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 8

By Melissa Good

Hades codpiece. Xena kept her eyes closed, her brow wrinkling against the dull pounding just behind them. Now I remember why I don't do this. She kept her breathing slow and even, trying not to disturb her aching head more than necessary. Hope I remembered to…

Her hesitant fingers touched on a waterskin, slung around the headpost of the bed she was lying on. She concentrated on pulling it over, then gingerly eased her head to one side, and pulled the stopper out, sucking the contents with a grimace. Oh.. and I even remembered to put the herbs in there… not bad, Xena, not bad.

Gabrielle was sprawled half over her, both of them quite naked and tangled together in the same position they'd ended up after finishing a lengthy, and, if Xena was remembering correctly, rather pleasant exploration of each other. She cautiously squinted one eye open to check her partner, and seeing the satisfied grin still plastered on her partner's face led the warrior to conclude that her memories were probably fairly accurate.

She closed her eye again, and waited for the herbs to start working, the water they were mixed with already helping a little by hydrating her abused body, and she drank more of it, ignoring the bitter tang of the additional ingredients. After she drained it, she just lay there, until the violent pounding started to slow.

Predictably, Gabrielle began to stir, flexing her hands against the warrior's sensitive skin, and breathing out, sending a warm stream of air up her breastbone. "How're you doing??" The bard's voice fuzzily intruded into her hazy senses.

She lifted a hand and waggled it from side to side, then let the hand fall to the bed.

"Mmph." The bard licked her navel speculatively, and watched the muscles under the skin writhe in reaction. "Reflexes are still working, I see." She lifted her head, and studied her partner's prone body, and noting the waterskin still lightly gripped in her hand. "You were prepared, huh?"

Xena smiled, and finally pried her eyes open, glancing down the length of her body to where Gabrielle was curled up with the bard's fair head resting against her abdomen. "I should know better than to do that." She admitted wryly. "I always end up paying for it in a big way."

The bard ran her hands up her soulmate's sides, watching her eyes flutter closed in reaction. "How often do you get to celebrate a double joining, Xena? C'mon…" She started a gentle rubdown of her partner's body. "I had a great time."

The warrior took in a big breath, and released it. "Yeah… " She admitted grudgingly. "I did too." She stretched out slowly, working the stiffness out of her neck, and wincing as a sharp pop indicated bones moving reluctantly back into place. "Ouch." Reluctantly, she half sat up, and propped herself up on her elbows. "Need to stand, love."

Gabrielle released her, and rolled over, stretching out on her side and resting her head on one hand. She watched as Xena got up, and rolled her head down and around, causing more popping noises, which made them both grimace. "Ugh." She commented wryly. "That sounded evil."

Xena walked back into the bathing area of the cabin, and ducked her head into the basin of water there. The night cooled liquid sharpened her senses, and she let it trickle through her hair and down the back of her neck, feeling a little more alert. Yawning, she walked back into the main room, and lifted her gambeson from it's hook on the wall, shrugging into it and running her hands under her hair to pull it from under the collar.

She stopped in front of the mirror, and gazed at her reflection pensively, straightening her bangs out with impatient fingers. A pause, then she leaned closer to the reflective surface, riffling her hair with morbid curiosity.

"Something wrong?" Gabrielle rested her chin on her partner's shoulder, peering at their reflections with interest. The bard was now dressed in one of Xena's shirts, which hung to her knees.

Blue eyes met green in the mirror, and Xena's mouth twitched in a faintly embarrassed grin. "I keep wondering when I'll see the first grays."

The bard shot her a surprised look, then tugged her head down, and peered intently, sorting the black locks while Xena waited in silence. "Weeeeeeellll… " She kissed the top of the warrior's head. "Not today." She ruffled Xena's hair playfully. "All dark." She ran her fingers over her scalp. "But I think you're gonna look great when you do… I love that mix of white and black…" She tilted her head, regarding her partner with warm admiration. "Especially right along here.. " Her finger moved teasingly across Xena's temple. "You'll look very distinguished."

Xena blinked, considering the prospect. "I.. " She stopped, and started again. "I never… thought I'd ever live long enough to find out." She reached up and touched the side of her head. "You really think it'll look good?"

Gabrielle smiled sweetly at her. "I really do." She reassured her, charmed by the unexpectedly vulnerable questioning. Xena wasn't what she would consider a vain person.. she was good looking, and she knew it, but she never made a big deal about it. She was more concerned about the state of her armor, than the arch of her eyebrows.

Which, Gabrielle ran a finger over one. were perfect, of course. She let her touch slide down, across the high, planed cheekbone, as the deep blue eyes flicked to hers in question. "I'm very much looking forward to seeing that." She leaned forward and rested her head against her soulmate's. "I want to watch you spoil our grandchildren rotten."

A slow, gentle smile rewarded her. "All right." Xena replied in a low voice. They stayed like that for a peaceful while, then the warrior let out a sigh. "I'm gonna go for a little run…get the fuzzies out." She told Gabrielle. "Meet you up at the inn in a candlemark? I know your folks would like to see you a little."

Gabrielle nibbled her ear. "Ok." She stifled a yawn. "Actually, I'm going to go see how our prisoner is doing." She straightened up and walked over to where her boots were, sitting down to pull them on, then standing and tying a brightly embroidered belt around her slim waist that hiked the shirt up a little.

Xena looked up from lacing her own boots, and chuckled. "You run out of clothes again, Red?"

The bard stood, and put her hands on her hips. "Nope.. I just prefer yours." She stuck her tongue out and turned on her heel, almost escaping before Xena cleared her throat. She turned. "Yes?"

"I seem to remember… " The warrior snaked a long arm out and caught the end of the belt circling her soulmate's waist. "My mother saying something about childhood stories of mine you'd written?"

"Ah." Gabrielle plastered on a bright smile. "Did she say that?" Oh… centaur poop.. thought she'd forgotten about that.. I shoulda known better.

"Mmmhmmm." Xena quirked an eyebrow at her. "I don't recall telling you any of those."

Gabrielle nibbled on her lip. "You didn't. I made them up." She tugged on the belt. " Can I go now?"

Xena didn't let go. "You ma… " She stopped, intrigued. "You gonna let me read them?"

The bard edged back. "Sure.. sure… later." She nodded vigorously. "They're.. um… I put them away.. somewhere.. I don't know.. I'll have to find them.. I guess. .I… "

"Gabrielle." The warrior let her voice drop.

Blinking, sparkling, very innocent green eyes faced her. "Yes?"

"They're…. 'cute'… aren't they?" Xena's eyes narrowed suspiciously.

Gabrielle gazed at her, then moved forward, cupping her face in both hands, and bathing her with a look of pure adoration. "No.. they're adorable." She whispered, brushing her lips against her partner's forehead. "And so are you."

She watched the blue eyes melt, and felt the grip on her belt relax as she leaned forward and kissed her soulmate on the lips this time, letting the warm roar of their connection ease through her. Then she gave Xena a pat, and skipped back out of range with a grin. "Bye." And dashed out the door before the warrior could say another word.

Xena sighed, and shook her head bemusedly, still feeling the tingle of their contact. "You take shameless advantage of me, Gabrielle." She commented to the sunlight pouring in the window . "And don’t I just love it." She concluded wistfully, letting out a tiny, happy sigh.

Then she leaned back, and rested her hands on the chair arms. "Whadda ya say, Ares.. " Xena addressed the wolf, who was sitting at her side, tongue lolling. "You want to go for a run?"

He turned his head and licked her knee, gazing up at her adoringly. "Roo?"

Xena riffled his fur gently. "Yeah, with me." She answered idly. "What do you think… me, a grandmother?"

The wolf sneezed. Twice.

"Yeah, me too." Xena laughed in amazement. "But you know what, Ares? I think I like that idea." She stood, and bounced once, regretting it as her head protested. "Whoa.. let's not try that again…" She walked out the door and into the sunlight, taking a deep breath of the cool morning air that promised the coming fall, and was full of the scent of the fields, coming near to harvest. The smell of the earth under her boots lifted to her as well, a rich, sweetness that brought back unexpected memories of her childhood.

If she closed her eyes, she could almost see it, herself kneeling in the dirt, her attention focused on two beetles, who were locked in battle. Lyceus playing nearby, with a small, dirt covered wooden horse he loved dearly, and which he was pounding around in a circle pretending a chariot was behind it.

She'd been trying to figure out how one beetle, a blue one, kept beating all the other beetles she'd seen in the courtyard, and had just noticed his sharp head horn was just a little closer to the ground, when she'd heard Lyceus give a little gasp.

Annoyed, she'd turned, to see him writhing on the ground, one hand grabbing at his throat. She'd scrambled towards him, yelling at the top of her lungs for their mother, and, in terror, had instinctively slapped her younger brother as hard as she could on his back.

A small rock popped out of his mouth, and he started howling, partly in fright, and partly because, even at that age, Xena had quite a wallop when she wanted to.

Cyrene had found them that way, Lyceus bawling, herself upset, and uncertain, and the only explanation Cyrene had gotten out of them was that Xena had hit her brother, causing him to cry.

She'd gotten a spanking for that, despite her indignant protests, and she remembered curling up under the porch, finally having escaped from Cyrene's clutches, and that same smell of the earth had surrounded her as her tears had drenched it.

Now, all these years later, Xena paused, and looked across the sun drenched yard to the small space under the porch, and remembered, and a pained smile crossed her face. Life's just not fair sometimes, huh? She shook her head and let out a breath, then turned as soft footsteps sounded behind her.

"Dinar for your thoughts." Her mother's voice drifted over her shoulder.

The innkeeper was leaning against the barn wall, and now pushed herself off, and walked forward, coming up next to her daughter.

Xena gazed down at her. "You mad at me?" She asked quietly, folding her arms across her chest.

Cyrene glanced down, and flexed her hand, gazing at the ring on it. "How could I be?" She sighed, and shook her head. "Did everyone know about this but me? You know Hecuba brought us both lovely, embroidered cloaks."

Her daughter smiled. "Just about." She informed her. "You deserve it…I knew you'd never do it for yourself, so… "

Cyrene gave her an affectionate look. "Turnabout is fair play, huh?" She put a hand on Xena's arm. "To make it official, thank you." She paused. "Now.. my original question.. what was just on your mind?"

Xena hesitated. "Nothing… just.. I was thinking about when we were kids, that's all." She looked around. "Old stuff.. just Ly and me playing in the dirt, here."

Her mother hooked a hand around her elbow, and steered her towards the inn. "I've been doing a lot of that myself lately." She admitted. "When I saw you standing there, it made me realize just how long ago that was." A tiny laugh escaped her. "Sometimes I still think you're just my little girl, and then have to look up, and wonder when you got so tall."

Xena chuckled softly. "Yeah.. me too." She opened the door for Cyrene, then paused. "I'm gonna go for a little run.. I'll be right back. "

The innkeeper shook her head. "You never stop, do you?" She put a finger against her daughter's chest, and pushed. "Go on with you… 'Stase has some of that sweet bread you like on, so stop back here when you're done getting yourself all sweaty." She paused. "Oh, and Xena?"

The warrior stopped, and looked back. "Yeah?"

Her mother smiled. "Say something nice to 'Stase, all right? She's got a crush on you."

Xena sighed, giving her a wry look. "Why can't they ever pick on Toris?" She asked plaintively.

Cyrene shrugged, with an impish grin. "Must be that warrior mystique, dear." She waved her off. "Be careful." She watched as her daughter moved off onto the path up into the woods, her pace moving from a bouncing walk to a run with smooth efficiency, with Ares bounding alongside. "You're just some piece of work, kiddo." She told the retreating back., then turned and went into the inn, which was quiet, if a bit bedraggled from the party the preceding day.

She settled down at the table next to the window, and poured herself a mug of cool cider as she spent a few minutes just daydreaming. Xena's mention of her younger brother brought back warm, if sometimes frustrating memories, as she'd had to deal with raising three very active children pretty much by herself.

Xena had always been.. well, the most trouble, she wryly acknowledged. Toris had mostly been just bluster, and Lyceus a sweet child who tended to follow his older sister inevitably into mischief, as well as be involved in little childish scuffles with her from time to time. She'd had to keep a lid on Xena's aggressiveness, and her daughter had been the subject of many a spanking when she'd lose her temper and use her small fists to make a point.

She remembered one particular day, when she'd had it up about up to her eyebrows with uncooperative traders, and a broken stove, and then had to deal with one of their little fights.. Xena had half knocked the senses out of poor Lyceus, and she'd felt her temper snap as she ignored the girl's attempts at explanation, and laid the law down in no uncertain terms to her. It had hurt her probably more than the child.. who had bit her lip almost in two keeping the tears back, then run off to some hiding place for the rest of the afternoon. Maybe, she remembered thinking, maybe she'd gotten through to her this time.

And then Lyceus had come dragging into the kitchen, kicking his feet against the table and complaining that his throat hurt. With a sigh, she'd combed through his curly blond hair, and searched her cabinets for some bit of sweet for him to suck, hoping he wasn't coming down with the coughing sickness, again. He'd looked up at her with his round eyes, and beautiful, fair eyelashes, and poked a lip out.

Giving her the rock, and telling her she should smash it, because it was what made his throat hurt. It had taken her almost a half a candlemark to get the story from him, and when she did, she'd just stared at the stone in her palm, with a sinking sensation in her chest.

What could she do? Everything she'd told Xena that day about not hitting, and all that.. it had been true, and in a hundred other cases, her young daughter would have been undeniably guilty of doing exactly what she'd been punished for. Would taking that back now help? She'd thought about it the rest of the day, until that night, when she stood in the doorway of the small room the three children shared, and looked at their peacefully sleeping forms.

Xena had, apparently forgotten about the entire thing, coming back before dinner with her typically feisty attitude and had gone to bed after playing with Lyceus in complete unconcern. Cyrene had stood for a few moments, studying the small body curled on it's side, one arm tucked under her head, the other wrapped around her favorite plaything, the restlessly active child apparently at peace, for once.

Leave well enough alone, she'd decided. No sense in confusing the girl.. she'd taken her licks, and gotten over it, and maybe, just maybe next time she'd think before striking out. She'd gotten lucky this time.. but things had just worked out for the best.

So she'd never said anything to Xena, never told her she knew that for this one time, on that one, long ago, late summer day, that her actions had saved her brother's life, whether she'd intended it or not. Funny, how seeing her daughter all these years later, standing there in the courtyard, had reminded her of that. Certainly, Xena didn't remember it at all.

With a gentle sigh, she sipped her drink, and enjoyed the light breeze. She'd done the best she could.

Hadn't she?


Gabrielle turned, and spotted Cait trotting to catch up with her. "Hey… morning Cait. How's our reluctant guest doing?"

The slim Amazon's face scrunched. "Gosh… she's ever so annoying." She fell into step beside the bard. "Are you sure we can't just pound her a bit, not hard, just a bit to knock some of the really nasty parts out of her?"

Gabrielle gave her a look. "No progress, huh?"

Cait lifted her hands and let them drop. "I have tried, you know… look, I even took her out for a walk yesterday, and we had a picnic thingie.. like you told me about, and the blasted pighead just does nothing but says nasty things and insults me."

The bard patted her shoulder. "I appreciate you trying, Cait… you're the closest person to her age- wise.. I thought maybe… you could get through to her."

Cait snorted. "Not likely… that needs your touch." She hesitated. "Though.. for just a bit, I thought I might be getting somewhere yesterday.. I caught her drawing in the dirt with a bit of a stick, you know.. a lovely little scene."

Gabrielle stopped, and put her hands on her hips. "Really?" She mused. "So.. maybe I was…" Right, after all. Could she trust that instinct? "All right.. let me go talk to her."

The Amazon chewed her lip. "She doesn’t like you much." She eyed Gabrielle unhappily. "Be careful."

Gabrielle gave her an absent nod, and strode towards the cellar, taking a deep breath, before working the latch and stepping inside.

Paladia was sitting quietly in the back corner, cradling her injured arm, and resting it against one upraised knee. She stiffened when she recognized her visitor. "What do you want?" She asked dourly.

The bard settled herself on the small stool near the door and studied their captive. There was a small basin of water and a linen rag next to her, and apparently she'd used it to clean herself, but was still dressed in the filthy clothes she'd been captured in, and her face was haggard from strain, and the lack of sleep in the small enclosure.

"I just want to talk to you a little bit." Gabrielle answered quietly, sorting through her options. Maybe some gentleness would get through where Xena's intimidating threats hadn't. "Tell you what…it's nice outside… take a walk with me and I'll get you a change of shirts, at least."

The renegade stared at her. "Why?" Her voice was heavy with suspicion.

Gabrielle shrugged. "Because I want to." She answered simply. "Come on."

They emerged into the warm sun, and walked across the still empty courtyard, though Gabrielle was aware of Cait's shadow tracking them. She led the way up into the cabin, and pointed towards the chair next to the fire. "Sit down.. I know we've got a few pieces of extra stuff we picked up somewhere, and I think it'll fit you."

Paladia sat, her eyes roaming around the room. "This your place?" There was a vague touch of envy in her voice.

Gabrielle was kneeling in front of the clothing press. "This is our home, yes."

The renegade's glance took in the neatly arranged armor draped over the other chair. "You and Xena?" She seemed to find this amusing for some reason.

The bard pulled a thick tunic from the drawer, and turned. "Yes." She studied the woman. "Stand up a minute… I'll help you get this on."

"I don't.. " Paladia protested. "I don't want your help." But the thought of a clean, dry shirt enticed her, and her voice showed it What could it hurt? She offered, right?

"Look." Gabrielle sighed. "Stop fighting me, ok? I don't want to hurt you."

They stared at each other for an endless moment, then Paladia's shoulders slumped, as she gave in, and slowly stood, refusing to look at the bard as she helped her shrug off the filthy shirt and settle the new one around her body.

The scent of the clean fabric reminded her very much of her old home, and she blinked a little, finally raising her eyes to meet the steady green ones across from her. There was no animosity there, much to her surprise, only quiet, intense curiosity. She sat back down, and cradled her arm, looking around to cover her loss of composure. "What'd you want to talk about?"

Gabrielle poured her a cup of cider, and one for herself, and settled into the other chair. "The people at the cavern.. they're being taken care of." She said quietly, feeling her way with tentative skill. "Potadeia and the other towns are getting back their stuff.. no one is going to get into trouble there."

Paladia looked up, caught off guard. "They're all ok?" She blurted, then dropped her gaze.

The bard nodded. "They're ok." She paused. "Thank you for telling them to back off.. I didn't want to see anyone get hurt."

The renegade nodded slowly. "That's good."

"They're your new family, aren't they?" Gabrielle asked gently. She saw the muscles in Paladia's jaw tighten. Just like Xena. She mused wryly. "I know how that feels… when I left Potadeia, I felt like I was leaving everything behind. I had to make a new family too."

Paladia looked up. "Why'd you leave? Did they kick you out?" She put a slightly mocking tone in her words. "Black sheep of the family or something?"

The bard laced her fingers together. "No… I didn't have a very… gentle.. life at home. I left because I thought I'd get the opportunity to grow, and become a different person than what I would have if I'd stayed there." She drew in a breath. "And I did…Xena became my family…I know what it feels like to lose that." Black sheep of the family… mm… yeah, maybe I am, at that. It was an odd feeling.

The renegade eyed her. "That crazy girl said Xena died. That true?"

Mist green eyes studied her. "Yes." She took a sip of cider. "She .. had an accident.. while she was saving a little girl's life, and she got hurt really badly." She locked off the memories and forced herself to finish. "And she died, yes."

Paladia's face scrunched. "But she came back?" Disbelief colored her voice.

"Yes." The bard replied, simply. "She found a way."

"Why?" Came the incredulous response. "Dead is dead… nobody comes back."

Gabrielle straightened a little, and met her gaze. "Well… she had things she needed to finish doing.. it just wasn't her time to go, I guess.. . there were people who needed her help." She paused, and looked into her mug. "And I very badly wanted her to come back." She looked up and shrugged a little. "So she did."

"I don't get it." Paladia shook her head. "People just don't come back from the dead because you want them to." She glanced at the floor, and scowled.

Gabrielle gave her a sympathetic look. "Mostly not, no." A faint smile etched the smaller woman's face. "But Xena's a very special person." She scratched her nose. "She can do things that very few other people can do…and she has a very strong will. She decided she wanted to do this, and then just planned a way to get it done."

Paladia seemed lost in thought for a long moment. "I just don't get it." She finally replied.

The bard sighed. "No, you don't, do you?" She leaned forward and cupped her hands around her mug, taking a sip from it. "That's all right… it's not like it happens every day. " She glanced up. "Don't discount love, Paladia.. it's the most powerful force there is."

"That's crap." Paladia felt herself regaining her balance. "You're deluded."

Gabrielle smiled. "Maybe… but I'll take my delusion over your reality any day."

Paladia leaned forward. "No… it's you who doesn't get it… you've got all these romantic horsecrap notions about people, and the truth is everyone's just out for themselves, Gabrielle."

The bard regarded her steadily. "They why did you care when I told you about what happened to your friends?"

The renegade's jaw worked a few times. "I'm responsible for them" She finally answered, stiffly. "That's all."

Gabrielle's eyes crinkled gently. "That's not true, and you know it." She said. "Though.. for a while at the beginning, I think both Xena and I… well, her mostly, thought it was a feeling of responsibility that kept us traveling together." She fiddled with her hands. "I still remember really clearly one morning.. " Her voice shifted unconsciously into her storytelling timber, and she ignored Paladia's rolled eyes.

"It was fall, like now… we were in the far west, in thick undergrowth and it was a little chilly. I remember I didn't want to get up.. I was rolled into my sleeping furs and listening to Xena do her usual morning thing.. getting the fire moving, putting water on, talking to Argo."

"Who's Argo." Paladia asked, in a bored voice. "Her boyfriend? "

"Her horse." The bard answered dryly. "Anyway.. she finished all that and came over, and knelt next to me to wake me up. " She reflected. "That was kind of unusual…she usually just kept calling me." A smile etched her face. "So I felt her take hold of my blanket, and pull it back a little, until she could see my face…and I looked up at her, with all that kind of shadowy green sunlight behind us, and.. I felt this warmth. " She put a hand over her chest. "All in here." She fastened her eyes on Paladia. "It was a lot more than responsibility, Paladia…I cared about her, and what happened to her, beyond what had anything to do with me."

The renegade just looked at her.

"It wasn't romantic, and it had nothing to do with a physical relationship.. but there was a part of me that became a part of her, and it felt really good." The bard watched her prisoner's face carefully. "We were friends a long, long time before we.. went any further than that, Paladia.. and that friendship has been one of the cornerstones of my life. So don't you tell me about foolish romantic notions.. what I felt.. what I feel now, is real." She paused. "and I think you know that. I think you feel that same thing towards those people, who became your family."

Paladia's gaze dropped, in the thick silence that followed.

"They asked about you." Gabrielle went on, quietly. "They're worried about you too." She'd gotten through, and she knew it.

"Doesn't do me any good." The larger woman rasped bitterly, then looked up. "Does it? By the time the law lets me out, they won't even remember who I am." Then, disgusted, she glanced off towards the window. "Should have known better… getting close to anyone always gets you hurt." Her voice dropped off and she looked down at the floor again.

The bard let out a long, held breath, feeling a sense of quiet vindication. I was right. "That's true." She admitted quietly, surprising Paladia. "But the joy that comes with it, makes up for that."

Paladia looked up at her, eyes darkened in anger. "Do you really believe that crap?"

A hundred scenes flashed in Gabrielle's inner vision, and she felt tears sting her eyes. "Yes, I do." She replied in a whisper. "It's worth everything."

The renegade shifted awkwardly, staring at her in uncertain puzzlement.

The bard exhaled, and rubbed her temples. "The villages have decided not to press charges." She looked up at Paladia quietly. "So that means your judgement falls back on my shoulders."

A sudden spark of hope, quickly squashed, flared in the pale gray eyes across from her. "You?"

Gabrielle nodded. "For the kidnapping, forcing, and assault on the regent of the Amazons."

A small silence fell. "Cait?" Gabrielle called over her shoulder, smiling grimly when the door swung open immediately, and the slim, blond Amazon bounded in. "Take her back to the cellar, please." She stood, and dusted herself off. "I'm going to take a walk."

"Right." Cait put a hand on the shackles hanging from Paladia's arm. "To the spring, then?"

That got her a sideways glance. "Yeah." A place she loved to visit, when she had thinking.. or deciding to do. A shady spot, with the clear, cold ripple of water, and the ever present breeze. And a measure of peace, for her to sit and think in.

The newly fallen leaves crunched lightly under her boots as Xena headed up a long, mostly overgrown path she'd picked to coax her complaining body out of it's funk. She pushed through the initial stiffness, until the blood started flowing, and she loosened up, settling down into a familiar rhythm.

Better. She decided, feeling the dull pounding in her head recede, and she looked around at the forest going by, idly enjoying the rich smell of the leaves as they brushed her body in passing. Ares loped alongside happily, his ears pricked and swiveling as he kept even with her knees.

She'd crested the ridge, leaping over it's edge and into a forward flip before she detected someone trailing her, and she paused, bouncing lightly, turning her ears and nose into the wind as the sun poured down over her. A perfect target. She reminded herself wryly. Hope that arrow catching skill is up to par, just in case.

The faintest hint of rustling came to her, and she closed her eyes, concentrating, throwing her head back and listening intently. Ah. A brief grin creased her lips. She took a breath, and started out along the ridge, running easily, feeling an unexpected surge of energy pour into her that manifested itself into a few lazy flips, as she found the soaring sensation particularly pleasant.

Gods… She ran up a short slope and launched herself forward, jumping over a very overgrown, narrow ravine that bisected the hill, and laying over onto her back as she tumbled in mid air, flipping over and landing on the far side, then exploding straight up, tucking into a tight somersault than ended with her landing on her hands, and balancing neatly, extending her legs up straight in a long, satisfying stretch.

She pushed up and flipped again, this time landing on her feet, and hopped once, as Ares caught up to her and jumped up, thumping his paws against her chest and yodeling at her.

"Roo!" He complained aggrievedly.

"Not my fault you can't keep up." Xena wagged a finger at him, cocking her head and listening for her pursuer. "Heh… or you either, Pony. " She mumbled to the wolf, who licked her nose. "Whadda you say.. should we let her catch up?"

"Roo?" The wolf sneezed. "Agrrrroo."

"Oh, all right." Xena released his paws and patted his head. "C'mon.. let's get a drink.. it's getting pretty warm up here." She felt a layer of sweat underneath her gambeson, and pushed damp hair from her eyes with a long breath.

There was a spring fairly close, a tiny one, and she ambled over to it, sinking down on a rock next to the water and scooping up a double handful, drinking several mouthfuls then splashing the rest over her head. The liquid was sweet, and very cold, and she leaned back against a tree stump as it cooled her, and folded her long arms across her chest to wait.

It took longer than she'd thought, until she heard the faintest rustle, and fixed her eyes on a spot in the surrounding underbrush. After a long moment, she heard a disgusted sigh, and Eponin pushed her way out from between the ferns, and put her hands on her hips.

Xena smiled. "Took you long enough.. I was about to take a nap." She drawled teasingly.

The Amazon exhaled explosively, and walked across the leaf littered clearing. "Had to find some way around that damn ravine, Xena.. I can't fly like you can." She glanced at Ares, who was seated at Xena's feet. "How'd you teach him to jump like that?"

Xena shrugged, looking down at the wolf. "He just follows me, I guess.. I never thought about it." She patted the turf. "Siddown… water's pretty good."

Eponin dropped to the earth, and took a handful of the water, sucking it down slowly. "I wasn't trying to ambush you." She looked up over drawn eyebrows at the warrior.

"Oh?" Xena replied. "What brings you out this early then?"

Silence. Eponin took another handful of water, taking her time in swallowing. "I.. um… " She wiped her hands against each other, not looking at Xena. "I could use some advice." She finally said, forcing her eyes up to meet Xena's now serious ones. "It's kinda personal."

Oh boy. Xena tucked her boots under her, and leaned forward, lacing her fingers loosely together. "What's up?"

Pony rearranged herself, sitting cross legged and plucking a bit of the trailing vine from the ground, playing with it. "It's Eph." She spoke slowly, taking her time and pausing between words. "I think.. what happened really messed her up." She tore a leaf into tiny shreds. "She's trying to…pretend everything's ok.. but.. she can't.. " Here the words failed her, and she fell silent. "I.. don't know what to do.. and she doesn't want me to tell anyone at home what happened.. I…"

Xena raised her linked hands and rested her chin on them, considering. It was a tough situation, and she didn't feel either of them were really suited to deal with it. "It wasn't her fault." She offered, cautiously. "I know what herbs they used.. she'd have been out of her senses, Pony… not her fault."

The Amazon sighed. "I know." She shook her head sadly. "She's just so ashamed." Her caramel colored eyes raised at last and met Xena's shadowed blue ones. "She thinks that … at some level, she must have wanted to do it… it's really eating at her."

"Mmph." Xena grunted softly, a perplexed look on her face. "I don't know how… "She paused, thinking. Ah. Scattered puzzle pieces started to rotate, and slide gently into place. "Let me think about it." She finally continued softly.

Eponin watched the pale eyes go inward in silent fascination. You so very seldom got to see this side of Xena.. mostly what you saw was the fighter, or the dour ex warlord, or, on very rare occasions, the playful companion of Gabrielle the Bard.

This, on the other hand, was the strategist who at one time held half of Greece under her rule, who had a coolly intelligent mind sometimes grossly at odds with her fierce, wild personality. Now, she saw a faint, confident half grin tug at Xena's lips, and felt a lot better. "So?"

The warrior patted her arm. "Let me see what I can do." She considered further. "No guarantees.. but I think I can come up with something." Now she stood, and stretched. "I'm gonna go find Gabrielle."

The oriole hopped from branch to branch, pecking at tiny insects, and ignoring the slim, pale haired woman who was seated at the edge of the spring, her bare feet dabbling in the water, and one hand idly tossing pebbles into it.

I don't know if I can make this decision. Gabrielle studied the dappled water seriously. All my instincts are telling me this woman can be salvaged…but how can I not punish her for what she did to Ephiny? If I do, the only sentence that I.. that I, Gabrielle, could agree on is confinement, or enforced labor.

She sighed, and leaned back on her hands. Ordering someone whipped.. or beaten.. I don't have that in me. And if I order her put away.. the person who is going to emerge from that is not going to be any better.. and probably is going to be worse than when she went in. So what do I do? Let her go?

She thought about that. I'm not sure I can judge her in any case.. how can I condemn her, and not do the same for Xena? How can I apply different standards to them? Either I have to judge them both equally, or not judge either of them. And who am I to be judging Xena in the first place?

Her eyes were focused on the spring's surface, and she blinked suddenly as the shiny surface reflecting the surrounding trees fluttered, then echoed back to her a tall, dark haired figure with piercing blue eyes. She jerked her head up, to see her partner standing quietly on the other side of the spring, watching her. "Hey!"

The warrior jumped nimbly from rock to rock, followed by Ares, until she ended up at Gabrielle's side, and joined her, settling cross legged on the rocks. "You looked pretty deep in thought." Xena commented.

Gabrielle kicked her foot a little, startling a small fish that had been nibbling at her toes. "I was." She admitted. "I didn't even feel you near." She paused. "I got a chance to talk to Paladia…I think I got through to her a little bit… she's… mostly just a kid who's had bad stuff happen to her."

Xena poked a finger into the cold water. "Like you thought."

The bard looked at her. "Like I thought, yes."

The warrior nodded. "Not surprised.. you're a good judge of character." She commented easily.

Green eyes bored into her. "How could you possibly say that." Gabrielle snapped. "Don't patronize me, Xena."

Xena opened her mouth to answer, then closed it, and just looked down at her hands, blinking. "I.. I wasn't." She stammered softly, totally unprepared for Gabrielle's reaction. "I mean that." Her chest moved as she took a deep breath. "Look… if you keep telling me that it was Dahok's influence that… " A breath. "That brought out my dark side, then you have to accept that he could have been influencing your judgement, Gabrielle… he knew what buttons to push.. what was calculated to make you react."

Gabrielle silently studied her partner's face as thought whirled through her head. It was.. tempting.. to let Dahok take the blame. And part of her knew, instinctively, that what Xena was saying was, at least partially, true. It almost made a scary kind of sense. "Maybe." She admitted softly, eyeing the water. "I was just trying to figure out what to do about Paladia."

Xena took a breath. "Trying to come up with a way of dealing with her.. and not having to deal with me?"

The bard's nostrils flared. "That's not an issue."

"Isn't it?" Her soulmate countered. "In the eyes of the Amazons it is."

Gabrielle looked at her, a sad knowledge in her eyes. "Xena… " she sighed, taking the warrior's hand in her own and rubbing it gently. "What sentence could anyone possibly pass on you that would be tougher than the one you've already passed on yourself?" She waited a beat, watching Xena's face. "There is none, I know it, you know it, and the Amazons know it." The warrior's fingers flexed against hers. "Isn't it bad enough that every time I look at you, I have to live with the knowledge that there are things now.. that will always be between us?" She sighed. "Let's save our anger for Dahok, all right? I'm not, ever, going to bring up what happened in that Amazon village ever again."

She realized she'd just made the decision, and it startled her. "Except for this." Xena's shoulders stiffened. "Do you remember what you told me.. about how you felt when you saw me in Chin?"

Xena nodded slowly. "Yes."

"That’s how I felt when you showed up in the Amazon village." She lifted a hand and turned Xena's face so their eyes met. "It hurt… seeing you so angry hurt.. knowing that even after I'd done the hardest thing in my life… to try and make things right, you still hated me. But it was like a lifeline, Xena…please believe that.. given a choice of you taking me, and you leaving me there… " Her eyes misted. "I'm glad you came."

The warrior just.. let it go. She put her hand over Gabrielle's, still resting on her cheek, and smiled tentatively. "I'm glad you came to Chin." She hesitated. "And.. no matter what I felt.. I shouldn’t' have left you alone after that, Gabrielle. I'm sorry."

They both nodded, once, at each other, as another, subtle healing happened. "So." Gabrielle shifted, and leaned against her. "What are we going to do about Paladia?"

Xena let the quiet relief flow over her, and rested her head against the bard's. "Funny you should ask that." She muttered quietly. "I think I've got an idea to kill off two birds with one arrow."

"Yeah?" Gabrielle glanced up.

"Mm… Pony found me.. she's worried about Eph." Xena related to her. "I think she needs some kind of resolution.. and I think Paladia needs to get it through her thick skull that victims are people too." She tilted her head, and met Gabrielle's eyes, then unexpectedly tipped a little further and kissed her. "Mmph." She broke off, with a faintly surprised look. "Not sure why I did that."

Gabrielle couldn't help it, she laughed. "I know why.. it feels great." She gave her partner an odd look. "But you've been doing that a lot lately.. not that I'm complaining or anything." She snuggled closer, sighing in contentment as she practically buried herself into Xena's embrace.

"You've been doing this a lot lately." Xena replied gently, hugging her.

The bard fiddled with a catch on her gambeson and thought about that. "I know.. I realized.. I guess I … it's kind of a reassurance, I think." She glanced up. "Does it bother you?"

"Not at all." Xena admitted. "I.. um…I really missed that." She paused, seeing the look of surprise on her partner's face. "I know.. I know.. it took me so damn long to get used to it… but then it was…" She bit the inside of her lip. "I'd never felt that cold before." She finished in a remote tone.

Gabrielle thought back to those long months of silent campfires, and sighed. "I know exactly what you mean." She glanced across the spring. "So…what's the plan?"

Xena accepted the change of subject quietly. "I think we need to get Ephiny and Paladia together."

Gabrielle's brows contracted, and she jerked her head up, staring at her partner as though the warrior had grown a horn in the center of her forehead. "What?"

The warrior circled her gently with her arms, and stroked her back, feeling the tension. "Give me a chance here… ok?" She arranged her thoughts. "Paladia needs to see the consequences of her actions…I know what kind of impact that makes. "She fell silent for a long moment. "And um. Ephiny needs someone to acknowledge that what happened to her was not her fault.. Paladia needs to apologize."

Gabrielle put a hand up instantly, feeling her partner's forehead. "Funny.. you feel nice and cool. " She muttered. "Listen.. Xena.. you're not going to get Paladia to apologize any time in this millennium, ok?" She paused. "Not that I don't think you're right… but.. putting those two together is like asking for trouble."

"You got a better idea?" Xena inquired. "Because otherwise, you either have to let her go, or sentence her to Amazon prison, and that means everyone will find out what happened."

A beat. "I could demand that nobody tells." They exchanged looks. "Ok.. ok.. Amazons, right…" Gabrielle waved a hand. "I don't like it.. Xena, I don't want Ephiny to get hurt any more.. and I can't see where she won't."

Blue eyes captured hers. "Trust me?"

She returned the look steadily. "On one condition." She took a breath. "Ephiny has to agree to it - no surprises, Xena."

A nod. "Agreed."

The porch was a nice, peaceful place, Ephiny thought, as she leaned an arm on the railing, and rested her head against her hand, idly taking in the traffic crossing the courtyard. She'd managed to get rid of her headaches, but now her energy level seemed to have hit rock bottom, and she found herself unwilling to do more than sit quietly, watching the world go by her.

She'd yelled at Eponin that morning, and she winced, thinking about it. Told her to stop fussing over her and leave her alone, and the older woman had disappeared silently out the door before she could call her cross words back.

Ephiny closed her eyes, just wishing they were back home. Away from here, and from recent events, back in the village where she could get her mind off what had happened and concentrate on the day to day problems she'd learned to deal with as part of her duties as regent.

A creak behind her made her look up, to see a worried looking Solari slowly approaching. She shoved down her annoyance and gave her a nod, watching as the dark haired Amazon slid into the seat next to her, and leaned forward, studying an arrow she'd been fletching and now carried in her hands. "I want to get started home tomorrow." She said quietly, in a voice she hoped would quash any argument.

Solari just nodded. "All right." She answered softly. "I… think we could probably borrow a horse from here.. it would be better if you rode, and didn't walk."

"No." Ephiny refused, stubbornly. "We don't have to rush…I'll be fine." She straightened up, and leaned back in her chair. "I just want to put this behind me… and Solari?"

Dark eyes lifted and met hers. "Nobody talks about this when we get home."

Solari nodded. "I understand." She fell silent for a long moment. "Eph?"

"What?" The regent replied a touch more sharply than she really intended.

The other woman sucked in a breath. "Nothing. I'll tell everyone to be ready to leave at first light." She got up and crossed the porch, leaving Ephiny in peaceful silence again. She turned her head and followed the progress of a chicken as it pecked it's way around, gobbling up bugs, and for a long, wistful moment wished she could change places with it. So simple, it's life. You got up, you laid an egg, you ate some bugs, you went to sleep.

You certainly didn't have to worry about Amazons, and treaties, or being kidnapped, or aching holes inside you that seemed to be getting bigger and bigger.

The wood creaked behind her again, and she looked crossly over her shoulder, expecting Solari's presence.

Surprised when piercing blue eyes returned her gaze. "Hi." She made an effort to pull herself together, and address Xena, who really wasn't someone you could just snap at for no reason.

The warrior lowered her tall body into the nearby chair, and leaned back, bracing one booted foot against the railing, and lacing her fingers behind her head. "Hi."

Ephiny studied her idly, noting the sweat-dampened gambeson with some bemusement. "You out doing drills in this gods be damned weather, Xena?"

Xena rolled her head to one side, and glanced at her. "Nah.. I overdid it a little last night… I was just out getting some of the aches out of my system." She tensed the muscles in one thigh, and observed them absently, rubbing a bit of mud off her bare knee. "Did you have a good time last night?"

The Amazon eyed her warily. "Xena, no offense, but when you start doing the small talk thing with me, I get real nervous." She commented. "So what's up?"

Dark brows lifted. "You're in a good mood today." Xena replied bluntly. "I hear you all are taking off tomorrow morning."

"Problem with that?" The regent asked, her voice crisp. "I figure you've got enough guests around here.. time I got back to where I belong."

Xena leaned on the arm of her chair, and pinned Ephiny with her piercing gaze. "Ephiny, no offense, but you're as prickly as a hedgehog, and acting moodier than me, so what's up?" She paused. "I figure you can either tell me what's going on, or I'll have to sic Gabrielle on you for the kinder and gentler treatment. Your choice."

Ephiny felt her temper boil up, and fizzle out into nothing, as she met the warrior's inflexible stare. She exhaled in disgust. "I just want to go home, is that a crime?"

Xena waited.

The silenced seeped into the Amazon, and she looked down at the wooden planking. "I.. just want to forget the whole thing, Xena… I can't do that here." She finally said softly. "It's chewing at me."

The warrior dropped her boots to the floor, and shifted her chair, until they were knee to knee. "Look." Xena considered her words. "Don't… lock people out, Ephiny… it just makes it worse."

The regent gave her a hard look. "You're one to be saying that."

Blue eyes blinked. "That's why I'm saying it."

Ephiny plucked a splinter from the railing. "Do you want something from me, Xena? If you do, just spit it out. I'm not in the mood."

The warrior studied her folded hands. "All right.. I want you to talk to Paladia."

The regent's gray eyes snapped up to her face, and hardened. "No way. You can kiss my feather covered butt if you think I'm saying word one to that gods forsakened bitch."

Xena raised a hand. "Wait.. let me.."

"No!" Ephiny half stood. "Just stay out of this, Xena… I don't want any part of whatever damn plan you've got in your head. " She broke out into a sweat, and felt her body start to shake, as she let herself down into her chair again. "No."

Silence descended, as they both sat quietly.

"You've put Gabrielle in a pretty tight spot." Xena finally said, calmly. "She can't.. in good conscience let her go, and if she sentences her to confinement, you have to take her back to the village with you."

Ephiny stared straight ahead. "She has other options." She said in a remote voice. "She can use them. She's not coming back with us."

Xena stared at her. "Ephiny, you know Gabrielle better than that.. she can't order someone beaten.. or.. "

Cold gray eyes looked back. "Sure she can. She's spilled blood." Ephiny snorted softly. "She's not your innocent little girl anymore, Xena." She watched Xena's facial features shift into a mask. "Or did you forget that…?" Her bitterness took over. "Like you forgot about her after she had to kill her own daughter?" She stood, and steadied herself against the back of the chair she had been sitting on. "Just leave me alone."

And then she left, abandoning the still form whose hands curled precisely, and evenly around the arms of the chair.

A soft wind crossed the courtyard, blowing back dark hair from a pale, expressionless face, and the silence of a late summer afternoon was suddenly broken by the harsh, explosive sound of breaking wood.

And then bootsteps that crossed the porch and stopped at her side. "Xena?" Gabrielle glanced down and her eyes widened as she saw the splintered wood in her soulmate's powerful hands. "What the.. " She dropped to a knee, and pried at the rigid fingers. "Xena.. let go." Her eyes lifted and searched the calm, almost distant face. "Hey…"

Slowly, the tendons under her hands relaxed, and she pulled the wood out, slipping her own hand into it's place, and curling her fingers around the warriors, her eyes never leaving Xena's quiet features. "Hey…." She whispered, relieved when the blue eyes turned towards her, and met her gaze, but shocked at the weary anguish she saw there. "What happened?" She lifted a hand and touched Xena's face. "Xe?"

"I'm all right." The warrior finally answered, flexing her hands. "I guess my plan's not gonna work." She admitted softly. "I'm sorry."

Gabrielle stood, and slid onto the remaining part of the chair arm. "Don't worry about it.. we'll come up with something… I'll have Josc charge her with the stuff she did to me, and Jo." She gently stroked her soulmate's hair, watching the faint flaring of her nostrils as Xena fought to keep her composure. "No problem."

Xena nodded absently, leaning her head against the bard's side. "That's a good idea." She paused. "Wish we'd thought about that before." She looked down at her hands, reddened from the contact with the wood. "Y'know, Gabrielle… strong as these are… strong as I am… it's nothing.. compared to the power of a few words." She swallowed, and closed her eyes. "But.. I guess you know that, huh?"

Bewildered, Gabrielle could only offer comfort, in the form of gentle touches, and soft reassurances. "Hey.. you wanna tell me what happened?" She wrapped her arms around Xena's shoulders, and hugged her, kissing the top of her head softly. "C'mon…"

Xena pulled herself together. "Eph just… she got mad at me, I guess.. she's pretty tense.. it's ok, Gabrielle.. she just caught me off guard, that's all."

Strong fingers fastened on her jaw, and turned her head, to meet Gabrielle's intense eyes. "What.. did… she… say.. to.. you." The bard asked slowly, spacing the words out.

"That's.. not important." Her partner replied. "She's had a rough time."

The anger built in Gabrielle's expression, and tensed her body. "Oh really? And just how does that stack up against what you and I just went through?"

Gotta get her calmed down. "Gabrielle?" Xena said the word softly, in a low voice.

"What?" The bard snipped, boiling.

"You're beautiful when you're angry." Xena replied quietly. "Especially when it's in my behalf."

She saw Gabrielle's chest heave with an indrawn breath, and the bard's body reluctantly relaxed against her. "It's not funny, Xena."

"I know." Her soulmate answered with a sigh. "But it was the truth.. and she's in a lot of pain… I'll live." She looked up. "I'm glad you found me."

"Are you?" The bard asked, examining her hands for splinters. "Mom must think I'm nuts.. I bowled over Eustase and dumped an entire bowl of grain tearing out of the kitchen." She pulled a tiny shard of wood from under her partner's skin. "Guess we need a plan B, huh?"

The warrior took a deep breath. "Even if Eph said no.. I still think she's in trouble."

"So do I." Gabrielle cast a glance towards the inn. "I just ran into Solari… she's been snapping at everyone from Eponin on down all morning."

"Mmph." Xena felt obscurely better. "I guess that explains it."

The bard patted her shoulder, and kissed the top of her head. "Maybe, but she's not going to snap at me." She stood, and twitched her tunic into place. "Be back."

She was gone before Xena could stop her, and, the warrior realized, she didn't really want to. Part of her felt a tiny, ridiculous thrill in the knowledge that her soulmate was charging to her defense.

Another, guilty part of her wanted to strike back at Ephiny, against the pain her words had caused, but that was balanced by her rational mind knowing that the regent was not thinking clearly.

They were only words, right?

Ephiny sat down slowly on the bed, then rested her head in her hands. Gods. What did I just do?" She ran over her words in her mind, and felt a dull nausea spread. How could I do that? "What in Hades is happening to me?" She whispered.

She sat there, shaking, until the door opened, and she looked up into intense, green eyes.

Gabrielle slowly shut the door behind her, and walked across the room, sitting down in the chair across from her, and watching her in absolute silence.

Ephiny couldn’t hold the glance, and dropped her eyes to the floor. "You here to tell me what a bitch I am?"

Gabrielle shifted slightly, and clasped her hands together. "I'm here because you cut her, and I'm bleeding, and I want to know why."

"She's wanting to try some damn, idiotic, mind experiment .. and I want no part of it, Gabrielle." Ephiny told her. "I don’t want to see, or talk to that she boar, you got me?"

A cock of the pale head. "You know… when Xena first told me she wanted you to try and talk to Paladia.. I thought she was crazy."

The regent snorted, and lifted her head. "Hey.. whadda you know."

Gabrielle sighed. "Now, I think I understand what she was driving at.. and it makes a lot of sense to me."

"What are you talking about?" Ephiny growled.

The bard moved closer. "What I'm talking about is that I see you here, shutting all of us out, pushing us away.. even Pony… and I see a good friend of mine slipping further and further out there." Gabrielle took a breath. "I see you tearing yourself apart, and I don’t' want to watch that."

"I'm fine" Ephiny countered. "I just need to go home."

Gabrielle reached out and captured her hand, hanging on when she would have pulled back. "Ephiny… you can't run from this." She tightened her fingers. "It just follows you, and never lets you go."

The Amazon looked at her.

"Go on.. what are you going to say?" Gabrielle lifted her chin. "That I'm just a naive village girl? That I don't know what I'm saying? "

Ephiny's eyes closed.

"Eph… " The bard's voice was quiet, and a little tired sounding. "I've been through some rough times recently."

"I know." Came the low answer.

"There were times when I… hated Xena.. and times when I .. hated myself even more." Gabrielle went on. "And I found out that… forgiving myself was a lot harder than forgiving her." She sighed. "But it was the path to finding peace inside myself again."

Gray eyes drank her in. "Are you telling me I have to forgive Paladia in order to get over this?"

The bard blinked. "Essentially, yes."

Ephiny shook her head. "You don't ask for much." She replied quietly. "I don’t think I can do that. I'm not… as forgiving a person.. as you are." She examined their linked hands. "I just want to kill her."

"Do you?" The bard replied. "All right." She watched Ephiny's shocked eyes lift to hers. "I can order that. Xena would do it for me if I asked her to." She waited. "Would that close things for you?"

"You can't do that." The Amazon whispered. "Can you?"

A shrug. "I don't know. I never tried." Gabrielle replied. "But if you think that will bring you peace, then I will." Her chin lifted again. "I am, after all, the Queen of the Amazons, and it's within the law.. which someone helpfully left for me to read yesterday." She released Ephiny's hand. "So.. you think about it, ok? And let me know."

She stood, and rested her hand briefly on Ephiny's bowed head. "I'll be at home… just come on over when you're ready." She turned to leave, looking back over her shoulder when she heard Ephiny shift.

"Gabrielle?" The blond Amazon spoke the name very softly.

"Mm?" She waited.

"I'm sorry about saying what I did to Xena. She didn't deserve that." Hazel eyes met green.

The bard released a breath. "In her mind she does." She replied quietly. "But thanks." She turned, and left, pulling the door closed behind her, and letting out a long sigh of relief. Oh boy, Gabrielle.. that's quite a bluff. Let's hope she doesn't call you on it.

A dark, furry form scrambled out of her way, and sat gazing unhappily at her, ears drooping. "Hey Ares.."

"Agrrrrrrr." The wolf stood, and looked at the door, then at her.

"How come you're not with your mom?" Gabrielle asked gently, kneeling beside the wolf and petting him. "Hmm? I bet she could use a friend right now, huh?"

"Rrrrr." Ares gently took her sleeve in his jaws, and tugged.

"Oh.. I get it." She stood and motioned towards the inn door. "All right.. let's go find her."

 Even the stable was too crowded. Xena let her slowing strokes ease, as she fingered the currycomb she'd been using on Argo's already gleaming coat. The walls seemed to press in against her, and she sighed softly, then rested her forehead against the mare's neck. "I think I need to just go for a walk, ok girl?" She murmured to the horse, who whickered in response. "I know.. I'll be ok, I'm just a little down."

Argo craned her head around, dropping the mouthful of sweet hay she'd been chewing, and nuzzled her rider in the side, her down soft nose pressing against the worn gambeson, and her breath penetrating to warm the warrior's skin.

Xena scratched her ears, and under her broad, flat jawbone, gently moving the thick blond forelock to one side. "Would you like a run later?"

The mare snorted, and butted her chest hard. "Yeah.. yeah.. I know.. I've been neglecting you…" She circled the mare's neck and gave her a quick hug, then pulled a bit of carrot from her pocket and offered it up, watching with a wistful smile as Argo nibbled the treat eagerly. "You wait here, ok? I'll be back soon." She gave the mare a last pat, then stood for a moment, indecisive.

Oh.. right. I know. She nodded once to herself, then ducked out the back door, and headed directly up the ridge that dipped into Amphipolis, taking a moment, then finding a old, and very overgrown path, barely large enough for her to pass, so closed with foliage that soft, flexible leaves whispered over her body and left trails of green scent in the air as she passed.

It took a while, until she'd gotten up over the crest, and reached an impasse, an old, dried creek bed that bisected the landscape, with moss covered boulders in it's base, and long, trailing vines that almost overran it. Xena stopped, and put her hands on her hips. I could jump this, now. She pursed her lips, remembering the seemingly endless time it had taken her to defeat this obstacle as a small child.

She'd decided, she remembered, that the other side was just much better than this one. Why? Who knew? Kids just.. did that kind of stuff. But she'd made up her mind, and she wasn't going to let no old river stop her.

No, ma'am. Xena's eyes tracked along the edge of the bank, almost as though she could see the rough handholds she'd patiently, stubbornly hacked into it. A step forward, and she peered into the ravine, seeing a small, overgrown ridge sticking out from the wall, and in a flash, remembered her shaking legs balancing on it, as she'd made it down that far.

And gotten stuck, because she hadn't the strength to go back up, and couldn't find any way down. She'd huddled there until almost dark, frightened, and exhausted, waving her hands to chase away the huge horseflies that swarmed around the gap, born in the tiny trickle of water that still traveled down it's meager length.

Finally, she'd spotted a vine, an arms length and more beyond her reach, which might, if she swung hard enough, get her over to a second ledge, that was near a more easily climbed part of the bank.

It meant jumping, though, over the open air, and the possibility of missing her grip, and falling to the rocks below.

But she was young, and foolish, and didn't really understand what death was, or what fear felt like, so she gathered herself up, and took the one, halting step the rock shelf allowed her, and flung herself into space, reaching for the elusive green haven.

She'd never forgotten the feeling of that rough, sticky surface under her hands, as she grabbed frantically at the vine, and somehow got a grip on it. Her small body's weight carried her forward, swinging against the bank with a rude bang, and almost knocking her silly.

But she hung on, somehow, and got to the other ledge, and sat there for a long time, until her heart stopped pounding, and her legs stopped shaking in reaction, until she managed to drag herself up the bank, and onto the solid ground, just as the fading sunset painted the green undergrowth to a russet brown.

If Xena concentrated, now, she could still feel the scratchy bite of the undergrowth against her bare legs as she sat on the bank, one thought only running over and over again through her mind.

Wow. Even now a grin found it's way onto her face, as the memory hit. That was fun.

She had, eventually, found a way across, but not before she'd experimented with every single vine she could swing on in a variety of different ways. It had been an early start on building upper body strength that now allowed her to behead a man with a single sword cut, or press her own body weight up using the power of her arms alone, something most men she knew wouldn't even try.

Xena sighed, and rested her hands on her hips, feeling the contrast between her child's struggling, and the mature, confident strength of the body she inhabited now. Glancing around, she took a few steps back, then bolted forward, reaching the edge of the ravine and leaping outward, feeling the vine's rough bite against her palms, as she let her momentum take her forward, swinging out, and down, then back up at the vine's limit.

And she released her hold, stretching her long body out, and tumbling into a lazy flip that carried her over the other bank, where she landed neatly on the edge of the continuing, overgrown path. She turned, and looked back, and smiled. Wow. That was still fun.

The smile faded after a beat. Easier to think about that part of my past, I guess. She sighed, pushing recent, angry words out of her consciousness, as she turned back and walked along a path she'd last trod before Cortese.

Ephiny leaned back in her chair, and braced her booted foot against the fireplace, her eyes gazing absently out the window, as she tried to make sense out of the previous few candlemarks. Gabrielle had surprised her, and she kept hearing the bard's words running through her head, try as she might to push them out.

She was sorry about that whole scene with Xena. Not that she didn't admit to still being angry with the warrior for exactly what she'd mentioned, she was. But her mind acknowledged that Xena wasn't able to go back and change what happened, and that she probably was carrying more than enough guilt about it without Ephiny adding to that.

That didn't stop her from being angry with the warrior for presuming to judge what she, Ephiny, should or shouldn't do, and also for forcing Gabrielle to become involved in it.

The door edged open, and she rolled an eye back, spotting Eponin's dark head peeking in. "Yeah?" She knew she was being short with everyone.. she just couldn't seem to help it. That put a barrier between her and what had happened, and she needed that, right now. Didn't mean anything was wrong with her.

"Hi." Pony quietly came in, and took the other chair. "Everyone's ready to move out tomorrow early." She kept her hands clasped in her lap, and regarded them in pensive silence.

"Good." Ephiny let out a long sigh. "Be good to get home." She studied her lover. "Guess you heard what happened out there, huh?"

Eponin met her eyes. "Everyone did." She commented evenly. "We were inside the inn."

Ephiny shook her head. "I don't know what got into Xena anyway.. don't know why she decided to get involved… I guess I'll have to go find her and apologize or something."

An awkward silence fell, as Eponin seemed to be checking the ridges on her fingertips. "Um." She finally exhaled. "I asked her to."

Ephiny felt a shock travel down her spine, and now, at last, Eponin's tense posture and strained voice registered. "What?"

The weapon's master straightened her shoulders and met her gaze evenly. "I asked her for help." Her jaw tensed. "You're eating yourself up, and I didn't know what to do. So I went and found her, and asked." Her eyes dropped. "So if you're going to be mad, be mad at me. Not at her."

The regent looked at her in bewilderment. "You?"

"Yeah." Eponin edged her chair closer. "Remember me? The featherhead who's kinda gone on you?" She let out a long sigh, the air blowing her hair up and out of her eyes. "Looks like I messed up big this time."

Ephiny cursed silently to herself. It was all just too complicated, and she didn't really feel up to dealing with any of it right now. "Pony.. "

"Mm?" The caramel colored eyes were fastened firmly on neatly tied leather boots. "Y'know… I've never felt so damn helpless in my life than I did after I got home.. and they told me what happened." She went on quietly. "All I could do is go along.. go along.. and hope like Hades that old Xena could pull some goddamn rabbit out of her goddamn saddlebag, and… " She lowered her chin to her fists. "I felt so lousy on the way up there.. everyone was treating her like crap.. and she just took it, and got behind those walls she has."

The regent leaned forward and put a hand on her arm. "Hey… "

"And then.. you know.. she practically pulled us up that stinking mountain.. and after we got up there, and saw that chasm… I would have given up." Pony slowly shook her head. "She never did."

"If you're trying to make me feel guilty about saying what I did, it's too late." Ephiny held up a hand. "All right, already."

"I'm not." Eponin replied quietly. "What you said was the truth." A breath. "We all know it." She slowly shook her head. "What kind of heart must it take to be able to hold up under all of that?"

A bird call insinuated itself into the silence.

"Pony… are you trying to distract me?" Ephiny finally asked.

"Yeah." Her lover answered.

"Trying to make me realize there are folks worse off than I am??" The regent continued.

"Yeah." Pony admitted. "Did it work?"

Ephiny sighed, and propped her head up on one hand. "Is it so awful that I just want to forget all this? " She asked in a weary voice.

"Eph… we're here for you.. to help you work through this.. " The dark haired Amazon started, awkwardly.

"You don't understand." The regent gripped her forehead. "I don't want to deal with it. I don't want to work through it. I just .." She paused, and closed her eyes. "Want it all to go away." She sensed Eponin's movement, and opened her eyes as her lover knelt gingerly in front of her.

Solemnly, wide eyed, Eponin carefully pulled a pair of roses from her belt, and offered them up. "I can't fix what happened.. but I can let you know how much you mean to me." She held her breath, crossing her mental fingers and hoping like Hades that Xena had been right. Again.

The gentle, spicy scent of the flowers tickled Ephiny's nose, as she stared at them, then lifted her eyes to the earnest ones blinking back at her, and felt something snap inside her. She lifted a shaking hand and took the roses, then slipped her other hand around Eponin's neck, and pulled her close, burying her face in the dark hair.

Damn. Eponin mused, as she gingerly attempted a gentle hug. For someone as wild and wooly as Xena is, she's got this warm and fuzzy stuff down pretty damn pat.

The path had almost faded out in places, but Xena found her memories resurfacing as she edged along it, and eventually she broke out onto a plateau, which overlooked the next valley over, where the river ran off into the horizon and the far edges of a deep forest collected a trim of hazy sunlight.

The wind was capricious up here, and blew Xena's dark hair across her face as she pushed through the knee high grasses, to a huge, lone tree that seemed to loom over the edge of the plateau, overlooking the valley.

Xena laid a hand on the bark of the tree, and gazed up. The branches wound in and among themselves, spiraling up towards the sky in a mindless pattern. With a faint smile, the warrior jumped lightly up, and caught the lowest branch, then pulled herself up onto it, stirring memories from what seemed a lifetime ago.

Up and up, further, until she reached a central point in the structure of the tree, where the limbs all curled together, and formed a small, cuplike area. Xena put her hands on the edge of one of the walls, and boosted herself over, into the welcoming interlaced branches, and settled down, limbs sprawled to take her weight on the uneven surface.

Gods… it was smaller than she remembered. A wistful smile crossed her face. But it was still comfortable here. She rolled her head to one side, and looked out over the misty vale, feeling time slip away from her.

This was a place that had been hers alone. Not even Lyceus had been up here, because he never could muster the nerve to climb this high. Xena looked around, running her fingers idly through the faint ruins of small toys, and bits of wood, and remembered the many hours she'd spent playing up here. Moving around her toy soldiers, and daydreaming of her future.

Her hand found a larger piece, and she pulled it out from under years of leafy debris, holding it up to the sunlight. A crudely carved horse's head looked back at her, the uneven eyes and scowling mouth bringing a tiny, sad smile to her face.

So many dreams she'd had. So many things she was going to do. Xena laid her cheek against the smooth bark of the tree, and studied the clouds drifting overhead. How damn far she'd drifted .. how she'd betrayed every promise she'd ever made, ever dream she'd ever had for who she wanted to be.

Her eyes found a sheep in the large, fluffy cloud that drifted between the sun and herself, dappling her body with green tinted shade.

Strange, that the one thing she'd never dreamed of now made the disappointment, and the shame of self knowledge bearable. Her daydreams had never addressed falling in love. Never considered the possibility that another person could so easily defeat her fiercest defenses and earn a surrender of self so complete that it made living with her past a weight she could handle.

Except when the thought about the damage she'd visited on Gabrielle.

Then, only the knowledge that Gabrielle needed her kept her going. She took in a deep breath of the bark scented air, and squared her shoulders a little. And that's all there is to that. She reminded herself quietly.

The afternoon sun peeked back out from the clouds, and warmed her, and she felt the tension slowly start to relax, as she shifted her boots, and the brisk wind lifted her hair and rustled the leaves.

It was so peaceful here. No Amazons, no renegades.. just her, and the tree, and the wind. And the sun that glinted through the leaves and dazzled her eyes, which she obligingly closed, willing herself to remember better times.

Vague scenes of past times spent here drifted gently in her mind's eye, and she shifted her head, resting it more comfortably against a patch of leaves. The day she'd finally gotten all the way up here, after falling.. how many times? A faint grin touched her lips. No wonder her head was hard as a rock.. she'd fallen on it just about every day for three cycles of the moon before she'd figured out a way up here.

But.. when she did, and ended up standing here in the hollow, and looking out over the world as if she'd owned it… ah. That had been sweet.

Her aching chest loosened, and the sun and wind captured her, luring her body seductively into a warm haze that swiftly, irresistibly, deepened into sleep as mental exhaustion just simply took her over.

The candles flickered, as the cool night breeze entered the inn, sending shadows dancing across the walls. Gabrielle folded her hands neatly on the table and cocked her head in a listening attitude, as the conversation around the table centered on recent doings in Potadeia.

It was taking all her willpower, though, to stay seated, in a circle of her family both birth and adopted when her heart was wandering around out in the darkness somewhere. Following her absent soulmate, who had disappeared after her talk with Ephiny and even Ares had been unable to locate her.

The trail let off at a deep, dry ravine, as much as Xena saying to them - no further. Gabrielle had stood at it's edge, and peered across, seeing the tiny fragment of a path leading outward. She was all right, Gabrielle kept telling herself, or surely she'd know it, but it was unlike Xena to deliberately just vanish without a word to her, and stay gone this long, deep into the night.

She was worried, and for all her simulated attention to what was going on at dinner, and her casual explanations of her partner's absence, she was getting more and more concerned with every passing candlemark.

A hand rested gently on her shoulder, and she turned, to see Cyrene's eyes studying her. "You ok, cutie?" The older woman lowered her voice. "You look a little bothered."

Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah.. I'm fine.. just listening. My throat's a little sore tonight.. not much into talking." She picked up her goblet and took a sip of ale, then nibbled on a piece of flatbread from her plate.

Cyrene regarded her in silence for a second, then squeezed her arm. "She'll be fine, honey.. sometimes she just… "

Green eyes met hers in wry understanding. "Needs time alone. I know." Gabrielle agreed quietly. "She can take care of herself."

They looked at each other, and then Cyrene's eyes dropped to the bard's mostly untouched dinner, paused, and lifted back to her candlelit face. "I think you both take care of each other." She commented, suppressing a smile. "And it's a good thing, too."

Gabrielle ducked her head, then gave a little, sheepish shrug. "Yeah.. " She took another long sip of ale, and set the cup down. "I'm a worrywart.. I admit it." She glanced up. "I know it drives her crazy, but I can't help it."

Cyrene rested her elbow on the table, and leaned closer. "Honey, let me let you in on a little secret, ok?"

The bard moved her head towards the innkeeper, and waited. "Ok?"

"She loves every single minute of it." Xena's mother whispered in her ear. "Don't let her fool you."

Gabrielle smiled in reaction, and let out a small, tense chuckle.

"Hey, sis…" Lila called her, and the bard looked up, to meet her sister's dark eyes. "Will you tell that one story with the giants?"

Cyrene stood up, and waved a hand. "Not tonight… I ordered her to stay quiet. She's got a sore throat, and I’m not having her strain it." She let her fingers drop and rest on Gabrielle's shoulder, as the bard bit off a faint grin.

"Thought you looked a little pale." Hecuba eyed her appraisingly, lifting a weathered hand and feeling her daughter's forehead. "You feel a little warm."

"I knew it.. " Granella snorted softly. "Anytime you don’t eat, you're not feeling well."

"She should go to bed." Lila offered, with a concerned look. "Did you drink something hot?" They all shifted nearer, peering at the now blushing Gabrielle. "I have some drops you can suck on." Lila went on, rummaging in a pocket.

"Guys.. I'm fine.. really." The bard was caught between embarrassment and sheepish gratitude for the concern. Then the shadow of Xena's absence settled on her again, and she sighed. "But.. maybe I should go lie down." She felt a sudden urge to just be out of there, alone, where she could worry in peace, and not pretend to be sociable.

Gods. She abruptly sidetracked. I think I just got a blinding insight into that testy, grumpy routine of Xena's. "Yeah… I think I'll just go on home…my head hurts anyway."

Ephiny, who had been watching in pensive silence most of the night stood slowly, and let out a breath. "I'll walk you back."

Gabrielle hesitated, then nodded, and led the way to the inn door, pushing it open and holding it while Ephiny took careful steps through it. "Listen.. you don't have to go all the way back there.. you look a little shaky." She told the regent.

"No.. it's all right." Ephiny replied quietly. "I could use the fresh air." She paced alongside the bard, glancing up at the heavy, full moon overhead. "Nice night."

Gabrielle looked up, watching the shadowy clouds drift across the glowing face. "Yeah, it is.. I always liked being out under a full moon.. everything looks so different." She glanced off into the darkness of the surrounding trees. "My favorite thing was… is watching Xena do her sword drills on a night like this.. it's magical." She lifted a hand and waved it. "The moon shines off the metal, in little sparkles all over the place, and the light, and how she moves…" She smiled a little. "All silver light and shadows… gods, the first poem I ever wrote about her was about that."

Ephiny glanced at her. "That must have gone over well." She commented. "How'd she take to having poetry written about her?"

The bard chuckled softly. "Well.. I think it kind of freaked her out at first.. but she got used to it, after a while." A deprecating shrug. "Not like she had a choice… she was my best inspiration." She let out a soft breath. "Still is."

Ephiny bowed her head, and studied the leaf littered ground they were walking over. "I.. um… " A glance up, then back down. "I don't want you to do anything to Paladia."

Gabrielle kept her silence for a bit, considering the statement. They got to the porch of her cabin, and she indicated the two chairs on the moonlit deck. She took one, and waited for Ephiny to settle in the other, and leaned back. "All right." She finally said. "I’m glad you decided that." She watched an owl flap across the open space in front of them, and sighed. "I'll.. have Josclyn handle it.. I can swear out the complaint for myself.. we just won't involve the Amazons at all."

Ephiny shifted awkwardly, and swallowed. "Thanks." Her voice was a touch hoarse. "I know you think I’m a coward… but I just can't deal with that right now." Her eyes lifted a bit, focusing on Gabrielle's hands. "Maybe in a while."

The bard nodded a little. "I understand." She returned her gaze to the forest.

Ephiny looked at her face. "But you think I'm doing the wrong thing, don't you?"

Gabrielle rolled her head to one side. "Yes." She paused. "The longer you let it fester in there, Ephiny.. the worse it gets. I know." She exhaled. "If you ever need someone to talk to, I'm here.. you know that, right?"

The regent leaned her head back, and shook it. "I feel like such an ungrateful bitch, Gabrielle… the two of you risked your lives to come in and rescue my sorry butt, and I go and open my mouth and spout off something that's none of my damn business."

The bard chewed her lip, watching the shifting leaves send shadows across Ephiny's face. "That's not true, Eph.. and I'm glad it's not." She finally said softly. "It's good to know I have friends who will stand behind me.. and who care about what happens to me.. I don't regret that at all."

Ephiny kicked her boot against the lower railing, and pursed her lips. "If… um.. if she doesn't come back before we leave tomorrow… tell her I'm sorry, all right?" She hesitated. "Tell her… tell her I think she's right.. I just don't have the strength right now to go through with it."

Gabrielle clasped her hands together, and studied the signet ring reflecting the silvery moonlight. "All right." She finally said. "I will."

They sat in silence for a bit. "Is she ok?" Ephiny finally asked, timidly. "I know you kind of blew everyone off when they asked.. but I mean… "

"I don't know." The bard answered, honestly. "She left right after you guys talked… I know she went in and spent some time with Argo, but then.. I don't know where she is. I think she's ok." Then she rested her head back against the chair. "You know what hurts the most?"

Ephiny tensed a little. "What?"

Weary green eyes turned to her. "That you still think the whole thing was her fault."

The regent pursed her lips. "I… I guess I can't get the memory of what you suffered those few days out of my mind, Gabrielle." She said. "She should have stayed, and helped you.."

"Eph." The bard leaned forward, and put a strong hand on her arm. "Listen to me, all right? Yes.. I was in Hades that whole time, it's true. But…" She exhaled. "I had all the Amazons around me… I had councilors trying to talk to me, you were there…I was surrounded by people who were trying to help me."

"Yeah." Ephiny agreed doubtfully. "We didn't do much good."

"She wasn't." Gabrielle replied, starkly. "She went up, into the mountains, and found some cold, lonely spot, and curled up into a ball, hurting. " The bard sucked in a breath. "No friends, no family... her only son dead, betrayed by the one person she'd trusted all the way, Ephiny… all the way, no holds barred, you understand?" Gabrielle fastened her eyes on the regent, willing her to see what she saw. "Ephiny, she gave me everything she has to give. Her heart, her soul, the identity of her only child, a home, a place… " The bard let her head sink down into her hands. "And I put my pride above all that." She whispered. "By my own free will, knowing how Xena felt about her, I sent Hope directly to where I knew Solon was."

She looked up right into Ephiny's stunned eyes. "I killed him."

"She was going to kill you." The regent shot back.

"There were moments I would have welcomed that." Gabrielle replied. "It would have hurt a lot less."

A tense silence fell. Finally, Ephiny drew breath. "How in all the levels of Hades did you ever get back from where you both were?"

Gabrielle rested her chin on her hands. "It was simpler than you'd think." She chose her words carefully. "The only way to break the cycle of hatred and violence, Ephiny, is through love, and forgiveness." She blinked. "I used to just say that. Now I live it." She paused. "But she.. had more to forgive, than I did." Another pause. "And that wasn't easy for her… because it's not how her nature is, but she did it." A final pause, and Gabrielle pulled all her belief up, and injected it into her voice. "And so can you."

Ephiny remained quiet for a time, reflecting on her friend's words. She glanced up, shaking her head a bit. "You're a remarkable person, you know that?"

"Nah." Gabrielle quickly disagreed. "I just do what I do."

A faint smile crossed Ephiny's face. "You do it very well." She looked out over the empty courtyard. "So… you gonna just… sit out here and wait?"

Gabrielle smiled back. "Probably." She tucked her legs up under her, and rested her weight on the chair arm. "How's Pony doing?"

Ephiny glanced quickly at her. "She's.. really come through for me." The regent admitted quietly. "She's not real good with emotional stuff, but she's really been there.. been supportive, and understanding.. she surprised me."

"Mm." Gabrielle murmured. "Well, Xena said she'd kick her butt if she wasn't, so.." Her eyes pinned Ephiny's. "I'm glad she is."

The regent sighed. "Gabrielle?"


"I get the point." Ephiny met her gaze squarely. "I may be a clueless featherhead, but if you pound something into me long enough, I eventually figure it out."

Gabrielle smiled gently. "You're not clueless." She leaned forward. "I just want you to understand where I'm coming from." She observed the weary lines around her friend's mouth, and uncurled her body, standing up. "C'mon.. let me walk you back over there… my convalescing friend."

Ephiny stood, and allowed Gabrielle to put a gentle hold on her elbow, as the walked slowly back towards the inn. "I'd.. like it if you guys would come visit us, after a while." The regent asked in a low tone. "Last time wasn't exactly pleasant."

"Sure." Gabrielle answered. "We're supposed to go out west… I promised I'd stay over at Potadeia for a few days.. and we want to go see Jessan's kids. On the way back we can swing by.. it'll be about Festival time, right?"

"Mm." Ephiny agreed. "The Festival of Dionysus… it'd be great to have you there for that… it's a lot of fun, a lot of joinings.. a lot of parties… real low stress. " She paused. "Did I mention the joinings?"

"Yeeesss… " Gabrielle chuckled. "I'd like to be there to officiate." She darted a glance at the regent. "Like.. maybe at yours?"

"Tch." Ephiny poked her gently. "Did I say that was in the works? I'm sure I didn't…. we're not… um… well, we haven't… anyway, there are lots of others who are reserving that day." She studied the ground. "It's a nice tradition… makes everyone feel like they're part of the Nation, really.. it can.. um… enhance the entire Amazon experience." A pause. "Know what I mean?"

Gabrielle bit her lip. "Ephiny?"


"I get the point." She deliberately mimicked her friend's earlier words. "I may be a clueless small town girl but if you poke me enough, I figure out you want something."

"Me?" Ephiny blinked innocently at her. "Your Majesty, I have absolutely no idea in the world what you're talking about."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Ok..ok.."

"I was just… er… explaining our traditions." Long pause. "You know how we love those."

"O.. yeah." The bard held the inn door open for her. "Almost as much as you love parties."

"Well, there's lots of those during the Festival too." Ephiny added, as they reached the door to her small room. "Listen, Gabrielle… "

A hand clasped her shoulder, warm and strong. "I know. I'll see what I can do about being there." The bard said gently. "Go to bed."

She watched Ephiny square her shoulders and enter the room, closing the door behind her, then she turned and made her way out of the inn, through the few, idle patrons that were left, and exited out into the courtyard again, strolling in silence back to the cabin. Ares came bounding up from wherever his night hunt had lead him, and galloped around her, dropping down onto his front paws, and growling.

She paused at the cabin door, and pushed it open, slipping inside, and closing it behind her.

Damn, the place was so.. Her eyes searched the familiar, candlelit interior. So empty without Xena in it. Normally, that was ok… she knew the warrior was either around, or gone for a time or..whatever. But now, she was painfully aware of every creak of the floorboards, and whisper of the leaves against the outer walls.

Xena, where in Hades are you?

For a very long moment, she stood, indecisive, then took a deep breath, and nodded to herself. "All right, Ares… you want to go for a little walk?"

"Roo?" The wolf sat down on his haunches, and peered up at her, head cocked. "Arrrggrrr."

"C'mon." Gabrielle took her light cloak down from the peg it hung on, and slipped it over her shoulders, then grabbed her staff, hefting it's familiar weight with something close to pleasure, and strode back out into the moonlight.

Yes, believe it or not, there is a part 9. Because otherwise, this last part is too big for most smaller browsers. So -

CONCLUDED… (for sure) in Part 9