I would like to thank Ren Pic, RT, SR, JS, LL and ROC for letting me use their creations in this story. X and G belong to them and not me, I am only borrowing them. I promise to have them cleaned and polished and returned in the condition I found them.
This story contains violence and some sex of the same sex variety. Not very much however because I blush easily. If you blush easily you should stop reading this story. Or else grow up and stop blushing so easily. Then EMail me and tell me how you did it.
Do I want feedback on this story. YES. If you like it I also want you to send me lots of money. If Tom Clancy can be rich why not me. Seriously, I welcome comments good or bad. I just want to know you're out there. Send to Aleckk1@hotmail.com
To the God of Spelling I offer my humblest apologies. The God of Grammer can bite me however. (Thanks to Gin for letting me use that.)
So, with a roll of the drum and sounding of the trumpet I present. (the proper order of these stories is The Fortress, The City, The Journey, and now)
|The Fortress||The City||The Journey||Meg's||The Lion's Wall|
BY JIM KUNTZ
When Xena and Gabrielle first began traveling together it infuriated the bard no end that everytime they went into some village market to buy supplies the Lion would pay whatever the merchants asked, without a moments haggling. The Warrior Princess was overpaying for everything and as a result the friends were constantly short of money. When Xena first abandoned her army and started to roam on her own she had tried bargaining for things but the strain on her nerves was just too much. Arguing with some hard nosed shopkeeper over a few dinars always sent her blood pressure soaring and it was all she could do not to reach out and grab the man by the throat and make him an offer he could not refuse. The Lion had spent most of her life taking what she wanted or having it given to her as tribute. Buying things honestly was a new, perplexing, frustrating business. And in truth she cared nothing for money anyway. Power had always been her driving force. The chests of dinars she collected in her conquests had gone to the army to keep them supplied, equipped, paid and happy. She hardly gave a thought to her personal needs, her mind always focused on greater things and there being no shortage of menials to take care of the trivial details of life. This became a tremendous handicap however when she left her warlord days behind. For the fact was that the Great Lion of Amphipolis did not know the value of anything. Was a bolt of good cloth for making a new shift worth five dinars or three. Was a half dozen oranges a steal at two dinars or highway robbery. The bard seethed quietly for a month. Finally, after Xena had filled their food sacks with eight dinars worth of groceries and paid twelve Gabrielle had had enough. When they left the shop she erupted.
"Xena," She said heatedly, "did your mother have any children who lived!"
The Warrior Princess was so startled at this first hint of Gabrielle's temper she almost dropped the sacks.
"You don't haggle for anything." The bard continued, her cheeks coloring. "You just paid half again what that food is worth. No wonder we're broke all the time." She pointed toward the shop. "They're laughing at us in there!"
Cold blue eyes stared down into the bards green but Gabrielle was too angry at the moment to wonder if she was in any danger from the imposing presence before her. The Lion's hand moved down to her waist next to the chakram, and then she pulled out the small bag of dinars kept in a pocket beside the gleaming weapon and handed them to Gabrielle.
"If you can do better," Xena said evenly, "then do it."
"I will." The bard replied.
And she did. Gabrielle loved to haggle. She loved the human interaction of it. And with her keen intelligence and lifetime of bargaining experience in the market place of Potadia she was an expert. The friends material fortunes improved immediatly. And Xena, she felt relieved. Relieved to be out from under the responsibility of money. But she also felt something else. Surprise. How many people had she struck down for using that tone of voice with her. Yet she had not felt angry with Gabrielle for an instant. 'How mysterious.' Xena thought. 'Does living an ethical life make you soft. I should be careful of that.'
After Xena gave Gabrielle control of the purse a new pattern developed in their lives. After some adventure or other or a burst of hard traveling, supplies would run low and at the first opportune village or city the bard would give Xena a handful of silver then head for the marketplace for an afternoon of bargaining. The Warrior Princess would repair to the nearest tavern to find a table with her back to the wall and a view of the door and there she would stay, almost still as a statue, slowly draining cups of ale or wine. Never to the point of drunkeness mind you. A warrior with so many enemies could ill afford the dulled senses and compromised reflexes of true drunkeness. Besides Xena was afraid of being drunk, afraid of what she might do. But enough was consumed to bring on a deep melancholy. She would spend candlemarks rolling the cup back and forth between her hands staring into space. Remembering things she wished she could forget. Reliving experiences that had become a nightmare. Wrestling with taunting demons that laughed at her attempts at redemption and reminded her that if there were true justice in the world she would have been hanged long ago.
Finally Xena would see Gabrielle arrive with that half angry, half sad face as she spotted her sitting alone in some corner and came over and sat down. Without fail the bard would try to lift the Lion by the sheer force of her will. She would chatter brightly about what she had seen and done and ask a hundred questions trying to engage Xena in conversation but all she would get in reply were grunts, one word answers and sometimes nothing but a sullen stare.If there was a crowd in the tavern the bard would tell some stories to make a few dinars. If not she would sit at Xena's side drinking cider or watered wine carrying on a witty monologue to entertain herself and hopefully the Warrior Princess till the place closed. Then she would lead the Lion to the room she had rented where Xena would curl up on the floor with some blankets, always leaving the bed for Gabrielle, no matter how much the bard insisted that she would sleep on the floor this time, or that they could at least share the bed.
Life flowed along almost a year this way. Through many missions and much exhausting travel Gabrielle never gave an inch in battling Xena's descents into depression, although it so often seemed hopeless. But each day, each week, each month Xena's affection and respect for this steadfast young woman grew and deepened. It became harder every day to imagine a life without her. But in the dark places, always the dark places, the demons still lurked and laughed. Finally in the village of Phillius Gabrielle tried to put her foot down. She refused to give the Warrior Princess any money and insisted Xena come along shopping, or anything else she wanted to do but sit in a tavern. She just stared at the bard with her hand out. When it became obvious she would not relent Xena used her lightning reflexes to snatch the coin purse from the pocket of Gabrielle's skirt but the bard caught her wrist and tried to stop her. The Lion put her other hand on Gabrielle's wrist and squeezed with an iron grip til the bard yelped with pain and let go. Then Xena calmly poured a few coins into her hand and gave the pouch back to Gabrielle and started for the tavern only a few yards away. The bard watched her go, then sighed deeply and rubbed a tear out of her eye and headed for the market.
When Gabrielle returned to the tavern she joined Xena and started talking as she always did, never mentioning the incident with the money. Xena sat silently, not answering. But the bard noticed that the Lion was not staring out into space or at the table as she usually did. She was looking right at her the whole evening with a strange light in her blue eyes Gabrielle had never seen before. Once she even saw the blue orbs well up with water although not a tear fell. It was all deeply disturbing and the bard stayed up the entire night that night watching over Xena.
Two weeks later in Thebes it was time for more supplies. Gabrielle gave Xena her dinars without protest and headed into a blacksmith shop to bargain for a new bridle the Warrior Princess wanted for Argo. The old blacksmith was a tough haggler and it took a while to reach a price the bard could live with. When she came out of the dark shop into the bright light of day she had to squint for a few seconds while her eyes adjusted. When her vision cleared there was Xena, sitting on a barrel across the street, twirling her chakram around her finger while Argo stood patiently at her side. The bards body twitched in surprise then she hurried across the road.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked, concerned something was wrong.
Xena shrugged. "Waiting for you."
The bards face clouded with confusion. "Why?"
The Lion stood up and looked into Gabrielle's eyes. The bard saw that blue light she had seen two weeks before shine out at her.
"I've wasted enough time in taverns alone." Xena said quietly. "I don't want to be alone anymore."
The Lion watched the emerald eyes grow soft and watery. She saw the bards chin quiver for just a moment. Gabrielle reached out and softly touched Xena's elbow then ran her hand lightly down her arm til she briefly squeezed the Lions hand. The way you touch someone you love. Then Gabrielle smiled brightly.
"You want to see the bridle I got Argo?"
The Lion smiled back.
Xena sat outside the Parchment Shop on a wooden bench, leaning against the building and whittling on a nice piece of pine she had rescued from the wood pile in the back. She chuckled to herself as she listened to the exasperation in Gabrielle's voice rise as this stubborn old woman of a shopkeeper refused to see that if a blank scroll of parchment was two dinars in Corinth it ought to be two dinars in Delphi. From an alley that ran next to the shop the Warrior Princess could hear the rough and tumble sounds of children at play. Sometimes they spilled out of the alley into the street, running and chasing after each other using thin sticks and rampant imaginations to re-create the famous battles of Greece.
A half dozen boys and girls milled about in fierce combat while a smaller girl, several years younger than the rest and small for her age as well, tried to join in. She was roundly shoved about or ignored. Finally a boy put a hand to her face and pushed her hard to the ground.
"Tisa you shrimp," he shouted. "You're too little to be a warrior. Now get out of here and do something shrimps do and stop bothering us."
This speech seemed to reflect the groups attitude as no one helped Tisa and suddenly they bolted together back into the alley to continue the great war they were fighting. Tisa remained sitting in the dusty road fighting back a tear of frustration. Then a shadow loomed and she looked up to see a raven haired warrior with shining armour and glittering weapons peer down at her.
"Are you just going to sit there?" The warrior asked.
Tisa scrambled to her feet.
"I could play as good as them!" she said hotly, stamping her foot and wiping her nose. "They just won't let me!"
The warrior regarded the girl for a moment, noting the fierce tilt of the head and the unafraid glare of the eye.
"How would you like to pull a surprise on your friends?" the warrior asked.
"What kind of surprise?" Tisa replied warily.
The warrior smiled. "One they won't forget."
Tisa smiled back. "Okay."
Xena placed Tisa on Argo and gave the girl her sword. Then she walked the big warhorse into the road but back far enough from the alley that she could not be seen by the children til they came out again into the street.
"Tisa," the Warrior Princess instructed. "When your playmates come running out into the street again lift the sword over your head and wave it and let out a roar like a lion. You understand? Your biggest roar."
Tisa, who already had Xena ducking out of the way as she enthusiastically waved the weapon about, holding it with both hands, nodded yes.
"Okay, just sit quietly and wait." Xena went up by Argo's head. "Stay Argo." She whispered. Then she stepped back into the shadows of the entrance to the Parchment Shop.
It was not a long wait before the great battle of Marathon spilled out into the street again. The children all froze, dumbfounded at the sight of Tisa sitting on the great horse with a sword in her hands. She raised it above her head and opened her mouth to roar but when she did a terrifying, high pitched war cry came out that turned the childrens blood to ice. They stood wide eyed and open mouthed for a moment and then scattered in every direction like quails startled out of a glen.
Xena had to jump nimbly out of the way as Gabrielle burst out of the shop, her staff in the ready position. The bard saw the smile on the Lions face and then Tisa sitting on Argo.
"By the gods Xena," Gabrielle said, confusion on her face. "What have you got going on here?"
Xena shrugged. "Tisa was just showing her friends how the great cavalry charge at the battle of Actium looked."
"Uh huh," Gabrielle replied, leaning her staff against the shop. "I'm sure it was very realistic." The bard walked over to Argo and put up her arms. "Now come off there sweetheart before you fall off and get hurt."
Tisa looked at the Warrior Princess with a bit of a scowl on her face but Xena told her with a nod of her head that she should get down. The child leaned over and let herself fall into Gabrielle's arms. The bard twirled around with her and gave her a warm hug then put her down. Xena walked over with a stern look on her face and put her hand out. Tisa looked into the blue eyes with a steady gaze and placed the sword in her hand. The Warrior Princess knelt down and put a hand on Tisa's shoulder looking her in the face.
"It's not the size of the dog in the fight Tisa," She said. "It's the size of the fight in the dog. Be what you want to be, not what other people tell you to be. Now go on home."
The child nodded once and took off half running half skipping toward the alley but just as she was about to disappear she turned around and waved and called "Thanks warrior. That was great!" Then she was gone.
Xena stood up and sheathed her sword. Gabrielle stared at her with narrow eyes.
"Whaaat?" The Lion said, annoyed at the look.
"So what was that all about?"
"I was just having some fun with my little friend." Xena answered.
"Fun with little friends Xena?" The bard said, her voice sounding like a school marms lecturing a student. "No, no. I have fun with little friends. That's my job in this partnership. I play with the kids, you knock Tartarus out of bad guys. Children love me Xena, not you."
"They do huh," The Warrior Princess replied, her own eyes narrowing. "And how do you figure that?"
"Well, just look at us." The bard said. "You're twelve feet tall, look like you could wrestle a rhinoceros to the ground and always have that warlord glare on your face. I, on the other hand," Gabrielle flashed that smug look she could get sometimes," am small, cuddly and give great hugs."
Xena pursed her lips and snorted.
"You got the short part right."
"Small, Xena, I said small."
"And what's this stuff about hugs?" The Warrior Princess said, her eyes flashing. "I give you good hugs don't I?"
"You give me wonderful hugs Warlord. But who else have you hugged in the last year?"
Xena stopped and her brows knitted with concentration. "I gave that sargeants son in Xora a hug." She said triumphantly.
The Warrior Princess concentrated again but she honestly could not think of anyone else.
"Well, so. How much practice does hugging take. I know I can give as good a hugs as you."
Gabrielle went over and got her staff and started down the road toward Meg's. Xena fell in step with her, Argo following behind on a lead rein.
"For crying out loud, do you ever listen to yourself Xena?" The bard said looking at the Warrior Princess. "You're being competitive about hugging."
They turned a corner and were out of sight, the argument continuing unabated.
When the two friends arrived at Meg's they had to step back across the dusty street to view the large wooden two story structure. Much had changed in the year they had been gone. The building had been repainted from a loud, provocative red to a more gentle grayish white. The large sign above the front entrance of a woman reclining on a couch holding an ale cup, the traditional Delphian symbol of a brothel and tavern, was gone, replaced by a sign with 'MEG'S' burned in the wood in large letters on top and underneath a man sitting at a table with a woman standing on the other side holding a tray. A stylized chickens head was drawn above the tray, signifying that the restaurant specialized in poultry dishes.
As Xena and Gabrielle were taking in all these new developments two men, laborers from their clothes and tired appearance, walked past and crossed the road apparently headed for the eatery but they passed the front door and disappeared around the corner of the building into the alley beside it. Gabrielle gave the Warrior Princess a questioning look and walked down the road far enough to see down the alley. She smiled and motioned Xena to join her. When the Lion got there she saw that a new door had been cut into the side of the building just back from the corner and above the entrance was a small sign with the reclining woman and her cup of ale.
Xena looked at Gabrielle.
"Seems our friend is going in a new direction. She's become quite the businesswoman."
The bard grinned.
"Isn't it amazing how much she has changed and grown since we first met her. Human beings are the most incredible creatures Xena. I never cease to be astounded by them."
The Warrior Princess smiled wistfully.
"You have such a strong faith in people Gabrielle." She said. " I wish I shared it. But my experience has been that you accept the good in people when you find it but don't let your blade get dull or turn your back for too long. You'll be shortening your life if you do."
The bard reached out and gently grabbed Xena's arm.
"The things you say. Well, don't worry. I have enough faith for both of us. And one day you'll come around to my way of thinking. I'm pretty stubborn about things like this."
"No Gabrielle," Xena replied, her eyes smiling. " You're stubborn about everything. Why should this be any different."
The bard crinkled her nose at the Lion.
"Someday you're going to be a very witty woman Warlord. Unfortunatly today isn't the day."
When the friends entered Meg's it took a second for them to orient themselves to the changes. The great front room of the building seemed smaller than they remembered. And the long bar that had run along one wall was gone, replaced by a long table that was covered by a row of charcoal braziers for warming plates of food just before they were served. Sixteen tables were evenly spaced around the room, half of them occupied by patrons. Along the back wall, just where the brazier table ended, was a doorway covered by a blue curtain. In the center of the room was a wooden column supporting the roof.
"Xena! Gabrielle! Hi! Hi!"
It was Tully, calling to them from across the room as she set down two plates of food for an old farmer and his wife. Tully, short and round, with a few streaks of gray in her auburn hair, had been Meg's barmaid a year ago but now she was dressed as a waitress, with a nice pale blue apron and a cloth over her arm to wipe tables.
Gabrielle smiled brightly and waved. Xena nodded her head in a friendly acknowledgement of the greeting.
"I'll get Meg, she'll be so tickled." Tully said, a scraggly toothed smile on her face.
As she was about to disappear through the blue curtain the waitress clapped a woman putting some plates on a brazier on the back and pointed. "Look who's here Thata." She said and was gone.
Thata turned and burst into a surprised grin. She had been Meg's barkeep a year ago, a tall, thin handsome woman of middle age with a certain gentle grace and intelligence about her that was unmistakable.
"I'm so glad to see you two." She said waving. "It's been much too long."
"For us too." Gabrielle replied.
Suddenly the blue curtain was yanked back and Meg, Xena's exact physical double, bounced joyously into the room, her crooked smile stretching from ear to ear. Yet as Meg weaved her way among the tables to greet her friends that first blush of resemblence people noticed faded quickly away. Where Xena always moved with the powerful grace of a great athlete, Meg seemed almost to hop as she walked, arms and legs loose and not quite co-ordinated. And where the Lion carried herself with an erect, regal, intimidating dignity that was her natural state, Meg had a habit of shrugging her shoulders and ducking her head as if she were constantly apologizing for some unknown offense she had just commited. But as Meg approached, the Lion and the bard both were struck by the change they saw in Meg's appearance. Always before careless and indifferent to the way she looked and dressed, now her long black hair was braided back in a perfect ponytail, and her obviously tailored dress was a tasteful green trimed with gold. When she got close they could see eye shadow around her eyes and red lipstick, a bit smudged, accenting her lips. When she bent down to gather up Gabrielle in a bear hug the bard could smell genuinly pleasing perfume on her neck.
When Meg put the bard down she turned to Xena. This was always an awkward moment. Meg did not know what to do, for anyone who knew the friends knew that while Gabrielle was always approachable, touching and hugging, no one touched Xena uninvited but Gabrielle, and Xena's invitations were very few and very far between. Meg looked at the Lion and shrugged and ducked her head and grinned sheepishly and then froze in shock as the Warrior Princess stepped up to her and put her arms cautiously around her and sort of patted her on the back without making excessive body contact. Then Xena stepped away and both of them looked at Gabrielle, the Lion with a slightly sneering, 'what's so hard about that', look on her face while Meg just looked thunderstruck. Gabrielle turned her head and bit her tongue so she would not laugh out loud.
Instinctively Meg led Xena and Gabrielle to an empty table in a far corner where the Lion could sit with her back to the wall and face the door. When they were comfortable Meg leaned across the table.
"Are you hungry?" She said eagerly.
Xena snorted and looked at Gabrielle.
"Now that's a silly question isn't it?" She said.
The bard made a face at the Warrior Princess then turned to Meg.
"Lunch would be great. We didn't have much breakfast. Your sign says you specialize in chicken."
Meg grinned that lopsided grin.
"The best chicken dinners in Delphi." She said proudly. "Wait till you taste this."
She motioned to Tully who came over and took their order for three dinners and three cups of wine.
"So many changes Meg." Xena said, looking around. "How did you come to be in the restaurant business?"
Meg shrugged her shoulders and ducked her head.
"Just kind of luck I guess." She said. "Shortly after you guys left last year Zephia came around looking for a job as a working girl. She was in pretty bad shape, hungry and alone and well, you know me," Meg grinned sheepishly, "a sucker for a sob story, so I let her work. Her heart wasn't really in it though, you know what I mean, but I always had that kitchen in the back making food for the girls and serving a few things in the tavern and she volunteered to cook and it turns out she is like, wow, the best cook ever." Meg's eyes lit up. "Especially chicken. Seems her old boss was a younger son of the King of Thrace and he loved chicken so she learned all these fancy chicken dishes to feed him. He came here last summer with a small entourage, Zephia included, to consult with the Oracle of Delphi and he up and dies of the pox along with most everyone else in the group leaving the poor girl stranded high and dry."
Tully arrived with the wine and Meg took a break to have a big swallow. Then she continued.
"Well, everyone was raving about the food so much and all the customers were spending as much time and money sitting in the tavern eating as they were in the back with the girls that I just decided to see if we couldn't turn the front here into a regular restaurant. It was about then that Joxer showed up. He's been such a help to me."
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other. They both noticed the difference in Meg's face when she said his name.
"Did you see the new door on the side?" Meg asked.
The friends nodded.
"Joxer cut that for me. And that gash on his hand healed right up. He's not going to lose his finger after all. And we put up a false wall, that wall behind you Xena, so the guys just wanting a girl can go on back without disturbing the restaurant."
Meg took another swallow of wine.
"Really, I'm thinking of just getting out of the brothel business altogether. I've stopped recruiting new girls when one leaves already. I have a full crowd every dinner as it is and I know I could fill more tables if I had room for them. I'm even starting to get families in here, with kids and everything. But I couldn't just up and close the back." Meg leaned across the table. "Have you seen some of the other brothels in town? They're so dirty and rough. I could never let my girls work in them."
"Not to change the subject," Xena said, "but how is Joxer? He's still here isn't he?"
Meg shrugged her shoulders and ducked her head.
"I'm sorry." She said meekly. "I know he was supposed to have joined you by now. He even packed up to go a couple of times but I just, "Meg dropped her eyes to the table and she shrugged again and her voice got very low. "I just needed him, that's all, so I talked him into staying. I'm sorry."
Gabrielle reached out and put her hand over Meg's.
"There's nothing to be sorry about." She said. "If you needed him and he wanted to stay that's great. We were just concerned. We wanted to be sure everything was alright and it sounds like it is."
"How does Joxer help you?" Xena asked.
Meg brightened and her eyes sparkled.
"Well, he does all the buying of supplies for the restaurant. That's where he is now, out in the market buying chickens."
Meg leaned over with a conspiratorial look on her face, like she was sharing an important secret.
"You know, before he became Joxer the Mighty he used to steal chickens and stuff. He knows a good chicken from a bad chicken half a league away. That's one of the secrets of our success. We never serve a bad chicken."
Meg leaned back.
"And he helps me with...well...you know," Meg's cheeks reddened a little, "with reading stuff. I don't read too good really...at all...but Joxer reads great and he helps me with all that parchment work you have to do to be in business. And at night he reads me all kinds of other stuff too. Stories and things."
Meg looked at Gabrielle.
"I like your stories best. About the three of you." Meg smiled. "But I think he changes some of the words sometimes."
Xena and Gabrielle shared Meg's smile.
Tully arrived with lunch and Meg and the bard dug in with gusto. Xena just picked at her food as she usually did.
"Meg this chicken really is excellent." Gabrielle said as she finished a leg and eyed Xena's plate for what she might filch. "Zephia is a wonder."
Then the bard took a moment to take a long look at her host. Meg felt the eyes on her and smiled uncertainly.
"And look at you." Gabrielle said at last. "You're a wonder too. The hair, that dress, the makeup. You've turned into a beautiful swan Meg. Hasn't she Xena."
The Warrior Princess looked at Meg and smiled. "Yes she has."
Meg blushed. "Well, I don't know about any swans, but I guess I have been spending some money on myself. This is Joxers favorite dress. He always says something nice to me when I wear it." Meg blushed almost crimson and shifted uncomfortably in her chair, as if she were deeply embarrassed. Her voice became very low and soft. "It's nice to have someone who notices how you look. I want him to notice."
The bards eyes sparkled with delight and she reached out and laced her fingers with Megs and smiled happily for her. With the other hand Gabrielle reached under the table and rubbed Xena's bare leg. The Lion grinned into her cup of wine as she sipped. She knew she would not be getting much sleep tonight.
The bard was about to ask what they served for dessert when Tully suddenly appeared behind Meg with an anxious look on her face and whispered something into the restaurant owners ear. Meg's head snapped around and Xena and Gabrielle followed her stern gaze. On the other side of the room by the brazier table was a tall man with black unkempt hair down to his shoulders and a scraggly uncut beard. His arms were thick and his hands large and calloused. A man who had worked hard all his life. But his clothes were nicer than any laborer could afford and the fine dagger with the delicately carved ivory handle in his belt was positively expensive. Thata was standing in front of him and from the looks on their faces they were not having a pleasant conversation.
"Trouble Meg?" Xena asked.
"Aden." Meg spit the name out. "The bastard." Meg turned back to Gabrielle and Xena. "He owns a couple of public stables. Makes a nice living and he doesn't have any family, fortunately. I'd hate to think anyone had to live or raise kids with the likes of him. He started coming in here six or seven months ago and he always had to have it rough with the girls. But he always paid double or triple. I thought about banning him but he settled in on three or four girls as his regulars and they all said they could handle him. They liked the extra money. Then two weeks ago he beat absolute Tartarus out of Nila, poor little thing, even littler than you Gabrielle, cracked a couple of ribs, knocked out some teeth. She's still in bed in the room next to mine so I can check on her. Has a cute baby that we've been taking turns babysitting in the back til she gets better. She's so shook up now she'll never be a working girl again. I'll let her be a maid or waitress or something till she figures out what she wants to do next." Meg looked back at Aden. "I threw the bum out and told him never to come back but I bet he thinks he can wave a big coin purse in front of me and buy his way back in. Well, he can't!" Meg said the last three words with real anger.
Meg stood up and Xena stood up with her.
"No, no, no." Meg said, waving at the Warrior Princess to sit down. "This is my place. I take care of things here. Sit down Xena and finish your dinner. I'll bring over some blueberry pie for dessert when I'm finished with him."
She turned and took a step but then she turned back and smiled her crooked smile.
"Gods I'm glad to see you guys." She said. "I have so much I want to talk about with you. I'll be right back."
Xena watched as Meg hopped in that splayfooted stride of hers over to confront Aden. She forced her body between Thata, who seemed on the verge of getting belligerent, and the tall man. They talked for a few moments while Thata hovered a few paces back, her face red with anger. The Warrior Princess could not hear what they were saying but the body language the man and woman were displaying made hearing the words unneccesary. Xena's focus was not so great however that she did not see Gabrielle steal some grapes off her plate. Suddenly Aden shouted furiously.
"Bitch!! Don't tell me what to do!!"
He took a swing at Meg but she ducked it. Experienced alley fighter that she was Meg hit Aden with a right to the face that snapped his head back a little and she tried to follow with a left but the tall man blocked it. He countered with a powerful left uppercut to the stomach that nearly lifted Meg off her feet. She collapsed to the ground on her hands and knees gasping for air. Aden pulled his leg back ready to finish her with a kick to the head when the left claw of a lion sank deep into his shoulder. He was spun around and a thunderous right hand connected with his nose. His head snapped all the way back and blood spurted from both nostrils. Xena grabbed Adens arm and twisted it around behind him till she could feel his shoulder on the verge of dislocating before his weight shifted and he did a flip and landed with a breathtaking thud on the floor beside Meg. Immediatly the Lion had the dazed man by the hair and she yanked him to his feet and sent him flying backwards with a powerful front kick to the chest. He only stopped when he smashed into the wooden column in the center of the room, the entire building shaking with the impact. Patrons scattered in all directions as Xena walked up to the barely conscious man and grabbed him by the hair again to hold him up before he slumped to the ground. She unhooked her chakram and started to bring it up but a hand took hold of her wrist. Her head flew around to find green eyes gazing into her own. She took a deep breath and let it out and the fire in her blue eyes receded a bit.
"Okay." Xena said quietly. Then her eyes shifted to Meg. She was sitting doubled over in a chair, tears streaming down her face, surrounded by Thata, Tully and half a dozen regulars of the restaurant. She seemed on the verge of hysteria. "Help Meg."
Gabrielle nodded and let go of the Lions wrist. Xena rehooked her chakram and turned to Aden. The mans eyes had regained some focus and the Warrior Princess saw his hand go to the dagger in his belt. Her own hand still full of Aden's hair she waited patiently for him to pull the weapon. He looked into Xena's eyes and after a moments hesitation his hand moved away from the knife.
Xena sneered with contempt. "Maybe you're not as stupid as you look." She said. Then she moved her mouth close to his ear. "Or maybe you're just a coward."
She reared back and slammed a fist into the pit of the mans stomach doubling him over but she immediatly pulled him back up straight again by the hair. He gasped for air, blood spraying from his lips.
"I intended to turn you into a corpse friend Aden." Xena said in a mockingly conversational tone. "But someone I love has asked me to spare your life and I'm such a mushy, softhearted romantic these days I find I just can't refuse her anything."
The Lion again slammed her fist into Aden's stomach and yanked him up straight.
"So, lucky you, you're going to leave this establishment alive after all. But first you have a task to perform."
Xena pulled the man staggering over in front of Meg as the group around her parted. Gabrielle, who had been kneeling in front of Meg stroking her cheek stood up beside her.
"This is Meg." The Lion growled in Aden's ear. "A successful businesswoman of Delphi. A very nice person. And a good friend of mine. I don't see any resemblence between her and a dog at all. Do you?"
"N,n, no."The man gasped.
"So I'm sure you're very embarrassed by mistaking her for a dog and would like to apologize wouldn't you."
"Y,y, yes." Aden said, blood from his nose flying off his lips. "I apologize Meg."
"There, I feel better." Xena said. Then she shook the mans head by the hair and growled in his ear. "I don't care how you feel."
Meg, who had been looking up at Aden through watery eyes put her head down almost to her knees and sobbed. Gabrielle knelt down again in front of Meg and put her cheek against hers and whispered soothingly in her ear. Xena turned Aden around and marched him to the door. When they got there the Warrior Princess pulled his head close to her mouth.
"If you ever come here again," she rumbled in her warlord voice, "or harrass anyone who works here, I will find you and cut your heart out and throw it in the street for the real bitches. If you doubt I'll do it, I'm Xena, I come from Amphipolis, if you don't know the name you better ask someone who does."
The Warrior Princess could see from the look in Adens eyes that he would not have to ask. She released his hair.
"By the way. Nila says hello."
Xena smashed her fist into the mans ribs and he could feel two of them crack and give way. He doubled over with an intense grunt of pain. The Lion went around behind him, put a foot on his backside, said "now friend Aden, disappear" and propelled him into the street.
When Xena joined the people around Meg she could see the worry and fear in Tully's and Thata's faces. They had been with her since she bought the place with the money Queen Diana's father left her when he died, and had seen her in more than a few tavern brawls, as she acted as her own bouncer. Usually she won, a few times she lost and took a beating, but never had they seen her weeping and hysterical like this. Gabrielle said something in Meg's ear then stood up and pulled Xena away from the group. She looked up at the Warrior Princess with frightened eyes.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" She asked.
Xena shrugged her shoulders and sighed. "What else could it be?"
"Is there anything we can do Xena? Anything?" The bard pleaded.
The Lion shook her head sadly. "Very little. But let's get her to bed and calmed down. Then all we can do is wait and hope and be there whatever happens."
Xena went over and knelt in front of Meg who was still bent double clutching her stomach against the spasms of pain she felt in her abdomen. Her eye makeup was streaked down her face in black lines and her lipstick was mixed with mucus from her runny nose.
"We're going up to your room to lay down Meg." Xena said quietly. "Just relax and let me do everything."
The Warrior Princess gently took Meg's arm and put it around her neck and then she lifted the woman easily up like she would a sleepy child and started for the blue curtained doorway. Gabrielle and Thata followed close behind while Tully unconvincingly assured everyone that everything would be all right. Past the curtain was a hallway to the left that led to a small anteroom where the customer met with the lady of his choice. The strong smell of smoke and baking chicken permeated the air as the two big ovens that Zephia used for her cooking were just outside the back door, covered by a ramshakle awning attached to the building. The plates of food had to be brought from the kitchen through the backdoor, down a hallway through the center of the building past the small cubicles on each side used by the girls to entertain their clients, past the anteroom till the corridor intersected with the hallway running along the back wall of the restaurant. Then down the hall and through the blue curtain to the braziers to be rewarmed after their long trip. Gabrielle could see at a glance why only Meg's loyalty to her girls kept the brothel open.
Directly in front of Xena were steep stairs attached to the outside wall leading up to the second floor. The Lion bounded up them gracefully despite the awkward weight in her arms. Thata and Gabrielle huffed and puffed their way up, holding tight to the sharply sloped handrail. At the top was a small landing emptying on a narrow hallway that ran almost the length of the building next to the outer wall. Six doors were spaced evenly along it. At the end of the corridor was another door instead of a wall. Meg, Tully, Thata and whichever of the girls who had not found acceptable lodging somewhere away from work lived in the small rooms on this floor. Xena headed for the door closest to the landing and was about to push it open with her foot when Thata spoke up.
"No Xena." She said. "Meg has moved."
Thata squeezed past Gabrielle and the Warrior Princess and headed down the hall toward the back, motioning them to follow. Meg seemed oblivious to everything, her eyes tightly shut, hand on her belly, taking in air in long deep gasping breathes.
"Doesn't that last door just open into a big dirty storeroom full of junk?" The bard called after Thata.
"Used to." She replied.
Thata opened the door and stood back. Xena entered the room followed by Gabrielle.
"Ooohhh." The sound escaped from the bard before she could stop it.
The room was stunning. A big, four poster bed with a canopy and lace curtains dominated the space. Big fluffy down pillows were at the end next to the wall and a beautiful multicolored comforter with geometric designs covered it. The floor was strewn with half a dozen black and brown bearskins. An exquisitely carved bench with ivory arm rests stood against one wall across from the bed. On the opposite wall stood a marble topped vainity with a colorful porceline washbasin, towels and Meg's makeup and toiletries all neatly arranged. Two matching cherrywood chairs were at the foot of the bed. A large, stoutly made, finely crafted wardrobe was against the wall next to the open door, stuffed with clothes male and female. Above the bench were two pegs. On one hung Joxers strange conical helmet and dented, rusty body armour. On the other his thick bladed sword and scabbard. Everything was tastefully coordinated in color, style and execution, the certain work of a talented decorator with a large budget.
The first door down the hall from Meg's room opened and Irene stuck her head into the corridor, curious about all the movement. When she spotted Meg in Xena's arms her face clouded.
"By the Gods, Thata. What's happened?"
Thata moved toward Irene, her body blocking the doorway of Meg's room. She put up her hand.
"Everything will be fine Irene. Meg's friends are here to help her. Go on back and take care of Nila and the baby. I'll tell you everything later." She made a shooing motion with her hand. "Go on now."
Irene frowned and reluctantly stepped back and closed the door. Thata turned to the Lion and the bard.
"Everyone in the place will be coming up to see her." She said. "I'll stop them at the bottom of the stairs."
She looked at Meg with pained affection.
"Take care of her, okay." She said quietly.
Gabrielle reached out and put her hand on Thata's arm, making that connection she always effortlessly made with people.
"We won't leave her as long as she needs us. I promise."
Thata sighed, nodded her head once and closed the door.
Xena laid her burden gently on the bed and fluffed a pillow under her head. Gabrielle grabbed a towel off the washstand, soaked it in the porceline washbasin and went to Meg. The bed was so large and wide the little bard could hardly reach Meg standing beside it. So she immediatly went around, crawled onto the bed and lay down next to her patient, putting one arm protectively around the top of her head while the other hand gently sponged Meg's face, removing all the makeup, tears and mucus.
Xena stood silently at the foot of the bed, watching the process begin with quiet fascination. She never tired of watching her beloved work. To anyone who had never seen it before it seemed like a gift from the Gods, this mesmerizing ability Gabrielle had to wrap a cocoon of warmth and tenderness and love around a sick or injured person, buoying them up, restoring their spirit, nourishing their will to live. How many people had emerged from one of the bard's cocoons alive and healing after the Lion had written them off as hopeless. Xena had happily lost count. But the Warrior Princess understood it was no gift of the Gods, this ability. It was a deliberate act of thought, will and creation. She knew the bard approached every situation and person with one simple idea, 'how can I make things better.' She had watched with admiration and swelling pride as Gabrielle discovered over time the power of touch, concern, simple acts of kindness to positively affect a person who was suffering. The bard had developed and practiced and refined her skills with as much discipline and forethought as Xena applied to readying herself for battle.
As Gabrielle stroked Meg's cheek and whispered in her ear and Xena could see the spasms of pain in her stomach subside the Lion wondered for the thousandth time why this remarkable person loved her above all others. Then suddenly Xena made a decision. She decided never to ask herself that question again. 'Gabrielle loves me. Solon loves me. The mystery of it will always surpass my understanding. All I can do is be certain that every day they understand how much I love them.' And Xena smiled at Gabrielle that smile that always made the bards heart leap. Gabrielle noticed the look and smiled back and her eyes shone and she mouthed the words, 'I love you too Xena.' The Lion closed her eyes for just a moment and she could feel two hearts beating in her chest but she did not feel fragile at all. She felt like she could take the world off Atlas's shoulders and twirl it on her finger.
When Meg finally calmed enough that her breathing was normal and the tears had stopped Gabrielle gave Xena the used towel and she pressed her body close to Meg's and she took her patients hand and kissed it and looked deep in her eyes.
"How far along are you Meg?" She asked.
Meg turned her head away from the bard and squeezed her eyes shut and took several deep breathes.
"About three months." She said without opening her eyes.
"Joxer is the father?" Xena asked as she put a freshly soaked and squeezed towel on the bed where the bard could reach it.
Meg answered by shrugging her shoulders and making one small quick nod of her head.
Gabrielle stroked her patients forehead and cheek and leaned close to Meg's ear.
"Does he know?" She said in a whisper.
Meg's body became rigid with suppressed emotion and a tear escaped her tightly shut eye but she said nothing.
"Don't cry Meg. It's all right. Xena and I are staying right here as long as you want us too. Our only concern is you." The bard felt her hand being pressed tight.
Xena decided to try a new tac with Meg. She sat down on the bed close to her feet.
"Tell us about you and Joxer this winter Meg. This room is so beautiful. How did all this happen?" She said.
Meg took a couple of deep breaths and opened her eyes just enough to peek through her lashes at Xena and Gabrielle, who waited patiently for her to speak. Finally she sighed and gathered her courage.
"Well," She said slowly. "You know Joxer's been a really, you know, close friend for a long time. You know, really close. I've always liked him alot. But I didn't expect him to be faithful to me or anything. Nobody ever has before and I didn't worry about it or anything. And he's really popular with the girls, you know how he is. He makes you laugh and he's always sweet and some of them would give him freebies just to show they liked having him around. But this winter we were like together alot, working on the restaurant and the parchment stuff and you know, it's like we're building something together. When I bought this place from old Mithredes I just ran it exactly like he did. The way I remembered from when I worked here years ago. You didn't know that did you? That I was a working girl here for a couple years. I was just running his place. But the restaurant. That's something I created. It's mine. My work. I've never felt anything like...I...uh...I feel like a real person, you know, like I'm doing something with my life and not just stupid old Meg scruffing around surviving one day to the next like some dumb animal."
A tear escaped her eye, and then another. She reached up and wiped her nose with the back of her hand because she could feel it running.
"And Joxer is really a part of it. He's here every day doing things and making things easier for me. It's... exciting. Exciting to lay in bed at night with him and talk about the things we've done that day and what we're going to do tomorrow." Meg took a deep breath. " One day, about four months ago, Irene, who always liked Joxer too, asked me what was wrong with him. She said she had invited him a couple of times to visit her when it was slow but he only gave her some goofy excuse and didn't come. She laughed and said I must be wearing him out. I just laughed too. But, maybe I shouldn't have, but I asked some of the other girls that gave him freebies and they said the same thing. He wouldn't visit them either. Even when they asked him to. He's never said anything about it to me and I never would have asked him, but he's being... being faithful to me. He really just wants me." Suddenly Meg could not control herself anymore and she buried her face in her pillow and sobbed.
Gabrielle looked at Xena with eyes full of emotion and she had to wipe her own nose. The Lions eyes were vacant. Her mind was focused inward, remembering that feeling of aching empty lonliness she had suffered with for so long before she found someone to fill it.
With the bards gentle touch and words to help, Meg finally regained her composure. She made a little motion with her hand indicating the room.
"I've been trying to make things nice for us. I had a decorator that worked for King Althades in here drawing up plans even before I knew I was pregnant. And I've tried to make myself look nice. I want him to know how important he is to me. But I don't know. I'm probably doing everything wrong. I don't know anything about how to make someone want to stay with me." Meg took a deep breath and wiped her nose again."I was pregnent once when I was young but I lost that one after four months. What a mess I was. The father was scum and the truth is I was scum too. That babies life would have been a misery. I was grateful the gods took it before it saw the ugly life I would have given it. After all these years I thought something was broken in me and I would never have children. But now I have a chance, a chance to have a real family. To have the family I've never had in my life. I want Joxer's baby. More than anything I've ever wanted. And I want him here loving it and raising it with me." Meg looked at Xena and Gabrielle with desperation in her eyes. " I can't lose this baby. I can't. I can't lose either of them."
Gabrielle kissed Meg's hand. "Why haven't you told him about the baby? Why haven't you told him you love him.?"
Meg laid her head back on her pillow and turned her face away from Gabrielle and Xena.
"I don't know how." She said in a choked, quivering whisper. "I've never said those words to anyone before."
Gabrielle was hanging up Meg's green dress in the wardrobe and Xena was sitting on the bench reading from one of the bards scrolls she had found lying on it when Joxer burst into the room.
"Guys." He said in that grandeloquent voice he used to try to sound impressive. "You're here. I'm so glad to see ya." But he did not look at either Xena or Gabrielle. His eyes were rivited on Meg. He went across the room and sat on the bed next to her. She had changed into a night shift and was bundled under the comforter. He grabbed her hand and held it to his chest.
"Thata told me about that scrurrying little lowlife Aden." He said looking into her eyes. "Joxer the Mighty should have been here. I would have stomped on him like a cockroach."
Meg smiled and squeezed Joxers hand. "It's alright. Xena took care of him. Everythings fine."
The bard and the Lion exchanged a glance.
"He just hit you once right?" Joxer asked. "In the stomach. You're alright, right?" The bravado in his voice was tinged with fear.
"I'm just fine Joxer really." Meg said. "I'm just resting."
Gabrielle came and sat on the opposite side of the bed from Joxer. She looked at Meg and gave a reproachful shake of her head. Meg's eyebrows knitted and she looked away from the bard. Joxer was usually not to quick picking up the subtleties of nonverbal communication but even he could sense that something was going on. He looked at Gabrielle hoping for some clue but the bard just stared at Meg. He shifted his gaze to Xena and smiled uncertainly but she had on her impenetrable warlord face. A statue would have revealed more information.
Unsure what was happening or what to do Joxer tried to do as he usually did in nervous situations. Bluff his way through.
"You guys must have seen the restaurant." He said, throwing back his shoulders and puffing out his chest. "Best place in Delphi. Best food without a doubt. Our chicken dinners are so good the Gods sneak in here in disguise to eat them. Right Meg?"
He looked at her smiling but she avoided his eyes. He felt shaky inside. He wanted to beg Meg to tell him what was the matter but he did not want to appear weak and lost and the last to know in front of Xena and Gabrielle. He bulled his way on.
"What do you think of the clothes?" He stood up without releasing Meg's hand. He was wearing a black, waist length vest with a white linen shirt underneath and black pants with a fine dagger similar to Aden's in a scabbard in his belt. "No more scruffy Joxer. I like to go with a little class these days." He sat down again looking at Meg. "We even like to go out and do classy things don't we. We went and saw that play Antigone at the Amphitheatre. It was great. I can't say I understood just what it was all about but I had the best looking lady there sitting next to me. All the other guys were green with envy. And some new play is there now. The Trojan Girls or something like that. You like plays Gabrielle. We could all go together. Right Meg.?"
He looked again at Gabrielle and Xena's somber faces and then at Meg who again refused to meet his eyes with her own. It was too much. Weak or not he had to know what was going on. He leaned down closer to Meg.
"What's the matter Meg?" He said in a low, almost pleading voice. "Tell me. You are alright aren't you?"
Meg squeezed Joxers hand but turned her head away with her eyes tight shut. Gabrielle reached out and touched Joxers arm.
"Joxer." She said. "Meg is..."
"I'm scared Joxer." Meg interrupted. "I'm scared that I'm going to lose your baby. I'm trying not to. I'm trying."
She could not force any more words out through the lump in her throat. She wanted to open her eyes and see his reaction but she could not bring herself to take the risk. What if his face said it was an unwanted surprise. What if he looked like all he wanted to do was run away and leave her, like everyone always left her. She felt a tear trickle down her cheek. 'Stop crying!' she thought. 'Since when do I do all this crying.' Suddenly warm familiar lips were pressed against her mouth and a hand was stroking her cheek. A thrill of relieved delight raced through her body and she took a sudden gasping gulp of air. "Joxer." The word came up from the deepest part of her heart and she wrapped her arms around her man and pulled him to her with all the strength she could find.
Day turned into evening into night. Candles were lit around the room. Joxer and Meg talked excitedly for a long time, making a hundred different plans, considering a hundred different ideas. Sometimes they just jabbered at each other without listening out of sheer exhilaration. Never once was mentioned the possibility that all might not be right with the baby. Shortly after sundown Meg felt shooting pains through her abdomen but they passed quickly and she let the incident go without comment.
Xena spent the time sitting on the bench reading scrolls or just thinking. Gabrielle always thought one of the the most interesting contradictions of Xena's personality was that this woman who could erupt into a tornado of motion and furious, boundless energy on a battlefield could also sit an entire day as still as a granite mountain, lost in the maze of her own mind. It was not a trait the bard shared. Sitting still was a torment for her. She puttered around the room restlessly cleaning and straightening, habitually, Xena sometimes thought obsessively, neat and organized.
full darkness arrived Thata knocked lightly on the door and brought in dinner. She let out a relieved and grateful sigh to see that Meg appeared relaxed and happy. When Gabrielle returned from taking the dirty dishes downstairs she sat down next to Xena on the bench. The Warrior Princess welcomed her with a smile and a kiss. The bard peeked over at Meg and Joxer. Meg grinned. Joxer was too busy making a grand statement about something or other to Meg to notice anything past the end of his nose. 'I wonder' Gabrielle thought 'if they realize how much trust Xena has in them to allow them to see that.' Sometimes it bothered the bard that her lover could show her in a hundred ways the depth of her love and commitment in private, but in public she could not even bring herself to hold hands.
After sitting silent for a few moments watching Meg and Joxer talk Gabrielle motioned Xena to bend her ear down close.
"They've been chattering all day, "She whispered, "and not once has either of them said 'I love you.'"
Xena nodded sadly. "I know. But it will come. Someday." The Lion took Gabrielle's hand and kissed it. "It came for us."
The bard smiled longingly at Xena. "And it was worth the wait." She said and she pulled Xena's head down and carressed her lips with her own.
As midnight approached Xena stood up and checked her weapons. Everyone looked at her questioningly.
"I'm going to see how Argo is doing." The Warrior Princess said matter of factly. "Then I'm going to take a good long look around. Hard as it is to believe, thugs like Aden sometimes have friends. If they want trouble they've got it." Xena smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry, I won't kill anyone."
She turned and left. As she passed through the doorway she mumbled under her breath, "Unless they need killing."
It was closer to dawn than midnight when Xena slipped back into the room. Joxer, who was standing at the foot of the bed, jumped with fright when he finally realized the Warrior Princess was standing beside him. After he caught his breath he whispered heatedly. "You don't have to sneak up on your friends you know!"
Xena chuckled. An elephant could sneak up on Joxer without even trying.
"Sorry." She said quietly. "Bad habit."
"Okay, okay." Joxer said distractedly, running his hand nervously through his hair. "Everything alright?"
The Lion put her hand on the bedpost but noticed a spot of blood on her knuckle and quickly brought it down and discreetly wiped it on the back of her leathers.
"Just fine, no problem." She replied. "Ran into a couple of burglars but they decided it was a bad night for burgling and went home."
"Uh huh." Joxer said, not hearing a word. He turned and started pacing around the room, head down, eyes vacant. Xena looked at the bed. Meg was under the comforter asleep. Beside her Gabrielle had piled some pillows and was sitting almost upright with her arm drapped protectively around Meg's head and shoulders. The bards head was lolled back and to the side as she dozed, a steady, quiet snore coming from her slightly open mouth. Xena smiled. 'Poke her in the ribs Meg' she said to herself. 'She'll stop.'
Joxer paced past the Warrior Princess, went over to the bench and collapsed heavily onto it. He put his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands for a moment, then ran both hands slowly through his hair and a short sharp rush of air came out of his lungs. Xena watched quietly. It was not hard to guess what was going through his mind. Now, in the deepest part of the night, with the initial happy shock of it all wearing off, Joxer was facing the reality of his situation. He had created a life. And a lifetime of responsibility. He had never carried the weight of responsibiltiy before. No one had ever asked him to carry it. In fact most people seemed anxious to keep it from him and he was happy to let them. Responsibility was heavy and unrelenting and frightening. But now when he looked into Meg's eyes, even as she smiled at him, she was asking. Please.
Joxer straightened up and crossed his arms, almost like he was hugging himself for comfort. 'Meg will need so much from me,' he thought 'and the baby too. What do I have to offer. What kind of father would I be. My father was a bully and a thug who threw me out cause he thought I was a weakling. How much of my life did I waste trying to prove I was as worthless as him. Till Xena and Gabrielle showed me something better.'
Joxer looked at Meg peacefully sleeping and his heart sank. 'Oh my Meg. You deserve better than me. I don't have it. I'm not man enough for this.'
The Lion, who had been watching Joxers face intently, slowly and deliberatly walked over to the bench. She turned and sat down, forcing Joxer to move over to accomodate her. She nonchalantly crossed her legs and adjusted the gauntlets on her wrists. Then she settled back with that regal, straight as an iron bar posture, her hands carefully folded on her knee. Joxer sighed and ran his hand through his hair again. But something inside him seemed to change. He looked at Xena, commanding, powerful, a woman who could not be broken by the heaviest burden. Who made the impossible possible and the unbearable bearable. He could not help but sit up straighter just being next to her. 'The Lion of Amphipolis would do what's right.' he thought 'and she expects me to do it.' He straightened his spine til it matched Xena's. He looked at Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon Nation hovering protectively over the mother of his child and the greatest warrior of Greece sitting at his side, all of her power and skill at his disposal if he needed it. How could Joxer the Mighty feel weak. He was in the company of greatness here and his child would be raised surrounded by it. He looked at Meg and for a moment he saw her sitting up with that crooked happy smile on her face and a beautiful baby in her arms sucking contentedly at her breast. He started to put his hand out to touch that breathtaking vision and it was gone.
Joxer took a couple of deep breathes. He steadied himself and looked at Xena.
"I'm glad you guys are here." He said in a low voice.
Xena looked back at Joxer and smiled.
"We're glad we're here too."
It was almost dawn. Joxer was handing Xena a cup of wine he had gotten from downstairs when Meg awoke with a sudden sharp stab of pain in her abdomen. She bolted upright holding her stomach. Gabrielle was instantly awake and alert. She put her arm around Meg's shoulder.
"Meg, what is it?"
Another sharp wave of contractions started. Meg doubled over gasping with pain.
"Oh please. Oh please. Oh please." She repeated in a tight, squeeking voice till the pain eased. With Gabrielle's help she straightened up. Xena walked around calmly and sat next to Meg. Joxer paced wildly at the foot of the bed unable to watch what was happening.
Another, harder wave of contractions started. Meg doubled all the way over moaning and breathing in short rasping gasps. Gabrielle rubbed her neck and shoulders, knowing it probably did no good but desperate to do something. When the spasm eased Meg straightened some and tears washed in riverlets down both cheeks.
"Please don't take my baby, please don't take my baby." She begged whatever Gods might be listening..
Xena stroked Meg's cheek and looked solemnly into her watery, haunted eyes.
"I can give you a nerve pinch to ease the pain." She said.
"NO!" Meg gasped. "I have too feel my baby. I have to feel it. I can't let it leave me!"
One more wave of contractions started. The worst yet. Meg could not even groan. She just doubled over and panted, desperate to get air in her lungs. At last the muscles began relaxing and the pain subsided. The panting turned to long gulps of oxygen. The bard helped Meg lay slowly back down to her pillow. Xena handed her a wet towel and Gabrielle sponged Meg's face, whispering soothing words in her ear. Joxer continued pacing frantically.
When Meg was finally calm Gabrielle looked at Xena with sorrowful eyes.
"I should look to be sure." She said in a barely audible whisper.
The Warrior Princess sighed and nodded. Meg turned her head and tears again trickled down her cheeks.
The sad silence was broken suddenly by a decisive, dangerous 'scheeenk.' Exactly the same sound as Xena's blade made when it left its scabbard. The three women looked over to see Joxer by the bench, his sword in his hand.
Meg propped herself on her elbow and reached toward him.
"Joxer, what are you doing?"
He ignored her and headed for the door.
"Joxer please don't. Please!!" Meg screamed as he disappeared. She grabbed Xena's hand. "Stop him." She begged. "By the gods please stop him."
Joxer was halfway to the stairs when Xena's voice caught up to him.
"Joxer can I talk to you?"
"Not now Xena." He said coldly.
He was almost to the first step when a strong hand caught his shoulder and spun him around.
"I have to talk to you Joxer." Xena said firmly.
"This is my concern Xena." Joxer said, his eyes on fire like the Lion had never seen before. "Don't interfere."
"No!" The Warrior Princess replied sharply. "This is our concern. Your family is here now Joxer. This concerns all of us." Xena's voice softened. "Meg doesn't want this from you Joxer." She reached out and grabbed the blade of Joxers sword. " She doesn't want it. She wants the man who gives her life a direction and a purpose. The man who makes her want to better herself. The man whose children she wants to hold in her arms. The man who has taken the pain of lonliness out of her life."
The Lion placed her hand on Joxers shoulder.
"I've seen Joxer the Mighty do many courageous things." She said looking deep into his eyes. "Things I respect very much. But I think the most courageous thing he will ever do, and the most important, is to take the ultimate risk and place his heart in the care of another. I can't promise how it will come out, but I can tell you from my experience Joxer, on that day your life will mean more to you than it ever has before."
The Lions eyes narrowed and her voice became a low rumble.
"As for Aden, if he ever intrudes in our lives again, he will die screaming at the end of my sword. You have my word on it."
Joxer stood motionless breathing deeply. His eyes drifted to the door of his room, then to Xena.
"I should see how my Meg is doing." He said at last.
"Yes, she is your Meg. It's what she wants to be more than anything else. Be her Joxer."
He nodded his head once and started toward the door, then stopped. He turned to Xena and handed her his sword.
"Can you put that back for me? I don't want it in my hand when I go in."
"Of course." Xena replied.
Joxer straightened his shoulders and walked down the hall and disappeared into the room.
Xena took a long, deep gulp of air and let it slowly out. 'I called him family' she thought 'and it wasn't just a word. I felt it deeper than I ever thought possible. What spell are you working on me Gabrielle, that my heart is growing so large.'
At just that moment the door opened and the bard entered the hallway, tears streaming down her face. She walked toward Xena with her arms open and the Warrior Princess was instantly down the corridor gathering Gabrielle in her strong embrace. She stroked the bards hair and kissed the top of her head and hugged her tight. Finally Gabrielle looked up and smiled and her watery eyes glistened.
"She still has it Xena." She said in a hoarse whisper. "Thank Artemis, she still has it!"
END OF MEG'S
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