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Legal Mumbo-Jumbo: I enjoy Xena and Gabrielle, but I do not own them. A wild bunch, known as Universal, MCA, RenPic and USA does. (The luck dogs!) Of course, if I did own them, well ... let's just say things would be different.

This story depicts love between two women. If this sends you into an apoplectic titter please spare yourself and find another story. If you are still in a school that refers to its levels by the use of the word "grades," stop reading. I do not want your parents mad at me. If you are in a state which makes such relationships a criminal offence, move immediately.

Comments are always welcome. Please send them to

This story begins where "A Family Affair" ends. I hope you enjoy it.


K. M. McHugh

"I'm searching for answers too." Unsure of how to phrase her next thought, Xena licked her lips. Marshaling her courage, she returned to Gabrielle's hazel eyes. "But, how we look for them doesn't matter, as long as we look for them together. You and me." It was as much a question as a statement. She looked away. Gabrielle had to make her own decision now, whether to continue with their quest or to end it here.

Gabrielle knew it too. She crossed the barn aware of the sound of the hay crushing beneath her feet. She paused for just a moment before sitting next to her warrior. Then placing her arm around her and laying her head upon the broad shoulder she conveyed her answer.

As the men finished moving the bodies of Hope and the Destroyer, the dark woman and the woman of light sat side by side. They had said all that was to be said. Xena rested her head on Gabrielle's taking in the scent that was so uniquely hers. The scent that she had come to believe she would never smell again. She was drunk with it. A tiny smiled played across her lips. Her Gabrielle came home to her.

They sat that way for over a candlemark' taking turns holding each other. They alternated between comforting and being comforted. Finally, Gabrielle stood and looked back solemnly at the woman she loved. "Come on," she said, gently pulling Xena up by her hand, "it's time to explain all of this to my family."

Xena grimaced and stole a furtive glance at the door. The bard observed her partner's reaction. "They've been really hard on you, haven't they?" She ventured.

Xena shrugged it off. "Well, they hate me." She threw out in an off handed manner.

"If I didn't know you so well, I wouldn't know how much that hurts you." Gabrielle countered, taking Xena's hand and kissing it softly.

"You know the weird part, Gabrielle? Lots of people hate me, and I don't care. For your sake I want them to like me, and I don't think that they ever will." This woman never ceased to amaze Gabrielle. She looked at her and the bard's heart almost broke. A fierce rush of protectiveness rose from within.

Xena recognized it almost as fast as it surfaced. She grabbed Gabrielle's arm to calm her. "Don't be mad at them. They thought that Hope was you."

Gabrielle acknowledged that. "You can stay here if you want." She said motioning about the barn. "I'd understand."

Xena shook her head. "No, I have spent two months trying to find you. I'm not ready to surrender you to your parents."

They both smiled as their eyes met. "Thanks." Gabrielle replied. Xena sighed out loud, then nodded. Taking the warrior by the hand together they crossed the courtyard.

The door swung easily open exposing the festering family wound. Dwindling flames from the hearth dimly lite the room. Lila had long since fled the silence to the comfort of her bedroom. Heroditist was standing in front of the fireplace, resting his head on his arm, while Hecuba leaned against the center wall staring.

The strawberry blond held tight to her warrior as she entered the dwelling. Hecuba lifted her eyes to receive them. Heroditist, feeling the draft of the open door on his back, swung around. Both pairs of eyes observed the woman who stood before them. They studied the way Xena looked at her. There was a difference, but was this the real Gabrielle? Both doubted their ability to tell.

Gabrielle was struck by how foreign the world she had long ago accepted must seem to them. How violated they must feel. They had welcomed what they thought was their daughter into their home. This simple man and woman had acted as any parents would, and tried to help her and give her a place to heal. But it was not their daughter. Instead it was their grand daughter; a child they were never told about and whom they could not understand. A child who would have destroyed them.

For two weeks she had stayed with them. Dragging the family from the safe confines of their life into a world, their imaginations would never even dare to construct. Now their real daughter appears, or so she claims.

Gabrielle felt the scrutiny as much as she saw it. Someone had to make the first move. The blond woman stepped forward. Clasping her mother's arms she whispered, "It's me, Mama."

Maybe it was the eyes or the tone of her voice, but there was a difference. Even beaten by the experiences, there was a glow which is unique to Gabrielle. Drawing the bard into an embrace, Hecuba acknowledged it first. She held her daughter tightly, sobbing and rocking back and forth.

Heroditist hesitated. He was not going to allow himself to be fooled again. Instead he watched Xena. As much as he hated to admit it, he knew that she would know. The warrior's eyes and smile were more relaxed, warmer, unlike the reserve she conveyed when she interacted with the other one. All the fear and stiffness had left her, and everything in her essence gave the impression of acceptance and love.

Gabrielle caught his eye. She waited for him to acknowledge her. Finally, as if pushed forward by some unearthly force he moved toward her. Catching his daughter in a fierce hug, Heroditist held his child close to him. For that moment nothing mattered. The bodies, the death, the deception were not important, because his baby was safe at home.

Xena averted her gaze. The family deserved a private reunion. She wandered to the fireplace to warm herself. The exhaustion and physical battering of the last few days weighed heavily on her. Resting her back against the hearth she slid to the floor and relaxed.

"Mom." Gabrielle breathed as she tenderly ushering her fragile mother to a nearby chair, "Come sit." Patting her father's hand, she motioned for him to sit too. When she was sure that they were settled the bard sought out her partner.

She knew that her parents wanted her to remain close to them, but she could not. As much as she loved them, she needed to be next to Xena. Not only did she need to explain to her parents what had happened, she needed to show her parents the place Xena held in her life.

Allowing them a window to see the delicate love between them, Gabrielle leaned down and brought her right hand up to gently cup the face of the warrior she had missed so. Unconsciously, Xena leaned into the affection. "Can I sit with you?"

A smile unwillingly crossed Xena's face as she patted the floor next to her. The bard gleefully accepted, nestling her back against Xena's chest then wrapped herself within the warrior's protective grasp.

Gabrielle cleared her throat and began. At first, her voice was soft but soon it filled the room. Drawing her audience in, she laid out the story of Britannia and Caesar and that horrible temple. She told of Hope's birth, Solan, Cerifan and her near death.

She felt Xena's heart beat faster and breath catch against her back. The bard sensed the barely controlled tension of her partner as she hit upon the more personal parts of the saga. The desperation, guilt and rawness were an essential part of the story, especially the guilt. Her guilt.

Suddenly, the bard realized that she was no longer was telling the story to her parents. She was trying to tell it to Xena. Trying again to say she was sorry. To apologize for not trusting her and for lying to the one person whom she loved. A person who trusted only her. Sorry seemed such a pathetic, inadequate word.

To Xena, the room had suddenly become too small, the air was too thin, and her heart was about to break. They never really talked about it. They just tried to go on, to rebuild. They avoided the places and stories which would take them back to those horrible days. When they did talk, they were careful to skip over the most delicate events to avoid breaking open the healing wounds. All was forgiven, but obviously not forgotten.

She tenderly untangled herself from Gabrielle's clutches. Mumbling something about having to check on things, she made it through the door. Turning back she caught the knowing glance from her partner as she escaped.

Xena shut the door behind her then leaned back against it. The cold, humid wind whipped the warrior's raven hair about her chiseled features. Tears stung her blue eyes.

Sitting down on the edge of the porch, the warrior mindlessly watched her boots dangling loosely below. That story... those events... were brutal. The things she said and did. As hard as she tried, Xena could not remember riding into that Amazon Village. The last thing she could recollect was standing on top of a mountain mourning. Grieving over Solon and the realization that choices that she had made long ago had stripped away any chance that her son ever had, even before he was born. That her alliance with Alti and her crazed desire to rule the world, no to make the world pay for her pain, had brought her there.

More than anything, she wailed over the loss of her new found peace. A happiness wrapped around the woman who owned her heart. The one person she trusted unequivocally and still loved so much it hurt. The one who she just stood side by side with as they buried their children, because Gabrielle lied. But the ravenous warrior inside of her was angry and wanted vengeance.

She remembers getting on the horse, but not riding. As she entered the town, she remembered wondering why she was there. Next she saw amazons surrounding her with spears and bows displaying an automatic assumption that she was the danger which had to be destroyed. Ephinany, Solari, Eponin, and a host of others looking at her as if she were an animal. She was hurting too, but no one wanted her pain, just Gabrielle's.

She has never been sure what she would have done if things were different when she rode into the village and the weapons hadn't been pointed at her. She had often wondered what would have happened if her presence had been treated as if she was another soul roaming through town. Xena knew she was crazy, probably even dangerous, but when she entered the enclave she still had no idea of what she was about to do. She was confused, Xena would be the first to admit it, but something snapped in her when she looked into Ephiny's eyes and saw the condemnation.

Next she remembered Gabrielle. Gabrielle running from her. Then, the part that troubles her the most ... how fast her humanity and love for the bard meant nothing. How effortlessly her dark side engulfed her and how quickly she made the decision to kill her beloved Gabrielle.

Tears of every emotion from relief to anger slid freely down her face. Xena knew that a lot had happened since that day. That all had been forgiven and that they had endured. Maybe not all, because the warrior was just not ready to forgive herself.

Xena looked to the heavens. "I promised you that if you gave me another change with Gabrielle, things would be different. I have made a promise that I intend to keep. To whatever God is responsible for bringing Gabrielle back to me... thank you."

Xena's suspended her contemplations when she heard foot steps approaching from inside the house. Glancing up she found Hecuba with a wool blanket tucked neatly under her arm, slipping from the door.

The older woman paused and studied Xena for an instant, then unfurled the blanket. Without waiting for permission she gingerly wrapped it around the warrior's shoulders.

"Thank you." Xena uttered.

Hecuba smiled and nodded, pulling her own shawl tight against the wind she sat down next to her daughter's friend. For a long time they sat quietly side by side surveying the courtyard with the sting of the cold wind nipping at their faces.

The mother cleared her throat. "A lot has happened."

Xena chuckled at the understatement.

"I'm glad that," Hecuba remarked pointing nervously toward the barn, "was not Gabrielle. She scared me. She had no soul." The mother confided. "I couldn't imagine what had happened to Gabrielle to change her that much."

Studying the open barn door across the yard, the older woman bit her lower lip thoughtfully. "I owe you an apology. When I could not make sense out of what happened to Gabrielle, I blamed you. Then when you came here, I treated you terribly. I couldn't imagine what had could have happened to cause such a transformation. It had to be because of you, because I had to believe in my daughter."

Xena realized that she could possibly feel worse than she did already. She took a deep breath and set her jaw.

"At first we thought you were dead," The mother continued. "But that did not seem to fit with how she was acting. Finally, she told us that you won't be coming back and that it was better that way. So I assumed that you did something to break her heart."

Xena examined what the woman was saying. Hope was an excellent strategist. She seized onto the distrust the family had for the ex-warlord and added to it through the innuendo and mystery. Knowing that if Xena did show up, anything the warrior told them would then be approached with an elevated disbelieve.

After a while Hecuba simply said, "Thank you for bringing the real Gabrielle back."

Xena smiled and nodded in acceptance.

"When Gabrielle ran away to follow you," Hecuba continued, "I hated you." Pale blue eyes rose to meet her gaze. Gabrielle had her eyes. "Every time I saw you and my daughter, I searched for some explanation to why she left and what she found in you." Xena started to speak, but was silenced by a calming wave of the mother's hand. A motion much like the one Xena's mother used. "I couldn't imagine what kind of spell you cast upon her." Hecuba shook her head letting out a deep breath. "I think it was last fall when you both came here for Heroditist's birthday. Gabrielle wanted so badly for you to take her to the dance at the harvest festival. She badgered you for two days."

Xena remembered. She never had any intention of the bard missing the festival or letting her go alone. It was just so much fun to tease her.

"Her father and I kept waiting for you to snap, or something." She said, letting her voice drop at the end. She quickly examined the warrior sitting next to her, then decided that it was safe for her to continue. "She was getting on our nerves. I was sure she was getting on your's too. But you never raised your voice or showed any sign of frustration. You just smiled and shook your head. The night of the dance you showed up at our door, dressed in the most beautiful blue tunic that I had ever seen. You took her by the hand, and even though you did not want to go, you took her to that dance."

Hecuba watched a blush flood Xena's face and smiled. "I remember thinking that only Gabrielle could have one of the most feared warlords wrapped so completely around her finger."

Xena turned her head away. Her voice cracked, "I love her."

"I know." Hecuba admitted. Their eyes met. "I know."

Xena allowed her guard to drop. She wanted Hecuba to see the depth of the love she held for her daughter. Hecuba took it in, appreciating what that small jester entailed.

"Xena, don't let your guilt get the best of you. You've come a long way. The two of you... are meant to be." Her voice sounded so much like the bards. "Now go to her." Hecuba said patting Xena's knee. "I'm sure she needs to be rescued from her father's nervous preaching."

Xena pushed herself to her feet and offered her hand to Hecuba. Gently she pulled the older woman to her feet. They stared into each other's eyes, then much to Xena's surprise the greying woman opened her arms and gathered the warrior into a hug.

"I put clean sheets on your bed, Gabrielle." Hecuba announced with a wink. Turning to Xena the older woman continued. "Its small, but I'm sure you two will be comfortable." Then shoving a disgruntled Lila into the master bedroom, she dragged her protesting husband in with her.

Xena and Gabrielle stared at each other in confusion. Gabrielle scratched her nose and contemplated the meaning of her mother's words. "Was that . . . ?" The bard stuttered, motioning toward her parent's door. "She thinks we're . . . lovers."

Xena paused as she considered the words. Unsure of how to answer, she shrugged. There was no question before Gabrielle fell into that pit where their relationship was going, but she was not going to presume now.

Gabrielle turned and studied the tiny brass horse sitting on the mantel which she gave to her father for his last birthday. She examined the uneven tooling near its eyes because it was easier to stare at that then it was to turn around and face Xena. "All of Greece thinks we are lovers." The bard stated flatly. "Ephiny about died laughing when she found out we weren't."

Xena found her eyes staring into Gabrielle's back. She was in unfamiliar territory and her first instinct was to run, but something more powerful compelled her to stay. "I've heard of worse things." Xena ventured, knowing that she just hazarded unto an emotional branch she could never innocently crawl off of.

"Do you ever think about the night on the beach after we got off that boat that flipped over?" Gabrielle asked, still fingering the horse.

The warrior took a deep breath, and ventured out further. "Yes, all of the time, especially, the kiss."

"Among other things." Gabrielle chuckled, surprised at the provocative tone that accompanied. Her hands were shaking. Gabrielle knew that Xena could see that too. She listened to the woman's breathing behind her. It was faint and irregular just like hers. The bard allowed the luxury of her mind wandering back to that white sand beach. "I don't think Autolycus was able to look me in the eye for the next week."

Xena laughed remembering the look on his face when he stepped into the doorway of their makeshift shelter and found Gabrielle kneeling before her topless. Xena's hands and mouth engrossed in their prize. "We finally," the warrior gestured with her hands, "and he has to walk in the middle of it."

"It's a shame that the captain died." Gabrielle commented.

Xena grinned seductively. "Especially right then."

"Do you still want that with me?" Gabrielle finally brought herself to ask.

Xena grinned at the bashful, yet hopeful tone in the bard's voice. The warrior closed the distance between them and wrapped her arms around her partner's shaking body. Gently she pulled them close. Nuzzling the top of Gabrielle's head with her cheek, "Uh huh," the warrior purred. "I think we have been lovers for a long time. We just never . . . you know." That was mature, Xena thought to herself.

Gabrielle agreed, smiling she turned to face her partner. Feeling the cold of Xena's armor mingling with the warmth of her body, Gabrielle shuddered then settled into the affection. She could feel their hearts adjusting to the contact then falling into a similar rhythm.

Xena considered what was happening for a long moment. Unable to break the eye contact, "I missed you so much," escaped from her lips.

The blond examined her warrior, then leaned in to lightly kiss the skin before her. Burying her face on Xena's chest she whispered, "When I was in that hospice, all I could think about was you. I wondered where you were? What you were eating? Were you taking care of yourself? I missed you like I would miss an arm or a leg."

Xena held her tighter. I don't deserve this. I never will. "I love you." She whispered, then looked down with brows arched in a silent question.

"I love you, too." Gabrielle answered. Wrapping her arms around the warrior's neck she watched Xena's eyes darken with desire. A look she knew she mirrored. Slowly, painfully, they closed the distance. Gabrielle shut her eyes and let her bounding heart take over. Their lips brushed tentatively at first. Then again with a little more confidence. Finally they met with passion as each mouth opened and allowed their tongues to stoke an internal flame.

As if on cue, a coughing, gacking sound erupted from the parents room as Heroditist tried in vain to clear his throat. Gabrielle rolled her eyes and mumbled a curse to the Gods while Xena shot a wicked glance toward the door. "That's lovely." The bard commented, patting Xena on the chest. "Thank you for not ever doing that."

Gabrielle broke the contact. Trying to regain her composure she wandered about the eating area tiding up. Try, as she might, she could not calm the odd mix of desire and fear she felt from deep within. It seemed strange to her that as much as they had been through they were able to get to past it and arrive here on the edge of absolute surrender. "This will change everything." The bard commented, more to herself then her partner.

Xena leaned against the center post. "Uh huh." She confirmed. "Are you up for that?"

The bard shrugged then approached her warrior, "I won't say that I'm not scared, but yeah I think so. After all, in my mind we've been together, well... let's just say for a long time."

"Me too." The warrior admitted warmly. Her heart was beating out of control.

Taking the larger hand within hers, Gabrielle ran her fingers along the warrior's sensitive palm.

She was rewarded by the soft sigh. "There is the bathing hut out back." She said shyly, motioning with her head.

The warrior's left brow arched to join the right as a genuine smile crossed Xena's face. "Alright." She said with a low voice. Then draping an arm over her partner's shoulder she allowed herself willingly to be led from the house.

The bathing hut is a starkly furnished utilitarian structure with a large tub placed in the middle of the room. Next to the tub is a hole in the ground where a hot mineral spring bubbled to the surface. There were two chairs positioned against the wall next to the hearth.

With a kiss, Xena turned her attention to the remnants of coals which still inhabited the fireplace. Carefully, she added a few small sticks of wood and blew on the embers then nursed the sparks into a comfortable blaze.

After stoking the fire, Xena turned her attention to her partner who was still filling the tub. As each bucket was poured, Xena's heart beat wilder with anticipation and fear. Louder than it ever had for any battle.

What an alluring combination of love and desire the warrior felt for her. More than anything, she felt respect. This confident, beautiful woman tamed the cruel warlord she had become. Many before her had tried to do that, but they approached it all wrong. Xena was not a child who needed to be taught, she was a woman in pain. Gabrielle tamed her by doing nothing more than asking her why.

With that realization, came another. That Gabrielle has paid dearly for her efforts. She lost her innocense, her child and a husband. She has seen a side of people that no one should understand. But, unlike Xena she never turned back, she never hid and she never became cruel.

Needing sanctuary from her self-deprecating mind, she began to fumbled with the clasps on her armor. Gabrielle poured the last of the water into the wooden tub then turned her attention to Xena. "Let me get that." She said, as she approached.

Xena fixed her gaze on the younger woman. Reveling in the attention, she lifted her arm allowing access. Gabrielle's touch was delicious, leaving the warrior wanting more. She watched Gabrielle work the leather straps free of the buckles.

As Gabrielle finished removing Xena's armor, she watched a pained expression whisk across her warrior's face. With that change in Xena, her own insecurities resurfaced. "If you don't want... "

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I do." The blue eyes warmed.

"So what's the problem?" The bard questioned.

"I keep thinking about dragging you behind Argo." Came the blunt answer. Xena was not completely sure she knew where the answer came from, but it was brutally honest.

Gabrielle stepped back and regarded her partner. In a low whisper she simply said, "Let it go."

"I can't." Xena admitted.

Gabrielle looked at her then glanced over to the fire. Moving past the warrior she added another log. "Have you forgiven me?" It was a question she had to ask. She had assumed that Xena had, but like everything else uncomfortable she had just chosen to never bring it up.

"Yes." The answer came from her heart without apprehension.

"I forgave you too." Gabrielle conceded softly.

"How? How could you forgive me for trying to kill you?" The warrior asked.

Gabrielle watched shame crease the gentle features before her. Forgiveness is something Xena did not allowed herself. Her quest for redemption was a monument to that. The bard could only guess that hurting her bore a terrible weight. The pain was overwhelming. So much so that the bard felt it too. Not wanting to let her mind revisit that time again, she chose not to trade guilts. "We all falter. Let it go."

The light from the fire cast the room in a golden glow. Xena looked down upon her love. "I am so sorry, Gabrielle. I can't imagine ever being in that place again. I get physically sick every time I think of it."

Green eyes met blue. "It's easy." Gabrielle whispered softly.

Xena allowed the absolution in her partner's voice wash over her. "Let it go?"

Desperate to change the subject, Gabrielle gave her a genuine smile and nodded her head. "I love that look." The bard confessed as she lowered herself warily into the closest chair.

"What look?" The warrior asked, knowing full well what she meant. It was a look she reserved solely for the bard.

"After you fight you always find me and you give me that look to tell me that you're okay." She explained as she struggled with her boots.

Once wrestling them free, Gabrielle examined the filth under her nails. Turning her attention to a smudge on her thigh, she chuckled. "Looks like an eagle."

Xena straightened to her full height and approached her friend with a smile. She cocked her head to the side. "No," she said hoarsely, dropping to her knees, "I'd say more like a bat." Then like her hand had a mind of its own, she lightly traced the shape with her finger tip.

Gabrielle let out a soft moan, then gazed into the warrior's eyes. She put her hand on Xena's curving her fingers gently around her hand. "There's so much guilt. We can live in the past or go forward, Xena. I chose forward."

Xena gave her a tiny smile. "I love you."

The bard brought her hands tentatively up and placed them on the other woman's shoulders. Biting her lip pensively, she looked up and away trying to arrange the next part of what she wanted to say. Xena waited, a hint of a smile on her face. After a heart beat or two she decided to change the conversation. "The water's warm, shall we jump in?"

Gabrielle got up and walked past the warrior to the tub. Checking the water temperature she shook her head. Glancing over at Xena, she smiled then dumped another bucket of hot water in then tested it again. This time it got a nod of approval.

As Xena watched, Gabrielle undid her top and removed it. The warrior woman suddenly found herself mesmerized, licking her lips. The bard smiled coyly as she unfastened her belt and allowed her skirt to fall to the floor in a heap. As she pulled down her britches, she regarded the warrior. "You are going to take all of that off before you get in, aren't you?"

Xena was amazed by Gabrielle's confidence, because the warrior was aware of many emotions, confidence not being one of them. She smiled nervously, then set to the task of removing her own battle gear. As she did so she could feel Gabrielle's eyes upon her. When the warrior hazard a glance, the bard made no effort to avert her eyes or mask the desire she was feeling.

Gabrielle watched her warrior. As Xena approached the tub, the bard took in a deep breath. This act which they were about to set to seemed so natural for them. A part of their connection that they both had accepted months ago, but something always seemed to get in the way. First there was Joxer, a friend which always showed up at the most inopportune times. Then after almost dying in a capsized boat, Autolycus walked in on them. And then, to protect her friend, she jumped into the lava pit carrying her daughter in with her.

There was a finality to this night. Like the dog who finally caught the wagon, only Gabrielle knew what she was going to do with it. "Here you get in front and I'll wash your back." She said to her warrior. Xena nodded and got in.

The warmth of the water brought some relief from the tension within the warrior. She leaned forward and enjoyed the feel of Gabrielle's hands cleansing and massaging in patient exploration. Gabrielle was right. It was easy to just let go. Xena found herself doing just that as the bard's hands wandered over her body.

She turned to face her partner. Placing her hands around Gabrielle's waist Xena leaned back and pulled her bard on top of her. Again they kissed, but this kiss was different then any of their previous ones. It was a kiss of acceptance.

Gabrielle moaned and Xena smiled at the sound, knowing that she can bring something other than pain to her young partner. The more Gabrielle accepted and received the more Xena wanted to give. After all of the pain, each could finally accept the pleasure offered by the other.

For the ex-warlord it was the first time there was a balance to taking and giving. Anything she had ever done before was simply a dress rehearsal for this moment.

Their actions were of two people who knew the other better then possibly they knew themselves. A gift so free of a price. A gift which is given from the soul. Their love, looming for so long, finally was allowed to pass easily between them.

There are many things in life which carries a price which is undetectable at the time. And maybe this love would be one, but at this moment neither one cared. Their cares were for each other. To give the ultimate gift, a heart forever.

The midmorning sun cast a sterile light around the sparsely furnished room. Two larger than average beds filled most of the space. One bed was still made which usually held Lila the other occupied two unclad women splayed in a lover's embrace. In the corner were two linen presses, one for Lila and the other filled with the treasures of the prodical daughter. The child who slipped into the night, and would one day understand the error in her ways and return home. Everything had to be left exactly as she left it, so when she does come back she will not be frightened off.

For three years it has been that way, with two false starts, and a half dozen strained stopovers. The first when she returned home to marry Peridicus. She was married one day, then he was dead the next. After that she left again, not returning until now.

Gabrielle awoke on her left side with Xena spooned comfortably against her back. Her lover's strong arm draped over her, their fingers entwined. The steady sound of Xena's somnolent breathing was the first thing Gabrielle was aware of. Next was that she had slept through the night. She kissed Xena's hand causing the warrior to stir slightly, but not wake.

Gabrielle smiled. She felt more like a woman than she had in sometime. Love does that, she mused.

Her mind wandered back to before she jumped into the lava pit. Memories of waking up with Xena draped over her much like she was now. How she missed the musky smell of leather and rose soap, which was her partner. With that thought Gabrielle nestled into the warmth of the body behind her. Her thoughts drew her back to happy times. Before Britannia and Caesar when things were simpler.

The weather had been cold and bitter. It had chilled us to the bone. Xena had led us into the hills hoping to find a cave, but none was to be found. So she built us a moss-covered lean-to for shelter.

No matter how hard Xena had tried to keep the fire going, the wood was just to wet to put out any discernible heat. Both of us had wrapped ourselves in our cloaks, but the wind and drizzle still cut through. I had put off laying out the sleeping skins because I did not want them to get damp from the constant mist.

Xena banked the fire with the rest of the wood then paced nervously. Twice she started to say something but stifled herself. Finally, she blurted out something about conservation of body heat and then timidly suggested that we sleep together.

Her expression was that of a little kid, unsure and apprehensive. It was not often that she let me see her like that, and I think that I am the only one who she let see that side of her.

We slept together that night, and the next. In fact, we slept together all through the winter. By the time the summer came it was so much a part of our daily ritual that we just continued. Neither one of us said anything because neither wanted to rock the boat, because it fulfilled a need in both of us.

"Good morning." The bard felt rumbling through her as much as heard.

"Good morning, sleepy head." Gabrielle giggled and rolled over to face her lover.

They stared into each other's eyes. Both gauging the other's reaction, then finding nothing but acceptance, each women dropped their guard.

"I love you, Xena" Gabrielle said as she looked into her lovers face. Accepting her lips as they brushed against hers. That simple act sent shivers through her, unlike anything that she dreamed of in her fevered imagination. She reached a hand to Xena's jaw and gently traced the lines of the muscles beneath. Still reveling in the passions of earlier and the promise of what was to come.

Xena rolled on top of the bard carefully settling her weight so not to crush her. "I love you too," she responded leaning in to kiss Gabrielle squarely on the nose. "Any regrets?" Xena asked, fearing the answer.

"No." Gabrielle responded flatly. "You?"

"One." Xena stopped when she felt Gabrielle tense. She held her tighter thwarting any escape attempt. "That we waited so long."

The bard drew her sight inside her. After a moment she looked to Xena. "I don't think we were ready . . . until now."

The warrior agreed. Running her fingers through the blond locks, Xena contemplated the ramifications of this new part of their relationship. Letting out a sigh, she acquiesced to her new life. "Forever." She pledged.

Blond lashed fluttered as they struggled with a tear. "Forever." Gabrielle returned.

The bard wrapped her hand in the long black mane and directed their lips together. Xena was a willing recipient. Face it Xena, things will never be the same, the warrior woman mused.

They both jumped as a copper kettle hit the floor just outside their door. Xena supported herself on her elbow and looked over the bard toward the kitchen.

"Mother's up." Gabrielle muttered as she rolled unto her back.

Xena kept her eye on the door. "It's pretty late. Do you think she's mad?"

"No worse." Xena lifted a dark brow in question to her partner. Gabrielle stole a glance toward the door. "She's cooking."

The End.

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