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DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and all of their friends and enemies are the property of MCA/Universal Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended. All other characters and the story depicted here are from my deranged mind.
TIMELINE: The events in this story take place sometime between "A Necessary Evil" and "Sacrifice 1 & 2" with one less body falling in the lava. (And definitely before TPTB killed our favorite sidekicks.)
VIOLENCE: Not too much since this is my first effort at a story. It is a Xena story with Callisto, eventually, so who knows.
DEDICATION: This story is dedicated to all the bards whose stories I read after moving to a different state and being jobless for a month and a half. Thanks for the memories. I wish to express thanks specifically to Maggie for depicting humor, to Cat for depicting tenderness and compassion, to Onora for all her help in starting J, and to Susan for her support and friendship. Most importantly, thanks to my husband for those "unsolicited" logic and plausibility reviews and for still waking up next to me after those long nights of creating and typing.
Comments and suggestions are welcomed and greatly appreciated.
Reference to the story "Berries" by Cat is used with permission.
He had been watching the camp for quite some time. The villagers had said the warlord had ravaged a smaller village two days earlier and were frightened that they were next. It was rumored that the Warrior Princess was in the area and the elders had sent messengers in search of her for assistance. Seeing his chance to help he volunteered to scout the situation out and report back while they sought Xena. The camp had not been easy to spot and he took pride in even finding it. Two shelters protruded from the base of the hill but due to the dense foliage they could not be spotted unless you were virtually on top of them. The truth was, he found them by sheer accident. He had been taking a drink from the river when he heard voices close by. Following cautiously he was led to the hideaway and he took a position that afforded him a birds eye view of the entire camp. There were ten men all together from what he could see. Four remained in camp that morning while the remaining six left, presumably to pillage nearby towns. Suddenly he saw two men rushing to enter the first shelter. Moments passed slowly as he tried his best to think what might be happening. What he saw next made him lose his grip and nearly fall from his perch. How can this be? Shes dead! Oh no, Ive got to find them. Ive got to tell them. He waited until she entered the second shelter and all was quiet before he shimmied down the tree. His heart was pounding so hard he could feel it in his ears. No time, he had to find them quickly.
Xena drew the sharpening stone along the edge of the blade as she stared vacantly at the embers still burning in the fire pit. She had checked and rechecked Argos bridle and saddle and needed something...anything to occupy her time. Waiting was always the worst. During her warlord days she often participated in sparring matches to relieve some of the stress and tension. How she wished she could beat something now, but she knew all of their energy would be needed to defeat Callisto and rescue Gabrielle safely. Will she ever forgive me for not telling her that Callisto was alive? Have I destroyed everything weve fought so hard to build? I know shell leave me...who wouldnt? So captured was Xena in her thoughts that she didnt notice the arrival of the God of War.
"Nice of you to join us again Ares," Hercules said as he stepped to take a position between the God of War and Xena.
"My agreement is with Xena, not you brother, so dont interfere," Ares replied, tightening his grip on the hilt of his sheathed sword. Xena made eye contact with Hercules and he arched his eyebrow ever so slightly to acknowledge her. He would allow Xena some space in dealing with Ares but only so much.
Everyone took a seat around the fire except Ares. Power was a card he liked to play especially when he knew he was evenly matched. Ares stepped forward and began in a commanding voice, "Xena will take Callisto out and get the dagger, you two will handle any of her men that get in the way and Ill free your little friend."
"Dont break a sweat Ares," Iolaus whispered to Hercules sitting beside him.
Xena stiffened her back and met the dark brown eyes of her former mentor. "I wont kill Callisto. Well have to find another way." Xena knew it would be so easy to let the anger take control, to slip back into the brutal and heartless warrior she once was. Nightmares of letting Callisto die in the quicksand still haunted her attempts at sleep. She would awaken from them only to find moist, mist-green eyes keeping silent vigil over her. She had asked Gabrielle how often these incidents occurred and the bard had replied, "Not very often." Xena knew Gabrielle was lying but never pressed the issue. What would be the point? How could you be angry with someone who cared about you and loved you?
"Ive got an idea that might work but well need the help of three other gods," Hercules offered as he looked around and met the gazes of his companions.
"Great, just what we needed, another family reunion," Iolaus remarked under his breath.
Hercules cut his eyes at Iolaus but continued. "If we can make her attempt to kill either Ares or myself then the Tribunal can arrest her and banish her to Tartarus for eternity. Ares, do you think you can get the Tribunals cooperation?"
Ares met Hercules question with a cold, dark stare. Who are you to tell me what to do? Hercules retaliated with a glare of his own that said, Go ahead, try your luck. The face-off continued until Ares nodded his head only a fraction to indicate Hercules had won this battle, but the war was not over. No it was far from being over. "She hasnt exactly been making friends around Olympus," the God of War replied. "Youre going to use the same scheme that Strife and Discord tried to use on me arent you?"
"Basically, thats the plan," Hercules confirmed. "Why dont you speak to the Tribunal while Iolaus and I explain everything to Xena. We dont have much time if we want to get the jump on Callisto." The God of War shimmered out of view as Hercules took a seat beside Xena and began to relate the story from so long ago. "Its Zeus protection order, no god can kill another god. Neither of us want to kill Callisto so Ill deal with her while you and Iolaus free Gabrielle."
"No! I wont have you fighting MY battles. This is between Callisto and me." Xena appreciated what Hercules was trying to do but some atonement was hers alone to pay.
"You and Iolaus must help Gabrielle. I know Ares doesnt give in to someones plan without having a scheme of his own. Ares would like nothing better than to have Gabrielle permanently out of my life."
Seeing the frustration between his two friends and knowing neither would give in, Iolaus decided to break the stalemate. "Callisto has to go after Ares or Herc for this plan to work and I dont think we can trust Ares to be the bait.
Xena tensed her jaw and studied a focal point somewhere in the distance. "Then we will have to trust him to help Iolaus free Gabrielle." Trust Ares, what a staggering thought, Xena thought to herself. Faced with no real choice Xena nodded her head in agreement. "No matter what else happens Gabrielles safety is the important thing. Dont worry about me." Xenas eyes held the gaze of both of her friends. Failure was not an option.
"Xena, why didnt you tell me?" The words kept falling from her lips as she squeezed her arms and knees against her chest. She had cried herself into an exhaustive sleep only to be awakened by Callistos voice and those fateful words, "Thatll do." Thats all Perdicas meant. Thats all she meant. They were merely pawns in a game of revenge. Who else would have to die because of Xenas past? Gabrielles eyes closed tightly as her mind formed the questions she didnt want to hear...didnt want to answer. Can I continue on this path? How much longer before I take a life? Could I kill to protect someone? Could I kill to save Xena? Please, somebody knock me out so I cant think...so I cant feel. PLEEEAASSEE!!!!
The bolt on the door was thrown back and light broke the darkness of the cell. Callisto, silhouetted in the doorway, stepped through and knelt beside the bard. "Prayers arent going to help you Gabrielle. Theres no one that can help you this time." Callisto took a wicked pleasure in robbing her victims of their hope and spirit. Most experienced death quickly and summarily but not Xena. No, Xena would suffer just like she had. She would destroy all that Xena loved and she would begin with Gabrielle. The scene played over and over in her mind...Callisto held the sword tip against the soft tissue of the warriors cheek. "You fight with your heart. That gives me advantage over you. Ive longed to see you wailing over the body of your friend." A grin of malignant pleasure formed on her lips as she envisioned her greatest triumph. Nothing could stop her.
Gabrielle looked up at her tormentor. "Why dont you die?!" The words came so coldly from her lips that she wasnt certain she had spoken them aloud. The sting of a hard slap across her face and the taste of blood in her mouth brought her mind into focus. Her eyes glistened as she fought to keep her emotions in check. She refused to give Callisto the satisfaction. Gabrielle rubbed the back of her hand across the corner of her mouth, staring at the blood for a moment before looking back into the gloating brown eyes. Something deep inside her snapped and the volcano of anger and grief she thought was so concealed erupted on its creator. Thats it, no more! You will pay this time Callisto or I will die trying!
The move was so quick and unexpected that Callisto lost her balance as the bard threw her entire weight into the blow. Gabrielle wrestled herself to an upright position astride Callisto and landed a solid punch across the jaw. Though stunned momentarily Callisto recovered and grabbed the bards arms. She brought her right knee up against the bards ribs and with a twisting motion rolled to the left. Gabrielle did her best to compensate but unfortunately found herself on her back and pinned to the ground. Callisto grabbed Gabrielle by the throat and pressed her weight against the bards fragile windpipe. Emerald green eyes opened wide as she fought for every breath her body took. Her vision was fading to black from lack of oxygen when she felt the pressure released from her throat. The face hovering above her slowly came into focus as she took deep, painful breaths. Just do it and get it over! Gabrielle thought to herself.
Using the bards chest and arms for leverage, Callisto pushed herself up and into a standing position. "Humgh," came an audible groan as the air was forced from Gabrielles lungs. "No Gabrielle, I wont kill you now. That would be too easy. I need you alive for the party tomorrow." Callisto didnt want to spoil her fun with Xena.
The bard still lay on the floor with her hands on her chest, unable to move, as her tormentor left the cell. Gabrielle had never felt such pain. She couldnt breath in or out. In fact, she wasnt sure she would ever breathe again. I dont want to die like this. Please just let me breathe. Callisto, this isnt over! She rolled onto her side in hopes it would ease the pressure on her lungs and she could take a breath again but it only made the pain worse. Please. Xena, where are you. Why arent you here? Please help me. Xena!
Iolaus volunteered to hunt for their dinner but Xena insisted on going instead. Realizing the warrior needed some space Iolaus graciously conceded and left to gather more firewood. Hercules was alone when the God of War returned.
Ares glanced around the campsite then let his eyes rest on those of his step-brother. "Cant keep anyone around can you bro?" The spiteful remark directed at Hercules family was not lost on the demi-god. Hercules had to swallow a lot of guff from bitter gods and goddesses due to Zeus indiscretions but Hera had no right to kill his family and Ares equally had no right to flaunt it in his face. When did the child become responsible for the actions of the parent? Hercules squeezed his hands together in an effort to control his anger. "Dont start with me Ares. Were here on a mission and that is to capture Callisto, get the dagger, and free Gabrielle."
"You know me, anything for family," Ares replied sarcastically.
Hercules stood face to face with the God of War and kept his words low and terse. "Funny thing about families...you dont get to choose them."
Ares was about to respond when Xena entered the camp carrying dinner. Iolaus arrived shortly behind her and the two exchanged a silent glance. They didnt know what had transpired during their absence but from the looks of things, it wasnt good. "Are we interrupting anything?" Xena asked as she dropped the carcasses on the stones outlining the fire pit.
"We were just discussing some old business," Hercules said as he reached for the rabbits to skewer them for cooking. He knew they werent buying it but he didnt want to discuss the subject any further. Thankfully, Xena and Iolaus didnt press for more.
The foursome gathered around the fire with Hercules cooking while Xena led in the finalizing of their strategy. Ares stood off to Xenas right taking pride in the Warrior Princess skill and power to command. You will be mine again, Xena. Thats a promise.
Having finished relating the plans and knowing she needed to speak without Ares present Xena turned and addressed the God of War. "Ares, since youre the only one who knows where Callisto is you should go and scout the area one last time."
"Maybe Ill check on your little friend while Im at it," Ares said with a malicious glint in his eyes. "Just be ready to go when I get back." The God of War dipped his head in a subtle salute and shimmered out of view.
Xena paused for a moment as she waited to make certain Ares had left. "Good. You can come out now, Joxer," Xena said as she rose and allowed Joxer to take her seat. Hercules and Iolaus looked to Xena in confusion. "Gentlemen, I propose a slight change to our plan. Thanks to a very brave man we now have the advantage we need." Xena gave Joxer a pat on the back as she spoke the words. The quartet huddled together and listened as Xena quickly laid out the new scenario. "Any questions?"
"No," was the unison reply.
Ares was more that happy to leave the little commune of do-gooders. He was just going along for appearance sake after all. They could make all the plans they wanted but it wouldnt work because he, the God of War, had control of the situation. Who do those fools think they are?
Though she couldnt see anything Gabrielle became acutely aware of a presence in the cell. She couldnt tell what or who it might be but she suddenly had a nauseous feeling in the pit of her stomach and that wasnt a good sign. "Hello, is anyone there? Hello?" Gabrielle strained her eyes and ears for any hint but it was to no avail. She couldnt see her own body in the darkness, why would she be able to see another?
Looks like you had a close encounter of the Callisto kind. You put up a fight, Ill give you that, but youll be gone soon and Ill have Xena back where she belongs. Ares left the cell as stealthily as he had entered and the sickening feeling in Gabrielles stomach eased.
Callisto was sitting quietly on a stool, staring into the pit, captivated by the flames as they flickered along the log. "Its about time. Ive been waiting for you."
"What do you mean...waiting for me?" Ares asked in surprise.
"Well, Ive got the two things you want most in this world. The Hinds Blood Dagger...AND... the key to Xenas soul." She loved the deliciousness of the situation.
"Yes, I know. Thats exactly why Im here. I would like to make a deal with you."
Callisto looked at Ares for a long moment before speaking. "What would you have that could possibly interest me?"
"POWER and POSITION," Ares said as he emphasized each word. "You may be a god but no one on Olympus gives a hoot what you say or do. I can change that. You and I could do great things together. We could control all the world if we set our minds to it."
Callisto was listening but she wasnt convinced, at least not yet. "What about Xena, I thought she was your Chosen?"
Ares knew he was getting to her. Now he would move in for the kill. "Xena had her chances to come back to me and she chose to do good instead. I have no need for her now." Of course if she ever changes her mind...
"And what about Zeus?" There would be no room for chance even if she had to take matters into her own hands.
"With the dagger and Zeus out of the way no one would dare go up against us." Ares stood directly over Callisto and gazed seductively into her eyes.
"Youre awfully cocky with this US business."
"What can I say, minds that think alike..." Callistos lips covered Ares mouth before he could finish his sentence. The kisses were hot with lust and passion as they gave themselves over to desire.
"And the irritating blonde?" Callisto managed between breaths.
"Do what you will."
"Good, I dont like to be disappointed."
"Neither do I."
They had made excellent time and arrived at Callistos camp just under the cover of darkness. The camp was quiet but Xena was not taking any chances. She told everyone to stay put until she scouted the area. Within a quarter candlemark she was back and she nodded to Iolaus and Joxer to take their position by the first building. She and Hercules would take the second. It was now or never.
Iolaus moved silently into position behind the guard and threw a backhanded chop at the base of the guards neck. The guard slumped unconscious to the ground. Joxer came up quickly pulling the guard behind a bush and then took a position as lookout. Iolaus crept inside the building and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. The cell was actually a large cavern hewed out of the mountainside. With only one way in or out it was ideal for keeping a prisoner. He threw the bolt and slowly opened the heavy door. "Gabrielle?" he whispered. "Gabrielle? Are you here?"
"I...Iolaus?" came the faint reply.
"Yes Gabrielle, its me. I cant see you but keep talking and Ill find you." Iolaus waved his arms out in front of him like a blind man following the sound of the bards voice until he made contact. He clutched her to his chest so tightly that he thought she would break. He could feel the shuttering of Gabrielles body as her emotions overwhelmed her. "Its okay, Ive got you. Are you hurt anywhere? Can you walk?"
"Wheres Xena? Is she okay?" Gabrielle demanded.
"Dont worry about Xena. Shes with Herc. Lets just get you out of this place."
"WEVE GOT COMPANY!!" Joxer sounded from the front door.
"CALLISTO, THEYRE TAKING THE PRISONER!!!!" yelled the guard as he barged into the second building.
"What?! Whos taking my prisoner?" Callisto demanded as she disengaged herself from the God of War.
"We are," Hercules and Xena said as they stepped into the room. "Thanks Ares. You did a good job of keeping her occupied," Hercules acknowledged with a grin.
"You...YOU were part of this?" Callisto spat as her eyes blazed with fury.
"No, no. That wasnt the plan."
"Auww!!!" Callisto screamed as she pulled the Hinds Blood Dagger from its sheath and prepared to strike Ares.
A sudden flash lit the room and its occupants and in that instant Callisto was gone.
Iolaus and Gabrielle could hear the sounds of the fighting as they exited the building and Iolaus was surprised to see Joxer still up and actually pressing his opponent.
"Huh, ha...thought you were fighting an amateur didnt you? Well, Im Joxer the Mighty and I shall defeat you." It was to Joxers credit that he had the heart and desire to be a warrior like his friends but unfortunately his fighting skills left much to be desired. Somehow, though Iolaus couldnt fathom how, Joxer had continued to dodge and parry with his opponent until he had him in a vulnerable position with his back towards the building. I could use your help anytime now Iolaus, Joxer thought to himself.
"Fat chance, PIPSQUEAK!" the guard taunted.
"I think my friend behind you has something to say about that," Joxer said as he looked over the mans shoulder at Iolaus.
The man turned and was face to face with Iolaus. "His name is Joxer, NOT pipsqueak." The last thing the man saw before stars was Iolaus fist coming straight at his face. "He needed a nap anyway," Iolaus joked as he patted Joxer on the back.
Both men turned and rushed back to the building where Gabrielle was leaning against the doorframe. They took a supportive position under each of the bards arms and guided her away from the camp.
"I can walk you know. Im not helpless," Gabrielle said as reminder.
"They were given strict orders," came a warm, velvety voice from behind.
"Xena!" Gabrielle shrieked as she turned toward her friend.
Xena was at Gabrielles side before the bard could speak another word. They stood silently embracing one another for what seemed an eternity. Xena couldnt tell who was trembling more, herself or Gabrielle, but it just made her hold on all the more. Tears fell unbidden now as relief overwhelmed the two women. So many thoughts and emotions flowed through their minds as they held each other for those few precious moments.
Xena had never been one for displaying her emotions in public but she didnt care at this point. All that was important was that Gabrielle was alive and safe. Who cared about the rest of the world?
"Huh humm...Xena, we need to get out of here," Hercules whispered though he understood and didnt want to interrupt. Gabrielle loosened her grip around the warriors waist and grabbed an arm instead.
"Wheres Callisto? Im not leaving until I find out for certain she is dead," Gabrielle said as she looked from Xena to Hercules for an answer. "Im not going to have that woman haunting us for the rest of our lives."
"Some things are out of our control Gabrielle. We may have to trust that the gods will do as theyve promised," Hercules offered though he knew it wouldnt satisfy Gabrielles curiosity.
"What are you talking about? Xena, what is he saying?" Gabrielle asked in total confusion.
"Callisto isnt dead. The Tribunal has exiled her to Tartarus for eternity." Xena knew this was not what Gabrielle wanted to hear. Callisto had an uncanny ability to resurface when least expected. Unfortunately those were the facts and there was nothing they could do about them now. Xena did a quick inventory of the bards wounds and decided that none were serious enough to warrant immediate attention. "Ill explain everything to you later but right now we need to get out of here."
"Where is Ares?" Joxer asked, finally noticing the missing god.
"Ares left as soon as the Tribunal took Callisto. He doesnt like to play when things dont go his way. I dont think we will be seeing him for awhile," Hercules answered with a smile on his face.
Xena knew there would be questions from the bard about Callisto and Ares and she would try to answer them as honestly and openly as possible. She just hoped, for their sakes, that Gabrielle would listen and evaluate with her head, not just her heart.
Despite Gabrielles protests, Xena insisted on the bard riding Argo during the journey back to camp. She was not taking any further chances and wanted Gabrielle to conserve all the energy she could for healing. It wasnt so much the physical wounds the bard had suffered that concerned the warrior but the spiritual ones. The results of the physical assaults were obvious. The bruise to her right cheek and the cut on her lip would heal without any scarring. Even the ugly discoloration and whelps on the bards throat where Callisto had tried to strangle her would fade within a week or so. No, it wasnt the visible wounds that frightened Xena. It was the wounds of the heart and mind that the bard would bury deep inside until they gorged on her soul like parasites consuming their host.
Gabrielle didnt know when she had dozed off but she awoke to find herself resting against Xenas back. From the rocking motion and the slight dizziness that shot through her head she knew they were still on Argo.
"Nice of you to join us again," Xena said softly as she loosened her grip on the bards arm.
"How much further?"
"Were coming into the clearing now. You have such amazing timing." Xena teased with a playful smirk.
Gabrielle responded with a grin of her own. "Its a gift."
"I dont think we have to worry about any of Callistos men coming after us," Hercules said as his eyes scanned the area. "As soon as the others return and hear that she is gone Im sure they will run for the hills. Men like that dont stay around once their leader is defeated." Hercules had seen this fact proven time and time again. It was like a bully in the play yard, once you stood up to him the others fell back into the fringe.
"I hope youre right," Xena said as she left to see to the cuts and bruises on Gabrielle. Xena grabbed the medicine bag from Argos saddle and walked over to the bedrolls where Gabrielle was currently resting. She dropped the bag and took a seat beside the bard. Gently she reached up and turned Gabrielles face toward her allowing the glow from the fire to cast light on the injuries. Daylight would have been better but she didnt want Gabrielle to be in any more pain or discomfort than necessary. She had already instructed Iolaus to heat some water for the medicinal herb she used as a painkiller. "Looks like youll be eating soft foods for a day or two until the soreness goes away. Does it hurt very much?" Xena asked as she prepared the soothing balm.
"Im not very hungry," Gabrielle replied as she flinched from the pressure of Xenas touch on her tender skin.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Xena asked as she continued with her ministrations. Xena gently applied the salve to the reddened whelps on the bards throat. Gabrielle closed her eyes and moaned softly at the relief that the salve gave. Xenas hand stopped suddenly as she saw the bard wince. "Im sorry, I didnt mean to hurt you." Oh how profound those word were. How she wished Gabrielle could truly understand that she had never intended to hurt her. She was only trying to protect her the best way she knew. Maybe in time youll forgive me and we can go on. Time...please, just give us time.
Please, dont do this. Dont shut me out. I know youre hurting and I know that Im to blame for most of it but please dont build this wall between us.
"Xena, I know you want me to tell you everything but I just cant do it right now. Things have changed...Ive changed. Im not the person you knew two days ago. I felt so much hatred for all she put us through and I gave into it. Have I become like you? Gabrielle lifted her head and looked into the face of her closest friend. And what about us, Xena? Why did you lie to me? Where were you? All those strangers we save, time and again, and where were you when I needed you?
Xena couldnt read the thoughts that were running through her friends mind but she could see the pain in the mist-green eyes and knew they would not find any answers tonight.
"Please, just stay with me, dont leave me," Gabrielle said in a gentle plea. She just wanted to go home. Back to that place of safety where refuge is sought when life wields its crushing blows against the mind and soul. For most people it was the home in which they were reared or the actual house in which they currently lived. Gabrielle had come across her home by an act of fate. It was heavily fortified with cold walls that had been in place for numerous years. But Gabrielle saw things in this home that the casual on-looker could not. She admired the strength of the foundation and its ability to protect when all the outside forces waged war against it. Even Gabrielle had to fight her way to the warmth that lay inside. This fortress that had once been so foreboding now stood as her haven, a shelter in the midst of her storms. She had chipped away at the wall day after day until the cold stone crumbled and revealed flesh and blood. Her home was Xena. She didnt know the specific time or moment when it occurred, she just new that Xena had become that home, that place of protection, acceptance and love.
"Its okay Gabrielle, youre safe with me now," Xena said as she helped Gabrielle into her bedroll. Safe, what a crock! Look where she was when Callisto took her that first time or when she died. How can I protect her now if I couldnt protect her then? Xena slowly ran her fingers through Gabrielles hair as she softly hummed a familiar tune. It was a tune that Gabrielle had heard Xena sing only a few times but it always had a soothing effect on the bards fitful sleeping. Gabrielles breathing had slowed down to a deep, steady rhythm and Xena stretched out quietly on the bedroll beside her. She looked at the peaceful face of her best friend and wondered just how many more times they could tempt the Fates and win.
"Have you ever thought about getting married again?" Iolaus asked, directing his question to Hercules.
Hercules, caught off guard by the question, looked at his friend in confusion. "What brought that up?"
"I dont know. Its just that sometimes I think about what it would be like when I find that special person and we settle down and start a family."
"I think about it a lot," Joxer chimed in as he sat across from the warriors. "Little Joxer Jr. and Joxerina sit on my lap while Ga...uh ...their mother cooks dinner in the kitchen." Joxer sheepishly stole a glance at Gabrielle. "Of course we wanted four children instead of two but since I was gone for many days at a time battling bloodthirsty warlords, it just never seemed to happen."
Hercules and Iolaus rolled their eyes and patiently waited as Joxer continued with his story.
"...since we were able to build the house on her fathers property..."
This is like trying to stop an avalanche. When will he shut up? Iolaus thought to himself.
"...and weve been together for twenty years now," Joxer said slapping his hands on his knees. "It amazes me how much were still in love." Finished, Joxer looked to Hercules and politely said, "Goodnight, see you in the morning."
Hercules sat leaning forward with his arms resting on his legs, tapping the ends of his fingers together. "Goodnight Joxer," Hercules replied.
The two men watched as Joxer made his way to the far side and prepared to bed down for the night. They heard the annoying clanging of tin as he removed his armor, if you could call it that, for it offered no substantial protection against any foreign object. How he had made it this far without mortal injury, from friend or foe, was still a mystery.
"I havent thought THAT much about it," Iolaus chuckled.
"I hope Joxer finds the happiness he dreams about. Everyone deserves to be happy." Hercules raised his head and looked at his best friend. "Youre in love with Gabrielle, arent you?"
Iolaus didnt know if the shock to his system was from Hercules blunt and to the point question or the fact of hearing those words, out loud, for the very first time. "I never said that," Iolaus finally managed to voice.
"You didnt have to say it. Its written all over your face."
"What...like a tattoo on my forehead?" Iolaus offered.
"I dont know that love is the right word yet," Iolaus replied. "I mean...I have these feelings that go beyond just friendship whenever Im around her. Is that love or just a natural reaction?"
"I dont know Iolaus. Only you can answer that." Hercules looked over at the two women and his features softened with the tenderness of a heartfelt smile. Maybe I need to answer that question myself. "How does Gabrielle feel? Have you talked to her?"
"I cant tell her how I feel!" Iolaus said raising his voice a notch. "What if she doesnt like me that way?"
"How are you going to know anything if you dont talk to her?" Youre a grown man, Iolaus, show some backbone."
"Maybe youre right Herc. I mean, whats the worst that could happen?"
"Just make sure she doesnt have her staff when you do it," Hercules said with a deadpan
"Kidding, Im just kidding."
"Yeah, right. See you at breakfast," Iolaus said nervously as he stood and walked to his bedroll.
Hercules remained by the fire, deep in his thoughts as he observed the Warrior Princess. Just what is it that I feel for you Xena? Could it be more than friendship or did our time already pass us by? Hercules was still astounded by the changes he saw in Xena. Compassionate, tender, playful, loving...how could these words possibly describe the woman who had come to be known as "The Destroyer of Nations"? His questions to Iolaus echoed in his mind. "Maybe you need to take some of your own medicine."
"Xena, help me," the pleading voice called through the fogginess of slumber. She heard the muffled sounds of someone crying as strong arms enfolded her and rocked her gently.
"Shhh...Im here Gabrielle," Xena whispered, "Its okay...shhh." Xena continued to hum the soft melody as she tenderly placed a kiss on the bards golden tresses. What happened in that cell? How far did Callisto push you to get to me? Gabrielle was still engulfed in the throws of the nightmare that had begun shortly after she fell asleep.
"Dont let me die," Gabrielle said as a tear ran down her cheek and landed on Xenas chest.
"Im here Gabrielle. Shhh...youre safe now." Xena looked up with tears gently flowing down her own cheeks and met the silent, tender gaze of Hercules. No words were needed.
Xena took comfort in the familiar sound emanating from her left. She didnt really consider it a snore, although she teased Gabrielle endlessly about it, but merely a heavy breathing sound. Many times it saved her from opening sleep laden eyes to watch for the rise and fall of the bards chest. There were some benefits to the noise after all. Xena remained still while she listened to the sounds of her friends moans and groans as the bard shifted to find a more comfortable position. When she opened her eyes she was met by mist-green eyes and a gentle smile.
Gabrielle opened her mouth slightly to speak and then grimaced at the pain that followed. "Guess I wont be telling many stories for a few days."
"Yeah, we could use some peace and quiet around here," Xena added dryly.
Gabrielle slid her leg quickly from beneath the covers and kicked her friend.
"You kicked me!" Xena said in mock anger.
Gabrielle raised herself up on her right elbow and pointed a finger at Xena. "I did not. I tapped your leg."
Xena grabbed the bards finger in her left hand as Gabrielles mouth and eyes flew wide open in surprise. "No Gabrielle, let me show you. This is tapping..." Xena lightly tapped her knuckles on Gabrielles head. "This is kicking..." Xena gently but firmly kicked her foot into Gabrielles right leg. "And this is tickling..." Xena released her grip on the finger and went immediately for the bards ribs. She let loose with relentless abandonment and she would not stop until a full surrender was achieved.
"No, no! Stop Xena or Ill have to find a bush," Gabrielle pleaded as she gasped for air. Gabrielle rolled and curled into a ball with fits of laughter while Xena continued her playful attack. Xena had found most of Gabrielles ticklish spots during their first year and had no qualms about using them as a weapon in their battles.
"Begging only makes it worse," Xena said in her best Warrior Princess voice. Xena had found another torture point and was feeling for more.
"All right, all right! I give!" Gabrielle yelled through her laughter. Xena eased up and gave the bard some relief. "This is your fault, you know."
"Hey, its not my bladder thats full," Xena teased while catching her own breath.
"Yeah, but you insisted on me drinking all that water last night with the medicine."
"You couldve refused."
"Huh...yeah, right!" Gabrielle said as she stood up and headed for the bushes.
"Going somewhere, Gabrielle?" Xena said loud enough for all to hear.
"All right Xena, you know what payback is."
The sound of Gabrielles laughter was music to Xenas ears. There had been other times in their travels together when Xena wanted to let loose and have some fun but she had fought the urge. But in those few, precious moments when she held her best friend she promised herself that would change. She would seize those moments regardless of what others might think. Life was too precious...and so was Gabrielle. Growing concerned over the bard not returning she decided to follow and keep a protective eye on her friend. She was torn between giving Gabrielle space to think things through on her own and getting everything out in the open. Cresting the ridge she spotted the familiar blonde tresses. As she closed the distance between them she could see the pain that tortured her best friends soul. Her soul ached in kind, as if they were two halves of the same.
Gabrielle walked quietly by the river, basking in the warmth of the morning sun. It was such a contrast to her more recent confinement. The cell had been pitch black and cold, offering no comfort. Here, surrounding her now, she had the offerings of all the beauty nature had to give. How she wished her soul could absorb the warmth of this place as her body did. Wistfully she hummed a familiar melody in hopes it would work its magic again and somehow spirit away the guilt she was feeling, guilt for what she almost did and guilt for being angry with Xena. I almost killed her. I wanted her dead. If I had been stronger she would be dead now. Where were you when I needed you? Why didnt you tell me?
"A dinar for your thoughts," Xena said as she slowly stepped up behind Gabrielle.
"I dont think you want to hear mine right now," Gabrielle said softly as she watched a mother bird swoop down from its nest and "squawk" at a threatening bird.
"I want to help you Gabrielle," Xena said with a plea in her voice. "Talk to me. There is nothing that we cant work out if we try."
Gabrielle continued to watch the mother bird protecting its young. She didnt want to hurt Xena but she knew in her heart that there were things that needed to be said. She lightly brushed her hand through the soft seeded heads of the tall grass, took a deep breath and in as calm a voice as her emotions would allow she began. "I was angry with you at first...because you lied to me."
Xenas worst fears were coming to life. She knew she would eventually have to answer for the secrets she had kept from the bard. She stepped forward and firmly, yet gently grabbed Gabrielles arm and turned the bard around to face her. "I didnt lie to you."
"Xena, at the very least you withheld information...important information. How could you do that to me? I thought you trusted me." Gabrielle had the look of undeniable hurt as the words fell from her lips.
Xena was completely defenseless. She HAD kept information from the bard and in so doing, lied. She had decided on her own that protecting Gabrielle was worth whatever price she would have to pay. She had hoped Gabrielle would understand. "I was trying to protect you."
"I guess you think of me like that mother bird thinks about her hatchling. Im not strong enough on my own, is that it?"
Xena took a moment to compose her thoughts and feelings before answering. "In a way, yes. Everything that bird does is by instinct. Nature tells it when to breed, when to lay its eggs or when to push the chick out of the nest. The difference is that my instinct is based on love, not nature. If she loses a chick shell simply hatch another but if I lose you..." Xena started but couldnt finish her sentence.
Gabrielle placed both hands over her eyes as she tried to stem the tears. "What if Ive lost myself?"
Xena reached out and took Gabrielles hands from her face. "None of this was your fault. Youre not to blame here."
"Xena, I nearly killed her," Gabrielle said as tears welled in her eyes.
"But you didnt," Xena stressed as she forced Gabrielle to look at her.
"I just wasnt strong enough."
"Strength had nothing to do with it. Your ideals are what guide you and even in the darkest times you have trusted in them. Killing is not a part of your code," Xena tried to reason.
"I couldnt stand the thought of Callisto hurting you. I had to try and stop her somehow," Gabrielle confessed as she looked at their clasped hands.
Xena placed her hands on the bards shoulders and looked deep into mist-green eyes. "So you were trying to protect ME without MY knowledge? Dont you see the irony?" Xenas eyes were soft and comforting, there was no judgement in them.
Gabrielle chuckled lightly through her tears. "I guess Im more like you than I want to admit."
"Guess so," Xena agreed as she embraced her best friend.
Joxer topped the small ridge overlooking the river and spotted the two women. "Hey, Ive got breakfast ready. Better eat it while its hot!" Joxer yelled while waving his arms to get the womens attention.
There was a unanimous moan at the thought of Joxers cooking. "Just kill me now Xena and get it over with," Gabrielle teased as she lightly pounded her forehead against Xenas shoulder.
"Oh no, you have to suffer like the rest of us," Xena warned.
"Please Xena," Gabrielle pleaded.
"Begging will only get you a second helping," Xena said in a playful threat.
Gabrielle studied Xenas eyes for a moment to see if she would make good on the threat. "Forget I mentioned anything."
"Done," Xena said as she guided her friend back to camp. Xena knew they had only partially solved the problems that plagued Gabrielle and their friendship but it was a start and that meant they had time. And time meant everything.
"Hey you guys, theres plenty more. I even fixed enough so you could take some with you," Joxer said as he spooned more into his own bowl.
"How does he do that?" Iolaus asked as he watched Joxer eat his third helping.
"Hes either immune to his own cooking or he has no taste buds," Xena ventured as she dropped her spoon in her bowl, unable to tolerate any more.
"Or both," Gabrielle spoke under her breath as she put her own bowl down.
"Hey, Ill have you know this is my moms recipe youre talking about. I grew up eating this and its made me the man I am today," Joxer beamed with pride.
"That explains a lot," Iolaus whispered to Gabrielle who was sitting to his right.
"Gabby, you like my stew, dont you?" Joxer asked putting the bard on the spot.
"Yeah Gabrielle, lets hear from the bottomless pit herself," Xena goaded while elbowing her best friend.
"Uh...well...uh, I would have made a few changes for my own personal taste but...look what its done for you. In fact, and I think I speak for everyone here, why dont you keep whats left for yourself?" Gabrielle didnt want to hurt his feelings but then again two or three days on the road with the trots was not a pleasant thought.
"Are you sure?" Joxer asked as he looked to each of his friends for confirmation.
"Consider it our gift to you for all your help," Hercules graciously added.
"Okay but this is your last chance. Its a family recipe, you know, so I cant give it to you."
"Well just have to suffer the loss," Xena replied in a tone and expression so straight that Gabrielle had to turn her head away in order to cover the chuckle that threatened to escape.
Everyone did their share in making preparations to break camp. Xena marveled at how well they worked as a team. She also knew it wouldnt last. They had already decided to travel together as far as Marsalus, which was just south of Tybineon, or a two-day journey from their present location. Hercules was needed back to help resolve a dispute between two kingdoms. He hoped to arrive before negotiations halted and blood shed began.
The sun was high in the sky but not quite directly overhead when the group stopped for a rest. Gabrielle and Iolaus headed for the river for water while the others stayed behind. Xena let Argo graze and drink unattended while she rested beneath a shady oak. She leaned her body against its broad trunk and studied the simple beauty of the changing color of the leaves as they swayed with the gentle breeze. Soon the branches would stand naked to face the fierce north wind that came with winter. Xena smiled as she thought on these things because it was only through the influence of a certain prolific bard that she even took notice.
"Now thats a beautiful smile," Hercules said as he took a seat beside the Warrior Princess. "Its long overdue. Care to share the reason for it?"
"Just thinking about this beautiful tree and the seasons of its life," Xena said with a shrug and another smile.
Hercules studied the tree for a moment himself. "Ill bet it has a lot of stories to tell."
"Better not let Gabrielle hear you or shell find a way to make it talk. She talked to rocks once you know." Xena picked up one of the golden leaves lying on the ground beside her.
Hercules gave Xena a look of skepticism. "I didnt think Gabrielle has that power."
"You would be surprised at the hidden talents that girl has. She managed to break through my defenses."
"Youre not as tough as you want people to think. Dont forget, I broke through some of those defenses too."
"Yes, I know," Xena admitted with a slight blush.
Hercules let the comment and reaction hang in the air and there was an awkward silence beneath the tree.
"Here let me do that," Iolaus offered as he took the wineskin from Gabrielles hand.
"Thanks. The last time I tried this, I fell in. Not that Im clumsy or anything but it is a bit of a stretch for me to reach over this ledge," Gabrielle admitted, more as a fact than an excuse.
No, when I think of you, clumsy is not the word I use, Iolaus thought to himself. "Well, the trick is to wedge your foot down here, like an anchor, so when you lean over you wont slip. Dont let your foot relax or youll lose the hold."
"Oh, I see," Gabrielle said as she placed her hand on what she thought to be the ledge. Unfortunately for Iolaus it was not. It was the back of his upper thigh and he momentarily lost all thought and control.
Shes not making this any easier. Hercules cleared his throat and as he turned to face Xena they heard Gabrielles panicked voice call out Iolaus name. They both jumped up and ran toward the river.
Gabrielle grabbed for Iolaus legs as everything went into slow motion. She could feel the muscles in her arms and back shaking as she tried to hold on but they kept slipping forward. Iolaus kept telling her to let go but it was already too late and she could feel her body sliding over the edge as she held on tightly. They both hit the water with a loud "splash".
Iolaus came up first and looked around for Gabrielle. He was taking a deep breath to go back under and look for her when her head broke the surface of the water.
"Are you okay? Why didnt you let go? I kept telling you to let go," Iolaus said as he stared at Gabrielle. She is so beautiful. Look how the water beads on her face and neck like crystal pearls. Kiss her!
"Im fine. I heard you but I just couldnt stop myself."
"Yeah, I know what you mean." Iolaus drew closer to the bard until they were almost touching. He swallowed hard and leaned in and placed a kiss on the wet rosy lips. It began softly and slowly much as it had with that first kiss so long ago. Both were reserved, uncertain of how to express the feelings that were building. Their lips parted and their eyes met for a brief moment. Neither was quite sure who was the aggressor after that. It was as if a floodgate had opened for both of them and they were being swept away by the emotions and sensations of the moment.
"Ah...hmm," came a sound from above their heads. They slowly turned and looked up to see two faces with broad grins staring back at them. "We cant leave you two alone for a moment without you getting into trouble," Xena joked as she reached forward to assist the bard out of the water.
"DON"T WORRY GABBY, IM COMING," Joxer yelled as he rounded the corner and was nearly knocked out of breath as his chest made painful contact with Hercules forearm. "What did you do that for?"
"Didnt want you to jump into anything and get hurt," Hercules said as he tried to conceal his grin.
"Thanks big guy...I think," Joxer said as he rubbed his aching chest and adjusted his armor. It was only then that his eyes fell upon Gabrielle. "Why didnt you tell me you were going swimming?"
"We werent swimming Joxer," Gabrielle quipped as she tried to wring as much water out of her clothing as possible.
"Well, you couldnt have just fallen in. Only an idiot would do that," Joxer said as he noticed Iolaus, completely soaked, standing behind the bard. "I suppose you werent swimming either?"
The foursome shared silent conspiring looks before anyone answered. Thank goodness for Joxers bad timing, Gabrielle thought to herself. She knew Joxer had strong feelings for her but she had always considered him as a brother. The passionate kiss would have been difficult to explain. It was hard enough for Gabrielle to understand and she had been a willing and active participant. The truth. Always go with the truth. Its much easier to keep straight. "We were just trying to refill the wineskins and slipped," Gabrielle finally said. There, I said it.
"Both of you?" Joxer asked in confusion.
"Yes, both of us. Now can we just go?" Gabrielle asked as she looked everywhere but at Joxer.
Joxer was not the sharpest person but he knew Gabrielle well enough to tell when she was avoiding a subject. He had seen it too many times in their travels when Xena quizzed her on something. The bard just couldnt out-right lie. "I think theres something going on that youre not telling me."
Gabrielle knew she was caught and if anyone had seen her face at that particular moment they would have known it too. Okay, so much for the truth. Switch to plan B. It wouldnt take much; hes so gullible. Just embellish the truth like you do in some of your stories. Gabrielle looked over to the warrior with pleading eyes but got a "hey, youre on your own" look instead.
Xena could see the predicament the bard was getting herself into but she was getting such a kick out of seeing her friend squirm that she didnt want to interfere unless needed. There were some of lifes lessons that needed to be experienced and this one was quickly becoming too much fun. After all, the bard had asked her long ago to teach her everything she could. She was simply living up to the agreement. Her friends embarrassment was just an added bonus.
Iolaus had been standing and dripping quietly as the conversation continued and felt this was as good a time as any to try and rescue the bard. "Youre right, Joxer," Iolaus started. Gabrielle subtly put her hand behind her back and reached for Iolaus arm. "Well, you see...the truth is...OUCH!"
"We were fishing," Gabrielle blurted, finishing Iolaus sentence while pinching and pulling the hair on his arm.
"Yeah, there were two of them and they went for the same bait and their mouths were locked together," Xena added as she gave the bard a devilish grin. You wanted my help. She could tell from the look in the green eyes that she would pay for this and it wasnt going to be pretty. Oh, she had seen that look countless times before; it was just part of their game. Sure Gabrielle would try to get even but it always seemed to backfire and the bard usually found herself fully clothed and treading water in a river. What is it with this girl and water?
"No, youre pulling my leg," Joxer insisted as he looked at each of his friends.
"Xenas right, I saw it with my own two eyes. Their lips were locked tighter than two sucker fish," Hercules chimed in. He wasnt going to pass up the opportunity to tease his best friend or the sweetly blushing bard either. If Xena could get away with it so could he.
"Wow! Really?" I wish I could have seen that," Joxer said, his eyes growing wide in amazement. "So what happened? Where are they now?"
Iolaus turned to Gabrielle with a look that she could only describe as comically seductive. It made her grin and giggle while causing a tingling sensation to course through her body. "Everything is still there...just below the surface. If you look close enough you can still see them," Iolaus said, still looking deep into the emerald pools.
Oblivious to everything else, Joxer leaned over the edge and stared at the water. " I dont see anything except dirty water."
"Maybe theyre afraid of what they saw, " Gabrielle offered tentatively, not breaking eye contact with Iolaus.
"Were talking about fish, Gabrielle; dumb, hungry fish, not people. They dont fear, they just eat, poop and reproduce," Joxer argued as he waved his arms in a gesture of finality.
Xena and Hercules rolled their eyes. How can anyone be so dense? But then again, thats what keeps me from strangling you, Xena thought to herself. Joxer could frustrate the warrior to no end but she knew he had a good heart. He had proved that when he risked his life to save Argo. "Maybe we should just leave them alone for awhile and let everything go back to normal," Xena suggested as she raised her eyebrow and caught a glance at both Iolaus and Gabrielle. She knew it wouldnt be easy but somehow the two would have to put a lid on their emotions. It wasnt as if she didnt have to do the same. Even standing this close to Hercules was making her pulse quicken. "Anyway, we need to get back on the road if we want to be in Marsalus by tomorrow afternoon."
"Xenas right, we better get going," Hercules agreed as he continued to look softly into the face of the Warrior Princess. I have a feeling that some day...Im going to be one day too late.
The friends set off for the road and continued their journey. Their time together was drawing to a close and Xena and Gabrielle had made tentative plans to rendezvous with the men in Amphipolis in four weeks at Cyrenes inn. It was her mothers birthday and Xena wanted to surprise her. Joxer kept the conversation flowing as the men took the lead; the women following a short distance behind. Xena had offered Gabrielle the seat on Argo but the bard had refused adding that she wanted to exercise to stretch her muscles. Xena knew better. Gabrielle needed an outlet for the energy and emotions that were running rampant through her body and mind. Xena understood and could sympathize. She found it comical though to see her friend frustrated in this manner. It was proof, yet again, that the innocent girl had blossomed into a young woman; complete with all the emotional trappings. Xena could protect her friend from anything...except the internal conflicts of Gabrielles own nature.
"Are you all right?" Xena asked as she kept her eyes on the road, her senses still alert to the sounds of their environment.
"Im soaking wet and my underwear is..." the bard started in an agitated tone, not wanting to talk but feeling guilty for her silence.
"I wasnt talking about physically."
"Xena, Im fine," Gabrielle answered in a calmer voice, hoping she could buy herself some time of peaceful silence again. "Now can we just drop this?"
"Gabrielle, theres nothing wrong with what you did or how you feel. Its natural. Love is the most beautiful human emotion."
"What about betrayal? Where does that fall?" the bard demanded, catching the warrior off guard.
"What betrayal? Who did you betray?"
Xena grabbed Gabrielles arm and brought them both to an abrupt stop. "Thats not true and you know it!" Xena had a firm grip on the bards arm and was not going to let her friend continue with these self-beating thoughts. "Perdicas knows you loved him and he would want you to find love again. No one would want anything less for you!" Gabrielle tried to wiggle free from the warriors grip but it only made Xena hold on tighter. "As much as you mean to me, your happiness is more important and if you found someone that you loved and wanted to marry I would proudly stand as a witness. Just give yourself time."
In her mind Gabrielle knew that Xena was right but her heart still ached with guilt. Can I ever put the memories behind me? Maybe some day...but not today. Gabrielle took a deep breath and looked up into the face of her dearest friend. Their eyes met and they shared a familiar smile as they turned to start on the road again. "Thanks, I needed that."
"Anytime my friend, Im always here for you," Xena said as she place her arm around the bards shoulders and squeezed gently. "Gabrielle...youre soaking wet."
"Tell me something I dont already know," Gabrielle said as she gave a light chuckle and slapped at the warriors stomach.
Xena pursed her lips and raised her eyebrow as she stole one last glance and drew her best friend closer. "The back of your skirt is ripped and your underwear is showing."
Any thoughts or comments are willingly accepted. Just ask Cat. I can take it...the good, the bad.... Oh, all right, Ill take the ugly too. There, are you happy? Just write and let me know you read it.
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