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Chapter 1
Too Much

Gabrielle knew there was a problem. She watched her dark-tressed lover hung up the phone slowly, deliberately. Xena turned around, her nostrils were flaring. Her expression pained. Her voice was distant.

"She's taking an intersession class." Her hands were curled into tense fists at her side. "She's not coming back." In a sudden rage, she whipped around, grasped the ancient phone and tore it off the wall. The phone clanged helplessly against the floor. "Gods." Her legs gave way until her knees folded into the carpet. She rubbed her palms against the fabric of her jeans, desperately trying to assuage the pain that started to tingle there. "How can she stay away like this? How can she?" There was a desperate edge to Xena's voice. Her body trembled in a mix of rage and vulnerability. 

Gabrielle knelt beside her love and pulled Xena close. She captured Xena's hands in her own and turned them up. Gently, she caressed the brand and soothed. Her own hands shook a little. They carried the same markings. But she was a goddess and she had Xena. Gabrielle pressed her body against the familiar one next to her and let her energy caress the woman in her arms.

Xena accepted the relief that was pouring into her body and leaned against her sweetheart. "We can't let this go on." She turned her body so that it was touching more of Gabrielle. "We can't." She freed her hands and pressed them against the redhead's waist. She looked into stormy hazel eyes. Her body ached with need. She kissed the goddess fiercely, and then again, and again. She knew better than to resist now, but she almost never resisted with Gabrielle.

Soon they were up in their room. Their clothes were strewn about the floors and stairs below. Xena and Gabrielle had loved this way more often lately. Their minds and bodies were in primal need, so their lovemaking was hungry and demanding. They found relief in each other, but they missed their tender interludes.

Xena slept in Gabrielle's arms. This was also new. This sense of exhaustion dragged on them. Things that should have been effortless became strenuous. Gabrielle found herself looking at the far wall.

She studied the large painting. It was a gift from one of their patrons. An offering. The frame was simple, a dark wood grain emphasizing the colors contained within. It was a beautiful romantic piece. A portrait of herself and Xena looking out a window into the golden dawn. She was dressed in flowing green robes that were partially open with Xena's hand resting casually against her skin as they leaned against each other. Gabrielle's image was regal, commanding and soft at the same time. She held a golden staff and a scroll. Xena's image wore her ancient battle armor with her sword sheathed. The portrait managed to capture Xena's wildness, intelligence, and tenderness all at the same time. Even though they leaned into each other, the figures stood proudly. Their expressions were loving and peaceful. It was a beautiful gift, from a lovely gallery owner.

But it disturbed her. Daily, Gabrielle would find herself caught up in the painting, trying to figure out what was different about it. The painting's colors were bright and somber at the same time. There was a sense of flow as if time were passing in the painting, as if it changed overnight. Not a whole lot, barely discernible, but that sense of difference would overtake her and she would search and search.

This time, as she eyed the painting from distance, her eyes seemed to telescope on two details she hadn't noticed before. The first was the window the figures were gazing at. She remembered that there had been figures in the window before, or more importantly a figure. And a painted description of an outside world full of hills and forests and pathways. Gabrielle extricated herself from Xena's slumberous grasp and approached the painting.

She pulled a chair from behind a desk, so that she could stand closely, and really examine what she was seeing. Xena woke up to the noise the chair made but crawled out of bed when Gabrielle signaled her. Xena held the chair still as Gabrielle clambered up to get her closer look.

It took her a moment, but it was there. It had always been there. A small womanly shaped figure that had been distancing itself so that it was almost unseeable, almost gone. And she knew what had been strange about the painting. That figure had been, at one time, the focal point. But it was fleeing now.

Gabrielle touched the painting. The tip of her index finger completely covered the woman's body. Then the finger trailed its way to the signature, which was barely visible against the painted surface, blending into it, as if to disappear from sight.


Gabrielle looked to Xena. She closed her eyes. "So close. So evident. And we nearly missed it. All of it." Her breath came out as a soft sigh. "So insolent. So audacious." She stepped down off the chair into Xena's arms. "Let's go get her and bring her back where she belongs." She glanced up at the painting, "Before its too late."