Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence –Well… this is a more or less violence lite story. Now.. you've got Xena in it, and Amazons, and Gabrielle with that staff.. so it's not all sweetness and light, but no one gets their heads cut off in this one. (Sorry MaryD)

Subtext - Do I really still have to disclaimer subtext? Someone asked me if I thought Xena: Warrior Princess was a romantic show. My answer was, when a show has one main character state in no uncertain terms to the other main character that she would rather die at her side than live without her, that show cannot be defined as anything less than a romantic tale. Yeah, there's subtext.. maintext… under the table text.. whatever you wanna call it.

This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more. That never changes.. for those of you who are waiting for me to stick in a rip roaring, no holds barred graphic orgy scene, make sure you have plenty of coffee and doughnuts handy. And a comfortable chair.

So - having read this lovely disclaimer, if you then read the story, and are shocked that Gabrielle and Xena are kissing each other, I can't help ya. If you're offended by it, send me your address, and I'll send you a bushel of citrus. We like to send that from here - we have to get rid of all of it somehow.

Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:


Festival - Part 8

By Melissa Good

It took her a while, but Gabrielle finally found her target, hiding away near a shady rock overhang, ostensibly fishing. How she was fishing lying down tossing pebbles in the water, the bard found it hard to imagine, but.. She paused for a long moment, just watching her partner. Xena's eyes were unfocused, and her hand motions were mechanical, as though her thoughts were a million leagues away, and it took her seemingly forever until she blinked, and turned her head towards where the bard was standing.

"Hey." Xena greeted her quietly. "How long have you been here?"

The bard smiled, and picked her way down the rocks, with Ares following her to join the warrior in her little dell. Xena was resting on her side, and Gabrielle settled down right in the curve of her body, draping one arm across her soulmate's thighs, and the other over her shoulder. "Not long." She answered. "Just a minute or two." Green eyes studied her partner quietly. "You were pretty deep in thought… anything you'd like to share?"

Xena exhaled, and gave her a rueful look and a shrug. "Wish there was… I've just been kind of looking out at the water for a while.. watching the ripples." How's that for a lame answer, huh? I was just lying here daydreaming.. I think I'm losing it. "Wasn't thinking of anything in particular.

The twilight was fading, and the water was mostly dark shadows with the occasional glimmer. Off to their left, an owl hooted softly, and Gabrielle could smell apple blossoms on the cool evening breeze. At the edge of her hearing, she detected a faint sound of drums from the village, and realized they were probably starting to gather for dinner. "It's pretty out here." She took a deep breath. "Mm… smell that?"

Xena dutifully sucked in air. "Water, mud, rocks, two frogs, three birds, figs, and…. " She closed one eye judiciously. "An apple tree."

Gabrielle leaned back, and gave her an affectionate look. "You're such a brat sometimes." She gently tickled the warrior behind her knee.

"So are you." The taller woman responded, getting her on the back of her neck and making her giggle. They shared a smile, and then Xena stretched, and stifled a yawn. "Time to go back for dinner, huh?" The thought of spending the evening in the company of Amazons made her head spin, for some reason, but she patiently waited for Gabrielle to answer anyway.

The bard considered the question. "Yeah… I guess." She slid down a little, until her head was resting against Xena's hip and looked up at the sky, which was beginning to come alive with a curtain of stars. They were beautiful tonight, she mused, enjoying the cool breeze that tugged at her shirt and sent tiny chills up and down her mostly bare legs.

"You guess?" Xena asked, in a mildly intrigued voice. "You don't sound very sure about that." She lifted a hand, and gently stroked the bard's hair with it, letting the strands trickle through her fingers. "Did you find Eph and Pony?"

"Mmm hmmm." Gabrielle closed her eyes. "Made em propose to each other."

Xena's eyes widened in startlement, unseen by her younger partner. "You did?"

"Yep." The bard serenely answered. "I figure if those crazy elders are going to try anything, that'll keep them honest." She turned her head and blinked. "Besides, it'll be good for them."

"Uh…huh…. And since when are you an expert on this subject?" The warrior queried, with a chuckle.

One blond brow lifted, and cocked itself at her.

Xena bit off a rueful grin. "Okay… point made." She continued petting the bard's soft hair. "You wanna go back up there?" She hoped her voice didn't sound half as reluctant as it seemed to her.

Gabrielle folded her hands across her stomach and considered the question. "Um…. " She drummed her fingers lightly. "Not really… I kinda like it right here." She answered honestly. "It's.. been a really long day, and I kind of need some quiet, I think." Her eyes lifted to Xena's. "What about you?"

"Huh." Xena mused. "Lemme see… I can choose between a roomful of yammering Amazons, or staying here with you." She gave an exaggerated sigh. "What a choice." She reached over her head and dragged something closer, pulling a small basket over her body and thumping it down next to Gabrielle's shoulder.

The bard peeked inside curiously. "Oooo… " Inside were apples, figs, a pair of sour oranges, and a small bunch of berries. She selected a fig and chewed on it happily, resuming her comfortable spot. "And here I thought you spent the entire time daydreaming." She gave Xena a tiny poke in the leg.

"Almost." The warrior confessed, letting her head rest against the turf, as she plucked a few strands of river grass up, and started idly braiding them. "Like you said, it was a long day." She continued wryly. "Didn't mean to end up lazing around here so long, but… I.. um…it felt good just to sit down for a while." Hadn't realized how tired I was until I did…. Gods, I could go to sleep right here. She rubbed her eyes briefly. Guess the years really are catching up to me.. that's for damn sure.. used to be able to fight all day and not feel it.

Gabrielle put her fig down, and rolled over onto an elbow, peering through the lavender twilight at her partner's face. "Are you all right?" She asked, a bit worried. "It's not like you to say stuff like that."

Xena gave her a wry look. "See? I can't win… I don't tell you, you get mad. I mention when I'm not up to par, you get all worried."

"B.." The bard started, then stopped. "I… but… " She exhaled. "Not fair, Xena… you've trained me to watch all your little non verbal signals… what am I supposed to do when you just up and TELL me when something's wrong??" She asked plaintively, as she sat up, and scooted closer. "Here… lie down." She pushed the warrior flat, and picked up the bunch of berries, selecting a few and offering them to her. "But thank you… for making an effort to do that." She added, with a smile. "I appreciate it."

Xena munched her berries, and relaxed, propping one leg up and nudging the bard with her elbow. "G'wan.. lean back." She offered, tossing a berry to the waiting Ares. He snapped it up out of mid air, and chewed it, then licked his lips hopefully and watched her.

Gabrielle let her body rest against Xena's thigh, propping her arm lightly on the warrior's ribcage and continuing to offer her fruit. Now that she was looking for it, she could see the faint lines of exhaustion in her partner's expression and a wave of guilt flowed over her. "Gods… I'm sorry." She cupped Xena's face with one hand, and sighed. "Here I am, running around fixing things, and I forget to check the most important thing of all."

"Mm…I'm ignored… you steal my clothes… " Xena reached out and tangled a hand in the shirt her soulmate was wearing, pulling her forward gently. "I feel so abused." She lifted her body up and captured the bard's lips, sinking back down and taking Gabrielle with her. "Lucky for me… " She growled softly into the younger woman's ear. "I like that."

Gabrielle stroked her cheek. "I was being serious." She objected softly.

"I know." Came the ready response. "You were right to take care of these people first, Gabrielle.. they are your responsibility." Xena reached up, and put a finger on the bard's nose. "Besides, you checked me out, remember? I've got bandages all over me to prove that."

The bard considered that. It was true. The warrior had been uncommonly meek about allowing that, as a matter of fact. "Mm hmm… and you wouldn't stop and take a nap with me this afternoon because Zeus forbid you show any weakness in front of the Amazons." Gabrielle poked her gently in the chest.

Xena grinned, a touch sheepishly. "I think you got me, there." She admitted. "I do have a reputation to maintain, y'know." She added virtuously.

Gabrielle smiled. "I know." She offered a bite of fig. "I'd say you did a great job of that today, tiger." She'd heard the other Amazons buzzing about seeing Xena's fierce defense at the tunnel entrance, and had watched the admiring looks her partner was collecting as they moved about the village.

The warrior smirked quietly. "Not bad." She allowed, with a shrug.

The bard chuckled softly, and allowed herself to drink in the sight of Xena's body with unabashed admiration. The light was almost gone now, twilight fading into the ghostly, burnished silver from the half moon, which stained her soulmate's blue eyes a deep gray, and brushed interesting shadows over her bare arms.

Lovingly, she ran a finger across Xena's lips, which parted and gently captured her, the teeth making the softest of nibbles against her skin. "I love you." The bard whispered, hardly louder than the river grass brushing by in the wind.

Dark lashes moved, and one corner of Xena's lips twitched up. "I love you too." She burred, clasping the bard's hand in her own, and kissing her knuckles, then pressing both their hands against her chest. The warrior felt behind her, and drew out something white and fragrant, her eyes never leaving her soulmate's as she gently threaded a few sweet smelling night blossoms in her pale hair. "Thanks for coming to find me."

Gabrielle took the last blossom from her fingers, and sucked in a breath of its sweet, slightly spicy fragrance. "Always." She painted Xena's face with the edges of the flower, its fragile petals just brushing her skin. "Always…" She repeated, softly.

The grass brushed her face as she slowly lowered herself until their foreheads touched, then bent her neck and kissed her partner's lips, a slow, subtle exploration that built in intensity until she was having serious problems breathing, and her body slid out of her control, wanting Xena's touch in a way that was very hard to resist.

She knew they should stop. She knew they knew better, but Xena's hands kept up an enticing motion, finding sensitive spots with devastating precision and reducing her to core of strengthening sensations, which made her forget where she was.

Almost made her forget who she was, until she heard a small voice uttering a mewling whimper that she was sure wasn’t hers. Instantly the pressure eased, and a cool touch whispered against her overheated face. "Hey…" Xena's voice, deep, and on an irregular breath. "What's wrong?"

Gabrielle forced her eyes open, her breathing ragged. "I'm all right." She gasped out. "Just got real intense there." She bowed her neck, and let her head rest against Xena's shoulder, inhaling her scent greedily. "This is a little risky, isn't it?" She silently begged her soulmate to disagree.

Soft, low chuckle. "A little, yeah." Xena patted the bard's side, and pulled her into a warm hug. "I don't think either of us would ever live it down if they found us, as a matter of fact."

The bard remained quiet for a moment, then she gently tugged at the buckle of Xena's gambeson with her teeth. "On the other hand… " The buckle came loose and she started on the next one. "This is a festival dedicated to fertility, right?" Green eyes gone a mysterious gray peeked up at Xena, as Gabrielle nibbled gently down her breastbone. "Unless you're too tired." A contrite look.

Curving eyebrows and a flash of white teeth answered her, as Xena let out a soft, sexy chuckle. "Like I said.. I've got a reputation to maintain." She found her place with admirable skill. "Just try not to scare the guards into shooting us, huh? I don’t think my reflexes are up to it."

Gabrielle felt a little giddy, as she surrendered to the onslaught, but had the presence of mind to make a certain, subtle move. She found her hands instantly caught, and she smiled, knowing Xena would feel that under her searching lips. "I'd say the old reflexes are right where they need to be, love."

Overhead, a nighthawk chuckled.

Ephiny slouched back on her bench, hooking her feet under the leg of the table she was seated at and relaxing. The hall was full of mostly tired, slightly cranky, still irritable Amazons, which reminded her of the dreaded monthly 'cycle of Hades' time. It was odd, but predictable that most of the village got on the same pattern, but damn if it wasn't inconvenient to have everybody in a bad mood all at once.

Right now, of course, even the worst case of cramps couldn’t damp down the stupid ridiculous, immature, absurd sensation she was feeling in her guts.

Insane. At her age, to be this giddy about a….

Damn that sneaky little Gabrielle. Ephiny's lips curled into a faint smile. I can't believe she did that. The bard had pushed her neatly over an edge she hadn't anticipated, but now that she was out and floating…

It felt pretty damn good.

Her and Pony. And she thought I was gonna kick her out.. as if I would. Ephiny sighed inwardly. But I guess I've been being pretty cold lately… can't say I blame her for thinking that. She sipped ale from her mug. I think I’m gonna like this. She tugged a note from her belt and spread it out on the table.

To Ephiny, Regent of the Amazons, does Tyldus, Leader of the Centaurs send greetings.

We have heard the commotion down there, and hope things are well with you. Rumor has it that things turned out fine, and we are hoping that you haven't canceled your Harvest festival plans, because myself, and a few of my cohorts will be traveling that way and expect to be near your village tomorrow.

In especial, a young centaur would very much like to see his mother, and has persuaded me to bring him along, especially since he has heard that his favorite aunts are there, and he is anxious to see them.

Until tomorrow then, be well.

Ephiny smiled, feeling a warm surge of happiness at the thought of seeing her son. He stayed with the centaurs for his own good, she knew that, but she missed him, especially when she saw other children like Jessan's three tots.

On the other hand, she mused. She'd have to explain to him about Pony. Hmm. She drummed her fingers against the table, then chuckled wryly. Well, maybe it was a good thing Gabrielle was here.. she was really good at that kind of thing.

A burst of laughter caught her attention and she turned to see a cheerful knot was a group clustered around Jessan and Elaini. The forest dwellers had their cute little kids with them, and Elaini was busy discussing labor and birth with a few of the older Amazons, while her partner was hemmed in by a ring of young admirers.

"Can I touch your fur?" One of the bright-eyed girls asked, to a round of giggles.

Jessan regarded them nervously. "Uh.. .sure." There sure was, he reflected, a lot of energy around here. He watched as the girl patted his arm, then tugged the thick covering experimentally. "Hey!"

She jumped and squeaked.

"That's attached to my skin, y'know." Jessan blurted, flustered.

"Do you have fur… everywhere?" A dark haired girl asked, innocently.

The forest dweller cleared his throat. "Uh… well, yeah.. I mean.. not on the palms of my hands.. " He held his big hands out and turned them over. "Or on my nose, but everywhere else."

Giggles. "EVERYwhere?" The girl asked again.

Jessan's brow scrunched, and he cocked his head. "Well, ye…" Then he realized where they were all looking and his muzzle turned brick red. "No.. no.. no… not… exactly… everywhere, no…" Desperately he reached for a glass, and gulped its contents, then realized his mistake when a fiery burn ignited in his guts. "Oh.. Ares left ball." He closed his eyes and waited for the steam to stop coming out of his ears. "What was that?"

A veritable chorus of giggles.

"Where's that damn pepper spice mixture… " One of the cooks muttered as they walked by. "Trying to marinate that stinking fish… "

Jessan's nostrils flared. "Could one of you get me a glass of water." He managed, in a strangled voice. "Please?"

Ephiny came to his rescue, clearing out a few of the Amazonettes and handing him a mug of cider. "Here."

He grabbed it in furry hands, and took a few, desperate swallows, after which he sat panting for a long moment, before he finally sighed. "Thank you."

The regent sat down and patted his leg. "No problem." She gave the suddenly shy girls a direct look. "Don't you have chores to do?"

They took the hint, leaving the regent and their guest alone. "Sorry about that, Jessan… they get a little rambunctious sometimes." Ephiny patted his arm.

Jessan cleared his throat and winced. "It's okay… " He gave her a sheepish look. "They just kinda… uh… I wasn't expecting them to… to ask that kinda stuff." He peeked at the girls, who had scuttled over to the other side of the room, and were watching him with mischievous eyes. "They're.. um…. Very… um… "

"The term we use here in the Amazon nation is 'raunchy.'" Ephiny remarked, very dryly.

"Hmm." Jessan's nose wrinkled. "We use that to describe overexcited stallions." He cleared his throat again, irritated by the mixture he'd drunk. "Thanks for making us welcome here, by the way, Ephiny. We both appreciate it."

The regent chuckled. "Thank you for fighting in our behalf this morning.. I think it's the least we could do, and besides… you are good friends of our queen." She smiled at him. "And I know she thinks very highly of you."

The forest dweller blushed a little. "I think very highly of both of them."

A little silence fell. "Do… you know what happened?" Ephiny asked, in a low tone, her eyes watching his face.

"Yes." Jessan responded quietly. "We heard… I was… I mean, Elani and I were headed to Amphipolis… to see if we could help out in any way." He hesitated. "I'm glad we didn't need to."

"Jess… " Ephiny glanced around, and leaned forward. "What would have happened if it wasn't okay?" Her eyes searched his. "What would they have done?"

The tall, fur covered man sighed, and regarded the floor, his face settling into introspective lines. "I.. honestly, Ephiny.. I don't know." He nibbled a claw. "There's a lot of things we don't know… that we don't understand about your people." He thought some more. "I can tell you that I have never known two of your kind who have shared a stronger connection than what they have, but… " He sighed. "I was afraid for them."

"Me too." The regent admitted. "It was hard.. I had to make choices.. that I'm not very happy about."

Jessan remained silent, digesting this. "Gabrielle needed a friend." He finally replied sadly. "And she is part of your people."

"Yes." Ephiny agreed. "We wanted to protect her."

The forest dweller nodded slowly. "She is not the only one who needed a friend, though." He reminded her quietly. "How lonely that must have been for Xena."

It was a startling realization for Ephiny, that here, in this furry, strange person was someone who would see that first, see beyond Xena's armor as though for him, it didn't exist. She tried for a moment to imagine what it would have been like for Xena, finding her son dead, betrayed by the best friend she had in the world, and torn from the only stabilizing influence her life had known for many years.

Gods. Looking back at it, and knowing what she was.. they were lucky she hadn't gone berserk, and taken out half the Nation in pure rage. She was more than capable of it, and Ephiny knew that. Somehow, through the pain, and the madness though, she'd fixed on the one thing… no, the one person who to her, was the key to everything. The only Amazons who had gotten hurt were the ones who had tried to keep her from her target.

A thunder of hooves, and Ephiny had run like crazy for the purging hut, dodging panicking guards who tried to form up in a wall to keep the oncoming warrior from their queen. Ephiny had gotten to the door just as Gabrielle staggered out, the aching green eyes flicking over her head and fastening on the threat with an expression somewhere between utter despair, and exhausted relief. "She came back." The bard had whispered, her voice breaking.

Ephiny had grabbed her. "Come on… we've got to get you out of here." And she'd started to pull the half-conscious woman towards a pair of nervous horses. "We'll get you across the border… the centaurs will keep you for a while.. I've made a deal with them. We'll hold her here."

Incredibly, the body in her arms resisted. "No."

"Gabrielle, come on!" Anxiety, and the rapidly increasing sound of the hoofbeats made her voice sharp. "This is no time to argue with me!"

Bare feet dug in to the dirt, and the strong form twisted, wrenching itself out of her grasp. "Let me go."


Somehow, the bard's hands were on her shoulders, and bleak, tear filled eyes stared into hers. "Let… me… go." The bard's voice cracked. "Stay out of the way, Ephiny… don't try to stop me."

Dirt and rocks spattered them, and a thump shook her world as through the yells, she heard heavy boots moving towards them. The Amazons guarding Gabrielle went flying in all directions, helpless against the rage, and the anger that was literally pouring from Xena's menacing form.

And then she was the last defense. The last barrier between her friend, her queen, and the most destructive force she'd ever known. The ice blue eyes had burned through her, as she whirled, and readied herself, reaching out to grab Xena as she closed with them "Xena, wait… "

She never really saw it coming. Just felt the explosion of powerful muscles against hers, and then the searing crack along her arm that sent her to her knees in agony.

She remembered looking up, and seeing Gabrielle's eyes close as Xena grabbed her, the younger woman's face crumpling in pure, helpless despair. The warrior vaulted to the horse's back, dragging the bard with her, and in moments all was left was dust and heartache.

"Should we go after them?" Solari's voice, swift and urgent, as she motioned together a group of warriors.

The pain had been so intense, Ephiny had almost passed out, but she struggled to her feet and stared after the disappearing pair for an endless moment, seeing those bleak, haunted eyes before her.

"No." How many, many times had she lain in bed the next while, debating with herself over that decision? "Let them go." She'd told them.

"Eph.. are you crazy? She'll kill her!" Solari had turned, eyes wide, and protested.

"Maybe that's her destiny." The regent had finally answered, cradling her broken arm. "But if she does… this Nation won't rest until I have Xena's head on a pike in front of the village."

She'd never once thought about how Xena felt. Nobody really had… except Gabrielle. And this forest dweller. "It must have been unbearable." She finally responded, quietly. "I don't know how they did it."

Jessan sighed, and bared his fangs in a tiny smile. "I've stopped trying to figure that out… it just is how it is."

Ephiny nodded in agreement. "That's true." She glanced around. "And speaking of them.. I wonder where they are? I checked their quarters on the way over here… no sign of them. I figured they were out in the stable or something.. but it's full dark."

Jessan drummed his fingers, then let his eyes drift closed, extending his Sight in the most likely directions.

Moments later, his golden eyes popped open, and his muzzle blushed a deep crimson. "They're just fine." He managed to say, in a voice higher than normal. "Absolutely fine… spectacular.. no problems there, nope… they're great."

Ephiny stared at him, puzzled, then turned to Eponin as she came up. "You seen the queen anywhere?"

"Nope." Pony replied, looking at the blushing forest dweller curiously. "What's up with him?"

"Beats me.. .Jessan? You okay?" The regent inquired.

Jessan crossed his legs and studied the ceiling. "Just fine… tip top shape here. Yep… thanks for asking."

The Amazons gave him a strange look. "I think we'd better go dig them up.. I need to talk to Gabrielle about Arella." Ephiny decided. "C'mon." She patted Jessan on the arm. "You take it easy, okay?"

"Yeah.. okay." Jessan gave them more of a grimace than a smile. "I think they're.. um… " He pointed hastily towards the rear. "That way."

"Thanks." They left him to his cider.

Elaini slid over onto his bench. "You okay, honey?"

Jessan gritted his teeth. "You'd think I'd have learned not to go poking my nose in their direction… right?"

His partner chuckled. "Ooo… poor baby.. did you get your senses rung?"

The forest dweller bit his lip. "Boy.. they throw off more wild stuff than all those randy little girls combined."

"Oh yeah?" Elaini ran a claw down his furry thigh with a seductive chuckle.

"Awww…. Laney…. " He squeaked. "Don't go there!"

"Where are you going?" A young, piping voice interrupted them.

Jessan peeked out of one eye, to see the ring of Amazonettes back. "Oh.. hi." He bit the end of his tongue. "Hey… do you girls know where there's any cold water?"

They looked at each other. "Sure." The tallest replied. "Lots of it.. in buckets."

"Ah.. could you bring me one?"

Elaini just laughed.



"Can I tell you something?"


"I'm really glad that's one of your many skills." Gabrielle took a bite of apple, and shifted her shoulders, settling herself more comfortably against her partner's stomach.

"You are, huh?" Xena gave her an affectionate look. "Well, you're not so bad at that yourself, y'know."

The bard chewed a minute, then swallowed. "Really?"

The warrior reached down and plucked the apple from her hands, and nibbled it, then returned it to her. "Really." She assured the younger woman.

Gabrielle absorbed the compliment with a pleased look, then gazed out over the moonlight water. A frog was croaking at the edge of the water, and she could hear the gentle burbles as the stream ran by, rubbing off the rocks and licking them with tiny splashes. She could smell the smoke from the campfires now, mixed with the green scent from the trees and she sighed happily. "What a nice night."

Xena crossed her ankles and tilted her head back, regarding the now ink dark sky, with its lacework of stars. "Weather cleared up." She took a deep breath. "Cooled down a little… that feels good."

The bard snuggled closer. "Yeah… a little chilly, though."

A soft chuckle answered her then Xena took hold and tugged her up, folding her arms around her and rubbing her back gently. The bard had pulled her shirt back on, but hadn't fastened it, and her skin was cool to the touch. "Better?"

"Mmmmmmm." The bard smiled against the soft linen of Xena's gambeson. Then she sighed. "I guess we should go back before they start having fits, huh?"

Xena grunted. "I guess."

They watched the water in silence, as the moon peeked through the trees and set silver flickers dancing. Xena stretched a little then stiffened, as she heard a soft noise off to her right. "Ares?" She called softly.

The noise grew louder, and then she heard a startled yell, followed by a crashing.

"Damn it!" A familiar voice yelped. "Ares, you jerk.. cut that out!!"

Blue eyes and green met. "Gotta love him." Xena chuckled, reaching down and tying Gabrielle's belt securely, and sitting up.

"Ares! Ow!!! " The voices came closer.

Gabrielle buckled her partner's gambeson straps and settled back against Xena's chest, running her hands through her hair and straightening the tails of her shirt, smoothing them down over her thighs as the brush rattled violently, disgorging two frazzled Amazons with ruffled feathers.

Xena slipped one arm around Gabrielle's stomach, and snapped the fingers of her other hand. "Ares.. c'mere, boy." She looked up innocently at the new arrivals. "Hey there."

Ephiny brushed broken leaves off her skirt, and sat down, giving the two of them a dour glare. "Xena.. that damn wolf practically herded us into the stream.. what in Hades is wrong with him?"

The warrior petted the wolf, who had buried his head into her shoulder. "Good boy." She whispered. "You get a cookie later." She then cleared her throat. "I dunno… maybe he… " She chewed her lip. "Thought you were in some kinda danger.. didn't want you to fall in the water."

Ephiny looked at her. "Oh… right… let me get this straight… Ares, Warrior Lifeguard, right?"

Gabrielle giggled softly, turning her head and burying her face in Xena's shoulder.

"Right." The warrior agreed solemnly. "So.. what's up?"

Eponin had wandered down to the water's edge, and was seated on the rocks, dabbling her feet in the water. She half turned and looked over her shoulder. "Wanted to see where you two disappeared to."

"Here we are." Gabrielle cleared her throat. "We… um… " Her eyes flicked over the water, as she tried to come up with a good excuse, and failed. "Er… I… well, it's like… we sort of…"

"We needed some quiet time alone." Xena stated mildly.

They all looked at her in surprise, Ephiny and Eponin trading shocked expressions and Gabrielle's eyebrows creeping up.

"Thought I'd give bald truth a try." The warrior shrugged. "Got a problem with that?" A brow lowered, and she slapped one of her sterner looks on.

"Uh.. no.. no.. " Ephiny waved a hand hastily. "That's fine… that's.. good, I um… no, fine. Fine, really… I understand."

"You do, huh?" Xena replied, with a quiet twinkle in her eyes.

Ephiny caught it, and blushed, then smiled back ruefully. "Anyway… what we.. what I wanted to talk to you about was Arella." Her eyes found Gabrielle's. "I'd like to get that squared away before we start in with any of the activities tomorrow… I don't want that hanging over us."

Gabrielle sobered, and took a deep breath. "I… was thinking about that." She admitted quietly. "What are our…excuse me.. what are my choices?"

The regent hesitated, looking down at her hands and watching the knuckles whiten as she pressed them together. "Gabrielle… you don't have to… I mean, I can pronounce sentence on her.. there's no need.." A hand on her wrist stopped her, as Gabrielle leaned forward, shaking her head.

"No." The bard exhaled. "This is my responsibility, Eph…I was here, I was involved… if I turn my head now, what does that make me?" She drew a breath in shakily. "What are the choices?"

Ephiny sighed, then looked up as Pony ambled over, seating herself down on the cool ground, and leaning against the regent's leg. In reflex, she dropped a hand to the dark haired woman's shoulder and sent her a silent thank you for the tacit reassurance and support. "Well, we tried rehabilitating her. Didn't work."

"Yes." Gabrielle's answer was stark, and quiet.

"There's confinement." Ephiny offered. "But for what she did… that would be for a long, long time." She considered the option. "It would be hard for us.. we don't really have the resources to do that for an extended period.. that's why we treated Paladia the way we did."

"I understand." The bard replied softly.

"And the… other… option is to… eliminate.. the problem." The regent finished, delicately.

A silence fell.

"You mean kill her." Gabrielle's voice came from the gloom.

The blond Amazon paused. "Yes."

Xena cleared her throat. "Gabrielle… " She stopped as a gentle finger was placed against her lips.

"I… know she did things.. that are not excusable." The bard stated. "She… tried to have Ephiny killed, she tried kill me, she tried to kill Xena, and now she caused the deaths of two Amazons, as well as physically tortured three others."

Ephiny studied her hands. "Yes…that's all true."

Gabrielle half turned, and looked up through the ghostly moonlight to her partner's pale hued eyes. "Do you think she could change?" She asked quietly. "If she was counseled, and worked with, and had the opportunity?"

Xena was dead silent for a long stretch of time, tiny muscles moving just under the surface of skin the only indication of her intense thought. Gabrielle waited patiently, feeling the tension in the body she was leaning against and fighting the urge to retract the question.

The warrior was in a dilemma, caught between her instinct to say no, and the knowledge that anyone in their right minds would say the same about her. How could she condemn Arella for crimes far less than her own had been? How could she say, in all honesty, that the woman should be executed, when only the kindly intervention of Gabrielle had stood between herself, and Tartarus? She had no right to an opinion, and she knew it. "I can't tell you that." She finally said, in a hoarse voice. "I don't know.. Gabrielle."

The bard remained quiet for a moment, a look of almost disappointment on her face. "I want to believe anyone could change." She commented. "I really do." Who am I really thinking of here… Arella? Or Hope? Silently she searched the ghostly grayed eyes watching her. I was right about you, wasn't I?

Wasn't I? Were you always a wolf, or just a lost, dark sheep, Xena? Can someone be born bad, or just turn out that way?

Could I have made a difference in Hope? Her eyes traced the lean planes of the warrior's face, half hidden in silver shadows. Have I made a difference in you? Or would you have just… kept on course all on your own? Can anyone really change? Will I ever know?

She turned to Ephiny. "Has Arella always been a problem?"

The regent pursed her lips. "Well… " She considered the question. "Her mother… she used to get pretty frustrated with her, I guess. She was a healer here… and she knew Arella wasn't cut out for that, so she tried to get her mentored pretty early with a few of the older warriors.. I was just starting out as a pretty junior member of the training staff, and I remember her mostly as a kind of surly, uncooperative type."

"No crime in that." Eponin remarked, mildly. "She was good with a sword.. not so great with a bow… hand to hand she used to about break people. Got some of the instructors really pissed off with her, so they pounded her harder.. didn't work much."

"Yeah…I remember that…" Ephiny mused. "She broke old Ella's leg… we had to retire her after that."

"Arella bragged bout that." The weapons master muttered. "Problem was, she was good, and she knew it.. and after a while, she just pounded anyone who got in her way." The dark haired Amazon paused a moment, and sighed. "She… didn't have respect for many people."

"Melosa, a little." Ephiny commented quietly.

"Mm" Her lover agreed. "Not Velasca, though." She continued, unexpectedly. "She agreed with her a little, but she thought she was nuts."

Gabrielle nodded in understanding. "Did… anyone ever work with her… try to understand why she was so… "

"Obnoxious?" Pony finished for her, bluntly. "I asked her why she was such a centaur's butt, yeah…she just laughed at me."

"Um.." The bard rubbed her temple. "That wasn't… exactly… what I meant." She was painfully aware of the stillness of her soulmate. "People… I mean, usually people have a reason for being the way they are… stuff happening to them, or.."

Ephiny shook her head. "Not… really, I mean, she had a pretty normal growing up here.. there were about a half dozen others in the same age group.. we had no major wars, no real problems… times were okay… her mother tried, Gabrielle.. she really did, but they were too different."

The bard looked pensively out over the water. "Do you think people are born good, or born evil, Ephiny?"

Long silence, as the blond Amazon studied the rocky ground. "I.. I think people tend to… okay, I think, when you make decisions… you can make them either for yourself only, or with other people in mind. " She paused, and chose her words carefully. "It comes down to being selfish.. I guess… most people I guess I think of as bad, make decisions for themselves, and they don’t really care about how it affects other people.. all they care about is how they feel, and how what they do makes them happy."

Gabrielle looked very thoughtful.

"And… people I usually think of as good… "Here, the regent's eyes found Gabrielle's face, and a tender smile crossed her lips. "Make decisions based on how it will affect everyone else. They don't… really consider their own good when they do it." She blinked a few times. "Even… when they're bad decisions."

Xena hadn't budged in what felt like at least a quarter candlemark, unsure of what her partner was thinking, and not wanting to distract her. She had one arm curled around the bard's middle, and now she felt a warm hand interlace its fingers with hers, as Gabrielle took and released a deep breath.

"That's an interesting thing to say." Gabrielle replied quietly. "So.. those are my two choices? Confinement, or… execution?" She looked from Ephiny to Eponin. "No other options?"

Eponin's eyes flicked over her uneasily. "There's… well, I mean… what she did to Solari and the others." She replied, her voice heavy with reluctance. "I don’t personally think.. well, anyway, the law does allow for it."

The bard's blond head dropped forward a little. "Torture, you mean?"

"Physical discipline." Ephiny corrected her quietly. "It's been known to be used before."

A slight nod. "And that would change her attitude… how?" She glanced from one to the other. "You think it would make her afraid to do that again?"

Both Amazons sighed. "No."

Gabrielle tucked her fingers more firmly around Xena's. "Okay. Do you need to know right now? I'd like some time to think about it."

Ephiny gazed at her unhappily. "Gabrielle… honestly… let me do this." She protested. "I've.. had to do it before, and… well, I don’t like it but…"

Green eyes pinned her unmercifully. "I can't." The bard answered quietly. "It's my responsibility, and I'm not going to dodge that, Ephiny."

The regent lifted her appeal to the expressionless face above hers, and found a quiet, stolid grief there, but no agreement. She sighed. "All right." She patted Pony's shoulder. "Come on… I want to go visit Solari.. see how she's doing."

Xena watched them leave, then let the silence lengthen as she observed her soulmate's quiet profile. Gabrielle was watching the water, a sad look on her face, until she finally straightened, and turned her head.

"Xena…I need some time alone to think about this."

The warrior's face didn't twitch, but Gabrielle felt her breathing catch, and she watched the shadows slowly appear in the pale eyes as Xena released her, and shifted, moving away so that they weren't touching any longer.

It was almost a physical pain, and Gabrielle could feel it, both in herself, and through the link that bound them, and she almost took the request back except that it was true, and she knew she needed some space to consider her decision.

Free of the warm, reassuring presence of the person whose very existence proved one half of the argument she had to consider. She watched as Xena slowly stood, and brushed herself off. "I'll… um.. " The warrior fell silent for a moment. "See you later, I guess."

Gabrielle circled her leg with an arm, and gently kissed her knee. "Thank you."

A faint smile rewarded her, which quickly disappeared. "Ares, stay." Xena exhaled, before she turned, stepping around the rocks and fading into the darkness.

Now what? Xena put a lid on the roiling emotions churning in her guts as she moved through the darkened forest. Not that she blamed her partner for wanting some quiet time.. it was just… damn…

She stopped, and leaned against a tree. Having Gabrielle send you away hurt. Fine. Accept that, and get on with it. You told her you couldn't advised her, couldn't help her decide… what choice did she have? You're just a distraction. Just let her think.

Yeah. Just let her think about whether she should sentence someone to death.

Xena turned, and slid down the trunk of the tree, the damp leaves brushing against her skin and leaving a faint scent. What would I do? No question about that. She picked up a leaf and shredded it. Damn I should have realized she was trouble after that whole thing… why didn't I just finish her then?

She considered that seriously. She remembered getting the weapon away, and taking her down, remembered the sharp pop as she dislocated her shoulder. Remembered the threat, as she pinned her to the tree.

Remembered the rank impatience to be rid of her, because kneeling in the mud, not far away was a friend she hadn't seen in far too long, to whom her heart was pulling her irresistibly. She just really hadn't cared what happened to Arella. All she'd cared about was Gabrielle.

After all, Arella was an Amazon problem, and she had been content to allow the Amazons to handle it, while she focused her entire attention on the giddily overwhelming sensation of her heart's desire, right?

Right. And if she closed her eyes, she could catch a faint, fading memory of what that had felt like, when they'd tentatively set their hearts free, and everything had seemed so full of.. possibilities.

"Oh my gods, Xena, you're joking." Gabrielle had choked out, peering fearfully over the edge of the precipice. She peeked over her shoulder at her companion, who was slouching nonchalantly against a tree, pretending to examine a bird sitting on a branch nearby. "You really climbed up that?" Her voice had risen into a squeak.

Xena had ambled over, and thumped to her knees next to the supine bard, dropping forward and leaning over the edge. "Yep." She pointed at a ledge some ways down. "That was the hardest part.. I got stuck down under that and had to jump and grab that.." A hand covered her mouth, and she breathed in Gabrielle's scent in startling suddenness. The faint roughness of the skin on her palm tickled the warrior's lips, and she had been hard pressed not to taste it.

"Don't… tell… me… please… " The bard begged, taking her fingers away slowly. "I don't want to think about that." Her gentle touch had brushed across the warrior's cheekbone. "Okay?"

Xena had rolled over, so that they were side by side, arms pressing against each other. "Gabrielle.. it really wasn't so bad..and…well, it's something I'm proud of doing."

The bard had been resting on her elbows, and she turned her head, locks of her pale hair brushing against Xena's face. "You are?" She murmured, shyly.

The warrior had nodded. "Yeah." She let her cheek rest against Gabrielle's upper arm, reveling in the warmth, and the shift of muscles under her skin. "I remember standing down at the bottom, and looking up, and thinking…that I had told you that if you… needed me.. that all the legions of Hades couldn’t keep me from getting to you. What was a little mountain, right?"

A slow, sweet smile had crossed the bard's face, lighting her eyes from within. "Awww…Xena… that's so… " She'd paused. "So romantic." Her eyes had twinkled gently.

And Xena, formerly the Destroyer of Nations, had blushed. Badly. She'd felt her hard won defenses just disappear, and it had left her wide open, as she gazed up into Gabrielle's eyes, her emotions just spilling over into everything. She'd been disoriented, she just stopped breathing, and her confusion must have shown because Gabrielle's eyes widened perceptibly, and she shifted her weight onto one elbow, reaching out hesitantly with her other hand. "Hey…."

The warrior had closed her eyes as fingertips touched her face, remembering the fear that had gripped her, on that long, desperate run that had ended in a splash, and a catch, and a kiss. And the fear of a different kind that had her legs trembling as they surrendered to the inevitable and crossed the line they'd been balancing on for what had felt like half a lifetime.

"Xena?" A soft, almost breathy sound invaded Gabrielle's normally strong tones.

She'd forced her eyes open, to see the bard's concerned green ones inches from her. "Yeah… yeah.. I'm okay.. sorry.." She finally said, feeling a little embarrassed. "I was… just… " An awkward pause. Realizing what happened. Her mind informed her, gleefully. G'wan, Xena…say it… believe it.. you finally let it happen, and now it's here, and it's real and that's love looking back at you from those pretty, pretty green eyes.

Gabrielle's hand had never left her face, and now the touch had traced down her chin to her neck, as the bard wonderingly explored the surface of her skin. "You're so.. beautiful." Had come the surprising whisper, followed by a soft, incredulous laugh. "I've been waiting for such a long time to be able to say that to you."

Xena had gazed over at her, gently pressing her cheek against the bard's arm, then kissing the soft skin, with a delicious sense of freedom. Gabrielle had hesitated a moment, then dropped her head to one side, and brushed her lips against the warrior's own.

They separated, and looked at each other.

"I'm dreaming." Gabrielle laughed, weakly. "I must be."

Xena had cupped her cheek, and drew her head back down for a second, longer kiss. "Me too.. but if I am, then don't wake me up." She murmured, feeling the pulse point under the thin skin of her throat flutter hard. "I want to sleep forever."

Now, in the dark of an unfriendly forest, she felt a wistful longing for that day, whose memory was fading sadly even now. She'd known, then, that it couldn't last forever. Nothing ever did, but somehow she'd convinced herself that it would be different for the two of them.

That their love would carry them through anything. Through everything. That she'd always have someone who loved her with that kind of love that transcended the good times, and the bad times, and would always be there.

But life didn't work like that, as she'd found out. They had both been subject to the same insecurities, and the same destructive emotions that anyone else would have been. She remembered the first time Gabrielle had deliberately separated their bedrolls, and how she'd spent the entire night staring bleakly up at the stars. And how silent the next day had been, out there alone in the wilderness.

Sometimes, she sighed, it felt like they'd lost so much. She let her head drop back against the tree, as her exhaustion came flooding back, and her eyes closed involuntarily. All the day's hurts came crashing down against her lowered defenses, and she crawled deeper into the underbrush, tucking her knees up and wrapping an arm around them. She was vaguely aware of her trembling equilibrium, but all at once it was too much. Part of it, she knew, was complicated by the wash of emotions coming from Gabrielle, a wash she was just too tired to battle off, so she surrendered to it instead.

It took her a long time to hear someone approaching. Far too long, in fact, and she barely had time to straighten up, and rub her eyes before the footsteps crackled in the underbrush a body length from her. She looked up reluctantly. "Hey.."

Eponin shuffled a step closer, peering down. "Um… Xena?"

The warrior sighed silently. "Yeah." She ran her fingers through her hair, putting it in some order. "What's up?"

"You okay??" The dark haired Amazon asked, hesitantly.

Xena exhaled. "Sure.. yeah, I'm fine." She answered brusquely. "I was giving Gabrielle some space to think about tomorrow."

Long pause. Then Eponin squared her shoulders, and stepped forward, turning, and settling down next to the warrior. "You don’t sound fine." She finally commented, with a touch of nervousness.

The taller woman exhaled, then lowered her head to rest on her fist. "I'm all right… it's just been a damn long day." She muttered, defensively.

Eponin paused, then gathered her courage, and put a hand on Xena's shoulder. "I.. I don't know what's wrong, but… I.. um.. I hope it all works out."

Xena's head turned, and pale blue eyes regarded her, faintly surprised. "You dabbling in sensitive chats now, Pony?" She inquired wryly. It made her feel a little better, though.

"Me?…no…" A pause. "Well.. kind of, I mean…you .. worried about Gabrielle?" The dark haired woman hazarded a guess. "I mean.. not like I'm poking in your business, Xena… but.. Eph's all worried, so…"

A slow release of a held breath. "It's a bad decision for anyone to have to make. Much less her. "

"Oh, well.. yeah.. ." Eponin agreed softly. "I know…that's why Eph wanted to… kind of do it for her.. and… well, she was thinking of getting it over now.. I mean, before… uh.. "

Xena straightened up. "You.. can't do that to her." She replied, tersely. "Much as I'd… " Her voice faded a moment. "She wants it to be her decision." She finished quietly, then sighed. "Yeah, I'm worried."

Eponin watched her from the corner of her eye. Xena's face was relatively impassive, but the Amazon could see the aching tension in the broad shoulders, and the reddened eyes, and she could suddenly view past the sturdy defenses, which unnerved her. She suddenly realized she was way out of her depth, and decided on a different route. "You… wanna come on back to the campfire? We've got some good stuff… c'mon, Eleinaria has her harp out, and she's got a great voice."

The warrior was still for a long moment, then she nodded wearily, and shoved herself to her feet. "Not a bad idea." She straightened up with a wince. "Thanks, for the offer." She paused, then held a hand out. "Want a hand up?"

Eponin took the offer and allowed herself to be hauled to her feet, then paced along side the tall, silent figure through the shadows back towards the light.

Gabrielle threw a pebble into the water, and watched it ripple out, disturbing the natural flow of the stream. Xena had told her, once, that once you throw the pebble in, even after the upper levels of the water stilled, you changed the stream forever.

Wow. Was that ever right. She had so many pebbles in her, she felt like a chicken with a pile of gizzard stones.

She threw another pebble, and watched it sink. What am I gonna do? I think the problem is, I don't want to do anything. Not that I want her to get off for this.. I just don't want to be the one to stand there and proclaim a sentence.

Does that make me a coward? I guess. What I want more than anything is to just… is to walk up to Xena, and lay my head down on her chest and tell her to make it all go away.

And I can't. Because she would.

I don't want to do this. I don't want it to be my responsibility, because there is no good decision here. I wonder… I wonder if this is how Xena felt with Velasca. She didn't want to bring Callisto back, but she knew she had to, or lots of people would get hurt.

But she knew that she.. would get hurt because of this, not from Velasca, or from Callisto, but personally because she knew I wouldn't understand why she did it. And that I might hate her for it, because of what happened with Perdicus. I guess when I said that, about how I heard him scream in my nightmares every night, she felt that it might be the end between us, and that really hurt her. I saw it in her eyes, and the way she just froze up, but I was too busy being mad to realize what it meant.

She did it anyway, though, because it was the right thing to do, and because she was willing to give up her own happiness so that I would be safe.

I guess she always kind of does that. Even when she first started, it was for Amphipolis, no matter how awful it turned out after that

She always does things regardless of how they'll affect her, and, you know, that makes her a good person in Ephiny's book.

I think I've always known that. Even in the darkest times, even when she slips back, and that ugly, hateful passion takes her, she still does things for other people. Like when we fought the Horde, and she lost a lot of that hard won light, but it was to save the remnants of the Athens army, not for her own glorification. And I'll never forget that apology. You understand hate, but you've never given into it.

I wish I could have lived up to that, Xena. I really do. Looking back now, I kind of understand where you were when you said that, and how innocent I really was.

I miss that. I never really figured it out until I lost what that was, but she knew.

When she went after Caesar, even though that was a personal vendetta, she still did it to free Boudicca's people.

When she gave birth to Solon, she knew she had to give him up, for his sake.

When she was hit with that dart, she fought on, even though she was dying, and she made me understand that I had to keep going too, to help those people.

She would have given up her sight to make sure I was safe. She would have given up her future, condemn herself to a lifetime trapped on a ghost ship because I was there.

She would have given up her life to unchain Prometheus.

When we were in the middle of the Thessalean civil war, she stayed there, and tried to help out, even though they didn't appreciate her, and even though… it almost cost her half her soul.

I can say that now, because I know what happened. I wonder what she would have done if I had died? Would she have continued on, or…

And.. when I needed her to come back to me, she did. I wonder what I would have done if she hadn't? Would I have continued on? Ruled the Amazons? Probably not. Velasca would have killed me.

Would I have cared if she had? Or would I have welcomed the chance to join Xena on the other side?

So.. I guess… some people, even though they do bad things, are really good inside, and even if they try to squash that goodness down, and let the darkness take over, eventually that part of them fights back, and gets control.

Like Xena.

And, if that's true, then it's also true that some people can be born bad, and even though they have good things happen to them, and people who care, they still do bad things because that's just who they are.

Like Hope.

Like Arella.

I can't let her hurt the Amazons any more. I know that. I don't think torture is the answer. But I'm not sure I can stand up, and send someone to their death like that, even if they deserve it.

The funny thing is, with all she did, the thing that makes me maddest of all about her is that she sent those Amazons to kill Xena. I don't… really care about what she did to me, or tried to do… but that.. makes me want to run her through, because of what she did to her, and to Solari, and even Menelda.. and that poor kid.

I guess.. maybe.. that means I must be a good person too, if you can believe Ephiny.

What is the price of my innocence? How can I value that against the good of everyone else?

Xena knows. She tried to tell me. Bad people have many choices. Good people… really only have very few, and those.. are always the hard ones.

Gabrielle looked out over the silvered water for a string of heartbeats. Then she quietly stood, and brushed herself off, and headed up the path.

Ephiny leaned back, hitching a boot up on the railing that ringed the platform in front of her quarters and sipped ale from a deep mug. The clean up was finished, and a large bonfire was roaring in the center pit, surrounded by darkness shrouded bodies. She could hear voices, raising and lowering, and frequent bursts of laughter that put a quiet smile on her own lips.

Solari was doing all right, she reflected, and Menelda was sulking in her quarters. The big surprise had been Cait and Paladia, the tall ex renegade crouching over the injured Amazon's pallet, muttering in a low tone, with soft chuckles issuing from the pillow. What was up with that, Ephiny wondered, having witnessed the two of them bicker and squabble the last month.

Paladia. The regent thought about her for a moment, pushing aside the wave of chills that always accompanied that particular memory. She was getting better about that, though, as the echoes of her ordeal had faded, and she'd allowed the busyness of her life to nudge aside thoughts of dark caves, and a roiling nausea from the drugs she'd been given.

It had taken her a while to get used to seeing the tall woman around, dressed in plain Amazon leathers, and glowering at everyone, but now… she'd been able to separate herself from the situation sufficiently that she could step back, and view Paladia as a trial of her life that she'd mastered, and gone past.

Thank the gods she'd had Eponin around, though. Even the worst nightmares fled from the fierce Amazon, who had spent many night simply holding her as she slept, waking her gently when the dreams became too intense.

She took a long swallow of her ale, and tipped her head back, regarding the sky. Then she heard faint footsteps, and straightened, peering off into the shadows uncertainly. A dim, moving form was coalescing out of the trees, the moonlight spilling shafts of silver across pale hair, and dark fabric. Ephiny shivered, a little, as the almost familiar form came closer and resolved itself into Gabrielle's tense, pensive features. "Gabrielle." She called out, in a low tone.

The bard slowed as she reached her, and turned, to lean against the railing and study the village along side her. "Hi."

Ephiny waited for a moment, to see if she was going to go on. She didn't. "Everything okay?"

Mist green eyes that had taken on a smoky hue regarded the campfire. "No." Gabrielle answered softly. "But I've come to a decision about Arella."

The regent waited silently, focusing on the faint roar from the flames, and the soft rustling from the trees that surrounded them. A soft burr of laughter echoed from the ring of Amazons. She could see the aching tenseness in Gabrielle's slender form, and she wondered what torture the young bard was putting herself through in order to fulfill what she thought was her responsibility. "And… what was your decision, your Majesty?"

Gabrielle drew in a breath, then released it. She curled her hands into fists, and seemed to wait a long, uncertain moment before she drew in another breath. "Is tomorrow too late to tell you? I'd really like to sleep on it, before I have to say."

Ephiny closed her eyes, that being enough for an answer. "Sure, Gabrielle… that'll be fine." She reassured the bard. "I know it was a tough decision."

Gabrielle nodded wearily, and pushed off the railing.

"Where are you going?" The regent asked quietly. "Do you… I mean, I've got some very weak wine in my quarters… do you want to just go relax for a while?"

The bard studied the ring of women around the fire and straightened her shoulders. "No.. thanks, Eph.. but I'm going to go get Xena, and make sure she gets some rest." And get a much needed hug. She silently added. "I'll see you later."

The walk across the compound seemed to take forever, but finally Gabrielle neared the flames, and spotted her soulmate in a fairly isolated corner, one knee drawn up and her hands clasped around it. Her face was mostly hidden in shadows, but occasionally a flicker of light caught her eyes, and glinted silver fire back at the watchers.

The bard slipped around the perimeter of the circle, unseen by the other Amazons, and ended up next to Xena, who looked up as she arrived. The bard dropped down next to her, onto a knee and just gazed at her, reading the painful tension without effort, and knowing she was echoing it back.

Xena unclasped her knee, and spread an arm out and without speaking, Gabrielle crawled into the warrior's embrace, burrowing herself against her partner's body with a shuddering breath. Xena's arms closed around her, cradling her gently, and the low voice murmured softly in comforting tones, glad beyond reason that the bard had come to her, seeking this. I'll find a way around this.. I'll find a way to keep her from having to fight her way through it. She vowed silently.

"Hey… hey… easy….I got you…" The warrior whispered, as she felt the gentle tremors pass through the bard's body. "Look… I.. I'll find Eph… have her call the council, get someone else to be…"

"No." The bard objected hoarsely, lifting her head slightly so her voice would carry. "No… it's.. all right… I did it. I chose."

Xena felt like a stone had fallen on her chest. "Oh." She mumbled, then fell silent. Too late, I guess.

Gabrielle sniffled, and hugged her.

A breath. "I remember the first time I had… to decide someone's fate outside of battle." Xena spoke softly. "When you're fighting… it's different… because the other person is trying to kill you, and I thought this would be the same thing."

"But it wasn't." The bard rasped.

"No… they brought this deserter up.. he was mostly just a kid." Came the answer. "He'd grown up with me in Amphipolis, and he just looked up, like he knew he was going to be all right." Xena paused. "He trusted me."

Gabrielle remained silent.

"And I told them to gut him." Xena continued. "Because I thought that was the only way to make sure there wasn't any more defections." She paused, looking off into the fire. "And because I thought everyone would respect me then."

The firelight reflected off the bard's eyes as she lifted her head a little and peered up. "When was this?"

"Right after Cortese."

Good gods. The bard was shocked. "Did it work?"

A slow nod answered her. "Oh yeah." Xena answered. "I stood there and watched them do it, and after that, they respected me all right."

Gabrielle let out a breath. "How did you feel about it?"

The warrior didn't answer for a long time. Then she cradled the bard's head against her chest and rested her cheek on top if it. "I cried every night for a moon… and I was so sick to my stomach, I couldn't eat." She admitted. "I just kept seeing those eyes, looking up at me, trusting what he thought was a friend."

The bard let her head fall back down onto her partner's chest and absorbed her words in a heavy, somber quiet. What was Xena trying to tell her? It was all right to feel bad? It was all right to not feel bad? Or just that… life sometimes really just stank? "Arella isn't my friend." She finally said, very softly. "She tried to kill me." A pensive pause. "And more important to me, she tried to kill you."

Xena seemed startled by that. "A lot of people have tried that, Gabrielle."

"None of them have been Amazons, Xena." Her soulmate stated quietly. "I'm responsible for these people." She blinked. "After tonight, I guess I'm responsible for you, too." A soft sigh. "Not that I always wasn't."

"I can take care of myself." The warrior reminded her. "Don’t let that…concern.. influence you."

Gabrielle straightened and looked at her steadily. "Are you telling me I should spare her?" She absorbed the intense confusion in the warrior's eyes as she struggled with her emotions. "Or are you just telling me I should spare myself?"

Xena couldn't find any words to answer her for a long moment. "I don’t want to see you get hurt." Softly, pleadingly.

"I can't spare either of us." The bard finally said, sadly. "But it does hurt.. and I need your help to get through this." She felt the arms tighten around her and sighed. "I need to know, Xena… am I doing the right thing?"

Oh gods. Xena felt her heart stop. How in Hades could she, Xena, who had killed more people than lived in a dozen Amazon villages tell Gabrielle what was right? "Gabrielle.. I… "

"Please." The bard whispered. "Don’t tell me follow my heart… don't tell me look inside.. don't tell me to trust myself, Xena… I don't. I can't… I need to know what you believe."

"Me?" The warrior whispered back, tightly. "Gabrielle, I'm a killer… what do you mean, what I believe? What I believe is, I wish I'd broken her damn neck the last time and spared all of us all of this, that's what I believe." She ground out. "I wish I'd…. when I took that bow from her hands this morning I wish I'd cut her throat, and left her bleeding to death in the dirt, all right? "

Gabrielle took steady, even breaths. "Because of what she did?" She asked quietly.

"Because of what she's doing right now, to you." Xena answered tightly.

The bard absorbed that for a moment. "You didn't answer my question."

Very long silence. Then finally, Xena closed her eyes in utter defeat. "How can I answer that?" She muttered.

"It's just a question, Xena."

Blue eyes pierced the gloom. "A question with two answers." The warrior answered in exasperation. "It's the right answer for the Amazons, Gabrielle.. but it's the wrong answer for you."


Xena's shoulders slumped. "You shouldn't have to live with that on your conscience." She sighed. "I don't want you to."

Gabrielle looked off into the darkness. "I've already got two souls on my conscience…what's one more?" She paused, but when Xena didn't answer, or make any sound at all, she looked up.

Utter grief faced her, twin pools of anguish framed in a face that seemed to have aged ten years in an instant. "M'lila was wrong, after all." The words seemed to be dragged out from a fathomless depth. "I would rather have stayed dead than come back and hear you say that."

Gabrielle felt as though she was frozen in stone. Even breathing took an enormous effort, as the words, and the expression on her soulmate's face registered. Oh gods… she means it. The warrior's body was rigid, and she could feel the stark emptiness echoing through her connection with the taller woman. She put a hand against Xena's still chest. "I'm sorry."

A ragged breath escaped. "Not nearly as sorry as I am right now." Xena's whole body jerked, as though she wanted to escape, and was preventing herself from moving by sheer will. "I swear to you, Gabrielle, if I could turn back time to that moment right now, I would."

Gabrielle stared at the buckle on her gambeson without seeing it. "And give this up?" She whispered. "Give us up?"

A couple of heartbeats passed. "Yes."

The bard lifted her head, and looked Xena right in the eyes. "You… are saying… that you would rather… have never fallen in love.. never found the other half of your soul… and spent eternity in Tartarus… just to spare me this decision??"


Silence filled the small clear space around them.

The fair head tilted a little. "You love me."

Xena's brows knitted. "Of course."

A nod. "Does being in love make you happy, Xena?"

A faint relaxation in the tense muscles. "It's one of the few things in my life that ever has."

Gabrielle sighed. "Then everything I've gone through is worth it to me." Her fingers curled around the soft fabric, wrinkling it gently. The bard looked up after a pensive moment. "Xena, you are my greater good."

The tears startled her. Xena's always did… not accompanied by sound of any kind, just slow, liquid trails that caught reflections under her pale eyes. She caught the first one, as it slid off the warrior's high cheekbone, and dropped to her hand. "You know what I think, Xena?"

Her soulmate just shook her head.

"I think you and I, are both good people." Gabrielle said quietly. "Because I know that sacrificing everything for someone else is not something a bad person could do."

Xena swallowed. "Then let me take the responsibility for Arella from you." She pleaded quietly. "Gabrielle, as much blood as I have on my hands, one more won't matter."

Green eyes peered steadily at her. "It matters to me." Gabrielle's head lifted. "I should have taken care of this before, but I didn't, and now three people are hurt, and two are dead. This is my responsibility, Xena.. and it's my decision." She paused. "I can't take the chance of letting her hurt anyone else."

The warrior sighed, and let her head drop back against the tree. After a moment, she rolled her head to one side, and blinked wearily at the bard. "All right." Xena replied, a remote look dropping onto her face. "Then for what it's worth, I think you're doing the right thing."

It was sweet to hear, despite the meaning, and Gabrielle felt a tight band across her chest relax. She smoothed the fabric over her soulmate's chest, and laid her head back down on it. "Thank you."

Xena's grip tightened again, and Gabrielle felt the warrior's chin rest against the top of her head. She rubbed the warrior's arm gently, as the tense body under her relaxed. "Hey… " She called softly.

"Yeah?" Xena's voice was hoarse, and very close to her ear.

"C'mon… I know a very tired little munchkin who needs to go to bed."

A soft, wry snort of laughter was surprised out of Xena. "I don’t think I've been characterized like that since I was six years old." She admitted.

"Mmm… am I wrong?" The bard queried.

Xena exhaled wearily. "No." It was a startling confession. "I feel like I jumped off a cliff."

Gabrielle got to her feet, and held a hand down to her partner. "Well, you'd know what that feels like, I guess."

The warrior accepted the hand up, and staggered a little as she stood, gripping an overhanging branch to steady herself, a little surprised at the shakiness of her legs. "Whoa."

The bard stepped closer, a look of concern crossing her face. "You all right?"

The shakiness didn't subside, and Xena took a better grip on the branch, sucking air down into her lungs and rubbing her eyes. Instantly, a warm arm slipped around her and she felt the bard's strong body providing badly needed support. "Damn… where did…" For a long moment, the darkness whirled around her and she hung onto tree for dear life, until the world steadied, and her body started responding more normally. "Okay… I'm all right."

Gabrielle kept her secure hold, pulling her soulmate's arm over her shoulders and securing it. "Come on.. let's get you into bed." She muttered softly, guiding her towards their quarters, gathering startled looks from the gathered Amazons.

 "Excuse me." The bard poked her head out of their quarters, hailing a passing guard. The woman detoured immediately towards her, and padded to a halt next to the door.

"Yes, my queen?" Intelligent hazel eyes regarded her, in an angular face framed with ginger curls. The guard was a little taller than Gabrielle, and carried herself with a quietly confident air.

"Erin, right?" Gabrielle queried, getting a smile of agreement from the Amazon. "Could you do me a favor?"

"Of course." Erin cocked her head. "What is it?"

The bard eased outside. "Okay… well, I'd really like a tray of just… whatever's left from dinner… anything's fine, and a pitcher of cider, if that's available."

The Amazon gazed at her. "Your majesty.. I could have a boar slain for you, if you like." She protested. "And we have an excellent crop of wine this year… please… let me.."

Gabrielle put a hand on her arm. "No.. no.. I don't want a boar.. thanks… really.. I'm trying to cut down." The joke went completely over the Amazon's head. "Just some sandwiches would be great.. and I can't have the wine, but cider would sure go down good right now."

Erin looked puzzled. "But… look, I can't be bringing the queen of the Amazons leftovers!"

The bard sighed. "Oh.. well, okay.. I understand." She nibbled a fingernail. "I'll go get them myself." She decided, casting a faintly worried look behind her. "Maybe some of those little cakes.. " Something… anything.. to perk up her soulmate, whose quiet depression was starting to scare her. Xena hadn't spoken much since they'd gotten back here, she'd just settled onto the padded bench under the window and fiddled with a piece of Argo's bridle, after saying she was just too tired to sleep.

It had made little or no sense to the bard, but she knew better than to push her soulmate too far. Some things, she reflected a little sadly, you had to work out by yourself. She walked away and let me do that, now it's my turn. Maybe the warrior was still upset about that, she mused, then started to walk towards the dining hall. "Thanks anyway."

"…" Erin waved a hand at her rapidly. "That's not what I…. Look, okay.. I'll get you whatever you want, I just didn't…" She paused. "Sandwiches, right? And cider… and…um… cakes?"

Gabrielle smiled at her. "Yeah… if you wouldn't mind…I didn't get dinner tonight, and neither did Xena." She sighed, as Erin trotted off, headed determinedly towards the dining hall. "Amazons." The night breeze stirred her hair, and fluttered the torch planted squarely outside her quarters. She could see the dim outlines of a sentry nearby, and the faint, moving forms of other Amazons as they crossed the central area. Smoke was on the air, from the campfire, and the rich scent of the surrounding forest, and a snatch of song drifted over as she turned back towards the door and pushed it open.

It was quiet inside. Ares was sprawled out next to the bench, his big head resting on his paws, and his tail wrapped loosely around Xena's boots. The warrior was still fiddling with her piece of tack, her body leaning against the wall. She looked up as Gabrielle reentered the room, and smiled a little. "Hey."

Gabrielle seated herself on the bench and tucked her legs up under her body. "Hey." She reached out and played with a lock of dark hair. "What's wrong with that bit?"

Xena gazed at what she was holding for a moment, as though surprised to see it. "Oh." She finally mumbled. "Um… this thing here?" She showed the bard where the tiny bar that the bridle leather attached to had come away from the main piece. "I'm wrapping this bit around here, and kind of tamping it down, like that."

"Hmm." Gabrielle observed the item. "But you've done that already." She looked up at the taller woman's face. "Twice."

A faint quirk stirred the muscles around Xena's lips. "Yeah, well… " She turned the metal piece in her fingers. "I.. um… "

The bard took the bit from her, and put it down gently, then stood, and tugged her upward. "Xena, no arguments, okay? You're going to come with me, and let me tuck you in." Her voice was firm, and brooked no disagreement. "You're making me nervous."

Xena sighed, and hauled herself to her feet, allowing the younger woman to lead her across the floor and push her down onto the bed. She'd already changed into a soft linen shirt and now simply acquiesced as Gabrielle fussed over her.. "I'm not really that tired." She protested mildly.

Gabrielle just looked at her. "Xena, this is me you're talking to, okay? So cut the centaur poop." She put her hands on her hips and regarded the older woman sternly. "You look that tired."

The warrior sucked in a breath, hesitated, then gave in and slumped back against the pillow, regarding the ceiling wanly. "Okay." The nagging depression settled over her again, making her feel as though rocks were piled on her chest.

The bard sat down on the edge of the mattress, and smoothed her partner's dark hair back, surreptitiously feeling her forehead at the same time. The skin was cool, much to her relief, but it didn't explain Xena's listlessness. "Honey?"

Blue eyes focused on her. "Hmm?"

"You want to talk about it?" Gabrielle asked quietly.

A breath. "Not really." Came the soft response.

It stung. "All right." The bard let her hand drop to her side, feeling a distance between them that she hadn't sensed for long months. It shaved off curls of her soul, and she stood, moving away from the bed and towards the window.

Halfway there, she stopped, and turned. Xena was watching her through what seemed to Gabrielle a thick, choking fog, and although the fire was lit in the fireplace, she was chilled to the bone.

No. She reversed her steps, and ended up next to her soulmate, dredging up a courage borne of desperation and experience. "It's not all right."

The angular face tensed, and a brow lifted.

"I'm not going to let this happen again, Xena." Gabrielle whispered. "You're going to talk to me." She held her breath as the familiar features tightened, and she was subjected to an intense scrutiny by the warrior's formidable gaze. Come on, Xena… No breaking of that stony look. "Please?"

Now a hand relaxed, and turned up, from where Xena had been gripping both of her own together. Gabrielle accepted the offering, and tucked her fingers around the warrior's, surprised at how cold they felt. "What is it?" She urged gently. "What's wrong?"

A weary, hesitant shake of the head. "I didn't want you to change."

It was the last thing Gabrielle expected. She sat down on the edge of the bed, a confused look on her face. "How… gods, Xena, how could I not change?" She asked. "How could I live the life I do and not… "Her voice trailed off, as she watched the warrior close her eyes. "Xena, this is my choice, remember?"

Xena exhaled. "You're walking into the darkness, Gabrielle." Her tone was very quiet. "And I don't know if I can live with that."

"I'm not…" The bard's voice faltered. Was she? She thought about it. Am I more warrior than bard now? Visions of her bouts flitted in front of her vision. I've fought a lot more than taught the whole time I've been here.

Gods. What am I becoming? I've decided to sentence someone to death. Me. The little girl from Potadeia.

No. Not anymore. That little girl is dead.

It brought hot, desperate tears to her eyes, and she reached for the only real comfort she'd ever known..

The only home she'd ever had.

Understanding Xena in that moment like she never had before, as her conscience crashed down on top of her and her body convulsed in sobs, rebelling in pure reaction as she acknowledged the truth of what she was doing. It was all the grief she'd felt after Meridian, but had never had the chance to release, which had hid itself down deep and coiled itself inside her.

Arella had dredged that all up, bringing her to yet another choice. And she had chosen death, again.

Her soul cried out, piteously. She was adrift in a sea of darkness, her only anchor a pair of strong arms and a will that knew the very heart of her, that kept her safe, and whole, and conscious of the light.

She cried herself out, as the warrior silently held her close, until her head throbbed dully, and Xena's fingers very gently started to ease the tense muscles of her neck. Well. She closed her eyes and looked inside herself. "Xena?"

A hand stroked her hair very gently. "I'm here." A pause. "I'll always be here."

"If I am walking into the dark, I'll bring the light of our love with me. No matter how dark it gets, I'll let that light the way." Gabrielle whispered. "I'll be all right as long as I have that."

Xena rocked her for a while, feeling the heavy despair lifting from her as she let what they had between them dissolve it away. "Feel better?" She finally murmured.

Gabrielle nodded against the warm, soft skin she was cuddled against. "Yeah.. I… " The bard's brows knit, and she turned her head, looking up at Xena's candlelit profile. "Wait… you were the one feeling bad, I just.. " Her voice trailed off. "That was me?"

The warrior felt a quiet peace descend on her. "I don't know.. but I feel a lot better now." She replied. "I can't… really describe how that felt, Gabrielle.. it was like the weight of the world was on my shoulders."

The bard exhaled into her pillow of warm skin and linen. "Yeah." She responded softly.

Xena continued her massage. "Gabrielle?"

"Mm?" The exhausted bard mumbled a response.

"I want you to do something for me." The warrior said.

Weary green eyes peered up at her. "Anything, you know that."

Xena cupped her face. "Tomorrow…when they bring Arella up in front of you… she may decided to call challenge."

Blond brows furrowed. "What? Oh… well, yeah, she could.. but that would be… I mean, what would it gain her?"

"I want you to say yes, if she does." Xena replied gently. "Promise me?"

A moment of silence. "I don't understand." Gabrielle puzzled over this. "Xena, she wouldn't be fighting me anyway, she'd be put against..." Her voice petered out as she brought the sentence to it's logical conclusion. Put against you. She looked up at the stern face, with its pale, glittering eyes, which watched her in stark confirmation.

Dead silence. Gabrielle let her head lower slowly to rest on Xena's collarbone. "Oh."

Xena didn't say anything. She kept rubbing the bard's back for a while. "You made the choice, Gabrielle." The warrior said, finally. "That's a damn heavy load. Let me help you carry it."

The bard wound her hands into the fabric of Xena's shirt, and let out a long, defeated breath. "If she challenges." Came the tired confirmation. "But only if." She allowed herself to sink deeper into Xena's embrace, welcoming the overwhelming rush of sleep. "Don't leave me." She whispered, as the warrior pulled her down into a more comfortable position. "I don't want to dream tonight."

A soft, melodic voice caught her spirit, easing her into oblivion.

"I won't leave you." Came the low response, as the music paused. "Even in your dreams, I'll be there."

Gabrielle surrendered up her soul into the night's safekeeping, wrapped in a blanket of peace, and sweet music.

Continued in Part 9