For Disclaimers, see Ch 1
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Letting Go
Bobbie Halchishak

So by the morning light
We'll be halfway to anywhere
Where no one needs a reason
* * *

Xena walked through the woods with Eponin as they followed the small hunting party deeper into the forest and away from the village. "So what are we hunting for today?"

Eponin shrugged. "Whatever we catch I guess. Wood fowl hasn't been too good lately, but there are plenty of rabbits around to make up for that. And Solari mentioned that the perimeter guards saw a small herd of deer move into our territory the other day so we set up some bait piles nearby; we're going to check those today." Eponin stopped walking as the hunting party began looking around quietly for sign. "Who knows maybe we'll get lucky."

"Well, if we don't get anything hunting, there's always fish." Xena watched the other Amazons moving quietly through the woods, leaving her alone with the weapons master.

Eponin nodded; they hadn't had fish in quite a while. "That sounds good; could always use fresh trout for the kitchens."

A dark brow arched at the word trout. "Is the fishing good?"

"The fishing's always good." Eponin did not see the need to tell her that the stream was full of big, wily old trout that often refused to take a bait, no matter the season.

Xena nodded. "Sounds like my kind of thing. Why don't you guys check out the bait piles; I'll be fishing." She took a couple of steps but Eponin's voice stopped her.

"You know you're more than welcome to come with us; we could always use another set of eyes." She waved at the distant Amazons, still scouting for prey.

Xena looked at the other Amazons, ensuring they were out of earshot. "I appreciate that Eponin, I do. But I don't want to step on any toes today." She titled her head to the rest of the hunting party. "You guys fill the larder, I'm gonna feed the queen."

Eponin chuckled. "Seems like you've got the harder job."

Again a dark brow arched wryly. "You have no idea." She turned to go, actually managing to get a short distance away before Eponin stopped her again.

"Hey Xena?"

Xena turned. "Yeah?"

Eponin stood there, scuffing her feet. "She's really glad to have you back you know." There was no need for Eponin to say just who she was talking about.

Xena nodded in understanding. "Yeah, I do."

Eponin took a couple of steps closer, dropping her voice so that Xena was the only one to hear her. "And just so you know, so are the rest of us."

Surprised by the sentiment and somewhat touched, Xena was speechless for a moment. She reached out and grabbed Eponin's arm in a tight grip, clasping it firmly, feeling the weapons master return the gesture.

"Thanks Poni." She dropped the weapons master's arm and smiled slightly as she walked away from the shorter Amazon, heading towards the nearby stream. Stripping off her armor and her boots, she waded barefoot into the water, already seeing several large shadows that promised some fruitful fishing. Gabrielle would eat well later.

She leaned over the water, extending her senses, stilling herself, slowing her breathing, becoming part of the river around her, hoping to fool the fish into coming closer. She stayed that way for several moments, patient as death and nearly as still.

Then, slowly a nearby shadow drifted closer, until it was well within reach and still she hesitated, waiting for the right moment to strike. When it came, she lashed out, her movements lightening fast as she reached into the water, wrapping her powerful hands around the gills of the fish and flinging it onto shore.

It flopped on the bank for several moments and then lay still, panting as she turned her attention back to the water. The shadows moved slowly, rearranging themselves as they realized that one of their number was gone. A few short moments later and the first fish was joined by a second.

Xena stood there for nearly an hour, losing herself in the simple joy of fishing. She often fished while on the road with Gabrielle; but it wasn't often that she was allowed to fish to her hearts content. Truth be told, she didn't enjoy catching the fish nearly as much as she enjoyed the time to herself in the water as she let her mind wander.

She caught one last fish but hesitated to throw it on the bank with the others. She looked at it for a moment, studying it and the pile on the bank and decided she had caught plenty for the day. She let the fish go, watching its shadow disappear downstream.

As she waded towards shore, a rustling in the bushes caught her eye and she went still, not wanting to scare the small animal away. A few seconds later a golden red hare popped into view, heading to the river to get a drink of water. She smiled slightly as she watched it hop and bound to the waters edge and take a deep drink.

"You'd better not let Eponin see you or you'll end up in the stew pot in the village." She spoke quietly and watched in amusement as its large ears perked up.

It stilled for only a moment before bending down to take another drink. It turned, seeming to stare right at the warrior and for the first time, Xena noticed that its eyes were milky white, blind and useless. Several moments of silence stretched out between human and rabbit, then, just as quietly as it came, it turned and was gone.

Xena stared at the spot for a moment in wonder, amazed by the encounter. She began stringing her catch to make them easier to carry back to the village, the rabbit still much on her mind. She smiled slightly, recalling its unusual color which reminded her of a certain bardic friend and traveling companion.

Very few creatures survived being different in nature; most animals abhorred and avoided anything that appeared different. Those that did survive often led a very lonely, solitary existence. And very few creatures survived being blind in the wild; even fewer thrived as it appeared the rabbit had managed to do and she wondered at that.

Maybe it was the hare's coloring that prompted her next line of thinking, maybe it was contemplating just how cruel and unfair the world was but suddenly Xena found herself thinking of Gabrielle and their travels together; comparing that harsh reality to that of the blind hare's and wondering just how her friend had managed to not only survive, but thrive as well. For them, it seemed that things never were very easy.

They'd been traveling together for nearly two years now. Two years of hardship and chaos, bad weather and sleeping on the ground. Two years of fighting day in and day out and never knowing more than a moment's peace. Two years of dodging bounty hunters, assassins and ruthless warlords all intent on bringing her down to further their own morbid and bloody reputations.

But not all of it was bad and dark, there was also light and wonder found in two years of staring at the stars arguing over the pictures they made. Two years of quiet talks beside the campfire, both of them sharing hopes and dreams for the future. Two years of shared meals, long debates of ridiculous theories, laughter, friendship and joy.

And somewhere along the line, they'd become something so much more than friends, so much more than family. They'd become a part of each other's lives, both of them vital to the survival and well being of the other. And she had nearly thrown that all away in a blind and misguided attempt to keep from hurting her friend even more. Never realizing that in doing so she would cause the bard more pain and hardship than if she'd just fought to stay alive in the first place.

She pulled on her boots and armor, settling her sword across her shoulders, realizing for the first time just what it was that had been bothering her since her return to the land of the living. She never realized just how her death would affect the one person left in the world she let inside without reservation; never gave a thought to it, until it was too late and she was listening to Gabrielle's tears from across the void

But then she was given a miracle and she'd been resurrected, defying the gods and the fates to return to the world of the living. Xena sighed quietly to herself and pondered that thought a moment. Never in her life had she ever expected that turn of events. Oh to be sure she had fully expected death to find her one day.

Dying was to be expected in her line of work after all. Given the number of enemies she'd made over the years, she was amazed it had taken as long as it had to catch up to her. And she had ended up exactly where she expected to be too, burning in Tartarus for her crimes as a warlord.

But she had never expected to have the chance to come back. Or that her death would affect Gabrielle as it had. She had expected grief and tears to be sure. But not the emptiness and utter devastation she'd felt in the bard's thoughts. Nothing could have prepared her for the pain it caused her or the guilt. So she'd listened when M'Lia told her she was still needed.

She told herself that she had come back to keep fighting for the greater good, justifying it with the thought that people needed someone like her to fight the evils of the world. Someone who was willing to stand up and take the risks and make the hard decisions that kept the weak and vulnerable from falling victim to a darkness and violence that they had no hope of understanding let alone fighting.

But now, in the broad light of day with plenty of time to think instead of act, she wondered just who she was fooling. Dying had brought a sense of clarity about her own heart that she had not allowed herself in life. She knew deep within her soul she'd come back for one reason and one reason only: because Gabrielle asked her to.

Hearing the bard's heartfelt words pleading with her to fight, to come back had given her the strength and the purpose to do what needed to be done, to find a way. The very idea of failing Gabrielle had nearly broken her heart. She couldn't stand the thought of listening to the pain and grief in Gabrielle's thoughts if she didn't make it.

Once she admitted that to herself, she'd finally admitted and accepted that she was hopelessly and completely in love with the Amazon Queen. And she wasn't going to rest or stop until she'd found a way to come back and tell the bard that herself.

But there never seemed to be any chance. The timing never seemed right and then Valesca had returned creating her own havoc. By the time the smoke cleared from that debacle, they were busy rebuilding the village. Even that morning, as calm as it had been for them, seemed an ill time to bring up such an important and life altering subject.

Xena sighed loudly, throwing her catch over her shoulder as she began walking back to the village. The need to reveal her feelings to the bard was making her twitchy; especially since she no longer had rebuilding the village to occupy her.

It was time she stopped fighting, herself, her doubts her fears, everything. It was time for her to simply let go and finally admit to Gabrielle how she felt, no more running, no more hesitating. She would walk Into the village, grab the bard and drag her some place private and finally lay it all on the line.

Satisfied at the simple yet straight forward plan, Xena shifted the catch on her shoulders and began whistling quietly as she walked back to the village.
* * *

Gabrielle left Ephiny soon after they resolved the final issues on the hunting rights treaty with one of their neighbors. She stood outside the ceremonial hut for a few moments, stretching away some of the tension that had built in her in the past hours she had spent with the regent. But some of it still lingered.

Deciding that she had plenty of time to kill before the hunting party returned with Xena, she walked towards their hut to get some things for a nice long, hot bath. Her things gathered, she headed towards the communal bathing hut.

She walked into the steamy room, finding a corner bench to place her things and her clothes before stripping and climbing into an occupied bathing pool. As the hot water surrounded her, she sighed feeling it sooth away the aches and pains from her staff bout with Eponin.

She closed her eyes, feeling the tension of the past several days flowing out of her as she soaked her worries away. She must have dozed off because one moment she was alone in the bathing hut and in the next she was being shaken away by a young Amazon.

"Queen Gabrielle?"

She jerked a bit in the tub, looking up at the touch of someone's hand on her arm. "Yes?"

The younger Amazon smiled slightly. "I am sorry my Queen but we did not want to disturb you. But we were afraid you might drown."

Gabrielle smiled as she slid up a bit. "No, it's alright, I guess I just fell asleep."

"Do you mind if we join you?"

Gabrielle looked behind her, seeing several other young Amazons and she shook her head. "No, please feel free."

In a few moments, there were several Amazons in the large bathing pool talking quietly while she continued relaxing quietly. After a few moments the quiet chatter stopped and a heavy silence fell over the group.

Gabrielle opened her eyes to see them sitting on the other side of the pool, quietly trying not to stare in her direction.

"Is everything all right?"

One of the girls, braver than the others moved closer to the bard. "We were hoping we could ask you something." Her voice was shy and she blushed slightly.

For a moment Gabrielle was fearful of what they might ask, but she pushed it aside and nodded at the young girl.

"Of course you can ask me anything." The answering grin from the young girl did not make her feel better.
* * *

Xena strode into the village, heading directly to the dining hut to hand her catch off to the cooks there. The cooks gawked at the size and number of trout she caught.

"These are some beautiful fish Xena. Where in Artemis's name did you catch them?" Eusta took the string of fish and gave a soft whistle.

"Little creek near the village; I've never seen so many fish in the same spot." Xena pointed in the stream's general direction surprised by the puzzled look that came over both Caith and Eusta's faces. "What?"

Caith shook her head, grabbing the other end of the stringer of fish. "Nothing, just a bit surprised, most of us don't have much luck in that gods be damned stream. Those trout are blessed by wily Athena herself."

Eusta nodded. "Most of us haven't caught a fish out of that stream in ages; none of 'em will take a bait."

"What did you use Xena?" Caith looked at her excitedly.

Xena shrugged. "I didn't use bait, I used my hands." She lifted both of them and wiggled her fingers enjoying the incredulous look on the faces of the two cooks.

"You caught these barehanded?" Eusta wiggled the stringer for emphasis, unable to hide her surprise.

"Yeah. Was a lot of fun too; haven't spent that much time fishing in a while." She resisted the urge to chuckle at their stunned expressions. "Hey have either of you seen Gabrielle?"

Eusta nodded. "Yes, the Queen was seen heading to the bathing hut about an hour ago. She might still be there."

Xena gave them a slight smile before leaving them standing there with a huge stringer of trout and stupefied expressions on their faces.

"Eusta, do you think she was serious?"

Eusta shook her head. "Have you ever known her to be anything but?"
* * *

Forget this life
Come with me
Don't look back you're safe now

Xena wandered over to the bathing hut hearing Gabrielle's voice just as she told the young Amazon she could ask her anything she wished. She stopped for a moment, hesitating, listening and wondering how Gabrielle would handle the situation.

Inside the bathing hut, Gabrielle braced herself as the young Amazon posed her question.

"Well, we wanted to ask you about the fight with Valesca. Is it true you were hanging over a lava pit and that Xena rescued you by jumping off a cliff?"

Xena tensed at the question, feeling a touch of guilt come over her at the memory of how close she had come to losing the young bard. Inside her tension went unnoticed.

The wistful, awed tone in the young girl's voice nearly made Gabrielle chuckle. Relieved, she simply nodded. "Yes it is."

There was a collective sigh from the other young girls and the first one looked at Gabrielle with a look that could only be described as pure hero worship. Gabrielle chuckled to herself even as the girl began talking excitedly again.

"That is just so heroic. She must be so strong to have stopped Valesca and rescued you like that."

Gabrielle nodded. "It's true that she's strong. But she didn't beat Valesca using her strength."

"Then how did she beat her?" The girl seemed unconvinced.

"Because she used this." Gabrielle reached out and touched the young girl on the forehead. "And you know what?" The girl shook her head. "When you use your mind, it doesn't matter how strong your opponent is. Because when you outthink them, you've beaten them. And that's what Xena did. She outthought both Valesca and Callisto."

Outside the hut, Xena smiled at the truth of that statement.

One of the young girls spoke up from the back of the group. "You're a better person than I am Queen Gabrielle. I don't know if I could forgive what Xena did in order to beat Valesca." In an instant the relaxed atmosphere was shattered.

Both Gabrielle and Xena tensed at the young girl's words each for very different reasons, but both out of a misplaced sense of guilt.

"You mean when she freed Callisto?" Gabrielle's quiet voice filled the hut.

The young girl nodded. "Yeah and not telling you about it. I think if it had been me, I'd have been plenty mad at her. I don't know if I could have forgiven either one of them for the terrible things they've done."

There was silence for a moment as Gabrielle absorbed her words. "So what you're saying is that I should hate her. Because she didn't bother to tell me about using Callisto to defeat Valesca until it was too late."

Xena heard the first undertones of anger entering the bard's voice and cringed thinking that she was the source. Suddenly unsure and fearful, feeling renewed guilt over what she had done, she waited to hear just what Gabrielle's thoughts were on the touchy subject.

The other girl nodded, not seeing the fine edge she was suddenly treading. "Yeah, that's what I'm saying."

Gabrielle sighed loudly, bringing her knees up and laying her chin on them as she thought for several moments on just what to say.

"You know you're right, I should hate her. She lied to me, she betrayed my trust and freed my husband's murder all in the name of the greater good. I should be furious beyond coherent thought at what she's done."

Outside, Xena felt each word like a physical blow and each one found its mark, slipping through all her defenses to slice at her heart and soul. Only a short time ago, she was contemplating telling the bard she loved her, tired of hiding the truth.

Now she knew the truth; Gabrielle was angry with her, mostly likely hated her for what she'd been forced to do. She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling the tears spill down her cheeks as she stumbled away from the hut, her legs unsteady. She never heard Gabrielle's next words.

Inside Gabrielle continued talking, unaware of the sudden emotional crisis her friend was going through right at that moment.

She fixed the young Amazon with a firm gaze, her brilliant green eyes suddenly blazing
as she let her anger have free reign.

"But you know what, I just can't do it. The hatred, the anger none of that matters. She did what she had to do to save me, to save all of you." She fixed each Amazon with the same glare daring them to deny it. Everyone was silent. "And you know what, she did it knowing perfectly well how it would affect me. And I let her, knowing just what it would do to her to think she hurt me like that. I understand that. I accept that. And quite frankly so should you. Because the next time you need my help, you'd best remember who I choose to be my champion."

Properly chastised, the young Amazon bowed her head. "Yes Queen Gabrielle."
* * *

Gabrielle left the bathing hut soon after uttering her angered words, her good mood destroyed by the confrontation with the young Amazons. She walked through the village and was surprised to see Ephiny make a bee line for her.

The regent fell in step beside her. "Have you talked to her yet?" There was no need to ask just who she meant.

Gabrielle chuckled at the single mindedness of her friend. "Well no, but I haven't seen her since lunch so it's kind of hard to find the time."

Ephiny sighed loudly. "You need to make the time. You have to tell her Gabrielle. She deserves to know the truth."

"I know. I'm just waiting for the perfect time to bring it up." Gabrielle threw her hands in the air in annoyance.

The older Amazon snorted. "Perfect time? With you two there is no such thing. If she hadn't died, you probably wouldn't even have admitted to me how you feel. And don't get me started on her; gods be damned warrior stoicism anyway. I swear the entire lot of them need to be strung up by their heels."

The bard looked at the blond next to her in surprise. "Ephiny, not to split hairs, but aren't you a warrior?"

"I'm an Amazon." Ephiny gave a jerk of her head for emphasis.

Gabrielle waited for further explanation but was greeted with silence. She turned to Ephiny and chuckled. "Huh, that was clear as mud."

Ephiny chuckled as well. "Don't change the subject, go talk to her; or I will."

They reached the queen's hut and Gabrielle walked inside, throwing her parting remark over her shoulder. "Fine. Damn pushy regent anyway."

Ephiny chuckled, shouting at the bard's back. "It's for your own good!"
* * *

Unlock your heart
Drop your guard
No one's left to stop you now

Ephiny left Gabrielle and wandered back towards the dining hut to talk with both Eusta and Caith about the preparations for the feast to follow the festival. She walked into the large kitchen area, listening to the two of them arguing and laughing good naturedly.

"You two are in good spirits today." Ephiny noticed the large pile of fish and wondered if the hunting party had returned already.

"Well we've got the makings of a grand feast here, thanks to Xena." Eusta waved her hand across the large pile of fish.

Ephiny was surprised. "Xena? She caught these fish? By herself?"

Eusta and Caith nodded. "She sure did, said she did it barehanded."

"Barehanded? All of them?" Her shocked voice rose in volume.

Caith handed the regent something to drink smiling slightly. "Tell her where she got them from Eusta."

Ephiny turned to the other cook, her light brows raised.

Eusta smiled. "She caught 'em out of that gods be damned creek!"

Ephiny nearly choked on her drink, spitting and hacking loudly as she stared at the large pile of trout being prepared for dinner that night. Caith reached over and pounded her soundly between her shoulder blades.

"She caught these out of that creek?" The cooks nodded. Ephiny shook her head, taking another deep drink as she again stared at the fish. "What do you suppose her mother fed her as a child?"
* * *

Ephiny left the dining hut still shaking her head over the surprise that Xena had left in the kitchen. Now she knew that Xena had returned, even if the rest of the hunting party was still out. She wondered where the tall warrior had gotten off to, or if Gabrielle had found her.

Realizing that Gabrielle was still most likely in her quarters, unaware that Xena had even returned, she decided to nudge things along for the two of them and went off in search of tall, dark and moody. She headed for the stables knowing full well that Xena never missed a chance to spend some time with her horse when she had nothing else to do.

She ducked inside the building, hearing someone shuffling around inside. She was surprised to see just who was there and even more surprised to see that person packing supplies into a couple of saddle bags.

"Xena, what are you doing?"

Xena didn't even look up at Ephiny's voice. "I'm leaving, what's it look like." She shoved some more travel food in her saddlebag.

Ephiny stepped closer still confused by the anger in Xena's voice and movements. "Gabrielle didn't mention you guys leaving tonight. She said you'd stay for the party."

"She isn't coming with me." Xena tied the saddle bags shut, leaning them against the stall wall as she grabbed Argo's saddle.

"What?" Her shocked exclamation echoed in the largely empty stable.

Xena threw the saddle over Argo's back and began tightening the straps. Argo shifted nervously, her ears twitching as she sensed her mistress's anger and distress. Xena soothed her softly never taking her eyes off the horse as she continued saddling her.

"I'm leaving her here Ephiny. She isn't coming with me." Xena finished tightening the saddle and came out of the stall to grab her bags. "It's the best thing for her. It's what I should have done from the beginning. I never should have let her follow me. I should have just sent her home and made her stay there. At least then she would have been safe." She tied one bag on and walked to the other side to tie on the other.

"Xena..." Ephiny tried to cut in but Xena ignored her and kept on talking.

"Since I can't do that, I've decided to leave her here. She won't be hurt again because of me or my past. She'll have a normal life, she'll raise a family, she'll die old in her bed surrounded by the people she loves. She deserves a good life." Xena tied on the last bag and came out of the stall, looking for Argo's halter.

Ephiny could not believe what Xena was saying. "Xena you're not making any sense. You know as well as I do how stubborn she is. Do you really think you'll be able to convince her that staying here is really best for her?" Ephiny stepped closer to the stall, watching Xena's jerky but gentle motions as she bridled her horse. Something was bothering the normally stoic woman. "By the gods, she ran away from her home village just to travel with you."

Xena finished with the bridle. "I have to try Ephiny. I can't hurt her again, not like this; not ever again." She turned to face Ephiny for a split second, something unreadable in her eyes.

Surprised at the glimpse of emotion she saw there, another piece of the puzzle clicked for Ephiny. "Xena, does Gabrielle know you're in love with her?"

Xena went utterly still next to her, looking at her hands as she spoke. "No, she doesn't. And I don't plan on telling her, ever."

Surprised by the easy admission she almost missed what Xena was really saying. "Why in the name of Zeus would you keep that to yourself?"

This time when she looked at Ephiny, there was pain in her eyes, pain and a desperate hope. "She deserves someone better than me Ephiny. She deserves to be loved by someone who doesn't come with a soul as dark as Hades's beard."

Ephiny snorted trying to lighten the mood. "Hade's doesn't have a beard.'

Xena gave her a dangerous look, stepping closer. "Don't split hairs with me."

"Then stop being so damned stubborn." Ephiny resisted the urge to jab the stubborn warrior in the chest, fearful that she might get her finger broken for her trouble.

"I'm not being stubborn, I'm trying to protect her." She pushed past Ephiny, looking for something to occupy her hands to fight the rising tide of violence she could feel building in her.

Behind her Ephiny kept pushing. "By driving her away?" Ephiny snorted loudly. "If you love her, you've got a strange way of showing it."

"I don't recall asking your opinion." Xena grabbed a grooming brush, twirling it in her hands, pushing away the voice inside her head that told her just how she could use it to shut the pushy regent up.

Ephiny stepped closer, unaware of the fragile and dangerous situation she was putting herself in. "Yeah well when you stop acting like the back end of a centaur, I'll start keeping my opinion to myself. And just so you know, this one's free of charge. Next time you start paying."

"Don't push me Ephiny. I push back, remember." Xena turned, glaring a warning at the regent.

Seeing the barely subdued violence in Xena's eyes and stance, Ephiny held up her hands realizing that maybe she had pushed too far. "All I'm asking is for you to tell her, she deserves to know the truth."

"And what truth would that be? That I love her? That I can't stand the thought of living another moment of my life without her? That the only reason I came back was because I couldn't listen to her pain any longer?" She threw the comb away from her violently, not caring that it shattered when it hit the solid wood wall on the other side of the stables. She stepped closer to Ephiny.

"Do you think she could handle hearing that I think about her all the time? That I dream about her, fantasize about her? Do you think she'd want to hear that her best friend's been having impure thoughts about her for almost a year now? Or maybe she'd like me to tell her exactly what those thoughts were." Xena turned away once more, grabbing onto Argo's stall, her strong hands gripping the wood and squeezing as she tried to maintain some control. Her shoulders shook with the effort.

"I thought I was doing her a favor by dying; that somehow my death would save her from the darkness inside of me. But it didn't because my dying nearly killed her. I didn't have a choice; I had to come back, because she was breaking my heart. And now it's even worse because I can't live without her and I sure as Tartarus can't imagine being dead without her either." Her voice was quiet, barely reaching Ephiny's ears.

Ephiny sighed behind her. "Artemis save me from stubborn, hard-headed, macho warriors. If its not one thing with you bunch its another." There was no response from the dark warrior and Ephiny felt her own anger build.

She did not need this. She had a village to run, people to take care of. She did not have the time to hold Xena's hand while she figured out what to do. It was time to take the bull by the horns and hope she was not about to get mauled.

"You can be so damned self-righteous sometimes. It makes me sick."

Xena snorted. "What do you care? Without me here, she's yours. She'll finally be the Queen she was supposed to be and she'll be here. What do you care if I leave?"

Ephiny had a sudden urge to walk up to the deadly warrior and knock her upside the head for being so obtuse. "Don't you get it, she's nothing without you. If you leave, she won't stay; not an hour past the moment she finds you gone. She'll follow you to the ends of the Earth and back if that's what it takes. Look what she just went through to bring you back!"

Xena whirled around suddenly in Ephiny's face as she nearly snarled. "And look how I repaid that! I don't deserve that kind of loyalty from her."

Surprised by the speed of the dark woman, Ephiny resisted the urge to step back. "No, no I guess you don't." She agreed. "But then again she does, so where does that leave you?"

Xena said nothing.

Ephiny knew that she was afraid, despite the warrior's stoic mask she could feel it radiating off the other woman. Ephiny well remembered how afraid she was when she realized just how much she felt for Phantes and just how much it took before she finally let go and let him in. So she well understood the motives behind Xena's self denial, even if she didn't know the reasons.

Ephiny stepped closer, her voice soothing. "Xena, you've spent your entire life doing things far beyond the reach of the rest of us mortals. You've faced down monsters, kings and warlords without so much as a twinge of fear. By Tartarus you've even faced down Ares himself on more than one occasion and yet a mere slip of a girl has you trembling in your boots. Are you that afraid to let her in?"

Xena sighed. "I...I don't know."

"You told her you would always be there for her. Or was that a lie just to make her feel better?"

Xena shook her head violently. "I meant what I said."

"Then prove it." Xena was silent. Ephiny decided to push one final time. "Xena, do you love her?"

Xena turned to look at her. "I came back from the dead because she asked me to. What do you think?" Xena's blue gaze never wavered, giving Ephiny her answer.

"Then go talk to her. At least tell her yourself why you're leaving. Cause I'll be damned if you expect me to explain this to her." With that, the regent left the stable.

To be continued

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