At a Distance - Part 4

by: Melissa Good
Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

The Amazon village path

Now the feeling was much stronger, Xena realized, as she was closer, and the danger greater... but the fact that she could still feel something gave her heart, and she ran, with long powerful strides down the long path, and over the ridge to the place where the two territories marched the same border. She passed slumped forms, of both centaurs and Amazons, and didn’t stop.

Once over the ridge, she could see down into the village, and what she saw almost stopped her heart. A tree. Centaur children, and two woman facing off with staves. One, she knew. And the knowing grabbed her chest like vise. The other, she realized had to be Arella.

Two days of traveling, mountains, knife wounds, all became irrelevant. What mattered now was speed. And she ran. Down the ridge, and across the open grasslands that separated the two villages. Feeling the breath come tight in her chest, and ignoring it. Keeping her strides long, and loose, and absorbing the ground irregularities like a bouncing ball.

Up the next ridge, and then she could see into the village again, and a surge of fear that was now her own exploded across her mind as she saw the woman. And the crossbow. And the target.

And then she was at the top of the ridge, and down the embankment, and coming in as fast as she could across the small hillock that blocked their sight of her approach.

Arella squeezed the trigger, and felt the weapon release. Goodbye, green eyes. She saluted the woman, who, after all this, decided to die bravely.

Xena saw the finger whiten on the trigger, and lost any sense of perspective she might have had. Three more long steps to the top of the hillock, then she was launching into mid air Hitting the ground with stunning force, and using the momentum to launch sideways, to get every bit of length out of her long body. To stretch out and will her hand to close around a crossbow quarrel that was traveling too fast for any human to possibly catch.

And felt her fingers close around wood and feathers. Bare inches before the throat of the kneeling Queen of the Amazons. Who gasped in recognition even through the driving rain, and the speed she was traveling.

Rolling to a stop, trying to bleed some momentum, then bounding back up to catch the second quarrel, and snap it in one hand. A bounce on the balls of her feet, and then she was moving foreword, towards Arella, who was grimly loading the crossbow again.

Three steps, and she was airborne, and one powerful kick took out the crossbow, the second took out Arella, crunching against her breastbone, and knocking her flat.

Arella hauled herself to her feet, and felt within for that battle fever. Found it, and with that energy, rushed the dark haired, blood covered warrior facing her. She pulled her knife, and slashed at Xena, only to have her arm caught, and held, and then wrenched backwards with a crunching sound that drove her to her knees in agony. The she was picked up by the neck, and a fist smashed against her jaw, with an explosion of searing pain.

Then she was lifted, and shoved against a tree. She opened her eyes, and looked into those chips of ice across from her.

Xena let her alone for a minute, allowing her to feel the pain. To sense the power it took to keep her pinned in place like this. To think about that. Then she ducked her head closer, and sent her voice to it’s lowest register.

"You’re very lucky" she said, staring into Arella’s eyes. "You’re lucky your little ambush didn’t hold me up. You’re lucky I stopped that arrow." She shoved her harder against the tree. "Because if I hadn’t, there would be pieces of you scattered all over this courtyard. " She grinned. "You believe me?"

Arella nodded.

"Good." Xena nodded back. "Because if you ever even think about hurting her again, they’ll have to mop up what’s left of you with a sea sponge." A pause. "Got it?"

Waited for the terror to show in her eyes. And it did. Arella nodded again. Xena picked her up in a double handed grasp, then looked around. She spotted a large mud hole nearby, and with negligent ease, tossed the woman into it. Then stood for a long moment, letting the rain wash off the blood, and the dirt, and the total exhaustion.

Gabrielle had watched that arrow as it left the crossbow, mentally saying a few last things. To herself. To Xena. When the arrow was snatched out of midair, she never considered any other possibility as to who it was. And it was a like standing under a warm waterfall, the relief was that great. Then Cait moaned, and she dropped down next to her, cradling her head and wincing over the red gash on the side of her pale head. Running steps came close, and Solari dropped to her knees in the mud, examining the girl. "She’ll be OK" the Amazon said, pulling a bit of cloth out of her gear, and pressing it to the wound. Looked up "Are you OK?"

Gabrielle’s face lit up with a quiet smile. "I am now."

They both heard footsteps approaching, and with a quick sideways glance, Solari captured Gabrielle’s hands. "I’ve got this." She said, giving her a big smile and motioning sideways with her head. The bard pressed her hands back. "Thanks." she whispered, then stood and faced Xena. And knew she had this really dumb grin on her face, but didn’t care, as she ran to her open arms, and just...

"Argh" Xena heard the breath come out of the bard as she wrapped her arms around her, and squeezed hard. And the sweetness of that moment was so profound, it hurt.

Gabrielle buried her face in the warrior’s chest, ignoring mud and everything else in her desperate need to make contact, feeling Xena’s arms tighten further, if that was even possible, and she squeezed and squeezed as though her life depended on it.

"Hey." Xena finally said, brushing her lips across the top of Gabrielle’s head. "Don’t I even get a hello?" A light touch of banter in her tone.

She felt the bard take several breaths to speak, but nothing came out. Then finally..."Yeah.." in a voice thick with a dozen emotions. "You get a ‘hello’. You get a ‘thank the gods you’re here’’. You get a ‘I have never been so glad to see anyone in my life’. " A pause. "You get an ‘I love you’." Another pause. "Did I leave anything out?"

A moment of silence from Xena. Then... "Well, that about covers everything I had to say." In a quiet voice. There, in the rain. With thunder crashing around them.

She felt Gabrielle’s hold finally loosen, as the bard slipped her arms from around her waist and slid them up around her neck, and tightened her grasp again, lifting her eyes and gazing up into Xena’s. They looked at each other for a very long moment. Xena could feel what was happening and she had just time to think, Thunder and lightning, raining like Hades, up to our knees in mud, in a Centaur village in the middle of a fight. Well, it’s going be memorable. before she was responding to that grasp, and ducking her head to capture the bard’s lips in a long and heartfelt kiss.

They finally had to take a break to breathe, and Gabrielle let her head drop onto Xena’s chest, with a soft laugh. "Gods, that felt good." she sighed, closing her eyes.

"We’d better get out of the rain." Xena replied, taking a deep breath.

"What rain?" Gabrielle responded.

Xena laughed. "Or at least get rid of our audience." Her eyes twinkled.

"What audience?" the bard mumbled, then blinked her eyes open.

Xena jerked her head toward the center of the village, and the bard looked that way, then blushed a deep red, as she spotted all the grinning faces. "Gods" she said, hiding her face in Xena’s chest. Feeling the warrior laugh. Then deciding it was halfway funny herself, and turning her head to face them. Watching Ephiny stroll over to a scowling Eponin, and hold out an imperious hand. Watching Eponin glare, then wilt, and, reaching inside her bodice, remove a coin and slap it into Ephiny’s hand. Feeling Xena laugh harder. So she started laughing too, and then couldn’t stop. For a long time.

They walked back to the Amazon village slowly, in deference to Xena’s knife wound, which the bard discovered by the warm blood dripping down her back. "Ouch" she said, giving the warrior a stern look. "We need to take care of that."

Xena shrugged, wrapping an arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders. "I hardly feel it." She admitted. "Everything else hurts, so that’s just a minor annoyance."

"Minor annoyance. " Came the reply. "Uh... right." And she wrapped an arm around Xena, tugging her towards the path. "Come on." They walked on in silence for a bit.

"So, will this put a crimp in your treaty?" Xena asked, glancing around at the Amazons moving with them, some carrying fallen comrades.

"Well, no, not really. " Gabrielle answered slowly. "They’ve been fighting each other for such a long time, they’re almost friendly about it."

Xena looked at her. "They?" A slight grin tugged at her lips.

"They." The bard replied, snuggling closer. "And, by the way.."


"Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t be happier. But... what are you doing here?" The bard’s voice was curious. "Was this just one of those mysterious Warrior Princess things or something?"

Xena remained silent, considering her answer. "I just had a feeling I needed to be here." She finally drawled. "Just one of those things, I guess."

Gabrielle’s brow creased. "It wasn’t that bad three days ago... I’m not sure…"

"No." Xena interrupted. "Night before last." She studied the ground in front of them, not meeting the bard’s curious gaze.

"Wait." Gabrielle stopped walking, and turned to face her, putting both hands flat on the warrior’s chest. "Night before last? Gods…you heard me." She grinned happily. "Wow."

"Gabrielle, what are you talking about?" Xena asked, putting her hands on the bard’s shoulders.

"That was the night Ephiny got back." The bard smiled. "And…" she stopped, and shook her head a little, dropping her gaze. "I really.." she stopped again. The hands on her shoulders flexed and tightened, and pulled her into a hug. She stood silent for a bit, just savoring the feeling. "I needed this." She said softly, "I needed you really bad. So.. I just.. kind of talked to you…even though I thought you couldn’t hear me." She lifted her gaze again. "But you did, didn’t you."

"Mmmm.. not so much in words, no." Xena answered, resuming their walk forward. "More in here." She reached across and patted the bard’s belly. "Just a feeling there was something wrong."

Gabrielle considered this thoughtfully. "That makes me feel really good." She said, with an impish grin. "Because I get in a lot of trouble."

Xena laughed. "Well, that’s true." She relaxed. Maybe this isn’t so bad after all. She mused, glancing down at the fair head tucked against her shoulder. Felt a warm glow that eased out the exhaustion, and made the wind and weather fade out to nothing.

"Waitaiminute." Gabrielle lifted her head and stared. "Night before last? How did you get…"

"Found a shortcut." Xena cut her off.

The bard’s eyebrows rose. "Shortcut? Xena, I know these parts. There isn’t any shortcut between her and Amphipolis. You go up the road, then you have to take the long route around the mountain because of that sheer cliff that cuts the mountain down below." She paused and thought. "You didn’t…"

"Yeah, I did." The warrior confessed, flexing her free arm. "And am I ever going to pay for it."

"Oh." Gabrielle muttered softly. "That was…dangerous." She looked up and searched Xena’s face.

"Nah." The taller woman shrugged. "Piece of cake. Speaking of which, did you like the ones mother sent?"

"You’re changing the subject." The bard accused, but smiled. "But, yeah.. I really did. Can we go visit?" She let a mischievous grin appear. "I want to see this puppy I’ve heard about."

"You do, huh?" Xena asked, amused. "Well, it just so happens I promised mother I’d bring you back, so I guess we can."

Gabrielle considered this. "You did?" She grinned. "Great. If those cakes are any indication, I think I’m going to like that a lot."

Xena laughed, then winced. "Ouch. Don’t make me laugh so much. That hurts." Oops.. wrong thing to say, Xena...

The bard gave her a concerned look. "If you’re admitting that, we need to get you inside." She motioned ahead to her quarters, and steered the warrior that way. They moved inside the door, glad to get out of the insistent rain, and Gabrielle grabbed two large pieces of cloth, and tossed one to Xena. "Here... dry off." she said, going for a small medical kit, but forestalled by Xena’s wave, as she pulled her own out of the pack she was still carrying. "Oh good.. you always have better stuff in yours." the bard commented, walking over and picking it up.

"It’s really not that bad." Xena commented, unclipping the armor on that side, and pulling if off. "Stings a lot, though."

Gabrielle walked around to get a better view, and sucked in her breath with a whistle. "Wow. That’s going to take some stitching." She laid out what she needed on the desk, and motioned Xena to sit down in the chair, which she did, unbuckling the leather strap on that side.

"Well, you’ve done it before." the warrior commented, leaning forward as Gabrielle moved closer, and started to clean the long wicked slice. Xena closed her eyes, and waited patiently while the smaller woman took small precise stitches and closed the wound, lathering it liberally with herbal salve, and putting a piece of clean linen over it. At last, she sensed that Gabrielle was done, and leaned back, catching the serious look on her face.

"Hey.." she said, reaching out an arm and circling her waist. "I’ve had worse."

"I know." Gabrielle replied, softly, lifting a hand and touching Xena’s cheek. "But this was in my behalf." Her eyes were troubled. "Arella arranged that ambush because she was afraid to challenge me. Because of you."

Xena smiled wearily, reaching up and covering the bard’s hand with her own. "Sometimes the reputation’s a double edged sword, Gabrielle."

The bard smiled, and closed her eyes. "I love that"

"What?" Xena asked, puzzled.

"When you say my name." Came the unexpected answer. "Come on. I think I have a shirt that will probably fit you. " A droll grin. "Considering it’s yours." She moved across the room, pulling out the shirt and tossing it over. "I.."

Xena caught the garment one handed, and gave her an amused look. "I know. It’s OK. I realized it was missing, and figured..." she shrugged. "Well, anyway. Thanks. " She shrugged out of her soaked leathers, and into the shirt with a sense of relief. "Much better." She grinned at her, and then ducked into the adjoining hallway to set the sodden garments to dry, joined moments later by the bard’s.

"Have you even eaten, or anything? " Gabrielle queried, tugging her over and pushing her down on the edge of the bed. "Gods, Xena...I still can’t believe you climbed that cliff. " she laughed a little. "I can’t even believe you’re here."

"Believe it." the warrior sighed, leaning back against the headboard, and wrapping her arms around her upraised knee. "And, yeah, mother packed me a lunch." She gave the bard a droll grin. "I’m fine, Gabrielle. Stop worrying."

The bard was about to speak when Xena interrupted her. "There is one thing I’d like."

"Hmm?" Gabrielle answered, leaning against the side of the bed, and raising an inquiring eyebrow.

Xena raised a hand, gently caught her jaw, and turned her face to the dim light coming in through the window. Seeing the dark shadows under her mist green eyes, and the strain on her face. "I want you to come lay down here before you fall down." She gave the bard a look. "Has it been that rough? Gabrielle, you should have.."

The bard put up a hand, softly touching Xena’s lips, then did as asked and fit herself into the warrior’s welcoming arms. "I know." she sighed. "I wanted to do this by myself." She glanced up. "Dumb, huh?" She snuggled into a warmth that threatened to absorb her completely.

"No." Xena answered, smoothing the damp hair off her forehead. "You did a great job."

"Oh yeah." the bard snorted. "Except that last bit, what with Arella attacking the centaurs and ambushing you."

"It’s not your fault." Came Xena’s reassuring voice. "You did everything you could to secure peace for them. The treaty will survive this.. especially since the Amazon Queen came down in person and defended centaur children." She grinned at Gabrielle, who gave her a glance and smothered a sheepish grin. "That was a very brave thing you did."

"Speaks the woman who climbed a cliff and fought off 20 Amazons, and dove in front of a pair of crossbow quarrels and beat the stuffing out of my chief nemesis. Before lunch." Gabrielle responded, giving her a sideways look. "Uh huh."

Xena touched the tip of the bard’s nose. "You’re worth it." She said, cherishing the sudden widening of the green eyes now locked with hers.

"I am?" Gabrielle breathed, looking up at her with an emotion in her eyes that rang a gentle sweet bell in Xena’s memory. And allowed her spirit to return the look in kind.

"You are." A pause. "Besides, If I can’t do impossible things for you, who can I do them for?" Xena grinned.

Gabrielle grinned back, and snuggled closer, wrapping an arm firmly around the warrior and squeezing hard, then settling back with a contented sigh. They listened in silence for a while to the steady rainfall outside, punctuated by irregular rolling thunder, and brief lightning flashes. "I didn’t really mind having to do the treaties and stuff." Gabrielle finally said, thoughtfully.

"Hmm." Xena replied. "What did you mind, then?" She grinned slyly. "Don’t tell me it was the food."

The bard giggled. "Well, yeah, actually." Then she sobered. "No. Arella really bugged me." She shifted so she could look up and see Xena’s face. "She got me so mad, most of the time. And then.." she shrugged uncomfortably. "she was always…well, Xena, you know I don’t have a problem with people touching me, right?" She grinned in reflex to Xena’s glance encompassing them both and her amused twinkle. "Right. Exactly. But she made me feel…" her face scrunched. "Ugh." She paused. "It was really uncomfortable, and I didn’t like it. And now I’m wondering if it was her, or just something weird with me."

"Something with you?" Xena asked, raising an eyebrow at her. Oh I think I see her problem. Well.. she mentally chuckled. One way to find out, I guess.

"Yeah." The bard dropped her gaze, and sighed.

"Uh huh." Xena shifted slightly, and as the bard glanced up, the warrior lazily lifted one hand, and ran her fingers across the side of Gabrielle’s face, then gently traced the line of her jaw, dropping down the side of her neck, and brushing her collarbone, coming to rest just above her heart. Feeling the pulse point jump under her touch. Seeing the bard’s throat move in a convulsive swallow, and her breathing go irregular. "Nah. I think you’re fine." Xena said lightly. Guess that answers that question. "But I’d better make sure." And leaned over and kissed her, then relaxed back against the headboard with a grin.

"Uh." Gabrielle blurted, then dropped her eyes, and buried her face into Xena’s shirt with a small giggle. Wow. She could still feel little tingles running up and down her spine, and briefly considered giving in to her instincts. But despite the warrior’s casual reassurances, she could see the pain and exhaustion lurking in the back of those eyes, and she knew there would be time to continue that experiment later. "I think you’re right." She finally answered, after a deep breath, and looked back up with a grin. "Thanks."

"Anytime." Xena answered, feeling her eyes start to close, as two days of effort caught up with her. She settled her arm more firmly around the bard and let the steady sound of the rain and the warm security of Gabrielle’s presence take her off to sleep.


Ephiny rolled one eye open, and studied her surroundings. Her quarters. This was a good thing. She cocked her ears. Silence outside. Another good thing. She peered at the window. Sun. Yet another good thing. The day was looking up so far, especially after yesterday. Yawning, she got up, and splashed her face with water, grimacing at the large bruise on her jaw. "I’ll get you for that, Erika." She muttered, then sighed, and got dressed, and poked her head outside.

Just dawn, and very quiet. The only sounds she heard were the quiet snaps of the scouts campfire, the intermittent splatters of leaf bound water dropping, and the faint sounds of movement from the dining hall. Her eyes rested briefly on the door to the queen’s quarters, and she felt a grin tugging her mouth. Nice to have that old question answered once and for all, she thought, amused. But that was too damn close. Her mind sobered. She walked to the dining hall, and waved hello to the two cooks as she crossed the woven threshold.

"Ephiny." Esta grunted, waving back. "Tell me this whole stupid affair is over and done with, will you?"

The blond Amazon shrugged. "You know how we are, Esta. But I think it’s over for now. Arella’s going to be out of commission for a very long time, and maybe she learned something from it." Besides don’t piss off the Queen’s champion, that is. "Got something hot on? It’s chilly this morning. " She accepted the bowl of warm cereal, and sat down with it, warming her hands on it’s sides, and breathing in the steam. She looked up as Menelda, their chief healer slid onto the bench next t her. "Morning" Ephiny mumbled, stifling another yawn.

"Morning" Menelda answered, getting herself a cup of hot tea from a handy pitcher. "Status report." She said, taking a sip. "We lost 6 people in the ‘hunting’ party yesterday."

Ephiny’s eyebrows rose. Then she shook her head.

"Three more are in the hospice, and will be for quite a while. They look like they fell off a cliff." Menelda spoke in her typical blunt style. She wasn’t known for her bedside manner. "The girl, Cait, is going to be fine. She had a gash on her head, but it was mostly surface, and she’s up and around already, and wants out." She allowed a small smile to cross her face. Then it disappeared. "Arella, we have a big problem with."

Ephiny let out a groan, around a mouthful of cereal. She gave Menelda a look.

"Oh, she’ll live." Menelda reassured her. "She has a broken jaw, so we won’t have to hear her for a while, and about a half a dozen broken ribs. Looks like she was back kicked by a warhorse. "

"She was." Ephiny muttered, continuing to chew. Menelda darted her a look, then snorted.

"She also has a completely dislocated shoulder. Problem is, she’s pretty muscular, and we can’t get the arm reset. We’ve tried, all night, until she passed out from the pain of it. " The healer grimaced. "Even with two of us trying, we just can’t get the leverage for it."

"Huh." Ephiny replied, considering. "Well, I may have an idea for that." She stood up and ran her fingers through her hair. "I’ll just get the person who put it out of joint to put it back in." And left the room, leaving Menelda to collect her jaw and follow, spluttering.


Xena had woken in the pre dawn stillness, momentarily disoriented until her eyes focused, and she realized where she was. Gabrielle was still very soundly asleep curled up snugly against her, her breathing slow and steady.

Gingerly, she tested her sorely abused body, and was cautiously pleased with the response, more so than she had reasonably expected to be. I guess that’s what a good night’s sleep gets you. She mused, glancing down at the sleeping bard. She still looks tired out. And she’s lost weight. They must have been pretty tough on her. Damn.. but she stood up to them, didn’t she?

With the stillness, she realized the weather had cleared outside, but it had turned colder, and she could feel the draft coming in from the window, which made her decide to stay right where she was and pull the covers up over the both of them. She let herself drift off again, until a noise outside snapped her eyes open, and sent her hand drifting towards her sword, sheathed next to the bed. The sun had recently risen, and she could see a shadow moving outside the door.

A curly head poked in cautiously. Xena shook her head in amusement, but waved Ephiny in, making shushing motion with one hand. The Amazon stepped in quietly, and walked over to the bed, with a grin twitching across her face. "How’s the back?" she said, very softly.

"Not bad." Xena answered. "Couple of stitches, nothing serious."

Ephiny nodded, then glanced down at Gabrielle. "I can see she’s all right." With an impish smile at the warrior. Then her expression went serious. "Actually, I have a rather.. awkward request to make of you."

Xena’s eyebrows raised. "Awkward?" she asked.

"Well, yeah." Ephiny sighed. "Our healers have been trying to reset Arella’s shoulder since yesterday, without success. They can’t get enough leverage to pop it back into place." She looked at Xena.

"So you want me to try." The warrior hazarded, with a snort. "You’re right. That’s awkward."

Gabrielle opened her eyes, blinking sleepily. "What is?" she mumbled, glancing up at Xena, then over at Ephiny, and when she met Ephiny’s eyes, she grinned. ‘Good morning."

Ephiny grinned back, and gave her a little shake of the head. "Good morning to you, too."

Xena repeated the request. "I guess I’ll try, but you’d better knock her out first so she doesn’t know about it." She shook her head in annoyance. "This’ll be a first."

"OK." Ephiny nodded. "I’ll go tell Menelda." She stifled a yawn. "Sorry. I know it’s still early." She gave them both a wicked glance. "So, I’ll get on out of your way, here." She waggled her eyebrows at them, and vanished.

They watched Ephiny leave, then looked at each other. And burst out laughing.

"Gods." Gabrielle sighed, still chuckling. She hitched herself up on an elbow, and tugged at Xena’s shoulder. "Let me see your back." Waiting for the warrior to lean forward, which she did, and pulling the shirt down and removing the bandage she’d put there last night. She was silent a moment, then let out a surprised chuckle. "You heal fast." She commented, putting the bandage back on.

Xena tugged the shirt into place and leaned back, shrugging. "Yeah. Comes in handy." She stretched. "See? No harm done." A grin for the bard, who gave a grudging smile in return. "So. I guess I’d better go see about your little friend, there, huh?"

Gabrielle’s expression was less than queenly. "If I wasn’t the goodhearted bard type, I’d tell you to forget it." She rolled over on her side and propped her head on her hand. "You going to do the pressure point before you do it?"

"Yeah, probably. Why?" Xena asked, leaning on one elbow. "You don’t want me to?" Her eyebrows rose.

The bard sighed. "Yeah, I do.. it’ll be good for her hangers on to realize that you have skills other than the obvious ones." She poked the muscular shoulder next to her.

Xena snorted. "Uh huh. Sure."

Gabrielle regarded her, tilting her head and gazing with undisguised interest. "By the way, looks like going home was good for you. You look great." She grinned. "Not that you don’t usually."

A shrug. "Got a chance to heal up some nagging sore spots, at least. Do some stuff around the inn. A little hunting. " a pause. "A lot of sparring, which I needed to cope with the effects of a month of my mother’s cooking." She finished with a wry chuckle.

"Doesn’t seem to have done you any harm." Gabrielle responded, with a smile.

"Guess not." Xena paused. "Yeah, it was nice. Mother was.. great, and Toris was Toris." She exchanged knowing grins with the bard, then rolled over, and stood up, extending a hand back towards Gabrielle. "Come on. They’ll be in here in a minute looking for you."

"Yeah, yeah." Gabrielle grumbled, grabbing the proffered hand, and allowing herself to be hauled bodily out of bed. "Maybe I can banish them." A glance at Xena’s eyebrows. "OK, maybe not."

They walked across the middle ground, and Xena nudged Gabrielle with an elbow as they came even with the dining hall. "Go get some breakfast. I’ll take care of this. You don’t need to watch."

The bard squared her shoulders. "I know. But I want to. I want to understand her." she considered. "Besides..." a grin "you know I love watching you work."

"OK" The warrior acknowledged. "Let’s go then." They walked together to the infirmary, and ducked inside the door.

The atmosphere became tense as the occupants recognized them, or to be honest, Gabrielle thought, recognized Xena, who stood for a moment, observing everything and doing her best ‘I’m a menacing warlord’ impression. Which was a darn good one, enhanced by her darkly glittering armor and conspicuous weaponry. Most of the invalids were Arella’s people, and they avoided meeting her eyes, keeping a wary eye on the warrior, or examining their own boots with interest.

Xena leveled her gaze around the room a few times, then strode towards where Arella was lying, foggy, but conscious, with one arm braced in an awkward splint. She watched Xena approach with an unfathomable expression. Erika, seated next to her, rose slowly to her feet, and backed away as the warrior moved closer.

"Relax." Xena finally said, when the tension had risen to where it was almost palpable. "I’m not going to kill anyone." She stood over Arella, and examined the splint with interest. Arella’s face was a study in apprehension, and a faint sheen of sweat broke out on her forehead. She flinched when the warrior crouched down, and laid a finger on the supports. Xena glanced at her. "I said, relax. If I wanted to kill you, I would have done it yesterday."

Making a decision, she rested her weight on one knee, and untied the splint gently. She turned her head and looked into Arella’s eyes. "Listen. I’m going to block your pain with a pressure point. Then I’m going to set your shoulder. Don’t fight me. That’ll just make it harder. OK?"

Arella nodded, some of the panic fading from her gray eyes. She blinked at Xena, as though just seeing her for the first time.

"All right." Xena muttered, then took two fingers and pressed a spot at the junction of Arella’s neck and shoulder. The Amazon’s eyes widened, and she jerked a little. "Now, just don’t struggle." the warrior reminded her. Then slid her left arm under Arella’s, and grasped the edge of the bunk, providing a pivot point, and with her right arm, she grabbed the Amazon’s’ elbow. "Ready?" She cautioned, glancing at the woman. A slight nod. "OK." And with a smoothly powerful motion, Xena levered the dislocated arm into it’s proper place. The joint snapped back into position with an audible pop, which caused everyone to jump a little, then Xena released her grip, and sat back. "Now." She said to Arella, whose eyes were fastened on her. "I’m going to release the pressure points, and you’ll feel this again. It won’t be as bad, now that the joints back in place. OK?" Another nod. "OK." And she pinched the spot again, and Arella flinched, but then relaxed a little, and gave Xena a wary little nod.

Xena stood, and dusted off her hands, then glanced around the room, which was not nearly so tense all of a sudden. Gabrielle came up beside her, and leaned against her shoulder, gazing down at Arella. "That looked easy enough." the bard commented, glancing up at Xena.

"I knew what angle it came out from." Xena answered, giving her a wry glance. "Makes it easier to guess how to lever it back in." A darkly amused grin.

"Ah." Gabrielle responded. "Yeah, that makes sense." She met Arella’s eyes, giving her a short nod, then pulled on Xena’s breastplate. "Come on. Let me introduce you to breakfast."

Xena allowed herself to be led out of the infirmary, fully aware of the eyes following them outside. They crossed the open space and headed towards the dining hall, along with several other Amazons, who glanced briefly at them, and smiled. Gabrielle smiled back, then realized why they were smiling, and blushed. Well, this is going to take some getting used to. She mused to herself. Aloud, she said "I hope you like porridge."

"You know I don’t. And you don’t either." Xena responded, raising an eyebrow at her. "Gabrielle, you’re the Queen. Why don’t you just ask for something else?" She watched her companion’s face go from irritated to perplexed to embarrassed. "You never did, did you." A quickly muffled chuckle. "Come on." And they entered the hall, spotting Granella sitting with Cait near the front of the large room. Xena steered the bard towards them, and gave her a gentle shove at the bench. "Siddown."

She herself continued on through the hall, ducking into the preparation area and startling the two cooks. "Relax." She drawled, scanning the shelves with a knowing eye, and selecting several items.

"Would the queen like her bowl of cereal?" the cook called Esta asked, warily.

"No." Xena answered, grabbing a plate and several more items. "She hates cereal."

Esta snorted. "She never said word one." Indignation colored her tone. "She never asked for anything, never said what she like... she’s been driving us crazy wondering..."

Xena stopped, and gave her a look. "I know. I should have sent an instruction scroll with her." And gave the cook a brief grin. "Sorry. She doesn’t like people to make a fuss." And disappeared, leaving the two cooks to glance at each other.

"Huh." Esta said. "She’s not so bad, that one." Her companion grunted noncommittally.

Gabrielle seated herself next to Cait, and smiled at her. Cait smiled back. "Hi." the bard said.

"Hi." Cait responded, blinking at her. "That was super of you yesterday. With the centaurs and all." She grinned enthusiastically. "I liked it when you dumped the big one with your staff."

Gabrielle snorted. "Well, thanks... but it didn’t really do much good." She gazed at the blond girl. "And thank you for getting in the way when she was about to spear me." Her brow creased. "Sorry you had to get hit for it."

Cait shrugged. "It’s OK. It really didn’t hurt much. You were really brave when she was going to shoot you, though. You didn’t even flinch." She stopped eating and put her spoon down. "You didn’t see her coming, did you?"

The bard looked puzzled, then realized who Cait was talking about. "No.. I couldn’t... did you?"

The girl nodded with cheerful enthusiasm. "Sure did. It was great. She came up over the embankment, hit the ground, then just went sideways." A glance up as the subject of the conversation appeared, and tossed plate down in front of the queen.

"Here." Xena said, ruffling Cait’s hair. "Hello, Cait." And sat down across from Gabrielle, snagging a piece of cheese and a slab of bread from the plate for herself.

"Cait was just telling us about your arrival in the Centaur Village. " Granella mentioned, watching the bard attack the plate’s contents. "Wow... don’t hurt yourself there."

Cait turned to Xena, and grinned. "Can you teach me to catch arrows?" She pleaded, "Please??"

The warrior raised an eyebrow at her. "We’ll see." she growled. "How’s your head?"

The girl raised one hand to her temple, then shrugged. "It’s OK." She went back to her bowl, scraping up the last of the cereal with dutiful vigor.

They all looked up as Ephiny strode into the hall, and walked over to them, placing both hands on the table and leaning forward. "Gabrielle, the Centaur leader want’s a parley. With you. This afternoon." She darted a glance towards Xena, who was thoughtfully chewing on her bread. "You too." she added, giving the warrior an apologetic little shrug.

Xena rolled her eyes. "Oh great." she sighed.

"OK." Gabrielle replied. "This afternoon. And, Ephiny.." The Amazon looked at her. "We need to wrap up any council business. I’d like to leave tomorrow morning."

Ephiny went very still, just looking at her. "All right." she finally answered, drawing out the words slowly. Damn. I should have seen this coming. But she’s done an impossible amount in the time she’s been here. "We can do that." She finished, quietly, and straightened.

Gabrielle stood, and took her arm, motioning her outside with a nod of her head. They walked outside, and a little away from the hall, then the bard stopped, and took a breath. "Listen.."

Ephiny held up a hand. "No... it’s all right. I understand."

"Ephiny, no you don’t. Let me talk for a minute." Gabrielle spoke quietly. "I’ve done what I can." She dropped her gaze to her hands, and then looked back up. "There is a part of the Amazons that I don’t understand.. that I don’t know how to understand. Until I do... Until I can see what people like Arella see, I can’t lead you."

Ephiny opened her mouth to speak, then shut it again. Opened it. Shut it. Opened it. Finally, she put a hand on the bard’s arm. "Look. I know you’ve had a rough time. Believe me, I do." she let out a held breath. "But I think you’re wrong. I think you do understand us. You just don’t see way of becoming us.. and Gabrielle, that’s a very good thing. That part of Arella that you can’t get a grasp of... that’s ugly, and violent, and needs blood to satisfy.. I wouldn’t want you to know." She gave her a small smile. "And anyway, you’re still the Queen. I can’t change that. I wouldn’t want to.. I’ll just keep holding your place until you’re ready."

Gabrielle nodded slowly. "All right." She smiled grimly. "I may never be ready. But when I am, you’ll be the first one I’ll tell."

"Second." Ephiny replied immediately, eyes twinkling.

The bard let out a short laugh. "Gods.. am I ever going to live that down?" She blushed. "I can’t believe we did that." She gave Ephiny a sly grin. "So.. just how much did you win?"

"Ahh.. that would be telling." The blond Amazon smiled. "For the record, you are the envy of the camp, by the way. " She grinned at the deeper blush. "So, where are you off to? Amphipolis?"

Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest, and tried to ignore the heat of her face. "Yeah." she answered, finally meeting Ephiny’s eyes. "Among other things, I gotta see that puppy you mentioned. I’ll see if we can make it back for the festival, though."

Ephiny nodded. "That would be great. Listen.. you did an incredible amount for us in a month, you know that. Six new treaties, and personally, I think certain factions in the village are willing to take a second look at peace as an alternative." Though, I do think Xena has more to do with that, she mused wryly. She scared Arella’s crew into good sense. Maybe.

The bard nodded. "Thanks." She glanced around, back to the dining hall, where Xena was now leaning lazily, waiting for her in the doorway. She struggled to keep a grin off her face, and knew she partially failed when she saw Ephiny’s muffled chuckle. Sighing, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath before she looked up again. "Sorry. What were you saying?"

"We’ll have to go over the centaur charter." Ephiny responded, giving the bard a break. "Other than that, there’s just a few things to wrap up today." She put a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder, and starting walking her back to the hall.

The council session that afternoon was interesting, Gabrielle thought. For once, no one questioned her. There was no Arella there, with her doubting words, and intimidating, sarcastic silences. She didn’t have to explain herself a half dozen times, nor did she have to justify her words, her thoughts, her actions... and there was a new sense of respect, even from those of Arella’s followers who did attend.

Maybe it was the fight yesterday, she mused. I did do pretty well, after all. Or maybe it was the knowledge that peace had prevailed after all. Maybe they’d learned something.

Nah. Her mind chuckled. It was the presence of her warrior partner, felt more than seen, since Xena was lounging behind all of them on a low bench looking for all the world like a panther stretched out, her blue eyes scanning the room at intervals but always returning to catch the bard’s own. Usually with the raising of an eyebrow at something someone said. Or an eye roll, when Gabrielle had to explain something twice. Or a twitching grin when she’d made a good point. And an out and out dazzling smile when one of the older Amazons that had been more or less in Arella’s camp stood up and complimented her, and said, well, maybe there was another way. Maybe I did make a difference. She finally mused, carefully examining that thought. Maybe. At the end of the council, she stood up, and as her last piece of business, turned the ruling of the Amazons back over to Ephiny, which the blond woman accepted casually as though they hadn’t rehearsed the whole thing beforehand. Which they had.

And she was pleasantly surprised by the number of Amazons who stopped her after the council broke up, and expressed their dismay at her leaving. Their appreciation for what she’d done. Even to the last of them, three of Arella’s cronies, who closed in on her when almost everyone else had left.

Causing her a faint prickle of concern, until her peripheral vision caught the smooth movement of dark leather, and she relaxed into a feeling of warm security. She looked at the three, tilting her head in question, letting them break the silence. Somehow keeping her eyes on them, and not letting them drift over their heads to meet the watchful gaze that had moved in behind them with utter silence.

"Um. Look." Erika broke the tense standoff. "I know we don’t see eye to eye."

"That’s a true statement." Gabrielle agreed, amiably.

"Yeah. Well, anyway. It’s just that.. " she sighed. "Gabrielle, just going along, day to day... there’s no challenge there. I think what we’re afraid of is losing.. well, part of what makes this life so appealing for us." She glanced at her two companions, who nodded, but let her keep being the spokesman. "That challenge is really important to us."

"Isn’t life itself a challenge?’ the bard countered. "Do you have to have conflict to make it harder?"

A low voice answered her, and startled the Amazons. "They have a point, Gabrielle." And Xena stepped forward, ignoring the nervous looks from the three, and concentrating her attention on the bard. "When you’re used to a certain amount of excitement in your life, taking that away can leave you.. " she pursed her lips and nodded a bit. "twitchy." She raised an eyebrow at the three, who looked at each other, then back at her. And gave little agreeing shrugs. "You tend to do things that create that feeling of excitement, because your body is used to it."

"Are you saying that people can be addicted to violence?" Gabrielle asked, incredulous.

"Uh huh." Xena replied, and, finally, got some faint beginnings of a smile from the three. "that’s hard to break. You have to find something that can take it’s place. But.." she shrugged. "Don’t discount that need. It’s real."

Now Erika was smiling openly, and gave Xena a little nod. "You do understand."

The warrior turned her gaze on Erika. "Oh, I do. But if you let that need control you, you lose." She gave Erika a look. "You have to find a way to channel that energy into something positive. You have to find a substitute for it."

Erika looked very thoughtful. "Like what?" she countered, raising an eyebrow in challenge.

Xena’s eyes took on a mischievous sparkle. She leaned forward, and cupping her hand around Erika’s ear, whispered something to her. The Amazon started back, then looked at her, darted a glance at Gabrielle, then chuckled. "Ah. I see." Her face took on a thoughtful look. "Well... I’ll see what I can do." She turned to Gabrielle. "Anyway, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry."

Gabrielle nodded slowly. "So am I, Erika. Six Amazons died yesterday that didn’t have to." Her face was very serious. "I’m leaving it up to Ephiny to decide what the penalties are going to be for that. But I’ve given her some suggestions. That was really stupid."

Erika sobered. "I know." She glanced up at Xena. "I knew better. I should have stopped it. But I didn’t, and now I have to live with that." She gave them both a brief nod, then turned and left, her companions following her in thoughtful silence.

Xena and Gabrielle watched them go, then looked at each other. Gabrielle sauntered over to her, and tugged on her breastplate. "What did you tell her?" she asked, curiously.

"’s a warrior thing." Xena answered, with a smile. "Come on. The centaurs should be here any minute." She’s not going to let this one go. OK.. well, she looks cute when she blushes.

"A warrior thing." Gabrielle repeated. "Uh huh. Like what kind of warrior thing? " Not letting go of the armor plating. "I want to know what you suggested to her as a substitute for the excitement" she grimaced "of going to war."

"Falling in love." Xena drawled. With a twinkle.

The bard blushed to the roots of her hair. "Oh." she mumbled, then laughed.

"Now, better lose that blush before the centaurs come in." Xena teased, patting her lightly on the cheek. Then lifted her head, moments before they both heard Xena’s name being called. They walked to the door, and Xena ducked her head outside, and they saw an Amazon leading a familiar golden form with a makeshift halter.

"Argo!" The warrior breathed. "I should have know she’d follow me up here." She darted outside, and grinned as the mare nickered on seeing her.

Gabrielle watched her go, and stayed in the doorway, leaning on the post, and wrapping her arms around herself, on the warm feeling that was filling her like sunlight. Falling in love, she said. Her mind chortled happily. And if it took a month in Hades with the Amazons to get her to say that to me, then they can have a month of my time any moment they like. Arella was wrong..wrong..wrong... this is the most wonderful feeling in the world. I hope she finds that out some day. A remembered thought of Erika’s face. Maybe she just will.

She glanced across the grounds, at the movement of the Amazons, at the dimly seen approaching Centaurs. At Xena, and her snorting, restive mare. Gods, Gabrielle. It’s been a long, long road from Potadeia, hasn’t it?. Everything that’s happened. All the bad things, all the trouble, and fighting, and pain. And the good things, the victories, the people we’ve helped, and most of all, our friendship. I remember I asked her once if there was anything she’d change, after all that, and she said.. no. I only just this minute understood why. It all led to us coming to this place, at this time, and being who we are now. And if that’s so...I wouldn’t change a thing either.

"Gabrielle." Xena’s voice startled her out of her reverie. "Hey, you OK?" The warrior peered at her, concerned.

"Yeah, yeah. I’m fine." Gabrielle answered, smiling up at her. "Just thinking, that’s all." She glanced over at the path into the village. "Oh, here come the centaurs. Time for our meeting, right?" She ran her fingers through her bangs, and straightened her skirt. "Let’s go."


"That wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be." Ephiny yawned later, sprawled in the chair across from Gabrielle’s desk, a large cup of mulled wine in one fist. "Though I think they like you better than they do me." she blinked at the bard, who was packing things efficiently into a pair of large bags.

"Nah." Gabrielle replied, glancing up and smiling. "Your son’s a connection to them. They’ll be fine with you." She sighed. "Besides, I think I make them nervous. They kept swishing their tails."

A chuckle from the bench near the wall, where Xena was lounging, repairing a bit of armor lacing. "No, *I* make them nervous." A darkly humorous grin. "I make everybody nervous, it seems."

"Really?" Gabrielle asked, stopping what she was doing and looking over. "I never noticed that. Are you sure? I think you’re just imagining things again, Xena. I warned you about that."

Ephiny looked at her like she’d lost her mind, then glanced back at Xena. Who had balled up a wad of leather stitching and pelted it at the bard. And nailed her right in the chest.

"Ouch." Gabrielle yelped. "Hey..just asking..." And tossed the wad back, managing to aim well enough to cause the warrior to duck to avoid being hit in the head. "Hey, that was close!"

"Right. Not." Xena scoffed, going back to her mending. Pretending not to see Gabrielle grabbing a small pouch and pulling back her arm, slinging it forward with quite a bit of force. Dropping her armor bit at the very last possible second, and reaching up a hand, still not looking, and catching the pouch. "Gotta do better than that." she commented airily, tossing the item back with a flick of her wrist, but this time catching Ephiny on the back of the head with it.

"Hey!" Ephiny squeaked. "Don’t get me involved in this!" She stood up , still gripping her cup, and backed off, grinning.

"Chicken." Gabrielle scoffed, and dove for the pouch. She came up with it, and hurled it in Xena’s direction. But the warrior had dropped her mending and was now in a half crouch, fully interested in the game. She caught the pouch, and whipped it back, making Gabrielle dive for cover. "Whoa!"

They scrambled for the pouch, and Xena grabbed it, and pelted the bard in the stomach with it, then ducked as she threw back the original wad of lacing. Ephiny chose that moment to step backwards, to avoid being bowled over.

And caught her boot in a floorboard and lost her balance, waving her arms wildly to keep from falling. The cup of wine went flying right towards Xena, who paused, saw it coming, glanced behind her quickly, then sighed.

And closed her eyes. And let the full cup catch her in the chest and go all over her.

Everyone froze. The silence was deafening, until Xena broke it by chuckling wryly. "Nice vintage, Eph."

"You could have ducked." Ephiny protested, caught between laughter and apprehension. She could have, she wanted to, but she didn’t..I saw that moment of decision there.

"Oh no." Xena said, shaking her arms to scatter a few droplets. "I duck, it goes over my head, and nails her majesty there. I never hear the end of that. No thanks." She glanced over at Gabrielle, who had her hands over her mouth, stifling a giggle. "I rather take a wine bath." She reached out and put a drop of the liquid on the tip of the bard’s nose, then grinned at her. "Now I need to take a real bath. Be back." She left the room, shaking her head.

Ephiny watched here leave, then turned to Gabrielle, who was just licking the drop off her nose. "Well." she said, laughing a little.

"I told you." the bard said, perching on the corner of the desk. "She’s a lot of fun."

"Gabrielle, you bring that out in her, because let me tell you, I’ve never seen her that way before." Ephiny said, suddenly serious. "Never. And I’ve known her a while." She chuckled. "And no one, NO ONE is going to believe me if I tell them what I just saw." So I guess they’re changing each other. In good ways. Where will they both end up? Zeus only knows.

"Anyway, you’d better get dressed for dinner. You know we’re doing up a little something to say farewell to our queen, right?" Ephiny teased, seeing the pained expression on Gabrielle’s face. "Relax, it’s all very casual."

Gabrielle sighed. "Can I bring a guest?" she asked, with a wry grin.

"Could we keep her out?" Ephiny countered, with a wicked smile. "I’m not trying."

The fire was burning low in the dining hall that night before the banquet ended, and Gabrielle leaned forward, wincing, at the hours spent sitting on the padded but backless bench. It had even been a decent menu, and for once, she was stuffed at the end of an Amazon meal. Ouch. her body was protesting. Gotta get them to switch to chairs with backs on them. There’s knot the size of a..oh. As a powerful hand grabbed the knot, and with a steady motion, released the tension there. She sighed in relief, and turned her head. "Just how do you know exactly where to do that?"

"Just one of my many skills." Xena responded, finishing her work, but leaving her hand on the bard’s back. She herself had chosen a bench which was fairly near to a projecting wall support, and that, coupled with her long body, allowed the warrior the luxury of leaning back and escaping the bench torture.

"I suppose that includes the skill of knowing where to sit." The bard mentioned, giving her a wry grin.

Xena nodded, eyes half lidded. "Uh huh."

"And the skill of having a body just the right size to reach the wall." Gabrielle continued.

"Yep." The warrior agreed. "All part of the plan."

"I see." The bard replied. "Must be nice." She gazed out at the entertainment, and smiled. "They’re pretty good." Another wince. "Wish I.."

"Come here." Xena interrupted her, tugging on the back of her skirt.

Obligingly, the bard slid over onto the next bench. "Yes?"

"Lean back." Xena tapped her hand on her chest.

"Oh." the bard said, grinning. "OK. That’s much better." She settled back against Xena’s shoulder, and relaxed, as the warrior slid an arm around her waist. "Was that part of the plan, too?" she asked, teasingly.

"Yep." Xena answered, unruffled. Then she glanced down at Gabrielle, who giggled. "What?"

"’s nothing. I just.." Gabrielle shrugged a bit. "thought you didn’t like..I never..." She stopped talking. "Oh, never mind."

Xena raised an eyebrow. "I don’t like public displays of affection?" she asked. "Right?"

"Well, yeah." the bard answered, a curious smile on her face.

Xena shrugged. "I got over it." A wolfish grin. "Besides, after yesterday, what’s the point?" She glanced down to catch the expected blush. They settled down to watch the entertainment, and share a few glasses of spiced wine. "Do you want to stop in and see your family?" Xena finally asked, taking a long swallow. Gotta ask. But gods, they don’t like me. And I suspect right now they’ll like me even less. A wry thought. Oh yeah.

Gabrielle stayed silent for a time, thinking. "Yeah." she finally said, reluctance in her voice."Maybe on the way out of Amphipolis" She sighed. "I should just stop in and let them know I’m still alive."

Xena frowned, and ducked her head to get a good look at Gabrielle’s face. "Hey..hey.. Gabrielle, they’re your family." What caused that? I know she wanted out of Potadeia, but she’s always spoken well of her mother..of Lila...

Gabrielle looked straight ahead. "You’re my family." she answered, taking a long sip of her own. "They don’t even know who I am, Xena. To them, I’m just the little sister who ran off two years ago."

Xena blew out a held breath, and thought. "My family adjusted. Yours can too." She offered, giving her a little squeeze. Oh... I’m not good at this. And I’m the last person on earth who should be giving out advice on family relationships.

The bard seemed to appreciate this point, because she turned her head and looked up at Xena with an impish grin. "Oh..great. I’ll just let you talk to them, then. You can explain everything." And giggled. Then giggled more, because Xena took advantage of the fact that she was in true Amazon garb and tickled her bare midriff, which was in easy reach. "Augh..stop it..I can’t be giggling here in front of the entire village"

Xena relented, and let her wind down, feeling the bard’s body relax completely against her chest, and her hands slide around the warrior’s own, clasping them. Aware that half the room was probably watching them, and just not caring. Maybe it was the firelight, or the spiced wine, or the sudden relaxation from the dangers just past. Maybe it was because for the first time in a very long time she was letting herself be carried along by emotions she usually kept a hard rein on. Trouble will come from this. I know it. I opened myself up too far, and I know I’m going to a pay for it. I know... but I can’t back up now. Maybe I can just... Her eyes closed, and she let her cheek rest against the fair head nestled against her shoulder. Maybe I can just have peace, for a little while.

Gabrielle felt the pressure and instinctively moved closer. Something’s going on with her. I can feel it. The bard mused, then examined that thought. I can feel it. Her brow creased. Wow. I wonder..."Xena?" she asked softly, not wanting to startle the warrior.

"Mmm?" her companion answered, a deep sound that the bard could feel vibrating against her head, where she was leaning against Xena’s throat.

If I’m wrong, she’s going to think I’m nuts. But that’s ok..I spout off all kinds of theories all the time anyway, right? Right. OK. " Do you remember Jessan’s parents?"

"Yes." Came the answer, in a hesitant voice. "Of course I do." In a more normal tone.

But Gabrielle could feel the steady heartbeat under her ear pick up. "We’re like them, aren’t we." Felt the sudden stop, then double thump of her heart that told her the answer before the warrior opened her mouth to speak.

"Jessan thinks so." Xena admitted, taking a deep breath. Trying to control her heartbeat, which she knew damn well Gabrielle could feel, they were so close. What’s she going to do with this? What’s she going to think...gods. What do I think? That’s the next question, right?’

"What do you think?" the bard asked, glancing up. Waiting patiently.

A long, long breath. "I don’t know for sure." Xena spoke slowly, thoughtfully. "Because we’re not part of his people." She gathered her courage and met the mist green eyes looking up at her. Found quiet, intense curiosity there. And acceptance. And decided. "But yeah, I think we might be." And here she was, in the middle of one of her biggest nightmares. The one where Gabrielle recoiled from what would seem to her an unnatural lifelong prison sentence, tied to a half mad, gods cursed, moody, hated by everyone ex warlord.

"Wow." The bard grinned, a deep, full, heartfelt grin that lit her eyes up as though she had candlelight reflected in her face. "Awesome." She squeezed the arms around her as hard as she could.

And with a word, and smile, delivered a dark soul back up into the light. Again. "Awesome?" Xena managed to get out, battling with a series of different emotions. "Gabrielle, I don’t think you understand.."

Gabrielle sighed happily. "Yeah I do. Beyond good sense, beyond death, beyond understanding. I remember. I think we’ve hit all three at least once." She laughed. "Maybe more than once." She half turned and gazed up at Xena’s face. "You know I’ve always said I thought every person had a soul mate, right?"

"Yeah." Xena gave up her resistance, and simply accepted the fact that Gabrielle really didn’t mind this.

The bard’s face went very solemn. "For a very long time.. I’ve known who mine was." There. It was easier than she’d thought it would be. Of course, the circumstances helped. Now all that remained was to see what the response was. Humor, a brush off, a gentle pat on the head... It was pretty probable that Xena didn’t feel the same depth of this that she did, after all the warrior had done so much, seen so much..probably thought Gabrielle was a idealistic youngster, probably didn’t....

"So have I." The deadly serious answer. There in a hall full of chattering Amazons, in flickering firelight, with the strains of a harpist behind them.

Gabrielle had to remind herself to start breathing again. Oh gods.. did she just say what I think I just heard? She suddenly felt lightheaded, and blinked several times to clear her vision, which seemed to blur for some reason. I can’t believe we’re having this discussion in the middle of a banquet. Her mind mused, more for something to do while her body got control of itself than anything else. The she felt Xena’s hand touch her cheek, and the gentle pressure of the warrior’s fingertips as she wiped away the tears under her eyes. "Glad we got that settled." the bard whispered, darting a glance up and getting captured by those blue eyes.

"Me too." Xena responded, a grin threatening to break out across her face. "Though we could have picked a more private place to do it in." She glanced around. "Like the town square in Athens."

They both laughed. Because it was a way to release an overflow of emotion that threatened both of their composures. And there would be time for that later.

The banquet was going strong, and Gabrielle knew her leaving would put an end to it, so she settled back and tried to give her attention to the musicians. They were good, but her mind was fully occupied with other things, like an internal chuckling that just wouldn’t seem to stop, and a giddy feeling of well being that kept crashing over her like an ocean wave. They could be tone deaf one legged jugglers, and I wouldn’t know the difference, she chided herself. That’s not good for someone who considers themselves a bard. She took in a deep breath, and with an effort, focused her attention, eventually losing herself in the performance, and not even realizing when she drifted off.

"Aww." Granella leaned over and whispered to Ephiny. "Is that not cute?" She chuckled, and poked the blond Amazon in the ribs, motioning with her chin.

Ephiny turned her head, and laughed in reflex at the sight of their queen fast asleep nestled in Xena’s protective arms. "Gods." she shook her head in mild disbelief. "Yeah, it’s cute."

Granella cocked her dark head. "Music must soothe the savage breast..I think even Xena’s dozed off there." Her eyebrow rose, and she giggled. "Someone better write this down."

Ephiny studied the warrior. "You think so? Watch." She reached out and plucked a grape from the dish in front of her, then with a quick flip of her wrist, sent it flying across the room. It was caught in mid air with a lazy swipe of Xena’s hand, and a pair of piercing blue eyes pinned her to her place. She grinned. "See?"

The dark haired Amazon snorted. "Damn." She grinned. "Wish I had those kind of reflexes. Doesn’t she ever let up?" And chuckled as the warrior examined the grape, and with a little shrug in their direction, popped it in her mouth.

"Not that I ever noticed." Ephiny replied with a wry grin. "And considering what she goes up against, it’s probably better that way." Her brow creased. "For both of them."

"Mmmm." Granella agreed. "That was way too close a close call for my guts, Ephiny. I know you didn’t see it, but I took off right after her, and I did. And so did Solari." She shook her dark head. "Too close."

Ephiny sighed. "I know. And believe me, I had my heart in my throat the entire way from here to there. I almost fell down when I got there and saw everything was OK, because I asked her to come here, Granella." The blond Amazon covered her eyes. "What on earth would I have done if Arella’s arrow had found it’s mark? I’ve never been so scared in my life." She glanced up. "I never thought Arella would do it."

"Yeah." the dark haired scout sighed. "But she’s paying the price. Hey, did I hear right, did Xena actually go in and set her shoulder?"

Ephiny snorted. "You heard right. The healers were kicking my butt for asking her to, but she breezed in, you know, her typical intimidating self, weapons and all, scaring everyone half to death, went bap bap bap, and boom. It was over. " She chuckled. "Just like that." She sat back and stretched, wincing. "Well, I think it’s time we wrapped up this little shindig..not that it’s not fun, but it’ll be dawn soon."

Xena watched as Ephiny and Granella straightened up from their seats, and started heading her way. She glanced down at her sleeping companion with a grin, and tapped her lightly on the shoulder. "Hey." Another tap. "Hey!"

"Hmm?" the bard mumbled, stirring. "What..oh." Recognizing the bracered arms around her. "Hi. Uhm..did I fall asleep?"

"Uh huh." Xena replied, giving her a little squeeze. "And Ephiny’s on her way over here. I thought you’d rather walk out on your own instead of be carried out like a little kid."

"Xena!" Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "You wouldn’t have." A glance up at the smiling blue eyes. " would have." She sat up, and ran her fingers through her hair, and rubbed her eyes. "I can’t believe I fell asleep in the middle of a banquet." she muttered, giving Xena an embarrassed look. "You could have poked me."

Xena chuckled, and rubbed her back. "Nah. You looked so peaceful, I didn’t have the heart." She glanced up as Ephiny arrived, and gave her a nod. "Nice grape."

"Grape?" Gabrielle asked, giving her a look. "What grape?"

"Ephiny was testing my reflexes." Xena responded, dryly. "Wanted to make sure her queen was safe, I guess."

Ephiny snorted. "Oh yes.. that was on the top of my list of things to worry about tonight, let me tell you." She leaned on the table. "About time to wrap things up, your majesty." Grinning at the bard’s rolled eyes. "Good night."

"Yeah, yeah." Gabrielle yawned, as she stood and stretched. "Good night to you, too."

They walked outside, where the air was much cooler, and the night sounds had begun their transition into pre dawn. Xena heard the rustling of restlessly waking birds above her, waiting for the first color in the sky, and the scent of dew, and the rising of the gentle wind that carried the soft voices of the other banquet goers now headed to their own quarters.

"Is it even worth going to sleep?" Gabrielle asked, stifling a yawn. "Sun’ll be up soon." She half turned to peer up at Xena, who was strolling along in silence.

"Mmm.." Xena responded. "Probably not." A gentle grin appeared on her face. "You wanted to get an early start..." she shrugged. "So did I." Noticing the sudden pressure of the bard’s around her. Wrapping an arm around her shoulders in response. Remembering in sudden rush what they’d said to each other back there. In the noisy banquet hall.

They ducked inside the door to the queen’s quarters, and Gabrielle loosened her hold, crossing the room and busying herself at the desk. "I think I have everything packed." She muttered, shuffling some of the scrolls on the surface. Glancing up, watching Xena take a seat on the low padded bench against the wall, stretching her long legs out, and crossing them. In the low torchlight, the bard only caught the faint glints of the light against her armor. And weapons, which she had worn to the hall. And the twin points of light that were her eyes. Which Gabrielle found herself drawn to like a moth to a candle flame.

She took a breath, then finished packing her scrolls away, making small talk, to which Xena contributed her usual series of short responses. She had no idea what she said. Finally, she was done, and putting a cheerful look on her face, she casually crossed to the bench, and stood looking down at the warrior, who arms crossed, seemed completely relaxed.

Xena tilted her head to one side, and regarded her companion. Then she uncrossed her arms, spreading the right one along the back of the bench, and gestured for her to sit down with the other. "Sit." she commented. "We’ve got a little while before the sun comes up. Might as well be comfortable."

"Thanks." Gabrielle said, sliding onto the bench, and curling up next to her, tucking her legs under her body. "Will you show me where you climbed the cliff?" She asked, giving the warrior a teasing look. "Gotta know how to describe it for the story I’m writing." She giggled at the strangled gargling noise from Xena, and leaned back against the strong arm behind her. "You didn’t think I would let this one go by, did you?"

"Gabrielle.." Xena’s low rumble. "How about making the story about YOU..since you’re the one who did all the really important stuff, huh?"

"Oh, sure. Except the parts everyone loves to hear are about you." The bard countered, leaning closer, and poking her in the ribs. "The exciting parts. No one wants to hear about conducting a treaty with the centaurs." She gave a playful tug on Xena’s armor. "But they do want to hear about scaling an impossible cliff, about outrunning the Amazon’s fastest scouts..yeah, don’t think I didn’t hear about that, either..from Granella and the others...about diving off a two story embankment...glad I didn’t see that...and right in front of a firing crossbow." She grinned, sensing victory. "You...are.. a.. hero." She pronounced in triumph, daring Xena to contradict her.

Xena gazed at her, a little smile playing around her lips. "Gabrielle, I did all that because you... are my hero." In a quiet, serious tone. Robbing the bard of thought. Of speech. Of breathing.

Busted. She had won again. Because Gabrielle had no answer for that, having never remotely considered she’d ever hear it said, her being a hero being so unlikely. Right?

For a long moment, all she could hear were the night sounds, the wind snapping the leaves, the fluttering flame of the torches. And two sets of breathing. Finally "Did anyone ever tell you that you have a way with words?" Gabrielle laughed gently.

Xena’s eyebrow rose, but she smiled. "Nope. Lots of other things, but never that." With a twinkle in her eye. "Maybe you’re a bad influence."

"Maybe." the bard agreed, softly. She dropped her glance, then raised it to Xena’s shoulder, and lifted one hand, tracing the new scars there. "Where did you get these?" Darting a glance to her eyes, close by and penetrating.

"Panther." she replied. "Night after you left." Her gaze went distant. "I had.. been doing some drills. Came back to camp, and a wolf cub stumbled in." She gave the bard a brief grin. "Went to take him back to momma, and found that instead."

"Oh." Gabrielle reflected. "Mother dead?"

"Mm." the warrior acknowledged.

The bard sighed, and shook her head, leaning over to touch the twin set on Xena’s other shoulder. "Ouch."

"Yeah." Xena shrugged. "But I’ve had worse." She smiled, and reached out to part Gabrielle’s hair over her temple, examining the bump Arella’s staff had put there yesterday. "That looks OK." Meeting the green eyes so close to hers. Feeling the bard’s hand slid up her shoulder, and come to rest just under her jaw. She wasn’t sure then which one of them started it first, but it didn’t really matter. At least this time we don’t have a gaggle of centaurs and amazons watching us, Xena thought, then stopped thinking and concentrated on the kissing instead.

Which went on for a while, as they took their time, exploring each other with an almost hesitant enthusiasm. Gabrielle took a break to breathe, finally, and let her head drop against Xena’s shoulder. "You’re really good at that, you know?" she murmured into the warrior’s conveniently placed ear.

"Think so?" Xena responded lazily, quirking an eyebrow at her.

"Oh yeah." The bard assured her. Then glanced over her shoulder at the gray dawn light outlining the window. "Damn."

Xena’s eyebrow curled even higher, and she chuckled. "Leave the party earlier next time, huh?" She teased, trailing a finger down the bard’s face.

Gabrielle took a deep breath. "We’re going to continue this conversation later, right?" Her lips quirked into a grin. Ohh..I think I like this. A lot. More than a lot.

"Oh.." Xena drawled, eyes sparkling. "I would say that’s a pretty good guess." And leaned forward to catch her lips a final time, for a very long moment. "One for the road." She chuckled, when they separated. Sounds of the waking village began to filter through the morning fog, and they just sat there for a minute, arms wrapped around each other, listening. "Come on." Xena said, finally. "I’ll go get Argo packed up. You see if you can get some breakfast out of the dining hall."

Gabrielle yawned and nodded. "OK. They might even give me something edible after you scared them to death yesterday." She poked Xena in the ribs. "And I have to say goodbye to Ephiny, and all. " A pause. "And Arella."

Xena nodded. "Give her my regards." She replied, with a wry grin. "Be back." And stood, and walked out into the first glints of the rising sun.

Gabrielle stood quietly for a moment, gazing out the open doorway, a half smile on her face. Then she looked down at her boots, crossing her arms and giving her head a little shake. "Whoo.. it’s been quite a week." She muttered to empty air. C’mon, Gabrielle. Move it..get going...dunk your head in cold water. She snickered to herself. Dunking the rest of my body in cold water would be more useful right now, though. Wow.

She cleared her throat, and released a heartfelt sigh, then busied herself putting together her gear, and exchanging her Amazon garb for her regular traveling clothes. She finished arranging her skirt, and headed out the door towards the dining hall, calling a cheerful hello to the Amazons she passed. One of whom was Ephiny, who trotted a few extra steps to catch up with her.

"Morning." Ephiny grumbled, blinking at her. "Or should I say, late yesterday evening."

"Morning!" Gabrielle replied, grinning at her. "It’s beautiful today, don’t you think? Great day for traveling." She indicated the lightening sky, which was cloudless, and with the fog burning off, promised a clear cool day.

Ephiny glared at her. "Whoa..whoa...when did you become a morning person? Are you that glad to be leaving?"

The bard slowed down and lifted a hand in protest."’s not it. I’m sorry..I’m just in a good mood this morning.. really.." She tried and failed to keep a grin off her face. "I’m just.. " A plaintive look at the Amazon.

"All right..all right.." Ephiny relented, waving her off. "I get the picture." She sighed. "Look..I know it’s been rough for you here. And that you’re glad your life is getting back to..well, what you consider to be normal." She gave her a look.

Gabrielle stopped dead, and turned to face Ephiny, her face now very serious. "What exactly do you mean by that?" She asked, quietly, staring right into the Amazon’s eyes, and lowering her voice.

And Ephiny, feeling a sense of danger, stepped back. And blinked. "Uhm." she stammered, "Only...Gods, Gabrielle! I only meant that we.. I, anyway, thought that we could provide you with a place of stability. For a while. It must be so hard to be out there, moving around all the time." She gazed uneasily at this suddenly menacing woman she had though she had known.

Gabrielle stepped forward, maintaining icy eye contact with the blond woman. "You don’t think I know enough to understand what my choices are in that regard?" She asked, low and dangerous. "I go where I go because I want to go there, Ephiny. And I stay where I stay because that’s where I want to be." Damn..that look really works!

"OK." Ephiny held up both hands in surrender. "OK..OK..Listen, I’m sorry." Wow..I need to back off..I need to stop thinking of this woman as a child, before I get my head handed to me. "I’m really sorry.. Gabrielle, I do care about what happens to you. I’m sorry if that comes out as me being.. Whatever."

The bard relented, easing up on her stare, and relaxing her posture. "I know. It’s OK, Ephiny. I just get really tired of people thinking I’m just following Xena around like a puppy dog who doesn’t know any better. I do know better. I know how dangerous it is. I know what could happen. I do it in spite of all that, not because I don’t have the choice."

"I know." Ephiny said quietly. "What I really wanted to say was that you’ll always have a home here, if you want one." She paused. "Or if you need one."

Gabrielle smiled. "I know that." she said, grasping the Amazon’s shoulder. "Thank you."

Ephiny smiled, and pulled her into a hug. "Take care of yourself, Gabrielle." she said. " And keep an eye on her, too." she added softly.

The bard chuckled. "I’ll try." she resumed walking. "I’m going up to grab some breakfast, and then to see Arella. Want to come with me?" As a peace offering, because she knew Ephiny hadn’t meant to get her angry. But she also knew Ephiny probably wouldn’t’ make that mistake again, and that thought filled her with a rueful pride. Guess I am growing up. she mused.

"Sure" Ephiny agreed, and they walked on.

Xena finished loading up Argo, and led her to the infirmary, where she’d seen Gabrielle disappear several moments before. "Shh..girl. We’re off soon." She crooned to the mare, who flicked an attentive ear at her. She dropped the mare’s halter line as she approached the infirmary and ducked her head to enter, spotting Gabrielle and Ephiny in the corner where Arella was being tended to. As she stepped inside, she was aware of eyes darting to her, and holding. But that was nothing new..she was used to it, even in places where they didn’t know who she was. Probably was the height and the leather, she mused, idly. She turned her head and returned the stares, which suddenly found other things to be interested in. Wonder what would happen if I skipped in here with a flower in my teeth? The thought popped into her mind, causing her mouth to twitch in a wry grin. I’ll have to try it sometime for the shock value.

Gabrielle, as though sensing her presence Probably does... now that I think about it. I always do hers. turned as she approached, and gave her a nod and a smile. She smiled back, ignoring Ephiny’s smirk. And looked down at Arella, who was gazing at her warily, but without the fear she had shown yesterday. There was a tablet next to her hand, which she had been using to write messages, since she was unable to open her jaw more than an inch. Xena reflexively flexed her left hand, which had done that bit of damage.

Gabrielle looked up at her, detecting that faint edgy menace that she often wore around her like a cloak when she was in what she thought of as enemy territory. It had quite an effect, the bard had to admit. "Everything ready?" she asked, in a normal voice. Watching Xena nod, then move back against the wall and lean against it, jerking a chin at her to continue what she was doing.

Which the bard did, picking up the tablet and reading it, glad that the focus of attention in the room was now somewhere else.

Gabrielle (it said)

I won’t apologize to you, because I followed my beliefs, and those I won’t abandon.

But if it matters, I’m glad she stopped the arrows


Gabrielle took a breath, and reread it several times, while she thought about her response. Finally, she looked up, and met those gray eyes squarely. And leaned forward, so that the Amazon alone could hear her words. "Arella, it matters." she said, gently. "And I freely forgive you for trying to kill me." Seeing the shock and surprise in those eyes. "But.." and she lowered her voice further, made her gaze more intense. "For going after her, no. That I can’t forgive you for. Six of your sisters died for that."

Scribbling on the tablet. She killed them!

"No." The gentle voice was inflexible. "You killed them. Just as surely as if you’d shot them with that crossbow. I told you that you didn’t understand."

A look of agony. You did say that.

"Just because I love peace, and believe we can achieve more with words than weapons, doesn’t mean I don’t’ know what those weapons can do, Arella." Gabrielle gazed at her, sadly. "I was hoping her reputation would keep anyone from doing something stupid."

Furious writing. Reputations can be misleading..can be faked..can be wrong.

"Not this time." Gabrielle sighed.

No. a short scribble. I should have taken your warning. a pause... more writing I should have listened to Erika. She knew. Her eyes strayed to the far wall, where Xena was waiting, in the shadows, only the pale glint of her eyes apparent. Then she looked full at Gabrielle. How? she wrote, pausing to consider her words. How can you know her as well as you do, and not understand us?

The bard sat quietly for some minutes, thinking about her answer to that. It was a good question, she mused. "Because she doesn’t do violence just for the sake of violence. Not anymore. And if she can change, so can you." she finally said, meeting Arella’s eyes.

Because of you? Raised eyebrows.

"No." And Gabrielle smiled. "Because of you. That comes from in here." She reached out and tapped on Arella’s chest. "But sometimes it helps to have help." She let her eyes slide to where Erika was patiently waiting, with Ephiny against the wall. Then slid them back, and let a tiny grin curl her lips.

Maybe. A grudging look. Goodbye, green eyes. And her look almost, almost held a hint of affection.

Gabrielle nodded at her, and stood. "Be well." She said, quietly. And walked out with Ephiny and Xena on either side of her, in silence.

"What do you want to do with her?" Ephiny asked, as they reached Argo’s side.

The bard paused, and glanced at Xena, a question in her eyes.

"Well, you have three choices." Xena said, as though she had been considering this very matter. Which she had. Knowing the question would be put to her. "You can banish her, you can break her to servant status, or you could force her into an apprenticeship with an older Amazon, one with more peaceful leanings, who might teach her something."

Now, they’ll ask me for a recommendation. She predicted.

"Which do you recommend?" Gabrielle asked, point blank. C’mon Xena..this is way out of my league, and you know it. Give me some help here.

The warrior chewed her lip for a moment. With this one, there really isn’t a perfect solution. Any of them would grate on her. "Banishment is dangerous. You have enough renegade groups running around for her to join. Breaking her to servant is a waste of resources, and she’d take off anyway. " Xena paused. "So, you really can only use the third option. But Eph, pick someone with as strong a personality as hers. Maybe if they can get her respect, it might work."

Ephiny and Gabrielle looked at each other. "Oh boy" Ephiny groaned. "You’re going to make me tell Eponin, aren’t you?"

"Gotta go." Gabrielle grinned, and patted Argo. "Hi Argo."

Xena chuckled, and, crouching slightly, vaulted onto the golden mare, who was still saddleless. She turned around, and extended her forearm. "Come on. I know you’ve been wanting to try riding bareback."

"Bye, Eph." Gabrielle smiled, and gave her a hug, then grabbed Xena’s arm, and was lifted up to Argo’s broad back. "Whoa.." she said, startled, as the mare moved under her. "A lot slipperier this way."

Xena rolled her eyes, and kneed the mare forward. "Just hang on."

"No problem there." the bard answered, wrapping both arms around her and holding tight.She waved as they crossed the middle ground, and headed out the entrance to the village, and chuckled as they passed under the first of the surrounding branches. "I could get to like this." Snuggling close and laying her head on Xena’s back. "Remember, you promised to show me the cliff."

Xena sighed. She had. And Gabrielle was going to lose it when she saw the damn thing, too. Maybe she could say it was a lower cliff...

Continued - Part 5

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