcome all to a most joyous occasion," the priest began. "The union of two people in the eyes of the Gods, family and friends,"

Looking around the room, Xena wondered if there would be as many happy faces at their wedding. Not surprisingly, her gaze was drawn to her stubborn bard in that disturbingly pink dress. Xena knew Gabrielle was making her work to get her to say yes. But she didn't mind. In fact, she rather enjoyed the challenge.

"Xena," Meleager whispered anxiously.

"Hmmm?" Xena responded, grinning when the bard turned to her. Xena wondered why the bard was motioning with her head towards the altar.

"The EGG!" He blurted, snapping her out of her thoughts.

"Oh yeah...sorry," she blurted with embarrassment.

Xena retrieved the box from Meleager's father and handed it over to the priest, who eyed her with annoyance.

"The second Traditional Item is the Red Orchid of Love," the priest smiled. "A rare flower representing the beauty of love when it blooms. As with a garden of flowers, love between two people must be tended to and cared for, for it to thrive," the priest informed the nodding congregation.

The priest nodded to the Warrior Princess, who turned to a nervous Willis, who held out the flower. Xena surprised him when she simply smiled and took the Orchid from his shaking hand.

After Xena presented the Orchid of Love to the priest, who placed it next to the egg, the priest smiled upon Meleager.

"The third and final Traditional Item is the wedding poem. As a declaration of his love, the groom shall speak the words from his heart," the priest announced then nodded to Meleager who smiled.

Almost done.

Meleager slid his hand under his leather tunic to retrieve a neatly folded piece of parchment. He grinned at Sarah, for in a few moments they would finally be husband and wife.

Looking at Xena, Meleager opened the parchment with a sly grin. A piece of cake.

He cleared his throat as he opened up the poem to read it.

Sarah looked at Gabrielle with an excited smile. The bard was even excited to hear what Meleager finally came up with. Though she felt rather guilty for not helping him, she knew he was better off with his own words. They would be a much better gift for Sarah.

Suddenly, instead of the sweet words of endearment which everyone expected to hear, Meleager moaned and started to gasp for air.

Sarah's mother shook her head with disappointment as she looked at her husband, who felt bad for the poor warrior.

Xena nudged Meleager to get the show on the road. "Just read it," Xena urged him through the clenched teeth of her smile.

Sarah looked at Gabrielle and Lila who shrugged.

Meleager looked back at Xena in horror, then looked at the parchment in his hand and moaned weakly again.

Sure, it was probably bad but this was ridiculous, Xena thought. She snatched the parchment from Meleager's hands before he had time to react. She opened it up and read the words that had paralyzed Meleager the Mighty.

There once was a woman from Amphipolis
Her conditions would prove most ridiculous
she'd practice all day
"Without interruptions" she'd say
Missing the romance of an afternoon tryst
"Wonderful," Xena said flatly.

"Meleager?" Sarah urged with a loud whisper for him to do something.

Gabrielle wondered why she was receiving that unamused look from the Warrior Princess.

Meleager coughed again, still hyperventilating as sweat beaded on his brow. I'm a dead man. Dead. Kaput. No longer living. Not alive. Mortally challenged. Crossing the river Styx. Permanently visiting Hades. Going straight to Tartarus. Hecuba will kill me...that is if Sarah doesn't first. Of course Gabrielle will want a shot, but she'll have to beat Xena to it. Oh Gods.

The priest sighed. "Xena, as you have agreed to stand by can read it for him," the priest offered to move this ceremony along.

Xena's eyes widened in panic. " THIS?" Xena repeated as the priest nodded. She shot an annoyed look to Meleager.

"Please," Sarah begged. Xena eyed the Poteidaian sisters who all had pleading looks on their face.

Xena sighed heavily, took a moment and coughed. Looking over the parchment, Xena nodded weakly. Meleager's head drooped as he moaned and wiping the sweat from his brow.

"When I wake" Xena started in a soft voice, then paused and cleared her throat.

Meleager's head snapped up in surprise.

"I need to see you," Xena added more loudly and glanced down at the parchment.

The sisters smiled with relief.

"When I travel," Xena spoke, looking up at the bard, who was smiling warmly at her radiant sister. "I need you beside me."

Meleager grinned happily for those were the words he wanted to borrow in the first place. Meleager looked at Sarah and nodded convincingly. He hesitantly looked over at the bard, who didn't seem upset at all about using her words. He exhaled with relief and smiled. This was going well, very well.

Hecuba looked at her smiling husband and nodded approvingly.

"When I fight, I need to know you are safe," Xena relayed, staring at the parchment full of words she was not reading.

Suddenly realizing the words spoken were not Meleager's, Gabrielle looked to her warrior. When Xena looked up from the parchment, their eyes locked.

"When I cry, I need you to hold me," Xena spoke softly, unable to take her eyes off Gabrielle, who stood mesmerized by the warrior's heartfelt words.

"When I sleep, I need you in my arms." Xena took a deep breath.

"This is what I need," Xena paused.

"I need you. Please...marry me," Xena asked once again.

The priest exhaled with relief. "I pleased to FINALLY pronounce you husband and wife. You may KISS the bride," the priest boomed happily.

When Meleager and Sarah kissed, the relieved gathering burst out in cheers and applause. Together, hand in hand, Meleager and Sarah left the altar as husband and wife.

Hecuba squeezed her husband's arm as she whispered in his ear. "One down, two to go."

Chapter 26 - A Couple of Things

The gathering grew agitated waiting for the rest of the wedding party to leave.

"Gabrielle!!" Lila blurted, tapping her distracted sister on the arm.

"Hmmm?" Gabrielle responded absently, still looking into those crystal blue eyes.

"Move it!" Lila pushed her along, just as anxious as the crowd to leave.

"Oh," Gabrielle said absently as she started to leave the altar. She paused a moment in front of Xena and searched her eyes. Eyes that showed strength, confidence and incredible love. A warm smile filled the bard's face.

"Ok," Gabrielle relayed simply to the warrior, who's face lit up with a huge smile. "Let's go," Gabrielle added with a sly grin, holding out her hand.

Lila rolled her eyes impatiently.

Hecuba sighed and got up from her seat determined to move things along. "A mother's work is never done," she relayed wearily to her husband.

With furrowed eyebrows, Xena eyed the bard's extended hand and raised her eyebrow as she looked into the bard's face. "Ok let's go...or ok you'll marry me?" Xena questioned the bard.

Lila suddenly found this delay interesting.

" let's ..." Gabrielle answered, gabbing her grinning warrior's hand.

"What's TAKING you so long??" Hecuba interjected, feeling embarrassed at the annoyed glares of the gathering who wanted to leave.

"She said both," Lila relayed happily.

"That's wonderful dear, now would you two PLEASE get a move on it?" Hecuba asked with annoyance.

"You're sure we should?" Xena asked.

"Absolutely," Gabrielle responded, squeezing her warrior's hand.

"Ok then, we will," Xena couldn't wipe the grin off her face if she tried.

"Great, a decision! Now MOVE it!" Hecuba blurted impatiently.

Xena eyed the anxious woman. "Yes mother," she responded and raised the bard's hand to her lips and planted a tender kiss. As the two finally left, hand in hand, Hecuba's eyes darted quickly to Lila, who grinned.

"Told you she said both," Lila added.

At the reception, on his first mission for his wife, a smiling Meleager headed to the punch bowl. He didn't make it. A pair of hands belonging to a very annoyed Warrior Princess emerged from behind a column and grabbed him.

"XENA! You sure do have a funny way of congratulating me..." He laughed uneasily as she drug him into a secluded corner.

"You STOLE Gabrielle's ...poem..." Xena eyed him coldly, making him cringe.

"It was an accident! I swear!" He blurted, then crumbled under her continuing gaze. "Alright, alright...I meant to use one of her poems," Meleager admitted. "The first one I pulled out was perfect...But when Lila almost caught me, startling the Tartarus out of me, I guess I got the wrong one...." He chuckled uneasily.

"How could you STEAL Gabrielle's poem??" Xena snapped.

"I was just going to BORROW it. YOU were the one with the idea to COPY a poem...I just couldn't find the one I liked!" He responded defensively.

"So you just rummaged through her bag??" Xena blurted still amazed.

"Well...yeah," Meleager admitted with a cringe.

"She will KILL you if she find's out, you know that don't you?" Xena relayed.

"Finds out? She didn't seem so upset with me using her words at the altar..." He noted with confusion.

"Those were not her words...they were MINE," Xena snapped.

"Really? Wow, they were really good Xena" Meleager smiled. "Gee, does this mean you'll have to write another poem for your wedding?" Meleager asked, drawing a very cold glare.

"Congratulations," a teary Gabrielle hugged Sarah tightly. More beads dropped to the floor. The two looked at each other and chuckled.

"Thank you," Sarah looked into her sister's eyes, unable to find any better words. Gabrielle grinned and hugged her again, not needing any more.

"Gabrielle!" Lila rushed up to the two. "Oh, congratulations Sarah," she mentioned casually to her sister.

"Thanks," Sarah blurted flatly, feeling like a third wheel as Lila eagerly grabbed Gabrielle's arm.

"Gabrielle, you know, I've been thinking I really don't know all that much about the Amazons...would you mind telling me about them?" Lila asked the surprised Amazon Queen.

"Now?" Gabrielle chuckled.

"Well, you and Xena will be leaving soon and who better to tell me about the Amazons than their Queen," Lila explained with a smile.

"Actually, Sustra could..." Gabrielle mentioned, spotting the loyal Amazon serving some drinks. "Sustra!" Gabrielle called out, making the Amazon smile and head their way. Gabrielle eyed Sarah, who immediately recognized that familiar conspiratorial gaze.

"NO!...I mean...oh Gods," Lila blurted, blushing a deep crimson. Sarah grinned and shook her head.

"Something wrong?" Gabrielle innocently asked her flustered younger sister.

"No, nothing," Lila spoke weakly as Sustra joined them.

"Your majesty," Sustra spoke formally and bowed. "Is there something you need?" She asked, glancing at Lila and smiling warmly before returning her attention to her Queen.

"Well actually, my sister Lila has recently become quiet fascinated with the Amazon culture," Gabrielle relayed, making Lila cringe and Sarah roll her eyes with amusement.

"Really?" Sustra smiled.

"Gabrielle would love to explain everything to her but Gabrielle and I have some things we need discuss, would you mind educating our youngest sister?" Sarah jumped in, to the horror of Lila, who's eyes widened with embarrassment.

"I wouldn't mind at all, it would be a pleasure," Sustra smiled happily until she noted the flush on Lila's face. "Are you ok Lila?"

"Sure," Lila weakly replied. "I just need a drink," she added.

As the two Queens watched their youngest sister and Sustra make their way through the crowd to the punch bowl, Gabrielle glanced to her sister.

"Educate??" Gabrielle relayed to Sarah with a smirk, who nodded.

"Are you saying you don't want our sister educated?" Sarah asked innocently.

"I don't have a problem with that, but mother might," Gabrielle relayed with a chuckle.

"I might have a problem with what?" Hecuba asked, overhearing the end of the conversation.

"Uh...a long engagement?" Gabrielle suggested.

"You know, I haven't seen my husband in a while. I think I better see what he's up to," Sarah blurted with a smile.

Gabrielle and Hecuba eyed the Queen as she abruptly left. "I thought she would have stopped that once the wedding was over," Hecuba informed a surprised bard, who watched her mother smile and shake her head.

"Gabrielle, I wanted to tell you something," her mother took her daughter's hand and smiled at her. "Actually a couple of things," she added, squeezing her daughter's hand.

"Your father and I are very proud of you. The Amazon's couldn't have a better Queen," she told her firmly, generating a big smile on Gabrielle's face.

"And I want you to know I AM happy for you," Hecuba informed her daughter, who's emotions welled up upon hearing those precious words.

"I am happy you have found happiness," her mother reached out to wipe the tear from her daughter's face.

"I had a very hard time accepting Xena. And I can't say that now that I know her a little better, I am any more comfortable with her past," she admitted to her quiet daughter. "Or any less worried it will catch up to her AND you," she added.

Seeing Gabrielle about to respond she held her hand up and continued uninterrupted.

"But the woman that's with you today, the woman that helped with the dress and helped Meleager is a good woman...who cares deeply. I see her love for you, in so many reminds me of your father and me," Hecuba's eyes now started to moisten. "And if you and Xena share even half that love, you two are very, very fortunate," Hecuba informed her daughter, who smiled broadly.

"I love you Gabrielle." Her mother pulled her daughter into a tight embrace. "Don't ever forget that."


"Xeeenaaa" Gabrielle uttered slowly, her voice dripping with warning as she stopped her staff exercises in mid-sweep. Her eyes shifted to meet the source of her distraction, the warrior lounging on the side of the grassy hill, smelling a freshly picked wildflower as she intently watched the bard.

"Yes Gabrielle?" The warrior responded invitingly, hopeful blues meeting piercing greens. As the bard's eyes narrowed, the warrior immediately realized she was not going to be successful this beautiful day.

The determined bard exhaled loudly and resumed her practice.

"Just had to go and say you needed to know she's safe in that poem, didn't you?" An annoyed Xena muttered to her brilliantly poetic self. Xena sighed, tossing the flower over her shoulder in defeat.

Now, Gabrielle was intent on practicing ALL the time. Going so far as denying them a pleasurable afternoon to practice her staff. Xena's eyebrows furrowed. All this to make YOU, Warrior Idiot, feel better about her safety, Xena silently scolded herself and groaned.

Xena exhaled with exasperation as she laid back on the hill and stared at the blue sky for a moment as a huge puffy cloud passed by, blocking the sun. The resulting shadow covered the ground quickly, enveloping the bard then the warrior. Just great. It will probably rain and make this boring day even that much more enjoyable, Xena considered pessimistically, still eyeing the cloud.

Funny, kinda looks like a big pillow, she thought.

Propping herself on her elbows, the warrior scanned the area. The bard did have good taste in practice fields, the warrior noted, eyeing the field appreciatively. The foliage framing the bard's chosen field was densely packed with lush greenery. An excellent source of cover in the event of an attack, she considered. Of course, you would have to be near it. It wouldn't offer any cover if you were attacked while standing in the middle of a field like her tenacious bard. It was a good thing the area was secluded.

Secluded and very un-"public" the warrior sighed heavily as she eyed the bard gracefully whirl the wooden staff through the air. The bard's muscles in her arms and stomach rippled as she powerfully thrust her staff back and forth, back and....

"Gods," Xena moaned, unconsciously ripping out a handful of grass. Adapt and overcome, you idiot!

The warrior grinned as a plan formed in her head. "You know you're right," Xena called out, drawing a suspicious gaze from the bard between blocks.

"Shouldn't let a good day of practice go to waste," Xena announced as she got up from her very comfortable spot on the hill and stretched her long body.

"Mmmm...." She moaned as she slowly lifted her arms over her head and leaned to her right.

"Ahhhhh...." Xena let out another, very sensual sound when she slowly leaned over to her left.

"Xena!" Gabrielle blurted, rolling her eyes.

"Hmmm?" Xena replied as she rolled her shoulders and let out another sensual moan.

"Would you MIND?" Gabrielle snapped with irritation as she whirled the staff around her head.

"Gabrielle, I have to stretch." Xena countered innocently, shrugging her shoulders. "You know how important it is to stretch before intense physical activity," Xena added, struggling to avoid an amused grin that was threatening her very serious face.

"Uh hun....well, could you do your stretching a little more quietly?"

Gabrielle smirked as she blocked, blocked and thrust.

The warrior unsheathed her sword and swung it around, loosening her wrist up.

"Battles aren't usually quiet, Gabrielle," Xena informed her as she switched the sword to her left hand and proceeded to loosen that wrist up.

"I don't think I've ever been in a battle as loud as you stretching over there," Gabrielle responded sarcastically, whirling her staff around her waist with a graceful flourish.

"It's actually good to practice around distractions...helps to develop and strengthen your focus," Xena relayed, moving closer to the bard.

"I see," Gabrielle responded, turning to face the warrior, who rolled her head around to loosen up her neck. "And I suppose you have only been trying to help me with my focus." Gabrielle commented skeptically, carefully eyeing her.

"Of course," Xena responded truthfully. Although she considered the bard's current focus was in need of major redirection.

"How thoughtful," Gabrielle added flatly, returning to her staff exercises. Gabrielle found her focus on her parries and blocks difficult as the Warrior Princess slowly circled her.

Amazingly though, she could actually track the warrior's movements.

Gabrielle knew she could not rely on her eyes, for Xena deliberately stayed just out of her line of sight. She knew she could not rely on her ears, for Xena was quieter than the leaves rustling in the breeze. However, there was something that screamed out the warrior's location to the bard. It was Xena's unmistakable presence.

A powerful presence that the bard could feel drawing her in.

"NO," the stubborn bard thought to herself, not about to let the Warrior Princess distract her so easily. Feeling the Warrior Princess getting within range, Gabrielle suddenly launched into a staff exercise that happen to require the same space the Warrior Princess was occupying.

To avoid getting hit in the head and chest, Xena quickly blocked the end of the staff with her sword. Gabrielle proceeded with the exercise as if Xena wasn't even there, causing the warrior to raise her eyebrow.

"No break in form, not bad," Xena responded, a little surprised.

With a slight smile on the bard's face, Gabrielle silently continued to wield her staff in the prescribed steps of Amazon forms. Forms that Xena was very intimate with. Up for the challenge, Xena sheathed her sword and continued to circle the bard out of the Amazon's line of sight.

"Ugh oh," the bard thought to herself, considering now both of Xena's hands were free.

Even knowing the Amazon forms, Xena found that sticking to the bard like her shadow without getting hit took some effort. Gabrielle swiftly moved through the forms with a fluid grace and confidence that Xena had proudly watch bloom over the past few years. Gabrielle's form was very pleasing indeed, the warrior eyed her appreciatively.

"Very nice," Xena softly complemented the bard, whispering in her ear.

Pausing a moment to catch her breath, Gabrielle struggled to ignore the tingling sensation her tall shadow evoked with a whisper. Tightly clenching her staff, the bard gulped and continued with her practice.

"Careful, you'll tire your hands," Xena warned her with a warm and soft breath.

"Then you'll be more vulnerable to losing your weapon," Xena continued to stand closely behind the bard and whisper into her ear.

"I could teach you what to do if that happens," Xena offered.

"If you want me to," Xena added with a grin of satisfaction, noting the goose bumps on the bard's skin she caused.

"You'll teach me what to do?" Gabrielle repeated with interest, causing the warrior to grin.

"Mmmm Hmmm," Xena purred into her ear and slowly reached around the bard for her staff. When the warrior wrapped her long fingers around the wood, Gabrielle slowly let go, causing the warrior's face light up with a large victory grin. A grin that was suddenly wiped from her face when the bard grabbed the surprised warrior's arm and threw her to the ground.

The stunned warrior looked up at the bard.

"You mean something like that?" Gabrielle spoke innocently.

"Uh...yeah. Gabrielle, were did you...???"

"Sustra," Gabrielle explained casually.

"And what OTHER things did the Sustra teach you?" Xena asked with annoyance, still sitting in the dirt. Both proud and irritated with the bard.

"You keep this up and you just might find out," Gabrielle blurted and shook her head.

"Gabrielle, I was only trying...I was just...." Xena quickly tried to explain, pausing when the bard's eyes rolled. "It's such a nice day Gabrielle," she added then sighed, realizing the bard just wanted to practice.

"You ok?" Gabrielle offered her hand with a sly grin

The warrior took the hand, allowing the bard to help her up. She thought that fair since the bard helped her down in the first place.

"Just wonderful," Xena muttered as she brushed off the dirt and handed the staff back to the bard. "I think I'll go for a ride. Let you practice," Xena offered, letting out a long exhale and started to walk towards Argo.

"Hey...what about my lessons?" Gabrielle asked, receiving a curious look from the Warrior Princess. "You offered lessons," She reminded her sternly.

Xena turned towards the bard. "I thought the Sustra already took care of...."

"You told me I could learn more if I had different teachers and you DID offer lessons." Gabrielle countered.

"Perhaps later...I'm not..." Xena was looking forward to the ride. It would help take her mind off of...things.

"If I loose my staff, I want to be prepared," Gabrielle added firmly, very serious. "You offered lessons Xena and I want them now...please?"

"All right. Fine. Lessons." Xena sighed heavily, not thrilled at all with the prospect of this torture. However, seeing the happy look on the bard's face made this torture tolerable.

Gabrielle folded up her staff, placed it in her bag and quickly returned to the field with great enthusiasm. "Ok! What's first?"

"Pressure points and leverage." Xena blurted out. "They are more important than strength. A small woman can easily get the upper hand over an old...distracted...warlord." Xena informed her. "But I think you've already have demonstrated you understand that concept." Xena rubbed her rear.

"You left yourself open and weren't expecting me to do that," Gabrielle relayed, ignoring the warrior's sarcasm. "But what if you had me in a hold, you'd expect me to try to break that grip, right?"

"You can still use the pressure points and leverage to get out of the, let me show you," Xena turned Gabrielle to face away from her and wrapped her arm around the bard's neck.

"Ow." Gabrielle muffled a moan.

"What's wrong?" Xena let go immediately.

"Ah...Never mind," Gabrielle responded, shrugging. "It's nothing."

"You wouldn't have said 'OW' if it was nothing. What's wrong?"

"Its just...its your bracers. They...never mind. Sorry. Let's go on," Gabrielle responded, turning back to resume her education.

Shaking her head at the bard's annoying habit of not admitting when something is bothering her, Xena sighed and removed her arm bands. After tossing them next to the bard's bag, Xena wrapped her arm around the bard's neck. "Better?" Xena asked.

"Much. It wasn't really necessary but...thanks." Gabrielle responded. Xena rolled her eyes and continued.

"Now, there are a couple of ways you can get out of this hold," Xena started to explain. "If your attacker pulls you in this...." Xena pulled the bard against her, causing Gabrielle to stiffened and muffle another OW.

"Gabrielle, what's wrong now?" Xena sighed, once again letting go.

"It's nothing," Gabrielle responded quickly. "You said there are a couple of ways...." Gabrielle repeated Xena's statement grabbing her arm and wrapping it back around her neck.

"Gabrielle?" Xena asked, unwrapping her arm.

"Its just...its your armor. It jabbed me when you...not a big deal...really. I'm sorry...Let's go on ok? I never knew there were so many options to getting out of a hold," Gabrielle relayed with enthusiasm.

"Gabrielle," Xena sighed, rolling her eyes as she took her armor off. As she walked off the field to placed her armor down, she inspected it for the offending rough edges. Her eyebrow raised at their suspicious absence.

Xena returned to the bard, who scratched the back of her head. "Uh...thanks," she blurted sheepishly. Xena eyed her bard.

"Uh Huh," Xena uttered as she turned the bard and once again wrapped her arm around the bard's neck. "Better?" Xena asked, softly whispering in her ear with a crooked grin.

"Much. Thank you." Gabrielle responded.

"Now, take your right hand and...." Xena started to explain when the bard swiftly squirmed out of the warrior's grip. Instead of trying to throw the warrior, the bard turned and wrapped her arms around the warrior's waist. The bard tilted her head up, her lips slightly parted and completely inviting.

"Gabrielle, the idea is to break OUT of the hold," Xena relayed with amusement.

"Really?" The bard spoke innocently, staring at the warrior's lips.

"Uh huh," Xena leaned in and lightly brushed her lips on the bard's.

"You sure?" The bard added, just above a whisper, gently kissing the warrior.

"Uh huh," Xena repeated, returning the gentle kiss, lingering a moment longer to ensure it was properly returned.

"Oh. I think I'm going to need more practice," Gabrielle added with a smile that brought a grin to the warrior's face.

The Warrior Princess pulled the bard firmly into her and captured her mouth with a intensely matched by the bard. When they finally broke their kiss to capture a breath, the bard blurted "OW."

"What!?" Xena pulled back in surprise and concern. "Ow" was not exactly the response she was expecting.

"It's nothing. Never mind," Gabrielle quickly responded, kissing her warrior's neck.

"Gabrielle!" Xena groaned with frustration, looking in her face for an explanation.

"It's just...It's..." Gabrielle hedged. "Never mind," Gabrielle responded, kissing the warrior's jaw.

"WHAT!" Xena blurted.

"It's your leather." Gabrielle informed her. "It chafes."


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