Home is where the Heart is - Part 2

by Melissa Good
Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

"Gods." Gabrielle said, around a mouthful of biscuit. "She sent enough for a half dozen people." She tossed a biscuit at Xena. "Here." Then leaned back and grinned at the warrior, who was leaning back in the chair opposite, fixing an armored hinge in the light of late morning.

Xena examined the bread she'd snatched out of mid air, and, shrugging, took a bite. "Better than what they serve here, that's a fact." She returned her attention to the armor, scowling at the stuck hinge. "I think I'm going to have to get the smith to bang this out. " she grumbled. And glanced up to see Gabrielle's eyes on her. "What?"

The bard chuckled. "Nothing." She tentatively poked herself in the ribs. "Not too bad." Then leaned forward and touched Xena's arm. "Xena…"

"Mmm?" the warrior answered, looking up. "What's up?"

"I'd like.. " she hesitated. "Would you do some sparring with me, today?"

Xena put the armor down on the table and studied her face. "You sure?"

Gabrielle took a breath, and met her eyes squarely. "I'm sure." I am, too. What happened yesterday.. that's going to take me a long time to.. work out. But I can't let myself be scared of using a tool that ends up saving my life sometimes.

"OK." The warrior agreed mildly. "But gentle, now - I don't want you aggravating those bruises." Whew. I was afraid she'd have a problem with the staff for a while.. guess I shouldn't have worried. "I'm going to get this taken care of. You going to laze around here?" She gave the bard a teasing grin.

"Look who's talking, there." Gabrielle retorted, plucking at Xena's nightshirt sleeve. "And I didn't even have to trick you into sleeping late." Not that she was complaining, mind you. Waking up in the gentle sunlight with Xena still fast asleep wrapped around her had been just fine, thanks. She had taken the rare opportunity to wake her partner in the gentlest way possible, with a kiss, which had done the trick nicely, but led to Xena kissing her back, and that had led to a long and cautious exploration, with Xena very careful not to jar her bruised middle. Then they had just rested quietly in each other's arms for a while, until Gabrielle decided, having not eaten the day before, that she was hungry. Hence their current conversation.

"Yeah well." Xena sighed, "I just woke up, and decided.. I just didn't want to wake up." And that was about how it had happened, too, much to her chagrin. I used to have more willpower than this. "I said you were a bad influence." She stood up, and walked over to their gear. "Time to entertain the locals."

"You could try the same trick you used in Amphipolis." Gabrielle commented, tapping the armor bit. "Leave this stuff off."

"Mmm…different situation, Gabrielle." Xena hesitated. "But.. Hades. It's worth a try. Right Ares?"

"Roo," the puppy agreed, looking up from the bit of Xena's breakfast he was chewing on. "Grr," he added, and went back to chewing.

Xena snorted, and pulled on a simple tunic, belting it, and sitting down to put on her boots as Gabrielle got up, and moved around the back of her chair, sliding her arms around Xena's neck and resting her head against the warrior's. Not saying anything.

Xena finished pulling on her second boot, then let her head drop back against Gabrielle's chest, just taking some time to allow that warm sensation wash over her again. Uh oh..I think I'm getting addicted to this..I wonder if that's dangerous… wonder if I care? Nope I don't think I do.. Gods, that feels so good… She closed her eyes and grinned as the bard playfully nibbled on the edge of her ear. C'mon, c'mon, Xena..things to do, people to intimidate…But her lazily rebellious body very much liked where it was, and she turned her head to catch the bard's lips and spent a leisurely few minutes kissing her.

Finally, she cleared her throat. "So, what's your plan?" she asked over her shoulder at Gabrielle.

"Hmm?? Am I supposed to have a plan?" The bard replied, in a dreamy voice. "Oh. Ok..Uhm.. I think I'm going to see if I can do some storytelling here at the inn. "

"Not a bad idea." Xena mused. "You going to go over…"

"No." Gabrielle quietly answered. "Not today."

Xena nodded in acceptance. "Do me a favor?"

The bard let a lazy smile cross her face. "Stick to Hercules?" She laughed at the sheepish expression on the warrior's face. "Not a chance, Warrior Princess."

Xena sighed melodramatically, but privately felt very glad of the teasing. "What I have to put up with." She muttered, standing up. "Be careful, or I'll tell our last little adventure." She caught a surprised glint in Gabrielle's eyes. "Forgot about that, huh?"

The bard stuck her tongue out. "No fair. That's not nice."

"Uh huh." Xena cheerfully agreed. "Bye." She walked to the door, the turned as she opened it, and caught something in Gabrielle's expression, and walked back. "Hey." Laying a hand on the bard's shoulder. "You OK?" Studying her.

Gabrielle shook her head as if to clear it, and nodded. "Yeah… yeah.. I'm fine." C'mon, Gabrielle, you're not a kid anymore. Get a grip on yourself. "I'm fine."

Xena studied her critically. "You're lying." Raising both eyebrows and waiting for an explanation.

The bard scowled. "Xena, really.. I'm just.. I.. don't.. "

"Want to be alone?" the warrior finished softly, gentling her expression and voice. "Gabrielle, you had a really traumatic thing happen to you yesterday. It takes time to get over that. It's OK. I'll wait for you."

Gabrielle gazed at her, a reluctant smile appearing. "Thanks. But.. you go. If I give into this, it'll never end. I'll be all right - I'll talk to the innkeeper here, and then meet you out in the market square. OK?"

"Mmm… all right." Xena reluctantly agreed, squeezing her shoulder. "Take it easy." She released the bard, and walked back to the door, this time opening it and going through, not without a last glance back, and a twitched eyebrow.

Gabrielle smiled, and quietly shook her head. "Besides, I have you, Ares, right?" Addressing the attentive puppy, who was curled up on the rug next to the small fireplace.

"Grr." Ares answered, with a yawn. Gabrielle sat down next to him, and played with him for a long while, the gentle feel of his fur soothing her, and his puppy antics bringing a spontaneous grin back to her face. Finally, she stood, stretching carefully, and thought about what she wanted to wear.

Eventually, she came to a decision and changed her clothes, packing the others away in her kit, and choosing a sleeveless white tunic she'd acquired in Amphipolis. With the bandages, she thought, her usual set would be making a statement she wasn't sure she intended. She glanced at her reflection in the mirror, and one hand went reflexively to touch the bruises on her face.

"Damn." She sighed. "She didn't mention I looked like I got hit by a chariot." But of course, Xena wouldn't, she realized.

Idly, she picked up the warrior's neatly folded sleeping shirt, and examined it, which brought a smile to her face. It was the same one she herself had worn the month she was in the Amazon village. Did she just pick that randomly? Her mind laughed. Randomly? Xena didn't pick up a spoon randomly. She hugged the shirt to her, and caught the familiar scent clinging to it. She's so.. practical, and.. straightforward.. and then she comes out of the blue with these little things.. I love that.

In a more cheerful mood, she stowed the shirt, patted Ares, and took a moment to compose herself. She was about to head for the door, when a knock sounded across the room.

Wary, she moved so that her staff was within grabbing distance. "Come." She said, crossing her arms casually.

The door opened inward, and the innkeeper poked his grizzled head in. He examined her, then nodded to himself. "Your.. friend tells me you're a bard now. " He stated, moving further into the room.

"That's right." Gabrielle said, more cordially, and relaxed a little. "Do you need something transcribed?" Trust Xena to leave nothing to chance.

The innkeeper shook his head. "Nah. Could you come in, during dinner like, and tell some good stories?" He answered, somewhat gruffly. "You can keep your donations. Just need the business." His gray eyes darted over her, then glanced around the room. Back to her, then on spotting the weapons and armor neatly stacked.

Gabrielle blinked in surprise. "Sure." she answered, with a grin. "I was going to come ask you about that."

"Good." The man answered, then backed out the door. "Tonight, then." And she heard his footsteps fading down the stairs.

The bard chuckled to herself. "That was easy." She commented, and went to the window, peering out. Spotting Xena immediately in conversation with a tall burly man in the apron of a smith, and watching from her birds eye perspective the way the townsfolk found unobtrusive positions to stand and watch the warrior from.

It was pretty funny, really. Not that Xena wasn't worth a long look at, she mused, studying her companion from across the courtyard. Even without armor, she moved with a smoothly dangerous air that caused her path to clear without comment, a muscular springiness that carried it's own warning, along with a self confidence she wore like a fine cloak. Pair that with her size and striking good looks, and well.. she got used to people staring, or so she said. Gabrielle privately thought her partner was often a little puzzled by the reactions she got from people,. The bard wasn't puzzled at all, and hadn't been for a very long time.

Another knock sounded at the door, and she spun around to face it. "Yeah?" she called, and was rewarded by her sister's head appearing in the opening portal. "Lila." She said, smiling. "Hi."

"Hi yourself." Her sister said, moving across the room to study her. "Ouch. Looks like that hurts." She commented, wincing at Gabrielle's bruises.

The bard shrugged. "Not too bad. How are things there?" Not home. Not anymore. "Mother all right?"

Lila nodded. "Mom's fine." She paused. "He's fine, I guess, cursing up a storm. But Metrus.." she glanced down at the floor. "He said he wants nothing to do with you."

Gabrielle looked relieved. "Guess I scared him." She snorted, rolling her eyes.

"Uh." Lila's face twitched. "Well, actually, I think Xena did." She chuckled at the look on Gabrielle's face. "Oh..didn't tell you that part, did she?"

"Mmm… we didn't talk much.. um.. I mean.. not about that." Gabrielle explained, trying to ignore the blush she knew was creeping up her neck. "What did she do?"

Lila took her arm. "I'll tell you while we're walking. A new trading caravan came in today." She gazed at Gabrielle's short tunic. "Do you think you could have picked something less daring?"

Gabrielle blinked innocently at her. "Sure. I could have worn my ceremonial Amazon garb." Enjoying the exasperated look on Lila's face. "Look.. I wore this around Amphipolis, in fact, I got it there, and didn't raise any eyebrows, so would you calm down?"

Lila sighed. "Well, it does show off your tan." She moved the sleeve aside and raised an eyebrow. "Do I want to know where you have a tan line? "She hesitated. A look at Gabrielle's suddenly apparent blush. "Uh..that would be no."

They walked down the stairs together, and out the door to the inn. Gabrielle turned to her as they left the building, and gently grasped her arm. "What about you and Lennat?"

Lila just looked off in the distance and kept walking. Finally, she glanced at her sister. "I don't know. We haven't decided what to do yet." She signed. "And after yesterday…"

"Oh yeah. What happened?" The bard inquired.

"Mom says.. he was making some noises like he was going to call the bailiff down on you." Lila said, keeping her voice low.

Gabrielle just stared at her. "For… but… "

'I know.. I know. " Lila said, in a soothing tone. "Well, mom says he got about a sentence about that out, and then.. I can't believe this.. Metrus is huge.. but.. she says Xena just picked him up by the neck and threw him down on the floor, and sort of.. kneeled on him."

"Believe it." Gabrielle breathed. "She is… so strong, it's.. really scary sometimes." She glanced at Lila's startled look. "You have no idea."

"Really??" the dark haired girl asked, intrigued. "Anyway, mom said she basically told Metrus if he messed with you, she was going to kill him." She swallowed. "And she said they were lucky your staff had been in your hands and not hers, and that if she'd seen Da hitting you, she would have broken him into a dozen pieces."

Gabrielle flinched. "Ah.. " That was all really true, she admitted. "Now you see my point about telling her, I guess." She answered quietly. But couldn't help from feeling a warm glow in the pit of her stomach nonetheless.

"Yeah." Lila said. "Are you scared of her, Bree?"

"No." Gabrielle answered absently, not even having to think about it. "Not at all."

They fell silent as they walked on towards the crowd gathered around the trading caravan.

Xena had left the room in a moderately good mood, and hadn't even minded the usual round of dour stares as she crossed the inn's creaking wooden floorboards. I'm in a mood to.. meddle. With this place. Shake these people up a little, with their narrow minds. With that thought, she stopped in the middle of the floor, and swiveled, looking for the innkeeper.

Spotting him next to the large ale casks, glowering at her. She smiled. "You." She drawled, moving closer to him. "How's business?"

The innkeeper stared at her. "Bad." he gruffly responded, with a hostile tone. "What's it to you?"

Xena settled her forearms on the counter he was behind and studied him in silence for moment. "Just trying to be helpful." She purred, 'Y'know, you could liven this place up at night with some entertainment."

The innkeeper dropped his gaze, and spat in the corner. "Yah. I can have my wife do the dance of the seven veils."

Xena mentally recalled his wife, who doubled as the inn's cook. She winced inwardly at the mental image. "Mmm.. no. But a bard might be nice." She suggested, raising an eyebrow at him.

The innkeeper spat again. "Sure. I'll just whistle one up. " He gave her a grudging look. "Not that it's a bad idea."

Xena gave him a brisk nod. "Well, there's one upstairs, in my room. Go ask her."

"Huh. Little Bree, is it?" The innkeeper asked, warily. "Heard what happened."

"That's her." Xena confirmed. "You'd do worse for a bard."

The innkeeper grunted. "Thanks." He glanced up the stairs. "Maybe I will."

"Good." Xena acknowledged. "You do that." She gave him one last look, then turned and headed for the door.

Once outside, she grinned to herself, and headed towards the stable for a quick check on Argo. She was almost there, when she caught the sound of young voices, and paused to listen. A dark look crossed her features, and she glided through the half open door to the large building, and moved silently across the scattered hay on the floor.

A quick hand signal to Argo, to silence the mare's welcoming nicker, then she was across the dust hazed space, and near the sound of the voices. Young, she thought. Perhaps 4, no 5 of them. She rounded the last stall partition, and went still, just watching.

Five boys, in fact, villagers, with rough hewn shirts, and trews tucked into heavy work boots. Surrounding a pathetic, bewildered Alain, who had his arms hunched over his head in a protective stance. The boys were taking turns moving up on all sides, and pinching and slapping the blond boy, and as she watched, the largest of them took his turn, and gave Alain a hard buffet on his bad shoulder, knocking the boy sideways into the stall partition.

Xena crossed the straw so fast he didn't even see her coming. Didn't see the fist that backhanded him into the opposite wall. He scrambled to his feet, wiping a trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth, and glared at her.

"Come on, tough guy." Xena said, stopping a few feet from him, and pinning him with a stare. "Let's see if you have any guts."

He did. He lunged at her, throwing a wild punch that caught her on the chest, and skittered off, as she returned the blow, and sent him flying through the air to crash again against the wooden partition. Then she pounced on him, and lifted him up by the seat of his pants and the scruff of his neck and taking a breath, heaved him up and over the partition, into the manure pit beyond.

Silence followed, as his confederates froze, too afraid to either run or attack. Xena gave them all a disgusted look, then crossed to where Alain was crouched, watching her, and offered him a hand up. "Hey." She said, like it was nothing.

Alain gazed up at her with a sweet smile. "'Lo, Xena." He took her hand, and she pulled him up, dusting him off a little. Then she tousled his hair, and turned to face the remaining boys.

"What's your problem?" She growled at them, putting as much menace as she could muster into her voice. "You got nothing better to do than be lousy little half grown cowards?" She turned her icy gaze on them. "Lemme tell you something about being a bully, little boys." She sauntered towards them, with a snarl on her face. "There's always.. always someone bigger, and tougher and meaner than you are. " She dropped her pitch to a velvet drawl. "And that someone will come along, just like I did, and squash you like a bug." Punctuating that by shooting a hand out, and giving the nearest a sharp blow, which doubled him over, and sent him to the straw. "So.. take my warning, little boys. Be nice."

Glancing behind her to the raptly watching Alain. "Especially be nice to my friend Alain, here." She walked back to him, and slid an arm around his uneven shoulders. "Because he's already had to show more courage in his life than any of you ever will." A long pause, while she studied their uncertain faces. "Got me? Leave off him, or I'll come back here and cut you all into a dozen pieces. " This last on a low, rolling growl that sent vibrations into her chest, and resonated in the suddenly too small barn. "So, get your buddy out of the pit, and get out of here. Before I get.. mad." She let her eyes half close. "You don't want that to happen, right?"

Silence. "Right?"

A chorus of shaking heads.

"Good. You're not all idiots then. Move." She finished, sharply, and had the satisfaction of watching them stumble out, darting terrified looks at her. Shaking her head, she glanced at Alain, and studied him. "You OK?"

"Oh yeah." Alain squeaked. "Wow."

They both turned as a low groan was heard, and Alain let out an exclamation, dropping to the straw next to a prone figure. "Hey.. hey!" He urged, anxiously.

Xena knelt down in the straw next to him, and gently rolled the slim form over. His head had a large bump on it, but otherwise he seemed unharmed. "Who is this?" Xena asked the upset Alain.

"Lennat." Alain moaned. "He's.. a friend. Of mine, I guess."

So. Xena mused. This was Lennat, who chose to befriend an outcast like Alain. Her estimation of him rose a notch. Tall and blond haired like Alain, he wasn't at all bad to look at either, and Xena's estimation of Lila also rose a notch. She patted his face lightly. "Hey."

Another moan, and then his eyes fluttered open, tracking confusedly first to Alain, and then to her. "Uh.." he jerked as his gaze touched Xena's vivid blue eyes. "Wh.."

"Relax." Xena put up a restraining hand. "I won't hurt you." Since everyone always assumed she would, she thought grimly, and this kid should have heard his big brother's story from yesterday already. She carefully touched the bump on his head. "You'll be fine, just a headache." And turned to Alain. "What happened?"

Alain scowled. "He tried to stop em." Glaring at his friend. "Told you not to. "

"What.. how did.." Lennat mumbled, turning his head with a wince and looking around. "Where.."

"She stopped em." Alain informed him, giving Xena an admiring glance. "Proper, too. Just bam! And threw Agtes into the pattie bin."

Xena gave him an amused look. "They deserved it." She gave them a half grin. "Alain, can you get your friend here a drink of water? He looks like he needs it."

"Sure." Alain scrambled to his feet, and dashed off.

Xena and Lennat regarded each other.

"So.. you're what scared my brother into drinking himself to sleep for the first time in a decade." Lennat remarked, thoughtfully. "From his telling, I would have thought you had two heads."

Xena chuckled. "You have a sense of humor. That's a good sign." She stood, and offered him a hand up. "Promise I won't throw you into the.. what did he call it? The pattie bin."

Lennat grasped her hand, and was pulled to his feet with very little effort on his part. He gazed at her respectfully. " Lila's spoken of you."

Xena's eyebrow rose. "And you still grabbed my hand? Brave lad."

Lennat laughed a bit, self consciously. "No no.. she's told me about.. Bree, and all. And you."

" I see." The warrior drawled. "What are you two going to do?"

Lennat sighed, and studied his feet. "Nothing, probably. She's tied here, I'm tied here, you know how it is. Metrus won't take her, just on spite, if nothing else, and I'm apprenticed to him for another bloody five years. Not that I'll ever make a merchant - He's got free labor, basically."

Xena regarded him thoughtfully, I think I'm taking a liking to this kid. He's got troubles, though. "You don't like his trade? "

The boy shrugged. "I'm not good at it."

"What are you good at?" Xena asked.

For an answer, he pulled out an intricate bit of metalwork, done with a smithy's fine hammer and tools. It was a cheekpiece bit, and Xena's eyebrows rose. "Yours?"

He nodded and handed it to her. "For all it's worth. Yeah."

The warrior examined the piece. "Why aren't you apprenticed to the smith?" She asked, confused.

"Old news." Lennat said, distantly. "Our mother, Metrus and mine, she left our father when I was just a little boy. Went to be with the smith. "

"Ah." Xena said, making a sympathetic face.

"She died. Giving birth to a son for him, was supposed to be his apprentice. You know." He gazed at her, with secrets hiding behind his slate gray eyes.

And Xena, studying those eyes, knew the answer. "Alain." She breathed, understanding. "He's your brother."

"He doesn't know." Lennat said softly, as Alain came running back in, and handed him a wooden cup full of water. "thanks, Ali."

Alain smiled at him, then smiled at Xena. "Thanks. I didn't say before."

"My pleasure, Alain." Xena said, quietly. "I think they'll leave you alone, for a while, at least."

The boy nodded, "Think they will."

She left them to discuss the exciting battle, and walked over to Argo, running her fingers through the mare's disordered mane. "Gotta take you out for a run later girl." She said, absently, as she pondered the situation she had been charged to find a solution to. Damn, this was getting complicated. But… all the pieces were there.. all she had to do was find a way to put them in place. I ran half of Greece. She sighed mentally. I should be able to fix a little problem like this, for my best friend, right? The sticking point.. yeah. And I better not tell Gabrielle what I'm doing.. she'll get crazy with me. And she did only say.. yeah. I think I can do this.. I know I can do this.

Argo whickered at her, nudging her with soft nose. "Yeah, I said a run later, girl.. after dinner. How about it? " She stroked the golden shoulder. "Or are you getting as lazy as I am? Huh?" She chuckled, and moved to the door of the barn, planning her strategy. First, the smith.

'So, you're going to be storytelling at the inn tonight?" Lila asked as they neared the caravan, sounding a bit surprised.

"Mmm hmm." Gabrielle confirmed, watching the newcomers with a wrinkled brow. "Excuse me a minute, Lila." And walked over to one of the traders, who peered back at her with a gentle smile . "Johan?"

"Hello, Lass." His eyes crinkled in amusement. "Didn't think to see me here, did you?" He studied her intently, taking in her bruises with a slow fade of the genial look on his face. "What happened?"

Gabrielle took a breath, then a second. "First, you tell me why you're here," she countered, searching his face. Trying to pull together something to tell him.

Johan grinned sheepishly. "Well, see there, it's Cyrene, then, lass. I think she took a liking to you." Here his eyes twinkled. "And she wouldn't rest until she'd sent me off here just to make sure, see, that everything was going along all right." Now his voice and face sobered. "And it looks to me it isn't."

The bard sighed, and gave him a little nod. "It's better, now." She reassured him. "It's.. complicated. But Xena's working on it."

As though that answered everything. And to Johan, it appeared, it did, because he relaxed and patted her shoulder. "Good, then, lass." He glanced up. "And where can I find her? Cyrene sent some packages along for the both of ye."

Lila had edged closer, and was now listening with interest to the conversation. She had no idea who the trader was, though he did look a bit familiar, but it was obvious that her sister knew him well. Who was Cyrene, though, and why would they be sending packages?

"Mmm… probably around the smithy." Gabrielle answered, with a smile. "Can I guess what's in the packages?" Her eyes twinkled. "Bet I can." She turned to Lila. "Lila, this is Johan. He helps Xena's mother in Amphipolis."

Lila gave him a shy smile. "Hello." And to Gabrielle "Is that who Cyrene is? Xena's mother?"

Both Johan and Gabrielle nodded in concert. "I bet she sent cakes." Gabrielle predicted, eyes dancing. "Am I right?"

Johan chuckled. "Right you are, lass. And sorry I am to find you here, because I would have gotten to finish them all if you'd have gone already." He turned to his mount. "Ah well, let me offload my wares." Looking at Gabrielle's surprised expression. "Ah, and did you not know I was a traveling merchant before I settled my boots at Amphipolis? Wasn't going to waste a trip on the trade road, not I - got three or four of the craftsmen to toss stuff in the packs for the selling, and I intend to do just that." He patted her cheek. "I'll find you both later, never fear."

Gabrielle gave him a hug, and laughed. "You'd better." She warned, and left him to his unpacking as she and Lila moved on. "Well, that was a surprise." She said, slowly, but she felt a warm gratitude.

"I don't understand, Bree. What's he doing here? Is he a merchant, or isn't he? I thought he was, but from what he was saying.." Lila looked confused.

Her sister let out a tiny laugh. "Uhm.. he's not. Actually, Cyrene sent him down here to make sure everything was ok with us. She.. saw the note father sent." She gave Lila a sideways glance. "She's really sweet." A thought crossed unbidden into her mind. She never would have let… no, Gabrielle, don't go there. It's way in the past, and you can't change that. But the wistful thought lingered. "I really enjoyed being up there for a while. It was nice." She added, forcing a smile back onto her face for Lila's benefit. "She's a great cook.. and.. " she lifted her hands a little " she kind of took me in, I guess.. she sort of considers me family."

Lila considered this for a long moment. "Wow." She commented, about to say more, then looked up to see Lennat closing in on them. "Lennat!" she blurted, startled, seeing the disheveled look to his clothes. "What happened to you?" Drawing in breath when she spotted the bump on his head.

The tall blond boy ran his fingers through his hair, wincing when he inadvertently brushed the lump. "Agtes, and his crowd." He muttered, giving her a look. "The usual."

Gabrielle studied them quietly. Lennat brought back memories… of a rainy afternoon in the barn.. and her telling the circle of her friends the newest thing she'd thought of. She could still hear the patter of the drops, and smell the dampness in the air if she let herself. But she didn't, because that memory always ended with the dull thud of the stall door opening, and her father's angry face peering down. Of a hand reaching over and pulling her off her feet and slamming her against the planked walls and she could still feel the rough wood splinters biting into her back... No. She cut the thought off, and forced herself to pay attention to what Lennat was saying.

"No, because Agtes whacked me on the head with the pitchfork handle." He sighed. "And I was out like a light. " He glanced at Gabrielle with a little smile. "Next thing I knew, I was opening my eyes and seeing Alain and Xena kneeling over me." He winked at Gabrielle. "Gotta say, Bree - she's something else."

"She is that." The bard responded, with a forced chuckle. "Did she scare off Agtes and company?" Agtes. Another bad memory.

"I didn't see it." Lennat said, regretfully. "But Alain, when I could get a word of sense out of him, said she basically pounded Agtes, and tossed him in the manure pit." He laughed. "Then insulted the rest of them, and ran them out."

Gabrielle laughed in reflex. "Oh, I would have paid to see that."

"Yeah, Alain claims she told all of them that he was a friend of hers, and if they bothered him any more, she was going to come back and slice them into little pieces." He finished, with a chuckle. "I didn't even know they knew each other."

The bard paused. "I didn't either, but that sounds like Xena." Alain. Her childhood friend, who was worse off, she'd always thought, than Gabrielle herself had been. Who got teased and beaten because of a defect he had no control over. At least I could just shut up. She mused. Not Alain. "I wonder.. oh, he still works in the stable, right? Argo. That makes sense." Of how Xena would know.. And here her thoughts froze. Alain knew.. everything. About what she'd gone through, and he was a simple soul, friendly despite his beleaguered life, and prone to trusting people. Had he told Xena? Would she have asked, knowing something was going on with me.. yeah, she would have asked.

That cold blast of anger, the other night. Her mind focused sharply, and remembered. They had been teasing Ares, she'd said, but.. no. Ares didn't cause that. Gabrielle felt her heart sink. I did. She had known.. and instead of heading over and confronting me, she bottled that up inside, and waited for me to tell her. Gods. I underestimated her. What a stupid mistake that was. And now she probably thinks I didn't trust her enough to tell her..

What would I have done? She snorted quietly to herself, letting Lila and Lennat's conversation roll over her unheard. I would have yelled at her big time for not telling me what was going on. Yep, I would have.. and she would have given me that little tolerant look, and rolled her eyes, and maybe apologized. Maybe. Like I have a right to know everything about her? What a hypocrite I am.

"Bree?" Lila's voice interrupted her musings. "Hey, you in there?"

Gabrielle gave them a quick grin. "Yeah, I'm here. Just thinking.. of what stories I'm going to tell tonight. "

Lennat laughed. "Bree and her stories. That'll be fun. We'll be there, right Lila?"

Lila hesitated. "I'll try." She gave Gabrielle an apologetic look. "Either mom or I.. will have to stay at home." She gave a little shrug. "I'd like her to get a chance to listen to you."

Gabrielle dropped her gaze and crossed her arms. "How is he?" she asked quietly.

Her sister shrugged. "Just like Xena said. Just a bad headache, but he's making it out worse - I think.." her lips twitched slightly. "he's embarrassed to admit you took him out. He's making like he tripped and hit his head on a bench."

"Lies are easier to believe sometimes." The bard answered. Yeah, aren't they. "Well, are we going to check out the traders, or what?" Firmly, she grasped Lila by the arm, and started walking.

The smith's forge was set in a three cornered built structure, with the front open to let the heat out into the air. In the back lay the large hearth, where a fire was kept going day and night, and in front of that were the anvils, with their leaning stacks of wrought tools. Tectdus the smith was standing behind the largest anvil pounding out a plow tongue when he felt eyes on his back.

Turned to see a tall, black haired woman leaning against the wall, arms crossed, watching. Even without weapons or her trademark armor, he knew she could only be one person, and he laid down his hammer and wiped his hands on his apron before crossing over to where she stood.

Two people, taciturn by nature, exchanged glances, and took each other's measure, in a silence broken only by the licking of the flame in the hearth. "You would be Xena." Tectdus finally said, extending a forearm. "My son has spoken of you."

Xena took his arm and gripped it. "He's a good kid." She acknowledged. "Doesn't deserve the harassment."

Tectdus grunted. "No help for it." He released her arm, and gestured to the back of his work area. "Can I offer ye some cold water?" He glanced around the room. "Gets hot in here." His eyes rested uneasily on her face, then darted off.

Xena glanced down herself, and let a grin quirk her lips. "No thanks. Came to see if you could straighten this out." She handed him the armor hinge, and watched as he examined it. He was a man of middle years, tall, with the heavy build of an ironsmith, but she could see in his movements the beginnings of age, the pain in the joints when moving that would make hours standing at the anvil agony. She felt a quiet sympathy.

"Can be done." Tectdus grunted, and moved towards the smaller anvil, selecting a pair of tongs, and clamping the armor in them, then thrusting both into the ash strewn hearth. He walked over to his work bench and picked up a much finer hammer than the one he'd been using on the plow and sat back a moment, waiting for the metal to heat up.

"No assistant?" Xena asked casually, leaning back against the wall, and regarding him with benign interest.

The smith gave a single shake of the head. "Alain cannot. No one else is interested." He paused, and gave the tongs a twist, to heat the metal evenly.

Xena took a deep breath, and slid as skillfully into this battle as she ever had with her sword. "His brother is." She said, simply. "And he has the talent."

Tectdus stared at her. "Half brother." He rasped, jerking the tongs out of the fire and crossing to the anvil, closer to her. "There's bad blood there."

The warrior pushed off against the wall, and glided over to where he had just put the piece on the anvil, capturing his almost colorless eyes with her own. "That's not his fault." She let a bit of her pent up anger show. "Tell me, Tectdus. Why does everyone in this place put the blame for things on the shoulders of children?"

The smith didn't answer, but bent his head to his work, carefully striking the hot metal with a skillful hand. He finished the delicate adjustment, and plunged the tongs into the tub of water next to the anvil, where it hissed and steamed, putting wisps of vapor between him and the sky blue eyes which never left his face. Finally, he looked up at her. "What do you want of me?"

"What do I want?" Xena said, stepping closer to him, but keeping her voice non threatening. "I don't want anything. This isn't my town, and you aren't my business." She paused and gentled her expression. "I'm just trying to do something for a friend."

Tectdus studied her, this time not averting his eyes. "Little Bree.. she's a friend of yours then, truly?" He asked. "She was a good friend to Alain, when they were small."

"I know." Xena responded. "And yes, she is truly a friend of mine." A long pause. "A friend who has a problem.. that I'm trying my best to solve." She picked up his hammer and examined it, hefting the weight experimentally.

Tectdus gently grasped her hand, and turned it over, examining her arm. "You could have the talent too, with those wrists." He said calmly, meeting her gaze with an open candor.

"No." Xena sighed. "I'm not a maker, Tectdus. Those were built with a blade." She cocked her head at him. "But Lennat is. We both know that… a smith's talent is so, so rare.. is it fair to waste that? " She reached over and grasped his own hand, and turned it over. "How long, Tectdus? Before you can't teach anyone?" Her fingers traced the swollen joint with a healer's knowing touch.

The smith closed his eyes in acknowledgment. "It's to no matter, Xena. He's bound five years more. By then.." He shook his head. "The skill dies here, then, and waits for another such as me to come."

Blue eyes bored into his, for a moment removing the hot surrounding hearth. "If he was free, would you take him?"

Tectdus hesitated. "But he's.." Unable to tear his eyes from hers.

"If he wasn't." Xena repeated, sending her voice lower, and deeper.

"Yes." The smith said, with quiet finality. "I would." He sighed. "Truth, Xena - I tried, years ago. But Metrus would have none of me. He holds a long grudge against me, for his mother."

Xena nodded slowly. "Thought so."

"What are you going to do?" Tectdus whispered. Believing she could do anything.

The warrior pulled her armor bit out of the cooling tub, and unclipped it from the tongs with knowing skill. "Whatever I can." And placed a coin on the anvil. "Thanks."

Xena left the smith's forge and gazed around the busy market square, having to hunt a moment before she spotted Gabrielle standing with Lila and Lennat near a small hut. All three were chewing on something, and the warrior shook her head with a chuckle. Leave it to Gabrielle to find food somewhere. She padded in their direction, keeping her eyes on Gabrielle's face in idle curiosity. Wonder if she'll notice me showing up?

Saw the bard, when she was nearing them, straighten up, and turn her head to spot Xena approaching, and give the warrior a welcoming smile. "Hey." Gabrielle said. "Get the armor fixed?"

Xena held up the piece in question. "Yeah." She gave Lila and Lennet an amiable nod.

Gabrielle took another bite of her pocket sandwich, and indicated a direction with her chin. "Did you see who's here?" Her eyes twinkled.

The warrior peered off, then spotted who the bard was talking about, and let out a short laugh. "Damn. What's he doing here? Don't tell me.." She gave Gabrielle a look. "She didn't." My mother. For ten years, she didn't want to talk to me. Now…

The bard grinned. "She did. He has cakes for us, though. So I forgive her."

"I see." Xena sighed, rolling her eyes. Then chuckled. "I should have expected that." She regarded Lennat. "How's the head?" She studied him coolly. Noticing the hesitant body language between him and Lila, and the frequent exchange of glances and touches between them and grinned privately in self recognition.

The boy waggled a hand at her. "So so. Throbs."

"Hey." Gabrielle poked her with an elbow. "Want one of these? They're pretty good." She indicated what she was eating.

Xena raised an eyebrow at her. "No thanks. I had a big breakfast." Which had, in fact, been smaller than the one the bard had consumed, and part of hers had gone to Ares in the bargain. "What is it?"

For an answer, Gabrielle took her last bite, and offered it to her, and before she really thought about what she was doing, Xena neatly took it from her fingers with her teeth, chewing and swallowing it before she realized what she'd done. "Not bad." She managed to get out, watching the blush color Gabrielle's neck as she noticed the surprised look they were getting from Lila and Lennat. "Anything worth looking at in the trader's wagons?" She turned the focus on Lila, giving the dark haired girl an inquiring stare. That's it, Xena… pretend nothing happened, right? Completely normal. Best friends always feed each other by hand. Right? Sure.

"Uhnm… " Lila cleared her throat and looked towards the wagons. "Well, they had some nice cloth, really. And the toolsmith had some really good looking pots." She started walking back towards the traders. "And I saw this beautiful hide at the bootmakers.."

They exchanged amused looks, and followed her, Lennat jogging a few steps to fall into place next to Lila, leaving Xena and Gabrielle to follow at a more leisurely pace.

"Sorry about that." Gabrielle muttered, darting a glance up at Xena's face, which had a look of mild interest on it as she gazed around the square. "I didn't even think about.. I mean.. " She sighed. "Gods."

Xena patted her on the back. "Relax. You said your sister pretty much guessed, anyway, right?" She chuckled. "Besides, I didn't even think about it either, until I saw you blush." She regarded the silent bard with a grin. "And anyway, the truth is, if they're looking for signs like that, we're already marked. Watch Lila and Lennat."

They watched the couple ahead of them for a few moments. "See how close they walk together?" Xena asked, in a low tone.

"Yeah." The bard answered, drawing out the word.

"And see how they touch each other all the time? Watch that.. see? Now watch them make eye contact. There." Xena went on, in an academic voice.

"Uh.. yeah." Gabrielle replied, seeing where this was all going. "That's all kind of familiar."

"Uh huh." Xena agreed wryly, watching her face for a reaction.

Gabrielle thought about it for a while before answering the implied question. Thought about her family, and the traditions of this village, and how she was always expected to set an example for Lila, and for the younger girls, there being a shortage of girls her age growing up. She grinned. "I hope they're all jealous then. Ephiny said I was the envy of the camp." Moving closer to Xena and giving her a bump with her elbow.

"Oh she did, huh?" Came the surprised reply.

The bard gave her an affectionately exasperated look. "Come on, Xena…" She broke off because they had come up to the bootmaker's lean to, where Lila was fingering a lovely rich russet hide. "Wow..that's nice!"

Lila looked up at them wistfully. "Is it ever." She exchanged mutually regretful looks with Lennat. "Not this year." She sighed "The extra harvest money went to.. " she hesitated. "other things."

Ale, more than likely, Xena mused, and sauntered over to examine the tanned hide. Her eyebrows rose, and she caught the eye of the bootmaker. "This looks like Beldan's work." She commented, letting the fine leather run through her knowledgeable fingertips.

The tradesman ducked his fair head at her in a respectful nod. "And it is, then, lady. A fine hide, it is too." He looked at her with interest, and she met his gaze, and gave him a slight wink. His lip curled up slightly in answer, and he inclined his head towards her slightly. If everything works out the way I want it too, those will make a nice wedding present. Xena mused to herself. And damned if I'm not going to make it all work out.

Lila sighed again, and looked off towards home. "I have to get going." She said, giving them all an apologetic look. "Bree, I'll try to come by tonight to take a peek, but mother will be there." She gave Gabrielle's arm a squeeze. "Tell some good ones, OK?"

The bard gave her a quick hug. "I will. Maybe I'll come by afterward and tell a few for you." If I can bring myself to walk through that door, that is. We'll see. "Lennat, hope your head feels better."

The blond boy waved her off. "I'm fine. Take it easy, Bree. I'll see you tonight." He gave Xena a friendly nod, and took Lila's arm to escort her home.

They watched the two walk off in silence. Then.. "So. Telling stories tonight, are you?" Xena asked, with a grin.

"Yeah." Came the answer. "My overprotective friend… did you have to scare the innkeeper?" Gabrielle started walking back towards the inn. "You promised me some staff practice, as I recall." She paused. "And, since you seem to be in a meddling mood, what have you been up to today?"

Xena gave her an injured look. "Me?"

Gabrielle poked her ribs. "Don't think I didn't see that look between you and the bootmaker, O sneaky Warrior Princess. What are you up to?"

"Just doing what you asked me to, your majesty." Xena replied, glancing around. "Trying to find a solution to this very convoluted problem."

"And??" The bard persisted.

"I'm working on it." Came the cool reply.

Gabrielle was mustering her next attack, when the memory of the secret she had kept flooded into her conscious mind. She clamped her lips shut, and kept on walking. "Think we should find Johan?" She asked, glancing at Xena. "I think he's just over there."

"No." Came the gentle reply. "Let's go get your staff. I did promise." Xena reminded her, heading towards the inn. Having seen the sudden change of mood, and speculating on the cause. "Come on."

They walked up the stairs and into the room, and Xena closed the door behind them. "Hey."

"Yeah?" Gabrielle replied, walking over and gripping the staff with suddenly hesitant hands. She looked up at Xena when the warrior didn't reply.

"Look.. the plan is only half formed." The taller woman sighed. "It's complicated."

The bard walked over to her, and put a hand on her chest. "It's OK. I don't need to know." I can practice what I preached. Besides, it's usually better if I don't know what she's doing. I just get scared. Or mad. Or both. "I asked you to.. find a way out of this. I.. have to let you do what you need to do."

"Gabrielle." Profound concern in that low voice.

"No. It's OK." Came the reply, on a deep breath, that suddenly caught as Xena's hands gently cradled her face, and their eyes met. And her resolve faltered under bewilderment she saw there. "I.. you spoke to Alain."

"Yeah." Xena replied, beginning to understand. "Two nights ago. I knew." She trusted me. And I lied to her about knowing. Damn. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I.. should have told you. Maybe what happened with your father wouldn't have.. I just wanted to give you a chance to.."

"No." Gabrielle wrapped her hands in Xena's tunic and pulled hard. "Don't you dare apologize for that." She swallowed hard. "I was afraid to tell you."

Xena looked down at the floor, and released her grip, dropping her hands down and staring at them. "Yeah. I can see your point. They're pretty bloody." She mocked herself, moving back out of Gabrielle's grasp. "I thought that might be the case."

The bard felt the pain in her. She followed her retreat and grabbed Xena's hands, pulling her to a halt. Lifting them up in hers and brushing her lips against them, her eyes never leaving the warriors. "Forgive me." Seeing the sadness facing her. "Please?" Gods.. take that look out of her eyes.. I can't have caused that.. no.. please… "Xena?" Her breathing increased, and she felt tears building up.

'It's all right." Came the low voiced answer. "No need to apologize. You're were right to be afraid." Xena closed her eyes in weary acknowledgment. "A person can only change so much, Gabrielle." And I can only fool myself so long, or go so far. Even for her.

Felt the bard's hesitant touch against her, and didn't respond, trying to patch the bleeding holes that realization of Gabrielle's lack of trust in her caused.

"Don't lock me out." A voice so strained it was almost unrecognizable. "Please..."

And that plea Xena knew she couldn't ignore. She opened her eyes, and took a deep breath. Pushing her own agony down deep, for another time, another place, and concentrating on the tear filled green eyes facing her. "Never." Opening her arms and enfolding Gabrielle in them, feeling the bard's tense body slowly relax "It's OK."

Gabrielle took several breaths without speaking, then sighed. "I'm sorry." She snuggled closer, and wrapped her arms around Xena with an almost desperate intensity. "I'm not sure what I was more afraid of, Xena.. " she half whispered. "what you'd do, or the fact that I.. I really wanted you to do it."

Xena felt the shock tremor of that travel through her, and she hugged the bard tighter. Wanted? Gods. There's deep stuff going on here that I don't understand. I hope I don't make it worse. "Gabrielle… you're having a rough time, I know." Felt her swallow hard. "You're angry at your father for hurting you, and Lila.. and your mother.. I know you are. "

"Yeah." Came the muffled response.

"But you also love him." The warrior gently continued. "And you wouldn't do anything deliberately to cause him harm. I know that."

"How do you know that?" Gabrielle answered, lifting her head and gazing up

Xena quirked a grin. "Because I know you. Just like you know me."

Gabrielle just looked at her for a very long moment. Then gave a little nod of assent. And knew, in the depths of her heart, that Xena was right. "I'm.. " She put her head back down on Xena's shoulder and sighed. "Thanks."

Xena smiled. I must be getting better at this she mused thoughtfully. "Uhm… did you know Lennat has a talent for smithing?" she asked the bard, as she took two steps back, carrying the bard with her, and sat down on the bed, leaning back against the headboard.

Gabrielle blinked at her. "No… I didn't. He does??"

" Uh huh." Xena drawled. "Did you know he and Alain are half brothers?"

The bard turned her head and stared at her partner. "What? Really?"

"Yep. Did you know Tectdus really needs an apprentice, and he'd take Lennat if only Metrus would release him?" Xena smiled gently at the bard.

The bard's brow creased in concentration. "Then.. if Lennat was the smith apprentice, he could.." Her eyes darted to Xena's.

"Take Lila as his wife, yes." Xena said, quietly. "And he would."

Gabrielle's eyes lit up. "I knew you'd find a way."

Xena held up a hand. "There's still Metrus to get around. He's my sticking point. He holds a big grudge against Tectdus, and he's not likely to be cooperative with me." She smiled and stroked Gabrielle's cheek gently. "But I'm working on that part."

"Thanks for telling me." The bard responded, with a grin. "How did you find out all that stuff in one morning?"

"I asked." Xena shrugged. "Actually, it's not really that amaz.." and stopped, because Gabrielle put a hand across her mouth. "Hmm?"

"Don't tell me" The bard whispered. "Sometimes I like to think the things you do as a kind of magic." She smiled shyly. "I wrote a poem about that, once. I never read it to anyone, though."

"Why?" Xena asked, charmed.

"It was.. I don't know.. too.. it was for you. And it was really personal to me." She paused reflectively. "It was the night I.. actually sat down and admitted to myself that I was in love with you."

"Oh." Xena replied, with a faint blush. "Will you read it to me later?"

Gabrielle chuckled. "I don't need to read it. I've had it in memory for a long time. But yeah.. I will." She gave the warrior a nudge in the ribs. "After staff practice. C'mon, you." Maybe, with that, I can just.. lose this feeling… Gods.. it's like drowning.

"OK.. OK.." Xena agreed, but she didn't like what she saw in the bard's face. "You sure you're.." she began, then saw the determinedly good natured mask slip. "You're not."

Gabrielle felt her control unraveling again and she buried her face in frustration and confusion into Xena's linen clad shoulder. "Gods.. I'm so sorry.. I don't know what's wrong with me.."

"Shh. Don't apologize. I got you." Xena reassured her, rubbing her back. Do I? She's been the most stable thing in my life for a long time now - and she's in pieces here. I'm treading on dangerous ground.. for both of us. "Do you.. want to tell me what's bothering you?"

The bard stayed silent for a time, collecting her thoughts. "I.. don't know. I guess I never thought I'd do.. what I did. And that's changed the way I see.. myself. " Her hand played idly with the belt on Xena's tunic. "And.. I don't want to think that I could just.. strike out like that.. it scares me. A lot.. I'm afraid.. " She stopped.

Xena found herself unexpectedly staring her worst fear right in the face. She'd known, for a long time, that Gabrielle was having an effect on her - and in particularly dark times, she wondered if she was having an effect in return. Hoping dearly she wasn't. But the question had to be asked. "You're afraid you're.. becoming like me?" And if the answer is yes, Xena, then this stops here. She goes no further, no matter what that costs. I won't pay that price. She waited, taking even breaths, trying not to let on how desperately she needed to hear the answer. Felt the sudden pressure of Gabrielle's hand against her stomach, in a gentle reassuring pat.

"No." Came the answer, in a raspy tone. "I'm afraid I'm becoming.. like him.. and.. it's scaring me to death, Xena. How much of me.. is from him?"

Xena let out a breath, thinking about that. "I don't think you have much to worry about." She commented, keeping her voice even. "I think.. we're all responsible for what we do, Gabrielle. I can't.. I won't put blame on.. anyone.. for what I am." She felt Gabrielle go utterly still, waiting for her to finish. "You shouldn't let anyone else take the credit.. " here she smiled gently " for what you are. And what you are, my friend, is one of the kindest, most open hearted people I've ever known. You aren't like your father. You don't strike out in anger - for that matter, you get more angry at yourself than anyone else. That's true, isn't it? "

Long, long silence as Gabrielle slowly allowed the thought to seep into the stubborn resistance she'd been building up over the years, seeing a glimpse of a viewpoint of herself she had never before considered. "You know.. that's true." She finally admitted, in a wondering voice, feeling her world begin to resettle once again into a familiar pattern. "I did beat up a tree once. But I don't think that counts, does it?"

Felt Xena's surprised chuckle. "I don't remember that."

The bard smiled a little, and rolled her head to gaze up at her. "No, you wouldn't." she studied Xena's face. "Thanks.. again. Sorry I've been so.. weird."

"It's a healing process." The warrior replied, feeling the tight pressure in her chest relax. "I'm glad if whatever I said helped any." She let her fingers trace the bard's cheekbones, and wipe the tears off her face. Whoa. Got lucky again.

Gabrielle closed her eyes and leaned into the touch. "Thanks for being here." A tentative smile appeared. "I don't know what I would have done if you weren't."

"Feel better now?" Xena inquired, smoothing back her hair. "I seem to remember being asked for some sparring."

The bard took in a breath, and nodded. "Yeah. I'm better.. though whether or not I'm in any condition to go up against the Warrior Princess is another thing." This with a grin at Xena, whose raised both eyebrows.

"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that, my bard. Between my lack of ambition lately, and the degree of laziness you seem to inspire in me you should have no problem." Came the wryly drawled response.

Gabrielle chuckled. "Oh yeah, I'm sure I'll notice a big difference." She paused. "Like I'll last three parries instead of two before you dump me on my backside." She propped herself up on one elbow, and regarded Xena. "And don't you dare let me hit you just to impress people, either." Seeing the grin on Xena's face. "Ah ha!"

Xena chuckled. "Got me." She raised her hands in surrender. "All right, let's go, then." She rolled up onto her feet, and dusted off her tunic. "I've got to get my staff from the stable." She commented, waiting for Gabrielle to join her.

The sparring session drew more of a crowd than either of them had been anticipating, Xena thought grimly, most of it unfriendly, but she had spotted some grins, mostly from the younger crowd.

"Watch it now." The warrior cautioned. "Let me know if doing the overhead defenses hurts your ribs, OK?" She kept a sharp eye on the bard's responses, knowing her partner was inclined to push herself past where she really should due to their unexpected audience.

"I'm OK." Gabrielle insisted. Maybe that double combination will work.. she's kind of distracted.. And she tried it, swinging one end of her staff at knee level, then bringing the upper end back towards Xena's head. The warrior blocked both, but grinned.

"Nice." She gave an approving nod. "Try going a little higher next time." Despite the bard's admonition to the contrary, she went light on her own attacks, going enough just to put a little sting into the contact, but without her usual aggressive tactics. Until she saw, behind Gabrielle's shoulder, a pair of muddy hazel eyes that never left the bard's slim frame.

"All right.. let's do something a little more complicated." Xena called, calmly, and led the bard into an escalating series of attacks and counterattacks, keeping a sense of rhythm within Gabrielle's capabilities. Their tempo increased, and she saw that little concentrated grin show up on the bard's face, which meant she was totally into the exercise, a grin she echoed, as she threaded a fine line between putting on a truly impressive display, and the danger of either of them losing control of it.

Saw the flinch, as Gabrielle stretched to cover one of her upper attacks, and dropped to one knee, continuing the exercise with a smooth precision, but from a lower angle. "Come on, come on.." Urging her companion on to the final series of exchanged blows, which left them staves crossed, within inches of each other.

Both grinned. "Nice." Xena repeated, as they backed off, and she rose to her full height, reaching out and giving her a pat on the side. "I would have loved to have seen you take on Eponin, and seen the look on her face." Her eyes glinted with pride. "You're damned good."

Gabrielle grinned happily, drinking in the unexpected praise. "Even with you going light?" she teased, giving Xena a tap on the shoulder with the end of her staff. "Thought I told you not to do that."

"Mmm.. " Xena waggled her hand. "Wanted to make sure I didn't hurt you. I saw you flinch on some of those extended moves." She gave her a look. "And I thought I told you to tell me if any of that hurt." Seeing the guilty look. "So we're even." She stepped closer and ducked her head. "Besides.. your father was watching."

Gabrielle's eyes widened, and she stiffened in reaction, watching Xena's face intently. "Did he see…" Seeing the nod of confirmation. "Is he still here?" A shake of her head. "Good." She said, with a grim smile. "I'm glad you didn't tell me before now. I know I would have hit myself in the head if I'd known he was there." She relaxed a little. "Did he.. watch?"

Xena pursed her lips thoughtfully. How do I interpret the look I saw for her? "He watched." A combination of disapproval, fear, and a strange, uneasy fascination had been in those eyes. Until the exercise was over, and she had straightened up, and met his eyes over the bard's head. Then the look had turned to hatred, and hers to pure icy response. "I don't think this whole thing has made him like me any more." Xena commented, giving the bard a wry smile.

"Hey you two." Lennat gave them a tentative grin. "That was some display." He came closer, followed by a small group of the younger townsfolk, most of whom gave Gabrielle a friendly greeting. She returned the greetings with a grin, and introduced them to Xena, who managed to produce a somewhat amiable response.

"Bree, where'd you learn to do that?" Asked one, a slim dark haired girl who reminded Xena vaguely of Lila. "From.. " her eyes darted to Xena, then back.

"Mostly." Gabrielle confirmed, giving Xena a smile. "But I started learning from the Amazons."

The girl poked the boy standing next to her. "See? I told you it was true." She grinned at Gabrielle. "Is it true you actually run them?"

The bard laughed. "Well, kind of. That's not exactly how it is.." And she went into a brief explanation, which somehow led to her telling the whole story to the fascinated group.

Xena stood back, leaning on her staff, and watched Gabrielle gather them in with her talent with a deep sense of pleasure in the watching. A slight motion caught her eye, and she turned to see Alain standing in the shadows of the building, raptly listening. "Hey.. come over here." The warrior called him in a low voice. "You can hear better."

The boy crept nearer, until he was almost pressed up against Xena's tall form, giving her a grateful glance and settling in to absorb the tale. "It's a good story." He whispered to her, about halfway through."

"Mmm." Xena agreed, with a wry grin. "It's true, you know."

"Really?" Alain breathed, eyes sparkling. "Hey.. she's talking about you!" he realized.

Xena shrugged. "Uh huh."

"Wow." He chuckled, concentrating on the bard's clear delivery.

"Wait, Bree.." Lennat interrupted, waving a hand. "You mean you had to fight someone to the death???" They all exchanged stares.

Gabrielle smiled. "Well, that's how the challenge works." She responded. "But, no, I didn't have to, because the rules also say I can name a champion, to fight in my place." She turned and looked at Xena, and they all did as well. "And I was lucky, because it just so happens that my very best friend is also the very best fighter there is."

Xena gave her an amusedly exasperated look, and shook her head, but remained silent, as the bard continued her story.

They clamored for another after she finished, and she laughingly waved them off. "My voice will run out before tonight if I keep this up." She explained. "And I gotta go wash up, and get some dinner before then." She backed off and walked over to where Xena was leaning against the barn. "Hello, Alain." Gabrielle said, smiling at him. "Did you like the story?"

The boy nodded vigorously. "Yep, I did." He glanced down shyly. "Nice to see you, Bree."

Gabrielle gave him a quick hug. "Nice to see you, too."

He blushed. "Gotta go." He mumbled, and ducked away, giving Xena a last round eyed gaze, and disappearing into the darkness of the barn.

They looked at each other for a moment. "I think you enjoyed your storytelling." Xena commented, noticing the bright twinkle in her eyes. Ah..that's been missing for a few days. I'm glad to see that again.

"I did." The bard confessed, with a grin. "Sorry if I embarrassed you."

Xena laughed. "No you're not. You love doing that." She pushed off from the barn, and started walking back towards the inn, capturing the bard with one arm and pulling her along. "Come on.. I thought you said something about bath and dinner.."

Gabrielle grinned to herself, and settled her arm around Xena's waist. "You're right. I do love doing that. " She cheerfully admitted. "And the great thing is, with you, I never have to stretch the details. I just gotta tell what happened." She gave the warrior a squeeze. "You make being a bard a snap."

"Oh really?" Xena responded. "Well, anything I can do to make your life easier, your majesty."

The bard gave her a look. "Cut that out, or I'll have to hurt you." She growled, in a menacing tone.

"Well" Xena drawled, eyes glinting with mischief. "You can try."

"Is that a promise?" Gabrielle countered, soaking in the familiar banter like a sponge.

"Is that a threat?" Came the expected response.

They laughed, and headed into the inn, and were at the steps when the innkeeper stepped forward hastily to stop them. "Ah.." He said, giving Xena a gruff nod. "Just wanted to say.. looks like it'll be pretty full tonight there, Bree. Word's got around.. seems folks want to see you."

The bard raised her eyebrows. "Glad to hear it." She said, sounding a bit puzzled. "Hope it helps out business for you."

The man laughed shortly. "Can't help but." He hesitated, then. "And I'm Boreneus, by the way.", extending a forearm to Xena. "Sorry I was a bit gruff this morning."

Xena took the proffered arm, and returned his grip with one of her own. "Don't worry about it." She gave him an amiable nod. "We're going to grab your bathing room while we have a chance."

The man nodded. "I'll have someone give you a hand wi' the buckets then." He turned to Gabrielle. "Looking forward to a good few tales myself, Bree."

He gave them a wave, and strode off, leaving them to continue up the stairs. "Well. That was different." Gabrielle muttered, shaking her head in bemusement.

Xena gave her a half grin, but stayed silent, reflecting that Gabrielle still wasn't use to people praising her undeniable talent. They collected soap and towels from their room, and slipped into the bathing room.

Gabrielle tested the water in the one large tub, with a grin. "Perfect." She pronounced, taking off her tunic and laying it aside, and working on the bandages still around her chest.

"Here, let me take care of that" Xena remarked, padding over to her, and expertly unwinding the fabric. "There." Studying the bruises around the bard's ribcage, and shaking her head. "You were lucky."

Gabrielle touched one bruise with tentative fingertips, and sighed. "I guess."

The warrior cupped her chin with one hand, and gazed at her. "Don't think about it." In a gentle voice that carried a note of steel all the same. "In you go." She added, scooping the bard up, and lifting her over the edge of the tub, and lowering her into the water.

"Mmmm." Gabrielle sighed, as the water closed over her. "Gods, that feels good." She glanced up and grinned. "Thanks for the ride."

"Anytime" Xena chuckled, lowering herself in next to the submerged bard. The tub was big enough for them to sit side by side, and they did, and was long enough for even Xena to stretch her legs out. "Hey, that reminds me.. can I ask you a question?"

Gabrielle turned her head and stared. "You never asked me that before. Should I be scared?"

Rolled eyes from Xena. "No." She flicked water at Gabrielle's face. "That nickname they all call you here. You like it?" >From the look of chagrin on the bard's face, she guessed the answer. "No, huh?" Didn't think so.. and damn, I'm glad. I like Gabrielle so much better.

"Er… no." Gabrielle sighed, making a face. "Not really. I kind of got used to not being called.. that. It.. No. I don't."

"Whew." Xena laughed in relief. "I don't like it much either, and I was afraid you'd want me to start using it."

Gabrielle splashed her. "Don't you dare." She paused. "I like what you call me just fine, thanks."

Xena tilted her head to one side and studied her. "Do you now, my bard?"

"Yeah." Gabrielle answered, sliding closer, and curling up next to Xena in the warm water. "I like both parts of that." She added, and felt the warrior's arm slide around her in response. She grinned, and picked up the soap, scrubbing both herself and Xena indiscriminately, trying to escape the warrior's tickling attempts. "Stop that, or I'll dunk you." She warned. Getting a throaty chuckle in response. "I mean it." She put a blob of soap on Xena's nose, and giggled at the result. And I used to think she didn't have a sense of humor. She chuckled to herself. And I was worried that giving into our feelings for each other would ruin our friendship - was I ever wrong.. it's only made it so much stronger.. more than I could ever have imagined.

Xena rolled her eyes, and tipped her head back into the water until she was completely submerged, then slid back up into sight, blinking the water out of her eyes. "G'wan, dunk. I'll get your hair." She offered, watching as the bard disappeared under the water, then reappeared with a splutter. "Don't breath that stuff in, ok?"

The bard coughed. "Yeah…whoa." She took a deep breath and cleared her throat. "Better." She mumbled. Xena shook her head, and set to work with the soap on the bard's hair, grinning as she felt Gabrielle relax and lean back into her hands.

"Don't fall asleep there, your majesty." She leaned forward and whispered into the bard's ear a short while later.

"Huh?" Gabrielle started, and gave her a sheepish look over her shoulder. "Uh.. ok." She blinked, and ducked her head under the water to get the soap off. "Sorry about that." She muttered as she came back up.

"Uh huh." Xena commented, and leaned back, stretching her arms across the top of the tub and relaxing herself. Grinning at the bard, who immediately snuggled up and rested her head on the warrior's shoulder.

"So. What stories are you going to tell tonight?" The warrior asked idly, leaning her head back against the sloping wall.

Gabrielle yawned. "Mmm.. a couple of yours, couple of old legends.."

"You gotta do at least one of Herc's . Isn't that in our contract somewhere?" The warrior asked, nudging her with an elbow.

"Ouch. Stop that. Yeah.. I guess." She gave Xena a little splash. "If I tell one with both of you in it, does that count?"

"No." Xena splashed her back.

The bard sighed. "Oh well, then, I suppose I'll have to come up with something I can rattle on about for the poor guy." She grinned "Let's see how spectacular I can get with you…" She was cut off by Xena's leaning over and kissing her unexpectedly and she closed her eyes and responded, sliding her hands around the warrior's body and pulling herself closer. "Hey.." she mumbled, when Xena stopped, and she opened her eyes to see the taller woman grinning at her. "What'd you stop for?"

Xena gave her a wry look. "Well, thought I'd give you a chance to decide just how compromising a position you wanted to be in when your sister walked in here" She jerked her head towards the door.

Gabrielle sighed. "It would serve her right for showing up." She quirked a grin. "If that was suppose to get me to go light on your stories tonight.. it didn't work." Reluctantly, she loosened her grasp, and backed off a little. Not much.

"Nah." Xena replied, leaning back and crossing her legs as the door began to open. "You just looked so cute, I couldn't resist." Watching the bard blush as Lila tentatively poked her head in. "Hi, Lila." The warrior said casually, waving her in. Watching the dark haired girl try to find someplace to rest her gaze without staring. Xena's eyes met the mist green of the bard's and both exchanged a solemn twinkle of amusement.

"What's up, Lila?" Gabrielle asked, keeping a grin off her face with difficulty. Oh.. she loves Lennat, all right.. but who knows better than I do just how hard it is to keep your eyes off my best friend? The bard mused silently to herself. Remembering the first time she'd ever seen Xena like this, after a swim near sunset, when the warrior had just risen up out of the lake, into the golden light. All powerful grace and fire, and the ice of her eyes. It had hit her in the gut with a sudden, primitive reaction, that had forever changed what her eyes considered to be beautiful. She felt it again now, just thinking of it.

"Uhm.." Lila answered, finally compromising by leaving her gaze pinned to Gabrielle's face. "Just wanted to stop by and let you know.. the entire town's talking about you…" she hesitated. "both." With a quick, darting glance at Xena, whose eyebrows rose.

They looked at each other, knowing their thoughts were racing along the same lines.

"That staff demonstration.. " Lila clarified, puzzled at their lack of response.

"Oh.. that." They both said simultaneously. Exchanged knowing glances, and burst out laughing.

"Yes, that." Lila frowned. "What did you think I was talking about…" She paused, then blushed. "Oh."

"Well, we'd better get going then." Xena commented, lifting herself out of the water by her outstretched arms, and swinging her legs over the edge of the tub. Walking over to where they'd left their towels, casually grabbing one and tossing the other to Gabrielle, who had stood up. "Here."

The bard snagged the towel out of mid air, and smiled, watching her sister out of the corner of her eye. Yep.. can't keep those eyes off. "Thanks." She slung the towel over her shoulders, and was preparing to climb out, when Xena crossed over to her, having wrapped her own towel around her body.

"Watch it." The warrior cautioned, "It's slippery." Extending a hand out, and grasping Gabrielle's arm, steadying her as she hopped over the edge of the high tub walls and waiting until she was on sure footing before releasing her, and picking up her tunic. "I'm going to check on Argo."

Gabrielle nodded at her, and gave a little wave, as she dried off, and turned to Lila. "So, we impressed them, huh?" She gave her sister a smile. "That was me going pretty much full out, and Xena sleeping." She chuckled. "Despite her protests to the contrary."

Lila laughed a little. "You two do seem to get along." She sighed. "Speaking of which, Da saw you out there today, and he wasn't pleased."

Gabrielle shrugged. "Lila, I'm done pretending. For him, for you.. for Potadeia.." She tucked the end of her towel in, and faced her sister. "This is who I am, and that's what I do. That staff practice is important - it can save my life."

Her sister glanced at the ground. "I know, Bree." She put a hand on Gabrielle's arm. "I know. But he thinks she's turned you into.. I don't know what."

"Because I stood up to him?" Gabrielle's voice went quiet and cool.

Lila nodded. 'Yes."

Gabrielle chewed her lip for a moment. "He's right." She admitted. "She's had a lot to do with the changes you see.. the changes I feel in myself." She smiled. "The difference is, he sees them as a bad thing, and I see them as a good thing."

Lila squeezed her arm. "I think they're a good thing too." She said quietly. "I'm glad, Bree. I'm glad you're getting to see all those places, and meet all those people." She paused, and glanced down, then back up at her sister. "And I'm glad you found someone who will take very, very good care of you. I see that.. now."

The bard gazed at her for a long time, adjusting. "Lila.." She finally said. "Thanks. It means a lot to me to hear that from you." She moved closer and caught her sister's eyes. "She'll find a way for you and Lennat, too. You have to believe that."

Lila took a breath, then a second. "Don't raise my hopes, Gabrielle. That's not fair." She whispered, wrapping her arms around her body.

The bard grasped her shoulders. "If there's a way, she'll find it. Believe me, Lila… it'll happen."

"I have to go get dinner ready." Came the reply. "Good luck tonight." Lila's mouth twitched. "Maybe I'll see you later."

Gabrielle watched her leave, and sighed deeply. Then she collected her things, and slipped down the hallway to the small room they shared. Pushing the door open, she was faintly surprised to see Xena standing in the window, gazing out at the sunset tinged square, dressed in her leathers.

"Thought you were going to check Argo?" She commented, walking up behind the warrior and laying her cheek against Xena's shoulder.

"Hmm?" Xena started, and glanced down at her. "Damn. Sorry.. I went out of it a bit there." Daydreaming again. This is getting ridiculous. "Lila ok?"

The bard sighed. "Not really." She glanced up. "Do you really think you can fix all this?" Here I go again.. why not put a little more pressure on her, Gabrielle? "Never mind.. forget I asked that."

Xena turned, and faced her, letting her forearms rest on Gabrielle's shoulders. "Yes, I do." She replied, gazing intently into the bard's eyes. "So don't you worry." Saw the glow of belief spring up in those mist green eyes, as the younger woman wrapped her arms around Xena's waist, and leaned against her. Felt her arms sliding around the bard in response, quite without her conscious permission. "We've both got things to do." She remarked, just before their lips met, and then there was a long period of silence, as they became lost in each other. In the golden glow of their bond that wrapped them both in a sensual peacefulness.

Finally, regretfully, Xena leaned back, and took a deep breath, and smoothed the fine drying hairs out of Gabrielle's eyes. "You need to get something to eat, and get ready for your storytelling, my bard."

She got a lazy smile in return. "And I suppose you really do have to go and check on Argo." She poked the warrior very gently in the stomach. "And get some dinner too. Right?"

Xena nodded. "Right." She glanced down. "Right, Ares?"

"Roo." The puppy answered, seriously, stumbling over and starting to chew on Xena's boot. "Roo." He repeated, looking up at her with a bit of leather in his mouth.

Xena laughed, and crouched down, tousling his fur, and rolling him over. "Yeah, you can have some of my dinner, as usual." She ticked his belly, and he waved all four feet at her. "Grrr."

"All right." Xena sighed, "I really do have to go now." She straightened up, and gave the bard a pat on the cheek. "I'll meet you down in the tavern in a bit."

Gabrielle grinned. "OK. Say hi to Argo for me."

"I will." The warrior paused. "I promised her a ride, so it might be a few minutes." A brisk nod, and she was headed out the door, with the bard's eyes following her.

The cool breeze outside felt nice, Xena mused, as she crossed the courtyard and entered the wide double doors of the barn. Inside, for a change, no one was being taunted and the large space was mostly filled with silence, broken by the occasional shifting hoof moving straw and the steady whispering crunch of hay being consumed.

Argo heard her approach, and lifted her head, gazing at her with benign interest, her jaws working steadily.

"Hey girl." Xena said softly, as she reached the mare's side, and put out a hand to scratch her ears. "Got yourself a nice feedbag there, huh? " She grinned as Argo snorted and nudged her belly, feeling the warmth of the mare's breath through her leathers. "Yeah, yeah.. I know, I promised you a run. You ready?" The horse nudged her again. "Ok..ok..don't rub it in. Come on, then."

She slid the bridle over Argo's head, and fastened the buckles, easing the bit into the mare's still chewing jaws. "Bareback today, I think, girl - no sense in throwing all that gear on you." Argo whickered in apparent agreement, and willingly followed Xena to the door of the barn, nibbling on the warrior's dark hair along the way. "Hey, cut that out." She chided the horse, waiting until they'd both cleared the door before vaulting up on the mare's back and settling her knees firmly behind the warm golden shoulders.

"Come on." Xena remarked, tightening her knees, and urging the mare forward. They moved slowly out of the courtyard, and headed down a long path Xena knew went parallel to the river. And headed past a certain, familiar clearing, where she pulled Argo up from her fast canter. "Whoa, there, girl." She sat the mare's back quietly, just drinking in the setting sun that sent red spears across the grass and tinged the leaves, breathing in the pine scented air that on this cool evening also held a hint of sweet jasmine.

And lost herself for a long moment in her memories of that day, two years and more ago, when she'd buried her weapons, and stepped into this clearing in what was one of the lowest times of her life. Finding here a reason to keep going in what she had considered the most unlikely of places, the most unlikely of people. "Right place, right time, Argo." She sighed, patting the mare on her silken haired neck. "Let's go."

She rode the horse at a gallop down the river path, leaping the odd downed log, and sending small animals scurrying for cover into the underbrush. Then she took the mare through rolling fallow fields up to the road, and back around again to the village, leaning low over her golden back, and letting her powerful strides eat up the distance. Feeling her body move in perfect rhythm and balance with the fast moving mare, as a fierce grin spread over her face.

Then she was rounding the last bend in the road and almost to the first buildings in the village, and she slowed the now sweating Argo to an ambling canter. "Easy there." She murmured, stroking the damp neck. "Look at you breathing so hard. We gotta do this more often, old girl." Hearing a snort in response. "Did mother spoil you too? Bet she had pockets of carrots all the time, huh?" A whickered sneeze. Xena chuckled, and reined her to a walk as they entered the courtyard. The warrior gazed up at the twilight sky, and considered. "About the right time, Argo. Let me get you taken care of, then I have a visit to pay. "

Alain poked his head out of the door as she approached, and gave her a delighted grin. "Lo, Xena." He trotted out and gently grasped Argo's bridle, holding her still as Xena swung her leg over the mare's neck and slid down off her back.

"Hello there to you, Alain." The warrior grinned. "Thanks." And reached for the mare's reins, but stopped at the boy's shaking head. "Problem?"

"No.." Alain smiled sweetly at her. "I'll take care o' her, sokay?" He patted the mare's neck. "She likes me fine, I think." And indeed, Argo swung her big head around, and whuffled his face, blowing the straight blond hair back and out of his gray eyes.

Xena quirked a grin. "That, I'd appreciate very much, and so would she."

Alain nodded. "I'll slicker down, and walk her to cool, then." He started walking towards the little yard outside the barn, crooning encouragement to the mare, who kept up easily with his uneven stride.

Xena nodded to herself, then entered the barn, crossing to Argo's gear, and flipping open a compartment in the skirt of her saddle. "Time to keep that promise." She remarked to herself, removing a small bag, and tying the compartment shut again.

Crossing back to the door, and slipping outside, heading in the opposite direction from the inn. Towards the center of the town, past Gabrielle's family's house. Past the smith's forge. To a small cot she'd been sure to secure the location of this morning, a cot with a torch burning outside, and the flickering surety of firelight within. She paused in the almost darkness, stilling herself to quiet stealth as the door opened, and a blond, lanky figured trod out, anger in his posture. Lennat. She mused.. and not happy. Metrus' probably giving him a hard time about going to the inn, I'll wager.

She waited until he passed her unknowing, and then slipped up to the door taking care to make no sound to alert the man she knew was inside. In the doorway, she paused. Unarmed, yeah.. but who am I kidding? If I really wanted to find a direct way of taking care of this.. problem.. I'm capable of doing it with nothing but my hands. The thought sent a rolling chill up and down her, lifting her nape hairs and roughening her flesh with goosebumps. There's that old wolf again.. she grinned to herself. No no.. Xena..you gotta do it the diplomatic way. She took a breath, and settled herself, then paused. But a little wolf never hurt… and consciously let her darker side surface a little, feeling the tingle of edgy energy flow over her. Knowing it showed in her movements. In the cast of her face, and the glint in her eyes.

Metrus didn't look up until she was already in the room, and standing at his table. Just watching him. His face went pale, and he backed away, knocking the chair out from under himself, and stumbling away from her. Holding his hands carefully in front of him.

"Hello, Metrus." Her low voice rolled across the table at him. "Mind if I sit down?" She didn't wait for his response, but pulled out the chair across from his, and seated herself, slouching back in a relaxed pose, and waiting for him to collect his composure.

"I told you, no trouble." Metrus rasped, finally, blindly searching behind him for the chair, so as not to take his eyes of her. "I meant it."

"Relax." Xena drawled, propping her booted foot up on the chair next to her, and leaning her forearm on her knee. "I just wanna talk."

"Talk." Metrus stated flatly. "About what?" He slowly seated himself on the now righted chair, and carefully placed his arms on the table. "What do we have to talk about?"

Xena paused, and studied him. Must take after the father.. she mused, because he's nothing like Lennat, and Lennat and Alain are close in looks. "Lennat's a good kid.' She remarked, watching his eyes grow hooded with wary suspicion.

"He's all right." Metrus allowed, gruffly. "What's it to you?" His eyes suddenly glinted. "You in the market? Thought you had someone to clean your boots." Regretting it when her eyes suddenly shone with cold fire. "All right.. all right.. never mind that." He leaned back, more comfortable now. She wants something. All right.. I'm a businessman. "What is it you want, Xena?" Cut to the chase here.

"What do I want?" The warrior replied. "Dunno. Maybe I'm just in a curious mood." She leaned forward and propped her chin on one hand, studying him. "Why apprentice him, Metrus? He's no merchant."

The portly villager shrugged. "He's a body.. he's blood… he's got to do something for a living. Call it charity on my part."

"Or free labor, considering you aren't teaching him anything." Xena countered, with a feral grin. "Tell me, Metrus, you hate the kid?"

Metrus' eyebrows contracted in a scowl. "You daft? He's my brother."

"And?" Xena shrugged. "What I've seen in this town.. what does that matter?" She shook her head slowly at him. "I've seen more intolerance and hatred around here than in some warlord's armies."

The man glowered at her. "We like our traditions. We don't like people coming in and stepping all over them, Xena, especially not people like you."

"Like me?" The warrior repeated, leaning closer. "Like me how? What is it you find offensive, Metrus? That I'm taller than you are? That I can beat you up? What?"

He didn't answer the question, but he looked at her a long time. "What do you want?" He asked, his voice a trifle rough.

Xena leaned back again, and regarded him through half closed eyes. "What's your brother worth to you?"

His eyes glittered with perceived understanding. "You wanna buy him?" His face relaxed. "Not that I blame you any.. he's a nice looking lad. And you…" His mouth quirked. "Well. He's under an apprentice contract to me.. I'm not sure I want to sell him."

She moved so fast, he had no chance to breath, to think, to move. One moment she was sprawled in the chair across from him, the next, he was being lifted off his feet, out of his chair, and slammed against the wall so hard the timbers rattled.

Silence fell, punctuated by the rasping harshness of his breathing. Xena was still as carved stone, hands wrapped in his tunic, holding him off the ground with an ease he found chilling, blue eyes colder than winter boring into his. "Let's get the ground rules straight, Metrus." Her voice took on a growly pitch that sent shivers down his back. "We can talk about this civilly, and I can get what I want. Or I can rip your backbone out through your neck, and beat you to death with it. And get what I want. Your choice." Sternly willing her arms not to shake under the strain of lifting his overfed body and holding it there.

"A.. a.. all right.' He wheezed, stammering. And gasped as she lifted him up, and swung around, to slam him back in his chair with a painful force. Tried to contain his unreasoning fear of her. Knowing what he had just felt was more than human. He watched her walk around the table, and settle back into her chair, putting both forearms on the surface, and interlacing her fingers.

"What's he worth to you?" She repeated her question in a flat tone.

He named the price of the contract, standard for an apprentice. No tacking on extras with her.

Now he could hear only the fire crackling, and the gentle night sounds outside the window, as he watched her study him with thoughtful eyes. Then a quicksilver flash of her movement, and a dull muffled chink of coins as a small bag landed in front of him. Swallowing hard, he reached out a tentative hand, and carefully opened the bag, spilling out the contents. It was his price and a trifle more. "Well, he's no use to me as an apprentice, you're right. No sense feeding him for free. I accept." He sighed in relief. "I'll allow I'll miss him, though."

Xena chuckled, and watched Metrus turn white at the sound. "He's not going anywhere, Metrus. I'm no slaver."

The man looked at her in confusion. "Why? I've accepted now, Xena - no going back, but then.. I'm thinking you're not that type anyway. Why?"

The warrior leaned back, and shrugged. "Does it matter?" She let a slow smile inch across her face. "I could tell you I'm doing it to keep a promise to a friend, but you'd never believe that. So..let's just say.. it's a whim of mine." She stood, and offered her arm to him. "Seal it."

He hesitated, fighting an unreasoning fear of her. Slowly he stood, and, finally forced himself to grasp her arm. Surprised at the warm softness of her skin, stretched over the supple tension of the muscles he could feel under his fingertips. Like velvet over steel, his mind supplied. "It's sealed." He said, furtively meeting her eyes. "Why leave him here, though?" His eyes suddenly widened. "That girl."

Xena smiled. "She's a nice kid, too." She didn't let his arm go. "And he'll make a good smith."

Metrus' jaw dropped. "Why… you…"

"Ahh.. careful, Metrus." The warrior laughed. "I'm a cruel, ruthless warlord, remember? " She tightened her fingers, and saw his eyes start. "Just let them be, you got me?"

"There's bad blood between us, damn you." He hissed, anger darkening his face. "No, I won't have it. That damned.." His voice stopped as a jolt of pain went up his arm.

Xena's expression hardened, and her eyes glinted with anger now. "It stops here, Metrus. It's not Lennat's fault what happened. He's got a gift and he deserves the chance to grow into it." Her eyes suddenly widened. "It's all about choice, Metrus - we've all got the right to make the choice about how to live our lives.. and that's why you all hate people like me so very much, isn't it? " She released his arm, but leaned forward and captured his eyes with her own. "You put your kids into boxes, Metrus.. you never give them a chance to grow.. if they show any signs of difference.. you beat them back into the box, don't you?"

No answer. Metrus just stared at her. Finally.. "Our traditions are the backbone of our lives, Xena. Take that away, and there'd be nothing left. You let those traditions be destroyed, and you have.. a bunch of people. Not held together by anything. Is that what you want?"

The warrior sighed. "We have different viewpoints, Metrus. Just leave the kids alone."

The merchant gave her a stiff nod. "I'll stand by my bargain. But I don't like it. He'll not be welcome here if he goes to that.. place."

Xena took a breath. "Make sure you tell him that, Metrus. So it's an honest choice." She said, softly. And turned on her heel, wanting out of that closed in place, away from that closed in mind. Out under the stars, where she looked up and breathed in the clean air with a sense of relief, and let the anger and the frustration drain out of her.

And found herself face to face with Lennat, who just stood, gazing at her with an unfathomable expression, his pale hair colorless in the rising moonlight.

"She said you had a magic." The boy whispered, his eyes glowing.

Xena snorted. "No magic, Lennat. I threatened him, then bought him off. No magic, no romantic notions, nothing. Just business. Now you keep your end of the bargain." She paused. "You heard?"

Lennat nodded. "Every word."

"That'll save time." Xena remarked. "What are you going to do?"

The boy smiled. "Become a smith. And marry Lila." He bit his lip. "Not necessarily in that order." And his face went serious. "And always.. always.. get down on my knees and thank the gods for you." He took a breath. "And you'll get every dinar of that back, I swear it."

Xena gazed at him, caught between embarrassment and grudging admiration. "Don't bother.. it'll be nice to know a good smith in these parts." She gave him a quirky grin. "And it wasn't for you. So don't think I get these notions often."

Lennat smiled at her. "I know… Don't worry, you're reputation is safe with me."

"Well, all right then." Xena said, giving him a look. "So long as we understand each other." She clapped him on the shoulder, and started back towards the inn. "You have some people to see, I think. I'll leave you to it."

"Xena." He called after her, but softly.

"Yeah?" She answered, stopping and turning to look at him.

He walked over to her, and touched her arm. "Thank you." Very quietly. And with everything his soul was feeling showing in his gray eyes.

Xena took a breath to speak, intending to brush him off, but something in his voice stopped her. "You're welcome." She finally answered, lifting a hand and patting his shoulder. "Go on, now."

He nodded, and smiled. "Who first? Metrus, I think. Then.. Tectdus.. then.. " His voice grew joyous "Lila." His bit his lip, then whirled and headed towards the lowly lit cot she'd come out of.

The warrior let out a deep sigh, and shook her head. Damn… what a mushball I'm getting to be. Musing on her recent sentimentality, she strolled across the market square, pausing in front of the smith's forge. Well, as long as I'm being a soft touch tonight, might as well go all the way. Right? Yeah right, Xena. She turned into the forge, and crossed through it to the tiny cot beyond, where a bright candlelight shone through the windows. She knocked lightly at the door, hearing the scrape of a chair being drawn back within, and heavy footsteps moving towards her.

"And who's at the door at this… oh. Xena, hello." Tectdus's rough voice gentled on seeing who his guest was. "Is there some wrong, did the piece break or..?"

"No." The warrior said with a smile. "The work is just fine. Is Alain here?"

Tectdus cocked his head at her. "Aye." He drew out the word, obviously puzzled. "Is it the horse, then?"

"No." Xena said, again. "Relax, Tectdus. There's nothing wrong. I just had a feeling he'd like to see his old playmate tell some stories. And.. I figured he'd get less grief if he went in with me."

The smith's jaw dropped slightly, but he smiled. "Ah.. that's a kind thought. He was wanting to go, yes.. but I.."

Xena nodded. "I know."

Tectdus grunted in response. "Alain!" He called. "Ye've got a visitor here."

"Me?" Came the boy's surprised voice, as he limped around the doorframe and spotted Xena's tall from. "Wow. Hi!" His eyes lit up.

"Hi yourself.' Xena drawled. "Wanna go listen to some good stories?"

Alain beamed, and glanced at Tectdus, who nodded solemnly. "Thanks, Da…" He chirped, and scuttled out the door to join the warrior. "Thanks.." he said to her, in a lower tone.

Mushball. She mocked herself. "Come on. " She turned, but then turned back to Tectdus. "Oh.. yeah. Don't be surprised if you have another visitor tonight." With a twinkle in her eye that he could see.

He stared at her, puzzled, then saw her slight grin, and wondered. But before he could ask, she was gone, taking Alain in tow towards the inn. "And what was she up to, then?" He mused to himself. "She's a deep one, she is." He was about to close the door, when he heard footsteps in the forge lean to, and stuck his head back out. And stared at the tall, lean form whose hair reflected the moonlight. "Lennat?" And remembered the twinkle in those very blue eyes. Be damned… did she then?

"Master Tectdus.." Lennat said, crossing from the moonlight to the candlelight of his doorway. "I hear you're in need of an apprentice."

The smith just laughed, and shook his head. "Come in, lad." And shut the door behind them.

Continued in Part 3

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