DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Eponin, Solari and other Xenaverse characters are owned by Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No infringement is intended and no profit is being made.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Another (much shorter) version of this story was published at the Academy of Bards for one of that site's Christmas challenges. The premise was to take one of the supplied images and write a 1,000 word story about it. What I discovered, though, is sometimes a picture is worth more than a 1,000 words. So, thanks to Ralst's agreeing with that logic, here's . . .
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

I'll Have A Blue Solstice Without You
(the author's cut)

By Del Robertson


A hand hovered mere inches above the blood-covered chakram. Slender fingers stretched out as if to reach for the weapon, but were shaking so severely that their owner couldn't bring herself to touch it. Instead, they moved to cover her mouth in a needless attempt at silencing her soundless screams.

Eponin felt the lazy smile begin to make its way slowly across her lips. She took up her position, easily twirling her staff with one hand. Then, she changed tempo, her momentum steadily increasing until the staff itself was barely visible to the naked eye.

Undaunted, Ephiny walked out onto the practice field. Eponin dropped into a crouch, performing a spinning turn, then coming up to her full height again as she came out of the spin.

Quirking a blonde eyebrow at the tip of the staff bare inches from her nose, Ephiny asked, "You through showing off?"

"Just practicing.," Eponin shrugged, "Seems no one else wants to play today."

"Uh-huh. That have anything to do with the rumor flying through the village about you besting the warrior princess during sparring sessions this morning?"

"I seem to recall hearing something about that." Eponin tried to feign nonchalance, but couldn't keep the cocky grin off her face.

"Seems someone's got a pretty big chip on her shoulders." Ephiny walked over to the fence where several staffs were leaning against the posts. She selected one, hefted it, testing its balance. "Maybe someone should knock it off for you."

"Oh, really?" Honey-hued eyes danced with mirth. "You think you're gonna be the Amazon to do it?"

"Done it before." Ephiny slowly approached Eponin, moving into her ready-position.

"Yeah?" Eponin raised her staff into an offensive position and ran through a series of lunges that immediately had Ephiny on the defensive. "Got news for ya, blondie. We ain't kids, anymore." The weapons master read the tell-tale shift of Ephiny's weight to her left foot and anticipated, then leapt over the low strike that was intended to take her out at the ankles. "I know all your tricks."

Melosa cast a wary glance at the dreary, grey sky overhead. The clouds had firmly rolled in, blotting out the sun and bringing a damp chill to the air that made old wounds ache.

"Bring my wolf-hide cloak."

Her royal guard saluted and obediently trotted off to do the Queen's bidding.

Melosa shivered, certain that she'd seen the first snowflakes of the season fall. She released a heavy sigh, thinking of how the winter storm had crept in while she'd been sequestered in morning meetings.

She had just finished her session with the Council of Elders when she'd heard the news about Eponin defeating Xena in a sparring match. Having herself faced Xena in combat and knowing what she did of the warrior princess' reputation, Melosa also knew that Eponin's accomplishment was no easy feat. She'd been on her way to congratulate her weapons master and also invite her to a private dinner with her Queen that evening in celebration of the event.

She drew up short as she spotted her second-in-command on the practice fields with Eponin. Eponin was on the offensive, using brute strength to drive Ephiny back with each swing of her staff. Melosa was more than mildly impressed that Ephiny was able to counter Eponin's blows. However, she lacked the strength necessary to halt the weapons master's momentum. Melosa knew from experience that once Ep found a rhythm, nothing was apt to throw her off. It would be only a matter of heartbeats before Eponin defeated Ephiny.

Ephiny felt herself being pushed backwards, knew she was steadily losing ground to Eponin. Hoping strategy would overcome strength, Ephiny unexpectedly dropped her guard and ducked low beneath Eponin's advancing attack.

Ephiny shifted her staff to a one-handed clutch. As Eponin's momentum continued to carry her forward, she looped the staff around behind the weapons master's back, then brought her free hand up to catch the other end of the staff. Locking her knees, firmly planting her feet, she gave a firm tug.

Eponin felt the rough wood of the staff slam against her lower back. Too late to counter the move, she felt herself unexpectedly go flying forward. Also too late, Ephiny realized the error in her calculations.

If Eponin had been fifty pounds lighter, Ephiny's move might have worked. As it was, neither of them could react in time to keep Eponin from crashing into Ephiny and sending them down in a tangled mess of arms and legs.

The curly-haired blonde hit first, landing on her back, her arms flying above her head, her grip still locked upon her staff. The dark haired warrior landed full out on top of her, pressing Ephiny's body down into the cold ground. Likewise, her grip was tightly about her staff as she lay the wood across her opponent's throat, applying just the slightest bit of pressure to force her to tilt her head back.

"Sooo," Eponin drawled out, confident in her position atop Ephiny, "You ready to surrender?"

"Nugh - " Ephiny strained, trying to toss Eponin off. Through gritted teeth, she gasped out, "No."

Eponin resettled her weight, trying to counteract the efforts of the body squirming beneath her. Adjusting her grip on the staff, she pressed in just a fraction more against Ephiny's throat. "How bout now?"

Eponin's cocky teasing only served to fuel Ephiny's determination. Mutual growls escaped their throats as Ephiny redoubled her efforts to buck Pony off. Recognizing what Ep's growl may truly be masking, Ephiny once again changed tactics. Releasing her staff, bringing her hands down so fingers could clutch at ebony locks, Ephiny firmly pulled Eponin's head down.

The kiss was deep and bruising and highly suggestive of what other pleasures Ephiny's tongue could bring. And, Eponin was caught so completely off-guard that she didn't even know what had happened until Ephiny drew back, ending the kiss. Short of breath, Ep suddenly found herself looking up into hooded hazel eyes. It took the press of her own staff against her throat to make her finally realize that Ephiny had reversed their positions and she was now firmly flat on her back on the ground with Ephiny straddling her.

"I trust those are not the fighting skills you are teaching your new princess."

Eponin's heart plunged into her stomach at the sound of the voice and the familiar looking set of boots that were now even with her line of sight. She tried to get up, arms flexing only to discover her elbows were pinned to the ground, her fingers still wrapped about her staff in an effort to keep her own weapon from pressing down and crushing her throat. Unable to rise, she settled for letting her eyes travel up the set of boots, over well-muscled legs and body, over folded arms and up to the clearly irritated visage that glared down at her.

"Umm, no, Queen Melosa."

"Yet, you are meant to be tutoring her in staffwork at this time." Melosa's gaze swept over the practice field, already knowing that the young woman was nowhere in the vicinity. "Eponin, where is your princess?"

"With Xena, my Queen. Gabrielle went with Xena."

A chill raced down Ephiny's spine. She saw the stony look, the clenched jaw, the flashing eyes. Still perched upon Eponin, the staff braced against the weapons master's throat, Ephiny was unsure of what to do. She was hesitant to stay where she was, afraid she was next to face Melosa's wrath. Yet, she was terrified to move, in case that also attracted Melosa's attention.

"I personally outlined Princess Gabrielle's training regime." Melosa knelt down on one knee beside Eponin's head. "I expect it to be strictly adhered to."

"But, Xena - "

"Eponin." Melosa's voice was cold, commanding Eponin's full attention. "Who is in charge of this tribe; me or Xena?"

"Y - " Eponin licked her lips, eyes darting back and forth over Melosa's stern face. "You are, my Queen."

Melosa's voice dropped lower and she leaned in closer, "Don't force me to remind you of that again."

Melosa's gaze burned into Eponin's, promising that the consequences of any future transgressions would be most unpleasant. Eponin nodded her agreement. A smile spread over Melosa's face, seemingly satisfied by that response. She stood to leave, then turned, staring down at the woman straddling her weapons master.

Raising one brow, she said, "Interesting technique," before regally walking off the practice field.

Her body was beyond the physical, her mind refusing to react to the steadily decreasing temperature and escalating winds. The first snowflakes fell indiscriminately, landing without bias upon her eyelashes, her bare shoulders and the chakram. As the storm turned more severe, the wind howled wildly and the flakes fell faster. Eyes stared unseeingly as the new snowfall covered the landscape, but nothing could whitewash the macabre scene. Crimson stained the pristine snow blood red.

The seasoned Amazon knelt on the ground, fingertips tracing over the indentations left in the soft ground by a set of well-worn boots. Crouching down, she followed the trail for several more paces, self-conscious of the sets of eyes that were, in turn, following every movement she made. Sensing she was on the trail, she raced forward, keeping low to the ground as she moved swiftly.

The rest of the search party followed her, racing behind her, knowing full well speed was of the essence. They traveled in silence, communicating only with their hands and fingers, ever-vigilant eyes keeping a close watch. As they drew close to the edge of the riverbank, Solari signaled for a stop.

Heart as heavy as the wolf-hide cloak flung about her shoulders, Melosa stepped forward. When they'd found a torn piece of Gabrielle's green cloak on a thorned bush, they'd considered it a good omen; meaning they were on the right trail. That good omen had turned ominous when they eventually discovered the tattered remains of the rest of Gabrielle's cloak. There had been blood on the cloak - lots of blood.

In Melosa's opinion, entirely too much blood. If Gabrielle were alive, she was most certainly injured and exposed to the elements. And, so far, the scouts had found no sign of Xena's tracks; only Gabrielle's. That alone was enough to make Melosa's throat and chest tighten with worry.

She knew Xena would pay any cost to protect Gabrielle. If Gabrielle were alone in the forest - what happened to Xena?

Knowing she couldn't give in to the dark thoughts, Melosa worked to school her expression into one befitting the Queen. She took a deep breath, then approached the scout. As she did, she pushed the hood of her cloak back, unmindful of the snow that was quickly accumulating in her hair, turning ebony black to stark white in the blink of an eye.

"You think she's in the water?"

"The tracks lead directly here." Solari helplessly shook her head, "But, I can't be positive if that was before or after she went east, then north."

Melosa somberly nodded. Solari had initially been able to pick up the trail on the outskirts of the village. There had been two sets of prints then and they'd been easy to follow. But then the snow had started falling faster and then Solari was positive there was only one set of tracks to follow.

And, follow they had. For candlemarks now. In an ever-increasingly frustrating circle. She felt as though they'd wandered over a full half of the Amazon forest with no sign of Gabrielle or Xena.

"It seems as though our princess is lost," Melosa murmured.

If Solari heard, and Melosa was positive she had, the brunette scout gave no indication. She knelt along the riverbank, intently studying the ground for any sign that Gabrielle had, indeed, recently been there. Using her fingertips, she swept the snow away.

Knowing her Queen's gaze was upon her, Solari continued working, trying to brush the snow away enough to reveal a trail. She inched forward in a crouch, muscles groaning in protest from the over-exertion and the chill settling into her bones. Joints ached as she scuttled crablike along the riverbank. She paused only long enough to try to shake the tingling numbness out of her fingers before once again immersing them into the snow.

Melosa impassively watched Solari for several more heartbeats. The scout was determined, she knew, but her tactics were becoming seemingly more and more erratic. The rapidly accumulating snowfall was steadily eradicating any trail that might be left. And, no matter how much she wished otherwise, she knew it was hopeless to expect the scout to be able to track their princess now.

She looked back up the bank at the more than three dozen Amazons huddled together. Warriors and scouts combined had followed her out into the forest in search of their Amazon princess and the warrior princess. Melosa could allow no more than that to come, in case whatever had happened to the duo precipitated a planned raid on the village itself.

Wondering if the village was indeed under attack - seeing the condition of the women with her, knowing how miserable they were, although none of them had voiced a single complaint - she knew, as Queen, what it was she had to do. Even though it pained her greatly.

"Return to the village," Melosa commanded. When no one turned to go, she added, "We need rest, nourishment, warmth. We'll resume the search at first light."

Melosa waited well until the last Amazon had turned to make her way back to the village. Then, she turned to Solari. The scout was several paces downstream by now, still crouched over, still trying to sweep away the snow with her bare hands in an attempt at finding a trail. She'd pulled her cloak off in frustration, annoyed by the way it kept getting tangled about her ankles. The snow was thick in her dark hair and on her shoulders and back. Her body constantly trembled from the cold.

Melosa called Solari's name. Once. Twice. Then, with a long exhale, she walked the dozen or so paces it took to reach Solari's side. Placing a firm hand upon the brunette's shoulder, she stopped her from taking another step. Crouched over as she was, Solari blinked up at her Queen.


"But - "


"It's here." Solari's eyes desperately searched Melosa's face. "I know the trail's here."

Melosa didn't know whether to condemn or commend Solari's stubbornness. After all, she was the Queen of the Amazons. Her word was law. For Solari to disobey -

"I know I can find her," Solari pleaded, "I can save her."

Something in the way Solari said her tore at Melosa's heart. And, she was reminded of another Amazon princess.

Momentarily closing her eyes, Melosa nodded her consent.

"You have until true dark."

Breathing deeply, pushing down the pain of unbidden memories, Melosa gathered her strength before slowly opening her eyes again. By the time she did, Solari was already gone.

Dawn's first light was edging over the horizon when a set of leather boots crossed the open field, leaving deep footprints in the freshly fallen snow. Brown eyes took in the heart-wrenching sight of the woman kneeling in the snow, hands clasped in her lap, head bowed, eyes closed, the tracks of her tears frozen in ice crystals upon her wind-burned cheeks.

Calloused fingers reached out, checking for a pulse. Breathing a sigh of relief, she took the snow and frost-encrusted cloak from about her own shoulders and wrapped it like a blanket about the other woman. Then, as gently as possible, Solari lifted her princess in her arms and carried Gabrielle towards the Amazon village.


"Exposure. Dehydration. Exhaustion." The healer glanced at her restlessly sleeping patient before adding, "Coupled with deep mourning and guilt."

The queen moved from the doorway, the healer scrambling to get out of her way as she crossed the room to stand beside the bed. Somber eyes critically noted the flushed skin. Fingers brushed blonde bangs back as lips tenderly grazed a fevered forehead.

"Rest easy, Gabrielle."

Melosa's hardened gaze turned upon the healer. "Take good care of her," she ordered, "The Amazons won't lose another princess."

As had become her habit, Solari stole into the healer's hut as soon as her duty shift was done. Megara glanced at her, but didn't say anything as the scout wordlessly slipped past her and came to stand beside the princess' bed.

For several heartbeats, Solari merely stood there, staring down at the young woman lost in a fitful sleep. Then, she adjusted Gabrielle's blanket, pulling it up higher so that it covered her sleep shift. Leaning in, she tenderly kissed the princess' forehead. Gabrielle murmured in her sleep, but seemed to considerably calm. Satisfied, Solari hooked her ankle about a nearby chair, pulling it closer before settling down onto it.

When the healer came back after dinner, Solari was still there in the same position. She came into the room, carrying an extra plate, setting it down on a short table beside the bed.

Solari questioningly looked up at her.

"For her, if she wakes soon," shrugged Megara, "Or, you, if she doesn't."

Solari mutely nodded, then turned her attention back to Gabrielle. She didn't even blink when the healer reached out and lifted her arm from her lap. She unwrapped the bandage about Solari's right hand, carefully examining the digits. She rubbed a salve over the skin, hoping to draw out the infection. Rewrapping the hand, she gingerly placed it back in Solari's lap before taking up the other hand and starting the procedure all over again.

"How's she doing today?"

Once, Megara might have felt silly - Her, a healer, asking someone else how her patient was doing. But, it was therapeutic in itself to have Solari answer the question. The healer knew what Solari had put her body through to find Gabrielle - and she knew better than most what her mental state had been when she'd carried the princess home.

"Nightmares," Solari succinctly replied, sparing the healer only the briefest of glances before turning her full attention back to Gabrielle once again.

Gabrielle stirred restlessly in her sleep.

"What I can't figure out is how you talked me into this," drawled out a husky voice.

"I asked nicely."

"As I recall," a smirk graced full lips, "when you asked, I was flat on my back and you were between my legs – "

"And, as I recall," Gabrielle tapped her index finger against the warrior's nose, "you were very agreeable to the idea then."

"Gabrielle. When you do that with your tongue, you know I'll agree to just about anything."

"You have your skills, warrior princess; I have mine. Now, come on," Gabrielle grabbed Xena's hand, "you promised."

"Under duress. It shouldn't count. As a matter of fact, I think this little fieldtrip is over."

Gabrielle stopped dead in her tracks, turned around and looked at her lover. Crossing her arms over her chest, she gave her most intimidating look.

Xena didn't even flinch.

Gabrielle tried again.

Still, nothing.

"You're in a bad mood," Gabrielle accused.

"I'm not in a bad mood."

"Yes, you are."

"No, I'm not."

"Are, too. Eponin whooped your butt this morning and it put you in a bad mood."

"Eponin did not whoop my butt."

"That's not what I heard."

"Yeah?" Xena cocked an eyebrow. "Well, you were misinformed."

"You're saying Eponin didn't beat you in sparring practice this morning?"

"Look, Gabrielle." Xena let out an exasperated huff. "You know, sometimes it's good for someone else to win."

"Xena." Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. "Did you let Pony win?" Her eyes widened, "You threw that match, didn't you?"

Xena growled in frustration. Gabrielle just stared at her. Finally, unable to take it any more, Xena confessed, "No, Gabrielle, I didn't throw the match. To do that with any opponent would only give them a false sense of confidence and it could cause them to get hurt in the long run." Downing her head, she admitted, "Eponin beat me fair and square."

Gabrielle stepped closer to her warrior. Using a fingertip to lift Xena's chin, she searched her blue eyes. Convinced that Xena's answer was honest, she said, "Oh, Xena. I'm so sorry."

"What for?" Xena asked, folding her arms over chest and giving Gabrielle her best fake-scowl. "You cause me to lose, bard?"

"Well, no, I wasn't even there. But - " her voice held a note of awe " - Xena, you . . . lost."

"Yeah, I did." Xena shrugged, sat down on a nearby log. She pulled Gabrielle down onto her lap. "You know, Gabrielle, I find it ridiculous that everyone thinks I'm this larger-than-life hero all the time and that I can defeat everyone, all the time, with any weapon and never get hurt. But, you know what, Gabrielle? I'm not Hercules. I get hurt. I bleed. I can be defeated." Wrapping her arms about her bard, she searched green eyes, looking for warmth, compassion and understanding. What she found was so much more. What she found was - love. "I fight with weapons. In my line of work, it's necessary to be adept at all of them. But, Eponin is an expert at the staff. She's trained every single day, for candlemarks at a time for a lifetime. Don't get me wrong, love, I may get lucky and beat her once in a while. But, let's be honest; the staff is her weapon."

"So, it's not right to expect you to wipe the floor with her?" prompted Gabrielle.

"No," Xena laughed.

"Uh-huh." Gabrielle looked appraisingly at Xena, then poked her in the ribs. "Then, why are you so mad you lost."

"I'm not mad."

"Xena - "

"Okay. Maybe I'm a little - " Seeing the look from Gabrielle, she amended her answer, "Okay, fine. Logically, I know I can't expect to win all the time."


"But . . . " A tiny smile formed on Xena's lips and she looked at Gabrielle through her lashes as she admitted, "But . . . I don't like to lose."

"Good, glad we got that settled. Now," Gabrielle jumped up, gleefully rubbing her hands together. Reaching back, she grabbed Xena by the wrist and firmly tugged her off the log. "Now, back to our quest."

Xena rolled her eyes, but allowed herself to be pulled along behind her young bard. "Okay, fine. I guess a promise is a promise. Even one bribed out of someone through sexual manipulation."

"Which you loved," Gabrielle tossed back over her shoulder.

"Which I loved," Xena remembered, unable to keep the lustfulness out of her voice as she remembered the things Gabrielle had done to her to get that agreement out of her. "But, I still don't know why we had to go so far."

"Because it's my first Solstice with the Amazons. And, it's tradition that the princess picks out the village tree."

"There are plenty of good trees inside Amazon territory."

"True. But, I saw the perfect one when we rode in last eve."

"And, you want it to be perfect." Xena's tone softened as she finally realized just why this was so important to her. With the death of Terreis, the Amazons had accepted Gabrielle as their princess. And, as her partner, they had also accepted Xena. Reaching out, she caught Gabrielle in a hug, "So, where's this tree of yours?"

Gabrielle broke away from Xena, racing a few yards ahead before stopping in front of a majestic pine. Patting the trunk, she proclaimed, "This is it. Isn't it the best tree you've ever seen?"

Xena's head tilted back, an eyebrow arched. "It's certainly the biggest one."

"Yeah!" Gabrielle fairly danced a jig. Sensing Xena's apprehension, she stilled. "Don't worry, it's too early to cut it. We'll mark it, then when it's nearer Solstice, a group will come harvest it."

Casting one more look up at the daunting tree, Xena admitted, "I'm just glad you didn't volunteer us for the decorating committee."

Gabrielle nervously shuffled her feet. "Well…"

A smile ghosted Gabrielle's lips. Megara momentarily saw it reflected upon Solari's. Then, Gabrielle winced and cried out, but never awoke.

"No. Nooo." Gabrielle began tossing her head from side to side as her dreams took on a darker persona.

Solari leaned forward in her chair, reaching out, bandaged fingers and the palm of her hand lightly caressing over a tear-moistened cheek.

"Shhh," the scout softly murmured, "It's okay, my princess, I'm here. It's okay."

Gabrielle seemed to quiet for a bit, her bottom lip bit in contemplation. Then, clenching her hands into fists so tight that fingernails bit into her palms, she cried out, "No! Xeeeennnnnnaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!"

The bonfires burned brightly, giving off light and warmth alike. The sky was clear, the stars perfectly visible. A layer of snow dusted the ground, adding just the right atmosphere to the gathering.

Melosa sat upon her throne atop her dais. The Queen of the Amazons had a large mug clasped in her hand and was obviously well into her drink, her laughter sounding loud and boisterous and carrying across the village. On the chair beside her sat Gabrielle, drawn and subdued by comparison. She, too, had a mug clutched in one hand. But, from where she'd been unobtrusively standing beneath a distant tree for most of the evening, Ephiny couldn't for the life of her recall ever seeing Gabrielle taking so much as a sip.

A smile ghosted Ephiny's lips as she heard a footstep behind her. Arms wrapped about her from behind, a cold nose nuzzled into the warmth of Ephiny's neck. Lips nibbled at her earlobe.

"Mmmm." Ephiny gasped as beneath the cover of her cloak, a hand stole up her ribcage and cupped her breast. "That feels so good." There was a half-heartbeat before she added, "But, I feel I should warn you, my lover has a big staff and she's not afraid to use it."

Low laughter tickled Ephiny's ear. "Then, I suggest we don't tell her." Fingers unerringly found a nipple tenting the fabric of a suede halter and closed about it. "Is it cold out here, or are you just glad to see me?"

Reaching beneath her cloak, Ephiny captured and brought another hand up to her other breast. "Oh," she bit back a moan as those talented fingers unerringly discovered her thickening nipple, "It's definitely cold out here."

She heard the snort muffled against her hair and turned in the embrace. "But, I'm most certainly glad to see you." Her gaze softened as she looked at Eponin. Then, she couldn't help but wince as she brought a hand up to tenderly caress her lover's cheek. "Oh, baby, how'd you manage to get Megara to let you out of the hospice?"

"Snuck out while she wasn't looking," Eponin shrugged. Repositioning her crutches beneath her arms, taking a hop backwards, Pony nodded her head towards the dais. "How is she?"

"Worse. I can't count the number of times she's apologized to me for putting you in the hospice."

Eponin winced, but otherwise, didn't respond. Melosa had demanded that once Gabrielle's physical wounds healed, she resume her Amazon training. All of her training.

According to her other teaches, Gabrielle had been lifeless and listless, with no attention span and no real effort being made. Eponin encountered the same problem on the training fields. Until she put a staff in Gabrielle's hand and rushed her in a full-on run. Gabrielle had reacted reflexively, her instincts kicking in to save her from an attack.

She'd reacted like a wild animal. And, by the time three Amazons had managed to pull her off of the weapons master, Eponin had three cracked ribs and a broken ankle. The swelling in her face was so bad it took four days to begin going down. Even now, she knew she was sporting a pretty good shiner.

Ephiny's gentle kiss against her still-tender lips drew Eponin's attention. She followed Ephiny's gaze to the dais where their princess and queen sat side by side. Ephiny's voice dropped to a whisper as she said, "I don't think it was right for Melosa to insist she attend."

"Careful, Eph." Eponin warily looked around, making sure no one was close enough to have heard Ephiny's voice of dissension. Then, in a louder voice, she said, "It's the duty of the princess to officiate over the Solstice Eve festivities. Without Xena, duty is all Gabrielle has left."

Gabrielle wrapped both arms about herself as she stood in front of the Solstice tree. Melosa had suggested she allow someone else to pick out this season's tree. Particularly when she learned the tree Gabrielle wanted wasn't even on Amazon land. Especially considering what had happened when she and Xena had gone looking for it.

Looking up at the majestic tree decorated with brightly painted pinecones, feathers and leather strips, she was glad that she'd insisted they use the one she'd selected. And, with Xena's brightly polished chakram secured at the top in tribute to the fallen warrior, she thought it was perhaps the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen. Except for Xena, of course. Gabrielle forced herself to smile, despite the bittersweet ache.

It was the only thing she had left of Xena. Except for her memories. In the weeks since her - Gabrielle's mind choked on the word loss – she'd eventually gotten past the painful last memories of the twenty bandits surprising them beneath the tree. One look at Gabrielle's Amazon princess outfit and they decided she'd fetch a hefty ransom.

They were surrounded. And running out of options. Xena wielded her sword in one hand, her chakram in the other. There were just too many of them - even for the warrior princess. And, they were steadily attacking in wave after wave. For every one that Xena cut down, it seemed that two more took his place.

Gabrielle's staff was growing heavy in her hands. She'd been practicing endurance drills, both with Xena and Eponin. And, the strength in her upper body, her arms, her wrists had grown ten times over since she'd been a meek peasant girl that had picked up a walking stick in the forest one day.

But, she was tired. And, getting more tired with each swing of her staff. IN desperation, she risked a look at Xena.

"Gabrielle!" Xena yelled out as the blade slid across the battling bard's temple. "Gabrielle!" She flung her chakram, severing the man's head from his shoulders before he could raise his sword for the killing blow. "Run!" She saw the confusion, the hesitation, "Run! Get the Amazons!"

She bolted, running blindly through the woods, hearing men chasing her, crashing through the forest in pursuit. She ran. Even as her cloak became tangled in the bushes. Then, lost altogether as one outlaw got close enough to grab onto it and tug. It tightened about her neck as he pulled her back, the fabric choking her. She'd twisted frantically this way and that, trying to shake him off. Then, mercifully, she was able to get the clasp undone and slipped out of the cloak and across the marked borders into Amazon territory.

Not that those markers prevented them from chasing her. They had the scent of her blood now and were determined to run her to ground. She ran until she couldn't run anymore. Her chest heaving, her sides aching, she stumbled into an open field just before dusk.

That's where she found the outlaws. Dead.

But, her warrior was gone. All that was left of Xena was her bloodied chakram.

"It's the duty of the princess to lead the Solstice dance."


Gabrielle couldn't force the words I can't out past the lump in her throat. The Queen had been more than patient and kind, but this was duty. But, she was still hurting. She was broken and raw and mourning - and she just knew she wouldn't be able to walk out into the dance circle, let alone actually perform.

"Gabrielle - "

Gabrielle heard the dangerous edge that Melosa's voice was taking on. Sharp, like the edge of a knife. Gone was the boisterous, drunken laughter of earlier. With her repeated refusal of her command, the Queen was quickly sobering up.

Fortunately, Gabrielle was saved from having to outright defy the command by Solari appearing from the shadows and approaching the dais. She bowed low before queen and princess. Then, her lips graced the back of Gabrielle's hand as she placed a lingering kiss upon the bard's flesh. Taking her by the hand, Solari led her down the dais and to the dance circle.

They moved into the circle, Gabrielle finding the strength necessary to do something as simple as walking only with the help of Solari. They moved into position, Solari's arms loosely wrapped about Gabrielle's waist and Gabrielle's about hers. She stood there, in the center, feeling all eyes upon them. Still, Gabrielle couldn't summon up the will to move.

"Gabrielle," Solari's heated breath breathed into Gabrielle's ear, "Don't give Melosa a reason." There was a brief pause before she softly added, "If not for yourself, then for me?"

Gabrielle fought down a shiver, wrapped her arms more tightly about Solari. Laying her face upon the broad shoulder, burying her nose against the Amazon's neck, she closed her eyes.

She'd been in the hospice, in bed. Resting, her eyes closed, but not sleeping. She was aware of Solari's presence in the room. She was used to the scout coming by to check on her, to sit with her. It didn't bother her, Solari being there.

But, she'd heard someone else come in. The presence - felt wrong. The voice was loud, harsh. And, it made Gabrielle's head wound throb even worse than usual. She concentrated on keeping her eyes closed and staying quiet so the angry voice wouldn't notice her.

"You disobeyed a direct command. Your Queen's command."

There was a mumbled response that Gabrielle couldn't quite make out.

"MY command!" The angry voice yelled even louder, making Gabrielle's head hurt even more. "You were given until true dark. It was well past dawn when you reported in."

"I - Gabrielle."

"First Eponin, now you." The voice sounded strained and Gabrielle imagined Melosa standing well within Solari's personal space, nose to nose, as she yelled at the scout. "Xena does not control this tribe. YOU do not bend my commands to satisfy Gabrielle's whims."

"I - saved Gabrielle."

"Gabrielle! Gabrielle was to have been training with Eponin and should not have been off Amazon lands to begin with!"

"I did what I had to. To save my princess. And, I won't apologize for that."

There was a resounding slap. Then, "GUARDS!" And, the sound of more feet stomping into the room. The sounds of a scuffle. Then, quiet. When Gabrielle opened her eyes, she was alone.

Gabrielle's grip upon Solari tightened. Without even knowing how, she began moving her feet. First one step, then another. And, before she knew it, Solari was leading; once again, saving her.

"Ephiny, where's Solari?"

The curly-haired blonde averted her gaze, her fingers working to pick at imaginary balls of lint on Gabrielle's blanket.

"Ephiny?" Gabrielle reached out, capturing the distracting hand and stilling it. "Melosa struck her." Ephiny quickly looked up, clearly startled. "Eph, I know what happened. I was awake. What has Melosa done to Solari?"

Ephiny looked up at the ceiling. She felt Gabrielle's grip upon her fingers tighten. Giving a long-suffering sigh, she rolled her eyes, her gaze falling upon her princess. "Publicly whipped." At Gabrielle's horrified look, she hastily added, "She's okay. But, she's confined to a cell for the next three days." When Gabrielle's expression didn't lessen she said, "Gabrielle. She got off light, for what she was charged with."

"What was she charged with, Ephiny?"

"Disobeying the Queen."

"To save me."

Ephiny nodded.

Gabrielle shook her head, still in denial over what Ephiny had told her. It seemed like some sort of sick, twisted nightmare. On their very first encounter with the Amazons, Xena had fought Melosa to save the Centaur accused of murdering Melosa's sister. They had left thinking order was restored and everything was fine.

"Things may have been fine between the Centaurs and the Amazons," Ephiny had warned, "But, they were far from that within the Nation itself."

It seemed that Xena's defeat of Melosa had more far-reaching repercussions than any of them had thought. Even though she let Melosa live and even reinstated her, the damage had been done. Dissension was thick in the air and rumors of assassination attempts and coups began to run rampant. Essentially, Xena had painted a target on Melosa's back.

She'd grown paranoid, distrustful of everyone. And, whenever she and Xena would return to the village, Melosa would greet them with open arms. But, secretly, she was waiting for the warrior princess to thrust the dagger through her heart and take the crown.

Things had grown worse than they'd ever been with this last visit. According to Ephiny, Melosa had threatened to have Eponin charged with treason. And, Gabrielle herself had heard the confrontation between Melosa and Solari.

"Oh, no! Solari!" Gabrielle started to scramble out of her bed, only to find herself restrained by Ephiny. "Eph, I have to go to her."

"Gabrielle, wait; you're still too weak. She's in solitary. They won't let you see her." Grasping both of Gabrielle's hands within hers, Ephiny explained, "Gabrielle, one thing you've got to understand is that Solari would defy Melosa's orders a thousand times over for you."

Solari sighed, her heart feeling lighter than it had in a very long time. Gabrielle had relaxed in her arms and they were swaying in time to the drums. She only hoped that her princess' heart was aching just a bit less.

"Solari, thank you."

"You're welcome," she smiled against Gabrielle's ear. "But, despite what I've been lead to believe, you aren't really all that horrible a dancer."

"Thanks. I think." And, for the first time in a long time, Gabrielle felt a little more like her old self. Until the sobering memories crept right back in again. "But, that's not what I was thanking you for and you know it."

Big, brown eyes blinked open and Solari leaned back just far enough so she could gaze into Gabrielle's green eyes. She smiled. "Ah, then you must mean that roasted quail dinner I fixed for you earlier tonight."

"Solari, you're very sweet." Gabrielle allowed her fingertips to brush over the feathers adorning Solari's shoulder guard. "But, I don't - " she slowly shook her head.

Solari saw the look, instantly recognized it as one of pity.

"Don't. Please." Solari touched her forehead to the blonde's. "I've already lost one princess, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle nodded, unable to speak. She'd find a way to explain later. But, for right now, she just couldn't bear to break Solari's heart.

Gabrielle swallowed around the lump in her throat. Ephiny's vague comment about Solari being so willing to risk Melosa's wrath for her had nagged been slowly eating away at her. But, having made the statement, Ephiny proved to be very reluctant to expand on the meaning behind her comment.

She'd finally gotten the truth. From Eponin. After she'd overreacted and in her madness and grief thrashed her trainer so severely she was confined to bedrest . . . well, that was one Amazon that wasn't able to avoid her incessant questions.

The stoic weapons master had eventually been broken by the bard. With nowhere to run and no way to shut Gabrielle up, she'd finally come clean.

Gabrielle knew that Terreis was the Amazon Princess. And, she had passed her rite of caste onto Gabrielle, thereby making her next in line behind Melosa. What she'd never known, though, was that Terreis and Solari had been a couple. While the rest of the Amazon Nation had lost a princess, Melosa had lost her true sister, and Solari mourned both her princess and her lover.

In hushed tones, Eponin had confessed to Gabrielle that it was a loss Solari had never fully recovered from. And, it came as no surprise to many when Solari openly defied Melosa's orders and continued to track Gabrielle throughout the night in a snowstorm, not giving up until she'd found her. And despite being half-frozen herself and having the healers threaten that she might lose her fingers to frostbite - she'd been smiling when she carried Gabrielle into the village.

Gabrielle rested her head on Solari's shoulder, taking comfort in a kindred spirit. Solari had lost Terreis and survived. Gabrielle wondered if she'd have the same strength to survive Xena. Sighing heavily, she closed her eyes.

"I think that's my soulmate you're dancing with."

Every breath stilled at the familiar husky drawl that reverberated in the night air. Heads turned, looking for the disembodied voice. A flash of sparkling pink heralded the arrival of Aphrodite and…


Gabrielle hesitated only a heartbeat before launching herself into Xena's arms, kissing her all over. She blinked through tear-filled eyes. Xena was battered and barely standing, but alive.

"Xena!" Gabrielle clutched the warrior tightly, as if to make sure she couldn't disappear again. At least, not without taking the bard with her. She pulled back just far enough to ask, "Where have you been?"

"After you - " Xena hesitated, knowing 'ran' wouldn't sound right. Not in front of the Amazons. And, it was, after all, what Xena had told her to do. "After you went for reinforcements, I killed as many as I could before I took a slash across my gut." Bardly fingers were instantly at Xena's midsection, checking for the wound. "Hey, stop that." Xena caught the frantic digits in her hands, "Tickles. Anyway, I figured my best bet was to lead them away and try to take them on one by one."

"Yeah," Aphrodite piped in, disinterestingly buffing her nails on her pink nightie, "Then warrior-babe, like, totally led them to the front door of one of my temples. Stumbled in, fell over the altar; blood was everywhere."

Gabrielle looked horrified. "It wasn't all that bad," Xena softly cooed to her bard.

"Oh, puh-lease. You were mortally wounded. You would be so one a one-way trip across the River Styx right now if you'd picked anyone else's temple to stumble into and you know it."

Xena sighed heavily, desperately wishing they could be doing this somewhere else - anywhere - except in front of a village full of Amazons.

"Careful, warrior babe," Aphrodite warned, "I can read your mind, you know."

"What happened then?" asked Gabrielle, turning to Aphrodite. "You stopped the outlaws with your godly powers?"

"Well, uh - "

It was Xena's turn to say, "As if." Then, seeing the odd expressions, realizing she'd spent too much time the bodacious goddess of love, she clamped a hand over her mouth.

Gaining her composure, she forced out a suitably warrior-like snort. "Love goddess here saw all those outlaws storming the front steps and panicked."

"Well, exsqueeze me! I could've just zapped myself out of there, you know. But, your delicate mortal body would've croaked for sure!"

"Enough." Gabrielle stepped between the two bickering women. She glanced nervously towards the dais. Melosa had regained her buzz, but Gods only knew how long she was going to tolerate both Xena and Aphrodite crashing her Solstice party. "What next?"

"Since I couldn't take her with me, and I couldn't leave her, I kind of - "

"You what?" asked Gabrielle.

"I - ummhmmmumh - "

"What?" asked Gabrielle again, cupping her ear.

"She cast a spell!"

"Ow!" Gabrielle jerked back, rubbing her ear. "No need to yell."

"Okay, fine. I cast a spell." Aphrodite crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her foot as if daring Xena to contradict her. "It was a good spell."

"It kept the outlaws out - and us in."

"It was a good spell," Aphrodite repeated, "The wording was just a little off."

"You trapped us in the temple." Xena turned to Gabrielle, looking for sympathy. "Neither of us - " Xena pointed at Aphrodite " - and by that, I mean her - could leave the temple until I was healed."

"Most bogus thing I've ever see. I could zap food and stuff in for hungry warrior, here. But, I couldn't zap in a healer or a messenger or anything."

"Huh." Gabrielle rubbed her chin thoughtfully. Turning to Aphrodite, she asked, "What was the spell you used?"

"Nuh-uh!" Xena clamped a hand over Aphrodite's mouth. "Curiosity killed the nosy bard. Besides, one wrong word from you - " she glared at Aphrodite " - and you may be permanently stuck in the Amazon village."

Aphrodite looked around. Smiling, she waved at a buff guardswoman. Giggling at the blush she so easily elicited, she said, "I've been stuck in far worse places. Anyway," she turned back to Gabrielle, "Sorry it took so long to return her," Aphrodite gave an elegant shrug of her shoulders. "Mortals. They, like, take forever to heal."

"Thank you, Aphrodite." Gabrielle hugged her. "I thought she was…"

Aphrodite snorted. "As if death could ever stop true love." Spying Solari, winked at her. "Hey, cutie. Heard someone's been a good, little Amazon this Solstice season."

Solari caught Xena's glare, had the decency to look guilty. Gabrielle appeared confused. "Wait. If you were trapped in your temple, then how can you know what was - "

"Going down in the village?" Aphrodite asked. There were several muffled snickers from those that had assumed Solari was already working her way beneath another princess' leather skirt. Aphrodite callously waved off the implied innuendo. "Magical fountain, sweetpea. Knows all, sees all."

"Xena - " Solari sent a quick prayer to Artemis and stepped forward to face the music. "About Gabrielle. I hope you know I only - "

" - did everything you had to in order to protect her." Xena offered up a warrior's handclasp. "Thank you." Solari hesitantly took it, then unexpectedly found herself pulled tightly against the warrior princess, Xena's voice low in her ear, "If anything ever happens to me, I want you to - "

Xena's throat uncharacteristically tightened and she was unable to say more.

Solari pulled back from the embrace. Looking the warrior princess in the eye, she gave a curt nod and a whispered, " - I will."

There was an unbearable awkward moment of silence in the Amazon village as no one quite knew what to say or do. Then, Aphrodite stepped up next to Solari and wrapped her arm about the Amazon's waist. "Hey, cutie." She dragged her fingernails across the feathers on Solari's shoulders. "What say we go unwrap your Solstice Eve gift?"

"But - " Solari looked confused. " - I don't think I have a gift - "

"Me, cutie. I meant your gift this Solstice is me." Aphrodite shook her riotous blonde curls and threw back over her shoulder at Gabrielle, "Geez, warriors! How do you stand them?"

Amid catcalls and cheers, Aphrodite led a stunned Solari off while Gabrielle kissed Xena's cracked and healing lips.

Drawing back, she sighed. "Warriors. I think I can stand mine just fine."

"Happy Solstice, Gabrielle," Xena endured the pain of smiling in return. Then, looking up at the Solstice tree, "Um, about your choice for the star . . . "

The End

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