~ It Never Rains, But It Pours! ~
by Red Raven

Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and certain other significant mortals belong to MCA/Universal (how I wish it were otherwise!) and no copyright infringement is intended. The gods are up for grabs (generally) while any other mortals are mine all mine!

Warning: This story does contain scenes of violence in places and reference to rape (not graphic), so please tread carefully if this bothers your reading enjoyment or go away altogether.

This story also depicts a relationship between two women in love and contains scenes of graphic sex. That's the way I see it and so that's the way I tell it. Consequently, if you're under the age of consent or homosexual relationships are still illegal where you are, or if it's just not your cup of tea, do me a favour and go read something else!

Chronology: This story takes place about a year after events found in "One Against An Army" and specifically relates to the events in "The Bitter Suite". Events found in 'future' episodes therefore have little or no bearing on what unfolds here.

Personal Note

This is my first attempt at Xenite fan-fic. I don't ask that you be overly critical, but if you think it's lousy, I'd like to know why. Similarly, if you enjoy what you read, be my guest to come and massage my ego a little and share why you like it. Either way, you can reach me by Email below.

Red Raven

Part One

A strong breeze rustled through tree branches above the warrior, causing the palamino she was tending to nicker gently and stamp her hooves. Xena laid a comforting hand against the mare's withers and continued to adjust the saddlebags.

"Steady Argo, I know there's a storm brewing. We'll be off before ya know it and in a nice quiet cave, away from the wind and the rain." The warrior lifted her head and sniffed the air.

"That is, as soon as a certain bard turns up with the extra firewood... at this rate we're all gonna be drenched before we get moving."

The horse shook her mane and whinnied as if laughing at a private joke. "I agree, girl", the warrior grinned. "Then again, she does make up for it in so many ways." She gave a final tug on a leather strap she had just buckled. "There! All done."

"Who makes up for what, Xena?" Gabrielle sauntered up to the warrior and her horse, dropping a tied bundle of sticks and twigs by her side. As she stood dusting grime from her hands, the young woman looked affectionately towards her friend.

Xena turned from the horse and smiled playfully. "I happened to be talking to Argo! Don'tcha know it's rude to butt in on a conversation when you haven't been invited?"

Gabrielle grinned back, "Well at least with my wit and charm I can usually find more than a horse to converse with!"

Argo snorted in Gabrielle's direction, causing her to turn her attention away from the warrior. "I'm sorry Argo, no offence intended... I certainly couldn't think of you as just 'any' horse now, could I?" She walked over to the war-horse, reaching up to gently stroke her nose and ears, the horse nuzzling Gabrielle in return.

Xena raised an eyebrow. "Well, when you two have finished with your mutual appreciation, do you think we could get going?" She scooped up the bundle of wood and tied it securely behind the saddle. "Unless of course you want to spend the evening drying out wet clothes without dry wood for a fire... not to mention eating the fish I caught, raw, and then having no..."

"Okay, okay! I get the picture. Sheesh!" Gabrielle threw her hands in the air, gesturing mock surrender. "The threat of a rain shower and you get cranky because you think your armour'll get rusty!" Gabrielle only just had time to reach for her staff, propped against a tree, before the already mounted warrior reached down and hauled her up into the saddle.

A last check to make sure the bard was not about to slip from her protective grasp, a final look around the campsite and the warrior nudged Argo into a canter. As the travellers broke cover from the forest they had camped in, the warrior gave a shout and a firm dig with her heels, encouraging the horse into a gallop across an open meadow. Though only mid afternoon, the sky was growing steadily darker as pitch-black clouds rolled across the sun and what had earlier been a cloudless, dazzling blue expanse. Everything in sight was fading into dull colours and grey shapes as thunder rumbled in the distance. Xena guided her horse and passenger through the shallows of a stream and up a sharp incline towards a rockier terrain, keen eyes searching for the welcoming mouth of a cave. She was becoming increasingly concerned that they would not reach cover before the sky was ripped with lightening and torrential rain fell to earth.

"Hera's left buttock!" Xena cursed as rain began spitting. She slowed Argo to a walk as they entered a gorge. "There should be a cave just up ahead, but I can't see it in this poor light."

Gabrielle was startled from her reverie, relaxed against the warmth of Xena's body and enjoying the warrior's strong arm wrapped around her waist. She usually restrained herself from being too physically affectionate with her stoic friend, afraid that her deeper feelings might be revealed and chase away the normally fearless warrior. Consequently for Gabrielle, these moments of closeness were important to her. She no longer denied to herself that she was in love with Xena but was convinced the warrior would surely leave her should her longings become obvious. Gabrielle would sooner give up the promise of the Elysian Fields than allow that to happen.

"What's wrong, Xena?"

"I was just saying I can hardly see a damned thing in all this grey light... I hate it when it's neither one thing or the other."

"What do you mean... one thing or the other?" Gabrielle was now attentive to the warrior's complaint.

Xena leaned forward in the saddle slightly to peer through the gloom, tightening her grip on the bard. "I mean it's not bright enough to see by sunshine and it's not dark enough to have the moon and stars to light the way."

"But don't you have a kind of gut feeling for where it is?"

"Well, I think so, sort of... yeah." The warrior sat back in the saddle as the rain began to fall harder. "Yes I do, Gabrielle."

"So go with it, Warrior Princess. I trust your gut feelings and so should you." Gabrielle snuggled back into the larger woman's shoulder, hoping to gain at least some shelter from the increasing downpour.

Xena smiled in spite of herself and the rain. She was constantly surprised by the trust Gabrielle held for her and her instincts. Closing her eyes briefly, she thought back to the last time she travelled this way, tracing a mental map of the valley. She nudged Argo into a trot again, keeping the mare calm as lightening erupted just above the gorge, followed soon after by a long drum-roll of thunder.

The warrior slipped her hand further around her passenger, the sound of rain and encroaching thunder covering her contented sigh. She revelled in the occasions she could legitimately be tactile with Gabrielle. Ensuring her safety, while up in the saddle, was one of those times. Not doubting her friend's love, but believing it to be simply platonic, perhaps flavoured with a little hero-worship, Xena yet knew her own heart was irreversibly lost to this woman who had become more than life to her. The two of them had been through so much over the past eight seasons or so and had grown together through many pains and joys. Her deepening feelings for her companion were no surprise to her, but Xena would rather spend eternity in Tartarus than reveal her heart and risk losing Gabrielle altogether.

"Alright, if I remember correctly, it should be right over... there!" Xena nodded in the direction of some misshapen boulders set against a cliff face covered in hanging vegetation.

Approaching the boulders, Xena and Gabrielle both looked intently ahead of them, concentrating on the area Xena had indicated.

"There it is!" They chorused in unison, grinning at each other out of relief for spotting the outline of a cave opening.

Sure enough, the shadowed entrance to a cave came into view, curtained by hanging vines and ferns. A further, well-timed lightening streak confirming the happy discovery. Helping Gabrielle to slide to the ground, Xena quickly dismounted and the two of them ran for the cave with Xena gently tugging on Argo's reins, encouraging the mare to follow. Once through the hastily swept aside vines and out of the increasing storm, Xena slowed the pace as they walked a few yards into the cave entrance. Now in almost total darkness, she efficiently felt her way down one of the saddlebags to where two ready-made torches were securely tied. Retrieving one, Xena turned to a leather pouch to find her flints and soon the dark passageway was less intimidating as shadows fell away from the burst of cheerful flame.

Holding the torch aloft in one hand and taking Argo's reins in the other, Xena began walking down the passageway towards the cave. Gabrielle walked by Argo's side, resting a hand on the mare's neck, more for her own comfort than the horse's, she would have been swift to admit.

"You've stayed in this cave before, then?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yeah, about five summers ago." Xena glanced at the bard and caught her look of concern. "It's okay, Gabrielle, it's deserted. There's no one here. It's not like it's a popular warlord hideout or anything."

"Oh I'm not worried that we're about to walk in on some or other gang waiting to run us through and steal Argo..."

"Only in their dreams!" Xena growled to no one in particular. "They wouldn't get further than the length of my sword if they even thought they could..."

"But, if you'd let me finish..." The bard hissed at Xena, who swallowed the end of her sentence and offered a cockeyed grin in apology. "Thank you. What I am concerned about is finding a bear or a wild cat or dragon waiting for us somewhere in here."

"Don't worry, Gabrielle!" Xena halted in her tracks and turned towards her anxious friend, her expression softening. "Really... at most, we might come across a few bats, but anything larger... There's nothing that's made its home here yet."

Gabrielle set her hands on her hips and scrutinised her friend. "And just how come you're so sure, Xena?"

"Because this is the only entrance to one large cave up ahead and I've seen no evidence of anything travelling up or down this passage." Xena grinned mischievously and continued, "Come on Gabrielle, you know the basics of hunting and tracking by now, unless of course you never picked up anything Eponin or Ephiny taught you?" Even in the torch light Xena could observe Gabrielle's ears and neck beginning to glow red and decided to tease her friend all the way. "Just as well the Queen of the Amazons isn't expected to feed the tribe from time to time. I guess you'd be introducing them all to vegetarianism!"

"Okay, that's enough Xena!" Gabrielle unsuccessfully hid her embarrassment at being caught out in her forgetfulness. "I'm sorry I haven't been watching the ground for tracks or droppings..."

"Don't forget bones or blood from recent prey." Offered the warrior.

"Or bones, or blood, or entrails from a recently culled warrior princess!" Gabrielle swung her staff towards Xena feigning a menacing stance, but soon let it swing down when 'the look' was turned her way. She sighed heavily and raised a disarming smile. "I'm sorry Xena, but... well look at me! I'm wet... well, very damp... I'm cold and I'm hungry." As if on cue, Gabrielle's empty stomach made its presence known with a low grumble. "See! How can I be expected to concentrate on what's on or not on the ground when I'm hardly at my best? Honestly, if I was by myself I'd probably..."

Xena's heart melted, just as it always did when she knew Gabrielle was physically uncomfortable. She found her thoughts momentarily wandering as she gazed into soft, forest-green eyes, now caught in the torchlight. It was easy to imagine lying with Gabrielle in a warm sunny meadow, tangling her fingers through the bard's strawberry blond hair and listening to her recite some or other story. 'My bard', Xena mused to herself. 'Yeah, sure... don't get deluded! Your bard... nowhere except in your daydreams.' She sadly lowered her eyes to focus on one of her bracers.

"...be depending on absolutely everything I've learned from my Amazon sisters, like all the tracking skills and looking out for evidence of danger, and..." Gabrielle glanced up at the Warrior Princess and realised she had been all but staring at her before dropping her gaze. "...I might even practise a few bird-calls along the way... Xena, you haven't listened to a word I've just said have you?"

"Huh?" Xena came to her senses and felt like a guilty urchin caught stealing fruit from a market stall. "Sorry Gabrielle I was just ah, well you mentioned being hungry and I was wondering if I remembered to pack enough apples and oats for Argo." 'Nice one, warrior.'

Xena mentally slapped her forehead as she felt her own face redden. 'Now you have to lie to her too!'

"Xena, I realise you have saved my life more times than I can count, but sometimes I think you care more about that horse of yours than you do about me!"

"Hey, that's just not true!"

"Well, it seems pretty true at the moment!" Gabrielle did not doubt for a moment that Xena cared about her but feeling irritable with the rain and her friend's sarcasm, she wasn't about to give in. "Maybe I should just head into that dark cave and catch pneumonia while you stay here and feed Argo." Gabrielle waved her staff in the direction they were heading. "You probably wouldn't even notice I'd gone."

"Of course I would!"

"Yeah, right!"

"Gabrielle, that's not fair! Don'tcha know by now that I care about where you are all the time? I care so much sometimes I can't breathe in this damned armour! I care about you more than anything or anyone I've ever known and I... well, I... just couldn't imagine being without you" The warrior trailed off, realising Gabrielle was open-mouthed.

"Being without me?" Gabrielle whispered.

"Yes, I couldn't imagine being without you." Xena quietly confirmed.

The warrior closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath before opening them again. "Look at everything we've been through Gabrielle: the battles, Callisto, Perdicus..." Gabrielle flinched slightly at the mention of her murdered husband and Xena dropped Argo's reigns to place a gentle hand on her friend's shoulder, swallowing hard as she sensed tears welling up. "Valesca too, not to mention what happened because of our children and what you and I did to each other... What I did, or tried to do... to you."

The warrior's voice cracked slightly as her tears got the better of her and began to cascade freely. "Despite everything, or perhaps even because of it all Gabrielle, I've come to realise that you are the one constant in my life, the one reliable source of real strength that stops me going back to what I once was." She swallowed hard and continued. "I don't deserve your trust, or your friendship, but it's always there for me and I couldn't... I mean a day doesn't go by now when I don't thank the gods for you, for bringing you into my life... for bringing us... together." Xena closed her eyes as a sob pushed its way through her chest and shoulders. She wanted to say so much now, but it was impossible as she bowed her head and gave in to her tears.

Gabrielle reached up to grasp Xena's arm as she felt her own hot tears spill down her cheeks. Needing no prompting, the warrior pulled Gabrielle into a tight embrace and held her close for almost half a candle mark as they both allowed themselves to release pent up emotions. Slowly, weeping turned to deep, hitching breaths and sniffs as the two women comforted and steadied each other. Gabrielle was the first to speak as they eventually broke their hold on each other.

"It's sometimes so easy to forget, isn't it..." Gabrielle began as she gently ran her hand across Xena's eyes and cheeks. "That we're still healing?" She smiled weakly. "So much hurt is difficult to be free from in the space of two or three seasons, with or without Illusia."

Xena nodded quietly, unable to speak for the moment, but kept her eyes locked on Gabrielle's as she became calm and able to speak. "If I had known what trouble and danger you were going to go through because of me, or the hurt I would put you through, I would never have allowed you to leave Poteidaia and travel with me."

"Now you just listen to me, Xena." Gabrielle rested one hand on the warrior's shoulder and the other against the side of her face. "I never realised I could experience so much, in such a short space of time after leaving Poteidia. Looking back, granted, if I'd had the choice I might have mapped things out just a little differently." She allowed herself a slight chuckle, managing to coax the beginnings of a smile from Xena. "However, if I've learned anything out of everything that's happened to us it's that I'd rather spend just one day of adventure with you Xena, whatever joy or sorrow or fun or danger that adventure might bring, than spend my lifetime in a village with a people who... Well, who simply want to rake hay and raise chickens, a family I care about very much but who drive me to Hades and back and a husband I could never... well, a husband I could never truly love." Gabrielle stopped talking, suddenly aware that she may have said more than she intended.

It was Xena's turn to be open-mouthed at Gabrielle's revelation, as she continued to study the bard's expression and faced a myriad of questions racing through her mind. It was short-lived, as she realised Gabrielle was shivering, not from the tail end of tears, but from a chilling breeze now filtering down the cave's passageway. The warrior abruptly swiped a hand across her eyes and nose, deciding to switch from emotional confession to action.

"Come on you, this conversation isn't finished yet..." She reached out to squeeze Gabrielle's shoulder, then took up Argo's reigns again. "But I've got to get a fire going and then get you out of those wet clothes." With that, the warrior promptly sneezed and shivered herself.

"Oh gods, I wish you would, Xena." Gabrielle immediately bit her tongue, regretting letting her guard down so stupidly."

"Gabrielle? I'm not sure what you said just then, but ah, it sounded kind of... well, I couldn't hear you really... I sneezed over what you said." Xena quietly cursed herself for missing what almost sounded like a blatant invitation.

Ever the story weaver, Gabrielle smiled innocently. "I just said, 'oh gods, that'll be good, Xena'. You're absolutely right, I really need to get out of these wet things, and so do you, before one of us or both of us gets ill." She congratulated herself inwardly for being able to cover her previous words, but realised there was no time to be smug. "Well... can we please set up camp and get a fire going?"

"Yeah, come on, let's go." Xena's tone was even, but her thoughts were jumping through hoops wondering if she'd really misheard Gabrielle or if Gabrielle had tripped over her words. One thing was absolutely clear however, they had to get warm, dry and have a meal if they were going to have a comfortable night.

Silent, apart from Argo's hooves on the ground and the occasional sputter from the torch, the trio moved down the passageway, rounding a bend that led directly into the cave. High-domed and wide, the enormous hollow provided ample room for several people and their horses too, should they choose not to tether their beasts outside. A stone circle marked out the centre of the cave, wood ash bearing witness to fires stoked by previous occupants, although there was no sign that anyone had been there in a long while. Two crudely made braziers stood across from each other in the cave and Xena gratefully noted that they still contained dry wood and even some charcoal. She let go of Argo's reigns by the wall of the cave and strode from one brazier to the other, lighting them and then extinguishing the torch in the fire-ring's ash.

The cave afforded total quiet from the raging storm outside so, once bathed in sufficient light, Xena and Gabrielle fell into their familiar routine of preparing for the evening. While Xena removed Argo's saddle, bridle and saddle bags to groom and feed the mare, Gabrielle fetched bedrolls and dry shifts from the saddlebags, along with a water-skin and other provisions, then started the fire with the kindling and wood they had brought. Once the fire was burning well Gabrielle cleaned and spitted fish above the flames, prepared a pan of vegetables and herbs on the fire's edge, then turned her attention to herself. Thankful for the spreading warmth from the fire and the aroma of a meal cooking, Gabrielle untied her boots and kicked them off, then unlaced her top and shrugged it off, picking up a drying cloth to rub life into her chilled shoulders, arms and breasts. Satisfied that she was at least feeling drier from her waist up, she undid her leather belt, letting her skirt and small britches drop onto the end of her bedroll. She repeated the ritual with the drying cloth and then put on her clean shift, finally bending forward at the waist and removing her headband to allow her hair to tumble down and be rubbed dry.

Xena had fed Argo and was in the process of completing the horse's rubdown. She walked round the mare so that her back was towards the cave wall, ensuring that she could keep an eye on Gabrielle preparing their food while she tended to her horse. Her gaze was tender as she enjoyed the sight of her friend making the meal, a slight frown on Gabrielle's face as she concentrated on the fish, beheading and gutting them efficiently then throwing these unwanted parts into the fire. She smiled at the thought of how far Gabrielle had come in her preparation of the animals Xena caught for their meals. Previously, Xena had to prepare them for the pot herself as Gabrielle could not bring herself to touch the newly dead creatures. It was a slow process coaxing the squeamish bard into the art of cleaning and gutting the game or fish provided by the warrior's hunting skills. Now there was nothing Gabrielle couldn't deal with animal-wise for their meals except, that was, for rabbits! Or lil' furry bunnies, as she insisted on calling them. Xena tutted quietly to herself and smiled.

The warrior continued to observe her friend as she finished the food preparation and began to strip off her wet clothes. She watched for a few moments, taking in the vision of Gabrielle's well-formed shoulders, abdomen and firm breasts, nipples hardened due to the cold wet material so recently removed. Xena bit her lower lip, dropping her gaze and mentally castigated herself for turning into little more than a common voyeur. She and Gabrielle had seen each other naked almost daily over the past three years or so. They washed together or swam in streams, undressed in preparation for sleep each night, occasionally they even shared a room and a hot tub at a tavern. Seeing each other naked was simply in the nature of their travels and Xena was usually able to keep occasional straying desires in check through meditation or by exhausting herself with sword practice. So what was different this evening? The warrior pondered, as she felt her heartbeat increase slightly. Was it the glow of the firelight perhaps? Most likely, it was the earlier revealing conversation they had shared in the entrance to the cave.

Xena shook her head and looked up slowly towards Gabrielle, inhaling sharply as she took her fire-lit form, now fully naked as she dried her lower back and thighs. She was proud of how her friend had developed from a young village woman into a well-toned Amazon, lean and far stronger than her small frame suggested. Her powerful arms could wield a staff with a speed and accuracy few would-be-attackers could out-fight these days and virtually never, if an opponent used a similar weapon. How many times had the warrior found herself knocked on her backside now? Three times? No, four! She smiled, remembering the first time Gabrielle caught her off balance while they were sparring. She had managed to buckle the warrior's left knee with a short, fast jab then immediately spun full circle with her staff held horizontally. Crouching at the last moment, Gabrielle brought a low blow to Xena's legs, landing it's full impact at the back of her knees and sweeping a totally amazed warrior off the ground and flat on her back. Had it been a true enemy facing Xena, she would have shoulder-springed straight onto her feet again, but she was happier to revel in her friend's triumph. Gabrielle had been so excited because of her 'victory' that she had thrown her staff over her shoulder and rushed to pull a previously unbeatable but now grinning and dusty warrior princess from the ground and into a bear hug. 'By the gods, that's when I knew I was in love with her' Xena whispered to herself, letting go of the breath she hadn't realised she was holding.

The warrior watched Gabrielle turn as she continued to dry herself, alternating between hips and legs, gradually facing Xena from across the fire. Her hair shimmered golden in the firelight, tumbling over her shoulders and drawing Xena's gaze once more to her breasts, although this time she did not look away, entranced by the vision before her. Steadying herself against Argo's flank, she allowed her pulse to race as her eyes travelled down from Gabrielle's breasts, past ribs, navel and abdomen, to rest on golden curls and strong, sleek thighs. Desire grew in the pit of Xena's stomach, spreading outwards and upwards across her abdomen, breasts and neck, up her back, down her legs and most definitely between them. She burned with desire to touch Gabrielle with both a tender love and an unbridled lust, longing to be touched in return. She ached to make love with her, to unleash passion and surrender herself completely to this one person she knew could tame the warlord within, freeing her soul totally.

Xena shut her eyes tight, quickly turned around and sank back against Argo, thoughts chariot-racing and her heart pounding. "Hades' flames, stop this! Don't do this to yourself!" She covered her face with both hands and whimpered quietly, willing her heart to calm down and her mind to stop turning summersaults.

A few moments later, a beaming Gabrielle appeared by her side dressed in a simple shift as the warrior gradually regained her composure. "Xena, come over to the fire and get warm. I'll have that armour unbuckled in no time, then you can get out of your leathers and dry off. We'll be able to eat in about a quarter of a candle mark."

Xena gritted her teeth and swallowed, then gave her best impression of an innocent smile to Gabrielle. Nodding, she managed to unclench her jaw. "Sure, be right there!"

"Maybe we can carry on talking after that? It might do us some good to talk about our feelings." Gabrielle walked back to the fire and knelt down to check the fish and stir the vegetables.

"Oh gods." Xena exhaled. "How, for the love of Aphrodite, do I deal with this tonight?" She snapped her head up, half expecting the beautiful but trouble-making goddess to manifest herself. Thankfully, a few heartbeats passed by and only she, Gabrielle and Argo remained present in the cave.

"Alright Xena," the warrior whispered as she steeled herself. "You've fought armies and their warlords, giants, sorcerers and even Ares himself! Surely, you can handle this? Just go over there, get your armour and leathers off, get dry, put on your shift and eat your meal. Then spend the evening polishing your weapons and armour while making polite conversation with Gabrielle, just as you've done almost every night since you've travelled with her. Don't say anything stupid and don't get emotional. Perhaps she'll even tell you a story while you get ready to sleep. Yeah, a long one. A real long one. A real long, boring one, with no passion in it." With a deep breath, Xena stepped out from behind Argo and walked over to the fire unbuckling one of her bracers.

Gabrielle got up from the vegetables she was tending. "Here, let me help you." She stepped behind the warrior and unbuckled her sword sheath, laying the weapon near the fire with the chakram Xena had already detached and dropped along with her bracers. Moments later, Gabrielle's agile fingers made short work of the buckles holding Xena's armour in place. She lifted the front and back sections away, propping them against a nearby rock where the warrior had thrown her shoulder guards and armbands. Working her way down, Gabrielle deftly removed Xena's grieves and unlaced her boots, briefly resting her head against a muscled thigh. A shiver rippled through the warrior that was not entirely lost on the bard, wondering how Xena could still be cold so near the fire.

Xena leaned forward and gently took hold of Gabrielle's arms, lifting her up to face her. "You know Gabrielle, it seems a little... I dunno... disrespectful of me to let the Queen of the Amazons still help me with my boots."

"Oh Xena, please!" Gabrielle jabbed her playfully in the ribs. "We don't have to go jumping into that particular lake, do we? I've always helped you with your armour and boots since we've been together. It's never been a chore for me and it's never bothered you up to now. Honestly, Queen of the Amazons or not, I'm still your friend and if I can lend a hand..."

She smirked at the warrior. "Well, so much the better, 'cos I can keep an eye on you and keep you out of trouble."

Xena sighed heavily as she knelt down on one knee first and then switched to the other while she removed her boots. "It's not that it bothers me Gabrielle, not entirely anyway, but, well circumstances change and people change. Sometimes... certain actions become kind of well, inappropriate I guess." Xena hated herself for trying to use Gabrielle's royal status as a cover for her own inability to control her libido. Without needing to look up she knew her friend had tensed.

"Are you somehow annoyed with me for finally accepting the Queen's Mask, Xena? Do you think maybe I should have passed the title to Ephiny instead of simply accepting that she would continue to be Regent in my absence?"

Xena leapt to her feet "Gods Gabrielle! How could I be annoyed with your actions where the Amazon Nation is concerned? I am so proud of you for who and what you are as their Queen." She approached her friend and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, looking down into Gabrielle's concerned face. "The guidance, the wisdom, current treaties with previous enemies, a love for peace... gods, I am so very proud of you." Time appeared to stand still, or at least it didn't matter, as crystal blue eyes gazed into gentle green eyes. Xena closed the gap between herself and Gabrielle, pulling her into a bear hug. The two of them lapsing into silence, sensing more than hearing one another's hearts beating.



"This is sort of where we left off, out in the passage, isn't it?"

Xena let go of Gabrielle reluctantly and stepped back. "I guess so. Do you really need to talk some more?" She looked hesitantly at Gabrielle. "I mean, would you like to talk some more?"

Gabrielle smiled at Xena, well aware that the warrior didn't particularly enjoy stringing too many sentences together in one sitting, especially when feelings were the issue. "As I said, it might do us some good to talk about our feelings, but whatever else we do or say tonight..." She nodded towards the fire. "Let's eat before all we have are burnt offerings, unfit for even the easiest-going gods!"

While Gabrielle divided the meal into two generous portions, Xena slipped quickly out of her damp leathers and britches, finished the drying-off job that the fire had almost completed and put on her clean shift. As she gave her hair a brisk rub with the drying cloth, she glanced up to notice Gabrielle watching her intently. The bard looked down quickly and swiftly picked up their platefuls, moving over to the bedrolls.

"Here you go." Gabrielle offered up one of the plates, which Xena took.

They sat and ate side by side, suddenly realising just how hungry they were. The meal was warming and the pair relished the fare, swiftly consuming it without a further word spoken. Eventually, eating was exchanged for cleaning the plates and cooking implements, both being careful not to use the entire contents of the water-skin. Still they said nothing until everything had been cleaned and stowed away. Finally Gabrielle broke the silence.


"Uh huh?"

"I'm sorry."

Xena wasn't totally sure where this was leading, so she gave a non-committal shrug and said simply "It's okay."

"No, it's not Xena, I... shouldn't have been... well, what I mean is... actually, I'm not sure what I mean."

Xena caught her friend's attention. "Gabrielle, what exactly are you sorry for?"

Gabrielle blushed furiously as she thought about how to phrase her confession, suddenly finding a particularly interesting rock at her feet. Finally accepting the simplest admission was best, but unable to raise her head, she whispered. "I'm sorry for staring at you. For watching you undress. I..."

"Oh, is that all?" Xena couldn't resist the smirk that jumped to her lips, despite feeling her heartbeat increase again at Gabrielle's words. "I thought you were about to confess to something terrible."

"But that is terrible, isn't it?"

"Gabrielle, why should that be terrible?" Xena tried to choose her words carefully and keep her tone light, not daring to hope that it was with desire rather than simple admiration behind Gabrielle's attention. "I know you appreciate a well-toned body, whether it's that of an athlete, a farmer, an Amazon warrior or an old war-horse like me! Without wanting to wave my own banner, I know I keep in pretty good shape and it's flattering that it's noticed by my best friend."

"But it's so much more than that, Xena, much more." Gabrielle raised her eyes to Xena's and looked intently at the warrior. Surprised by her own boldness she decided to press on before she lost her nerve, especially when she saw the patient look on Xena's face. "Well, I might as well get hanged for a sheep as a lamb." She sighed.

"Hanged for a ... Gabrielle what are you talking about?"

"I mean that I might just as well tell you everything and deal with your reaction, as tell you only a small part of the truth and probably get the same reaction anyway. Whatever happens Xena, I don't think our friendship will ever be the same again."

Xena was suddenly both excited and terrified at the prospect of hearing either something wonderful or something devastating. She kept her voice as soft and even as she could and tapped the empty space beside her on the bedroll. "Gabrielle, come sit by me here and tell me what's on your mind. And I promise, no one's gonna be hanged for a lamb, a sheep or a whole damned flock! Our friendship has gone through some remarkable changes and upheavals already. If we can survive all that, we can survive anything."

"Xena, you might not want me anywhere near you after I tell you what I want to say."

The warrior snorted quietly to herself. "Gods Gabrielle, sometimes you can be so wrong. Now, please... sit here and sit here now, before I drag you over here!

Gabrielle walked slowly over to the bedroll and sat down by Xena. After playing with her hands for a few moments, she finally turned to the warrior.

"Xena, in the space of less than a handful of summers you and I have been through more than most... companions go through in a lifetime."

"Ya got that right." Xena smiled, encouraging the bard to go on.

"In all that time Xena, you've become easily the most important person in my life. We have made friends together and sadly lost some too. We've laughed and cried together, fought at each other's side, almost died on more occasions than I care to remember and in your case, you actually have died and still managed to come back to me! By the gods Xena, we've even tried to kill each other because of terrible mistakes and because... because of our children..."

Gabrielle's voice faltered and she hung her head for a moment, willing herself not to cry. Xena reached out and took hold of one of the bard's small hands, feeling an invisible dagger twist in her guts at the memory of losing her son and for trying to murder her beloved friend as a result.

"Go on Gabrielle", Xena whispered. "You're doing just fine."

"I'm alright." She looked up and met Xena's ice-blue gaze, though the look was far from cold. With her free hand she tentatively touched Xena's cheek and let her fingers trail over the strong jaw-line. "All the things we've shared and accomplished together Xena, the good things we've achieved because of each other and the terrible things we have still won through and vanquished together. It's because we have something wonderful between us, beyond family, beyond friendship and I can't let another day pass us without telling you just how special you are to me."

Xena cupped her friend's chin in her hand. "Gabrielle, as a bard you've always been wonderful with words and expressions." She leaned forward and brushed her lips against Gabrielle's forehead. "Ya know, if some oracle or prophet had come to me when I was better known as the 'Destroyer of Nations' to tell me how one day I'd meet a young, innocent woman from a small Greek village who would completely change my life... If they'd said someone would help me to see the good to do, rather than the evil to indulge in, not only would I have not believed them, but I doubt they would have gotten outside my camp alive for insulting me! Yet, there you are." Her heart swelled with affection as she watched Gabrielle's face brighten with a smile and her eyes light up with a definite fire. "Gabrielle, you have given me a trust and a love that I don't deserve. It's as if you've reached inside me to take away a cold, hard stone and then replace it piece by piece, with something half way resembling a real heart."

"You've always had a real heart Xena, a good heart, you just misplaced it for a while in Ares' keeping. And you're a better warrior today than ever you were when armies followed you in the name of the god of war. You took back your heart from him a long time ago and it's that same heart that gave me the determination to leave Poteidaia."

Gabrielle's right hand was still enveloped in the warrior's hands. She gently pulled away from Xena's grip and placed her hand against the warrior's chest. "It's this same heart that has protected me and believed in me, taught me so much about courage and honour. This heart has lifted my spirits when I've been low and nursed me when I've been ill or injured and it's this same heart Xena, your heart... you,... that I've grown to love more than the dreams that give me my stories, more than the sun that warms my days or the moon that lights my nights. I love you more than life, Xena."

The warrior felt sure that if her heart beat any harder it would begin echoing around the cave. She could hardly contain the growing sense of joy at Gabrielle's tender words of love and commitment. "I'm not sure I can begin to follow that with anything worth hearing, Gabrielle." She stroked Gabrielle's face and sat back, simply content to hold her hand once more.

"That's not strictly true, Xena. You've said some beautiful things in your time, I've heard you, sometimes they were even directed at me." Gabrielle grinned cheekily before regaining a serious expression. "But still, if you're lost for words just now, it might be easier to let me finish what I'm trying to tell you."

Xena mimed sealing her lips to give the bard silence and a free range to continue.

"Oh gods, this is not actually easy to say." Gabrielle sighed, took a deep breath and looked up at the warrior waiting patiently and quietly for whatever she was about to be told. "Xena, I'll understand if you don't want me around after I tell you that I... um, Xena it seems as though I... uh, Xena you're hurting my hand!"

"Oh Gabrielle, I'm so sorry." Without hesitating, she loosened her grip on the bard's hand and brought it to her lips, kissing the knuckles tenderly. "I didn't mean to squeeze so tight, I'm just concentrating so hard on what your saying. I... Gabrielle, I need to hear... Oh, please just come out and say it!"

Gabrielle sighed and closed her eyes. "I'm in love with you Xena. I think I have been for a long time." She glanced up to be met with a beaming smile. "Well at least you're not frowning at me or throwing me across the cave. Guess that's a good sign, huh?" She inhaled deeply and blew it out in one short breath, relieved to have finally 'confessed' what she had bottled up inside for too long. "Xena, I realise you probably don't think of me in the same way, so I'll understand if..."

"Gabrielle, shut up!" Xena placed a hand over Gabrielle's mouth to silence her.


"For once I've never been so pleased to tell you that you couldn't be more wrong." She scooped up Gabrielle's hands and kissed the palm of each one.

"Xena, are you saying you feel the same way?"

"Gabrielle, all those things you said about my heart... don'tcha realise you are my heart? You're the essence of everything that's right in my life. Gods, I think I've loved you forever!"

Seconds elapsed, the pair gazing at each other as if for the first time. The stillness was finally broken by a throaty chuckle from the warrior. Gabrielle frowned, puzzled.

"Xena, what's funny?"

"Oh, I just remembered that 'forever' is not strictly true. It came to me earlier when I... when I was brushing Argo. I fell in love with you that first day you flattened me with your staff. Remember that day?"

"Yeah, I remember." Gabrielle grinned. "It's hard to forget the first time I bested the Warrior Princess fair and square."

Xena traced a hand along Gabrielle's arm, up her shoulder and rested her palm against the side of her face. Gabrielle closed her eyes and smiled contentedly, nuzzling Xena's hand.

"Gods, you're beautiful Gabrielle!"

"Ssshhhh, Xena." The bard looked into Xena's eyes and smiled, placing a finger over her lips. "Now would be a good time to stop talking."

"Well I never thought I'd ever hear you, a bard, say something like that, Gabri..."

Xena found herself cut off mid-sentence as Gabrielle replaced her finger, against the warrior's lips, with her mouth. The kiss was tentative and soft. Xena let out a sigh as the kiss was finally broken, looking down to see green eyes bright with desire looking back at her. Gabrielle brought her hands up to Xena's shoulders, slipping one hand through raven hair to gently clasp the back of her neck.

"Xena would you... I want so much to be loved by you. I mean, physically loved, but I don't know how to... I mean I've never..."

"Gabrielle it's alright." Xena whispered. "Actually, in some ways it's not too different from what you shared with Perdicus."

"But Xena..." Gabrielle spoke slowly. "Nothing actually happened on our wedding night. We didn't... Perdicus couldn't... It was a long day, then the tanner and carpenter came over to congratulate us. A lot of wine was drunk and so we just ended up sleeping. The next day we were heading for this really beautiful, secluded spot by the meadow when Callisto turned up and so, well we were never exactly... intimate."

Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's waist and held her tightly. She was saddened by Gabrielle's pain, evident in her voice as she recalled the murder of Perdicus at Callisto's hand, but she couldn't help being secretly thrilled by the revelation that she would be Gabrielle's first lover. 'And only lover if The Fates are kind to us', she mused. The warrior determined that this would be as special an experience for Gabrielle as she could possibly make it.

Xena eased Gabrielle away from their embrace and smiled into the face she loved. "If you will trust me Gabrielle, I'll love you in ways you deserve to be loved and bring you pleasures you've never known. But I won't do anything you're unsure of and, if I do anything you don't enjoy, just tell me to stop, alright?"

"I trust you Xena. I love you and I want to feel you all around me and inside me. And I want you to teach me how to love you too." Gabrielle cast a wicked grin. "You know I'm a quick study!"

Xena inhaled sharply, sensing a wave of desire sweep through her as Gabrielle's words sank in.

"My Gabrielle." She pulled the bard into her arms and claimed her mouth with her own. Though still tender, the kiss was passionate and deepened as Gabrielle pressed her hand against Xena's neck, pulling her in. As the warrior tentatively probed Gabrielle's lips and teeth with her tongue, Gabrielle parted her lips and groaned into Xena's mouth as their tongues began to search and explore, sometimes duelling for supremacy over this new territory. Eventually they broke the kiss to breathe and Gabrielle nuzzled the warrior's neck, placing feather-like kisses along her shoulder.

"Oh Xena, I can't remember how long I've wanted to kiss you like that." She ran a palm down Xena's arm to find her hand and interlaced their fingers.

"Me too, Gabrielle." Xena whispered, nibbling the bard's earlobe and stroking her back with her free hand. Gradually she altered her position until she was at the head of the bedroll they were sitting on, leaning back against a not too uncomfortable rock. "Here." She gently pulled Gabrielle towards her. "Sit across my lap." The bard didn't hesitate to scoot up the bedroll and kneel across Xena, straddling the warrior's thighs as she was pulled in for another kiss.

Stroking Gabrielle's sides, Xena brought her hands round to the front and traced patterns across her midriff, slowly moving upwards to cup a breast in each hand and kneed them through the material of the shift. Gabrielle inhaled sharply as she felt Xena's thumbs caress her hardened nipples. Exhaling with a soft moan she tipped her head back, allowing Xena to run her tongue along her neck and into the exposed hollow of her throat, eliciting another moan. The warrior grinned to herself, enjoying the new sounds she'd not heard before coming from Gabrielle. She was also very aware of her own growing arousal as she caressed Gabrielle's breasts.

Sliding her hands downward, Xena caught the hem of Gabrielle's shift and lifted it slightly. She waited for Gabrielle to give her a look of acceptance before deftly pulling the shift up and over the bard's head and readily lifted arms in one swift movement. The warrior breathed in sharply as she took in the sight of Gabrielle's nakedness. She trailed her eyes up and down, not wanting to miss an inch of the exquisite form so often seen before, but never this intimately, never this freely and never before with such vivid longings so soon to be reality rather than fantasy for her own self-pleasure.

Gabrielle caught Xena's eye and smiled. "I gather you like what you see, my warrior princess?"

"Oh Gabrielle, you are wonderful, truly." Xena beamed. "I just can't believe this isn't a dream ~ and if it is, I never want to wake up!"

"Well, it's no dream, you are wide awake and since you are awake..." She pinched Xena's cotton shift between thumb and finger and tugged. "Fair's fair! Lean forward and let me get rid of this, before I feel the urge to tear it off you with my teeth!" Her smile was practically feral.

Xena swallowed audibly and raised her arms as she leaned over slightly. Gabrielle grabbed the shift's hem and bunched it up and over Xena's head and arms, grinning to herself as the thought struck her of how few people, if anyone, could cause the 'Destroyer Of Nations' to be so passive and obedient. She dropped the offending article behind Xena to cushion her back against the rock, then reached for her own discarded shift, dropping it behind Xena as well.

"Ahh, ever the considerate storyteller and always so... hey! What are you grinning at?"

"Oh, just wondering if the warrior princess was always this placid with her other sexual conquests and exploits."

Xena groaned. "Gabrielle, now really isn't a good time to ask about my sexual history, ya know. Besides I... 'sexual conquests and exploits'? Where'd you pull that one from?"

"Sorry. Guess I can't always cool down the bard in me, Xena."

"That's alright, so long as I can heat up the rest of you for now, okay?"

"Okay." Gabrielle let her eyes wander downwards, enjoying the sight of Xena's soft, bronzed skin and full breasts. She noted each of the half dozen or so scars at different points on the warrior's torso, each telling the story of a battle or close call, but always of victory, and none detracting from the vision she now openly feasted her eyes on.

"Xena, by the gods, but you really are incredible!"

Xena looked down at herself. "Yeah, maybe, like a good sword covered in nicks."

Gabrielle reached up to brush Xena's hair away from her forehead and planted a kiss there. "You're beautiful, Xena. Beautiful and strong and each scar is a wonderful reminder that you're alive, instead of just a memory and a notch on some or other warlord's banner." She ran her hand from Xena's left shoulder down to her right hip, as if tracing an invisible sash. "They tell amazing tales of courage and strategy and they certainly don't spoil how wonderful you look. Besides, I've started my own collection now so you can welcome me to your club!"

Xena tenderly touched the scar on Gabrielle's left shoulder, a reminder of the exit wound made recently by a poisoned arrow that almost cost the bard her life. She could visualise the smaller scar on Gabrielle's back, just below her shoulder blade, marking the corresponding entry wound.

"Damned Persians have a lot to answer for, don't they?" Xena whispered. "Not to mention weird savages." She let her fingers wander down to Gabrielle's right thigh to stroke the remnant of what had been a vicious stab wound. "And you got this one because you were so concerned with me you weren't watching who was behind you!" She playfully slapped the thigh.

"Well for now..." Gabrielle grabbed Xena's hands in her own and placed them on her stomach, gradually moving them up to her breasts. "I think we're quite safe, Argo's settled for the night and we're well fed. You and I are comfortable and warm and I have every intention to make sure we get much warmer." She grinned mischievously. "Now, let's pick up where we left off, shall we?"

Gabrielle pressed Xena's hands onto her breasts and let out a contented sigh. "Oh that's much better already."

"Definitely better. " Xena mumbled, leaning in to capture Gabrielle's lips with her own. She thrilled to feel Gabrielle shudder, reacting to her thumbs circling her breasts again, causing the small hard buds to rise.

Gabrielle broke the kiss to nuzzle the warrior's neck and trail kisses along her collarbone, across her shoulder and back to her ear as Xena leaned closer to take one of Gabrielle's breasts into her mouth. She lazily licked round the aureola, alternately exhaling hot air then breathing in cool air across the taught nipple. Gabrielle gasped from the tingling sensations that drifted in waves across her breast and found herself clutching the warrior's shoulders as if to keep from falling.

Xena switched to Gabrielle's other breast and was rewarded by a hot sibilant breath in her ear. "Oh yessssss, Xena. Gods that's good!" She continued to divide her attention between each breast and Gabrielle's mouth hovering above, when it wasn't clamped to Xena's shoulder or softly moaning into her ear. She gradually slid her right hand down Gabrielle's ribs and abdomen, briefly trailing her fingers through soft mossy hair before settling on a toned thigh to massage back and forth between knee and hip.

As Gabrielle playfully switched between nibbling either Xena's ear, or lips when the warrior raised her head, drawing low moans of appreciation, Xena traced her hand along Gabrielle's inner thigh, lightly raking through her golden curls then travelling back again. She repeated this slow, exquisite torture several times as she listened to gentle moans and gasps rising from Gabrielle. These soon turned into insistent pleas as Gabrielle felt herself becoming wet. She raised herself onto her knees and began rocking her hips against the warrior's hand, so deliciously close but evading the place she most longed to feel Xena's touch.

"Xena please... I need you. Please don't... tease me." Gabrielle was becoming hotter as she rocked backwards and forwards, a light sheen of perspiration breaking out across her back. "Oh god's, I want you so much, Xena. Please take me... I... I want you inside me." The warrior could feel her own heat rising in response to Gabrielle's words and moved her hand beneath the bard, closer to her centre. Gabrielle cried out in relief as she felt Xena's strong fingers slip through the slick folds of her labia and begin to stroke the length of her opening, gently circling her swollen clitoris with her thumb.

"Gods Gabrielle." Xena gasped. "You're so beautifully wet." She reached her left hand around Gabrielle's back to steady her as she continued to stroke and caress her sex with her other hand, soon drenched in Gabrielle's essence as Xena matched the rhythm of her rocking. Gabrielle responded with a guttural moan and tipped her head back, closing her eyes. Xena could sense herself beginning to soar on Gabrielle's building excitement.

"Gabrielle, look at me." Xena requested breathlessly. "Come on my love, my heart... open your eyes and look at me... please!" Gabrielle inhaled sharply and brought her head forward, forcing herself to open her eyes and meet the warrior's steady gaze, so full of love and wonder. Without interrupting the steady rhythm of her caresses, Xena whispered tenderly to Gabrielle, telling her how much she wanted her and needed her. As she spoke, Xena slowly entered Gabrielle with two fingers, withdrawing partially and entering again. Repeating her gentle thrusting, Xena penetrated little by little, leaning in to allow Gabrielle to rock her sensitive nub against the heel of her hand.

Gabrielle trailed her hand across Xena's face and down to the warrior's shoulder where she gripped tightly, her voice coming in ragged breaths. "Xena... I... gods yessss." She gazed intently into blue-within-blue eyes momentarily imagining losing herself there. "I love you, my warrior... Oh...Xena!" Gabrielle breathed in sharply and cried out from a sudden tearing pain as the warrior's fingers broke through her innocence, the pain almost immediately diminishing into wave after wave of delicious sensation as Xena's skilful touch reached deeply into her, beginning to draw her towards her climax.

Gabrielle let her head fall forward onto Xena's neck as she rocked harder against Xena's hand. She was aware that her body was building towards orgasm, being familiar with self-pleasure, but this was very different from those sweet moments of fantasy and release. Sensing an explosive power growing, she was all but afraid that she would fall into oblivion never to return were it not for Xena's secure embrace.

The warrior maintained her rhythmic thrusting, sensing the muscular walls of Gabrielle's centre tighten as she neared her release. "I've got you my love." Xena briefly kissed Gabrielle's open mouth and pulled the bard closer to her. "Let go, Gabrielle... I've got you."

Gabrielle rocked vigorously into Xena, short ragged breaths accompanying her deliberate thrusts. "Xena. Gods! Yes. Oh yes." She felt a whirlwind of sensation and emotion well up from the pit of her stomach and quickly radiate outwards to engulf her. "Hold me Xena... hold... me!" She collapsed against the warrior as her climax crashed through her. Xena closed her eyes and pulled Gabrielle into an embrace, slowing her hand against Gabrielle's sensitised centre but not stopping, allowing her to ride out the rippling spasms of her release.

Gabrielle's breathing gradually calmed down and her shudders subsided. The warrior held her quietly, carefully pulling her hand free to gently cup Gabrielle's sex, then began to lightly move her fingers back and forth, stroking her clitoris again.

Gabrielle bolted upright, before collapsing back onto Xena's shoulder. "Xena, I can't... not again... it's too soon..."

"Shhh, Gabrielle, you can." Xena caressed Gabrielle's back while continuing the gentle patterns across her sensitive nub. "Breathe deeply... that's it... hold onto me... sshh... I love you." Xena gently rocked her until she felt Gabrielle's heartbeat start to race again and her protests faded into sighs of pleasure. As Xena slightly increased the pace and pressure of her right hand, Gabrielle closed her eyes and began to buck her hips again, slowly at first but soon gathering momentum. Within moments she moaned against Xena's shoulder and climaxed a second time, finding herself enfolded in the warrior's embrace once more, soft kisses being placed on her cheek and forehead. Xena let a short time elapse before repeating the same action again, thrilled to her core as Gabrielle screamed her name at the peak of release and beyond, before falling against Xena for the third time.

The warrior tenderly laid Gabrielle on her bedroll and stroked her hair, before reaching for a blanket to cover her. Gabrielle tried to raise her head, found she couldn't and settled on smiling sleepily at Xena.

"Gods, I can't move..." She closed her eyes, then opened them to look in Xena's direction. "What have you done to me?"

Xena grinned affectionately and leaned over to brush Gabrielle's hair away from her face. "I loved you... and I loved loving you, my sweet bard." Gabrielle closed both eyes again and smiled contentedly in response. "Thank you for letting me, Gabrielle." Xena leaned in and kissed her lover's temple.

"Xena..." Gabrielle yawned. She smiled, but didn't open her eyes. "This isn't fair... you've done all the work... and I got all the attention." She yawned again. "I want to love you, the same way... you..." She drifted for a moment, mumbled something incoherent and was claimed by Morpheus before she could complete another sentence.

"All in good time, beloved." Xena whispered, knowing Gabrielle had fallen deeply asleep. "I look forward to your touch. The gods know I long for it, but it can wait for now. We have our whole lives ahead of us, Gabrielle... I just... I just pray they are not cut short, not now we're finally together at last."

With that, the warrior got up, deciding not to bother with her shift. She ensured the fire was banked safely and would last the night, then quietly checked her weapons and armour for any spot that needed drying, polishing or honing. She smiled to herself, more content this night than any other she could remember. Listening to Gabrielle's soft snores for a while, Xena began to hum an old song she remembered from her home village. As she quietly continued to repeat the melody, her remarkable senses alerted her to a presence, though her eyes told her no one was in sight. She continued humming, without interruption, but casually put down the dagger she was sharpening, picking up her sword instead.

"That's very beautiful, Xena."

The warrior stood and whirled round in the direction of a feminine voice, but saw nothing.

"I remember listening to you sing that with your mother in Amphipolis." A shimmer of white appeared a few lengths from Xena's sword, glowing brighter then fading slightly to reveal the form of a goddess robed in dazzling white silks.

"Artemis." Xena stated evenly, without lowering her sword.

The goddess smiled warmly at the still naked warrior. "And I'm pleased to see you too Xena, especially since you dressed so wonderfully for the occasion!"

"Are you here to play games, Artemis? Because if you are, I'm really not in the mood... and if you're here to see Gabrielle on Amazon business, it can wait 'til morning."

The goddess frowned. "Xena, do you think me to be exactly like my brother, that you should regard me so disrespectfully, or have I offended you in some way?"

Xena relaxed her sword-arm and raised an eyebrow. "I don't think I've ever heard of one of the gods asking a mortal if they've been offended."

Artemis moved towards Xena. "We don't all lie, warrior child. We certainly don't all play silly or vicious games with the lives of humans, you know." Her tone softened. "Xena, I am only too well aware of the tricks and hateful games Ares and others have played on you and those you care about."

As if on cue, mortal and immortal looked towards the sleeping bard.

"Don't be concerned, Xena, I haven't come to disturb Gabrielle from her slumbers." Artemis turned back to Xena. "In fact, I have persuaded Morpheus to grant her a very peaceful dream all about lying in a warm sunny meadow with a certain warrior princess, while she recites her way through several epics. She will sleep past daybreak and wake refreshed. I want her to rest undisturbed, while I speak with you."

Xena walked over to the fire, sheathed her sword and returned to where Artemis stood, giving the goddess her full attention as she crossed her arms and leaned against the cave wall. "Why should you want to speak to me, Artemis? And why the cloak and dagger bit, not wanting to involve Gabrielle?"

"On the contrary Xena, Gabrielle is very much involved." She looked round the cave edge slightly irritated for a moment. "Ah, over here I think, for now." She gestured to the ground a few paces away, where two reclining couches appeared out of nowhere, along with a small table supporting a variety of fruits, two goblets and large leather flask.

"No reason why we can't be comfortable while we speak." The goddess gracefully seated herself and waved a hand towards the other couch. "Please Xena, come and sit with me. You'll find a very acceptable port there, if you'd like some." Noting the hard stare she received from the warrior, she stood again. "Xena, I don't blame you for being suspicious where most of the gods are concerned. However, I hope that before the night ends you will change your mind, at least regarding this immortal, and come to realise that I am and have been a truer friend to you and Gabrielle than you know. Now please..." Artemis raised her hand again. "Sit down with me."

Reluctantly, Xena walked over to the empty couch and sat down. As she did so, she found herself wrapped in a vivid blue, pure silk gown. "Another gift?" She looked down at the shimmering material.

"Just a convenience. There's no need for you to feel cold away from the fire and there's no need for me to be distracted by your loveliness while we talk." The goddess watched Xena's face soften as a slight smile appeared at the comment.

The warrior reached towards the flask and half filled both goblets. "So this is a good port, huh?" She picked up one of the cups and brought it to her lips.

"Athen's best, as both you and your mother could testify." Artemis patiently watched Xena savour the liquor then reached for her own cup.

Accepting that, immortal or not, the goddess probably wouldn't touch the port had it been tampered with, Xena downed the contents and poured a second goblet before settling back onto the couch with the drink in her hand. "Very good. It's been a while since I had a decent cup of port... a very long time since I tasted my favourite brand, thanks." Xena looked at Artemis quizzically. "So, have you come to talk to me about Cyrene, since you mention my mother?"

"No child." Artemis set her goblet back on the table and reached for an apricot. "But rest assured, both your mother and Toris are well and the inn, and consequently the village too, thrives. Xena, it's been more than four seasons since you last visited Amphipolis and you are missed greatly there now."

"I don't doubt my family misses me, but the rest of the village? I find that hard to believe." The goddess simply smiled as Xena continued. "You're right though, I should visit home soon."

"You still regard Amphipolis as your home?"

"You think I have another?" Xena asked evenly.

"Xena, I wonder if you fully appreciate the consequences of your relationship with my Chosen One over there." Artemis lifted a finger from the apricot she held to point in Gabrielle's direction. "You have consummated your love ~ finally! ~ with Gabrielle tonight, I know that you intend to remain by her side, which means you will be the consort and champion of the Amazon Queen to my Thessalian tribe."

"Look Artemis, I realise that under the circumstances I can hardly tell you it's none of your business."

"Though I'm sure you would give it your best shot, if you could." The goddess leaned against the arm of the couch, bit into the apricot and munched delicately, resting her chin on the back of her hand.

Xena couldn't prevent the grin that spread quickly across her face. "You know me better than I give you credit for." She took a sip from her goblet and studied the goddess. "Artemis, I have actually considered carefully and honestly what could happen if Gabrielle and I ever became bond-mates, along with what the ramifications would be regarding both myself and her tribe under Amazon Law. I realise there will be a day when Gabrielle finally has to make the Amazon village at Thessaly her home and take up her responsibility daily as Queen. I can't expect that we will always wander the country together, with me trying to redeem my soul from the past."

The goddess reached for her goblet with her free hand, realising Xena had paused as if waiting for a response. "Please go on Xena, I don't think I've ever known you so loquacious before! It's a treat." Artemis saw the warrior frown. "Loquacious: it means..."

"I know what it means." Xena managed to refrain from losing her temper. "Gabrielle may be the bard around here, but I'm still well-read and thoroughly educated ya know."

"Exceptionally so, I know." Artemis replied, apologetically. "I'm sorry, warrior child, you probably think me pompous and unconcerned with your feelings. Actually I care very much and this situation is of utmost importance for me, for my Amazons and certainly for the two of you. It's simply that I haven't actually come here tonight to discuss this particular set of circumstances."

"Then just what have you appeared her for?" Xena took a substantial draft from her goblet and swallowed hard, eyeing Artemis with interest. "What 'particular set of circumstances' would you like to discuss?"

"Xena, I need your help." The goddess casually tossed the half-eaten apricot into the air and it promptly disappeared. She took on a serious tone, though her countenance remained gentle. "In short, one of my temples has been robbed and the thieves concerned have no idea regarding a certain chalice they took. Ares however, knows only too well and will do everything he can to see it is put to ill use. I need you to locate the chalice and take it to another of my temples."

"Why can't you go zap the bad guys yourself and get the chalice back! I don't see why you need me in on the act." Xena drained her port and leaned towards the table, picking up an apple in one hand and refilling both Artemis' goblet and her own with the other.

The goddess nodded a thank you and sipped from her refreshed cup. "It would seem that my dear brother has managed to convince our father to prevent my doing just that. Instead, he has issued a challenge regarding you, Xena."

At the mention of that, Xena almost threw her goblet at the cave wall, but thought better of wasting it's delicious contents and threw the apple instead, which promptly splattered over the cave wall. She sighed heavily. "And this challenge would be..................?" She gazed into her port, trying to sound nonchalant, before bringing the cup to her lips.

"Xena, Ares has suggested combining a challenge by him to win you back, with the challenge that you must prove yourself worthy to be Queen Gabrielle's consort."

"Hades' codpiece!" The mouthful of port Xena had just taken was spewed across the table, only just missing the goddess. "And Zeus approved of this?"

"Oh Xena, my sweet father thinks this is a great opportunity to decide once and for all whether he will allow Ares to continue provoking you and hurting those around you, or bind his influence away from you forever. Succeed in retrieving the chalice and you will never again have to deal with Ares. Fail and you will never be free from Ares' hand again."

Xena sat back, letting Artemis' words sink in. To all intent and purpose here was evidently an ultimatum that could not be refused by the warrior. It was an ultimatum that would result in either a total cessation of Ares' interference in her life or the loss of Gabrielle and possibly everything she had striven to achieve since walking away from her warlord days. She rose, paced around the cave muttering to herself for several minutes, before returning to her seat.

"Alright Artemis..." Picking up a couple of olives, she put them in her mouth and quickly detached the pits from the flesh, spitting them into her hand and dropping them onto the cave floor while she chewed the fruit thoughtfully. "What's so special about this chalice?"

The immortal shifted her position and leaned towards Xena. "It's an old one that belonged to Zeus. Hera got Hephaestus to craft a new one for him as a gift after an almighty argument they had once, though the old chalice itself marked an apology for something or other. Anyway, do you remember that colossal winter storm when you were no more than ten summers old?" The warrior nodded, recalling the only time the small stream in Amphipolis turned into flood waters that swept over several fields, drowning an entire flock of sheep, along with winds and rain that damaged just about every roof in the village and felled several trees. It had been a terrifying time and thankfully no human life had been lost. "Yes, well, that was Zeus and Hera disagreeing over who Hercules' mother should or shouldn't allow him to play with back then!"

Xena couldn't help smiling at the mention of her good friend's name. "So what happened to Zeus' old cup?"

"You would think, wouldn't you, that in his wisdom Zeus would have had it thrown into a lava flow or simply asked Hephaestus to melt it down, or even just kept two chalices! But no, daddy decided to burden my priestesses with the task of keeping it safe in a secret temple of mine." Artemis drained her goblet and smacked it down loudly on the table in annoyance, causing Gabrielle to stir in her sleep and turn over.

"I take it that this cup of Zeus' has some kind of power." Xena glanced worriedly over her shoulder towards Gabrielle, but soon realised she had not wakened. "What does it do?"

"To a god, nothing. To a mortal, anyone who would drink water from the chalice will become immortal." Artemis smiled at Xena. "You are the only one I could possibly trust for this task."

Xena ignored the compliment. "So how did Ares get to know about the chalice and decide on this whole 'challenge' thing?"

Artemis reclined back on her couch. "He overheard my priestesses lamenting the loss of the chalice from the temple and went to see what had happened. Ironically its location, though well hidden, is no more than a stone's throw from Poteidaia. A minor landslide uncovered part of the temple, an opportunistic and despicable thief, along with his filthy band, ransacked my temple then ran off. I am only glad my priestesses were down by the river when all this occurred, so they were unhurt. When Ares naturally linked Poteidaia with Gabrielle and, consequently, with you Xena, he started to think about how he could use the situation to his advantage." The goddess leaned over the table to refill the goblets for herself and Xena before continuing.

"You see during this last season, from Olympus all the gods could see it was a case of when, rather than if, you and Gabrielle would make a commitment to each other. We all knew you would, in spite of the very nasty rift that occurred. Most of us are thrilled for you, some are unconcerned either way over the prospect, but Ares has been getting steadily more and more furious, as you can probably work out."

"I bet he has." Xena snorted.

"He can't bear to think he's let one of the greatest warriors he ever commanded slip out of his grasp and into the arms of a young woman. Zeus! Ares may be my brother, but he can be such a macho thick-headed brute at times."

"He's just sour he never got into my leathers himself, well not strictly speaking. He got his way when Callisto switched bodies with me, so it was my 'shell' but it wasn't me, so it doesn't count."

"Yes, well Callisto seemed to think so at the time and is still quite smug about it, hoping to make you feel somehow soiled by her and by Ares'." Artemis grinned mischievously. "But I notice it hasn't effected you at all."

"No, it hasn't. As far as I'm concerned I wasn't there." Xena suddenly leaned towards the goddess. "Wait a moment, how come you're telling me all this about the temple and the chalice and so on, without having 'gung-ho boy' appear himself to gloat about the whole thing?"

Artemis took a deep breath and exhaled. "That's the one saving grace, Xena. He doesn't know I'm here and Zeus has forbidden him to directly contact you or those who have the chalice during this challenge. Of course, his absence from your life will continue when you win."

"Thank you for your confidence in me." Xena raised her goblet in a toast to Artemis. "Actually, there's one other saving grace I've just thought of."

"What's that, my dear?"

"Water, and the avoidance of it when there's wine or other liquor to be had. I've never known any band of thieves or cut-throats to prefer a cup of water over a cup of wine and if they do drink water it's usually flat on their faces in a river, not sipping it from any kinda vessel."

"I hope you're right Xena I'm sure you probably are, but we cannot afford to be complacent when there's the possibility of a warlord raising an army of immortals."

"This chalice, it can do its stuff on more than one mortal then, huh?"

"Xena, this is not like the times you and Gabrielle have been involved with the search for or destruction of Ambrosia. At least Ambrosia can only be eaten once, when it's finished, it's finished. The chalice can be filled and refilled an infinite amount of times. However, I have confidence that you can find it before that happens"

"Oh, good. For a moment there I thought we were in trouble."

The goddess smiled at Xena's sardonic comment. "Zeus has allowed me to spend this time with you now and I will be able to advise you if you seek my presence at all during this trial. However, I'm afraid even immortals have to abide by Zeus' direct ruling in a situation like this. I cannot help you fight Xena, I cannot empower you in anyway beyond the skills you already possess and I can give you no direct information about the location of the chalice. Although, I can tell you the name of the warlord who now possesses it, since he dispatched the thieves who stumbled into his camp today."

"And this warlord would be...?" Xena sipped her port.

"It's the very charming Agradon."

The warrior spat out her second mouthful of liquor that night. "That grave-robbing, bastard son of a bacchae! I'd have thought he'd been dispatched by his own men by now."

"I had a feeling you would remember him, Xena." She couldn't prevent grinning at her warrior's outburst. "You've had dealings with him before, haven't you?"

"Yeah, let's say if his mind's a ship it's never at full sail! He's insane, but he's also clever and very dangerous. He'd sell his own grandmother if he thought he could get a dinar or two for her, then stab the buyer in the back to sell her all over again. He also loves the sight of blood and..." Xena flinched. "He's a vicious rapist when the mood takes him. I'd call him an animal, if it didn't insult living creatures."

"Yes, I am aware of his brutal attitude. Even some of my Amazons have fallen prey to his savagery." Artemis sadly looked into her goblet. "I believe it's high time he was brought to some semblance of justice... preferably at the end of a sturdy sword. I doubt Hades would object if Agradon's mortal life was cut short."

"Artemis?" Xena waited for the goddess to raise her head. "Are you allowed to tell me the size of his current army?"

"Yes I can tell you that. It's relatively small at the moment, no more than eighty men, possibly a few less. He's lost about twenty or thirty men by his own hand, during various drunken rages, another hundred or so have ridden away from him over the seasons because of his treatment of women... some not much more than children."

"It seems oddly comforting to be reminded that some thieves, murderers and mercenaries draw the line at physical and mental abuse of women." Xena was quiet for a moment or two, lost in thought before looking up at the goddess.

The goddess sipped a mouthful of port and swallowed. "So, that's it really, regarding the challenge." Artemis looked intently at the warrior. "Succeed in this Xena, retrieve the chalice without Agradon or any other mortal having drunk water from it and you will be free for the rest of your life from my brother and his influence. His power over you will be bound, you have the solemn promise of Zeus and you will be able to enjoy a long and happy life with Gabrielle as her bond-mate. Fail, and Ares will make the rest of your life miserable, even though he knows you may well fight him every step of the way unto death, rather than succumb to his wishes. Of course, the one thing he trusts will bring you back to him is that, if he wins, you will be unable to stay at Gabrielle's side as consort however much you're meant to be with her at Thessaly. Or anywhere else in Amazonia, for that matter."

For the first time during her meeting with Artemis, Xena was visibly shaken at the words of the goddess. She slowly dropped her head into her hands before looking up and quietly but firmly making a simple statement.

"I shall do this Artemis, but not out of any sense of duty to you or the desire to triumph over Ares. I will do this out of love for Gabrielle and when it's all over I will pledge myself to her before the Amazon Nation. I will be her warrior, her protector; Gabrielle's champion to command. I shall be her bond-mate and consort; she will be my bond-mate and my Queen. If that also means a commitment to the Amazon Nation and to you, goddess... then so be it."

Artemis stood and walked over to Xena. Taking the warrior's hands in her own, she lifted Xena on to her feet and embraced her warmly. As she let go and stood back, a single tear coursed down the immortal's cheek.

"I knew you would not refuse this trial Xena, even if you had the choice to refuse. You have no real choice in this and I am bitterly sorry for it. Because of that, there is something else I wish you to know, perhaps in some small way to grant you peace of mind, whatever the outcome."

Xena raised a puzzled eyebrow, but remained quiet.

"You know in your heart that Gabrielle already has the promise of Elysia for when her time comes to walk with Persephone, though she does not take it for granted. You however, have never stopped to question whether you have freed yourself from the realm of Tartarus, which surely has been your eternal destiny for many seasons. Because of this, you are torn between settling with Gabrielle and the Amazons and continuing to travel the land. You believe you can never be sure you have done enough to make up for past deeds."

Xena felt akin to an open scroll for the immortal to read. It was decidedly uncomfortable.

Artemis sensed the warrior's tension and reached out to take her hand. "Xena, concern yourself with my Chosen One and her Amazon sisters. Do not be concerned for what you have certainly redeemed. I'm going to be in trouble with father for telling you this, but I think you should know just how far you have managed to pull away from the ways of Ares. Your place in the Elysian Fields is prepared. This means that even if the unthinkable happens and Ares triumphs regarding the chalice, you may still confidently consider an action of sacrifice against him without the fear of never having your soul joined with Gabrielle in Eternity. And if I know Gabrielle, she will not be far from you for long... Xena, do you understand what I'm saying?"

"Yes, I understand completely." Despite the weight of the challenge laid upon her and the threat of Ares, Xena felt lighter than air at the immortal's words. She placed a hand over her mouth, uncertain whether she would laugh, cry or begin somersaulting from the emotions racing through her. She would meet this challenge and win, begin a true life with the one she loved and be with her throughout eternity. If, by some curse she lost the challenge she would still defeat Ares by letting go of her life and wait for Gabrielle on the other side.

Steadied by the hand of the goddess, Xena simply shook her head. "You know I'm not a great respecter of the gods, Artemis."

"To put it mildly." The goddess laughed.

"But I thank you from my heart for revealing this to me."

"You are welcome, warrior child. And I understand from Gabrielle ~ along with my own observation ~ it's a pretty good heart too!"

"Yeah well, I'm not about to sit back and hang up the 'good deeds' just yet Artemis. But I am grateful to know I can make a home now at Thessaly, without worrying whether or not I've made amends for my dark past. At worst, if I do lose this challenge, I can wait in The Fields if... well, if my time with Persephone or Hades is sooner than I expect. But I don't intend to lose this challenge and let it come to that. I'd like to hope for a long life with my beloved, believe me."

"I do believe you, Xena." Artemis' expression became serious again. "Just make sure you face what lies ahead with all your skills, all your strength and all your speed, to defeat my brother once and for all."

Xena picked up her goblet and sat down again. "Artemis, how much of this, if any, do I share with Gabrielle? Do I to assume this is a 'solo' labour for me against Agradon and his men or will I uh, 'recruit' my own help?"

The immortal had sat back on her couch, listening to the warrior. "Concerning Gabrielle, I leave that to your discretion, Xena. However, I would remind you that secrets and lies tore the two of you apart once and could do so again." She reached for a fig and opened it into its four petals as she held the stem, regarding Xena intently. "As for your labour, no you will not go alone. Remember, part of this is to show your worth and loyalty to the Amazon Queen, which by default means also proving your ability to work with and lead the Amazons themselves."

Xena's shoulders slumped slightly, but enough for the goddess to notice. "I was afraid you would want the Amazons involved in this, Artemis. Couldn't I seek help from another source, deal with challenge, get your chalice back, then return to the Amazon village with Gabrielle?"

"Of course not Xena! If part of this challenge is going to prove your leadership skills and strategic abilities for the strength of the village and the safety of the Queen, surely it should be clear that you are to lead and strategize with Gabrielle's tribe?" She delicately drew the flesh of one of the fig's quarters into her mouth and savoured the flavour.

Xena let out a heavy sigh. "You don't understand, Artemis. I can't go back to the Amazons in Thessaly, not yet anyway."

"Why is that exactly?"

The warrior was astounded. "Because it's Gabrielle's home nation!"

"That's right, Xena."

"I can't go back there yet and well you know it!" The warrior's voice raised slightly.

"Listen to me warrior child!" Artemis stood and appeared to grow in stature. "Hear me well and do not try my patience or my love for you!" Xena was taken aback, not so much by the immortal's outburst, but by her confirmation of affection.

"Xena, I came to request that you undertake this trial as the future consort of my Chosen One. Do you not realise I could have demanded your acquiescence, under the circumstances? Be that as it may, choice or none, I wanted you to accept this of your own volition. I have watched you grow over the years and develop from a child into an intelligent and beautiful woman; from the pawn of Ares into the honourable warrior you have become and continue to become. I have feared for your life at times Xena, and I have rejoiced in your victories. I have wept with you in your times of loss and laughed with you in your times of joy. I have watched over you in your struggles with your demons and I have comforted you in your dreams."

"I had no idea about this, Artemis." Xena whispered. "Not about any of it."

The goddess paused, took a deep breath and softened her tone. "A long time ago Xena, I saw the potential in you for greatness and when Gabrielle became old enough to leave her home and seek her own destiny I brought the two of you together. I believed you to be the one who would protect and cherish her and yes, even grow in your love for her just as you have done in fact."

The warrior gasped. "Are you saying you caused Gabrielle and I to meet... you ordained that we would be together? You destined us?"

"Xena, I have never lied to you, nor shall I now or ever. Your friendship was initially the result of a wager between Ares and Apollo and I concerning you. You have my word that was the only time I entered freely, into his dubious games. Apollo and I consented in order to teach him a lesson. Ares was furious to see you walk away in your prime from the army you and he had forged together. By my father's beard he was so angry! I wanted a guide, protector and companion for Gabrielle and saw you as the perfect candidate, Ares wanted the means to lure you back and saw Gabrielle's innocence as the perfect snare for you."

"He thought I'd corrupt her innocence somehow and slip back into my old ways again."

"One out of one, Xena." Artemis sat down and picked up the fig for a second bite.

"But instead, Gabrielle reinforced my... change of heart, shall we say, and gave me the strength to strive for something better." Xena sipped from her goblet again and shook her head slowly, a knowing smile spreading across her face.

"That's two for two, my dear."

"Hades' left testi... sorry! Brings a whole new meaning to 'irritating blond' as Ares puts it, doesn't it?"

"Gabrielle is quite the thorn in his side, Xena! Not to mention a constant reminder that I knew you ~ and know you ~ better than he ever could. I trusted in your capacity for good, even at the height of your warlord days. I knew it would surface eventually and I knew that, when it did, Gabrielle would encourage you to keep it in place and be as good for you as you have been and are good for her." The goddess saw Xena frown suddenly. "Yes Xena, even in spite of what happened not so long ago."

"Artemis, surely that only emphasises why I can't return to the village."

"How so?" The immortal finished her fig and threw the skin into the air, where it vanished.

Xena bowed her head before the immortal and was quiet.

The goddess eventually leaned forward and rested a hand on the warrior's knee. "Meet me eye to eye, Xena. There is no need for shame here."

"But that's precisely it, isn't it?" Xena looked up. "I am... desperately ashamed for what I did when I was last there. I stormed into your Amazons, injuring some fine warriors who, until then, I'd always regarded with respect. I badly hurt the Regent, Ephiny, a friend I am supposed to care about, and then I dragged the Queen, my Gabrielle, out of the village in order to murder her! On top of that, judging by much of what you have told me tonight, I insulted possibly one of the few immortals I could have actually been serving out of loyalty and friendship." Xena waved her arm in the direction of Artemis. "The patron of all the Amazons!"

Artemis smiled at Xena. "And of course, throughout all that Xena, you were perfectly rational, isn't that right?"

Xena shrugged and looked sheepishly at the immortal. "I was anything but rational." She dropped her gaze and stared at the hem of her robe. "My reason was... temporarily left floundering on the floor where my son lay murdered."

"That would be my point child, as it would be Ephiny's and the Council's, not to mention Gabrielle's too." Artemis watched Xena struggle with her emotions. "Xena, your heart was torn beyond comprehension by the senseless loss of your young, innocent son, Solan. You felt destroyed by Gabrielle's apparent betrayal and evident lies. You were also filled with bitterness and hatred, thanks to Ares' cruel manipulation." The goddess reached out and placed a finger under Xena's chin, lifting her face up to meet her gaze. "Xena, it wasn't you who rode into my Thessalian tribe that morning, it was a stranger and believe me when I tell you, very few Amazons think otherwise. Those few who do feel grudgingly towards you, Ephiny has well in hand and I think you will have the opportunity to win them over, given time." She gently brushed away a tear from each of Xena's eyes and kissed her forehead before sitting back on her couch.

"Is Ephiny..." Xena cleared her throat and straightened her shoulders. "Is Ephiny alright? How badly did I hurt her?"

Artemis sipped from her goblet then smiled affectionately. "Ephiny misses the friends she longs to embrace and welcome back. She has healed well from the broken arm and dislocated shoulder you left her with." Xena winced. "Not to mention the sprained ankle and black eye you also managed to give her. But Xena, you should hear her prayers for you and Gabrielle! She loves you both very much and was so relieved when Gabrielle's message arrived soon after you disappeared, saying you were both alive and would work out your differences before returning."

"Why didn't any of the Amazons come after us?" Xena wiped her eyes on the silk sleeve.

"Well, initially Ephiny was very afraid for Gabrielle's safety and called several of the best warriors together, even as she was being carried to the healer's hut. However, they all quickly realised they would most likely be looking for their Queen's body and it would be futile to look for you until you had time to calm down from your rage. They also came to accept that, if by some miracle Gabrielle had survived your onslaught, you would probably end up talking together. If that happened, then firstly, Gabrielle was already in the hands of the most capable healer around and secondly, you would both return to the village in good time."

Xena listened intently as she reached to fill both her own and Artemis' goblet again. "So everyone simply remained in the village until they knew Gabrielle was alright?"

"Under Ephiny's orders, yes." The immortal picked up her goblet and sipped it. "The Council met briefly where, I must warn you Xena, two of the most respected Crones, Tethys and Lysidice, raised charges against you to be faced as and when you were apprehended. At first, they didn't hesitate to pronounce a death sentence on you, but Ephiny understood why you... snapped, and they accepted that death would only be appropriate if you had indeed murdered Gabrielle. When all things had been considered, Ephiny took the risk of ordering that you be granted two days without interference. After that, you were to be sought out unless you returned to the village with Gabrielle or sent word. Ephiny is deeply loved and respected as Regent, as well you know, so obeying her command was not an issue."

Xena raised a small smile. "And of course it was the same day, after we left Illusia, that Gabrielle, being Gabrielle, sent word with a merchant bound for the Amazon village... gods! I still don't understand the ins and outs of what happened, Artemis. Was Illusia a dream, or some kind of hallucination? Were we really there?"

"Apollo." Artemis was busy peeling another fig.


"The merchant, it was Apollo, disguised."

Xena raised an eyebrow. "Well it's nice to know your twin is a little more considerate towards Gabrielle and I than your other brother!"

Artemis laughed, then leaned forward to whisper. "Well, perhaps we take after our mother Leto. Ares certainly seems to take after Hera! Anyway Xena, Surely you realise the god of healing is going to help you if he can, since you've so often taken care of the sick or injured yourself, since leaving Ares?"

"I haven't exactly been in the habit of presuming on the favours of the gods, no."

The goddess regarded Xena thoughtfully. "You really shouldn't underestimate the love of the gods toward you, child. Apollo and I are not the only immortals who care about you, you know. We knew you and Gabrielle needed time alone and we didn't want my Amazons dragging you back when you weren't ready."

"Yeah, well I'm still not ready." Xena lowered her gaze, toying with a bunch of grapes at the edge of the table.

"Xena, let's change the chorus, shall we dear?" Artemis raised her eyes to the roof of the cave. "You need to do this. You must be reconciled with them, but I think you'll find it will all work out. As for Illusia... let's just say it was a gift, it was necessary and it was enough."


"Enough to help begin the healing you both desperately needed. Enough to make you both realise you are not meant to be apart. Enough to give you both a second chance."

Xena sank back into her couch with her refreshed goblet and a few grapes. Both mortal and immortal were quiet for a time as they ate some fruit and mulled over what had been spoken of between them. At last, Xena broke the silence.

"Well... I guess that if we expect to make it to Thessaly in time to speak with the Amazons, prepare a small party of warriors and still set off in time to find Agradon and get this chalice back, we should leave now. It's more than a day's ride to Amazonia from here, Artemis. At least it is for us mortals ya know."

"Actually, that's my last concession from Zeus." Artemis drained her cup and set it back on the table. "You will be able to rest for the remainder of this night. Tomorrow, after you have explained the situation to Gabrielle, as far as you choose to, I shall transport you both from here to the boundaries of Amazon land. I have already informed my Thessalian priestess of your imminent arrival and she has prepared Ephiny concerning what lies ahead. Be assured that Ephiny, in her wisdom is fully aware of what need and need not be done."

"If I'd had the choice in all this, goddess, what would you have done had I said no?"

"Xena, give me a little credit for my belief in your loyalty and abilities. You would not have refused this, would you, even if it meant certain death?"

Xena slowly shook her head and laughed quietly. "No, I wouldn't." She downed the remainder of her port, set her cup down and raised her head to meet the immortal's steady gaze. "Are we finished here now?"

Artemis waved her hand over the table, which immediately vanished. "For now, Xena." She smiled warmly at the warrior. "Oh, I almost forgot! One last thing." The goddess raised her hand, made a fist and a white arrow appeared in her grip. She offered it to Xena, who took it cautiously and turned it around in her hands.

"It's very beautiful." The warrior held the arrow at either end and realised that it seemed to be made entirely of marble, but appreciated that no human hand had made it. "Not very practical, however."

"It's a gift to you Xena and it is certainly not meant as a weapon. Do not use it in any form of combat, even in fun. You may pack it away in a saddlebag for now, without fear of breaking it. Not even Hercules could damage it. When the time is right, you will know what to do with it and why." Artemis stood up and raised her hand in salute to the warrior. "Until you call for me, child. Be all that you can be in this Xena, and you will surely lose count of the happy seasons ahead of you. Go with my blessing and be at peace with my Chosen One and with yourself." With that, the goddess faded from sight and was gone.

As Xena stood up, the couches disappeared. "Hey Artemis! Ya forgot the silks!" She lifted up a side of the robe she wore.

"Keep it child. It goes well with those wonderful eyes of yours!" The gentle voice came from nowhere and returned there.

Xena grinned, shrugged her shoulders and returned to the fireside. Once she had re-checked her weapons, the warrior made a mental note of some of the provisions needed for the task ahead. She tucked the marble arrow into a long saddlebag containing Gabrielle's scrolls then made her way over to the bedrolls. Lying down, Xena gently pulled Gabrielle into her arms without waking her.

"Oh my heart, how am I gonna explain this one to you?" She let her hand tangle with Gabrielle's hair and kissed the side of her head. Her last conscious thoughts before Morpheus lured her into a deep sleep were that in the morning she would tell Gabrielle everything Artemis had said and that there was no way she could sleep this night.


End Of Part One

Continued in Part 2

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