"I love you." Came the gentle reply, as Gabrielle let her hand drift up and trace the responding smile on Xena's face. "It's not like that's a big secret, right? I think even Lila's caught on."

Xena laughed. "Really?" She leaned forward and kissed the bard. "What clued her in?"

Gabrielle slid an arm around her neck, and Xena straightened up, pulling the bard with her, and into an embrace. "Mmm.." she chuckled, when they broke off. "Well, she talked me into telling her some stories last night, and she said it was pretty obvious by the..." she paused, and giggled. "Sorry, this is her talking not me. By the dumb glow on my face every time I mentioned your name." She glanced up at Xena, who was chuckling. "Which was pretty often, I guess, seeing as how the stories are about you."

"Ah. I see." Xena responded, then gave the bard a sheepish grin. "If it's any consolation, my mother said the same thing about me."

Gabrielle chortled. "Really?" She let her fingers follow the faint blush coloring Xena's neck and on up to her face. "So that's how she figured it out."

"Yeah." Xena shrugged. "I never had anyone else mention it, so maybe it's just a family thing."

The bard snorted. "Xena, who on earth other than your mother would dare say that to you?" Her eyes sparkled with suppressed laughter.

Xena pondered this for a minute. Then laughed. "You gotta point there." She admitted, then slid her arms back around Gabrielle, and allowed herself to indulge in another long kiss, by the end of which she felt the bard's heartbeat begin to quicken, and her own breathing was getting a bit unsteady. They backed of just far enough to let their eyes meet. "Y'know, anyone with half a brain could figure out where you are." Xena commented, on an irregular breath.

"Let em." The bard replied, with a grin. And pulled her head back down. "I told them I wouldn't be back until lunch." She chuckled deep in her throat. "I'm supposed to be shopping for suitable clothes." A slight shrug. "Got told I couldn't walk around half naked, like some savage."

"Hmmm..." Xena commented, "I like the clothes you wear." She reached down and lifted the smaller woman up, cradling her like a child, and crossing to the bed. "Tell them to take a hike, and if they don't like it, they can just complain to me."

Gabrielle giggled. "Oh, that would make a statement." Then she applied herself wholeheartedly to the task at hand.

"So." Xena drawled, some time later. "What do they consider suitable clothing?" She glanced down at the bard, who was snuggled up contentedly, eyes half closed. "Don't tell me that long skirt thing."

Gabrielle made a gurgling noise deep in her throat. "Probably." She sighed, rolling her head back to study her partner. "I guess you don't like that style, huh?"

The warrior gave her a little shrug. "Doesn't do anything for you." Then her lips curled up in a grin. "Maybe you should send for a delegation of Amazons to attend you here. That would be interesting to watch."

The bard bit back a laugh. "Xena!" She shook her head, then grew quiet. "It's not funny, really. I feel like.." she paused. "Like they're trying to fit me back in here."

Xena hesitated, torn between responding to the anxiety she could feel returning to Gabrielle's body, and the need to remain outwardly unaware of it's source. "Do you want to fit back in here?" she finally asked, keeping her voice light and even.

Gabrielle remained silent for a long time, thinking. At one time I would have given anything to fit in here. And I almost did. Now... "I don't think I can, Xena." She admitted. "But how can I do that to Lila? I can't...leave her here." She felt her throat begin to tighten. "I'd do anything to help her." Then she realized what she'd said, and felt her breath catch. Anything? Could I give this up, and become a dutiful daughter, go quietly to this merchant, and see Lila happy with someone she loves? I could change her life. Just like Xena changed mine. Is it fair? Her heart clenched. What price am I willing to pay for my sister?

Her eyes drifted up, and caught Xena's, and she recognized the faint veil of reserve shadowing behind the familiar blue, a reserve that she now recognized as the warrior's instinctive attempt to put up a barrier against something she knew was going to hurt. A barrier that was so, so fragile when it came to protecting her against this terrible vulnerability she'd allowed herself to open up to. It was a look Gabrielle had seen, unknowing, for the first time the night she'd married Perdicus.

And seeing that hit Gabrielle achingly hard, in a place so deep she couldn't see the bottom of it, and she knew that on that fine line between what her selfless heart was yearning to give Lila and what her soul was claiming as it's own, a choice had been made. "Almost anything, that is." She quietly amended, with a quick grin, giving Xena a squeeze with the arm she had wrapped around the warrior, and had the satisfaction of seeing an answering smile warm the uneasy coolness in her gaze. "But there has to be something I can do." Now her expression turned imploring as she searched Xena's face. I promised I wasn't going to do that anymore, didn't I? Put that expectation on her? Just to fix everything...but I'm too close to this. I can't see the way out. Maybe she can.

"Mmm.." Xena mused. "We could take her out of here with us, take her to Amphipolis, or the Amazons." She commented, tentatively.

"She won't leave Lennat." The bard sighed, allowing a reluctant smile to cross her face. "Not that I have any moral basis for argument with her." She admitted, reveling in the warm comfort she was nestled in. Her fingers idly traced out a faint scar on Xena's ribcage, one with an uneven texture. Arrowhead, she guessed. "And he's under apprenticeship contract for another 5 years." She paused. "And even after, I don't think he'd leave home. He's comfortable here, and his brother supports him."

"Mm." Xena responded. How do we get out of this one besides the obvious way? I could just go in and...yeah, gods, and after last night, do I ever want to. But that doesn't solve the problem. That just makes me feel better. Is there a solution to this that doesn't leave someone bleeding? Those eyes searching mine.- she can't think of a way out, and she's depending on me to. So. I guess I'll find a way. "Let me see what I can come up with." The warrior added, gently stroking Gabrielle's hair, and was rewarded with a look of utter belief from the bard. Gods. I wish I was a quarter of the person she sees with that look.

"By the way." Gabrielle blinked up at her. "What made you so mad last night?"

Xena felt her brain freeze up. 'Uhm. What?" Damn. I forgot about that. I'm not used... "Oh... I went into brush Argo, and found some of the local kids poking Ares with a stick. " She shrugged. "Just got to me, I guess."

Gabrielle sat on one elbow, concerned. "Is he OK?" Anger tingeing her voice. "How could they do that to a harmless little puppy?"

"He was something differ..ent." Her voice faltered in the middle of the word, and she heard again Alain's gentle voice. "I don't think they see much of that, here." She watched Gabrielle's face closely. "I guess that's why they don't much like me, over and above what happened in the past." She kept her voice even. "I'm not.. your ordinary village girl."

The bard studied her face for a long moment, then smiled. "No, you're not."

Xena nodded. "And neither are you, my bard." She touched Gabrielle's nose with one fingertip. "Don't you forget that."

Gabrielle felt a silly grin spreading across her face, and was powerless to prevent it. She was about to answer, when Xena's gaze sharpened, and her head cocked in a listening attitude the bard knew all too well. She waited in silence, as Xena's eyes narrowed in concentration. Watched one eyebrow raise and a look of vague amusement cross the warrior's face.

"Your sister is headed this way." Xena informed her. "You might want to..."

Gabrielle giggled. "Uh, Yeah." And got her tunic back on, now detecting at the fringes of her hearing the sound of someone mounting the stairs. She ran her fingers through her hair, and perched herself on a corner of the small table in the room. The warrior, after arranging her own dress, remained lying down, legs crossed, and hands behind her head. A light, hesitant knock on the door sounded.

"Yeah." Xena answered, putting a low growly tone in her voice.

The door opened cautiously, and Lila edged her head in, glancing first at Xena, then at Gabrielle with something like relief. "Bree, you have to come quickly. He wants you. " Her voice was slightly breathless. "Metrus is at the house, and he wants to see you."

Gabrielle's expression grew cautious. "Why?" she asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

Lila opened the door, and stepped all the way into the room, crossing to Gabrielle and grasping her arm. "Look.. don't get him mad, Bree. He didn't explain to me why, he just sent for you." She darted a glance at Xena, then fastened her attention back on her sister. "He was yelling, and he started in with the ale a little early today. So, for the sake of the gods, go and get it over with."

Gabrielle felt her face flush, and she was aware of Xena's intense stare out of the corner of her peripheral vision. "All right." She replied, and slid off the table, taking a bare step towards the door when her path, and Lila's, was blocked.

Lila blinked, not having even seen Xena move from her relaxed position on the bed to where she was standing now, in front of them, one hand raised to halt their progress. "Hold it." And pinned Gabrielle with a direct stare. "That doesn't sound very friendly."

The bard moved forward, raising her own hand to touch Xena's. "It's OK. He just...gets a little...." she dropped her gaze to the floor, then raised it back again. "You know." Suddenly recalling the last conversation she'd had with Xena about that very subject.. Aw, c'mon, Xena, can't you just let loose just this once? Urging her to go past her self imposed limits. No, the warrior had replied, giving her the same direct stare as now. Think about what I am, Gabrielle. Think hard. Now, do you really want that out of control? It had made her stop cold. And Xena had seen the comprehension on her face. Exactly. The stronger you are, the more responsible you have to be. It's not fun, Gabrielle. I'm not a gentle drunk. People could die. Some have. And the bard had quietly apologized, and reconsidered what she had been asking. And thought about why she would have asked that, for a very long time.

"Do we have a problem?" Xena asked, quietly.

Lila stirred. "We will if she doesn't hurry up." She said, with an urgency in her tone. "Mother's out looking in the rest of the village. I came right here." She shot an uneasy glance towards Xena. "Please.."

Xena ignored her. "Do we have a problem?" She asked again, dropping her voice a little lower, and moving closer to the bard.

Gabrielle sighed. "I don't know. I don't think so. It should be all right. He probably just wants to show out the..'" Her lip curled. "merchandise." Feeling the angry tremor pass through Xena's body through their lightly touching fingertips. "It'll be OK."

A long, penetrating examination by those blue eyes left her shaking slightly, trying with all her strength to keep her mind calm, and not let on that the thought of her father, there in that house, with a good portion of ale in him, and her prospective husband with him scared her in a very unreasoning, childish way.

She had an almost overwhelming urge to let herself fall back into that wonderful warm spot and just tell Xena...everything. And look up at her, and say.. I don't want him to hurt me, anymore. Because she knew that's all it would take, and it would be so easy...and for a bare instant, the words trembled on her lips. But then the old guilt stilled her voice, and rendered her unable to betray him. Even to someone who share her soul.

She's scared. Xena could pick that up without even trying. And she's trying not to let me know it. Guess we play along with this, and trust and hope that if something does happen, I'll be fast enough to intervene before too much goes on. "All right." Came the reluctant reply, as Xena stepped back and moved out of their way. "But.."

"I know." Gabrielle confirmed. "I know." She followed Lila out the door, and down the stairs, glancing back up them as she reached the landing, and seeing the tense look of concern on the warrior's face. It made a warm spot in the coldness that had invaded her chest, and she managed a small wave as they moved off the stairs and headed for the door to the inn.

Lila glanced from side to side nervously as they walked along. "We've got to hurry." Then she darted a glance towards Gabrielle. "You haven't told her anything about...him. Us. Whatever, have you."

The bard shook her head. "No."

"Why?" Came Lila's curious question. "She's supposed to be a friend of yours. Some friend, if you can't tell her something that bothers you this much. Even I can tell that, Bree."

Gabrielle stopped right in the middle of the street, and grabbed her sister's arm, pulling her to a halt. "Now you look." She said, her voice an angry growl. "I can tell her anything. Anything, Lila. Things I couldn't tell you, or mother, or anyone else, I've told her. " A pause. "But I can't tell her this."

Lila regarded her. "Because of what she'd think ?"

The bard closed her eyes, and let out a long breath. "Because of what she'd do."

"I thought she didn't do that kind of thing anymore, isn't that what you told me, Bree?" Lila countered, "Or is that only your own wishful thinking?"

Gabrielle gave her a direct look. "No. it's not, and she doesn't. But this is different." She started walking again. "Because it's me."

Lila stayed silent, and just matched steps with her as they walked up the path to the homestead. They paused at the doorway, and Gabrielle put a hand on Lila's arm. "You don't have to go in." She said quietly. "No sense in both of us being subjected to this."

Lila gazed at her, frightened. "Please be careful, Bree." she whispered. "Please? He's really bad today."

The bard straightened her shoulders and nodded. "I will. " And put her hand on the latch to open the door, and pushed it aside.

Herodotus looked up as the door opened, and he slammed his cup onto the table. "About time!" He snarled. "Where in Hades have you been?" He waited for Gabrielle to turn and close the door, and turn back around again. She made no answer. "Here, your future husband is here to see you." He waved his hand at a lounging form in the chair across from him.

Metrus, as Gabrielle suddenly remembered, had always reminded her of a farm animal. He was of more than average height, and built very squat. His hair, a dull pale straw, was cut short about his head, accentuating the squareness of his head and features.

Gabrielle moved across the room, and stopped just out of her father's range, studying them both. She felt the old familiar fear rising in her, and took calming breaths, trying to keep the panic from her mind. And from the link she had with Xena. Her eyes met Metrus' and he gave her a lazy smile.

"Well, well. Little Bree. Let me look at you." He leaned forward and gazed at her. "Not bad, not bad at all, Herodotus. I think I'd take her even if she wasn't good with the stories." He chuckled at the bard. "You're going to get to know me real well, there little girl."

Gods, give me the strength to do this. She gave a quick mental prayer. "Metrus. Haven't seen you in quite a while." She took a long breath. "And it's really too bad, but I'm not going to be able to honor my father's contract with you." She heard Herodotus' choking cough.

"Don't talk nonsense, girl. This isn't your choice. It's mine." Her father said, only slurring a little. "Or have you forgotten the law?"

"No." Came the quiet answer. And quoted him the law that gave him jurisdiction over her.

"From your own lips." Metrus' said, delighted. "And lovely lips they are, too." He laughed, and got up, moving around the table and coming right up to her. Putting his hand on her jaw and turning her face from one side to the other. "Damn nice, Herodotus. Didn't think you had it in you. Sure this one's yours?"

Her father laughed an ugly laugh. "Oh yeah. I'm sure." He took a big swallow of ale, and clapped the goblet down. "Hecuba! More ale!"

Stay calm, Gabrielle. Stay calm. You can do this. You can handle this. Xena said you could. And she's the absolute authority on it. "There's another law that I can quote that lets me out of this... obligation." Her voice was low, but cool. And she quoted it.

And there was silence from both men.

"What do you mean, sovereign jurisdiction? Someone die and leave you queen?" Metrus burst out laughing, finally.

"Queen Melosa of the Amazons, as a matter of fact." Gabrielle dropped the statement into another cold silence. "So, I'm sorry, but no. I can't go forward with this. I have other obligations." And caught her mother's horrified eyes across the room.

Metrus leaned back, and regarded her. "You say you're the Queen of the Amazons?" His eyebrows curved up and small smile played around his lips.

"No." Gabrielle responded. "They say I am." Felt her heart start to pound as her father scraped back his chair and stood up. Felt the unnerving sensation of cool air passing over her neck as her neck hairs rose in response to an unseen, unheard threat.

"It's her fault." Herodotus slurred. "Damn unnatural woman." Without warning, he lunged foreword, and caught Gabrielle across the face with the knuckles of his left hand.

She'd seen it coming, he telegraphed his intentions in a way that she could readily read now, but her body was frozen, and refused to move out of the way. Instead, she began to just crawl inside, and shut down, and just be not there. Like she used to. Before, when that was the only way she got through these times. She was aware of him picking her up, and hitting her in the gut, the old trick, so the bruises wouldn't show. Once, twice, and now he was tossing her against the wall, and she slid down it, still unresisting, still trying her best to be not there. To be small, and maybe if she was small enough, he'd forget about her, and go onto something else.

And then her hand slid to one side, and rested on a round piece of wood. A sleek firmness that her body knew, even if her mind was telling her to be still, be quiet. Be not there. Here came his footsteps, and she knew the kick was coming next. She wanted to just lie there. Really, she did.. but her body betrayed her, and suddenly came to life as though ignited by a spirit not her own.

He came stumbling, just looking for a target, and when he was almost upon her, she lifted up from the ground and whipped her staff against his head, with a cracking sound that resonated through the cramped room. And he dropped with a crash, and then she was back to herself, staring at her staff as though she had never seen it before.

Metrus backed away from her, and held up his hands. "All right, there, missy. Just relax now."

Gabrielle took several gasping breaths, and leaned back against the wall, shaking. Her mother ran forward, and kneeled at her husband's side, gently touching his head. Then she turned around, and looked at her daughter.

It was too much. She dropped the staff, and stumbled to the door, somehow getting the latch open, and getting down the lane, her legs barely able to keep her moving. She hadn't gone 10 paces when she collided with someone, fast moving, who her body recognized and melted into in utter relief. "Oh gods." she got out in a hoarse whisper. "I think I may have killed him"

Xena froze in place, and felt her heart start to go double time. Gods no… She looked up as Lila came running up, her face as white as a sheet. If she did, I'd better find out now. "Gabrielle." She said gently, clasping her shoulders. "Stay here a minute. Sit down." The bard allowed herself to be guided to a boulder off the path, and sat there in mute horror. "Lila, keep her company." The warrior rasped. "I'll be right back."

Lila nodded, and put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. The bard didn't even look up, she just stared off into the distance. "Bree?" the dark haired woman said softly. "Bree? What happened?" No answer.

Xena strode up the path and jerked the door open, crossing inside. Metrus got in front of her, arms spread, but she batted him aside with one impatient shove. "Move." A snarl in his direction, as she knelt down next to the sprawled form, ignoring the frantic protests from Hecuba. She studied the man, and noted that he was still breathing, though it seemed a bit shallow.

Putting her fingers to his pulse point, she felt a steady, if fast heartbeat. She rolled his head to one side, and studied the bleeding wound, where the staff had struck with enough force to split the skin to the skull. Probed gently with knowing fingers, and felt only a slight depression of the bone beneath. And felt a wave of utter relief so intense it almost made her dizzy. She looked up at Hecuba, who had run out of protests. "It's a slight fracture." She said, in a steady, even tone. "If you get him into a bed, keep his head up, and keep him quiet, he'll probably be all right."

Hecuba stared at her through narrowed eyes for a long moment. "You're a healer?" She finally asked, disbelief in her voice.

Xena stood up, and suddenly felt very tired of this place, and these people. "Yeah. It comes in handy in my line of work." She started for the door, only to be pulled up short by Metrus. "Get out of my way." She growled.

"Wait a minute, Xena." Metrus protested. "We need to call the bailiff down for this. I'm a witness - the girl went mad, and attacked him." His face grew smug. "We can't have someone that… unstable.. running around loose, surely you realize that."

The warrior felt an icy cold wave take her. "I saw the bruises on her face, Metrus."

"Well, " the merchant purred. "Everyone here will say otherwise." He smiled. "And if she's crazy, she has no rights.. but I'll be glad to take over her care, the poor little…" His voice was cut off by a hand that gripped his throat and shut off his wind, and he was lifted off his feet and slammed to the floor.

"Oh no." Came a growly rolling voice. "I don't think so, Metrus." Xena squeezed tighter, and kneeled on his chest. "See, Gabrielle, now.. she's a good person. Even driven by someone trying to hurt her, she couldn't deliver a fatal blow. Not even close to one. She's physically capable of it, but mentally.. ?? Oh no. Not Gabrielle."

His face was turning purple, and his eyes widened. "But I am, Metrus. I'm really not a nice person. And to protect Gabrielle, I'm capable of doing just about anything." Her voice sank to a husky drawl "I could kill you, so, so easily…" Her grip tightened again, and he began to choke. She bent closer. "He's lucky that staff was in her hands, and not mine. He's lucky I didn't see him hit her or you'd be picking pieces of him up from all over the room."

Now she slackened her grip slightly, and let him take a few ragged breaths. "So, you think hard, before you try to play that game, my friend. Make sure you understand what the consequences would be." A pause. "Got me?"

Metrus stared at her, trying to remain completely still. Her hand was still tensed around his neck, her weight compressing his chest, and when he looked up into her eyes, he had no doubt at all that one wrong word, one wrong gesture on his part would be the last thing he ever did. So this was the Xena of the legends. Not so far buried after all. "Yes." He croaked.

"Good." Xena replied softly, and released him. And as she stood and turned she caught Hecuba's eyes, finding an unexpected warmth there. They looked at each other a long moment. Then, "Keep his head up." Xena advised, then headed for the door, stopping only to pick up Gabrielle's discarded staff and take it with her.

The slanting afternoon sunlight dazzled her eyes for a short time, and when her vision cleared she made out Lila, visibly agitated, grasping her sister's shoulders and shaking them. Then Xena's eyes focused on the still form seated on the rock, and she forgot about everything else. She'd seen Gabrielle in many moods, experiencing many emotions both good and bad, but never had she seen the bard like this. There was a terrible look of blank horror in her eyes, a lost look that hit Xena right in the gut and made her heart sink in her chest.

Because she'd seen it before, that look. In villages her army had razed. In the eyes of the survivors who had lost a part of their humanity due to her. She walked last few feet in a daze, not hearing Lila's repeated question, only seeing those dull green eyes that would not track to hers.

Xena knelt down, and very carefully reached out and covered Gabrielle's clenched hands with her own. And waited. For the fair head to raise a fraction, and, as though from very far away, a tiny spark appear that seemed to recognize the still face regarding her. "Gabrielle." She said, gently, seeing that. "It's all right. He'll be fine."

Gabrielle had stayed not there all the time Xena was gone, going further and further inside, both to escape the pain which was making her head throb, and to avoid the vivid memory of the what it felt like when her staff connected with her father's skull. Lila had shaken her, and spoken, but her mind refused to hear the words, or respond to the shaking. She was just.. not there. It was quieter. Easier to just… be.

But now, hands were on hers, a touch she recognized, and she felt a warm tugging against which her desperate tries to escape had no effect. It was a lifeline, and try as she would to ignore it, the line wrapped itself around her soul and drew her forward, back to now, back to here, where there were familiar blue eyes waiting to meet hers. Then the words penetrated her understanding, and Gabrielle felt a crushing hand lift off her back. "I didn't..?" Her voice sounded hoarse, even to her ears.

"No." Came the calm answer, and she got a smile with it, a smile that reached in and captured her heart, and pulled her further and further from numbness that threatened to envelope her again. "He's going to have a bad headache for a few days, but that's all." Xena paused. "I promise."

Gabrielle let her head drop between her shoulders, and directed her gaze to the ground, letting a wave of uneasy relief wash over her. She still felt like she was on the verge of breaking apart, but she could feel herself calming down, and dealing with the present. Not very well, she numbly reflected, but it was a start. She raised her eyes, and met Xena's, seeing the intense concern there. "Thanks" Even managing a tiny hint of a smile, which was immediately reflected back to her.

Xena released her hands, and reached across to tilt the bard's head gently to one side, studying her face. "Need to get some cold cloths on that." She commented, forcing down the boiling rage that kept threatening to send her back up that path into that house, no matter the man was unconscious. "Come on." She stood up, and offered a hand to Gabrielle, who took it and let the warrior lift her up.

"Lila.." the bard said, turning her head. "Could you…"

Her sister nodded slowly. "I'll bring your stuff over." No questions, no comments, just that.

"I told him.." Gabrielle took a breath, and felt Xena squeeze her hand. "I said I wouldn't go with Metrus. Told him why I didn't have to." She gave Xena a haunted look. "He said.. he blamed you." A very long silence. "Then he just… " She stopped speaking, and looked off into the distance. "I don't know what came over me." She finally continued, in a quietly bewildered tone. "I was just trying to get.. away. Then.. " Her eyes tracked to the staff lying on the ground where Xena had dropped it. "I guess I fell on top of that.. and it was in my hands.. and…" She stopped speaking again, and this time didn't continue.

"And you did what you're body is trained to do when it's under attack." Xena said, matter-of-factly.

"No.. no.. it wasn't that.. he wasn't.." The bard hesitated, then fell silent.

"Come on." Xena sighed, shifting her grip to Gabrielle's shoulder. She looked over at Lila, who was studying the ground. "Your mother could probably use a friendly face." She said, in a low voice. "I'll take care of your sister."

Lila gazed up at her, for once without rancor. Only weariness showed in her dark hazel eyes. "I know you will." She answered quietly. "I'll bring the stuff over later." She gave them a little nod, then turned and walked slowly back up the path towards the homestead.

Xena kept her hand on Gabrielle's back for the entire silent walk back to the inn, keeping contact with the bard, whose face had settled into an impassive mask. They ignored the stares from the lunch crowd at the inn, and walked up the stairs, shutting the door to the little room behind them.

Once inside, Xena put the staff she was still carrying against the wall, and watched with troubled eyes as Gabrielle gazed down at the greeting antics of a delighted Ares. The bard slowly bent down, and picked the puppy up, cradling him in her arms and burying her face in his soft fur. "Roo?" He warbled, nibbling her convenient ear. "Oh Ares.." Came her broken whisper. "You're so sweet and gentle.. how could anyone be mean to you?"

Xena's breath caught. Damn.. what do I say to her? What could anyone say? This is not.. one of my many skills, and I'm pretty lost here. "Gabrielle?" She finally said, hesitantly. The bard looked up at her with shadowed eyes. "Uhm… let me see that scrape." She rummaged in a saddlebag for her healer's kit, aware that Gabrielle had walked over and was now standing at her shoulder. She glanced up at the bard, and tried to give her a reassuring smile.

"I should have told you." Gabrielle murmured, agony in her eyes. "I should have.. I wanted to.. Oh gods.." As her knees gave out, and Xena caught her, cradling her and sliding down the wall until they were both on the floor, the warrior's arms wrapped around her partner, whose body was shaking with uncontrollable, hysterical sobs.

Xena just closed her eyes, and held on. Damn.. what do I do? OK.. OK.. don't panic, Xena. It'll just make it worse. Just breathe, and relax, breathe.. that's it.. "I've got you." She whispered. "Gabrielle, it's all right. I've got you."

Eventually the bard's tears slowed, and she closed her eyes, and just rested quietly in Xena's arms. I probably just scared her half to death. The weary thought ran through Gabrielle's tired mind. She hates dealing with this kind of thing.. but I needed that.. and there's no one else I could turn to. Or would want to turn to, for that matter. I can't believe I did that, to him. She glanced up at Xena's face, half lit in the late afternoon sunlight coming in the small window. "I got you all wet." She said, wincing at the hoarseness in her voice.

Xena gazed down at her and quirked a small grin. "S'okay." She commented, releasing her grasp with one hand, and rummaging in her kit, which had fallen when she'd grabbed the bard. Pulled out a bit of linen, and carefully wiped the tears from her face. "Better?" she asked, giving Gabrielle a bigger smile when the bard nodded.

"Yeah." Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Ouch."

The warrior felt a wave of relief pass over her. Gabrielle was very upset, yes.. but that look of strained distant horror was gone, and she seemed more herself. "Hang on." She replied, and reached over to the small fireplace, putting the water pot on to heat, then pulled a couple of small jars out of her kit, and snagged a cup from the table over her dark head.

Gabrielle watched idly, too tired to move or speak, as Xena efficiently assembled ingredients in the cup, and poured the now hot water over it. A lovely steamy scent rose from the cup, and the bard smiled. "Mmm.. you should make your cures smell like that more often." She teased gently, as the warrior handed her the cup with a grin. She stuck her nose almost into the liquid and let the sweet, minty fragrance seep into her lungs. "Is this even good for me? I can't believe it." This with a quick look up at Xena, who just nodded. She took a sip, then let it slide down her sore throat with pleasure, and leaned her head back against the warrior's chest. "That's wonderful." She sighed.

"Make your head feel better." Xena replied, gently brushing her hair out of her eyes. "And.. I thought your insides could use a little coddling, too."

Gabrielle smiled to herself, and took a big sip from her cup. "You're right." She admitted. "And you're also right about my head hurting." She leaned her head back on Xena's arm, and her expression grew serious again. "I'm sorry."

Xena's eyebrows creased. "What for?"

The bard closed her eyes and shrugged. "This.. everything. Dragging you out here." She blinked her eyes open and gazed out of the window. "I know you hate dealing with this stuff. I should have convinced you to go to the festival."

"Gabrielle." Xena's voice, cool and direct, halted the bard's rambling speech. "Cut that out, right now."

Gabrielle stopped short, and looked up at her in surprise. "No, really.. I think"

"Stop it." Came the firm reply. "I really mean it. There is no place else I want to be right now other than right here." She pinned Gabrielle with her most intense stare. "You are not going to apologize for this. It was not your fault. Any of it. You didn't do anything to make this happen, is that clear???"

"I must have." Was her bleak answer. Her eyes unfocused. "I always tried to figure out what it was that I did.. so I wouldn't do it anymore. I lost track after a while." Her voice cracked. "There were so many of them." She looked up and saw the anguished look on Xena's face. Sensed the brimming anger just under the surface, anger not at her, but in her behalf.

My protector.. it was a warmth that started in the pit of her stomach and spread outward. Does she know just how wonderful a feeling that is right now? No.. probably not.. maybe now's the time to tell her.. and tell her why this annoyingly stubborn village girl followed her like a tick on a dog over half of Greece. "Xena.. "

"Yeah?" Came the slightly husky response.

Gabrielle took a deep, deep breath. "Have you always wanted to be a fighter?"

Xena studied her in surprise for a moment. "Yeah. I guess I have." She chuckled a little. "Lyceus and I.. we played with sticks as swords, and ran around in play battles ever since I was old enough to remember."

The bard nodded slowly. "Thought so. Did your mom like that?"

The warrior paused for thought. "Well, I'm sure she'd rather have had me take up a kinder trade, but she never told me I couldn't."

"Did anyone ever tell you that?" Gabrielle persisted, incidentally also satisfying a long held curiosity.

"No." Came the expected answer. "No, they didn't. Uhm… well, one person tried to. Once."


"I beat him up." Xena's sheepish answer made the bard laugh.

Gabrielle sighed. "What would you have done if someone.. who you cared about.. tried to make you stop being a warrior?" Now her eyes were serious, and looking up, she saw that Xena's were also, having caught the drift of the conversation.

Xena hesitated a long time before answering, because she knew what Gabrielle was getting at, and because her answer would tell a lot about who she was. "What would I have done?" A pause, because she looked deep inside and gave an honest answer. "I wouldn't have stopped. It's so much a part of me.. I wouldn't have stopped. I would have fought it."

"That's what I thought. " The bard answered softly. "Because it's one of the things I love the most about you. You never stop." She gave her partner a gentle smile. "You always tell me how much I provide an inspiration to you in things.. I wonder if you realize just how much of the reverse is true?"

She searched Xena's face, seeing the startlement in her expression, her bard's mind already thinking of ways to describe the moment, describe the golden sun which lit up half her profile, and left the other half in shadow, except for the glittering brilliance of her eyes. "I've always been able to make up stories." She started, tearing her eyes from Xena's, and letting them rest on Ares' furry head, curled up against Xena's thigh. "I loved doing it - and I would find all kinds of people to tell them to. Even the silly ones."

She let her head rest against the silent warrior's shoulder. "My earliest memories of my father were.. He used to bounce me on his knee, when I was really little. I went places with him." She looked up at Xena. "He was my whole world."

A long silence this time, as she collected herself again. "I don't know when that changed.. it just seemed like, one day he just.. " Her eyes closed. "got angry. And stayed that way." She took a long breath. "Maybe it was just the ale, maybe it was.. he really wanted a son. I don't know." She rubbed her eyes. "When I stayed with my aunt and uncle, it was great. I could play around, you know, and tell stories, and just be.. normal, I guess." She swallowed hard. And almost lost her composure when Xena leaned forward and gently kissed her forehead.

"You don't have to.." the warrior started, but was stopped when Gabrielle put her fingers lightly on her lips.

"Yes.. I do. I want you to know this.." She gave a grim smile. "At home, was a different story. He didn't like when I told tales-he said it was fools play, and.. " She paused. "And after a while when he caught me, he'd.." A long silence. "do something to convince me not to do it anymore." Her breath caught. "I remember the first time he did that.. I.. I.. " Her voice stopped, and she just sat there, swallowing, and trying not to break down. Then Xena's arms tightened around her, filling her with a sense of security that allowed her to regain her composure after a few long shuddering breaths.

"So, anyway." She finally went on. "After a while, it just became a lot easier to.. forget about the stories. It just hurt too much.. and they kept me busy, molding me into the model village girl, ready for marriage." Her eyes met Xena's and read the mixture of sadness and pain and utter rage there. "I felt like I was being squeezed into a box. And I had no way out. Every example I had fell into their way things should be done. Girls can't be bards. Girls can't be strong. I could just sit there, quietly, and do what jobs I was supposed to do." Her voice went a little hoarse. "And I did. Because I didn't see any other possibility. But it hurt." Her eyes closed briefly "And I felt so.. lost."

She took a sip of the cooling tea in her cup. "And then, one day, I went down to the river with my sister, and the rest of the girls from the village to get some water." She let a small smile start on her face. "We were stopped by slavers. I remember thinking to myself, Hey, Gabrielle, look here. This is where, in one of your stories, the hero shows up and saves the day. " Her voice dropped. "But I knew that in real life, there were no heroes, and I wasn't going to be saved, and.. I'm not sure I would have cared." She stared off out the window, remembering that day, which had started bad, with a beating after breakfast, when she'd ruined a dish under his critical eyes, and had become worse, with the raider's attack on them.

Now the smile deepened, as she tilted her head back and gazed at Xena, whose face was now almost totally shrouded in shadow. Save the eyes, which were picking up the faint hints of the sun. "Then I got the surprise of my life." She shook her head. "A hero showed up, and saved the day. Just like out of a story. And not only were you a hero, you blew to pieces every rule I'd ever been told about what people are, and what you could be."

"Xena, you stood there, unarmed, and unafraid, and just whipped through those soldiers like they were nothing. You were stronger than they were, and smarter than they were, and what's more, you didn't care who knew it." She closed her eyes, and patted the warrior on the belly. "You changed my whole world that day."

Xena remained silent, just listening, just watching, getting a perspective on Gabrielle she'd never expected. An explanation, finally, as to why she'd left home, left her family, left everything familiar to follow a half mad ex warlord off into the wilds, to certain hardship, and probable early death.

"I decided, right then, that this was my only chance. I was going to follow you, if you wanted me to or not, as far as I had to because I had just this one shot at becoming more than Potadeia was going to allow me to become." Gabrielle continued, taking another long breath. "So I did. And I said a prayer, every night, to the gods that you wouldn't send me back before I learned enough from you to make it on my own." A small smile appeared. "Then, one day, I realized that I'd started praying that you wouldn't send me back at all, because I.. I didn't want to leave you."

They looked at each other in a momentary silence. "Then I thought, that was selfish of me. And I tried.. to go home.. because I thought you must surely be tired of me." Gabrielle continued, gazing at the window. "And because I didn't think.. well, anyway."

"I was never surprised when you left." Xena spoke for the first time in a long while. "I just didn't ever expect you to come back. I.. never really understood why you did.. not for a long time, anyway. I thought there were far better places for you to be than with me." There was a gentle sadness in her eyes that touched Gabrielle profoundly.

"I know you thought that." The bard whispered. "But then, on my wedding night, I lay there in the dark. Perdicus was asleep, but I couldn't.. all I could think about was you, and what I'd seen in your eyes when we said goodbye." Her eyes lifted. "Because it was goodbye, wasn't it? I would never have seen you again, right?"

Xena took a breath, then a second. And swallowed. "It would have been. I.. Gabrielle, I meant what I said, but I just… I couldn't." You had my heart already, my friend, and the thought of losing your friendship made that night the worst one I've had in a very long time. Only that very next night was worse, when I thought I'd lost your soul to Callisto after everything else.

"I knew that." Gabrielle responded. "I felt it..and that hurt so bad I could hardly breathe." She sighed. "But I was hoping, doing that, I could do for mother, and Lila, what you'd done for me. Make a difference. " She shook her head. "But I wouldn't have. I wasn't ready for that, Xena. I don't have your strength."

She drained her almost empty cup, and stared into it. "I didn't like who I was back then, Xena." Now she met the warrior's gaze squarely. "But I do like who I am now. And I would never have become that person if it wasn't for you showing me the way. " A pause. "So, even if I wasn't.. " She smiled gently "hopelessly in love with you, and even if we weren't best friends.. you would still be the most important person in my life. Because you gave me back my dreams."

She sighed, and put her head down on Xena's chest, feeling the strong arms wrap around her with a fierce intensity, and hearing the warrior swallow a few times without attempting to speak. "I've been wanting to say that to you for a long time." She mumbled. "But my father.. I just.. I couldn't.. I'm sorry, Xena. I'm sorry I.. wanted to try and help them."

"Shh. It's all right." The warrior said, in a rough voice. "It's all right."

"No.." Gabrielle replied. "It's not… " Her hands clenched convulsively against Xena's leathers. "I should have.. Perdicus loved me, I know that. And, on some level, I loved him too. He was kind, and he needed me, and… " she fell silent for a moment. "But what I felt for you went so much deeper, in places he could never even imagine, much less try to reach. And I laid there that night, and I knew it, and it hurt.. and I realized one of the reasons I was really doing this was.. I thought that if I came home, and was good, maybe.. maybe my father would smile at me." Her eyes started to tear up again. "Xena, I can't help it. He's my father, and I love him. Even if he doesn't.." she couldn't finish the thought. "And.. I wanted his approval again so bad I almost.. no, I did.. sacrifice the most important thing in my life." She swallowed "The most important person. And I feel so.. I hate myself when I think of that."

"Oh, Gabrielle." Xena breathed, stroking her hair gently, seeing the tears staining her leathers darker. "It's not your fault."

"Yes it is." The bard rasped. "It's my fault Perdicus died. It's my fault.."

"No." Came the strong, fast, response. "No, you look at me." Xena released one hand, and forced Gabrielle's head up, making eye contact with her. Trying to push aside her own almost out of control emotions when she saw the desperate need there. "You listen to me, my bard… that was not your fault. " Gabrielle remained silent, watching her face. "The only one who can take the blame for that is Callisto, Gabrielle. Not you, not me. " Took me long enough to get a grip on that, didn't it? "And.. I don't blame you for choosing to live with him. You really did have my blessing.. I want you to believe that."

The bard blinked at her. "Tell me that didn't hurt you." Came the bare whisper, from a frozen expression.

Xena took a breath, and just looked at her. Knowing by the sudden closing of Gabrielle's eyes that her response was showing even before she spoke. "I can't tell you that." She admitted. "You know I can't.. " she stopped speaking as the painful memory of that whole time spilled into her conscious mind. "Yeah, it hurt." She finally said, meeting the bard's agonized gaze. "Leaving you there was.. very hard on me." She paused. "But it would have been worth it, to me, to see you happy. And, Gabrielle, that's the only truth that matters."

Gabrielle swallowed convulsively. "You shouldn't hurt people you love, Xena. It's not right. " Her gaze drifted towards the window. "So, I guess my father… I wish I knew what I did to make him hate me so much."

And here was the central problem, Xena realized, because she couldn't imagine how someone.. how anyone.. could hurt someone as… OK..OK.. take a deep breath, Xena. You can't help her if you let yourself fall apart. She's in pieces… she's depending on you to make sense of this. Gods. What do I come up with? I think about how she must have felt, so little, so innocent, and to have someone… how did she ever let herself trust anyone after that?

She did.. " The thought rolled inexorably to it's logical conclusion, as she murmured soothing whispers at the quiet, still form. She did because her need to love and be loved is stronger than her need to hate and that's powerful enough. It's what she holds on to. Gods. And I know the answer to at least one question she has. "Gabrielle." Xena put a low, compelling note into her voice, causing the bard to glance up. "I want you to hear me."

Gabrielle rolled her head to one side, and gazed at her, waiting. "I'm here." She said, in a tired voice.

"Good." Xena answered. "I think you can tell I'm really upset, right?"

"Yeah." The bard replied.

"OK. I can't.. Gabrielle, I barely understand myself, much less other people, but I know this.. and I want you to know this - when someone hurts someone else, someone like you, that hasn't done anything harmful to anyone, well - that person doesn't hate you, Gabrielle. That person hates something in themselves. And.. it's that part of themselves they're striking out at. Not you. Not ever you.. you were just a child, Gabrielle. Just a beautiful little child, who saw things other people didn't see. You never did anything."

Gabrielle just stared at her for a very long time. Just looking at her face. Just breathing. "That can't be true." She finally whispered, but her voice was begging Xena to convince her.

The warrior cupped her face with one hand, and smiled sadly. "It is true, my bard." She paused, and watched the thoughts race behind those green eyes. "I'm not one to be tossing around definitions of good and evil, but to me.. to me, Gabrielle, you're all that's good." She hesitated. "Because I know what it feels like to hate yourself, so much that you just lash out at anyone. At everyone. You want them to hurt as much as you do."

The bard thought about that for a long time, just resting there quietly, with the rich crimson sunset pouring in the room, painting her with light that fell across most of her body and part of Xena's. Listening to the dull sounds of the blacksmith's hammer just outside. Smelling the dusty wood scent of the room, and the sharp wafts of cooking meat from the inn below. Feeling the steady, secure cradle of Xena's arms, and the gentle tickle of the warrior's even breathing against her ear, where her head rested on one broad shoulder. "It's going.. to take me a while to get my mind wrapped around that." She said at last, speaking the words slowly, as if tasting them. "That'll take time" And raised her eyes to Xena's, searching.

Xena shrugged, and smiled. "We have a lifetime."

Finally, getting a true smile from the younger woman. "Keep reminding me of that, OK?" Gabrielle answered softly, reaching over and rubbing Xena's arm. Slowly, very slowly, her world was righting itself again, anchored by the warmth she felt enveloping her. I think.. I'll be OK. She mused to herself.

"Besides, you couldn't have given up your dreams that fast, my bard." Xena added, cocking her head and peering down. "You offered yourself for Lila, as I recall.. it's what caught my eye in the first place." A slow grin appeared on her face. "I was impressed by the heroism of this village girl standing off against all those slavers."

Gabrielle laughed softly. "It was idiotic.' She blushed slightly. "Were you really?"

"Uh huh." Xena acknowledged, hugging her tighter. "I really was." She went serious. "I was ready to give up, Gabrielle. I'd had enough of fighting.. but you reminded me there's always something worthwhile to fight for."

The bard didn't answer, but her eyes regained some of their natural sparkle, and a tiny smile appeared on her lips. Xena ducked her head and gazed at the cup she still held. "Is that empty?"

"Mm..yeah." Gabrielle answered, glancing up.

"Oh, good." Xena replied, and caught her eye. "Because I wanted to say I love you, and last time that got me all wet."

Gabrielle couldn't hold back a short laugh. "Ouch." She winced. "Don't make me laugh."

Xena's eyes grew concerned. "Why? Did he.." her hand touched the bard's chest and she flinched. "Damn." She cursed. "Hang on." With that, she stood, carrying Gabrielle with her, and moved over to the bed, laying the bard down gently. "You should have said…"

"And missed you saying I love you?" Gabrielle gave a tired grin. "No way." She relaxed as Xena opened her tunic, and probed very gently with her fingertips. "Ouch." The bard hissed, as she touched a particularly sore spot.

"Sorry." Xena muttered. "Lucky. Just bruised, I think. Nothing cracked." She looked up at Gabrielle's face. "I'm going to wrap you up, then you're going to take something, and go to sleep for a while."

"Sounds like a good idea." The bard admitted. "I can't tell you what kind of headache I have."

Xena pushed the red gold hair out of her eyes. "Yeah, I know." She sighed unhappily. "I know." She crossed to her kit, and came back with some linen bandages, spreading them out carefully, and rubbing them with some oil from a jar she also took out. Then she helped the bard sit up, and neatly wrapped the bandages around her, fastening them with a tuck. "There."

"Hey..it feels warm." Gabrielle noticed, touching the fabric. "What was that?"

Xena picked up the remaining oil and glanced at it. "It's an oil mixture - makes your blood move around where you're injured. Helps you heal faster."

"Really?" Gabrielle asked, intrigued despite herself. "Is that your secret??" She gave the warrior a gentle nudge with an elbow.

Xena chuckled. "No, mine's natural. But it never hurts to use it." She went back the table, and assembled another mixture in Gabrielle's discarded cup, hesitating, then shaking her head, and mixing in some additional ingredients that didn't usually go in this combination. She poured the heated water over them, mixed it a bit, then carried it over to where the bard was quietly waiting. "Here." She said, and handed it over. "Drink it all."

Gabrielle nodded, and took a sip. "Wait..twice in one day, I get something that tastes good out of that bag? I must be dreaming." She gave Xena an mock amazed look.

"Yeah." Xena said, her mask of good humor slipping. "Just wanted to make a pretty bad day a little better, I guess." She turned back away towards the table, but felt a hand dart out and grab her leathers, and she stopped. And tried to get her emotions under control before she turned back around.

Was only partially successful, seeing the reaction in Gabrielle's green eyes. The bard put the cup down on the night table, and slid out of bed, wrapping her arms around the taller woman in one sudden move. Felt the warrior return the hug, though more gently. "Thank you." She said, simply.

Xena took a ragged breath. "Seeing you get hurt, and not being able.. to do something about.. that's hard on me, Gabrielle." She managed to get out.

The bard nodded against her chest. "I know. But.. I'm really glad you're here. I.. I need you." A simple truth.

They stood like that for a while longer, then Xena raised her head, and let out a long breath. "OK, back into bed with you." She admonished, releasing the bard, who sat down, and swung her legs up, settling back with a sigh.

Xena handed her the cup, with a raised eyebrow, and watched sternly until she finished it all, and handed the cup back. "You didn't have to watch." The bard commented wryly. "It was good." Her eyes blinked. "Whoa."

"Yeah. Whoa." Xena snorted, and pushed her down onto the pillow. "Out you go, your majesty."

The bard tried to focus on her, but gave up the effort, and let her eyes close. Xena watched her until the taut muscles in her body relaxed, and her breathing slowed and deepened, reaching out a hand and touching the sleeping bard's cheek gently, where the bruises showed stark against her fair skin. Then she let her hand drop to her side, and walked to the table, collapsing in the chair and propping her elbows on her knees.

Oh Gods…The anger and frustration were almost too much to bear. But she did, sliding back in the chair, and tipping her head back to regard the ceiling for a long time. Fighting her rage at the unfairness, the ugliness that had reached out over the years and touched her companion. Wanting to roll it all back, and be there, at that time, in this place, to stand watch over her, and keep it from happening at all. She didn't deserve this. Of all the damn people I've known in my life, she's the one who most didn't deserve this. She thought of the gentle child Gabrielle must have been, all fair hair and big green eyes. Telling her stories to her equally wide eyed friends. And being beaten for it. It was too much. Xena buried her head in her hands and clenched her teeth. Damn him. A low growl sounded deep in her chest, and as if in counterpoint, Ares answered, creeping close to her boot and blinking up at her.

Xena gazed at him, at this animal whom she had saved from the claws of a panther. And then looked across at her sleeping partner, who, in the last dying rays of sunset, looked hardly older than a child. Maybe… slowly the thought formed, irresistibly put itself into her conscious mind. Maybe the world does need people like me. Like who I am now. Who will protect people like her. And little things like him. I wonder. Slowly, she felt the anger drain off leaving an emotional weariness in it's place.

She picked up the puppy, and, slouching down and leaning back in the chair, settled him on her chest, where he plopped down with a happy pant. "Hey there, boy." She murmured, stroking his soft fur. "You're getting big, aren't you?" She picked up a paw, and examined it, raising an eyebrow. He was going to be a big one, all right. The warrior let her head fall back against the wall, and closed her eyes, mentally exhausted.

Snapping wide awake, some hours later, in the almost total darkness of the room, with Ares' sleeping form still curled on her ribcage. "Gods." She winced, rubbing her neck. :"That was stupid." She lifted the sleepy puppy off her chest, and put him onto the floor, standing and straightening up with a yawn. "Better get some light in here." She muttered softly to the puppy, who cocked his head at her. She stirred up the fire, and lit the two torches in the room, bathing it in a soft orange glow, and crossed over to glance at the still sleeping Gabrielle.

Satisfied, she glanced around the room, then put away her medical kit, and was preparing to go downstairs to pick up some dinner when she detected a vaguely familiar voice coming up the stairs.

"Oh great." She said aloud, and Ares looked up at her. Xena sighed, and sat back down in the chair, resting one booted foot against the fireplace. A soft knock at the door sounded. "Come." She called, keeping her voice down. The door opened and Lila's head poked in, blinking in the low light, then finding her at the table. She withdrew, then the door opened again, and she walked in, followed by Hecuba.

The two of them stared at her for a long moment. She stared back, neither welcoming nor threatening. Finally, Lila broke the tableau, and moved further into the room, hefting the bags she was carrying, and looking at Xena in mute question. "Over there." Xena answered, gesturing to where the rest of their gear was stored. A movement caught her eye, and she turned her head to watch Hecuba walk quietly to the bedside, and stand, gazing down at her daughter. She lifted a hand towards the sleeping bard, and stopped short when she heard a growl at her feet.

Looked down to see a wolf puppy spraddle legged in front of her, baring his teeth in a infantile snarl. She stared at the animal in surprise, then turned her head to regard Xena. And something in her eyes thawed. "I see she has more than one protector." The older woman commented.

Got a half grin from Xena. "Yeah. She collects them." The warrior saw Lila's shoulders relax slightly. "Sit down, Lila." She motioned the girl to a seat opposite her. "Long day." I can't change the past, but if I can get her family to talk to me, that should cheer her up, right?

"It was that." Lila answered, and took the proffered chair, seating herself, and studying the tall dark haired woman across from her

"Come here, boy." Xena called, and the puppy scampered over to her. "Go ahead." She gave Hecuba a jerk of the head in Gabrielle's direction.

Hecuba nodded, and turned back towards her daughter, pushing the hair off her face, and studying the still form in silence.

"What's his name?" Lila asked, gazing under the table at the puppy. "He's cute." Giving Xena a hesitant smile.

Xena sighed, and gave her a little sheepish shrug. "Ares." And raised her hands at Lila's shocked expression. "I know, I know. Bad idea."

Lila actually grinned. "I bet he'd be upset if he knew."

Xena raised an eyebrow. "He does. It's all right. If it had been a dog, well…I might have been in for it. But.."

The dark haired girl let out a short burst of laughter. "Are you serious?" She asked, leaning forward. "You really know him?"

The warrior nodded. "So does Gabrielle." Now she had Hecuba's attention. "She also knows Cupid, and Aphrodite."

Hecuba walked back over, and seated herself at the third chair, closer to Xena than her daughter. Took her time studying the warrior, from head to foot in a slow deliberate scan. "Metrus is livid." She finally said, cautiously. "He doesn't like being taken down like a calf in the field." She paused. "Would you really have killed my husband, if you'd walked in when he was hitting her?" Her faded eyes held Xena's with a urgent intensity. "He is her father. Regardless."

Xena took a breath, and lowered her chin to one hand, considering. "No." She answered quietly. "Because he is her father. And she couldn't take that." Her eyes glittered in the firelight. "But I would have made him regret touching her. That, yes."

Hecuba nodded slowly. "It's been so long since anyone stood up for one of us, I'd forgotten what it felt like." She stood wearily and, hesitantly, laid a hand on Xena's muscular forearm resting on the table. "I'm.. glad Gabrielle found someone who would do that for her." Then she regained her brisk manner, and jerked her head towards the basket she'd laid on the table. "Brought her some dinner."

Xena smiled. "She'll appreciate that."

Hecuba grunted, and moved towards the door, then looked back at the warrior. "There's some extra, there, to, if you've a mind." And then she was out the door, missing Xena's instantly arched eyebrow.

Lila sighed. "It's been a hard adjustment for her." She commented, as though she was entirely comfortable talking with Xena. "I think that's a peace offering."

"Uh huh." Xena responded, letting herself relax a little, and turning a slight grin on Lila. "Are we at peace, then?"

Lila glanced down at the table, then back up again. "She couldn't stop talking about how you thrashed Metrus. And the village healer came in and basically repeated whatever it was that you said to her, and then she didn't stop talking about that for a while." She shrugged. "So, yeah, I guess we're at peace." She cleared her throat. "Look.."

"Relax." Xena said, holding up a hand. "I know."

Lila nodded, as though this was a normal thing to say. "How is she?" Now her voice dropped, and she glanced over at her sister. "Is.."

Xena sighed. "She's all right. Banged up a little, but otherwise OK." Her eyes met Lila's. "It hurt more up here" She tapped her forehead. "Than anywhere else, I think."

"Yeah." The girl whispered. "It does."

Xena gave her a compassionate look. "Lila.. I'm sorry you had to go through.. that."

The dark haired girl glanced at her. "She had it worse than I did." Another glance towards Gabrielle. "She was older.. Father thought she should be more practical.. not spend time making up things, " she shrugged. "I just wanted to grow up, get married, have kids, you know. The usual. " She looked up. "Lennat and I.. we've talked about running off. He doesn't really want to." She paused. "I don't really want to. But…"

"Be hard on your mother." Xena commented Like I'm one to talk here, right?

Lila nodded wearily. "I know." She put her hands on the table and pushed up. "At least it'll be a peaceful night," she remarked. " no matter what the cause." A nod at the basket. "There's plenty there. I'll stop by and see her tomorrow."

Xena gave her a half wave. "I'll tell her you were here. Be careful walking back."

Lila let a smile form on her lips, as she allowed herself to regard her sister's companion as something more than just a bloodthirsty warlord for the first time. "Thanks." She answered. "you know, you're not so bad, Xena."

Getting a raised eyebrow in response. "I can be very bad if I need to be." The warrior replied, but added a quirky grin, which took the seriousness out of the statement. "but I try to be nice, just to humor your sister."

"Really." Lila said, trying not to laugh. "So that sacrificing babies thing, then…"

"Only on months with three full moons." Xena assured her, letting her smile travel up to her eyes, and meeting Lila's gaze. "Unless Gabrielle runs out of story fodder. You know." And she winked.

"I see." They both looked at each other for a second, then laughed. I think.. I might be starting to see what Bree sees in her. Lila mused silently. Then a thought glanced teasingly through her mind. And Bree's right - they are an amazing color blue. "Well, I'll be off." But she was still smiling as she walked down the stairs and headed home.

Xena regarded the now closed door with some amusement. Then she stood up, stretched, and walked to the window, where she stood for some time, gazing out thoughtfully, enjoying the cool moonlit night. Eventually, she turned back towards the table, idly lifting the napkin over the basket and examining the contents. They'll keep until morning, she decided, and glanced over at the sleeping bard. I should go out and get some drills in. Yeah, I should. Right. Uh huh. She mocked herself Except I really don't want to do anything but just crawl right into that bed and join her. Gods.. what a softie I'm getting to be. She grinned sardonically, then sighed. On the other hand, I really don't want her waking up alone. Yeah, that's a good excuse, Xena. At least it's a true one, right? Right.

Chuckling quietly, she changed into a long linen shirt, and carefully stored her armor. Then she put out the two torches, and soundlessly slid into bed next to Gabrielle. Even in deep sleep, though, it seemed the bard was sensitive to her presence, because not long after Xena settled gently at her side, Gabrielle's misty green eyes sleepily opened, and regarded her.

"Hey," the bard's lips twitched into a smile.

"Didn't mean to wake you up." Xena apologized, returning the smile.

"S'okay. Glad you did." Came the faintly slurred answer.

Xena chuckled. "How do you feel?"

Gabrielle had to think about that for a minute. "Tired, " she admitted, stiffly rolling over and snuggling up tight to the warrior's body. "Sore, " And let out a contented sigh as Xena wrapped long arms around her. "Mmmm.. that's much better "

"Yeah?" Xena queried, "Your mother and sister were here."

Gabrielle blinked up at her foggily. "Oh yeah? They ok?"

"Uh huh." The warrior assured her. "Your mother left some dinner for.. us, actually."

Fighting the effects of the herbs, the bard's eyes now opened fully, and she goggled at Xena. "My mother brought you dinner?"

Xena nodded. "And your sister said I wasn't so bad after all."

Gabrielle pulled her head back a little, and slowly raised one hand, wrapping the fingers of it in Xena's shirt. "You let me sleep through that?"

"Sorry." The warrior grinned. "Wasn't planned."

"I'm gonna hafta hurt you." Gabrielle threatened, in a sleepy mumble, allowing herself to fall into the rich warmth of their bond. "Later."

The hurt was still there, but it was fading back away, to the dark corners where it usually lived. It had no chance against the sweet peace of this feeling between them, Gabrielle realized, and let her heart open to it. "Mmmm," she murmured, letting the emotion wash over her, on a scent of sun dried linen, and leather, and the indefinable essence of Xena herself. She took a deep breath, and let it out. "Much better" And Xena's lips, brushing ghost light against her own put her harried soul at rest. "Feel safe," she sighed, as she relaxed back into sleep.

Xena smiled, feeling sleep pulling at her as well, but realized she felt the peace just as strongly, and took a moment to revel in it. A giddy warmth cascaded over her, bringing a grin to her face she was helpless to prevent. Whatever happens, to me, to us - I'm glad I got a chance to know this. She decided, there in the darkness, finally throwing her last reservations to the four winds. Jessan, you were right after all. This is a gift beyond price. And with that thought, she drifted off.

Continued Part 3