Basic Disclaimer Rhetoric or the if's, and's, but's of the story: Caveat Lector. Characters are not my own but only borrowed for a short time. Absolutely no intention is made to personally benefit from their use.

Like Hello! This contains alternate relationships. Avoid reading if you find that difficult to stomach. Oh, if you're still clueless, that means this is mature subject matter. If you're not up to it, I'd suggest a well written Disney-like story with cuddly forest animals. Aww, how cute. On the upside there isn't much to curl your toes, so be brave! Violence? Could be, but nothing gruesome. I promise.

Let’s see ... If you happen to live in some Purtianesque village that really likes Scarlet 'A's, and reading this type of story might land you in the stockades, escape now. If you’re under age, then it’s probably past your bed time, got it? If you're still here then enjoy —

You can send comments to Pallas3@yahoo.com

Ravages of Spirit

by Pallas
Pallas3@yahoo.com

"In the middle of the journey of our life

I came to myself within a dark wood

where the straight way was lost."

Dante Alighieri "The Divine Comedy ... Inferno, Canto I"

 

 

The fire crackled and popped, sending a flurry of sparks into the summer night sky. Despite the warm night, Gabrielle shivered and pulled the coarse wool blanket tighter around her shoulders. No matter how close she got to the fire, she couldn't rid herself of the foreboding chill that had embraced her soul.

Looking at her friend breathing evenly in her slumber, she wondered how the warrior could always sleep so deeply, and feeling her stomach tighten as she watched her friend, the bard knew she wasn't going to get any rest that night. Straining to focus her confused mind, she fought for all of her strength as she began to battle herself. ‘This can’t be happening to me,’ she despaired, another shiver running through her.

Gabrielle closed her eyes against the chaotic thoughts that were gaining momentum over her rigid control. She hugged her legs to her chest and rested her chin on her knees, the shadows from the flames dancing across her features like a forest imps worshiping the moon.

'Gods, what am I feeling?' she thought. Her heart was hurting so badly that she wanted to scream against the building tension that was laying waste to her very being. 'I've got to do something or I'll... — Oh, please help me.'

Taking a rough breath, she concentrated on slowing her racing heart. 'C’mon, think this through from the beginning. The answers I need have to be there someplace.'

She let the memories of the day return to her in slow pictures, praying desperately that something would jump out, and she could explain this whole thing away with a convenient excuse.

The day had begun like hundreds of others. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, everything seemed perfect. 'How quickly things can change,' she mused.

They had been traveling toward Athens, and she was debating Xena on a new idea of hers. She remembered being completely caught up in the conversation. 'Maybe that's why I missed the trap...'

It happened on a desolate stretch of road, the dense forest casting deep shadows over them as the sun made its death plunge in the afternoon sky. Using hindsight, she should have been disciplined enough to see what was about to happen, but instead she had been desperately trying to make a point to Xena.

"C'mon, Xena, seriously think about this one. How do we really know what we know?" Xena had laughed in disagreement, and the bard redoubled her argument. "Knowledge is perception, and for all I know I'm not even standing here talking to you right now, but..."

She looked up as three dirty, unkempt men blocked their way. Glancing behind she saw that two more men had stepped out of the woods preventing their escape.

Their leader held an antiquated crossbow leveled at Xena's chest, a toothless grin leering at them from behind a greasy overgrown beard.

"Whoa there, girlies," he had said, in a cocky tone, rocking back and forth like a fool. "This is your lucky day. You’re about to be robbed by the best damn band of thieves this side of Athens. — Now, if you cooperate with us...well, you walk out of here."

"And if we don't?" Xena had asked in a toneless voice.

He had laughed and poked at his partners in jest. "Well, that would be stupid, and we'll be the only ones leaving here," he had said, motioning to his companions. "Now give us your horse, your money, and that round thing on your hip." His voice had become deadly serious.

She was still awed by the way Xena was so composed in these circumstances. 'I don't know where she always finds the courage,' she thought, as she could again visualize Xena shrugging her shoulders, and holding Argo's reins out to the leader.

The man reached out to take the horse, smiling like a cat anticipating a good meal, and Gabrielle could feel instead of see the half smile that played at Xena's lips. In a move that the bard could only lamely describe as fast, the warrior had grabbed the crossbow with one hand, and landed a powerful blow to the thief's forehead with the other.

"That's gonna leave a mark," the bard said, wincing slightly, as the man went sprawling to the ground, his face a mixture of pain and surprise.

Xena had immediately given her full attention to the other two bandits, her face alight from the pure joy of the fight. Sighing, Gabrielle spun around to face the men behind her. She held her staff at the defense, waiting for their attack, but they didn't move.

’I should have seen the way they kept looking over my head into the tree,' she chastised herself. 'I shouldn't have hesitated like that. I jeopardized my safety,' Gabrielle thought, clenching her hand as she remembered the sound of war cries coming from the forest. She turned, just as four more men rushed from the woods bearing down on Xena with swords at the ready.

Gabrielle's instinct immediately wanted to protect her friend. 'But, when has she ever needed my help in a fight? Stupid, Gabrielle, really stupid.' However, follow her instincts she did, and just as she was about to move, something had closed around her throat, and she was yanked roughly off her feet.

Gabrielle touched her still tender throat remembering the intense pain. Closing her eyes again, she could feel her feet kicking out wildly... trying desperately to find ground. The tips of her fingers still hurt from clawing at the thick rope that had been strangling her. She'd tried to cry out to Xena, but she couldn't draw a breath, let alone speak. 'Although her name was the only thing I could think of...' she thought, remembering how the warrior’s name had pounded in her head with every deafening heartbeat.

As she knew death was coming to claim her, the images of her life had flashed across her eyes. '...And Xena dominated them all, didn't she?' she recalled, with sweet chagrin. The comforting darkness slowly enveloped her, and she faintly heard Xena yell her name, but recalled nothing else.

Strangely, Gabrielle remembered feeling peaceful. Looking back, the bard absently wondered why she hadn't struggle for life, but she didn't. 'Maybe it was because I can't deal with what's going on inside me. I wanted the easy way out, right?'

Slowly she regained sensation in her body, as she first felt something gentle brushing her cheek. The feeling of safety and love in that touch was so comforting, that Gabrielle never wanted to move. As her senses spread, she heard her name spoken with a tenderness that filled her with a consuming warmth. The bard croaked out a weak "Xena," and was rewarded by being engulfed in the warrior's invincible arms.

Within minutes, she found herself wrapped safely in a blanket, and sipping a glass of warmed and spiced wine. Xena had busied herself with their dinner preparations, and Gabrielle couldn't help smiling at her ineptitude with cooking. 'You can defeat nations, but you can't boil water,' she mused, her heart swelling at the knowledge that Xena would do something she hated so much... just for her.

As she watched the activity near the campfire, she realized with a sudden pang that something she’d lain dormant was awakening in her. The accident had been the catalyst, and now she couldn't stop the thoughts that were now snowballing out of control. Something had changed, and her feelings would no longer be ignored or denied.

Looking at the warrior, busy at her unsuited task, Gabrielle had an epiphany. She realized that she no longer felt the same about her life. Exactly what that all meant wasn’t so clear, but ‘I know it’s changed. And it’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever known,’ she thought, noticing that despite the growing fear, she’d never felt more excited in her life.

Taking a deep breath, she looked into her wine cup, gently swishing the liquid back and forth like a seer trying to call the answer from the grapes. '’I’ve got to know what this means. The feelings are too strong ... too familiar for me not to know,’ she thought, taking a deep swallow of the wine.

Gabrielle tilted her head, watching Xena growing angrier at the pot of stew that seemed to be refusing the warrior’s rough attempts to balance it over the fire. The bard knew from the string of curses coming from her friend, that any second their dinner would end up decorating the forest floor. She opened her mouth to tell Xena how to fix the problem...

But that was when it hit her.

All the air flew from her lungs in a rush of anguished pain that left her gasping. The forest began spinning around her, a whirling blur of greens that made her dizzy, and she was forced to close her eyes against the shifting shades. She raised a shaky hand to her face, feeling a wet layer of perspiration covering her clammy skin, and she knew if her heart beat any faster it would explode.

Oh gods, it can’t be that,’ she thought, feeling her stomach twist so sharply that she had to wrap her arms tightly around her midriff to stop the quaking. ‘I’ve known it all along, haven’t I? Every time I look at her ... oh gods!’

"Gabrielle," Xena said, her voice tight with frustration. "Tell me ... what’m I supposed to do here?" she said, pointing at the pot.

The bard just stared, her chest was heaving like a race horse, and her whole body shook like sails in a storm. Her stomach pitched on her, and she covered her mouth as the wine she’d just drunk threatened to come back up. She climbed to her feet, her legs unsteady as another convulsion wracked her body. In a split second, Xena’s arms closed around her.

"It’s okay," she said softly, her cool hands smoothing back the hair from the bard’s damp forehead. "You’re okay now. It’s all over. You’re safe. Nothing’s gonna happen to you. I won’t let it," Xena said in a steady stream of soothing tones.

Gabrielle let herself fall against the warrior. She knew Xena thought it was her most recent brush with death which was causing this. ‘Wouldn’t the truth shock her to Tartarus and back?’ the bard thought, feeling another convulsion take hold of her, and she gripped the Xena’s shoulder with all her strength until it passed.

"C’mon, let’s sit you back down," Xena said, gently lowering her to the ground. Gabrielle closed her eyes as she felt the warrior lean over kiss her gently on the top of her head. "I won’t let that happen again, Gabrielle. Promise," she said, crossing the camp, and fussing with the pot again.

Xena looked over at her, and as the bard was captured in those mesmerizing blue eyes, she realized, without a doubt that she was most desperately in love. She raised a hand to her mouth, and forced herself to look away. Gabrielle felt herself trembling with a falter that she couldn’t control.

‘I’d always heard it was like a bolt of lightning,’ she thought, her mouth so dry she could hardly swallow. ‘Now .. gods on Olympus... what am I going to do about it?’

During the meal, she’d just picked at her food, unable to raise even a mild appetite. Xena had made some rare attempts at small talk, but Gabrielle just gave staccato answers, and soon a gauntlet of uncomfortable silence fell between them. The bard didn’t know what to do. Part of her wanted to blurt out her revelation, but a stronger part of her knew she’d be committing emotional suicide by saying anything.

"Xena?" she ventured, her voice shaky and weak. "You ever, really, been in love?"

The warrior stared at her, the blue eyes so open and friendly that Gabrielle felt ashamed of herself for not being able to speak freely. Xena took a deep breath, and furrowed her brow in thought.

"Not really in love, I guess. I’ve never felt those earth shaking things I’ve heard people talk about. Never lost all rational thought ... felt the ground give out under me ... stuff like that. Don’t think I’m really capable of that type of love. I don’t think I could let go. Why?"

Gabrielle shrugged nervously. "Nothing. Just a story I’m working on," she lied, feeling her heart clench.

"What about you?" Xena asked, her gaze suddenly very interested in the crackling fire.

"No!" Gabrielle said a bit too quickly, and biting her lip she forced herself to look at Xena, praying her face didn’t betray her. "I mean, not like that. Never had the ... um ... bolt of lightning thing hit me. Must be a terrifying feeling."

Xena nodded seriously. "Yeah. It’ll never happen to me, though. I kinda wish it would, but ... I don’t know. Hasn’t yet ... so, don’t think it ever will."

"I see," Gabrielle said, smiling weakly, and looking down at the bowl cradled in her lap.

A wordless silence settled over the two friends. One woman trapped in a torturous existence. The other oblivious to the drastic shift in their relationship.

Gabrielle knew that Xena had no idea what had happened to her, ‘to us,’ the bard thought. She knew that what she was feeling was wrong. ‘It’s going to ruin the best thing I’ve ever known. It could even ruin Xena. She doesn’t want this ... how could she? I’m just her friend. Almost her kid sister. What would it do to her if I looked up right now and told her that I’m desperately ... hopelessly ... in love with her, and that I think I always have been?’ Gabrielle closed her eyes. ‘She’d start hating me for it. That’s what.’ The bard placed a shaking hand over her mouth. ‘I’ve got to get over this! I can do it. Just stop thinking about her like that.

Watching Xena across the fire, Gabrielle decided that she would just talk herself out of her misplaced desires.

‘She’s really not that beautiful,’ she thought, looking critically at the warrior’s dark hair, loose and slightly mussed, glowing in the soft light. ‘See? It’s just normal, black hair. — Hair so soft and silky, I could run my fingers through it for hours.’ She swallowed hard, noticing a fantastic brilliance of colors dancing around the warrior, hugging her in a warm, comfortable aura that drew the bard like the moon draws the sea.

‘Okay, so, the hair is perfect. But look, see the tiny wrinkles that have started forming near her mouth and eyes? She shouldn’t smile that often ...’ she thought, her stomach fluttering like a crazed flock of butterflies as she remembered how it felt to have that smile bestowed on her. ‘Yeah ... sometimes just seeing her smile changes my whole day,’ she remembered, a tender warmth spreading through her body.

Xena looked up, and Gabrielle found herself again captured by the blue eyes that shone like sapphires in the firelight. The intensity of the gaze was both solace and torment to the bard’s troubled soul. Xena smiled, and the bard felt an overwhelming cascade of passion flood through her. With a pounding heart, Gabrielle managed a timid smile in return before forcing her sight from that which she coveted.

Her eyes were drawn to Xena's right hand, clenching and unclenching in that annoying habit that had driven her crazy for so long She felt her breath catch as she watched the muscles on the warrior’s lithe arm contract and define in a way that made the bard ache with a desire to trace each contour.

'Okay, that's enough,' Gabrielle thought. 'This obviously isn’t working!' she brooded, freezing when she noticed that her own fingers were running absently across her own upper arm. Gabrielle looked away, and swallowed hard. 'Oh, you're in trouble, girl.'

Gabrielle watched Xena leave shortly after dinner to take care of the horse. This was typically her time to organize the camp and lay out their bed pallets. Out of habit Gabrielle laid hers next to Xena’s, but it didn’t feel right anymore. ‘Laying that close to her ... knowing what I’m feeling and wanting ...’ Gabrielle furrowed her brow, and moved her pallet to the other side of the fire.

The bard sat cross legged on her bed, staring at the crackling fire, knowing that night it was offering them both protection. ‘Her from me ... and me from myself,’ she thought, noticing that a strange chill had settled over her. She held her still trembling hands toward the fire, but the warm flames were unable to melt the icy frost that was creeping into her soul. Her whole life was spinning out of control, and Gabrielle had no idea how to stop her descent into the void.

The sound of a snapping twig alerted the bard to the warrior’s approach, and without thinking, Gabrielle quickly slid under the covers, purposely putting her back toward the warrior and the fire. She heard Xena stop dead when she came into the camp, and Gabrielle could feel the piercing blue eyes burning into her back. She noticed that she’d stopped breathing, and with a supreme effort she forced herself to take a breath. The air that filled her lungs only served to increase the pressure that was building in her chest, and she longed to cry out for her friend’s help.

'Say something, Xena!' she silently prayed, hoping for some way ... any way to rid herself of the pain and confusion swelling inside her. 'Ask me why I'm not sleeping next to you. Force me to face it! Force me to tell you! Please!'

Instead, she heard her friend settle stoically on her own pallet. Gabrielle’s ears prickled, knowing that the warrior would soon begin her nightly sharpening rituals, but tonight only silence answered silence.

The bard knew that the warrior was watching her, and Gabrielle squeezed her eyes tight, as she fought off the simultaneous urge to scream and cry. ‘Quit looking at me ... Talk to me! I need to tell you! How can I feel this way ... and you not know?’ Her hand hurt from the balled up blanket that she squeezed for strength and control, and a single tear of frustration seeped out of her clenched eyes.

The warrior climbed to her feet, and the bard listened as her steps crossed the camp. Her body tingled in agonizing ecstacy the closer Xena came to her, and she could feel how the warrior’s approaching presence made her heart skip beats at an alarming rate. Xena crouched down next to her, and the bard held her breath as she felt the warrior tug the blanket up over her shoulders. Xena’s warm hand rested for a brief second on her shoulder, and despite the thick wool blanket, Gabrielle could feel the heat coming from Xena’s hand.

"I’m sorry, Gabrielle," the warrior whispered. "For everything I’ve ever done to you."

This wasn’t the first time Gabrielle had heard these midnight confessions from the warrior, but tonight it was like having a javelin hurled at her heart. Hearing it tonight put a range of mountains between them that Gabrielle couldn’t cross. With those words, the warrior had sealed the bard’s fate.

Gabrielle heard Xena straighten up and cross the camp. This time, each step the warrior took pushed the bard further and further into a lonely void that embraced her in shroud of guilt, shame and regret. Her soul screamed out for salvation, but her screams of torment were returned in endless echoes that rattled through her head like a death keel.

Xena fell asleep quickly, and as soon as Gabrielle heard her steady breathing she sat up. Dropping another log on the dwindling fire, she sat there staring at the dancing flames. Her green eyes moving without her will between her sleeping friend and the flames.

Oh, Xena,’ she thought, an infinite sadness weighing at her being. ‘Do you always have to take the blame for everything? Why can’t you just stop seeing me as your tag along little shadow? Why can’t you see that I’ve grown up — that I want something more from life — from you — from us? Is it that hard for you to just let go?’

Xena made a sound in her sleep, and Gabrielle watched her in silence. She drew a pained breath, as an acute sensation of being torn in two gripped her chest, and her body trembled. Looking at Xena, she knew what was shredding her soul.

The bard couldn't imagine life without her friend. ‘You’ve been my whole life! Everything I’ve ever loved has either come from you, or was because of you. Without either of us knowing it, you became my dream. You protect me, you listen to me, you make me laugh, you share everything with me ... even the stupid things. You’re the only thing I’ve ever wanted.’ She felt tears climbing up her throat, and she clenched her hand in a vain attempt to ward them off.

"And tell me ... what do I really mean to you?" she whispered to Xena. "Why do I know that you only see me as a friend ... a little kid ... an idealistic fool that can’t keep herself out of trouble? Why do I know that you’ve never looked at me with anything but friendship? — And why does that hurt so much?"

'Face it. I’m alone and isolated from her now in a way I’ve never been before,' she thought, digging her fingers into the flesh of her leg, trying desperately to feel anything other than what she couldn't avoid. ‘I’m alone, and I’ll always be alone. And I can’t do this anymore! I can’t be around her ... knowing what I feel for her ... knowing what she doesn’t feel for me. I’d rather die than live that way.’

Drawing anguished gulps of air, she rationalized her options. The most obvious was to be honest with Xena. Tell her everything.

‘Tell her that I know now why I followed her. Tell her that I’ve always loved her. Tell her that I know she’s my other half ... the soul I’ve been searching for,’ she thought biting at her lip. ‘And then I can watch her face become veiled with shock and loathing. See her eyes, now so open and trusting, become shielded with fear and distrust. I could watch her pull back from me ... trying to pretend that she’s okay ... Telling me that what I said doesn’t bother her. Then we could try and forget it. Pretend it doesn’t exist ... And after a few weeks of that ... a few weeks of feeling my soul die a little more each day ... we’ll find some excuse to go different directions. She’ll promise to come meet me ... but she won’t be there ... and neither will I.’

In the one honest part of her heart she knew that the warrior did not return her feelings. She knew that when she caught Xena watching her, it was only sisterly concern that shone on the warrior’s face. The smiles that seemed brighter and warmer when they were given to her, were nothing more than a friendly trust. The hugs and gentle touches that the warrior bestowed only on her, were only given in innocence, and those times that they just stared at each other, both unable to tear their gaze away ... that was just a moment of shared understanding of a common purpose.

Xena had never been anything but warm and open with her. It was nothing passionate ... ‘I would have known ... would have felt it. I know I would have!’

That left one option. It was the hardest for the bard to accept, but it was all she could do. Staying and watching their friendship, and her heart, die would do neither of them any good. Better to make a quick, clean break.

She drew in her first deep breath that evening, a strange calm settling over her. The bard knew that she could try and debate herself ... try and talk herself out of it ... but eventually she’d come to the same conclusion. ‘I’ve got to face reality ... as painful as that is. I’ve got to get myself away from here ... and her. Otherwise I will kill everything good in both of us.

She knew that leaving like this would probably hurt Xena. ‘She’ll probably blame herself ... and then she’ll start forgetting. I’m just her friend ... she’ll get over me,’ Her thoughts stopped as her chest clenched, and she placed her hand over her heart, trying desperately to protect it from herself. ‘It’s better this way. Better for both of us. Xena doesn’t love me like I love her. That’s obvious. Accept it ... move on ... leave while you’ve got the strength.’

Realizing that ever second she delayed meant she got closer to never going, Gabrielle slowly got to her feet. Her legs wobbled slightly, and it took a second for her to gain control over herself. Then, making as little sound as possible, Gabrielle gathered her things, surprised at how little she owned. 'A new life means new possessions... ' she thought, putting her things in a bag.

Xena stirred in her sleep and Gabrielle froze, staring down at her friend. She wanted nothing more than to lie down next to the warrior, just curl up in her warmth, and pray that this was all a bad dream.

Hot tears rimmed her eyes, and she noticed that against reason, her heart had continued to beat when it had no right to. Didn’t it know she didn’t need it anymore?

Nothing she’d ever experienced could have prepared her for the incredible pain that radiated from her soul, and Gabrielle desperately wanted to howl against the spreading agony. Looking down at the warrior’s peaceful face, the bard’s hand clenched at her side, and she threw her head back, her mouth open in a silent scream of tormented rage and regret. Falling to her knees next to the warrior, she sat back against her heels, and just stared at her sleeping dream.

Xena’s hand was lying on the ground by her knee, and Gabrielle gently reached out and lifted it. She slowly, almost tenderly, held their hands, palm to palm, and through teary eyes, and a breaking heart, watched as the larger hand involuntarily closed around hers and the fingers intertwined.

Gingerly, she brought the back of Xena’s hand to her lips, drinking in both the scent of the warrior’s skin, and its softness against her lips. Her chest constricted so much at the touch, that she could hardly breathe. Closing her eyes the bard pressed, Xena’s palm to her cheek, feeling the fingers linger momentarily on her skin before Gabrielle gently returning Xena’s hand to the ground.

Leaning forward, the bard reached out and moved a piece of jet black hair that had fallen across the warrior’s face. Xena’s face contracted slightly, and her lips moved in an unintelligible dream mumble, before falling quiet again. Without knowing how, Gabrielle found herself leaning over Xena’s face, her lips so close to the warrior’s that she could feel their warm breath mingling. Closing her eyes, and with a gossamer touch, she kissed her. Her lips lingered, as she felt Xena’s lips shift slightly under her touch, and the bard tried to burn the feeling into her heart’s memory.

Leaning back, she touched the warrior’s cheek one last time, and stood up. Tears were coursing down her face, and she roughly swiped at them.

"Forgive me for this ... if you can," she croaked weakly, and turning her back on the warrior, held a hand to her mouth to stifle the sob that was painfully working its way up her throat.

With unsteady steps, she laid her staff and Amazon head dress on a rock, knowing Xena would see it and know what it meant, and without looking back, Gabrielle fled into the darkness.

 

 

 

Xena awoke the next morning as the first rays of dawn filtered through the forest. She stretched and just enjoyed the beautiful morning. 'It's going to be a great day!' she thought, throwing back the cover and reaching for her boots.

Knowing how Gabrielle had been the night before, Xena decided to let her sleep a bit, and she'd get the wood and water this morning. Smiling at her own generosity, she looked over at her friend. Her face froze and her eyes narrowed when she saw Gabrielle's place empty. She was on her feet in an instant.

"Gabrielle!" she yelled into the silent forest.

When no response came back, Xena began scouring the ground for any sign of a struggle. Her first thought was that the thieves they'd beaten yesterday had come back to exact some revenge, but she couldn't find anything to suggest that. 'I wouldn't have slept through that,' she thought. '...And Gabrielle wouldn't have gone without a fight.'

It was then that she saw Gabrielle's staff and Queen's mask sitting on the rock. She seized the mask, almost crushing the fragile craftsmanship in her anxious hands. Spinning around the camp she noticed, excepting these two items, all of Gabrielle's things were gone.

"Gabrielle!" she yelled again. "This isn't funny."

For once in her life the warrior's mind was a complete blank. She had no idea what to do, or why she should do it. 'It doesn't make sense,' she thought.

Holding the mask in her hand, the realization slowly dawned ... Gabrielle had left it, and the staff on purpose. The warrior had taught her well enough never to go anywhere without her weapon, and the mask defined her as Xena's equal. Leaving them both behind was like thrusting a dagger into her chest. 'She left on purpose. She left me ...on purpose,' she thought, her legs feeling weak under her.

Fear and anger flooded through Xena in unrecognizable waves that left her in conflicted pain. Her first instinct was to pack her things and ride away, but immediately she knew she'd never be able to do that.'I can't let her go like this ...without a word or explanation.'

"Damn it! How could you just leave me?!" she said, her voice rough with the emotions that were surging unchecked through her.

Squaring her shoulders, she whistled for Argo, and quickly packed up the camp.

It didn't take much effort to find Gabrielle's footsteps in the moist earth. Her tracks were haphazard, and Xena's heart constricted painfully each time she spied a place where Gabrielle had stumbled in the darkness. 'Oh, Gabrielle. Why?'

With her emotions in tattered turmoil, Xena tried to concentrate on the tracks, but without willing it to, her mind kept wandering back to Gabrielle.

"If this is some stupid stunt of hers ... I’m gonna kill her!" Xena said, flipping a long strand of hair off her shoulder in agitation. "Sometimes these little mind games go too far."

 

It felt good to be angry. She could understand that. It made so much more sense than the dull heart ache that kept squeezing at her chest like a vice. And she had every right to be angry at the bard. ‘I should be furious! I should want to take her by the shoulders, and shake her until she knows exactly how scared I am right now. But why do I know I’d just end up taking her in my arms, and begging her to forgive me for whatever I’ve done?’

"No. Can’t think that way. She’s gone because ... damn, I have no idea." The warrior tugged at Argo’s reins with more force than she intended, and her horse pulled her head back in annoyance.

Xena tried to find some reason in this sudden flight, but all she could think of was how quiet her world was now. ‘Damn ... not seeing her this morning was like waking up in that blinding darkness again,’ Xena thought her stomach tightening. ‘Not hearing her going on and on over some ridiculous, idiotic subject is like living in that soulless silence that consumed my life before her Not knowing where she is, or why she left ...’ Xena felt like her heart had been cleaved from her body and trampled into oblivion. ‘I feel like I mean nothing to her. That all we’ve been through is nothing more than a story in her scrolls. Can I mean so little to her when she means so much to me?’

The warrior stopped dead in her tracks as the thought reverberated through her head. ‘I know that I love and trust her like few people I’ve ever known... But why do I have the sinking feeling that if I don’t find her then my life will be worth nothing?’

For some time now the warrior had known that the bard filled a need in her life. A need that she had been hesitant to acknowledge existed. It was a very confusing moment for Xena when she’d finally allowed herself to consider exactly how close she’d allowed Gabrielle to get. In one mind numbing moment she knew that no matter what happened, no matter what she did, this girl would always be her friend. Without giving herself permission, the warrior had made Gabrielle her home. Her safe haven. Her family. The one person she could always count on to understand and believe in her.

"Until now!" she croaked in a voice tight with anger and frustration. She clenched her eyes tight, willing her anger away, but finding that beneath the anger was a hurt that could consume her. Her hand rested against her chest, trying to stop the ache that was radiating from there.

‘Okay, get a hold of yourself. Think of this in another way. It might be best if you let her go now,’ she thought, with a painful clarity. ‘Remember the beginning? I wanted nothing more than to be rid of her. All those endless questions ... always probing deeper and deeper, until I felt like some experiment. Or those times that she would just stare at me ... those big cow eyes ... I couldn’t tell if it was hero worship or pity looking back at me ... and that infuriated me!’

The peacefulness of the forest faded away as she allowed herself to be immersed in her memories of her first few weeks with Gabrielle. ‘Every place we went I would look for ways to leave her. But suddenly I found that every good place had flaws that made it wrong for me to leave her there.’ Xena remembered, as an image of a campfire and the sleeping bard assaulting her until she drew a ragged breath.

‘Gods, that night! — I was going to go. — Knew this was my last chance, and I swore to myself that I would just wait until she fell asleep and then I’d leave.’ A painful lump settled in her throat. ‘There I was, this battle hardened warrior, holding my breath until she fell asleep. Fell asleep? Ha! Until she couldn’t keep her eyes open, and fixed on me any longer, is more like it,’ Xena thought, with a sad smile. ‘I knew my moment had come. Get to your feet, I told myself. But suddenly I couldn’t move. Didn’t want to move. Looking at her ... the peacefulness of her face ... the way her lips moved in silent speech ... the way her hand tucked under her chin in that little fist ... I knew ... I’d never be able to go.’

Xena crouched down, her fingers moving leaves on the forest floor, her face tight as she tried to find the bard’s trail under the covering. Her hands closed around a handful of damp leaves, as her mind returned without her will to her memories, and she fought to send them back into the darkness.

How did watching her sleep become a habit?’ she asked herself, tossing the leaves to the ground and standing up. ‘Why did it become something that I looked forward to? Why did seeing her asleep anchor me like nothing I’ve ever known before?’ Clenching her teeth she began walking forward again.

Her chest tightened on her as she remembered that night again. ‘How in Hades did I end up sitting next to her? ... My fingers brushing the bangs back from her face ... then trailing through her long hair ... Gods, I was even humming to myself.’ She brought a shaky hand to her mouth. ‘And when her hand suddenly grabbed mine ... holding it so tight that I thought I’d woken her up ... knowing the way that she just held it that I hadn’t ... but also knowing that she’d grabbed more than just my hand, too.’

Through just being herself, the bard had managed to go where no one else had been permitted. Xena had allowed the bard to enter her heart, and now, wandering through this forest the warrior knew that her trust carried heavy consequences.

‘Damn her for making me feel this way!’ Xena thought, clenching her fist and wishing she could punch something. ‘Didn’t she know what I’d think when I found her gone?! Didn’t she know what she’d be doing to me?’ A wave of anguish rode over her, and Xena knew that she wouldn’t rest until she’d found Gabrielle and got to the bottom of this. ‘Even if she still wants to leave ... I’ll let her go, but I’ve got to know.’

Xena knew that something like this was coming. Lately, she’d been unable to shake the feeling that things were changing between them. She could see it when she looked at Gabrielle, and with a sinking realization Xena reasoned that the bard was preparing herself to leave. ‘And she’s got every right to. What did I expect? Do I honestly think that Gabrielle wants to spend her whole life with me? Wandering around the country ? The girl deserves to have a life ... and I certainly can’t give her what she needs. Gods, half the time I hardly understand what she’s talking about. Greek plays, Roman authors, Etruscan art. It makes my head swim.’

Last week when Gabrielle had asked if they could travel to Athens for the Bardic Festivitas, Xena had reluctantly agreed. With a heavy heart the warrior knew without a doubt that she’d be leaving Athens without her friend.

"Couldn’t you have given me just a few more days, Gabrielle? I’m not ready for you to leave yet! I have so much I want to tell you ... so many things you’ve got to know."

‘Why didn’t she at least say good bye?’ she wondered, trying to ignore that gripping pain that had seized her heart in an iron hold. ‘Didn’t I at least deserve that? Is it something else that made this happen? What did I do — or didn’t do?’ The warrior stopped dead, her thoughts instantly remembering how troubled Gabrielle had been last night.

‘The way she picked at her dinner. The way she slept apart from me for the first time in ... I can’t remember. Damn, she was giving me all the signs. She needed me to ask her ... and I just ignored her again. She was begging for my help ... and I didn’t see it!’

"Gods, am I ever going to stop being so wrapped up in myself?" she asked Argo, stroking the horse’s neck. "She needed me, Argo, and I let her down. No wonder she wants to leave me."

Fighting off a wave of self loathing, the warrior continued her pursuit with renewed vigor. Not finding Gabrielle was not an option she was willing to accept.

At about midmorning she reached a small river, and Gabrielle's tracks ended abruptly. Xena had trained her well enough to hide her path in the water, and she knew that the bard could travel for miles through the stream, and the warrior would have no idea where she emerged. She was going to have to make a decision.

Looking into the morning sky, she tried to gage her direction. 'Okay, there are only two conceivable places where Gabrielle would have headed from this point' she thought, gaining confidence through strategy planning. 'A half days journey to the east are the Amazons... and a full days journey to the south is Athens.' A smile graced her face. 'I'd bet my battle sword that she'll go to the Amazons.' Everything she knew about Gabrielle told her that she would seek out the comfort of her Amazon tribe before she would head into a self imposed hermitage in Athens. ‘I wouldn't help her ... maybe Ephiny will.'

With the first confident look on her face that morning, Xena mounted Argo and spurred her into the river toward the Amazon village. "With any luck, I'll make it there by dusk."

Xena rode Argo hard that afternoon, and she didn't slacken her pace when she entered Amazon territory. From the tree tops she heard the familiar cries of the Amazon sentries, and briefly raising her arms over her head in the gesture of friendship, she continued her journey to the village.

 

 

 

Ephiny had been told of Xena's arrival only moments before the warrior rode into the village. She was elated. It had been too long since they had come home. 'Time enough for old wounds to heal,' she thought, wincing at her pun, and thinking of her arm.

It had healed nicely from where Xena had broken it, and Ephiny promised herself that she wouldn't allow Gabrielle, or Xena, to feel guilty about that. The Amazon could only try to imagine the pain that the two must have been in at that time. She knew she would have been just as vengeful if her son had been murdered.

‘If anyone needs to feel ashamed, it's me. I knew how badly Gabrielle was hurting and I could have reached her, ... but I felt I couldn't compete,' she cringed, remembering Xena's murderous ride into the village. 'How can I face her ... or them ... when I know how poor a job I did protecting Gabrielle?' Ephiny didn't know who she feared facing more, Xena or Gabrielle, but she knew she'd let them both down.

Taking a deep breath, Ephiny resolved to do everything she could to make things right again. Gabrielle meant far too much to her not to try. 'Gods, I’m not joking am I?' she thought, feeling her heart speed up.

Quickly checking her appearance in the polished bronze mirror, and screwing her courage to the wall, she left the royal hut to greet her guests.

Her brow furrowed when she saw only Xena dismount her horse. With a cautious look she walked down the steps, and embraced her old friend. Xena opened her mouth, but Ephiny held up her arm and smiled. "It's okay, see?"

The warrior's face relaxed, and Ephiny felt herself relax, too.

"Listen ... wanna forget the whole thing happened?" the Amazon queried with a smile. "We both have things we could apologize for, ... but it won't make us feel any better, right?"

"I am sorry, Ephiny. It’s ... um ... good to see you."

"I never blamed you, Xena. And I'm the one who should be sorry. I should have protected Gabrielle with my life, and I didn't."

The warrior looked away briefly. "I'm glad you didn't, Eph. I would have killed you."

"I know," she quietly replied, looking around. "Where's Gabrielle?" she asked, wanting to change the topic, and desperately hoping that she might have missed the bard among the other women.

"She's not here?" Xena replied, her voice strained.

Ephiny's face froze when she saw the pained expression on Xena's face. "Come inside, Xena," she said, motioning the warrior into her hut.

The Regent ordered food and wine for her guest, and watched as Xena gracefully lowered herself onto the colorful array of pillows surrounding a low table. Wine was poured for them both, and Ephiny waited until the servant left before contemplating the warrior.

"Should I be worried, Xena?" she said, just stopping herself from pacing.

"I am," Xena said, draining her wine in one swallow.

"If Gabrielle isn't here, and she isn't with you, then where is she?" Ephiny forced herself to sit.

"I was so sure she would have come here," Xena said, in a shaky voice that only hinted at the damaged spirit lurking behind the iron gate.

Ephiny was silent, waiting for Xena to continue. A feeling of sick dread coursed through her body, and her heart was beating wildly. Something terrible had happened to her friend. 'I knew that Gabrielle should have stayed in the village instead of wandering about with Xena. Especially after what the warrior tried to do!’ she thought, a rancor seeping into her thoughts. 'If anything has happened to Gabrielle, You'll answer to me, Xena!'

"I don't know what that look is for, Ephiny, but Gabrielle was gone this morning when I awoke."

Ephiny forced herself to relax her face. She didn't need Xena as an enemy — yet.

"Did someone take her to get back at you?" she asked, immediately doubting her reasoning.

Xena shook her head. "Not unless they took all her things. Choosing to leave her Queen's mask and her staff staring at me from a damn rock."

Ephiny nodded her head. "So she left on purpose."

"Yes!" Xena snapped at her. "And I don't know why! She didn't even leave me a note! The great bard, always scribbling on her stupid scrolls, and she can't leave me a note."

Ephiny was taken aback by this open display of anger and pain from Xena. "I'm sorry," was all she could say.

"Great, you're sorry. Thanks."

Watching Xena take a deep breath, the Amazon acutely knew how badly the warrior was hurting. "Barking at me won’t help, Xena".

"I know!" Xena growled, before composing herself. "I'm sorry, Ephiny."

"Believe me. I understand what your feeling." The Amazon had never meant anything more in her life. 'Why didn't you come to me, Gabrielle? No matter what was bothering you!' We have a trust and a bond. You should’ve come to me!' If their positions were reversed, she would have sought out Gabrielle.

"Then you know ... that .... I have to find her," Xena said, her eyes pleading for something that the Amazon wasn’t sure she could give back.

Ephiny had never seen her so vulnerable and lost. 'Hades, you've never felt like this either, so let her have her moment.'

"Agreed. What do we do now?" the Regent said, anxiously playing with her wine cup.

Xena held up her hands. "The only other place I can think of is Athens. We were heading there for the Festival, and I think that she was planning ...." The warrior’s voice trailed off and her eyes glazed over. She looked up, and Ephiny felt her heart sink from the look of pain that sat on her friend’s face. "But I was so sure she'd come here. This is like her home," Xena finished in a weak voice.

A servant brought in food for Xena, and after it had been laid out, the Regent gave an order that they be left alone.

"Command sits well on you, Ephiny," Xena said, and the Amazon thought she heard an edge to her words.

"All that I am... All that the Amazon nation is for that matter, is owing to you and Gabrielle. I pledge by everything we are... we will find her."

"For your queen, or for your friend?"

Ephiny narrowed her eyes. "For my friend, and for the tribe's queen, but don't doubt that my friend comes first."

Xena nodded. "I expected nothing less."

Ephiny felt her blood boil at the arrogant manner in which Xena said this. Ephiny had the greatest respect for Xena, but right now she was having trouble being magnanimous. A river of emotions, ranging from concern to resentment, were coursing through her like rapids over rocks, and playing diplomat to the warrior was not something she could stomach right now.

Looking at her friend, the Amazon Regent couldn’t disregard the deeper issues that were working here. Something had brought Xena to her tonight. ‘And by my sacred oath to Artemis, I swear that I will do everything I can to help them both through this,’ she thought, swallowing her own pain in self sacrifice.

"You mentioned Athens before. I suggest that we leave at first light for the city."

Xena held up her hand. "Thanks, but I can handle it."

Ephiny stood up, and hardening her eyes stared down at the warrior. "You come here, telling me that my friend is in trouble. Don’t try and insult me by refusing to let me to help her!"

Xena also stood up, and as always Ephiny found herself slightly dominated by the warrior's size and presence. "Put that way ..." Xena stuck out her arm, and Ephiny took it without hesitation.

"We'll find her, Xena."

"We have to."

"Get some rest, okay? I mean you look like you’ve come out on the losing end ... I mean ... um... you look beat," Ephiny said biting her tongue. "Sorry."

The warrior smiled slightly, and waved her hand in dismissal. "Listen, Eph ... If I took everything thing you’ve ever said to me at face value, ... let’s just say I’ve learned to look beyond the words."

Ephiny smiled, and patted her friend’s shoulder. "Sleep here, okay?" she said motioning to a bed on the opposite side of the room. "I’ve got some things to do before we leave, and I’ll crash in one of the guest cottages."

Xena shook her head, and started to speak, but the Amazon raised her hand.

"Don’t debate me on this! Now, I’ll wake you before dawn, and I promise we’ll be in Athens by tomorrow night."

Xena nodded in response. All that needed to be said had been, and Ephiny found herself staring into the warrior's piercing blue eyes. For a brief second she thought could almost see into Xena's pained soul. '’Sweet Artemis, look at her. If we don't find Gabrielle, I'm afraid of what might happen!'

Ephiny started to leave the hut, but something made her turn back. "Listen ... have you... um... have you thought that perhaps Gabrielle left because she’s running from something?"

"Like what?" Xena said, starting to remove her armor.

Ephiny shrugged. 'Tell her,' she said to herself. "I don't know. Just a feeling."

"You know, Ephiny, or else you wouldn't have brought it up," Xena said in a very tired voice.

The Regent smiled and waved her hand. "Let me sleep on it and I'll tell you more tomorrow. Or with luck by tomorrow night you can ask Gabrielle herself." Ephiny turned and left the hut without another word.

Standing out on the porch she could have kicked herself for her cowardice. She ran a trembling hand through her hair. "I'll tell her tomorrow," she said starting down the stairs, her thoughts in conflict with her emotions. "But am I going to tell her for my sake, or for her’s?" she asked.

 

 

 

Gabrielle had emerged from the forest sometime in the morning. She was a mess. Her boots were soaked and muddy, and her arms and legs had more scratches than she could count. She stood for some minutes on the road trying to decide which way to go. She knew that the road lead to Athens, but if she headed back into the woods the Amazons were only a short distance away.

'Go to Ephiny... She'll know what to do,' she thought, but shaking her head, she realized that by doing that she would only be taking a step sideways and not forward. 'Just like Xena, the Amazons already have a mold ready for me to step into.' Pulling herself taller, she recognized that 'I have to stand on my own! ... Discover who I am, and come to terms with what I’m feeling. And I can only do that alone.'

Tossing her bag over her shoulder, she forced one foot in front of the other toward Athens. While she was familiar with the city, she was a relative stranger, and would be able to blend in without the tired cliche‚ of "Xena's little friend" following her everywhere. 'Yeah, but I wouldn't mind having another cliche attached to me,' she thought and blushed. Pushing the embarrassing thought out of her head, she tried to formulate a plan.

Gabrielle had no idea what she would do for money. She had no real skills other than storytelling. 'It seems all I'm good at is telling of other people's adventures,' she thought. 'Well, that changes today! I’m going to write my own stories. They may not be as exciting, or as heroic, but they'll be mine.' She tried to smile in commitment, but then realized that she needed to eat. ‘Okay, I’ll tell stories of heros, but only during the festival to earn some dinars. — And I just won’t tell any stories about her,’ she thought trying to focus on the long, lonely road in front of her.

By mid afternoon her feet were killing her. The wet boots were chafing, and she could actually feel a few places where patches of skin were starting to wear off. She must have started limping for a wagon driver who had passed, slowed to let her catch up.

"Ya looks like ya could use help, missy?" he asked, in a tender voice.

"Yes," she said, smiling. "I'm going to Athens."

He nodded. "Long way, that is. Would ya like a ride? Not much room, but yar welcome."

Gabrielle smiled, and thanking the man climbed up next to him on the bench.

The man introduced himself as Gordius. He was a lamp and pot merchant from Athens, and he was returning from his annual trip to Thebes. He kindly shared his lunch with her, and Gabrielle returned the favor by telling him story after story until they could see Athens in the distance. He wasn't handsome, but his face held a gentle kindness that touched Gabrielle's sentimental soul. He loved her stories, and he was a good listener. He seemed starved for company, and Gabrielle knew that he was lonely. For the duration of the ride she felt they were kindred spirits. 'I've never felt so alone in my life, Xena,' she thought.

Gabrielle had purposely avoided even mentioning Xena because every time she thought of her, it became difficult to breathe. 'I can't believe that a whole day had almost gone by, Xena. You've never been far from my thoughts... or my heart. Tell me I did the right thing?'

"So whatcha ya heading to Athens for, missy?" Gordius asked between stories.

Gabrielle stuck her chin out, and forced herself to smile. "I’m ... well ... I guess I’m making changes in my life," she replied hoping her voice didn’t betray the doubts that were circling in her head like vultures.

Gordius nodded in understanding. "Do ya knows people in town?"

Gabrielle shrugged, remembering the friends she’d met on her previous visits with Xena. "No, not really anyone close," she said, knowing that she had to sever all ties to her past.

"That settles it then. Y’all come and work for me at my lamp stand," Gordius said with a warm smile.

"That’s very generous, but I couldn’t ..."

"Naw, I won’t accept no. Ya needs dinars, and I needs an assistant."

"But ... well, I have not where to stay ... and I really wanted to see the festival, too."

Gordius laughed and held up his hand. "I’ll get ya a place to sleep at my sister’s house. Y’all have to help with the chores, but she’s a good woman. And I’ll gives ya three days to see the festival before you start work. Good?"

Gabrielle didn’t know what to say. True, she knew nothing about the lamp and pot business, but then again she’d known nothing about being an ex-warlord either, and that hadn’t stopped her from following Xena. ‘This is it, Xena. My first new experiences in my new life!’ she cried silently. ‘And you can’t share it with me. Why do I just want to curl up and cry?’

Her face must have become sad, because Gordius patted her hand. "It'll be okay, young one. You'll see. Things'll get better. Now give me a smile, and accept my offer."

Gabrielle forced herself to smile, and offered her hand to Gordius to seal the bargain. 'Someone tell me that I'm doing the right thing ... Give me a reason why I shouldn't jump off this wagon and run all the way back to Xena ... Or please... tell me that I can live without her ...'

Gordius had taken her to his sister's house. She was a large, matronly woman with more children than Gabrielle could count, but she seemed to share her brother's disposition, and welcomed Gabrielle into her modest home.

"There's not much I can offer you, dear, but help me with the work around here and you can have a pallet by the fire and two meals a day."

Gabrielle smiled at her good fortune.

That night lying by the warm fire, despite her physical exhaustion, Gabrielle couldn't sleep. The sounds around her were not familiar, and her subconscious could not sense Xena's presence which made her restless and uneasy. 'What have you done, Gabrielle?' she silently asked herself.

The anguish, which had been on the edge of her thoughts all day, rushed at her in full force until she was sobbing silently. In her mind she tried to imagine Xena's reaction when she found her gone that morning. 'Did it pain her, or do I really mean nothing to her?' she thought. 'I'm sure that she hates me for my cowardice. Gods, I hate myself.'

Deep inside she prayed that Xena would come looking for her, but she knew that what she had done had superceded all limits of their newly rediscovered trust. Gabrielle harbored very little hope of reclaiming Xena again. 'I'll never find my way home.'

The thought of a life without Xena plagued her dreams, until for the first time in her life, Gabrielle was glad to see the sun rise.

 

 

 

"Xena, its time." Ephiny gently shook the warriors shoulders. She sat back and watched as Xena rubbed at her eyes, and quietly stood up. The Amazon grabbed the warrior’s leather tunic and tossed it to her.

"Morning," Xena said, catching the leather tunic in one hand, and stifling a yawn with the other.

Ephiny stood and picked up the warrior’s sword, running her finger down the edge with admiration. "I'm having the horses saddled," she said looking up at her dressing friend. "They should be about ready to go."

"If we push hard, we should reach Athens by dark," Xena said wiggling into her leather outfit.

"We’ve mapped a shorter route through the forest which will get us there sooner. Meet me outside when you're ready?" Ephiny asked, waiting for the warrior to nod before walking to the door.

The Amazon Regent watched as Xena came out of the hut. She had been giving last minute directions to her second in-command, and turning away, met Xena at the horses. The warrior had already pulled herself into the saddle.

"I had some food prepared for us," Ephiny said, climbing onto her own horse.

"There is something to be said for being the queen," Xena ribbed.

Ephiny felt herself color, but she smiled broadly and kicked her horse into motion.

"Where's the queen's honor guard, Eph?" Xena asked, a few minutes after they’d left.

"Listen, today I am just a friend helping another friend."

"Then you trust me to protect you?"

Ephiny turned in her saddle, confused by the tormented tone. "Gabrielle trusts you. Shouldn't that be good enough for me?"

Xena didn't answer her, and Ephiny resigned herself to a long day of uncomfortable silence. She was surprised when Xena tried making conversation.

"I never told you ... I was glad to see things recovering after Velasca. You've done a good job."

Ephiny furrowed her brow under the unusual compliment. "Thanks. It hasn't been easy, but we've strengthened our ties with the Centaurs, and we've gained many new recruits."

"Gabrielle couldn't have picked a better leader."

"Gabrielle is the leader. — I only keep her place warm."

"Humm," Xena grunted, turning her horse to follow Ephiny into the dense virgin forest.

For several minutes they rode single file through the thick, ancient trees. Ephiny could feel Xena's eyes on her back, and she had to fight the urge to touch her sword for reassurance. 'This is ridiculous, Eph. Xena is no threat to you,' she thought. 'No, that's not true. She’d be a deadly threat if she knew what you were thinking.' She nervously twisted a piece of her hair.

"Something wrong, Ephiny?" Xena asked, in her typically cool tone.

She waited until they emerged from the forest into a mossy green clearing. She slowed to allow Xena to pull abreast of her before moving forward again.

"I can see it in your face. What's bothering you?"

Ephiny halted, her mind reeling from one thought to the other. 'What can I gain by not telling her?' she thought. 'Don't kid yourself. I have everything to gain, but at what price?'

Xena shrugged, and moved her horse forward again. As she passed, Ephiny reached out and grabbed the warrior's arm.

"Xena, ... well ... gods ... it’s like this ... um ... "

Xena motioned with her hand to spit it out. The Regent clenched her hand. 'Okay, I can do this.'

"All right ... You can pummel me if I'm stepping where I shouldn't ..." Her voice trailed off.

"I'll keep that in mind," Xena shot back, with a raise eyebrow.

"I gotta say this, Xena ..."

"Say it then, Ephiny. The century is drawing to its close."

"Gabrielle. She’s scared, and probably running from you. Want to tell me what’s going on between the two of you?" she finally blurted out.

She watched Xena's eyes contract quickly, and she felt herself swallow nervously.

"You're obviously wanting some reaction from me, Ephiny. Well, I won't give it to you." Xena started to move her horse forward again.

"Won't, or can't?" Ephiny asked, in a level voice.

"Excuse me?"

"Come off it, Xena. Gabrielle is in love with you! You know it as well as I do."

The Amazon hadn't meant for it to sound so accusatorial, and she held her breath as she watched the warrior’s hands knot around the reins of her horse.

"Explain yourself, Amazon." Xena's voice was barely under control.

'Oh, Ephiny, what have you gotten yourself into? Why didn't you just wait and talk to Gabrielle first?' Ephiny swallowed hard, and her heart skipped a beat at the thought of the bard. 'Yeah, that's why.'

"Are you going to answer, Ephiny, or do I just assume you made a major error?"

That made her mad.

"What didn't you understand, Xena?" Ephiny said, feeling herself growing angrier with each word, until she was yelling at Xena. "Gabrielle is totally ... completely ... hopelessly... in love with you." She lowered her voice. "It's in her every look and gesture. She may not be aware of it, but by Olympus, I thought you might be. —In fact you'd have to be blind to miss it!"

The warrior gave a rueful laugh. "You want to know if we're lovers ... right?" Xena said, with a deadly calm in her voice that made Ephiny shift nervously in the saddle. "That is what you want to know, Ephiny! Isn’t it?" The warrior’s voice ended with a hardness that made the Amazon start in the saddle.

Ephiny stopped her horse, and stared at Xena. Every muscle in her body ached as she waited for the answer. 'Do I really want to know? No. Do I have to know...gods, yes!'

Xena eyes were cold and unfriendly, and Ephiny fought off her normal subservience to the warrior by forcing herself to visually challenge her into answer. Xena shook her head slowly, and silently urged Argo forward, leaving Ephiny sitting there.

"Damn it, Xena. Answer me!"

Xena swung her horse around to face her, five paces separating them. "What business is it of yours?!"

The warrior’s voice was so hard, that the Amazon instinctively found her hand brushing against her dagger. With exaggerated calmness, Xena walked her horse back to Ephiny so that only a few inches separated them. She leaned in close, and the Amazon forced herself not to move.

"I'll answer you!" she hissed. "The answer is no."

"No ... you don't love her, or no ... nothing has happened between you?" Ephiny found herself saying.

"No... as in this discussion is over."

"You can deny it all you want, Xena, but it doesn't change the fact that ... " she stopped speaking to regain control of her voice. "It doesn't change the fact that Gabrielle loves you."

"And how do you know this?" Xena said, with venom.

"I know because ... because ... well ..." 'Don't back down now!' she told herself.

"C'mon, Ephiny let me hear these great words of wisdom ..."

"I just know. I know my friend."

"You've taken one too many blows to the head, Eph. You’ve gone wacky on me."

Ephiny leaned in toward the warrior, her eyes blazing. "Look me in the eye, and tell me that I'm wrong. Tell me that you know absolutely, without doubt, that Gabrielle isn't in love with you."

The blue eyes locked onto hers, and Ephiny watched as Xena opened her mouth. The warrior closed it, and silently moved her horse forward.

"You're wrong, Ephiny," she called over her shoulder.

'Artemis, give me strength... Let me be a good friend to her, when all I want to do right now is tackle her, and beat some sense into that thick scull of hers. How could she not see what you've put right under her nose? How could she be blind to something so wonderful?' Ephiny silently prayed, edging her horse forward.

"Then why do you think Gabrielle left you?" Ephiny asked, pulling her horse along side Xena's.

"Quit pushing this, Eph," Xena warned, the cutting edge to her voice betraying a deeper pain.

"Why are you denying this? What bothers you about it?"

Xena fidgeted in her saddle, her hands rising and falling against her leg, and her mouth agape. "Great Zeus, ... What bothers me about it?" Xena finally spit out. "How about everything?"

"You never struck me as the type that would have problems with this."

"I don't ... I mean ... Hades, Eph. I don't know what I mean."

"It's obvious, Xena, how you feel about her." Ephiny said, with a sadness that tore at her soul.

"So let me guess at the next pearl of wisdom you’re going to throw at me ... You think I should find her, and what ... sweep her off her feet?" Xena said, with sarcastic disdain.

"Why are you so opposed to this?" Ephiny calmly replied.

"Because it is so off the wall. Gabrielle is not in love with me," Xena said, her face betraying the doubts that Ephiny could see surfacing. "We share a bond, yes, I'll admit to that. But c’mon, Eph... Gabrielle in love with me? ... Gods, I can’t... I mean ... she can’t want that. No! You’re reading something that isn’t there," she said, her eyes pleading with the Amazon to agree.

"You sound really sure about that," the Amazon sarcastically replied, unwilling to grant the warrior any relief.

"I am! And I think I know the girl I've spent four years with just a bit better than you!"

"But what about the woman?" She watched Xena square her jaw, and knew the warrior was daring her to continue. "You forget that you didn't see her grieving over all that happened a few months ago. Hope. Solan. You. I've never seen anyone so lost and alone." Ephiny felt bile rise in her throat, but willed it away.

"That’s not proof ... we were both ..."

"Listen to yourself, Xena! It was you she hurt for the most, you know that don’t you?"

Ephiny watched as the warrior’s eyes briefly contracted, and lose focus, and Xena took in a deep breath. Even though the warrior was trying to mask her emotions, the Amazon could see the battle going on behind the eyes >From the coldness in her eyes, Ephiny could almost see Gabrielle’s heart losing out to the warrior’s will.

"You love her, Xena. Don’t you?" Ephiny asked, biting her lip in frustrated anger.

"Ephiny .... Gabrielle and I love each other, but we are not in love."

"Oh please! Knock off the word games," she said, yanking her horse to a halt. "I never thought I'd see you lying to yourself."

As much as it bothered her, Ephiny couldn't stop herself from adding to the warrior's pain.

"You remember that stuff that happened with Valesca, you dying and all that?"

Xena nodded cautiously, her eyes guarded and full of warning. The Regent took a deep breath.

"Gabrielle told me about the kiss between you," she said in an accusing tone, feeling a tight anguish grip her heart as she watched the warrior color. "What about that?"

"I didn't mean for that to happen," Xena said, so quietly that Ephiny almost missed it. "She just looked so upset."

"What a lame excuse, Xena. A hug wouldn't have worked?"

"It was complicated, so back off!" Xena spit out.

"C'mon, Xena! You really want me to believe that?" she said, unable to control her sarcasm. "I run an Amazon nation, warrior princess. I come across complications everyday, I don't solve them by kissing everyone!"

"Real funny, Your Majesty! Maybe you should try it. Could be a whole new form of diplomacy."

"Don't try and change the subject. Why’d you kiss her?"

"I don't have to answer to you!"

Ephiny shrugged. "No, you don't. ... But don't you owe it to yourself, and Gabrielle?"

"How did you even know about it?" Xena asked, but Ephiny could tell from her face that she knew the answer.

"Hum, let me see if I can remember..." Ephiny exaggerated, not knowing why she was enjoying the taunting. "Oh yes! ... Gabrielle sneaking into my hut after dark. ... Her face was flushed and excited... She didn't know if she should sit or stand ... Then she just blurted it out, and blushed in embarrassment ... "

"Cut the sarcasm, Amazon."

'Don't you know I’m in pain, Xena? Can't you see how this conversation is tearing at my heart? I should just let you live in your oblivion ... Let Gabrielle be free of you, once and for all. This could be the best thing that's ever happened to ...'

"Ephiny," Xena cut into her thoughts, her voice softer. "I'm sorry, I’ve tried ... but I can't buy this."

Ephiny searched the warrior's face, finding only blind ignorance.

"Gabrielle is too smart to want this," Xena continued. "And even if I thought we could ... well, never mind ... Whatever, Gabrielle deserves so much more out of life than being stuck with a grouchy old warrior with a haunted past."

"Oh, yes ... I was wondering when the "great dark past" would come up. You really seems to think the whole world revolves around your past," Ephiny said, running a trembling hand through her hair. "Give up on that old line. Move into the future."

"And what's that? A future with Gabrielle ... as what... my partner?" Xena barked back.

Ephiny forced herself to shrug, her stomach churning at the words. "Partner, soulmate, friend ... what does the label matter as long as Gabrielle is happy?" Ephiny said, acutely aware that Xena recognized that she'd left the warrior out of the picture.

'That's right, and I meant it! If I had it my way I'd tell you to go to Hades and leave her alone. But that's not what I'm going to do. I can't do that to Gabrielle!'

Xena took a deep breath, and Ephiny watched her exhale slowly. The warrior’s face was crimson, and the Amazon found herself physically preparing for anything.

"I'm going to tell you this one more time, Ephiny, and then you ever mention this again ... I'll show you first hand a dark past..."

"Denial really doesn't suit you, Xena."

"Gabrielle is not in love with me," Xena began, ignoring the barb. "I am not in love with Gabrielle. We are not lovers. We will never be lovers. She is not my soulmate, partner or whatever. She is my friend, my family, my source of strength, my complement, my goodness ... "

Ephiny laughed, and Xena narrowed her sight. "Oh yeah, that's not love."

"No, you're wrong. It is. — Pure love. And Gabrielle understands that. She wouldn't throw away what we have because she ... what? Finds me attractive?"

"Do you find her attractive?"

To Ephiny’s surprise, the warrior blushed. "I'm not even going to answer that," Xena said.

"Don't bother," the Regent replied, with bitterness. "You already did."

"I'd watch it, Eph. You're really pushing me now," the warrior said, through clenched teeth.

"Then why in Hades are you going after her, Xena? Why bother?"

"Because I want to know if she's okay. And ... I have to know why she left?"

"And what if she left because she's realized she's in love with you? Whatcha gonna do then, oh, Warrior of Stone?"

Xena shot her a look that sent chills through her bones, and without a sound whipped her horse around, and set off across the meadow at a full gallop. Ephiny started after her, but at a safe distance. She recognized that Xena needed her space. 'And so do I. Gods, I was really hard on her, and... I enjoyed it,' the thought hit her hard. 'I wanted to see her suffering like I am.'

Ephiny took a deep breath, and let herself slump in the saddle. 'I don't know why Gabrielle puts up with her... or how she could love someone who’s so... so ... arrogant and ... detached.' she said to herself. 'I doubt if what I've put myself through will do any good.'

In her soul she knew that Gabrielle had fled in a panic. Ephiny knew, without a doubt, that Gabrielle had either finally acknowledged her feelings for Xena and was totally terrified, or she was trying to convince herself that she had no place in the warrior's world. 'For better or worse they have to work this out, or neither one will be able to lead any sort of life.'

'Thank you Artemis, for giving me the strength to be a friend. But why do I have to hurt so bad? Why can't I be oblivious to the fact that I am only setting myself up for more agony?'

Ephiny knew deep inside that she was fighting a losing battle. 'Nothing you can do about that now. Things are in motion . . . And there is always hope that the fates have ordained things differently.'

 

 

 

Xena dug her heels sharply into Argo's flank over and over again. She knew that she was probably hurting her horse, but she needed someone to feel as bad as she did. She dodged trees at breakneck speed, almost daring herself to come closer at each turn. 'What you should do is go back and take Ephiny by the neck, and shake some sense into her,' she thought. 'Gabrielle in love with me?!' It was laughable. ‘Gabrielle and me ... ridiculous!’

The pit of her stomach bottomed out, and she suddenly felt queasy and slightly dizzy. She slowed Argo to a walk, and dropped the reins. 'Oh immortals, it's true, isn't it?' she acknowledged in dreaded awe.

'Why now, Gabrielle? Why at all? Damn it!' she thought, the anger building inside her, until she wasn’t sure if she was angrier at herself or Gabrielle. 'Why didn't you say something to me? — No, why didn't I notice.'

"Gabrielle ... It would have been a lot easier hearing it from you!" Xena said, out loud. ‘No, it wouldn't. I would have ... Gods be damned! No wonder she ran.’

"Did I encourage it?" she said, her mind frantically searching for any proof that would confirm or deny all of what Ephiny had said.

She saw Gabrielle that first night after the bard had blindly followed her from Potiediea. 'She was so frightened. Trying so hard not to show it,' Xena thought, still awed by the courage and strength it took to leave her family and friends. 'And I treated her so ... Damn, all she was trying to do was be my friend.’

‘I knew it was a crush from the start... why didn't I put a stop to it then? ‘ Xena slammed her fist against her palm.

More recently, the warrior recalled the many times she had caught the bard just watching her. 'Those times that I thought she was so absorbed in her writing... and then slowly realizing I didn't hear the scratching quill ... and finding those green eyes following my every movement.' The images assaulted the warrior, and she fought to gain control over them. 'I knew what she was doing. I could tell the way she colored, and looked away with that sheepish smile. Why didn’t I stop it?’

'Oh, damn, and her stories of late... they were so much more... more... descriptive about her feelings. —I just thought it was a craft thing ...’ Xena remembered listening to the rough drafts, absorbed in the raw emotions pouring from the bard's lips. 'I remember my stomach fluttering every time she said something about me. I could feel the excitement... the desire... Oh, damn! damn! damn! Why has this happened to me?' The warrior felt a huge pressure building in her chest.

'Never in my life have I let anyone get as close as Gabrielle,' she thought, remembering how transient she had always been in her past relationship. 'Always looking for a way out, never anchoring any emotions ... so afraid of getting hurt... always wanting to hurt first.'

‘When did I completely lose my mind? I should have known something like this would happen! Gabrielle... you stopped looking at anyone else ... didn’t seem to notice those cute guys that used to make you blush and stutter. Oh ... and that brave self sacrifice front you put on whenever I found someone. Why didn’t I stop this ... point you in another direction ... show you how wrong this could be .. for both of us? ... And why am I sure that I somehow encouraged you ... and what on Olympus does that mean?’

"I was happy with the way things were, Gabrielle. I was so sure you were too!" Xena said out loud, suppressing the urge to scream at the top of her lungs.

Suddenly the warrior’s face brightened. 'Okay ... maybe this is just something beyond her control. That can happen!' she thought, cheering to the idea. 'All I have to do is explain it to her... she'll understand,' and almost immediately she realized how stupid she was being. 'I can't risk losing her for good by telling her what to do.'

"Oh gods, why have you done this to me?" she asked. "Just when my life was taking on positive direction. ... Everything was turning around. Why did this have to happen?" For the life of her, Xena had no idea what she was going to do...

 

 

 

"Xena!" Ephiny's voice broke through her shroud of torment, and turning in her saddle, she allowed the Amazon to draw next to her. "Hey, you're going the wrong way."

Xena looked confused. "I'm sorry. I hadn't noticed."

"It’s okay. We haven't lost much time. Wanna follow me?" Ephiny said, turning south.

The embattled warrior followed the Amazon deeper into the woods. She didn't try and control Argo, but instead let her horse blindly follow the Amazon's. She flowed as if in grief, and she felt as if the smallest twine could lead her.

After a short distance, Ephiny turned them onto a road. She slowed her horse, and Xena pulled next to her. The warrior tried to hold herself tall, but couldn't muster the strength. 'Gabrielle...' the name kept tumbling through the nightmare that was her mind. 'Let me get through this in one piece, Gabrielle. I don't want to lose you. I can't!'

"Do you want to stop and rest, Xena?"

"Huh?" Xena's brought her attention back to the Amazon. "Oh... whatever you want." 'If you ever wanted to see what I'd be like shattered, Ephiny. Take a good look,’ she thought.

After a few minutes the Amazon pulled them off the road near a small brook where the sun warmed a spot of soft summer grass. Unpacking a small satchel from her saddle, Ephiny sat on the grass. Xena watched all of this from her horse, and only after her friend started laying out the bread and cheese did Xena realize they weren't going anywhere, and she dismounted to join her on the ground.

"Why, Eph?" Xena asked unable to stop herself from asking for help. "What’s wrong with her? Doesn’t she know how this could all turn out? I ... I could lose her ... forever."

"You could also find something most people only dream about. Isn’t that worth the risk?"

"So ... just charge up the hill even though I know I’m going to get stabbed through the heart, huh?"

"Or you could take the hill. There are two sides to everything."

"Somehow in this case ... I don’t think so," Xena said, her face set and her voice resigned.

"Then what are you’re gonna do?" the Amazon said, her voice rising slightly with emotion.

"I’d like to go hide somewhere for about a hundred years ... I don’t think I have the strength to face this ... or her. What’m I supposed to say?"

"That’s great. Good plan. You both go separate ways and hide from each other. — You know I heard this rumor that you were once a fierce warrior ... not afraid of anything or anyone. So what’s scaring you now? I think it’s love. It’s scared the crap out of you, hasn’t it?"

"Colorful as always, Ephiny. And I’m not afraid of anything! I’m ... confused... maybe shocked. How can she really want this?"

"I think what Gabrielle is feeling comes later, Xena. Deal with what you’re feeling."

 

"I don’t know what I’m feeling, Amazon! How could I?"

"You want her, don’t you?" Ephiny asked, and Xena's eyes shot up in alarm at the bluntness.

"What I want is ... I want Gabrielle ... to ... um be happy. I want what’s best for her."

"And if that turns out to be you?"

'How could that be? I'm not good for myself, so how in Hades could I be anything but trouble for Gabrielle? ‘

"Maybe it would be best ..." the warrior looked away. "Maybe ... she should go with you to the Amazons for awhile. Just to ... give her time to think," she finally said.

"Oh stuff it, Xena," Ephiny interrupted, throwing a rock she'd been holding with tremendous rage. "Gabrielle is not some misbehaving brat you can send away. If you can't deal with it, then let her go! Gabrielle's strong ... she'll survive."

"Well, what am I supposed to do with her?" Xena asked in exasperation.

"What? ... Do you need an instruction manual?" the Amazon replied with a sneer.

"Cut it out, Eph," Xena said, annoyance seeping into her tone. "You know what I mean!"

"Well, telling her she's not in love with you isn't what I'd do. She'll only think you're treating her like a child ..." Ephiny looked at her and added "... again."

"I've never treated her like a child," the warrior said, and cringed, knowing from the Regent’s expression that she was wrong.

"You're trying to do it now. Quit looking at her like a girl. She's got as much right to her feelings and desires as you or me," Ephiny said and looked away.

"But isn't it possible that Gabrielle is ... Maybe she isn't really in love with me like that?"

'Boy, that sure sounded better in my head than it did out loud,' Xena thought, watching the Amazon narrow her eyes to her in a threatening manner.

"Reality to Xena," Ephiny said in a rough voice, waving her hand back and forth. "Come down from the clouds and face it. It's not going to go away."

"I know," Xena said in defeat.

"Admit that you feel something for her. I can see it in your face, Xena."

"Because I don't feel that ..." Xena said, her voice trailing off. "I've never given into a physical relationship with a woman before." She finally blurted out.

"Haven't you ever desired another woman?" Ephiny asked, her eyes dark with warning.

Xena meet the Regent’s smoldering gaze, and opened her mouth to say ‘no,’ but she felt herself nodding in affirmation.

"Then quit judging Gabrielle. And yourself. Make her happy, Xena."

"I'd only bring her grief, Eph. I'd be the death of her."

"Please, let's not start on the dark past kick again. — I really don't think that bothers her."

"Fine. — But I can't give her what she should have. — She deserves more than me."

"And what pray tell is that?" Ephiny replied, with a surliness that made Xena stick her chin out in defiance.

"A normal life!" Xena shot back, clenching her hand. "A chance to see her dreams fulfilled... Hades, Eph. — I don't know. The whole family, husband, home thing."

"What about love ... satisfaction ...happiness ... a sense of belonging ... a real life," the Amazon replied, and Xena thought she saw her eyes filling with tears.

'Gods if you start crying now, Eph, then I'll embarrass myself and do it too. I've never felt so torn in two before. My level road all of a sudden has too many exits,' Xena thought watching a leaf float down the gentle stream. She looked back at Ephiny who was pinching the corner of her eyes.

"You don't think I want all those things for Gabrielle?" the warrior said quietly.

Ephiny looked up. "I don't think you have a clue what those things are!" she snarled at her. "You wouldn't know happiness if it jumped up and slapped you on the face."

"What — is this "beat up on Xena" day, Amazon?! — You've said what you wanted to, now butt out of my life. Okay?"

"You're going to break her heart, aren't you?" Ephiny asked, with a deadly calm that made Xena focus all her attention. "You'll find her ... and you'll convince her that she's wrong ... and the great warrior princess is right," she chuckled bitterly. "And she'll love you so much... that she'll believe you." The Amazon held up her hands in accusation. "After all, how could she ever deny her hero ... her love... her life... anything!"

"What if she is wrong, Ephiny? Maybe you don't have a clue what you're talking about..."

"I'm not wrong about Gabrielle! And I'm not wrong about you!!" Ephiny growled with a contempt that made the warrior bristle. "But if you don't face it and her ... and soon, then I won't wait around anymore, and damn it ... I’ll tell Gabrielle exactly how I feel..."

 

 

 

'Sweet Artemis! What did I just say?!' Ephiny thought, watching the warrior color in rage.

"What in Tartarus do you mean, Amazon? Is that a threat?"

'Yes it is! You have something that I can only dream about, and you ... gods you frustrate me!' Ephiny thought, wishing she had the guts to say it.

"Only if you want it to be a threat, Xena," Ephiny said, fighting to keep her voice calm. "But my only interest is in seeing Gabrielle happy." Ephiny tried to smile, but Xena's blue eyes were too hostile.

"Cut the crap, Amazon. What are you up to?"

"You sure sound jealous for someone who doesn't care." 'No, I sound jealous.'

"No, I sound ticked. I don't like being played, Ephiny!" Xena said. "And I never said I didn't care."

"You haven't said much of anything! And go ahead and be angry, Great Warrior! It seems to be your only really solid emotion." The volume of her sarcasm was thrown like a challenge.

Ephiny watched Xena tense up, and the Amazon's eyes were inadvertently drawn to the weapon on the warrior's waist. 'Shut up, Ephiny. You've done more than enough damage.'

Xena stood, and in one step crossed the distance between them. Ephiny could see the deadly tension carved into her ever muscle, and the Amazon found herself scooting back across the ground.

"Now, Xena ..."

"What do you want to hear?" Xena said, standing over her, the warrior's face red, and her blue eyes dark and dangerous. "Do you want to hear that I find myself dreaming of Gabrielle? — That sometimes having her so close to me nearly drives me insane with the need to touch her? — That when I look at her — I can sometimes hardly remember what I'm doing? — That she's the best thing that has ever happened to me?" Xena sank to her knees, and fell back against her heels. "Is that what you want to hear?!?!" she cried, her voice breaking.

Ephiny felt the blade of her every word slicing through her heart. "Is that true?" she asked quietly.

Xena sneered. "Doesn't matter. It’s obviously what you wanted to hear."

"No, it's not!" Ephiny bit her lip as she felt such grief fill her heart. "I'd rather die than ..." her voice trailed off as she felt a lump rise in her throat.

She saw the dawning spring to the warrior’s eyes, and the Amazon prayed for the ground to open and swallow her. 'Artemis, protect me. I've done it now...'

The warrior's face fell, and lost all color. "Hades come take me away! You are in love with Gabrielle, aren't you?" Xena said it so simply, that Ephiny couldn't believe that all the passion and need she felt for the bard could be phrased so plainly.

Ephiny couldn't speak, and she stared intently, but unseeingly at the grass under her hand.

"Answer me, Amazon... or nothing will save you!" Xena snarled, with such contempt that Ephiny's head shot up. Xena was kneeling, and Ephiny knew that at any second the warrior's deadly hand would strike. Xena's ice blue eyes were cold, yet a fiery blaze burned in her gaze.

'Tell her! How could she possibly hurt me anymore than she already has?'

"Yes. I love her! Is that what you wanted to hear?" she wailed in pain, and relief. "Do you want me to tell you about how I've longed to leave the village and find her? Or how I prayed for your death ... or her disillusionment with you? — But I've said nothing because Gabrielle is yours totally and completely." Tears started to fill her eyes, and she blinked hard to hold them back.

"For how long?" Xena slumped back, and Ephiny could tell she’d deeply wounded the warrior.

"What difference does it make? I’m nothing more than her friend," Ephiny said, wiping at the first tears that rolled down her cheek. "In a strange twist of irony I know exactly how Gabrielle feels around you... So alive yet so dead." 'How does it feel, warrior, to know that someone else loves your bard?' she thought, through a pain that threatened to devour all that she was.

"Why tell me about Gabrielle? Why not just tell her how you feel?"

"Oh yeah, Xena! — I really wanted to tell you!" Ephiny cried. "Can't you see what this is doing to me? — I have no idea why I feel this way about Gabrielle." Ephiny tried to laugh, but sniffled instead. "Gods, she's my friend. — You're my friend. I didn't ask for this, but I've got it and I have to deal with it."

"So where does this leave us?" Xena asked, her voice registering a slight tremor.

"Hopelessly screwed," she breathed, a consuming anguish washing over her.

"What are your intentions?"

"What are yours?" Ephiny snapped, and looked away. "I'm sorry. — This isn't your fault."

"Ephiny, I don't know what to say."

The Amazon bitterly laughed. "What's to say? I'm no threat to you and Gabrielle ... if that's what's worrying you."

"I'll handle that, Eph. I don't know how to handle.... all of this ..." she said motioning to them both. "What's happening between us?"

Ephiny smiled in disbelief. "Gods, you're priceless sometimes. —I've just told you that I'm hopelessly in love with your bard, and you're worried about us."

"She's not my bard. And I am worried, Eph."

"Don't be. Nothing will change, except our illusions." Ephiny took a deep breath. "And Gabrielle? I love her enough to only want her happiness." The Amazon looked at the warrior. "And as long as there is you, then I'll be little more than an after thought." A small sob escaped from Ephiny.

'Pull yourself together. I must look like a fool. And now to have Xena pitying you. How pathetic you've become, Amazon. Just shut up and get this over with,' she told herself.

"Ephiny ..."

The Amazon held up a hand. "Please don't say anything, Xena. It will ... It won't do either of us any good, and ... I really never planned on telling you."

"And what about Gabrielle?" Xena asked, her voice guarded.

Ephiny pursed her lips into a thin smile, and stared at Xena. "Tell her about this? About me? Do you think I'm stupid?" The Amazon looked briefly away and with a hard, challenging gaze she refocused on the warrior. "But I swear I'll tell her about you — if you make me. — You have to deal with it, Xena. There is no escaping that."

"Why are you trying so hard to make this work between Gabrielle and me?" Xena asked, her face betraying her confusion and anxiety.

"By Artemis, you just don't get it... do you?"

"I guess not."

"Because I love you both," Ephiny said with sadness. "You're both like my family."

"But how ... How can you ..."

"Do it when I feel the way I do about Gabrielle?" the Amazon finished the sentence.

Xena nodded, her eyes never leaving Ephiny's face.

Ephiny shrugged. "Maybe a big dose of reality. —I know what I can't have. She loves you without equal, Xena. How could I ever compete with that?"

"Oh, Ephiny ..." Xena said, and the Amazon thought she saw a tear welling in the warrior's eyes, but she blinked and it was gone.

"Just love her, Xena. Be there for her — that's all she wants," Ephiny said with a grief that echoed throughout her soul.

"I don't know if I can."

"Then you need to find out, and quick," the Amazon said, standing, and wiping bread crumbs off her skirt. "I'm sure glad I'm the acting queen, 'cause otherwise I'd be spending all my time doing laundry." She tried to laugh, but failed miserably.

Xena stood also, and before she knew what had happened, Xena put a hand on her shoulder.

"Gabrielle’s very lucky to have you as her friend."

Ephiny's face contorted, and she balled her hand for control. "I'm doing the right thing, Xena, right?" she asked, and before she knew what had happened she had stepped into Xena's embrace, and let herself cry against the warrior's shoulder.

Continued...Part 2

 


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. And I am worried, Eph."

"Don't be. Nothing will change, except our illusions." Ephiny took a deep breath. "And Gabrielle? I love her enough to only want her happiness." The Amazon looked at the warrior. "And as long as there is you, then I'll be little more than an after thought." A small sob escaped from Ephiny.

'Pull yourself together. I must look like a fool. And now to have Xena pitying you. How pathetic you've become, Amazon. Just shut up and get this over with,' she told herself.

"Ephiny ..."

The Amazon held up a hand. "Please don't say anything, Xena. It will ... It won't do either of us any good, and ... I really never planned on telling you."

"And what about Gabrielle?" Xena asked, her voice guarded.

Ephiny pursed her lips into a thin smile, and stared at Xena. "Tell her about this? About me? Do you think I'm stupid?" The Amazon looked briefly away and with a hard, challenging gaze she refocused on the warrior. "But I swear I'll tell her about you — if you make me. — You have to deal with it, Xena. There is no escaping that."

"Why are you trying so hard to make this work between Gabrielle and me?" Xena asked, her face betraying her confusion and anxiety.

"By Artemis, you just don't get it... do you?"

"I guess not."

"Because I love you both," Ephiny said with sadness. "You're both like my family."

"But how ... How can you ..."

"Do it when I feel the way I do about Gabrielle?" the Amazon finished the sentence.

Xena nodded, her eyes never leaving Ephiny's face.

Ephiny shrugged. "Maybe a big dose of reality. —I know what I can't have. She loves you without equal, Xena. How could I ever compete with that?"

"Oh, Ephiny ..." Xena said, and the Amazon thought she saw a tear welling in the warrior's eyes, but she blinked and it was gone.

"Just love her, Xena. Be there for her — that's all she wants," Ephiny said with a grief that echoed throughout her soul.

"I don't know if I can."

"Then you need to find out, and quick," the Amazon said, standing, and wiping bread crumbs off her skirt. "I'm sure glad I'm the acting queen, 'cause otherwise I'd be spending all my time doing laundry." She tried to laugh, but failed miserably.

Xena stood also, and before she knew what had happened, Xena put a hand on her shoulder.

"Gabrielle’s very lucky to have you as her friend."

Ephiny's face contorted, and she balled her hand for control. "I'm doing the right thing, Xena, right?" she asked, and before she knew what had happened she had stepped into Xena's embrace, and let herself cry against the warrior's shoulder.

Continued...Part 2

 


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