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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.
The silence surrounding the camp would have been deafening had it not been for the sporadic scraping noise of a stick Iolaus used to draw geometric designs in the dirt at his feet. His eyes had occasionally stolen glances at the petite form while she sat quietly, almost in a trance, twirling her quill above a blank parchment.
"Unm-hmm," Iolaus cleared his voice trying to capture Gabrielles attention. Great, I could be dying here and she would be totally oblivious. "Unm-hmm. Gabrielle..."
"What?" the bard replied with irritation in her voice. Casually raising her head she focused on the only other person in camp. Irritation immediately turned to shock.
"Gabrielle...I think I swallowed...a bug. Im choking here. Think you can help me?"
Quickly and without hesitation the bard ran to her friend, raised her hand and sharply delivered four strikes to his back. "Did that help?" Gabrielle asked as she brought her arm back ready to strike again.
"Whoa...whoa, thats enough," Iolaus coughed as he looked down expecting to see his lungs forced out the front of his chest from the strength of the bards blows.
Kneeling to the side with one arm on his shoulder and one arm resting on his thigh Gabrielle gave a crooked grin. "Well, at least you got a nutritious addition to your breakfast."
Still holding his chest Iolaus took a long breath and said, "Gabrielle, I appreciate your help but I really wasnt choking."
The bards face moved closer and Iolaus would swear the look on her face could rival that of Xenas. She has definitely been around that woman too long, Iolaus thought to himself.
"What?!" the bard demanded. This isnt a joking matter.
"Uh, yeah...uh...I was just trying to break the tension and you jumped in so fast that I couldnt stop you," Iolaus answered with a guilty, sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"Is this pick on Gabrielle day or something?" the bard asked gruffly as she stood and gathered her parchment and quill and headed for the river.
"Gabrielle...dont go too far...." Iolaus yelled to the bards back as it vanished from sight.
"Arrgghh!" was all the response that came from the forest.
She didnt know how long she had been asleep but the ache in her neck and the numbness in her arm testified to the fact it had been too long. Opening and closing her fist she pressed through the tingling, burning sensation of blood flowing back to her fingers. Sleep laden eyes fluttered open as pupils constricted against the brightness of the midday sun. I guess I needed a nap, the bard thought to herself. Or maybe my stories are beginning to put ME to sleep. Gabrielle pushed her body into a sitting position and brushed the stray leaves and grass from her arms and clothing.
"Feeling better?" came the voice from somewhere near the river. She didnt need to look to confirm the owner. She knew that voice, a voice that seemed to match the body of the owner. Mid-range, earthy, comical at times...tender at times, were words a gifted storyteller might use to describe him. Gabrielles thoughts traveled to a dark cave where arms gently cradled the man while telling a story of one soul and two hearts torn apart. Why did that story spark such feelings then and why do I have the same stirrings now?
"Yes, thank you," the bard answered in a soft voice. As Gabrielle stood she straightened the flaps of her skirt and combed fingers through the long blonde hair that draped her shoulders. Raising her arms above her head she stretched her trim body and leaned from side to side, then with elbows shoulder height she rotated her torso, right and left. Oh, that feels so good. Lifting her arms to the side and above her head, like a butterfly, she inhaled and exhaled slowly and deeply. Now I know why Xena calls this a cleansing breath. Inspecting her clothing one last time she noticed a pink irritation just under the right shoulder strap of her top. Hmm. What is that? Casually, yet discretely, she checked the left shoulder. Must be a heat rash of some sort, the bard thought while gently scratching the pink tissue.
Iolaus sat patiently on the large boulder and watched the bard as she stretched, brushed and adjusted...whatever it is that women adjust. She is so beautiful. I cant believe someone hasnt caught her yet. Well, there was Perdicas but unfortunately no one else. Of course her life with Xena is like my life with Hercules and none of us have time for romance much less marriage. Romance... his thoughts drifted to a tree in the meadow with a soft breeze caressing shoulder length blonde hair and the trembling lips of a sweet young bard. The kiss began cautiously and tenderly and ended with a hint of the passion that lie in wait.
"Iolaus are you okay?" the bard asked as she waved her hand in front of his eyes.
Abruptly reined from his dreaminess Iolaus face flushed slightly. "Its a little warm today isnt it?" Iolaus asked trying to conceal his embarrassment.
"Yeah, a little. Why dont we move over to the boulder under that large willow tree and we can fish for our lunch. You catch and clean, Ill cook and clean," the bard offered.
"Sounds like a fair deal to me," Iolaus replied.
They had been riding hard trying to cover as much distance as possible. Xena could hear and feel Argos labored breathing and knew they must stop soon or they would be completely afoot. Their current path followed parallel to the river and with a slight tightening of her grip around Hercules waist she made her request known.
"I know Xena. Well stop just ahead and take a breather." Hercules slowed Argo down to a trot as they approached a clearing. Dismounting Argo, Hercules and Xena lead the warhorse down a well-worn trail to the banks of the river. After removing the saddle and blanket, Xena released the reins and allowed the horse to drink and feed at her leisure for she knew Argo would not stray far from her mistress. Hercules was refilling the wineskins when Xena slowly knelt and cupped her hands in the cool water.
"Well rest and eat here if thats okay with you?" Xena said as she splashed her face with the refreshing water.
"Sounds fine to me," Hercules replied as he capped both wineskins and tossed them to the side. "Do you want to hunt our lunch or cook it?"
"Breakfast...remember...?" Xena said as she raised her eyebrow with a look of disbelief.
"Hey, I think everyone deserves nine chances just like a cat," Hercules teased, taking a seat on the grass beside the warrior.
Xena cocked her head just enough for Hercules to catch a glimpse of her wicked grin. "I dont think it will take that many chances for you to die from my cooking." In one smooth move Xena pulled her sword out of its sheath and studied it for a moment as it glistened in the sunlight. "Stabbing would be easier," she said dryly, "but I just cleaned my sword."
Hercules chuckled at Xenas sense of humor. There werent many people who saw this side of the Warrior Princess and he was honored that she felt comfortable enough around him to let her guard down. "Breakfast wasnt that bad. Remember I have to eat Iolaus cooking sometimes."
Iolaus. Why did he have to mention his name? Is Gabrielle all right? I hate leaving her but I cant do this and worry about her safety. Of course, I worry about her whether shes with me or not. I dont want to think what my life would be like if she had not forced her way in that day. She sat there on the log, afraid of every little noise, refusing to go home and saying she would run away if I took her back. So adventurous, so courageous...so stubborn. Yeah, thats the word. Of all the words in Gabrielles vocabulary, and Ive heard just about all of them, stubborn is probably the most accurate.
"Xena, are you still with me?" Hercules asked with concern in his blue eyes as he placed a strong hand on the warriors shoulder.
"I was just thinking about Iolaus and Gabrielle. You know how trouble seems to find them."
"Im sure theyre fine and I know Iolaus would never let any harm come to Gabrielle," Hercules said reassuringly.
"I know. Ive never doubted that," Xena replied with a look that could only be described as sorrowful.
"Its just that you would never forgive yourself if something happened to Gabrielle and you werent there to save her," Hercules said with personal conviction. He knew exactly how the warrior felt because his friendship with Iolaus ran the same depth. If I couldnt save my best friend, with all the power I have, it would utterly destroy me.
With a look of pain and helplessness that only a small circle of friends were allowed privy to, Xena softly replied, "Yeah."
Extending his arm further to surround both shoulders, Hercules drew the warrior to his chest into a comforting embrace. Though tense at first, Xenas body soon relaxed beneath the familiar arms which soothed and warmed her. We were like this once. So close. You said I unchained your heart but you never knew what affect you had on me. I didnt have the words or the courage to tell you everything I felt that day. I couldnt beg you to stay when I knew you had to do this on your own. The words came from your lips but my heart knew them to be true. To change for my sake would only destroy you in the end. Some emotions and desires cannot be silenced. They lie dormant in our hearts, cocooned in silken memories, only to be released once again by a familiar word, a look...a touch.
"Okay, Ill hunt and you cook," the warrior whispered as she gently patted the arms that encircled her. "Guess I should get up and start hunting if were going to eat." Despite understanding the commands, her body did not seem to be responding to the logical portion of her brain. Her body was listening instead to the thumping which began in her chest and resonated through her entire being.
"What is taking him so long?" Even Im faster than that, the bard mentally teased as she finished stoking the fire. Hearing a noise from behind her the bard jumped to her feet, grabbed her staff, and turned just in time to greet four large bass, eyeballs to eyeballs.
"Think thats enough for the two of us?" Iolaus asked, a small giggle evident in his voice. He knew about his appetite and he remembered Gabrielles so he wasnt taking any chances. How can anyone so small eat so much? Gabrielle was quite simply a paradox. There was a sweetness and compassion in her that you couldnt resist. Maybe it was the innocence of a young girl or maybe her hunger for excitement but it was tangible and contagious and it made him feel alive whenever she was around. On the other hand, he had seen Gabrielle hold her own in several battles on and off the field. Who else could stand toe to toe against the Warrior Princess, the Destroyer of Nations and live to tell the tale?
"Where were you? I was worried. Are you hurt? Did you find something?" the bard blurted without taking a breath.
"Uh...fishing, thanks, no and yes," Iolaus replied with a twinkle in his eyes.
Taken aback, the bard stood with her mouth open and a puzzled look on her face. Her thoughts finally catching up, she rubbed her furrowed brow and asked, "Yes?! Yes, what?"
"Yes, I found something," Iolaus said continuing the game, savoring every moment.
"What did you find?" You know, I could do Xenas pinch on you and find out everything I need to know, Gabrielle thought as she began to unconsciously rub her index and second fingers. Isnt it bad enough that I have to deal with Xenas short answers?
Pulling his left hand from behind his back he presented a small pouch.
"You found someones pouch? This is your big discovery?" the bard asked, pointing to the pouch, her frustration rising another degree. Is it thirty or forty seconds on the pinch before they die?
"No, thats my pouch," Iolaus said biting his bottom lip, fighting the urge to giggle.
Xena, I swear, if Iolaus is dead when you get back dont blame me. Gabrielle rolled her eyes in disbelief. "You lost your pouch and then you found it? Is that what youre telling me? Even Joxer is smarter than that."
"No, I didnt lose MY pouch! Just look inside!"
Snatching the pouch and jerking it open her eyes grew wide. "Berries! You found berries!" the bard said joyfully. Thinking to herself the bard paused, examined the pouch closely, and then gave a sigh of relief.
"Gabrielle, I already checked for spiders. I wouldnt want either of us to go through that again."
"Its a habit," Gabrielle said shrugging her shoulders and smiling as she looked back at a lopsided grin and the bass Iolaus held. "Those will make wonderful filets. Ill go find some tubers and maybe some mushrooms while you clean them. Well feast like royalty."
With a curtsy and an impish grin she asked, "By your leave?"
"Oh, but of course," Iolaus said in his most aristocratic voice.
"Xena, I realize you didnt tell Gabrielle everything about our trip, and I wont be the one to tell her, but are you certain she will forgive you?" Hercules asked as he saddled Argo.
"Im not certain of anything...anymore. As much as I love her, I would rather have her hating me and be alive, than loving me and be...dead." The last word fell hauntingly from her lips as if it held prophetic powers. "Our first goal is to get the dagger. If Callisto gets to it there will be no stopping her."
"She cant kill all of us at once, god or not," Hercules said flatly.
"Where Callisto is concerned, Ive found that anything is possible. Who would have thought she could survive that fall with Velasca? She was bad enough as an immortal. And to think I TOLD Gabrielle to give her the ambrosia," Xena said with contempt as her mind recalled the fateful scene on the rope bridge. Gabrielle hung perilously by her hands above the lava flow, the pouch with ambrosia clinched between her teeth. Xena watched as Callisto moved toward the bard. Her world could have been shattered in one single stroke but Callistos greed for the ambrosia was stronger than her need for revenge and Xena knew in that moment her choice was made.
"You only did what you thought was right to protect Gabrielle and the Amazons." Hercules knew from his own experiences that some decisions were nearly impossible and sometimes you simply had to make them, forgive yourself and move on. But forgiveness wasnt a gift the Warrior Princess allowed for herself.
"Yeah, thats what I keep telling myself. You had her secure and imprisoned but no... I had to let her LOOSE. I thought I could control and manipulate her like I had done so many others before. I was wrong...so wrong."
"Stop beating yourself over the past. What has happened cannot be changed. We cant go back in time and correct our mistakes. We live each day with the choices we make and pray they are right. No one can ask more of you than that," Hercules said as he mounted Argo. "Come on, we have work to do."
Taking the extended arm Xena easily lifted herself into position behind her friend. "Lets get this over with!" Xena said as she placed her arms around Hercules waist.
"Work, work, work...thats all you think about," Hercules chided.
"Uh, Gabrielle, I dont want to be nosey, but you seem to be scratching a lot. Did you sit in poison ivy?"
"No, I dont think so. Xena taught me a long time ago what it looks like." I wish she had shown me before I sat down though. "Ive been itching all over for the last day but I just thought it was a heat rash," Gabrielle said as she scratched and searched her body.
"Let me take a look," Iolaus said as he stood and walked over to the log where the bard sat. "Do you have problems like this when you eat certain foods? Have you eaten anything different in the last few days?" Iolaus asked with concern.
"No, I havent found anything that I cant eat." Except Joxers cooking.
Twisting and turning arms and legs, Iolaus did a quick inspection of the bard. "Hmm....Un huh...Hmm."
"Hmm....what?" Gabrielle asked as she became slightly embarrassed at the attention that Iolaus was giving her body. Xena examined her all the time for injuries after a battle or skirmish and it was just routine, but somehow this time felt different. She noticed her temperature rise and her pulse quicken as he made his way around her trim form. Stop looking at me that way. Youre making me uncomfortable. Breathe Gabrielle, in...out, in...out.
"Well, it seems most of the rash is concentrated in the areas where your clothing rubs," Iolaus said as a matter of fact. "See, you dont have a rash on your stomach, back, neck or legs." Stepping behind her and lifting the bottom edge of her top Iolaus confirmed his suspicions. "Gabrielle, look at the skin under your waist band and see if there is any redness," Iolaus said while maintaining his position behind her.
Gabrielle felt the warmth of his hand as he lifted the edge of her top and hoped he didnt notice the shiver that ran through her body. "I...I can tell you that answer without looking. Ive been scratching there already." Keep your head Gabrielle, this is just Iolaus.
"That settles it."
"That settles what? Do you know whats wrong?" Gabrielle asked, as she turned around, relieved, yet somehow not, that he had moved his hand.
"Gabrielle, have you and Xena changed the soap you use lately?"
"No, we use the same lavender scented soap we always...." the bard said but stopped before completing the sentence.
"So you did change soaps?"
"Well, not exactly."
"What do you mean, not exactly?"
"After helping the villagers in the last town all of our clothes were caked with mud and smoke so a kind elderly woman said she would wash our clothes and they would be ready for us the next morning. It had been some time since our clothes had been washed in something other than the river so we gave her all of our clothes and blankets. She was extremely gracious and said she would be more than happy to wash them. She brought them to our room the next morning and they smelled so wonderful...like roses." I can almost smell them now.
"So you havent washed them since?"
"No, it was just two days ago. Why?"
It will probably go away if we wash everything again and rinse them well. Iolaus thought to himself as he formed a plan. "Okay, all we need to do is wash your clothes again."
"Okay," Gabrielle agreed.
"So gather your clothes, blanket and soap and...oh, yeah, well need the clothes youre wearing."
"Excuse me!" Gabrielle said as both brows disappeared beneath blonde bangs. Did you say what I think you said?
"Gabrielle, we have to get the soap out of all of your clothes. Is there a problem?"
"Yeah, theres a problem." Gabrielle snapped back. Since she and Xena had been traveling together a certain amount of personal space had fallen by the wayside. It wasnt a matter of not respecting each others privacy but simply a lack of need in most instances, after all, they were both women. The current problem was different though, and this person was definitely NOT Xena.
"Xenas not ashamed of her body. Why should you be ashamed of yours?" Iolaus asked a bit confused.
Gabrielle squared her shoulders in a defiant posture and shook her finger at Iolaus. "Look, Im not ashamed of my body! I just have more modesty than Xena!"
Oops, hit a touchy subject did we? "Okay, okay. Ill think of something," Iolaus said raising his hands in a sign of submission. "While Im washing your clothes you need to rinse off in the river." Gabrielle arched her eyebrow. Seeing the look, Iolaus thought he should explain his request. "One, to soothe the itch and reduce the redness and two, to rinse any residue off your skin. We want everything to be clean. Go on and Ill get your clothes after you get in the water. I promise Ill stay right here until I hear you tell me its okay," he said reassuringly.
Gabrielle knew she was fighting a losing battle. Her clothes did need to be cleaned and a bath might help. Wasting no time she ran to the river, quickly shed her garments and yelled just before diving into the water. A man of his word he had remained until hearing her call.
The cool water did feel soothing to her skin, just like Iolaus had said. Ill try almost anything if it will get rid of this itch. This feels so good. I think there should be a law that says you have to go swimming after lunch. Maybe I could suggest that to Xena when she gets back. Feeling relaxed, Gabrielle began to let her body flow gently and effortlessly in the current of the river. She was almost asleep when she heard Iolaus call her name.
Jerking abruptly, she caught a mouthful of water and began coughing and sputtering. When her eyes opened a second time she looked around in confusion. How did I get here?
"I thought I told you to bathe, not sleep," Iolaus teased. "Come on out and you can wrap yourself in my blanket until you dry and I find you something to wear." Turning his back and holding the blanket behind him, he waited for the bard to come out of the river.
Gabrielle felt uneasy about stepping out of the water, after all it was Iolaus, not Xena standing on the bank with the blanket. Hes always been a gentleman with me, why would this be any different? Convincing herself, Gabrielle quickly stepped out of the river and up the bank and took the blanket. "Thank you," Gabrielle said softly as she wrapped the blanket around herself.
"Youre welcome," Iolaus replied tilting his head slightly. "I guess this is one way of keeping you from running off half-cocked."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to respond to the teasing but nothing came out as her mind and eyes focused on something else. "Iolaus, where is your vest?" Gabrielle asked seeing Iolauss bare chest. Stop staring, Gabrielle. Youve seen bare chests before.
Reaching over to a nearby rock, Iolaus picked up his vest. "I thought you could wear it as a top while your clothes dry and I found this piece of cloth for you to use as a skirt."
"Im not sure this will work but Ill try it." Wiggling and adjusting her grip Gabrielle managed to get one arm free under the blanket and took the clothes from Iolaus. Spotting a dense cluster of bushes she quickly stepped behind them for privacy.
"Well? How do they fit? Do they look okay?" Iolaus asked as he stopped whistling.
Feeling a cool breeze on soft tissue that wasnt usually...exposed...even in her skimpy top Gabrielle said softly under her breath, "I dont know about this. This is so humiliating. Im NOT doing this!"
"Are you talking to me?" Iolaus paused again from his whistling.
"No!" Gabrielle answered a bit more harshly than she intended. Xena where are you when I need you?
"Step out here and let me take a look," Iolaus said while trying to guess the reason for the bards delay.
Gabrielle shyly stepped from behind the bushes and stood a few paces in front of Iolaus keeping her arms folded across her trim waist. I cant do this. This wont work.
Iolaus paused a moment and studied the image in front of him. "The cloth works well as a skirt. Move your arms and let me see the vest."
"Un-un," the bard replied, shaking her head adamantly.
"Whats the problem?" Iolaus asked in puzzlement.
With reluctance and a bit of embarrassment Gabrielle raised her arms up and down quickly then placed them back in their original position. There...satisfied!? The motion was over in an instant but Iolaus did catch a glimpse of what the bard might consider to be a problem. Since Iolaus chest was so broad and Gabrielles body so trim, the vest overlapped completely in the front but left gapping holes on the sides.
"Uh...yeah...uh...that could be a problem," Iolaus said, quickly covering his mouth with his fingers to stifle the laugh that was beginning in his throat. He swallowed hard before continuing. "Where do you keep your needle and thread?"
"We keep them with the other medical supplies in the saddlebag on..."
"Argo," they said in unison.
"Okay, do you have an extra pair of boot laces?"
"Those I have," Gabrielle said, strolling over and picking up a leather bag. Rummaging through the bag she quickly found the laces. "Here you are."
"You wouldnt happen to have a small knife in there too, would you?" Iolaus asked looking over her shoulder and peering into the bag.
Reaching in the bag a second time Gabrielle produced a small petite dagger. "Its called a Breast Dagger."
"Thats appropriate," Iolaus teased with a sparkle in his blue eyes.
"Funny," Gabrielle said as a smirk formed on her lips. "Just dont tell Xena that I have one. She always said to use words before weapons."
"All right. Raise your right arm and hold it steady."
"Youre going to close youre eyes, right?" Gabrielle asked with pleading green eyes.
"Gabrielle, do you want the holes in the vest or do you want the holes in you?" Iolaus asked playfully.
"Oh, all right!" Gabrielle said resigning herself to yet another embarrassing moment in her day. Why do these things always happen to me? This wouldnt happen to Xena.
"Gabrielle, hold still. Stop squirming." My hands are having trouble as it is.
"You dont know how humiliating this is for me," Gabrielle said, clinching her teeth and shaking her head.
"You dont know how difficult this is for me," Iolaus said under his breath. I cant believe Im doing this. She is so beautiful, so sweet...so trusting. Dont blow this Iolaus. You can get through this. Concentrate. Youre just helping a friend. A good friend. A good...beautiful...sexy.... "Did I say sexy?"
"What? Did you say something?"
Finished with the right side, Iolaus crossed in front of the bard and said, "Raise your left arm." Looking toward the sky, Gabrielle sighed and did as requested. "Close your eyes and imagine that its Xena and not me."
How do I imagine that youre Xena? What Im I saying? Im a bard, imagination is my gift, she thought to herself. Closing her eyes she pictured the many times Xena would use her sewing skills to mend a tear in her leathers. There was hardly a day that went by that Xena didnt have to put a stitch in something. Hey, this really works. She was just starting to get a handle on the problem when she was abruptly pulled from the mental images by a shiver running through her trim form.
"Whats wrong?" Iolaus asked although he knew the answer.
"Your hands are a little...cold," Gabrielle answered shyly.
"Sorry. Trust me Im doing this as fast as I can. One more hole and...there, that got it." Iolaus took a step back to view his handiwork. Whoa, glad thats over. Not bad if I do say so myself. "There, does that feel better?"
Gabrielle twisted and lifted each arm to examine the effect for herself. Reaching out and placing her hand tenderly on Iolaus forearm she said, "Much better, thank you. At least I can keep my dignity for a little longer."
What about MY dignity? "Uh, Gabrielle, uh... Il...Ill be right back. Iolaus stuttered hoping his embarrassment was not evident.
"Okay. Im not going anywhere," Gabrielle said innocently as she took a seat close to the fire.
Returning to camp, dripping wet, Iolaus took a seat on the far log.
"What happened to you, Iolaus?" Gabrielle asked placing one hand over her mouth and one hand on her stomach to control the giggles.
"I...uh...felt an itch coming on. Thought Id catch it before it got out of control," he said in a guilty schoolboy way.
"Yeah, we wouldnt want that to happen," Gabrielle said mischievously. Well, its nice to know that I still have an effect on men, Gabrielle thought to herself. "Do you want me to get your blanket?" Gabrielle asked choking on her fits of laughter.
"No, no. Cold is good. Its an old hunters trick," Iolaus said as he removed his boots and drained the water out of them.
"Remind me to let Xena do all the hunting," Gabrielle said before doubling over unable to control the laughter any longer.
Raising his fist, Hercules brought it crashing down causing the stone to disintegrate into fine particles of dust. Anticipation turned abruptly to horror as they viewed the empty space.
"Its gone!" they said almost as one.
"Is this what youre looking for Princess?" A voice sounded from the temple door, the Hinds Blood Dagger dangling from her fingertips.
"Callisto." Xena said as she turned toward the familiar voice that had tormented so much of her life in the last year.
"Oh Xena, you didnt forget me. Thats so sweet," Callisto replied in a mocking tone, her hand absently fondling her blonde mane. No, if I have my way Xena, you will remember me for all eternity in Tartarus. Fueled by hatred and bitterness at the events that had shattered and shaped her young life Callisto had only on goal in mind...to make Xena pay.
"Callisto, you cant win so give it up," Hercules commanded as he positioned himself beside Xena.
"Give up?! You should know by now that I never give up...do I XENA?" Callisto hissed, her voice dripping with venom. "This battle is mine and you cant stop me. Oh but youll try wont you Princess?" Turning back and locking eyes with the warrior she started down the temple steps and came to a stop approximately twenty feet away. Their eyes bore into one another as if their battle could be fought and won solely by the force of their wills. Callisto was the first to relent as her mind registered a missing participant to her "favorite game".
"I see you left the irritating blonde at home again or did she get smart and leave you?"
"Leave Gabrielle out of this Callisto," Xena snapped as she slowly placed her hand on her Chakrum.
"But where would be the fun in that?" Callisto said as her maniacal laugh trailed through the air. "Well see each other again. Count on it!" she said waving her hand above her head with a flourish.
Before Xena or Hercules could move Callisto vanished in a fireball of light. Mounting Argo quickly, Xena and Hercules knew the countdown had begun. Only one thought ruled Xenas mind...GABRIELLE.
The sun had set shortly after finishing their evening meal and Gabrielle relaxed into her nightly routine of composing and revising stories while Iolaus sharpened his sword. It must be a warrior thing. Gabrielle thought to herself. Periodically she recited portions of a story, accepting ideas and criticism wherever needed.
"I think we should call it a night. Xena and Hercules should be back in the morning," Iolaus said as he rose to prepare his bedroll. With a yawn the bard nodded her head and returned the scrolls and quill to the leather bag. "Your blanket isnt dry yet so you can use mine."
"No, you keep it," Gabrielle insisted. She had managed during other times and she could do it again. No sense in making Iolaus uncomfortable. It wasnt his fault.
"No, no. Im use to roughing it. Ill be fine by the fire. Please, take it."
"All right," Gabrielle said as she laid on her bedroll and fell to sleep almost immediately.
Iolaus placed his bedroll beside the fire and stared into the flames in an attempt to fall asleep but succeeded only in being able to recall the events of the day...Her sweet smile...her laughter...the smell of her hair...the feel of her skin...Morpheus, help me!
Sometime during the night a cold wind began to blow through the camp. Gabrielles peaceful sleep was rudely interrupted by a strange clicking sound. Rising on her elbows she scanned the camp trying to find the source of the noise. It appeared to come from the center but since the fire had burned down to embers it was difficult to see. Quietly and cautiously the bard walked toward the sound, noticing that it grew louder with each advancing step. Kneeling behind Iolaus she suppressed a small giggle. The sight caused a mixture of laughter and guilt to vie for attention in the bards mind. He lay on his side with knees and arms curled against his chest like a child. The noise that had so rudely drawn her from Morpheus care was simply the chattering of Iolaus teeth. Knowing she was the cause of Iolaus discomfort Gabrielle quickly returned with the blanket and huddled closely behind him to share in the warmth. It wasnt long before the shivering and chattering from her companion stopped and Gabrielle once again found sleep.
The road was difficult to see as they galloped through the darkness. Relying heavily on Argo's natural instincts to guide them, Hercules hoped they would make it back to camp by morning. Even the weather seemed to be turning against the trio as the wind gusted frequently from the north and dense clouds hid the only source of light. Xena clutched the woolen blanket tightly around their bodies in a vain attempt to ward off the chilly air.
Although Argo was in fit condition even her endurance was waning. Hercules could feel Xenas head resting against his back as sleep would frequently overtake her stoic resolve. It was during one of these slumbers that the war-horse was forced to swerve to miss a fallen boulder. Argo recovered quickly but her riders, being caught off guard, lost their balance and fell hard to the ground. Realizing the inevitable, Hercules had attempted to twist and take the impact himself but Xenas body unfortunately took the brunt of the fall. He could hear the terrible sound of air being forcibly pushed from Xenas lungs as their bodies came to a sudden halt. Moving cautiously so as not to cause any further harm, Hercules lifted himself off Xenas chest and checked for breathing and a pulse.
"You could have simply asked me for a kiss," Xena said in a seductive voice as she opened her eyes and tried to focus on the figure before her.
"You know me. I like to knock women off their feet before I make my move," Hercules said in a similar tone, keeping the banter going. "Seriously, Xena, are you hurt anywhere?"
"I dont think so. Nothing feels broken. I just got the wind knocked out of me thats all," Xena said, slowly rising to a sitting position. Balancing herself on one arm she rubbed the back of her head with the other arm.
"Did you hit your head?" Hercules asked as he began his own examination of Xenas head. "There is a small knot but no skin was broken. Good thing you are hard headed."
"Then Im in good company, arent I?" Xena said while cutting her eyes and giving a playful smirk to her friend.
"What...me...hard headed?" Hercules asked pointing at himself.
"Yeah...you." Xena shook her head at her friends clueless act.
"Well at least Im not stubborn like some people I know."
"Im not stubborn. Im strong-willed."
Hercules eyes opened wide. "Is that what their calling it now?"
"Gabrielle is the stubborn one."
"How did we do that...I mean each of us getting stuck with two stubborn people?"
"Opposites attract?" Hercules offered somewhat timidly as he gazed into azure pools.
"Must be," Xena said as she felt her emotions betraying her. It always amazed her how quickly thoughts and feelings could change when she was in Hercules presence. Very few men had this effect on her...but then again Hercules wasnt like most men. You helped me see there was another way. I could conquer the anger and rage and replace it with love and compassion. I could defeat those demons that feasted like piranha on my wounded soul. I could recreate myself each and every day. But even more than that you showed me the unconditional forgiveness of love. I had buried those feelings so long ago. Was it fate that brought us together then and is it fate that brings us together now? No one ignites the passions that Ive kept buried deep in the recesses of my heart the way you do. Are you my destiny...?
I think I could free-fall into those pools and never reach the bottom. Not since Deianeira has anyone captured my heart as you have. I set you free once to find your way but what about this time? Have the Fates intertwined our life threads and set us on a different course? Are you my destiny...?
Lost in the moment, they had forgotten about Argo until a nudge to Hercules back quickly brought them to reality. Reluctantly Hercules reached an arm forward and helped Xena to her feet. Hercules gently caressed the back of Xenas hands with his thumbs as he stalled for time. Courage my friend. Just tell her how you feel. Its just Xena.
Feeling a little self-conscious with Hercules touch Xena tried to control the fires that were igniting throughout her entire body. Be strong. Tell him how you feel. Its just Hercules.
"Hercules...." They both spoke at the same time.
Slightly embarrassed by the situation Hercules grinned and said, "Ladies first."
"No, no. I interrupted so you go first," Xena replied.
Swallowing hard and exhaling Hercules gazed into crystalline pools. "Xena, I think we should...be on our way." You are such a chicken.
"Yeah, uh...youre right," Xena said turning away quickly so Hercules couldnt see the look of relief on her face.
They traveled quietly through the darkness with Xenas arms encircling his waist and Hercules hand firmly but gently holding her arm, each lost in their own thoughts of what was...and what could be....
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