Home is Where the Heart Is.

by Lori Bush(lwbush@gw.total-web.net)

Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer, Lila and the others are not mine, although the amount of time I've spent with all of them should get me some kind of credit in the Xenaverse. They are the property of RenPics and Universal/USA Studios. There will be no profit made here, and anyone crazy enough to sue me probably needs even more professional help than my husband claims I do.

Rating: G, probably, but call it PG in case I slipped and put in a wordy dird or two.

Violence: Naw - just angst.

Sex: Nope, not today, thanks.

Spoilers: Pretty much everything before "Lyre", I think, is fair game.

Archive: GJRS, JFFG, TedTalk, TRIS, Raye. If I missed anyone else I should have included, just drop me a line, 'kay?

This story is as close to being co-authored by Chris Shultz as anything I've ever written. He suggested this story a long time ago. Chris likes to pick out characters I haven't written and challenge me to do something with them, and this time he pushed me to use Lila, and to explore Gabrielle's current relationship with her family. He suggested a few possible scenes. And of course, he edited the finished product, which he likes a lot (I wonder why? g). So as always, Chris - no even more than always, my thanks to you. This wouldn't even exist without you.

And thanks Rebecca, too, for the encouragement on this one. I love people who say nice things about my stories.

Oh, and I know the title is about as unoriginal as they come. Sorry.

"So I promised my mother I would find Toris, and get him home, and then the three of us would spend a little family time together." Xena rubbed her growing belly and smiled at Lila. "I think my pregnancy has stirred her mothering instincts or something. So Gabrielle decided to come home for a while, too, and Joxer." Xena turned to the lanky man, standing quietly beside her, "Joxer, what are you going to do? I could be gone for a month or more."

He shrugged, his usual unflagging good humor strangely absent. "Go home, too, I guess," he answered, diffidently.

"Nonsense," Hecuba announced, coming out from the house, wiping her hands on her apron as she strode to stand between her two daughters. "Joxer will stay right here with us." She had spent enough time with the pleasant young man to know that the look in his eyes when his home was the topic of conversation was not longing, but instead misery. She wouldn't force a dog to go where he felt that unwelcome, let alone this likable, albeit awkward warrior. Besides, to her motherly eyes, he needed a little care and feeding. Perhaps her daughter and the Warrior Princess were made of tougher stuff, and managed better, but this boy was due a little TLC.

His eyes lit up at the suggestion, but one look at Gabrielle's face quenched the fire before it even took. Hecuba noticed the silent conversation, and gave her oldest a sharp gaze. Lila, however, was ecstatic at the suggestion. "Oh, yes, Joxer. Please stay with us - Daddy could use an extra pair of hands around the farm, and it would do you good to get a little rest from the trials and strains of the warrior business." The bard snorted, the sound becoming strangled when Xena's foot landed hard on hers, turning it into a choking cough.

From the looks on both her mother's and Xena's faces, Gabrielle knew she was a beaten woman. The only way she would ever get rid of Joxer would be to send him away herself, and both her stay at home and a long period afterwards would be pure Tartarus if she chose to do that. She sighed ungraciously, and managed to spit out, "Yeah, Joxer, why don't you stay here a little while?" She hoped he heard the accent on the word "little", but he didn't seem well versed in subtleties, so she doubted it.

Joxer looked around at the women's expectant faces. The only one he cared about, however, still wore a grim look. Even so, he needed to remember that other people besides Gabrielle had feelings, too, and they mattered as well. Her mother and sister seemed to truly want him to stay, and Xena also appeared to support the idea. The thought of returning home was about as welcome as the stomach flu, and made him nearly as ill. It took days, sometimes weeks, for him to recover his equilibrium after a stay with his family, even when no one was at the house but his mother. The memories there stung him deeply, and left him feeling like an empty shell of a man, good for as little as his father and brother Jett always told him he was. He could always simply wander for the time Xena was away, or go see Meg, but both those options were purposeless, and wouldn't really help anyone. He had let Meg know long ago that they had no future together, but he still saw her eyes light up whenever he came near, so he had finally stopped visiting her entirely. Joxer had stopped sleeping with her long before that, something she never really did understand, and he had given up trying to explain to her. That was a jar of worms he didn't need to reopen.

His choices seemed limited, and for once he was going to do whathe wanted, rather than what he knew Gabrielle wanted him to. "Thank you," he said, shyly. "I'd be pleased to stay. I'll work as much as you need me to, and I'll try to stay out of the way." Even the bard's eyes widened at the soft humility in his voice. She got the impression of a man who had been rescued from a fate worse than death. "I'll be glad to stay in the barn."

"Nonsense," Hecuba fussed at him, taking his arm and dragging him into the house. "We have a small room behind the kitchen. It's plain, but it's clean and warm, and most of all, drier than that nasty barn. Come, I'll show you." Her voice faded as she went through the door. Lila smiled widely at the other two women, and followed her mother and Joxer inside.

Before Gabrielle could open her mouth, Xena took her arm roughly. "You listen to me," she hissed at her friend. "Just because you can't deal with his feelings for you doesn't mean you have to be nasty to him. Just one time, think about how your life would be if you were abused and mistreated by your own family, and most of the other people you ever met. You don't have to fall all over him, but you could try being a littlenicefor once." She glared at the bard, then her face softened, and she pulled her smaller friend into a hug. "I'll miss you, but I'll misshimtoo. You're both special to me - try to get along." She ruffled the short blonde hair, then turned and swung up into the saddle. "I'll be back as soon as my mother decides she's had enough family bonding time, but remember, I've got to track my brother down first. I could be gone a while." With that, Argo cantered off, Gabrielle still a bit speechless.

"So, Joxer," Herodotus queried at the dinner table, "Have you ever milked a cow before?"

Swallowing his mouthful swiftly, the young man wiped his face on the back of his hand. "No sir, but I'm willing to learn." The older man laughed and slapped the uneasy recruit on the back, almost causing him to choke on the food he had just downed. Joxer didn't miss the sight of Gabrielle rolling her eyes in disgust, however. He withdrew a bit more.I promise, Gabby, you won't even need to know I'm here. I'll be sure to stay out of your way.

Lila couldn't help but notice the exchange between the two, although no words were spoken. She sighed sadly. For the remainder of the meal, Joxer nodded and spoke only when spoken to, picking at his food and excusing himself as soon as he could do so politely. When he disappeared into the darkness of the yard, Lila followed with her eyes, vowing to find him again when the dishes were done.

When the dishes were nearly finished, Lila asked permission to leave, receiving it quickly from her mother. After the younger girl left, Hecuba turned to her oldest daughter, fire in her eyes. "I never raised a child to be rude to company, Gabrielle. What is wrong with you?"

"Company? Oh, you mean Joxer. He's not company."

"Well, what is he then? You've never acted like that to a member of your family, and I would hope that's not how you treat your friends." Gabrielle stared dumbly at her mother. Joxer was, well, she wasn't sure what to call him, but he damn surewasn'tcompany. Savagely she wiped the last plate and shoved it at her mother, then turned on her heel and left the kitchen without a word.

Hecuba sighed. Life with Xena had changed her daughter almost beyond recognition. Not all of it was for the worse, but when had she become so hard and cold? The older woman put the last of the dishes away, and went looking for her husband. She needed his comforting stability right now.

"Joxer?" Lila called softly, "Are you out here?" She finally spotted him beside the well. He had abandoned his armor soon after Xena's departure, seeming to Lila as if he were hiding out from himself, and maybe her sister, by trying to be less conspicuous. Shelikedthe armor - it was cute on him. She dropped down beside him on the bench. "Hi."

He looked up, his eyes unreadable in the dark. "Hi." At least he didn't sound unhappy to see her. "Sorry I wasn't much company at dinner tonight. I guess I'm just tired from traveling." She reached over and patted his hand, resting there for a moment. The air was cool and she shivered, pulling her shawl closer around her.

The silence was awkward for a moment. "Look," she finally offered, "I know you don't feel about me the way I do about you. That's okay. But if you need to talk, I'd like it if you'd consider talking to me." He smiled, visible even in the dim light, and then stood, holding out his arm. She took it, and they waked inside together.

Gabrielle was staring out her window when the couple walked close by. She hadn't been trying to see what was going on in the yard, so it only made it more uncomfortable when they passed, Lila clinging to Joxer's arm and talking while he smiled sadly, their faces lit by the lamp in the bedroom window. The anger she was still nursing from her mother's comments curdled within her, turning to a little rock that settled uneasily in the pit of her stomach.

Joxer had always been an early riser, but even he was surprised when Herodotus banged on the door to his room while darkness still shrouded the farm. "Joxer," the older man called, "It's time you learned to milk a cow, boy."

The young man pulled on his trousers and vest, his body shivering in the cold morning air. Stripping the vest back off, he pulled his long-sleeved shirt out of his bag, pulling it over his head and topping it with the vest. When he stepped out of the room, Gabrielle's father handed him a mug of steaming liquid. "Tea," the older man offered, "It'll warm you inside, anyway." Joxer felt the heat travel to his stomach, and was grateful for the small gift. He received another when the farmer draped a warm suede jacket over his shoulders. "The weather hasn't warmed enough to go out like that," Herodotus mumbled gruffly. The wannabe warrior smiled and nodded in thanks.

They had been working for what felt like hours, and might well have been, by the time Lila came to the barn to summon the two for breakfast. As a warlord's son, Joxer had no idea how much work was involved in the simple care and feeding of farm animals. The sun had risen without him so much as noticing as he had milked the cow, gathered eggs, mucked out stalls (so far, his least favorite of the jobs) and spread hay. He was feeling muscles he never knew existed, and it was still early. After breakfast he knew there were pigs and sheep to tend to, as well as a need for firewood and some field preparation Herodotus had mentioned.

At the table, he bowed as a simple thanks to Demeter was offered for the food, and then dug in as if he hadn't eaten in days. Between mouthfuls, Joxer pestered the farmer with questions about the fields and the animals, determined to learn as much as he could in order to prove himself truly useful in return for their generous hospitality. He barely seemed to notice the sleepy bard, sitting across the table with eyes half closed, shoveling food in her mouth mechanically. Lila joined in the conversation with the occasional comment, and Gabrielle's slowly wakening brain registered the sense of togetherness being shared by her family and her friend.He seems far more comfortable here than I am, she realized. It disturbed her in a vague way.

After the meal, Joxer and Herodotus went outside to tackle the remaining chores, while Gabrielle helped her mother clear the table. Lila was preparing the eggs and milk to take them to the market, as she did on a daily basis, chattering cheerfully as she went about the task. "Isn't it wonderful having Joxer here, Mother? Usually the eggs aren't even gathered until after breakfast, and I'm one of the last to arrive for market. With his help, I'll be early today, and we'll have much better luck making good trades. Maybe I can barter for a nice piece of lamb or a few good cheeses, and we can have a special meal to celebrate his being here. Oh," the young woman added as an afterthought, "and Gabrielle, too." The bard frowned, noticed by her mother but not her sister, who was heading out the door. "I see Daddy has the wagon all set - with any luck, I'll be back to help with the noon meal. Bye!"

Hecuba walked over to her visiting daughter's side. "She didn't mean to ignore you, dear, but she is so very fond of that young man. We all like him, you know."

"I know, mother," Gabrielle sighed. "He really is a nice guy, I guess. He seems to fit in here pretty well."

"What is it you seem to have against him, dear?" her mother asked, reopening last night's discussion in a much gentler way. "He seems quite fond of you."

Gabrielle sighed, "I know, that's the problem." She realized that she didn't want to tell her mother about Joxer's confession of love for at least two reasons. First, she hadn't shared the story of Rome, and both her and Xena's deaths with her family, and she wasn't sure she ever would. It had been hard enough to explain Hope and the Destroyer. Secondly, the bard was afraid her mother would ask how she felt about it, and Gabrielle still honestly didn't know. She brushed her way past the topic. "He just follows me and Xena around like a lost dog, getting in the way."

Even as she said that, she knew it was a poor lie. He wasn't always in the way - lately, he'd been a great deal of help on a regular basis. He never told them it was he who had taken them down from the crosses, but Amarice had. He was the one who figured out the recipe for the black powder - even if hehadgotten them both arrested first. And Xena had explained to her best friend how she had found Joxer bravely standing in the middle of the minefield, smart enough to protect the villagers he was leading until help arrived. Xena seemed to appreciate him more each day. But it was easy for her - he didn't loveher. Well, notthatway. Gabrielle might have spent some of her time here at home working that out, but now that her mother had invited him to stay with the family, it was harder to look at objectively. Especially since her family was so crazy about him. Her whole family was just plain crazy - that was it.

Her mother seemed to recognize the lie as well. She eyed her daughter critically, and then backed away from the subject. Whatever was causing the tension between Gabrielle and Joxer, only the two of them could work it out.

Joxer was surprised at how much he was enjoying the hard work and long hours that keeping a farm running involved. They'd been at Gabrielle's for over a week, and he was beginning to feel as though he just about had this farming thing down pat. For one thing, all that was required was to learn a fairly simple routine, and then do it over, and over, and over, and over again. Thinking was optional, skill almost unnecessary. He had a strong back, which was all that was really needed. He dug the last of the liniment from the jar Hecuba had given him, rubbing it on one area in his back that he had stretched in a new way today. He barely needed the stuff anymore; his muscles had grown used to the activity, now. The first couple of days though, he could've bathed in the stuff, and it wouldn't have eased all the pains.

The new farmhand had managed, for the most part, to stay out of Gabrielle's way. He couldn't avoid her at meals, but as soon as he finished breakfast or lunch, he would hurry right back out to his work. After dinner, he would usually take a walk by the river. Sometimes Lila would join him. He knew that she was almost as cautious around him as he was around Gabrielle, yet at least he and Lila could talk to each other. He probably hadn't said six words, outside of "Pass the bread, please" to Gabby since they got here. He knew it had been unfair to impose himself on her time with her family, but he really had done his best to make it seem as if he weren't here.

Joxer had settled down in his room with plans to retire for the night, but his mind was troubled, and he decided fresh air would do him some good. He pulled on the suede jacket, and slipped through the kitchen to the outside.

Gabrielle sat on the porch, appreciating again the warm leather coat she had bought before the trip to Spamona. She snickered quietly - her new outfit was great for fighting, but it did lack a bit in the coverage department. As she relaxed though, she found her thoughts wandering again to Joxer. He had been quieter in the last week or so than he had ever been in all the years she had known him. The bard was actually getting used to having him around, and found she was not nearly as bothered by his presence as she'd originally expected to be. Sometimes, when she was outside during the day, she would hear him conversing with her father, the two men often laughing together, sometimes even engaging in friendly arguments. Her mother seemed to have dedicated herself to fattening him up, pushing second and even third helpings at the lanky warrior. Gabrielle was aware, although she would never share the information with her mother, that the man was not skinny, but covered with lean muscles. She wasn't about to explain how she had come to see Joxer naked to gather this knowledge. She smiled when she considered how much of her life she was willing to write into scrolls that all the world might see, but was unwilling to simply tell her parents.

Suddenly, the object of her contemplation passed by the corner of the house, heading down towards the river. He moved differently without the armor - not exactly silently, but less like a herd of baby oxen, certainly. She needed to talk to him - perhaps now would be a good time? Gabrielle stood to follow, not seeing her sister peering from the window behind her.

Joxer located his favorite big rock on the river's edge, and sat. This was his newfound contemplation site. He picked up a handful of pebbles and began skipping them towards the other shore. Hearing movement behind him, he subconsciously expected the scent of lilac to accompany it, signaling Lila was there. The low "Hi," in Gabrielle's voice startled him. She smiled. "Can I sit down?"

The tall man shrugged and scooted over, giving her lots of room to sit. It was her choice to follow him, he figured, and she was welcome to talk or not, as she wished. Joxer skipped another pebble. He had been out of sorts when he left the house, and his mood was quickly turning blacker. For days now, she'd ignored him, after making clear from the first that she didn't want him here. If she had something to say, let her say it.

"I guess I owe you an apology," she began, nervously. "I wasn't very nice when my mother invited you to stay with us."

"Un-huh," he grunted, tossing yet another pebble.Skip.skip.skip.

"Anyway, I just thought I would have a little time to spend with my family, and to think about what you had said to me." There - he hadn't made it easy, but she'd said it anyway.

"I said 'no strings' and I meant it! You don't have to think about it - you don't have to think about me, even. I've done my best to stay out of sight and not bother you. That's what you wanted, isn't it?" The last time he remembered being this mad at anyone, he had told Xena off about sticking her nose in his business after he had killed Kryton. This time, he was mad at himself. He should have never told her - it hadn't made things any better. He should have gone home and suffered through it. He should, he should. oh hell, he should have never been born. His chest felt tight, and he lashed out at the only available target, the one sitting right beside him. "I'd leave tomorrow, if you wanted me to, but your mother and father haven't had any time away from this place in years, so I told them I'd take care of things while they went off for a couple of days! Once they're back, maybe I' ll go. What do you care, anyway?" He got up awkwardly, throwing the rest of the handful of pebbles violently into the river, and storming off.

Gabrielle really wanted to be angry back. She even tried. It had been so hard to work up the nerve to apologize to him, and tell him she really was considering what he had said. But she supposed it was too little, too late. The really sad thing was, her reluctance to deal with him said far more about her then it did him, but he probably felt that it was just another slap in his face. She reached up, wiping the tears off of her cheeks. Why did he love her? He really did deserve better.

Lila sat in the empty front room in a spot where the light from the fire didn't reach her face. She had heard Joxer stomp angrily back to the house a little while ago, half expecting him to slam his door when he went in his room. But the sound never came, and she smiled a bit. Even when angry, he was considerate. Her parents had gone to bed early, excited about the little "vacation" and planning an early start tomorrow. He was probably worried he might wake them. She saw her sister approaching, moving slowly and uncertainly, her coat wrapped tight against the cold, but Lila couldn't tell if it was the cold inside or outside Gabrielle that she was fighting. She entered through the front door, oblivious to Lila's watching eyes, and went straight to their room. The younger woman sighed - the next few days could end up being pretty uncomfortable.

"Goodbye," Lila waved to her happy parents. "Don't worry about anything. Have fun."

Gabrielle pasted a smile on her face. "Bye. Enjoy yourselves."

Joxer had come out of the barn and stood quietly on the other side of the wagon. He smiled tightly as Herodotus called "You take good care of my girls, Joxer." As soon as they pulled out of the gate, he vanished back into the barn. Gabrielle followed him inside. He noticed that she was wearing an old faded work dress, and wondered why, but was still too uncomfortable with his own actions from the night before to say much.

"I used to gather the eggs every day. It was my job before I left home. I thought I could help by doing that while you milked the cows." He smiled hesitantly, and nodded. Without further discussion, she grabbed the basket and headed out to the coop. He pulled up the stool and set to the milking.

When she finished, she took the eggs inside and placed them on the kitchen table for Lila to take to market. Then she headed out to help spread the hay, since she noticed that Joxer had mucked out the stables first thing. She grinned crookedly - a wise action, doing the worst job first. Then it didn't haunt you the rest of the day. Passing the sty, she noticed he had also already slopped the pigs. He really was getting good at this stuff. The bard smiled as she considered this - he really had quite a number of skills himself. He was an excellent musician, a good cook, and now a capable farmer. Why was he always trying to be the one thing he really wasn't - a great warrior? She sighed and entered the barn. There was a time she had hated this place - Poteideia and all that went with it, this farm included. Now, it seemed pleasantly quiet and peaceful, and although she would never regret going with Xena, she wondered why it had been sourgentthat she leave just then. Perhaps everyone wanted something they didn't have at some time or another.

She stood quietly for a moment and watched Joxer milking the cows. He patted the heifer on the side and sang and cooed to her as he worked - just as her father always did. His voice was low and sweet - almost hypnotic. She found herself wanting to go over and run her fingers through his hair, as she had seen her mother do to Herodotus as he milked. Shaking herself, she went instead and tugged on a bale of hay, pulling it into the first stall. Working around the animals, she placed fresh bedding for each one, sweating from the exertion by the time she was done.

The barn was empty except for the animals. Peering out, she saw Joxer and her sister in intense conversation, and she approached the pair. Both looked at her when she walked up. "Hey, Joxer," she said in a cheery tone, "I wondered if you'd like my help weeding the winter vegetable beds later?"

He smiled at her guilelessly, his anger apparently forgotten. "Thanks, Gabby. I'll do it right after we get back from market."

We? she thought. "Market?" she said aloud.

"Joxer is worried about me having to carry everything myself since Mother and Father have the cart," Lila explained. "So he's coming with me to help me carry the milk and eggs." She smiled up at him, barely disguised worship in her eyes. "Isn't that thoughtful?"

The warm affectionate feeling she had experienced was gone. Instead, her insides were cold.So that's how it is - they didn't even ask me. Just assumed they would go together, alone."Yeah, he's a prince." She saw the hurt in Joxer's eyes, but she couldn't help it. She turned and walked into the house.

"Don't worry about her," Lila comforted him, "she gets like that sometimes."

"Yeah," he said gruffly, "I'm afraid I know."Usually around me - because of me.He loaded the milk onto the handcart while Lila picked up the basket of eggs, and he followed her to the market.

By the time Joxer and Lila returned, Gabrielle had changed back into her leather warrior outfit and once again withdrawn into her distant shell. Still, she watched them approach with a sinking feeling. They were laughing together over some shared private joke, and it occurred to her how long it had been since she had seen Joxer truly laugh. It really lit up his face, his bright eyes and wide smile transforming him. The bard watched as Joxer picked up Lila and tossed her into the handcart, over her laughing protests. He wheeled her past the muddy area near the pigsty, and to the front porch steps. Bowing with exaggerated courtesy, he held out his hand to her as she stepped onto the porch. He grinned jauntily, and rolled the small wagon to the barn to put it away.

Lila entered the kitchen a few minutes later, laughter still in her eyes. Gabrielle had begun to prepare the noon meal, and her sister moved easily to the pantry to help. "I'll pour the milk," Lila offered. "Have you got the bread out yet?"

"We're almost out of bread," Gabrielle said, finding comfort in the day-to-day tone of the conversation. "Can you bake this afternoon?"

"Sure, since you were going to help Joxer with the weeding, I'll be able to."

Gabrielle's stomach tightened. Why had she offered to weed with him earlier? Now she would have to beg off, in which case, she was sure Lila would want to help Joxer, leaving the Amazon alone to make bread, surely one of the jobs she hated the most. But if she held to her offer, she would have to be in close proximity to Joxer all afternoon, and her thoughts were all a tumble about him already. Seeing his easy friendship with her sister, and the way Lila looked at him, had stirred feelings she couldn't define inside her, and she didn't think watching him up close for several hours while he worked was going to help her figure anything out. Still, if it were between that and baking, well, she supposed she could just study the weeds and pretend he wasn't there.

The object of her contemplation entered then, causing her to hush her inner conversation as if he could somehow hear her thoughts. He went to the sink to wash, splashing the water down the front of his shirt as he poured it over his hands. Lila took a towel and wiped at the spots, her eyes glowing. Gabrielle tried to turn away, but his voice drew her back. "Look, Gabby, if you don't want to weed the beds this afternoon, it's okay. You helped a lot this morning already. I can do it myself."

For some reason his generosity irritated her. "I said I'd help, and I will," she snarled. "This ismyfamily's farm, you know, not yours. I can do my share around here." She slammed the mugs of milk she was carrying down on the table. Her sister glared at her, but the bard took refuge behind her indefensible anger and glared back. Lunch was a very quiet affair.

By dinnertime, Lila had teased and cajoled the lanky farmhand back to better spirits, but the afternoon in the fields with Gabrielle had been tense, at best. She had barely spoken, and seemed totally fascinated with the ground and its weeds, staring at both for long periods of time. He gave up any attempt at conversation after a few diffident responses, and just pretended he was alone. He couldn't help but sneak a few sidelong glances at her as she worked, however. Back in the faded dress, tugging at the recalcitrant plants, she barely looked like the powerful warrior bard who had progressed from being a mere sidekick to the equal of the Warrior Princess herself. He wondered, not for the first time, why he should even think himself worthy to love the incredible Amazon Queen, let alone hope she might love him back. Still, his heart ached for her, and he longed to take her in his arms and explain all he felt. But his last effort at that had been such a rousing success, he quickly abandoned even his fantasies of doing any such thing.

The day was warm and the work hard, but with both of them pulling weeds and not talking at all, they were finished in a couple of hours. Joxer saw Gabby slip away to the river, and figured she was going for a swim, to wash and cool off. He would do the same later. First, they needed more firewood.

While Joxer chopped wood, Lila watched stealthily from the kitchen. The bread was in the oven and she had cleaned up, so she was taking a well-earned rest, when she happened to peer out the door and see Joxer, shirtless in the heat, toiling at the chopping block. Her breath caught in her throat. She had little experience with men, even less with the sight of their bodies, but she knew this was an exceptional view. His muscles strained as he wielded the ax, and his skin glowed with perspiration. She knew there were stronger men, and probably those more attractive, but right now, she thought him the most beautiful sight she had ever seen. She fanned her face with her hand, and finally turned away. She would take him a drink - yes, that would be good. A cold drink. Perhaps she should pour a little on herself, as well.

Gabrielle came up the path from the river, having bathed and dressed again in her leathers. The water had been cold, this being the first warm day they had had in quite some time, but she felt that the icy water had helped clear her head a bit. Then she emerged from the last stand of trees, at last able to see the house although remaining hidden from view herself, and she stopped dead in her tracks. Some one had left a statue of a Greek god in their yard, sculpted of fine marble and holding an ax as if he were resting from recent labors. Then the light shifted and the statue moved to pick up another log, and she realized that had been Joxer she'd been staring at in awe. Her once reasonably clear head spun again, and she instinctively backed up a couple of steps.What is your problem, Gabrielle?she chastised herself.A guy says he loves you, and you start losing your head over every little thing he does. You can deal with this.She started forward again, but stopped when she saw her sister come out of the house carrying a water skin to the working man. The bard wasn't too far away, and she could read the expression on the younger woman's face. It was clear that her baby sister was a baby no longer, and that she liked what she saw very much. Gabrielle bit back a moan. Why had she let him stay here? This was all wrong.

After Joxer had bathed (By the gods, that water was cold!) and put on clean clothes, he returned to the house for the evening meal. Mostly thanks to Lila, dinner was not the silent event lunch had been, but Gabrielle still had little to say. He offered to help with the dishes, but both women protested, so he went for his usual after-dinner walk.

The sun was nearly all the way down, the sky just tinged with orange and crimson at the very horizon. The air was beginning to cool again as well, and he shivered slightly. Joxer was no great student of the human psyche, but he was more than aware that things had become even more tense between the three of them since Hecuba and Herodotus had left, and he wasn't sure why. Right after her parent's departure, Gabby had briefly acted human towards him again, but that passed quickly, leaving her even more hostile than she had originally been. If he only knew what he did to make her so angry, so often, maybe he could stop doing it. But he had a sneaking suspicion that it had to do with his loving her, and that was one thing he couldn't stop doing if he had to - he'd already tried.

The smell of lilac wafting on the breeze was his first warning that he had company. He turned and smiled his welcome as Lila approached. She sat beside him on his favorite rock, watching for a moment as he mindlessly broke the stick he was holding into little bits and threw the pieces in the river. She had noticed before - when something was on Joxer's mind, he needed to be doing something with his hands.

"Thanks for going to the market with me today. You were a lot of help, and it was nice having someone to talk to."

He smiled again. "I had fun."

She giggled. "So did I." Her expression grew more serious. "You're out here because of Gabrielle, aren't you?"

He worked hard at his blank expression. "What do you mean?"

Lila studied her hands, clasped in her lap. "You remember her birthday, when I wrote that letter to you?" When he didn't speak, she looked up, and saw him nodding, his face a bit apprehensive. "I still feel that way, you know." She heard him gulp, and she smiled sadly. "I can't see how anyone could help but love you. But she doesn't, does she? And that's all that matters to you, isn't it?"

"I-I-it, it's just, uh." He fell silent, thinking. "Yeah." He reached out and touched Lila's face. "Look, you're a really nice girl. You're pretty, and smart, and a lot of fun to be with. Maybe if I had met you first." She put her hand up, covering his on her face and looking into his tortured brown eyes. Without thinking, she stretched out her arms and pulled him to her. Her heart melted within her - her first kiss.

Gabrielle didn't want another blowup with Joxer, but she really needed to find out what his intentions towards Lila were. She was still her younger sister, and as such, Gabrielle's responsibility. Perhaps he had decided to move on, she thought, too sad at the idea to be irritated, and had chosen her sister as his new love. She steeled herself - the important thing was that he not take up with Lila on the rebound, and hurt her. But she couldn't will away the empty feeling that was inside her heart at the thought of Joxer not being in love with her anymore. Not that she wanted him to be - she just didn't think she wanted himnotto be.Now that made a lot of sense, Gabrielle, she chided herself. But the hollowness within her ached.

She figured he'd be on that big rock where she had found him the other night. As she approached, she heard voices - his and Lila's, it seemed. She crept closer quietly, using techniques Xena had taught her to move without a sound. She slid out from behind a tree, and almost cried out to see her sister in Joxer's arms, the two of them kissing. She managed to keep her silence and creep back away, although she really wanted to scream. The bard never felt the tears streaming down her cheeks.

For just a minute, it felt so good - to be held, to be kissed, to be loved. But Joxer knew this wasn't right, and he pushed the young woman away, trying to be gentle. "Lila," he murmured, "I can't."

She rested her head on his chest, and he held her a moment longer, almost in apology. "I know," she said softly, sitting back again. "I'm sorry. I just had to know how it would feel." She smiled. "It felt wonderful. I know it will never happen again," she continued, cutting off his expected protest. "I never dared to hope it would happen even once, so that's okay. I admire you, being able to spend all that time with Gabrielle, and never once pushing yourself on her. Here I couldn't go much more than a week without making a move on you." She shrugged and laughed humorlessly. "She always has done everything better than I did. Maybe once she realizes what a prize you are, she'll love you better, too." Her bitter tone softened. "For your sake, I hope so. And I hope it happens soon." She stood, and touched his shoulder lightly. "I'm going back to the house. Iamsorry."

He smiled a melancholy smile. "Me, too."

Gabrielle's mind whirled. She thought she had been confused before - that was child's play compared to how she felt now. Joxer andher sister? Sure, she had considered the possibility, but that in no way prepared her to actually see them together. Was he doing this just to get even with her? But he had told her "no strings" and she supposed that applied to him, too. Yet he had also implied that these feelings of his had gone on for a long time - he said he couldn't watch her dieagainwithout telling her. That hinted that this could go back at least as far as the thing with Hope. How could he wait so long just to tell her, then once he had, change his mind so quickly? Should she even care? It didn't matter - she did. She cared enormously. Perhaps the only way for a man to love her and stay alive was for her to kill his love instead. She expected him to wait forever for her, didn't she? Did she? Her expression was grim and her eyes narrow when Lila walked into the room.

"I guess the body doesn't even have to be cold before the vultures move in, huh,sister?" she sneered at the girl.

Lila stepped back as if slapped at the venom in Gabrielle's voice. "What on earth are you talking about?"

"You - out there kissing Joxer while I sit here thinking he cares for me. Or maybe he was lying to me all the while. Is that it?" Gabrielle realized that in her anger and confusion, she really had absolutely no idea what she was saying. Words were flying out of her mouth as fast as she opened it, and she wasn't even sure if she was expressing complete thoughts.

Lila's face, however, wore an expression of complete comprehension. "Oh, sister," she responded, echoing the older woman's acid tone, "Now that he might want someone else, you've discovered that youwereinterested, huh? You thought he'd always be there, and you could have all the time in the world to make up your mind, didn't you?" Gabrielle's stomach turned as she heard her own thoughts come out of her sister's mouth. "He deserves someone who loves him the way he is, because the way he is, is just wonderful. But then, you're too wrapped up in yourself and your precious Xena to ever see that someone's feelings besides your own might matter. You know, Ilike Xena, but I don't like what you've become since you met her. You used to be nice to people." Lila grabbed up her blanket and her pillow, and stormed off to sleep in her parent's bed. There was no way she would tell Gabrielle that Joxer loved her as much as he ever had. She didn't deserve that kind of assurance.

The first thing Hecuba noticed when she and her husband returned to their farm was the chilliness between all three of the young people. Temperatures were warming everywhere else in Greece, but things were truly frigid in this little part of the land. Lila was as deeply sad as her mother had ever seen her, Gabrielle seemed angry at everyone and everything, and Joxer looked as if he would run any time either of the women approached him. Whatever had happened in their short absence had not improved the mild tension she had noticed when they left a few days ago, but rather amplified it to the point of overwhelming.

"Hello, sweetheart," she greeted her youngest child.

The halfhearted smile she received in return almost made her cry. "Hi, Momma. Did you have a nice time?" She was certain the girl couldn't have cared less, and that was confirmed when she never noticed her mother hadn't answered her.

"Joxer," Herodotus blustered, "You keep everything under control while I was gone?"

Yeah, sure, the morose man thought,I broke the heart of one of your daughters, and hardened the heart of the other. I did just great."Uh-huh."

"Gabrielle, sweetie, have you heard anything from Xena yet?"

"NO!" Hecuba thought the door might crack down the middle, her daughter slammed it so hard.

The older couple met in the kitchen. "This is not good," Herodotus stated, with a stunning grasp of the obvious. "That boy looks like someone cut his heart out."

"Well, from the behavior of both of our girls, I'd be hard pressed to say which one of them is guilty, but itwasdefinitely one of them," his wife responded.

"What do we do now?" the bewildered man inquired.

"We wait."

The rock. Somehow she knew she'd find him on that damned rock. He had a piece of rope in his hand, and was working it in and out of knots. She wondered why her insides felt like that rope right now. So far, she'd managed to screw every communication with him up, so she wasn't sure why she was trying again, but she knew she had to. "Joxer?"

His shock was evident. "Gabb - Gabrielle?"

Oh, gods, he was afraid of her. She smiled uncertainly. "Gabby is fine, really." He relaxed only the slightest bit, and she sat beside him, without being invited. "We need to talk."

His expression grew grim. "We don't do that very well," he offered.

"I know. I think that might be my fault." He nodded, and she felt tears spring to her eyes, which she forced back and went on. "I'm sorry I've been so mean to you."

The lanky man stopped her. "We've already had this conversation."

"Actually, a number of times over the last few years," the bard admitted. "You bring out something in me I don't deal with very well, so I attack in defense. I only recently realized that this was my problem, not yours. Real recently. Like when I realized that I'd pushed you into my sister's more than willing arms by not responding when you told me you loved me, and then getting mad at you when I got confused about how I felt."

"Gabby." he began, but she pushed on.

"I know Lila could make you very happy. She's a sweet girl, and she cares for you very much. I just want to make sure you aren't getting involved with her as a reaction to not getting an answer from me, because that would hurt her. And, as much as I've been irritated at her lately, sheismy sister. I don't want to see her hurt." This was such a calm, rational statement - why was she crying? She knew, of course, that she was crying because she had finally decided, and in her inimitable fashion, she was too late.

"Gabby," Joxer tried again, this time to be interrupted by a different voice.

"Joxer didn't kiss me, Gabrielle, I kissed him. He doesn't love me." Lila's voice was gentle, but sad.

"I really dolikeyou a lot," he offered hopefully. "And I do know just how you feel." He looked over at Gabrielle and then back at Lila. "If I knew how, I wouldn't have put you through that for the world."

She put her hand on his arm. "I know. It's not your fault." The younger girl looked at her sister. "I love you, too, you know. But sometimes you are so stupid, I want to scream."

Gabrielle looked from one to the other. "So you're not. You don't? He.?" she finished up looking in those incredible brown eyes, which seemed to be following the exact train of her unfinished thoughts. "You still?"

He smiled gently and wiped her face. "I still do," he assured her.

Lila watched as Joxer put his arm around her sister, who relaxed against him. They sat there together on the big rock in comfortable silence. The younger girl decided it would be a good time for her to leave.

She found her mother in the kitchen. Studying Lila's face, she saw a change. "So I take it Joxer made his decision?" Hecuba asked, casually.

"Joxer made his decision a long time ago," she shrugged. "Gabrielle finally made hers."

Hecuba wrapped her arms around her daughter's waist from behind, resting her head on the girl's shoulder. "You okay?"

She leaned back into her mother's warm embrace. "Two people I love are happy. Why shouldn't I be?"

Her mother released her hold, and turned the girl around to face her. Touching the first of the tears on her daughter's face, she pulled her into an enveloping hug, patting her on the back as she wept.

"So anyway, now mom thinks that Toris should move back home and take over the inn, because she's feeling old."

"Your mother is anything but old, Xena," Gabrielle laughed.

"You know that, I know that, and she even knows that, but she's hoping Toris doesn't," the warrior woman chuckled. She scratched Argo under the chin. "So, are you all ready to go?" she asked her partner.

Gabrielle smiled. "Joxer is getting our bags and my horse, and I'm sure my father will have a word or two for him before we leave."

Xena studied the bard's face. "So, having him stay here with you wasn't so bad after all?"

The blonde woman's smile grew a bit distant. "No, it wasn't so bad after all."

Lila took her hand. "Sort of an eye-opening experience, huh, Gabrielle?" The older girl squeezed her sister's hand affectionately.

"Yeah," the bard answered, "A real education." She faced her sister head on. "You sure you're going to be okay?" The other woman nodded.

Two men emerged from the barn with a large dark horse. "And you make sure you come and visit regularly," the older one was telling the younger. "Can't have you forgetting how things are done around here - this could all end up being yours someday."

Xena bent over and whispered to Gabrielle, "Sounds like it went very well."

The bard was staring at her father. "Daddy!"

"Well, I can hope, can't I?" He grinned at the young man, then at his now smiling daughter.

"We'll miss you both," Hecuba said coming up and taking her husband's arm. "Maybe you could stay with us, too, next time," she smiled at Xena. Putting her arms out, she swept her oldest child into a hug. Sending the girl on to her father for the same treatment, the older woman then pulled Joxer over and embraced him as well. Whispering in his ear, she said "I hope you think of this as your home, too, from now on." He hugged her back eagerly, and nodded.

Herodotus slapped the young man on the back. "Make sure they don't work you too hard, boy."

His wife snickered. "Like you didn't? He'll never want to come back here, the way you drove him." The two men clasped arms, and shook.

Gabrielle looked up in time to see the back end of her sister going through the door to the house. She started off, but her mother caught her arm. "Let her go, dear. She needs to work through this on her own. Just give her some time." The bard caught Joxer's sad eyes, and nodded. Another reminder that this was not a perfect world.

Xena swung up onto Argo's back. She lifted one eyebrow to her friends. "You coming?"

Joxer tried to hand Gabrielle the reigns, but she wouldn't take them. "You lead him." She smiled significantly at the lanky warrior, dressed again in his mismatched armor. "I want to walk."

As they headed down the path, following the Warrior Princess, the petite blonde reached out carefully and took the hand of the tall man beside her. Back in the farmyard, Hecuba smiled.