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By StJoan

Disclaimer: All the main characters are property of MCA/Universal, and no copyright infringement is intended. The text itself is the property of the author, and is not to be reproduced without permission.

Possible spoiler alert: This story picks up immediately after "The Bitter Suite", and has references to that episode, as well as a number of previous ones. If you aren't current with the continuity, you might want to tuck this away for a future read.

Subtext/adult content: Yeah, it's in there. If you're under 18, or this kind of material is illegal where you live, please stop reading. Nothing too explicit, but if an openly loving relationship between two adult women bothers you, this is not the story for you.

Violence: Some mild violence, in the service of a good cause.

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"Hmm?" The response was muffled against Xena's neck, which the bard was busy nuzzling.

It had been a candlemark since their return from the land of Illusia, and a splash-fight in the receding tides had become a playful wrestling match. Xena had allowed herself to be flipped onto her back, and Gabrielle was sprawled on top of her.

"There are a half-score Amazon archers aiming their bows at us. Or me, I should say—since, as far as they know, they're rescuing you."

"Oh, no. I forgot all about them!"

"Listen, roll off me and keep down." She glanced over her shoulder, making some quick calculations. "I think I can make it into the water, before they let loose."

"You've got to be kidding. My being this close to you is what's kept them from firing. Let me handle this." Gabrielle turned smoothly, without breaking body contact with the warrior. "I'm in no danger!" she shouted. "Have the archers stand down!"

"Queen Gabrielle, I can't take that chance." Ephiny's left arm was in a field splint, right arm poised to signal the archers. "Move away from her, Xena! I mean it!"

"Why is it I'm still considered a menace, when you are sitting on me?"

"Don't make me laugh; it'll undermine my authority." She raised her voice again. "I will personally deliver the stripes to any Amazon who doesn't put up her bow right now!"

"Little strong there, Majesty," Xena said, though shivers had run up her spine at the bard's commanding tone.

"Quiet, you! Well, Ephiny?" A slight nod from the regent, and the archers lowered their bows. Gabrielle stood, holding out her hand. "Xena, give me your weapons."

Slowly, every nerve ending gauging possible reactions from the Amazons, Xena rolled to a kneeling position, then drew her sword, offering it hilt-first. The chakram was next, presented flat on both palms. Both boot knives were handed over as well.

Gabrielle helped herself to the breast dagger, earning a look of delighted pride. "Do we still have a problem?" she asked Ephiny.

"No, my Queen."

"We'll talk later." Gabrielle offered the warrior a hand up, and finally took notice of their surroundings, a puzzled frown creasing her brow. "Um... how far from the village are we?"

"A few candlemark's march," Xena answered, stretching. "I'm gonna go find Argo."

"Don't disappear; you're still under house arrest."

"Majesty." Xena saluted, fist crossed over her heart, then strode off.

"The woman isn't human," Ephiny remarked, thinking she was out of earshot.

Gabrielle, who knew better, replied, "You're wrong, Ephiny."

And the warrior's face lit with an all-too-human grin.

The party made its way back to the village, keeping a moderate pace. Xena was riding ahead with Eponin and two of the scouts; technically, they were guarding her. Gabrielle walked with Ephiny, flanked by Amazons close enough to protect their leaders, while giving them space to speak privately.

"Ephiny, I want to apologize for all the trouble... "

The regent's eyes went hard. "We didn't really expect to pull off a rescue. Xena took our fastest horse, she had a head start. The trail got cold somewhere along the cliffs... then, at daybreak, one of our scouts spotted the two of you frolicking in the surf. She swears up and down that she'd already searched that part of the beach—" Gabrielle couldn't suppress a giggle. Ephiny stared at her. "Forgive me for asking, but have you taken leave of your senses?"

"Of course not— oh. 'Didn't expect to pull off a rescue.' " The implications of that finally hit home. "You meant to... retrieve... my body."

"Yes, and bring Xena to justice, if possible." She absently rubbed her injured arm. "There are those who feel that still needs to be done."

"But, Xena didn't— that is, she did, but it wasn't— Eph, it wasn't what it looked like." Oh, that sounds really lame, even if it’s the truth.

"Gabrielle, I've been in love. I know what it's like to make compromises, even excuses, but this... As your regent, and as your friend, I am concerned for your safety."

"I'm just as safe as I've ever been."

"Do you understand that isn't particularly reassuring? That madwoman tried to kill you!"

"Don't ever call her that again," the bard snapped. "Not to her face, and especially not to mine."


"You saw me dragged by a horse— is there a mark on me?"

The blonde Amazon scrutinized her, eyes widening in amazement. "Not one. In fact, you look much better than you did yesterday, positively glowing with health. By the Gods...!"

"Pretty much," Gabrielle said mildly. "I can't tell you the details; it's too personal. But we were given a second chance, and I intend to make the most of it."

"Are— are you sure?"

"For better or for worse, we belong together."

As if on cue, she looked up to see Xena sitting Argo at the side of the path, waiting for her to catch up. "Ride with me awhile?" She smiled wolfishly at Ephiny. "I promise I won't kidnap her again."

"Stop teasing my Amazons." Gabrielle lightly punched her in the thigh, and heard gasps coming from several of the Royal Guard. "I’ll make sure she behaves."

Chuckling, Xena reached down to pull her onto the saddle in front of her, a strong arm circling her waist. The other riders moved into positions behind and to either side of Argo, crossbows at the ready. "How angry is she?" she asked quietly.

"I wouldn't say angry, exactly." She pressed Xena's arm more tightly against her. "Ephiny's kind of conventional, in her own way. She doesn't understand."

"No surprise there. I don't completely understand."

The bard tilted her head back for a kiss; her warrior obliged at length, letting Argo keep her own pace. They rode in silence for awhile, basking in each other's warmth.

"Gabrielle, you know they'll demand some kind of punishment for—"


"I did a lot of damage; I have to make it right, somehow."

"Not by letting the Amazons hurt you! I won't allow it, Xena."

The tall woman buried her face in Gabrielle's hair, breath warm on her neck. "Don’t jeopardize your position because of me, beloved. I couldn’t bear it."

"Hey. D'you really think I'd trade you for some silly old Queen's mask? We'll work it out."

Ephiny rubbed at her throbbing temples. "Gabrielle, be reasonable."

"I won't have her treated like a criminal!"

The regent didn't risk pointing out that the behavior in question had been, in fact, criminal. Even taking into account extenuating circumstances, apparent divine intervention, and the unsettling ease with which the Queen was willing to forgive her lover. Blessed Artemis, this was not the timid farmgirl who'd received Terreis' right of caste! Xena herself was being far more compliant, surrendering her armor and weapons, pretending Solari and Eponin weren't guards, just armed comrades following her all over the village.

"Look, there haven't been any confrontations as yet. Everyone's too amazed you're still alive, frankly." The younger woman let out a snort, and Ephiny placed a hand on her arm, continuing with deadly seriousness, "Come tomorrow, it's going to register that the woman who shares your hut is the same one who rode in here, bowled over our best warriors, and took you— our rightful Queen— by force. Never mind that you look none the worse for wear, or that she says she's sorry and promises not to do it again."

Eyes the color of storm-tossed waves bore into hers. "Her word isn't good enough for you, is it?"

"No. I'm sorry, Gabrielle." She took a deep breath, decided to risk it. "A lot of women come to us for sanctuary; most of them leave soon after, because their husbands give their word, and they believe them."

Gabrielle loosed an oath her friend was shocked she even knew, and began to pace the Queen's hut. "I can't believe you're making that comparison! Do you have that little respect for my judgement, Ephiny?"

"Of course not," came the soft answer, though the regent was glad her guilty flush went unseen. Truth to tell, she'd been more than a little jealous of Xena for some time. And what had happened yesterday had been terrifying. "All I'm saying is that the Amazons aren't going to be satisfied unless some kind of reparation is made, and I'll wager Xena feels the same way."

"Fine. She'll rebuild the entire village for you, I'm sure. You'll run out of tasks before she runs out of energy. Won't that do?" She looked over her shoulder at Ephiny, and threw up her hands in exasperation. "No, no. There's probably an arcane Amazon law that'll involve some kind of senseless pummeling, am I right?" Gabrielle continued to pace, muttering a few more colorful phrases.

"Weelll." The Queen stopped, glaring at her with hands on her hips; Ephiny swallowed hard, before continuing, "As a matter of fact, there is a little-used law that might fit this situation...."


The afternoon had passed not unpleasantly, Xena reflected. Eponin and Solari were good company, for all that they were both watching carefully for signs that she was about to go berserk again. She was getting restless, though, and everything that might remedy that was off-limits right now. No taking Argo for a long ride, no sword drills or sparring... she looked toward the Queen's hut, for the twentieth time in the past candlemark... and no sign of Gabrielle being finished conferring with Ephiny. A grin tugged at her lips, as she spotted a possible diversion.

"Ladies," she asked her guards, "would you mind my having a private word with Joxer?"

As she approached, a flicker of panic crossed the young man's eyes, which he successfully fought down. Xena nodded her approval, then sat beside him on the log. Her two shadows had withdrawn out of earshot, yet within bow range.

"Sorry I did that to you, Joxer." She indicated the two vivid shiners on either side of his broken nose. "You were very brave, trying to protect Gabrielle."

"It's okay, Xena, you don't have to be nice to me. I know I'm a fool.... "

"Not about this." That shocked him into actually looking at her, and she smiled sympathetically. "I can hardly fault your taste, can I?"

He said nothing, just gave her a pathetic look. Not unlike the one she'd given Gabrielle, when she'd asked for forgiveness, she thought sadly. Maybe a little less pathetic.

"Gabrielle is drawn to souls in need of saving— and that just isn't you, Joxer. Me, I'm a full-time project, gods help her."

"I don't think you're so bad... err, that is," he faltered when she raised an eyebrow. "If I promise not to get in the way, can I still hang around sometimes? Not that I'll ever be in your league—"

"You've already got the heart, my friend. All you have to do is work on the skills. Carefully." She gave him a friendly nudge. "Tell you what, that nose of yours can be a badge of honor."

"Huh? Oh." He brightened. "I went head on with the Warrior Princess, and only got a broken nose!"

"Don't embellish the story too much, okay? Anyway, I'd say you have plenty of admirers among the Amazons." Not the worst idea: get him fixed up with an Amazon. Otherwise we may have to adopt him, so he doesn't get his throat cut.

"Wow." His eyes lit up with the possibilities; he had a nice smile, really. "Thanks."

She clapped him on the shoulder, as her keen ears informed her of a hut door opening. "I'm about to be summoned. See you later."

Eponin rolled her eyes when Xena managed to be halfway to the Queen's hut, before her guards could catch up with her; Solari simply looked resigned. Inside, Ephiny was seated at the small table. Gabrielle was standing with her arms folded— taking a break from pacing, probably.

Moving close to her warrior and clasping her hand, causing the guards to tense, Gabrielle said softly, "I'm not really thrilled with Ephiny's idea, but I'll go along with it, if it's what you want. Remember what I told you about the mask." A quick kiss, and she walked out the door, Xena's eyes following her the entire way.

* * * *

"Well?" the tall warrior asked, once the Queen had left.

"You are too arrogant for words," the regent snarled, shaking her blonde curls. She turned to the two guards. "Let me talk to Xena in private, will you?" She waved away their protests, saying, "If I'm wrong, then our leadership is seriously flawed, and it's time for a change. Go on."

"By Gabrielle's request?" Xena nodded toward the closed door.

"She's concerned about your dignity. Gods know why, since you aren't."

The woman actually smirked at that! Ephiny gave her another dirty look, before saying formally, "Our Queen has intervened on your behalf, refusing to charge you with abduction and aggravated assault on her person." She nodded to herself when Xena flinched, then dropped the formality to say tightly, "If Gabrielle didn't care so much for you, I'd see that you were treated like the mad dog that invaded our village yesterday."

"If... the Fates hadn't been with us," Xena said quietly, "I'd have knotted the noose myself."

"Zeus' balls, what happened to you two?"

"Most of it... is nobody's business but ours. All I can say," the icy blue eyes met hers with a rare openness, "is it may have finally struck me sane, and not a moment too soon." The warrior straddled a chair, leaning her forearms on the table. "Ephiny, I will never, ever, harm her again. I swear by Artemis, I will keel over dead, before laying a hand on her. And, um, I'm really sorry about your arm."

After two years' acquaintance, Ephiny still wasn't sure she liked Xena. She was beyond intimidating, driven by forces better left unfathomed, bringing chaos in her wake. Twice now, she'd broken Gabrielle's gentle heart, only to reappear before Ephiny could gather up the pieces... yet Gabrielle runs to her, all the same.

"I am duty-bound to support my Queen's decisions," the regent stated. "Just remember, Xena, that she is the only one who is inclined to forgive you indefinitely. You pull this again, and I'll kill you, no matter what she says."

A solemn nod was the response. "So... tell me what I need to do to fix things with the Amazons."

* * * *

The proclamation was to be made at sunrise.

"Figured you'd agree," was Gabrielle's only comment, when she returned to their quarters. Ephiny hastily excused herself, mumbling something about preparations.

"I missed you." They moved together, kissing deeply, until there was a polite knock at the door.

"Dinner." Gabrielle extricated herself, sitting on the bed and stretching out a leg. "Give me a hand here?"

Xena smiled broadly as she knelt to comply. The dining hall runner was invited in after the second knock, and treated to the sight of a deferential warrior removing the Queen's boots, then gently massaging her feet. As their meal was being set out, Solari stuck her head in, informing Gabrielle that Joxer had been escorted to the centaur village. Both Amazons were thanked and graciously dismissed, with the clear implication that the Queen did not wish to be disturbed for the rest of the evening.

"Allow me to serve you, Majesty." Going to the table to fill a plate, the warrior laughed ironically. "They've cut everything into small pieces; can't have any knives around the berserker."

"Don't, Xena."

"'S'okay. The story should be going around by now that you've got me tamed." She settled next to her lover, popping a tidbit into her mouth.

The bard smiled, a bit smugly, as she chewed. "That's true enough."

"Mmm. Wish I'd said goodbye to Joxer, before you exiled him."

"I didn't— anyway, since when are you so fond of that idiot?"

"Hey." Xena tipped up her chin, gazing into the sea green eyes. "Joxer was doing my job, while I was busy being a homicidal maniac. He's a good soul, and you could be a little nicer to him."

"What, and give him ideas even stupider than he already has? Bad enough he follows me around like a puppy, never getting a clue, in the way—"

Aha! Another piece of the puzzle...

"I never thought of you like that, Gabrielle. Never. Not even those first few days, when I was pretending you were a pest, so you'd go home."

"You were pretending?" Her eyes widened. "I wasn't really a pest?"

"Well, you did have your annoying moments..." She laughed, as the bard made a face at her. "Precious one, I was fascinated, from the moment I encountered you. So very bold." Capturing the small hands in her own, she brought them to her lips, kissing each finger individually. "'Take me with you!' Athena's shield, I said 'no', because I thought your village would send an armed party to take you back! Then I was afraid you'd get hurt, and later I felt I couldn't possibly deserve the gift of your companionship."

"And... um, after that?"

"Let's just say that's where I learned to have empathy for Joxer."

They continued their meal in silence, each lost in her own thoughts.

The fascination had quickly become genuine appreciation of the girl's sunny nature, her cleverness, her kindness. That was succeeded by a fondness she doled out so sparingly, that she wondered how the bard tolerated the emotional drought... and then there'd been Thessaly. Gabrielle lay dead in her arms, the world fell away, and all she knew was that she wouldn't, couldn't, let her go. She'd commanded her friend to live, relieved when she'd obeyed, as begging would've been next on the agenda, reputation be damned.

But she hadn't allowed herself to entertain the thought, until they were well away from the temple, away from the speculation of those who'd seen her near-collapse. Watching Gabrielle sleep, the campfire casting a golden glow around her, Xena couldn't deny it: she was in love. With this exasperating, stubborn, bossy... beautiful, precious, best friend of hers. And the means hadn't been invented that could drag that truth out of her—other than a direct question from the bard, of course.

Gabrielle hadn't asked, so carefully had she been hiding her own truth. Even going so far as to marry that fool boy— rest his bovine soul, he’d never understood what he’d wandered into. And then Xena had died, and been summoned back by her bard's devotion. Did they discuss it then? No. There were mad gods to battle, the very serious inconvenience of being trapped in Callisto's body for a time, Ares to deal with... Never a moment, it seemed, to articulate what was no longer a secret.

Everyone they encountered assumed they were a pair, except for Ulysses, who decided the romantic haze the waves had lulled her into was all for him. Still, he was a king, with a temper, which he might easily have unleashed on her seasick friend, if his ego had been threatened, and she had agreed to help him regain his throne. So she hadn't disabused him of the quaint idea that, warrior or no, deep down she was what he assumed a woman to be. It had been so hard on Gabrielle. Her brave little soldier, putting up with being treated like a camp follower, and steeling herself for what could only be an unpleasant stay on Ithaca. That second ship must've seemed like a haven in comparison, despite more seasickness, pirates, and violent storms, ending in shipwreck and the threat of eternal damnation on Cecrops' vessel.

And that had finally prompted the question. Back on dry land, after bidding a joyous Cecrops farewell, they'd made their way to an inn, for a decent meal and some rest. Gabrielle, after some exclamation that she'd managed to hold onto the purse Ulysses had given her, through two shipwrecks— she’d only accepted it, so she could provide this very luxury for her bard— was uncharacteristically quiet, though she ate heartily, bestowing frequent smiles on her companion, and everyone in the inn's common room. Xena smiled back, even told a story of her own, to the delight of her audience of one. As they climbed the stairs to their room, she draped her arm over the smaller woman's shoulders, and felt an arm slip around her waist in response.

"Xena, what Cecrops said— "

She looked up from building up the fire. Gabrielle was standing by the window, luminous in the moonlight. Oh, where did you get this talent for interrogation? I haven't a chance. "Cecrops is extremely perceptive, Gabrielle."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"You never asked."

Another silence. Luminous green eyes locked with hers, and she was compelled to her feet, closing the distance between them with two long strides.

"That’s a really poor excuse, you know," Gabrielle remarked, taking her hands. "Tell me now."

"I love you."

Returning from her reverie, she found Gabrielle smiling at her. "Guess I don't have to ask what you were thinking about."

"We should get some rest— big day tomorrow." She stroked her lover's soft cheek. "It'll be all right, you'll see."

"You've got the easy part." She wound her arms around the warrior's neck, pressing their bodies close together. "Mmm... we’re gonna have to be quiet, so no one comes to 'protect' me again."

Going rigid, Xena started to pull away, but was stopped by small, determined hands gripping her leathers.

"Don't you dare run from me, Xena. You promised to let me know what you're feeling."

A barely audible whisper, "What if they're not wrong?"

"We've been through this a hundred times. I thought we had it settled."

"Scared." An admission that hadn’t crossed her lips since she was a small child, and perhaps not even then.

"It’s all right, my heart, my only one," the bard crooned, rocking her. "It’s safe here, we’re both safe. I am certain... that you won't hurt me... ever again." She punctuated each phrase with a kiss. "I know you: you don't make the same mistake twice."

"Thank you." A tear leaked from closed eyelids.

"There's more. Even if I wasn't completely certain— though I am— I would still be with you. Any price I've paid, or will pay in the future, is nothing compared to the treasure that is our life together."

More tears. "Gabrielle..."

"I love you so much." Her voice was hypnotic, a very private version of the cadence that could entrance whole rooms of hardened soldiers. "Stay, stay with me now. There’s nothing to fear, it’s just me."

Xena did the only thing a smart warrior could do, faced with superior forces: she surrendered.



Xena of Amphipolis, the Queen's Champion,

having succumbed to a serious lapse of judgement,

thereby causing damage to persons and property...

And Whereas,

the Champion's loyalty remains unquestioned

by the Queen herself...

Therefore, it is proclaimed,

that Xena of Amphipolis shall undergo

the Rite of Testing, before the women

of this village and hence the Amazon Nation.

Solari watched the tall warrior's face as the proclamation was read, and the details of the rite elaborated upon. No emotion there, though her eyes were fixed throughout on the Amazon Queen, once or twice quirking an eyebrow at the wording of the document. Gabrielle's words, read by Ephiny, which were an indication to the village as to how the rite would proceed. Until sundown, Xena would make herself available on the practice grounds, while every adult in the village would get a crack at her. She was allowed to block, parry, or avoid blows, but not to counterattack; blunt objects could be used against her, nothing sharp. There followed a small processional to the field. Clad in an undyed linen tunic and pants, Xena nodded at something Gabrielle whispered in her ear. They clasped hands briefly, then the Queen moved out of the way, coming over to stand beside Solari.

The first comers were those who had reason to be most angry at the Warrior Princess: Ephiny, and the Amazon warriors who'd been injured two days ago. Solari had only heard about Xena's rampage, having been out hunting at the time. That was one of the reasons the Queen had assigned her this duty, she suspected. The rite wasn't intended to injure— though she couldn't imagine even Xena taking on the entire village unscathed—but to test the discipline of a warrior who'd lost self-control in battle, let her prove to her sisters and to herself she wasn't a liability to the Nation. Solari's job was to make sure things didn't get out of hand, and she’d hand-picked five of the Royal Guard to help.

Ephiny stepped forward. Xena met her eyes and spread her arms wide, flashing a feral grin. With a scream of rage, Ephiny swung at her, only to be sidestepped. The regent whirled, kicking at her opponent, who somehow managed to be elsewhere before the blow landed. A succession of kicks and one-handed punches all connected with empty air; Ephiny's face was turning a dangerous shade of red. Xena was dancing with her, laughing like a heathen. Someone tossed Ephiny a cudgel, and she came out swinging; Xena leapt over the weapon's arc, then loosed her war-cry and backflipped over her opponent's head, gesturing for her to try again. The next three swings missed, Ephiny's fury increasing with each one.

Thunk. The cudgel connected solidly with Xena's stomach, a second blow knocked her down, though Solari's warrior instincts told her that the fall had most likely been intentional. A glance at the Queen seemed to confirm this: Gabrielle was nodding to herself, though she flinched every time her lover was hit. One of the guards moved into position, ready to intervene; Solari signaled to her to wait till the last possible second. Snarling, Ephiny swung her weapon at the supine warrior's head. Xena rolled away, and back to her feet.

They circled each other, then Ephiny dropped the cudgel and rushed the taller woman, butting her midsection with her head. Again, Xena fell, bringing her opponent with her. Kneeling on Xena's chest, Ephiny grabbed her throat and started to squeeze, bracing her good arm with the injured one. A large hand closed around the regent's wrist, and the guards again got ready: those hands were reputed capable of bending metal. An almost casual thumb-jab to the wrist, and Ephiny's hand flew open. She pulled back, cocking a fist, while an indecipherable look passed between them. Ephiny spat out a potent oath, striking Xena across the face, then rolled off her and stood, walking from the field without looking back. Seconds later, Xena was back on her feet, facing the next opponent.

"My Queen," Solari said quietly, "You don't have to stay to watch this."

"Thank you, Solari, but I do." She flashed that beautiful smile. "No more formality today, okay? We're all sweating too much for that."

The Amazon captain had to smile back; it was hot as Hades. "Understood, Gabrielle. The rite's going pretty smoothly so far— judging by that opening performance, it'll be legendary in two moons!"

"Yeah. It just might make things worse with Ephiny, though."

Oh, you noticed that, did you, my Queen? I hope Pony talks some sense into her, before you figure out what's really bothering her.

* * * *

Xena had finished with the first wave of challengers, and was sitting under a tree, one knee drawn up, with an arm draped over it. Part of the groundrules had been that she was to get a break every now and then, especially in this heat. There was a large bruise on her cheek, her face was streaked with dirt and sweat, dark hair unruly. The clothing was probably a lost cause, stained beyond the best laundering efforts.

Exactly like Cyrene described her as a child, when she would fight with all the boys in Amphipolis... Sinking to the grass beside her, Gabrielle handed over a waterskin. "You're a mess."

"Not too bad. No blood." The warrior drank, then poured some of the water onto her dark head.

"That's because no one wants to be banished."

Xena wiped her dirty, callused palm against her pants, before laying it gently against Gabrielle's cheek. "This is nothing— you know that, right?"

"Maybe to you," was the sullen reply. It's even a little fun, isn't it, Xena? You're not worrying that someone might get a lucky shot in, and really hurt you.

"C'mere." She pulled the smaller woman onto her lap, placing a soft kiss on the top of her head. "Gabrielle, I owe them, and I'm getting off easy because of you— shh, let me finish. Think about how it seems to Ephiny: I go mad, trash the village, and... " her voice broke, "take you by force. The next day we stroll back, saying everything's fine, but we can't really give any details. How did you expect them to react?" The blue eyes took on a haunted look. "I did go mad, and I did hurt you— and my promises sound just the same as any brute who knocks his wife around."

Gabrielle pressed her face against her warrior's chest, breathing in the dirt and sweat that mingled with Xena's own scent. "I don't care what they think."

"Yes, you do. You'd like everyone to see me through your eyes, my bard." Strong, gentle arms tightened around her. "If anyone can pull off such a miracle, it would be you."

"The real miracle would be to convince people what a sweet-talker you can be." She lifted her head to meet Xena's lips in a long, tender kiss. "Hmm, on second thought, I'm keeping it all for myself."

"All yours." She took Gabrielle's hand, pressing it over her heart, as she claimed her lips once more, all too briefly. The bard moaned in protest, as she was gently lifted from Xena's lap and settled against the tree. "I need to get back to the field," the warrior said, standing up. "Stay in the shade, will you? And don't worry. I'll be fine."

She's going to let them stone her; she doesn't even care! And Gabrielle had thrown herself between the Warrior Princess and the angry mob, not really knowing why she was risking herself for someone she'd just met. Xena had shot her a look that reminded her of Lila, when Gabrielle would take the blame for one of her younger sister's misdeeds. It had been finding out this daunting person was someone's sister, too, that gave her the courage to creep up to Xena's campfire, and into her life.

Clearly the Fates were at work here. From the first, Gabrielle knew the legendary warrior was no physical danger to her— her fears centered around being sent away. For her supposed own good, for mistakes she might make, for the peace and quiet Xena claimed she missed. That fear subsided early on, when she saw the risks her companion would take to rescue her from danger, when Xena always came back for her, no matter what. The fear of not measuring up, of failing the warrior when it counted... well, that was almost laid to rest, after three summers. Almost.

Was everyone in the world completely dense, or was she? Those constant looks of loathing directed at the former warlord, that Xena pretended to ignore and often encouraged, when all Gabrielle could see was a sensitive, brave, and deeply compassionate woman. Part of it had to do with the way the bard perceived things, but gradually it dawned that she was being allowed glimpses of the warrior's soul, a unique privilege. Salmoneus' astonishment at Xena having a friend, various remarks from Iolaus, and something about the way Hercules smiled at her when they first met—once she'd recovered from the near-swoon that evoked— all added up to a conclusion that made her head spin.

At some point, she'd become that soul's custodian. Trust Xena to make a decision like that, and not tell her.

That shock was nothing, however, compared to the one she got when Xena helped restore Hades' rule of the Underworld. Gabrielle spent a good portion of the adventure waiting by the lake, knowing her friend would need her after two trips to Hades and back. One look at Xena, when she emerged from the water, showed that to be an understatement. She'd let Gabrielle take care of her, allowed more physical contact than she had in the past six moons, even spoke about what had happened, before falling into a troubled sleep. Watching over her, the younger woman felt her heart swell with a fierce tenderness, and knew what she was feeling was love.

And she had absolutely no idea what to do next. Xena would have to make this decision for them, as well.

Part of it was her lack of experience, compounded by her friend's HUGE amount of experience. Mostly, though, Gabrielle wanted to be claimed, swept off her feet like a princess in an heroic tale. Poor Perdicas wound up the victim of that little fantasy. He said he needed her, a blatant contrast to the warrior's stoicism; she feared he might harm himself if rejected. She didn't think it through, predicted everyone's behavior wrong.

"I can't let you do this, Gabrielle. You belong with me, and no one else," Xena was supposed to say. Instead, a brave smile, an assurance that she'd be fine. "If you're happy, I'm happy." Silly warrior, thinking the bard always said what she meant. Silly bard, thinking the warrior would do anything for her own satisfaction.

Callisto had cut right through all the pretense, sparing Perdicas the inevitable shame of having his wife run off to follow the Warrior Princess... again.

While she mused, Gabrielle had been keeping an eye on the field: about half the Amazons had come and gone by now, and they were probably going to let Xena be, while they broke for lunch. She'd already been warned not to feed her champion. The last batch of challengers didn't seem so much angry, as curious; probably taking this as an advanced training session. They all dispersed at the approach of the Priestess of Artemis, who, to Gabrielle's shock, landed three solid blows with her staff, bringing an unresisting Xena to her knees. The priestess turned on her heel, and was gone by the time Gabrielle sprinted over.

"That... was an invitation to visit the temple," Xena reassured her. "Didn't want to get into even more trouble by raising my hands to a priestess."

"Some invitation."

"Only kind the gods give. And they hate to be kept waiting."

* * * *

The ceremonial basin in the temple's anteroom was hardly up to the job of washing off the morning's grime. Several layers remained, despite her best effort. Little as Xena cared for the gods, she was determined to be civil, for Gabrielle's sake— the Amazon Queen was, by rights, Artemis' chosen. That the goddess hadn't yet appeared in person was a point in her favor. The same priestess who was so handy with a staff directed her to the inner sanctum, where she placed the hastily-gathered wildflowers on the altar.

"All right, Artemis. I'm here."

"Xena." The goddess, dressed in buckskins, appeared seated cross-legged on the altar, her bow across her lap. "How fortunate for you that humility isn't required of my supplicants."

"You requested my presence." She rotated her shoulders to get rid of some of the kinks, then cracked her knuckles. "Mind telling me what you wanted? Fifty of your Amazons are waiting to beat up on me."

Artemis laughed heartily. "Oh, you are a double handful, to be sure! My Chosen is constantly appealing to me on your behalf, trying to keep you safe while you court danger."

"What have you done to keep her safe?" Xena snarled. "You didn't lift a finger when Dahak— "

"Careful, warrior. The situation is more complex than you're ready to understand. It was Aphrodite and myself who helped your Solan create the land of Illusia."

"Oh." Her brow furrowed, as she sorted through the few facts she had, and came to a conclusion. "Prepared in advance... Ares goaded me— was all that really necessary?"

"You tell me."

Always comes down to this, doesn't it? Could there have been another way? That was what the last three years were supposed to be: another way. Not that she'd become a completely different person. She still killed, even if it was less frequently than before, and not her only method of solving disputes. The rage was still with her, though she could quiet it for longer stretches of time. Choices hadn't gotten any easier, only now she understood the consequences, cared about the outcome. No longer lost in a haze of madness and hatred, she worried about those she sought to protect, mourned the ones she couldn't... actually had friends, for the first time since Lao Ma. And love, that persisted despite every test and obstacle she could throw in its path. This last time, when the madness took her, self-loathing had driven the attack on Gabrielle, intending to rip from her the single best part of her life— prove her once and for all an irredeemable wretch, and bring to an end this painful existence.

Instead, they'd been transported to Illusia, where all the lies had been exposed, the truths revealed, and they'd forgiven each other. Gabrielle, who had so much more to forgive, did it so easily. All it took was an admission from the warrior that she'd been wrong... so very wrong. That confession, the apologies, the plea for forgiveness, all spilled from her in a rare eloquence, though she could see the 'yes' in her soulmate's eyes after the first few words. She'd had to say it all, not let Gabrielle let her off the hook this time, with that uncanny knack for knowing what she was thinking. Their usual roles were reversed, the warrior able only to ask admittance, the bard having the strength to pull her through that last barrier, back to their life together.

Her knees buckled under the enormity of it all, tears streaming down her face. Suddenly, there was a familiar presence beside her, a gentle hand on her shoulder. The bard's eyes scanned her for injuries, then narrowed as they moved to regard Artemis. Xena heard the intake of breath, and reflexively threw her arms around the smaller woman, before she could loose an accusation against her patron goddess. With a surprised 'whoof!', Gabrielle returned the hug, and so they remained for several moments, until Xena raised her head with a wistful smile.

"It's not what you think," she whispered. She stood, taking the bard's hand. "To answer your question, Artemis: I don't know if it was necessary, but it was worth it. Even though I really hate not being in control, and having you gods interfering with my life. It could've been a lot less painful, though I'll accept that was part of the process." She felt Gabrielle twitch at the use of one of her pet phrases, and added, "This time."

"I guess you're all right, then," the bard said, before turning her attention to the goddess. "Um... I'm sorry, I didn't bring an offering... "

"You aren't required, my Chosen," Artemis said. "I am very, very proud of you, for all that there have been reasons why I couldn't tell you before now."

"Must be a warrior thing," Gabrielle muttered.

"Why, thank you for the compliment." Another peal of godly laughter; Xena studied her boots, blushing furiously. "'Dite's absolutely right: the two of you are just too adorable. Anyway, children, I didn't come here to embarrass you, fun as it is." The goddess hopped off the altar and stood before them, taking their entwined hands in both her own. "I came to give you my blessing." She kissed each of them on the forehead, leaving a warm tingling where her lips and hands had touched. "Remember... I'm listening, even if you don't see me."

And she disappeared in a flash of silvery light.

"Xena, look." Gabrielle lifted their hands; on her right, and Xena's left, there had appeared silver rings worked with the stag's head and crescent moons that were Artemis' symbols. "You don't mind, do you?"

"Not if it makes you happy." She ran her thumb over the ring. "As long as it doesn't get caught on my chakram."

"Spoken like a true romantic." The bard's fond smile softened her words.

Xena returned the smile. "I think we can scrounge up some romance later, after I've finished playing with your Amazons."

"After a bath, please. You're pretty ripe."

"As Her Majesty commands."

* * * *

"By Hera's girdle, Ephiny, you are getting on my nerves!" Eponin had a brief, vivid fantasy about upending a full chamberpot on that curly blonde head. "The Rite of Testing was your idea, and Xena has performed like an Amazon born."

"Aw, Pony, not you, too! What is it about that woman?!"

"You want the long or the short list? I seem to recall you being pretty fascinated by the Warrior Princess, once."

"That was before I got to know her better."

The drill instructor snorted. "Before you got to know Gabrielle, you mean. Though I don't think you really have a clue about our Queen." Or anything else, you big horse's behind...

"And I suppose you do, oh Oracle." Ephiny jutted out her chin in that stubborn way Eponin used to find cute.

"For one thing, Eph— she’s not stupid, or naive. And she's very much in love with 'that woman'." She chewed on a ragged fingernail. "They're... not ordinary. Maybe a little bit crazy, but that's not for you or me to judge."

"So we just step back, until the day Xena loses it completely, and Gabrielle gets herself killed."

"Artemis herself blessed them; you want to question our Patron?"

Ephiny let out a long, loud breath. "I can't imagine why— "

"That's your problem," Eponin interrupted. "You can't imagine, period." She walked out of the hut, letting the door slam behind her, and was halfway across the village, before she could think about a destination.

"Do we need to dispose of the body?" Solari sidled up to her, with a conspiratorial grin.

"Any minute now." She slowed her pace, to match her comrade in arms. "Soli, I am so tired of hearing her rant.... Serve her right, if she embarrasses herself in front of the Queen."

"I'd rather she didn't, all the same. Listen, the rite is nearly over—"

"Xena zipped through the entire village in half a day? Figures."

"Have to admit, it's a joy watching her work, even under the circumstances. She's down to the last three— well, technically four."

* * * *

"You can't be serious," Gabrielle said, her voice dangerously quiet. "I won't do it."

"My Queen, it needn’t be more than a token gesture," Solari said reasonably. "You are the only one in the village who hasn’t participated."

"Can’t I be exempt? I mean, I am the Queen."

"You’re also an injured party," Ephiny said, earning a glare from Eponin.

Interesting... deal with it later. Xena pushed away from the tree she’d been leaning against, coming to stand beside her partner. "Do it, Gabrielle. It’s not like you’re going to hurt me."

"That is not the point, Xena. I have no desire whatsoever to take a swing at you." Her eyes narrowed before the warrior could take a breath. "Don’t say it."

Biting back a laugh, she leaned close to the smaller woman, saying, "Come on, I’ll jump for you, if you like. It’ll look great." No response; she switched tactics. "I’m kinda tired, Gab. Let’s get this over with, so I can take that bath, hmmm?"

A delicate flush crept up the bard’s neck. "Come to think of it, I think I’ll tell a few stories tonight— yeah, some loonng, extremely detailed stories. With Hestians in them." She cracked her knuckles, in deliberate imitation of the warrior. "Let’s go."

"Okay, just like we were sparring." She backed away, beckoning. "We’ll give them a show."

Gabrielle swung her staff high, as expected; Xena ducked and stuck out her tongue. A second blow was evaded, then another, which came low this time. Xena jumped over the staff, ruffling her partner’s hair, as she backflipped over her. Blue eyes met green, sparkling with laughter. A circle of spectators formed around them, cheering both on. They continued the game awhile, then Xena signaled that she would let the next blow connect; Gabrielle dropped her staff, small hands curling into fists.

Her hearing picked up the scrape of the staff being kicked toward her boots; the direction gave her a good guess as to who’d kicked it. All right, Eph, if that’s what you really want. Xena decided not to compensate, allowing her balance to be broken; the momentum drove her face solidly into Gabriele’s fist. A yelp of surprise from the bard, the taste of blood, and she was hitting the ground, much harder than she’d planned.

"Gods, oh Gods! Xena, I didn’t mean to—"

"No, no, I tripped. It’s not— ow." Her split lip throbbed when touched. "Not so bad."

"That’s it, we are done with this." Gabrielle stood, saying in a loud, clear voice, "The Queen’s Champion has successfully performed the Rite of Testing." She offered a hand. "Let’s get you cleaned up."


Part Three

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