Disclaimer & Notices

Copyright: I do not own the Xena concept and certain characters but the plot is all mine.

Violence: There is violence.

Subtext: I really dislike this disclaimer.

Summary: The sequel to Stranger in a Strange Time. The Conqueror and Queen Gabrielle take their trip to Egypt to meet the powerful Queen Cleopatra. During the trip across the Mediterranean, Gabrielle learns from the Conqueror that her long lost sister, Lila, is still alive and well but a slave. Quickly Gabrielle becomes less concerned about her vacation in Egypt and more about rescuing her sister from Gurkhan. And the Conqueror for the fist time realizes she cannot simply take what she wants because so much is at stake. Can the Conqueror and Gabrielle safely rescue Lila, who may not even want to be freed?

Website: www . redhope . net

Started: March 5, 2007

Ended: June 25, 2007

Series 8: I, Stranger – Story #2

A Stranger in my Family

by Red Hope

Epilogue – The Rosa

The Conqueror stood in front of the large map that was mounted to the wall in her office. She had her arms tightly crossed over her bronze armored chest. She carefully studied the map that depicted her vast empire that spread north, south, east, and west from Corinth. On the map were carefully marked locations of the realm's legions, phalanxes, cavalry, siege weapons, and naval units.

Xena intently surveyed the portion of the map that was Britannia and where several red markers were located. Those markers represented the current rebel militants that'd risen up and were trying to overthrow her regime. The Conqueror had no intent on letting Britannia go as she'd worked far too hard to obtain it so many seasons ago. What she hadn't expected was for the rebel militants to last this long against her legions. The battles had been going on for almost two moons since her return from Africa. Each day, she grew more agitated because she heard nothing but failure or minor wins from Commander Meleager. Xena felt the warrior pulse inside of her, and she held back from riding to Britannia simply because of her family. It was a harder struggle each day for her because the woman inside of her wanted to stay in Corinth but the ruler in her, the warrior wanted to end the worthless battles in Britannia.

The Conqueror had remained in Corinth so that she could help get Lila settled into a new lifestyle. Nor did she want to worry her mother about going to war. Most of all, she secretly feared going before Gabrielle and telling the bard she had to go to Britannia, alone. She undoubtedly knew that Gabrielle would be between upset and angry so Xena just held out.

Xena moved away from the map because she didn't want to keep thinking about the rebellion. It was constantly in her thoughts among other worries and concerns. She took a seat at her sofa and slumped against the back of it with her legs stretched out.

The other concern that kept her from leaving Corinth was the Britannia spies that she had yet to capture. Iolaus had been working on the problem constantly, and each time he was close to nabbing them they'd disappear. The spies were in Corinth that much the Conqueror knew without a doubt. She harbored a deep anger because she couldn't capture the mice when it'd been so easy in the past with previous spies. The fact that these spies were so resourceful and acted like ghosts did not ease the ruler's fears. And if she went to Britannia, would they strike out against her family? She didn't doubt that they would try, and she'd already increased her city patrol to a daunting twenty-five squads that marched the city or guarded the fortress every candlemark.

The Conqueror shook away her thoughts and dropped her head against the sofa. She closed her eyes, and she imagined her lover's face on a whim. A faint smile touched her lips, yet she lost it when she considered the mounting guilt in recent moons. She had yet to tell Gabrielle about Gurkhan's death, and she knew why she'd been deterring the talk. Xena didn't wish to see Gabrielle's reaction or hear what angry words the bard would have for her. Whenever did Xena become so concerned about somebody's reaction or words about what she'd done in life? When did Gabrielle become so much apart of her world? The Conqueror did not have the answers.

There was a quiet but familiar rap at the door, which brought the ruler out of her daze. She assumed a more regal posture and called, "Come in."

The bard slipped into the large office, closed the door, and took in her lover's hidden stress. She felt her heart sink because she knew the rebellion in Britannia was taking a toll. She came over to the coach and took her usual spot beside Xena. "You know, it's getting late."

The ruler knew sunset had been several candlemarks ago, but she had yet to leave her office. She slumped against the sofa again. "You're here late too."

Gabrielle had a lopsided grin at being caught. She'd been spending late hours trying to prepare the new decree for the family name convention, which she had in rough draft mode. She only had a fortnight to finish it up when the Isthmian Games would begin, and Xena would make the decree. "I'm finished, and the candles are snuffed in my office."

Xena briefly studied her partner then quietly asked, "Are you staying tonight?"

The bard had already considered that aspect a candlemark ago so her answer was quick. "Yes, if you don't mind...:?" She knew she didn't have to ask, and she chuckled when her lover rolled those blue eyes. She reached up with her left hand and traced the ruler's jaw line. She leaned up and brought her lips close to Xena's. "I hope you don't mind...?"

The ruler briefly grinned then gave into the soft kiss.

Gabrielle pulled back from the kiss, and she noted something in Xena's eyes. She brushed her fingertips across the ruler's cheek and asked, "What is it?" She tilted her head, and her eyes darkened with curiosity.

The Conqueror turned her head away when she'd given herself away. She was becoming an open scroll to the bard anymore, and she found that hiding her emotions were impossible. She tried to remain in good humor when the bard was near her so that nothing was spotted, but she was tired tonight and weary from stress.

Gabrielle tilted her head back when Xena stood up and walked away from her. She knew something was quite out of place so she popped up from the sofa next. She came up to Xena, who turned to her again. She took Xena's hands into hers and carefully urged, "What is it, Xena?"

The ruler tried to break away from the bard, but she was held in place. She realized she needed to reveal her secret tonight or else the guilt would drive a wedge between them before she knew it. She dipped her head and her eyes became unfocused. She made her choice then centered her gaze on the bard again. "We need to talk about something."

"Alright," Gabrielle gently started, "I'm listening." She squeezed the larger hands in hers.

Xena didn't feel comfortable in her close position by the bard. She had dim features, and she broke away from the bard. She moved a few paces then stopped, but she kept her back to Gabrielle. "I haven't been honest with you."

Gabrielle's stomach dropped, and she carefully neared her lover. She sensed her knees weaken with each step, but Gabrielle held strong. Her imagination reeled out of control about what the ruler could mean by those ambiguous words. She carefully touched Xena's bare arm. "About what?"

Xena glanced at the soft touch on her arm, and she mentally chided herself for being so emotionally weak. She'd survived the most fatal wounds and the deadliest wars known to man, yet she feared Gabrielle's pending reaction. She held her breath then bluntly stated, "I killed Gurkhan."

The bard was still inside and out for an instant, then she dropped her eye contact. Briefly a memory flashed of Xena standing in front of Gurkhan's bed where he rested, paralyzed. She removed her hand from Xena's arm and combed her hair back as the shock hit her. "But you told me..."

"I know," Xena simply replied.

Gabrielle dropped her hand to her side, and the initial shock started to fade away. "Xena, why did you... How could you kill him like that?" She loathed the slaver for what he'd done to her sister, but she never wanted to see his life end in such a manner.

"He was a threat, Gabrielle."

"To what?" The bard hotly argued. "To the realm? He was all the way in Mogador, Xena. He was an insect compared to the size of the realm."

"And insects have a way of biting in the right ways." Xena now stared at her lover's back. "It was due justice for him."

Gabrielle turned around, and the rare fire was back in her eyes. "And you're always the judge, aren't you?"

The Conqueror felt the ice comment go deep below her skin. Gabrielle's reference back to the cross sentencing from moons ago struck her hard. It was one of the many choices in her life she would always hate. She painfully realized it was still a wound in her partner.

Gabrielle's anger instantly died when she read the regret in the ruler's eyes. She cursed herself for bringing up old history that they'd moved past, or so she'd thought. She quickly tried to recover and neared the ruler, who would shut her out any heartbeat now. "Xena?"

The Conqueror sensed the bard's gentle touches on her arms, but she carefully slipped away from Gabrielle.

Gabrielle moved swiftly and pulled Xena back to her. "I'm sorry. I was wrong to say that."

Xena had her head turned away, she was still, and she let her lover hold her in place. She hoarsely whispered, "No... it's true."

"It was true," the bard corrected. "I'm angry, and I snapped. You made another choice without me." She loosened her hold on Xena's left arm but ran her hand up and down slowly in soothing motion. "Nor do I think you killing him was the answer. Now his blood rests on your hands."

"My hands will never be clean, Gabrielle." Xena shook her head. "Not in this lifetime."

Gabrielle's shoulders slumped, but she pursued the topic anyway. "I know you'll always be a warrior first and a ruler second. You can do both for the Greater Good."

"You know that, and I know that, Gabrielle." Xena hesitated and tried to find her words that would explain how she felt about Gurkhan's death. "My methods may not always be peaceful or gentle like yours, but I know if I left Gurkhan to live that he'd continue to strengthen the slave market."

The bard dipped her head and considered what her partner meant. She couldn't argue the fact that Gurkhan would probably never stop what he was doing as a slaver. She also agreed that despite Xena's methods could be dark they also ended with positive conclusions that were lighter. Gabrielle sighed and murmured, "Fight fire with fire."

The Conqueror could tell that Gabrielle was starting to understand her way. "I didn't want to tell you my plans while we were in the palace."

"We would have argued," the bard summarized. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

Xena looked away from her lover, then she slipped past the bard. She went to the tall, open window at the opposite end of her office. She folded her arms and stared out over her torch lit capitol city.

Gabrielle slightly hung her head; she thought out what it could be that bothered her partner. She lifted her head and studied the ruler's flickering profile in the dark spot by the window. She slowly neared Xena once she realized what had been holding Xena back all these moons. "You had the choice to never tell me, and I would have been none the wiser."

The Conqueror shifted some and leaned against the corner of the window. She continued to stare out at the city. "I didn't want to hide it from you, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle gently touched her lover's nearby, bare arm. "Thank you," she sincerely stated. She found confused blue eyes directed at her now. "You've never answered to anybody." She carefully studied the ruler's eyes, and she was able to piece together the underlying emotions in the ruler. Gabrielle quickly figured out that Xena had been afraid to tell her, and Gabrielle felt herself lighten because of the simple fact that Xena confessed to her. "You don't know what it means to me that you told me."

Xena swallowed then turned her head away. She was silent for awhile then softly mentioned, "I fear it'll only take a simple moment of betrayal, and we'll be at odds again with each other." She leaned her head against the window's stone frame. "The Conqueror and the Rebel Gabrielle again." She sensed Gabrielle's soothing hand motion over her arm, but she kept speaking. "I don't want to be in that place again. I don't want to tear the realm to pieces because it will do just that. And our families..." She closed her eyes at the thought of her and Gabrielle's tangled families going through such a battle.

"Xena, we're not going to that place again." The former rebel leader shifted around some until she had a better view of Xena's face. "You've changed too much for it."

The Conqueror peered down at the bard. "What if-"

"What if what?" Gabrielle cut off. "What if's don't matter."

Xena's mind skipped to the rebellion up in Britannia, and she could only guess how Gabrielle felt about it. She and Gabrielle hadn't spoken much about it and only glazed past it in a very formal setting. Xena was squashing a similar rebellion that Gabrielle may have called upon moons back if things had been different.

"What if..." Xena saw how Gabrielle prepared to stop her. She held up her hand some and waited until Gabrielle held her words. "If I become that monster again... or you find out that I never really lost that monster then it's possible we'll be at odds." She lowered her hand. "There's no way we won't end up on opposite sides."

"And I understand you can use that dark side to help the Greater Good. You can take advantage of it... turn a negative into a positive." Gabrielle felt her heart speed up. She never wanted to return to the way her and Xena were, and she believed they never would do it. "I won't fight you again."

The Conqueror absorbed the devoted words from Gabrielle. She sensed her walls crumbling, and she had to say her next words no matter what it would bring. She fully turned to Gabrielle and clutched Gabrielle's shoulders tightly. She slightly bowed her head then whispered, "I'll need you to fight me."

Gabrielle instantly became angry, and her eyes brimmed. A deep growl came from her throat, and she forcefully shoved the ruler away some. "No," she hotly yelled. She stepped back once to break her physical contact. "I won't."

"But you need to, Gabrielle," the Conqueror softly spoke. She lowered her hands to her sides. "No matter how much it'll hurt you."

"And I'm suppose to ignore that fact, right?" the bard snapped. "When do my emotions ever account for anything? All my life I have tried to find the happiness and hope in the darkest of corners. Just when I feel that my life is getting lighter, you ask me to do this?"

Xena waited a beat and let the bard catch her breath. She simply replied, "And what of my emotions too?" She saw how Gabrielle's shoulders fell. She and Gabrielle have struggled through life and tried to find the goodness in life. Gabrielle was different in the fact she clung to it while Xena gave into the darkness. "This isn't about us, Gabrielle." She cautiously stepped forward. "This is about the realm...the people."

Gabrielle hung her head when Xena's last words struck an old cord. She'd become the rebel leader for the people and to save the realm from the tyranny that the Conqueror brought onto them. It was an old fire in her heart, but it wasn't a dead fire, and it never would die.

The ruler easily detected that fire in the bard again. She knew it was deeply buried inside of Gabrielle, but she felt it alive just as Xena felt it the day Gabrielle stood before her during the cross sentence. The Conqueror felt a cold chill ripple down her back at the memory of Gabrielle's powerful defiance so many moons back. The Conqueror could still bask in the titan struggle between her power and the rebel's will.

Gabrielle raised her head up when strong hands were on her shoulders again. She softened when she felt she gazed upon the skies in Xena's eyes. "I don't want to lose us."

Xena moved her right hand and gently touched the bard's cheek. "I'm not planning on it, but I am planning on the realm's safety... with every measure. You're my best weapon."

Gabrielle quickly lifted her right hand and pressed it against the ruler's chest. She felt the heavy beat of Xena's heart. "This is your best weapon."

Xena found no argument. She lowered her head closer and searched the bard's emotional eyes. She merely whispered, "And you gave it back to me."

Gabrielle closed her eyes when Xena's lips met hers. She became more emotional thanks to Xena's last words. She began to cry in the middle of the sweet kiss. Xena pulled back and carefully moved her hand about to rid of the tears. Gabrielle also brushed them away.

The Conqueror shifted and managed an arm across the bard's shoulders. "It's late."

The Amazon Queen silently agreed, and she was guided out of the room.

As the couple made their slow walk to the door, the candles extinguished one by one until the rulers quietly slipped out of the room. The Conqueror's office became pitch black except for the faint glow coming through the open window thanks to the city torchlight.

The days in Corinth quickly moved by and a fortnight came with an abrupt decree and announcement. The Conqueror issued that the Isthmian Games were to begin, and she took Gabrielle's last name convention scroll into her hands. The final copy had been prepared for the court, and the Conqueror stood up at the start of court. She'd unraveled the long, step by step scroll, and the Conqueror made the last name convention a new decree throughout the entire realm. The court silently listened to each word Gabrielle, the head of the polis, had carefully written over the moons. They advisors couldn't help but be impressed by Gabrielle's carefully thought out plans for the family name convention. After the reading, nobody protested the Conqueror's decree and returned a favor to fulfill it within the allotted time that Gabrielle had set forth.

After the day's work and opening of the Isthmian Games, the Conqueror stole away in Cyrene's closed taverna. She had a mug of her mother's homemade ale in her hands, and she quietly sat at an empty table.

Cyrene finished wiping down her bar after today's insane business. It was very late at night, but she was grateful for such wonderful business thanks to the Isthmian Games. She tossed her rag onto the counter, and she came over to her daughter.

The Conqueror's worn expression visibly showed, and her posture was slouched, which was so unbecoming of her normal form.

"Go home, little one." Cyrene sat down and studied her child's exhaustion. "I'm sure Gabrielle is waiting for you."

Xena grunted and leaned back in her chair. "She was busy still talking back at the coliseum."

"You both have been working too hard," Cyrene argued.

"Such is our rulerships," the Conqueror reminded.

Cyrene sighed and rested back in her chair. "Another vacation is far from sight huh?"

"Afraid so." Xena carefully drank from her mug then she lowered it to the table again. "How does Lila fair here?"

Cyrene softly smiled at how well Lila had been progressing. She was grateful for the extra help in her taverna along side Melpomene, Xavier, and her regular barmaid. "Lila is doing well. I think she's getting settled into the house finally."

"Her nightmares are lessening?"

Cyrene considered it after the moons. "Yes." She smiled and nodded. "And Sarah is getting a new routine."

Xena chuckled and joked, "It won't be long before Sarah switches routines again."

"That child will be a handful," the mother commented, "mark my words."

"Sarah won't compare to me when I was a child," the ruler teased.

Cyrene chuckled and shook her head. "You may be right there, daughter."

Xena softly laughed too, and she took a sip of her ale. She set the mug down then brought up a topic she'd be meaning to for awhile. "We have to pick out a family name, mother."

Cyrene became more serious when she heard the topic. "Gabrielle mentioned you made the decree today. Did it go over well?"

"Surprisingly yes, but I think that's due to Gabrielle's efforts to make it go smoothly. She put a lot of detail into the design and procedure."

"She was working hard at it," Cyrene conceded. "She told me there are some steps to picking out one's family name and who can fall under it."

Xena nodded then carefully considered her words. "I would prefer to have Toris here."

Cyrene understood what her daughter meant. She sighed and softly argued, "And I would love for him to be here to help us select the name." She paused then honestly stated, "But you have been the man in this family. You've been providing to us all."

"I think you've held your own, mother." The Conqueror knew her mother wouldn't argue the point. Since the day Cyrene opened the taverna, she hadn't asked Xena for any money and now became the owner of the taverna instead of just the proprietor. "It's our choice... Toris will have to just like the family name he's given."

Cyrene shook her head, but she was amused by Xena's words. She sobered and asked, "Have you any ideas?"

"I'm more concerned about who falls under our family," the ruler argued.

Cyrene bit her lower lip. She understood her daughter's concerns because Gabrielle and Xena's families were so intertwined anymore. Sometimes it seemed hard to understand where the families separated if at all. "Have you and Gabrielle discussed about having separate family names?"

"Gabrielle realizes that she and I cannot carry the same family names. The decree won't allow it." Xena slightly bowed her head because she disliked that discussion with Gabrielle. It'd been a hard choice between them because Cyrene had become Gabrielle's mother during Gabrielle's childhood. "We're not blood."

Cyrene raised an eyebrow that mimicked Xena's technique. "And it would publicly ruin your relationship since that'd make you sisters."

The Conqueror smirked and joked, "Since when did politics matter to me?" She lost her smirk and switched back to the seriousness. "There is one way to make sure Gabrielle carries our family name later on."

Cyrene tilted her head and wondered what plan her daughter had in mind.

Xena couldn't believe she'd considered this earlier, but she had to discuss it with her mother. She took a drink of her ale first then proceeded to dive into the topic. "Gabrielle wanted to make sure that every family was distinguished from another and that it wouldn't get diluted over time. Nobody is allowed to switch family names."

"So that it'd be easier on the polis," Cyrene agreed.

The ruler nodded but explained, "Gabrielle did make one loophole. If a couple decides to marry then the wife is allowed to take on the husband's family name. The polis will discourage it heavily by financially taxing both sides of the family for the scrollwork to change family names. Also each family must agree to release the wife of her proper family name and take on the husband's family name."

Cyrene sat quiet for a beat. She took in each word her daughter revealed and what it added up to in simple form. She breathed heavily and softly stated, "You and Gabrielle will marry."

Xena was silent and tried to absorb those defining words that her mother spoke. She and Gabrielle never spoke of marriage, and Xena hadn't asked why Gabrielle left that loophole in the family naming decree. She didn't question it, and she would only ask later down the road if it'd been a subconscious loophole on Gabrielle's part or not.

Cyrene reached across the table and took Xena's hand into hers. "How serious is this?"

The Conqueror lowered her eyes and studied the ale in her mug. "I'm not sure yet." She peered over at her mother again. "It's too early to tell yet." She bowed her head and bit her lower lip as a few thoughts came to mind.

Cyrene felt something in the air, and she cautiously urged, "What is it?"

"I fear that someday I'll lose Gabrielle to my own darkness. If she get's any closer something could hurt her."

"She knows the risks... you know the risks," Cyrene debated. "I doubt though that your darkness will ever drive a wedge between you two. It already tried to, and it failed... didn't it?"

Xena sadly smiled at her mother's true words.

Cyrene squeezed her daughter's hand and softly mentioned, "The time to fear about such things is when you stop worrying about such things."

Xena was confused briefly, but she pieced it together quickly. If she let go of her guard and self conscious about her actions and words in life, like she had before Gabrielle, then she'd be back to the darkness. As long as she remained aware of herself then she would always have control. Xena had stopped caring about her actions in life after Lyceus died and that's when her anger was released.

Cyrene could tell that Xena understood. She released Xena's hand and patted it. "As far as you and Gabrielle marrying, you have my blessing for it... when you're ready."

Xena lost all of her coldness at her mother's enduring words. She smiled warmly, and her eyes glowed. "I pray I'll have a reason for your blessing."

Cyrene knew that was Xena's hidden way of saying she wanted to marry Gabrielle in the future. She felt wonderful at the thought, but she agreed it was too soon to tell. There was still some healing left between Lila and Gabrielle's time as the rebel. Gabrielle had told her about the Gurkhan argument from a fortnight ago, and how Gabrielle snapped at Xena about the cross sentence again. Cyrene believed Gabrielle reacted out of anger more than vengeance from the past, but Gabrielle didn't believe it. The bard was utterly self-conscious about what she'd said to the Conqueror that night in the office, and it plagued her greatly. It was the simple fact that Gabrielle was so self-conscious about it that made Cyrene more positive that it would work out okay.

"What of Melpomene and Xavier?" Cyrene brought up.

The Conqueror felt that her thoughts had been read by her mother. She wanted to have Xavier and Melpomene adopted into families since neither of them had their parents left or known blood family. "Gabrielle and I talked a bit about it. She thinks that we should adopt Melpomene, then she and Lila will take Xavier."

Cyrene instantly smiled at the idea. "I think it's perfect." She then continued to talk to Xena about the official family name that would follow them throughout the generations.

The family name decree ordered that each family followed certain guidelines when they chose their family name. Today was the marker that wives completely became the husband's family, and that there would be no other moment that wives could take on the husband's family name. It was a quick and easy way to cut out the headaches. The children all fell under the husband's family name. Next, the oldest living father in the family would reign over the name selection. If the grandfather was still alive then his selection would supersede the son's and so on. Finally, the eldest father's name could be used to represent the family name plus the eldest father could reference their name to their tradesman. To follow this, the eldest father was required to add a suffix that described where they were from in the realm. For both Xena and Gabrielle, the suffix to their family name had to end with an "as" or "is" for Macedonia.

Cyrene and Xena spoke late into the night about their family name. They both quickly agreed not to take on Atrius's name for the family name. Xena wanted to use Cyrene's name as the basis for the family name, but Cyrene argued that she wasn't the husband of the family. She only gave in when she lost the battle against Xena's words. Cyrene had been the father to the family for all of her children's lives, and Xena wouldn't have it any other way.

After the long discussion, Xena and Cyrene decided on the family name they would use. They planned to talked to Melpomene later and acquire her agreement to enter their family. Xena bid her mother goodnight and slowly made the trek back to the fortress. She was quite weary and ready for a long night's rest if she would be allowed it. She doubted it though because the games would begin again at first light, and she had to be there to precede over them.

Gabrielle was coming out of the washroom, her hair wet, and she spotted her lover coming in the door. "You were out late."

The Conqueror moved away from the now closed door. She admired her lover in the silk, white rob that she'd picked out for Gabrielle ages ago. "I was with mother."

"I'm sure she's exhausted like the rest of us." Gabrielle caught Xena's chuckle, which told her it was true. She cross the room, and she came to her tiptoes when she was next to Xena. She placed a soft kiss to the ruler's full lips. She then moved away and went to the ruler's closest where Gabrielle would toss her belongings whenever she came for the nights.

The Conqueror was dressed in her warrior attire, which was most regal with the extra gold accessories. She would never wear so much in battle, but she had to dress the part for the Isthmian Games. Tomorrow she could switch to her Chin style dress that she preferred for such events.

Gabrielle was knelt beside her three bags in the open closest. She kept rummaging through her things, but she paused and glared at the bags. "I always forget to bring something from Cyrene's." She quietly cursed under her breath and brushed back a few loose, wet strands.

The Conqueror unclipped her sheathed sword from her back and propped it up against the wall, near her bed.

The bard grumbled and hotly stated, "It'd be so much easier if I had everything in one place." She yanked a leather pack out of the closest and rummaged through it again.

Xena pressed her lips together tightly as she considered the bard's words. She freed her chakram and hooked it in her sword's cross-guard. She turned around and coolly remarked, "You could always move all your belongings here."

Gabrielle immediately stopped then repeated the Conqueror's words in her head. She had weakened knees, but she stood up and turned towards the ruler. "Was that a serious offer?"

Xena remained still briefly, then she came over to her lover. She hooked Gabrielle's chin with her index finger and tilted Gabrielle's head back. "It's a serious offer." She wouldn't leave any room for questioning about whether she was being honest or not.

Gabrielle completely lost her earlier annoyance. She smiled and took Xena's hand from her face. She held tightly to the ruler's hand. "I would love to." She crinkled up her nose when Xena showed her own smile.

And it was the right time for Gabrielle to move out of Cyrene's home. Lila had become accustom to her new life, and Sarah took on a regular routine to her days. Cyrene's home was becoming rather cramped since Lila, Sarah, and Xavier had moved in now. Gabrielle had often considered asking Xena whether she could move into one of the bedchambers, but she never brought it up because she wanted to help her sister adjust. Now it seemed as if it was time for Gabrielle to move out, and Gabrielle was excited it was into Xena's bedchambers.

The next day brought on the second day of the exciting Isthmian Games. Corinth was breeched at its walls with visitors from all over the realm. The Isthmian Games were almost as famous as the Olympic Games once were in Athens. The people also heard rumor about the Conqueror releasing about two thousand slaves from their bonds for building the Corinth Canal that connected the two seas and would bring more trade to the city. The main bridges had been built, and the Conqueror started the grand opening for the canal. A show of a hundred dressed triremes was made, and they traveled down the canal for the christening of the canal. Finally, the Conqueror made the waited announcement to free the slaves that'd worked on the canal, which left gasps on all the people's lips except for two people. Gabrielle and Cyrene had shared knowing smiles and were filled with pride at the growth and change the Conqueror showed before the realm.

The Isthmian Games lasted for a fortnight, and the last day would go on throughout the day and night until sunup. The city would never sleep, and the people had higher spirits than they could ever recall. The Conqueror felt the life in her people. She couldn't ignore it. She couldn't hide the fact that she enjoyed seeing her people this happy. Gabrielle had been right all along.

On the last day of the Isthmian Games, Gabrielle found herself headed down the hallway to her office. It was late morning, and she promised Xena that she'd show up at the coliseum by early afternoon for the games. She had some work to do quickly in her office before she could go. Tomorrow would be the usual court day, and Gabrielle wanted to make sure the next step of the family name convention went smoothly. Tomorrow the Conqueror would be the first to acquire and record her family name, next would be Gabrielle, and then it would move down the power chain. Also the people would begin to pour into their local civil offices to have their family names acquired and recorded.

The bard slipped into her quiet office, and she came closer to her desk. She stopped beside her desk, and she furrowed her eyebrows. She stared at the unexpected but beautiful object on her desk.

In the left corner of the desk, closest to Gabrielle, a long-stemmed rosa proudly stood up in a red, clay vase. The rosa was a soft, gentle yellow but the tips of the pedals were a rich red that matched the vase.

Gabrielle was awestruck, and she stared at the rosa for awhile. She finally lifted her hand and gingerly touched the pedals. She thought it was unreal yet the pedals were soft to the touch. She then leaned over and inhaled the unique, gentle scent of the rosa.

Gabrielle then noticed the small piece of parchment that rested beside the vase. She picked up the piece and read the precise handwriting that she grown familiar to seeing now that she worked with Xena. She smiled and quietly read the words aloud. "Like the first rosa of the Summer Solstice, you're the first love of my heart."

Gabrielle always thought herself the poetic bard, but she lost her words against Xena's short yet deeply telling words. She traced her fingertips over Xena's signed name at the bottom of the beautiful words. She gazed back at the beautiful rosa on her desk.

There was no question that the bard and the ruler needed to have a serious talk later. The bard had kept her emotions quite confidential other than telling Cyrene on occasions. She knew that Cyrene wouldn't divulge anything to Xena, yet she began to wonder what Xena may be saying to Cyrene. Gabrielle was starting to point her finger at Cyrene for matchmaking skills.

Today didn't lend to Gabrielle and Xena getting any private time. The Isthmian Games stole all of their time, and they retired to their bedchambers rather late. Gabrielle had mentioned the beautiful rosa and repeatedly thanked her lover for it. It was obvious that Xena had been nervous about giving it along with the accompanying note.

The following day became much calmer, but the court took much of their time. Gabrielle initiated her procedures to take on the family names that the people had selected for the past fortnight. The first record was the Conqueror's name and family name followed by her living family members such as Cyrene, Toris, and Melpomene. To follow Xena's family was the next in the power position, who was the head of state or rather Gabrielle. The bard recorded her family name and proceeded it with Lila, Sarah, and Xavier's names for her family. Afterwards the other advisors in the court entered their family names and members.

The process took much of Gabrielle's day. She then had to leave the fortress and go to the two civil offices at opposite ends of the city. She spoke to the officials in charge and gave them the procedures to collecting and recording the people's family names. In a moon, the process would spread out to the other cities in the realm and eventually to the countryside. It would be a long endeavor, but a worth wild one in Gabrielle's eyes.

By the evening, the Conqueror finished work earlier than Gabrielle, which was a rare occurrence. She snuffed out her candles then snuck away into the bard's office next door. She was called in, and she softly smiled at the rosa on the bard's desk.

Gabrielle peered up from her scrollwork and smiled at her lover. "Done huh?"

"And you're not?" the ruler teased.

The Amazon Queen groaned and leaned back into her chair. "I'm at a stopping point." She tilted her head and mentioned, "I need to pick up Sarah later. You're sure about her staying for the night?"

"I'm sure." Xena took a seat at chair in front of the bard's desk. "I just don't change her clothes when she messes."

Gabrielle smirked. "You say that now, but if I left you with her..."

"I don't think so," the ruler shot back and grinned. She glanced out the window by the bard's desk and saw that the sun was sneaking towards the west. "How about a walk on the beach, then we get Sarah?" She turned her head back to the bard.

Gabrielle glowed at the idea. "I'm up for that." She decided her scrollwork could wait until tomorrow. She hastily rolled it up, set her quill in the inkwell, and she popped out of the seat.

The bemused ruler led her partner out of the office, fortress, and finally into the busy streets of Corinth. The couple weaved through the people and streets and finally made it to the edge of the port. They slipped past the people and made it onto the beach, which had some other couples walking about on it. The Conqueror and Gabrielle stole away from the crowds by walking further down the beach than most.

Xena came to a stop when they were far away from the other beachcombers. She also saw that the sunset would be soon. She neared a long stone that was buried in the beach. She sat and straddled it then patted the open space.

Gabrielle took the signal and sat down too. She sat between the ruler's leg, and she propped her legs up on the remaining length of the long rock. She then felt strong hands pull her shoulders back. The bard melted into the ruler's warm body and cool armor behind her.

The Conqueror wrapped her arms around her lover's trim waist. "The start of the family name went well."

Gabrielle smiled at the praise. "It did, but it'll hit some bumps along the way."

"Only a few, I imagine," the ruler argued. "You've done well for your first decree."

"It's not complete yet." Gabrielle twisted her head and partially showed her grin. "I do like your family name you chose."

"I had help," the ruler admitted.

"Well I figured you had to get Cyrene's permission." Gabrielle softly laughed. "I'm glad you adopted Melpomene. I think that meant a lot to her."

The Conqueror couldn't agree more. "Plus she still can call you aunt."

The bard chuckled and shook her head. "I suppose so." She leaned her head against the ruler's broad shoulder. "I wanted to ask you about something."

Xena sensed the pending topic coming to the surface. She had a knotty stomach, yet she urged, "Yes?"

Gabrielle bit her lower lip, then she pressed forward. "Why the rosa?" She couldn't see Xena's face so she turned around on the rock and faced her lover. "That was incredibly romantic, Xena... and meaningful."

"And you want to understand the meaningful part?"

Gabrielle simply nodded her head. She took Xena's hands into hers, and she noted Xena's palms were somewhat damp, which was strange. Gabrielle peered up into hesitant, blue eyes. "I'll tell you a secret first, Xena."

Xena was about to argue, but Gabrielle stopped her.

"It's okay." The bard squeezed her lover's hands. She took a deep breath then softly spoke over the light sea breeze in the air. "The rosa has been the sweetest gesture ever given to me. It was so simple yet so complex too... just like you, I know that." Gabrielle ran her thumb over her lover's right hand. "Kind of like us, and how I feel about you."

The Conqueror lowered her head some and sadly smiled at the bard's words.

"We're past the honeymoon stage, right?" Gabrielle questioned, and Xena nodded her answer. "I didn't know what to expect after that stage, but I wasn't expecting to feel this much." She released Xena's left hand and brought her freehand to the ruler's cheek. She grazed over Xena's high cheekbones and defining jaw line. She traced the full lips that she loved to kiss. "I can't hide anymore, Xena. The more I see of you behind the ruler's mask, the more I feel." She searched Xena's sky blue eyes, and Gabrielle finally whispered, "I know it now. I'm falling in love with you, Xena."

Xena lowered her head quickly and sought out Gabrielle's lips. She released a whimper that she'd never done before when she felt Gabrielle's lips against hers.

Gabrielle was briefly overpowered by the emotional kiss from her lover. She quickly recovered and returned the unexpected passion. She then felt her cheeks dampen from warm tears that were not her own. She pulled back in shock when she realized Xena was crying.

"Xena?" The bard hastily wiped away the ruler's crystal tears that shined in the sunset. Gabrielle's heart sunk at such emotions clearly displayed on Xena's face. Gabrielle had never witnessed such a scene, and she was unsure how to deal with it. "Xena?"

The Conqueror tried to close her eyes and turn her head away. Gabrielle refused to let her move away. She finally gave in and hid her face in the bard's small hands.

Gabrielle lost her heart again to Xena. She lowered her head closer and pulled Xena into a tender kiss. She tasted the piercing salt, which slowly subsided in the long kiss. She slightly pulled back and huskily asked, "Tell me you're okay?"

"I'm far better than okay," Xena hoarsely replied. She lifted her head and showed her eyes that were bright from emotions. She shook her head then whispered, "You broke my darkness, left me helpless, and wrapped me in humanity again. I owe you my heart."

"No," Gabrielle softly fought, "you owe me nothing."

Xena knew the bard would say as such. She sadly smiled and gently promised, "It can't be undone, Gabrielle... you had my heart the day you defied my darkness. I know that now."

Gabrielle quickly reclaimed the ruler's lips. She had a wild heartbeat that matched her emotions. She realized that it'd been the right time to reveal her secret to Xena. Xena fully met her emotions in the long, tender kiss.

The lovers slowly separated after several kisses. Gabrielle then shifted around until she faced the last of the sunset. She was snuggled deep in Xena's protective arms. She felt stress of keeping her secret now leave her. She couldn't feel more amazing than she did now. There wasn't much else in her life that she could ask for now that she had Lila, Sarah, and Xena's love.

Eventually after the sunset, the couple wandered back down the beach and went into the city. They stopped by Cyrene's house and picked up Sarah along with the baby's seeming endless supplies. Xena carried all the baby supplies while she let Gabrielle carry Little Sarah, who was wearing a cute outfit that her Auntie Gabby had bought not long ago.

Xena unloaded the three packs in the bedchambers then moved aside her small table from the lion fur on the floor. She could tell Gabrielle was grateful because the bard lowered Sarah onto the fur.

Sarah required a bath in a candlemark then her bedtime would soon follow. Until then, she planned to play with her Auntie Gabby.

The Conqueror kissed her lover on the cheek, mentioned she had to go to the office briefly, and that she'd be back soon with dinner.

Gabrielle quickly returned the kiss and focused back on her niece. She listened to Xena's quiet departure then she played with Sarah.

The Conqueror had been gone for about a half of a candlemark. She returned to the closed doors of the bedchambers and paused. She instantly picked out Sarah's upset cries behind the doors and Gabrielle trying to coo the child. Xena smirked because Gabrielle's coos weren't winning Sarah over at all.

Xena briefly glanced at the tray of warm food in her hands. She knew if Sarah didn't settle down then she and Gabrielle would be having a cold dinner. She made a decision and shoved open the doors.

Gabrielle heard her partner's return, but she was too focused on her crying niece in her arms. She was seated on the sofa and tried to rock the baby in her arms. "It's okay, Sarah. Come on."

The ruler set the tray down on the small table that she'd shoved aside earlier. She crinkled her nose at the child's piercing cries.

The bard shook her head and looked at Xena. "I've fed her, checked her, and she still is upset. I don't know why." She frowned at the fact she couldn't calm her niece.

The Conqueror quickly came over and bent down. She held out her hands. "Let me." She saw Gabrielle's doubtful features so she ordered, "Come on."

Gabrielle stood up and stepped closer to her lover. She carefully transferred Sarah into her lover's arms.

Xena adjusted the crying baby into her strong arms. She naturally held the baby as if Sarah was her own child.

Gabrielle was stunned at how easily Xena went into a maternal mode. She hadn't expected such a display, but she still waited for whatever trick Xena had up her gauntlet that would help quiet Sarah.

Xena crooned at the baby while she moved away from Gabrielle. She smiled tenderly at the baby in her arms, then her voice softened and lightened to a beautiful pitch. She soon began to sing a baby's song to Little Sarah.

Gabrielle's jaw loosened and her mouth was wide. She never had a clue that her lover could sing so beautifully. "By the gods," she rasped and sunk into the sofa with complete shock.

Xena slowly walked around the large bedchambers and continued her gentle song. "Everywhere that Sarah went, Sarah went, Sarah went. Everywhere that Sarah went, her lamb was sure to go." Xena paused for a breath then softly continued, "It followed her to school one day, school one day, school one day. It followed her to school one day that was against the rule."

The bard was shaking her head, but she couldn't help but be soothed by Xena's beautiful voice. She realized that Sarah's cries were silent now and all that remained was Xena's song.

"It made the children laugh and play, laugh and play, laugh and play. It made the children laugh and play to see a lamb at school."

Gabrielle was dazzled, but her mind quickly caught up to the song. It was the same exact song that Cyrene sung to her when she was a child and had nightmares. Cyrene would hear the bard's cries at night, and Cyrene would come to the bard's room and sing her the song to lull her back to her dreamscape.

Xena had finished the song, but she continued to softly hum and slowly circle around the room while she rocked the now sleeping baby.

Gabrielle climbed to her feet and crossed the short distance to her partner.

Xena stood in place but rocked the baby still. "I think she can have her bath tomorrow."

The bard grinned and nodded. "I think so too," she murmured back. "She was just tired."

"Eat, sleep, and changings... that's all they want at this age," the ruler softly declared. She then made the slow trip to Sarah's small crib that Gabrielle had picked up from Lila awhile ago.

Gabrielle had a silly smile on her face. She watched Xena carefully slip Sarah into the crib. The bard then adjusted the blanket over Sarah and kissed her niece on the forehead. "Goodnight, cutie." She straightened up to see Xena's tender features.

"Dinner time for us." Xena held out her hand.

Gabrielle collapsed the ruler's large hand and followed her back to the sofa and skewed table. She soon was sitting down to a warm meal and conversation with her lover. Gabrielle was eating some feta and mentioned, "I never knew you could sing."

The Conqueror smirked and stated, "I have many skills."

The bard chuckled and teased, "It seems maternal instincts are one of the many."

"Hmmm." Xena bowed her head as she collected the warm soup bowl from the tray. "I have some experience."

Gabrielle was slightly confused by what Xena meant. She paused from getting another piece of flatbread.

"I often had to take care of Lyceus," Xena filled in, "when we were young. Mother was always busy with the taverna."

The bard now ripped the bread apart and sat up with her piece. She understood what Xena meant because she'd cared for Lila at certain times when her mom was too busy with the farm and garden.

The couple reeled into their childhoods and shared some old memories. They laughed together and enjoyed the light conversation. Slowly they made their way to bed after snuffing out the candles. Gabrielle checked on Sarah one last time then curled up in bed with her lover. She was fast asleep like Sarah once she was in Xena's arms. Gabrielle's dreams that night were quite strange in nature.

The Conqueror slept lightly that night because of her dark dreams. She had surfacing memories from her early days in Chin and when she first met Lao Ma. The memory filled dreams ran further to when Xena traveled to the Land of the Rising Sun then later to India where she earned her legendary chakram. It was a stage of her life that Xena had long set aside, and tonight it consumed her dreams. The memories were somewhat diluted by the dream and odd in nature. Xena could make little sense of them when she woke up in the early morning.

Xena slipped out of bed silently and made sure not to wake Gabrielle or Sarah. She suspected Sarah would be up soon and get her aunt up too. She quickly pulled on her leathers, wired armor, and hooked her cape into place. She scooped up her sword and locked chakram and headed for the door. Xena left the bedchambers and hurried down the hallway towards her office. As she walked down the hall, she easily hooked her chakram into its home followed by her sheathed sword.

The Conqueror entered her dim office and quickly lit a few candles to help her see until the sun was completely up. She went behind her desk, sunk into the desk chair, and stared at her scrollwork. Was she really up to the work just yet? The dreams more or less made her want to do some sword drills to burn off her anxiety. Xena would just have to wait until full sunup before she could call out the squads for practice.

The ruler pulled out a scroll from her in-basket. She unrolled it, set it down, and stared at it. She slumped back in her chair and positioned her elbow on the right chair arm. She lowered her head to her hand when a faint headache started behind her eyes.

A soft moan left her lips, and Xena rubbed the bridge of her nose. She rarely ever woke up with a headache. She closed her eyes and tried to will her headache away, but without her notice, Xena's eyes grew heavier each heartbeat. Gradually the Conqueror lifted her head, dropped it back against the chair, and her eyes completely shut.

The Conqueror, Xena Archyrenis of Amphipolis, surrounded to her dreamscape without a fight.

After the ruler of the largest empire drifted asleep, a very light, feminine voice softly floated through the office. "Sweet dreams." Then several girlish giggles quickly followed the enthusiastic words.

The End.