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.

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


Leap of Faith - Part 6

By Melissa Good

The thunder woke her, a long, sharp rolling boom that rattled the wooden rafters of the cabin, and brought Gabrielle blinking and awake in the pre dawn gloom. The candles had burned down, and the only light was from the deep gray sky that was just visible through the window.

A damp, musky breeze traveled in, bringing the scent of rain to her, and she sighed, then snuggled closed to the big, warm body she was sharing the bed with. A soft dance of rain rustled the thatch roof, and pattered on the wood porch outside, drumming rhythmically, and tugging her back towards sleep, but she resisted for a minute.

She waited for her vision to adjust, then peered up, half smiling at the relaxed, almost childlike look of peace on Xena's face. She trusts this place. Gabrielle realized. She feels safe here.. which is good, I guess.. because I do too. Another long roll of thunder rattled the air, and she watched the muscles in the warrior's face slowly acquire tension, then the dark eyelashes fluttered, and she was peering up into sleepy blue eyes. "Sorry.. did I wake you up?" Gabrielle asked teasingly.

"Nuh." Xena shook her head a bit. "Storm." She gave the window a speculative look. "Rainy day."

"Mmmhmmm.' Gabrielle agreed. "Perfect for sleeping in." She smoothed her fingers down Xena's naked form. "Unless you want to go roust out the Amazons and help decorate for the joining."

"No way." Xena stated firmly, pulling her closer. "Someone else can go be the warrior princess today… I'm not budging."

"They're gonna tease you." Gabrielle objected idly, enjoying the banter, and the warm, skin on skin contact.

"They can hump hairy goats." Xena replied blithely.

Gabrielle burst into gentle laughter. "Oh.. Xena.. Xena… that was a mental image I really didn't need to have." She tickled the warrior across her belly, making her squirm. "Amazons and goats… where would they put the fur? I guess they could tack on little fake beards… "

Xena chuckled with abandon. "You yell at ME for unwanted images.. ech.. bearded Amazons… what are you thinking??" She stretched her body out with a slight groan. "Gods.. that's sore." She flexed her shoulders. "Remind me not to do that, will you?"

Gabrielle slid her hands around her partner's back, and started a gentle massage on the stiffened muscles. "Remind you not to do what, love… jump off mountains, fight pigs, rescue cows, get sucked up by tornadoes.. you gotta be specific here ."

"Mm." The warrior mumbled happily "I think it was the roof that did me in." For no apparent reason, she scooped Gabrielle up, and hugged her fiercely for an endless moment, then released her, and let out a breath.

"What brought that on?" Gabrielle inquired, resting her head on the warrior's shoulder and gently tracing the curve of her breast. "Not that I'm complaining, mind you."

A shrug. "No reason.. just felt like doing it." Xena answered, her eyes flicking to the window as a flash of lightning, accompanied by a boom of thunder lit the room. "I was thinking about all the times when we first met that I wanted to do that, and didn't…and I decided.. I guess… that I'm not going to ever want to do that, and not do it, ever again."

Gabrielle spent long moments dissecting this unusually lengthy statement . "How many times was it?" She finally asked, curious.

"Oh… " Xena rolled her head slightly, to observe her companion's face. "You have this.." She put a judicious fingertip on the bard's lower lip. "You kind of bite your lip a little.. and you look down.. I can't really describe it." She stroked the bard's cheek. "But I know.. it's when you're sad.. or.. something's bothering you… and every time I saw that, I wanted to just go over and hug you."

The bard blinked. "Xena.. that was an awful lot of times." She confessed.

"I know." The warrior sighed.

"Well.. " Her soulmate considered. "I kinda… " She stopped, then started again. "With you.. it's really hard to tell when something's wrong…but you fidget."

Dark brows contracted. "Fidget?"

"Yeah.. " Gabrielle bit off a smile. "You do things with your hands…Oooo " She giggled softly as a knowing touch slipped up her side. "Not those kinds of things… but you don't have to stop." She lost her train of thought for a moment, then recovered it. "Things… like play with your gauntlets…fiddle with stuff… adjust your armor… juggle rocks.. sharpen your dagger…just.. fidgety things and after a while I figured out that you did that when you were upset about something."

"Oh." Xena pondered the thought. "I never realized.."

"Mm." Gabrielle reached up and touched her forehead. "And.. this one took me forever to figure out.. but when you're really tired, or hurting.. you get this little furrow right here."

"I do?" The warrior asked, slightly amazed.

"Mm hmm." The bard confirmed it. "I had to study you, Xena.. it's not like you'd just tell me when something was wrong, you know."

The blue eyes dropped. "I know." She captured Gabrielle's thumb, and kissed it. "It's that ego thing." She shrugged a little. "Big bad warrior.. we're not supposed to hurt, or get tired, or admit to weakness of any kind." She paused. "It's kind of stupid when you think about it."

"You don't like being vulnerable." Gabrielle stated a fact.

"No." Xena confirmed it. "I hate it.. it makes me feel out of control in a situation."

"Mmhmm.. and you really hate that."

"Yeah." The warrior admitted honestly.

"But you do that with me all the time… let yourself be vulnerable." Gabrielle said softly.

Long silence. "It's different." Xena mumbled, at last. "It's…Gabrielle, why are we having this conversation now? We could be.. " The mist green eyes bored into hers silently. "We…I.." Silence again. "With you it's different. I trust you."

The bard let out a soft sigh. "Thank you." She kissed Xena's shoulder. "You have no idea how much that means to me." She realized she'd gently pushed her soulmate as far as she was ready to go on this point, but she'd gotten the answer she was looking for.

They listened to the rain in quiet for a time, exchanging gentle kisses, and touches that were half stimulating, and half comforting. Gabrielle let her lips meander up and down her partner's body, tasting and nipping with seductive playfulness as Xena reciprocated, letting out small, purring growls that the bard found… "Mmm… " She tickled the warrior's navel. "I like those sounds."

"You do, huh?" Her partner teased. "C'mere.."

She rolled over, and laid the bard gently on her back, leaning over her and beginning a slow, thorough exploration of her skin, grinning wickedly when Gabrielle's hands started to clench convulsively at her as she barely reached the bard's shoulders. "Mmm.. " She paused, and cocked her head. "Now.. I like those sounds."

Gabrielle obliged her with a few more of the sub vocal utterances, and closed her eyes, reveling in the seductive sensations her partner was evoking. Her hands slipped out of her control, restlessly roaming over the lithe, shifting body moving over her and pulling her closer, craving the intensity.

Xena complied, letting their bodies teasingly drift against each other as she continued her slow progress, chuckling softly against the bard's warming skin as she was rewarded with yet more sounds. "Mmm…. " She nipped lightly at a particularly sensitive spot. "That's a new one." She felt Gabrielle abandon control up completely to her, in a simplicity of trust that carried it's own, poignantly profound meaning. She slid her body up a little, and let loose a tiny growl right into the bard's flushed ear. "Mine."

A faint grin tugged at the bard's mouth. "Body, heart and soul." She whispered hoarsely. "Always have been."

Gabrielle was aware of falling back asleep after that.. long after that, in fact, she realized, in a warm, sated haze. The rain was still coming down outside, and Xena seemed to be holding to her decision to laze around in bed all morning. Not that she was complaining. She was vaguely aware of fitful sounds outside indicating a small amount of activity, but nothing that led her to believe their presence was essential.

No, not that she was complaining at all, curled up here in a very nice, soft bed with Xena wrapped around her, a storm outside giving them the perfect excuse to stay right where they were, and Xena actually wanting to stay right where they were, indulging her seldom uncovered lazy streak to an unusual extent.

Maybe her back was really hurting her. Gabrielle mused, a tiny, worried frown creasing her brow, as she ran gentle fingertips over the healing puncture wound on her chest, and winced at the now visible, and ugly looking bruises that covered half her torso. My poor, brave, warrior. she sighed, and tugged the blankets up around Xena's shoulders. They never do get to see the price you pay for all those heroics, do they?

Gabrielle closed her eyes, and let her thoughts drift, calling up the events of the past few days with the intention of recording them. Xena blinked sleepily at her, and nuzzled her neck, then closed her eyes again and began a gentle tracing against the bard's skin, causing her partner to peer intently up at her. "Hey… how are you doing?"

Xena kept her eyes closed. "Fine… fine… " She mumbled softly.

"Is you back ok? You hurting?" She questioned gently, smoothing the disshevelled hair back.

The warrior remained silent for a bit, then shrugged finally. "A little.. just stiff mostly.." She stretched, then relaxed again onto the soft surface of the bed. "I’m definitely getting too old for this. " She added in a grumbling tone.

Gabrielle snorted, and rolled her eyes. "Oh.. don't you start with that centaur poop, Xena."

Another shrug. "It's true." Xena let out a soft sigh.

"Oh." The bard smiled, and looked fondly up at her. "So.. you're telling me in your younger days… you could..oh.. go a couple of days without sleep, climb a few mountains, jump off a cliff, fight a couple dozen people.. get picked up by a tornado, wrestle a pig, save a cow, and pick up a couple of people twice your size.. and not feel it." Long pause. "Right?"

A blue eye peeked at her.

"Wow." Gabrielle patted her side. "You must have been really something. I'm glad you slowed down, or I'd never have been able to keep up with you."

That got her one of those charming, sheepish smiles she loved, the ones that extended from Xena's mouth right up to her eyes, and transformed her face from it's usual dour expression to a mischevious, childlike glee. It triggered a like response in her, and she grinned back, wagging a finger at her soulmate. "Busted."

She spent a while longer idly daydreaming, then crawled out of bed and donned a nightshirt as she lit the candles again and stretched. "I gotta update my diary." She explained, giving Xena regretful pat on the thigh. "Be back."

The warrior opened one somnolent eye, and regarded her. "Good idea." She put her hands behind her head, and yawned. "You can fill me in on all the details while you do it."

Gabrielle picked up an apple from the small supply they usually kept in the cabin for snacking and bit into it. "All right." She conceded. "But then you have to tell me all the stuff that happened to you, and none of this "Oh, we just climbed the mountain, jumped the ravine, found the dungeon and that's all kind of centaur poop, Xena."

Xena grinned, and rolled over, sighing. "I'm not good at describing things like you are, my bard." She got out of bed, and padded over to the linen press, pulling out an old, crimson cloth tunic and putting it on. "But I'll see what I can do." She went to the fireplace, and arranged kindling, then retrieved her flint and striker from her pack and started a small, cheerful blaze going. "I gotta clean that damn armor.. probably caked into a solid ball by now."

Retrieving the small water pot from the back room and filling it from the cistern just outside, she set it to warm on the fire, then ducked outside onto the porch to retrieve her armor. "Ugh." She shook the waterlogged stuff out. "Well.. at least it got a decent washing." She glanced up to see two cloaked figures sloshing their way, and waited. "Morning."

Toris shook his head and scattered droplets everywhere as he gazed at his sister. "Only just." He replied teasingly, stomping up onto the porch with Granella stepping neatly next to him. "Mom wanted us to make sure you guys lived…not than anyone else is up and around either, though."

Xena stifled a yawn, and pushed the door open. "G'wan inside.. I'll be right there." She crouched down and started to sort the armor, setting aside the bracers and armbands, and shaking out the tangled chest pieces.

Toris watched her for a moment, then entered the cabin, and gave the steadily scribing Gabrielle a wave. "Hello."

The bard glanced up and smiled. "Hi…" She chewed on her quill. "C'mon in.. sit down."

Granella took her cloak off, and hung it on the hook, alongside Toris' longer one. She joined the tall, dark haired man who had taken a seat on the couch and regarded Gabrielle quietly. "So…" She crossed her arms. "Let's have the story, ok? We keep asking the rest of that bunch, and all I'm getting is the nervous "ask Gabrielle'' line." She kicked one booted foot out. "So.. I'm asking, Gabrielle."

"What she said." Toris nodded.

Xena judiciously chose that moment to reenter the cabin, carrying her shoulder armor and ambling over to the fire, dropping down onto the hearth rug and setting the leather and metal bits out to dry. Ares joined her, curling up on the rug with a sigh.

"Where should I start." Gabrielle mused, leaning back in her chair.

"The beginning's fine." Granella replied, practically.

Xena cleared her throat. "How's Eph doing?"

The Amazon waggled her hand. "She's very sore… and her vision's real blurry. She's worried like anything about that." Her eyes searched Xena's face. "Anything you can do to reassure her would be great."

The warrior studied the armor bit in her hands. "Not sure there's much I can do." She replied quietly. "Those were bad hits she took.. and they'd swollen up a lot before I got there."

An awkward silence. "But that'll get better, right?" Gabrielle asked, tentatively.

Xena took a breath. "I don't know." A tiny shake of her head. "It might.. it might not." She went back to studying the armor. "We'll just have to wait for a while."

Granella folded her arms, and let out an explosive breath. "Damn." She gave Gabrielle a worried look. "Well.. what happened?"

Gabrielle folded her hands on top of her diary. "OK… well, they took me… and I ended up bypassing the dungeon, and going right to Paladia's living quarters."

"Who?" Toris asked.

"The prisoner we threw in Josc's cellar." Xena supplied, as she mixed herbs into several cups she'd laid out in front of her knees. "She was running the operation."

"Ah." Her brother responded. "Thanks." He turned back to Gabrielle "Sorry."

"It's all right." The bard smiled. "Anyway, she .. um.. she told me that they'd taken me, and the others to trade us for the people we'd captured in that raid on the merchants." Gabrielle straightened her shoulders, and looked carefully at the cover to her diary. "And Ephiny was there.. she… was not in really great shape." She blinked. "Paladia was… "Unconsciously, her eyes drifted to Xena in supplication.

"She'd given Eph drugs, and taken her against her will." The warrior stated, bluntly. "Whore."

Granella's face flushed with anger. "What?"

Gabrielle gave her partner a look and nodded. "That's true." She confirmed quietly. "So.. I tried to distract Paladia as much as possible… I kept challenging her to look at what she was doing." A wry twitch. "It wasn’t' really effective.. I guess…I tried to get her to leave Eph alone.. and she told me the only way she'd do that is if I'd take her place."

Both Granella and Toris stared at her in shock. "No… "

"Yes." Gabrielle lifted her pale head. "And I said I would… because she was having a really rough time, and I thought I could handle it."

"Gabrielle…" Toris breathed. "That's…"

"Stupid, I know." Gabrielle studied her hands. "But it was all I could do, and so I did it.. I thought that would buy her some time.. and I… "A tiny smile tugged at her lips. "I knew help was on the way."

Eyes flicked to the fireplace, where Xena was pouring the now boiling water over the herbs. "Well… that's true." Granella allowed, still angry. "But damn.. what a pig."

"Pigs are lighter and friendlier." Xena muttered, stirring. "It's a damn good thing Gabrielle didn't tell me all that before I put my self in front of those claws in that pit.":

"What?" Toris asked, startled.

"Xena, you're the fighter, I’m the talker, remember?" Gabrielle sighed. "Let me tell it." She rubbed her nose. "Where was I.. oh. Right… well, the next morning Paladia wasn't around.. and I got my guard to take me on a tour… and had him let me into the dungeons, so I could see if everyone was ok." She looked up as her partner handed her a steaming mug. "Thanks."

Xena delivered similar cups to her brother and Granella, then went back to her seat on the hearthrug and folded her long hands around her own portion.

Gabrielle took a long swallow, and regarded the liquid pensively. "I found Ephiny there." She said, in almost a whisper. "She'd been beaten.. I knew it was bad. She told me she'd done it on purpose.. she'd attacked Paladia, hurt her.. so I wouldn't…have to.. um… "

"Artemis." The Amazon breathed. "That was brave."

The bard nodded slowly. "Yes, it was…but she paid for it." Now her mist green eyes lifted. "After I left them… Paladia interviewed me.. I think I blew my cover." She sighed. "So she took me into the big cavern they had…and.. um.. I guess I was going to be whipped."

"You were." Xena muttered. "Bastards."

"So what happened?" Granella asked quietly.

Gabrielle twirled her quill in her fingertips. "Well, there I was, tied up like a hog, and there was Paladia telling me how dumb I was to believe in heroes, and that they just didn't drop out of the sky to solve my problems for me." She glanced sideways and saw the tiny smirk touching Xena's lips. "So, of course, Xena drops out of thin air and proceeds to wipe the floor with everyone."

"Nice timing, sis." Toris said gently, watching her.

The warrior shrugged. "That's just how it worked out." She paused. "We'd gotten into the caverns.. and found Eph.. I had the rest of those guys getting her out, so I … " A smile. "Went to go find my troublemaking friend, here."

"Oh." Gabrielle waved her hands. "Listen to her, will you?" She stood, and strutted over to where Toris and Granella were sitting, and put her hands theatrically on her hips. "Just listen to that.. just this casual yadda yadda stuff." She turned to face them. "Their hideout was inside a volcano.. it was a maze of these tunnels and stuff.. and there was only one entrance.. which was a bunch of feet thick, and had all these guards., right?"

"Gabrielle.. " Xena sighed.

"Right?" She looked at Toris. "Right… and the volcano was like this… " She made a circle in the air, then a larger one. "And it had an outer wall, between the inner cone and the outer cone, you see?" Her eyes sparkled. "So there's no way to get in!"

"Gabrielle… " The warrior sighed again.

"No.. no wait, it gets better." The bard promised. "So.. she jumps.. get this, she JUMPS… from one wall to the other, in the air, across this huge gap, with nothing under her but thousands of feet of rock… she jumps across and grabs hold of this tree, and ties on a rope so the rest of the Amazons can follow her."

They stared at Xena, who bent her attention fiercely on her armor piece, working intently on fixing a bent pin. She refused to look up, and she was glad the exterior gloom hid the strong blush that was heating her skin. Put like that.. it sounded…

Impossibly stupid. Short sighted, risky, foolish… what if she'd missed? How could she have been that dumb?

"Eponin told me." Granella stated quietly. "That it was the most courageous thing she'd ever seen done in her entire life." The Amazon let her lips quirk. "And that's saying something from that old piece of centaur hoof."

Xena kept looking down, aware of their eyes on her.

"Well… that's Xena.. you know." Gabrielle made her voice casual, and almost offhanded. "She's always doing stuff like that… makes my job really, really easy." She collected their attention, drawing it from her obviously embarrassed soulmate. "So, anyway.. Xena comes dropping in, and tosses Paladia around a little.. then we kicked butt, and took prisoners of our own, and got out of there." She twirled her quill again. "Eph.. wasn't doing really well… the swelling was really bad.. Xena put her down in a cold spring.. that brought her around after a while. Then we got a little rest.. fought off an attack, and headed back here in the morning." She shrugged a little. "That's it really.. oh.. well, yeah, we saw the tornado."

"Uh." Toris was still goggling at her.

"Up close and personal, actually.. it picked us up, and we kinda got carried a little ways, but it let us back down, and then we showed up here." The bard finished, waving the quill. "Just… one of our average days, I guess." She bit the end of the quill, and gave them a bright smile.

Toris and Granella looked at each other. "Well." Toris chewed his lip pensively. "Um…I'm glad everything worked out all right." He hesitated. "More or less.. I mean.. I feel horrible about Ephiny.. she's had such rotten luck lately."

"Mm." Gabrielle resumed her seat. "Yeah.. me too." She studied her hands. "I think she'll be ok, though.. we'll keep her here for a few days rest.. she'll get to see your joining.. it'll work out."

The two blushed, and smiled at each other. "Ok.. we've got everything settled, then." Toris finally said. "Josc is going to do our ceremony, then call up mom and Jo for theirs.. he's got the paperwork all drawn up.. we're hiding their presents over in our quarters.

Toris had two small rooms off the main inn, close to the hall he shared with Cyrene. Xena wondered, idly, if he wasn't a little resentful of their mother's having this cabin built.. she knew she'd have been. "You guys picked a spot to build, yet?" She asked casually.

Granella stared at her blankly. "Build what?"

The warrior leaned back, and stretched her long legs out onto the rug. "A place to live.. you can't hole up in Toro's baby bedroom… c'mon now." She gave her brother a sideways glance, noting the faint flush. "You pick a spot.. we'll help put a place up for you." She caught Gabrielle's eye. "Right?"

The bard caught her cue perfectly. "Of course… where else are we gonna put all the stuff you're gonna get?" She asked reasonably.

Toris exchanged looks with his betrothed. "Uh.. I hadn't… um… I didn't even.. "

"Obviously." Xena gave him a wry look. "Start thinking of it." She was glad the attention had been turned from her, and she put her poor, well worked over piece of armor down. "What'd ya get for mom?"

"A new linen press." Granella promptly replied. "Complete with linens."

"Gods.. " Xena laughed softly. "You mean the rags she's been patching all these years will actually get to be rags now?"

"That's really nice." Gabrielle added, enthusiastically.

"You?" Toris raised an eyebrow at them.

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged conspiratorial looks. The warrior jerked her head in the direction of their own cabinet. "G'wan.. show em."

Gabrielle obediently rose, and went to the press, pulling out two small bundles, and handing them over to her soulmate's brother. "Xena knew.. their big objection would be.. no rings.. so… "

Toris unwrapped the bundles, and laid the two rings on his large palm, shaking his head lightly. "Gods.. sis.. they're perfect."

Filigreed gold and silver, intertwined in running, clever knots that completed each other, never ending, the rings were identical in design, differing only in size. Xena had called in an old marker to get their completion as fast as she had, and she was, not unreasonably, subtly proud of herself for doing so. "Yeah.. nice work." She offered as a comment. "We ready otherwise?"

Toris grinned. "Yeah.. Gran coerced her mates there to help us decorate.. the inn's ready for tomorrow.. so you're off the hook." He leaned back, and laced his fingers behind his head. "She's gonna kill us.. but it's gonna be worth it."

Grins went all around, as the thunder rolled incessantly outside.

I should hate this damn room. Eponin mused silently to herself. She had dragged the big chair over next to the bed Ephiny was lying on, and had slept there; dozing fitfully wrapped in a soft, pale blue blanket Cyrene had given her. But I've got a certain soft spot for it.

The weather outside was nasty, and a damp wind was blowing into the window. Eponin tugged her blanket more firmly around her neck, and reached over to do the same for her sleeping lover. The marks on Ephiny's face had scabbed over, and the bruises were beginning to hold the faintest tinge of yellow and green, indicating a healing, but she felt the anger start to rise in her again as she studied them.

Bitch. The weapon's master indulged herself in a long moment of well thought out disgust. I'd love to just… She took a deep breath, and let it out, then a second one. Thought for sure Xena was just gonna get it over with after that damn pig grabbed Gabrielle.. damned if she didn't pull that kick at the last second.

It had been so.. fast. One second, Paladia was choking the life out of the startled bard, then next… Eponin rested her chin on her updrawn knee, and gazed out through the open window, noting the rich green leaves that dripped moisture down on the sill. She'd heard the solid crack of bone breaking, and realized, in a moment of memory, exactly what the tall, dark haired warrior could have done to her outside that barn a few months ago.

That Xena had chosen to drop her defenses, and allow Eponin to hit her unhindered spoke volumes, since that defensive reaction was sunk into her bone deep, not requiring thought, or planning….

"Hey." Ephiny's voice drifted over.

"Huh…" The weapon's master jerked her attention to the bed, and eyed her lover anxiously. "You need something?" She pulled her blanket aside and knelt by the side of the bed. "You hungry.. or thirsty, cold.. hot… what?"

Ephiny rolled her head to one side, and gave her a wryly tolerant look. "You're mumbling to yourself… I got nervous."

"Oh." Eponin rubbed her nose. "Sorry."

The regent smiled quietly. "But I am a little hungry." She lifted her head a little, and raised an eyebrow, then rolled very slowly up onto an elbow, with Eponin's nervous hands hovering over her. "Hmmm… not bad." She drew in a breath and blinked. "Still fuzzy."

"Um…" Eponin awkwardly fluffed the pillow up behind her. "Don't.. move around too much.. ok?" She pressed Ephiny's shoulders back down onto the bed. "You might…"

"Puke?" Ephiny replied mildly. "Maybe." She settled back, hitching herself up a little higher. "Think they'll restrict us to bread and water?" She put a hand on Eponin's arm. "Listen.. they were pretty angry with me here…don't get mad if they give you any attitude, all right?"

"They have no right to be mad at you, Eph!" Eponin protested. "You're the one who got the broken arm, remember? She should be mad at me if anything." She glanced down. "I was the one who wanted her blood, not you."

Ephiny lifted a hand and gently brushed her cheek. "Pony, let it go… all of us made mistakes in that whole mess.. Cyrene's her mother, I don't blame her for trying to protect Xena." She pulled the tawny head down, and kissed it. "It's been hard for all of us."

Eponin's brow creased. "Oh yeah… that reminds me…" She straightened up, and crossed her arms, fixing a stern look on her face. "What were you thinking of, coming out here alone????"

"Mmm." Ephiny closed her eyes. "I feel a fainting spell coming on." She reported. "But I was wondering when you'd get around to yelling about that." She cracked an eye open. "Be gentle."

Eponin's attitude went to pieces. "Aw… Eph.. that's not fair." She mumbled. "You coulda waited for me to get back, at least…. Talk about an unpleasant homecoming."

The regent opened her other eye, and studied her lover. "That reminds me." She tapped her fingers against the soft blanket covering her. "What are you doing here?" Her brows contracted. "You're not supposed to be back for a week and a half."

Silence, while Eponin earnestly examined her own hands, fingers knotted around each other. "I.." Uncomfortable, she stood, and walked the window, leaning against the sill and gazing out at the steadily falling rain. "Hunting wasn't going well… I.. I don't know.. I just.. decided to come back early." She finally replied, in a slightly husky tone.

Ephiny acquired a slightly puzzled look. "Well.. no complaints or anything.. I was just curious."

A soft knock on the door interrupted the tableau, and Eponin moved gratefully forward and opened it.

Stepping back uncertainly when she found herself looking into Cyrene's cool, appraising eyes. "Um.. sorry.. I.."

The innkeeper glanced past her, then pushed the door open wider. "Just relax." She said quietly. "Didn't think I'd see you back in here this soon." This was directed at Ephiny. Cyrene turned her gaze to Eponin. "If you go into the kitchen, there's a tray made up… "

The weapon's master nodded briskly. "Thank you." She answered in a hesitant tone, then slipped out the door, not without a last, concerned look towards the bed.

Cyrene strolled over, and seated herself in Eponin's abandoned chair, and rested her elbows lightly on her knees. "Xena said you were on your way here."

Ephiny eyed her warily, blinking to try and bring her features into focus. "Yes." She took a breath. "I… owed you an apology." She stated quietly. "And um… "

"No." Cyrene said, with a sigh. "You don't owe me an apology. I owe you one. You were right to be concerned for Gabrielle." She looked at the floor. "Xena is my daughter, and I love her, but I'm not blind to what she is." She paused. "Or what she's capable of."  

Ephiny found a smile trying to work it's way onto her face. "Don't say that to Gabrielle." She replied wryly. "She'll kick your butt."

Cyrene's eyes lifted, and she quirked a very familiar half grin. "Isn't that the truth?" She hesitated, then went on. "It appears that they've put each other first, and that's good enough for me."

The regent nodded slowly. "Me too." She paused. "So are we ok?"

The innkeeper patted her arm. "We're ok."

Eponin reentered the room, glancing at them uncertainly. "Hi."

Ephiny muffled a smile. "It's all right - I’m not dead." She shot a look at Cyrene. "We.. made peace."

The weapon's master set the tray down, and carefully wiped her hands on her leathers. "Oh.. great… um… her caramel colored eyes intently searched the room and finally settled on Cyrene's face. "Look…I was really mad at her.. for what she did to Eph.. and I was scared for Gabrielle.. she's such a nice kid." Eponin took a breath. "Maybe.. I… she let me hit her.. and.. "

Cyrene held up a hand. "Consider yourself lucky." The innkeeper drawled. "She hasn't let me do that since she was seven."

They looked at her. "Seven?" Ephiny asked slowly. "She didn't… "

"Hit back? No.." Cyrene laughed. "Little rascal was faster than a ferret. She had a favorite trick of heading out to the courtyard when she knew I was after her for a spanking.. she'd get around that big tree.. she knew I couldn’t catch her." She sighed. "That or she climbed up the damn thing…fell asleep one time up there when I was really mad."

Ephiny chuckled in surprise. "Somehow.. I can't picture.. " Eponin was rapidly shaking her head, causing her hair to fluff around her.

"No." Cyrene's face went serious. "Most people can't - they just see the tough act, and the anger, and the fighting. But that's my daughter under all that.. and she's a lot smarter, and a lot more sensitive than anyone ever gives her credit for."

Ephiny studied her gravely. "Except Gabrielle."

Cyrene nodded. "Yes." She stood up, and brushed her hands off on her apron. "No sense in poking your heads out now - it's vicious outside. I've sent everyone I could get my hands on back to get some rest. " She peered at Ephiny. "Renas has been here this morning?"

Ephiny nodded. "Yeah.. " She gave her a half smile. "He sure remembered me." She fell silent. Renas had been gentle, and cleaned her various cuts and scratches, but had no encouraging words to reassure her of any lasting injury.. or if her eyesight would come back. Right now, the room was mostly a blur, with halos around the flickering candles, and dark shadows which moved and resolved into Cyrene and Eponin.

She was scared, and didn't mind admitting it to herself. She still had a nagging headache, a pounding from inside that sent jolts of agony down her back, and the swelling made even talking painful. But there was no sense in getting frantic, right? She might as well just lay back, and enjoy the soft bed, and the good food, and see what the near future would bring. "Thanks for the breakfast." She commented softly.

"Poo." Cyrene snorted. "This is an inn, and I'm an innkeeper.. what did you expect?" Her eyebrows jumped. "Bread and water?"

Eponin coughed.

The root cellar was damp, and mostly silent. Around Paladia were strung the summer's bounty, stored away for the cold months to come, and she was alone. At first they'd taken her to a second holding place, but after a short, whispered conference, she had been put in here. A healer had come in, and taken a sober look at her arm, changing the bandages and smoothing on a pungent smelling salve over the broken skin. The two Amazons stood watchfully, their hands not leaving their weapons until the healer had finished, and left the cellar.

Then they had left too, locking the hatch behind them with a rasp of heavy iron. They had left a tall candle, far enough away from her that reaching it bound as she was wasn't possible, and that had been her only company through the long, humid night.

That and the pain of her arm, which ached, and ached, and throbbed so much she could see the red afterimages of the beats against the inside of her eyelids.

She'd thought.. surely.. she could kill that little… before anyone could stop her. She never even saw Xena move.. just.. an impact, and pain… No one mortal could move that fast.

She was hungry, and thirsty, and… the dark, damp earth walls pressed silently closer. Lonely. Even in the caverns, she'd always had company when she'd wanted it.. either in the big room, where they'd tell stories and play games until they fell asleep, or in her own quarters, where there were no shortage of volunteers, eager to gain favor with her, when she didn't have a captive.

At home, there had always been her brothers and sisters, but… last winter had ended that. She had no idea where they all were. She missed her sister.. Ephiny had reminded her of her.. a little. Maybe it was the curly hair.

Now, she wondered what was going to happen to her. Would they kill her? That one Amazon sure wanted to. But Xena had stopped her.. and it sure seemed like Gabrielle had agreed with that.

Gabrielle.. she hated her. That smug face, and the oh so superior moral air.

Somehow, she'd drifted off until the sun rose, letting a small stream of gray light into the narrow, glazed window almost at ground level. It was raining out, she could hear the drumming of the water on the soil, a sound familiar from childhood, when her parents had worked the land, a poor family, always barely having enough to eat.

Now, ironically, she was surrounded by food, and couldn’t touch any of it.

Footsteps approaching, very light ones. The door opened, and that damn crazy girl slipped in. "Go away." She sure didn't want to see her ugly, skinny face. The girl ignored her, and settled down, putting a tray of something in front of her. Oh. Food. Should she eat it? Not eat it? Aw, crud.. might as well. She maneuvered her good hand in front of her, dragging the shackles that bound her to the links set deeply into the hard packed earth.

The tray held bread, with bits of fruit in it, so far as she could tell, and a bowl of thick, nutty smelling cereal. It was good, and she ate it all, ignoring the somber, watchful face of the crazy girl.

The food made her feel better, less light headed, and even the pain in her arm seemed to quiet down some, though it might have been the distraction of her little friend. She hoped she wouldn't start talking, her voice made Paladia's head ache almost as bad as Gabrielle's. It was a voice you had to listen to, pay attention to, because it had interesting sounds, and different ways of shaping words. She hated it.

Oh gods.. she was going to talk. Paladia sighed inwardly. Well, it'll make the time pass, at least.

"Here." Cait had finished mixing something in a cup. "Renas said you could have this, it's for the pain." She handed the cup over.

Paladia eyed her suspiciously, and sniffed the contents. "What is it?"

The girl shrugged. "I'm sure I don’t know.. he's the healer." She collected the dishes onto the tray. "You can drink it or not.. but it's certainly better than what it must feel like without it. "

Paladia had to admit that this was probably true. She took a sip, then winced, and drank the gunk down, feeling the tickle of fragmented herbs as they went down her throat. "Ugh."

"Yes, well.. " Cait dusted her fingers off. "It won't kill you… never fear. I would have done that myself if that was the plan." Her cold, gray eyes raked Paladia's face. "You're quite lucky Ephiny is recovering.. and nothing happened to Gabrielle last night."

The taller woman snorted. "You call this lucky?" She blinked. "I'm shocked your precious Xena didn't take care of that little detail.. she's supposed to be so deadly and all."

Cait smiled her calmly ruthless smile. "Rather.. if she'd wanted you dead, you'd be that way." The girl folded her hands. "The Queen simply doesn't like killing though, I can't think why not."

Paladia gazed at her. "Who decides what happens to me?"

The slim blond Amazon let a slow smile cross her face. "She does.. and she's ever, ever so fair." Then she stood, and picked up the tray, and walked to the door, tapping on it.

After she left, the silence, and the rain settled back in, and she was left with nothing but the pain, and her thoughts, and the smell of damp earth.

"Xena, come over here." Gabrielle looked up, from where she'd taken a clean tunic out of their linen press. "Xena?"

The warrior started, then turned from her lazy position leaning against the windowsill. "Um? Sorry.. " She padded over to where Gabrielle was standing. "What's up?"

The bard tilted her head in faint puzzlement. "Not you, that's for sure." She put an exploratory hand up and felt Xena's forehead. "Well.. you don't have a fever.." Her green eyes twinkled. "What's going on with you?"

Her partner favored her with a relaxed grin. "I don't know… I'm just in a good mood for a change, I guess." She allowed Gabrielle to strip off her soft shirt with gentle hands, and drape the fresh tunic over her body, fastening it and tying the belt with a teasing flourish. "Thanks."

Gabrielle gave her ribs a little pat. "Go put your boots on, OK?" She gave her a push. "I'm hungry."

Xena chuckled, and circled her waist with strong hands, lifting her up and into a long, leisurely kiss. She felt Gabrielle's hands circle her biceps, and smiled a little, as she broke gently off, and studied her partner's peacefully closed eyes. She touched her lips to the trembling eyelids and watched as her soulmate's clear, green pupils appeared. "Me too."

"Mm." Gabrielle released her grip on Xena's arm, and lifted a hand to stroke the warrior's face. "You too what?"

Xena laughed easily, and gave her an unexpected hug. "C'mon.. .I can hear your belly rumbling from here." She let the bard down reluctantly. "We promised we'd meet them over there for dinner.. I can just imagine the poop we'll take if we don’t' show up."

Gabrielle moved closer with a gentle swagger, running her hands over her partner's sleek body. "They can bite my bardic butt, Xena."

"Hmmmm??? " Xena's eyebrows jerked up. "Not unless they want their lips taken off and hung over my mother's fireplace, Gabrielle."

They looked at each other, and burst into laughter. "Oh… that was a good one." The bard slapped her in the chest. "Fireplace, huh?"

"Bardic butt?" Xena repeated, giving her a slap on the aforementioned bodypart. "Come on.. lets get wet. "

Gabrielle snuck her way through an opening in the front of her partner's shirt, and licked her skin. "All right.. if you say so."

"Ga… " Xena's voice lurched. "Whoa." They looked at each other again, and laughed. "Oh boy.. we're not getting to far, are we?"

The bard let out a mock sigh. "Oh.. all right… " She lifted her cloak from the table, and handed Xena hers. "Put this on… you are not spending the whole night damp."

A dark eyebrow curved up suggestively, accompanied by a wicked grin.

"Xena." Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Come on." She walked towards the door, tugging her partner behind her. "Listen.. I want them to bring Paladia in from that have dinner in the inn with the rest of us."

Xena stopped short, almost pulling Gabrielle off her feet. "What?"

The bard turned and put a hand on her chest. "I know.. it sounds crazy… but I've got a feeling there's a person inside there, Xena… and if I have to pass judgement on her, I want to know for sure."

The warrior's forehead creased. "And having her eat dinner with us does this.. how?"

"It doesn’t… but it puts her in a more normal setting.. I don't think she's ever had that." Mist green eyes pleaded with her. " Do me this favor, please?"

A half smile. "You're the queen." Xena muttered. "All right.. but I'm telling you, Gabrielle.. she so much as twitches in there and I'm gonna…"

"Shh." The bard pushed her back a little. "Xena, she has a completely fractured arm.. how much trouble do you think she's gonna be? That you can't handle? Hades.. that I couldn’t handle?"

"Rrrr." Xena growled. "All right."

A pat on her ribcage. "That's my tiger."

"Um… " Xena rubbed her jaw. "Try not to call me that in front of Toris, ok?"

"Heh." Gabrielle grinned, her full, mischievous grin. "Ammunition.. I like it."

They went out into the rain, with Xena tugging up the hood on her oiled cloak, and doing the same for her partner. "Y'know.. " The warrior commented quietly, watching Ares frisk about in the rain. "Gabrielle. I'm not sure bringing her in with Ephiny there is a good idea."

The bard looked up at her, flipping the edge of her hood out of the way. "She's not stupid enough to try anything."

Xena kicked a rock, and watched it splash across the puddles. "No.. I know.. I was thinking of Eph.. she kinda had a rough time with her."

Gabrielle considered that. "Well.. yeah.. ok.. I see your point." She chewed her lip. "I'll tell you what.. let me talk to Eph first.. sound her out, and see how she is before we do it, ok?"

The warrior nodded, relieved. "Ok."

A gentle bump against her hip. "You're getting very sensitive in your old age, Xena."

Xena gave her a dark scowl. "It's not.."

"Shh." Gabrielle patted her arm. "I was just kidding." She interlaced her fingers with her soulmate's. "Actually, I think I’m slipping.. I should have realized that without you saying anything.. that was pretty stupid and insensitive."

They walked along in silence. "You get… focused." Xena said finally, as they were approaching the inn, half hidden in sheets of misting rain. "But I do that too, sometimes." The sodden wood of the steps into the inn sounded a suppressed squelch as their weight hit them. "I forget about important things.. like people's feelings."

The bard reached out and grabbed the door pull, hauling it back to allow them to enter. "I didn’t used to be like that." She stated quietly. "I don't like it." Or is it that I'm so convinced I can turn people around? She added in silence. Wow.. get a grip on yourself , that what this is all about?

A sinking sensation covered her as they entered the inn. I was so sure I could change Paladia's mind.. what was I going to do if I couldn't? Would I have been able to handle it if she'd done to me what she did to Eph? Her heart lurched. If I'd just left things the way they were…and not tried to change places with her, she wouldn't have been forced to do what she did. Damn. But I was so sure, wasn't I? Just like I was so sure about Hope. Her shoulders slumped, and she felt a warm pressure on them.

"Hey." Xena's voice interrupted her self-introspection. "Gimme your cloak." The warrior pulled the fabric off her, and tucked both cloaks on the shelf near the door, before putting a hand back onto her neck, kneaded the suddenly tense muscles there. "Let's go say hello to Eph."

Gabrielle nodded silently, and felt the gentle pressure increase.

"Gabrielle?" The warrior's voice sounded hesitant.

"Yeah." She took a breath, and looked up at her partner. "I think I made a big mistake back in that cavern."

Xena's thumb brushed her cheek. "Don't second guess yourself, love." A wry smile. "It doesn't do any good.. I should know." She guided Gabrielle down the short hallway that led to Ephiny's temporary quarters, and knocked lightly.

"Come." Eponin's voice was casual sounding. The door opened inward, and the weapon's master stepped back, with an instinctive smile. "Hey.. look what the storm blew in."

They entered, and Gabrielle crossed immediately to Ephiny's side, and sat down on the small stool next to the bed. "Hi there."

The regent was half sitting, half reclining, and looked remarkably alert. "Hi there yourself." She answered. "What have you two been up to all day?"

Xena leaned back against the wall and crossed her ankles. "Not much." The warrior confessed. "Renas came by.. said he'd been in to see you three times.. figured you probably didn't need me hovering around here too."

Ephiny gazed at her, then smiled. "Hey.. I can see the baby blues.. that's an improvement." She remarked, in a bright tone. "Things are getting clearer."

That got a big grin from all concerned. "Good to hear." Xena replied, in a relieved tone. "Mom been keeping you fed?"

Eponin snorted quietly. "Yeah.. you could say that." She licked her fingers, and gave Xena a guilty look. "She's been great.. brought in these little balls.. " She held out a mostly empty basket to the warrior. "I think they have liquor in them."

Xena sniffed delicately, and smiled. "Um… yes." She plucked one out, and popped it into her mouth, taking a bite. "Hmmm….. " Her brows lifted. "They certainly do."

"Hey." Gabrielle gave her a slit-eyed look.

The warrior grabbed another pastry, and tossed it over, watching in amazement as Gabrielle caught it neatly in her teeth.

"Mmm.." The bard munched happily, then turned back to Ephiny. "So… you feeling better?"

The regent glanced at her hands, folded on the blanket, and nodded slowly. "A lot. .yeah.. the rest helped. My head doesn’t hurt anymore.. it's just kind of stiff." She stretched a little. "Otherwise.. heck.. I feel pretty good."

"Hm." Gabrielle looked pensively at her, then shot a glance at her partner.

Eponin sighed. "C'mon, Xena… let's go compare bow techniques or something." She exchanged a wry glance with the taller warrior. "I sense a 'leave us alone' royalty smell around here."

"Hey!" Gabrielle and Ephiny protested together.

Xena let an amused smirk cross her lips. "I got a better idea.. let's go find more of those little snacks." She pushed off the wall, and grabbed the door handle, quirking a brow at Eponin. "You interested?"

"Oh yeah." Eponin responded quickly. "Right behind you."

"You better bring some back here." Gabrielle warned, trying to keep a smile off her face. She watched the door close, then turned back to Ephiny, and shook her head. "Subtle, aren't they?"

Ephiny suppressed a smile. "Did you get her to relax a little today? You look better."

The bard rubbed her nose. "Yeah… I didn't have to do much work, though.. she got pretty banged up. " She replied. "But we're fine.. how are you really doing?"

The regent studied her hands. "I've had a lot of time to think… probably too much time." She lifted a hand and gingerly pushed her hair out of her eyes. "I.. haven't told Pony yet what she.. did."

"Mmph." Gabrielle made a soft sound of sympathy. "Is it really bothering you?"

Ephiny paused. "The more I think about it… I.. I mean, I guess.. when it was going on, I was in react mode, you know?"

Gabrielle nodded.

"So.. it was just.. well, survive, and worry about it later." The regent muttered.

"Been there." The bard replied softly. "Done that."

Silence. "I guess you have, haven't you?" Ephiny finally whispered. "Did… did you feel dirty, Gabrielle?"

The bard nodded slowly. "I felt angry.. and scared.. and.. " She paused. "And guilty.. like it was my fault." She took a breath. "Like I'd done something to deserve it."

Ephiny let out a long, held breath. "I.. I feel ashamed." She twisted her hands together, and Gabrielle reached over, and clasped her fingers with a warm grip. "I… should have been able to stop it.. to do something…I just.. damn it.. "

"Eph… it wasn’t your fault." Gabrielle insisted quietly. "You weren't responsible for what happened in there."

"My mind knows that." The Amazon replied softly. "I’m a practical person, Gabrielle.. I keep telling myself that, but…"

The bard gently patted her on the stomach. "But it hurts in here…. Your heart doesn't understand."

Ephiny nodded. "Yeah." She admitted, hanging on to the bard's hand. "I feel like I let everyone down.. like I let myself down, being captured.. gods.. Gabrielle.. how careless could I have been out there? These were damn kids."

Gabrielle gently put an arm around her shoulders and hugged her. "You warriors are all alike, you know that?" She told her wryly. "It's that damn pride."

Ephiny let her body relax, and rested her head against Gabrielle's muscular shoulder. "It's an Amazon thing.. you get issued the attitude along with the leathers and the beads." She paused. "Gabrielle.. I don’t.. I’m having trouble finding a way to tell Pony what happened." She admitted quietly. "I don't think I can."

The bard sniffed reflectively. "Well.. unless I'm really off my guess… you won't have to."

Ephiny blinked. "Xena?" She rapidly tilted between anxiety and relief.

"Mmhmm." Gabrielle responded. "She's um…" The bard paused. "Probably giving her some advice." She hesitated, then went on. "She… I didn’t really expect understanding.. from her. Because she's so self-reliant.. it's… well, anyway.. I didn't expect that. But… she's got a.. way of…" The bard paused, grasping for words. "She sees truths in me… that I… just don't.. sometimes.. I guess I do for her too.. but after we got back together… she really helped me out."

Ephiny was silent for a moment, digesting that. "Listen.. I'm sorry about that whole thing with us."

"Don’t you be sorry for that." Gabrielle responded quickly. "Ephiny.. the more I thought about it… I'm glad you did it.. it was the right thing.. it was the only, logical thing for you to do. You had no way of knowing what was going on, and she's a very, very dangerous person. I… could have been in a lot of trouble."

"But… "

Gabrielle sighed. "I know.. I yelled… but I was just coming out of a really dark place right then… we'd just.. only just.. managed to start putting things back together.. and I knew how much she was hurting." She sighed. "I … know I overreacted."

Ephiny blinked. "It was your heart talking."

That got a tight smile from the bard. "Yeah… it was..but you did the right thing, and I owe Pony and Solari an apology, too." She sighed. "It means a lot to me that they were willing to risk their lives to help me out."

The regent let out a breath of relief. "It's good to hear you say that." She tightened her grip on Gabrielle's fingers. "Pony likes her a lot… it… wasn’t easy for her to do what she did."

Gabrielle bit her lip. "I know." She replied softly. "Xena understands.. she said she would have done the exact same thing in your place." She let her head rest gingerly against Ephiny's. "Sometimes my heart blinds me to her." She paused. "I think.. maybe she'll.. let Pony in on what happened.. and keep her from going off the deep end right away."

Ephiny winced. "She's gonna go wild.. she's almost as overprotective as you are."

The bard blinked. "ME?"

Ephiny looked up at her at close range, and painfully edged an eyebrow up.

Gabrielle made a conceding noise. "Ok..ok… so… are you up to coming outside and having some dinner, or… "

The regent chewed her lip. "I… yeah, I'd kinda like to be around people… it's too quiet in here. Too much time to just.."

"Think." Gabrielle supplied.

"Yeah." Ephiny confirmed. "Gabrielle, can I ask you a question?"

The green eyes flicked to her face uncertainly. "Sure."

Ephiny released her, and leaned back, studying her curiously. "Why do you always, always smell like leather?"

The bard's face blushed a deep crimson, and she let out an embarrassed laugh. "Uh… well, actually in this case, it's because this shirt was in the same drawer as Xena's other set of leathers."

"Uh huh." Ephiny tapped a finger on her arm. "What about every other time I've been near you?"

Gabrielle looked down, then laughed again. "C'mon, Eph… what kind of question is that? Xena wears leather most of the time just like you guys do." She smiled sheepishly. "And I'm always around her.. or leaning up against her. You know she makes a great backrest?"

"All that touchy stuff is important to you, huh?" Ephiny asked quietly.

A shrug. "I guess.. yeah… it is.. it was one of the things… I missed the most when we were drifting apart.. it's what finally let me put that whole thing behind me, I think… I was afraid, for a long time, that I'd never be able to …um.. " She lifted a hand and let it drop. "Be close with… well, with anyone.. without reliving what happened to me." She let out a breath. "But that's not what happened… I found that out once we started getting closer again."

The regent nodded once, and emphatically. "I realized that.. and Gabrielle, understand me.. that's why I did what I did." She gripped the bards arm. "I couldn’t watch you go through that.. not now.. not after what happened to you." She gave the bard a tiny smile. "I don’t regret that."

A deep breath. "Thank you." Gabrielle looked her right in the eye. "You were probably right.. and that was a really brave thing you did."

Ephiny gave her a lopsided grin. "Mm…. I have to admit to you.. it felt great to do it." Her pale eyes twinkled. "It was worth what happened… she squealed like a pig." She paused. "She's one really screwed up kid."

They regarded each other soberly. "So.. are we gonna try to turn her around?" Ephiny asked, in a mild voice.

"You think we can?" Gabrielle asked, tilting her head to one side.

The regent shrugged. "Worth a try… there were times I thought I was almost getting through to her… and if anyone could find a silver lining in that dark cloud, it'd be you." She paused, and fiddled with the blanket drawn up around her waist. "I don't much like her, Gabrielle…I.. would have been happier if you'd let… well, if you hadn't decided to bring her back with us." Now her pale eyes rose, and a quiet, aching look entered them. "I'd rather not have the entire village knowing what happened."

Gabrielle sat back, nonplussed. "I…" Hadn't thought about that. "Assumed you wanted her brought to justice."

Ephiny gazed at her unhappily. "Justice only requires an adjudication." She sucked in a breath. "And that only requires you." She closed her eyes, and dropped her head. "Gabrielle.. please… I don't want to deal with facing all that." She looked up. "I can't."

The bard put a hand on her shoulder. "Ephiny… I…" Her words failed her, and she fell silent. "All right." She finally said. "It stays out of the village."

The regent let her head drop back against the pillow, and gave her friend a grateful look. "Thank you." She looked pensively at the wall. "I amused myself imagining Xena pounding her, you know." Her eyes met the bard's wryly. "I remembered what you did when Arella was pestering you all that time." Her voice trailed off. "It felt good."

Gabrielle winced internally. "Well, that's what she did." She answered quietly. "Hey… let's get a shawl around you.. and go find those two, huh? I'm sure they've eaten everything in the kitchen by now."

Ephiny let a trembling smile crease her face. "Oh… that'll be worth a tease…Pony was griping for half a moon after we'd gotten back from here the last time about how much weight she'd put on from Cyrene's cooking… I gave her such a hard time." Her smile slipped, and she glanced down.

The bard slipped her arms around Ephiny's body again, and hugged her gently. "It's gonna be ok, Eph." She felt the muscles contract under her touch as the regent fought against breaking down. "You're gonna be all right.. just give it a little time."

A shaking breath, and then a second, and Ephiny straightened up. "Yeah.. I know." She cleared her throat. "Thank you, my friend." She tightened her jaw muscles, and raked a hand through her curly hair. "Let's go find those guys, shall we?"

 Xena poked her head into the kitchen, then gave a short chuckle, and pushed the door open, slipping inside and holding it for Eponin. "There we go." The room was empty, a large pot bubbling gently on the fire, and various baked goods on trays cooling all over the place. "Mmm." A crooked grin appeared on the warrior's face.

"Smells great in here." Eponin muttered, wandering over and peering into the simmering cauldron. "What's this?"

Xena joined her, glancing judiciously into the container. "I have no idea." She picked up a stirring spoon and dipped it in, observing the contents that emerged. "Vegetables… meat.. oh, I think that's venison… " Looking around, she spotted a half loaf of bread,and tore a corner off, then dipped it into the pot and munched it thoughtfully. "Uh huh." She was suddenly made aware of the fact that she hadn't eaten anything yet that day, and purposefully scrounged two bowls, dipping them both out portions. "Here."

"Bu…" Eponin considered, then smirked wryly and took hers without any further protest, joining Xena as she moved to the small worktable, and set the bowl, and the half loaf down. "Xena… I.. um.. I've got kinda a weird question to ask you.."

The warrior took one look at Eponin's fidgeting hands, and sighed. "Hang on." She ducked out of the kitchen, and grabbed a pitcher, filling it from a tapped cask outside the door with negligent skill. She caught up two mugs with her free hand, then kicked the kitchen door back open, and went back in. "Ok." She set the ale down on the table, after pouring to healthy portions, and pushing one across to Eponin.

The Amazon raised a brow at it. "Hey.. I'm not asking you the meaning of life here."

Xena sat down, and pulled her bowl over, spearing a piece of meat from it with the tip of her dagger, and chewing it. "So?" She swallowed. "What's the question?" She had a pretty good idea already, but it never hurt to let people voice their thoughts. Besides, if she's talking.. Xena decided. I can keep eating.

"Um." Eponin took a piece of the bread, and dunked it, then nibbled the edge. "So.. has.. Gabrielle told you the whole story of what went on in there?"

Bullseye. Xena sighed, and fished out a carrot, which she bit in half. "Yeah." She chewed. "Wasn't real pleasant."

Eponin nodded uncertainly. "Well… yeah.. I guess.. " She grabbed her ale cup, and took a sip. "Did um…well…" She blew out a breath. "Did something happen other than.. I mean… I just.. well, it sound stupid, I know.. but I just got this…"

Xena stopped eating, and put her dagger down, folding her hands around her bowl, and gazing over at the Amazon. "Look." She drew the word out. "Something did happen.. but I'm not sure I'm the one who should be telling you about it."

Eponin's hands tightened around the mug, and the warrior saw her breathing suddenly increase. "I.." She swallowed. "All right." She muttered finally. "I don't think she's gonna tell me, though."

The warrior drummed her fingertips on the table. "Maybe not." She mused. Damn…do I tell her? Gran knows… Gabrielle knows… would I want to know if that had happened to her? Xena reflected unhappily. Yeah… of course I would… but it's easier for her to tell stuff like that.. what would I do? Would I tell her? She examined the thought carefully, wincing at the self knowledge. No. I'd just…bury it. She sighed inwardly. Aw Hades… I hate doing this. "All right.. listen to me."

Eponin raised her eyes guardedly. "You don't havta."

The warrior took a long drink of the cold ale, and licked her lips. "Just shut up and listen." She set the cup down evenly and precisely. "It was ugly in there. Paladia's a pig bastard… She got ahold of some herbs… junk .. and she gave them to Eph.. and she.." She hesitated, remembering that Eponin was her lover. "It wasn't Eph's fault.. she had no choice, all right?"

Eponin stared back at her, confusion slowly, achingly melding into a sick, anguished comprehension. She let out a soft sound of animal agony, and dropped her eyes to the table, searching the woodgrain as though it were a scroll that could give her other answers.

Xena shifted awkwardly. Damn..I hate this.. I hate this.. I hate this. "She's all right… she's gonna be.. all right… it's just rough.. you understand?"

The Amazon's jaw moved a few times, but no sound came out.

The warrior took a breath, and slapped a hand down hard on the table, making a sound like a thunderclap. "Look!" She consciously deepened her voice, catching Eponin's eyes as she looked up, startled. "You can't go to pieces, ok? You gotta give her support." She blinked, somewhat surprised at her own vehemence. "It's… " She paused for a long moment, choosing her words gingerly. "Important that you be there for her."

Eponin just looked at her.

Xena looked down at the table's surface, not even seeing it. "I wasn't… for Gabrielle." She admitted, in a quiet, almost toneless voice. "And it ripped her up inside until I was." Now she raised her eyes, expressionless. "Don't you do that."

The Amazon stared at her, hardly breathing. "I.. I won't." She whispered, gaining a whole new level of understanding of the complicated person sitting across the table from her. "But I don’t know what to say to her."

Xena went back to eating, apparently unconcerned. "You don’t have to say anything." She kept her head down. "You do it with touch.. and.. look, just be there for her, OK?." She dipped a piece of bread into the stew, and chewed it a long moment. "You'll be all right." It was taking all her concentration not to shake, to keep her voice even, her movements casual.

Eponin slowly took a mouthful of stew, oblivious to it's contents, and chewed it, obviously deep in thought. "Thanks." She said, finally, after swallowing. She sat in total silence for a long moment, then put her hands abruptly on the table and pushed herself up. "I’m gonna go kill that bitch."

Xena was ready for it, having read her body posture with unerring accuracy. She dropped her spoon, and snaked a hand out, grabbing Eponin's arm, and slamming her back down into her seat with stunning force. "No, you're not."

"Xena.. I"

"No." The warrior shot her a look from under drawn brows, and let her voice sink into it's deepest, most no nonsense register. "You are not going to do anything like that."

"She's not getting away with that, damn it, Xena.!" The weapon's master growled, tugging against the iron band that was holding her down.

"She won't." The warrior replied, not letting go. "You're gonna do what.. go beat up a shackled prisoner who can't even defend herself? That makes you better?"

Eponin stopped struggling, and stared at her, panting. "Why the Hades didn't you kill her? You knew what she did.. she was trying to kill Gabrielle.. if ever there was a justified… for the sake of the gods, Xena!"

Xena gazed at her evenly. "That's what everyone expects of me, isn't it?" She released the Amazon's arm, and sat back, letting her hands drop into her lap. "Even Gabrielle asked me that."

Eponin blinked, and took a slow, uneven breath. "I… " She stopped, unsure of what to say.

The warrior stood up, and walked to the fire, adding more stew into her bowl in a mechanical motion. Then she came back and sat down, propping her head u p on one hand while she poked at the bowl with her spoon. "It's all right." She gave a light shrug. "It's what I'm good at, I guess." She gave Eponin a wry look. "Honestly.. I told Gabrielle I just must have figured she didn't want Paladia killed.. but the truth is, I slipped." She paused. "I think."

Eponin opened and closed her mouth a few times, then cleared her throat. "What?"

Xena sniffed reflectively. "I slipped. The ground was wet.. when I kick out like that I plant my weight on my right leg." She let a hand drop to her thigh. "And I slipped in the mud.. threw my aim off." She played a little bit more with the stew, but didn't eat it. "So.. there's your answer. She just got lucky."

The Amazon subsided, folding her arms across her chest. She looked at the table for an achingly long time, then let out a breath. "I don't believe that."

The warrior went still, then lifted faintly startled blue eyes up to meet hers. "What?"

Eponin shook her head with a stubborn frown. "I don’t believe it… mud, ice, water, tidal waves.. if you'd wanted her dead, she'd be dead." She drew in breath. "I think what you told Gabrielle was the truth… " Now she sighed. "Because that's true - she wouldn't.. just like Eph wouldn't want me to go beat up some damn, pig natured kid." She admitted quietly. "Even if it would make me feel a lot better."

Xena thought about it. It hadn't been a conscious choice, that much she did know. She'd seen Gabrielle in danger, and her body had reacted. Period. "Maybe." She allowed. "But you're not gonna do that."

The Amazon gazed at her. "No." She allowed a faint grin to tug at her lips. "Besides.. you'll kick my butt, and I don't feel like getting my butt kicked today. " She squared her shoulders, and took a long gulp of ale, then let out a breath of relief. "Thank you… for telling me."

The warrior slowly munched a piece of carrot. "No problem." She glanced up as the door swung open, sensing a familiar presence, and wasn't surprised to see Gabrielle's fair head poke through. "Hey."

"Ah hah." The bard gave her a tiny grin. "Knew we'd find you two where the food is." She held the door open carefully for Ephiny, who was wrapped in a soft, fluffy shawl. She used the motion to disguise a look behind the regent to her partner, where a raised brow, and a faint nod was exchanged for her look of gratitude. That's my tiger. She said silently, as she settled Ephiny in the end seat at the table, and moved around to join Xena. "So.. what's this?" She pointed at the warrior's uneaten bowl of stew.

"Snack." Xena replied, watching the two Amazons glance at each other from the corner of her eye.

"Don't mind if I do." Gabrielle replied, pulling the bowl her way, and deftly removing the spoon from her soulmate's grasp. She took a bite, and gave her the barest hint of wink. "Mmm.. you didn't like it?"

"My second bowl." Xena explained, leaning on her forearms and playing with her mug. "Good to see you up and around, Eph." She turned her attention to the regent, who was investigating what goodies Eponin had. "Pardon my manners." She commented, rising and snagging another bowl, and dishing up Ephiny a portion. "Here." She pushed the stew across the table and reseated herself.

Gabrielle reached out with her feet under the table and wrapped them around her partner's leg, watching a smile tug at Xena's lips as she felt the contact. Across the table, Eponin was whispering quietly to her regent, tucking a hand around her arm. The bard leaned her head against her soulmate's shoulder. "Everything ok?"

Xena moved unconsciously closer, and raised an eyebrow in answer. "More or less. You?"

The bard waggled a hand. "We'll talk later." She sighed, and rubbed her cheek against Xena's upper arm. "I need advice."

They all looked up as the outer door slammed open, and Johan staggered inside, carrying a very bedraggled chicken. "Ah." He sighed explosively, seeing them. "Would any of you lovely lasses be knowing how to get these damn things out of a chimney?" He turned to Xena. "Ye're mothers up on the roof poking at them with a broom stick, and they're about wild."

They looked at each other in alarm. "My mother?" Xena asked sharply.

"On the roof?" Gabrielle questioned. "In this weather?"

Eponin grunted. "Must be some broomstick"

It was, Xena mused, a good opportunity to leave Eponin and Ephiny alone. She certainly wasn't an expert on the subject, but she suspected a 'talk' was in the offing, and besides, what could be better than escaping outside into the rain with Gabrielle, with the prospect of wet chicken feathers added?

"Uck." Gabrielle pulled her boots gingerly from the mud, and glanced up at her. "This couldn’t have waited until it was drier?" She was about a pace ahead of her soulmate, as they rounded the back end of the inn, and peered up at the sodden thatch roof. "Mom!"

Cyrene, up to her shoulders in the chimney, jumped, and almost lost her footing. She withdrew her head from the opening, and glared down at them. "What??"

Gabrielle swiped the damp blond hair from her forehead, and gave her partner a look. "You gonna just stand here?"

Xena had been.. standing there, in fact, with her fists planted firmly on her hips, a speculative look on her face. "Yeah, yeah… " She shook her dark head, then backed up one step and started a short run towards the inn, launching herself up onto the wood shed, then up onto the roof in a neat flip. She landed smartly about a body length from her mother, and sauntered up the roof to where the chimney broke its line. "Hi."

"Showoff." Cyrene sniped. "Hop skip jump.. you're worse than a rabbit on wildweed, sometimes." The innkeeper was in a feisty mood, and the rain wasn't helping.

The warrior leaned her forearms on the top of the chimney, and lifted her body up, peering over the edge and into the dark opening. "Climbing up the ladder takes too long." She commented absently, shading her eyes. "How many of the damn things are down there?"

"Six." The innkeeper sighed. "To tell you the truth, munchkin, I'd rather just stoke the big fireplace up and roast them out, but I'm afraid they're blocking the flue, and I'll back the smoke up into the kitchen."

"Mother?" Xena tilted her head, then reached down, figuring distance and angles.

"Hmm?" Cyrene joined her.

"You haven't called me that since I was ten years old." The warrior peered at her, with an expression that hovered somewhere between chagrin and amusement.

The innkeeper snorted. "Damn right… couldn’t call you that after you grew up taller than I was, now could I?" She gave Xena a slap on the thigh. "But I figure you'll forgive an old woman's whims."

Blue eyes gazed at her. "Only because you're my mother.. and please.. don't call me that when.."

"Call you what?" Gabrielle emerged from the other side of the roof, picking her way very carefully over the rafters and joining them. "The ladder works just great, Xena."

Cyrene smiled a pure, devilish grin. "Munchkin." She patted Xena's cheek.

The bard's green eyes lit with delight. "Ooo."

Xena sighed, and rested her forehead on her hand. "Can we get these damn chickens out of here, please?" She pleaded pathetically.

Gabrielle and Cyrene exchanged smirks, then joined her in peering down. "Did Gabrielle ever let you read the lovely little stories she wrote about your childhood, dear?" Cyrene asked, innocently.

Xena straightened up, and peered at her partner. "Noooo… " She drew the word out. "I don't think she has."

The bard plastered a bright smile on her face. "Heh." She glanced at the chimney. "Chickens?" She braced her arms on the chimney and lifted her self half over the opening. "Here.. chicky chicky… cluck cluck…"

The kitchen was very quiet after Xena and Gabrielle left, only the soft crackle of the fire under the stove broke the silence, along with the faint scrape of wood on wood as Ephiny finished her stew. She put the spoon down, and folded her hands around her bowl. "So." She turned her head, and regarded her lover's planed, angular face.

Eponin thought about what Xena had said, and nodded to herself once, then reached over and intertwined her fingers with Ephiny's peacefully. "If you wanna talk about it, I'm here." She enunciated the words as though carefully tasting them as she spoke. "If you just want a hug, I'm here for that, too." She took a shaky breath, then blinked, and peered timidly at Ephiny's face. "And.. if you want me to take a really blunt knife.. and start carving Amazon law into her body, I'll.. do that."

Ephiny tightened her fingers, then slowly leaned against her lover's body, resting her head against one leather clad shoulder. "I hate her." The regent whispered. "Like I hated those Thessalean bastards who slaughtered Phantes."

Eponin sucked in a breath, and half turned, circling Ephiny with her arms. "When we get her back.." Her mind started running through possible punishments. "I swear, I'll…"

"No." Ephiny mumbled, into her skin. "Gabrielle promised me she'd settle things here. I don't want the entire Nation front and center knowing what happened." She took a breath. "I'm all right…I just want to put the whole thing behind me."

The weapon's master fell silent, awkwardly patting her neck. "All right.. " She finally said. "I can see the point of that, yeah." She heard a thump above them, and glanced up, watching a bit of cobweb drift down, and drape itself haphazardly across Ephiny's pale curls. Irritated, she blew it off with a puff of air. "I'm gonna make sure the Queen knows her options, though." She finally growled softly. "All.. her options."

Ephiny nodded silently. She stayed quiet for a time, then patted Eponin on the leg. "Thanks."

"For what?" Eponin asked gruffly.

"Just for being here." The regent smiled up at her. "I needed a friend… and you're a good one."

Eponin smiled back, chucking her well developed attitude for once. Her face relaxed in a gentleness very rare for her, as she met her lover's eyes squarely. "You're really special, Eph… and I'm gonna work real hard from now on to keep you outta trouble."

That got her a wry, pained grin. "You got a deal."

A loud thump drew both of their attention up, and they glanced towards the ceiling, where more cobwebs, joined with dust, and bits of thatch were now drifting downward. "Um." Ephiny glanced around. "You'd.. better cover that pot, hon."

The weapon's master reluctantly untangled herself from Ephiny's body, and stood, picking up a wooden paddle and sliding it over the pot bubbling on the stove. "What in the name of Artemis are they doing up there?" Curious, she wandered over to the fireplace, now cool and dark, with it's stack of waiting cordwood, and ducked down, dropping to one knee and peering up.

A single, lonely yellow and black feather drifted down, landing on her knee. Eponin picked it up, and examined it, then leaned further forward, and yelled up the chimney. "Hey!!!"

A loud, frustrated, strangled sounding squawking answered her. She cast Ephiny a look, then shrugged, and ducked back under the opening to the chimney, and stood up inside it, poking around with one arm. "Yow!" She yelped.

Ephiny heard a slapping sound, then Eponin reemerged, sucking on her thumb with a feather lodged in her dark hair. "Damn thing bit me." She turned. "Stay up there, ya snot nosed feathered git bucket!"

Just then the door swung open, and Ares bounded in, scrambling first to Eponin, who he sniffed thoroughly, then to the fireplace, where he trotted with definite, wolfish purpose, smelling tasty victims. He stood up on his hind legs and lunged upward, growling enthusiastically.

A wild, frantic struggling sound came from the opening, then a loud cackle, and furious fluttering of feathers, which drifted down and dotted the black wolf's coat. The sounds were drowned out by yells, then a loud series of thumps, another yell, and a crashing sound.

Silence fell.

A single, lone, white feather slowly descended, landing on the ashy ground next to Ares' paws.

"Roo?" He peered at it, then licked his chops in disappointment.

Ephiny uncovered her eyes, and looked at Eponin, who was wincing, and glancing hesitantly towards the door. "I… think… someone else… got into trouble.. this time." The regent commented.

Eponin dashed for the door and pulled it open, poking her head out into the gray mist, blinking against the wetness, and not seeing anyone there. She moved further out, then trotted around the corner of the inn, and stopped short. "Uh."

Xena was sitting on the ground, holding a chicken under one arm, and flexing her other hand with a painful grimace. Two more of the birds were perched on the roof, looking down at her in disapproval, and the remaining chickens were bobbing about in the rain, pecking at small insects wriggling in the mud.

The warrior was covered in soot, as were the chickens, black smudges darkening her skin and its feathers with equal thoroughness. Eponin clamped her jaw shut, determined not to start laughing, and got herself moving to see if the warrior had by any chance hurt herself during her tumble from the roof, but footsteps splashed in back of her, and she turned as Gabrielle bolted past, skidding to a halt beside her partner with a look of concern on her face. "Hey... "

The warrior looked up. "I'm ok.. I hurt my pride more than anything else." She gave the bard a wry look. "Been a long time since I fell off a roof involuntarily." She peered at the chicken, who peered, one eyed back up at her. "See what you caused?"

"Cluck." The chicken pecked her, and she let it go, with an indignant yelp. "Hey!" Her dark stare pinned the unrepentant bird. "Some thanks I get."

"Cluck!" The chicken pecked her boot viciously, then waddled off, shaking it's feathers.

Gabrielle put a gentle hand on her shoulder, and turned as Cyrene sauntered up, dusting her hands off neatly. "Well, mom.. the chickens are out." She observed the strutting birds. "Do you breed them for crankiness or something?"

Cyrene joined Eponin, who was standing next to them, and sniffed reflectively. "I've been accused of that before." She let her fingers drop and rest on her daughter's dark head. "But not about chickens."

"Hey!" Xena protested, glancing up.

"Are you all right, dear?" Her mother relented, biting off a smile. "That was a pretty hard fall."

The warrior scowled. "Yeah, I'm fine." She got her feet under her, and stood, shaking herself, very obviously uncomfortable and embarrassed. "I'm gonna go rinse off and change." She turned on her heel and stalked off without further comment.

The three women looked at each other. Gabrielle sighed. "I'm…" She rooted around in her mind for an excuse to go to their cabin. "Um.."

"Oh, just go." Eponin rolled her eyes, then turned to Cyrene. "Need some help with the firewood?" They watched the bard trot off, determinedly dogging Xena's footsteps until the warrior slowed and allowed her to catch up.

It was all in the body language, Cyrene mused, as she watched her daughter's tense, abrupt gestures relax and modify, as Gabrielle applied her gentle words. Watched the shoulders relax, and even from where she was, saw the distance close between them, as the bard slipped a companionable arm around the taller woman's waist, tugging her towards the cabin seen dimly in the mist. "Sure… I'd love some help with the firewood." She answered absently.

"They really work together, don’t they?" Eponin remarked practically. "Damnedest thing."

The innkeeper smiled. "It certainly is." She shook her head. "C'mon, let's get out oft his dratted rain, and get dinner started." She turned to Eponin. "How's Ephiny doing?"

Caramel colored eyes peered at her shyly. "All right… " She mumbled. "Thanks for asking." She paced alongside the innkeeper as they reentered the kitchen.

"Hey." Gabrielle hastened her steps, trying to catch up to the rapidly moving warrior. She knew Xena heard her, with those ears she could hear a rabbit trying to sneak up on her from 20 paces, but her soulmate didn't slow down, and she could see the anger marked in the stiffness of her bearing. "Xena…"

Finally, the long strides hesitated, then slackened, and she caught up, glancing to her left to see Xena's quiet, set face. "Mind if I join you?" It was a half-joking request, but she felt her insides tense when she didn't get an answer. "Xena?"

Blue eyes sullenly met hers. "Yes?" The warrior kept moving. "I think I can just manage to change by myself without help, Gabrielle."

Was a time, the bard mused, that I would have been devastated by that. "Reached the teasing limit, huh?" She replied in quiet sympathy. "Sorry."

A muscle in Xena's jaw twitched, and she blinked. "Wasn't that." She lied. "I.. just hate…"

"Looking like a fool in front of anyone." The bard supplied helpfully. "I know." She gave her partner a little smile. "If it's any consolation, it was the most graceful fall from a roof that I've ever seen." Ah.. Xena's shoulders relaxed, and she gave the bard a wry, sideways glance.

"Wasn't you fault Ares scared the feathers off those stupid chickens and they came out of the chimney like that." Gabrielle moved closer, and slipped a friendly arm around her partner's waist. "If you hadn't grabbed us both, we would have fallen off with you, and I doubt I would have survived nearly as well.. not to mention what that would have done to your mom."

"Hmph." Xena grumbled, as they reached the cabin steps and moved up them. "So.. how'd it go with Eph?" She asked, as she opened the door and Gabrielle let her go long enough to enter.

The bard smiled to herself. I'm getting a lot better at handling this stuff.. wonder if she knows how cute she looks when she's grumpy to me now? I just want to cuddle her, and pinch her cheek. Gabrielle imagined the reaction if she did just that. No.. maybe not. "Well… " She waited for Xena to close the door and turned to face her partner, unbuckling the belt on her muddy tunic and loosening the ties. "Xena, I think this whole thing is bothering her more than she's letting on."

Xena stood quietly and let the bard work, while she examined the scraped and now reddening bruise on her wrist. "An Amazon warrior hiding her feelings? Couldn’t happen." She remarked with a droll smile. "You're probably right, though."

Gabrielle stripped off the wet and dirt covered fabric off, and tossed it over the back of a nearby chair. "Very funny." She muttered. "I was serious, Xena… she doesn’t want to take Paladia back to the village." The bard grabbed a piece of soft, dry linen and gently set about removing the water from the tanned skin facing her. "I promised her I'd deal with it here."

Xena took in a deep breath, and released it, then raised her hands and set them on Gabrielle's shoulders, lacing her fingers into the damp, pale hair and fluffing it a little. "What were you planning on doing?"

The bard stayed silent for a while, running her hands absently down her partner's body in a soothing gesture. Finally she looked up, into Xena's patiently waiting eyes. "I was planning on asking you for advice." She answered honestly. "Because.. right now.. I'm not sure I trust my judgment."

The warrior slowly nodded, then disengaged her hands, and walked over to the clothing press, opening a drawer and pulling out a dry tunic, slipping it over her head, and letting the folds drape neatly over her muscular body. "You want to salvage her." It wasn't a question, but there was one implicit in the asking.

Gabrielle tucked her hands under her arms, and blinked a little, gazing up at the rafters in contemplation. "My answer to that should be yes." Her mist green eyes were a little bleak, and very serious. "I just don't know why I assumed I could." She paused. "You'd think I'd have learned by now that people don't just change because I want them to."

Xena slowly sat down on the edge of the bed and dropped her head, studying the floorboards. That one sentence just about covers it, right? Her conscience bitterly reminded her. You are never going to be able to restore that facet of her faith, no matter how long you try. Never. "I guess so." She acknowledged softly.

A quiet, contemplative silence fell between them. Finally, Xena straightened up, feeling suddenly twice her physical age. "Well, you've got a few choices." She was aware of the faint husky rasp in her voice, and cleared her throat before continuing. "You can turn her over to the authorities for judging.. because it wasn't just the Amazons who were affected.. a lot of other towns were too." Her eyes flicked to the window, where the rain was still falling. "Or you could sentence her according to Amazon law."

Gabrielle glanced up, trying to decipher the strange note in her soulmate's voice. Oh.. Hades… she suddenly realized. She thought I meant her when I said… Quickly, she crossed to the bed, and dropped to a knee, resting both of her hands on Xena's thigh. "What are her chances, Xena?" She ducked, capturing the hesitant blue eyes. "I trust you to tell me… can she turn around?" She took a breath. "I guess I take it for granted, after living with you."

A very tiny, very timid sparkle grudgingly returned to the eyes she was staring intently into. "I guess I shouldn't, huh? Not everyone has the strength you do."

Slowly, the warrior let a smile tug at one corner of her mouth. "No… not everyone has someone like you, Gabrielle." She lifted the bard's hand up and kissed it. "I think, with the right influence, she could change."

Gabrielle gazed at her seriously. "I put Ephiny in a lot of danger."

Xena considered that. "Ephiny loves you, Gabrielle, and she chose to put herself in danger rather than see you hurt." A tiny grin. "I can't say I could.. personally.. argue with that sentiment." She fiddled with a lace. "I'd have done the same thing." She considered further. "And.. to tell you the truth.. I think what Paladia was doing.. was causing her more agony than when she got attacked.. maybe it was a way for her to get away from that, too. "

The bard sat back on her heels, and ran her hand through her pale hair, moving it back behind her ears. "I didn't think of that." She admitted. "Kind of a drastic solution."

The warrior rocked her hand from side to side. "She had to make a choice.. she made one." Xena chucked her chin. "I don't think what you were trying was wrong, my bard."

Still serious. "Really? Honestly, Xena?"

"Honestly." Her partner confirmed. "Don't lose faith in yourself, Gabrielle." She slid a palm against the bard's warm cheek, and felt the pressure as Gabrielle leaned into the contact. "Don't stop looking for the best in everyone, please? Where would I be if you did?"

"I'm sure you'd be fine." Gabrielle sighed.

An eyebrow quirked. "I'm sure I'd be dead, at the hands of the people living in this very village." She gently reminded her partner. "Gabrielle, don't you ever doubt the incredible difference you've made in my life.. don't you dare discount the influence you've had." She paused and let her hand drop awkwardly. "So many people touched my life… but you're the only one who out and out changed it." She examined the statement, then looked back up into Gabrielle's startled eyes. "Thank you.. for that."

The bard let a long held breath trickle out slowly, and crawled forward, sliding her arms around Xena's body and settling into her inviting embrace. The warrior's body was warm, and incredibly comforting, and she let herself sink into that with a feeling of relief. "Thank you." She mumbled against the soft fabric.

They stayed like that for a while, then Gabrielle licked her lips. "What options to I have for sentencing her under Amazon law?" She wondered. "I studied all their territorial and procedural traditions when I was there, but not that."

"Ah." Xena rested her chin on the bard's head, and considered. "You could sentence her to death for attempted murder of both the Amazon regent, and yourself." She felt the shudder run through the bard's body and hugged her closer. "You could sentence her to labor, or to close confinement, or to a whipping." She let a breath out. "I don't know, Gabrielle.. I might let the civil law take care of her… I don't know how you'd do it legally without disclosing everything that happened to Eph."

Gabrielle chewed her lip. The thought of making it someone else's problem was very tempting. "What would the law do to her?"

"Jail her." Xena answered promptly. "Probably for a long time, or use her in hard labor." She paused. "She hasn't killed anyone… they won't hang her."

Gabrielle looked up at her intently.

A quiet knowledge looked back at her. "A dozen times over, Gabrielle." Xena answered. "And there are places in Greece that would still be more than glad to throw me in irons and try me."

"You're not.." The bard started, hotly.

A fingertip covered her lips. "Oh yes, I most certainly am, Gabrielle, and we both know it." She answered softly. "I've done far, far worse things than Paladia ever did."

They stared at each other. "Did you ever to do anyone what Paladia did to Ephiny?" Gabrielle asked outright.

Xena blinked, and thought. "No." She replied quietly, noting no change in Gabrielle's stance. "You knew that."

A gentle smile. "I knew that."

"But I used people, and used their attraction to me to get my way, Gabrielle." The warrior admitted softly. "In a way, I did worse than Paladia, because her victims could always fall back on the knowledge that it wasn't their fault.. that they had no control over what they were feeling."

"I don't think that's worse." Gabrielle debated gently.

"Don't you?" Xena countered. "What if you found out, right now, that I was just using you to.. say.. gain influence over the Amazons?" She crafted the words carefully. "And that I never cared for you at all?"

Utter silence.

The bard's throat worked a few times before she actually spoke. "That would kill me." Gabrielle said very softly. "Did you really do that to someone?"

Xena blinked. "Yes."

The bard bit her lip, and stood, walking to the window and gripping the frame tightly. "Were you as close to them as you are to me?" She finally asked, in a strangled voice.

The warrior gazed at her, in sad compassion. "Gabrielle, I have never in my life, by half, been as close to anyone as I am to you." She said. "I could never do to you what I did to that person… in fact.…for the first time in my life, I've put myself in a position to have that done to me." She stood and walked to the window, standing next to the bard but not touching her. "Sometimes… I think maybe I deserve that." She dropped her voice. "I know I've never done anything to deserve you."

Gabrielle felt her world right slowly. She'd been right about Xena, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And what about Hope? Had she felt that same core of sureness? She examined the truth with an inner sigh. No. She'd… "Xena?"

"Mm? " The warrior had clasped her hands in front of her, and was studying them.

"How did you know… about Hope?" She stammered on the name. "Did you.. was the evidence.. or…"

Xena let her body sag against the wall. "I… " A faint shrug. "It's.. like when I can sense Ares… I guess.. just a nasty feeling I get… I can't really explain it." She rested her head on the wood. "I.. tried not to feel it, Gabrielle… I saw how happy you were playing with her… it hurt so much when I looked at your face, and then hers.. and I got that feeling."

Gabrielle considered that. It made sense, based on what she knew about her partner, and what she, herself, had felt. "What about Krafstar?" She looked up curiously. "How could he trick you?"

The last, dirty secret. Xena closed her eyes, not willing to see the expression on her soulmate's face. "He didn't." she swallowed. "I just convinced myself it was something else."

Total silence from Gabrielle. She kept her eyes shut, and simply waited, feeling the horror, and the shame she'd lived with ever since she'd rounded the corner into that damn temple and seen Gabrielle on her knees in agony.

"You were jealous." Gabrielle's voice was faint with disbelief.

The warrior just nodded.

"Xena, how could you…" The bard's voice abruptly stopped, then after a long pause, went on, much more softly. "How could you… no.. how could I be so stupid." A scene flashed into her mind, of the rocking ship, and Xena calling her over, and her sniping response. "What's up?"

Xena's face should have told her. It had… that long moment of quiet hurt that she'd seen.. she'd seen, damn it… "Does something have to be up?" Xena had given her every clue, with that question, and it's so, so obvious conclusion. Did something have to be up for her to want to talk.. to be with .. the person she considered closer to her than anyone else? "Oh gods."

"You?" Xena put a hand out in confusion, and touched her. "No.. it was me that was being stupid… Gabrielle, don't you understand… it's my fault. That whole damn thing.. was my fault."

"No it wasn't." The bard responded heavily. "I was mad at you for going after Caesar, and I was doing that on purpose." She looked up and caught Xena's shocked expression. "Didn't think I had it in me, huh? That's all right, Xena. Neither did I." Her voice was very bitter.

Hands slowly closed on her shoulders, and tugged, and she collapsed against Xena's silent form. The warrior curled her arms around her, and let out a long, deep sigh. "Oh Gabrielle."

The bard sniffled. "Did you know…after it was all over…and you were holding me in that rubble.. the only thing I was feeling was just that I was glad to be close to you again?" She sobbed as her partner grabbed tighter. "I just tried to push Dahok and Meridian out of my mind… because that was all I had left." She took a shaky breath. "You were all I had left.. and I remember you just apologizing over and over again."

"I let that happen to you" Xena whispered brokenly.

"No." Gabrielle lifted a hand and cupped her partner's jaw, tilting her head so their eyes met squarely. "You will not blame yourself for that, Xena, not anymore. It's as much my fault as yours, and you need to accept that." She blinked and let the tears trickle down her face. "Because I accept that." She hesitated again. "Xena, you are all I have."

A shaking hand brushed her face. "All right." Xena's voice burred low. "I accept that we.. are responsible for what happened … to us."

"I've hurt you, Xena." The bard said quietly. "I think about that sometimes… and no matter how many times I apologize, it never seems like it's enough. Is that how you feel?"

Xena nodded a little. "Yes." She pulled the bard closer. "That's exactly how I feel."

"But you forgive me." Gabrielle stated.

"Yes… and you forgive me." Xena answered.

"Yes." The bard laid her head down on her partner's chest. "I guess love finds a way."

Xena sighed. "I guess it does." She paused. "You ok?" Her fingers moved against the bard's back, soothing the tension.

"Yeah." Gabrielle let her breath ruffle the loose fabric of the warrior's shirt. "All that hysteria, and it made me feel better, for some reason." She listened to the steadying heartbeat under her ear. "Guess I've been wanting to get that off my chest."

The warrior closed her eyes. "I feel better too. Sorry I was so grumpy before."

A brief smile." Me too." She paused." I think you're right. We should let the civil law take care of Paladia." She decided. "But they'll take awhile to get out here and take her into custody, and that'll give me time to work on her."

The warrior smiled. "I think that's a good decision."

 Gabrielle kissed her shoulder. "Tease threshold up again?"

Xena regarded her warily. "Um… I guess."

The bard lifted her head. "Ok, munchkin, then let me see that hand." She eyed her partner. "It must be killing you."

With a silent, dazzling grin, Xena surrendered it.

Ephiny glanced up, spotting Granella's familiar form entering the inn, and caught her eye from where she was carefully ensconced at the rearmost table, nursing a small cup of cold cider. Cyrene had chased them from the kitchen, after Eponin had dutifully helped build and start the fire, and they'd decided to relax in the nearly empty inn until the dinner hour started. "You look flustered." She commented, as the slim, dark haired Amazon joined them, and dropped down into a chair with a thump. "You nervous about tomorrow?"

Granella propped up her chin on one hand. "Tomorr…oh, the joining.. heck no." She waved off her two friends, who gave her knowing smirks. "Aw, cut that out." She rolled her eyes at them. "But.. by the way, I'm glad you guys are here."

Ephiny smiled. "Wouldn't have missed it." She took a breath, and a sip of cider, and waited for a mild dizzy spell to clear. "Though I was hoping for a less eventful trip down here." She observed her ex scout mildly. "Gonna be strange seeing you joined."

Granella sighed. "Strange for me, too… I never thought… " She let the words drift off, then shook her head a little. "And certainly not into this particular family." She glanced around. "But.. I really like it here…if it were just any village, I probably wouldn't, but these guys are so used to having Xena and Gabrielle around, that strong, independent women seem normal to them."

"Hmph." Eponin removed her face from her mug of ale, which she'd been industriously attacking. "Imagine.. Xena a role model." She snorted softly. "I'll have to bug her about that."

Ephiny took a sip. "Mmm… better give that a rest for a while.. from what you told me, she's in no mood for any more teasing right now."

Granella laughed. "Gab will fix that." She gave her friends a relaxed grin. "You should watch her sometimes.. she's slick.. she's really good.. she plays Xena to perfection, she just kind of coaxes her out of those funks she gets into sometimes…and if the talking doesn't do it, she kinda puts her head down on that one shoulder, and gives Xena that puppy dog look." She snapped her fingers. "Works like that."

Eponin leaned on one hand. "You like her?" She asked idly. "Xena, I mean."

The dark haired woman considered the question. "Yeah." She finally answered, with a slight nod. "Once you get under all that mean, cold, toughness, there's a pretty good person under there." She laughed a little. "Sometimes she can be easier to deal with than Gabrielle.. because she's so straightforward."

"Mm." Ephiny nodded a bit. "Yeah..I know what you mean… our Queen has a habit of coming at you from around a blind corner sometimes." She took a slow swallow of ale, and glanced over Granella's shoulder, as the door opened and the subjects of their conversation strolled in. "Looks like she worked her magic all right.. lookit that grin."

Eponin snorted a little at the fondly affectionate look plastered on Xena's normally stoic face as she followed her partner across the room. "Saved ya a feather." The Amazon greeted her, twirling the object in her fingers.

Xena just gave her a wry look, and took a seat, dropping down into it and laying her forearms on the table. One hand was wrapped neatly in a linen bandage, and she flexed her fingers a little against it's constriction. "Thanks."

"You ok?" Ephiny nodded a little at the hand.

"Sprained wrist." Gabrielle informed her, patting it gently. Then she placed her hands precisely on the table, and studied the three Amazons. "Listen.. I've decided that the best thing to do about Paladia is to turn her over to the law. There's a traveling judge due through here in about two weeks, and that will give representatives from Potadeia and the other towns time to get here and press their charges too."

"But.." Eponin's face contracted, then she spared her lover a sideways glance and subsided. "Yeah.. I guess you're right… that'll make sure she gets put away for a long time." She considered. "She should have to pay for the other stuff she did…not just what she did to Eph."

Gabrielle nodded. "My thoughts exactly." She was warmly aware of the gentle pressure of Xena's hand cupping her knee, and the sensation as the warrior's thumb brushed against her skin. "They have a right to compensation too.. maybe they can go to the stronghold, and reclaim some of their goods."

The room started to fill, as the sun ducked down onto the horizon, spreading a pallid, orange light that just managed to squeak through the slowly separating clouds. A few spears of it entered the window they were seated against, and danced across the table, painting stripes that gilded Xena's already tanned skin, and catching fiery highlights in Gabrielle's hair. The enticing scent of roasting meat began to filter in from the kitchen, and a low buzz of conversation rose around them. "Guess it was worth hauling those chickens out." The warrior commented, sniffing appreciatively. She looked at Gabrielle.

The bard looked back, and their eyes met for a long moment, then she tilted her pale head, and nodded.

Xena rose, and walked out, moving gracefully around the clusters of tables, giving brusque nods as greetings came her way.

Eponin leaned forward. "Do you guys read each other's minds or something?" She muttered curiously. "I gotta know.. cause it sure does look like it sometimes."

Gabrielle blinked at her. "Um." Her brows creased. "No.. of course not." She glanced over her shoulder, then back at the Amazons, who were all watching her curiously. "We'd… talked earlier about bringing Paladia in here.. kind of letting her see what normal life is like…"

"And.. we… "Ephiny waggled a finger at herself, then the other Amazons, then at Gabrielle. "Are supposed to be examples of normal life?"

The bard clucked at her. "You know what I mean." She sighed. "That was me telling Xena to go ahead.. let's give it a try, so we can say we did." She paused. "And her saying ok.. "

"I think you're wasting your time." Granella informed her bluntly. "I've been talking to Cait.. this one's a lost cause."

"Maybe." Gabrielle conceded. "But we won't know for sure unless we try."

Dark was coming down again. Paladia edged closer to the tiny window, where a few stray bits of light entered, putting a small pool right at her feet, and picking up the swirling dust motes that sparkled and turned in the dim beams.

It had been a really long day, with nothing to do but sit, and hurt. She'd even been sort of glad when the annoying girl came back with lunch, to babble more of her strange tales and stuff, in that frustratingly irritating voice. Otherwise it had been mostly silent, only the faint creaks of the wood over her head, and her own breathing keeping her company.

Sitting here, with plenty of time to think, she'd started to realize that she wasn't going to get out of this. Her boys weren't going to rescue her, and she had no one, really to turn to for help.

Sighing, she wished, briefly, that the annoying girl would come back. At least she was something to listen to and watch, and she was, Paladia reflected reluctantly, almost kind of pretty. In an puny sort of way.

She raised her head and footsteps approached, then winced, as their weight meant it wasn't the irritating Cait. A rasp of metal on wood, then the lock was pulled, and the door swung open, allowing a tall, broad shouldered figure to sidle in, and close the door behind her.

Xena. Paladia was too tired, and too sore to speak, and so she just looked at the warrior, who looked expressionlessly back at her. Even in the semi darkness, Xena was impressive looking, she finally admitted.

It wasn't that the bitch wasn't pretty. She was, sort of. Well, not exactly.. her face was too strong.. to angular to be what Paladia considered pretty, but she was interesting looking, with her high, planed cheekbones and shadowed eyes, that turned out to be a startlingly bright blue.

That's weird. The renegade considered dimly They should be dark. All the dark haired people she knew had dark eyes. Brown, or hazel, or sometimes almost black. Not her. Maybe it was because she was a god. Or whatever it was she was. "You want something?" She finally asked, tiring of looking at the silent, watchful warrior. "Or did you just come to look?"

Xena reached over and lit a candle, dripping a bit of wax on the shelving at her back and sticking the flickering light to it. Then she sat down on the small bench Josclyn used as a step stool and rested her clasped hands on her knees. "How's your arm." She asked evenly.

Paladia blinked. "What the Hades do you care?" She almost, almost laughed. "You broke it."

Xena shrugged. "Idiots who choke my best friend generally put me in a real bad mood." She responded. "Generally I don't stop at their arms."

The renegade looked at her. "You think you're so tough."

The warrior couldn’t help it, she laughed. "Listen, kid… when I was your age, I thought I could go out and conquer the world."

Paladia felt an unusual sensation. "So what'd you do about it?"

One dark, ragged eyebrow curved up, and the lips followed, exposing neat, white teeth. "I went out and conquered the world." Xena let her voice drop "And I found out just how little that means." She rocked back a little, and crossed her legs. "I've lead armies, I've ruled distant lands, I've kicked butt on three continents.. and you know what?"

"What?" Paladia found the word leaving her mouth without her permission.

"Doesn't mean a pile of centaur poop in the sun." Xena replied.

"You're crazy." The renegade stated, flatly.

"Nah." The warrior replied. "I've just been everywhere, and done everything.. and now I'm sitting here in this rank hole faced with some butt dumb kid who wants to go prove that all over again." She leaned forward. "Except you aren't as good as I am, and you're gonna die." She paused, and studied her victim. "You're in big trouble, kid."

"Shut up." Paladia growled. "I'm not a kid."

The warrior snorted softly. "You're gonna be turned over to the law, so all these nice villagers and merchants you kidnapped can get a piece of you." She leaned closer. "If I were you, I'd start learning to keep my mouth shut. Those judges can get nasty."

Paladia almost held her breath in anxiety. Gods.. she'd spend the rest of her life in some damn, disgusting prison. Her eyes searched the dark face across from hers, and she was forced to admit that like or not, Xena was the real thing. She exuded an edgy menace, and a dark, almost sexy energy that was so thick she could have cut it, if she'd had a knife.

And hadn't been tied up like a dog. Or had her arm shattered and aching.

All of a sudden, all Paladia wanted was just to lie down on a blanket, and go to sleep.

And never wake up. This.. this lanky, self-assured fighter was everything she'd always wanted to be.. who'd done everything she'd dreamed of.. and now the bitch was sitting her and telling her it all wasn't worth crap. Then what was the point? "What do you want?" She finally asked, in a disgusted and discouraged voice. "If you're done lecturing me, I'd like to make some mud puddles or something here.. it's leaking in this corner."

The crystal blue eyes studied her in silence. "You're gonna come with me. The Queen wants you to join us for dinner."

The renegade's face tensed in utter puzzlement. "You people are just nuts." She looked at Xena. "I tried to choke her."

The warrior rose, and dusted her hands off, moving to the shackles fastened to the far wall. "Yeah.. I know." She unlocked them, and gathered them up in her wrapped hand, extending the other one down to the larger woman. "And if you try that again, I'll break every single bone in your body. " She stated, then paused. "Slowly." Another pause. "C'mon, grab hold."

Paladia stared at the hand as though it were some strange growth. She hesitated for what seemed to her a long time before she finally, grudgingly reached up with her good hand and took hold of the warm, strong fingers hovering in mid air. Xena's grip tightened, the warrior leaned back, and she found herself being hauled to her feet. "Watch your head." Xena noted, releasing her. "Let's take it easy… don't do anything stupid, all right? I'm not in the mood for it."

Paladia waited in silence as she opened the door, and climbed up the stairs, turning and waiting for her prisoner to follow. "What happened to your hand? " She asked, gruffly.

Xena glanced at her, before heading toward the inn. "Fell off the roof trying to save a couple of chickens."

Dead silence. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard." Paladia finally said.

The warrior shrugged negligently, as her eyes fell on the distinctive, slim form watching them from the porch. "Being one of the good guys is a pain in the butt, but it does come with great side benefits." She watched the bard's face crease into a gentle smile, and she returned it.

Paladia just looked at her. "Whatever." The renegade muttered. "She must be something in bed."

Xena stopped, and turned to face her, all traces of humor and most of her humanity gone from eyes turned as cold as sea ice. "You can say whatever you want about me, but you don't insult her, not with one word, or one look, you got that?"

The renegade's jaw muscles clenched, then she looked down.

"Right." Xena growled softly "Now that we've got that covered. " She walked on, as the last rays of light faded, and the air moved softly from golden amber to violet.

Concluded (really) in Part 7



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