Home is where the Heart is - Part 3

by Melissa Good
Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

Xena led Alain across the courtyard, and towards the inn, chuckling quietly to herself. They were about to step through the door, when she spotted a familiar form coming out of the barn. "Johan," she called. "Over here."

"Ah, lass." The older man waved a hand at her, taking a better hold on a large package tucked under his other arm. "There you are." He strode over to them and handed Xena the package. "This is for you, and for Gabrielle, of course." He gave her an impish grin.

Xena gave him an amused look as she took the package. "Mother send you to check up on us?" Her voice held a hint of annoyance, but she kept the smile on her face. "I could be insulted."

Johan clucked his tongue at her. "Now.. she means only good, you know that." He smiled, and indicated the door with a jerk of his chin. "Going in, are you? And who's this?" With an inquiring look at the quiet Alain.

"Oh. Sorry." Xena replied. "Alain, this is Johan."

"Hi." The boy said, in almost a whisper.

"Hello, lad." The trader answered, with a grin. "There's cakes in the package." He gave the warrior a knowing look. "Your mother said to make sure you share."

Xena rolled her eyes in mock exasperation. "Make sure *I* share? Come on." She sighed, pulling open the door.

Inside was comfortably lit, and very busy. Xena, in the lead, felt eyes turn to her as soon as she cleared the doorway, and blithely ignored them, heading across the floor to her favored table, in the rear corner.

She spotted Gabrielle seated next to her mother, with a tense look on her face which eased when she lifted her eyes and met Xena's smiling gaze. The bard smiled in return, and even Hecuba, turning to see what had caused that reaction in her daughter gave the warrior a twitch of her lips.

Which, Xena mused, was nice, because the looks she was getting from the rest of the crowd could best be described as.. hostile. Unfazed, she scanned the room, and returned most of the uglier stares with one of her own, summoning an air of edgy menace to the surface of her thoughts.. knowing that it would also show in her manner. Glares suddenly dropped from her, as their owners found other things to look at. Less dangerous things. Xena smirked, and guided her charges through the crowd to the empty table, and took the backmost seat herself, against the wall.

An inn worker cautiously approached, having gotten used to Xena after several days of exposure to her. The warrior raised an eyebrow at him, and shook her head. "Do I even have weapons on? Do I look like I'm going to start punching people?" She complained to Johan. "What IS it with me?"

Johan sat back, and regarded her seriously. She was seated in a casual posture, yes - with one booted foot braced against the table support, and her forearms resting on her knee. No armor, but the leathers she wore were dark, and outlined her sleekly muscular form in a way that left little to the imagination. Her dark hair was pulled back, letting the candlelight throw sharp shadows across her sharply planed features. And then there were the eyes, picking up even this low light and reflecting it back in glints of pale fire. "Well, lass..' He gave her a wry grin. "You're an eyeful, no lying." He glanced up at the server. "Ale for me, my lad. And for the lady here." He jerked his chin at Xena, getting a wryly raised eyebrow at the title. "What's your plate?"

The server looked nervously at Xena, then back at Johan. "Trencher stew"

Johan glanced over at Xena, who gave him a noncommittal shrug. "Bring three." She said. "And a small beer for him." Indicating Alain, who had been sitting very quietly in his chair, looking around with bright eyes.

"Now." Johan said, in a soft voice, as the server left. "Are ye going to tell me what happened? Or am I to go back to Cyrene empty handed?" He reached out and laid a hand on Xena's wrist. "I saw the marks on her face."

Xena took a deep breath, and told him. All of it, and watched the anger grow in his eyes, as it had in her own. Aware of the intently listening Alain, whose eyes grew round as he heard what his da had only whispered to their neighbor about.

"Dog." Johan hissed, when she was finished. "To hurt such as her… gods, Xena!"

Xena shook her head, and touched his hand for silence as she caught sight of Gabrielle headed their way. The warrior grinned as she watched the bard approach the table and lean her hands against it. "Hi Johan.. Alain.. " Gabrielle greeted them. "Hey." She added, looking into Xena's eyes. Losing herself in them for a long instant that filled her with a creeping warmth.

"Nice outfit." Xena drawled, letting her lips curl into a appreciative smile. "I always liked that color."

The bard was dressed in a pale green silken tunic, which contrasted nicely with her red gold hair, and was almost the color of her eyes. Matched by a silver necklace bearing a stone which did match them. "Thanks." She cheerfully answered. "Guess it's about time I got started. Did you.." she gave Xena a quiet smile. "have any special requests?"

Xena chuckled. Requesting she not tell any of mine just won't work, will it? Nope. "I like em all, Gabrielle. You know that."

The bard grinned. "I know." And watched the blue eyes across the table warm. "Wish me luck." She joked, and found her gaze suddenly captured again by Xena's, pulling her into their bond with an almost physical force.

"You don't need luck, my bard." Came the soft voice, which filled her ears and became, for a short moment, the only sound she heard. "You're that good. Now go show em."

Gabrielle nodded, and gave them all a little grin, then turned and headed to the front of the room, already planning what stories to start with, to break the ice in the room so that her more intense tales could make an impression.

She started with a light, funny tale of Cupid's arrows gone awry, which caught their attention, and focused them in on her, and the humor shook their disapproving facade into grudging acceptance of her. I gotta make them forget it's me here. I'm just a bard.. I didn't come from Potadeia…

The classic story of Helen of Troy next.. leaving out her personal viewpoint, she smiled inwardly. Now she was getting them caught up in it, and they were starting to pay more attention to the story than who was telling it. Great. A quick glance to the back of the room, where a smile met hers. Keep your mind on the story, now, Gabrielle… But her face returned the smile.

Xena let her gaze travel around the room, gathering in the rapt expressions of the village folks as they focused their attention on the bard. Watching their faces lose the hostility, and relax into absorbed interest as Gabrielle wove her tales around them. And every once in a while, the bard would glance back at her, for just a moment, just a swift exchange of warmth between them.

She let herself become absorbed in the tales, even when the next one Gabrielle brought forth was one of hers.. only peripherally aware of the turning of heads, and the now interested and not so hostile stares turned her way. Sometimes.. she mused thoughtfully. I hear her tell these stories, and it's really like they're about some other person.. some of the stuff I hear her say.. I can't really have done that.. can I? It sounds so impossible.

Gabrielle finished that last story, and took a long drink of water, studying her audience. They were fully involved now, turning and whispering among themselves as she rested her throat, and covertly darting glances to the back of the room where Xena was leaning back against the wall, sipping her ale, and watching the crowd with hooded eyes.

Time for one more.. Gabrielle decided, since the one she had in mind was a pretty long one. And she took a deep breath, and started in on a tale about an Amazon Queen, who tried to bring peace to her nation, against stiff opposition. . After the first few minutes, she dared to look towards the back table, and meet the astounded blue eyes and half grin that waited for her there. Gotcha. Her mind chuckled on a different plane than the one she was storytelling from. Ohh… I gotcha, my friend.

Xena listened, with a growing smile as Gabrielle wove the intricate story around her listeners, never letting on that the Amazon Queen she was teaching them to know was herself. Only she and Johan knew, since Johan had heard the original story at her mother's table that day in Amphipolis. He touched her arm, and met her eyes when she looked at him. She nodded, then shook her head.

And the crowd leaned closer and closer, as the peril became clearer, until she held them by the delicate grasp of her words, and led them to a rain tossed clearing, and a Centaur crossbow releasing towards a defenseless but brave heart.

Even Xena, who had excellent cause to know the answer to the question left hanging, found herself holding her breath. That's dumb, Xena. You know what happens next. You should.. since it was your damn hand that caught that arrow.

And when Gabrielle continued, and played out the last second rescue, everyone in the room turned and looked at Xena for a long, still moment.

"How'd you do that?" Alain chirped softly, pulling on her hand. "That's true, yeh?"

Xena tore her eyes from Gabrielle's and ducked her head towards Alain. "Yeah. It's true."

"Wow." He breathed, turning his attention back towards Gabrielle.

She finished the story, and now the crowd was hers, and cheers rang out. Gabrielle spent a few minutes wandering around the room, talking to people, and answering a few questions about the stories.

Hecuba gave her a tight, proud smile as she came to stand by the table her mother was seated at. "Those were lovely stories, Gabrielle." The older woman said. "And you have a wonderful way of telling them."

The bard grinned, and knelt down by the table. "Thanks. I practice a lot." Her eyes lit quietly. "And I have an inspirational friend back there." Her eyes drifted across to Xena's, and her smile deepened, then she returned her gaze to Hecuba.

"That last story.." Hecuba said, lowering her voice. "Were you actually there, for that? Did you see the whole thing?"

Gabrielle tried really hard, but couldn't keep the smirk off her face. "Uhm… yeah. You could say that."

Hecuba was about to press her further, but a movement caught both of their attention, and they turned to see Lila and Lennat enter the inn, with an excited air about them. "Huh.." Gabrielle mused. "Wonder what's up with them?"

Xena was watching closely across the room, when she spotted the Lila's purposeful move towards the table where her mother and sister were talking. Lennat trailed after her, a big grin on his face. Ahh… The warrior chuckled to herself. Here comes my reward for all this tedious manipulation. She fastened her eyes on Gabrielle's face, and waited.

Saw Lila's flushed cheeks, and her glances at Lennat, who seated himself at the table, and made shy explanations, using his hands to illustrate. Lila dropped her hand onto his shoulder and gazed down at him in adoration. Then he reached up, and clasped the hand, and looked up into her eyes, and then said something that made her blush.

Something that made Hecuba clap her hands to her cheeks in delight. And brought Gabrielle up standing, first to hug Lila, then to lean her hands on the table, and slowly turn her head and meet Xena's waiting eyes.

Xena felt a smile crossing her face unbidden, as she absorbed the indescribable look of adoring gratitude she saw in the bard's misty green eyes. It warmed her all over. That.. just made it worth all the effort… that look in her eyes..I'd do..gods.. anything for that. For her. And she examined that unexpected thought carefully, and found it for the truth. Gods… I have fallen hard, haven't I. And just laughed at herself.

She watched Gabrielle hug Lila again, and then make a comment, turn, and walk towards Xena's table, putting off the eager hands which reached out to stop her passage. Until she got to the table. "It seems we've had a very active night." She commented, her gaze locked on Xena's face. "Lennat and Tectdus have come to an apprentice agreement, and he's asked Lila to marry him."

"Well, that's good news." Xena drawled, giving the bard an lazy grin. "Did she say yes?"

Gabrielle just smiled at her.

Johan rose, and extended a hand across the table towards Alain. "Come lad, let's go get some more beer, eh?"

"OK" Alain responded brightly, glancing from Gabrielle to Xena and back. "I'm thirsty." He stood up, taking Johan's hand, and followed him towards the front of the inn, where small clusters of villagers were standing around, talking.

"He's subtle." Gabrielle grinned, as she walked around the table, and crouched down next to Xena's chair, laying a steadying hand on the warrior's thigh. For a moment, she silently studied the taller woman's face. Then.."Thank you, " said in a gentle voice.

Xena lifted the hand that was resting on the chair arm and let her fingertips brush the bard's cheek. "Glad it all worked out." Came the casually offhand answer. "I didn't really do much," she added, with a slight shrug.

"No." Gabrielle responded, gazing up at her with startling intensity. "No.. don't you say that…Xena.. you just changed their lives.. in a way that means a lot to them." She paused, and reached up, entwining her fingers with Xena's. "And more than a lot to me."

Their eyes met, and for a moment the room receded, leaving them isolated in each other. "I don't know how I'm going to repay you for this one." Gabrielle half joked, then fell silent as Xena's hand touched her lips, stilling them.

"Oh no, my bard.." Xena's voice softened and deepened. "Freely given, you know that. Between you and me, there's no talk of owing or payment, not now, or ever."

Gabrielle closed her eyes, and smiled, and let her lips brush the warrior's fingers softly. "I know that."

Xena let out a breath. "Nice stories, by the way. Loved the last one." Her eyes twinkled. "That was a surprise.. didn't know you finished it."

"I took your idea…do you think anyone figured it out?" The bard asked, with a light laugh. "It worked pretty well.. did you see their faces when I told them about the arrow?"

"Uh.. yeah." Xena responded with a wry grin. "I saw all their faces, because they all turned around to look." She gave the fingers still interwoven with hers a squeeze. "Good job, Gabrielle. I think you touched them."

Gabrielle gave her a little nod. "Yeah.. I think I did…it felt really good." Her voice broke a little, and she cleared her throat with a grimace. "I think I'm going to pay for that, though.. ow. I usually try to use my breathing when I have to talk like that, but.." she winced slightly, as her hand brushed her ribcage. "Still a little sore, I guess."

"Oh.. I think I can put together something for that." Xena chuckled. "You liked that mint and honey mixture the other day, I seem to remember." More seriously. "And I'll put another wrap on those ribs.' She laid a warm hand on the bard's side.

"Mmm.." The bard agreed. "Ok.. it's a deal. Let me go talk to mother and Lila a minute.. in fact, come on, I think Lila wanted to talk to you anyway." Her eyes sparkled. "Promise not to make a face if she hugs you?"

A sharply raised eyebrow in response. "I'll see what I can do." Her tone was gently mocking, but she stood up, lifting Gabrielle up with her by way of their still linked hands. "Come on."

They walked over to where Gabrielle had left her family, Xena getting wary, but not quite hostile looks as they crossed the floor. That was an improvement, she noted to herself, laying a casual forearm on Gabrielle's shoulder as they slowed to a halt beside their table. "I hear congratulations are in order." She drawled, giving Lila a quirky grin.

The dark haired girl smiled back at her thoughtfully. Lila had been watching Gabrielle out of the corner of her eye since her sister walked to the back of the room - after she'd told her very welcome, and very good news and seen the look Gabrielle had given the warrior. She'll find a way, wasn't that what her sister had said?

Lila inwardly shook her head. Gabrielle had never had a single doubt.. and here she was, betrothed to Lennat, and he to be a smith. It was magic.. she mused.. just like Lennat had said, when he'd walked into their home, and gravely, courteously, bent his knee humbly and asked her father for her. So romantic.. Lila sighed.

Her father had gruffly refused to dowry her.. and Lennat's response had been perfect.. perfect! Nothing but her shift, sir.. he'd said, and priceless in that and Herodotus' had slowly ducked his head in agreement. Never had she felt a moment so sweet, and now she gazed at the person who had, through means beyond her understanding, given her that moment.

Expecting nothing in return given the hostility that surrounded her, held off by the shield of her remotely cool gaze which now swept them all.

Impulsively, Lila moved around the edge of the table, and threw her arms around her, hoping as she did so that she wasn't about to get knocked clear across the room. Half expecting to, really, tensing for it.. only to have an amused Xena fold her long arms around her, and return the gesture.

It was nothing like she had expected, Lila later thought. It was like being a child, and having someone ever so much bigger, and ever so much stronger hold you in their arms. It was that kind of feeling, traveling on a rush of warmth that just flowed over her, until the warrior gave her back a little pat, and released her. "I know what you did." Lila managed to whisper, before they moved apart. "I'll never forget that."

Got a half grin in response, and a light shrug. "Anytime." Xena replied, exchanging a brief, knowing look with Gabrielle. "See you in a bit." She added, giving them all a nod, and heading towards the back stairs, sliding through the crowd with sinuous ease, and moving up the stairs in a flash of dark leather and a ripple of muscular shoulders. Aware, surely, of the roomful of eyes watching her.

It was nothing obvious, Lila mused then, that marked the attachment between her sister and Xena. It was the little things, though - the way Gabrielle's eyes followed her almost unconsciously, and the slight twitch of her lips when their glances crossed, and the casual touches between them that seemed completely normal between two close friends, until you noticed that Xena allowed no one else, no matter how friendly she was to them., to take any hint of similar liberties with her person. Or until you noticed how closely they stood to each other, in marked contrast to the distance they both maintained with everyone else. They had no boundaries between them, and Lila, newly recognizing that in her own relationship with Lennat, grinned to herself. Gods. .I can't believe it.. they're in love with each other, just like we are. She glanced at Gabrielle's face, seeing the gentle glow in her mist green eyes. Zeus.. is that what I look like when I look at Lennet?

"Lila, we have a lot of planning to do," remarked the visibly pleased Hecuba. She looked up at Gabrielle, who was leaning against the table. "Gabrielle.. you will stay for the wedding..?" A hopeful look in her faded eyes, against which her daughter had no defense.

"You have to.." Lila grasped her arm eagerly. "You have to be my maid of honor.. please, Gabrielle, say yes."

The bard regarded them with a quizzical smile. And just when did I graduate from being someone who got told what to do into someone who is politely asked? Feeling the sudden respect seem out of place, in people she had come to expect much less from. "Of course I'll stay, Lila. Would I miss your wedding?"

Hecuba stood, and gave Gabrielle a pat on the arm. "I enjoyed listening to you, daughter." Her eyes searched her face with sudden sharpness. "You look tired, and no wonder after that performance. Go get some rest."

"I will." Gabrielle promised. "I'll see you tomorrow." She added, giving all three of them hugs, and heading up to their room.

Xena was just pouring hot water over the fragrant herbs when she pushed the door open, and that released a wonderful scent into the room, which Gabrielle breathed in with a sigh of appreciation.

"Gods, that smells fantastic." The bard commented, waiting for the warrior to finish pouring and put the waterpot down before she slid in, and wrapped her arms around the taller woman, and tightened her arms with all the strength she had.

"Hey.." Xena laughed, "What's that for?"

"Nothing.. . everything.. " Her voice cracked. "…just because."

"Oh." Xena replied, softly, drawing her even closer, until they could feel each other along the entire length of their bodies. "Better?"

"Uh huh." Came the mumbled response. "If we could figure out a way to bottle this feeling.. we could retire to some palace, y'know?"

Xena gave the bard an affectionate look. "All the dinars in the world can't buy this, Gabrielle." Oh.. and it's worth every single one of them, too. "But you need to get this down your throat, or you'll regret it tomorrow."

Reluctantly, the bard loosened her grasp, and took a seat at the table, cradling the mug Xena had prepared in her hands. "Mm..ok. At least this tastes good." She shot Xena a sly grin. "And speaking of which, I noticed you didn't touch your dinner." Giving Xena an accusing glance.

"Nope." The warrior confirmed. "Gave a bit of it to Ares, here.." She gestured at the sleeping puppy. "He seemed to like it, but I took a taste.." she winced. "Pretty bad. " Then her lips curled up. "However…"

"Yeah?" Gabrielle prompted, cocking her head.

A short gesture to a package resting on the end of the table. "That might prove more edible."

With a grin, the bard pulled the wrapped shape over to her, and neatly undid the wrappings, chuckling when she saw the contents. "Oh yeah." She readily agreed, removing a large pastry and handing it to Xena. "Dinner. Eat up." Then taking one for herself, and settling back in the chair with a pleased expression.

"Well.." Xena mumbled around a mouthful. Oh gods.. that's good.. better hide the rest of that package or I'll be in deep trouble here. . "It sure beats that stew."

"Uh huh." Gabrielle agreed, alternating bites with sips of her tea. "Here." Handing Xena a second pastry, and taking one for herself. Giving the warrior a stern glance when she hesitated. "Look, I happen to know you had exactly one bite of a meat roll for lunch, and most of your breakfast went to that little eating machine on paws down there." She noted the quirky grin on Xena's face that usually meant she'd won an argument. "And if I don't' watch out for you, who will?"

Xena just grinned, and munched on the second cake. She's right. Besides, I can't resist these damn things and she knows it. She dusted her fingers off when she'd finished, then cocked an eyebrow at the bard. "Let me take care of those ribs, OK?"

Gabrielle nodded, and stood, slipping off her tunic and draping it over the chair and shrugging into a loose sleep shirt which she left unbuttoned, then turning to face Xena as she removed a small jar of oil from her kit and opened it.

"Damn." The warrior sighed, gently rubbing the warming oil over the bruises that contrasted starkly against the bard's tanned skin. "That must ache."

Gabrielle smiled at her. "Not when you're doing that." She commented, and got a lazily raised eyebrow in response.

"Oh really?" Came the playful query.

"Yeah, really." The bard answered, stepping closer and letting her hands drift lightly over Xena's fabric clad form.

"Imagine that.." On the heels of a deep chuckle that Gabrielle could feel now through her fingertips.

"Yeah, you know…." Her mumbled answer was effectively silenced by Xena's lips. "Never mind…" she added on an uneven breath and went back for more. Felt herself lifted as easily as a child, and then she was curled together with Xena on the soft down comforter that covered the bed, letting her hands free to explore.

Gabrielle slowly let herself inch into consciousness, moving from sleep into the warm security of Xena's embrace with a sense of luxurious pleasure. Mmm… no wonder I haven't minded waking up lately. Who would mind waking up to this? Not me.. uh uh… nope.. happy bard. She kept her eyes closed, and just floated for a while. So.. Lila's getting married. Her mind sleepily mused. That's so cool.. wonder how long it will be before I'm an aunt? She grinned inwardly. Probably not too long… Lila's always wanted kids. Then her good humor faded. Damn.. I want to stay for her wedding....but.. I'm not sure I can.. I'll have to go in that house and face him again.. and I don't think I …"

An involuntary shudder passed through her, and she felt Xena's arms tighten instantly, bringing them closer together. Gabrielle opened her eyes, and met the warrior's very wide awake gaze "Hey.. " she said, blinking. "Been awake long?' she asked, with a teasing grin.

Xena nodded, and grinned back. "Yeah." She chuckled. "Awake and indulging myself in a shameful bout of pure laziness, as a matter of fact."

"Oh." The bard responded, "You could have woke me up.. I wouldn't have minded."

Xena shrugged. "Nah… you were pretty deep.. but what was that last shiver? I know you were awake for that." Her eyes sharpened, and examined Gabrielle's face intently.

Gabrielle dropped her gaze and focused instead on Xena's collarbone, letting her fingers idly trace it's prominent path from shoulder to shoulder. "I promised Lila I'd stay for the wedding." She sighed. And watched as the thick muscles on either side of Xena's neck moved in a light shrug.

"I kind of assumed that, Gabrielle. So what's the problem?" Xena's voice rumbled into her ears.

The bard was quiet for a long time, trying to find a way to express what she was feeling. Finally, she glanced up at the patiently waiting Xena. "Whenever I think of… seeing him.. or talking to him.. Xena I.. " she swallowed. "I can't." She buried her face in Xena's shoulder. "I get this.. horrible, sick feeling when I think about it."

Xena let out a breath as her brows drew inward in thought. "Are.. are you afraid he's going to hurt you again?" She asked, tentatively, feeling her way.

Long silence. "I'm.. no.. I don't know what I'm afraid of, Xena. I'm just scared." She finally whispered. "I just want to hide from him."

"You stood up to him before." Xena said, slowly, mind racing.

"Yeah, I know.." Came the response. "But now.. I feel like I used to when I was little.. maybe when he.. I don't know.. it brought it all back… Xena, I promised I'd be Lila's maid of honor.. and I don't' know if I can do that." She started to shiver. "Ssssorry." She stammered, "Didn't mean to dump this on you. You've already moved a mountain to get them this far."

Xena stroked her hair gently. "Gabrielle, you're not dumping anything on me. If you have a problem… well, it's my problem too. Got that?"

"Yeah." A barely heard muffled response.

"Do you want me to go there.. to the house.. with you?" The warrior asked

Gabrielle lifted her head, and shook it. "No.. no.. Xena.. he hates you.. he'd.."

Xena caught the bard's face in her hands, and looked into her eyes. "He'd do what, Gabrielle? What would he do, to me?" Intent stare. "To me, Gabrielle.. remember who I am, OK?"

Mist green eyes blinked at her in confusion. A child's nightmares warred with her adult logic as stark memories of a tall, threatening figure looming over her began to cascade into her mind. "He's.. so strong.. and…he'll make you.. he'll hurt you… I can't.."

"No." Xena's voice was strongly compelling. "Gabrielle… listen to me. Listen.." She repeated. "You were just a child then… you're seeing him through a child's eyes right now." A pause. "He can't hurt me, Gabrielle.. you know that. You know me." Slowly, sense was returning to the bard's gaze. "And I will not.. will NOT let him hurt you. Do you hear me?"

For an instant, the eyes that looked back at her were those of a frightened young girl, then Gabrielle took a deep breath, closed and reopened her eyelids, seemingly with a great effort, and swallowed hard. "I hear you…" she responded quietly. "Gods. I'm sorry.."

"Stop apologizing." Xena replied. "It's not your fault, Gabrielle." Feeling her heart begin to settle back into it's normal rhythm from the painful racing she'd been experiencing. "It's going to be all right. I promise you.. "

Gabrielle let out a long sigh. "Thanks." She replied, laying her head back down on Xena's shoulder, and wrapping her arm around the warrior again. "I'm sorry.. whoops.. I mean.. I didn't even ask you if you wanted to stick around for this wedding thing… " she hesitated, then went on. "You can.. take off.. if you want to."

Xena snorted. "And miss a great party where everyone there can't stand me? Not on your life, bard of mine. You're stuck with me here, and you're just going to have to live with it."

The bard gazed at her, and a small grin surfaced. "Can I interest you in a picnic?"

Xena stared at her in bewilderment. "Excuse me?"

Gabrielle looked down, and then back up. "I'd like… to go out to the clearing where the raiders found us.. and just remember that day. And I'd like to do it with you. So.. can I interest you in a picnic?"

"Oh." Came the response. "Sure… I'd love to."

They looked at each other, and smiled. "We'd better get moving.. " Xena sighed, prodding herself. "When is this wedding, by the way?"

"Uhhhh…" The bard scowled. "Oh.. three days from now. At the harvest moon."

"That's auspicious." Xena chuckled. "Lila wants kids, huh?"

Lila dropped by after they'd dressed and gotten something to eat, which Xena acquired from a market vendor after examining what was being cooked in the inn kitchen. "Just don't go there." Was her muttered comment to Gabrielle, as she came back in through the window and surprised the bard with a pair of the meat rolls she had been eating the previous day.

"What about you?" Gabrielle asked, tapping a foot and scowling.

"Ate mine already." Xena replied, with a grin. "Brought this back for Ares." She added, sitting down cross legged on the floor and giving the anxious puppy a handful of raw meat scraps. "Roo!" he yodeled in approval, and started chewing enthusiastically.

Xena chuckled, watching him for a moment, then looked up at Gabrielle. "What?" she asked, seeing the intent look on the bard's face.

"Nothing." Gabrielle responded, sitting down at the table, and finishing her meat rolls with no further comment, idly watching Xena play with Ares.

Lila's knock came shortly after, and she popped in, her face more than usually animated. "Good morning!" she grinned at them.

Got grins in response. "I guess it must be." Xena drawled, from her relaxed position stretched out on the floor next to the puppy.

"Sit down." Gabrielle waved her to a chair, then went back to scribbling on a scroll in front of her. "How's the planning?"

Lila seated herself, and sighed. "Well, it's ok.. father was livid that I asked you to be my maid of honor." The two sisters exchanged looks. "Mother finally got him calmed down, though." She glanced at Xena "I didn't have the guts to ask him…"

The warrior raised an eyebrow at her. "Doesn't matter…" she answered seriously. "If Gabrielle's going, I'll be there. "

"He'll.." Lila paused, and cocked her head at Xena. "Well, he'll have a fit, but there really isn't much he can do to you, is there…?" She mused. "I want you there." She finished, giving the warrior a bold look.

Xena studied her in some amusement. That's a change… she muttered to herself. Keeping an eye on Gabrielle, who had gone quiet, and momentarily stopped writing. As Xena watched, she visibly collected herself, and taking a deep breath, continued to write. The warrior felt a sudden rush of sympathy for her. "Thanks for the invite." She said to Lila.

Gabrielle tried to let what Lila was saying roll over her, and not listen. She took a breath and continued to set down her thoughts about their last adventure, using the words to keep her uneasy fear at bay. As she wrestled with her descriptive terms, she suddenly felt a warm feeling wash over her. Turning her head, she saw Xena's blue eyes fastened on her, and realized where the warmth was coming from. Wow… her mind diverted itself. That really does work…Awesome..

"Anyway," Lila was saying. "You need to get something proper.. don't give me that look, Bree.. this is a wedding, remember? Proper to wear… mother says she'll go with you to the dressmakers this morning." She paused. "We have a few of your old dresses.. but they're going to have to be altered." With a twinkle.

Gabrielle let out a little sigh. Damn.. I hate getting fitted for dresses. She knows that…I bet Xena's smirking at me. She peeked. Yep… "Stop that smirking." She warned, and gave Lila an evil look. "Only for you, Lila…I want you to know that."

The dark haired girl grinned. "I knew I could count on you."

The bard suddenly got a quirky grin. "Hey…" she turned around and gave Xena a mischievous look. "We can take you along for company."

Got both eyebrows raised on that one. "And make the dressmaker so nervous she pokes you in a dozen places with stay tacks?" Came the reply. "Probably not a good idea."

"Please?" The bard said, with a tilt of her head. Seeing the slight movement of Xena's mouth that meant she was going to cave in. "If you're there.. I probably won't get lectured."

Now the movement became a full fledged grin. "Oh, all right." Xena answered wryly. "Come on then.. let's get going." She rose to her feet in one smooth motion, dusting herself off, and walking towards the door. Gabrielle and Lila exchanged looks, and followed.

Hecuba was… surprised by the addition to her shopping expedition, but she refrained from commenting, and just gave Xena a brisk nod. "Let's go then." She said. "Lila, you need to see about the.."

"I know." Lila sighed, and gave them a wave. "I'll see you all later."

They walked on in silence for a few minutes, then Hecuba indicated the fabric folded over her left arm. "I picked two that I seem to remember you liking."

Gabrielle studied the choices, and sighed inwardly. She hadn't really liked either.. but then, none of the others would have been much better. "I'm surprised you saved any of them." She commented, with a slight chuckle.

"Never does to throw things out." Her mother replied. "We always thought…" here she stopped speaking, and gave Gabrielle a sideways look. "I always hoped you'd come back." She finished, glancing off in the distance.

The bard sighed. "I know.." she answered, and felt a ghost's brush of fingertips against her back that settled her slightly. "I miss you and Lila.. but.." She gave Hecuba a smile. "I really .. love.. the life that I have.." And the person who shares it "and the things that I'm seeing and doing.. ." And that was said just as much to the silent form strolling next to her as it was to her mother. "I'm really happy."

Hecuba pursed her lips, and gave her daughter a wry smile. "I can see that, Gabrielle." And now her gaze took in both of them. "I don't understand a lot of what your life is like, but.. it does my heart good to see the joy that you have in it." She took a breath. "Here we are." She commented, as they reached the door to the small cot in front of them. "Did you have a preference…" Holding out the fabric to Gabrielle.

The bard hesitated, studying the two colors. Then a low voice tickled her ear. "The gray one." Came Xena's advice, too low for even Hecuba to have caught.

"Mmm…this one I think." Gabrielle answered, picking up the deep gray dress in favor of the lavender. "Probably have to alter it less. It was pretty tight on me before I left." And remembered the last time she's worn it.. the harvest dance, when Agtes had pulled her out behind the big barn, and Perdicus had found them. They'd fought… Gabrielle grimaced when she remembered the beating gentle Perdicus had taken in her behalf. She hadn't worn the dress since.. but it had looked nice, back then, and maybe it was time.

Hecuba nodded in agreement. "That's true." She said, and pushed the door open, motioning for them to precede her.

The dressmaker, a fussy little woman with ginger colored hair and sad blue eyes ran a course of non stop chatter the minute they walked in, though she did stop and blink for several long seconds at Xena, who gave her a look, and settled comfortably on a small bench at the back of the room. "Oh my." Was her comment. "Aren't you a big girl?" Which got a laugh from Gabrielle, and a sardonic snort from the warrior.

Gabrielle was still chuckling over that as she slid the dress over her head, and settled the folds around her, raising an eyebrow at the fit.

"Tch tch.." the dressmaker scolded, gathering in the excess material. "We'll have to take this in, we will, and this bit here as well."

The bard glanced at herself unenthusiastically in the mirror, and tried to think of other things while the two women poked and fussed over the fabric, finally getting it arranged to their satisfaction. Well.. not bad. she mused with a inward sigh as she examined the result in the mirror.. The gray of the dress contrasted nicely with red gold of her hair, at least, and the low cut neckline was… ok, but…She sighed, and glanced up into the mirror again, and this time caught in the reflection Xena's delighted grin, and the appreciative look in her sparkling blue eyes.

And felt a smile and a blush coming on, that she had absolutely no control over. Fortunately, her mother and the dressmaker were still too busy with pins to notice. Shyly, she looked up and met Xena's eyes, and felt her mood brighten as she absorbed the admiration in that glance. "That's fine." she said to the expectantly waiting dressmaker. "Looks great."

Hecuba nodded. "That'll do." She pronounced, and helped her daughter to carefully remove the garment without scattering the bone tacks all over the cot. "There now, that wasn't so bad, was it?" Giving her daughter an appraising look as she fastened her tunic.

"No." Gabrielle answered, with a little laugh. "Not bad at all." Changes my whole attitude about that dress, for one thing. She reflected, with a grin. .

"That will look very nice." Hecuba turned and glanced back at Xena "Don't you think so?"

Xena's lips twitched into a grin. "Very nice." she agreed solemnly, as she stood up and sauntered over to where Gabrielle was standing, sparing an amused look at the dressmaker, who scurried out of her way nervously.

Hecuba joined the small woman at the workbench, and the two traded mutters, leaving Xena and Gabrielle to stand quietly together and wait.

"Y'know.." Xena drawled, in a low voice. "Lila's going to be pretty upset with you."

Gabrielle's brows creased, and she turned to stare at her partner. "What?" she whispered, darting a quick look towards her mother.

"Yeah.. it's not nice for the maid of honor to outshine the bride. Bad taste." Came the teasing reply.

"Oh, come on, Xena." The bard snorted, giving her a backhanded blow to the midsection. "Give me a break."

Xena paused, and studied her for a long moment. "Give yourself a break, Gabrielle. I don't toss compliments around lightly. You look beautiful in that dress."

Gabrielle took a breath to answer, then took another, then finally just closed her mouth and stared at the floor, with, she knew, the stupidest grin ever on her face.

Xena chuckled, and tousled her hair.

"Well, we're done here." Hecuba said, with a sigh, and moved towards them. "Gabrielle, are you all right?"

"Fine, fine, thanks. Yeah." The bard said, nodding at her. "Let's go."

Once outside, Hecuba dusted her hands off, and nodded briskly. "That's done. Now I have some other things to take care of…" she fell silent, as all three spotted Herodotus headed in their direction.

Gabrielle felt her stomach twist into a familiar knot, seeing the twitching anger on his face. Her heart started pounding, in an unreasoning reaction that left her legs shaking and her breath coming short. Gods… her mind screamed, on the edge of panic.

And then two things happened at the same time. A hand dropped onto her shoulder, and brought with it a sense of security that started nibbling away at her panic. Then her eyes, fastened on her father's face, saw something unbelievable there. Fear. For a few stunned seconds, she just blinked at him. What.. could he be afraid of? What's he…

"Come." Herodotus grunted, from several paces away, gesturing to Hecuba with a short angry motion. But his eyes shifted away from them, and he didn't look back as they walked back across the square, his hand clenched around Hecuba's upper arm.

"You all right?" Xena murmured, gazing at her face in some concern.

"Yeah." The bard responded, a bit rattled. "I am… what on earth made him look like that, though?" She followed Xena's gentle tug towards the square. "I've never seen.. what.. did you see what he was looking at?"

Xena hesitated, then shrugged. "Me." Probably a good thing she didn't get a good look at my face, either. I'm sure it wasn't very nice.

"You?" Gabrielle responded thoughtfully, feeling her fear fade back. Xena. Of course he was afraid of her. Wasn't everyone? Why would her father be an exception

"Yeah." Xena confirmed. "Listen, I'm going to go check on Argo. Did you want to get some.." she grinned. "picnic supplies?"

"Absolutely." The bard responded with a twinkle in her eyes. "I'll meet you back at the barn." She headed off towards the market area, making a short list in her head of things to get.

It didn't take long, just three stops, and she had what she wanted, all packed neatly in a bundle tucked under her arm. One thing about spending every day for two years with someone.. she mused. You certainly learned what they liked and disliked… and hers and Xena's tastes were startlingly alike, really. Which, she considered wryly, was a good thing, or mealtimes could have gotten ugly.

She rounded the last building at the edge of the square, headed for the barn. And stopped, seeing what was in front of her. Agtes, and his friends. Smiling.

"Well.. well… what do we have here? It's little Bree." Agtes smirked.

"Hello, Agtes." Gabrielle answered, quietly. Now what? Gods… But Agtes wasn't her father.. and she'd been accosted by worse on her travels. No panic now.. just a simmering anger that she could feel building. "Excuse me." She said, moving past him.

"Oh.. not so fast." Agtes laughed, and caught her arm. "Haven't seen you in a while, Bree… I hear you've been gallivanting around with that ex warlord.. friend… of yours. " He moved closer to her. "Does she keep you.. happy.. Bree?" His friends laughed.

Gabrielle considered and discarded a number of different options before deciding on a response. "Very." She drawled, giving him an unexpected smile. "Now, excuse me." Enjoying his stunned look as she dodged past him, and continued walking.

"Hey.." he growled, and lunged after her, grabbing her shoulder and pulling her around to face him.

The bard let her momentum take her all the way around and then slammed him in the jaw with her elbow, feeling the shock of connection, and seeing his head snap back. He staggered back, blinking, and she followed it up with a kick to his groin, which took him down with a sharp gasp.

Silence fell, as the remaining boys looked at her. She looked back, and dusted herself off. "Now, I'm gonna say it again. Excuse me." She walked past them, then stopped, and turned. "Don't you have anything better to do than bother people? Get a job." And kept walking, with a shake of her head. "Jerks."

She pushed open the door to the barn, and paused, hearing low voices inside. Then her name was called, and she moved into the dimly lit building, spotting Xena next to Argo in conversation with Lila.

"What's wrong? " she asked, seeing Lila's tear streaked face, and the grim expression on Xena's.

"Oh… Bree.." Lila gasped, reaching out a hand to her. "It's mother.. he…"

Xena took the package from the bard, putting it aside. "Looks like he took some frustration out on your mother, Gabrielle." The warrior explained, with quiet anger.

"She's hurt, Bree.. and he won't let the healer in there." Lila moaned, almost falling into Gabrielle's arms.

Xena walked purposefully over to Argo's saddlebags, and removed a small package. "You two stay here." she said in a no nonsense voice.

"Wait a minute, Xena…" Gabrielle protested sharply. "No way.. I"m going with you."

The warrior spun and walked up to Gabrielle, capturing her eyes in an intense stare. "No, Gabrielle. I mean it. It's going to be more than stressful enough without you being there." Give in to me, just this once, Gabrielle I don't have time to convince you ..please…"Trust me, OK??" Feeling the sting those words still held for her, in this place.

Gabrielle hesitated, ashamed of the feeling of relief that was pouring over her. But that request she had to honor. "OK. But be careful, please?" she whispered, unwinding one hand from Lila's frantic embrace, and entwining her fingers with Xena's.

Felt a squeeze of her fingers. "Don't worry." Came the response. "I'll be in and out of there before you know it. You take care of Lila, here. I think she could use a drink of water."

And then Xena was gone, and she was helping Lila to a seat in the straw. "Hang on, let me get you a drink." She watched Lila take a long sip from the dipper she handed her. "Now.. exactly what happened?"

Gravel crunched under Xena's boots as she moved up the path towards Gabrielle's family homestead. Ahead, she could hear arguing voices, and as she came around the bend in the path, she saw Herodotus yelling at a shorter, lightly built man. At the sight of him, she felt a wave of emotion erupt from somewhere very dark, very deep inside her. It took more effort than she'd anticipated to push that back down, before he could look up and see what she knew damn well was showing in her face.

"I said, get out of here." Herodotus snarled, giving the man a push.

"Let me at least just…" The man protested, lifting both hands in supplication. "Herodotus, please.. "

They both looked up at approaching footsteps, and spotted Xena coming towards them. The healer blinked in surprise. "Goodness." He muttered, not sure of what to make of her.

"Damn." Herodotus growled. "Get out of here." He yelled at the approaching warrior.

Who didn't slacken pace a bit, and kept coming, up the stairs and onto the porch, and right up to them. "Get out of my way." Xena ordered. "Or I'll put you out of my way."

For a split second, she thought.. she wished… she wanted Herodotus to try and stop her. Oh.. she wanted it.. because then she could give in to her desperate craving to beat him into the earth. One fingertip on her would do it.. come on, Herodotus. .give me a reason that I can justify to your daughter.. please…come on ..you know you want to. Hit me. Just once. That's all. "I said, MOVE." Her voice deepened to a growl, and she could feel the seething anger below her surface coming close.. so, so very close to taking her over.

But he wasn't stupid. "I'll have the law on you, Xena." Was his cold answer, as he stiffly moved out of her way.

Xena stepped closer to him, a violent, feral look in her eyes. "Get out of here." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Or I'll make you regret every single mark you ever put on any of them."

"That's none of your business." Herodotus sneered quietly. "The law's on my side, you arrogant piece of trash, and you can't do a damn thing to me."

The wolf surfaced, and Xena let it. Saw his eyes widen when he realized the change. "Ohh….you're so, so wrong." A low, cruel chuckle escaped her. "Gabrielle is my business.. and by the name of Ares, you pig of a man.. if you ever, ever.." Her voice glided over the words like a snake over grass. "So much as touch her ever again, I will…oh, yes.. I will put you in so much agony that you'll only wish I'd killed you."

Then she pushed the door open, and went inside the dimly lit cot. Stopping within, and standing in total stillness and silence for a very long moment, to let the fire in her guts subside, and the trembling in body stop. It had been.. so close. So very close. Finally, she took a deep breath, and continued through the cot, listening closely.

Small whimpering sounds led her into the kitchen, where she stopped, and just stood there for a moment. Then, with a shake of her dark head, she crossed the floor, and knelt by Hecuba's side. "Easy.. easy.." she said softly, as the woman curled tighter into a ball. "It's all right.. take it easy."

She reached down, and grasped the woman's shoulders, and gently turned her on her back, meeting the pain filled eyes. "It's ok.. " Watching as the look of blank horror faded slightly, and a hint of recognition flared. "yeah, that's right.. you know me… relax, I won't hurt you."

"Mmmy arm." Hecuba gasped, keeping her eyes fastened on the half shadowed face above her.

"I see." Xena said, eyes moving rapidly, hands unfolding the items in her kit. "Ok.. I need to set that." Her glance darted to Hecuba's face. "I'm going to block that out with a pressure point, OK?"

A frightened nod. "OK" Xena said, and pressed two fingers into the joint of her neck and shoulder, and hearing the sharp gasp. "Ok.. it's all right." She laid a hand on the woman's shoulder. "Don't look."

As she grasped her elbow with one strong hand, and her wrist with the other, and rotated the fractured arm back into line. Feeling the bone grate together into proper alignment, and wincing at the sudden paleness of the older woman's face. "Ok.. almost done." Xena splinted and wrapped the limb with tight linen bandages, and tucked them into place before she released the pressure point.

A moan from Hecuba as the pain returned, but not nearly as sharply as before. "It hurts, I know."

"Better." Hecuba gasped. "Oh gods.. how did you know.."

Xena patted her shoulder. "Lila came and got me." She set one arm behind the woman's shoulders. "Hang on." Lifting her knees with the other arm, she stood up, and carried the woman through the kitchen and back into the sleeping area, laying her down on a pallet near the door. "There you go." She said, dropping to a crouch next to the older woman. "That's going to hurt all night, but by tomorrow night, it should start to be a little better."

Hecuba stared at her. "I don't understand you."

Xena sighed. "Common problem."

"Does Gabrielle know?" Was the weak response.

The warrior nodded.

"Don't let her come here." Hecuba warned, her eyelids fluttering, as she tried to keep awake.

"Let me worry about Gabrielle." Xena responded, laying one hand on her shoulder. "You just rest."

The older woman's eyes closed, and she nodded faintly. "She's in good hands."

Xena smiled wryly to herself, and studied her hands. Lots of people would disagree, Hecuba. Your husband, for one And after just how close I came to cold blooded murder on your porch, maybe I would disagree too.. Sighing, she rose to her feet, and moved quietly to the door, crossing through the living area. No sign of Herodotus, she mused. Maybe he was going to get the bailiff. That would prove interesting.

Silently, she opened the front door, and slipped out, heading back up the path.

Herodotus strode from his porch, headed towards the center of the village, seeking the bailiff. Not as if that damn idiot will do anything, but.. he mused to himself. As he passed the barn door, though soft voices wafted out. Voices he recognized, and he pulled to a halt, and stood there, thinking, for a very long minute.

Then he smiled, and entered the barn door.

Lila gasped when she recognized the tall form outlined in the doorway, and her hand gripped Gabrielle's with a desperate intensity. "Gods.." she whispered.

The bard took a shaky breath, and stood, putting herself between Lila and her father. Her heart started pounding, despite her attempts to calm it. I can do this. I can handle this. Xena said so. Her mind repeated endlessly. I can. And now her heart listened, and slowed it's runaway pace, and she looked at him with tense expectation

"Now, now.. Bree." Herodotus said, in a calming voice, holding out his hands to show their emptiness. "Don't get hasty, girl. Is it so awful for a father to want to talk to his daughter?"

Gabrielle studied his face in silence. "Didn't you do enough talking the other night?" She finally asked, in a quiet voice. Gods.. what do I do here… this isn't what I expected. I.. I'm not sure I can fight against this.. "What more do you have to say?"

Her father shook his grizzled head solemnly. "That was before I realized just how grown up you've become, Gabrielle." His use of her full name did not go unnoticed by the bard. "You and I… have some things to discuss. I'm not asking for much - just sit down and talk to me, in the inn. You can do that, right? What harm did talking ever do?"

What harm indeed, Gabrielle felt the thought worm it's way into her consciousness. I'm a talker right.. he just wants to talk. I know…I know I shouldn't do this.. but… "All right." She replied, feeling Lila's fingernails dig hard into her arm.

"Don't." Lila muttered, giving her a desperate look. "Bree…"

"I have to." The bard answered, in a hoarse voice. "I can't… Lila, I have to. Just let me go." And felt Lila's hand drop away from her, as she stepped forward. Towards him. "Let's go." Watching him turn and walk ahead of her, until they were both out of the door, then he dropped back to walk at her side.

They were silent across the small yard, and silent as he reached out and held the door open for her, giving her a gentle nod of the head to proceed. Their eyes met, and he let his lips form into a little smile, that touched her memories like a red hot poker. Memories of herself, a tiny child, near the fireplace in winter.. and he.. telling her stories. The picture filled her mind, and closed her throat, and she felt the sting of unshed tears in her eyes. I'd forgotten that. Her memories whispered to her. Oh father….

Herodotus led her to a table, and pulled a chair out for her, waiting for her to sit down before he took the chair opposite. "There, this isn't so hard, right?"

"No." Gabrielle responded, keeping her eyes on her hands, which she folded on the table in front of her. I'm not a child anymore. And.. despite what good memories I have of him.. that doesn't change the bad things. Right? "Just what do you want from me?" Came the softly spoken question, as she lifted her eyes and met his.

Herodotus gave a little shrug, and played with an irregularity in the wood's surface. "I know…that you're very angry, Gabrielle, at the way I called you back here, and what happened the other day. I won't apologize for that.. it would be pointless. I meant what I did, and I did it.. because I feel that you really belong here, with us. Do you understand that?"

Gabrielle gazed at him. "I understand what you want. Do you understand that I don't want that?"

"Well.." he gave a little laugh. "You've made that pretty obvious, haven't you? " He cocked his head at her. "But I made a big mistake, Gabrielle - I treated you like a child, and you're not a child anymore. You're a strong, brave woman, aren't you?"

The bard thought about that. "I'm not the same person who left here, if that's what you mean. "

Herodotus nodded. "Exactly.. and that's why I need to talk to you.. because, you see, Gabrielle, Lila's leaving now. She'll go on to her own life..and that… poses a problem."

"Why?" Came the simple question.

Her father studied his hands. "Because I have a problem, Gabrielle. As I'm sure you realize. I can't… control what I do. You know that, right? That I never really meant to hurt anyone.. it just happens, and I can't stop it."

Was it true? The bard's mind agonized over the thought.

"So, now that Lila is leaving, I have a problem.. because it's just me and your mother.. and your mother and I.. well, we fight."

"Like you just did?" Gabrielle didn't even recognize her own voice.

He nodded slowly. "Lila could never stop me.. but you can, Bree. You know you can." He reached out and touched her chin, and she was far too stunned to stop him. "Yes… you are my daughter.. aren't you? " He gazed into her eyes. "You can make things better for your mother, Gabrielle - don't you owe her that, at least?"

Gabrielle felt her mind go very still. Did she owe her family this? Because she knew, whatever else, what he had said was true. But there was another truth that bound her as tightly as her bond of blood to this man, and that woman. And breaking that… Gabrielle felt something close to shattering in the delicate balance she was trying so hard to maintain.

"I'll have to think about it." It came out as a tense, bitten off sentence.

"All right, Bree." He said, gently. "You think…and.. Bree.. I'd like to.. hear some of your stories, all right?"

A short nod for an answer, and he patted her hand, and stood up to leave, letting his hand rest momentarily on her head. "You're a good daughter." Giving her a fond smile, then walking to and out the door.

Xena had listened quietly to Lila's frantically whispered news, and put a hand on her shoulder. "Lila.." Trying to ignore the rolling unease in her gut. "He won't do anything at the inn.. too public. And.. Gabrielle can take care of herself."

"No." Lila insisted, pulling on Xena's sleeve. "You… he's up to something, Xena. Something.. none of us is going to like, I know it.. I can feel it. He's.. obsessed with Gabrielle.. he wants her to stay here. Really badly."

Xena sighed. "Why?" A simple question.

Lila shook her head. "Hades only knows… but Xena." Her eyes met the warrior's "She wants to believe him."

"I know." Came the quiet response. "Look.. Lila, go on home. Your mother will sleep for a while.. I set her arm. I'll wait here for Gabrielle, and see what's going on."

Lila nodded unhappily. "All right.. but Xena, don't let her do something she's' going to regret all right?" Her brown eyes met Xena's blue ones.

Xena managed a shrug. "Lila, this her home."

"No." The dark haired girl shook her head, and gave Xena a shy smile. "No.. this isn't her home." She turned and walked to the door, pausing in the entry and looking back. "You are." And she was gone.

Xena walked slowly over to the wall, and let herself sink down onto a haybale near the door, dropping her elbows to her knees and staring at the floor between her booted feet. So… here we go again, right? Choices…gods, I hate them. I hate… Damn. All right..cut it out, Xena. You need to get a handle on this. Yeah. She shook her head silently. I knew I was in for this when I made the decision to go ahead, right? I knew it wouldn't be… forever. Or even.. a long time.. so.. why.. She stopped thinking, and just sat, staring at her hands, studying the scars on them as though she'd never seen them before.

She took a long breath, and another one. All right.. you know the drill here. It's her decision…not mine.. gods.. not ever mine, and hasn't been for… A sound at the door, and she looked up, to see Gabrielle standing in the opening, watching her.

The bard slowly crossed the straw laden floor, and knelt in front of Xena, putting a hand on her knee. "I need to talk to you." Green eyes quietly meeting hers. "Can we take a walk.. maybe down to the river?" Seeing the finely drawn barriers raise in the shuttered blue eyes. Oh.. yes, Xena, please..get all of them up.. "Please?"

"Sure." Came the calm response, as Xena stood, and gave a nod towards the door. Giving no indication that her legs were shaking so badly she could hardly walk.

Gabrielle picked up the picnic supplies, and looked at them, tucking them under her arm. "Might as well use these." She said, in attempted casualness.

"Yeah." Xena agreed.

They walked side by side down the river path, in silence, just listening to the sounds around them.. of crickets, and the burbling of the river. And the movement of the leaves, as they scattered under their paired footsteps.

And near the river, Gabrielle moved off the path, and sat down on a slate ledge, staring out over the water as Xena slowly dropped to a seat on the grass next to her. "So." The warrior spoke carefully. "What's up?" Gathering all her emotions up and pushing them down as far as she could.

Gabrielle didn't look at her, but spoke in an even voice, and told her what her father had said. "Xena…" she said, when she was done. "I need to ask you some questions.. and… I have to ask you because I know that you won't.. lie to me." Her eyes found the warriors for an instant, then dropped at what she saw there. Oh gods…how could I be doing this to her?

"All right." Xena answered, waiting. "Ask me."

"Could I stop him?" Came the question.

"Yes." Xena's even voice replied.

"Can I make a difference, for her?" Now Gabrielle's voice wobbled.

"Yes." Xena studied her hands, and did not look up, even though she knew Gabrielle was waiting for her to do so. Sorry..my friend..you'd see too much.. and I vowed to myself I'd never influence your decisions. Not about this. Right? But can I just let her… oh gods in Olympus… I don't think I can…

"Xena, should I stay here?" Gabrielle's voice cracked. Now.. comes the usual little lecture.. her mind screamed.. "Follow your heart, Gabrielle - you have to do what you think is right.." I've heard it a half dozen times already I don't even know why I'm asking her this…

"No." A single stark word. "Don't." The second word softer, more guttural.

And a long period of silence between them.

"Are you saying..." A soft, wondering question from the bard.

"Yeah." A long sigh. " I swore I would never…" A pause. "But I can't…pretend…that what you decide… to do doesn't affect me." Xena swallowed, and finally looked up. "Because it does." So much for promises. "Sorry. I know it's not the answer you were looking for."

Gabrielle closed her eyes and let the quiet golden wave wash over her. "It's exactly the answer I was looking for." She replied. "It's the same answer I came up with ..I guess I just wanted to make sure I wasn't being…selfish.."

They studied each other for a while, silently. "Look.." Gabrielle finally said, taking a breath "I know. .that you always want me to do things that you think are going to be good for me."

"Yeah." Xena managed. "I worry about you being out here.. in this.. fighting all the time.. getting hurt… I.."

"I know." Gabrielle slid off the slate rock and landed next to Xena in the grass. "And I want you to be at peace, and happy…and not have to spend your life in one battle or another." She paused. "But you know…I don't care what you're doing, or where you are. .I want to be there." A long silence. "I need to be there."

Xena gazed at her, and felt the iron bands constricting her chest loosen, so fast she experienced a moment of dizziness. "I need you to be there." And it was just that simple, Xena later thought. Why had it taken so long to just say it? Because…in saying that, I crossed that last line.. and brought down that very last barrier.. there's no going back now. And that was at once the most frightening and the most exhilarating thing imaginable.

"You don't know what it means to me to hear that." Gabrielle admitted quietly.

They sat quietly for a minute, then Xena leaned closer, and put a hand on the bard's calf. "I don't want you to.."

"I know…" Gabrielle answered, on the end of a sigh. "I.. did. For a few minutes, while he was talking to me.. want to believe him. But then after he left, I sat back and thought about what he said, and you know, Xena - I remembered what you said about Perdicus.. and Callisto.. and us. " She paused. "About how people had to be responsible for themselves, not everyone else."

Long silence. "I can't fix him, Xena. You're right.. and I felt it too - I could be there, and be some kind of.. I don't know.. buffer, I guess." She paused and took a breath. "And, it might make it better, sometimes, for a while. But it won't change what he is.. Or what he's done.. to Mother.. or Lila." She paused. "Or me."

She studied her hands, wrapped around each other and white with strain. "When he started talking to me, I ... thought about how nice.. it would be to go back to the way it was.. back in the beginning.. when I was little. I wanted that feeling again" She swallowed, and glanced at Xena. "But.. that's not ever going to happen, because I am who I am now, not the child I was." Her fingers twined with Xena's. "It just took me a little time to remember that."

Xena wrapped an arm around her and drew her close. "I knew you would." She murmured.

"With a little help from my best friend." Came the gently smiling response. "You know.. it was really strange.. but him being nice like that - I.. all of a sudden, I stopped being afraid. and just started to feel sorry for him." She looked up at the warrior. "Does that make any sense?"

"A little." Xena replied, thoughtfully. "It's.. typical of you." A tiny grin etched itself across her face.

Gabrielle let out a light laugh. "I guess it is." Then she sighed. "But I am scared for my mother, Xena.. I stood up to him, and that felt really good." A brief smile. "But I'm not sure I can show her how to do that.. after all this time."

Xena pondered that for a while. "Mmmm…I don't think you can either."

The bard sighed, and her shoulders slumped.

"But.." Xena continued, a grin slowly spreading over her face. "I think I may know someone who could."

Pale green eyes met hers in question. "Hmm?"

"My mother." A wicked twinkle in those very blue eyes.

"Oh….yeah…." Gabrielle breathed, on an intake of air. "But would she.. I mean, Xena.. "

Xena leaned back against the rock the bard had been sitting on, and stretched her legs out. "Mmm.. yeah, she would." Biting her lip on a chuckle.

"Damn.. too bad Johan left this morning." Gabrielle sighed.

"Yeah.. good thing I gave him a note before he left." Xena said, offhandedly, giving the bard her very best innocent look.

Which wasn't very good, actually.

"Xena!" Gabrielle laughed, and slapped her shoulder. "Ow.. I have got to remember not to do that.. you're just full of surprises today, aren't you?"

The warrior shrugged lightly. "I do my best." She closed her eyes briefly against the dull pounding in her head. Glad that's over…" Just trying to be helpful." And I hope I don't ever have to go through that again. .it just took more out of me than fighting all day in a field battle. Gods. I'm not equipped for this.

And looked up to see Gabrielle studying her closely. "You ok?" the bard questioned, reading the small indicators in her face that she knew by now meant her partner was in some kind of pain.

Xena briefly considered brushing the question off, then paused, and pondered the matter thoughtfully. "Mmm. .I have the worst headache." She admitted, giving the bard a little smile. "Nothing critical."

Gabrielle slid a hand up to her neck, and probed gently. "Damn…you're all in knots…" she muttered, watching Xena's eyes slide shut at the touch. I caused that. She acknowledged somberly. I wonder how often I did and she just didn't admit to it? Lots, probably. "Here.." she scooted over, and patted her lap. "Lie down."

The warrior hesitated, then complied. She found herself gazing up at the canopy of trees, feeling the uneven softness of the ground under her, and Gabrielle's strong hands working the stiffness out of her neck. It felt.. great, and she abandoned herself to the experience, closing her eyes, and letting the tension wind it's way completely out of her body.

"Better?" Gabrielle inquired.

"Uh huh" Came the contented answer, as Xena turned her head slightly, and opened her eyes to look up. "Thanks."

"Anytime." The bard replied, with a delighted smile. "Hungry?"

Xena thought about that. "Yeah." She answered, and started to get up, only to have the bard' grab her shoulder.

"Hey.. stay put. I'll get the stuff out." A light laugh from the bard. "Come on.. I don't get this chance very often."

Should I? Damn... I'm gonna get myself in trouble here if I keep this up… but…oh Hades.. right now I just don't care. . "OK." And she was laying back down, and resettling her head with a lazy grin. "You're gonna spoil me" Which was a half hearted protest at best.

"Yep." The bard cheerfully agreed. "So just relax and enjoy it." She unpacked the supplies she'd gotten that morning, and began assembling tidbits, which she delivered in pairs, one to herself, and one to Xena, who accepted this hand feeding with an amused benevolence, folding her hands across her stomach and stretching her body out with a contented sigh.

"It's a little overgrown, but this place doesn't look that different, does it?" Gabrielle commented, glancing around. "We're just about where I was standing, too.. when we saw the slavers. "

"I was behind that stand of trees." Xena replied, not looking. "To the right." She accepted a meat roll from Gabrielle's fingers and chewed, swallowing before going on. " I had just buried my armor and weapons…I don't know what made me choose this river path to go down, but I did."

The bard nodded slowly. "When I saw you come out after them… I felt something.' Her voice turned thoughtful. "I always put that down to the excitement of the moment.. after all, it's not often you see something like that, when you're from a village like I was."

Xena pondered that, closing her eyes to remember, then letting them slide open with a curious expression. "So did I.. now that I think about it. At the time.." she shook her head. "I was pretty.. confused. It didn't register." But the moment registered now, when everything had just sort of ..stopped, when their eyes met for the very first time. It had distracted her…"Yeah. I remember it."

They studied each other.

"I'm beginning to think I would have followed you anyway, you know." Gabrielle drawled, with a slow grin. "Even if I'd have had the perfect life here."

Xena gazed at her. "I'm beginning to think I would have ended up on that river path no matter what had happened with my army "

"Sometimes stuff is just meant to happen." Gabrielle observed, offering her another meat roll.

"Sometimes it just is." The warrior agreed, gripping the tidbit between her teeth, then giving her head a toss, throwing the roll up in the air and catching it in her mouth. "Nice lunch, oh bard of mine."

Gabrielle giggled. "Is that yet another of your many skills?"

"Maybe." Xena grinned. She glanced around at the sky. "It's getting kind of late.." In a faintly regretful tone.

"Did you have someplace to go?" Gabrielle inquired, with a raised eyebrow.

"Oh..people to see, places to go.. bards to tickle.." Xena hummed casually, lifting her body up with smooth suddenness, and turning sideways to get a good grip on the surprised Gabrielle.

'Hey!!" she yelled, twisting to no avail. "Yow!" The warrior was relentless, and her reduced to a giggling heap in a very short time. "Yaahhhh!!!!" she squealed, and managed to scramble up and away, cursing as Xena rose up from the soft grass to chase her. "Oh Hades.." and bolted, actually getting few steps on the laughing warrior, before Xena put some length into her strides and caught up, gently lifting the bard up and tossed her into a patch of goldenrod, sending a scattering gust of pollen everywhere.

"Yah!!" Gabrielle laughed, blinking the golden dust out of her eyes. "I'll get you for that…" And she did.. getting up, and making a run at Xena at full speed, not seeing the slope the warrior was standing at the edge of. Taking off a body length from her laughing partner, and hitting her with a full, flying leap that took even Xena's reflexes by surprise.

"Whoa!" Xena yelled, eyes widening as the bard came hurtling at her. Lifting her arms up and bracing her body for the impact. Catching Gabrielle, as the bard surely knew she would, but feeling her footing going out from under her. "Oh boy." She muttered, as Gabrielle's momentum took them both backwards, and down the steep grassy slope.

They tumbled down the hill, laughing. Xena's arms braced to keep Gabrielle from experiencing the worst of the pounding, Feeling the bard's uncontrollable giggling shaking her whole body. They went over one last rise, then Xena felt herself falling, and hugged Gabrielle to her, wrapping her arms and legs around her partner to keep her from the eventual impact.

Which was on top of a flock of ducks. Which made a noise like an army being called to battle, thought the dazed Xena, one arm fending off a cloud of feathers and fluttering wings. "Uh.." she said, then burst into laugher. "Gods."

Gabrielle rolled off her chest, and sat down, staring at Xena flat on her back, arms outstretched, in a circle of angry ducks. She fell over on her side laughing, holding her stomach.

Xena looked up.

"Quack." A mallard complained, turning it's head to give her a beady stare.

Xena managed to stop laughing, and gave the duck a return stare. "Grr." She growled.

"Quack." The duck repeated, shifting from webbed foot to webbed foot. "Quack."

Xena slitted her eyes, and growled again. "You could be dinner, if you're not careful." She warned, in a threatening tone.

"Quack!" The duck got the message, and squatted down, waggling it's tail feathers in agitation.

"Peep." Xena glanced up sharply at this different noise. She glanced over at Gabrielle. O..please..don't let her look up now… "Peep." The tiny duckling hopped onto her leg, and waddled up her body to her chest, to stand there, blinking. "Peep." Xena raised her head, and scowled. "Shoo."

Gabrielle looked up at this, then crawled over to where Xena was lying. "Y'know..the pity of this is, Xena…"

A mock glare in her direction. "Tell anyone about this, bard, and I'll turn you into bootlaces."

"No one would believe me." Gabrielle said, keeping a straight face for several more seconds, before dissolving into helpless giggles.

"Peep." The duckling commented, and settled down with a wag of it's tiny tail.

"Shut up." Xena growled at it.

"Quack!" The mallard rebuked her.

Xena just sighed, and let her head fall back.

Gabrielle eventually managed to stop laughing, and settled against Xena' s right side to catch her breath. "Whoo." She exclaimed. "I haven't laughed that much since…I can't remember." She let her head drop back against Xena's outstretched arm, and grinned as the arm contracted and pulled her closer. I think I just might have gotten her over her dislike of hugging. Me, at least. Her mind idly amused itself in observing. And that's a damn good thing, because I'd have to about cut my hands off to keep them off her now. And. .I think.. it may be the same way for her, too. Wonder what that's like for her? Must be really weird

"Yeah..' Xena admitted, with a heartfelt sigh. "It did feel really good.. even with all the bouncing around." She gave the bard a poke. "What was that flying act, huh? What if I'd dropped you, or something?" But her face relaxed into her rarely seen full smile, which lit up her eyes as she regarded Gabrielle's profile.

"Nah." Came Gabrielle's immediate answer, as she half turned, and slid a hand up Xena's arm, letting her fingertips trace the well defined muscles there. "Not a chance." She pronounced, giving the warrior an impish look "I wasn't a bit worried."

"Oh really?" Xena said, raising an eyebrow. "That's going to get you in trouble one of these days," her lips gave a sudden quirk. "my love."

Saw the answering grin and sudden blush color Gabrielle's face.

I know I like the sound of that…the bard concluded happily, ducking her head and letting her lips brush the point where Xena's neck and shoulder joined, catching the rich warm scent of the bruised grass, mingled with the smell of linen and clean skin. I guess I'm more sensitive to everything about her now…she mused, with a private smile.

Taking a deep, contented breath, looking up into the nearby blue eyes and finding herself once again caught in the unmistakable warmth of their connection, which she willingly abandoned herself into, letting her hand slide up along Xena's neck and pause above her pulse point, noticing the strong beat pick up at her gentle touch. Hmmm.. looks like we're more sensitive to each other..

Closing her eyes at her body's immediate reaction to the sudden warmth of Xena's hand against her side. Uhhh…are we ever. A soft grin etched the bard's face, as she leaned into the pressure, and savored the sensation as their lips met, spreading a tingle all down her body and dredging a throaty chuckle up from down deep.

"Like that, huh?" Xena drawled, letting her hands drift slowly across the bard's chest, which labored unevenly from the touch. Hearing the incoherent mumble of her response, which tumbled over the feeble protests from her defensive instincts.

Wait.. wait.. Xena, you idiot it's the middle of the day in an open field.. have you lost what little wits you have?" Her rational mind complained, but her body betrayed her cheerfully as it responded to Gabrielle's gentle hands with sensuous abandon. . No no.. this has to stop.. cut it out.. I mean it… The bard moved her kisses lower, and slid a hand inside her tunic. .No um.…oh, Hades. Anyone attacking is gonna have to get past those damn ducks anyway.. And she stopped thinking about anything at all except the warmth of the sunlight, and the sweetness of the breeze, and her soulmate's welcome touch.

"Hey." Xena whispered, a good while later, gazing down at Gabrielle's completely limp body sprawled across her own.

"Mmm." Came the lazy response, as the bard burrowed more snugly into her shoulder. "Shh.. you'll wake up the ducks." She mumbled, feeling the responding laughter under her encircling arm.

"They make good sentinels." The warrior remarked, with an arched brow, eyeing the birds, who were still clustered loosely in a group around them, giving the two of them occasional beady stares. I can't believe I just did that. Her mind threw up it's hands in disgusted laughter. She glanced around. Well, it's pretty high grasses.. and that slope does provide some kind of warning, and… C'mon, Xena. Cut it out… just admit you've completely lost it. You have absolutely no control over anything anymore. . She closed her eyes and soaked in the sun that was now beginning to slant to the west, and just let the peacefulness wash over her for a long moment. And I can't even pretend I'd want to change this…it's healing sore spots in me that I didn't even remember I had.

"It's getting late, " she sighed, finally, rubbing Gabrielle's back lightly with her fingertips. "Come on, sleepyhead."

Gabrielle rolled her head back and peered up at Xena's face. "Yeah. .I suppose we'd better go back before they send out a search party." She grinned mischievously. "So.. was a picnic a good idea?"

Got both eyebrows up on that one. "One of your better ones, I think. We'll have to do it again sometime." Said with a straight face. "Come on.." she added, untangling herself from the bard and standing up.

"Quack!" The ducks protested, alarmed, as they spread their wings and waddled around.

Xena put her hands on her hips, and studied them, with a dark glower. Then without warning, she dropped her arms and let out a wild battle yell, which sent feathers and ducks and ducklings in all directions in a thundering roar of wings and calls and quacks as the entire flock took laboriously off over the river.

Silence fell. Xena grinned, and crossed her arms, turning around and giving Gabrielle a satisfied look. "That's better." She extended a hand down to the still seated bard. "Shall we?"

Gabrielle shook her head and laughed. "That was mean." She paused. "But it was funny, in a mean sort of way. Or maybe it was mean in a funny sort of way.. or.." Her hand was grabbed and she was pulled to her feet. "Or maybe not." She finished, cheerfully, reaching out and tying the belt on Xena's tunic as the warrior brushed a few stray grass stems off her own sleeves. "Let's see if we can get Lila and Lennet to join us for dinner."

Xena laughed. "You thinking about dinner already? "

"Never to early to start. " Came the smug response, as they headed back up the path towards the village.

"How's your mother?" Lennet asked, leaning over the inn table and capturing Lila's hand. "Is she feeling any better?" He searched her face, seeing the troubled look there.

Lila sighed. "Her arm's broken, this time. Xena.. took care of it." She rubbed Lennat's fingers with her own. "She's in less pain, now. She slept for a while. But it still hurts her. " She glanced up at the door for the hundredth time. "Where in Hades are they?" she muttered, but cut off as the door opened, and Gabrielle slipped inside.

"Hi." Her older sister said, as she slid into a seat across from them, twirling something idly in her fingers. "What's up? How's mother?"

"Fine." Lila answered absently. "What's that?" she indicated the twirling item. "Where have you been? " Not waiting for an answer. "Where's Xena?"

Gabrielle leaned back, and grinned. "A duck feather, the river, and in the barn checking Argo."

Lennat leaned forward, and cocked his head. "A duck feather?"

"Yeah." The bard answered. "A memento. I collect them."

They both looked at her.

She looked back at them. "What?"

"Stand still, Argo." Xena muttered as she examined the mare's hooves. "Nice." She approved, dropping the last one and giving the horse a pat on the hindquarters. "Did a good job this time, girl." She moved around to the animal's other side, and scratched her under her jaw.

And felt, in the musty warm atmosphere of the barn, the faint stirring of an outside breeze, and a prickle against her senses that brought her nape hairs standing. The relaxed good humor fell away from her, and left her standing in heightened alertness, sweeping the area behind her for the slightest sound.

Straw shifting. Wallboard creak. Horses breathing, moving. In the corner, a mouse chewing on the edge of his nest.

The unmistakable sound of another human's breath. The rustle of clothing as they stealthily moved. And the high, faint whine of tension being applied to twisted gut as an arrow was being drawn in a bow.

Xena closed her eyes and waited, a feral grin on her face.

Heard the whine stop, and the faint creak of protesting wood as the bow was drawn to full extension and held. Longbow, she thought. Someone's not taking any chances.

Then twang of the release, sending vibrations through the air that she could literally feel, and the rush of air over trimmed feathers as the arrow sped towards her. She relaxed, and let her instincts take control, watching almost lazily as her body turned, and her right hand came up and snapped around the hilt of the arrow as it reached her.

Dropping it, and pelting towards where she knew the archer was, seeing the flash of light as the back door opened for their escape.

Hearing the sudden shifting thunder over her head as she reached the spot, and having just time to get her arms up over her head in defense as the hay crib came crashing down on top of her. Grimacing, she felt the heavy beams slam into her forearms, and rolled back away from them, back towards the inside of the barn.

Silence settled, with an uneasy creaking of protesting wood.

Xena uncurled slowly from under a few of the lighter supports, shifting them off her body and rolling over. Damn. Her mind sighed. She ran a quick check, and found herself relatively unscathed. Lucky… very lucky. That.." she glanced at the heavy metal hay crib. " could have been very painful."

And any evidence of her unseen attacker was now buried under piles of straw, metal and wood shards. Her eyes strayed back to where Argo was nervously watching her. "Except this." She muttered, rising to her feet and padding over, picking up the discarded arrow and examining it.

The outer door opened, and rapid footsteps resolved themselves into Gabrielle's hands on her arm, and green eyes searching her face in concern. "What happened? Are you OK?"

"Yeah." Xena replied, holding up the arrow. "But someone went to quite a bit of effort to try and scare me off." Her face relaxed into a grin, more for Gabrielle's sake than anything else. "They'll have to try a lot harder than this." She raised her eyes over the bard's shoulder, and met Lennat's. "Anyone's you know?"

Lennat grimly took the arrow, and studied it, casting a glance at Lila, whose face was frozen in a horrified look. "No." he sighed. "It's a standard one - I think it's from the practice yards."

"Doesn't matter." Gabrielle's voice suddenly cut through the silence that fell. "There aren't many people here that…" She stopped, and glanced up at Xena's face, which had gone quiet and expressionless. She knows. The bard breathed to herself. "This is something I need to take care of." She finished.

"Gabrielle.." Xena's voice traveled down her spine. "If we're talking arrows now…" The warning was clear. "I'm going with you."

The bard debated with herself. "You have to give me a chance to say what I need to say, alone, first." She lifted a hand and stilled Xena's protests with the tips of her fingers against the warrior's lips. "But having you right outside the door would make me feel a whole lot better about doing it."

Continued in Part 4

Return to Part 3

Return to my Fan Fiction Page