Home is where the Heart is
Part 1

by Melissa Good

Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena:Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence - there is mild violence here. Xena gets bored otherwise, and starts tossing that chakram around, and you know how dangerous that gets. Also, there is some reference to, but not graphical depiction of an abusive parental relationship. If this disturbs you, please be warned.

Subtext - This story is based on the premise of two women very much in love with each other. While there are no graphic scenes involved, the theme runs through the story, and if this bothers you, click BACK PAGE and go read something else. Also, I'll say again, if love offends you, please drop me a line with your snail address, I've decided to send brownies this time, because I really do feel bad. I'll even put chocolate chips in them, but if you live in Florida, and it's the summertime, just come visit me. It'll be less messy.

This is a direct sequel to At A Distance, and takes up directly after the action in that story leaves off.

Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to: merwolf@worldnet.att.net

A cool wind drifted among the tall trees around secluded campsite, gently lifting the cream colored mane of the horse cropping grass, and fitfully tossing the odd spark into the packed earth surrounding the fire. Sprawled on a thick black fur was a fair haired woman hard at work, scratching hesitantly on a set of parchments spread out before her.

"Damn. I can't do this." Gabrielle sighed. "I just can't do it." She chewed on the end of the quill she was using, then suddenly cocked her head. "Hey." A big smile crossed her face. "You can't sneak up on me anymore." She turned on her side, and watched as a tall dark haired form stepped over the log, and settled herself onto the fur at the bard's side. A boisterous wolf puppy scampered after her, and tried to jump over the log, without any success.

"Roo!" He protested, until the warrior picked him up and set him down on the furs, where he curled up contentedly.

"Who said I was trying?" Xena asked, rubbing the excess water out of her hair. "Hmm?"

"Oh, little clues like you were tiptoeing up out of my line of sight." The bard answered, with a wicked grin. "Won't work now.. I felt you." Her eyes sparkled.

"Uh huh." Xena responded. "As a matter of fact, the stream is that way, and when was the last time I came into camp noisily?"

Gabrielle gazed at her. "Uhm.....good point." she admitted, with a laugh. "OK, I give on that one." She reached out and laid a hand on the warrior's knee. "Wow.. you were swimming. Brr."

Xena snapped the linen at her. "Yep." She slid down, and propped her head on one elbow. "How's the story coming along?"

The bard threw up her quill in disgust. "I can't do it, Xena." She gave Xena a sheepish look. "I can't write a story about myself. I just can't." She pushed aside the scrolls and rolled back onto her stomach, putting her chin in her hands.

Xena regarded her thoughtfully. "Why?" she asked, putting out a hand and gently scratching the bard's nearby back. "You really did those things."

"I know." Came the answer. "I just... I don't know, Xena. I just can't find the words." She looked up at the warrior. "Not like I can when I'm writing about you."

Xena let her eyes half close in concentration. "Try writing about the Amazon Queen as though it was someone else." she suggested, tilting her head at the bard. "Pretend it's someone you don't know."

Gabrielle thought about that for a while. "Mmm...maybe." she mumbled. "Yeah.. that might work." Her green eyes regarded Xena. "What made you think of that?" she asked, curiously.

Xena's eyebrows rose, and a playful smile crossed her face. "Cause that's what I have to do when I listen to the ones you write about me." She laughed at the bard's expression, and ruffled her pale hair. "I just pretend it's someone else you're talking about." She shrugged. "Of course, all the plots are a little familiar..."

And now Gabrielle was laughing too. She shook her head. "Another lesson learned from the Warrior Princess." Then she sighed. "One of many." But she smiled up at Xena. "Let me put this stuff all away. I'm pretty tired, and we'll be in Potadeia tomorrow. " A grimace. "I think I'll need my sleep tonight."

Xena watched her as she gathered up her writing supplies, and tucked them away in her bag. She was a bit concerned about her partner, and was not really sure of why. The bard had been more than usually quiet on the short trip up from Amphipolis, and seemed withdrawn as they had gotten closer to her home village, but shrugged off any questions saying that she just wasn't looking forward to the sure unpleasantness ahead. Which might be true, thought the warrior But she's faced a lot of unpleasantness before, and it's usually with a cheerful spirit. Maybe it's because it's.. more personal this time.

She considered the problem seriously, as Gabrielle settled her things, and walked back to the sleeping fur, sitting back down, and staring into the fire with her arms wrapped around her knees.

Xena sighed inwardly, and sat up also, setting cross legged next to the bard, and waiting. Eventually, Gabrielle sensed her intent gaze, and turned her head to meet it. "Hi." The younger woman said softly.

"Hi." Xena responded, leaning forward a little. "Look, this isn't my bag of tricks, but when you're ready to talk about what's bothering you, remember where to find me, OK? I'm the tall dark haired one with the sword."

"Xena!" Gabrielle let out a short laugh. Then she made the mistake of looking into those blue eyes at short distance. They undid her resolve as though they were an ocean wave, and she a sand castle on the shore. "When I was home... that last time." She dropped her gaze to the fur, and played with it idly "After...well, you know." Perdicus. "I had a big fight with them."

Xena's eyebrows rose. "About...?" Me, probably. She sighed inwardly.

"What I was doing." Gabrielle answered briefly. "They wanted me to stay there, get over Perdicus, dad was going to arrange.. something else." she mentioned her late husband with a seconds pause, but no obvious pain.

"You think this is the 'something else'?'" Xena hazarded, quietly. Sounds like her father. Didn't much like him. But then, all of them hated me, so I'm not one to judge.

Gabrielle nodded. "I think so." She gazed off towards the fire, coloring a little. "I think he's determined to get.."

Xena nodded briskly. "His dower out of you." She said, matter of factly. "How much is he looking for?" The question startled the bard.

"Uh...I have...no idea." Her voice took on a touch of hoarseness. "That wasn't ever talked about to us." She paused. "To my mother, or Lila, or me."

The warrior's eyes narrowed in thought. "Wonder what he'd do if I offered to pay it?" she drawled, letting a sly grin across her face. Watching Gabrielle's expression cross from anxiety to shock, to hope, then to grimness.

"You will not give him a quarter dinar, Xena." The bard breathed, reaching out and clutching her arm. "I am not going to be bought." Then her eyes turned shy. "Not that.. I mean...uhm. what I mean is.." She gazed up at Xena. "There's no one.."

Xena took pity on her, and grinned. "OK.. OK.. relax. Listen, you can handle this however you want, my bard, but if you think I'm standing by and letting you be married off against your will.." Her eyebrows quirked. "You've been hit on the head one to many times in staff practice."

Gabrielle smiled. "I know that." She chuckled. "I guess I'd just like to get it all settled and still be able to call them my family." A light shrug. "And it will be nice to see Lila again. Maybe I can convince her to actually talk to you this time." She gave the warrior a sheepish look. "Sorry I can't say my family will be as nice to you as yours was to me."

The warrior gave her a look. "S'okay. I'm used to it." she commented, leaning back and stretching her legs back out. "I'll try not to scare anyone." A pause. "too badly." she amended. "C'mere." She held an arm out, and Gabrielle gladly complied, snuggling close. Xena reached over and tossed a blanket over both of them, smiling as the bard pressed even closer, and wound an arm across her stomach. After thoughtful discussion, they had a Rule, out here, in the open wild. Where Xena's uncanny senses protected them, and kept them from harm, Senses they couldn't afford to blunt in any way, and that meant being intimate was out. It was dangerous.

But the physical nature of their relationship allowed for plenty of snuggling, and this they did whenever they weren't occupied with chores or the necessities of living in the wild. It made a warm place for them to be in, with the cold wind now crossing their camp and flaring the banked fire.

"Mmm." Gabrielle mumbled, "They're not going to be able to deal with this." Her eyes drifted regretfully up to Xena's.

"I kind of figured." The warrior mused. "Is it because of who I am, or what I am?" she asked, glancing down at the bard, curiously.

Gabrielle was silent for a long time, thinking about that. She could hear Xena's steady heartbeat under her ear, and the gentle rhythm didn't change so she knew the question wasn't bothering her companion much, But she wanted to find an answer that would at least make sense. "Well.." she said, finally. "They're very traditional. So.. the what would bother them." Her lips quirked. "But I think they could eventually deal with that, if it wasn't the who.. er.. that it is." She felt a giggle start. "Sorry. You really do spook them."

"Good." Xena yawned. "Then if it gets a little wild, all I have to do is this." She lifted the bard's chin and ducked her head and kissed her. "That should distract them long enough for us to escape on Argo."

The bard giggled again. "Oh gods.. I can just picture his face." She settled her head back down, and sighed. "This isn't going to be fun." And resolutely closed her eyes.

They traveled through the rolling hills the next day, passing through old cut forests, and heading into a more settled area, just outside Potadeia. Xena took a glance at the sun, and led Argo off to a shady spot, tugging at one saddlebag and glancing back at Gabrielle, who was staring thoughtfully down the road, hands wrapped around her staff. "Hey." The warrior called, removing some travel bread, cheese and smoked meat from the bag, and untying the pouch that held the eagerly sniffing Ares. "Here you go, boy. Come on down." She put the puppy on the ground and gave him a nudge. "Go get her."

Ares glanced up at her, then blinked at where she was pointing, spotted the bard, and stumbled off purposefully. He got to where Gabrielle was standing, and sunk his teeth into her boot, tugging hard. "Grr!"

"Ares!" The bard laughed, as she looked down and spotted her attacker. She bent down and scooped him up. "Did you get sent for me?" She looked over at Xena, who was casually leaning against Argo, watching her. "I guess you did." She walked over and accepted the neatly made sandwich Xena was holding out. "Thanks."

They sat down in the shade side by side, with Ares sprawled across Xena's lap where he could accept bits of her portion. "Grr." He nudged her, and received a piece of meat.

Gabrielle gave her a smug grin. "You really are spoiling him, you know." she commented. "He's got you wrapped around his cute little paws." She glanced over at Xena, who raised an expressive eyebrow at her.

"I seem to have a problem with that." The warrior answered dryly. "You giving him lessons when I'm doing sword work at night?"

"Who, me?" Gabrielle answered, with an innocent look. "What are you talking about?" Blinking up at Xena, with an air of gentle inquiry.

"Uh huh." Came the knowing answer, and then the bard was squirming to escape, as Xena reached over with her free hand and started tickling. "Don't know what I'm talking about, huh?"

"Xena!" Gabrielle growled through her giggles. "All right.. all right.. I give.. " she sighed and caught her breath as Xena left off her torture, and went back to munching on her sandwich. "Someday, I'll learn."

"Nah." Xena mumbled around a mouthful. She glanced down, and gave the expectantly waiting Ares another piece of meat.

Gabrielle chuckled quietly, and shifted closer, letting her head rest on the warrior's shoulder. "I can't tell you just how often I wanted to do this when I was with the Amazons." she sighed, closing her eyes and smiling.

"What, be tickled?" Xena asked, but her voice was gentle, and she let her cheek rest on Gabrielle's head. "Just kidding." a pause. "Me too." she admitted, letting the wave of warmth bring a smile to her face.

They sat silently for a time after they finished their lunch, just gazing down into the valley and letting the cool late afternoon breeze brush across them in quiet peace. Finally, Xena came back to herself with a little start, and gave her companion a soft nudge. "Ready?" she asked, taking in the far away look in the mist green eyes that turned to meet hers. "Gabrielle?"

"Yeah." responded the bard "sorry.. went out of it for a second there." She dusted her hands off, and stood up, stretching and running her fingers through her hair. "Here." She turned and offered a hand up to the still seated warrior. "Need help?" Seeing the gentle sparkle in those blue eyes. Knowing that her companion could not only get up without assistance, but could probably spring up and over her head from her comfortably seated position.

"Sure." Xena drawled taking the offered hand, and allowing herself to be hauled up. "Thanks." She lifted the puppy up, and carried him over to Argo's saddlebag, where he was safely ensconced again. Then she turned to Gabrielle. "Well, it's your call. You want to walk in, or ride in?"

The bard cocked her fair head and thought about that. "Much as I hate to admit it, ride." she confessed, with a quirky grin.

"Suit yourself." Xena responded, lifting herself up into Argo's saddle, and holding a hand out. "C'mon."

Gabrielle clasped the proffered forearm, and was pulled up and across Argo's high back with nonchalant ease. She chuckled, and ran her fingers over Xena's back and shoulders. "You did some work on these at home, didn't you."

Xena snorted. "Either that, or you got lighter. Yeah... I guess I did." She shrugged to settle her armor. "I had to adjust the shoulder pieces twice."

The bard laughed. "Must have, because after your mother's tender care, I certainly didn't get any lighter." She slid both hands around the warrior's waist "For that matter, I think she even got a couple to stick on you." She teased, giving her a squeeze and a light pat on the belly.

Xena snorted. "More than a couple." She admitted. "Not that you helped any." She gave the bard an amused look.

And got a chuckle in response. "Yeah, I know. But we both needed it, and it really didn't hurt you."

The warrior shrugged. "That's true. Besides, with all the running around we do out here, it won't last long."

Gabrielle sighed. "You're right. How often to we get to just relax for two weeks, anyway?"

Xena didn't answer, but nudged Argo into a canter, and headed down into the valley, passing through a small stream, and onto a well traveled and dusty road between long squares of cultivated fields. Noticing field workers headed home who paused to stare at them, then turn their heads. I'd forgotten just how much I love Potadeia. Xena sighed inwardly. And just how much it loves me. "You OK?' She glanced over her shoulder. "Hey?"

Gabrielle broke off her distant stare into the fields, and pressed her cheek against the warrior's back. "I'm fine." Trying to ignore the pounding of her heart, and the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. "Really." Damn. As she felt Xena's fingertips touch her wrist. Felt Argo slow her pace.

Xena half turned in the saddle, and made eye contact with her companion. "Gabrielle, whatever's going on there, we can handle it." she said, seriously.

"Yeah." The bard let out a long breath. "You can handle anything."

Xena paused and tilted her head. "We, Gabrielle. You're more than capable of dealing with whatever this situation has to offer. You know that. You just stared down an Amazon adversary twice your size. I'd trust you to handle anything."

Gabrielle stared at her. She's right. Why is this spooking me so bad? Old habits, I guess. "Sorry. I.. it's a long story." She gave Xena a smile. "But thanks.. I needed to hear that." A pause. "from you."

And got a long, intense stare back. Finally, Xena nodded. "All right. But you're going to make the time, soon, to tell me that long story, OK?"

"It's a deal." The bard agreed, sighing in relief as Argo started moving forward again. No.. not any time soon, Xena. This story is best left where it is. In the dark.

Xena slowed the mare again as they approached the first buildings in the small village. The averted stares now became more open, and she felt her bearing taking on her public persona, which was geared to maximize cold threat. It worked, most of the time. She turned Argo towards the homestead of Gabrielle's family, and ignored the looks. They were almost there, when Xena's ears picked up a faintly familiar voice, and she turned her head, and gave Gabrielle's arm a squeeze. "Lila." she said, in an undertone, as Gabrielle's sister appeared, and rushed towards them.

The bard's arms loosened, and she released her hold on Xena, as the taller woman swung her leg over Argo's neck, and slid to the ground, turning and just keeping herself from catching Gabrielle's waist and swinging her down. Gotta watch that now. Her mind bemusedly realized. It's become habit. And that's real hard to break on short notice.

Gabrielle noticed, and gave her a quick grin, as she hit the ground, and trotted to meet her sister. "Lila!" She called, as the dark haired girl wrapped her arms around her. "It's great to see you." She returned the hug enthusiastically.

Lila nodded, and pulled back, grasping her sister's shoulders, and studying her. "Good to see you too, Bree." She glanced warily over Gabrielle's shoulder. "Hello, Xena."

Xena consciously gentled her tone. "Hello, Lila. You look well." And even managed a half smile for her partner's taller, darker sister. They don't even look like they had the same parents. Her mind mused, as it usually did. Maybe Gab was a changeling. The thought brought a real grin to her face.

Lila gave her a long apprehensive glance. "Thanks." Then she turned her attention to her sister. "Bree, we'd heard you were close." Another glance at Xena.

Gabrielle nodded. "We were in Amphipolis." She took a look at their homestead. "He there?"

Lila shook her head. "Market. He'll be back after sundown."

The bard let out a breath. "OK... well then.."

"Tell you what." Xena interrupted, catching Gabrielle's eyes and giving her the barest ghost of a wink. "I'm going to stable Argo up near the inn. Why don't you two do some catching up."

Gabrielle smiled. "Good idea." And exchanged a warm look with her. "See you back here later."

The warrior gave them a wave, and led the mare off, towards the village center, where she'd spotted a public stable. She could, she supposed, see if Gabrielle's parents would house her and the mare... the thought caused a sardonic grin. No, suppose not.

Lila turned to Gabrielle as soon as she thought the warrior was out of hearing range. "She's not staying, is she Bree?" Her voice was tense. "You don't.."

Gabrielle stepped back, and regarded her. "Yeah, she is." she answered quietly. "What's up, Lila?" She took her elbow and started guiding her towards the house.

"Gods." Lila hissed. "Father will have a fit." She glanced behind her. "You don't understand."

The bard shrugged. "Father sent her a note asking her to bring me back here. You don't think she's just going to drop me off and leave, do you?" What is going on with her? "Besides, I'm not staying."

Lila stopped short, and grabbed her arm. "Don't say that." She looked around. "You have to, Bree, please."

"All right. Just what's going on?" Gabrielle's voice took on a no nonsense tone that she'd picked up unconsciously from her partner. "Spill it." She leveled her gaze at her sister, and crossed her arms.

Lila hesitated, and took a breath. "Come on. You look like you could use a hot bath." It was their old code, for a private place to talk. Where they knew they wouldn't be overheard.

"All right." Gabrielle relented. "Let me say hello to mother first." Lila's tension was giving her a nervous headache, and she mentally told herself to relax. A voice floated, unbidden into her mind. I'd trust you to handle anything. Oh Xena.. did you know just how much it meant to me to hear you say that? Especially right now? She followed Lila up onto the small porch, and into the doorway.

Home. A roiling feeling filled her. She looked around at the familiar woodwork, and the dusty, colorful drapes and rugs. Her mother's handiwork. The small room, with it's indented fireplace. Wooden table that she'd eaten at all the days of her childhood. Chairs, built by their father. The alcove off to the right that lead to the tiny room she and Lila had shared. Home. She felt it's strangeness, overshadowing the familiarity. As it had been on her last trip home, when she'd realized even then that's she'd outgrown Potadeia.

A noise to her right. She glanced that way, and saw her mother standing in the doorway to the cooking area.

"Gabrielle." The older woman said, slowly. And walked towards her.

"Hello, mother." The bard answered quietly, and accepted her somewhat stiff hug. Tried not to compare that greeting to the one she had received from Cyrene.

Hecuba released her, and studied her critically. "Go get cleaned up before your father gets here. And put some decent clothes on." A dark glance at Lila. "Have you done the wash yet?"

"Yes, mother." Lila answered, and took Gabrielle's arm. "Come on, Bree." she started walking, then got pulled up short by her unmoving sister. She glanced back, and saw the beginning sparks of anger in Gabrielle's eyes. "Not now." she hissed, and tugged her skirt. "Please?"

The bard collected herself, and put her hands on her hips. "I'll take a bath, Lila, but these are the clothes I wear." She let her eyes met Hecuba's "I'm sure he'll understand."

Hecuba's mouth twisted. "I see your attitude hasn't changed." she shook her head, and turned her back. "That'll have to be seen to." And walked back into the kitchen.

"Will you stop that?" Lila grated, getting a grip on her upper arm. "Come on!" Then she paused, and glanced at her sister. At the firm, tense muscles under her fingers. At the steady green eyes. She took a good long look at her. Then.. "Your attitude may not have changed." She said, quietly. "But you have, haven't you?"

"Yeah." The bard said softly "I have." And finally allowed herself to be led off to the bathing room. I just hope I've changed enough.

Lila kept up a light stream of chatter as they filled the big tub with heated water, mostly village gossip, and the like.

Gabrielle contributed with stuff she'd seen on the way in, and in Amphipolis, which was close enough for Lila to identify with. She tested the water with a finger, and grinned. "That'll be nice." And stripping out of her traveling clothes, she grabbed the edge, and vaulted over it, lowering herself into the water with a sigh. Lila followed more slowly, and eased herself in on the other side, darting a glance at her sister.

"You look...different." Lila said, studying her. "You lost a lot of weight."

Gabrielle yawned, and glanced down at herself. "You should have seen me a fortnight ago." she chuckled. "This is after a prolonged indulgence in Xena's mom's cooking. It's great." She glanced at Lila, recognizing her unease. "It's OK. I'm not sick or anything." She shrugged. "It's just how it works out, I guess, when you do what we do."

Lila let herself relax a little. Gabrielle was starting to sound more like the sister she remembered. "You look.." she paused. "stronger." Not looking down at herself, at her ample curves where Gabrielle had mostly finely traced muscle.

"Mmm...well, that goes along with it." The bard admitted, turning one arm, and studying it. "I never thought about it, really." She grinned a bit. "All that sparring, I guess." A sudden vision. "You should see Xena. Now there are some muscles for you." Seeing Lila's rolled eyes, and sighing. "Come on, Lila, give her a break, will you?"

"I'm sorry, Bree." Lila slid a little closer and peered at her neck. "I just don't like her, and you know it." She reached out a hand, and touched the scar along the bard's neck. "I can't forgive her for taking you away from me. And almost losing you."

The bard rolled her head back, and looked at the ceiling. They'd had this discussion the last time, too. "Lila, for the last time, she didn't take me anywhere. I.. followed her. And wouldn't stop following her. I probably drove her completely crazy for a very long time until she got used to it." She tilted her head back and captured Lila's gaze. "And you seem to forget we both would be slaves, or dead, if it hadn't been for her in the first place."

Lila sank back, with a perplexed look. "I know, Bree. I just don't understand why you do it. Sure, you wanted out, but she got you out of here. What in Hades are you still doing hanging around someone like her? Do you feel obligated, because she knocked out those soldiers, even after all this time?"

Why indeed. The bard thought, as she relaxed in the steaming water. What can I possibly tell my sister that would make any kind of sense to her? Can I tell her about lying under the stars at night, finding pigs and sheep in them? Can I tell her about someone who I can tell anything to? Who will always listen? Whose smile warms me from head to foot? No. I can't. "It's what I always dreamed of, Lila. You know that. I wanted to tell stories, and see the world. Well, that's what I'm doing." She sat up. "I've met kings, and princes, and heroes.. did you know I know Hercules?"

"Really?" Lila asked, intrigued despite herself

"Yep.. he and Iolaus are good friends of ours." Gabrielle confirmed. "I get to tell stories to all kinds of people. I even get to be a little part of the stories, sometimes, because all kinds of things happen when Xena's around."

"I know about that part." Lila said, her face going serious. "That's what this is all about." She leaned forward. "Metrus, you remember him?"

The bard nodded slowly. "The merchant. Yeah, kind of piratey, in a jovial kind of way."

"That's him." Lila confirmed. "He wants you. For your storytelling. He thinks he can make a lot of dinars by it." Her eyes dropped. "Father agreed."

Gabrielle blinked at her, and sat up straight. "What??" she snorted. "He must be nuts if he thinks I'm going to go through with that."

Lila slid closer, and grabbed her arm. "You don't have a choice, Bree! He has the right, remember? He's out all that money from.. you know." She paused. "And.. he said.. there's none for me." She finished in a whisper. "And Metrus' brother...we're..." Her eyes found Gabrielle's, which had gone quite cool.. "He said he'd take me as part of the deal. It's my only chance." Her eyes were sick. "I'm not pretty, like you are. And I'm not smart."

Gabrielle forced herself to stay calm, to take deep breaths, and not react to what Lila was saying. Part of her wanted to erupt from the tub in an outrage, and part of her felt a deep sympathy with her sister. She knew, how well she did, the craving to get out from this house. Stay centered, Gabrielle. Stay calm. There has to be a way out of this, for both of us.

She drew her knees up slowly, and wrapped her arms around them. Then looked up at Lila. "He can't force me to do this." She said steadily. "There has to be another way."

Lila slapped the water in anger. "What is it with you? Metrus would let you tell your damned stories, and keep you very well. You can't tell me you'd rather wander around out there, and probably get yourself killed, following that mad woman around. What's wrong with you? You'd think you were an Amazon, or something."

Gabrielle couldn't help the grin that crossed her face. "Well, in a manner of speaking.." she started, then felt a warm glow whose source she knew. "You see, it's sort of.."

"She's the Queen of the Amazons." Came the low, amused voice from behind them. Lila's face grew dark with anger and surprise as Xena strolled in, still in full armor, and rested her bracers on the side of the tub. "Isn't that true, your majesty?"

"Are you?" Lila hissed, in disbelief.

Gabrielle shrugged. "Yeah." she confirmed. "It's true." She left her sister to struggle with that, and turned her attention to her partner, sliding one arm out of the water and letting it rest casually on the warrior's bracer. "So.. Argo OK?"

"Mmm.. yeah." Xena acknowledged. "Just spoke to your father." She gave Lila a look. "He's not really happy to see me."

"No one is." Lila spat back, moving to the other end of the tub.

"And?" Gabrielle asked, allowing herself the luxury of meeting those blue eyes and floating in that regard for a long moment.

"Well, long story short, I told him I was sticking around until you told me to leave." The warrior responded calmly.

Recalling the scene, in the front room of this house. Coming twilight, and the house lit by fire and torchlight only. She had walked in, surprising him. He and turned, and seen her, and erupted in anger. "What are you doing here?" He'd growled at her. "You could just drop my daughter off and leave. We don't want you here."

Xena had kept walking, until she was nose to nose with him. And he realized he had to tilt his head up slightly to meet her gaze. Her best icy warlord routine, too. "You sent me an invitation." And had pulled the missive from her bracer. "And I really don't give a snowball's chance in Hades for what you want."

"Get out." He snarled. "You've done enough to her." He backed off a bit. "We can take care of her now, Xena. She's my daughter, and I've finally found a good place for her, after her last husband was killed because of you."

And that had chilled her, because it was true. "Tell you what." She'd said. "You get Gabrielle to tell me to leave, I will." A pause. "And I guarantee you'll never see me again."

He had looked at her for a long moment, then laughed. "Is that all it takes? Fine. You'll have it. Now get out of my house."

Gabrielle snorted. "Not much chance of that." She smiled at Xena. "Not unless you agree first to take me with you." Ignoring Lila, because she sensed, suddenly, that Xena was more upset than she looked. There was a little haunted glint in those crystal clear eyes, that made the bard very uneasy. What could he have said....oh. Perdicus. Right. I forgot she takes the blame for that on herself. And so, knowing her sister was watching in uneasy fascination, she let her hand slide down Xena's bracer, until their hands were touching, and she looked deep into the warrior's eyes. "Never." One word. One promise. And was rewarded by that haunted look fading slowly, to be replaced with a gentle warmth.

Releasing Xena's hand, she told her what Lila had explained. "So.." she finished, lifting her hands out of the water a little, and ignoring her sister's angry looks. With that little hand gesture she remanded the problem into Xena's capable hands, and knew the warrior would bend her experience towards a solution. Ah.. there was that little gathering at her brow, the tilt of that dark head, the inward turning of her sharp glance.

"Lila.." Gabrielle turned to her sister, who was huddled at the other end of the tub, shooting daggers at her.

Xena tapped her shoulder. "I'm going to get moving to the inn, before your father figures out I didn't actually leave." She pinned the bard with a direct stare. "You'll be OK?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah, more or less. Get some sleep." She added, giving the taller woman a shove.

"You too." Xena snorted, ruffling her hair. "And get out of there before you dissolve." Her gaze jerked up, as Lila stood, and moved out of the water, her motions short and savage. Then her foot hit a wet spot on the floor, as she was half in and half out, and she slid, her head swinging towards a vicious connection with the tub edge.

Xena's actions were purely instinctive, as she jumped forward, and grabbed the dark haired girl's shoulders, stopping her fall. Then she got a good grip, and lifted up, setting Lila back on her feet. "Careful now." The warrior said, mildly, as she handed the shocked Lila a piece of linen. And startled her into meeting Xena's intent gaze, at fairly close quarters.

"Thank you ." Lila managed, when she could tear her eyes from Xena's. She slowly wrapped the linen around herself, and glanced towards Gabrielle, who sighed, then stood up and left the water, accepting the linen thrust her way by Xena.

"Bye." Xena said, giving them an offhand wave, and gliding out the door into the darkness.

Gabrielle studiously dried herself off, then regarded her sister, who had an odd expression on her face. The bard considered this, then quirked a grin, and walked over to Lila, and leaned against the wall next to her, crossing her arms. Making a very quick decision, and hoping against hope that she was right.

Lila looked up, and they matched stares for a moment. "Amazing shade of blue, aren't they?" Gabrielle inquired, somehow keeping the mischief out of her own eyes.

Lila blushed deep crimson. "I don't know what you're talking about." She scoffed, but her anger appeared to be gone.

Right on target. Gods, Gabrielle, you're good. "Uh huh." She chuckled. "Look, Lila.." she sobered. "We'll think of something." Now she moved closer, and opened herself up a little to this woman, who she had grown up with, and grown past. "I'll do whatever I can for you, you know that." She reached out and touched Lila's arm, where an old, fading bruise showed. "Still up to his old tricks, I see." Now her face was very grim.

Lila looked down, then up at her. "I tripped, when I brought in his plate. It was my fault." Her shoulders sagged. "I asked for it."

Now a childhood's worth of that sentiment surfaced in Gabrielle's mind, and she felt the old, familiar sick feeling in her stomach. Stop. I'm not that person. I spent two years being taught that I wasn't that person. "Is mother any help?" Knowing the answer before she even asked the question.

Lila shrugged. "She tries, you know. She keeps him as happy as she can." She gave Gabrielle a weary look. "It's been getting worse, lately. More ale, I guess." She dropped her gaze.

"Lila, I'm sorry." The bard said, very quietly, and put an arm around her. "I'll try to get you out of this. I should have before."

Her sister looked up dully. "There's only one thing you can do, and...." Her dark eyes studied Gabrielle's green ones. "You're not going to do that." Her gaze flickered to the empty doorway.

"Don't hate her." Came the soft plea. "Please, Lila, it hurts me when you do."

Her sister gave her a long, long look. "No promise, Bree. No promises. But I'll try."

Gabrielle nodded slowly. "Good enough." She replied. "I'd better go and talk to him. Get this over with." She tucked her wrap in, and grabbed her clothing.

"Be careful." Lila said, putting a hand on her arm. "Please, Bree? You know how he gets."

The bard chewed her lip thoughtfully. "I know. I will."

They walked back to the small room they both had shared as children, and Gabrielle smiled when she saw her bags neatly arranged on the spare bed. She pulled out a spare set of clothes, and quickly changed into them.

"How did.." Lila began, then stopped, making the obvious connection. She studied her sister thoughtfully, but made no comment.

Gabrielle gave her a reassuring grin, then ran her fingers through her still damp hair, and headed for the main living area of the house. She stepped through the doorway, and spotted her father at the table, bent over his plate.

Herodotus was a large man, whose salt and pepper hair might once have been her own shade of reddish gold, and whose eyes bore hints of hers, but were murkier in color. He looked up as she approached, glancing her up and down, and shook his head. "Sit." He mumbled, pushing the chair across from him out slightly.

The bard pulled the chair out and sat down, folding her hands on the table, and waiting in silence. Remembering that's how it was done, here. In his house. She let her eyes shift to the left as her mother came out of the kitchen, and put a plate down in front of her, letting her worn hand rest on Gabrielle's shoulder for a moment. The bard looked up at her, and managed a smile. "Thanks." She said quietly. The hand squeezed her shoulder briefly, then Hecuba spared a glance for her husband, and walked back into the kitchen.

Herodotus took a bite of bread, chewed, then looked up at her. "I want you to go tell that woman to leave." The command was a quiet one, and he made a point of holding her gaze as he said it. "I have a very good situation for you here, and it's time you came back and took your place in this family." He swallowed a mouthful of ale. "She's dangerous, that one, and I haven't a mind to tangle with her. She said your word would do it. So do it."

Gabrielle took a breath, studying her untouched plate. "What exactly did she say?" she asked, looking up at him.

"What does it matter?" Herodotus asked, crisply.

"It matters." The bard replied. Xena was always very precise with her words, and that might give her a clue to whether the warrior was bluffing or…

"Fine." Her father shrugged. "She said.." His eyes slid half shut. His recall was as good as hers was, though he used it for different purposes. "Tell you what. You have Gabrielle tell me to leave. I guarantee you won't ever see me again." He opened his eyes and gazed at her. "Satisfied? Now go." He looked down and speared a vegetable, cramming it into his mouth.

No bluff then. That was stark truth. "I'm not going to do that." She answered, quelling the old familiar nervous fear in her gut. Never, I told her. Damned if I'll break that promise.

Herodotus stopped chewing, and looked at her coldly. "You won't eh?" He nodded. "We'll see." He went back to his dinner. "Metrus, the merchantman has offered a place for you. He thinks you'll make him a pretty sum with your.." A pause. "little stories." He gave her an amused glance. "And he's even offered to take Lila for his brother Lennat. I don't have dower for her, so it's her best chance, and he seems a likely lad." His gaze pinned her. "It would make Lila very happy. You want to see her happy, don't you, Gabrielle? I know you're a good girl."

Gabrielle sighed. He knew all her buttons. Knew her major weakness was her soft hearted nature, and had always used that as a lever point with her. "You know I want to see her happy." She answered, evenly. " But not at that price."

Her father stared at her. "You don't seem to understand that you have no choice, my girl." He laughed a bit. "We've made a contract, and I've signed it. You're my ward. It's final." He pointed his fork at her plate. "Eat. I don't want Metrus to think you're sickly."

The bard gazed down at her plate. "No thanks." She answered quietly. "I'm not hungry." She stood up, and walked around the table towards the door. "Good night."

Herodotus got up with lumbering speed, and reached for her arm, surprised when his missed his grab. "Hold it, little girl. I'm not finished." He towered over her." You'll behave yourself. You'll stay away from that damned woman, if you're not going to chase her off, and you'll put on some proper clothing. Or…" He narrowed his eyes at her. "Well, we don't need to go into that, do we?"

Gabrielle straightened her back, and resisted the impulse to step away from him. She reached into that core of confidence she'd been working on building for two years, and took a deep breath. Knowing he was pretty close to being in 'that' mood. "Look." She said, keeping her voice even. "I'm not the same person who left here two years ago. And you don't own me." She leaned forward and held his gaze. Hoping. "Maybe we can find a way to get both of us what we want, father. I don't want to fight with you.. or with mother, or hurt Lila." She let a bit of her anguish show in her eyes, and saw the minute shift in his that said he saw it.

Herodotus considered her thoughtfully. His frustration with her stubbornness, in truth, was wrapped around a tiny kernel of pride, in this, his eldest offspring. Who finally had developed some backbone, at the most inconvenient of times. Well, there was more than one way to tan a hide. "All right, Bree." He said, relaxing his posture a bit. "We'll talk about it tomorrow." He waved her off. "Go get some rest. And Bree?" His hand indicated her. "Please? You can't walk around here half naked."

Gabrielle paused, then gave him a half nod. "OK." She agreed. Well, that's better, at any rate." I'll see what I can do." She walked back down the short passageway into Lila's room where here sister was waiting, arms wrapped around herself. "So much for that." The bard sighed, as she threw herself down on the bed and massaged her temples. "But he's not done. He's doing the nice guy routine now."

Lila blew out a breath, and sat down on her bed. "Well, that's a little better." She reached out and touched Gabrielle's knee. "I can't believe you stood up to him like that." She gave her sister a little impish grin. "You really have changed."

Gabrielle grimaced. "I've seen worse than him." She gave Lila a grim smile. "And you forget, I travel around with someone who is a master of intimidation." She let out a short laugh. "You haven't seen anything until you've seen Xena stare down some 7 foot tall fanged monster with a sword." Peeking at Lila, when she didn't get the usual barrage of attacks on her companion, and grinning quietly to herself. "She's taught me a lot of things."

Then she sat up on the bed, and grabbed her bags. "Here, let me show you some of my souvenirs." And proceeded to dump them out. Lila relaxed into a smile, and scooted over to sit down next to her.

"Ooo.. what's this?" The dark haired girl said, picking up a small item, and holding it up to the light. "It's pretty."

Gabrielle laughed. "It's amber." She sorted through her collection. "And here's a shell from the shore outside Athens." She passed it over.

"What's this?" Lila asked, holding up a seal.

"My seal." Gabrielle replied, suppressing a grin. "for the Amazon thing."

Lila studied her. "Are you really.."

Her sister nodded. "Yeah. I really am." She shrugged. "We just got back from there, in fact. I was working on treaties with the Centaurs and the surrounding villages for over a month."

"So.. why don't you stay with them, if you're the Queen?" Lila asked, creasing her brow in consternation. "I don't understand."

Gabrielle sighed. "It's complicated. It has a lot to do with what's best for them, and what's best for me." She considered. "We come from totally different viewpoints, so we can only take each other in small doses."

"Oh." Lila replied. "Whatever." She fingered some parchment. "Are these your scrolls?"

"Mm hmm." The bard confirmed. "I'm working on a few now. I like to get things down right after…" Oh. Suddenly she had a deeper understanding of Xena's request for her to edit her stories for her family. "After they happen. " she finished.

"Tell me a story." Lila asked, picking up a scroll. 'Tell me this one? I miss your stories, Bree."

Ah that one. Gabrielle took it from her fingers and unrolled it. "OK, well, we were…" And she was off.

Lila listened, spellbound as her sister delved into one of their latest adventures, and spun the tale out. She watched Gabrielle's face as she got lost in the telling, and started reacting to the events which were in her own memory, and not just in the scroll. She'd' really been there, Lila mused. Really seen Poseidon. Really met Cecrops. Really been shipwrecked, and picked up by the Lost Mariner. She sympathized with her horror over the mariner who jumped over board. Laughed with her over Aldric, and his puppy love. Widened her eyes when Gabrielle spoke of the treasures of Cecrops, and seeing the legendary statue of Athena. And watched as her face took on an inner glow when she described Xena's irresistible, unstoppable determination to get on that ship, knowing whose ship it was, just to be with her friend.

"That must have been quite a jump." Lila commented quietly, watching Gabrielle's eyes light up in memory.

"Oh, it was." Her sister laughed. "It was. They all thought she was crazy, jumping off the cliff like that, and actually making it onto the ship." Remembering. "Cecrops really freaked out."

Lila smiled. "What did she tell him?"

"Mmm…that she wasn't about to let him sail off with her best friend." Gabrielle answered, meeting her sister's eyes squarely. "That's just how she is, though."

They gazed at each other in silence. Finally, Lila sighed. "So.. you don't just stick around for the stories, do you?"

Gabrielle didn't answer for a long time. Is she going to freak out? Probably. But I think she halfway guessed anyway. Finally, she let out her held breath. "No." It was scary, because of all her family, Lila was the one she missed the most. Cared about the most. Who hated Xena, and all she stood for.

Lila walked to the small window, and looked out. She spoke without turning around. "Has she ever hurt you, Gabrielle?"

The bard choked. "What?" She shook her head. "Never."

Lila turned around and hugged herself. "Never? She's never gotten mad at you, and knocked you over? Or knocked you down? Or hit you in places that don't show?"

Gabrielle took in several breaths before she could speak. I never thought of that. In all the time we've been traveling together, that never once crossed my mind.. "No, Lila. We spar, sure. We wrestle with each other, I think once, under Ares's influence she slugged me, but I hit her with a pitchfork, so I guess we're even." She shook her head. "No. In fact, when we spar, she gets hit a lot more than I do, because she just pulls her blows and taps me, and I can't do that. I whack her good sometimes."

Lila nodded. And looked at the floor. And looked back at her sister. "Do you trust her?"

"With my life." Came the instant response. "And I have. Many times."

Lila turned and crossed to her, and took her shoulders in her hands. "I envy you." She took a shaking breath. "I used to think you were crazy for wanting to get out of here so bad. Now I understand. And I can't go anywhere."

"Oh, Lila." The bard breathed, and folded her into a hug.

Xena had slipped out of their family homestead, and walked quietly back towards the inn, still vaguely uneasy about Gabrielle. The bard had seemed all right, but there was an undercurrent that the warrior could sense, that just wasn't... it reminded her of what Gabrielle was like when they first started traveling together. Sometimes all cheerful, sometimes jumping at the slightest noise. She could feel an upset in the pit of her stomach that she had a pretty good idea wasn't hers, since all she had to worry about was Potadeia not liking her. Xena snorted quietly to herself. It took a bigger, meaner village than little Potadeia to spook this ex warlord. She turned in at the pathway, and headed towards the common stable. Maybe grooming Argo would settle her down.. she pushed the door open, and found four of the local boys in a circle around a small growling ball of fur.

They were poking Ares with the end of a pitchfork, and laughing. The wolf puppy was baring his tiny fangs, and rumbling with a pathetic baby attempt at ferocity. Xena reached behind her, and grabbed the nearest tool, a stall mucker. The next boy prodded at the puppy, and found himself slammed in the seat of the pants and tossed over the animal's head, into the muddy straw.

"Wanna try picking on someone your own size?" Came that velvet over steel tone. She stepped into the middle of the now silent group, and gazed down at Ares. "You OK, boy?"

"Roo!" The animal answered, trotting over and sitting down on her boot. Looking at his erstwhile tormentors. "Roo!"

"Well?" Xena asked, running her eyes around the frozen circle. The torchlight picked out the coppery highlights on her armor, and made her pale eyes catch glints as she turned and watched them all. "Anyone wanna poke me with a pitchfork?" A pause. "No? Then take off. I don't like sharing clean air with a bunch of little cowards." She let her eyes slit, and took a step in the nearest's one's direction.

With a scattering of straw, they all took off, not looking back. Xena sighed, and shook her head. Then stiffened, realizing she wasn't alone. Her eyes drifted to the darkest corner of the barn, and fastened there, unmoving, until a rustle of straw indicated the watcher knew they were watched. A few more tense seconds, and then the darkness disgorged a limping, slight figure, who moved cautiously closer, until the torchlight revealed their features.

It was a boy, Xena supposed, with shaggy unkempt blond hair, and a stoop to his shoulders. He limped closer, and now Xena could see why, as the unevenness in his back became apparent to her. Her eyebrow arched slightly. Ares growled.

"Is he yours?" The boy asked, stopping out of range of the pole she carried, she noticed. A head jerk towards the puppy.

"Yeah." Xena answered, putting down one long arm and scooping Ares up, then turning her back, and setting the mucking tool down against the wall where she'd found it.

"What's is name?" Came the curious question, as the boy limped nearer, now that she was not holding the tool.

"What's yours?" Xena countered, standing easily with the puppy in the crook of one arm, and gazing at him in question.

"Alain." The boy answered, not offended, and was now close enough to touch. He glanced at Xena for permission.

The warrior nodded, and extended her forearm a bit. "Put your fingers out first, so he can smell them." She advised. "His name is Ares." She watched his startled reaction with amusement.

"Like.." Alain breathed, letting the puppy sniff his fingers. "Isn't that dangerous?"

Xena shrugged. "He didn't mind."

Now the boy froze, and stared at her in wide eyed startlement. After a minute, he blinked, then a smile curved his lips. "You're Xena, aren't you." He scratched Ares under the jaw absently.

The warrior chuckled. "What tipped you off?" Her eyebrows rose in question.

"Well.." Alain said shyly. "You're a warrior, that's plain, and a lady.." His own lips quirked at Xena's sardonic look at the statement. "Well, anyway. And you fit the description.." Another wry look. "And you name your dog after the god of War." He shrugged unevenly. "Kind of big clues." He darted a glance at her, not resting long anywhere, trying not to seem like he was staring. Wow.. Xena. Right here in my stable... he mused. She was... taller than he expected, though he was not tall himself. And her eyes... they said she had very blue eyes, but that didn't come close to describing them. And she was even sort of nice. That they never, ever said.

"Uh huh." Xena replied, standing patiently under the scrutiny. "So, Alain. Do you live here?"

"Um. Yeah." he answered, ducking his head. "I work for my keep." He awkwardly turned, and gestured. "cleaning, mucking, you know." He glanced up. "That golden mare's yours?" His eyes lit. "She's beautiful." And stood entranced by the smile he got in return.

"Thanks. Her name's Argo." Xena replied, and started moving towards the mare, who had turned her head to watch them. "Who were those wonderful children?" She studied his half averted face. "Do they bother you, too?" This in a much gentler tone. He was, she guessed, a bit younger than Gabrielle, and the thought took form in her mind that maybe here might be some answers to what was going on with her partner. It was a small village, and they would have grown up at the same time.

Alain ducked his head in a kind of nod. "Sometimes. They don't like differents around here." He looked up at her. "I don't think they like you much." With an apologetic shrug. "You're very differents."

Xena paid attention to the word he used. "Differents?" She asked, getting out Argo's currycomb and brush. "Yeah, I guess I am. And no, they don't like me much at all." She moved closer to him. "They don't like you because of this?" Her fingers brushed his misshapen back. He flinched, but stood still, his eyes tracking to hers. His were a startlingly deep gray, almost purple in the torchlight. "You can't help that."

"No." Alain sighed. "But that don't matter." He took the currycomb she offered, and began to work Argo's forequarters with short, gentle strokes. "It's differents."

Xena nodded quietly. "I have a friend, Alain. Who grew up here. You may know her. Her name is Gabrielle." Watching as his head shot up, and he looked at her in startlement. "I guess you do." Her lips quirked.

"Oh.. Bree. Yes, I do remember her." The boy admitted, curious. "She left."

"Was she differents, Alain?" Xena asked, casually, combing through Argo's mane. Lifting her blue eyes to catch his gray ones.

Alain took a breath, and nodded slowly. "She was." His eyes were sad. "She was differents inside, though. After a while, she just started to hide the differents."

A vague theory began to coalesce in Xena's mind. "Mmm...like how? How was she differents?"

The boy shrugged a little. "She saw pictures inside. And she'd make up stories about them." He smiled at her. "They were good stories."

Xena smiled back. "I bet they were."

Alain sobered. "But her da, he didn't like them. He's start the whacker, you know, when he'd catch er at it." He frowned. "So she stopped telling us, after a while. After once, I remember, he got her with the wrong end, and she was bleeding." He shook his blond head. "Bad, it was. But.. even though she stopped telling us, I don't thinks she stopped seeing the pictures." Now, finally, he glanced up at Xena, sensing her silent stillness.

And backed away from Argo, dropping the comb at the look on her face. Her hands were clenched in the mare's mane, and her eyes were like chips of ice staring at him. "Wasn't me. I didn't' do it. Wasn't me." He stammered, raising his hands in fear.

Xena dropped her head to Argo's back, and took in a long, shuddering breath. Forcing calm. Taking control of the fury that was lifting the nape hairs of her neck, and making her arms shake in response. It explained...so much. It was a crucial piece of the puzzle that was her companion, and she wasn't sure whether or not she was glad to have been handed it. This was something Gabrielle would have preferred to relate, in her own time, in her own way. As she had revealed Solon. And Toris. And any number of other things in her own past to Gabrielle.

Slowly, she raised her head, and gazed at the frightened boy. "It's all right, Alain. I know you had nothing to do with this. I know. I'm sorry I scared you. Its just that Gabrielle is a very good friend of mine, and it makes me very angry that someone would have hit her for telling stories."

Alain relaxed, and moved closer again, giving her a quiet little smile. "OK.. OK... I get you." He picked up the comb, and started brushing the mare again. "I know that she would have liked to have had someone like you for a friend then. When she was differents." He brushed for a minute in silence, then.. "What does she do now? She went away, two seasons ago."

Xena smiled at him, pushing her anger and anguish into the back of her mind for later study. "She tells stories, Alain. Good ones."

He smiled a broad, happy smile. "She does? So I was right.. she never did lose the pictures." His brow creased. "But why'd she come back here? She's still differents here. Her da is not going to let her make pictures anymore."

Xena stopped what she was doing, and gently covered the boy's hands with her own. She leaned on Argo's back and looked him in the eye. "I promise you, Alain, as long as I'm around, no one is going to stop her from making pictures." A pause. "No one."

He stared at her. "I believe you." He whispered. Then a long pause. "I wish I had a friend like you." His voice cracked. "It's hard being differents."

"I know." Xena said, with a compassionate look. "You have to be really strong."

Alain nodded. "Yeah. Bree wasn't. She cried a lot." His eyes were very sad. "It hurt her. I felt really bad.. sometimes we would just go out berry hunting together, and I would try to get her to tell me her stories. Sometimes she would, but she was always scared." He looked up at Xena's face, at the agony mirrored back at him. "I liked her. I was glad she got away." He cocked his angled head. "You took her away, didn't you! Now I member.. you beat up the slavers, and then she disappeared. She went with you!"

"Yeah." Xena said, with a hard swallow. I don't fit in here, wasn't that what she said? Oh Gabrielle.. "She went with me."

"I'm awful glad." Alain said, with a sweet smile. "I think you're probly a good friend to have."

Xena patted his hand. "I'm awful glad, too, Alain." Now I have to bury that knowledge deep inside, until she's ready to tell me. Good thing I'm better at keeping secrets than she is. Damn. Damn, Gabrielle, why didn't you tell me? Her mind mocked her. Because, Xena, if she had, you would have walked into that house and taken that man's head off for touching her. Admit it. Not even a moment's hesitation. Yeah. That's me, warlord to the core, and she knows it. Knows me, all too well. "Thanks for telling me all that, Alain. I needed to know." she gave the boy a small smile.

Alain gazed at her. "You're still mad. You hold a good mad." He nodded his head. "You won't let her get hurt no more."

"Not like that. Alain. No." Xena said, finishing Argo's mane. "That you can count on."

Waking the next morning, Xena went out early, and got the kinks out with a long run, and some brisk sword work, then returned and had a quiet breakfast in the common room of the inn. Under the scowling looks of the innkeeper, and the uneasy glances of his wife. An irritation began to build in her, partly constructed from the information she'd gotten the previous night, and partly on sound common sense that dictated you not aggravate paying customers. Mother would never make this kind of mistake. Her mind idly noticed, as she played with the somewhat bland food she was served. And mother spoiled me, I think. She mocked herself. C'mon, Xena, just eat it. With any luck it's not poisoned. She finished what was on her plate, then climbed up to her small room, which she cordially hated, and sat against the wall under the window, working on stuck hinge in her armor.

Her senses warned her long before she heard the subtle creak of the stair floorboards, and she put the armor down and rose to her feet, as the door opened and Gabrielle slipped in. Xena studied her, taking in the linen tunic with a raised eyebrow.

The bard's eyes met hers. "Good morning." she said quietly. "Hope you slept better than I did."

Xena crossed slowly over to her, and took her chin gently in one hand, then encircled her with both arms, and pulled her close. "You look like you need a hug." She said, feeling Gabrielle's breathing catch. She always gets this little lost look in her eyes when she needs this, easy to recognize, once I'd figured it out. Her mind mused, while they stood, holding each other in timeless silence.

"Good guess." Gabrielle finally said, but didn't release her grasp. "You know, I could stay like this forever." In the rich golden warmth she always felt enfolding her, that she realized was part of their connection to each other. "I think I scared Lila out of a few years last night." She tilted her head and made eye contact with Xena.

"Same old same old?" Xena asked, rubbing her back lightly.

The bard shook her head. "No.. no, this was an ancient one. >From before I met you. Guess the surroundings kicked it off." She gave the warrior a brief smile. "Old news."

Xena took a breath, and laced her fingers behind Gabrielle's head, resting her forearms on the bard's shoulders. "Y'know, you're driving me crazy, right?"

"I am?" Gabrielle asked, searching her face. "Why?"

Xena released one hand, and backed off a pace, reaching down and laying a hand on Gabrielle's stomach. "Because what you're feeling there.. " She tapped her own chest. "I'm feeling too. And I don't know why, and the not knowing is driving me crazy." She gave Gabrielle a half grin. "You know how much I love feeling out of control and helpless, right?"

The bard dropped her gaze, and sighed. "They're putting a lot of pressure on me." She admitted. "And it's mostly... it's Lila." She let herself fall forward onto Xena's chest again. "She really loves Lennat, Xena." Her chest rose and fell with a long breath. "And she needs to get out of there." A pause. "And Xena, father says he can do it, legally. Is that true?" Her eyes fastened on the warrior's face. "Do I really belong to him, in that way?"

"Mmm.. under normal circumstances, yes." Xena answered, feeling a bit smug. She'd spent half the night researching that very question. "But in your case, no." She stroked Gabrielle's cheek gently. "So don't worry, my bard. If I have to haul you out of here across Argo's quarters, you won't have the law after you." She guided Gabrielle to a seat at the small table in the room, and pushed her down. "Look." She picked up a scroll, and leaned over the table, resting her elbows on it. "Common law states that a free husbandman, which your father is, has the right to bestow his daughters where he sees fit, for whatever price he deems proper."

Gabrielle gazed at the scroll, then at Xena. "So..." Her heart sank.

"Ah." Xena interrupted. "But look here." She pulled out another scroll, and traced a line with one powerful finger. "A father doesn't have control of his daughter's disposition under one condition - that's if there is a prior claim by a sovereign power." She grinned at Gabrielle's confused look. "You're the Queen of the Amazons, Gabrielle. They're a sovereign nation, and they take precedence in law over a husbandman's claim."

Gabrielle gave a short laugh. "Oh." She gazed at Xena respectfully. "How did you find that?"

"I looked." Xena answered, shrugging.

"NO.. I mean, how did you know where to find that?" The bard persisted, laying a hand on the warm forearm resting on the table near her.

"Just another of my many skills" The warrior smiled. "Actually, warlords do have to keep up on laws, Gabrielle, if only to know which one's we're breaking." Ohh.. that was cute, Xena. Are we getting to where we can actually make jokes?

The bard burst out laughing, shaking her head at Xena. "You know something?" Her eyes searched the warrior's face intently.

"No, what?" Xena responded, feeling the tight knot in her gut loosening a bit. She saw the bard's eyes soften to a quiet intensity. Knew hers were responding in kind, when their souls were in contact like this.