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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.
Xena could feel the penetrating warmth of the morning sun as it crested the mountain peaks to the east. She loved this time in the mornings although she would never admit it to anyone. Often after a workout, and before the ritual of waking the bard, Xena would watch in amazement at the display of color that accompanied the sunrise. Each one was fresh and new. How she wished her life could be the same way sometimes.
Hercules eased Argo down to a slow walk as they approached the clearing and the camp. Xena slipped off Argos back and scanned the area for any immediate danger. Sensing no unusual disturbances she allowed herself to release the breath she had been unconsciously holding. The relief was short lived as she realized there was only one bedroll by the fire. Hercules stopped dead in his tracks as he saw the look of fear on Xenas face. Not wanting to underestimate Callisto and her zeal for emotional warfare, Xena and Hercules approached the blanket with extreme caution. Xena drew her sword and took a defensive stance while Hercules knelt beside the bedroll.
"Oh, Iolaus," came the soft whispered words.
Xena recognized the voice immediately but her eyes grew wide as the many implications of the words played through her mind. Glancing to Hercules, she met his surprised expression and gave a crooked grin in reply. Hercules slowly pulled the blanket down exposing Gabrielles head resting against Iolaus shoulder. Though Xena wanted to be furious with the two for their lack of alertness the picture was so priceless that she had to submit to the moment. Pulling the blanket back further revealed even more astonishing facts. First, Gabrielles body was snuggled tightly against Iolaus left side. Secondly, Iolaus was bare chested. Thirdly, Gabrielle was NOT wearing her usual clothes.
Where are YOUR clothes, Gabrielle, and just what has been going on here? Xena thought to herself.
Iolaus, my friend, I hope you know what youre doing, Hercules said to himself.
"Gabrielle, wake-up. Gabri-elle..." Xena said in her usual morning voice.
"Xena, just a few more minutes, pleeeaaase. Im having such a good dream."
"Yeah...I bet you are," Xena said pursing her lips. No telling what is going on in that bard dreamland of yours.
The bard slowly opened her eyes to look at Xena but instead found herself looking up at a smiling Iolaus. Gabrielles cheeks flushed a deep pink as she surveyed the surroundings and tried to recall any events that might or...might not have...occurred.
"Gabrielle, is there something you would like to tell me?" Xena asked with the familiar raised eyebrow.
"Uh...can we talk about this later?" Gabrielle pleaded as she started to rise and disguise her embarrassment. Nothing happened. Right!...Right?!?
"No, I think we should discuss this now," Xena pressed.
"Later would work for me," Gabrielle said in an attempt to lighten the mood.
"Now, Gabrielle," Xena said in a tone that left no room for challenge.
Gabrielle knew this tone from past experiences and remembered all too well the ramifications of not submitting. She could usually talk her way out of most anything but when it came to Xena it was often like beating her head against a stone wall. She is so stubborn sometimes. I feel like Im being led to the woodshed and I havent done anything wrong. Have I?...No, nothing happened!...And what if it did? Im an adult now. I can make my own choices. Shes my friend, not my mother! Thats it...stand up for yours rights.
Hercules waited patiently while the two women made their way out of camp and earshot before turning his attention to his companion. Uncertain of what to say or how to begin he just simply decided to jump in.
Hercules looked straight at his friend and said, "Iolaus, are you out of your mind?"
"What? What did I do?" Iolaus asked innocently.
"I dont know, you tell me," Hercules said pacing back and forth between Iolaus and the campfire. "No, on second thought...I dont think I want to know."
Stepping into Hercules path Iolaus grabbed the demi-gods forearm. "Tell you what? Hercules what is going on?"
"You and Gabrielle...and..." Hercules began but was cut off by Iolaus as the meaning behind the questions became clear.
"Whoa...wait a minute. You think Gabrielle and I...that we...no, absolutely not! I mean I like her, shes smart, funny, pretty in that girl next door sort of way, but were just good friends, you know?" Beautiful, smart, funny, sexy...theres that word again.
"Yeah, youre such good friends that shes wearing your clothes," Hercules said pointing to Iolaus bare chest.
Raising his hand and touching his chest where the vest would normally be Iolaus replied, "Hey, I can explain that!"
"Oh, really. This Ive got to hear." Crossing his arms in front of his chest Hercules gestured for his friend to begin. "Please, whenever youre ready."
"Okay, it all started when I swallowed a bug and...."
Gabrielle stared at the river and watched the current as it carved a path through the nooks and crevices of rocks and boulders on its way eventually to the sea. She reached down and picked up a few pebbles as she heard Xena give a sigh and step around her to take a seat on the riverbank. The silence was always the hardest part to endure. Each waiting for the other to begin, neither wanting to talk, but both knowing it had to be done or they would not get past the problem. They had been together for almost two summers and had learned to adjust and compromise in many areas but when it came to personal feelings and desires the two often faced their most difficult hurdles. Gabrielle was usually the first to break.
The pebble made a slight arc and landed in the river with a "plink", just to the right of Xenas leg. The next pebble took a similar path but fell short of the mark and bounced lightly off the top of Xenas head. The bard covered her mouth as her eyebrows traveled upwards beneath her bangs. Oops!
"Sorry." Feeling that it would be to her advantage to relate what had happened rather than being interrogated the bard rose and joined her companion by the riverbank. Taking a seat beside the warrior Gabrielle stretched her legs out and fumbled with the pebbles in her hand. It had been two summers and Xena still thought of her as the little girl from Poteidaia who needed protection. How could she convince Xena that her "little" friend had grown up? Maybe this was her chance.
"Xena, contrary to what you may think, nothing happened."
"How do you know what Im thinking?" The muscles along Xenas jaw tensed as she studied the river.
"Trust me, I know. You had that same look when we were fighting the Titans and you walked in and saw Phyleus and I in the same bed. You thought I had done something without thinking." Xena turned to look at the bard, her jaws still tight. She studied the young face for a long moment. So much had happened over the last few years. They had been through so much pain. Could they possibly bear any more? The little tag-along had somehow grown into a lovely young woman. Xena had sworn never to let anyone get close to her again and yet this little blonde-haired, green-eyed, pesky, running at the mouth girl had slowly chipped away at the wall until she was standing in the threshold of Xenas heart. Xena took a long breath and relaxed her jaw.
"Xena, nothing happened then...and nothing happened now."
"Gabrielle, you were calling out Iolaus name in a very...uh...sensuous voice, you were almost on top of him and you are wearing HIS clothes, what was I suppose to think?"
"Okay, I agree, it looked bad. But it was innocent I assure you. Xena you know me. Ive learned a lot since our first year and I dont fall into the arms of every man I meet." Gabrielle pulled her knees up while continuing to study the pebbles in her hand.
"No, youre no longer the innocent girl who followed after me," Xena said as she picked up a small stone of her own and skipped it across the surface of the river.
"I also know a little bit more about..." Gabrielles face flushed slightly, "you know...but theres not a day that goes by that I dont relive those last moments with Perdicas. Xena, I can hear his screams ringing in my ears as if it were yesterday. How much longer before it ends?" A single tear broke the barrier the bard was fighting to maintain.
"Youve got to give yourself time Gabrielle. The pain will ease after awhile, I promise." Xena reached over and gently wiped the tear from its path down the bards cheek. She hated to see Gabrielle cry. Not because it was a weakness but because it meant Gabrielle was dealing with deep emotional issues and Xena felt helpless to solve them.
"Thats what my brain says but my heart and dreams wont let go." Gabrielle wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "My friend, Arianne, says that tears are the safety valve of the heart. Now I understand what she means."
Silence enveloped them once again and both women used the time to reclaim their composure. "Plink" went another pebble into the river as Gabrielle gave a sigh indicating she was ready to continue.
"Iolaus and I have a chemistry together Ill admit, but Im not sure where its heading. I feel things when Im around him but Im not sure Im ready to do anything about them. I have to get over Perdicas first before I can seriously consider someone else. There is someone else out there for me, of that Im certain, it may even be Iolaus, but I know Im not truly ready yet."
Xena listened patiently as Gabrielle dealt with her feelings. The bard didnt want answers so much as she just wanted someone to REALLY listen. After a long pause Xena took her que. "Gabrielle, Im sure youre right and Im sorry for jumping to the wrong conclusion. I should have had more faith in you...and Iolaus. Where youre concerned I guess I will always be protective."
Reaching over and placing her hand on the warriors forearm Gabrielle smiled and tilted her head to look into the eyes of her best friend. "Xena, dont get me wrong. I love that you worry about me and want to protect me. I understand that because I worry about you too." Gabrielle squeezed Xenas forearm. "Just dont overdo it, okay? Im an adult and have the right to live my own life the way I see fit. We wont always agree on things and thats fine but we should allow differences in opinions and ideas. Thats how we compliment each other. If we were alike we probably wouldnt get along. Can you imagine living with another warrior or me living with another bard? We would be at each others throats constantly." Gabrielle slapped at Xenas stomach with the back of her hand.
"I dont think there could be another you, Gabrielle," Xena said as she turned a serious upraised eyebrow to her blonde haired friend.
"Ill take that as a compliment...I think."
Pausing a moment for effect Xena replied, "Maybe I said it wrong."
Emerald green eyes looked playfully at azure pools as a crooked grin formed on the warriors lips. It was always so easy to tease the bard. She was so trusting. It was her greatest strength and her biggest weakness. Sometimes Xena wished she could be more like Gabrielle. To see the good in people instead of expecting the worst would be wonderful. Ten years of cynicism was a difficult habit to break even if she was sharing her life with the prime example of good.
" So, exactly where are you clothes?"
"Its a long story and a day Id rather forget."
"Gabrielle, you said nothing happened so how bad could it have been?"
"How bad...let me tell you. It all began when I woke up and...."
"Where is Gabrielle?" Hercules asked trying to suppress his laughter as Xena entered the camp and took a seat beside the demi-god.
"She went to change back into her own clothes. What about Iolaus?"
"I asked him to go hunt for breakfast. He shouldnt be gone too long. Iolaus told me all about their wonderful day. Im sorry we missed all the fun."
"She was on a roll there, wasnt she? I tried my best not to laugh but I kept picturing everything she said in my mind and just couldnt help myself. She really was having a bad day." Uncertain of what to say next the warrior leaned forward resting her elbows on her thighs and gave a heavy sigh.
"Did you tell Gabrielle about the dagger?" Hercules asked, breaking the silence.
"No. Did you tell Iolaus?"
"No. It didnt seem like the right time," Hercules said as he pushed himself to a standing position. "Weve got to tell them Xena. Its only right."
"I know, but you dont know the pain that woman has caused. She killed Perdicas right in front of Gabrielle. Gabrielle still wakes up in cold sweats with nightmares of that day. She was married for one night and then it was all taken away from her. How do you get past that? How do I help her heal from such a consuming wound?" Xenas eyes closed as she recalled the bards words... "Teach me how to kill her Xena. My ideals were a lie. I thought love was the strongest power on earth. What a fool I was. Love is helpless in the face of cruelty." The love and joy of the bards heart had been taken that day and Xena had been powerless to bring it back.
Hercules could see the pain of guilt Xena still carried for her part in Perdicas death. Will you ever let your guilt go? Can you ever forgive yourself like so many have forgiven you? These were questions Xena had to answer for herself. "You do what youve always done since the first day you started on the road together. Youre there for her and she knows that. Give her time and patience, shell come around."
"Patience, I dont think thats a warriors skill." Xena shook her head slightly and gave Hercules a half-hearted smile.
"Sure it is. You just need a bit more practice," Hercules said with a twinkle in his eyes.
The visitor had been watching the women as they carried on their conversation by the river. His orders were to capture the irritating blonde without injury or interference from the warrior. "Do not hurt the girl...shes mine," Callisto had instructed him. He had seen the penalty for disobedience and was determined to fulfill his mission as ordered. Watching closely he prepared himself for the strike as he observed the two women parting company. Keeping a safe distance from the bard he stealthily maneuvered himself behind her as she gathered some garments and stepped behind a cluster of bushes.
He was on the bard before she had any time to react. Clasping a hand over her mouth and clutching her trim frame against his body he was able to subdue her with minimal difficulty. Gabrielle had little time to fight as the hilt of a sword came crashing down against her temple. XENA!! her mind cried out as blackness filled her vision. The visitor paused momentarily and listened for any sign of interference from the girls companions. Satisfied, he threw the limp form over his shoulder and silently left.
Iolaus entered the camp with three rabbits, dressed and ready to cook. "Here you are. My job is done and now someone else can start."
Hercules and Xena looked at each other with a conspiring grin as Xena said, "Well let Gabrielle do it."
"Hey, fine by me. I like her cooking. Remind me to get her recipe for the bass she cooked yesterday. She smoked them with some kind of herbs in large leaves and they just melted in my mouth."
"Iolaus, I dont think there is anything you dont like to eat," Hercules said reaching to take the rabbits from his friend. Hercules was astonished sometimes at the quantity of food his friend could eat. In fact it was a good thing that most towns offered them food for their help because they could certainly never afford to pay for the amount of food Iolaus consumed.
"So where is Gabrielle? My stomach is growling already," Iolaus asked while scanning the camp.
"Umm...she thought it best to change back into her clothes," Xena said as she ran her finger lightly above her lip.
"Uh...right...yeah, thats a good idea. Then I can get my vest back," Iolaus said trying to control his embarrassment.
Xena began to scan the area for signs of the bards return but was met only by the normal sounds of the forest. "Ill go and see if she is having any trouble." Xena stood and headed in the direction she had last seen the bard.
"Gabrielle...how long does it take to put on a skirt and top?! Gabrielle...?!" Thats strange, I know she went this way. "This isnt funny Gabrielle. Gabrielle...come on out...Ive had enough of this game. Gabri-elle!" Xena stopped abruptly as she stumbled upon the bards clothes lying in a crumpled heap on the ground. At that same moment her skin began to crawl and she drew her sword in a defensive stance.
"Youre very good at that. Not many of my followers have that ability," Ares said as he circled the warrior. "Looking for the irritating blonde, are we?"
"Ares, give her back! Im not playing this game with you!" Xena said through clinched teeth, trying to maintain control of her anger.
"Xena, I dont do games. I manipulate when it suits my purpose but its real or nothing with me. You of all people should know that. Besides I dont have your pesky, little friend. I wouldnt waste my time with her when I could go straight to you. My bets would be on Callisto. You do remember her dont you?" Ares asked in a condescending tone. "Too bad you failed miserably at your job at the lava pit. The Xena I know wouldnt have failed," Ares said hoping his cutting words had hit their mark. She was in his fold once and he was determined to claim her again. If he could quell the influence of that irritating blonde, then Xena would easily come back of her own accord.
"I remember but Im not the one who should be frightened." Xena met the glaring brown eyes of the God of War with her own steely blue. "Shes got the Hinds Blood Dagger and knowing your history together I would think you would be at the top of her list to eliminate. If she has taken Gabrielle, then shes just using her as bait. We both know Callistos mind games and taking Gabrielle right from under my nose is just the kind of sick, demented thing she would do."
"She doesnt hold a candle to the Xena of old. Come, join me and we can rule the world just like I always planned. Hearts will tremble once again at the mention of your name." Ares took Xenas hand in his own and prepared to gently kiss the back. "You need only say my name and it can all be yours."
"Im not interested Ares," Xena said with contempt, jerking her hand from his grasp.
"Not interested, huh? Not even for the life of a certain...irritating blonde?" Ares goaded as he turned to leave. Studying his fingernails closely Ares waited for the warrior to respond. Ares expression changed slowly into a gloat as he listened to the words from Xenas mouth.
"Wait...what do you mean? What can you do?" It went against everything she now believed in to ask anything of Ares but she couldnt stop herself, not if it could help Gabrielle.
"Its not as much what I can do as what I know."
"Stop the cryptic messages Ares and spit it out," Xena said as she quickly reached the brink of her patience.
"This information is not free Xena. I want something in return."
"I already told you I wasnt interested in being your Goddess of War. Im not going to change my mind."
"What about the Hinds Blood Dagger? Would you trade it for Gabrielles life?"
Xenas expression remained tense and firm yet her mind was reeling from the choice put before her. Whatever it takes Gabrielle...thats what Ill do.
"Ares! I should have known he couldnt keep his hands out of this," Hercules said, pacing in front of Xena and Iolaus.
"Whoever grabbed her was watching because Gabrielle didnt even have a chance to change." Xena held the bards clothes in her hands as she made eye contact with her companions.
"Xena, you know he cant be trusted. This is Gabrielles life were talking about," Iolaus said with deep concern.
"DONT YOU THINK I KNOW THAT!!" Xena railed at Iolaus. "I dont know where Callisto is holding Gabrielle and Ares does. Its that simple!" Xenas eyes blazed with fire as Hercules grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her away from Iolaus.
"Were all on the same side here...anger wont get her back." Hercules watched as Xena fought an internal battle to regain control of her emotions. He knew it was difficult for the Warrior Princess and where Gabrielle was concerned it would always be so. He knew that for whatever reasons the two women had bonded from their very first encounter. Whether it was their differences or their similarities, no one knew. The women themselves probably didnt know. Whos to say what intangible entity sparks a kinship like theirs? The truth was...it didnt matter. As long as there was breath they would always be there for each other. Hercules knew this like he knew his own name.
Gabrielle could hear the vague mumbles of people as she slowly came to consciousness. Her senses registered the musty smell of old blankets and straw. I must be in a barn or stall of some type. There was little or no light to speak of so she couldnt quite decipher the size of the room. Finding what felt like a door and a handle the bard began banging her fists against it. "Hey, somebody let me out!!" Well, the room isnt very big because my voice doesnt echo.
"Quiet in there!" a voice from the other side rang out.
"Look, you dont know who your dealing with here. My best friend is Xena...the Warrior Princess...and shes coming to get me out. Let me go now and shell be easy on you," Gabrielle yelled through the door.
The sudden impact on the door from the other side caught Gabrielle off guard and she jumped backwards, lost her balance and landed painfully on her behind.
"I said, QUIET in there!" came the response once more.
Moments went by slowly as Gabrielle sat, knees to her chest, head bowed, praying that somehow Xena would find her. She heard footsteps outside the door once more and stood anxiously in the darkness. The bolt was released and the door slowly opened. Nothing could have prepared the bard for what she saw. This cant be real. Im dreaming...yeah, thats it...a dream. Wake up Gabrielle. Just wake up and this will be all over. This is only a dream.
"Surprised to see me?" Callisto asked as she walked up and took a stance only a few feet away from Gabrielle. "Oh, and for the record, I dont feel sorry for the things Ive done and I dont need your forgiveness. If youre going to talk behind peoples backs Gabrielle, you really should make certain they cant hear you."
"You...youre supposed to be dead," was all Gabrielle could voice. Fear and anger waged their own war in her mind and she could not find the strength to harness either. How could this be? Xena would have told me.
"Well, you and Xena certainly tried hard enough, too bad you failed." Callisto circled around the bard, taking in every detail of her quarry. She shook her head and rested it on her upraised hand. "Tisk, tisk, tisk...Gabrielle, you really should get a new tailor. That outfit just isnt you."
Gabrielle could only stand in silence. Fear was quickly winning the battle.
"Id be happy to help you make some adjustments but then my idea of snip, snip here...snip, snip there, is a little bit more permanent...if you know what I mean." Callisto gripped Gabrielles chin roughly and held the bards gaze. "You do know what I mean, dont you?"
Gabrielle nodded her head. Snap out of this Gabrielle. Youre an AMAZON for Gaias sake. What did Xena always...? Xena, how could you not tell me? Callistos...ALIVE!!
"She didnt tell you Im alive, did she? Well, as you see...its quite true," Callisto said in a mock pouting voice. "And this time, I have the advantage!" Callisto grabbed Gabrielle by the hair and drew the dagger to her throat. Callisto had longed for this day. The Warrior Princess would pay for the destruction she and her army had wrought against the village of Cirra. "You are Xenas weakness and I learned from the best how to use that edge." Releasing her grip slowly Callisto started to leave the room. "Oh, I spared no cost for your accommodations so please make yourself at home. Youll be here for awhile." With that said she turned back to the door and left.
The sound of the door shutting brought Gabrielle out of shock and she slumped to the floor in utter despair. Her emotions began to release themselves as her body trembled from the impact of the confrontation. Her worst enemy was alive. The woman who destroyed her life in one devastating swipe of the sword was back to torment again. How can this be happening? I saw her fall. Gabrielle rolled onto her side and held her knees close to her chest. "Xena, please help me!" Gabrielle whispered through her tears.
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