DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Eponin, Solari, etc. are owned by Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures.  The other dozen or so Amazons were created by me - because you can never have too many Amazons.  No infringement is intended and no profit is being made.
CHALLENGE: Submitted as part of the Epic Proportions challenge.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Simply Irresistible
By Del Robertson



"It's no use, my Queen," Solari panted as she looked back over her shoulder, "They're gaining on us."

As suspected, the barricades hadn't held against the herd of stampeding amazons.  They had swarmed into the little room that had previously lodged their regent, determined to profess their love.  Each and every one of them.  Cries of bellowed indignation at being thwarted reached the trio's ears as they made their way across the archery field.

"I know, Solari.  But, we have to keep going."  Gabrielle easily leapt over the fence surrounding the archery field, landing neatly on the other side.

Bracing her staff against a wooden post, she reached out, smoothly taking Ephiny's weight from the scout.  Draping her arm over her shoulder, she helped to drag her up and over the fence.  Once the regent was securely on the other side, Solari climbed over, joining them.  Taking Ephiny from Gabrielle, she resumed her task of supporting the woman.

Ephiny had long since given up her protestations at being hauled about like a sack of turnips.  Her shoulder was throbbing and her entire body was aching from the activities of the past few days.  She felt clammy just from the exertion of climbing out the window and racing across the field.  Now, her body was beginning to tire and she found herself leaning more and more upon Solari.

She concentrated on her feet, willing each step as they hurried along.  Behind them, she could hear the revitalized shouts of passion as the leaders of the pack scrambled over the first fence leading onto the archery field.  She looked back, stunned to see a cook's assistant brutally elbow a scout in the chest as she pushed her way through the throng.  With a renewed sense of urgency, Ephiny consciously forced herself to pick up the pace.

It didn't take long for Xena to convince Devillare that she needed her help.  Once I found her, that is.  She had been stunned when she found the hardened amazon sitting beneath the kissing tree.  Alone.  Composing a love ballad for the regent.  

Then, it had completely settled into place.  All the Amazons are affected by the curse of Aphrodite.  Irresistibly, they were all being drawn to their regent.  But, they were demonstrating their love, their devotion for her in decidedly different ways.  Gabrielle's protective streak.  Eponin's suddenly overwhelming case of bashfulness.  Not to mention that crying jag she was on.  Solari's behavior bouncing erratically back and forth between lewdness and - an uncharacteristic need to cuddle, if the circumstances back at the hospice were any indication.  And, Mytilda's sudden baking spree.  Oh yes, Xena had spied the cupcakes decorated like breasts, cherries topping each one, but had stolidly refused to comment.  

But, the greatest tragedy was that involving the stablehand, Doretta.  Xena could clearly see now how Aphrodite's curse had pushed her over the edge.  A young, naive amazon already with a crush on her regent, not knowing how to handle the rejection when she'd confessed her feelings to her idol.  To give your love poison and then try to take your own life in order to in some morbid way be eternally joined in death.  Who thinks of something like that, anyway?  It sounds like something a bard would write.

Explaining her encounter with Aphrodite, Xena was able to convince Devillare that they needed to take action as quickly as possible.  The elder assured Xena that the rider was bringing the shamaness as quickly as possible.  In the meantime, she suggested they find the high priestess and see what could be done to prepare in advance for the shamaness' arrival.  She fully expected her reception by the high priestess would be considerably warmer than that experienced by the warrior princess.

Now, they were headed back through the village on their way to pick up the trail to the temple.  Not knowing how long they would be, Devillare suggested they commandeer some supplies on the way out.  Xena agreed, stating that the elder could be the one to smuggle them out of Mytilda's kitchen.  

Both warriors glanced about uneasily as they walked through the decidedly deserted village.  It was as if every amazon had abruptly abandoned their everyday activities and left their homes.  The sound of a child crying attracted their attention.  Zeroing in on the plaintive wail, the two warriors followed the noise.

Stepping up onto a porch, Xena used the tip of her sword to push aside the hide covering the entrance to a large hut.  Inside, several children were huddled together in a corner.  Several more were sitting on the floor, playing with blocks and rag dolls.  The crying was coming from a baby left unattended in a crib.  On a rug in the center of the room, a dog lay.  When the warriors entered, she lifted her head curiously.  Then, with a disinterested sigh, she dropped her head back to the rug.  

"Great help you are," Xena barked at the dog.  In three great strides, she reached the side of the crib.  Reaching in, she felt the baby's swaddling.  "She's wet."

"Well, don't look at me," Devillare snorted, both arms folded over her massive chest, pointedly ignoring the toddlers insistently tugging at her leathers.  "I'm a warrior, not a nursemaid."

"This from the woman I caught writing love ballads."  Xena quickly divested the infant of her wet swaddling, tossing it into a basket designed for just that purpose.    Searching for fresh swaddling, she demanded, "Hurry up and help me with this.  Sooner we get done, the sooner we can get out of here."

Concentrating her efforts, Xena tried to push aside the thoughts running rampant through her mind.  Such as the nagging ones about Aphrodite's hex being so powerful it could make adults leave the daycare unattended.  No doubt, the caretakers were among the throng she'd encountered at the hospice.  If the curse makes them capable of abandoning their duties, what else are they capable of?

Well, this isn't going as well as I thought.  Eponin had been confident - okay, cocky - that she could take on all three hunters.  Even without her sword or staff.  Or, my knife.  She clearly recalled leaving her knife on her worktable back in her hut.  Lot of good that does you now.  If you hadn't been so gaga over Aphrodite, you would've remembered your weapons.  Hello!  Weapons master!  Geez!

Eponin blocked a blow to her midsection, but failed to anticipate the one that connected with her jaw.  Good thing she didn't show up while I was in the bath; I might have wound up out here naked!

Still, even without weapons, she figured she could take all three in a fair fight.  Fair had gone right out the window when the hunters each produced a set of chobos.  They came looking for this fight.  

"What's wrong, Cordele?" goaded Eponin, "Too sore to draw your bowstring today?"

An answering blow landed by Keleos was Eponin's reward for that comment.

Hera's left tit!  Pony swore as she shook off the blow.  Xena always makes that bantering while you're fighting thing look so easy.

Still, her comment had served its purpose.  It agitated the lead hunter enough to send her rushing in for an attack.  Just as Eponin hoped it would.  Always told her she needed to learn how to control that temper of hers in a fight.  The weapons master was ready for the lightning quick strike, managed to close her hand about the end of the chobo that came hurtling at her face.

Blocking a strike at her ribs by Keleos, she continued to maintain her grip on Cordele's chobo, attempting to wrest it free.  She knew Kynthia had circled around behind her.  She had deemed the young hunter to not be as significant a threat as the other two.  While Cordele and Keleos were enthusiastically brutal in their attacks, Kynthia was more reserved.  For every four strikes her sisters landed, she only followed through with one.  And, it was with considerably less force than her counterparts.

That's why it surprised Eponin when one of her chobos connected with the back of her knee.  It was followed up by three more quick, successive strikes, each intended to land on the already abused muscles.  Her leg collapsed, sending her to the ground on one knee.  One hand still fought Cordele for her chobo, bringing the hunter down with her as she fell.  Eponin's other hand braced against the ground, fingers clutching at the soft earth for support.

Gritting her teeth, Cordele struggling with the weapons master, engaging in a fierce tug-o-war.  She repeatedly rained blows down on Eponin's knuckles in an effort to get her grip to release.  Another strike from Keleos along her kidneys sent her sprawling forward.  Bringing her hand up, Eponin opened her fist, sending a spray of dirt flying into Cordele's eyes.  

Suddenly blinded, Cordele let loose her weapon, desperately wiping at her eyes.  Eponin grinned at finding a weapon abruptly in her possession.  Her victory, however, was short lived as a solid blow landed against her temple.

Solari repeatedly banged her head against the wall.  Ephiny merely leaned against the wooden slats in resigned defeat.

"All this way to the council hut and she's not here?"

"Warriors don't whine, Solari," Gabrielle reminded her chief scout, "We'll just have to think of something else."

"Like what?" asked Ephiny, also sounding very much like a petulant child, "We're running out of options."

Thus far, they'd been able to elude the pack of obsessive amazons, but they knew their luck wouldn't hold forever.  It was as if they were somehow drawn to Ephiny's presence.  Wherever the regent went, they weren't far behind.

And, Ephiny's injuries were slowing them down.  Several times, Gabrielle thought the growing mob had them cornered.  But, thankfully, the backbiting and in-fighting had kept the crazed amazons at bay long enough for them to escape.  It seemed that although they were united in their cause to woo their regent, no amazon would stand idly by while another got a leg up on the competition.

"Maybe we could take refuge in the council hut," Solari suggested.

Gabrielle intently studied the structure.  The amassed amazons were just too great a force to be kept at bay for long.  They'd seen proof enough of that at the hospice.  Not to mention the one glaringly obvious flaw in every structure in Amazonia.

"Village really needs to see about investing in doors," Gabrielle remarked, disdainfully eying the thick hide covering the entrance.

"Too expensive," Ephiny drolly remarked, "Drunken warriors have a tendency to smash into them."

Solari nervously glanced around, keeping an eye out for their pursuers.  They had lost them and gained some breathing room when they'd ducked into the communal bathing hut.  She'd thought her lungs would burst before the last of the pack had left out the back way and they were able to resurface.  They'd gone back out the way they'd come in, decidedly wet and uncomfortable, but still ahead of the mob.  They'll be upon us again soon, she thought grimly, And we can't run forever.

"We need to stand and fight," she declared.

"Solari!  Those are your fellow sisters!  And, they've obviously been afflicted with whatever's ailing Xena.  We can't fight them!" Gabrielle objected.

"She's right."  Solari's disbelieving glare went to Ephiny.  "You have to leave me behind me."  Now, it was Gabrielle's turn to stare.  "Look, it's obviously me they're after."  She reached out, clasping her hand about her queen's shoulder.  "Leave me and save yourselves."

"You can't just expect me to abandon you to that mob!" protested Gabrielle.  "You don't know what they may be capable of."

"Well, we certainly can't continue on like this!" argued Ephiny.  "We're only tiring ourselves out by running about, chasing our own tailfeathers! And, I'm only slowing you down!"

"We can't fight them!" Gabrielle's eyes flashed.  "And, I won't leave you defenseless!"

"I'm a trained amazon, I'm hardly defenseless."  She tried to fold her arms over her chest in a menacing move, but realized the impossibility of that feat with an arm sling.  Instead, she opted for dropping her hand to her hip, hoping that portrayed just as effective a look of defiance.  

Solari's gaze bounced back and forth between queen and regent.  Both were stubborn and wouldn't give in until the horde was upon them and had them drawn and quartered if she didn't do something to break the stalemate.

"I'll stay with Eph.  You go."

"Solari - " Gabrielle wanted to refuse.  Dimly, her mind registered the clamor of their nearing pursuers.  We're running out of time.  And options.  "High-tail it to the ceremonial  grounds.  There's enough room there for you to maneuver.  I don't want to risk you getting cornered somewhere," she relented, tossing her staff to the scout.  "Oh, and Solari?" She pointedly nodded at the weapon.  "Only if there's no other choice."

"Yes, my queen."  Solari edged away, surreptitiously keeping an eye out for the mob.

"Gabrielle - " Ephiny rushed forward, ready to voice her objections.  I can't let Gabrielle sacrifice Solari to protect me.

"Eph, stop."  Gabrielle effectively halted her with two well-placed fingers against her lips.  "Solari's going with you.  Period.  Or, I don't leave."  She locked eyes with her regent.  "Understand?"

Slowly, Ephiny nodded.

"Good.  Now, you get to safety."  She flashed what she hoped was a confident smile.  "I'll bring help as soon as I can."

"Help?  What sort of help can you hope to find amongst this madness?"

"I don't know," Gabrielle admitted.  "If I can't find Devillare, maybe I can find Eponin.  Or Xena."  

"The same Xena that had her fingers wrapped around Solari's throat?" questioned Ephiny.  Now she was definitely worried about her queen's safety.

"Hey, don't do that."  Gabrielle reached up, using the pad of her thumb to wipe at the increasing furrow in Ephiny's brow.  "No matter what, Xena will never harm me.  I firmly believe that."  

"I wish I did."  Spontaneously, Ephiny reached out, catching her queen in a one-armed hug.  "Sometimes, I think you forget about her past.  I hope you realize what she's capable of."

"Oh, I do, Eph.  Right now, I realize she's probably the only one capable of stopping this mob."  

Knowing that their time was all but gone, Gabrielle leaned in closer, capturing Ephiny's hair in a firm grip.  Fingers tangled in dirty blonde curls, she tugged the regent's head down.  Closing her lips upon Ephiny's, she poured all her emotions into that one kiss.  Borne of hope and love and uncertainty, it screamed of heartbreaking desperation.  Ending the bittersweet torment, Gabrielle drew away, opening her eyes to focus on a clearly agitated Solari urgently motioning for them to hurry.

"Go on," Gabrielle summoned up a forced smile, gave Ephiny a swat on her rear, "Get out of here."  

"Last chance," Eponin bluffed, one hand clutching at her decidedly broken ribs as she struggled to her feet.  "Back off now before I really get mad."

"Ha!  Funny!" Cordele summoned up a faux laugh as she warily circled the weapons master.  

Kynthia was laying unconscious in the dirt, having been taken out by a roundhouse kick to the jaw.  Her bondmate was staggering on unsteady feet, blood liberally pouring from her nose and mouth.  Still, she was in it, gamely dodging in to land the occasional blow before rapidly retreating out of the weapons master's reach.

"Let's see how funny you are once I've split your skull open!"  

Cordele raised her chobo above her head, wildly charging.  Keleos struck at that moment, a kick placed to Eponin's already abused knee bringing her down.  Cordele moved in for the kill, towering triumphantly over the kneeling weapons master.  She brought her chobo down with all her might - 

Only to have it stopped at the last moment by a firm grip. She had just enough time to look up into azure eyes blazing with fury before a solid punch hit her squarely in the face.  

Eponin felt a hand on her upper arm, assisting her to her feet.  She quickly looked around, noticing Keleos laying flat out on the ground.  Devillare slowly stepped over the hunter's prone body, coming to stand beside her and Xena.  Cordele slowly made her way to her knees, then staggered unsteadily to her feet.  Using the back of her hand to wipe the blood from her mouth, she glared at Xena.  Then, seeing the elder, a smile tugged at her lips.

Maybe things can still go my way.  "Elder Devillare, I request charges be brought against the Weapons Master, Eponin, for her assault on both myself and that of the honor of the hunter caste."

Devillare looked from the weapons master to the lead hunter, her expression a neutral, unreadable mask.  Xena stood impassively by the wayside, waiting to see how this would play out.  Eponin held her breath, fists clenching and unclenching at her sides.  Her queen had warned her the hunters would try to file charges with the council and had advised her to keep her temper in check when it happened.  Wonder is she realized they planned to charge me after they tried to kill me?

The heartbeats continued to pound by.  Cupping her chin, thoughtfully, Devillare continued to appraise both parties in stony silence.  Then, her gaze settling on Eponin, she cocked her brow.  Cordele smirked, confident in her victory.

"Looking at the two of you," she spoke slowly, making a point of looking the two amazons over from head to toe and back up again, "I'd say you're even."  The amazon elder drew back her powerful forearm, her fist connecting solidly with Cordele's jaw.  "Request denied."  

"Hope the Queen finds that help soon."

Solari knelt beside her regent and best friend.  With an appraising eye, she took in their surroundings.  They'd made it to the platform used to overlook the festivities.  And, between them, they had managed to overturn the long, banquet tables and use them to fortify their position.  The large potted palms had been knocked over, their urns rolled over and over until they effectively blocked the path leading up from both stairs.  Braziers that customarily held lighted torches were strewn across the steps.

Now, Ephiny sat on the hardwood of the platform, her back pressed against the cool marble of her ceremonial throne.  She had gamely insisted on helping Solari ready their defense.  That little bit of stubbornness had sapped her of most of her strength.  But, she knew when the time came, she'd dig deep and find some sort of reserve energy.

That time's coming soon, she realized, hearing the closing sounds as the amazons took the field.

"Xena!  Xena!"  Gabrielle had spotted the three warriors as they crossed the last practice field leading towards the dining hut and was frantically rushing towards them, waving her arms and shouting as she ran.

"Gabrielle!"  Xena caught her bard as she launched herself the last few steps, hurling herself into Xena's arms.  "Gabrielle!"

Xena fiercely held the woman to her, stroking strong fingers through blonde hair.  She had seen the desperation on her face, heard it in her voice as she ran to her.  Now, holding her in her arms, she could feel it in the rapid rise and fall of her chest, the ragged draw of each breath, the pounding of her wildly beating heart.  

"Gabrielle, what is it, my love?" Xena kept her voice as calm as possible, pushing sweat soaked locks from Gabrielle's forehead.  Her eyes looked over the top of her bard's head, meeting the concerned gazes of Eponin and Devillare.

"The amazons!" Gabrielle inhaled deeply in an effort to bring her ragged breathing under control.  "They're after Ephiny!"

"Hades!"  I should have taken care of that earlier.  I thought they were harmless.  Yeah, Xena; like Doretta was harmless, right?  They must have overrun the guard.  But, Gabrielle wouldn't just leave Ephiny - "Where?" 

"Ceremonial grounds.  It's the safest place I could think of."  Gabrielle's eyes frantically pleaded their urgency to Xena.  "Solari's with her."

"Go."  Xena gave a quick, affirming nod to the two amazons that hovered nearby.  "We'll be right behind you."

With a jerk of her head, Devillare grabbed Eponin by the arm, urging her on.  Despite being battered and bruised and sporting what Xena surmised to be a broken set of ribs, the weapons master forced herself to hurry.  Holding Gabrielle tightly, she watched as the two amazons scurried across the open field on a fool's errand to save their regent.

A shiver ran down her spine as sandalwood eyes peered over the top of the barricade.  From her position behind the overturned banquet table, she was able to see the length of the ceremonial grounds.  And, what Solari saw made her blood run cold.

The horde of amazons were swarming over the field, steadily advancing on both scout and regent.  Brandishing bouquets of flowers like raised swords, they charged relentlessly across the dance circles.  Solari might had found the entire situation comical if she weren't the one on the receiving end of their amorous attack.

"How close are they?"

Solari turned, looking over her shoulder.  Ephiny was right where she'd left her, back against the regent's throne.  One leg was drawn up, her free arm braced against her thigh.  Hooded, hazel eyes coolly studied her friend.

"Close enough."  Crouching low, Solari hurried to Ephiny's side.  "And getting closer."

A thin sheen of perspiration coated Ephiny's skin, a thin bead rolling down her neck and towards her cleavage.  Solari found herself instinctively licking her lips as her line of sight followed that of the torturously slow moving bead of perspiration.  As it traveled beyond her sight, disappearing into the fabric of Ephiny's top, Solari abruptly shook her head from side to side in an effort to rattle her senses.  Resolutely, she forced her eyes back to those of her regent.

Ephiny's own eyes were clear and focused, a bemused smile coating her lips.  "Tough spot, huh?"

Her eyes slid shut as Solari reached out, using her fingertips to tenderly brush back unruly blonde curls.  When her eyes blinked open again, Solari was staring at her with an unfathomable look in her eyes, a sad smile upon her lips.

"Hey," Ephiny reached out, using her fingers to catch Solari beneath her chin, turning her eyes to focus upon her.  "You can still make it if you go now."

"Probably."  Solari glanced around at the amazons quickly approaching the platform and nodded.  "But, the chances of me leaving you now are almost as likely as Eponin getting a date with Gabrielle."  She offered a smug smile at Ephiny's un-regent-like snort, then clasped Ephiny's wrist in a firm warrior's grip, fingers sliding over Ephiny's gauntlet.  "Packmates?" she questioned.  "For always?"

"Packmates.  For always."  Ephiny swore, with a firm nod of her head, offering up a confident smile in return.

"Good."  She cocked her head to one side, distinctly hearing the clatter of amazons desperately trying to move the dual barricades blocking the stairs.  "Now, you wait here while I go whack some feathers," she ordered, grabbing the staff Gabrielle had left her, hefting it in one hand.  

As she turned to go, she felt Ephiny's hand close about her leg.  Pausing, she turned back, a questioning look in her eyes.  Ephiny's fingers trailed down her toned flesh, her nails inflaming Solari's senses as they went.  Coming to the top of Solari's boot, they hesitated, then reached inside, smoothly extracting the amazon's knife with skilled ease.  Grasping the hilt in her hand, she leaned back against the throne, holding the blade  at the ready for when their defenses were breached.

"Gabrielle," Xena warned, placing a restraining hand on her bard to slow her down.  "Pace yourself.  You aren't going to be of any use to Ephiny if you arrive too tired to fight."

Gabrielle forced herself to slow to a jog.  "I know.  But, Xena we've got to get to her before something happens!"

"We will.  Solari's with her, right?" she asked, then continued on at Gabrielle's confirming nod.  "And, Ep and Devillare should be there any heartbeat now."  Reaching out, Xena took Gabrielle's arm, tugging her to a full stop.  "But, you and I have to have a talk before I let you go back to Eph again."

Slowly, Gabrielle nodded her head.  She had known this was coming.  Even as she asked Xena for help and she'd sent the amazons on ahead.  And, she knew she had it coming after the way she behaved.  The way I didn't believe in her - trust in her.  Hesitantly biting her bottom lip, Gabrielle slowly tilted her head back, looking up until she could see smoldering, azure eyes staring down at her.  One look into their depths and all her emotions came tumbling out of her mouth at once.

"Oh, Xena.  I just feel so foolish!  You saw what was going on and tried to tell me, but . . . "  She paused only long enough to draw another breath before plunging ahead again.  "Then, when I saw the amazon rabble taking the hospice armed with prose and flowers - "

"Would that be the same amazon rabble you thought was a figment of my imagination?" The question was followed by a familiarly arched eyebrow.

"Yes.  I was wrong, Xena.  I admit that."  Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's heart, taking comfort in its steady beat.  "I should have trusted your judgment.  And, I know I hurt you by not listening to you."

"Especially since I was right?" Xena prompted.

"I swear, Xena, I don't know what's come over me.  Whenever I'm around Ephiny, I can't seem to control myself."

"And, how do you feel now?" Xena eyed her suspiciously, as if trying to gauge her answer.  "Now that there's some distance between you two?"

Gabrielle hesitated, as if weighing her response before she answered.  "Different," she said at last.  "Like a giant cloud's been lifted from my mind."  She hesitated before adding, "But, I can still feel myself being drawn towards Ephiny.  Xena, it's as if the Furies have possessed every Amazon in the village - "

"For the last time, Gabrielle!"  Xena snapped, firmly gripping Gabrielle by her upper arms and shaking her, "IT'S NOT THE FURIES!!!!"  Drawing a ragged breath, she continued in a somewhat calmer tone.  "The Furies aren't into multiple possessions, anyway.  No, they pretty much pick one victim and stick to it."

"Maybe it's me."  Gabrielle's eyes grew wide.  "Maybe I'm the one that's insane.  Maybe none of this is really happening at all; maybe it's just in my mind."

"It's not you."  She rolled her eyes, folded her arms over chest, repeated in a dull monotone.  "And no, it's not the Furies.  All you amazons are acting nuts."  

"This is madness!" Solari shouted as she sent two amazons tumbling back down the steps with a blow from her staff.

As soon as they'd fallen by the wayside, two more charged in to take their place.  Solari had been valiantly beating back any amazon that managed to breach their barricade, but even she couldn't be at both ends of the platform at the same time.  Ephiny was helping where she could, taking out the occasional stray amazon that made it past Solari with well-placed leg kicks.  She held Solari's knife in her hand, but vowed she wouldn't use it given any other choice.

Both women were beginning to tire.  Both from the physical exertion of holding their attackers at bay, but also from the mental fatigue of assaulting their sisters.  It was a psychological challenge they were both struggling to overcome as they landed blow after blow against friends they knew.  

Solari nearly dropped her staff as her two young apprentices navigated their way through the barricade and openly charged across the dais at their mentor.  Recovering, the chief scout pivoted, using her momentum to connect against the girls' unprotected backs.  Admeta and Metanira were swept cleanly off the platform, landing in the sea of amazons amassed below.

A fierce yell broke out above the din of the clamoring amazons.  A battle charge that sent chills racing down Ephiny's back when she heard it.  Looking up, she spotted two warriors taking the field.  Bodies went flying as they battled their way towards the regent and scout.

"Eponin's here," Ephiny flatly stated.

"Yeah?" Solari hit an amazon that had reached the barricade squarely on top of the head.  She glanced up, seeing Devillare wading into the thick of things.  "Hope they're on our side."

"It's the curse of Aphrodite," Xena explained, wincing as she pinched the bridge of her nose in minor irritation, "She's got you all running around sniffing after Eph like a pack of - "

" - I would advise you not to finish that thought, warrior of mine," Gabrielle warned in a low tone.  "Okay, fine.  I'll grant you that things are a whole lot of 'not quite right' in the amazon village right now, but - "

Xena arched an eyebrow at the three-letter word, yet otherwise held her tongue.

"But, you yourself called on Aphrodite several times and she hasn't responded."

"She appeared when it was just me and Ep.  Says she's got this thing about appearing in front of crowds on demand."  Xena picked at her fingernails as she added the last part, "And, I may have said something to offend her."


"Well, I guess I got a little impatient."  The warrior tried to look as contrite as possible as she made her next suggestion, "Look, we were going to try to exorcise the hex with the help of the priestess and shamaness.  Why don't you try calling on Aphrodite instead?  Maybe you can convince her to call off the curse.  She likes you, ya know."

"Fine, I'll try anything at this point."  Gabrielle folded her arms over her chest, contemplated the heavens as she looked up.  "Aphrodite!" 

A sparkle of pink heralded the arrival of the Goddess of Love.  "Like, cutie pie!"  She caught Gabrielle in a firm hug.  "You're looking good!  Much better than tall, dark and gruesome over there."  Aphrodite rolled her eyes in Xena's direction.  "You're like, the only one that would call love a curse."

"Look, Aphrodite, I don't need a song and dance.  All I want is for you to tell Gabrielle that you're responsible for the amazons acting like a bunch of hormone-crazed teens."

No answer from the goddess other than planting her hands on her hips and turning her nose up at the warrior.  


Gabrielle looked at her with a blank expression.  Then a look of puzzlement as Xena tried to signal with just her eyes.  Finally, the warrior blatantly jerked her head towards the obstinate goddess.

"Oh, right."  Gabrielle slowly approached the goddess, looking as demure and innocent as possible.  "Aphrodite, do you know what's wrong with the Amazons?"

"There's nothing 'wrong' with the Amazons, short stuff."  She glared at Xena, catching the hostile vibes emanating from her aura, "Like, I already told you, warrior babe, control the 'tude!"

"Okay."  Gabrielle chewed her bottom lip for a moment, racking her brains.  Sometimes when dealing with the gods, it was best to be specific.  "I understand that amazons being in love isn't wrong, per se.  But, do you know why they're all attracted to Ephiny?"

"Oh, coolness!" Aphrodite clapped her hands with undisguised glee.  "It worked, then!"

Gabrielle cast an appraising glance at Xena, catching the signal to 'go ahead' that the warrior gestured with her eyes.  "So, you do know what happened?"

"Like, duh!  I am the goddess of love!"  A flip of the hair and the rolling of the eyes accompanied that statement.  "I just wasn't sure with them being under Artemis' protection that it would work, ya know?"

"Well, not to bust your bubble, sweetie," Xena drawled out between clenched teeth, trying to keep her temper under control, "But, don't you think Artemis is gonna be ticked when she finds out you've been playing with her Amazons?"

"Who do you think put me up to it?"

Both Gabrielle's eyebrows arched in disbelief, making a run straight for her hairline.  "Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt and the Amazons, asked you to reduce her warriors to a bunch of love-sick - "

"Look, she was just concerned for her royal."  At the confused look, she amended, "Not you, sweet pea.  Her other royal."  She smiled impishly, "You've got tall, dark and grumpy over there.  But, Artie was concerned that the Regent of the Amazons hasn't been getting any loving.  So, she asked me to help."

"By casting a spell to make her irresistible to every amazon in the village?" growled Xena.

"Nuh-uh.  Just tweaked a general enhancement spell.  Make her more approachable to a few of the girls, if you know what I mean.  It can be such a drag to be in charge sometimes.  Every potential suitor is either too intimidated by you or they don't think they're in your league or they resent you being the boss - "

"We get the idea."

"Anyway, your regent is probably enjoying the attention of a couple of the amazon babes.  It's a simple infatuation spell that'll wear off in a few more days.  Let her soak in it for a while."

"Oh, she's soaking in it.  Up to her eyeballs, she's soaking in it."  Xena reached out, catching Aphrodite by the upper arm, tugging her along.

"Hey, that's like, so uncomfortable, warrior babe!"  Aphrodite shrieked, slapping at Xena's hand.  To Gabrielle's surprise, rather than disappearing, she allowed Xena to drag her along.

The ceremonial grounds were littered with bodies.  At first glance, it looked like the usual morning after that followed so many of the amazon celebrations.  Except for the fact that for every body that was scattered in the dirt, two more amazons were scrambling to try their hand at breaching the barricades that protected the dais.

At this point, the infighting between the amazons was so great, that there were actually more warriors fighting each other than trying to tangle with Solari.  As soon as one would make a dash for the stairs, stumbling over tangled braziers and potted palms, at least two sets of hands would grab her and drag her back down into the throng.

Eponin and Devillare were more than midway through the sea of bodies, valiantly fighting their way towards the dais.  Upon the platform, Ephiny delivered a fierce kick to the gut of an amazon that had just made it past the barricades.  A follow-up leg sweep sent her tumbling back down the stairs.  Beside her, Solari expertly wielded her staff, taking out two more zealous amazons.

"Whoa, chaos!" Aphrodite blurted out upon witnessing the scene.

"Exactly."  Xena was relieved to see Solari still fighting by Ephiny's side.  Like Gabrielle, her love for her regent has turned protective.

Aphrodite cocked her head to the side in confusion.  "Like, are those . . . flowers that they're wielding like swords?"

"Yep."  Xena couldn't keep the smirk off her face.

"Hey!  Don't underestimate my women!"  Gabrielle cut in, seemingly offended by what she considered a slur against her tribe.  "In the hands of an Amazon, even a flower can be a deadly weapon!"

"Uh-huh."  Xena rolled her eyes.

"Wow, flower power!"  Aphrodite laughed as one amazon slapped another across the face with her bouquet of wildflowers.

"I can't believe I'm being criticized by the woman who uses fish as a weapon," Gabrielle muttered beneath her breath.

Xena stoically let the comment slide by as she watched the action on the field.  She winced as Eponin pushed one amazon out of her way, only to have her come back and land a solid punch against the weapons master's jaw.  Ep struggled to pick herself up from the ground and then charged at the other amazon's midsection, effectively knocking her off her feet.  

Wrapping one hand in the front of the amazon's halter, the weapons master pulled her to her knees, drew her fist back to deliver a pummeling, then abruptly stopped.  Gaze focused solely on the raised platform, hot caramel eyes centering on the regent, Eponin released her grip.  The amazon fell back, hitting her head on the ground as she was suddenly let loose.  Eponin stepped over her without so much as a second glance.

"Uh-oh.  Looks like Ep's gone under."  Folding her arms over her chest, Xena cast a sidelong glance at the goddess of love.  "You wanna tell me again how this looks like a little infatuation?"

"Something must have gone wrong."

"Ya think?"  Sensing Gabrielle beside her, edging her way closer and closer to the field, Xena reached out, pulling her back.  "Any idea what?"

"Ummm, not sure."  Aphrodite looked thoughtful as she recited the spell in her head.  "No, I got the wording right.  No matter, I'll just cancel the enchantment."

She pointed her finger, crinkled her nose, sending a stream of pink flowers and stars shooting from her fingertip.  Several heartbeats passed.  Then, seeing the chaos on the dais and the field continue unchecked, she wriggled her nose and aimed her finger again.  After several more heartbeats, it was obvious something was wrong.

"Bummer!  That should have, like, totally worked."  Aphrodite chewed her thumbnail in irritation.  "Could be since we're on Artie's land and she hasn't given the okay to release the spell - Nah, I'm still the goddess of love and she gave me carte blanche on this deal."

"Could that be the key?"  Xena pressed.  "I mean, the fact that they are Amazons and you're standing in the heart of the Amazon village?  Maybe it caused the spell to not work?"

"Nah, sweetcheeks.  When Artemis took off with Athena, she gave me total authority over her temples and her amazons til she gets back.  Besides, it's not that the spell didn't work.  It's that it worked too well."  A spark flickered in Aphrodite's eyes, a dazzling smile caressed her lips as she snapped her fingers.  "Duh!  Why didn't I think of that?  It's like, it worked too well."

"Huh?"  Sensing Gabrielle being drawn towards the regent again, she reached out, grabbing the back of Gabrielle's tunic in her fist, effectively holding the struggling bard in place.

"The original spell was meant only to enhance feelings that were already there, bring them more out into the open.  It's like the spell's been altered - or augmented."

"Augmented."  Xena no longer felt any resistance from Gabrielle, but didn't immediately release her hold on the queen's tunic, just in case.  Good, guess the urge has passed again.  "Any clue what's behind this augmentation?"

"It could be any number of things, really," explained Aphrodite.  "Sacred ground, like you thought.  But, I'd expect that to only apply if I'd cast the spell inside one of Artie's temples.  Or, if a priestess tried to counteract it."  She flicked a glance at Xena as she mentioned this, letting the warrior know her plan would have been ill-advised.  Xena had the good sense to look suitably chastised.  "But, I would be able to feel that.  There'd be, like, astral vibes in the air if that was the case, ya know?  This is more . . . physical."

"Physical."  Her thoughts immediately went to the display in the dining hut.  Memory on that kiss she'd witnessed, Xena idly cast a glance in her bard's direction, only to discover that she was still holding the tunic - and nothing more.  Gabrielle had taken her conversation with Aphrodite as an opportunity to slip out of her grasp and was now wading her way through a throng of amazons.  Topless.  Great.  "Yeah, I'd say that's right."

"Not that kind of physical, silly," Aphrodite giggled.  "It's got to be something new to the environment.  Something that wasn't here when I initially cast the spell or I would have sensed the power surge.  I mean, it's got to be something like an amulet or a talisman or - "

"A bracer."  Xena's lips narrowed into a fine line as she stared at the regent's new armband.

"Oooh, pretty,"  Aphrodite cooed.  "Blue's definitely that girl's color."  She stared at the bracer for a long pause, as if feeling the energy around the item.  Then, her eyes sparkled.  "Yep, that's definitely it.  Where'd it come from?"

"A gift from Gabrielle.  She picked it up in the market in Athens.  Thought it would look good on Ephiny."

"Yeah, it certainly does," Aphrodite replied, a wistful smile on her face.  She abruptly shook her head.  "Sorry.  Whatever that thing is, Xena, it's starting to affect even me.  It's definitely gotta go."  With a burst of pink, Aphrodite disappeared.


Xena could understand why the goddess hightailed it out of there.  After all, any item strong enough to influence a god wasn't something to be trifled with.  Still, it irked her that Aphrodite just left and took it for granted that she would be able to sort things out all on her own.

She stared at the chaos below her.  Devillare was firmly embroiled in the infighting going on beneath the platform where Xena and Eponin had patiently stood guard the night of the feast while the royals took the stage.  The weapons master had successfully made it past the barricade and was now squaring off against the chief scout.  Gabrielle had swiftly charged the stairs behind Eponin, cleverly following her path to the top.  She further pressed her advantage by circling around the warriors as they faced off against each other, making a beeline for Ephiny.  Ephiny cast a look out over the sea of bodies, trying to lock eyes with Xena in a plea for help.

Stop that!  Xena physically shook herself, attempting to rattle that thought from her head.  Eph's not pleading with you to save her.  She's not some damsel in distress waiting for you to rush in and rescue her.  A disconcerting image of Ephiny clad in a flowing, delicate pink princess gown gazing down upon her from a window in a tall tower flashed through her mind at that point.

Shaking that image loose, Xena unsheathed her sword, unhooked her chakram.  Gingerly laying the weapons beneath a tree, she started towards the mass of confusion.  Wouldn't want to accidentally hurt anyone, she mused.

With her trademark battle cry, Xena ran onto the field, launching herself over a mass of heads.  She came down in the middle of a swarm of amazons, finding herself surrounded by a group of women who didn't take kindly to her getting between them and the object of their affections.  A quick glance at the dais allowed her to see Eponin reach out, effectively stopping Solari's staff in mid-strike.  Wrenching the staff from the scout's hand, Eponin negligently tossed it aside.  Grabbing Solari by the back of her leathers, she pitched her over the upturned banquet table and out into the crowd below.  Then, Xena lost sight of the action, struggling beneath a wave of bodies as the amazons charged at once, burying her with their numbers.

A war cry signaled her release as Xena suddenly burst through the mob on top of her, sending bodies hurtling in all directions.  In full warrior mode, she cut a swath of destruction towards the Queen, the Regent and the Weapons Master.  All about her lay the writhing bodies of pain-wracked amazons who had been foolish enough to stand in her way.

Gaze locked on the dais, Xena watched as a now weaponless Ephiny, caught between an amorous Eponin and Gabrielle, struggled like a deer caught in a trap.  She was confused, trapped between two predators, not knowing which way to turn.  As Xena marched up to the platform, she soundly swatted Solari away as the chief scout charged, trying to leap upon her back.

Launching herself through the air, doing a double flip, Xena cleanly cleared the edge of the platform and the upturned banquet table.  Bracing herself for the impact, she tucked and rolled, coming up on her feet beside the stunned regent.  Dodging blows from both the queen and the weapons master, she reached out, clasping Ephiny's arm. 

"Now, Xena - " protested Ephiny, wide-eyed.  She could hold her own against some of her more aggressive suitors, but the regent knew realistically that she couldn't outmaneuver a lust-filled Xena if she had her sights set on her.

Xena cupped Ephiny's chin, forcing her to look up into blue gone dark with desire.  With a confident smile, she leaned in, capturing the regent's lips with her own, sipping from Ephiny's mouth.  When the kiss ended, she pulled back, slightly out of breath, eyes twinkling at the stunned regent.  

She felt Gabrielle at her back, pounding with closed fists upon her leathers, shouting, "Leave her alone!  I'm the Queen!  I have right of caste!"

The weapons master wasn't quite so vocal in her protests.  Instead of fighting Xena with words, she selected action as her weapon of choice.  Coming up behind the regent, she pulled Ephiny to her in a full-body embrace.  Wrapping one arm securely about the blonde's waist, calloused fingers lingered over the smooth flesh exposed between the bottom of her halter and the top of her belt.  She used the fingers of her other hand to shift corkscrew locks out of her way.  Heated caramel locked with frigid blue in an open challenge as Eponin lowered her lips to Ephiny's neck, tongue finding, teeth nipping at her pounding pulse point.  

A humorous smirk on Xena's lips, she ignored both the protests from the agitated bard and the bold challenge from the weapons master.  Leaning in for another kiss, her lips captured Ephiny's, taking what she desired.  As her tongue swirled with Ephiny's, fighting for dominance, her hand slid down Ephiny's arm, lightly caressing.  Fingers gliding over her arm, Xena grabbed the bracer, abruptly jerking it free.

Gabrielle's protests died on her lips.  Gradually, the fighting on the ceremonial field ceased.  Puzzled looks came over some of the amazons, suddenly looking about as if they had no clue where they were or what they'd been doing.  Eponin lifted her mouth from Ephiny's neck, a bewildered expression on her face, but didn't altogether release her from the embrace.

"Thanks," Ephiny breathed a sigh of relief, desperately trying to ignore Eponin's toned body still firmly pressed up against her.  "Things were starting to - heat up there."

"My pleasure," Xena drawled, not completely displeased by the passionate kiss they had shared.

Ephiny blushed, cleared her throat.  "Any idea what happened?"

"Love spell," came the terse reply.  "Enhanced by the bracer Gabrielle gave you."

"Ah."  Her lips quirked into a smile, mirth dancing behind hazel eyes.  "Figures our beloved Queen was involved somehow."  She cast a glance at Gabrielle, surprised at her queen's current state of disheveled shock.  Looking out at the throng of amazons, she noticed that some had dispersed, but a few others that were in close proximity were beginning to look at Xena with undisguised appraisal.  "What now?" she asked, eying the bracer.

"You know, this was even affecting Aphrodite."  At the shocked look from Ephiny, she added teasingly, "Yeah, even the goddess of love thought you were irresistible."  Then, she turned somber.  Putting two fingers to her mouth, she let loose a shrill whistle.  "I need to get this someplace safe where it can't cause any more trouble."  She cast a glance over Ephiny's shoulder.  "Before Eponin says or does something we'll both regret."  Argo charged the field, galloping to the platform her mistress was standing on.  Xena did a running leap, executing a perfect backflip off the dais, neatly landing in the saddle.  "Take care of her for me?" she asked, nodding her head at a half-naked Amazon Queen that was very quickly becoming acutely aware of her embarrassing surroundings.

"Oookay."  Ephiny exhaled loudly, wondering how she was going to explain this one to her majesty.

"Ephiny?" Gabrielle poked her head into the hut, finding her regent sitting up in a chair, one leg curled beneath her as she gingerly sipped at a mug of cider.  "Hey, should you be up?"

The regent rolled her head to the side, peering up at her queen.  "If I stay in bed any longer, I'm going to develop calluses on my backside," she gave a wry smile, then amended, "I'm better.  I'm feeling stronger."

She certainly looked much better.  She knew her amazons were made of stern stuff, especially her stubborn regent, but this ordeal had worn on all of them.  Maybe as Queen I should order a party - a small party - to ease tensions around here.  After the spell had been cancelled and the tribe was behaving rationally again, it had fallen to her and the council to explain the events that had transpired.  Most of the amazons had taken the whole thing in stride, chalking it up to another ripple in what was becoming teasingly known as 'The Gabrielle Effect'.  

Gabrielle had checked in at the hospice on her way to visit Ephiny.  And, she knew part of the reason for the regent's early release was due to overcrowding.  After the brawl on the ceremonial grounds, it was discovered that quite a few of the amazons had suffered broken bones and various dislocated body parts.  The warrior princess herself had offered her services to the healer to help ease some of the burden.  Bet every one of those amazons would be out of bed if I announced the party.

Gabrielle lowered herself into a chair, appraising the state of her regent.  Gone were the flushed cheeks and bright eyes that signaled fever.  As were most of the bruises that had covered her face and body when she was brought back from the cache.  Gabrielle frowned at the darkened area on her regent's neck.  Funny.  I didn't notice that before.  Must have gotten it during the battle on the dais.  Shrugging off the inconsequential looking bruise, she focused her attention on more serious injuries.  Namely, the one caused by the arrow Ephiny had taken for her.  Gabrielle noticed with satisfaction that Ephiny was sporting a brand new, clean bandage and her arm was cradled protectively against her body even as she relaxed in her chair.  And, Megara had assured Gabrielle that if Ephiny kept her sling on and that arm immobilized, she would make a complete recovery.

"Just make sure you don't overdo things, huh?" Gabrielle reached out, affectionately running a hand over unruly blonde corkscrew locks.  

"Don't worry.  Megara may have let me out of the hospice, but she's got a firm leash on me."  She looked around as if checking to make certain they were alone.  Then, she leaned in, whispering, "Pony and Solari and even Pelagia have been by here no less than seven times today.  I think Megara's drafted them to be her eyes and ears."

"Or," Gabrielle toyed with a lock of Ephiny's hair that she was wrapping and unwrapping around her finger, "it could be that they're actually concerned about you?" she teased.  The bard's face suddenly lost it's mischievous cast as she reached into a saddle bag she'd carried in with her.  "Umm, I'm sorry about the whole bracer gift turning out to be some sort of mystical talisman thing." She actually cringed at the memory of what havoc that gift had caused.  "So, I got you something else."  She thrust the saddlebag at Ephiny.  "Open it."

"You didn't need to get me anything else, Gabrielle."

"Open it."

Ephiny warily eyed the saddlebag.  Hesitantly, she untied the leather strings holding the flap shut.  Reaching in, she extracted a wad of cloth.  Holding it up, she realized it was a new, blue cloak.  Both eyebrows went up in surprise.  "Thank you," she responded, folding the material and placing it in her lap.

"You don't seem that thrilled," Gabrielle observed.

"It's very nice," Ephiny reassured her, with what she hoped was a convincing smile, "It was very thoughtful of you."

What Xena often referred to as her legendary nosiness was now firmly rearing its ugly head.  "Ephiny," she said, both hands planted firmly on her hips.  "I had to send a group of warriors out to the surrounding towns with very detailed, very specific instructions on precisely what they were looking for.  Even drew a diagram for some of them."

Ephiny's lips twitched at the thought of fierce Amazon warriors on a shopping mission.  It's a wonder the merchants didn't flee in terror!  Imagine Xena and Pony trying to haggle!  She suppressed a chuckle as an image of the two muscular women with hands on sword hilts threatening a greedy, cowering  merchant came to mind.  

"That," continued Gabrielle, pointing at the material laying across Ephiny's lap, "is identical in every way to your old cloak.  Minus the blood stains, of course.  Identical, Ephiny!  You wouldn't let that other one out of your sight, so why aren't you that thrilled with this one?"

"I am," insisted Ephiny, holding up both hands as if in an attempt to block her queen's wrath, "It's a great gift."

"Ephiny - " the queen's voice was now at a surprisingly Xena-esque danger level.

"Okay."  Ephiny finally conceded with an all-over body sigh.  She knew when her queen was after something, she'd keep after it until she either plied it out of you or wore down your defenses until you snapped.  "That other cloak," she bit her bottom lip, steeled herself before admitting, "It was my mother's."

"Oh.  I didn't know."

Another deep breath and a nod of her head sent blonde curls flying.  "She presented it to me when I received my warrior's mask."  Gabrielle could see her regent struggling with the words, reached out a supporting hand, cupping it about a nearby knee.  Ephiny offered a tiny smile at the gesture.  "It was the only thing of hers to survive the attack on the village by Velasca."

"Oh, Ephiny! I'm so sorry!"  

Gabrielle's hand clamped down over her mouth.  Solari had confided to Gabrielle on one of her previous visits that shortly after receiving their warrior's masks, Solari and Ephiny found themselves in their first battle with an army intent on invading Amazon land.  Both new warriors had watched in horror as their commander, Ephiny's mother, had been struck down by a volley of arrows.  Gabrielle slowly realized that in all likelihood, that cloak was probably the last possession her mother had ever given a young Ephiny.  Suddenly, she felt like a heel for insisting that it be destroyed.

Ephiny attempted to shrug off the apology.  "It's okay, Gabrielle."

"No, it's not.  That was important to you and you tried to tell me and I didn't listen and - " she trailed off as an errant thought struck her.  "I'll give you your staff back."


"Your staff.  The one you gave me when I became a princess," she explained.  "You said that your mother had given it to you.  I'll get another from the armory.  Eponin will help me pick one out."

Ephiny reached out, firmly gripping Gabrielle's shoulder.  Lowering her head, looking the young queen in the eye, she firmly stated, "Gabrielle, listen to me.  I don't want that staff back.  I gave it to you because I wanted you to have it."

"But - "

"Let me finish."  She softened her words with a tiny, pleading smile.  "Yes, that cloak was special to me.  And, I'm going to miss not having it."  Being an amazon, unaccustomed to sharing her deepest emotions, she drew another ragged breath, steeling herself for the words to come.  "But, I've learned something from this zaniness with Aphrodite."  Looking around her hut, her gaze slowly traveled over the myriad of flowers she'd received.  Most of the blooms were wilted and edging towards decay.  "Flowers fade, their beauty withers and then you have to throw them out."

Gabrielle tried not to laugh at the slightly less than eloquent speech.  Ephiny was one of her best spoken, most intelligent warriors.  But, even she was only a warrior; accustomed to action, not words.  Still, she pledged she would remain silent and not interrupt until Ephiny reached her awkward conclusion.

"Love isn't about possessions, Gabrielle.  It's nice to receive a gift now and then," she patted the cloak folded in her lap for emphasis.  "But, it's the meaning behind the thought that counts."  Her eyes misted as thoughts took her back.  "It's the memory of a gesture or a feeling that you get when you think about that certain someone that lingers, not the gift itself."  She paused, looking at her feet, feeling suddenly awkward as her queen continued to stare at her, for once in her life not interrupting.  She finally looked up, shyly meeting Gabrielle's patient gaze.  "Even a warrior that isn't good with words can - " she bit her bottom lip at this point, reached out to take her queen's hand gently in her own, running a feather light caress over smooth flesh, " - reach out and offer a touch?"

Gabrielle lay her free hand atop Ephiny's, applying a reassuring squeeze and a brilliant smile.  "You certainly can, my regent."  As memories of the past few days crowded in, Gabrielle's smile faltered.  "Listen, Eph, about that . . . " It was her turn to take a deep breath, search for the words that wouldn't hurt so much.  "I love you.  You know that.  But, Aphrodite's enchantment enhanced certain aspects of our relationship."

"Why, my Queen," Ephiny asked with a teasing lilt, "Is this your way of gently suggesting I won't be finding your hand beneath my skirt anymore?"

Gabrielle blushed every shade of crimson Ephiny had ever seen and was racked by a series of coughs as she attempted to swallow her own tongue in a fit of embarrassment.  "Weeelllllll," she finally managed between wheezing gasps for breath, trying her best to return the tease, "Maybe on special occasions?"

Ephiny caught the obviously self-conscious monarch in a friendly hug.  Adding further fuel to the heated fire of the queen's embarrassment, she suggested, "Like the Summer Festival?"

"Ephiny - "

"The Autumn Harvest."

"Eph - "

"Solstice - "

"Eph - "

"The Festival of - "


Xena found Gabrielle sitting beneath a tree atop a gently sloping hill overlooking the practice fields.  Her back was pressed against the trunk, her legs stretched out in front of her.  She idly rolled her staff between the palms of her hands as she watched the amazons on the field.


"Hi."  Gabrielle nodded at the sound of her soulmate's voice, but her gaze didn't waver from the sparring in the distance.

"You gonna go down and give it a shot?" Xena asked, nudging the tip of the staff with the toe of her boot.

"Nah.  Think I might pass."  

Xena nodded her head amiably.  Folding her long legs beneath her, she sat down in the tall grass beside her bard.  Idly picking at the blades of grass, she quietly surveyed the training grounds spread out before them.

Her keen eyesight could make out the archery field in the far distance, several arrows embedded in the center of the targets as amazons trained with longbows and crossbows.  The next to the last field was reserved for sword training.  A smaller field beside that was split into areas for chobos, wrestling and hand-to-hand combat.  Two more fields were dedicated to the staff.  It was on this nearest field that there was a class of twenty younger amazons, all diligently sparring with their instructor.

"You afraid those junior featherheads can knock your royal highness on her tailfeathers?" she idly teased.


"Afraid of showing up the instructor, then?"


Xena sat quietly for a moment, catching a long blade of grass in her mouth, picking her teeth with it.  "Seems a waste to bring a staff all the way out here to watch."

"You're probably right."

"Mmm."  Xena chewed thoughtfully on her blade of grass before nudging Gabrielle with her knee.  "Spill it."

Gabrielle focused on the vision of her regent standing along the sidelines of the practice field, absorbed in watching the trainees.  As far as Gabrielle knew, it had been the first time in nearly three days that Ephiny had ventured from her hut.  Not that Ephiny hadn't tried.  Several times.  Even going so far as to solicit Gabrielle's help in sneaking out of her own hut.

But, Megara's leash upon the regent did indeed prove to be very firm.  Poor Eph!  The look on her face when the healer threatened to have the guard haul her royal backside out of the bath and carried naked back to her hut!  Megara had placed her on strict bedrest after that and was only now allowing her patient to get up and about.  

"Oh, Xena!"  Gabrielle suddenly turned to meet Xena's patiently waiting gaze.  "I can't believe the things I said . . . or did."

The warrior princess suspected that was what was troubling her little bard.  They had agreed to stay on in the village until the regent was healed and they were sure the crisis was over, but had otherwise failed to talk about the event.  And, Gabrielle being who she was, Xena just knew sooner or later she would need to have a sensitive chat.

"You were under an enchantment, Gabrielle."

"Xena, I stripped half naked in front of the tribe!"

"Could've been worse."  Xena kept her baby blues firmly locked on the practice fields, refusing to look at Gabrielle.  She knew if she did, she wouldn't be able to keep her warrior's mask in place.  "You could have stripped down all the way and shown them that birthmark on your - "

Gabrielle's hand shot out, quickly covering the warrior's mouth.  Xena easily removed it, continuing, "Don't worry, Gabrielle, they only had eyes for Ephiny at that point."  A teasing undercurrent to her tone, she added, "Remember, they were all under the same spell you were?"

Gabrielle was about to raise a question, but was stopped, mouth hanging open as a flurry of pink showers manifested in front of her.  Aphrodite appeared from the mist, dressed in her customary pink lingerie.  Xena hung her head, fighting the urge to roll her eyes at the goddess.

"Gabster!" she squealed in delight, hugging the little bard.  Looking at the warrior, she simply said, "Xena."

"Aphrodite."  Xena's eyes narrowed to tiny, deadly slits.  "What are you doing here?"

Ephiny rested the sole of her boot on the lower fence railing.  Leaning heavily on her elbow, she peered over the wooden rail at the warriors sparring on the practice field.  She had seen the fourth year class practicing and had ventured over in the hopes of watching Pony work.  She was mildly surprised when she arrived and found Devillare putting the trainees through the paces.

She knew that was one of the end results of the latest going-ons in Amazonia; most of the elders were taking a more active role in the day-to-day events in the village.  She just hadn't realized that some of the elders were taking such a physically active role.  She's just as good as ever, Ephiny reflected, watching as the amazon with the salt-n-pepper hair wiped the ground with students more than half her age.

But, she's no Eponin.  Her weapons master was coiled strength and fluid grace in action.  Perfectly toned, every movement was reflected in the muscles that rippled through her upper body, chest, arms and thighs.  Her tanned, rippling sinews had the power to hypnotize with every motion.  And, for those that actually made it as high as her face, light colored eyes the shade of warm caramel had the ability to mesmerize.

Ephiny often came to the fields to watch Eponin lead a demonstration or practice for candlemarks at a time.  When it came to weapons, she had no equal.  And, when she was working, she was completely focused.  That was part of what made Eponin so good; her ability to shut down the world about her and focus solely on her attack zone.  

All too often, Ephiny had seen otherwise good opponents lose because they lacked that focus.  Something would draw their attention along the sidelines during a match and they'd suddenly find themselves staring at the tip of the weapons master's staff aimed at their nose.  Or, a lover would appear to cheer their champion on and inadvertently cost their partner the bout.  I've even seen it happen to Xena when Gabrielle makes an appearance.  Pony was the only person she'd seen who could consistently tune out everyone and everything happening outside of the field.  Wonder if she even knows just how often I still come to watch her?

"You know, you used to watch me just like that when we were younger?" came a gravelly voice from beside her.

Ephiny slowly became aware of the body heat emanating from the warrior standing intimately close, nearly touching her elbow.  Hazel eyes cast a sidelong glance at the weapons master, instantly taking in the bruises on her face, the bandages about her ribs, the plaster wrapped about her abused kneecap.  So many were injured - 

"I never thought you noticed."

"Oh, I noticed.  Remember, your staring was what led to our very first much."

"I remember.  I remember you threatening to lift my skirt and spank my tailfeathers with your staff if I didn't stop looking at you."

"Yeah?"  Eponin watched impassively as a young recruit made an impressive lower sweep with her staff, only to have Devillare jump over it and nail her with a tap to the kidneys.  "Well, as I recall, you more than paid me back for my arrogance."

"I did, didn't I?"  A wide grin covered Ephiny's lips as she, too, kept her attention locked on the training session.  "I think that's the only reason I caught your eye."

"Wasn't the only reason," Eponin gruffly replied.  An uncharacteristic smile tugged at her lips.  "I remember thinking you had a really cool staff, too."  Like Ephiny, she couldn't look at the woman standing beside her as she delivered the admission.  After several companionable candledrips of silence, Eponin swallowed loudly and finally gathered the courage to face the regent.  "I - umm - "

Pony's words fled as Ephiny turned hazel eyes, sunlight reflecting sprinkles of gold flecks in their depths, directly at her.  Eponin ducked her head, staring at her boots as she willed the heat in her cheeks to subside.  "I . . . that is, I know your . . . I got ya . . . "  A tortured look on her face, she abruptly looked up, thrust a staff at her friend.  "This is for you."

Ephiny's eyes darted to the staff that Eponin held in a tight death-grip.  Her mind briefly realized it was the white birch staff that she had brought to her hut long nights ago.  She noted the craftsmanship that went into making such a weapon.  Eyes hungrily swept over the hand carved designs painstakingly etched into the wood just above and below the grip.  Her gaze flickered over the dyed feathers held in place  by leather twine and an oddly familiar braided cord.

"Is that - " her eyes darted to Eponin's " - from my - " trembling fingers reached out in wonder, but she couldn't quite bring herself to actually touch the blue material.

"The queen commanded I take care of it . . . " No longer able to maintain eye contact with the regent, Eponin hurriedly bowed her head, "I, uh, I thought it'd be a shame to just burn it."

"Oh, Pony!"  Genuinely touched, Ephiny covered her mouth with her hand, choking back the emotions that threatened to rush forward.  To think that Eponin had so loosely interpreted a direct command from the queen and then taken the time to salvage what she could of her cloak, cutting the material and twining it into a complex braid.  It took all her strength to not pull the intimidating weapons master into a passionately fierce embrace.  Instead, she settled for reaching out, tentatively laying her hand atop the quiet warrior's on the staff.

"Like, Artie and 'Thena have everything sorted out in Athens, so I thought I'd pop in and check on how things were going with my fave couple and the amazon babes."

"Meaning, you wanted to make sure things are back to normal before Artemis pays a visit."  Xena folded her arms over her chest, leveled a stare and a frown at the goddess of love.

"Well, like, duh!"  Aphrodite looked around, checking over both shoulders before leaning in and conspiratorially whispering, "So, like, are they?"

"Yeah.  As close as things get to normal in the amazon village, anyway."  That earned her a swift tap to the backside with Gabrielle's staff.  "Hey!" she protested, rubbing at her rear.  "There's not any armor back there, you know!"

"So, like, just in case I need to know for future reference or something," Aphrodite pressed, trying to return to the reason for her visit, "You took care of the bracer-thingy?"

"Yep."  Seeing the miffed expression on Aphrodite's face and the subtle tightening of Gabrielle's grasp upon her staff, Xena decided to be somewhat more forthcoming with her information.  "Took it up to the Temple of Artemis.  The high priestess allowed me to secure it in a remote catacomb running deep beneath the temple.  It's buried beneath a mound of musty, old religious scrolls.  Believe me, it'll be a long time before that bracer sees the light of day again."

"So, that's it, then, right?" Gabrielle asked, looking to Aphrodite for confirmation, "The curse is broken?"

"Would you stop that?!?"  Aphrodite rolled her eyes, huffed at Xena.  "Now you've got her doing it!  For the last time, mortals, it was a love spell!  And, love is NOT a curse!"

Xena snorted, then covered it with a cough as Gabrielle slapped her in the stomach with the back of her hand.

"Tell me, then, mighty Aphrodite," Gabrielle leaned heavily on her staff, eyeing the goddess of love, "Why wasn't Xena affected by this 'spell'?"

"Because I'm not an Amazon."  Xena folded both arms over her breastplate, rocked back and forth on her heels, a centaur poop eating grin on her lips.

"Not strictly true, warrior babe."  Aphrodite smirked, wagging her finger at the warrior princess.  Xena's smug grin fell.  "Gabby, your warrior has a strong will and is able to put up a fair amount of resistance.  While you, you will always be drawn back to her strong presence.  You both may temporarily succumb to temptation, but eventually, you'll always return to each other."

"But, except for kissing Ephiny on the dais, Xena was otherwise unaffected."

"I only did that to get the bracer," Xena pointed out.

"See?" Gabrielle gestured at her soulmate.  "All part of the plan.  The spell didn't work on Xena."

"Yeah, right.  And, I've got a magical phallus I'd like to sell you, Amazon Queen."  At a dark glowering look from the formidable warrior, Aphrodite giggled, "Well, you were affected, warrior babe.  You see, bardster," Aphrodite turned her attention back to Gabrielle, draping an arm over her shoulder.  "Different people respond to love in different ways, based on intimacy and confidence levels and the like."  She paused, letting Gabrielle seemingly digest this.  "Have you noticed Xena being, oh - I don't know, playful?"

"Playful?"  Gabrielle's eyes lit up, her fingers snapping in comprehension.  "Yeeeaahh," she drew out the word, grinning mischievously.  "Now that you mention it, she has been a little 'frisky' around Ephiny."

The Goddess of Love looked smugly at the blushing warrior princess.  "See, tall, dark and lethal types like warrior babe are good at trashing whole villages and stuff.  But, when they get hit by the love bug, they're reduced to immature teasing and pranks."  She wrinkled her nose up, waving her fingers at Xena.  "Puppy love," she giggled.  Then, looking down the hill, she added, "Not to be confused with Pony love.  Different thing altogether."  She giggled again at her wit.

Gabrielle's and Xena's gazes followed Aphrodite's.  Ephiny was standing at the fence leading to the practice field, the flat of one foot against the railing as she casually leaned back against the post.  Eponin was flanking her left side, standing intimately close, a staff resting easily against her frame.  The regent's hand rested atop Eponin's on the weapon.  Xena arched an eyebrow, recognizing the white birch with the sapphire blue roping.  

"Awww, aren't they just the cutest?" Aphrodite cooed as Eponin reached up with her free hand to seemingly adjust Ephiny's sling, her touch lingering on the bandage as they talked, leaning in as they talked until their heads were mere inches from each other.

"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed, dreamily, casting a meaningful look at her own warrior.

Xena was unfazed by the action, continuing to watch the regent and the weapons master.  "Here comes trouble," she drawled, jutting her chin at a hurriedly approaching figure.

Solari quickly approached the couple, several wineskins clutched in one hand and what suspiciously looked like a saddlebag brimming with food in the other.  Ephiny turned to offer a warm greeting, Eponin merely glowered at the scout.  The two amazons flanked their regent, only a hair's breadth separating them as they both leaned towards Ephiny, speaking animatedly in low, strained voices.

After what was obviously a heated discussion, the regent pushed off from the post.  Reaching out, she took the staff from Eponin and one wineskin from Solari.  Mouths hanging open, the weapons master and the chief scout watched in rapt fascination as she walked away.  

"Interesting," Xena commented, her eyebrow continuing its arch, her lips pursing.

"How long until the spell completely wears off?"  Gabrielle questioned the goddess.

"Oh, that spell's all but faded, sweet pea.  It was just a simple enhancement spell, augmented by that bracer-thingy you gave amazon babe.  See, the enhancement spell only builds on what's already there."  She cast a meaningful look at the still stunned weapons master and chief scout.  "Looks like now that some of the Sappho sisters have gotten a taste of the regent's affections, they aren't ready to go back to the way things were.  Warriors  and emotions.  Takes something earth-shattering to get them to admit they've even got feelings, ya know?" she pointedly nudged Xena with a well-placed elbow.

"Wait a minute!"  Gabrielle's fingered pointed rapidly between the distant figures of Eponin and Solari.  "You mean - "

"Oh, yeah," Aphrodite giggled, a wicked twinkle in her eye.  "That's the real deal, bard babe."

Ephiny could still feel the heated stares of both Eponin and Solari on her back as she slowly climbed the gently sloping hill overlooking the practice field.  As she approached her two friends, she gave friendly nods in greeting. Then, turning to the gorgeous woman standing with them, she asked, "You're Aphrodite?"

"You can see her?" Gabrielle asked, looking from Ephiny to the goddess.  "She can see you?"

Aphrodite shrugged, blonde hair tossing about her shoulders with the movement.  "Must be residuals from the spell I hit her with."

"So," Ephiny pursed her lips, furrowing her brow as she openly stared at the buxom blonde.  "You're the Goddess of Love, then?"

"You are so right!  I so can't believe Ares said all Amazons are stupid!"

"Then," Ephiny paused, teeth biting down on her lower lip, "Can I assume it's you I have to thank for Doretta's miraculous recovery?"

"Guilty on all counts.  Healing's not really my thing.  But, I figured since I kind of goofed on this one, I could give the injured girl a push in the right direction." 

"Will her mind completely heal?" Ephiny had to ask.

"No guarantees on that one.  That's mostly up to her."  At the disappointed looks clearly illustrated on the face of regent and queen, she added.  "I can fix the poison she ingested.  But, the love?  Different matter, entirely."

"How so?" asked Gabrielle, thoroughly vested in the conversation at this point.

"Love, sweetie.  Like you friend Devil said, 'it makes a fool out of all of us'.  Look, there's different facets to love.  More than you poor mortals may ever realize.  And, like I tried telling you before, the bracer only augmented the enhancer spell."

"Meaning," Xena concluded, "That Doretta may have been lovesick enough to try this on her own, anyway."

"Exactly, warrior woman."  At the appalled look from Gabrielle, she hastily added, "Hey!  Love can get pretty ugly!  It's not all about hearts and crossbows!"

Catching the regent's appraising look, she sidled up to Ephiny, draping her arm about her shoulder and leaning in intimately close.  "Cutie, I know how you amazons are," she indicated her frilly, pink nightie.  "I've got it in leather if you prefer," she added with a saucy grin and a flirtatious wink.

Ephiny was left sputtering and gasping as Aphrodite reached out, pinching the regent's cheek between her thumb and forefinger.  "Oooh, I just love making your big, bad amazons blush!"  she cooed to Gabrielle.  Then, she disappeared in her customary flash of pink sparkles.  Gabrielle chuckled as Xena smirked, poking Ephiny in the ribs with a teasing finger.  With a groan, the embarrassed amazon buried her face in her hand.

"I'm never going to live this down, am I?"  she asked at length, peeking through her fingers.

"Probably not," Gabrielle grinned.

"Yeah, I figure we can milk this one for a good; I don't know . . . " Xena shrugged with a playful smirk, " . . . twenty years or so."  Suddenly recalling the conversation between Ephiny and Aphrodite, she asked, "Did I hear you say Dori's recovering?"

"Megara said she's never seen anything like it," Ephiny nodded, "She looked in on Doretta no more than a candlemark ago and she's almost regained full use of her limbs."

"Wow." Gabrielle let out a low whistle.  "Wish Aphrodite could fix everything in the village that easily."

"Be careful what you wish for, Gabrielle," warned Xena.

"Aphrodite's love spell may have dissipated, but there's still a lot of cleaning up to do," Ephiny admitted.  "The actions of some of the amazons will have to be addressed."

"But, surely given the fact they were under a love spell - "

"That's not an excuse for everything, Gabrielle.  We can't just pretend none of this happened.  There has to be closure."  Ephiny began recounting her morning's activities to the bard and warrior.  "I've spoken with the council.  They feel it's in Doretta's best interests to not bring her before our court, but to allow her to seek help with the priestesses.  But, the Council of Elders will have to decide a suitable punishment for the hunters' involvement."

"But, we were wrong about the hunter caste," protested Gabrielle.  "They didn't abduct you."

"No," conceded Ephiny.  "But, they did attack the weapons master with the intent of killing her.  And, since I can't be an impartial judge, it falls to the Council of Elders to pass sentence."

"Elder Devillare helped me pull them off Eponin," Xena pointed out, "I don't think she can be considered impartial, either."

"No.  But, even if she doesn't serve as a judging member," Ephiny shrugged, "She'll still testify as a key witness."

"Wow.  Seems like you've been busy your first morning up and about, Eph."  

"I needed to burn up some excess energy, Gabrielle.  I've been feeling fat and worthless lazing about in bed all day with nothing to do but think about what needs to be done to get the village back in order."  Hazel eyes darted back and forth between Xena and her queen.  Slowly her shoulders slumped.  "And, you aren't going to be around to help out are you?" she realized, fixing her gaze on Gabrielle.

"No," Gabrielle admitted with a shake of her head.  "We've been here so long this one's starting to get restless again," she indicated Xena with a nod of her head.  "It was all I could do to convince her to wait until you were back on your feet before moving on."

Ephiny surveyed the proud warrior standing before her.  She knew Xena had a restless spirit and couldn't stand to rest her boots under one bed for too long.  But, she had noticed that their trips to the Amazon Nation were becoming more and more frequent these days.  And, each visit was lasting longer than the last.  Wonder if the day will ever come that they'll stay for good?

"Maybe you shouldn't go, yet," she bluffed, "I may feel a relapse coming on."

"Clever."  Gabrielle pulled Ephiny into a hug.  "But, I've done some checking of my own.  Megara says you can start going without the sling in a few more days.  And, after that, they're going to start you on staff training to strengthen your muscles in that arm.  I think you're going to find you have no troubles burning off that excess energy." Tapping Ephiny on the tip of her nose with her index finger, Gabrielle added with a grin, "But, we'll both miss you."

"I guess there's nothing I can do to convince you stay longer, then?" Ephiny knew that the answer would be no.  She guessed that Xena was already chomping at the bit to be rid of them.

"Well, suppose we could leave after we've had a drink or two," Xena drawled, easily lifting away the wineskin Ephiny had been holding.  "By the way," she added, before sauntering away with the procured wine, "Nice to see that hickey's almost cleared up."

The queen's mouth dropped open in shock, her eyes bugging out as Ephiny's hand reflexively covered the dark discoloration on her neck.  Xena's laughter echoed across the nation as she heard the regent's muffled moans of despair as her queen proceeded to grill her about the love bite.

"I never realized there were so many facets of love."

Xena grunted, idly walking beside her bard, Argo's lead trailing in her hand as they walked shoulder by shoulder on the dusty road.  They'd left Solari and her scouts at the border of Amazonia several candlemarks ago.  And, Gabrielle had been talking about their latest adventure nonstop ever since.

"I mean, there's a love a mother has for their child.  The love of two siblings.  It can be pure and unselfish.  Or, possessive and jealous.  Tragically unrequited.  It can last forever or be fleeting as a candlemark."   

"Yeah, love can be a real bitch."

Unperturbed by her companion's pessimistic attitude, Gabrielle continued undeterred, "Even protective and  unconditional, like your love for me."  A lively, animated gait to every step accompanied the bard's rolling commentary.  "You know, everyone thinks of the Goddess of Love as some flighty airhead.  But, she has a lot she's responsible for.  I think mortals don't give her enough credit sometimes."

Xena' only response was another noncommittal grunt. 

"That's what I love about you; always the romantic."  Gabrielle snorted at her warrior's predictable disposition on the subject.  "But, you know, I was thinking this would make such a great story.  It would be a terrific romantic comedy!"

"I don't know, Gabrielle."  As they crested a hill, Xena's sharp gaze cautiously swept over the territory below, always mindful of danger.  Even when her bard was on a jag.  "A story like that could really embarrass your Amazons.  They do have a fierce reputation to protect, you know."

"Yeah, I guess you're right," Gabrielle agreed, then added wistfully, "It's just such a great story, though."  Then, she added with a smirk, "Guess that'll be one of those stories I only tell when we visit the Amazon Nation."

"I think that's mighty wise of you, your majesty."

"Of course, I can't really write the ending until Ephiny makes a decision."

"Huh?" Xena cast a wary sidelong glance at the woman walking along beside her.  

"Between Eponin and Solari.  The story won't have a good ending until she makes a choice between them."  Rubbing her chin thoughtfully, she decided, "Of course, I suppose I could go ahead and write it without her."

"Thought you said you couldn't finish it until you knew who she was going to choose."

"Ah, but I do know, Xena."  She cast a smug look at her soulmate.  "Like you, I have many skills.  And, reading people is one of them."

"Uh-huh."  Xena just barely managed to contain the eye roll.  "I guess your skills tell you she's going to pick Solari, then."

"WHAT?!?"  Gabrielle stopped so suddenly, planting her staff firmly in the ground as she came to a dead halt, that Argo ran into her from behind, soundly jostling her.  

"She's gonna pick Solari."

"Wait a minute!"  Gabrielle's mouth dropped open as she stood in the middle of the road, dressing down the warrior, "What happened to the staunch Eponin supporter?  A few days ago, you would have bet your chakram that the weapons master was the best suitor for my regent!"

"That was before I spent time on the trail with Solari and saw her fighting to defend Ephiny on the dais."  Xena remained steadfast in the road, arguing her point with the bard.  "Gabrielle, once Solari drops the flirtatious womanizer bit, there's a real, loving person just dying to come out."

"But Pony - " Gabrielle saw the familiar ebony brow arch at the term of endearment, " - They have nicknames for each other.  And, you saw them together.  They make such a cute couple."

"So do Ephiny and Solari."  

"But, Ep will protect her just as fiercely as Solari.  And, for Eponin, it's not just a passing infatuation.  She'll still love Ephiny tomorrow.  And the day after that.  And, the day after that.  And, - "

"I get the idea."  Xena reached out, placing two fingers against Gabrielle's lips.  Crystal blue eyes gazing into determined, verdant green, she drolly remarked, "We could both make arguments for each of them until Apollo's chariot descends again.  Or, we could just let Ephiny make her own decision."  She paused, then pointedly added, "In her own time."  She could still see plans formulating in Gabrielle's head even as she spoke, "Without help from us."

"I guess you're right," Gabrielle relented at last.  She solemnly trailed after Xena, her step no longer having that extra bounce to it.

They'd managed to walk a few more candledrips before Gabrielle spoke again. "You know, Xena, I've been thinking."


"What?" Gabrielle asked, hurriedly glancing around, looking for brigands laying in wait or warlords on the horizon.

"You.  Thinking," Xena smirked.  "Almost always leads to trouble."

"See!"  Gabrielle snapped her fingers in triumph.  "You've just proven my point!  That's exactly what I was thinking about."

"Getting us into trouble?"  Her lips twitched playfully, a sardonic smile slowly edging her mouth.

"No.  That," she answered, turning, jabbing her fingers at Xena's brass breastplate.  "Aphrodite said your teasing is what you do when you're in love with someone."

"Yeah," Xena shrugged.

"You tease me all the time!"

"Yeahhh," Xena drew out the word, uneasy about where the bard was going with this.

"And, you were teasing Ephiny mercilessly at the village!"

"I was affected by the spell, too, Gabrielle."


"What?" the word was marked with a rather indignant air.  "I was.  You heard Aphrodite."

"I did.  And, she said the spell was an enhancement spell."  Her lively gait returned as she added in a sing-song voice, "It only amplifies what's already there."

"Meaning?"  The word was said dangerously low, matching the menacing look forming in Xena's eyes.

"You tease Ephiny all the time," Gabrielle repeated, then added in that same sing-song voice again, "You love her."

"She's nice," Xena admitted.  "I like her."

"Uh-huh."  Gabrielle let that go for half a heartbeat before adding, "You know, you tease Eponin and Solari a lot, too."

"I don't."  Xena's grip unconsciously tightened upon Argo's reins, making the mare snort her irritation.

"You do.  You know you do."  She was extremely proud of herself, as evidence by the wide grin on her face.  "Admit it, you like them."

"I'm comfortable around them."  Xena shrugged.  "Doesn't happen with a lot of people."

"You like my amazons."

"Gabrielle - " The name came out as a low, warning growl.

"Too-tough-for-my-leathers Xena likes my amazons."

"You know, there's a lake about a quarter mile down this road," Xena added a menacing glare to the threat.  "I wonder if an Amazon Queen can breathe underwater."

"I'd be scared if I didn't know what your teasing really meant."  Gabrielle stopped in the middle of the path, causing Xena to bump into her this time.  She turned, planting a kiss on Xena's lips.  Xena leaned in, quickly becoming lost in the teasing sensations of Gabrielle's tongue foraging in her mouth.  Gabrielle suddenly broke off the kiss, and with a smirk, leaned in to whisper huskily, "You think about doing that with Ephiny and Eponin, mighty warrior of mine?"

Xena remained rooted to the spot, a stunned expression on her face, mouth hanging open in disbelieving shock at Gabrielle's audacity as the bard slapped her hard on the rear and took off running down the road.  

"You can run, but you can't hide, Amazon Queen!"  shouted Xena, shaking off her astonishment and giving pursuit.

Gabrielle threw a taunt over her shoulder as she picked up the pace, rounding the next bend in the road and ducking out of sight.  Xena laughed evilly as she gave chase, already envisioning the dunking she'd give the bard when she finally caught her.

The End

Disclaimer:  Although there was a serious rash of nosebleeds suffered, no Amazons were irrevocably damaged in the production of this work.  However, Aphrodite did have a lot of explaining to do when Artemis returned.

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