See disclaimers in Part One
Through the shining mists and shrouds of the ether she burst into the pristine world of Olympus. It was a breathtaking sight, no matter how many times she saw it. The tallest Acropolis no mortal could ever fathom grew tall into the glowing blue skies, it was alive rather than stone. With every sacrifice made by a mortal, with every prayer, with every reverent bow the kingdom of the Gods grew stronger. The trees moved and swayed in the cosmic flow, immortal steeds with various fancy growths - wings, singular horns and both - pranced and played through the ethereal light.
Moving into the Acropolis she knew everything was not well. Their mortals were not happy. They were in fact - unhappy. And the Kingdom of the Gods was in disharmony. The Twelve of Olympus had been called.
Zeus sat upon his throne, below him stood a number of the Twelve of Olympus. He saw her enter and growled.
"Athena! You took your time!"
She bowed her head regally.
"I am sorry father."
Zeus shook his head, waving a hand at her as he cast his eyes downward. He looked endlessly weary, anger rumbling around him. Hera stood next to him, anxiety written in her long elegant features. Blonde curled locks hung around her ears, her hair up for the most part, contained in a roll. Her light crystal eyes looked to the front of the podium with endless disgust - the subject was not her child, she was the bastard of one of Zeus' fancies. In the centre of the furore, object of Hera's disgust and Zeus' deep disappointment was Artemis, head bowed, bow and arrows strung over her shoulder. Her dark brows were drawn, her brown orbs gazing at the marble floor with distress. Slowly, lifting her head, she dared to look her father in the eyes. Zeus sent a smouldering look at her, disappointed grumbles leaving his lips.
"I expected better from you, Artemis! There is simply no excuse for your failure!"
"Athena - did you happen to see Ares in your travels?" asked Hera, looking up from Artemis.
"No, I did not my Lady."
Zeus growled, thumping his throne with rage.
In a burst of light, three women, scantily clad in blood red slivers of material, pulsed into existence before him. The centre figure, crowned with blonde short-cropped locks, wayward and crazed, glared at him expectantly with ice blue eyes, writhing her body side to side, pushing her breasts up and almost out of her outfit.
"You called for us my Lord?" she said, tone soft yet blank.
"Yes Clotho!" said Zeus, "Have you got any more on this kid?"
Taking a sweeping step she twirled around, arms flailing, feet landing deliberately and rhythmically on the cold marble floor.
"This child is the bringer of a new era, my Lord, all you have now will be changed - nothing more need be said."
A nervous buzz fell over the Gods surrounding the podium, and Zeus thrust his hand in the air.
"Oh yes there is! Much more!!" he roared.
Athena cocked a brow, and looking around her the other Gods were in as deep anxiety as she was. Carefully, she nudged the woman next to her, who started a moment, then calmed as Athena placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Aphrodite!" she whispered, "Why this commotion? What has arisen?"
Aphrodite glared at her.
"Where have you been? The whole of Olympus is jumpin' over this thing," she said, "Oh yeah, up Daddy's toga I'd expect."
Athena rolled her eyes patiently, dismissing Aphrodite's ire.
"Aphrodite I'd appreciate it if you'd just-"
"It's okay - I was joking!" Aphrodite muttered, raising a hand to stop her talking, "Sheesh! All right. Ares has gotten Xena knocked up big time. He's been looking after her constantly; he won't leave her side, man! It's totally bogus - he's gotten mushy big time!! All since Artemis convinced him to be a human for a day - all so she could steal his Godhood from him and give it to Callisto!"
"What was she thinking?!" Athena breathed in shock.
"Who knows! Apparently it's some maternal thing she had for Callisto. I dunno - go figure!"
"Is that all?" Athena asked her.
Aphrodite glared at her again.
"Hel-LO! Have you been listening? This kid in Xena's oven is going to be half God! The only person to ever defeat a God is Xena - what will happen when her kid is a half God? She isn't exactly Pro- us you know!!"
Athena's brow descended wearily, she pushed her helmet down with a flustered sigh.
"You mean Daddy is being a panic-merchant!" she said.
"No way! Ares hasn't been attending to his duty as the War Dude!" she replied, "Enyo and her fogies have been trying to keep the War Gig happening while he's been gone but - you know how it is. Things are getting more than a little hectic."
Athena pressed her lips together, watching Zeus' brow burrow deeper as Hera squeezed his shoulders supportively.
The lead Fate slinked about, hips cocking and swaying to the invisible tune, limbs liquid and moving always, strings appearing and disappearing between her dancing digits. Zeus arched his fingers, the tips touching, leaning his heavy bottom lip against them.
"So you can tell me nothing more?"
The Fate shook her head.
"This time, Zeus, even you must be kept in the dark the future that awaits us."
"Can you tell us one thing," he said, letting his hands drop in his lap.
The Fate cocked her head expectantly.
"Is our future fortunate for us or - unfortunate?"
Her jaw still up, her eyes cast down, the Fate looked thoughtful.
"It is - different. Fortune for one is misfortune for another."
With a pulse and shimmer she, and the other two Fates, were gone.
Turning his attentions to Artemis once more, Zeus sighed.
"What is my punishment, O' Father?" Artemis said quickly, fear and reverence in her tone.
Zeus considered her a moment, running his fingers over his smooth and strong jaw, his dark eyes full of care.
"Artemis, the cosmos has been screwed with enough due to Ares' personal problems, I don't need the AnimalKingdom thrown into dissent by your absence either. Your punishment is repealed - you walk free today."
Hera let loose a deafening screech, her fingers clawing, her eyes full of rage.
"No!" she hissed, shaking Zeus at the arm, "She should be destroyed and replaced my Lord!! Replaced with our own offspring!"
Artemis shied from the podium, cowering slightly at Hera's rage. Zeus lifted a calm hand, holding Hera back.
"Now, wife, be still," he said, " And be at peace. We don't need a new Goddess of the Hunt, we have a perfectly suitable one here. She is the hunt, the finest Goddess of the Hunt there could possibly be! Turn your green-eyed monster away and be still!"
Letting loose a heated hiss, she slowed her rapidly angered breaths, Zeus' calming hand at hers soothing her rabid heart somewhat. Maybe death is too harsh, she thought, but this child shall pay for meddling with the cosmos this way!
Athena stepped forward, placing a hand on Artemis' shoulder as she approached Zeus, lending her knee to a bow.
"My Lord," she said, head low in reverence.
"Yes my daughter, please rise."
"I suggest I leave to find Ares, perhaps even converse with his woman. Maybe this new child can be of our advantage?"
Warily, Zeus nodded, his face resting in his hand.
"I trust your diplomacy, Athena. It will be needed in this case - Xena is a woman strong of will. She doesn't trust we Gods, and likes us even less!"
Bowing her head, Athena rose.
From behind the Goddess skittered Aphrodite, pink chiffon flying.
"Now wait! You're messing with my department now! This whole love thing?" She gestured with frantic movements
"My department Big Guy!"
Rolling his eyes slightly, he nodded.
"Very well, you go with her."
Screwing her face up, Aphrodite let her jaw slacken, flapping her hands with frustration.
"You mean with her? Oh great!"
Grabbing the Goddess by the upper arm, Athena sighed, pulling her along roughly.
"Come on Love-bud, it's magic time."
Zeus pouted to himself in the Great Hall of Olympus, empty now after the furor, leaning on a curled old hand. He felt slender hands move at his shoulder and he let out a long sigh, eyes closed in distress.
"Hera - what are we to do? This child, could it be our undoing?"
Hera cocked her head, "Have you conversed with Clotho long on this matter?"
He nodded, "Yes, oh yes, I have dear wife. She is - secretive."
Hera's long thin brow twitched to a frown, "That is odd..."
"Yes," Zeus agreed, "And this matter has been ambiguous. Oh what am I to do here? I cannot risk my kingdom for a child!"
"You must do what you feel is best husband."
Lethaia nibbled on the tray of nuts and dried fruits before her, finding comfort in the honeyed morsels, closing her eyes and trying desperately to ignore the giggling filtering through the walls. It had been going all night, and it was finally starting to grate on her nerves. Joxer was indeed a friendly and enjoyable travelling partner, but he was also noisy in so many, many ways. She began to wish this woman had not joined them. This - Gabrielle. Not that she was jealous, not at all. Lethaia was a professional, and was doing a professional job for a friend. Though she had barely seen anything of Joxer's woman, just a strawberry blonde and bilious green blur as the pair raced to their room. Jace had traipsed in afterwards and mumbled in some droll camp tone about getting some sleep. This left Lethaia alone, alone with her thoughts, beer, and an outstanding order of honeyed nuts and dried fruit. She had it to go.
Now, she sat in her room, trying desperately to plan a strategy to get into the neighbouring jail whilst blocking out the thumps bumps and giggling of the two lovebirds next door. Nibbling on dried fruit and sticky nuts.
Come on Lethaia, think of something!!
"No! Joxer not there, here!" came a female voice, muffled through the wall.
Lethaia growled, grabbing her things and storming to the door. She slammed it behind her, charging down the hall.
Reaching the end of the hall she kicked the door open, her hands full, a rather shocked Jace half dressed, a bodice with stuffed pseudo-breasts covering his manly composure, a petticoat covering the rest of him. His legs were shaven, his glittery boots placed neatly aside.
"Oh my!" he squirmed, "That's not really how a polite woman conducts herself."
Lethaia merely cocked a dark brow.
"Now that's a rather sexist remark, surprising coming from you."
Pursing his lipstick stained lips he narrowed his eyes at her, his head cocking indignantly.
"Bitch. Now - what is it? I need my beauty sleep if I'm gonna be storming the jail tomorrow."
Lethaia took a moment to get over the nonchalant insult, trying to compose herself, feeling a little green, for the first time in years.
"Well - we have to plan it! We just can't go in half-cocked!"
"And besides!" Lethaia shot a look of disgust behind her, "It's not like Joxer or 'Gabrielle' are going to be much help tonight."
It was now Jace who cocked an eyebrow.
"Ooh is this the green-eyed monster I sense before me?" he cried.
"Shhh!" she hissed, "The walls are thin - you can hear through them and no! I am not jealous of Joxer!"
Jace gave a shrug, glancing down to a manicured hand, examining it.
"Well honey, what you have to understand is-" Black eyes pierced hers, "Planning ain't my style, and neither is teamwork. I go it alone honey."
"I'm sure you don't have a lot of choice in the matter," she snarled, finally at her wits end, finally having enough of the inept fools around her.
Jace gnashed his teeth, jumping to his feet, stepping to her till his face was a hair's breadth away from hers. In his hand was a knife.
"Say that to me with a weapon in my hand you prissy tart!"
The petticoated man hadn't known what hit him when he felt his legs disappear beneath him, and a jab hit his groin.
He giggled, a bit hard of breath, looking up to Lethaia with glee, her feet planted either side of him.
"Nice try honey, but there's nothin' there to smack no more!"
He rolled, knocking one of her legs from under her, but she didn't fall. With a spring of her foot she jumped in the air, clipping Jace in the head with the heel of her boot with a swinging kick. He staggered to his feet, rubbing his cranium and twitching it into order a moment. Lethaia stood ready as he approached her.
Taking the attack, Jace spun a kick at her head, but she grabbed his foot deftly, and with a swift twist floored him. Or so she thought. As he landed in a push-up position, she approached him, and regretted it as his feet sprang up as his front was at the ground, her face bearing the brunt of the force of his body as he pushed himself backward through the air. She fell backwards, and rolling to her side she missed a stab of the dagger. Jumping to her feet she grabbed Jace's hand suddenly, storming forward, taking the weapon from his had and slamming it to the floor.
"Now hold it RIGHT THERE!"
Jace narrowed black crazed eyes at her.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you."
"I would!! Now I'm here to help Joxer!!"
"Yeah I'm sure that's all it is!" he smirked, "A beautiful skilled assassin is going to help some stupid dufus get his famous assassin brother out of jail!"
Gripping his hands she slammed him down on the ground with rage.
"That's ALL it is! And I'm NOT an assassin!"
Jace leered, "You kill people for money, what else would you call yourself?"
"Hired killer," she said evenly, "I work for the little man. Or woman."
"Oh!" he cried, campness ensuing, "How noble of you dear! Do you want me to kiss your arse now, or kiss it later, where the world can see?"
She slammed him again.
"Save your bullshit! If you want to help Jett cut the prima donna crap and work with me here!"
Jace pursed his lips hard, the rage in his eyes waning but the stubborn adamance remaining.
"I think I like your style. Pushy, bitchy. You're good. Real good. Now let me go before I spread your guts all over the floor."
Letting go she smirked, picking up the dagger off the floor and tossing it aside.
"You try and you'll know what it's like to be a bearskin rug."
Nonchalantly Jace composed himself, taking a seat at the dresser with a pout.
"Well then, what do you suggest as a plan of action?"
Dropping the nuts and the scrolls on the table she grinned.
"I think you'll like what I have in mind."
Lethaia looked to him.
"Whatever happens, Joxer and his missy can't be identified by the guards. I want them to be inconspicuous."
Lethaia smiled. "You really care about him eh?"
"He's my brother sweety, the only one of us that has done any good."
Slowly, gently, sleep crept away from her, one by one her senses waking.
The first thing she was aware of was the strong heady scent of the body next to her, cleaner and more delightful that any earthly perfume she had ever encountered. It melded with the warmth that the body exuded, it was somehow a little warmer than most bodies she had slept with. The form of the body became apparent to her, large, muscular, her head resting on an ample bicep and deltoid providing a warm fleshy support.
Her arms were wrapped around the body, holding it close, for what reason she didn't know, more than anything she assumed it was because it felt so good. It was at that moment her eyes decided to open, focusing on the chest that her face rested beside, registering the pattern of the leather and woven woollen patterns, metallic studs frequenting the pattern of the vest. With a growl she sat up, shirking the apparent attention.
"You still here?" she muttered, grabbing the bed-basin as nausea swept over her.
"Seems so," Ares replied, gently holding her long raven locks back as she wretched and spluttered. All Xena could manage through it was a pitiful, "Go away!"
"Now Xena, I don't think that option is in either of our best interests."
Xena grabbed an amphora of water from the bedside table, drinking it heartily, splashing it over her.
"And what do I have to gain from your presence?" she mumbled.
He gave a slightly condescending shrug, placing a hand on her shoulder.
"You're not really in the best condition are you? Anyone could just barge in and take you. You're the single most wanted woman in Greece, for -" he smirked, "One reason or another. I'm just here to make sure you, and my child, are not harmed."
"Well aren't you the charitable one?"
Pursing his lips he sighed.
"You don't believe I'd do anything for the right reasons do you?"
"No," she replied, "Not as a God anyway."
"Believe what you will, I'm not leaving your side."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Oh great."
There was a burst of light, two women staggering into the room from the portal. The cherry topped Goddess of Love growled as The Goddess of Wisdom preened her snake-trimmed aegis primly. The snakes slithered around her fingers and she growled.
"Man, having live clothing is not a smart move!"
Aphrodite leered at her, shaking her head knowingly.
"Honey, it's not a statement, it's just vile!"
Athena looked hurt a moment, adjusting the shielded garment lovingly.
"Perseus gave it to me - well the head of that awful Medusa he gave me."
"Yeah yeah, I know the story," Aphrodite nodded, rolling her eyes. Turning to Ares she smiled, Athena moving her attentions from her pet clothing to the situation at hand. Gripping her spear she approached Ares with a regal step, her green eyes regarding him gently.
"Dear Brother, why is it you are here?"
Ares vanished from next to Xena, reappearing on the other side of her, perched on the edge of the bed.
"Merely looking out for an old battle-axe," he grinned, "You see Xena here is a dear friend of mine."
Xena wretched. "Quit it with the 'old' talk," Giving a glance to Aphrodite and Athena she shook her head, "He's no friend of mine!"
He rose an eyebrow quizzically, a smirk making its way to his lips.
"That wasn't how it was in the forest..."
Xena sent a scowl in his direction, pulling the woollen blanket up over her shoulders.
"Enough of this bickering!" Athena snapped, striking the floor with the butt of her spear, "Zeus cares not about these trivialities. What is of importance is the child!"
"Oh I know how important this kid is, and I'm doing everything in my power to make sure it goes unharmed."
"How noble of you," Xena muttered.
Aphrodite stepped forward, pushing past Athena with a prissy shake of her rear.
"Listen Ar, Papa is way miffed about this. He's livid babe!"
Xena lifted her eyes to Aphrodite, "Why is one demi-god baby causing so much concern?"
"The Fates foretold that this child shall bring about a new era," said Athena. "Father is suitably concerned."
Xena rose a brow. She rarely forgot that the being in her womb was a demi-god, it still didn't seem real in her mind. This visit from two of the Twelve Major Gods of Olympus was enough to convince her it was real. She let a hand run over her belly. It was still very much flat, no real swelling occurring. She knew it wouldn't for another month or so. Unless this child was to grow fast like Dahak.. Very quickly she put that thought to rest. She knew that other children of Ares had not grown at an increased rate, and neither did any other Olympian Gods. Looking up she realized Ares and the two Goddesses were now standing, face to face, Athena mirroring his anger behind calm green eyes, Aphrodite relaxing behind her in a placid gaze. Why is she here? she thought. What business does the Goddess of Love have in this situation?
"Father wants you to return to your duties," Athena said, "Enyo and the others cannot maintain your state of affairs for much longer."
Ares pouted nonchalantly, turning and perching on the edge of the bed he smiled.
"Oh, I'm sure Enyo and the gang are doing just fine," he said, letting a hand slap Xena playfully on the rump. She narrowed her eyes angrily, smacking the hand away from her.
"If you do not perform your tasks as the God of War, Father will be forced to make some decisions."
Ares chuckled, "Aaah, you can try that Athena, you know damn well Hera would be so unhappy if her favourite son were to come to any harm. Besides. You, Olympus - you need me."
Athena rose a brow with a slight smile.
"Artemis was onto something by attempting to replace you. It seems you have no concern of your responsibilities as a God, placing more importance in your own private affairs."
"Excuse me?" he curled a lip in disbelief, "I've been endlessly devoted to my task of spreading war and destruction. Without it your little minion Nike would be without a job! Right now, for a mere second in the scheme of things, I am guarding the mother of my newest child. Unless you're unaware, a lot of people want her dead. That wouldn't be a suitable end for a Warrior Princess now would it? To be slaughtered whilst in the midst of the sickness of Motherhood."
"Father cares not of this!" Athena cried, "He only cares about his kingdom! You shall not be allowed to bring his demise!"
Ares let out a laugh, "You think I'd be looking after it if it meant the demise of our rule?"
Athena kept silent.
"Well, obviously you don't trust me as a father. This little ankle-biter is going to be the best warrior there ever was! And I will make sure of that. He, or she, will fight for us, not against us."
Xena rolled her eyes from the bed.
"Whatever you say Ares. Just remember who's the Mommy!"
Athena glared at her, then sent a hiss in Ares' direction.
"You see? She holds no regard for the Gods of Olympus!"
Xena cocked an eyebrow.
"I hold some regard for you people, I just have no regard for him!" she said, cocking her head in Ares' direction. Her smug grin was interrupted by the knowing laughter of a certain once-blonde now cherry-topped Goddess of Love.
"Oh please!" she sighed musically, "You've got more than regard for him honey that's why you're in this mess!"
Xena could picture it. She could picture it perfectly, tearing that ex-blonde bimbo limb from limb. The only problem is that it wouldn't do any good. She would just re-attach everything and make her fall in love with a tree. Though, it wasn't like it could have been any worse than what she was enamoured with now. Glancing at the oaf sitting on her bed, leering at the Goddess of Love and Wisdom with utter arrogance she growled.
"Okay I want you all to leave now!" she cried, thrusting a shaky finger to the door.
Ares glanced to her. Her pallor was ghastly, a grey tinge to her usually vibrantly blue eyes, her hair in thin grease-hung locks against her sweaty body. She didn't smell at all sweet, and the vomit from only a moment ago sat waiting to be cleaned up. Aphrodite took in the sight and gave a short snort.
"Ex-cuse me while I fix this, this is gross!"
With a flick of a wrist, as a mere mortal would rid itself of a fly, so Aphrodite rid the room of the stench of sickness, and it's results. Xena sat, perfectly clean, growling inwardly. The bed was free of dust and oils, her skin was baby smooth and clean. Ares smiled at Aphrodite, nodding shortly, Aphrodite shrugging relaxedly.
"Hey bro, it was making me bawk."
Athena had had about enough. Striking the ground with the blunt end of her spear she made an abrupt sigh.
"Listen! You must make a decision on the child. Destroy it yourself, or give it to Zeus and he will dispose of it suitably. That is your only option, brother, I suggest you make up your mind fast."
With that, smoke swirls and ether whorls grew up around her, enveloping her to nothingness. Aphrodite watched the last of the whorls, cocking a lip with some uncertainty. Gently, she approached Ares, sucking air in through her teeth.
"Bro, it's harsh! No way would I go with that but - Daddy's real pissed. He must have a reason."
Glaring up at Aphrodite, he grew hot in the cheeks, fury overtaking him.
"No one will TOUCH my CHILD!" he roared, Aphrodite stepping back quick tentative steps. Xena saw the anger in his eyes, the protectiveness. Would he be this protective if it were Xena herself that were threatened? She pondered it, watching the Goddess cower.
"Woah, okay," she said, lifting her hands in calming motions, "I thought I'd just come to warn you about what's happening in Olympus but I think you already know."
Xena coughed to gain attention.
"Have any of you Gods even considered me in this equation?"
"Of course not, you're a mortal!"
"A powerful mortal, that all in Olympus should fear!"
Xena shook her head. "I don't give a fig about the Gods. However," she added, her eyes becoming cold, "You touch this thing inside 'a me and I swear you won't know what hit ya! I don't care WHO's kid this is, I'm looking after it! So you tell Zeus that if he wants to 'destroy' it, he'll have to get past me first!"
Aphrodite smiled softly.
"You just told him. Xena," Aphrodite placed a hand on her shoulder, "This is a battle you can't win. If you promise to bring the kid up to believe in the Gods, to place it's sovereignty to Zeus, he might just let it live."
Xena felt her eyes sting, as a wave of nausea hit her. They wanted her baby. So what, it was half of that pig sitting on her bed, but - half of it was her. Xena glared at Aphrodite coldly, settling into the blankets, saying nothing.
With a sigh, Aphrodite shrugged, patting Ares on the shoulder.
"I tried to warn ya, Ar," she said, "Seeya."
There was a flash, and turning to Xena, Ares sighed.
"You see, now, why I won't leave your side?"
Xena still glared coldly, and closing her eyes she rolled over, facing her back to him.
She was altogether disgusted with the Gods right now, she would have been far happier without them.
Ares looked through her thoughts, frowning as he felt them.
"I told you before Ares, leave my mind alone."
He shrugged, looking ahead.
"You care about this kid."
Turning over to face him she sighed.
"I do. I can't blame this child for it's unfortunate parentage."
"You know, any other woman would be thrilled to have her foot in the door of Olympus. Yet you act like it's a curse!"
Xena shook her head knowingly.
"That's because it is. Who knows how many Gods want my hide now."
"Oh, they don't want you dead, Xena," he said quietly, his voice husky, leaning over her, "They want our child destroyed. I'm sure as Tartarus am not going to let that happen. What about you?"
She kept her face stony still, eyes like ice.
"I will not let this child die," she said, "And that has nothing at all to do with my feelings for you."
He rose a brow.
"Don't tell me you're admitting you have them."
"What, disgust, utter contempt? Sure, plenty of 'em!" Xena smirked, trying to seem as nonchalant as he but the fiery emotions inside her making her voice tremble.
It was now Ares' time to smirk, and he gave a sidewards nod at her as he relaxed over her, lying at her side.
"You're a good liar, Xena," he said, "It's yet another one of your wonderful traits I so admire."
She gave a snort, Ares letting a smirk go.
"Either way, my dear, this time you and I are on the same side."
Lethaia moved fast and quick, her black silks wrapped around her usual attire concealing in the dark new-mooned night. The guard tower, a looming silhouette, had a solitary figure standing watch. Another figure stood at the other end of the rooftop watch, spear in hand. She retrieved from her back-pack, a small set of bow and arrows, the thin armaments that went with the miniature bow sleek and harmless. Aiming it high she let fly the tiny shots, the needle-like arrows hitting their mark with pin-point accuracy. The men let out grunts, falling down at their posts.
"Jace - are you ready?"
Jace nodded, but stopped a moment.
"You did tell Joxer and Ga-"
"Yeah," Lethaia nodded. "They know."
Joxer felt like he had barely enough sleep when his eyes finally crept open. Next to him the warmth of Gabrielle spread through him, and he smiled inside. He gently snuck his arms around her, pulling her into the nape of his neck, breathing in the smell of the herbs and oils she wore.
The hallway creaked in complaint as heeled boots pounded it all the way to their bedroom door.
The footsteps stopped, and quietly the door opened.
"Lethaia!" Joxer pulled the covers up around him and Gabrielle suddenly, his usually pale face growing deep crimson.
Lethaia rolled her eyes, dropping a pile of old rags and clothes on the floor.
"Jace and I are starting the assault. You'll need these. Tomorrow at dawn - go visit your brother - in this attire!"
Joxer nodded groggily, Gabrielle stirring beside him.
"Mm- Pookie, what's going on?"
Lethaia rose a dark brow, dropping at last a knap-sack. Pointing at the groggy couple she reiterated:
"At dawn! The moment the cock crows you got that?"
Joxer nodded again, Gabrielle leaning over him trying to focus on the clothes on the floor. She lifted confused green eyes at Lethaia.
"What's the plan?"
The darker woman cocked her head, planting hands on hips.
"All you gotta do is stay inconspicuous and get inside the jail!"
"And then what?" whispered Gabrielle, her face set stony at the woman.
The terrain was grassy and sodden, though nearing the fort it became more rocky, making it hard to keep the approach silent. Her feet met ankle-deep running water suddenly, but she was calm. She crossed the knee-deep rivulet with ease, a knowing glint in her dark eyes. Springing up the bank, Lethaia dug inside her side sack, pulling out a leather pouch. Keeping to the ground she tip-toed towards a dark square silhouette - the guard-box that stuck out from the castle.
She slid her hands against the dark slimy wall, her body staying snug against the surface.
The iron barred window had shutter doors shut behind it, and she rapped her knuckles against it, deliberately and precisely.
"Chimaera babes make mean meals on the Day of Zeus," she whispered.
The door cranking open suddenly, beady eyes peered from boil-infested cheeks, wrinkles and grey tufts springing from a leather cap. The guard coughed, ignoring her.
"Whatever, where's the moula?"
She slid the pouch between the bars, a knowing smile on her face.
A side door opened, the black space awaiting her entrance, and she stalked to the doorway, assuming a sultry pose.
"I'm so glad you could help a lady in need..." she said softly.
"Orrgh Arggh!" was all the guard could manage to utter.
"Oh, could you help me with this here? I think the lace is stuck."
The guard growled, plodding forward, till something hard, wooden, something like the heel of a boot, cracked the side of his skull. Spinning around Lethaia eyed the wall, searching with hands for - she grinned.
A few planks of wood lined a section of wall, rows and rows of keys hanging by bent nail hooks. Grabbing them all she pulled a small sack from her bag, dropping them all inside. There was a shuffle outside of the shack and she froze.
"Just a crazy Queen, my dear," came a camp voice, and she relaxed.
"Here!" she hissed, slipping the sack through the bars, "Take care of this will ya?"
"Right away babe!"
Off in the distance she heard the jangle of the keys, and a sploosh of tinkling water.
Diving to the ground from the guard-box, she crept to the towering wall of the fort, unhooking a rope from her side.
Twirling the heavy hook the rope writhed in the air, and with a clank it attached itself to the wall. With a quick tug the hook was secure, and she grinned to her counterpart.
"Very good," she whispered, "Let's go."
Aphrodite pursed her lips as she reclined on the pink divan that was the centrepiece of her fluffy pastel toned abode.
Something was up with the way the whole Xena/Ares thing was being dealt with. Those Fate tramps, she thought, I don't trust 'em! She sighed - she had nothing to base her suspicions on - it was all gut feeling. She blew a sigh through puffed cheeks, watching the scene around her. About her Bliss played, knocking a little vase repeatedly on the carpeted floor with a mischievous giggle. She growled, pulling herself up from the couch and yanking the vase from the child.
"Bliss! No! That's Nana's vase from Thrace!"
Bliss pouted, looking a little hurt.
"Don't give me that look Mister! You've ruined enough of my favourite sacrificial offerings as it is! Remember the statuette you obliterated? Not happening again!"
The blonde child watched her stern but beautiful features, his pout wrinkling into a sob.
"Oh don't be like that!" she sighed, "Shush!"
With a flurry of sparkles Psyche appeared, resplendent in shimmery cloth, fretting at the sight of her saddened baby.
"Bliss!" she cooed, stepping to the child, her intricate wings of a butterfly shuddering. "What's all this then?"
Aphrodite rolled her eyes, rising to her feet.
"Your son is just destroying more of my stuff that's all!" With her own pout she replaced her vase on a pedestal. "It's not like I can even keep it out of his reach."
Psyche sighed apologetically.
"I'm sorry, Aphrodite," she said, "I'll keep a better eye on him."
"Thanks," the Goddess of Love replied half heartedly, "It'd be nice."
Next to the petite Psyche a tall form appeared, white sleek feathered wings arcing around him.
"Off her case!"
Rolling her eyes, Aphrodite lifted her hands in the air, a flustered sigh leaving her.
"Okay okay! Enough of the grodiness already! I'm stressed!" She gave Cupid an even glare, "Major family bust-ups in case you haven't heard!"
Cupid toed the ground, pouting a little with regret.
"Yeh, I have heard, sorry Mom."
"It's okay," she sighed, flopping down onto the divan, "I just - I don't know what to do you know? The Fates aren't telling us anything about this new kid and Dad is majorly freaking out about it! He wants to kill it Cupie!"
"What about Hera?"
"I dunno - think she's too miffed about Artemis at the moment to care."
Psyche looked confused. "Ares and Xena - they're your newest couple right Cupe?"
"Sure," he nodded, "I've been working on them a while..."
"Well - he cares about this kid a lot then, huh?"
Aphrodite grinned, "She always this bright?"
"Mom!" Cupid scolded, "Go on Psyche."
Pursing her lips prissily, jiggling Bliss up and down, she sighed.
"Well didn't he piss off the Furies big time by lying to them about being Xena's father?"
Aphrodite chuckled, "He's not her Dad!"
"The Furies didn't know that!" Psyche said, "Xena tricked them too. If I were them..."
Cupid rose a brow, holding Psyche close in a proud hug. "She's smart as well as beautiful!"
The Goddess of Love stood, urgency making it's way to her pretty face.
"I gotta talk to Xena..."
Psyche looked confused again.
Aphrodite nodded, "Oh yeah."
The long stone-lined corridor stretched out before them, torches spotlighting cell doors in fiery tones. Lethaia clung to the oily wall, the cries and moans of the damned filling her ears. She frowned, squinting through the darkness. She felt a tug at her sleeve, and she spun about.
"Jett is in cell XXXII!" whispered Jace, "Over there. Maximum security."
She sighed, relaxing with a nod.
"How good are you at picking locks?" he asked.
Lethaia grinned, "Not as good as the King of Thieves, but I get by."
Knife and construction nail in hand, she approached the corner, a little grin curling her thin lips.
Two guards patrolled the immediate few yards, a space of empty hall till the darker end of the hall where clanks and scuffles could be heard on a regular basis. Lethaia waited, the guard nearing her, not noticed her as she was veiled in darkness, then moving off again on a set route. He approached the door of Jett's cell, turning with an weary step, crossing the hall, then approaching Lethaia again. She notched a tiny pin arrow, the tightly strung bow-string pushing against it. With precision she released it, the guard barely able to let out a yelp as the arrow pricked his neck, and with a tug from Lethaia he fell into her arms and she silenced him with the heel of her boot. Jace took him, dragging him away.
The other guard that stood sentry at Jett's door stood upright, frowning towards the dark corner.
"Gregor, what are you up to?" he growled, lifting himself from the wall, swaggering to the corner. "No time for games - save it for when you get home to your wife!"
It was hardly painful when he felt the sudden strike at his neck, as if someone slapped him there, but feeling the warmth of blood trickle down, he knew something was lodged in his throat. He yanked it out of his neck by reflex, and he saw the long think needle, stained with his own blood. It was a slightly surprised but mostly confused look on his face that he wore as he collapsed into the darkness.
"Two down..." whispered Lethaia. Jace grinned.
"And that's all we need."
Lethaia and Jace started at the uniforms, working to stay quiet, the armoury barely clanking.
"Everything right down there Aretis?" a gravelly voice cried.
Lethaia glared at Jace, a breastplate in hand.
"Butch!" she mouthed, miming with flexing arms, and he nodded, clearing his throat silently.
"Yeeah!" he said, lowering his voice.
"What's all the clankin'?"
"Rats! I's chasin' rats!"
There was a gurgled chuckle.
"Ge' back ta work!"
Letting out a sigh of relief, Jace let out a final:
Lethaia relaxed, resuming her efforts to strip the men of their belongings.
"I won't be able to talk, you'll have to do it all for me," she said, slipping on the guard's armour and red dirty slacks over her green knee-length pants.
"You nearly ready?" Jace whispered, slipping on the uniform.
Pulling himself up off the ground, Jace waltzed into the corridor, his rear swaying provocatively. Lethaia groaned to herself, burying her face in a gauntletted hand. Letting loose a whistle, Lethaia eyed Jace as he turned around, flexing her muscles again.
Nodding, Jace rose his shoulders, swelling his chest, stomping about with a swagger.
Lethaia joined him, the armour clanking, all the time keeping an eye on the guards down the hall through the helmet on her head.
"Are you ready for the next step?" she whispered.
Jace nodded, and took his place next to the door. Lethaia moved to the other side of the door, standing guard. Jace marched, looking as relaxed and bored as he could, the guard down the hall giving a hearty chuckle. Moving past Lethaia, intercepting the line of view of the guards, she kicked the door repeatedly, Jace screaming out, doing his best to hide his camp tone. The two men down the hall started, ready to bolt down the hall, but Jace lifted a hand in halt.
"That's Jett in there," one guard said, "Murderer, needs a good beating!"
"It's okay, men, Gregor here will take care of the prisoner!"
Lethaia nodded silently, and turning to the door, she fumbled at the lock with the keys hung at the belt.
The heavy door swung open, the dark dank room reeking of human waste, sodden hay, a frightened scuffle in the corner of the room followed by the clink of heavy chains. Closing the door behind her, keeping the feeding hole open for light, she turned to the room.
"Hello?" she whispered, "Jett - are you here?"
There was a scuffle, and into the sliver of light she saw dark eyes staring back from matted black hair. She swallowed a gasp.
"Who are you? What's going on?"
Lethaia smiled despite the fact no one could see.
"We're here to rescue you," she said, "Jace and I."
"Who are you?" he repeated.
"I am Lethaia, hired killer of the common man," she bowed, "Or woman."
He laughed, sinking to his cot, disappearing from sight.
"Jace is out there huh?" he chuckled, "You're in maximum security you realize."
She heard footsteps outside, and she dove to Jett, grabbing his nethers and giving a quick squeeze. He let out an almighty yelp.
"Sound like I'm beating you!" she breathed.
"Ouch!" he said, his voice up and down tones, "Don't hurt me! Ohh Aaah!"
Lethaia stood back, wiping her hands off on the dirty uniform, waves of nausea swept over her as the stench of the room filled her.
"Anyway - we're gonna get you out of here-"
"Is Joxer here?"
"He's at the nearby inn with blondie," she muttered, "He'll be doing his part in this in a couple of hours."
"Blondie - the bard?" he asked, voice deep and gravelly.
"Yeh - Gabrielle's the name. Real nymph."
He chuckled, "Oh yeah!"
Lethaia growled, grabbing his foot, attacking the manacle with the key.
"How do you know my brothers?"
"I met Joxer in a bar at Megara," she said, "He was alone, and was going to try and free you with Jace. I chose to help him."
Grabbing his other foot, she released the manacle.
"Are you ready?"
"For what?" he asked her. She smiled again.
"We're not doing all the dirty work Mr. Assassin - you gotta pitch in too."
Xena pushed the bowl away, shaking her head.
"Xena, you're sick, you need to eat."
"You're right. I am sick. I'm absolutely sick of throwing up," she said, rolling over with a stubborn grunt. Ares sighed, taking the bowl.
"How are you supposed to get fat and healthy if you don't eat?" asked Annalyte, pulling the heavy bed-basin from next to the bed, replacing it with a new one. Ares had had about enough caring for this stubborn example of humanity. She was ungrateful, cold, petty. With a final growl he stood, pointing to the door.
Annalyte looked up, nodding suddenly.
"Don't have to be rude about it!" she muttered, waddling to the door. With the quiet click of the door closing he turned to Xena at the bed, arms crossed in a tight knot.
"What is it?" Xena asked with a nonchalant air.
Ares rolled his tongue in his mouth a moment, holding her eyes with his own dark burning orbs.
"What the hell is wrong with you?"
She scoffed, rolling onto her back.
"Well gee, I dunno Ares, I have your demon spawn growing inside of me, I wonder what on Zeus' green earth could be wrong!"
"Drop the attitude!" he growled, "I've done so much for you, and you repay me with spite!"
Rage finally blew her calm demeanour out the window and she smacked the bowl from the bedside table.
"WHAT have you ever done for ME?" she cried, "Apart from bring me PAIN! And create more guilt for my already heavy conscience to deal with?"
"I didn't do that Xena, you had it in yourself to do the dreadful things you did, all I did was coax you a little. No, those aren't the things I was talking about."
"Well I don't know what you think you've ever done for me in that embellished and ego-driven brain of yours!"
"I've protected you!!" he cried, "I've watched out for you! I've killed any man or woman that would stand in the way of your glory! I've saved your life more than once, and once, just once-"
Xena looked up at him.
"I did it for the right reasons."
She scoffed again, turning in the bed restlessly, growling to herself. She would not let him do it. She would not let him endear himself to her - even for the right reason - it would not happen. Not with this wanton destructor of life.
"Why are you doing this to me? Why are you tormenting me?"
"He loves you, doll."
Spinning on his heel, Ares let loose a grunt.
"What are you doing here?" he growled, Xena following his look. There in the centre of the room stood the very vision of beauty, cherry-blonde ringlets falling about her sculptural face. Great, Xena thought, Aphrodite.
"I'm doing my job," the voice said, tone unusually serious for the ravishing deity.
Aphrodite sighed solemnly, turning to the burly God of War.
"Go check on your realm for a while," she said softly, walking over to Xena, "Gimme a minute with the princess."
Nodding slowly, Ares clenched his teeth.
"Let nothing happen to her or my child!"
Smiling, Aphrodite nodded. "I'm on your side bro."
With that Ares let glitter fall over him, and for the first time in days, Xena was without him. She gazed around her, the room empty, somehow lacking the warm glow that seemed to fill it whilst Ares was present. Letting her eyes fall upon the Goddess she let out a grimace.
"What is it you want, Aphrodite?"
"Just to talk, Xena," she said, sitting on the edge of the bed, "Doing my gig as the Goddess of Love-"
"There's no Lo-"
"No-no-no," Aphrodite chuckled, shaking her head, "You can talk like the tough girl all you want but I know, Xena," Placing a hand on Xena's shoulder she looked deep into her crystal blue eyes, "I know how you feel."
Perking up a little, Aphrodite placed pretty hands on her crossed knee primly.
"Tell me Xena, do you hate me?"
Xena narrowed her eyes, "Do I have to answer that?"
"Yeah, you do."
Gritting her teeth she shook her head.
"I wouldn't say I hate you," Xena replied, "Tolerate perhaps."
"Mmm, okay," she muttered, "Well - I'm a Goddess right?"
Xena kept her dour expression, unmoving.
"Well, you tolerate me, I'm a Goddess, what is it you find likeable about me?"
The Warrior Princess let out a long sigh, rolling her eyes.
"You're a good soul, I suppose," she shot a growl, "What's this got do with me?"
"Just shut up and listen sweet pea," Aphrodite, wriggled into a comfortable position and smiled sweetly. "Now - how about my brother the War Dude? I mean, Ar can be arrogant, selfish, malevolent..."
"Keep going," Xena said with a smirk.
Rolling her eyes, Aphrodite shrugged a little.
"But that's what he's got to do, it's his gig! Kinda like I gotta be the sexy loveable babe! I would love to let go like you do but I can't - it's a part of my gig as the Goddess of Love to stay beautiful every hour of the day!"
"You're saying Ares is the bastard he is because he's made to as the God of War?"
"That's exactly what I'm saying..."
Xena let out an impatient snort. "Well isn't that convenient?!? Do I get to blame my misdemeanours on who bore me? Or maybe what colour hair I've got? Or the fact I'm easily angered?"
Aphrodite chuckled, "No way mortal! You have the ability to greater control your traits. The way we slip into our roles of Godhood is as unconscious as the way you breathe. It's much harder for us. That's why Ares is so special."
"Special?" Xena now chuckled, "Well uh, if that's what you call a bloodthirsty lecherous killer then I must have been pretty special too!"
"Well - yeah you are," Aphrodite smiled sweetly, "In fact you're really special, cause you took hate and fought it with love. I must admit I'm pretty proud of ya!"
Xena cringed. Sickly sweet was nary the word.
"What makes Ares so special?"
"The God of War and Lord of Destruction that'd risk his neck for love? Definitely a triumph for moi! I wouldn't let something like that slide you know..."
"Yeah I realise," Xena muttered, rolling her eyes, "I just don't find it all that impressive."
Aphrodite cocked her head a little, bringing her full lips to a pout a moment.
"Because," said Xena, "Ares does things only for his own benefit. He's a totally self-driven individual with no care whatsoever about anyone else. He is like the wind, like a rock, like the air. He does what he does, as a part of his realm. He is war and everything I try to work against. He is my nemesis. My enemy."
Aphrodite rose a brow. "Your enemy that protects you, guides you, warns you of danger..."
"That lies to me, uses me, betrays me..."
"That would give his life for you... In a second."
Xena glared at her.
The Goddess of Love leered at the mortal upstart.
"You wanna try me babe? I'm the Goddess of Love - this is my kahuna. I know what I'm yappin' about!"
Xena kept her face stony, watching her fingers pick aggressively at the woolen blanket thrown over the furs. How can you argue with a God? she thought. She felt her throat swell, warmth and pain stinging her eyes. Closing them in defeat she let the wave of helplessness wash over her - she had fought for so long. She had killed, she had destroyed. She was ready to destroy him. Destroy for peace...
"I'd kill him.... If I could," The raven-locked Warrioress swallowed, her breath rasping the words, "I'd kill him in a heartbeat..."
Settling next to Xena on the bed, perched next to the window, the lovely Goddess swung a hand whimsically.
"Yeah, and his last words would be 'I always knew you'd make a great Goddess of War!'," she lowered her voice comicly, flexing and curling her arms in a butch manner.
Xena winced, the hot flush of tears spilling down her face.
"Why me?" she sniffed, "Why me of all people?"
Aphrodite shrugged, "Ares said to me once, 'When the Fates threaded Xena's twine, they made it strong, so that the garment of destiny would shine with her beauty and grace. Without it, the fabric would be dull, lifeless, coarse and lack-lustre... much like the hessian that clothes the poor and swaddles the pigs'."
"I've tried so hard to put War and evil ways behind me..."Xena breathed. "I think I make it, I think I've won - and you Gods," She spat the word, as if it were the sludge of the smelliest dung, "Undo everything I've made it my purpose to do."
"What's that, beat people up?"
Xena glared at the Goddess, "Right the wrongs I've committed!"
Aphrodite sighed with a knowing smirk, "You never will Xena."
"What makes you so sure?" she growled.
Aphrodite pulled herself up to her feet, striding to the centre of the room.
"You live for hate, as you move, as you breath. You're searchin' so hard for redemption - and use it as an excuse to destroy the person you once were day after day. Only with Love, Xena, can you be at peace."
This bimbo was telling her how to deal with something she knew nothing about!! The self-righteous...
"Hey Are- you can come back now Bro."
With the expected glowing ripple and drip of stars, the heavy but agile form of Ares slipped into reality, his raven curls bouncing gently as he stepped from the shimmer. He merely gazed at Aphrodite flatly as she stepped back from Xena, leaning to Ares and turning him aside. She could see the melancholy burn in his eyes, a sadness plaguing the God of War like none before. It was more than a Godly pain - it was a deep rooted human one. Aphrodite knew what it was to feel bad, what it was to mourn in that human sense. It was all too familiar to her, and it waned now, she had finally time to get over it. However Ares had spent days being human before, so much so she knew a part of him would always be human, and it was a good thing for the God of War to be. It made the pains and treacheries of war a little closer to home.
"Be gentle with her," she whispered to him, "And remember who you are."
Ares nodded, a long sigh falling from his chest, and with a shimmer, his sister was gone.
Xena glanced up at him as he gazed at where Aphrodite was a moment, somehow sensing... he wanted her to stay with him. Why? She was practicaly his opposite...
"She understands me as few do," Ares said suddenly, "Despite our differences in our deitic duties, she finds it in herself to accept me - and even love me."
She blinked hard as the word hit her. Love. Who really ever 'loved' Ares? Who could find it in themselves to 'love' such a monstrosity? Not many, was the answer she found, and why? Because he is a selfish pig! she thought to herself - but as she glanced up the the slowly pacing God, head up high in stubborn dignity, she felt her heart buckle. His eyes were red at the corners, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed down the pain. With a rush, a rush like the ease of a wind through an open window, or the sudden burst of speed from a sailboat, it soaked her mind alike the torrents of an Indian monsoon.
"I've judged you..." she muttered hoarsely, the God turning to face her with a graceful step.
"You've done me wrong," she added, "You've done a lot wrong."
Ares lifted a hand but she hissed suddenly.
"Quiet! Let me finish!" Xena swallowed, the warmth of a tear spilling down her face, "I've been the executor of some terrible monstrosities. I've found solace in my heart in blaming someone else for my actions... I was fortunate enough to have you all these years."
Ares stood motionless, watching her with deep brown orbs, his own crystal tears welling at his lids.
"But I can't blame you - not anymore. I was wrong - I couldn't forgive myself... You let me be that way and I hate you for it!"
"I hate you!" she sniffled, pulling her blanketted knees up to her chest and averting her gaze. "And - you know what really takes the cake?"
Ares rose a brow.
"What takes the cake is these past few years inside you is born the most - potent individual I've ever met! You - you're stubborn, and pigheaded and cruel yet," she winced suddenly, "Graceful and noble and... Under that God is someone - I - I..." She felt the edge of the bed bend with the weight of the God, his warmth near her, a large strong hand bracing her side, "I need you..."
With a small moan she felt him pull her up to him gently, so gently but with controlled and utter strength, his sculptural lips fiercely melting into hers, and this time there was no heaviness, only curiosity of something new. She felt her soul soar with giddy twirls, his hands tracing her form as his arms slid around her, holding her firmly. He held her up through her weakness from her condition, and with all passion and care he moved his lips to the nape of her neck, letting her rest against his broad shoulder.
"Is this wrong?" she whispered through moans. Ares barely responded as he explored her neck and ear, running strong fingers through dark raven tresses. She sighed in release, a smile somehow tempting it's way to her lips, and she felt him lean her back, placing her back on the bed, adjusting the pillow and blankets, then kneeling on the bed he took in the vision of her, reclined with the blush of need in her cheeks. Running a lax hand up her thighs, he reached her leathers, slowly loosening them.
"These must be uncomfortable..."
She nodded, his masterful touch pushing her straps from her shoulders, carefully removing the lived-in leather. The way he moved, the way he held her - it was all so different from before... every time he touched her it seemed even more passionate yet - loving? Was this being capable of loving her? Perhaps not like any mortal could, but oh! Fire was his kisses, his lips moving over her skin that bristled with pleasure.
Running her hands up his arms, she felt the skin of his bare back suddenly, his vest gone from him. Glancing up to his impassioned brown eyes she clasped him.
"I have to know," she breathed, "I have to know..."
Gazing into her he waited.
"Do you - I mean," The headiness of the touches clouded her mind, finding the right words paused her, "Do you luh-"
Before she could finish he covered her mouth in a soft caressing kiss, at letting go he breathed to her huskily.
"I believe you already know the answer to that question..."
"I want to hear it..." she frowned.
He stroked her high cheekbone with the back of his fingers, planting soft kisses in their wake. His lips settled at her ear and he whispered to her with low reverence...
"Indeed... I love you Xena."
Gabrielle tugged at the rags that hung of Joxer's apparently lanky frame, pulling up old woolen wraps, hiding his young full figure. She smiled to herself. For so long she had assumed he had little to offer physically as a lover. She wasn't sure what it was exactly about his wayward armour that hid his attractively balanced physique, it was quite a beautiful sight, his ample pectorals sweeping to average width shoulders, that in turn lilted down to quite defined biceps and triceps. His waist was narrow and his back was covered with a deliciously toned layer of muscle covered in his beautiful creamy skin.
She felt a hand at her cheek and looking up she blinked.
"Uhm - I'm sorry Joxer what were you saying?"
He smiled nervously.
"I said I hope everything has gone okay with Lethaia and Jace."
Gabrielle let loose another smile, pulling over the last heavy overcoat, making Joxer look about ten pounds heavier than he really was. She fidgeted at his collar, her fingers weaving around a thin leather strap.
"I'm sure that we'll find out when we get to the jail."
He nodded, examining the bard's thoughtful expression. He let his hand cradle her jaw once more, his heart raising at the touch. She glanced up to him, a softness in her eyes.
"What's up?" he asked.
She shook her head, gripping Joxer by the collar.
"I just think of all the things that have happened in these past three weeks and I can't quite believe them..." Gabby sighed, "I've not been this happy since -"
The name nearly left her lips, and she stopped, her throat catching. He pulled her closer at her disturbed frown, and he muttered.
"It's okay Gabby, I understand."
With a small purse of her lips she tugged at his shirt again, adjusting his outfit.
"There. All you need now is the," She bent over, pulling up an old horse-hair prop, "Fake beard... And this old hat..."
Joxer's eyes glowed as she placed on the finishing touches to the disguise.
"Well, you're done!" she said, turning him to a long mirror. "Ready?"
"As I'll ever be..." he mumbled, looking at the padded mound before him. Gabrielle, concealed under layers of rags and torn clothing, smiled.
"Then let's go!"
Joxer hobbled down the dirt path, leaning on Gabrielle's staff that was half shrouded in rags to hide the Amazon pelt. His heavy dirty coats dragged along the ground stirring the dust, his face covered in horse hair wig and face prop. Only his obsidian eyes could be made from the mess of hair. Gabrielle pulled him along, and reaching the guard box she smiled.
"We're here to see the prisoner in cell number XXXII!" Gabrielle said, voice deliberately frail.
Nodding, the guard, a much younger and healthier lad that the last old brute that was stationed there, called out.
From the large wooden entrance, an unusually lithe looking guard stomped over to the couple, grimacing from under the helmet. Without a word, the guard motioned awkwardly with a gauntleted long-sleeved arm, and the two followed him.
Behind them the wooden doors slammed, and the room - a roughly square neat room filled with scrolls and tablets that were fastidiously filed away, was centred with a old bespectacled man at a desk, working at a scroll. Gabrielle couldn't help but pine at the elaborate and professional set up, the equipment looking to be the finest she'd seen.
"Oh, very good it's you Gregor - has prisoner XXXIV had his weekly slop?"
Gregor shook his head sedately.
The old man frowned, tapping his clean-shaven chin with a quill.
"You know you've been very quiet today Gregor - is something wrong?"
Standing still a moment, Gregor tapped his throat with a lax hand.
"Oh," the man nodded, "Lost your voice eh? Probably all the shouting you do lad - I'd get that seen to by the town healer. Now - about your business!"
Nodding again, Gregor grabbed Joxer by the throat, pulling him along into maximum security.
Once in the hall, Gregor mumbled to the couple in quite a convincingly female and articulate voice.
"You're on time," she said, "Good. Now remember, be discreet. And keep up that hobble - remember to use it to mask your 'condition' okay?"
Joxer nodded, "I know the plan Lethaia, trust me," he rolled his eyes, "It'll be a very convincing hobble!"
Gabrielle clenched his shoulder.
"Just don't fall over!"
Joxer eyed her, Gabrielle stealing a soft laugh.
They snapped into their roles as a guard made his way down the hall, hand resting on his sword butt menacingly. He nodded to 'Gregor', Lethaia nodding back. Turning the corner they reached the "Maximum Security" area, Lethaia pushing the couple into the hall.
Unlocking the door, Aretis grinned.
"Hey scum!" the vaguely camp gravelly voice growled, "You've got visitors!!"
Clanking open the door, he kicked the 'old' couple in the door, slamming it behind them.
The blackness was engulfing. Shafts of light from the door where enough to reveal the second security door wide open, locks broken and twisted nearly beyond recognition. There was a scuffle, but without the rattle of chains, and from the darkness Joxer felt two hands grab him, the strength in them diminished but the authority apparent.
"Brother!" came the husky voice, "I was hoping it would be Gabrielle covered in the robes but - there's nothing there that I haven't seen before, fellow triplet!"
Joxer rolled his eyes.
"I'm wearing clothes underneath this Jett..."
The dark shape stopped, sinking a little.
"Joxer, it was a joke."
Gabrielle sighed, "Hurry up and get in there Jett!!"
Nodding, the lanky figure yanked the stuffing from Joxer's outfit, and taking the pillows and rags he shoved them in his cot in the corner. Shambling back to his brother, he climbed inside the robes, tying himself to his brother, securing the fabrics. Lucky Joxer, he thought, He smells like nice flowers compared to me right now, though that probably has something to do with spending his time with the sweet little bard.
Joxer turned, still hobbling, the next set of feet, bare and worn, moving with him.
Knocking on the door he called with frail voice.
"May I come out now sir?"
The door opened with a shuddering creak, and Lethaia smiled underneath the helmet.
"Of course you may!" 'Aretis' chuckled, trying hard to keep the camp speech at bay.
He staggered forward, the feet in front of him causing him unsteadiness.
"Watch it!" he hissed under his breath.
He lurched forward, his steps staggered at first, slowly as he made his way down the hall he picked up a rhythm, Jett following suit. Jace flanking her, Lethaia escorting the couple out of the fort. She kept an eye about her, but the nature of the uniforms was indeed fortunate, from under the helmet she kept watch in complete anonymity. Reaching the entrance to the atrium, she led the two through the doorway, and as they were through she closed the door behind her carefully. Getting the key to the door she turned it in the lock, and with a savage kick Jace jarred the key in the hole. Entering the front atrium Lethaia grew nervous as her eyes fell on the gaggle of guards, obviously making work conditions nice and noisy for the poor old man at the desk. Spotting her, he stood, pointing a rigid arm and the bunch of haggard men.
"Oh Gregor!! Very good!! We have the new recruits today and the sergeant said you would take them for training..."
Oh shit, Lethaia felt her insides bubble in tension, and she stepped to the centre of the room nervously.
The guards were now silent, eyeing her as she stood at the double doors, facing them, hand on sword.
She let out a sigh, her hands falling lax at her sides.
Loosening the leather strap at her waist, she yanked it off, chucking it by the wayside. The pants fell to her feet, soon to follow was her clanky armour, she ripped the tunic from her without regard. Looking up, the guards were in shock, jaws in their laps as the helmet now flew off.
"Hello boys," she grinned, resplendent in her green and white hired killer attire, "Nice day for it!"
"GUARDS!!" the little old man bellowed, "THEY'RE GETTING AWAY! STOP THEM!!" He ran to a bell in the corner, yanking on it's chains furiously, and glaring at the recruits he growled, "STOP THEM!!"
Taking only a moment to eye each other, with tentative roars the men ran at her, swords blazing.
She grinned, a quick hoot coming from her and she sprang into the air, flipping over the oncoming fray.
From next to her there was an odd cry, and a flash of glitter and blade flew through the room, landing without grace but with all necessity.
"Darling - you're not going to fight without me are you?"
"As if I had a choice!" Lethaia grinned, parrying with an elegant blade. She glanced to Gabrielle and Joxer, cocking her head at the door and mouthing "GO!"
Grabbing Joxer Gabrielle hurried for the door, ushering the slow mound along. She pushed at the heavy doors, the bright of day spilling in the room. Joxer lumbered from the fort, Gabrielle running aptly behind him, gripping her staff in her hand. When they were a good distance from the fort, Joxer ripped at his coats, prying free the smelly old rags, letting Jett and himself to be free to steal into the forest ahead.
"Keep running Joxer and don't stop!!" Gabrielle panted.
"You too Gabrielle!!"
It was an odd thing the Master of Security heard from his chambers in the west wing. It was almost a holler, almost a shrill cry, and it was piercing. Now - it wasn't any of the prisoners. Most of them were too weak and frail to make such a noise. And he knew full well that none of the guards would make such a noise for fear of being reprimanded. Pulling himself out of his bed he stormed to the doorway, pulling on his dressing-robe, he yanked at the doorhandle.
The door stayed shut.
Growling he tried it again. Clicking at the latch he roared.
"GUARDS!! WHY IS MY DOOR LOCKED!!"
The guard outside the door started. Bumbling around he checked the lock.
"The lock's buggered sir!"
"Someone's stuck something in it and jammed it all up sir! You're stuck in there till I get the smith it seems. You want me to get the smith?"
"YES AND HURRY UP YOU DOLT!!!"
Nodding to himself the guard started down the hallway, reaching the doorway at the end he tried to pull open the door, but like the Master of Security, it would not budge. He sighed, turned, and headed right back for the Master's door with very little aggravation.
"My door's stuck too sir. It seems we're both stuck sir."
"WHAT?!??" the man roared, "This is LUDICROUS!!! SOMEBODY'S HEAD IS GONNA ROLL FOR THIS!!!"
Pursing his lips the guard frowned. It was probably going to be his.
Lethaia grabbed the draperies near her head and swung, her sharp boot heels meeting a few heads and even an eye socket with a sickening give. With a deafening snap the drapes broke from the hooks, and the woman flipped, landing on her feet with an agile bounce. Most of the rookie guards lay on the ground, only three or four die hards causing any problems. The latch at the door to the prison main jiggled repeatedly, the door being kicked and beaten after the latch jiggling proved useless.
"Jace - they've figured it out - fell these two guys and hurry!"
"Sure thing sweetheart!" he cried, his feet dancing back and forth as he parried the strikes. The burly boys brought their heavy issue swords down with no real finesse, the transvestite springing from glittery booted foot to glittery booted foot, ducking and weaving from the masterless blows. "Boys boys boys boys! Who on Zeus' green earth taught you how to fight?" He jutted a heel behind him, the hard of his foot ploughing into the codpeice of the guard behind him, the hard shield digging into his attacker's nethers. A pain-filled howl filled Jace's ears and he grinned with satisfaction as he kept at the guard in front of him.
"Get the chop, this old biddy said, so much easier to get through life that way and she's right!" he nattered to his opponent, "Think her name was Twanky..."
There was a gurgled shriek as Lethaia brought down her sword with a terrible splatch into the last of the guards she was fighting.
"Jace you need help?"
"No!" he smiled, sword clashing, "Just finishing this one off!"
He swung, his sword striking armour, and with the rebound he brought the sword up into the man's armpit. Howling the man fell to the ground, his arm dangling awkwardly.
Sheathing his blade, Jace smiled, planting dainty hands on his padded hips.
"I love a good swordfight," he cooed. Grabbing his arm Lethaia pulled him along.
"Come on, Jace, let's get out of here!"
Aphrodite felt herself propelled through the ether, and arriving at Olympus she burst through the thin skin that was reality and into the Heavens. Around her the gardens of Olympus glowed with energies celestial, roses perfect and pure perched on stems smooth and without barbs. Hummingbirds floated from blossom to blossom, not bothered at all by becoming some animal's prey. It was not the way of Olympus to have such unpleasantries.
The buxom Goddess pressed onwards towards the main palace, being sure to avoid the Hall of the Great Twelve, where most of the telling off of naughty Gods, Goddesses and Godlings took place. Zeus presided there, planted on his throne, the only thing moving him being a good fight or a beautiful woman. Everything else could be dealt with with a thunderbolt. Smirking to herself, Aphrodite stole into the Heavenly Chambers, golden shrouds clothing marble columns and stark walls. She reached a set of heavy golden doors, all symbols of queenship and womanhood embossed in it's cherry yellow hues.
Pushing it open she let loose a coo, entering the domain and carefully closing the door behind her.
"Heeeraa! Ya here?"
There was a flash, and the regal Queen of Heaven slipped into existence in front of Aphrodite with a cold glare.
"What do you want, harlot?"
"Nice to see you too Her!" grinned Aphrodite, lifting a brow, "Now I think it'd be a great idea to dispose with the grodiness cause I'm here to talk about your favourite son and my other favourite bro..."
Relaxing a little, Hera dropped her long hands at her sides, lifting a brow to mirror the younger woman. Strolling deeper into the room laxly she turned about.
"It isn't safe to talk here - the walls have ears."
"My lair then, it's cool there trust me."
Nodding, the Goddess winked out, Aphrodite following her.
"Now what was it you wanted to talk about?" asked Hera as she materialised in the pastel pink realm of the Goddess of Love. Her blonde hair was wrapped regally and high on her head, her long elegant neck somehow supporting it. Aphrodite often marvelled how truly beautiful Hera was, not as beautiful as she, the Goddess of Love, of course, but beautiful nonetheless. It was no wonder she was the woman Zeus came back to.
"Ares, I'm concerned about how grody Dad is getting."
Hera nodded, "Indeed it is a worry, Aphrodite."
Aphrodite stuck hands out in exasperation, "We gotta help them!"
Hera turned her eyes to her, examining her a moment.
"Why do you care so much about the fate of this child?"
The Goddess laughed nervously. "Hey - I've been working on Ares and Xena for a while now, and losing their kid would be like - the worst thing that could happen!"
Hera shrugged, "If they truly loved one another they would continue on. You feel for this child, you're a softhearted fool, Aphrodite... It is your father's will that this pathetic runt of a Godling die. Why defy him?"
Aphrodite smiled. "Cause he's defied you time after time."
Hera glared at her.
"Upstart!" she breathed, but Aphrodite lifted calming palms.
"Relax babe, just hear me out!"
Hera stood still.
"Now - he's basically done what he wants regardless of your feelings but hey! You're the Queen of the Gods aren't ya?? You should make some of your own trouble now... do what you wish to do!"
Listening intently the Mother of the Gods nodded, "Continue..."
"I mean - think of it! You somehow help out Ares - the baby lives - Dad is pissed!! Oh! Added bonus!! Hercules finds out Ar has been with his latest convert and wow! He'll be majorly heart-broken Ma!!"
A curl of a smile touched Hera's lips.
"Besides - I been with Xena. I've got a great feeling about this kid - I can't explain it! And it'd be just like the Furies to stir up trouble with Ares and Xena - remember with the retribution stuff-up?"
Hera nodded, lifting a hand.
"Enough," she said, "I hear your reasons. They are good reasons. You've given me much to consider Aphrodite."
Grinning, Aphrodite pointed a finger at Hera with a click of her tongue.
"Thanks Ma!" she smiled, "You know - you aren't so bad...In fact you're kinda cool."
Raising a stiff brow Hera smiled, "I am the Queen of Womankind my dear, of course I am."
Athena had taken time out since the business with Ares ruffled her feathers, reclining on a deep burgundy divan and nibbling tentatively on an olive as she gazed out from the palisade of her heavenly abode. Something in the air quivered, a buzz as if a thousand bees were circling her and every wing batted the air in a new direction. She frowned, gazing about her. Her brother troubled her, his adamance this time overwhelming. Something must have been troubling her father so, Zeus was the king of the Heavens, he would not be so alarmed for no reason.
The Fates, she thought, are being unusually vague in this matter...If Olympus were truly threatened they would have made efforts to be better informed on the nature of this child...
"Nike!" Athena called, pulling herself upright on the divan.
There was a patter of leather soled sandals as a nymph of a young pubescent woman skittered into the room. Her short gold-trimmed tunic fluttered in the breeze of her manic movements, her long black ringlets flailing behind her as she skid to a halt.
"My lady!!" the girl bowed and curtseyed frantically, Athena casting a disappointed eye at the Godling's haphazard manner.
"Dear Nike, I know this may not be in your frame of reference, but know you any reasons why the Kindly Ones would be angered by the War God - or the Warrior Princess?"
"You been wondering 'bout that too huh?" Nike asked, cocking her ringlet crowned head, "Well, as far as I see it, and this is just speculation here Mi-lady, the lead Fate had a thing for Ares - and now Ares is with this new chick she wants revenge! And the funny thing is Ares doesn't even like this girl, he's after another woman from Cyprus with a real penchant for toe-sucking-"
Athena glared at the girl, her silence stony.
" - aaand I figure that's not the kinda reasons you were after..."
The Goddess shook her head slowly, her dark green eyes penetrating.
"They most certainly are not," she sighed, "I'm afraid Olympian hear-say will not aid me in my pursuit."
Nike nodded a moment, pouting her bottom lip thoughtfully.
"What pursuit is that Mi-lady?"
Athena lifted her eyes to the girl as she rose elegantly, raising her hand to a nearby perch.
From the perch a white owl pulled itself into the air with it's pristine wings, grabbing at Athena's long olive digits and swaying to a halt. Carefully, the Goddess took her hand to her shoulder, the Owl staying put till it was offered the shoulder and took it most happily.
"Justice?" Nike rose a dark thick brow.
"Indeed," Athena finished, "And justice will be made."
Their feet pounded the sodden earth hard as they galloped down the side of the hillock. They ran like the wind, they had been for the past twenty minutes and they decided to continue to do so till they reached some dense forest, that very ideal up ahead. Joxer pulled at the reigns of his beast, feeling the lithe arms of Gabrielle grip him from behind. He glanced back to Jace, kicking along his own deep brown well-muscled steed, the white star on it's muzzle flashing in the sun as it galloped. Next to him Lethaia sped on her own animal, the long legged beauty taking the double weight easily. Jett was behind her, holding on with thin pale arms, his dark eyes squinting from the intense daylight.
"Don't worry Jett, it's only a little farther!!" Joxer cried to him.
Jett pulled his head up from Lethaia's shoulder with all his strength, glaring at his twin a moment.
"Why Joxer? Why did you do this? I told you before - don't mess up what you got - what you had - you were onto a good thing, now you'll be chased for the rest of your life. Tick Merimas off your holiday list!"
He gritted his teeth, staring forward.
"They won't recognise me Jett, and besides - I didn't like Merimas much anyway - the food stunk!"
"And the beds were uncomfortable," piped in Gabrielle, smiling suddenly.
"And the beer tasted funny," added Lethaia.
Jace felt eyes on him suddenly and he tisked.
"Forget it - you can blunder through this schmaltzy moment on your own!"
"Come on," Lethaia shouted over the hoof-beats, "A nice little cottage is up ahead. Maybe we can get shelter there."
Jett glanced at her, this woman holding him up as his frail form hung pathetically. She was stunning to him, olive skin dark from years of sunlight, deep near-black eyes shining from under long curled lashes. She wasn't perfect by any means, her dark skin was a little leathery, her dark hair a bit wiry and dry at the ends from constant exposure. But it excited him, seeing this roughness, she must have been away from a home for a long time. He looked to her hands - they were scarred, uneven in texture. With his arms that were wrapped around her small waist he could feel her firmness, and as rough as she was, as battle-worn, she shone with a delicateness and grace he knew the prettiest nymph would be envious of - even Aphrodite herself could not hold the charismatic air this woman did.
Jett's eyelids felt heavy, the steady rhythm of the horse's gate rocking him to a half sleep.
Lethaia kept her eyes ahead to the cottage, but at her shoulder there was a warmth, and she felt the tentative touch of Jett as he leant his head against her.
"Here," Gabrielle said, pushing the door open with a kick, "Just needs a little shove..."
Joxer nodded, following her inside the empty cottage. The place was thick with dust, the strewn furniture hung with cobwebs. Gabrielle ran her finger along the shelf above the hearth, a little statuette of Hestia placed at its centre.
"There must have been a battle near here," she said, "The people who live here must have left and never come back."
Lethaia shrugged, "Either that or the occupant went for a wander and never came home. It doesn't seem it was stocked for many - built for many maybe, but not stocked for many."
"You're right," Gabrielle agreed, leaning in a doorway, peering into another room, "This place has enough room for a small family."
"Convenient," Jace sighed, "We're the number of a small family."
Joxer ambled his way into the kitchen, touching and tapping various neglected objects as he entered the tiny room. The benches still had implements on them, pots sitting at the sideboard awaiting to be put away, all covered in an inch of dust. Taking in a long breath Joxer blew at them, the dust billowing into a cloud around him. It stuck in his throat and he rasped, coughing and spluttering; "I found the kitchen!!"
Gabrielle turned from examining a clay pitcher at the table.
"Great, but you know how I cook Joxer..."
Emerging from the dusty haze Joxer flapped at the air around him.
"I remember quite vividly those omelets you made..."
She pouted, "I can cook dumplings..."
Joxer grinned suddenly, remembering the delicious dough smothered morsels of nicely browned flesh.
"Yeh, your dumplings are prize-winning..."
Lethaia looked around her. It was a claustrophobic air the small cottage possessed, the shutters closed and stiff looking, letting in barely any light. In the doorway, wrapped in a pelt was Jett, looking about with dark-circle frames eyes, his obsidian orbs scanning the room with a hopeless gaze. Over his hands hung a long matted black beard, his hair scraggled and knotted, the smell coming from him unbearable. Looking the other way she saw an axe next to the hearth, and she grabbed it determinedly.
"I'll be out looking for kindling and wood," Lethaia said, holding up the axe.
"Sure," said Gabrielle, "I'll just help Joxer salvage the kitchen and look for some clothes for Jett - get him cleaned up."
Lethaia threw a smile at the man, nodding. "Good idea."
There was a long dramatic sigh, and Jace threw down a glittery back-pack with a cock of his hip.
"And I'll give this place a woman's touch!" he scowled, "Demeter knows none of you will do it! This place is a disaster!! Though it has potential!"
Jett gave his 'brother' a long stare, swaying slightly, Jace looking back at him with an uncertain pout. The man's stare was unsettling to say the least, and Jace primped at his black cropped bob.
"Oh will you stop that!" Jace cried, "You're freakin' me out here!"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes shortly, running up to the gaunt man.
"Don't worry, Jett, we'll get you nice and clean and comfortable..."
She led Jett away to the next room as Joxer raced to his brother's side, who kept silent the whole way. Lethaia and Jace watched him go, his slow tired steps taking an eternity to complete. Lethaia frowned, a yawning sensation inside her. She didn't like it much, it had something to do with the disgusting measure of a man being led away at that moment. Gripping the axe with a hard pout she stalked from the room, nudging past Jace as she left.
Jace pursed his lipsticked lips. "Why do I bother with humour - it's wasted on this bunch!"
Pulling Jett into the back room, Gabrielle jerked her head towards the window to Joxer and he opened the woven shutters, sunlight spilling in. Gabrielle yanked the pelt off Jett, throwing it to a cot in the corner.
"There," she said, "I'm going to see if there's a tub about and I'll run you a bath..."
Joxer eyed a cupboard in the corner, and approaching it he reached out for it's latch. Carefully he released it and opened the doors wide.
"Hmmm, oh," he smiled, pulling out a waist-coat, "Leather - look Jett - suede!"
"I'm more of a 'polished leather' man myself," he rasped.
Joxer rolled his eyes, "Recently escaped criminals can't be choosers, Jett. Now, what do you wanna wear?"
Jett pointed at a dark blue, almost black pair of togs, then a white shirt, a lighter blue cummerbund and the dark brown suede waist-coat Joxer had been waving about.
"Stylish!" he grinned, "I'll look for some stuff so you can shave..."
With a knock at the door, Gabrielle entered the room, a pleasant smile on her face.
"There's a tub, Jett - you wanna come have a wash now?"
He nodded tiredly, but stopped suddenly...
"You don't wanna see me naked I-"
Gabrielle grinned, "It's okay I've seen it all before."
He nodded again, "Of course. Show me the way..."
Joxer smiled, collecting the clothes from the cupboard, looking a mite too big for Jett but probably a comfortable fit nonetheless. Glancing back Jett smiled.
"Thanks Joxer," he said.
"That's okay, Jett."
Lethaia yanked off the waistcoat that seemed to be suffocating her, the morning sun now in the midday sky. She rolled her knee-high pants up a little higher, sitting about mid-thigh. Blowing air through puffed cheeks she wiped at her bronzed brow with the back of her hand, glancing back at the cottage. A figure stood in the doorway, still and slow moving. She could see it's dark attire, it's white shirt stark against it. With another sigh she lifted the axe from the chopping block, taking a fat log with her other hand and placing it ready to be chopped. Swinging the blade high in the air she brought it down upon the block, the wood splitting with a crack. The axe was lodged in the wood, and lifting the axe up, the wood stuck on the end, brought it down again, this time the two pieces bursting apart with a satisfying crunch.
Behind her she heard the russle of grass, and she glanced behind her, axe in hand, ready to strike.
"Oh, it's you..." She straightened, pressing her lips together briefly. "How are you feeling?"
"Hungry," he said, "I can't eat till you've cut enough wood for a fire."
She gazed at Jett a long moment. His hair was now cut, a little choppy but acceptably neat, in a similar style to his brother Joxer, in fact very similar. His fringe was a little longer than his brother's at the front, parted in the middle and swept back. He had shaved, and his handsome features, still gaunt from neglect, hung in a sad frown. The apparel he wore hung at him but his wide shoulders and balanced frame could be seen.
"Over there," she said, gesturing with the axe head, "There's a pomegranate tree. They might be a little overripe..."
Glancing at the bush he nodded, beginning to plough his legs through the long grass towards the small tree.
"I like them a little sweeter," he said.
Placing another log on the block she swung the axe, watching Jett as he examined the fruit.
"For a guy who has had a weekly feed for months you sure are picky."
Jett shrugged, "Just because I was treated like an animal doesn't mean I feel I can easily sacrifice my dignity. No matter how hungry I am I don't eat bad fruit."
Lethaia smiled with a small shrug, "Sure thing."
With a snap the axe head split another log.
Taking a couple of ripe red orbs he nestled in the grass nearby under the shade of a large oak that Lethaia worked under. He watched her for a moment, paying close attention to her features.
"You said you were an assassin..."
Lethaia shot a glance at him as she continued to chop wood.
"Hired killer," she corrected.
"Whatever - how come I never heard of you before?"
Lethaia rose a brow with a quick smile.
"I don't do the kinda work that gains notoriety," she said, "I asked to be paid for the efforts that the little bard's friend Xena puts in for free," she shrugged. "It's all a lie anyway. Xena gets her pay. She gets paid with that step a little closer to redemption with every good deed."
She brought the axe head down with a deafening crack. Lumps of wood flew from the block.
"You do good for dinars?" Jett asked, holding the pomegranate to his mouth.
"Kind of," she frowned, placing a block of wood, "As long as I get paid I don't ask questions."
Jett nodded, gazing out at the scenery around him.
"It's a pity I didn't know what it was to be a good person before this," he sighed, "Before I made you all risk your lives..." He glanced up to Lethaia, gripping the pomegranate in his hand, "You should have let me die in there."
"I don't think so," Lethaia shook her head, "Unlike myself, you have a name out there. I heard you were the most vicious vile killer ever to roam the known world... Funny thing is - " she shrugged, "You're only a messed up guy. Probably even more messed up than Joxer, but you know what it is to be good. A vicious vile killer knows nothing of this - they think what they do is the only way to exist. You're a good man, Jett, you just don't know it yet."
He gazed at her darkly, chewing on the overly ripe fruit.
"You don't know me, 'hired killer'."
She rose a brow, her near obsidian eyes regarding his.
"Yes I do," said Lethaia, "I see what you are."
"And what's that?"
She looked him in the eyes, leaning on the axe that was propped on the chopping block.
"A flawed, imperfect human being. You've accepted your misgivings - these are the first steps on the road of Absolution. Lucky for you the rest you don't have to take alone."
Jett swallowed, narrowing his eyes.
"What would you know about Absolution? A goodie-two-shoes like you?"
Her lips taught her black eyes narrowed with knowing, "All manner of beings have their shortcomings. Some are just harder to deal with than others. But that difficulty is only in relation to your own pain. And pain is something I've had my fair share of."
He gazed at her with a slow nod, taking another bite of his pomegranate. "You sound like an oracle..."
Lethaia smiled, "I'm just another child of the Gods."
The roof of the inn was neatly packed thatch under meticulous tiling, and it gave Ares something to gaze at whilst Xena's comely form rested against his, her soft body entwined in his arms. Lowering his eyes to her he smiled, seeing she wasn't asleep. Her face lay at his breast, the soft warmth and damp of her breath running along his skin deliciously. He tightened his grip of her a moment, making sure it was real. Her thoughts were calm, he could feel them, under the barbs and spikes of her aggression glowed this tender passionate woman he never stopped to discover. He knew how self indulgent this was - how it all was, but this time he simply could not resist to be with her - war was little compared to this, it seemed almost like just a job, a chore he had to perform.
Heavily, guilt seeped into him.
That wasn't true. His responsibilities were more than that and they had to be adhered to, no matter what paradise lay on another road.
Xena stirred, adjusting herself on the bed, and rolling onto her back she smiled.
"Have a nice sleep?" asked Ares, brushing a long raven lock from her smooth olive features.
"Mmm, I did," she replied, "What did you do all that time?
He cocked a shoulder in a half-shrug.
"I watched you," he said, gazing out the window, "And thought about you a lot."
She rolled her eyes, Ares lifting himself to his side, head resting against hand.
"Must've been boring," she said softly, a masking smile at her lips, her eyes watching her fingers trace the contours of the God's ample chest. A strong hand was at her jaw suddenly, gentle knuckle lifting it, bringing her gaze to his.
"Not in the slightest," Ares said, sotto voce, "Your hate still lives in you, I feel it, and it's not for me, no."
She turned her head away from him.
"Your self-loathing won't change anything," he whispered, leaning to her ear, "You're merely punishing yourself for the past. You're a stronger woman than I realised, putting hate and killing behind you. Indeed - you defeated the God of War, and now you have him by the heart-strings" He thumped his chest, "Only you Xena could have gotten this far."
Xena winced sadly.
"As sweet as this moment is the bitter is that - as much as we feel for each other..."
She fell into his gaze a moment, deep mahogany orbs enveloping her. Clenching her teeth, she continued.
"I know we won't be waking up in the same bed every day - sharing our lives like that. You have War to take care of, and I have this child..."
Ares pressed his lips together briefly, amusement in his eyes.
"I've been pestering you on and off for the past ten years - you think you're gonna get rid of me that easily?"
Xena smiled softly, running the tips of her digits through a few dark velvety locks that hung around the God's sculptural face. "No," she breathed, "No I don't think so."
Ares nodded, "There, that's better. A smile."
Xena felt her cheeks grow red - she could feel his fingers trace her cheekbone, push away old tears. He rose a brow with a quick breath in.
Xena's brow pushed down in a confused frown.
"Thought of any?"
Glancing down to her belly she shook her head. "I haven't given it much thought to be honest - too busy being sick."
The corners of Ares' mouth twitched in a small smile.
"I think something glorious would suite..."
She shook her head, "No! no no no, something understated. Then the 'glory' will have more meaning - if that's what you want..."
Ares tilted his head, sucking in his bottom lip briefly before letting it go.
"Now you're just humouring me..."
Xena grinned, "You think?"
Ares grabbed her with a lifted brow, "I think you're getting a little too big for your boots..."
Xena chuckled at his playful menace.
"So what are ya gonna do about it Mr. God of War?"
"You'll see what I'll do," he said, "Yo-"
A flash filled the room, and guarding his eyes a moment Ares growled.
As the glaringly bright light receded it fell to the slender tall figure of a woman in the centre of the room. Xena couldn't help but gasp at her beauty which was not just physical, like Aphrodite, but radiant with so much more, something ethereal that she couldn't ever hope to describe with words. Her eyes held utter power, her every blink, step and breath oozing magnetism.
"Mom!" Ares spluttered, "If you don't mind, I'm kinda busy right now!!"
Hera tilted her head, a smile forming on her lips, "You're so cute when you're embarrassed."
"Be at ease my son, I bring a gift in secret."
Xena lifted a brow, "What kind of gift?"
"Something that will help ensure you and your child lives," Hera said to her, "Once done Zeus will have no power to hurt you or your child."
Xena wrinkled her nose in wariness. Squeezing the upper of Xena's arm, Ares leant back with narrowed eyes.
"Now Mom, why don't I trust you?"
Hera smiled, "Because you have been listening to tales from your father and his no-good mongrel son Hercules, that is why. Think about what I would gain from your child's survival if you must look at the situation in that manner. You must realise I can only win."
Xena looked thoughtful a minute.
"She's got a point there," she nodded.
Striding elegantly forward, Hera raised her hands towards the Warrior Princess.
"Wait!" Xena started, eyes wide like a frightened doe, "What are you gonna do to me?"
Hera tilted her head, icey eyes soft, dark long lashes batting tenderly. She brought a slender hand down to Xena's crown, running long fingers through messy locks.
"I am the Mother of all Women, Xena," she said, her voice resonant, "All your pains are ones I possess an intimate understanding for. I know all your fears and all your angst. Trust me, my child, no harm will come to you."
Gazing up at the Goddess, light streaming from her gentle features, she nodded slowly.
Taking her hands from Xena, Hera brought them over Xena's lower abdomen, her eyes closing, dark eyelashes resting against high cheekbone. Orbs of light formed and fell like strange teardrops at the digits of the Goddess, they floated down like snowflakes, a soft mist of energy enveloping all.
Ares wanted to stay, guard his child, but this energy - woman and soft - he had to back away. Re-appearing on the other end of the room he watched protectively from afar.
Hera, after developing a large aura around Xena, pulled strands and whorls into the air, head thrusting back in weaving the power...
"The womb is a shrine! It's sanctity the birthplace of all creation! From within me all female life - in women and beast - has meaning, for I am the Mother of All Mankind!"
The light became blinding, Xena felt her insides buzz, her guts vibrating at an infinitesimally high rate.
"Here lies Xena! Her womb is a shrine! It is lined with stuff that made the stars, no harm shall enter her! Her womb is protected! Should harm befall her, let it be known her child shall live! Blessed be this woman, blessed be her child - no harm can befall them!!"
The energy became unbearable, the weaving and and moving of light and power overcoming the Warrior Princess. It was warm - so warm - so glowing and far reaching. Every pain was doused with a thousand kisses, every tear she ever shed smothered with a mother's embrace - this entity before her bound and wove - created and destroyed. With a flourish and a burst the light exploded, and with a strange flicker - it fell back.
An odd glow slowly receded from the room.
Ares stood in the corner, dumbfound. Never had he seen his mother perform her task - not like this. Her power truly overwhelmed him. Staggering forward, he rasped:
"Mother...What have you done?"
The Goddess' eyes fell down upon the resting form of Xena, her body still glowing slightly, her womb seemingly alight.
"I have blessed your child, and protected her. Zeus will not be able to touch it... Your child is safe."
Ares gulped, stepping forward to Xena, taking a hand gently.
"What about Xena?"
Hera placed a hand on his shoulder.
"I cannot protect her indefinitely. Her protection lasts as long as the term of the pregnancy for her destiny is upon a different path and not mine to interfere with. I can only assure you the life of your child, my son. A gift from me, for all your years loyalty."
"won't Father be angry?" he asked.
"I'll call him even, my son," Hera replied, winking, "He has caused me heartache more times that I care to mention!"
Ares nodded, stepping forward to his mother.
"Thank you," he said, "I - I can't thank you enough."
Hera ran a motherly hand down her son's long black locks. "Just look after it, and bring it to visit your old Mother from time to time."
With a soft smile, she brought a glowing energy up around her, and the swirl of furious energy swallowed her up, taking her away with a wink of light.
Ares stood, gazing at where his mother was, relief on his features.
He looked down to Xena, his brown eyes flickering.
"You really don't have to be here anymore..." she sat up in the bed, her dark long raven tresses falling down over the ample swells that were her breasts.
He frowned a little, his brows tilting, "You want me to leave?"
She looked at him a long moment, a moment that seemed an eternity to Ares.
"No," she finally replied, taking a deep breath, "I want you to stay."
Without a moment's hesitation Ares stepped to the bed, and kneeling over her gently a hand dove along her jaw to behind her head, his lips closing on hers in a furious caress. Xena moaned, she was sure she could feel the earth rumbling beneath her. It was intensifying, getting stronger.
Ares stepped back, his eyes wide.
"That - that isn't us is it?" she asked him, leaning on her bent elbows.
"I'm good - not that good," Ares replied, stretching his arms out. "I know who IS responsible for this and it definitely isn't good in ANY way..."
Xena eyed him, clasping onto the bed.
Ares nodded. "We have to go to Olympus!"
"Why?" she cried over the deafening rumbles.
Ares looked to her darkly. "To put this matter to rest!"
Xena gazed at him a long moment. "My baby..."
He couldn't help but give a little smile.
"Our child will be safe, and so will you."
"But Hera said-"
"I'll make sure of it!" Ares cried. "I finally have you, Warrior Princess, I'm not losing you that easy!"
Olympus shuddered back and forth with the unrivalled tremors, the trees bending like twigs in a breeze, the Great Hall of Olympus flexing back and forth like a bow to an arrow. Bursting into the realm Athena knew she had little time to spare. She felt what had happened - she was a Goddess, and was bound to Hera, the Mother of all Goddesses, in a way that was beyond mere relation. She knew what she had done, she did what any self-respecting mother would do for another. Athena knew she would never quite understand the feeling of bearing child, but she felt what it was in her subjects to be maternal. She often felt it for her devotees, and though Xena was no devotee she was a keen and spirited warrior, moreover a wise woman, something she respected the most. She would not let her, an innocent, be destroyed unnecessarily.
Storming past the endless wavering columns of the palisade to the Great Hall of Olympus, Athena lifted the helmet from her face, her reddish-brown ringleted locks cascading from underneath the bronze helm, heading straight for the throne of the King of the Skies, set on the podium. Surrounding him were the Great Twelve, minus Ares, demanding chatter spurting forth from all of them.
"How DARE you woman! How DARE you BETRAY me in such a manner!" Zeus thundered, bashing his throne with solid fists. Hera merely gazed at him evenly, her long neck tall, her posture erect and proud.
"How dare you speak to me, the Great Goddess of your people, as you would a lowly shepherd," she replied quietly.
Zeus ground down on his teeth, his fists tight as young pine cones.
"Don't you REALISE what you have done?? You may have doomed us all! We don't understand the nature of this child! It could be our end!"
There was an almighty crack as Athena brought her spear down on the marble.
"She has doomed nobody Father!" the Goddess cried, "She has saved the life of our Salvation!!"
There was a flash through the intermittent rumbles, and a lithe figure of a woman stumbled through the vortex, raven hair, small brown cotton dress barely covering her body. Close behind her strolled in the black leather clad form of the God of War, anger rippling around him in shimmering peals of light. Xena gazed at her hands in wonder - everything that moved seemed to move at different speeds from itself - it was all so confusing!! She glared at Ares, turning her hands over and over.
Placing a hand on her arm he nodded, "It's just the way things are here, relax into it and you may actually begin to like it."
She gulped, cradling herself in a hug, and feeling a warmth next to her suddenly she turned to see Aphrodite next to her, smiling amiably, arm around her.
"Father!!" Ares cried out, "Learn this now - I will not destroy this child!"
Zeus jumped to his feet in outrage, "Are you serious?? Even with the threat of the END of all I've fought so hard for?"
Ares nodded, "I've been a God for millennia - no moment of it ever was anything like this - no war or murder or death has brought me the happiness of these past two days!"
The God of the Skies looked to his son, shaking his head slowly, his black eyes looking mournfully at the burly boy before him.
"Don't you understand the risk to us here?" he asked him, "That we don't know what this child will be? You support this - this - mortal - to the point that you'd risk the end of your Realm, for a flippant ambling affection?"
Ares seemed to simmer and boil underneath the leather at his fathers words, the shimmers around him flaring red as the sun, "No, I would not risk the end of Olympus on anything of the sort - this is different." Ares closed his eyes a moment, clenching his jaw, disbelief blanching him a moment as to what he was about to say, "This is love, Father."
Zeus opened his mouth, bearing his bottom teeth in deep disappointment, eyes closed for a moment - raising his palm up he shook his head, letting loose a mournful moan.
"Oh... have I taught you nothing, Ares? Did I not make sure you had the best tutors when you grew up, to teach you about responsibility, and ensure you paid close attention to your old man?"
Hera smiled thinly, "But he has paid attention, dear. He is in love with a mortal... How more like his Father can he get?"
Zeus glared at her.
"Oh you green-eyed beast! Never have I loved a mortal!!!" Zeus spun around to his son with a dark gaze, "I have been lusty for many, many, a beautiful young lady, but love?" He shook his head, "The only woman I have ever truly loved is your mother, Hera!"
Hera rolled her eyes.
"Liar!!" a voice cried, and glaring at it's source, Zeus clamped his jaw shut. Athena glared at him in return her green eyes trembling.
"Every time you deflowered an innocent - you mumbled 'I love you so' in their ears! So many women, Father, so many broken hearts, so many lives lost to your jealous wife!"
"Athena!" Zeus cried, "Vile snake!"
"To the contrary," she seethed, stepping forward, pointing the spear tip at his face, "You are the vile snake, if you are to judge! Ares here loves this woman - it is a love deep and true!"
Zeus chuckled at this, "Loves a mortal? No God can truly love a mortal!"
"Wrong!" cried Aphrodite, letting go of Xena so she could lean against Ares, and she stepped forwards, "Cupid, Psyche? Match made in Olympus big Daddy!"
Zeus ground his teeth, "I will not be answered back to!!"
Athena struck the marble floor with the butt of the spear, "We digress!" she cried, and pointed her spear at Ares, a listless Xena dangling in his arms, "Justice must be kept in this world, for an orderly fair Olympus is an orderly fair world for all!"
Zeus nodded, "You speak the truth, wise Daughter."
Athena gave a nod, "Yes," She looked around the room, "Who Father, did you learn of this pregnancy from?"
The Father of the Skies gave a shrug, "The Fates themselves of course!"
Her green eyes sparkles as she pointed upwards with her spear.
"Oh! The Fates! Where are they? I want to see them now! Appear, thou 'Kindly Ones'!"
The room pulsed, the rhythm of the universe pummeling into the palisade with a burst of shimmering silver dust. Running through the soft rain of glistening light they ran in circles, arms spinning, rising and falling, legs ploughing through the air pushing at the ground and propelling them forever forward. With a stamp of her foot Clotho's ice-blue eyes blazed, her blonde hair shooting up in short frenzied spikes.
"The child still lives! Why have you not destroyed it Zeus?"
Zeus rolled his eyes closed, cradling his forehead darkly, "I have tried Clotho!"
She pursed her red-stained lips closed fiercely, anger streaming from her blunt features.
"Dear Clotho," said Athena, sweeping her ankle-length toga regally in a curtsey, "I ask a favour of you."
Clotho rose a brow sharply, "What is it?"
"Answer me three questions with complete honesty, and give your word as the keeper of destinies that if you should lie, your own string shall be cut!"
Clotho glared at her, "My string cannot be cut - I am immortal!"
Athena now glared in return, "All things end, Clotho - and you will not end this day if you speak the the truth!"
The Fate gulped, eyes travelling over the other immortal eyes that all stared at her. Demeter, Apollo, Hades, Artemis, Hermes, Dionysus, all of the Twelve all gazed at her dead in the eyes - expectantly.
"You cannot scare me - We made all of you - we made this and the future..."
"You weave the future," Zeus said suddenly, his brow heavy in thought, "What your tapestries paint are as a surprise to you as they are to us. You weave like an deer runs through the forest, a fish swims and a bird flies south in the winter. So you do not scare me, Clotho. I wish you to answer my daughters questions, and you will, or be forever cast from Olympus!"
Clotho nodded mechanically, turning to her sisters with fear. The two dark brazen women glared at her with dark eyes, furious that she let herself get put in this situation. "You may proceed Athena..."
Athena bowed her head.
The Goddess of Wisdom stepped forward, using her spear as a walking staff, the bronze orb of a helm on her thick plummeting curls of the richest auburn.
"Are you, Clotho, the Kindly One that weaves the future?"
Clotho rose her eyebrow, "Is that your first question?"
Athena nodded, "Yes, yes it is. Answer it please."
Dipping her head to the side, she nodded, "Indeed I am the Fate that weaves what I see - what will be."
Pursing her full lips Athena continued.
"Very well, Clotho, answer me this: When you learn of the future - is it imperative you tell others what it is precisely for it to become true?"
Clotho smiled slightly, "Of course not - the future is set beyond my powers, what I say does not change that!"
Tapping her bottom lip Athena's green eyes flashed up to Clotho's, a glare stopping the Fate in her writhing tracks.
"Then have you told us the complete truth about Ares' newest child?"
Clotho's teeth clenched shut, her light eyes gleaming.
"I have told the truth..."
Zeus brought his fists into balls, glaring at the little woman...
"To the exclusion of other truths," she said finally.
"Because a' me!" Ares growled, stepping forward, "Because you think Xena is my child!"
"She is not your child!" cried Clotho, "You lied to us! Used us for your own selfish games! And your little mortal whore deceived us - we looked the fools to all of Olympus with her lies! She will not live past our humiliation!"
Ares shook his head, "I tried to tell ya!"
Zeus grumbled, "I've had about enough of these pointless accusations!"
He stood, towering above everyone, glaring at Clotho coldly.
"You tried to deceive me, The God of the Skies! You would have me to fight your own battles, and more importantly - destroy the lives most cherished by my son!"
Clotho's legs bent in a humble crouch as she bowed at Zeus, "Lord, I can never speak the exact story that is shown in our great tapestries, however I can reveal to you cryptically, clues to the destinies of Mortal Men. This child is not entirely mortal, and thus is partway unbound by our strings - however, we have seen what will ensue from it's survival."
"What?" came a tired voice, and all eyes fell upon the weak pale form of Xena, forcing the words from her mouth which felt like it was sliding off her face, "What will happen if my child lives?"
Clotho turned to Xena, hand propped on hip, "Happiness."
"What of us, the Gods?" asked Zeus.
"You will be worshipped as before - and your people will love you as before, though their love of you will," she paused, stepping backwards to her fellow Fates with caution, "Increase."
Zeus still felt anger course through his veins, and he thrust his arms upwards.
"You have deceived me, and deception is the ugliest of wrongs!"
There was a blinding flash, and light, waves of sound, plasmic matter pummelled the three women standing before the Lord of the Skies, pushing them to the ground with furious screeches. The light weaved about them, binding them in an almost rope-like appearance, they thrashed wildly trying to shake it but it held them strong, flexible and tight.
"You will be taken to Tartarus - to reside in exile till I feel you have paid for your wrong-doing!" thundered Zeus, the women being lifted into the air by the energy, being turned slowly around, and around, the pace quickening.
The spinning energy glowed around them, a ball forming.
There was a flash, encompassing the room, and with a pulse it sunk into itself, flipping into nothingness.
The Twelve of Olympus almost collectively sighed, turning their eyes to Zeus.
Athena was next to her father, her green eyes lifting to him with severity.
"Don't look at me like that, Athena," he said, rubbing his forehead with great weariness, "It isn't easy being the God of the Skies you know."
"Exile?" she frowned, "That's all they get?"
His eyes falling upon Xena and Ares, he lifted his palm to her, "We'll discuss this later..."
Ares stepped forward, clutching onto Xena's hand.
"Can she live?"
Zeus blinked, looking at this scraggly mortal next to him. She was much like any other. She was too tall, too rough and dirty, not at all lady-like. From gazing at her bare dirty feet she looked up to him, her eyes so tired, so lacking in faith. But there was such a regalness about her gaze, about the way she held her lips in a questioning pout. Passion lived in her hues, in every blink and movement she made. Ares held onto her like a lifeline, he was very fond of this - strange mortal.
"She can live my Son," he said finally, waving a lax hand, "I see no reason for the contrary."
He gave an ingratiated nod, squeezing Xena's hand suddenly.
"I guess I better take you back then..."
Xena nodded, blinking, lifting her hand up in front of her face once more, "I guess so..."
Hera emerged from behind Zeus, lifting a hand at them.
"Wait!" she called, "My Son..."
Ares stopped, glancing up to her from in front of the podium.
"Perhaps you and Xena could stay - for a while - as long as everyone is here. You both could be wed and-"
"No!" Xena cried, the unruly way of Olympus slowly making sense to her, "I appreciate it but no, please."
Ares gazed at her a moment, dark brows drawn. She gazed back at him, shoal eyes red with tears.
"I- I'm sorry Ares, I can't."
Hera looked at her hard and long, stepping to Zeus, wrapping an arm around his, "The opportunity is always open for you, Xena. You are welcome always in the Gardens of Olympus."
"Thankyou," she said, eyes wild with uncertainty, "I'll take it," She glanced back to Ares, "One day."
Xena began to feel herself grow thinner, not in physical dimensions but coalescence, and she saw the light sparkles of Ares fall over about and through her. The pristine heaven before her faded, the stern but soft features of Hera, Zeus and the judging glares of the Great Twelve bidding them goodbye.
As her focus restored itself gently, slowly, the floor set itself under her feet, the gravity she was used pulling her down with a welcome familiarity. Strong arms lifted her suddenly, slipping her into the cot in the corner of the room, the window next to it dark with night. The arms released her, and standing tall, Ares still shimmering with the ether, he began to turn, to walk away from her. With a gasp she grabbed his arm.
"Wait! Where are you going?"
Ares let out a long sigh, his rich eyes falling to hers with a deep forlorn.
"Back to my Realm, you don't need my protection anymore."
She felt her head nod stiffly, she felt his smooth skin, so very warm, slip from hers slowly.
"Will ya come back?"
Ares turned, looking back to her.
"To visit me at least?"
A slow, gentle smile formed on his full lips, and stepping forward he ran the back of his fingers over her cheek-bone in a brief caress.
"Have you ever gotten rid of me before?"
Shaking her head Xena let herself smile.
The ethereal rain of the realm of in-between absorbed the form of Ares, the God of War, and Xena hugged the blankets and pelts around her as he slipped away from her. She reached into the air of where he was.
It was only empty air.
Gabrielle rose early that morning, sorting her things, gathering supplies from the cottage. From another room she heard soft voices, male, low, singing together and - the plucking of a lute. She smiled, picking up two bundles and striding towards Argo with her saddlebags.
Jett looked a million dinars now, he seemed to fill out a little more every day. Lethaia must have had something to do with it - she was helping him constantly, helping him eat, helping him sleep, helping him exercise to get better. They shared something - maybe - she had realised she let her mind wander too far, and the sun was rising higher in the sky. With a heavy sigh she strolled indoors to the back room, the light filtering from the window falling on her features.
"Sooo, Joxer the - Mighty!"
"No no no It's Joxer the MIGH-ty!" corrected a voice.
"Oh for the love of Zeus, Jett, it's not that hard!" cried a camp one.
In a circle on the floor, cross legged sat Jace, Jett and Joxer, Joxer cradling a lute, Jett watching him play it and sang along tentatively. Jace rolled his eyes, singing half-heartedly.
"Now come on guys," said Joxer, "We can do this - it's not hard!"
Jett looked to Jace's eye rolling and he nudged him.
"Hey rock-head - sing Joxer's song okay? It's important to him!"
Glancing to Joxer, Jace sighed.
"Okay okay, we'll start again."
Joxer ran his digits over the strings and the lute sung along with the wavering but true voice of Joxer:
Joxer the Mighty,
He's really tidy,
Everyone admires him
"He's so cheesy it's a sin!" sang Jace and Jett, nudging him again.
"If you're in jeopardy, caused by the enemy,
There's a better remedy,
Al-though he does-n't work for free!
He's every man's trusty,
He's every woman's fantasy,
"Plus he's goo-od company!" sang Jett and Jace particularly loud.
"He's Joxer! Joxer the Mighty!!" they all sang in unison very proud. Joxer strummed the lute frantically in a finale, his two triplet brothers chuckling as he completed the tune.
Gabrielle clapped with a wide grin. "Yaaay!! Wonderful!" she cried, Jace leaning on a hand as he noticed her.
"Oh by the Gods! More icky nice moments! I'm outta here!"
He felt a hand grab him strongly as he rose to leave, and Jett glared at him, but not with that usual murderous ice that he was so used to, but rather with a sad glare.
"Jace - what we got here is rare - treasure it."
His features softening, Jace smiled. "I know - now I'm going off to find a nice quiet glade to cry myself silly!"
Gabrielle sighed, resting a hand on his shoulder. "Well, don't wander off just yet - Joxer," she looked to her beau, "I have to go now. You can stay here or-"
Joxer stumbled to his feet, pulling the lute from around his neck. "I'm coming with you!" he said, gripping onto the lute's neck, "I - uh - I - yeah."
Gabrielle nodded with a smile, "I thought you'd say that."
Picking up his helmet off the floor, Joxer followed her through the cottage to the already loaded Argo and Nippy at the front of the place, both tied at the fence.
"You packed Nippy up for me..."
"It's kinda important you stay with me right now," said Gabrielle.
"Hey!" called a voice, and at a nearby glade, gentle soft greens curling over tall summer-dried grass, Lethaia pushed herself through the tall feathers and slithers of grass, and a regal measure of a woman, resplendent in green and white, waved to them, dead elk being dragged behind her. With a start Jett ran to her side, helping her with the dead beast.
"This'll be great for dinner!" he said, yanking the animal along, helping her make the last of the lugging swift. Jogging to Joxer's side, Lethaia gripped his shoulders.
He nodded, "Yeah, Gabrielle needs to get back to Xena."
"Okay," she pressed her lips together briefly, giving her arms a quick flap, "I guess it's goodbye then..."
Glancing up from the elk, Jett rose to his feet, shaking his head.
"No, it's 'See you soon'," he said, looking to Lethaia with a soft smile.
With a short grin, Lethaia nodded, "Yeah, yeh it is," She hugged Joxer suddenly, "I'll be seeing you soon enough, Joxer the Migh."
Joxer nodded, planting his helmet down on his head. Jace waved a hand laxly, stepping forward.
"You take care of yourself ya big Queen," Joxer said, "Don't ruin your boots saving too many lives."
"Tartarus No!" Jace grinned, "You hurry up and get your girl where she needs to be!"
Gabrielle took Joxer's hand, pulling him to Nippy, Joxer waving to Jett, Jace and Lethaia.
He jumped up onto his steed, Gabrielle mounting Argo, attaching her staff to the saddle.
"See you soon, Warrior Chums!" he called out, sentiment deep in his voice. Gabrielle waved behind her, kicking Argo to a swift trot.
"Gabrielle!!!" cried Lethaia, Gabrielle whipping her head back to hear her, "Be strong!"
She nodded vigourously as her newfound friends diminished in the distance, Nippy and Joxer just behind her.
Their steeds let loose a large burst of energy, making a lot of ground. The air whistled past their ears at moments, and they enjoyed the sound and the feel of the warm Mediterranean midday air. It wasn't long before the steeds grew tired, Nippy sooner than Argo, and after two hours of galloping on and off, the horses slowed to a sedate walk.
Joxer glanced to his Gabrielle as she gazed ahead, her face a little paler than usual. Kinda important, he recalled her saying, she said it was important I was here...
"Gabrielle," said Joxer, "Is there something you wanted to talk to me about?"
Her green eyes moved to meet his dark orbs, glazing slowly as her lids blushed red.
"My cycle was late, Joxer."
He frowned in confusion a moment. She pulled in a breath, holding it, her bottom lips tensing to a quiver.
"It was late, but it's not late anymore," As she spoke, a crystal tear spilled down the curve of her cheek, "I - uh - I'm not pregnant."
He felt his mouth move the shape of her name, "Gabrielle..."
Joxer didn't even stop to think, he sprang from his horse, pulling Gabrielle from Argo and embracing her tenderly.
"Oh Gab I-" He squeezed her tight, "I'm so sorry!"
It was as if someone pulled the stopper from the wine-skin, Joxer held the slightly shuddering shape of Gabrielle, warm and resonant from her agonising sobs. He wanted to allay her pain, somehow - how could he? He stroked her back as she clutched onto him, hanging so much from his neck that he had to sit at the sodden road.
"You really wanted this child?" he asked her.
Leaning back to meet his expression she nodded. "More than anything. I was frightened but I-" she gave a painful chuckle, "I'd gotten used to the idea of looking after a baby with you - sharing that responsibility. I don't know why it seemed - appealing to me. After all the pain of the past months I just wanted love and support..."
"Gabrielle - you have that from me, and Xena."
She nodded, "I know I, I guess I was so happy having a part of you inside of me."
Joxer smiled, pulling her into an embrace once more.
"You still do Gabby, you always will."