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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 Ė 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:

mailto:merwolf@bellsouth.net

 


Leap of Faith - Part 5

By Melissa Good

Gabrielle watched, as a lizard, encouraged by the warm night air, meandered across the rock she and Xena were leaning against. The camp was very quiet, only the snapping of the fire, and the labored breathing of the tired sleepers was evident, along with the odd owl's hoot, and rustle from some small animal searching for a meal.

Xena was fast asleep, and she wanted to keep it that way, so she stayed curled up snugly against the warrior's warm body, even though keeping herself awake in that condition was pure, unadulterated torture. A state of dreamy contentment kept trying to lure her into it's clutches, and she was very hard pressed not to give in, and join her partner's peaceful dozing.

Cait was keeping watch, having slept well the past two days, but she promised Xena she'd keep an eye on things, so, damn it, she was going to do just that. Despite it being halfway near impossible.

And even if it meant she was going to be Hades on hooves to deal with tomorrow, lack of sleep always making her cranky and touchy, and she knew it. Oh well. She gazed up at the peaceful face above her and smiled contentedly. It's worth it... look at her.

She jumped that chasm. O... my gods.. how am I going to put this one into words? Gabrielle laughed to herself, fiercely wishing she'd seen it. The Amazons had been talking about nothing else since they'd stopped, and if she knew them, the entire Nation would hear about it as soon as they got home. Good. The bard nodded to herself. That'll do more to ease that frostiness than any rules I could hand down.

Her thoughts drifted back to the cavern, and looking up to see her hurling herself over those kids bewildered heads, landing as if on cue with Paladia's words...what more could a bard ask for?

She looked up at her partner again, tracing the sharp, angular features with loving eyes. What more could anyone ask for? The jagged claw marks from Kelten's attack were subtle, dark lines against her skin, and.. Gabrielle peered closely. Already fading.. good.. that seemed to be back in order, and aside from a few cuts and scrapes, Xena apparently had made it through a pretty rough ordeal in her usual sturdy fashion.

In fact.. Gabrielle regarded her partner thoughtfully. She looks pretty damn good... not like when we first got home.. gods.. she scared me. Xena's abnormally slow recuperation and her general lack of energy had made the bard nervous, and she'd wondered privately how much of it was the fever, and how much of it was the almost unbearable stress of the preceding few months. She had felt that herself, but on her normally robust partner, it had seemed...a lot more obvious.

At least things are getting back to normal... She mused, as her fingers traced the lines of Xena's dark blue outfit with a feather touch. Mm... I do like her in leather. She admitted wryly, letting the rich scent fill her lungs. It.. just fits her somehow. Her eyes tracked the slow, even breathing under her cheek, enjoying the subtle curves, and the distinctively spicy smell that was just part of Xena's natural scent. My warrior. She let the thought percolate through her mind, loving the warmth of it.

I missed this so much. Her lips tightened. It had been like being addicted to something.. and then not having it anymore. It had just.. gone.. and it had been such a strong, physical craving, one that almost drove her crazy. She'd known Xena had felt it too, because the warrior would have to catch herself, constantly, from reaching out a hand to touch her, stroke her hair, tickle her.. things that had become second nature to both of them, and now were perceived to be unwelcome.

And how many times had she seen Xena just walk over and hug Argo? Just bury her face into the horse's mane, with a look of forlorn confusion in her eyes.

I wonder what would have happened if we'd just given in to that? She considered the thought. I was suffering, she was suffering... that physical closeness bridges some of the differences we've always had. A blond eyebrow quirked. And we still do.. only now we're more aware of it.

Thank the gods, that was over. Gabrielle idly played with a loose lacing, then gently pulled aside the edges the laces held shut, and peeked under the bandage she'd tucked over the awful puncture in her partner's chest. "That's my girl." She whispered lightly, smiling at the neatly healing wound.

Then she lifted her head, and listened, her brows contracting lightly.

Silence. More than there should be. Her hand tightened on Xena's arm, and she took a breath to speak, then a low, burring voice tickled her ear.

"I hear them." Xena told her. "About a dozen, clustered around us."

Gabrielle peeked up at her. "How long have you been up?" She said suspiciously.

A faint grin answered her. "Long enough." The warrior growled softly. "But I've been enjoying the attention." She added teasingly.

"What are we going to do?" The bard tried to ignore the blush covering her face.

"Easy... just slide off me.. free up my left arm." Xena told her, one hand slipping out and touching the sheathed sword at her side. Her heartbeat was already up, pumping blood through her body and dispelling the lingering clutches of the sleep she'd so recently abandoned. "Must be friends of our prisoner... they can't keep quiet to save their lives."

Gabrielle winced, considering just how true that statement probably was, given that this was Xena they were going up against. She reached out and curled her hand around her adopted staff, disliking it's balance, but deciding it was better than nothing. "Should we just yell, and wake everyone up? Maybe they'll run away, and not attack."

Xena drummed her fingertips against her chakram, and pursed her lips. "You're no fun sometimes, you know that?" She grumbled. "Oh all right."

She took a breath to call out, then abruptly blurred into action as a shower of dark tipped darts flung themselves into the clearing. Her sword caught most of them, deflecting the tiny missiles away from her and from Gabrielle, who rolled up against the rock in startled response. "Damn." She realized the other members of their group had been hit. "Looks like it's you and me, Red."

The attackers counted, then rushed the clearing, expecting to find sleeping opponents.

Well, most of them were. But they were met near the fire by a tall, dark haired, laughing nightmare whose silver blade sent the leading body's head from it's shoulders, and showered the clearing with bright red blood.

And those behind, who scattered, were met by a long, flickering movement of a staff in the hands of an expert, who took their weapons from their grip with stinging slaps, and knocked them off their feet with solid jabs, and powerful sweeps.

Xena stood her ground, braced in front of where Paladia was, knowing that was their goal, and sent attackers sprawling with well placed kicks. The two who were stupid enough draw steel on her and descend on her tall form with slashing cuts were gutted, the solid, distinctive sound of a sword's length puncturing bone and muscle echoing across the clearing.

One came at her from behind, and got an elbow to the throat, crushing it, and dropping him to the ground with a gurgling scream.

Another one from behind, who never reached her, grabbed by a slim, pale arm that held a cruel blade whose edge severed his throat with a deadly professionalism. Cait tilted her head back and laughed. "Now, that's the ticket." She hurled herself to Xena's left, and intercepted a squat, heavy figure who was aiming a dagger at the warrior's leg. "Gosh no... you won't do that." The girl dodged his arm, and slashed at his wrist, cleaving the skin all the way to the bone and causing him to drop the weapon. "Right." Another cut, and his crossbow was gone., sent flying by a kick from a slim, booted foot.

Hoofbeats broke the eerie silence then, coming in hard and fast, and Xena jumped to one side, grabbing Cait and tossing her out of the way. She waited, seeing the dark form on the horse's back by the fitful firelight.

Saw the edge of the spear couched against his shoulder, the deadly point, dripping with a dark substance, headed right for her chest.

Only a second, in which she had to decide what to do. If she let him thunder past, he was headed right for where Ephiny and the Amazons were lying. She sighed, and hoped her grab would be accurate and reached for the spear.

Her hands closed around the shaft, feeling the rough splinters scrape her skin, and the jolt as his motion was suddenly arrested. She pulled hard, dropping down off her feet to lend her weight to the effort, and he struggled, trying to jab her with the tip.

"Oh no." She got a hand up onto his pommel, and pulled violently sideways, mentally apologizing to the horse. With a squawk, he fell heavily, pulling himself, and the horse, down on top of her.

There was a flurry of blows, and then she got a fist into his abdomen, resulting in a hoarse gurgling. Someone pulled the horse forward, urging it onto it's feet, and that freed her legs, allowing her to roll up onto her knees, and lift her hapless opponent, tossing him from her against the tree Paladia was tied to. "Bastard." She spat, tasting blood inside her mouth, and realizing she'd bitten the inside of her cheek.

Gabrielle was at her side seconds later, running a hand up her arm. "You ok?"

Xena spat again, ridding herself of some of the metallic tang, and nodded. "Yeah.. I'm fine.. you? Cait?" She climbed to her feet, and brushed her leathers off.

"Super, thanks." The girl answered, cleaning her slim, deadly blade on a victim's dirty surcoat. "Lovely exercise."

"Fine here." Gabrielle answered easily, giving Cait a little, sideways glance.

They turned and looked at Paladia, who was writhing against her bonds, freezing when she realized their attention was on her. "They'll never stop." She crowed, triumphantly. "You'll never keep me."

Xena retrieved and sheathed her sword, then sauntered over and dropped down to a crouch next to her, resting her powerful forearms on her knees. "Listen. These are just damn kids." The warrior dusted her hands off, and glanced around. "Seven of them just died." She leaned closer. "You could put a hundred of them up against me and they'd still die." One eyebrow quirked." Is that what you want? Them all dead?"

"You can't.. " Paladia protested.

"Ah.. but I can." Xena replied, with a smile. "And I will." Her voice dropped a bit. "I'm just that kinda girl." She stood. "Do your buddies a favor. Tell them to get lost." She shook her head, and walked back towards the fire, where Gabrielle was standing, leaning on her staff. "Morons."

The bard gave her a wry smile. "Not really, Xena. If it had been anyone other than you here, it woulda worked."

Ares growled agreement, licking his jaws of the blood he'd acquired in wrestling down an opponent of Gabrielle's.

"Hmph." Xena grunted. "Maybe." She set to work, picking up the dead victims and dragging them away from the camp, putting the final two on top of the hapless horse and giving him a slap. The injured attackers had limped off, and she let them go, hoping their tales of horror would keep a repeat attack from occurring.

When she got back from her task, Gabrielle had checked the groggy Amazons, who were in turn, puzzled, outraged, and embarrassed, and settled next to Ephiny, who had escaped the darts somehow and who was fuzzily conscious. "Hey.. you missed the party."

Pale eyes gazed wearily up at her. "Story of my life." She cleared her throat a little, wincing. "You guys ok?"

Gabrielle laughed gently. "Us? Sure... what's a dozen guys when you've got Xena there pulling horses down single handedly." She curled her fingers around the regent's, and took a breath. "How are you feeling?"

"Ugh." Ephiny responded, turning her head to watch Eponin and the others stretching themselves out, shaking off the effects of the darts. "Like I fell off a cliff." She moved her head a little. "But a little better.. I think."

"Good to hear." Gabrielle replied.

"Gabrielle?" Now Ephiny's eyes fastened on her, and her voice dropped to a whisper. "Do you... do you remember Thessaly?"

The bard paused for a long moment. "Well.. yeah.. of course I do." She finally answered, in a puzzled tone. "What about it?"

Ephiny's eyes flicked to hers. "When you got really sick...when you.. um.. "

"Died?" Gabrielle supplied, with a grimace.

"Uh. Yeah." The regent agreed. "When that happened.. what was it like, for you?"

Gabrielle thought about the question. "Well.. at first it was really scary." She reached up and scratched her nose reflectively. "I knew... well, it was painful, then it got really dark..." She swallowed hard. "And then.. I was on this seashore.. and it was really peaceful... there was a.. kind of a door.. all light.. and I went through it." She glanced at Ephiny. "I saw people I knew there.. my uncle.. "

The Amazon blinked at her. "But you came back."

Gabrielle closed her eyes, and nodded a little. "Yeah.. I did.. I.. there was something missing." A long pause, and a little smile. "Someone."

Ephiny squeezed her hand. "Even then, huh?"

"Yeah." The bard let out a long breath. "Even then.. she called me, and I came back."

The Amazon nodded quietly. "I was there." She hesitated. "And now I've been where you were."

Gabrielle studied her. "But you came back."

Ephiny managed a tiny smile. "Yeah." Then her eyebrow edged up. "Hey.. we can start a club. Xena can be the president.. how about it?"

That surprised a snort of laughter out of the bard. "I guess we could." She turned her head. "Speaking of which.. I'll let Eponin take my place here.. I need to go make sure Xena didn't rip open any of those cuts."

They settled down, this time with two of the Amazons on very obvious watch, and Xena returned to her rock, thumping down onto the earth, with Ares, who immediately crawled up into her lap and started chewing her laces. "Ares!"

"Agrrrrrophf." The wolf licked her, then rolled over, wriggling as though trying to rub her scent all over his thick fur.

"Would you cut that out?" The warrior spluttered, exasperated, looking up and seeing amused glances go skittering away out into the darkness. "Damn.. go chew on your other mommy's boots, all right?"

"Hey!" Gabrielle laughed, as she wandered over. "Not unless you want to cough up the dinars for a new pair." She dropped down to her knees, then collapsed onto her side, resting on one elbow as she played with the delighted Ares with her other hand.

"Mmm... " The warrior mimicked her partner's sprawled posture, leaning on her own elbow, and regarding her thoughtfully. "How about.. a nice pair in black leather.. up to here." She drew a fingertip across her partner's knee.

"Xena." The bard rolled her eyes. "In case you had never noticed.. I've got short legs. Knee high boots would look ridiculous on me.. I remember when I had to wear yours that one time."

Xena grinned, in a good mood despite the attack. Or maybe because of it. "Aww...I thought you looked damned cute in that outfit."

Gabrielle rested her chin on her hand and sighed. "I felt idiotic.. everything was too long on me." She reflected. "And then I got back and stopped caring if it was."

A little silence fell, then Xena rolled onto her back, and held her arms out. "C'mere." She scooped the bard into a warm hug, then pulled her down into her favorite spot. "Your turn for some sleep, I think."

No argument from Gabrielle, who obediently closed her eyes, and threw a secure arm around her partner's stomach. "Didn't get much in there.. " She mumbled. "Kept having that nightmare.. when I'm back in Chin.. just looking for you." Her voice caught. "But you're gone.."

"Shhh." Xena stroked her hair gently. "Gabrielle.. that's never gonna happen, ok? I'll never leave you."

Green eyes flicked up to study her. "You mean that."

The warrior nodded. "I do... in life, in death... no matter what."

Gabrielle blinked. "Forever."

Xena smiled peacefully. "Forever."

The bard let a relaxed grin cross her face, as she snuggled closer, and let out a contented sigh. "Mine."

That got a wistful, sweet smile from her partner. "You got that right."

Ares rolled his eyes and yawned, then let his muzzle rest on Xena's thigh.


Cait settled down cross-legged next to the fuming Paladia, and tucked into a bowl of the leftover soup from their sparse dinner. "That was outstandingly stupid." She informed the burly woman, biting into a piece of fish with evident relish.

"Shut up." Paladia snarled, trying to find a comfortable spot against the bole of the tree she was tied to. "Who asked you?"

The slim blond gave her a disgusted look. "You're not only stupid, you're rude." She told Paladia. "You'd better wise up."

The much larger woman stared at her. "You can't keep hold of me."

Cait leaned forward, chewing a bit of fruit from her bowl. "Are you a total idiot? Didn't you just see what happened to all those people?" She shook a finger. "They're dead, most of them." Another mouthful. "Don't you know what dead is? Have you never killed anyone?"

Paladia blinked. "Of course I have.. " She boasted.

"I don't think you have." Cait informed her. "Because you think this is nothing but some kind of a game."

"Oh.. " The woman snorted. "And how many people have you killed, you little runt?"

Cait nibbled a piece of apple. "Six, now." She replied casually. "Did you see that last one? Lovely."

Paladia gazed at her. "You're serious." She mumbled.

"Quite." Cait answered. "I know what death is, you see." She poked for more fish. "My folks were killed by raiders.. I got quite upset, and went to take care of the person who'd done it." She swallowed, and wiped her mouth. "And then, I just hung around Amphipolis.. catching small game, and trading it for food.. whatnot."

"They didn't run you off?" Paladia asked, surprised.

"What, that lot? Gosh no... " Cait smiled. "They're lovely... Cyrene would always leave bits and things out for me, no charge .. she's super." She tipped the bowl to her lips, and took a long swallow. "Then Xena came back.. "

"Gods.. don't start in. I'm tired of hearing about that bitch." Paladia spat.

"Well, you ought to get used to it, really... where you're going." Cait told her, practically. "She can't help it, really.. she breathes and someone tells a story about it." She set the bowl down. "At any rate, she came home.. and I got her to let me go off to the Amazons."

"Let you?" Paladia laughed nastily. "Why didn't you just go?"

"Well." Cait settled down, resting her elbows on her knees. "I needed an intro, you see.. so Xena sent me back with Queen Ephiny, to guard her on the way home from this really nasty Amazon that was trying to kill her."

"What?" Paladia asked, in cautious interest.

"Right...that happens sometimes, with those Amazons.. they get all out of whack.. Xena says it has something to do with them cycling all at once." Cait drummed her fingers against her chin. "Where was I.. oh, right.. anyway, I got back just in time to see Queen Gabrielle's defense of the Centaur Village."

Now she had Paladia's attention, and the gray eyes fastened on her. "Waitaminute... whatsherface over there was telling me about some crazy story about an Amazon Queen who fought off some other Amazons for some Centaurs or something.. that was her??" She jerked her jaw towards the shadowy form against the far rock.

"Oh yes." Cait confirmed. "It certainly was.. she stood up to those nasty centaur butts quite nicely, actually... but I got to see Xena come diving to the rescue.. and that was just super." She waved a hand in pantomime. "She flew.. just like a bird, and caught the crossbow arrow just before it hit the Queen." She paused, and sighed. "Lovely."

Paladia gazed across the camp, regarding the two women resting in the fire's bare light. Xena's eyes were caught by errant flickers as she watched with quiet alertness, her arms wrapped protectively around the fair haired bard who was sleeping soundly cuddled against her chest. "So that's the great Xena." She mused. "Not what I expected."

Cait considered that. "She's quite nice once you get to know her."

Paladia snorted. "I have no intention of getting to know her." She turned her head and rested it against the bark. "They won't trick me again."

The blond Amazon sucked on her spoon and studied her charge. "Look here, you went and stole away people.. what were you expecting would happen?" She asked reasonably. "Didn't you think they'd ever mind?"

Paladia swallowed, and gave her a quick look. "Didn't hurt anything... it was just a way to get back some of our own."

Now Cait got mad. She put her bowl aside, and slid closer. "Didn't hurt? What do you call what happened to Ephiny, then? "

The larger woman jerked back. "She attacked me!" She protested. "She deserved what she got!"

In a flash, Cait was on her, the girl's slim frame which camouflaged a steely strength leaning against Paladia's, her fist wrapped in the woman's leather and fabric tunic. "You are a vile beast." Came the startlingly low growl. "You did horrible, disgusting things to her, and when she fought back.. when she tried to protect Gabrielle, you beat her rotten." A knife appeared from nowhere, and pressed against the flesh of Paladia's throat. "I would love to just kill you, I would."

"It... " Paladia's face showed confusion. "Wasn't horrible.. it... I didn't... it was just a... "

Cait sat back, and dropped her hands. "My gosh, you really don't know how just awful you are, do you?" She slowly shook her head. "Did you think giving her drugs made it right?"

A shrug. "She didn't mind."

"Of course she did.. or Gabrielle wouldn't have tried to protect her by changing places then, would she?" Cait spat back.

Paladia snorted. "Thought she was... " Her voice trailed off. "She enjoyed it."

Cait slapped her. "She hated it so much she was willing to risk her life to keep that from happening to anyone else." She shuddered. "Ugh.. you make my skin crawl."

The tall woman stared at her. "It's just pleasure... it doesn't mean anything."

Cait glared back. "My gosh, you are an idiot." She burst out. "It's part of being in love.. of course it means something."

Paladia rolled her eyes. "Oh..ok.. that's the problem. You think there's such a thing." She shifted. "Get off me. I know better.. I learned the hard way love doesn't exist.. it's just what you do, and who you do it to."

The Amazon rolled to one side, and looked back towards the fire. "How can you say that?" She dropped her voice. "Look at them... how can you say love doesn't exist?" Even in the dim light of the fire, they could see the sleepy look of contentment on Gabrielle's face, as she shifted slightly and burrowed closer into the embrace of her taller partner. Xena glanced down, and whispered something, a grin creasing her face, then leaned her chin against the bard's head, and returned her gaze to the fire. "It simply doesn't get any realer than that."

Paladia didn't answer.


"Everybody ready?" Gabrielle hitched her bag onto her shoulder, and surveyed the small group. The rest of the evening had gone by without incident and she'd reluctantly pried her eyes open just after dawn to see Xena's indulgent grin sparkling back at her.

Breakfast had been very sparse, but no one had much cared, being just grateful to be out of the caverns, and on the way home. The Amazons were packed up, and had rigged a set of straps to carry their injured regent, who was conscious but in pain, and whom Xena had given.. ok, forced her to drink.. a solution that put her in a mildly hazy state.

The villagers were more than ready to head out, and Lennat was waiting for her to join him.. casting uncertain looks at the towering Kelten who had tamely submitted to Xena's touch and was gingerly walking around in small circles, stretching out atrophied muscles, and fluffing his newly washed fur out to dry.

He was, she thought, almost pretty, with his silvery hair, and she decided to set aside her remembered dislike for him, at least for a while. He had said he would amble along with them for the rest of the day, seeing as how their paths lead together, then head off towards home. She wondered why, really.. since he hated humans, but she suspected it was because he was fascinated by Xena.

Like no one else around here is, right? She flicked a glance around, silently amused by the number of furtive looks in the direction of the spring that her partner was just strolling back from barelegged, and dressed only in her leathers. The sun was glistening off the droplets of water that covered her skin and she looked... Gabrielle felt a faint smile tugging at her lips. Mmm...

Seemingly oblivious to the attention, Xena finished squeezing the excess water out of her hair, and ran her fingers through it, tossing her head back and sending a faint mist out in all directions. She padded through the ankle high grasses and ended up next to Gabrielle, who was standing quietly and idly tossing one of her leather arm bands. "Hi."

The bard twirled the bracer on one finger. "Hi yourself."

Xena registered the silence at that point, and looked around, her brows creasing at the suddenly averted glances. "Something wrong?" She returned her attention to the bard, with a puzzled frown.

"Nope." Gabrielle smiled. "Not a thing that I can see." She batted her blond eyelashes at her soulmate, and slipped the arm protector up her arm, settling it into place around Xena's biceps, unable to resist tracing the smooth lines of the muscles with a languid finger.

The warrior gave her a suspicious look, then shook her head and picked up her chest armor, dropping it over her shoulders and adjusting the buckles. "Can you get.. " She winced, as the still tender wound in her gut pulled when she tried to reach too far. "Damn."

"Sure." Gabrielle slid her hands over the warm leather surface, and worked the strap, giving her a little pat when she was done. "There you go." She let her touch linger, reveling in the soft texture of the hide's surface.

Xena leaned closer. "You all right?" She asked, with a touch of curiosity.

The bard sucked in a long breath of air, a mixture of damp leather and sun warmed skin and grinned. "Uh... yeah... " She paused. "Why?"

The warrior's breath tickled past her ear, and almost made her legs give way. "Because you're turning a really nice shade of pink." She ran a finger up the bard's neck, tracing the soft flush, and leaving a trail of goosebumps behind her.

"Xena?" Gabrielle clenched her teeth, blinking hard.

"Hmm?" Her partner arched an eyebrow. "Yes, Gabrielle?" She let her voice drop to it's lowest register.

"Cut that out or you're gonna be part of a spectacle." The bard warned wryly.

Xena sighed, and walked past her, sitting down on the rock, and tugging her boots on, pulling the laces tight, and tying them off around her leg. "Been thinking." She started, then fell silent as she heard footsteps approaching.

Gabrielle picked up her left leg armor and handed it to her, as Eponin wandered over. "Yeah?" She half turned. "Hey Pony... Eph doing ok?"

The Amazon nodded quietly. "Eeeyah... I guess.. bitching about whatever it was that Xena gave her.. but I told her there's worse ways for her to get knocked out." This with a glare in Xena's direction. "I still got a sore neck from that little trick, I'll have ya know."

Xena finished fastening her leg armor on, and stood, stamping both feet to settle it into place. "Yeah.. well, there are worse ways than that, too." She shouldered her own pack, and motioned with her head towards the slope leading down. "C'mon.. let's get going." A glance up." Weather's not gonna cooperate forever."

They moved at a slow pace, to accommodate the pallet bearers, and Paladia's bound limbs, which allowed her only a shortened stride. Eponin led the way, with the villagers and the litter after her, carried by two Amazons, then Solari and Terrea, pacing in front of their prisoner, followed by Cait, Johan and the other Amazon. Kelten traveled watchfully after them, with Xena and Gabrielle bringing up the rear.

The warrior kept a wary eye on the surroundings, her hackles raising several times as she sensed watchers. A whistle sent warning to Eponin, who raised a fist in acknowledgement, and the Amazons fanned out, loosening their swords in warning, and Ares circled them, sniffing suspiciously

They were left alone.

The sun rose higher, heating the warm, humid air until they all were sweating freely. Xena kept an eye on the time, and called a halt after noon, moving up to check on Ephiny, with Gabrielle trudging behind her. The warrior pushed dampened hair out of her eyes, and knelt at the side of the litter, laying a gentle hand on the regent's forehead. "Eph?"

Pale eyes fluttered open, and tracked to her face. "Ugh."

Xena's face twitched in sympathy. "Look.. I know it hurts.. I can give you more stuff.. "

A weak hand wave stopped her. "Not hurts... seasick. "She rolled an eye towards her abashed litter bearers. "Haven't been this nauseous since I went sailing on that lake over near us and hit a windstorm."

Gabrielle smiled, and crouched next to her partner, taking one of Ephiny's wrists in her hand. "Let me show you a trick I learned a while back, OK?"

Ephiny watched in interest, as the bard tapped a spot on the inside of her arm. "Hey... " She paused, then tilted her head. "That works." A note of tired surprise colored her voice, then she regarded Gabrielle with faint interest. "You're taking me back in time, my friend." A smile touched her lips. "With that outfit.. meant to tell you before...."

The bard stood, and wiped her brow. "No kidding.. and this one's just as uncomfortable as the old one was." She glared up at her soulmate, who muffled a chuckle. "What'r you laughing at?"

Xena poked a thumb at her own chest. "Me? Not a thing... but..." With a flourish, she drew her dagger, and advanced on her partner, twirling the knife in expert fingers. "I just may have a solution for your little problem."

Gabrielle put her hands on her hips, and cocked her head. "Oh yeah?"

Slowly, Xena knelt, then delicately ran the dagger around Gabrielle's thigh, slicing through the fabric. She leaned forward, and circled around the backs of her legs, then came fully around her other thigh, separating most of the bottom of the long, and now bedraggled skirt. The fabric fell to the dusty path and the bard stepped neatly out of it, trying very hard to bite down a laugh.

She wasn't really sure whether to be embarrassed, pleased, stimulated, or what... Xena's whole attitude was gently teasing, odd and rare in the extreme in public for the normally stoic warrior.

The breeze felt good on her bare skin, though.. so she waited, watching as Xena got to her feet, then moved closer, tugging at the shirt she was wearing, and pulling it's ends from where they were tucked into the waistband of the skirt.

The soft sounds of fabric parting, and the shivery feel of the dagger against her side, as Xena split first one seam, than the other, then brought the ends forward, and tied them neatly into a knot above her navel. Then she completed the outfit by efficiently slicing off the sleeves, rendering the effect not too far off what she usually wore.

Except the frills.. which looked really silly.. and the playful slits Xena then made in the top of the skirt, which exposed her muscular legs almost to her hips.

When she was done, the warrior stepped back, and raised her hands in question. "Well?"

The Amazons clapped and laughed, even Ephiny, who bit her lip because laughing hurt. "Much, much better. " The regent nodded. "Xena.. you missed your calling."

"Oh yeah." Xena snorted lightly. "It called.. but I couldnít hear it over the sound of my sword beating the crap out of someone." She turned her attention back to her soulmate. "Better?"

Gabrielle reached back, and twisted her hair off her neck, glancing down at her new, abbreviated outfit. "Much." She grinned. "I won't be tripping over it, at least." She pushed past her partner, and headed back towards the rear, shaking her head in amusement.

Xena resumed her checking of the regent's wounds, completely ignoring the smirks on the Amazons' faces. "This sun bothering you, Eph?"

"No." Ephiny drawled weakly. "Is it bothering you?"

Xena looked at her, then up at the circle of grinning warriors. "I donít know what you're talking about." She muttered, standing up, then dusting her hands off, and nodding down range. "Weather's building... we've got two choices."

Now the smirks and chuckles stopped, and they paid attention. "We can head up the route towards Amazon territory.. find someplace to hole up for the night."

Concern colored their glances. "Yeah, I know." Xena sighed. "I think we're gonna get jumped again too, and I'm a little tired of it." She gazed off into the distance. "We could make Amphipolis before nightfall, if we push it."

Home. Gods.. seeing their familiar cabin, and imagining falling into it's soft bed with Gabrielle was a very welcome thought right at the moment. And wasn't that pathetic? Xena chastised herself wryly. "We can have Josc keep her.. " Here she motioned towards Paladia, who was listening with a stony look. "In the lockup cellar for a few days.. you can stay for Gran and Toris' joining.. Eph can get back on her feet..."

"Xena." Ephiny blinked.

"What?" The warrior replied.

"You donít have to sell us on your hometown." The regent mumbled dryly. "B'sides... that's where I was heading to begin with."

Quick glances sped among the Amazons, who nodded finally. "Sounds good to me." Solari yawned. "Let's get going."

They started moving again, this time a little more cheerfully. Xena dropped back to where Gabrielle was strolling, and fell into step behind her. "Settled."

"Home?" The bard inquired, having discussed the issue with her previously. "You got them to agree in that short a time? Gods, Xena.. maybe you should be the Queen of the Amazons."

"Spare me." Her partner rolled her blue eyes.

"Maybe you should go up there and.. um.. teach them marching song or something.. cement this leadership role thing." The bard continued, seriously. "It could be good for them." She paused. "And for you." She caught the swift flash of uncertainty in her soulmate's gaze and put a hand on her back. "Just kidding."

Xena maintained her silence for a bit, then blinked and tilted her head to regard her partner. "Nah..I like the view back here much better." She ran a teasing touch up the bard's bare thigh.

Gabrielle blushed, and slapped at her hand. "Would you cut that out? It's bad enough I've got you and your leather right here next to me... donít make it worse, all right?"

The warrior dropped her bantering air, and drew a little apart, walking on in silence. "Sorry." She replied quietly.

The bard shot a glance at the now serious profile, and winced internally. "Hey.. " She slid closer and bumped Xena's arm gently. "Didn't mean that the way it sounded."

A shrug. "It's all right." Xena's voice was even. "I was being a little silly." She rubbed her temples. "Not sure what got into me."

Gabrielle tucked her hand around her partner's warm arm, and leaned her head against the tall shoulder. "Same thing that got into me.. and is making me want to drag you off into the bushes." She replied with a sheepish smile, blushing when Xena raised both eyebrows at her. "I'm.. um.. really glad we're going home tonight instead of heading towards Amazon country."

Eyebrows edged even higher.

"Augh." Gabrielle bounced a little in her walk. "Stop that look, already.. I can't help it."

Finally, that got a smile from her dour partner. "You'd better stop that yourself."

"What?" The bard gazed at her. "This?" She bounced.

"Gabrielle." Xena muffled a chuckle.

"Nah nah nah.. " The bard bounded like a rabbit, poking her tongue out at her partner, unable to resist the sudden inexplicable craving she had to indulge herself in this sweet playfulness.

The warrior covered her eyes. "I think we both had too little sleep last night." She announced. "We're losing it." She peeked through her fingers, to see Gabrielle's broad grin. "You'd better cut that out..." But the teasing sparkle in the bard's eyes got all inside her, and stirred up a powerful warmth she'd half forgotten.

A rolling wave of giddiness that threatened to sweep her from her feet all over again, as she sensed herself falling down a steep path whose last ending had only meant unbearable pain, and she was helpless to stop... part of her desperate for it, part of her terrified of it.

She'd never expected, at her age, to fall so totally, give up so much of herself in an uncontrollable tumble into love. And she'd paid for that.

Dearly.

Now here it was again, holding out it's hand, tantalizing, tempting... terrifying.

It would be so easy to back away.. their relationship was knitting itself back together. She didn't need this.

No. She didn't need it. But oh.. gods.. she wanted it.

The bard stuck her tongue out again, and almost lost it, when Xena neatly ducked her head, and captured it in her teeth, melding that into a long kiss, allowing her senses to find places for their boots, praying that she wouldn't end up head first down the trail. She finally broke that off, glancing guiltily ahead of them, relieved that the column seemed to be moving on stolidly.

"Whew." Gabrielle commented, taking a deep breath, and releasing it. "Gonna be a loooooonnnnnggg day."

"Mmph." Xena agreed, wrapping an arm around the smaller woman's shoulders, and grinning recklessly

Letting the wind which screamed by her on the brink where she stood sweep away her doubts, and with a simple, fearless bound, threw herself back out into space.

Overhead, the clouds were gathering, and in the far distance, a low rumble of thunder stirred the air, the wind turning fitful as the leaves around them danced unpredictably.


The thunder was louder, and much closer, the vibrations rumbling through the ground they were walking on by the time they entered the river valley, heading towards the bridge that would cross over into the territory around Amphipolis. The wind had picked up considerably, and the light had taken on a peculiar, russet light that enhanced the vivid green of the river grass they were walking through

"Creepy." Gabrielle commented, as they stopped for a quick rest, and she dropped down cross-legged onto the ground with a brisk rustle of dried vegetation. She jumped a little, as a cricket took her arm for a path, and hopped down onto her leg, pausing there and waving it's tiny antenna. "Hello."

Ares trotted over and sniffed at the green tinted creature, then sat down, and cocked his head at it. "Roo." He yodeled softly, and the cricket maneuvered its legs around to keep an eye on him, rattling its stiff carapace and making Gabrielle jump again.

"Yaa." The bard nudged the insect with a fingertip, trying to encourage it to continue its journey.

Xena glanced down from where she was uneasily studying the weather, and smiled, letting her hand drop down and tangle it's fingers in the bard's fair hair.

Gabrielle forgot the cricket for a moment, and looked up, returning the smile. "Not far, huh?" She asked, after what seemed like a really long moment of them just looking at each other. What the heck's gotten into us today?

The warrior blinked, and shook her head as though to clear it. "Um... " She glanced over at the horizon. "No.. not very.. I hope we make it in... I don't like the way the sky looks."

The bard sighed, and leaned back on her hands, her pale green eyes studying the clouds. A rustling to their right made her look over, as Kelten brushed through the long grasses and faced Xena.

"Iím heading home, Chosen." The tall forest dweller advised her. His face was less haggard, and, clean, he appeared far healthier than he had when they'd first released him . "I'd say it's been a pleasure, but it hasn't."

Xena snorted softly. "How'd you get caught by these kids anyway?"

Kelten glanced off into the distance. "Life's tough sometimes... " He turned his silver hued eyes on her. "I got challenged, I lost." He wrinkled his nose. "Guess he thought sparing me was a kindness." He laughed unpleasantly. "I figured I could find some out of the way place somewhere...found a wild boar instead."

Xena let out a breath, putting her hands on her hips and glancing at the ground. "That's rough." She commented. "What are you going to do now?"

He shrugged. "Doesn't really matter.. find a cave... maybe slaughter a few small animals for fun just for old time's sake." His fangs showed in a feral grin. "You know."

"Be careful." Gabrielle said quietly.

He looked at her. "That would defeat the purpose now, wouldn't it?" His eyes drifted to Xena's quiet face, and they exchanged silent, understanding nods. "Ares watch over you, Chosen." His muzzle wrinkled into a wry look, as he turned, and parted the tall grass with his hands.

"Who took you, Kelten?" Xena asked, folding her arms.

He glanced back over his silver shoulder at her. "That kid you scared into wetting his fur.. " His eyes showed pained disgust. "Life bites hard sometimes." Then he shook his head, and slowly dissolved into the underbrush, heading towards the treeline which ringed the low-lying hills they'd just exited.

"Mmph." Gabrielle murmured softly, gazing at her cricket, who had apparently decided he liked her knee very much. The legs tickled, though. "A little poetic justice, I think."

Xena studied her boots. "I guess I can see through his eyes a bit more than you can..." She sighed, and shook her head. "If it were left up to poetic justice, I'd hate to see where I'd be right now."

Ouch. Gabrielle winced. Good point. She gently moved her cricket to a cattail, and stood, brushing her skirt off and strolling over to her pensive partner. "Well.. I guess it's good you hooked up with a poet then, huh?" She put a hand on Xena's arm. "Your justice is you have to listen to me babbling all the time."

The warrior eyed her for a split second, then relaxed into a grin. "I"ll take it."

"Good answer." Gabrielle informed her, as they started walking towards where the rest of the group was sitting. She wrapped an arm tightly around her partner's waist, and smiled as Xena draped her own arm across the bard's shoulders. "Come on, guys... let's get moving, or we'll all end up wet." She called out to their resting companions.

Chuckles met her words from the Amazons, and she gazed at them, puzzled. "What?" She turned and glanced at Xena, who was covering her eyes with her free hand and biting her lip. "What???" She went over her words, then rolled her eyes and groaned. "Gods.. you people are disgusting." She disengaged her arm from her partner's body, and backslapped her in the abdomen, then stalked off towards where Lennat was kneeling next to Johan.

"Ow." Xena rubbed the spot, then unshouldered her pack, and crouched down next to Ephiny's pallet. "How are you doing?" She turned the regent's head with gentle fingers, and studied the bruising that stained half her face.

"I'd appreciate it if you'd not try to make me laugh like that." The regent mumbled, her pale eyes glinting through half closed, swollen eyelids. "Can't you do the humorless stoic routine until I feel better?"

Xena edged an eyebrow up, and bit back a grin, trying to force a sober expression onto her face. "Right." But the faint grin kept tugging at her lips anyway. "You want more stuff for the pain?"

Ephiny thought about that for a minute. "No..." She took a deep breath, and let it out. "I'm tired of feeling like I'm wrapped in a cloth shroud." She blinked her eyes a few times. "Vision's pretty blurry."

Xena's brow creased. "Well... " She examined the bumps on the regent's head. "There's a lot of swelling.. maybe that's causing it." Her eyes lifted, and found Eponin's very worried ones looking back at her. "Yeah.. that's probably it.. give it a few days." She chewed her lip a little. "Listen, Eph.. I know..."

"Hey." The regent held up a hand weakly. "If you start trying to be comforting, you're gonna scare the feathers off me, so cut it out."

The warrior looked down. "All right." She relented. "Let's get going... this sun's not doing you any good, anyway.. and getting caught in a storm sure as Centaurs won't." She removed an herbal salve from her kit, and started applying it to the jagged cuts that crossed the Amazon's face.


Lennat glanced up as he heard footsteps, and grinned as he saw Gabrielle approach. "Hello..." He patted the rock next to the one he was sitting on, among the cluster of Potadeians. "Sit down... at least for a few minutes."

She did so, curling her legs to one side and resting her forearms on her thighs. "You guys doing ok? I know we're pushing it.. but Xena wants to get under cover before this storm hits."

"We're fine." Lennat informed her, glancing at his companions. "We're just really glad to be out of there.. though they were supposed to let us go anyway.. not sure how that was going to work."

"Oh." Gabrielle slapped her head gently. "Right... well, Xena was going to be the one delivering your ransom." She explained. "That was before we heard about Ephiny."

They looked at each other. "Wow... " Lennat laughed nervously. "We wondered... we had most of the years fees with us...don't know what we're gonna do about that."

"Oh." Gabrielle said again, with a very sheepish look on her face. "I must be losing it... here." She dug in her bag, and pulled out a worn, leather sack, decorated with woven wheat sheaves in rust and ochre. "This was in Paladia's room... I recognized the village sigil."

Lennat burst into a big smile, as he hefted the sack. "Gabrielle!!!" He exploded into delighted laughter. "You're the best!"

The soft skin at the edges of his sister in law's eyes crinkled, as she smiled back. "You're welcome." She let her gaze drift over them, to where Paladia was slumped against a fallen tree, with Cait perched alertly nearby. "Excuse me a minute." She stood up, and crossed over to them, giving Cait a smile and a nod, and studying Paladia seriously. "Those cuts are getting infected. I'm going to put some herbal stuff on them." She set her bag down, and knelt on one knee.

"Don't touch me." Paladia growled softly. "I don't need help."

Gabrielle ignored her, and removed the small jar of salve she'd used on Xena earlier from her sack, and dabbed her fingers in it. "This won't hurt." She reassured the burly woman. "Just hold still for a minute."

Paladia went silent for a second, then lunged forward, and got her bound arms around Gabrielle's neck, pulling her bonds tight around the bard's neck. "You bitch...I may die, but I'll take you with me."

Cait froze, half sitting, half standing.

Gabrielle felt her breathing cut off, and she struggled, slamming her elbows back into the taller woman's ribcage. She got her feet braced against the ground , and shoved back wards as hard as she could, throwing Paladia off balance, and causing her to loosen her grip a bit. She'd just gotten time to suck in a much needed lungful of air when the entire world came down on top of her.

She heard the sound of bones cracking, as Paladia fell on her, and bore them both to the ground, and the renegade's scream etched it's way into her hearing . Moments later, the weight lifted off her, and she heard the sound of something heavy hitting the ground.

Then there was silence, and a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle?"

She coughed, then rolled over onto her back, and forced her eyes open, gazing straight up into a pair of tense blue ones. "Whoa... " She gave her partner a forced grin. "I liked it better when they just held me at knifepoint." She cleared her throat. "Thanks..."

Fingers delicately probed her neck, then turned her head from side to side. She lay quietly, absorbing the attention gratefully. "I'm ok." She finally told her partner, who nevertheless carefully helped her to her feet, and dusted off her body with solicitous hands.

Xena let herself breathe again, as her heart slowly, very slowly started to settle back into its normal rhythm. She reassured herself that the angry red marks on her neck were her beloved soulmate's only injury, then turned her attention back to the woman writhing in agony on the ground.

Not surprisingly, since her arm was at an impossible angle from her body, and the upper bone was snapped in half, the top portion emerging from the skin in an ugly contrast of white and ochre bone against the oozing dark red of blood around the break.

A bare foot higher, and Xena's savage kick would have broken her neck, and briefly, the warrior wished it had to spare her the aggravation of now dealing with a seriously injured prisoner.

Sometimes, she reflected very darkly, the old ways had their moments. Damn... damn damn damn... she cursed softly to herself, casting a disgusted eye up at the clouds. "All right.. I'm gonna need a couple of straight sticks for a splint.. and we'd better put a shelter up.. we're not gonna make it into town before this damn storm breaks."

She took two short steps to Paladia's side, and dropped heavily to one knee, pulling the woman over by her shoulder with rough attention. The woman screamed, and Xena viciously jabbed two fingers into the joint where her neck met her shoulders, and the scream cut off. "Now, you shut up, and if you make one little move while I'm doing this, I'll break the other one. You got me??"

Paladia's breath was coming in tiny gasps, and she looked up at Xena now in real, unfeigned fear. She averted her eyes, panting, as the warrior used brute strength to pull out, and realign the bones, which she could no longer feel.

Gabrielle grimaced, glad when the white, eerie bone disappeared beneath the flesh, and she turned, to give the grim looking Amazons, and the horrified Potadeians a wry look. "Ok.. Xena's right.. let's get moving on a shelter." She motioned to Johan. "We'll need springy branches, and a bunch of this tall grass to weave inside them...." She jumped a little as a streaking sliver of lightening cracked through the dark purple sky, making the green river grass almost glow in the sunlight that the clouds hadn't totally blocked out yet. "We'd better hurry."


Well.. Xena listened to the first, wild scattering of droplets against the woven thatch above her with pensive concern. At least it's something. The Amazons had dragged Paladia under one part of the shelter, making no pains not to treat the burly woman roughly, but Xena thought she was probably beyond caring. She'd set the renegade's arm, and splinted it, but released the nerve block and knew the injury was causing a great deal of pain.

A blast of thunder overhead brought Gabrielle nestling closer unconsciously, and she gave her partner a sideways glance, noting the tinge of pallor in her face, and the taut lines of her jaw and throat. "Hey."

Mist green eyes gone almost hazel in the dim light regarded her. "Hi."

Xena blinked. "You ok?"

A faint nod. "Yeah... " But she moved even closer, pressing her body up against Xena's. "Just don't like the loud stuff, I guess." She glanced up as a sheet of lightning lit the darkened sky, flickering through the clouds in a weird, shifting wave. The wind was whipping through the grasses, shifting crazily from one direction to the other, and just the faint howl was raising the bard's hackles in a thorough, chilling manner.

Xena put her arm around her partner, and hugged her. "No landslides here, love." She muttered softly, letting her other hand rest on Ares' back, where the wolf was pressed against her leg.

Gabrielle took in a breath. "How'd you know that's what I was thinking about?" She asked softly, wrapping both arms around her partner's body, and holding her close.

A faint smile creased Xena's face. "I just knew." She replied, gazing out over Gabrielle's head, and regarding the group critically. The Amazons were in a tight circle, with Eponin against a fallen log, and Ephiny, with a faint smirk on her face, leaning gently back against the weapon's master's chest.

Johan was on Ares' other side, his big, powerful hands resting lightly on his knees, as he patiently chewed on a piece of the river grass. The Potadeians were on the other side of Gabrielle, and most, being people of the land, and used to storms, had taken the opportunity to nod off.

Thunder rumbled again, and she felt the faint shudder run through Gabrielle's body. She lifted her free hand off Ares' back, and curled it around the bard's head, pulling her closer and settling her powerful grip around her protectively.

Gabrielle let out a little sigh, and let her eyes trace Xena's strong profile, focusing on the dark eyelashes, which flicked and moved as the warrior's attention roamed over the small group. Tiny muscles near her eyes twitched also, and her ears moved, just a little, as she absorbed information from her surroundings like a large, leather clad sponge. The bard yawned a little, wincing, as her throat ached at the pull against it.

As though sensing it, the warrior glanced back down, turning her attention onto her partner with a total absorption that was rare outside the safety of their home. One hand released, and tipped her chin up, as Xena studied the raw, red scrapes on her skin. "Whore... I shoulda broken more than her arm." She breathed.

"Tch." Gabrielle scolded gently. "It's a couple of scratches, Xena... take it easy."

"Grrrr." The warrior growled, low and deep, with a warm ferocity that surprised the bard.

"Hey.. " She smiled quietly. "That's my tiger, huh?"

An eyebrow curved up, along with one half of Xena's mouth. "Sorry." The warrior mumbled, brushing her cheek with the backs of her fingers. Their eyes met, and they both felt the strong pull of their connection, which blocked out for a moment, their surroundings.

"Xena... " Gabrielle couldnít move her eyes from the compelling blue ones just above her. "I would be willing to bet everyone's staring at us."

Xena smiled slowly. "I don't give a flying pig's butt if they are, Gabrielle."

The bard grinned sweetly. "Flying pig's butt.. how do you suppose that would happen? You think the pig would just wiggle his butt, and his tail would start spinning and lift him up?"

They looked at each other for a long moment, then burst out laughing. Xena let her chuckles trail off, before she reluctantly tore her eyes from her partner and sent a glowering look around the shelter.

Expressions ranging from awe to envy met her eyes, as everyone scrambled to find something else to look at. A crack of lightning provided a convenient diversion, and Xena settled back, letting out a satisfied sigh and resting her head against Gabrielle's.

The air crackled around them, and the wind gusted stronger, the flashes of lightning were almost constant, and, as Xena tilted her dark head to one side and observed the sky, she noticed an odd tinge to the clouds. Against her leg, she felt Ares growl, and the wolf lifted his head, his eyes stark yellow against his dark fur. "Easy boy."

"Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr." Ares ears flattened back against his head. He pressed closer to the warrior, and opened his mouth to pant nervously.

Xena suddenly felt like doing the same thing, as her hackles rose, and a chill shuddered down her body. "I got a bad feeling about this." She muttered, feeling Gabrielle start, and tense at her words.

The wind rose, and a faint howl filled the air, a noise that started strong, urgent alarm bells ringing in Xena's head. She ducked her head outside the shelter, oblivious to the gusting rain, and stared around, feeling her pulse jump. The wind whipped her hair in a stinging lash against her face, and she lifted a hand, impatiently pushing the strands out of the way.

She looked front, and then back, to her right, then lifted herself up and peered over the top of their shelter.

And froze, a dozen curses in four different languages fighting for utterance. The roaring sound had its source. "We gotta get outta here." She yelled, pulling both herself and Gabrielle out into the rain. She whirled about, and spotted a small overhang. "Over there... move it!"

Gabrielle took one look at what was coming, and moved, pulling the edge of the shelter back, and grabbing Cait's arm. "Come on."

"Gosh." Cait's eyes popped, seeing the dark, furiously whirling cone that was approaching. "Too right."

They moved, Solari scrambling to Eponin's side to help her with the injured Ephiny, and Johan taking charge of the terrified villagers. "What is that?" He yelled towards Xena, who was herding them with a stark, nervous air.

"Tornado." Came the crisp, staccato response. Xena shoved the last of the Amazons forward, then turned and regarded Paladia, who was hunched over, staring at the oncoming storm with wide, uncomprehending eyes.

Another moment of decision, and Xena cursed herself roundly, but bounded over in a few long strides, and dropped to the renegade's side. "I don't have time to be nice." She rasped. "I'm going to put you on my shoulders and get you outta here, but so help me Ares, if you so much as twitch, I'll toss your worthless hide right into the center of that thing."

Paladia ripped her gaze from the onrushing tornado, whose roaring sound now overwhelmed everything else. She managed a tiny nod in response.

"All right." Xena jabbed a practiced finger into a pressure point, numbing the woman's arm , then grabbed both of her wrists, and hauled her up, pulling her body over her shoulders, and balancing her with rough, grim strength. "Don't move."

The wind was pulling with such power by then that Xena had trouble making her way to the overhang. The suction kept wanting to pull her back, greedily inhaling and impeding her progress. Just short of the haven, she felt hands grabbing Paladia's shaking form, and she relinquished it, staggering to one side as the weight was hauled off her shoulders. A gust of wind blew her against a tree, and she steadied herself against it, curling her hands around a low, bark covered limb to hold herself upright.

Damn. Her eyes followed the huge, whirling cone, now so close she could see objects moving in its winds. She squinted, unable to resolve the impression that she'd seen a cow up there. It ripped through the grasses, and sucked river water up into itself, seeming to follow the line of the water. "I think it's gonna miss us." She yelled, not sure if the frightened, huddled people under the over hang could hear her.

Then it shifted, and the wild fury tore through the field. Xena released her tree, and started towards the overhang, but a sudden gust blew her back, and a huge downed limb tangled in her legs, throwing her sideways.

She frantically fought for balance, but the suction was too great. It started pulling her along the ground, raking her over rocks and through the whipping river grass as she tenaciously curled around, reaching out for a handhold on anything she could grab.

The roaring engulfed her, and she felt angry biting hands pulling at her, jerking her body up off the ground. Desperately, she fastened her fists on the earth, the roots.. anything.. but they tore loose in her fingers.

She never heard any approaching footsteps, the humming roar was too much.. but one moment she was tumbling through the grass, the next she was pinned into place by a warm, solid weight, whose grip fastened on her in sure strength.

In reflex, she wrapped her arms around what her body recognized instantly as her soulmate. "Damn it.. "

"Shut up." Gabrielle yelled, holding on tighter. "If I told you once.. I've told you a hundred times.. where you go, I go."

The wind redoubled, and picked them both up, and then they were in the air, and moving, being thrashed by other windborne debris. Xena sighed, and wrapped her limbs around her partner's body, and just held on for dear life.


Time stopped having any meaning, Xena realized, as the only thing that mattered was holding on to the terrified Gabrielle, and mentally trying to slow her frantically racing heartbeat. She's afraid of heights. Her mind nervously reminded her. "Easy!"

The force of the wind tossed them back and forth, dropping them in sickening lurches, only to rise again. The warrior felt objects striking her body, and she winced as she tumbled in mid air, trying to protect as much of her smaller partner's skin as possible. The roar was incredible; a horrid, moaning sound that blocked out everything else as it whirled around them.

Xena forced her eyes open against it, bravely taking a look down, and seeing flashes of green, and then of brown below them. A strong impact knocked them sideways, and she felt the pressure of the air lessen, dropping them in a long, horrible lunge. She felt Gabrielle's hands clench, and she swallowed hard.

The tornado chose that moment to shift, blasting them upward for a scary moment, then, suddenly, it whipped towards the river, and they were free of it.

Falling towards the ground unchecked.

Oh. Damn. Xena closed her arms tighter, and brought the bard's head nearer to hers. "Just hang on, ok?" She maneuvered her body around in mid air, so that she would hit whatever was coming up first, then angled downward, spotting a thick, thatch roof just under them.

Well. She eyed the ring of unfriendly trees and fencing that was it's alternative, and sighed, then made a mid flight correction, and sent them hurtling straight for the brown, stiff surface. "Brace yourself.. this is gonna hurt." She warned Gabrielle, and felt the bard take in a big breath.

She hit on her back, and rolled one side helplessly, as the wooden supports refused to bear her weight, and shattered on impact.

That probably saved their lives, as they tore through the thick thatch, ripping through the woven surface and the light wood underpinnings. A dark mustiness assailed their senses just before they bounced off the edge of a rickety hayloft, and plummeted down.

The impact was somewhat less painful that Xena had expected, as a cacophony of sound exploded around them, with shoving, frightened bodies scattering out of the way allowing them to fall unhindered into..

Muck.

A spray of dark brown, glutinous matter covered them, in concert with an ungodly squealing that set Xena's nerves right up on edge.

She waited for the world to stop spinning , and cracked an eyelid open, to survey her surroundings.

A pigsty.

Gabrielle had rolled off her, and was sitting at her side, looking around in a dazed fashion. They were on one side of a badly made, evil smelling sty, and on the other side..

A pig cluster. Led by a red eyed, bristle snouted sow, whose skin was a mottling of brown and gray, and whose jowls were quivering with rage, making the strings of saliva drooling from her mouth shake.

Gabrielle blinked at her. "Nice piggy."

"Uh." Xena felt her throat go dry. "Gabrielle... get out of here."

"Why?" The bard asked, reasonably. "I just dropped in." She peered at her partner. "You ok?"

Xena moved a little, and the pig squealed, glaring at her in outrage. "Sure, I'm great." She shook a clump of pig poop off her hand, and tested her body, relieved to find nothing broken. "Stay back." She warned the pig.

The sow grunted, and pawed the ground, snorting in an agitated fashion. Behind her, a litter of tiny piglets squirmed. One scuttled under it's mother's belly, and trotted over to Xena, sniffing her boot with interest.

"Go away." Xena growled, nudging it.

The sow squealed, and rushed her, long yellow teeth bared.

"Ares balls.. " Xena yelled, lunging out of the way, and plowing headfirst into the muck, then rolling up into a kneeling posture, grabbing Gabrielle by the waist and tossing her to one side. The pig stumbled to a halt, and reversed her course, thundering towards the warrior, crashing into her and sending them both rolling into the deep corner of the sty.

Xena got her arms around the thick, bristly neck and rolled over, pinning the pig down. "You'd better cut that out." She yelled, "Or you're looking at making bacon, buddy."

The sow snapped her teeth, chomping down on a piece of Xena's leather skirting with vicious intent. The warrior got an arm free, and brought her elbow down on the animals' head, stopping the squealing, and the furious struggling beneath her.

She let out a long breath, and rolled off the animal's back, leaning against a sagging support post and extending both legs out into the muck. Then she rolled her head to one side, and spotted her partner, who was seated on an overturned bucket, cuddling a piglet in one arm. "Gabrielle!"

The bard smiled. "Isn't he cute?" She held up the tiny animal, who snorted and wiggled his hooves.

Xena gazed at her. "His mother just tried to kill me."

"Tch." Gabrielle wagged a finger. "It would take more than a pig to overcome the great Warrior Princess."

They looked at each other, then up at the ceiling.

"You know, Gabrielle... " Xena crossed her legs, flicking poop off her knee, and capturing a huge horsefly who was about to make a meal of her. "I've been.. a warrior.. a pirate... fought the legions of Rome... conquered cities and states.. roamed the world... "

"Yeah?" The bard leaned forward, petting her little friend. "I know all that."

"Mm." The warrior nodded a little. "But I never knew how exciting life could be until I met you."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Xena, it was a tornado.. an act of nature.. it wasn't my fault." She stated, with joking vehemence. Then her expression softened. "Are you really all right? We hit that roof pretty hard." She set the piglet down, and stood, walking over to her partner, and kneeling down to examine her.

"Other than being covered in pig crap, and a little sore, I'm fine." Xena assured her, putting a gentle hand on her knee. "Sorry about that.. I know you must have been scared."

Gabrielle looked down at her filthy boots, and pursed her lips. "In a way... because you know how much I hate heights..but... " Her mist green eyes lifted, and fastened themselves on Xena's blue ones. "I was with you... and that made whatever happened... ok."

Xena mustered a genuine smile at that. and sighed. "Let's go find some water, ok?" She pushed herself to her feet, and stepped over the sty railing, then helped Gabrielle do the same. They both turned to look at the sty, where the sow was starting to regain her wits, and scrambled up, dazedly swinging her heavy head around and spotting them.

She squealed and lunged, banging her head against the support railing, and reaching through, snapping her long teeth at Xena's knees.

"Damn." Xena stepped back, shaking her head. "That's some pig."

Gabrielle leaned over the railing, to where the little piglet was sniffing at her hand and patted him. "This one's nice."

The warrior looked over. "It's probably you who's nice, my love." She spoke the word with gentle certainty. "He's just responding to that." She shot a glare at the sow, who was chewing at the wood, trying to get at her. "Now me, on the other hand..."

Gabrielle snorted softly, then scooped the piglet up, cuddling him against her chest as she crossed the barn and settled him into Xena's arms. The piglet sniffed at her, tickling her chin with his tiny, soft whiskers, and grunted very quietly, then snuggled down and closed his eyes.

"Oh for... "The warrior let out an exasperated groan. "Gabrielle.. get this thing away from me.. the way I smell, he probably thinks I'm his mother."

The sow squealed in absolute rage, and started banging her head against the wooden supports.

Gabrielle giggled, but complied, settling the now disgruntled piglet down into the sty. "You stay there, Wilbur."

Xena turned, brushing herself off and headed for the door. "Wilbur?" She turned and stared at her partner who had caught up as they reached the exit. "Why Wilbur?"

The bard shrugged. "Why not?" She opened the door, and they stepped out.

Into a fierce, driving rainstorm, that nearly blew them back into the barn.

"Well." Xena sighed, closing her eyes, and flicking her fingers through her dark hair. "I wanted water."

Gabrielle chuckled, and turned in a circle, holding her arms out away from her body, and letting the huge droplets rinse the pig muck from her skin and sparse clothing. "Xena, that... really was amazing..wasn't it?"

The warrior stopped in the middle of removing her armor, shaking clumps of dirty hay and muck out from it. "What was.. .me wrestling a pig, and winning?"

"Tch." Gabrielle slapped her. "Being picked up by a tornado, and dropped in mid air, and surviving it." She let her gaze unfocus, considering it. "Wow.. this is going to make a fantastic story."

Xena winced. "Oh... sure... " She wrestled out of her boots, and knocked them together, letting the rain rinse off the dirt, then walked in the rain to the heavy wooden trough that was resting outside the barn, and plunged her head into it, scrubbing briskly, then surfacing, and letting the collected rain water sluice off her back.

Gabrielle joined her, then let her hands rest against the wooden rim of the trough. She watched Xena trying without much success to scrub her leathers clean, and smiled. "Sometimes, cloth has it's advantages." She tugged at the edge of her cut off skirt.

The warrior ceased her efforts, and regarded Gabrielle speculatively. Then she grinned. "Oh.. yeah.. I agree." She gave her partner a sultry grin. "Especially fabric that gets..um.... " Her eyes twinkled. "Transparent."

Gabrielle glanced down, startled, then blushed. "Oh Hades." She muttered, crossing her arms across her chest, and looking around for other spectators.

"Donít do that." Xena dropped her boots down next to her armor, and gently took her hands in her own, lifting them up and kissing them. "You've got nothing to be ashamed of, my bard." She moved closer, and released her partner's fingers, which dropped to curl around the warrior's upper arms as she ran her hands through the wet, reddish gold hair.

The sound of the rain drumming against the ground faded out as they gazed at each other, warm memories surfacing. "Hey.. do I get a hello?" Xena teased gently.

"Mmm.." The bard responded, stepping forward and bringing her body into contact with her partner's. "You get a hello.. " She planted a kiss on the skin just above the edge of Xena's leathers. "You get a thank the gods you're here.." She moved higher, sucking gently against the pulse point, which fluttered under her lips. "You get a.. I have never been so.. so.. glad to see anyone in my life.. " Her hands move with subtle insistence against Xena's body. "And you get an I love you." She nibbled her partner's chin. "Did I leave anything out?"

Xena ducked her head and found the bard's lips, closing her arms around the wet body whose warm length was edging hers, and bringing a tingle to her skin. This is insane. Her mind objected, as Gabrielle's hands slipped under her unlaced leathers. Hey.. how did that happen? The touch moved enticingly up her ribcage, tracing the lines of her body, then edged up over the curve of her breasts. That's it..I'm certifiable. We've just escaped a tornado, been attacked by wild pigs, and are in the middle of a violent storm.

"Mm.. " Gabrielle leaned closer, nibbling with abandon, as the warrior's hands wandered over her, loosening her linen shirt, and sending jolts down her skin. "This is crazy, isn't it?"

"Uh huh." Xena agreed readily, then sighed, and broke off, and leaned her forehead against her partner's.

Gabrielle gazed up at her, a touch of hurt in her eyes. "You don't... " She let the thought drop, along with her glance.

A hand touched her chin, and lifted her face up. "Oh.. I do... most definitely, my bard." Xena gave her a wry, frustrated look. "But there are a dozen people out there who probably think you and I have been smashed against the rocks... we gotta go find them." She folded her arms around the smaller woman. "We gotta be responsible, Gabrielle."

The bard nestled against her, playing with her laces. "Being responsible sucks piggy tails sometimes, Xena." She grumbled.

"I know." Her partner agreed with an aggrieved sigh. "C'mon.. let's get the Hades home.. I want a nice long bath, a warm, soft bed, and you." She paused. "Not necessarily in that order."

The bard sniffed delicately at her leathers. "Yeah, in that order." She joked, giving her partner a nudge. "You mind if I wear your armor? I feel kind of..." She glanced down. "Conspicuous."

They chuckled, and collected their things, moving away from the barn after Xena tied a couple of coins to the door latch to pay for the damage. "Not my fault, exactly, but... " She shrugged. "Not fair for this poor farmer to have to pay for it."

Gabrielle finished tying her wet hair back off her face. "Right." She agreed, as she joined her partner, letting the taller woman break the curtain of rain, as they walked across the muddy ground and headed back towards the river.


"Get down!" Eponin yelled, full volume, which barely made a dent over the unearthly howl. She grabbed Cait's leathers, and pulled, as the girl was frantically trying to get loose and chase after Xena and Gabrielle. "Damn it, Cait... cut that out!"

"Let me go!" Cait insisted, twisting around and fighting. "Did you see that? It took them away! We've simply got to go after them!"

Solari turned from her position with her back flat against the far wall, where she had Ephiny and Paladia braced, and the villagers clustered around her. "Don't be an idiot, Cait... we will go.. after that thing moves a little.. what good would us getting caught up in it be?"

Johan looked up, from where he was practically sitting on the hideously growling Ares, who was desperate to break free and follow his beloved mistresses. "Geddown, damn ye." He tightened his hold on the wolf. "The last thing they need is to be worrying about you, so just hold still." He meant his words for more than the wolf, and Cait subsided as well.

A loud crack startled them, as a tree slammed into the outcropping they were huddled under, sending shreds of pungently scented bark into their hideout. The outcropping actually extended over a small depression, almost making a tiny cave, and though the wind ripped at the entrance, and poured gravel, dirt, and tattered leaves inside, they were relatively safe.

Just as suddenly as it appeared, the howling vanished, and the wind dropped, now the only sound being the wash of rain against the rocks, and the distant complaining rumble of thunder.

"It's gone." Eponin said, quietly, releasing her hold on Cait, who bolted outside into the storm.

The girl was back in an instant, crouching to rest a slim hand against the granite. "So are they."

They all looked at each other in silence for a long moment. "Gods." Solari sighed, resting her head in her hands. "This can't be happening."

Eponin slumped against the wall, letting her hands drop in frustrated disbelief, as Johan let Ares go. The wolf scrambled up the small lip which lead down into their hideout, and trotted outside. They lost sight of his dark coat for a short while, then, suddenly, a mournful howl broke through the rain, chilling them.

Johan glanced at the ground, then at his hands, clasping them.

A dour silence spread. "Damn." Terrea said softly.

"You know what your problem is?" Ephiny voice floated weakly out into the oppressive atmosphere.

They all looked at her. "You have no faith." The regent accused. "I'll believe something bad happened to them when you show me the bodies."

It was blunt, and stark, and lent evidence to Ephiny's exhausted state of mind. But the air lightened, as Eponin crossed to crouch next to her, clasping her hands together. "She's right." The weapon's master affirmed quietly. "We'll wait for the weather to settle a little, then go find them."

Paladia stirred from her corner. "What makes you think there'll be anything left to find?" She asked, maliciously.

Eponin looked right at her. "If Xena hadn't stopped to pick up your worthless carcass, we wouldn't be asking the question now, would we?" She growled softly. "So keep your disgusting mouth shut."

Paladia stared at her, then at the tense, angry glances she was getting from the rest of them and shook her head. "You people are crazy."

Cait thumped down into their hideout, dragging Ares behind her, and blew the wet, blond hair out of her eyes. "It's just rot." She spat, exasperated and angry. "This rain has simply got to stop." She gave the weather a glare, then settled down, pulling the wolf down next to her. He dropped to his haunches, and put his head down on his paws with a pathetic droop to his ears. "We'll find them, Ares... " Cait patted the dark head comfortingly. "Donít worry."

"Roo." The wolf sighed, blinking.

It was a good time later before the sheeting rain slowed, and they emerged, glancing around at the destruction caused by the storm. Trees had been uprooted wholly, and tossed across the landscape, a few plunging into the river with their roots upmost. The ground was littered with scraps of leaves, and branches, and the wind caught bushes that had been ripped from the ground and tumbled them across grasses.

"Damn." Eponin let out a long breath. "What a mess." She looked up, to where the clouds were breaking apart, and shook her head.

Ares trotted out, and went to the spot they'd last seen Xena and Gabrielle, and sat down, sniffing with a dejected air. "Agrrrrrhhooo." He tipped back his head and howled, then turned and looked at them.

"Shhh.." Ephiny held out a hand to him, from her pallet. "It's gonna be ok, Ares... " The wolf loped over, and nudged her arm, licking it. "You know your mommies better than that...come on now."

The sun made a pallid appearance, from it's lowering position in the west, and they turned towards it gratefully. "Lookit how red it is." Terrea mused, blinking. "Wow."

The sky was a pale purple on the horizon, with streaks of light blue intersperse, and in the center, the sun was a glowing, red ball, casting a sheet of crimson over the landscape. A light wind sprang back up, bringing the scent of bruised vegetation to them, and the cool, clean smell of water washed rock.

Solari sighed, running her fingers through her damp, bronze hair, then turned. "Well, we sh.... " She stopped and looked up the long, grassy slope that led to the east. "Oh.. for Artemis' sake."

They all turned, startled, and spotted what she'd seen.

Solari fixed the picture in her mind, and it became her favorite memory of these two people. Down the slope, treading through the long, green grass, into the warm red sunlight came Xena and Gabrielle, as though taking a casual stroll after dinner at home.

The warrior had her sword drawn, and was making playful swipes at the turf, and Gabrielle was relating something or other, her hands moving in emphatic exposition. The light reflected off the droplets of rain still dampening their skin, and the wind blew the dark and pale hair back.

Xena was smiling, that quirky half grin of hers, and Gabrielle's face was alight with whatever story she was telling, her eyes fastened on her taller partner's features as they walked along.

Their differences never so apparent, in darkness and light, Xena's armor and weapons against Gabrielle's voice and gentle gestures, her tall, imposing stature against the bard's compact energy. Like night and day.

Never had that seemed so clear to the watching Solari. Opposites, bound by something that drew them together so powerfully, she could almost see it, here in the dying sunlight of a long day.

Walking into the light, the Amazon realized, and a queer shiver took hold of her. Together.

They were legends, she felt the knowledge settle deep inside her. Larger than life, bound by no rules, heading confidently into an unknown future. "Wow." Solari turned and smacked her head with one hand. "I gotta stop drinking that cherry ale of Lida's.. it's making me think too much."

Eponin let out a yell, and waved. "Damned idiots.. look at them strolling along.. didn't they know we were half out of our.." She raised her voice. "Nice of you to take your time!"

Xena lifted both hands in a shrug. "Sorry." She tapped her sword against her boot and sheathed it, dusting her hands off against her still damp leathers. "We got carried away." She knelt to greet the ecstatic Ares, who bounded up against her and knocked her down, straddling her buoyantly and licking her face. "Aw... Ares... cut that.. " Xena wrestled the wolf off her, and spat a mouthful of fur out. "Pah."

A groan went up. "Gods.." Ephiny muttered wryly. "Someone check me for fever. She's making jokes."

Gabrielle went past them, and collected her bag, thrown hastily into the shelter, glad that the sun, and the newly sprung up wind had dried her clothing almost completely. She slung the sack over her shoulder, and retrieved her borrowed staff, then climbed back up next to where Ephiny was lying. "Well... let's go... it's not that far, and I gotta tell you.. I'm starving."

Ephiny glanced up at her. "Oh.. that's different." She chuckled weakly, reaching a hand out and patting the bard's knee. "Glad you both made it ok." She paused, and blinked. "How did you do that, by the way?"

Gabrielle waited until the other Amazons had lifted the litter, and they were moving before she answered. "Oh..well... we kinda got picked up, and it went a little ways.. then it let us back down again. We waited for the rain to slow up, then headed back." She examined the wood of her staff intently. "No big deal."

Ephiny eyed her. "Uh huh."

"No, really." Gabrielle protested. "Xena landed in some mud.. it was soft enough."

"What about you?" The regent countered.

"Oh." The bard chuckled softly. "I landed on Xena." She grinned, and shrugged. "No problem."

As the last reddish rays colored them, and the air turned from gold to purple blue, they crossed the river and moved up the slope onto the road that would shortly put them into Amphipolis. As they got closer, Xena started anxiously watching for signs of damage, hoping the storm that had gone over them hadn't touched their hometown.

One final bend, and they were within the precincts of the village, and loud whistles of welcome suddenly echoed across the waving fields of thick golden wheat gone almost chocolate in the twilight. A sentry burst out of the culvert on one side of the road, and trotted towards them, making a beeline for Xena.

"Eren." The warrior greeted the sentry, and short, stocky boy with curly dark hair and a clear, open expression. "Everyone all right?"

He nodded. "Fine..fine.. " He peered around. "Ah.. all present and accounted for I see.. " His eyes flicked over Johan and Gabrielle, and he smiled. "Been some excitement round here... Cyrene'll be glad you're back."

"Did you see the storm?" Gabrielle asked, coming up next to her partner and putting a hand on her back. "Was there any damage?"

"Aye." The boy answered. "Storm came through here all right... tore up some stuff, a little, and.. mm... dropped us some unexpected presents." He nodded towards the town. "G'wan... see for yourself." His gaze picked out the silent, dour Paladia, and the injured Amazon silently. "I'll send word ahead." He exchanged understanding nods with Xena. "You're mother's in the courtyard.. trying to figure out how to get the cow offen her roof."

Xena's eyebrows shot up. "Cow?"

Gabrielle muffled a giggle. "Roof?" She tickled her partner gently in the ribs. "Guess she knows how to build a sturdy one."


Cyrene stood, ankles deep in muck, outside the inn peering up. Several curses occurred to her, and she wondered what the response from the chattering village women around her would be if she uttered them.

It was almost dark, and she still had no idea how she was going to remove the god's be blasted irritating cow from off the roof of the inn. The animal was stomping around nervously, bellowing, it's eyes rolling in its head in confusion and fear. Two men had tried to go up onto the building to try and calm it, but the animal just moved in agitation, getting it's hooves caught up in the heavy thatch.

Granella and Toris were over at Joscyln's, trying to remove the goat from his chimney, and she found herself fervently wishing the rest of her family were back, safe and sound.

Hands dropped onto her shoulders, and she jumped, then turned, to see Johan's face in the gloom. "Go... Johan." She coughed out, grabbing him and hugging him close. Over his shoulder, she spotted the unmistakably tall figure that had to be Xena, and next to her... ah. Cyrene smiled in relief. Gabrielle's distinctively bright hair. "Thank the gods." Her gaze slipped past Xena, to the group huddled behind her. "Wh... "

Xena walked forward, still glancing up at the cow. "We've got some guests." She replied tersely. "We'll need Josc's cellar." Now she met her mother's eyes. "And your back room again."

Cyrene winced, and disengaged herself from Johan's arms, spotting the litter. "Oh.. " She recognized the pale form on it. "Honey... " She blew out a breath, and put her hands on her hips. She'd been angry...no, she'd been furious with Ephiny, when the Amazon had visited, and 'warned' Granella about her daughter. Furious? Oh... Artemis.. that hadn't come close, not after what Xena had done for the woman over the winter.. not after Xena had risked her life to pull the Amazon from the frozen creek..

What her daughter had done... had troubled her. But she'd seen it a little differently than Ephiny had...Xena finally going to Gabrielle and taking her away... violent, yes. Frightening, of course. But it was.. Cyrene sighed. She understood that these two had to be together. And she had faith in her daughter, at the bitter end, to protect Gabrielle from harm. Even from Xena herself.

And so she had. But Gabrielle had allowed herself to be gently coaxed to relate their initial reintroduction to the Amazons, and that...

Oh, Cyrene had been livid. Livid. She'd felt like going out and finding some of the Amazons herself and just.. pounding them. But, looking at Ephiny's battered face, and the obvious concern of the other Amazons, and that of her daughters...

Oh well. She sighed, pushing her resentment down deep. Time for that later, I suppose. "All right... take her inside... " She glanced to where Josclyn was just appearing from the gloom. "Josc.. we need a holding spot."

The reeve dusted his hands up, and looked behind him to where Toris and Granella were running towards them. "Right.. " He motioned. "Follow me." Two Amazons pushing Paladia before them complied, as a cacophony of greetings commenced.

"Sis.. " Toris reached Xena, and patted her shoulder. "Got them, did you?"

"Yeah." The warrior replied. "Kidnappings stopped, victims rescued, story over." She studied the area. "Looks like you've had quite a time here."

"Gods yes.." Her brother pushed his dark hair out of his eyes. "It was horrible... damn thing tall as a mountain.. and the loudest thing I'd ever heard. Good thing it missed you ."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a long, communicative, understanding look. "Well.. we saw it." The bard explained, putting her hands behind her back. "We thought we'd better get here, just in case."

"Good thing." Toris sighed, eyeing his betrothed, who was kneeling at Ephiny's side. "Glad you're back safe."

Cyrene looked at the exhausted party, then flicked an appraising glance over her daughter. "So.. you solved the problem?" She inquired.

"Yep." Xena answered, crossing her arms.

"Captured the bad guys, saved the good guys, made everything right?" Her mother persisted.

"Yep." The warrior replied again.

"Good." Cyrene nodded briskly. "Fix that cow." She jerked her head towards the roof, then took Gabrielle's arm. "C'mon honey, I've got a crock of something I bet you all could use." She motioned for the Amazons and the Potadeians to precede here. "Everyone inside."

Gabrielle disengaged her arm, and stopped. "I'll stay and help Xena." She told the innkeeper, a little nettled at the brusque treatment of her soulmate.

Cyrene tugged her. "Come on.. she can handle a little cow.. you must be hungry."

The bard's eyes met hers, and sparked. "So's she." A quiet hand dropped onto her shoulder and she flicked her glance to her partner's face.

"It's all right." Xena told her, feeling the tension. "You go on.. I'll take care of this, and be right there."

"No." The bard replied evenly. "Come on.. let's get started."

Cyrene's lips pursed, recognizing too late the fiercely protective streak present in the feisty bard. "All right.. all right.. I'm sorry... "She held a hand up. "That was ratty of me... but please, Xena..I know you can find a way to get that damned animal down...I'm out of ideas."

The warrior gave her a nod. "Yeah.. I can handle that... " She kissed the bard on the head. "Go on...please? Get some rest.. get some food...I'll make this quick."

Gabrielle hesitated, then her jaw muscles tensed. "No." She said, with finality. "I want to help."

Xena gave her mother a shrug. " See you inside, mother." She took a few steps back, and regarded the unhappy cow.

Cyrene studied the two of them in the shifting torchlight, her daughter with her hands on her hips, looking up, and Gabrielle with her arms folded, head cocked to one side, waiting. She took a step over to the bard, and leaned against her. "Sorry."

Mist green eyes turned hazel in the torchlight blinked at her. "It's been a rough couple of days, mom." She glanced towards the inn. "Ephiny's been through a lot.. .we all have." Her glance followed her partner, now circling the inn in studious thought. "I hope this doesn't take long."

Now the innkeeper felt horribly guilty. "Gods... you're right." She started off after her daughter, only to have the bard haul her down. "Wh... Gabrielle, make up your mind, honey."

The bard sighed. "She started this.. I can see the wheels turning.. just let her finish." She trotted after her partner, catching up with her as she studied a pile of boards, haphazardly dropped by the tornado in the inn's courtyard. "Got an idea?"

Xena glanced at her. "G'wan inside..." She ruffled the bard's hair. "I can take care of this."

Gabrielle immediately circled her with a pair of warm arms. "I know you can.. but I was just looking for an excuse to get you alone." She nuzzled the smooth skin above Xena's leathers. "Got a problem with that?"

Xena felt a stupid grin creasing her face. Maybe it was because she was so damn tired. "Um...no.. no .. not at all." She fell silent for a moment, breathing in her partner's closeness. "Thanks... " She murmured into the nearby ear. "Felt good to hear that."

Gabrielle smiled, and gently nipped her skin. "Come on, tiger... let's get this done, and over with." She rested her chin against Xena's collarbone, and glanced around. "What's the plan?"

They put two planks up against the low edge of the roof, and Xena casually walked up them, ending up on the inn's thatch along with the nervous cow. "Gabrielle.. I sure hope you're right about animals liking me.. or I'm gonna go up close and personal with this cow's butt."

"Wait.." Gabrielle hopped up onto the planks, and balanced gingerly, then edged her way up to join her soulmate. "Ok.. so.. now it has two targets." They stood quietly, regarding the cow. The cow looked back, then ducked its head, and munched on a bit of the thatch.

Xena regarded it. "Wonder if I blindfold it?" She turned. "Maybe I could walk it down like that."

Gabrielle considered that, then carefully ripped most of the bottom of her remaining shirt fabric off, and handed it over. "Try it."

The warrior grinned, and tickled her now very bare ribcage. "Mmm.. don't mind if I do." She watched the bard roll her eyes. "Oh..right.. the cow." Cautiously, she approached the tired animal, who raised it's.. She ducked and looked. Her head, and warily watched the approaching warrior. "Easy." Xena muttered, putting her boots carefully on the support beams under the thatch.

The cow chewed its cud, snorting bits of thatch at her as she moved up close. "That's a girl.. easy now.. " Xena reassured the animal, reaching out a hesitant hand to scratch the cow's nose.

"Moo." The animal lowed, taking a step forward and butting her in the belly.

"Stop that." Xena muttered, catching her balance.

"Mooooo." The animal advanced again, butting her harder, and lipping at the laces on her leather armor.

"Hey.. " Xena grabbed the cow's head to steady herself. "Now come on.. this wasn't anyone you knew, all right?"

"Moooo." The cow eyed her in obvious disapproval.

"What is it with me and animals today?" Xena sighed. "Gabrielle.. c'mere.. maybe she'll like you better." She waited for her smaller partner to join her. "You donít smell like a long lost uncle of hers."

"Tch." Gabrielle clucked gently, crooning at the cow. "Hey.. nice cow... "

The animal opened its mouth all the way, and poked its large tongue out, braying in outrage.

"Maybe not." Xena bit her lip, but managed to get the blindfold around the cow's eyes. "Now.. come on.. " She grasped the cow's neck, and urged her forward. "Donít make me get rough with you."

"Mooo!" The cow protested, but stepped forward, placing her hooves uncertainly.

They got the cow to the planks, and halfway down before an unexpected visitor put a knot in the process.

"Roo!!" Ares bounded up the right plank, his weight flexing the already overstressed wood to the breaking point.

It broke, sending cow, warrior, bard, and wolf into the inn's fertilizer pile.

"Moo!"

"Roo!"

"Poop."

"That's an understatement." Xena sighed, giving her partner a long-suffering, pathetic look. "Red, take me home, ok?" She removed a piece of unidentifiable debris from her shoulder. "I donít' wanna be a hero any more today."

Gabrielle dissolved into a fit of exhausted giggles. It was just too much.

They got the upset and aggravated cow into the barn, and waved hello to Argo and her colts, who sniffed at them and turned their noses up. "Oh.. great." Xena gave them a sarcastic look. "It's your poop, lady."

Argo snorted, and went back to her hay crib.

Never had their cabin looked so damn good. Xena realized, as she lifted herself up the stairs, and pushed the door open.

"Ah ah ah." Gabrielle pulled her to a halt. "Leave the armor, and the boots out here."

"Mph." Xena sat down on the porch bench, and did as requested, pulling off her armor with rampant disregard, and tossing it in a pile, to be followed by her boots. She stood in her bare feet, and padded into the cabin, where she could hear the sounds of splashing in the back alcove she'd built to hold a small tub that removed them from the curious eyes of the village in the communal bathing house. She stopped for a moment to light several candles, sending the scent of warm, herbal scented beeswax through the room, then ambled into the alcove.

Gabrielle had lit the candles in here, and they outlined her slim frame in mysterious shadows and highlights, catching friendly golden glints off her pale hair. "Leathers off." She instructed, continuing in her task of dumping buckets of water into the tub.

"Here.. let me... " Xena started to help her, but found her hands slapped. "Whoa.. .hey.. take it easy."

Gabrielle turned on her, and put her hands on her hips. "YOU take it easy, Xena." She gave her partner a severe look. "Don't argue with me. Get those leathers off, and get in this tub, right now!"

Wide, round blue eyes blinked at her. "Did I do something wrong?"

The bard's eyes softened, and she moved closer, lifting her hands to the laces on her partner's leathers. "No... " She brushed Xena's cheek with her fingertips. "You did everything right.. I just want to get you clean and comfortable."

"Oh." Xena smiled, and let out a sigh of relief, as she pulled her damp, soiled garment off, and watched the bard carry it outside. She went to the tub, and lifted herself over the edge, letting her body down into the water with a groan.

Gabrielle reentered the room, and stood at the side of the tub, taking off the remains of her by now really tattered and sadly disreputable outfit, pausing before she gathered the energy to enter the water.

"Mm." Xena let a sly grin edge her lips, watching her partner strip. "I feel much better already."

Gabrielle smiled, and joined her in the water, lifting up a chunk of herbal soap and started to rub her partner's skin with it. "Gods, Xena." She winced, going gently over the healing wound in the warrior's chest, and trying to be careful to avoid pressing on the bruises which covered a good portion of her torso.

"Hmm... " Xena glanced down at herself appraisingly. "Looks like I went headlong into a cliff." She remarked wryly. "Imagine that."

Her partner sighed. "Roll over on your side, please." She waited for Xena to reluctantly comply, then smoothed her soapy hands down the tanned back presented to her. "Xena." She sucked in a breath, seeing the long, wicked scrapes oozing blood, and the horrible dark bruises. "My gods." She saw Xena lean her head against the edge of the tub, and she put a gentle, comforting hand on her shoulder. "Was that from the fall?"

A nod answered her. "It.. um.. " Xena cleared her throat a little. "It hurts." She admitted quietly.

"And you wouldn't let on to that in front of the Amazons, or your mother, would you?" Gabrielle scolded her gently. "What am I going to do with you?" She finished cleaning the area, and Xena rolled back over, ducking her head down in the water and surfacing back up with a splash.

"I already answered that." The warrior insisted, plucking the soap from Gabrielle's fingers. "Your turn." She motioned with her hand in a circular gesture. "Turn around... it hurts, but I'll live.. you know I've had worse."

Gabrielle sighed, but turned around, closing her eyes as the familiar touch slid over her skin. "I know." She felt Xena's practiced hands work the knots out of her shoulders and abandoned herself to the comfort. "But I hate it when I see you hurting."

"Likewise." The warrior burred in her ear, nibbling its edge. She slid her arms around Gabrielle's body, and pulled her backwards, until they were resting against each other, then she continued her soaping, sliding across the bard's belly, and up around her breasts.

She felt Gabrielle's breathing deepen, but he bard half turned towards her. "You donít have the energy for that."

Xena smiled, a deep, feral smile. "Gabrielle.. it's kinda like you always having room for dessert." She rubbed a slow circle over the bard's abdomen, then patted it. "I always have the energy for this."

"Oh." Gabrielle turned fully around, and wrapped a hand behind her partner's neck, tasting her with tentative lips. "Well then." She breathed contentedly, letting her body's reactions run rampant. "I guess dinner's gonna have to wait."

"Nah." Xena growled, as she stood up, shedding water with abandon. She lifted the bard out of the tub, and wrapped linen about them both, reveling in the sensation of being clean at last. She started working her way down Gabrielle's throat as she carried her into the main room of their cabin, breathing in the friendly smell of the candles, and the sun dried linen on their bed, and her soulmate's skin.

Then the scent of rich, meaty stew also attracted her attention, and she peered over her soulmate's shoulder, spotting a tray with a covered pot on the small table, along with a pitcher and a note. Ares was also curled smugly up on the hearthrug, his tail beating gently on the surface as he spotted them. "We've had a visitor." She mumbled in Gabrielle's ear.

The bard peeked, and giggled. "So we have." She reached out over Xena's shoulder and plucked the note off the table, opening it with damp fingers. "Mom."

"What a surprise." Xena sighed, and let them both down onto the bed, reveling in it's clean softness. "She's sooooo subtle."

A soft snort answered her. Gabrielle gently wrapped her legs around the warrior's as she cleared her throat and read the scratchy handwriting. "Kids - " She grinned, as she felt Xena exhale. "Sorry about the cow, hope this makes up for it. I'll keep everyone out of your hair until the morning. Don't poke your noses out of there until breakfast or else." She paused. "Love mom."

Xena chuckled. "Gotta love her." She plucked the note from her partner's fingers, and put it aside, then rolled over, pulling Gabrielle effortlessly up and settling her into a comfortable spot against her ribs. "Mmm... " She captured the bard's earlobe, and tugged on it gently. "Tasty."

"Oh yeah?" Gabrielle felt a laugh bubble up, and she put her mind to cleaning off all the errant water droplets on Xena's skin that were within her reach. Then she went for the ones that weren't, pulling aside the drying linen, and drawing the action out into a long, sensual building of excitement as she traded licks and touches with her soulmate.

Xena had, it seemed, more than enough energy, Gabrielle fuzzily realized, as she found herself losing track of where she was, under her partner's sensual, relentless attentions. She let herself absorb the sensations completely, and set her body free to enjoy the cascade of wild, shivering reactions.

The candles had burned lower as they rested quietly afterward. Gabrielle had resolutely refused to waste the dinner Cyrene had left, and had very reluctantly left her warm haven to drag the tray over, and set to work patiently feeding her somnolently agreeable partner. "Open up." She coaxed, watching a slice of blue appear as Xena peeked up at her from one mostly closed eye.

The warrior did so, amiably chewing the mouthful of stew Gabrielle deposited and swallowing. "You too." She mumbled, blinking, and curling her arms more snugly about the bard's body. "I can hear your stomach growling."

Gabrielle laughed quietly. "Considering where your head is, I'm not surprised." She smoothed the dark hair that was cascading over her chest down, tracing Xena's ear lightly as the warrior pillowed her head comfortably on the bard's belly. She took a spoonful for herself, then badgered Xena into another one. "Come on... "

"Mmph." Xena chewed, and closed her eyes in contentment.

"Xena?" Gabrielle took a sip of the ale she'd poured, and set the cup back down on the table next to the bed.

"Uh?" The blue eye opened again, and regarded her.

"What... I mean... what do you think I should do about Paladia?" Not really a good time to ask.. but... I gotta start thinking about it.

"Well... " Xena licked her lips thoughtfully. "Drawing and quarter is always a good solution."

Gabrielle sighed. "Xena."

An eyebrow arched at her. "For some reason, Gabrielle, people who try to strangle you just get on my bad side. I don't know why." She replied, with a touch of asperity. "Not to mention what she did to Eph."

"I realize that." The bard combed her fingers through her partner's hair again. "So .. you think I should sentence her to death?"

Long silence. Xena's eyes, alert now, studied the guttering candle across the room. "No." She finally answered. "I donít."

The bard gave a slow nod. "So.. you don't think she deserves to die for what she did, then?"

Another long silence. "Yes, I do." Xena finally, honestly, answered. "But I'd rather take her out into the woods and cut her up into a dozen pieces, and leave them for the vultures rather than have you live with that decision."

Gabrielle thought about that for a long, pensive while, absently alternating between feeding her partner and herself. "She didn't kill anyone, Xena." She quietly objected.

Xena sighed. "I know.. but she could have, and she wanted to kill you." She glanced up. "Given a lucky dart, her soldiers could have killed me."

"Mm." The bard studied her face. "But that didn't happen."

"No." Xena admitted. "It didn't."

"And I really can't sentence someone for something that might have happened, can I?" Gabrielle persisted. "Because... you had the chance to do worse than you did to her, and you didn't." She paused. "Why? She was choking me.. no one would have said a word."

Xena looked inside herself, never a favorite task. "I don't know." She finally confessed. "Maybe because I knew you wouldn't want that." Her blue eyes seemed to deepen in color. "Maybe.. I don't know... after all this time I... I've just started to think differently."

Gabrielle smiled, satisfied with the answer. "I think she can be turned around, Xena."

The warrior regarded her soberly. "Because I was?"

The bard waggled her hand. "No.. not exactly.. you're smart.. I mean, you're really smart.. when you do things, it's because you've thought about them, and there's a whole lot of intelligence going on in there." She tapped her partner's forehead. "She's not really smart... but she's had a bad time, and I think maybe a friend or two would do wonders for her."

Xena gave a little shrug, and tightened her hold again, nibbling at the bard's navel. "Gonna be kinda hard to come by those around here."

Gabrielle closed her eyes, letting the shivery sensations run from her groin to her breastbone and back. "I'll have to see what I can work out." She breathed, setting the bowl aside, and tangling her fingers in Xena's dark hair. "Tomorrow."

A low chuckle greeted her words.


Concluded in Part 6


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