Deception Most Wondrous
by Sharona

Warning! These characters (and sadly, the actors who portray them) do not belong to me. They are the sole property of Universal/MCA. This story contains subject matter which those under 18 (or those with little tolerance) have no business reading. Beware reader! Beware!

"And the inquisitive clergyman, once excommunicated, fled south where he founded his own commune in the woods," Gabrielle concluded over the warrior's shoulder as they rode westward astride Argo.

Xena smirked, though the bard could not see this from her position behind her. "And what of the young sheep?" she asked jokingly. "What became of her?"

"Oh," Gabrielle responded as she thought. "She went back to her life among the other farm animals. By the end of the day she had forgotten all about him."

"How moving," Xena said dryly. Her eyes scanned the lush countryside before them as they continued on. "Bard on, good woman," she encouraged with a light brush of Gabrielle's hand as it rested around the warrior's armored waist.

The blonde raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Are you serious?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean," Gabrielle explained, "that it is a rare occasion when this warrior asks for a story at all, and rarer still when she asks for an encore." The bard scowled for a second. "Is it that much longer until we get where we're going?"

Xena chuckled. "No, not at all. I was just enjoying the distraction is all," she clarified. Of course, what Xena didn't tell her young bard was that the distraction she sought was from the feel of Gabrielle so very close behind her. It seemed lately all Xena could think about was Gabrielle and she in one prone position or another. At night she would lay next to the blonde, sleep seeming impossible as she watched her companion's chest rise and fall with each intake of breath.

How did things get to be so complicated? Xena wondered when exactly she had fallen totally in love with Gabrielle. Was it before they had separated and then come back together? Yes, undoubtedly. Before Gabrielle left her to marry Perdicas? Probably. It all seemed a blur to her now, but somewhere in the span of the last few years it had happened. Friendship and devotion were replaced by love and longing, at least in Xena's mind anyway.

"Well," the bard began, pleased by Xena's interest in her story-telling. "Have I told you the one about the two lovers"-

"Yup," Xena interrupted quickly. Gods, why did she always have to tell stories about lovers or sex of some kind? Was she trying to torture her?

"You didn't even let me finish telling you which story it was," Gabrielle protested, her breasts rhythmically brushing against the warrior's back as their horse gently trotted along.

"The one where the gods punish the young lovers by making the man's organ the size of a cypress tree?"

"It was a poplar tree," Gabrielle corrected with a laugh. "And no, I was not going to tell that one."

"Oh," the warrior sighed. "I guess I was thinking of bald cypress."

Xena could feel the bard's body shake with laughter. "I guess that does have a better ring to it," Gabrielle conceded. "I must remember that next time I'm telling that story."

Why did Gabrielle smell so damned good? Xena let her mind drift off again to thoughts of running her hands down Gabrielle's muscular body. Damn, damn, damn! Why did she do this to herself?

"Well then," the bard began, "why don't you do the talking for a bit?"


"Tell me about this man we are on our way to meet."

"Imbrius?" Xena cleared her throat as she tried to focus her attention on the conversation with Gabrielle's beautiful face only inches from hers. "I really don't know him well at all. It's been years since I have seen him."

"So you knew him when you were… not very… nice?" Gabrielle coaxed diplomatically.

"We were really only ever acquaintances."

The bard paused. "So that means you were never his lover?"

"I fail to see the relevance of your question," the warrior chastised, "but no, we were never intimate."

Xena's eyebrow arched in curiosity. "Why good?"

"Because Xena, it is rather daunting for me to continually meet your jilted paramours and have to endure their wrath and bitterness."

"Ha! What jilted paramours? You make it sound like there's a whole pack of 'em or something!"

"Caesar, for starters," Gabrielle began.

"You call him jilted? He tried to crucify me! I'd hardly call that an act of affection."

"Marcus," she continued.

"He's dead! How can he count?"

"Draco," the bard added.

"Come on, that whole thing was very… unusual."

"There's Ulysses."

"He had a wife, Gabrielle. He,"-

"Borias. Let's not forget him."

Xena sighed in resignation. "Now wait a second."

"Oh, and Iolaus," Gabrielle blurted out.

"Well, okay. He was jilted. But now he's our friend so I don't think"-

"And there's always Hercules."

Xena stopped Argo and turned in the saddle so she could see Gabrielle's face. "What is this? Are you keeping score, or something?"

Gabrielle smiled. "Yup. Xena - thirty-six, Gabrielle - one."

"Oh, really?" Xena answered, her voice laden with retaliation. "Is that how it is?"

"That's certainly how it seems," the bard quipped courageously, the smile never leaving her face.

Xena turned back and urged the horse to continue, feeling spiteful. "It sounds to me like you're a little jealous."

Gabrielle balked. "Jealous of what?"

"That I am so widely… admired."

"Is that what you call it?"

"Or maybe you're not jealous of me," the warrior interjected. "Maybe you're jealous of those who have been *with* me."

There was a silence that enabled Xena to bite her lower lip and wonder what the hell she had been thinking to blurt that out. Not too cool, she thought, braced for Gabrielle's response.

"You think so?" the bard asked nonchalantly.

Xena sighed in relief. "Lucky for you I don't get around much any more." Fortunately, that jealousy thing got left by the side of the road, where it belonged.

"Well, you can't have any wild oats left to sow, Xena. I just figured you ran out," Gabrielle remarked with a grin.

"You never know where I might be hiding them."

Gabrielle chuckled at that. "So what is this man's name? Im…"

"Imbrius. When I knew him he was a mercenary."

"How noble."

"Well, you know I only ran in the finest circles," Xena joked. "He wasn't a *bad* guy, I guess."

"Ah, *that's* why you didn't sleep with him!"

Xena smirked. "You know, you sound like a lady who wants to walk the rest of the way."

"Sorry, sorry. So in his message he just said he wanted to meet you? He didn't say why?"

"Just that he had a favor to ask. And that he would make it worth my while." Xena examined the burned-out remains that were now coming into view in the distance. "Those must be the ruins he spoke of in the message. We are to meet him there."

The women dismounted and as night began to fall Gabrielle quickly gathered firewood while Xena searched for game. Only able to ensnare a single rabbit, the warrior returned to camp a bit dejected, but when she saw that Gabrielle had begun a vegetable soup in her absence, her mood lightened.

Just then, the sound of hoofbeats rose softly in the distance.

"Do you think that's him?" Gabrielle wondered aloud.

Xena did not answer, but instead looked in the direction of the sound as it grew louder. When she saw the horseman's silhouette against the sunset she knew. "Yeah. That's him."

The man stopped his horse when it was thirty or so yards away, and walked to their camp with a swagger.

"Xena! It was so good of you to come!" he said grandiosely, moving toward her to give the warrior a hug. When Xena bristled at his proximity, Imbrius stopped his approach. Xena extended her hand and the two awkwardly grasped forearms in fellowship. Gabrielle watched the whole thing with great amusement.

"Imbrius," Xena began. "How are you?"

"I am well," he said with an air of pomposity, his hands moving to his hips. He was not an unattractive man, Gabrielle thought. But he was… well, strange-looking. His blonde hair was cut extremely close to his scalp, and his Adam's apple protruded severely from his rather slender neck. He was tall, yet very thin also, making him seem much less imposing than his height should have ensured.

"This is Gabrielle," Xena introduced. "She is my… partner."

Imbrius bowed to her in an almost silly fashion as Gabrielle stood. "Good evening, dear lady."


"Well, Imbrius," Xena began, irritated slightly by his overt flirtations with her bard. "You look to have had some success. You have a beautiful horse, an expensive saddle, the finest clothes."

"Thank you," he replied, rubbing the fabric of his shirt self-consciously.

"What gives?" the warrior asked brusquely.

"Xena," Gabrielle chastised, not sure why the warrior was being so… blunt.

Imbrius laughed. "You haven't changed at all," he blurted out. "You still have no tact or sensitivity."

Xena scowled at the criticism. "And you still have no charm or humility."

"Didn't you two say you were old friends?" Gabrielle questioned in an attempt to keep the peace. "Imbrius, would you like some soup?"

He smiled broadly at her, mistaking her hospitality for flirtation. "Thank you, my lovely. I would be honored to break bread with such a beautiful…" He looked over to see the warrior glaring at him. "…partner of Xena's."

Gabrielle served him a bowl and the three sat down around the fire.

"So did you finally make that one big score?" Xena asked him as she accepted a bowl of soup from Gabrielle.

"Well, I guess you could say that. I married an extremely wealthy woman."

"Really? Around here?" the bard queried casually. "This doesn't seem like a very wealthy area."

"Well, it once was. In fact these ruins used to be a great temple of learning. People came from all over to attend it. The finest scholars in the world gave lectures here."

"Really?" Gabrielle was fascinated.

"Oh, yes," he went on. "It burned to the ground many years ago and since then the town has lost a number of its residents. My wife is the daughter of a wealthy landowner. She had quite a sizeable dowry."

"Do you like this woman at all?" Xena inquired thoughtfully.

"What?" Imbrius was caught off guard by the question.

"I only ask because you have yet to comment on her demeanor or her beauty. But you have commented excessively on her wealth."

Imbrius smiled. "You always did have a sixth sense, Xena."

Gabrielle scowled. "So you really don't like her?"

"She is fine. But she is not why I summoned you," he stated. "I sent you that message because I have heard of your heroic deeds, Xena… and of your change of heart. It is known to many that you will offer to risk yourself for others in need. I, my old friend, am in need."

"Really," Xena said, almost to herself, cocking one eyebrow.

"You see," he continued. "There have been attempts made on my life."

The two women said nothing. And when all that could be heard was the slurping of soup he elaborated. "Three times in the last fortnight to be exact. Someone wishes me dead."

"Do you know who?" Gabrielle asked.

"Well, it would be a lie to say that I have made no enemies in my life. But I have broken no laws for quite some time now."

Gabrielle smiled. "Well, from my experiences, enemies seem to linger a lot. They pop up out of nowhere after years of dormancy."

His eyes widened in surprise. "You, young thing, have enemies?"

"Well no," she answered matter of factly. "But Xena sure does."

"I have no doubts," he laughed, scratching his chin. "On the last attempt on my life we caught the vile perpetrator."

"So what's the problem?" Xena posed. "You have your killer."

"No. I have one of a group of killers."

"Who is he?" the bard questioned.

Imbrius looked at the ground. "You mean *she*."

"A woman tried to kill you?" Xena smirked.

"She has yet to tell me who her accomplices are and why they seek my death. All I know is what I was able to find out from others, that she is one of a group of women who straggle about the area, and that the leader of that group is a woman named Cardea."

Xena scowled. "And you don't know either of these women?"

"No. That is why I have summoned you. I want you to find out who these women are and what they want. Tell them I will give them anything they desire, gold, jewels, land… whatever. In return, I will reward you handsomely."

"I don't usually hire myself out," Xena stated casually.

His face fell. "No?"

"Nope." Xena was enjoying toying with him.

"Not even for an old friend?" he whined.

Xena looked at him blankly. "Well, I guess there is something you could do for me," she began.


"Rebuild this temple of learning," she muttered with a flick of her wrist.

"What?" he rasped.

"That's a great idea," Gabrielle agreed.

"Rebuild this temple? This one here?" He seemed slow to grasp the concept.

"It would do a lot for this town," Xena argued. "You could even name it after yourself."

"Hmm." Imbrius pondered that. "I quite like that idea. All right, Xena. I will do it. Do we have a deal?"

"Construction will begin tomorrow?" Xena asked skeptically.


"Then here is what we will do," the warrior began. "Gabrielle and I will enter town and try to find this woman Cardea and her friends. We won't tell anyone who we are or that we know you. Maybe then we can glean some information."

"Does your wife know about this?" Gabrielle asked.

"Oh no," Imbrius explained. "She is much too delicate for this type of thing. That's why I met you out here and not in our home. She is hopelessly in love with me, you see. And if she were to learn of my jeopardy, it would upset her beyond consoling."

"Well, that's sweet," the bard remarked.

"Besides," he added, "she's not very bright and it would probably take a long time to explain to her."


"Do you think we'll be around town long enough to see the temple of learning?" Gabrielle asked as they left the town stable, having boarded Argo for the night.

"I don't know," Xena answered. "Maybe."

"That was brilliant of you to suggest he name it after himself. That really seemed to sway him."

"Imbrius is a rather self-serving man. He always has been."

The bard paused in thought. "Xena, wouldn't you have liked to have that temple named after you?"

Xena smiled. She didn't have any need for a temple of learning. She had only suggested its reconstruction for two reasons: because the town was in great need of rejuvenation, and because she knew she would score a point with Gabrielle. "I hope to leave a legacy, yes. But that is not what I would want, to be associated with a place of speech-giving and philosophizing."

Gabrielle grinned. "I guess that's not really you, is it?"

"Besides, this way if I fail, his wife will have something to remember him by."

"How touching," the bard said, playfully shoving Xena as they approached the tavern.

Xena put out her arm to block Gabrielle's entrance. "All right. Here's the plan. When we get inside we'll split up."


"Because it will be easier for me to find out information that way," the warrior replied simply.

"What does that mean?" the blonde barked defensively.

"Gabrielle, these women will be… rough. They will not believe that you are like them at all."

"Oh, really?" Gabrielle spun her staff in the air twice and brought it out to the side, knocking Xena's feet from under her and sending the warrior unexpectedly to the ground. "Out of my way, bitch," she hissed, then stepped inside the tavern, leaving Xena on her rump in the street.

"That was good," Xena conceded, pulling herself to her feet. "Very impressive," she mumbled as she brushed herself off. "You have one coming, Blondie."

As Xena stepped into the darkened tavern she was instantly hit with a smell that was a mixture of wood and vomit (not a pleasing combo). Gabrielle was standing inside attempting to look foreboding, a caricature of a snarl on her face. The sight of it almost made Xena laugh out loud. She approached her bard. "Don't go overboard, okay?" she whispered.

"Too much?" the blonde asked somewhat self-consciously.

"Maybe a bit. Let's get a drink over there," she directed, pointing to a table near a young woman who was alone. She looked every bit the outlaw, Xena thought. She wore armor and a sword.

The duo made their way to the table near her and sat. "Tavernkeep!" Gabrielle shouted, thumping the table loudly.

"Will you cut that out?" Xena scolded quietly, attempting to not make a scene.

"What will it be ladies?" asked the tavernwench as she scurried to their table.

"Port!" the bard answered without hesitation. "And leave the bottle."

"Gabrielle!" Xena grumbled through her teeth.

Gabrielle looked to the woman next to them and saw she was staring at them. "I'm telling you, Aetna," she began loudly so the woman could overhear. "I think this town is dead. There's no action here."

"Aetna?" Xena asked in a whisper, surprised at how Gabrielle was taking off with this charade on her own.

"We might as well leave tonight," she continued with a grand and overly dramatic gesture. "Cardea would never hang around a ghost town like this."

The tavernwench brought them both a glass of port and the bottle. She deposited it all on the table and darted away meekly.

"Did you say Cardea?" came a sultry voice from behind them.

Gabrielle took a swig of port and nearly spit it across the table in revulsion. With great effort she choked the vile stuff down, much to the amusement of the warrior princess at her table.

"Yes," Xena answered the woman, trying to hide her delight in Gabrielle's thinly-veiled theatrics. "Why, do you know her?"

The woman studied them a moment, squinting. "I might." Xena kicked the empty chair at their table out slightly in a cool invitation to sit. The woman did so, still obviously not at ease. "What do want with her?"

Gabrielle still struggled to regain her composure fully after swallowing what tasted like liquid fire. "We heard she was a woman who… shared our interests," Xena stated flatly, looking about the tavern suspiciously, as though she feared being watched.

The woman tilted her head slightly in appraisal. "What interests would those be?" she asked warily.

"We were told of Cardea's ways," Gabrielle explained. "We admire them and wish to join her."

The brunette warrior looked stunned and she stared at them, alternating between the ebony-haired, hard-looking one and the blonde, nubile one. "So… you two are together?" she asked skeptically.

"Absolutely," Gabrielle blurted out, not really understanding the question.

"Well, I'm Cilla," the woman said with a nod. "I can take you to her if you like."

"Great," said Xena. "I'm… Aetna," she said, fumbling for the name Gabrielle had used. She grinned vindictively. "And this is Eupoloemeia," she added, motioning to Gabrielle. The bard's eyes shot open wide at the christening. "But we all just call her Eupie," Xena explained.

"Where did you hear of Cardea?" Cilla questioned before taking a long drink of her ale.

"Her reputation precedes her," Xena explained. "She must know that."

Cilla nodded. "Though, if you ask me, she overestimates her celebrity."

Gabrielle once again tried the port before her, not wanting to look like a pantywaist. This time however, she took a much smaller sip and found it easier to ingest. Xena herself threw back her glass and polished it off, gaining the appreciation of Cilla, who now wondered if this Aetna could drink even Cardea under the table.

"When can we go?" asked Xena, banging her now empty glass on the table and sighing.

Cilla refilled it for her. "I must meet with a man about some arrangements which need to be made," she explained. "As soon as that is done, we can go. Until then, enjoy your drinks." She stood then. "I'll be back." And with that, she walked out the door.

"Do you think she believed us?" Xena asked quietly.

"Eupie?!" Gabrielle snapped. "What in Tartarus is that about?"

Xena grinned. "That will teach you to swing your staff at me, child."

Gabrielle sneered. "Yeah? Well this child kicked your"-

"Surely you don't think that was for any other reason than that I let it happen," the warrior interrupted coolly before finishing off another glass of port.

"Pride hurt a little?" the bard cooed into her port. After the first few gulps, she mused, it hardly burned at all going down.

"Not at all… Eupie."

Xena and Gabrielle followed Cilla out of the town and into a heavily wooded area, only the moonlight providing a beacon for them through the darkness. Xena made a mental note of the position of the stars so that if trouble arose she knew which way to head to return to civilization. After a time, the women reached a small campsite, populated by three other females.

"Cilla!" an attractive light-haired woman in leather exclaimed excitedly as she jumped to her feet and closed the distance between them. "You were gone so long I was worried!" With that, the woman put her hands to Cilla's face and placed a kiss upon her that rivalled any kiss that Xena or Gabrielle had ever before seen, heard of, or ever taken part in.

Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other in wide-eyed shock as the two women continued to kiss, their mouths openly probing each other in delicious urgency. When the two at last separated, there seemed to be a new nervousness hanging in the air.

"Cilla," her lover asked curiously. "Who are these two?"

Cilla took the woman's hand and motioned for Xena and Gabrielle to follow them toward the campfire. "Ladies, this is Aetna, and Eupie. I met them in town. They have been looking for Cardea for quite a time."

"So you just… brought them here?" a heavy-set woman asked irately. "You don't know anything about them!"

"Cardea," Cilla began. "I am not as foolish as you think."

The larger woman stepped into the light and Xena summed her up. She looked to be quite strong, and a bit older than Xena. She also looked quite… crabby.

"And just how foolish is that?" Cardea asked with a growl.

"Trust me," Cilla began earnestly, "I know that you said we needed a few more pair of hands. I found you some."

Gabrielle gulped loudly. Just exactly what was this all about? Maybe she would have done better to listen to Xena and not come along. Of course, whenever that was the case she always seemed to end up waiting for Xena somewhere with a knife at her throat. Oh well, she mused. It's best not to give her the satisfaction…

"Hands for what?" Xena asked.

"We have a plan to make a nice sum of money,"- Cilla began.

"That's enough!" another woman barked, her face hidden by the shadows. "How much of our plans have you stupidly blabbered to these women?"

"I'm telling you, they were seeking us. They knew all about us."

The smaller woman came into the firelight, the ochre shades making her seem vibrant and foreboding. "Hmm. I do like this one," she cooed as she approached Gabrielle. The bard did not move, but watched her intently.

"Metra," Cilla admonished.

"Surely you must have noticed this… jewel, Cilla" Metra stated as she appraisingly circled Gabrielle. As her hand moved out to touch the bard's hair, Xena's hand intercepted it.

"Leave her. She's mine."

Metra smiled in amusement at this warrior woman who towered over her. "Really?"

"I tried to tell you that," Cilla started.

"And you," Metra asked Gabrielle, "wish to be with… her?"

"Oh yes," Gabrielle blurted out, putting her arm around Xena and pulling her close. "She's my woman," she volunteered nervously, resting her head on Xena's shoulder awkwardly.

Xena eyed Metra defensively until the woman took a few steps back. "What an interesting couple you two make," she muttered.

"Ladies," Cilla began again, "this is Lara." She motioned to the woman holding her hand. "You have already met Cardea and Metra."

"Charmed," Xena pronounced coldly.

"Really, Metra," Lara chastised. "Elissa has not been gone more than four moons and you already seek the company of another?"

Metra's face hardened. "I don't remember tasking you with maintaining my personal affairs, Lara."

"Well," Cilla broke in, attempting to smooth things over. "It is obvious these two are in love," she announced motioning to Xena and Gabrielle, who were still holding each other. "I could see it when I first laid eyes on them."

Xena bristled noticeably at the observation. Why had it not occurred to her that this group of outlaws would be daughters of Sappho? Now what was she going to do?

"Oh yes," Gabrielle volunteered a little too eagerly. "So in love! It is a sin how in love we are."

Four pair of eyes scowled at her intensely then. "Well, I don't mean a *sin* sin," she explained nervously. "Just… figuratively really… in a good way."

"This job you mean to do," Xena broke in. "If it has anything to do with some… man," she said, twisting her face into an expression of distaste. "Then count me in."

Cardea smiled at that, and walked toward the warrior. "Perhaps you and I have more in common than I thought." The heavy-set woman glanced to Metra to gauge her response, but the smaller woman gave none. "You truly have sought me out?"

"We have. Eupie and I," Xena began, laying it on as thick as she could, "well, we have crossed what feels like all of space and time to find a place where we really… fit in."

Lara put her hand on the warrior's forearm sympathetically. "I have felt that way before too."

Xena continued, confident her story was tugging heartstrings. "We desired nothing more than to be together in peace and harmony. But every time, some… *man* would get in the way," she spat dramatically. "Some mangy cur would interfere, and try to keep us apart."

Gabrielle watched wide-eyed as the falsehoods spilled over Xena's lips like the raging tide. The woman was absolutely amazing.

Cardea touched Xena's shoulder in at attempt at comfort. "You have done the right thing coming to me. We will be your hearth and home."

Xena feigned a swelling of great emotion. "Thank you," she sobbed.

Lara and Cilla then moved toward them then and all five women hugged. Gabrielle found it most bizarre. But Metra stayed outside the circle, still eyeing them with great wariness and perhaps a little… malevolence.

That night, Cardea told Xena and Gabrielle of her plan to extricate one of their comrades from her bonds in a nearby dungeon. It took no real deductive powers to realize that this woman was both the one who Imbrius captured attempting to kill him, and Elissa- Metra's… mate (or whatever she was).

Not once during all the conversation did Gabrielle move further than arm's length from Xena, and every moment possible she was touching the warrior- a hand on her knee, fingers intertwined with Xena's own- something. Xena had to admit that, while she had never been one in her life for clinginess, she really was enjoying this. The only problem with all this attention from the bard was that it was the result of fear, and not love, as Xena wanted it to be. But what the hell, she thought. Why not revel in it while it's here?

"So do we all understand our jobs?" Cardea asked slowly.

Everyone seemed to nod in assignation, and so one by one, they all rose to turn in for the evening.

"You two need a blanket?" Lara asked Gabrielle as she extended her own to her.

"Don't you need it?" the blonde asked, not really wanting to be in debt to any of these women.

"Oh no," Lara answered with a smile. "We'll have no problems keeping warm tonight. Trust me."

Gabrielle blushed at the comment and took the blanket shyly, mumbling her thanks.

"What was that about?" Xena asked as Gabrielle approached her with the blanket.

"Oh, Lara gave us this."

"Hmm. That was nice," the warrior commented, taking it from her and laying it on the ground. She removed her boots and greaves and her chakram, but put her sword very near her. Gabrielle shuddered as she pondered the placement of the weapon. "Come here," Xena whispered as she lay upon the blanket on her side.

Gabrielle removed her boots then as well, and did as she was told. The bard snuggled up closely to Xena, pressing the length of her back against her. Xena squinted into the distance and spied Metra glaring at them. Protectively she wrapped her arm around Gabrielle and pulled her even closer. "You sleep," she said softly in the bard's ear. "I won't let anything happen to you. I promise."

As Gabrielle awoke, it took a moment for her to recognize her surroundings. She was definitely on the ground, she thought as she rolled over and felt a twinge in her back. And she was definitely at a camp. She could smell the burning wood.

She opened her eyes to see several women moving about as though they had important tasks of some sort to perform. A short distance away she saw Xena, polishing her sword and talking to Cardea.

Now she remembered with a grimace. She was among that group of women who thought that she and Xena were… well… lovers. How had all this come to pass anyway? She sat up.

Xena noticed Gabrielle's attempt at motion and smiled. "Ah, it's about time."

"Sorry," was all the bard managed to reply as she rubbed her fingers over her temples.

Xena glanced to Cardea. "She's not a morning person."

"So I see," the portly woman responded with a grin. "Are you hungry, Eupie?"

"Who?" Gabrielle asked absently, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

Xena smiled awkwardly. "Cardea asked you a question, sugar plum," she explained slowly.

"Oh! Sure," Gabrielle asserted with a nod. "I can always eat."

Cardea winked Xena. "That's a good sign," she joked as she rose to get Gabrielle breakfast.

The warrior returned her attention to her sword. "Yeah, well I like my women with a healthy appetite," she explained.

"Me too," their hostess replied as she walked away.

Gabrielle approached Xena with a stretch. "How long do you think we'll have to keep this up?" she whispered.

"Not long. Once we free Elissa, we'll have a bartering tool. If Cardea and Metra won't settle for a lump sum from Imbrius, then we won't allow them to keep Elissa."

"So you want to just carry out their plan to free her?"

"Sure. If all goes as planned, by the time we are heading back here with her, I'll know everything about their motives and the deal will be on the table."

Gabrielle scowled. "But Xena, I don't trust these women. I don't have a good feeling about this."

"Don't worry, Gabrielle. Just play this game a little bit longer and it will all be over." Xena flinched a bit as she said it, and even though she was still looking at her sword when she did so, Gabrielle noticed it. "Your temple of learning will be up in no time."

"But I don't like the idea of splitting up," the blonde offered quietly. "What if"-

"You will be fine. Metra knows not to touch you or she will have me to answer to. Just remember, every endearment you utter to me will reinforce that to her." Xena smiled slightly at her own words. Was she trying to talk Gabrielle into this? Oh well, she mused. There would be plenty of time for guilt later.

Cardea returned with a plate of bread and butter. "Here you go, young thing," she sang, handing the food to Gabrielle. "Are you ready, Aetna? We need to start now if we mean to get to the stable before the morning is gone."

Xena returned her sword to its scabbard and nodded.

"Come on, Cilla," Cardea called.

Cilla rose from where she sat with Lara, and moved to join her leader and Xena. Lara followed her lover quickly and when Cilla stopped, Lara kissed her a searing kiss of goodbye.

"Be careful, my love," Lara rasped, stroking Cilla's cheek gently.

"You too," Cilla offered quietly.

The two separated and Cardea, Xena and Cilla turned to head back toward the town.

"Aetna!" came a sudden call from the campsite.

Xena turned to see Gabrielle walking toward her. The warrior's eyebrows arched in curiosity. "Yes?"

The bard closed the distance between the two of them in what seemed to Xena like one deft motion. Before the warrior had time to ready herself, Gabrielle's hands gently clasped Xena's face and she brought her lips to Xena's with a ferocity that caught even their audience off guard.

The kiss was a deep and forceful one. Gabrielle's hands made their way into Xena's hair as a small moan escaped the warrior who was now readily returning this affection. Xena wrapped her hands around the bard's waist and pulled Gabrielle to her as their tongues met in urgency.

"By the gods!" Cardea exclaimed. "You two are like animals!"

Xena tore her lips from Gabrielle's, though it felt like torture to stop. She gazed down into blue-green eyes so beautiful she felt her heart sing.

"Good luck, warrior mine," Gabrielle said breathlessly. "Don't get killed."

Xena's azure eyes were wide with emotion. "You either," she uttered softly. This was the best damn day of her life!

"Love you," whispered the bard.

"Love you too."

Metra scowled at the exchange, then watched Cardea practically wrench the warrior away from her pretty, young lover. What a shame, the woman thought. What a waste of a perfectly good blonde!

Gabrielle watched Xena as she walked out of sight into the dense forest and sighed. What a long day this would be, she thought.

"Wow," Lara began. "You two are really… something. When did you meet?"

"About three or so years ago," Gabrielle answered truthfully, going back to her breakfast while the other two women packed up their belongings. She laughed. "I saw her and I was truly moved beyond words," she explained as she thought back to the first time she and Xena had met.

"Really?" Lara asked. "Was it romantic?"

"Very. She saved my life."

"So you owe her something," Metra stated plainly. "Is that it?"

"I owe her everything," Gabrielle clarified. "But it is much more than that. *She* is much more than that."

"Hmm," Metra said with a hint of disappointment. "Let's get going. We have a woman to rescue."

By the time Gabrielle, Metra and Lara had made their way on foot to Imbrius' huge fortress of a home, the other women were all supposed to be ready and in place. Metra selected her hiding spot in a shady recess of tall trees, and Gabrielle and Lara walked slowly to the extravagant double doors.

"So Elissa is Metra's girlfriend? Or not?" the bard asked.

Lara chuckled. "Good question. We have all asked each other that at least a couple of times."

"She's not very… committed?"

"What do you think?" Lara countered. "She certainly expressed enough interest in you."

"Does Elissa know that Metra is… this way?"

"She is no different herself," Lara said with a giggle. "They deserve each other."

The two women were at the enormous doors then and Gabrielle tousled her hair a bit, and dishevelled Lara's as well. With her staff, Gabby pounded on the doors until a guard opened a small eye-level opening and studied them warily.


"Help us please, good sir," the bard implored, huffing as though she were out of breath and glancing over her shoulder in fear. "My sister and I were accosted on the road by a group of hooligans!"

"So?" was the response from the pair of eyes that studied her through the opening.

"What do you mean *so*?" Gabrielle asked in shock, propping her hands on her hips.

"What my sister means," Lara interjected, fingering her long, fair hair in a most seductive manner. "Is that if you come out here and help us catch them, we'll let you… you know… have a quickie." She practised her best naughty pout.

"Yeah?" the eyes said with a gleam.

"And bring a friend," Lara amended.

The opening slammed shut with a pronounced resonance and Gabrielle glared at Lara. "What was that?" she whispered.

"Improvisation," she answered with a shrug.

The doors blew open and two chain mail clad guards stood before them, looking most eager and randy.

"Where did the scum take off to?" one of them asked in his most virile-sounding voice.

Lara started to point to where Metra lay in waiting, but Gabrielle interrupted her and motioned in the opposite direction.

"Over that way," the bard explained, trying to seem weakened and distraught. The men looked at each other in great satisfaction and, closing the door behind them, took off in that direction. Gabrielle and Lara followed them.

Meanwhile, on the south side of the residence lurked Xena and Cardea obscured effectively by trees.

Cilla moved swiftly to where they stood with the horses. "The guards at the front gate are gone," she announced.

A smile curved on Cardea's lips. "Good. Now we only need worry about the two inside at the dungeon."

"How do you know so much about the defense of this home?" Xena queried curiously.

"I have my contacts," Cardea answered with a nod. "Let's go."

With Cilla staying behind with the horses, Xena and Cardea made their way to the south gate.

"I can scale this in no time," Xena assured her.

"I'm sure you could," she replied, pushing the gate open with her hand. "But today that won't be necessary."

The two slipped quietly through the fortress and, true to Cardea's word, she knew exactly how to reach the dungeon. The women hung back around the corner, listening for the voices of the guards. When Xena was certain of the guards' approximate location, she soared from around the corner and presented the first guard with an elbow to the head. Cardea merely watched as he crumpled to the ground before her.

The second guard actually required more than one blow, but after the debilitating kick to the stomach, the crushing impact to his head brought welcome darkness. Cardea stood dumbstruck, her unused sword dangling limply from her hand.

"By all that is holy!" she exclaimed.

Xena smirked. "That was nothing. You should seem me when I'm riled."

Gabrielle and Lara walked carefully through the area where they knew Metra to be hiding. "Metra?" Lara called unsurely. "It is us," she rasped in a poor effort at explanation.

Metra jumped down from a branch above them, startling both women. "Where are the guards?" she asked with irritation, her dagger still at the ready.

"Eupie convinced me that there was really no need to kill them," Lara explained brightly.

"She what?"

"We simply led them into cover," Lara continued. "And Eupie walloped them a few good ones with her staff." The slender woman made a few motions to simulate this for Metra as she elaborated. "Then when they were unconscious we tied them both to a tree."

"It really was the only humane thing to do," Gabrielle defended.

"Are you two insane?" Metra scolded. "What happens when they wake?"

"Oh, they're gagged," the bard explained with an air of satisfaction. "And naked."

Lara's eyes filled with mirth. "Did you see the tall one's big"-

"I don't believe you two!" Metra barked, turning to walk away from them in disgust.

"What's the problem?" Gabrielle asked as she and Lara fell in behind her.

Metra sighed. "The problem is the plan was to kill them. That's what Cardea said to do. And you have left them naked and tied to a tree! If this comes back on us I will not take the blame!"

Lara laughed. "You're just upset because you didn't get to do anything, Metra. Stop sulking."

"This is not sulking," the petite woman clarified. "If I were truly sulking, someone would be dead now."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Your monthly cycle hit you a little hard, did it?"

Metra stopped in shock. "What?"

"You really have a disposition problem," the bard explained as she walked on, leaving Metra standing alone in the clearing, her mouth agape that she was being addressed in such a manner. Gabrielle turned her head a bit to elucidate further, but she and Lara did not slow their pace. "You should lighten up."

The walk back to the camp was long one, but for no one more than Metra, who decided she was most displeased by this woman Eupie, who seemingly had no problem not only brazenly disobeying specific direction, but also bending others to her will.

The walk for Gabrielle and Lara was quite pleasant, however. The two chatted amiably about cooking, shopping and their two warriors. It was a great treat for the bard to be able to talk openly with another woman about her feelings and her experiences on the road (even if she was concealing her and Xena's identities).

"So, you and Cilla are married?" the bard asked in surprise.

"Well, not in the most customary sense of the word," Lara explained as they reached their campsite and sat to briefly rest. "Cilla and I are joined, but we have not been blessed by any god. Our union is created by ourselves, and no other. For we, ultimately are the only two who must abide by it ,or face its ruination."

Gabrielle mulled on this and nodded. She glanced to see Metra gathering wood for a fire and she noted the position of the sun in the sky. It would be dusk soon. Xena would be returning shortly.

When dusk came and there was no sign of the other three, Gabrielle did not become concerned. She and Lara prepared a dinner which consisted of a duck that Metra trapped.

When the night became so dark that the only illumination was from the firelight dancing before them, the bard still did not worry. It was many a night like this one that she lay alone, waiting for Xena to return. Nights that turned into groups of days, sometimes weeks. At times it had seemed so unbearable.

Those times really did not come so much anymore. It was rare for Xena to leave Gabrielle behind these days. Over the last couple of years their relationship had become less of a mentor/student relationship and more of a friend/partner one. Oh, she knew in some ways she would never be Xena's equal, but she was certainly her peer. In the strange equation of life, what Xena was and what she herself was, balanced each other. All she did not possess she derived from Xena, and Xena in turn, drew on her for those things that she required. Gabrielle thought that sense of complimenting each other, that feeling of half of the whole, was the most beautiful part of their relationship.

"By the gods," Lara whispered, staring into the fire. "Where can they be?"

"I'm sure they are fine," Gabrielle reassured.

"I'm glad you can be so cheery," Metra spat. "I think if they don't arrive by the time Sirius is high in the sky, we should break camp and flee."

"What are you saying?" Gabrielle asked in disapproval.

"I'm saying I think they're dead," Metra blurted out callously. "And I think if we stay here we will be dead soon as well."

Lara gasped at the horror of Metra's cold words, and in comfort, Gabrielle rested her hand on Lara's trembling shoulder. "I think you had better reword your theory," the bard began.

"This is all your fault!" the small woman accused, becoming unhinged. "If we had followed the plan the way we were supposed to, they would be back here right now!"

Lara's panic increased with that thought, that she was somehow responsible for her wife's death, and she began to softly sob.

"You don't know what your talking about, Metra," Gabrielle said confrontationally. "If you want to give in to your paranoia, and flee into the night, go ahead. I know better than to worry, and I'm staying put."

Metra glared at the bard, letting her old resentment meet and join this new resentment in an ugly, cauldron of festering animosity.

"Besides," Gabrielle added. "It's bad enough you have so little regard for us that you would proclaim our loved ones dead- right to our faces, but have you no concern for your own lover? Would you sprint off into the night without any regard for her freedom or well-being? What kind of selfish, heartless,"-

"Listen here, tree hugger!" Metra interrupted. "You don't know anything about me!"

"That is most assuredly a blessing!" the bard snapped, grasping her staff for reassurance. She could not help but bark at this woman, but inside she knew her words of confidence were beginning to wear thin. She was now nearly as concerned as Lara, but she would never admit that, and let the voice of calm reason disappear. Then, all would be lost.

Just then, off in the distance, could be heard the snap of a twig. Gabrielle stood with her staff and tried to focus in that direction, though the light was very poor. When the greenery parted, four women came into view- one walking, and two carrying an unconscious one between them.

Gabrielle and Lara ran to the group as they approached. Neither could make out which one was injured. It did not take more than a few steps for the bard to see that Xena was fine. She moved along slowly, with another's arm wrapped about her neck for support. Cilla had the other arm, and as the woman in between them was no one she found familiar, Gabrielle deduced that she must be Elissa.

"Is she all right?" the bard asked, moving to take some of the woman's weight off of Xena.

"Not especially," Xena answered with a groan. "Help me get her over to the fire so I can see to her wounds."

Gabrielle and Lara did as they were instructed, and with Cilla's aid, they were able to lay Elissa on a blanket and remove her blood soaked clothing.

"Great Hades!" Metra shouted. "Who has done this?"

"I wish I knew," Xena said, cleaning the bloody lash marks with a damp cloth.

"You mean you found her this way?" Gabrielle asked, kneeling to assist Xena in her ministrations.

"She was all but dead," Cardea spat as she sat near the fire and wiped the sweat from her brow. "And that bastard will pay for it!"

"Wait now," Gabrielle began. "What bastard are we talking about here?"

"Imbrius is his name!" Cardea bellowed. "He is a loathsome pig of a man!"

"Is it not possible that the guards did this to Elissa?" Xena suggested rationally.

No one answered.

"Why do you defend him?" Metra asked with more than a hint of accusation in her voice.

"There is no justice in assumptions," Gabrielle answered, staring Metra coolly in the eyes.

Xena observed the discord between her bard and Metra, and grinned slightly to herself. Gabrielle never had been a woman to bite her tongue and just go with the flow. "Look, the best thing we can all do at this point, is to tend to her. When she comes 'round she can tell us herself what happened."

"Aetna is right," Lara agreed. "We can accomplish nothing tonight that would be constructive anyway. I will tend to her, Aetna. You must have carried her for miles. You rest."

Xena nodded and breathed a small sigh of relief as she stood. She looked at Gabrielle and tilted her head toward the left, and Gabrielle understood this to mean they needed to speak in private. The two walked off into the woods together.

"I take it you didn't tell them who we are or why we're here," Gabrielle stated more than asked.

"Under the circumstances I didn't feel like I could." Xena's expression was one of pained uncertainty. "I never expected Elissa to have been in such a state. I wish I could say with some assurance that Imbrius was not responsible for that. I can't."

"Does your gut tell you anything?"

"My gut has no clue," Xena conceded. "I know I told you that this would all be over by now, but until I know which side to support, I" -

"I understand, Xena." Gabrielle reached out and took Xena's hand, and the warrior's pulse began to race. Even these most innocuous of her touches ravage me, she thought.

"I left a message for Imbrius to meet me tomorrow," Xena said softly as she tried to ignore the pounding of her pulse in her head. "Hopefully he can shed some light on Elissa's condition."

"When do you meet him?"

"Midday, at the tavern."

"So I'll have another lovely day with Metra," the bard quipped.

"Yes, I see you two have really bonded," Xena joked. "Has she taken a swing at you yet?"

"Not yet. At least you don't need to worry anymore about her trying to steal me away from you. She hates me."

The warrior scowled. "With some people, hatred is just one more reason to conquer someone. I wouldn't feel safe quite yet."

Gabrielle stopped walking then, but still held Xena's hand firmly in her own. "You know," she began, looking searchingly into Xena's eyes. "I was really worried about you."

"Because it took me so long to get back? After we returned the horses it seemed like it took us forever carrying Elissa."

"I started thinking about losing you again," the bard confessed. "Xena, we have been through so much together. You are the most important person to me… I want so much for you to know how I feel."

Xena smiled. These moments of deep friendship between them came more frequently now. Though Xena wished they could be more, they never failed to elate her. "I know how you feel, Gabrielle. You don't need to say anything."

"I don't think you do," Gabrielle whispered, moving her hand to lightly stroke the warrior's cheek. Her thumb lovingly traced Xena's lips.

The warrior's mind raced frantically as she attempted to process what was happening. "G-Gabrielle," Xena stammered. "There is no need… there is no one here to see this."

"I know."

The bard kissed her then, but it was not a crazed kiss of passion. It was as though they were at first too shy to succumb. They tentatively began exploring each other's mouths, their hands almost afraid to venture anywhere.

It was gradual, but the fever did begin to build. Tasting Gabrielle's lips was soon not enough- her tongue needed to be tasted, her mouth nibbled. The feel of her muscular back gave way to the feel of her stomach, and then her breasts- breasts that needed to be freed from their cotton bonds to be fully appreciated.

Gabrielle moved her hands to Xena's waist and hips, a low moan escaping her as Xena's teeth found her neck. "Oh, gods," she whimpered, as her knees nearly buckled.

"You don't know how long I've waited for this," Xena rasped, fumbling with the laces of Gabrielle's top.

"Oh, yes," was all the bard was able to reply, so lost in the warrior's feel and taste was she.

"Excuse me."

Both heads turned to see Cardea standing not more than a few yards away, her face beet-red. "I'm sorry to interrupt you," she mumbled, clearing her throat before she continued. "I'm afraid that Elissa's state has taken a turn. I was wondering if you could see to her."

Xena spent that evening applying cold compresses to Elissa's head, trying to calm her as she ranted about her ordeal in delirium. It became obvious to everyone that Elissa had been through something profoundly traumatic- not a single beating, but something that stretched into days and nights of torture.

Eventually Gabrielle drifted off to sleep, worried about Elissa, concerned about Xena, and just generally sexually frustrated. Obviously tonight was not to be the night.

When the bard awoke, Xena was nowhere to be seen, but there was a note beside her in Xena's writing.

"Dearest Gabrielle,
I have found the answer to our riddle.
Bring Cardea to the tavern in town at
midday. Be careful.
All my love,

At midday, true to her warrior, Gabrielle entered the tavern with Cardea. It had been a bit difficult to persuade the woman to leave the others behind and venture into town when she was a woman who was most assuredly sought after, but Gabrielle had convinced her that Aetna had a plan that would resolve everything.

Of course, when the women walked in they saw no warrior princess, but they did see Imbrius, a tankard of ale in his hand.

"You!" Cardea shouted lunging toward the man.

Gabrielle stopped the assault by placing her staff in front of the woman, effectively knocking her to the floor. Imbrius jumped to his feet, startled bewilderment all over him.

"Gabrielle!" he shouted. "Is she the one?"

Cardea looked up into the bard's face as the sting of betrayal set in. "Gabrielle? Is that your name?"

Gabrielle was unable to answer. She merely looked down at Cardea with sadness and concern.

"I think this is the woman everyone wants," came a voice from behind her. There stood Xena, with a dark-eyed woman. The woman had a rope around her wrists, and she looked very displeased.

"Helen!" both Cardea and Imbrius said in unison, causing them to look to each other in disdain. Cardea stood.

"Who is that?" Gabrielle asked, her brows furrowed.

"This is Imbrius' wife," Xena explained, pushing the woman further inside. "And Cardea's lover."

"What?" Imbrius demanded incredulously. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that your wife and Cardea have been plotting your death together," Xena stated flatly. "Helen was not just content with the wealth she already possessed. She wanted her dowry too. The only way to have it all was to marry, and then kill the unlucky groom."

"Helen, is this true?" he asked, mortified at Xena's accusations. She did not answer him.

"Oh, it's true," the warrior continued. "Better yet, she only became involved with Cardea to have someone to blame the murder on. She was fully prepared to become a wealthy widow, and have Cardea and her friends hanged for the crime."

"Helen?" Cardea implored, it now being her turn to feel betrayed.

"Go ahead, Helen," Xena chided with a shove. "Tell them. Tell them both how you had Elissa beaten to a pulp, knowing she would be rescued by Cardea." Xena looked to Cardea. "She was the one who let us in the fortress yesterday. And she hoped Elissa's condition would be enough to drive you to deviate from your plan and, in a rage, murder her husband. She tripled the guards after we left so there would be no doubt that when you returned you would be caught and tried for the murder."

Cardea sneered. "If she tripled the guards, then how did you get in?"

"I have many skills," Xena replied.

"I can't believe this!" Imbrius exclaimed, shaking his head. "You never loved me?"

Helen looked at him in disgust. "And did you love me? You only ever wanted my wealth." She spat at him.

"You would have seen me die?" Cardea asked, hardly above a whisper. "After all that was said between us?"

"I was little more than a meal ticket to you," Helen answered bitterly. "That, and a roll in the hay."

Gabrielle put her hand on Cardea's shoulder to show support. Imbrius sat down before he fell down.

"Go on, Cardea," Xena instructed, with a toss of her head. "Go back to your comrades and tell them there will be no killing. There is no easy money to be made here- no blood to be spilled."

Cardea ran from the tavern and disappeared into the woods.

"Here you go boys," the warrior offered, shoving Helen into the small group of townspeople who had gathered in the tavern. "This woman needs to be turned over to the authorities." Two of the men grasped her by the elbows and pulled her away as she struggled.

"You bitch!" she hissed as she was dragged out the door.

Imbrius looked defeated, and Xena and Gabrielle approached him cautiously.

"I can't believe I didn't see that coming," he whined. "It took someone from miles away to discover what lay in my own bed."

"You can't blame yourself," Gabrielle comforted.

Xena's eyebrow arched. "Sure he can."

"He didn't know his wife was a vicious two-timer."

"Well, maybe if he had married someone for something other than money, the outcome would have been a little rosier," Xena suggested.

"Xena's right," he admitted into his ale. "I asked for this."

"I wouldn't go that far," the warrior amended. "But maybe the Imbrius Temple of Learning can heal your wounded soul."

He smiled. "Maybe. You two sit, and I'll buy you both a drink."

"No thanks," Xena replied with a friendly slap to his back. "Gabrielle and I have some unfinished matters which need… seeing to."

"You won't have just one?" he questioned pathetically.

"Sorry, Imbrius," Gabrielle answered, looking deeply into her warrior's eyes. "This is really urgent."

Xena grinned seductively. "Extremely urgent- something that can't wait any longer."

"Well, will you two at least join me for dinner this evening?"

Gabrielle licked her lips. "We appreciate the offer, but our business will more than likely extend well past dinner."

Xena felt a rush of desire unlike any she had ever felt before. This bard of hers was no ingenue any longer, that was a fact. "Yes, well into the wee hours of the morning," she clarified, not once breaking her longing gaze with Gabrielle.

Imbrius looked back to his mug of ale. How had this happened to him? How had he ended up with the one thing he thought he wanted more than anything else, and yet, it felt as though he had nothing? He had no one to share his life with. No one to build a family with. No one to…

"Xena?" he called out. "Gabrielle?"

"You lookin' for them ladies that was here a bit ago?" the tavernkeep asked.

"Are they gone?"

"They asked me for a room. I guess they was tired or somethin'," the man suggested.

Xena fell upon the bard as they lunged together onto the bed. The warrior again struggled with the laces of Gabrielle's top as her lips assailed her neck and collarbone.

"Last night was the longest night of my life," Gabrielle rasped.

"Yeah? Well it's been a long couple of years for me," she confessed, beginning to tug at the laces impatiently with her teeth.

"Really?" the bard asked as she ran her fingers through Xena's sable hair. She writhed beneath the warrior's touch and cried out softly when the garment was at last removed. "Gods, Xena! I want you so much."

"You are so beautiful," the warrior marvelled as she took in the full sight of the naked form before her.

Gabrielle kissed her deeply, her hands roaming eagerly across this uncharted territory. "Please, Xena," she begged. "I can't wait any longer." Boldly, she moved the warrior's hand to the source of her longing. Xena felt the incredible wetness there, and smiled as the bard gasped and arched her back as Xena stroked her.

"The waiting is over my love," she whispered, as Gabrielle's body began to move against her rhythmically.

True to their word, their business did last well through dinner, well through the night, and well through the morning. As they lay in bed, unable to move a muscle, drifting in and out of sleep, Xena rolled over and softly began caressing the bard's back.

"I can't anymore, Xena."

The warrior smiled. "Don't worry, neither can I."

"I guess it's true what they say," Gabrielle offered, though the pillow muffled her voice. "If you don't use it, you lose it."

"Are you saying you're out of shape?"

"That's exactly what I'm saying. I think trying to cram three years worth of sex into one night was… overly ambitious."

Xena laughed. "Is that what happened tonight? You unleashed all your pent up lust on me?"

"I think so."

"So are you done with me now?" the warrior asked, only half joking.

Gabrielle rolled over so she could stare into the azure eyes of the woman she loved. "I'll never be done with you, warrior mine." She stroked Xena's jawline. "Will you… tire of me?"

Xena beamed happily. "Never."

"Even though I'm… not very experienced?"

"Gabrielle, I love you. I mean everything. Even the things that irritate me, I love. I love that you're inexperienced. I just hope it doesn't bother you that I'm *not* inexperienced."

"Not really."

"Because the others may have been with me, but you are my soul mate, Gabrielle. No one could ever change that." The bard's eyes began to tear with that admission, and they kissed.

"I'll never leave you, Xena." The bard smiled deviously. "Especially now that it's getting good."


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