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 – Violence - yes, there will be violence of a moderately graphic nature in this story. Xena is easily bored, and when she gets bored, she likes to hit people. It's just one of those things.

Subtext - As in all my stories, this one is based on the premise of two people who are very much in love with each other. They happen to both be women. There is no graphically depicted action here.. but if the thought of this gives you a problem, find a different story to read. There are lots of very good general fiction Xena stories that can be found everywhere.

If you read the above, and then persist in reading the story, which won't be a short one, cause they never are, and then you're STILL offended by love… send me your address, and I'll send you some kumquats. It'll be perfect for you, trust me.

ON the other hand, if you kinda like the stuff, send me your address, and I'll pass along some of my favorite snack foods, white raisins, dipped in fresh milk chocolate.

Oh - and this is, actually, truly, really, the conclusion. Honest.

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


Leap of Faith - Part 9

By Melissa Good

It was a caterpillar that finally did the trick, Xena realized, as she blinked her very startled eyes open, to see silvery moonlight spilling all over her like a soft edged blanket. The creeping bug had ended up tickling her knuckles, and she stared at it in fuzzy bewilderment before she knocked her hand lightly against the bark of the tree and sent the bug tumbling into a patch of leaves.

Oh… Xena let several colorful curse words fall from her lips, as her eyes found the moon's position in the sky. I can't believe I did that. I can't believe I DID THAT!!!!! She caught a branch over her head and pulled her body upright, running a hand through her hair to move it out of her eyes, and taking a moment to collect herself. She balanced on a thick limb, letting the sleep drain out of her, and making sure her sense of balance was present and intact.

Then it was a simple matter of dropping from branch to branch, stepping from the lowest one and landing with a startlingly loud thump against the vine-covered soil. The night was very quiet, just the faint sounds of small hunting animals rustling around, accompanied by a staggered round of crickets who stilled as she passed, and took up their rattle after her soft footsteps no longer disturbed the knee high grasses she was walking through. Once she'd cleared the ridge, she broke into a powerful lope, her body sliding through the underbrush as ferns tickled her bare arms, and dew moistened her clothing.

One thought echoed to the sounds of her steps. Gabrielle.. is gonna kill me. Xena berated herself out over and over again, in utter disbelief that she'd actually just gone up there and FALLEN ASLEEP… Softly hissed curses startled a night feeding deer, who jumped out of her way, and caused an owl to take off, flapping over her head and stirring her hair with his passage.

It took several minutes more to reach the ravine, and she slowed her steps, looking for a good place to cross it. She was about to launch herself towards a vine, when the moon came out from behind the clouds and painted the overgrown creek bed in silver and sharp, black shadows.

Outlining a small, huddled form next to the tall tree overhanging the ravine, the sight of which grabbed Xena's heart, and just wrung it. Oh.. damn it all to Hades… She cursed softly, then wasted no more time in finding a solid vine and swinging across. She landed gently not far from the tree bole, and trotted over, startling the sleeping Ares, who popped his dark head up, and stared at her with round, yellow eyes. "Arhggrrrrrooooo." He growled.

"Shhh.. " Xena dropped to her knees, and gently, carefully put a hand on her dozing soulmate's cloaked shoulder. "Hey… " She resisted the almost unstoppable urge she had to scoop the bard up, and cuddle her. "Gabrielle?"

"Mmmm.. " The bard stirred, lifting her head, and struggling to open her eyes. "Oh… " A smile tugged at her lips. "There you are." She lifted a hand and rubbed her eyelids, pushing herself away from the tree she'd been sheltering against, and towards her partner. "Glad you're ok."

Xena collapsed cross-legged onto the leafy floor, and groaned. "No.. I'm not ok.. I'm a an idiot.. I can't believe I… Gabrielle, I'm sorry."

The bard sat up, and settled next to her, mimicking her posture. "Hey.. it's ok… I know you need time by yourself.. I was just kinda… " She looked around. "Kinda worried, that's all." She gave her soulmate an apologetic look. "I didn't know where you were."

The warrior lowered her head into her hands, and groaned again, alarming Gabrielle, who leaned forward and tipped her head up, peering worriedly at her. "Hey.. are you all right?" She pushed Xena's dark hair back, and felt her forehead, then checked her for obvious wounds. "You don't look hurt… what's wrong?"

A long, gusting sigh. "What's wrong is… I .. went out to a.. to an old haunt of mine.. and like a damn, irresponsible kid, I damn it all to Hades FELL ASLEEP." The warrior burst out, shaking her head violently, and clutching it. "I can't believe I did that."

Gabrielle giggled softly. "Hey.. hey.. relax… " She captured her partner's hands and pulled them towards her, kissing them lightly. "Take it easy, will you? We all survived.. nothing burned down, there were no floods, no renegades, no cows in distress.. you took the afternoon off. No big deal, Xena…. "

"And left you to wait here, alone, in the middle of the forest." The warrior concluded bitterly.

"Hey!" Gabrielle's voice turned serious. "That was my choice to do, ok? I could be comfortably curled up in bed.. but I just…" She shrugged. "I.. um… " Her eyes looked around. "Ok, so I'm kinda crazy.. " She turned a plaintive gaze on the warrior's stormy face. "Would you just take it easy?" A pat on the warrior's chest. "I'm just glad you're here."

Xena scowled. Not one of her "I'm a warrior and you're not' ones, but one of her adolescent, full face, "I want stuffed grape leaves, and I want them now" kind of scowls that Gabrielle was actually kind of fond of. It was so cute she leaned over and kissed the pouting lips, winding a hand around Xena's neck, and pulling her closer. "C'mere, you."

Xena really wanted to remain disgusted with herself. Really. But she responded to the gentle touch with reluctant pleasure, finally giving in to her desire to get her arms around the bard and feel Gabrielle's body warm against her own.

It felt so.. damn.. good.. The bard's hands immediately took possession of her, moving restlessly against her skin as they ended up tangled together in the ferns.

"I knew I was waiting here for a reason." Gabrielle teased, pulling back a little and smiling. "And that was certainly worth the wait."

She got a grudging half grin back, and settled onto her side, propping herself up on an elbow. "So… you missed a dinner's worth of 'no centaur poop, I was there!' in Potadeia stories." She informed her soulmate, snagging her finger into the straps on Xena's gambeson and tugging, unobtrusively watching the shadowed, somewhat grumpy face opposing her. "C'mon, Xena… let it go already… the world didn't end because you took a nap." She curled her fingers around the warrior's wrist. "You had a pretty stressful morning.. and all that partying last night didn't help.. I mean look.. I fell asleep here in the middle of the forest waiting for you."

Xena poked her lower lip out, and scowled, then released a weighty sigh and rolled over onto her back, gazing up at the leafy canopy. After a moment of contemplation, she eyed her partner in resignation. "Wanna see where I went?"

Gabrielle perked up, an intrigued expression crossing her face. "Sure." She looked around. "It's a great night for a walk."

First, they had to get over the ravine, and Gabrielle decided to just keep her eyes closed and hold on, as Xena jumped, grabbing a vine and lifting them both over. She was only aware of the air brushing by her, and then the impact as her feet hit the far edge. They walked in companionable silence through the trees, hand in hand, until they reached the open plateau, where Gabreille stopped, and drew in breath at the lovely, moonlit scene that greeted her eyes. "Wow." She breathed, a smile etching her lips. "Nice view."

The starry sky stretched overhead, meeting the long, dark line of trees in the distance, and the moon reflected off the river that flowed to meet the horizon. The entire plateau was bathed in silver light, and the breeze, which blew up from the lower valley, carried tantalizing hints of night blossoming flowers.

Xena stopped under the tree, and looked up, then looked at her. "My childhood refuge."

Gabrielle tipped her head back, and gazed upward. A faint giggle worked it's way up through her throat. "It figures." She said, giving her partner a wry roll of her eyes. Then a determined look crossed her face, as she circled the tree. "Is there a route up?"

Xena's eyebrows rose. "You don't…um… have to go up there, you know." She watched the bard's slim form maneuver around the trunk, the tip of her tongue appearing as she studied the problem. "But I guess you want to, huh?"

So they did.. Xena leaping up and catching a hold, then extending a careful arm down to pull her soulmate up, as they worked their way to the top of the tree, where she lifted Gabrielle over and into the cuplike depression she'd so recently been resting in. "There you go."

Gabrielle leaned back against the bark and crossed her arms, taking a deep breath of the sweet air and enjoying the sights. "It's beautiful here." She looked down. "Climbing this tree was an interesting experience… it was scary, and it was hard, but you end up in a nice, secure place with a great view." She paused, and lifted her eyes to Xena's. "It's kind of what getting to know you has been like."

Xena blinked at her, vaguely startled.

Gabrielle sighed, and moved closer. "I meant, the result is more than well worth the effort it took."

"Oh." Xena muttered, with a relieved look. "Yeah, it is kinda nice up here."

The bard leaned against her, and smiled. "Ephiny stopped by.. I think I guiltified her enough to make her feathers wilt."

The warrior shrugged. "You didn't have to do that… it wasn't a big deal, Gabrielle.. "

"Hey." The bard poked her. "Save that 'I don't care what other people think' routine for someone who doesn’t know you like I do, ok?" She gave her partner a stern look. "Anyway.. she apologized.. and wanted me to tell you that in case you didn't get back before she left."

Xena nodded, but looked sad. "Yeah." She sucked in a breath. "Maybe I'll just… arrange not to be around tomorrow morning. Might make it easier."

Gabrielle gave her a warning look. "Xena, it's not going to be like that." She said. "She admitted you were right.. she just didn't think she could face Paladia right now."

The warrior nodded a little, then sprawled across the branches again, watching the moon's progress in morose silence.

The bard sighed inwardly, sitting down next to her and throwing her arm over the broad shoulders. "I am their Queen." An idea niggled at her, borne from Ephiny's nagging.

"I know." Xena said. "Sorry…they're good people, Gabrielle.. it's just gonna take a while." Her posture slumped a little, though, as she reached out, and fingered a few of the leaves that were surrounding them.

"Mm.." Gabrielle snuggled up next to her, and rested her chin on Xena's shoulder, taking a steadying breath as she thought out her words. "I'd… um…" She hesitated. "Y'know… I was reading all that stuff they left me.. about the Amazon rules, and laws. .and all that gunk."

Xena turned her head, watching her partner's face with idle interest. "Uh huh?"

Gabrielle nodded, feeling a nervous clenching in her stomach. "They have some interesting customs." She temporized, feeling blue eyes sharpen and intently study her. "There's.. one or two I.. I think I'd like to get to know on a.. um.. a personal level."

She sensed Xena's breathing change, and felt the nervous skip of her heartbeat, perceptible under the bard's fingers, which rested on the warrior's neck. Gabrielle looked up, uncertainly, and saw the swift shuttering of wary shields going up in her soulmate's eyes and realized how Xena might have interpreted what she'd just said.

Damn. She silently cursed. Does she still think there's a chance I'd choose the Amazons over her? Looking up into Xena's tense face brought it's own answer, and it saddened her. I guess she does.

"Sure… Gabrielle.. stands.. I guess it stands to reason you want find out more about them.. I mean.." Xena's voice was steady. "I can understand that."

"Good." The bard replied. "Will you be my Consort, then?" She felt the breath come out of her partner as her jaw dropped a little, and just waited, watching a dozen different emotions flash across Xena's face. Chiefly shock, followed by disbelief.

"M.. Me?" Xena managed to squeak out.

Oo… she's so cute when she's flustered. Gabrielle bit her lower lip, suppressing a smile. "Well… you're the only soulmate I have, so… yeah, you."

"But… but that would make me… "

"An Amazon, yeah." Gabrielle acknowledged, feeling very proud of herself. "Dyed in the.. um… feathers.. so to speak." She read the doubt in Xena's eyes with a pang. "Unless you.. don't want to be.. that.. for me."

A silence dropped between them, until Xena drew in breath, and lifted a hand to her cheek, tilting her head so their eyes met. "I… I… Gabrielle, I don't deserve that honor." Her voice shook. "The Amazons look on me as a.. half crazed, bloodthirsty.. " She stopped, then went on. "killer."

Gabrielle gently kissed her hand, then covered it with her own. "I know." She answered honestly. "But if you said yes.. then you'd be THEIR half crazed, bloodthirsty killer.. and that would make all the difference to them."

The warrior blinked at her, shocked at her brutally practical analysis. She took a breath, then let it out slowly. "You're right… I… I guess it's a good idea."

The bard nuzzled her neck. "Thanks.. but that's not why I asked you."

Xena was totally off balance, and it showed. "I… it's .. it's not?" She stammered softly.

"No." Gabrielle answered gently. "It's a very beautiful ceremony, and it's something I really want to share with you."

A faint, trembling smile tugged at Xena's lips. "All right… I.. I'd love that."

The bard grinned. "Yesssssss…. " She chortled softly. "This is gonna be awesome." She claimed Xena's lips for a long, delightful moment, then laid her cheek against the warrior's. "I love you."

The warrior looked like she was struggling between a big grin and a worried frown, and just gave up, letting a broad smile just take over her face. "I love you too." She let out a huge sigh of relief. "Ephiny's gonna go nuts."

"Nah." The bard shook her head. "She was hinting so hard she almost swallowed her boar's tooth necklace." She threw her arms around her partner and hugged her as tightly as she could. "Mmmmphh… it's going to be great." She sighed happily, gazing up at the stars. "Hey.. what kinda tree is this?"

Xena looked up a little dazedly. "Huh?? Oh… um.. it's a real old apple tree.. but it hardly ever bore fruit.. I think I only remember eating one of it's apples once.. maybe twice.. they were great, but.. " She followed Gabrielle's pointing finger, which had identified a hanging fruit with unerring accuracy. "Oh… yeah, lookit that." She gave her partner a knowing look, then cocked her head. "Let me guess.. you missed dinner?"

Guilty green eyes peeked up at her from under pale lashes. "I was too worried to eat." She admitted sheepishly. "I played with it so long mom took it away and said she was going to have Johan cast it as sculpture."

Xena laughed wryly. "My fault." She stood, and leaped up onto the next branch, which swayed dangerously under her weight, then leaned out over the dipping limb, and snagged the fruit, twisting it sharply and securing it with a quick hand. "Got it.. " She muttered, as she dropped off the bending branch she was balanced on, and ended up at the bard's side once more. "Here you go."

Gabrielle removed her hands which had been hiding her view and examined her prize, which was a soft golden color, streaked through with rich red veins, and larger than her closed fist. "Mmmm…. " She sniffed it appreciatively, and took a bite. "Wofffww.." The juice exploded from it, and trickled down her chin, as she chewed and swallowed. "That's great." The apple was sweet, and very crunchy, and just the right temperature, cooled by the night breeze.

She bit off a large chunk, and sat there, eyebrows raised. "Wffnt smef?"

Xena laughed, and ducked her head, closing her teeth around the offering, and gently biting it free. The fruit was curiously familiar in taste, and she savored it, munching bits slowly, and stopping as her teeth encountered the round shape of a seed. "Hmm… " She separated the bit out, and removed the flesh, rolling the seed around in her mouth. "Appleseed."

"Hey." Gabrielle finished her own mouthful, and hastily swallowed. "No pegging lizards, remember? Gimme that seed."

It was a curious, tickling feeling, that Xena put down to her body's normal reaction to her soulmate, as she gently captured Gabrielle's face, and met her lips, tasting the apple on them and taking her time in exploring the bard's mouth, almost chuckling as her partner skillfully removed the seed from her mouth with her tongue.

She felt the seed pass out of her mouth, and with that, a deep, rich, warm wave flooded over her, as their connection took control and brought them closer than skin would allow, to a place where she could swear she felt Gabrielle's heart beating in her own chest, and felt the bard's breath in her lungs, more solid, and more real than any other experience she'd ever had in her life.

It lasted half a lifetime, and when they finally took a moment to breathe, it was to look into each other's eyes in gentle awe. "Wow." It was barely a sound, more a shaped breath from Gabrielle's throat. "That felt pretty awesome."

Xena gazed at her, running a finger down her jawline in absent pleasure. "Yeah.. it sure did." She mumbled, as they stared at each other. "Where'd the seed go?" The warrior finally asked, in absent curiosity.

Gabrielle felt around inside her mouth, then shrugged. "I guess I swallowed it… " She glanced doubtfully at her soulmate. "It won't hurt me will it?"

The warrior watched the moonlight gild her skin, glistening off the fair down that covered her cheeks. "No… don't make a habit of it.. but one is ok." She was barely cognizant of what she was saying, as she tried to settle a body still tingling with the power of their last kiss. Slowly, she raised a hand to her ear, touching it, then looking at Gabrielle. "Did you just hear a bell?"

The bard laughed. "Are you kidding? My heart's still pounding so hard I couldn't hear our rooster if he let off right next to me." She put down the apple core, and slid her hands over her soulmate's body, breathing in her scent with a soft, sensual growl. "Must have been a lost goat." She added, nudging Xena's chin up and exploring the warrior's throat with her lips. "Mmm… you smell great." She mumbled, feeling the muscles work under her touch.

"I… I've been running around… sweating all day.." The warrior protested faintly, as she slipped into a more comfortable position, and pulled the bard up against her. "Not very appealing."

"Heh… " Gabrielle let off a low, throaty chuckle. "You are sooooo wrong." She slid up, and captured her soulmate's lips again, and returned to the warm haze that insinuated itself into every nook and cranny of her consciousness, winding it's way through her, and through Xena.

She knew it - she could feel the warrior opening up to her in a way that had always been rare between them, and she willingly followed where Xena was leading her, forgetting where she was, ignoring the rough bark that brushed against her skin, and only foggily aware of the cool night air that now lifted the fine hairs on her now bare back.

Xena felt wave after wave of chills, as she pulled off Gabrielle's tunic, and was aware of the bard's hands impatiently working the buckles on her gambeson, sliding it aside as they moved together, and she experienced the sensual shock of their bodies connecting all down their lengths. It was easily the most intense thing she'd ever experienced, and she felt her control slipping, dissolving away as every inch of her demanded her soulmate's touch and she let loose all her doubts, and the restraints she usually kept on her passion, and just…

Let go.

It was a pending explosion that built so fast all she could do was hold on, and let it swallow her senses whole, feeling Gabrielle moving with her in tandem as their souls matched, and joined and became a single point of light, leaving them both shaking, and spent, resting in each other's arms in foggy contentment.

Love surrounded her. Gabrielle was aware of breathing it in, and letting it seep though every crack, every raw spot still left unhealed deep in her heart. It was a gift she'd never expected, so it overwhelmed her, and she let it. Every beat of her heart pulsed that wonderful warmth through her again, and again, and as she felt the twinned beats slow, the feeling of connection grew until it almost rivaled those few, exhilarating moments when she'd stayed spectator in her own body as Xena took her over to fight Velasca.

It felt so good.

It felt so right, it brought tears to her eyes, and she silently let them fall against Xena's slowly moving chest, to trickle through the soft down that covered the warrior's body. Long arms securely held her, and she indulged herself happily in the sweet comfort of knowing her soulmate was beside her, drawing slow, even patterns against her skin in idle peace.

She looked up, to see Xena regarding the night sky, a half smile on her face as the small muscles just under her skin twitched, her eyes moving lightly from point to point above them. "Whatcha thinking about?" Gabrielle broke the silence gently.

"I can remember… this one night… " Xena answered, her voice a note higher than usual. "I had… just the best day… I'd finally managed to ride this stallion that nobody else could.. I'd been working and working on him.. and he finally .. finally trusted me, came up, took a carrot outta my hand, and let me get on him."

"Mm… sounds… special." Gabrielle agreed amiably, not sharing her partner's passion for horses.

Xena smiled. "I know you think I'm nuts.. but.. anyway, I felt great.. and I came up here, there was no moon that night, and I managed to get down four new patterns of stars that I'd never seen before."

"You did star chasing before?" The bard asked, mildly delighted.

"Yeah… " Her partner gave her a relaxed grin. "I managed to forget that until I met you." She sighed. "Anyway… I can remember just sitting here, hands behind my head, looking up… and looking forward to the future, wondering what it held.. thinking of all the great things I'd do."

Gabrielle let her fingers stroke the soft skin under her, trying to think of something to say.

"Gabrielle?" Xena uttered her name as though it were a prayer.

"Right here, love." The bard answered.

"I just felt that way again." The warrior's voice was full of wonder. "It was the most amazing thing."

Gabrielle wrapped that whole moment up in gossamer, and tucked it away down deep, in the special place she reserved for things that she knew she'd look back on one day as having changed her life. Things like her first meeting with Xena.

Marrying Perdicus, and watching him die.

Her defense of Terris.

Xena's death, and rebirth.

Meridian and Krafstar.

Hope and Dahok

Being asked to scratch a nose in a filthy dungeon in Chin.

Standing over Xena's slumped body in a damp cavern, and refusing to let hurt and anger get the better of her.

Choosing love over hate.

Choosing life over death.

"That's beautiful." Was what she said, as she smiled up into blue eyes that glinted silver in the moonlight, and saw a strange look there, that she hardly recognized.


She felt it too, a delicious calm that wrapped itself around her heart, ejecting her fears and concerns as though they'd never been there. It felt wonderful.

Gabrielle turned her eyes towards the stars, and ran a hand slowly up the midline of her soulmate's stomach,. "Think that looks like a boat?" She pointed.

"Nu uh." Xena shook her head a fraction. "A cat."

"Tch." The bard smiled widely. "A cat?" She tilted her head. "No way.. how about a teapot?"

"A teapot??" Xena chuckled. "You gotta be kidding… " She looked again. "All right.. a fish."

Gabrielle giggled. "Only if you stand on your head… well.. maybe an octopus."

An eyebrow quirked. "Thought you were partial to squid." Xena gave the soft skin under her fingertips a tickle, and was rewarded by a delighted squeal as they went after each other mercilessly, under a thickly sown canopy of twinkling stars.

 Ephiny stood in the silence of the room, hearing Gabrielle's footsteps recede. She was alone, and the creaks of the inn settling around her seemed unnaturally loud as she crossed the floor, and leaned both hands on the windowsill, looking out.

The back yard of the inn was quiet, and the scent of Cyrene's herb garden floated in to her, with a half-spicy, half-pungent aroma. Behind her, she knew, their stuff was packed up, lacking only the small bundle of things they'd use overnight as Eponin precisely obeyed her request to leave at first light.

Damn. Ephiny turned away from the window, and dropped into a chair. Gabrielle had a way of winding words around your head, where they'd kind of sit there, niggling at you until you had to pay attention to them, or get drunk enough to make them go away.

With a head wound, getting drunk was right out of the question. So here she was, hearing those gentle, precise tones, and being driven out of her mind by the knowledge that the bard was very probably telling her a truth she really didn't want to listen to.

As if Gabrielle didn't have enough to deal with on her own, right? She hadn't been fooling anyone at dinner tonight, everyone including Ares the wolf had realized the bard was a thousand leagues away, so preoccupied that she hardly paid attention when her name was called.

She loves her so much. Ephiny shook her head in bemusement. How in Hades did that survive, through the deaths of two children? How would I have felt if it had been Xenon.. would I have been able to forgive?

She thought about that. Damn. A slow exhale. Is it possible to love someone so much that you could get past that? I guess it must be, but damned if I know how.

The door creaked open, and Eponin poked her dark head in, spotting Ephiny and giving her a tense, if genuine grin. "You're back."

"Nah." Ephiny leaned her head against the chair back. "I'm still wandering in the woods somewhere."

That got a more relaxed smile from her lover, who edged into the room, and perched on the other chair. "You get Gabrielle settled?"

"No." The regent replied honestly. "Only one thing's gonna do that, and it sure ain't me." She sighed. "On the other hand, she managed to get me pretty unsettled." Ephiny admitted.

"You… um.. you think we should go out and try to find her? Xena, I mean?" Eponin broached the idea with a healthy dose of trepidation. She had no desire to find the warrior if the warrior was determined not to be found. "What if something happened to her?"

A faint shake of Ephiny's golden curls. "Gabrielle would know.. and she says she thinks she's ok, she's just… I don't know, worried, I guess."

"Mm." Eponin considered the statement. "What's up with that, anyway?"


"That… "Gabrielle would know" stuff." The weapon's master probed gently.

"Oh." Ephiny scratched her nose. "Hades if I know.. she just does…they've got some kind of mutual babysitting service on each other or something." She shrugged. "Kinda like.. you remember Iatha and Genis?"

"The twins?" Eponin perked up. "Sure..they were two real nice Amazons.. I was sorry to see them go when they left for Thebes."

"Right… well, they were kinda like that.. one always finishing the other's sentences, they got sick at the same time, always knew when the other was in trouble.. that kinda thing." Ephiny had been quite proud of herself for figuring the whole thing out, only trouble was….

"But Xena and Gabrielle aren't twins." Eponin objected. "Right?"

"Not that I noticed." Ephiny replied dryly. "But I think it works kinda the same way."

"Oh." The dark haired Amazon digested this. "That's pretty damn all right."

"Mm." Ephiny agreed absently. "Yeah, it is."

They looked at each other for a long moment, then Ephiny lifted her hands, and let them drop on the chair arms. "I can't stand it."

"Huh?" Pony blinked.

"God's be damned Queen put a centaur pooping idea in my head and now it won't stop." Ephiny gritted her teeth. "Hades." She stood, and went to their gear, rummaging around in it, then pulling out a small bag. "I'm not gonna have a peaceful moment until I do this."

"Do what?" Pony asked, nervously, as she watched Ephiny grab a cup and start to stalk out of the room. "Whoa.. Eph!" She bounced up and caught the regent's arm. "Where're you going?"

"To have a talk with Paladia." Ephiny squared her shoulders. "I'm an Amazon, damn it, and I don't back down from anything… much less some pissant half grown pig farmer with an attitude." She stalked out, leaving Eponin standing there with her jaw on the ground.

"Wow." The weapon's master ran a hand through her dark hair. "Gotta get the Queen to teach me how she does that." This was said to the empty room, which echoed back to her, and she shook her head as she followed Ephiny's hastily mustered bravado out the door.

Paladia rested her head against the dirt wall, half awake, and half slipping into a fitful doze. It had been a very long, very boring day, chiefly spent in Cait's aggravating presence, once Gabrielle had her taken back to the cellar.

She'd thought about what the fair haired bard had said, and decided she really didn't hate her anymore. Actually, she kinda pitied her more than anything.. she had the stupidest ideas of what people were like that she'd ever heard.

Well, at least if she had to have someone deciding on how to punish her, better for her that it was sweet, kind hearted Gabrielle. Paladia smirked a little. I lucked out.. she coulda left it up to that curly headed bitch I…

The door slammed open, and shut again, letting in a flare of torchlight for a brief second, then plunging her back into darkness. She could feel her heart racing, as she realized there was someone in the cellar with her.

Someone fairly breathing hostility.

A candle flared, and a pair of fire tinged hazel eyes bored into her, as cold as a winter's day.

Oh… crap. Paladia swallowed hard. It was the middle of the night, no one else was around, and this really mad looking Amazon was conspicuously armed. A long, wicked looking dagger was slung at her waist, and she carried at her belt a pair of short clubs.

Very slowly, she eased herself back, hugging her injured arm to her in a faint hope of protection, as she endured the silent, frightening evaluation from Ephiny's expressionless gaze. "Guess our roles are reversed now, huh?" She hazarded weakly.

Ephiny smiled. It was not a reassuring expression. She dripped wax on the shelving, and set the candle down in it, holding it until she was sure of it's sturdiness, then releasing it as she took a step to stand over Paladia.

The candle's flickering light threw shadows over the Amazon's face. "Guess it's time to find out who's the bigger bitch, you or me." Ephiny's voice was low, and controlled. She removed a chobo from her belt and flipped it, catching the wooden handle with a faint, rhythmic slap. "What odds you wanta lay?"

Paladia lay there, trying to control her breathing, which suddenly seemed to want to run away with her. Ephiny was radiating menace, and abruptly all the stories she'd ever heard about the bloodthirsty Amazons crowded into her skull, yammering for attention. "N.. not much of a challenge." She lifted her arm. "Xena took care of that."

Ephiny smiled again. "Not well enough." She slipped the chobo back into place, and knelt where she'd dropped a small bag. Removing several types of herbs, she dusted them into the cup she was carrying, and poured water from the skin near the door over them. Then she stood, and sauntered over to the injured renegade, mixing the substance up with a lazy finger. "Do you know what it's like to feel helpless?"

Paladia swallowed, her eyes fixed on the cup.

"Hmm? What it's like to have someone else controlling you.. doing things to you that you have no way of stopping?" Ephiny's voice took on an angry edge. "No?" She knelt, and grabbed the renegade's jaw in powerful fingers, wrenching it open. "You will."

Paladia tried to struggle, but her arm made it too awkward, and Ephiny, even still injured, was strong and knew how to subdue someone. She slammed the renegade's head back, holding her in place with bodyweight, and poured the mixture into her mouth, pinching her neck until she swallowed convulsively.

It was bitter, and stung going down, and Paladia felt her heart stutter almost double time, as panic forced a whimper from her throat. Another dose, and she almost threw up from the taste, but Ephiny wasn't having any of that. She forced her mouth closed, and held it. "Oh no… it's going down and staying down, or you'll drown in it." The Amazon rasped, setting her teeth on edge.

She had no choice. Tense moments passed as Ephiny waited, and she stared at the Amazon, her eyes finding the fading bruises and cuts that liberally covered her face and head. I'm gonna look worse. She realized, as a low, eerie buzz started just under her consciousness. She blinked, and watched as Ephiny grabbed her jaw, and turned her face so their eyes met.

She couldn't stop her.

"Not a nice feeling is it?" The Amazon asked.

Paladia dropped her gaze, unable to meet Ephiny's eyes. Her panic started to grow again, as the sounds of the room began to echo weirdly.

"I could make you do anything." Came the growling voice. "I could make you cut yourself.. I could give you enough of this to make you a helpless baby for the rest of your life."

Lights started to fade in and out of her eyesight, and she realized just how disgusting this feeling really was. She hated it. It ripped at her guts, and tore away all the self confidence she'd managed to drag together after she'd lost the rest of her family. Something snapped.

"Don’t hurt me." That wasn't her voice. Was it?

"What?" Came the sharp, echoing answer. "I don’t' think so… I'm gonna make you feel just like I did, you pitiful piece of horse crap."


A roaring filled her ears, and she thought she remembered yelling, and the sound of flames, and a fear so overwhelming it simply took her over, and made her curl up into a little ball, hoping against hope that she would somehow survive.

The noise subsided, and she became aware of the soft, subtle sounds of her prison. The creak of the wood, and the scent of dirt. Slowly, she opened her eyes, to see Ephiny sitting on the small stool, calmly watching her.

"W…wh… " Paladia looked around, bewildered. The fuzziness was gone, along with most of the pain in her arm. "Wh…what.."

"Painkiller." Ephiny rested her arms on her knees, and idly studied a chobo. "With a little something extra. Won't kill you."

The renegade stared at her in disbelief. "You tricked me." The words trickled out. "You wanted me to see what it was like."

A pale eyebrow rose. "You're not as stupid as I thought." Ephiny replied, bluntly. "How'd you like it?"

"It sucked." Paladia answered listlessly.

"Yeah, it sure does." The Amazon agreed quietly. "I felt like total crap." She told her. "And I still do… I can't even look my friends in the face I feel so lousy about it."

The renegade blinked tiredly at the floor, and gave up. Keeping up the front wasn't worth the energy anymore. "M'sorry." She mumbled, just like she used to, when Ma got on her about the pigs. "Didn't know any other way to get someone to be with me."

She missed the sudden, startled widening of Ephiny's eyes, and the look of surprise on her face. It was gone by the time she lifted her gaze and found those bits of hazel studying her in silence. Even with the bruises, she glumly thought, the Amazon was pretty. One finger began tracing a pattern in the dirt absentmindedly. "Ma.. told me it wouldn't be much good for me in that area… she told me I'd better find me some nice, sturdy guy who wanted a strong arm, and not much else."

"Paladia… " Ephiny cleared her throat a little. "They tell me love is blind.. you just have to go looking in the right place for it."

"Easy for you to say, ain't it?" The renegade replied. "Any of you."

The Amazon's lips thinned. "I don't know.. I guess from Phantes point of view, I was pretty damn ugly." She answered quietly. "He didn't much care."

Paladia blinked. "Forgot about that." She mumbled.

Ephiny studied her, and felt her anger drain slowly, replaced by a wash of pity and disgust. This wasn't a monster.. it was a pathetic, troubled adolescent minded kid. She sighed. I don't want to kill her anymore. She mulled the thought over. I just want to slap her upside the head for being so damn clueless.

With a sigh, she stood up, and brushed herself off. "Goodnight."

Paladia looked up, startled. "You're not gonna beat me up?"

Ephiny gave her a pitying look. "No. I was never really much in the bitch department." She paused with her hand on the door, then shook her head, and left, leaving the candle to flutter agitatedly in her passing.

"The sun's coming up." Gabrielle commented, as she nestled contentedly against Xena's shoulder.

"Mmhmm." The warrior agreed, with a tiny yawn. "Guess we'd better get back.. say goodbye to the Amazons…all that stuff." The warrior's blue eyes were gray in the pre dawn light, as she watched the thin clouds drifting across the dark sky with interest. The moon had set some time ago, and they were huddled under Gabrielle's cloak against the damp cool.

"Y'know… if someone would have told me yesterday that I'd be spending the night with you in a tree.. I'd have had to have laughed." The bard informed her. "But, gods.. I'm glad that's exactly where I ended up… Xena, that was.. incredible."

The warrior cocked an eyebrow at her smugly. "Well.. I aim to please."

Gabrielle snorted softly, and slapped her. "Not that.. " She paused. 'Well… yeah, actually, that was incredible too… but I mean the whole thing.. coming out here.. the moon.. the view… the apple.. "Another pause. "That reminds me. I'm hungry."

Xena burst out laughing. "How did I know that was coming?" She addressed the tree, then peered at her soulmate. "Well.. you used up a lot of energy last night." She nibbled the bard's ear, and grinned when that got her a giggle. "C'mon, partner.. let's get outta this place, and go home."

The bard let out a long, trembling breath. "Xena…. we are home."

It came right from her soul, and went right to her partners, as she heard the catch in Xena's breathing, and the arms that cradled her tightened to an almost unbearable degree.

She felt… whole. For the first time, in what seemed like forever. And so she smiled against the soft skin she was lying on, and let herself absorb the warmth and the emotion she could sense coming from her soulmate. "That feels so wonderful." She sighed happily.

"Yeah, it sure does." Xena agreed readily. "Can I just do this for the rest of the day?"

Gabrielle hummed in delight. "How about for the rest of our lives?"

"That works." The warrior replied amiably. She kept the squeeze on for a few minutes, then reluctantly let the bard loose. "But… I guess we'd better go say goodbye." She arranged the bard's bangs with idle fingers. "They'll be worried."

Gabrielle rested her chin on her partner's breastbone, and considered the problem. "Oh.. all right." She mock sighed. "Can we come back here sometimes?"

Xena smiled at her. "Sure." She paused, stroking the bard's hair gently. "You're the first person I ever brought to this place." A quiet nod. "I 'm glad I did."

They floated in each other's eyes for a few breaths, then reluctantly got up, laughing as they arranged oddly fastened clothing, and folded up Gabrielle's cloak.

"Ugh." Gabrielle peeked down. "Oh!" She clapped a hand over her mouth. "Poor Ares."

Xena leaned over, spotting the wolf curled up in a resentful ball at the foot of the tree. "Oh.. Hades… he's gonna be miffed." She winced. "I thought he'd just go home…. Musta found a way around the ravine."

"Eek." The bard squeaked. "Well.. let's get down there.. " She regarded the branch with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. "How come it's higher now than it was last night?"

The warrior laughed gently, and put an arm around the bard's shoulders, lifting her knees with her other arm and cradling her. "No problem."

"Oh.. Xena.. no.. " Gabrielle protested. "I can climb down.. c'mon now.. you're gonna hurt yourself."

The warrior assumed a profoundly hurt expression.

"Xena!" Her soulmate groaned. "Not that face.. c'mon now. .."

Sad, puppy dog blue eyes regarded her mournfully. A lower lip poked out.

Gabrielle sighed, and slipped her arms around her soulmate's neck, holding on tight. "I give up."

Xena grinned, and stepped up onto the rim of her little crow's nest, then launched herself off into the air, landing on the next lowest branch with jaunty skill. "Ok?" She glanced at Gabrielle's face, seeing the bard's tightly closed eyes. "Good girl." She walked a few paces on the limb, then dropped down to the next, feeling it bend ominously under their combined weight. Uh oh.. watch it,'re not a skinny adolescent anymore, remember? The next two branches were navigated without trouble, though and she bounced on one final limb before the ground, flipping them both into a lazy somersault before landing in the grass, where Ares rushed forward, and greeted them in high indignation.

"You can let go now, and open your eyes." Xena told her partner, who cracked one green orb open and regarded her solemnly.

"And.. just why.. would I want to do that?" The bard inquired, nuzzling her shoulder. "I am.. perfectly, perfectly comfortable."

"Because Ares is about to bite your butt." The warrior informed her, as the wolf leaped up, and nearly knocked them both over. "Ares!"

Gabrielle laughed, but let go, dropping her feet to the ground, and patting the wolf vigorously. "Did you follow us, huh?" She kissed Ares' dark nose. "Good boy."

"Roooo!!!!!!" He danced from paw to paw, shaking his head. "Grrrrrrrrrrrr"

They walked home arm in arm, with Ares rambling on ahead of them.

Cyrene paused, as she was about to enter the kitchen, peering into the inn bemusedly. She changed her direction, going towards the back table, where a slim, lone figure sat quietly, watching the silver gray light of dawn take on a pink hue. "Ephiny?"

The figure turned, and raised a hand. "Morning."

The innkeeper drew closer, taking in the quietly exhausted look around the Amazon regent's eyes, and settled down on the bench next to her. "You're up early."

Ephiny shrugged, cradling her hands around a wooden cup. "Couldn't sleep." She admitted. "I was just… "Her gaze lifted out the window, and brightened suddenly. "Artemis… thank the gods."

Cyrene half stood, and peered out, through the early morning fog that curled over the wet ground, wreathing the inn's courtyard in white, clinging tendrils. The fog billowed aside as two familiar forms paced through it, arm in arm, perfectly in step with each other. She chuckled. "Well, I guess things worked out all right last night."

Ephiny let a long sigh wind the tension out of her body. "I guess so." She murmured, knowing that neither the bard nor her partner had been home at all. She'd gone there after her little encounter, to find an empty cabin, with Gabrielle's tracks leading away towards the forest.

The porch outside sounded with dull echoes as two pairs of boots hit it, then the door swung open, and Gabrielle entered, followed by her taller companion. "Hey!" Her eyes fell on them. " Looks like we're not the only ones up early." Her high spirits were immediately evident, and her infectious grin got a smiling response from the two women.

"Well, good morning to you, too, cutie." Cyrene chuckled, then stood. "I'm going to get things started.. "She laid an eye on her daughter. "C'mere and bring back a pot of tea for yourselves.. save me a trip, hmm?"

Xena agreed amiably. "Sure." She followed her mother into the kitchen, leaving Gabrielle and Ephiny to look at each other across the wooden surface of the table.

"So." Ephiny fiddled with her cup. "Things OK?"

Gabrielle gave her a dazzling smile. "More than ok." She sighed happily. "I had the most incredible night."

"Uh huh." The Amazon rested her chin on her hand, and regarded her friend. "You don't usually give commentary on that, Gabrielle."

"Huh?" The bard gazed at her, puzzled. "Oh… tch… " She clucked, and rolled her eyes. "That's NOT what I meant… " She considered. "Mostly." A rakish grin claimed her lips for a brief second. "No.. we went to this place Xena used to hang out at when she was a kid."

Ephiny blinked. "Really?" She asked curiously. "What.. some cave or something you guys spent the night in? You weren't home.. I checked."

Gabrielle's lips twitched. "We spend the night there, yeah… " She propped her chin up with both hands. "It wasn't a cave.. more like.. um… well, a tree."

The Amazon put the cup down carefully, and peered at her. "A tree? You spent the night under a tree?"

"No." Gabrielle shook her head.

"That's good.. I was a little worried for a minute there." Ephiny chuckled.

"In a tree." The bard supplied. "In this little nestie kind of thing at the top."

Ephiny just stared a her, and rubbed her temples. "Gabrielle, I didn't just hear you say that."

"It was great." Her friend laughed "We watched the stars.. and it's a great view.. there was this one apple on the tree, so we ate it.. and… "Here she blushed, a startling flow of color up her neck and across her face. "Um.. anyway, it's Xena's old hideout.. there are little toys and stuff up there.. it's really cool."

"Gabrielle?" Ephiny gazed at her.

"Yeah?" The bard grinned, turning her face to capture the first, rich warmth of the sun as it peeked into the window, lighting her face with a golden glow.

"You're babbling." The Amazon said, but very gently, as she watched the bard close her eyes and drink in the light. For some reason, the sight brought tears stinging to her eyes. "Are you all right?"

A nod. "Gods.. am I ever." Gabrielle turned another dazzling smile on her, unable to contain it. "I'm sorry.. I guess I'm not making much sense. "

"No." Ephiny chuckled a little. "You're not.. what happened to you last night? You look… " She hesitated, trying to find the word for it. "All bubbly and stuff."

The bard sighed in contentment, enjoying the sunlight. "I know.. it's just… I can't explain it. We just had a really good night.. that's all. For starters.. " She grinned mischievously. "You'll get your wish… if the Amazons can stand having a party to celebrate their Queen taking a consort."

The Amazon blinked. "No centaur poop, for real?"

Another big grin. "Yep."

"All right! Way to go, Gabrielle!" Ephiny laughed, for the first tine in what seemed like weeks. "That is great news… and, oh.. what a party that'll be." She reached over and clasped the bard's hand. "It's a good decision… I think.. . it'll make some things a lot easier."

A direct stare. "I'm counting on that." Gabrielle replied. Their eyes met, then Ephiny's dropped.

"I… " The regent looked up, into mist green orbs that seemed, today, to be shining with an inner fire she hadn't seen there for quite some time. "I had a talk with.. . Paladia.. last night."

The fingers clasped with hers tightened. "I knew you could do it." Gabrielle said, softly.

Ephiny took a deep breath in. "Yeah, well… " She reflected soberly on the table's wooden surface. "She's a stupid, scared kid, Gabrielle."

"I know." The bard replied, in a quiet tone. "I don't think…I think it was … I don’t think she had many friends… before… and… she's really screwed up."

A long, contemplative silence dropped between them.

"I'm going to take her back to the Amazons with me." Ephiny finally said, squaring her shoulders, and lifting her chin. "I'm not going to leave this mess on your doorstep."

The bard's brows contracted. "You.. don't have to do that, Eph… we can handle it here." Privately, however, she rejoiced, seeing a double sided solution to the problem, with the Amazons getting a potential, if reluctant warrior, and Paladia getting a chance at friendship among equals. "Though… she might just be cantankerous enough to make an Amazon."

Ephiny gave her a wry look. "Oh.. thanks, Gabrielle." She commented sarcastically, but grinned anyway. "I guess you fit right in, then, huh?"

Gabrielle smiled. "Sometimes." She agreed. "What does Pony think of bringing her back?"

Ephiny rubbed the side of her nose. "Weeeel…. I thought she was gonna flip her feathers all over the place, but after she thought about it a minute, she sort of did one of her 'hey, that wouldn't be so bad' grunts. Kinda surprised me.. " Her lips twitched. "Then she asks if that means Paladia will have to go through weapons training, and I realize she has these happy little daydreams of using the girl as a pell during staffwork."

The bard snorted, then clapped a hand over her mouth. "That's not funny."

Ephiny's blond curls flew as she shook her head. "Nope, not at all."

They both looked at each other and snickered. "Amazons." Gabrielle sighed. "Gotta love em."

The regent laughed gently. "Oh yeah."

Gabrielle looked up, then pushed herself to her feet. "I'd better go rescue my best friend from her mother." She sniffed reflectively. "She's probably getting chewed out for running off and sulking like a kid."

Ephiny took a breath. "Yeah… send her out. I need to talk to her for a few minutes."

The bard patted her hand. "Don't worry.. she's in a great mood." She headed towards the kitchen with a jaunty stride.

The regent watched her affectionately. "Sure.. she spent all night out in a tree with you.. what's not to be in a good mood about?" She commented to the empty air.

Xena followed Cyrene into the kitchen, humming.

Her mother turned as the door closed, and eyed her thoughtfully. "You're in a good mood."

Blue eyes blinked at her, then Xena smiled. "I guess I am." She perched on the corner of the worktable. "Sorry about last night."

The innkeeper put a pot of water on to heat, and turned to face her, crossing her arms over her chest. "You should apologize…keeping Gabrielle in knots all night like that.. for shame, Xena."

Unexpectedly, a relaxed grin appeared on the warrior's face. "I made up for it with her." She assured her mother. "But… yeah.. I didn't mean to do that.. I went out to that old place of mine.. and I um.. " A shrug. "Took a nap."

Cyrene stared at her, then burst out laughing. "You've got to be kidding me."

"Nope.. " Her daughter sheepishly admitted. "So when I woke up.. I headed back in here.. but Gabrielle was waiting for me on the path, so I took her back there to see the place." She sighed peacefully. "We ended up just staying there."

"Wait." Cyrene put a hand out. "That's not that… tree.. thing, is it?"

A nod.

"Xena! You are not telling me you kept that poor girl up in a tree all night long!" Cyrene accused. "She had a sore throat… you're asking for her to get sick.. how… I can't…. gods, Xena, how irresponsible can you possibly be!"

Xena's response was unexpected. She smiled gently at her mother. "Yep.. it sure was irresponsible." She admitted readily. "But she's all right.. she had a cloak, and I made sure she stayed nice and warm."

Cyrene's jaw dropped, and she walked over, sitting herself down next to her tall daughter. "Are you all right?" She put a hand up and tested the tanned forehead. "You're acting very strange."

"Oh yeah." The warrior assured her. "I feel great." She closed her eyes, and let the memories of what she and Gabrielle had shared flow through her. "Really great." She mumbled softly, reluctantly opening her eyes again to see her mother's bewildered expression. "Um… sorry." She cleared her throat. "Were you asking me something?"

Cyrene just shook her head. "I swear, the two of you are like moonstruck teenagers sometimes. "

Xena felt a blush coming on, and stood, riffling her hair to disguise it. "Yeah.. well… Gabrielle didn't have a great childhood, and mine was kinda cut short.. so.. " She shrugged. "Sometimes.. if we get a chance… we just kind of play with each other a little." She paused and gazed pensively out the window. "Hasn't been much of that lately."

Her mother turned a contritely compassionate look on her. "Honey, I'm sorry.. I was just teasing." She put a hand on her daughter's back, rubbing it gently. "I think it's wonderful that Gabrielle brings out the kid in you."

The door creaked open, and bright green eyes peered in. "Someone mention my name?" The bard slipped in, and let the door close behind her.

"It's ok." Xena drawled. "She's done yelling." She gave her mother a look. "And you didn't tell me you didn't feel well last night."

Gabrielle walked over and leaned against her partner. "I didn't tell anyone I didn't feel well last night.. all I said was my throat was sore, because I didn't feel like telling stories." She corrected her with a grin. "Everyone just kinda took it from there."

"Imp." Cyrene rolled her eyes, and went to fix the tea.

"She thinks we're acting like kids." Xena informed her soulmate soberly. "Irresponsible."

"Nah.. that's not irresponsible." The bard objected, then suddenly launched herself up, depending on Xena's reflexes to catch her.

Which the warrior did, with widened eyes, as Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her neck, and smiled. "Now.. THAT was irresponsible." She pulled Xena's head down, and kissed her, ignoring the snort of startlement from Cyrene. "And so was that." She whispered, as they parted, and gazed into each other's eyes.

"Y'know.. I can remember when you used to be mortally embarrassed to think of my mother seeing us just sleeping in bed together." Xena commented, amused, hearing Cyrene's wry chuckle behind her.

Gabrielle snorted softly. "I think I got over that." She ripped her gaze from Xena's, and peeked over the warrior's shoulder. "Hi mom."

Cyrene walked over, swirling a thick pottery jug of tea which steamed fragrantly, and studied the bard nestled securely in Xena's strong arms. The sun was filtering in the window and drenching both of them, and she shook her head. "Cutie, you're something else." She smiled at the bard, who looked unusually radiant in the light. "Get down from there and come have some breakfast."

"Oo." Gabrielle gave her partner a hug as she was released. "Sounds great… hey.. " Here she turned to Xena. "Go say hi to Eph."

Xena sighed. "Ah. Ok."

The bard rolled her eyes. "Just let her get it over with, will you? She's taking Paladia back with her. .. they talked last night. " She paused. "Ooops.. guess I should have told you that first, huh?"

The warrior's eyes closed, and she relaxed. "Yeah." She straightened, then patted her soulmate on the cheek. "I"ll be back." She walked out, stiffarming the door and letting it swing closed behind her.

Cyrene set the pitcher down, then went to the pantry, and pulled out a loaf of spiced fruit bread, and some soft goat's cheese. "Problems?" She asked quietly, setting the items down, and pressing the bard's shoulder down with them.

Gabrielle neatly sliced off a few pieces of the bread, and handed one to Cyrene, spreading the sweetly savory cheese on her own and taking a big bite. "Mmmm.. " She chewed for a minute before answering the innkeeper's question. "Sort of." She allowed. "More of a misunderstanding.. I guess… " She accepted the cup of tea Cyrene was offering her. "Thanks.. but it's straightened out now.. things are working out pretty well."

"Mm." Cyrene slowly broke off a corner of her bread, and nibbled it. "Your mother… is very… anxious.. about you, honey."

The bard took a sip of the tea. "I know." She answered calmly. "I'm going to spend a few days with her when we head out to see Jessan's new kids." She chewed her bread. "I don't think she ever expected me to grow up."

The innkeeper gave her a wry smile. "No… I never expected Xena to, either." She confessed, then chuckled. "Sometimes I still look at her, and my eyes see a little girl, usually covered in mud, scowling back at me."

"She was a terror, huh? " Gabrielle giggled. "I can just see it."

"Oh.. honey, you don’t know the half of it." Cyrene sighed, then paused, and worried a splinter out of the wood under her hands. "Listen.. Gabrielle.. would you do me a favor?"

"Sure." The bard replied. "Anything.. you name it."

"All right.. " Cyrene leaned forward. "I want you to write this story…. "

Ephiny heard the door open, and turned her head to see Xena making her way back across the room. She had rehearsed her little speech a few times in the intervening minutes, but the words dropped away from her as she watched the tall warrior's powerful, smooth strides moving towards her, which carried Xena through bars of early morning light that painted her in rose and pearl gray. Before she knew it, the pale blue eyes were a bare body length from her, and she found herself unable to muster up even a greeting under that steady, even stare.

Xena realized Ephiny's discomfort, and she glanced around, dropping into the chair next to her, and hooking a leg over the arm of it, trying for casual nonchalance. "How're you feeling?" There.. that's a pretty reasonable opening.. right?

The Amazon peered at her. "Like a total piece of dried centaur poop." She replied quietly. "For being a spiteful harpy to someone who really, really didn't deserve it." She dropped her gaze to the tabletop. "You were trying to help, and you were right, and I was a jerk."

Well. Xena mused to herself. "I've been known to be a jerk on more than one occasion myself." She answered. "You didn't say anything that wasn't true, Eph."

"Yeah.. " Ephiny rested her chin on one fist. "But it wasn't the whole truth… I was only looking at one side of the coin.. I forgot there were two."

Xena nodded a little, accepting that. "Water under the bridge." She lifted a hand and let it drop against the table. "No hard feelings… you were under a lot of stress."

The Amazon sighed. "We'll leave it at that then.. maybe when you guys come visit, we'll get drunk together, huh?"

The warrior smiled quietly. "Sure."

An awkward silence settled over them. Ephiny swallowed a few times, then looked up, studying Xena's shadowed face, and the guarded look to her eyes, and realized this wasn't something she was going to be able to patch up in a few, casual minutes.

If ever.

Damn, why did everything have to be so complicated? "I guess you heard we're taking.. Paladia back with us." She commented softly.

"Gabrielle said, yeah." Xena replied. "You all right with that?"

Ephiny rubbed her temples. "It was my idea, so I'd better be, huh?" She looked up, exhaling. "Yes.. I think I can get past this… I um… " She chewed her lip. "Pony told me she went to you for help… I guess I didn't realize how she was… I must have been… pretty bad."

"Yeeahh…. " A soft chuckle. "The two of us having a sensitive chat, you shoulda been there." Now Xena's eyes took on a hint of amusement. "She's a good person, Ephiny…and she cares an awful lot about you."

The regent smiled, at last. "Damned if I know how that happened."

Xena gave her a reluctant grin. "Sneaks up on you, huh?"

They looked at each other, and chuckled a little. "Time to get going." Ephiny finally said, after a second awkward silence, as she heard the door behind them open, and spotted Eponin's familiar form carrying their gear. "Let me go find Cait.. she was pretty miffed at me for taking Paladia back with us.. I think she wants to use her as target practice or something."

Xena rose, and held up a hand to stall her. "I'll get her." She exchanged a nod with Gabrielle, who had trotted out of the kitchen bearing a platter and jug. "You guys get something hot to drink." And with that, she was gone, slipping out the door with a smooth economy of motion that all watching frankly envied.

Gabrielle set her burden down, and eyed Ephiny thoughtfully. "You and Xena ok now?"

The regent studied the cup the bard handed her and sighed. "No.. but maybe someday we will be." She gave Gabrielle a wry look. "Put in a good word for me, all right?"

The rest of the Amazons were gathering now, along with a sleepy looking Granella, who had pulled a woven shawl over her shoulders, and settled her hands on Ephiny's, rubbing gently against the tension visible to all of them. "Eph.. next time, just visit, huh? No catastrophic events."

The regent gave her a look. "Next time, I’m gonna take an escort of a dozen featherheads, and have them carry me here wrapped in lamb's wool."

They finished up the tea and bread, and assembled outside, where a young boy was standing uncertainly, with the reins to a dun gelding clutched in his hands. "Ma'am's?" He warbled, hesitantly.

Seven pairs of skeptical eyebrows rose as they looked back at him, and he blushed. "This'n's for you all." He pushed the reins towards Ephiny. "Xena said."

Ephiny opened her mouth to protest, but Eponin stepped in front of her, and neatly captured the strips of leather. "Thanks." The weapon's master spared him a rakish smile. "Just what we needed."

"If you think.. for one chicken plucking minute that I’m riding that thing, you're nuts." Ephiny leaned over, and muttered in her ear.

"Aw..c'mon, Eph… " Pony muttered back. "You told me yourself how much your head still hurt this morning.. and that you still were kinda fuzzy in the eye department… give it a rest."

"Not on your life." The regent replied, then started, as a warm hand curled around her forearm. "Oh.. hi Gabrielle."

"Hi." The bard put an arm around her shoulders and walked her a little away from the group. "I.. well, you know, I don't much like horses either."

"Damn straight." Ephiny nodded. "Give me my own two feet any day."

"Mm." Gabrielle agreed. "But.. I've learned, over the years… that when Xena tells me to do something.. it's usually for a good reason." She paused. "Not always, but usually." Her eyes met Ephiny's. "It would make me feel a lot better if I knew you weren't overstraining yourself on the way home. " A pause. "Please?"

Ephiny glowered at her. "This is what you do to Xena, isn't it? You charm her into total submission."

The bard smiled, charmingly.

"Not gonna work on me, Gabrielle." Ephiny assured her.

A twinkled appeared in the clear green eyes, as the bard gazed into hers.

"Oh… split centaur hooves." The regent cursed. "Fine.. fine….I'll do it." She shook her head at her friend. "You are too much."

Gabrielle laughed gently. "Thank you." She hugged Ephiny. "Don't worry about Xena, ok?" She whispered in the regent's ear. "I think she really does like the Amazons.. it's just that act she has to put on, you know?"

Ephiny returned the hug fiercely, amazed, as always, at the wiry strength in the bard's body. "I know." She replied. "You take care of her, ok?"

"I will." Came the solid, sure answer. "You let Pony take care of you, ok?"

The regent released her, and assumed a tough look. "I'm an Amazon warrior, Gabrielle.. I can take care of myself." She announced, putting her hands on her hips. Then she let a grin break her expression. "But I suppose I can make a small exception for a request from my Queen." She tilted her head, and regarded the emerging sun, which painted the courtyard in ruddy light. "I'm looking forward to the Festival, your Majesty."

The bard laughed. "Oh.. well.. me too… and.. " She lowered her voice with a wicked twinkle. "I'll get to see those Amazon leathers on Xena, again."

The regent waggled her eyebrows. "Mmmm…. Good point."

They walked back over to the dun gelding, who was standing patiently where they'd left him, occasionally craning his head to watch Eponin, who was loading their gear on his broad back. Solari and Theena came up, with a dazed, and disheveled looking Paladia between them, the shackles bound firmly around both wrists despite her injured arm.

Ephiny's shoulders squared, and her head lifted, as she regarded their prisoner. "If you behave, I might decide to untie one arm." She advised the renegade, then she stalked to the gelding's side, and put her hands up, gripping his mane and saddle, and launching herself onto his back in one smooth, powerful move. She settled her knees, and took the reins in one hand, then cocked her head towards Gabrielle. "Don't tell me Cait managed to elude the greatest tracker in the inhabited world."

Gabrielle's face creased into a gentle smile. "They'll be here shortly. "

It was an easy find, Xena mused, as she followed the faint, almost invisible traces of Cait's passing, to a small, half hidden glade that overlooked the outrace from the small mill that Amphipolis boasted. Here, among the moss covered rocks, and the old wood covered in musky green algae, she found the slim girl curled up, tossing pebbles in the burbling stream.

"Hi." The warrior dropped herself down onto the next boulder, and picked up a flat stone, examining it, then tossing it with a quick, sideways flick of her wrist. It skittered across the water, and bounced off, ending up on the other side, perched precariously.

"Hello." Cait answered, tucking her knees up under her chin, and wrapping an arm around them. "I'm quite ticked off."

"So I gathered." Xena replied, drawing her own booted foot up and resting her forearm against it. "Why?"

The girl gave her a look that could have rivaled one of her own. "That pig is going to get right off… it's not fair, Xena.. it's not fair, and it's not right."

The warrior considered that. "Just because she's going back to the village.. doesn't mean she's getting off, Cait…I think Ephiny's got something in mind for that."

"But it's not fair!" Cait insisted. "She did those awful things.. she ought to be made to pay!" She scuttled around and faced Xena, her expression very serious. "Where's the justice? After what she did to Ephiny, she should be beaten until she's fairly bloody, Xena."

Xena sucked in a deep breath. "Cait… she's been hurt.. that arm'll give her trouble for a long time to come.. maybe she'll learn something from the whole mess."

A snort. "I doubt it." Cait scowled. "That kind never changes… we'll just end up having to do something with her later on."

The warrior glanced down at her hands. "You don't think she's got a chance to redeem herself?"

"No." Cait replied, positively. "She's rot, Xena… I think she ought to be stoned and left for the vultures."

Xena nodded slowly, then lifted her head, to capture Cait's eyes with her own, using their piercing power to hold the girl's utter attention. "If Gabrielle thought the way you do.. I'd be in Tartarus right now."

It was the last thing Cait had expected, and she gasped, blinking in confusion. "But you're not.. "

The warrior surged forward, pressing Cait's shoulders back against the boulder with gentle, but inflexible hands. "Oh.. yes I am, Cait… I am so much worse that poor, stupid Paladia ever could be. " She whispered. "I have killed thousands of people, and hurt more than that…and right now, this minute, I'd be in torment, on a cross in Tartarus except for one.. small.. insignificant thing."

Cait took rapid, shallow breaths, trying not to shake. "W…what was that?"

"Someone believed in me. And in my ability to change who I was, and atone for what I did." Xena replied, very gently. "So don't you ever just give up on people, Cait… yes, Paladia did some bad things, but she deserves a second chance. "

"A.. second chance?" Cait asked softly.

"Yeah." Xena released her, and patted her shoulder gently. "Sometimes all it takes is one friend."

The pale gray eyes stared at her. "You can't mean me."

A faint smile tugged at the warrior's lips. "That's up to you."

Cait chewed her lip. "Gosh, Xena.. I think I can just about manage to promise I won't kill her." She paused, thoughtfully. "Not right away, anyhow.. but …" She looked up into the sad blue eyes. "But.. but… " A gusty sigh exploded from her. "Oh, all right… bother. " She scowled. "No promises beyond not killing her."

Xena smiled. "Thanks."

A bigger scowl. "We are NOT going to be friends."

The warrior's eyes twinkled a little. "All right… just do your best." She stood, and offered Cait a hand up, which the girl took with surprising grace, laughing a little as Xena lifted her up easily. "G'wan.. we can't depend on those Amazons to keep Ephiny safe, right?"

"They don’t' do a good job of it, no." Cait replied, practically. "But she doesn't help much.. you know?"

Xena put a hand on her back, and guided her towards the inn. "Well…just keep an eye on her for me, ok?"

That got her a big smile. "Right."

Xena smiled back, and slipped an arm over her shoulders, pulling her closer as they walked. "Tell you what.. we're coming by for the Harvest Festival. If you still think she deserves more punishment by then, you tell me when I get there, and I'll take care of it for you. Ok?"

Cait was too busy reveling in the unexpected warmth of a Xena hug to even hear what she said. "OK." She answered dreamily, reflecting for the hundredth time on just how lucky Queen Gabrielle really was. She wrapped her arms around the warrior's body, and hugged her back, as they walked along in silence, breaking out of the thick forest into the cleared area in the back of the inn, and rounding the corner to find the Amazon party waiting for them.

Xena gave her one final squeeze, and brushed the top of her pale head with her lips. "G'wan… " She patted her on the back as she released her hold, and the girl trotted off, not without a single, shyly devoted look darted in Xena's direction.

Gabrielle joined her, winding an arm around her waist and waving with her other hand. "Have a great trip."

Cait took up her place next to their prisoner, not without a martyred look in Xena's direction, and took hold of one of the leads they'd fastened to her. "One nasty comment, and I'll.." Cait stopped, and sighed. "Bother… just be nice, all right?"

Paladia's brows contracted, then she gazed over at Xena and Gabrielle. "This is your revenge, right?" She asked morosely. "I gotta listen that forever?"

Cait jerked the lead. "You address her as.. "Your Majesty."

Solari very obviously bit her lip to keep from laughing.

"Well.. someone's got to teach you to be a proper Amazon." The girl reasoned. "We've got lots of time." She tugged the lead as they started off. "First off, stop slouching."

Paladia groaned, and stumbled, as she tried to get some slack in her lead.

"Next, watch where you're going.. you can't be tripping all over everywhere." Cait instructed, her voice fading as the Amazons moved off. "Gosh.. pick your feet up, can't you?"

Gabrielle laughed softly, as she leaned against her partner, and put a hand down to scratch the ears of Ares, who had just come trotting up. "That's gonna be a torture of it's own." She looked up at Xena's face. "You think that was fair of us?"

Xena smiled into the distance. "I think it'll turn out all right." She turned and regarded her partner. "Shall we go have breakfast?"

"Oh yeah.. " Gabrielle agreed enthusiastically. "My folks are inside.. let's go play with our nephew." She tugged her soulmate towards the door. "My mother thinks my clothes are sadly lacking.. she calls my usual stuff harlotware, and was scandalized by the fact that I love wearing your shirts."

"Harlotware?" Xena burst into laughter. "Oh.. brother."

"Yeah.. " The bard sighed, as they trooped up the stairs, followed by Ares. "She's busy making me a skirt."

"One of those long ones, huh?" Xena remarked, grabbing the door pull and hauling it towards her.

"Yeah.. with kittens on it." Gabrielle's eyes rolled. "I think I'm gonna use it as a story prop."

"As what?" Xena asked, smiling as the smell of warm spiced bread hit her.

"A tent.": The bard answered, with a grin. "I have this great new story……and I think you're gonna love it."


"Yeah.. it's all about this really brave little girl… and it has horses, and a flood… and a pebble.. and a brother… and it goes kinda like this… "

The Actual, for real, End.


For now. The sequel to this is Promises Kept, and it'll start pretty much where this one leaves off.