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This is the seventh story in the Pillow Talk series, following Pillow Talk, The Look of Love, My Favourite Mistake, Accidents Will Happen, Heat of the Night and In The Clear Light of a New Day.
You can also find Xebbie's stories at The GJerotica Archives and Xebbie's Adult Fics
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© 06/00 by Xebbie
You never care for secrets I confide
For you I'm just an ornament, somethin' for your pride
Always runnin', never carin', that's the life you live
Stolen minutes of your time were all ya had to give
And I think it's gonna be all right
Yeah, the worst is over now
The mornin' sun is shinin' like a red rubber ball
-The Cyrkle, "Red Rubber Ball"
Gabrielle sighed and watched Joxer walking. He really had an idiotic walk. It was the least graceful thing she had ever seen, and it brought to mind some kind of awkward bird - a chicken or a turkey or something. A goose maybe. He didn't just walk, he loped - he practically flounced.
She spent a while composing synonyms in her head, as general bard practice, and was pleased to find that she could think of twelve in just over five minutes. She really didn't write about Joxer enough, she thought absently as she watched him lope, flounce, traipse, lumber, and stumble. It was hard to write about him these days, though. What to say? "Joxer the Self-Proclaimed Mighty, bumbling warrior, secret lover of Gabrielle the Bard"? THAT would certainly go over well, without a doubt. She rolled her eyes.
It was the armour that made him move that way. He even *stood* straighter without it. She hated that armour. She really, really hated that helmet. He had such a nice chin, when that awful strap wasn't digging into it. Nice chin with a cute little cleft in it that her tongue seemed drawn to during sex. Mmmm... sex... tongues... Gabrielle grinned to herself, dreamily, and her eyes travelled down his body in a manner entirely different from the one she'd used a few moments before. *Look at that butt. You'd never know it to look at him in that awful outfit but he has the greatest butt ever. Well... Maybe Hercules...* she amended thoughtfully.
It had been three - no, four days since their last tryst, and Gabrielle was really starting to get edgy about it. They'd calmed down recently, in a sense; where before the sex had been more or less nightly (sometimes more than once), now there was less urgency to the whole thing, since they'd done it so many times (nineteen, not that Gabrielle was counting. It had just struck her as an interesting number) and they had started going more than a day at a time without meeting.
Joxer even wandered off every now and then, usually for no more than a day or two. This method seemed to work for everyone- Xena and Gabrielle's frustration with the wannabe warrior had its edge taken off, Joxer got to do whatever it was that Joxer generally did while he was on his own, and Gabrielle didn't go crazy waiting for him to come back. Although she'd only done that one time, and probably wouldn't again- it was almost certainly a fluke. Still - it had been odd, and she felt no need to kick him out for that length of time again when their present arrangement was working so well.
Still, she couldn't help but wonder why he was sticking around for so long just now. A few days ago she'd started her cycle, and had told him as discreetly as possible that they wouldn't be doing anything together for the next five to seven days. He'd understood - unexpectedly - and had continued to faithfully tag along regardless. There had been moments when Gabrielle had been extremely close to strangling him.
So he was spending most of his time talking to Xena, who strangely didn't seem to mind. They were really appearing to bond, which irritated Gabrielle occasionally. Still, at least he wasn't making those "bloated and irritable" cracks at her expense anymore. She'd have belted him over that.
The truly annoying thing was that now she'd reached the point in her cycle where her sexual desire started rising, but she couldn't do anything about it. Joxer was both doubly annoying, and doubly attractive, at the same time. It only added to her frustration when she was near him. He was bearing it fairly well, much as Joxer always did.
He turned around, and caught her staring, but didn't seem to notice. Instead he grinned cheerfully. "Hey, you're lagging! C'mon, catch up!"
"I don't *want* to. If I wanted to be walking up there, I'd be walking up there."
Xena looked over her shoulder. "Well, someone sounds like they're feeling a little puffy, irritable, and bloated today."
"XENA!" The Warrior Princess grinned in response to Gabrielle's glare. "I'm *not* puffy." The blonde stepped forward and caught up to them. Joxer had gone conspicuously silent. "What?"
"What what?" he said innocently. "I didn't even say anything yet!"
"You were thinking. I could tell. The only time you stop talking is when you think," she grumbled. Joxer snorted, and exchanged a look with Xena. "Oh, I get it. You're not comfortable talking about 'women's stuff'."
As she'd expected, his response was indignant. "Hey! Says who?"
"Oh, don't be so offended. It's a typical man kind of thing." She eyed him casually as he sputtered wordlessly for a few moments.
"Hey - okay, wait. Now you - I can talk about stuff like that! Tell me about it."
Gabrielle gave him a level look. "You *want* me to tell you about my cycle."
He went all pink when she mentioned it, but held his ground. "Yeah. Give me a *little* credit, will ya? I have a mom. I know about this kinda stuff. I hang out with you and Xena often enough. You can talk about it in front of me." He waved his hands, indicating her to go ahead.
She shrugged. "Okay. Well, my flow is getting a little lighter, but about two days ago it was so heavy that I-"
"Okay! Okay *fine*, fine, that's enough." Joxer looked mildly traumatized. "That's, um, all I needed to hear. I know exactly where you're coming from, uh, must really suck, um... Hey look, a stick on the side of the road!" He jogged ahead a few steps and examined the edge of the path intently. Gabrielle caught Xena's eye, and they laughed.
He was really just delicious.
She felt quite silly in a way. This was, after all, Joxer - a man she was used to looking at, had been for years, and she always saw him the same way up until recently. And she'd had no problems lately admitting that he was *cute*, but until the past two days or so she'd never realized the enormous sex appeal that the man just *oozed*.
Boy, this post-cycle hormone had never been *this* bad before.
She'd ended about two days ago, and the whole thing had been just about unbearable since then. Currently, Xena was riding Argo a little ways ahead of them, and Gabrielle couldn't even speak to Joxer. When she looked at him she just - stared. In fact, just having him standing next to her right now was... She took a deep, shaky breath, and looked at him. Gods, that SKIN. She wanted to lick it.
*Down, girl. This is neither the time nor the place.*
Joxer noticed her staring, out of the corner of his eye, and gave her an inquisitive look. Gabrielle couldn't help herself; she smiled slowly in return, her eyes half-lidded, and ran her hand lightly across her chest. Joxer blinked in surprise, and turned his eyes back to the road ahead of them, his face a little flushed.
Dammit. That hadn't gone as she'd wanted. Gabrielle pouted momentarily, then sighed. "Xena, where exactly are we GOING?"
The warrior turned in the saddle to answer. "I thought we'd head towards Carthage for a while, see what turns up there. If we get any news of anything on the way we'll take a detour."
"And how far away is Carthage?"
Xena looked about pensively, as if examining for landmarks. "Oh, about... probably four more days or so. Why? Someplace else you want to go?"
"No," Gabrielle said, and stretched her arms in front of her. "Just... antsy."
"Mm-hmm, I know how you get 'antsy'," Xena said with a smirk. Gabrielle blushed, and more so when Joxer looked confused. She stopped him from asking with a pointed glare and a finger in front of his nose. Xena chuckled, and turned back around, calling over her shoulder, "We'll look for trouble on the way then, Gabrielle. That usually helps, doesn't it?"
Gabrielle scowled and wondered why *she* was the butt of Xena's teasing lately. Joxer leaned over and whispered in her ear, "When she says 'antsy', does she mean... uh..."
Her eyebrows went up. He actually *knew*? She gave him a sly look, and whispered in response, "Maybe."
Joxer's eyes widened when she grabbed his butt. He proceeded to trip on a non-existent rock, and after waving his arms for long enough that Gabrielle thought he might actually *be* flying, fell on his face.
Xena turned again. "What was that? Oh."
"Just me," Joxer called, sounding slightly dazed. "I'm okay though!"
"I've got it, Xena," Gabrielle said, and leaned over Joxer as their friend turned away again. "Are you okay?"
The look was on her face again. He gulped - she was standing with her hands on her knees and he could see right down her top. And she knew it. "Uh...."
"Let me give you a hand," she said, somehow breathing in a way that thrust her breasts forward, and then she extended one arm while at the same time slowly running the other one down her thighs. He took her hand dumbly, and as she pulled him up, wondered if this was one of those situations where he was supposed to just let himself be tortured, or if he could maybe go along with this.
He decided to take the chance. Upon regaining his balance he kissed her hand, trailing soft little kisses over the back and across the fingers. She sighed and shut her eyes, and he grazed his lips against the pads of her fingers and stared at Xena to make sure she wasn't looking or anything, then sucked lightly on one of her fingertips before letting her hand go.
She looked decidedly dizzy as she opened her eyes again, and stroked her hand over his cheek. Her thumb lingered over his lips, then she ran her fingers along his neck. He shivered lightly, reaching for her, and she stepped back out of his range, nodding her head toward Xena. His face took on that childish pout, and his shoulders slumped as he walked on ahead.
Gabrielle grit her teeth. This 'silent communication' thing needed real work; Joxer was just too dense to GET it. She caught up to him and grabbed his hand. By this point he looked completely confused. She stroked his fingers with her own, trying to keep up the level of flirtatiousness they'd had before, and again nodded her head toward Xena. His expression told her that he knew this time *something* was up, but hadn't the least idea what. She was gratified, however, when his fingers moved against her own, then up her arm.
'We need to lose Xena,' she mouthed, enunciating each word as fully as she could. He shook his head, so she leaned forward to whisper. "We-" He cut her off, catching her mouth in a warm kiss that stopped her short. Oh, she *definitely* wanted more of this.
He was grinning smugly by the time he pulled back, and he whispered, "We need to lose Xena." She stuck her tongue out at him.
Xena chose this moment to turn around again, and from her expression, what she saw was apparently what she expected to see: Joxer holding Gabrielle's arm, and Gabrielle making a face at him. "Can't turn my back for a minute," she muttered, and pulled Argo to a halt, then slid off her mount. "Not that I'm not *enjoying* the silence, you understand, but you two are going to hurt each other at the rate you're going."
Joxer seemed to find this immensely funny for some reason, and was having obvious trouble holding in his laughter. Gabrielle elbowed him roughly, and after a moment's pause he elbowed her back, albeit more gently.
Xena didn't seem to find this funny. She gave an exasperated sigh. "You know, at the risk of sounding like my mom, maybe it's time you two spent some time apart if you're going to be like this." She took Gabrielle's arm and walked her up ahead, back toward Argo.
Gabrielle shot a panicked look back at the her idiot friend, who shook his head and blurted out, "Uh, before we go any further ... uh... nature calls?"
The warrior and the bard both winced simultaneously. Gabrielle recovered a moment later, however, and piped up, "Me too, actually. We'll only be a minute if we both go at the same time."
Xena gave her an incredulous look. "And that doesn't seem... *weird* to you?"
Of course it did. Shooting a glare at Joxer, she said, "Well, um... when you put it that way..." Joxer shrugged helplessly. "You go, Joxer. I'll go when you get back." He looked as frustrated as she felt, but stumbled off the path into the woods.
Gabrielle was watching the spot where he'd disappeared so intently that at first she didn't even think to answer Xena's question. "So tell me. Is this that usual buildup of cranky energy that you get every four weeks or so?"
"Huh?" The blonde turned back to her friend, who was grinning. She scowled. "Look, it's not *my* fault. Give it a few days and it'll pass like it always does."
"Poor Joxer. He really has no idea why you do this to him," Xena said with a chuckle. "You *do* realize that there might be a reason why you pick on *him* so much...?"
"XENA!" Gabrielle only had to slightly force the proper amount of shock into her voice - a lot of it was legitimate. She knew she was bright red. "I can't believe you'd even IMPLY-"
Xena had on her "who, me?" innocent look, her eyes wide and her mouth turned down slightly. "I'm just *saying*. Raging hormones, only available man... Ya know, it might do you some good."
"I am not having this conversation," Gabrielle said firmly, turning away from her best friend.
"I bet he wouldn't object, either." Gabrielle growled and crossed her arms. Behind her, Xena snickered. "You are *so* easy sometimes."
"Does he seem like he's taking an awfully long time to you?"
Xena made a non-committal noise. "He takes a long time sometimes."
"I'm going." Gabrielle started off in the direction she'd seen Joxer leave in. "I can't wait any longer."
"You *do* have to go," Xena said in slight surprise. "What if you run into him?"
Waving her hand, Gabrielle said, "I think I'll live." Under her breath, she muttered, "Nothing I haven't seen before, anyway."
She looked back over her shoulder after a few paces, and could barely see Xena through the underbrush. The raven-haired warrior wasn't even looking in her direction. Gabrielle looked ahead of herself again, and realized that Joxer probably actually *was* lost in this kind of growth. Idiot... Didn't it just figure?
Amazingly, however, he was waiting for her. It was almost clever of him. She nearly dropped her staff as she ran to him, and he pulled his helmet off and caught her in his arms and their kiss was the kind where you could tell it had been *way* too long because it left her weak in the knees, and he looked a little dazed after it, himself.
"Okay. We have to get away from Xena," she said, then grabbed his face and kissed him again.
"Uhm-hm," he mumbled into her mouth, around her tongue, and a moment later he tried to talk but she wasn't ready to let him yet. Her grip on his head remained steadfastly iron for another ten seconds or so before she loosened it, and he pulled back. "We- wow. That was... uh, okay, so what'll we... what should we tell her?"
"Something better than 'nature calls'."
He frowned. "It was spur of the moment! I didn't see you with any ideas!"
"That was the big failing, leaving it up to you."
Confusion and frustration warred on his face. "Ya know, for someone who keeps throwing herself at me, you're awfully... cranky."
She resisted the urge to deck him. "You make it *easy* to be cranky."
The frustrated look won out, and his mouth opened and shut wordlessly a few times before he set his face and yanked her against him, then kissed her lips fiercely. She gave a muffled squeak, irritation and desire both pulsing furiously through her at an almost irresistible animal level; how could his sudden forcefulness be so arousing, yet leave her so annoyed at the same time? She forced herself to snap out of it; hormones or no, there was Xena to attend to.
She pushed him away, and he simply kissed along her jaw and down her neck as she spoke. "Joxer - Joxer, stop for now."
The forcefulness had gone out of him now, but he shook his head when he met her eyes. "Don't seem to be able to," he said, and winked, then bent to kiss her shoulder.
Gabrielle decided to continue anyway. "We can't - do this right now. Ohhh don't kiss there. No, really - Xena's waiting and if you take any longer... OH gods, don't STOP kissing there... If you take too long she'll come looking for us or someth-thing. OH! Oh Joxer, that better not have left a mark or you won't be able to do it again..."
"So..." He kissed his way back up her shoulder and neck, speaking briefly in between each caress, "we go back - and tell her...?" He paused at her lips, kissed her softly, and just as she was beginning to melt, he moved on. "...What? You're the brains. I'm just the body." He planted another tender kiss on her other cheek, and worked his way down that side of her neck.
She sighed, suddenly not wanting to think about it at all. "Do you think we could just be REALLY quick...?"
"Don't tempt me," he murmured, nuzzling her neck. The blood felt like it was rushing to Gabrielle's head. "I'd lay you down right here if you just said the word."
"It's been too long," she sighed. She pulled his head up and nipped lightly at his lips. "Almost a week now?"
"Eight days." Her tongue flicked against, then within his mouth, and he met hers with his own, worshipping her mouth with ardent dedication. Eight *extremely* long days, during which he'd waited patiently for her to let him know when she wanted him again, and had faithfully put up with her mood swings just for the sake of being near her. After eight days of being this close to her without being able to even *touch* her, once, Joxer didn't give a damn what Xena thought or how Gabrielle snapped at him or even why she was all over him today. He just knew he was suddenly horny as hell, and had no intention of missing his opportunity. She started to pull away again, and he held the kiss as long as he could, suckling at her bottom lip once her tongue retreated.
When she looked at him, her eyes were foggy with lust. "You go back. I'll be right there," she said in a throaty voice, "and I'll tell her I lost a scroll somewhere back there. Even if she helps look for it, we can still split up from her."
"Sounds good," he nodded, and picked his helmet up from where he'd dropped it. "Uh - so - see ya..."
"Right," she said with a nod. They paused, then mutually fell into one anothers' arms again. Three more kisses, these ones more promises of more to come than anything else. Then he left, fastening his helmet about his head again, hoping Xena didn't give him a hard time about being gone so long.
After eight days, the wait was nearly over.
A few hours later it was nothing but frustrating.
The wait was not over. It kept extending and going on more and more, and Joxer was starting to think that Xena *knew* what they were up to and was deliberately doing this or something. They just *couldn't* get a break.
She'd teased him a bit when he'd gotten back, teased Gabrielle even more when *she'd* gotten back (to the bard's ever-increasing ire), and then they'd set off. True to her word, Gabrielle had a few moments later suddenly remembered a scroll she'd left somewhere behind them. She could not, she said, remember when she'd last seen it, but they HAD to get it back. She'd come up with all kinds of raving descriptions for it, referring to it as charting her and Xena's "history through the prism of time" and showcasing "a more intimate examination of our relationship" and weird things like that. Joxer wasn't sure if he was impressed more by her vocabulary, or her ability to bullshit.
By the time Xena had consented to let them go back and get it, Gabrielle's grip on her staff had gone so tight her knuckles were white. Joxer put a hand on her shoulder as they walked on, and she began to relax slightly, but Xena interrupted them before they got far: "Is this one it? It was in Argo's saddlebag!"
Being as close to Gabrielle at that moment as he was, Joxer could see her jaw clenching almost spasmodically for a moment before she faked a relieved smile and caught up with Xena.
It had been funny at first, despite the need he felt for her every time he looked at her. They just seemed like minor obstacles, and Gabrielle seemed to him to be overreacting just a tad.
But after a while, it did start to pile up. He'd had what he thought was a brilliant idea - he'd suddenly "noticed" that they were running low on food, and maybe someone should go ahead to the next town and get some dinner? Xena shrugged in agreement, and indicated that either one of them could go, but Gabrielle snappishly refused. So Joxer volunteered, although he maintained that he would not ride Argo since he and horses didn't get along so he might be a while. When this didn't convince Xena to go in his place, he started in on how much food would cost, grossly exaggerating his assumption of the prices for everything.
And Xena had bought it - why shouldn't she? He was the idiot of the three of them, he said stupid things all the time. Often on purpose, just like this, although neither of *them* knew that. Muttering about how he was going to piss their dinars away, Xena had finally agreed to go, and even on Argo she was guaranteed to be at least an hour.
The best part of it was that Gabrielle had told him he was brilliant. In those words. "Joxer, that was brilliant", she'd said as she'd slid her arms around him, pulling his armour off of him roughly, and he'd just basked in it all - the praise, the physical affection, her desire.
The mistake was probably in engaging in so damn much foreplay, really. They'd thought they had the time to spare, and that was the mistake. It had seemed only seconds later when she'd gasped, yanked his head (by his hair, no less) out from between her breasts, and started pulling the laces closed on her top again. She'd paced nervously, trying to tie with shaking hands, and then looked down at him with an expression resembling disgust. "Will you COVER that!?" she'd hissed, pointing at his lap, and he'd sort of choked and tried crossing his legs, which didn't work, then maybe changing positions which also didn't work.
By the time he could *see* Xena riding back into the camp he was running low on options, so he'd grabbed the nearest water skin and dumped it over his head, just as she ran up. It was freezing. EVERYTHING had seemed to cringe, and when he'd looked up to find both Xena *and* Gabby staring at him in a kind of stunned shock, everything had cringed that much more.
"Why did he do that?" Xena had asked Gabrielle, who had snorted and shrugged and said something about him being an idiot. When Xena repeated the question to him, all he could think to do was give a sort of weak chuckle and shrug and say, "Well..."
Finally Gabrielle said, "Oh you know. He's *Joxer*," as if that explained everything. And the sad part was that apparently it had, it had even explained why he'd taken his armour off to dump water on himself, because Xena had nodded and actually looked a little enlightened as Gabrielle plopped down next to him. He tried not to drip on her.
Xena's reason for coming back so quickly had been that she'd realized on the way there that there was no need to waste perfectly good dinars when she could easily hunt them a meal. So she had. Whoop-de-doo.
Joxer was starting to really understand why Gabrielle was getting snarkier by the second. What he didn't understand was why she had to sit right THERE, next to him, with all her skin showing and her tan and her abs and her legs, just shining and smelling sweet and scowling like some kind of animal.
Without warning, she turned around and smacked him on the shoulder. Hard. "I can't believe you'd SAY that!" she yelled, and he just stared up at her in a sort of speechless disbelief for a while, wondering if he'd been speaking his thoughts out loud, before it dawned on him that this was a plan.
His head suddenly hurt.
"NOW what?" Xena said, standing from building the fire, her expression indicating that she was rapidly losing patience with this repeated squabbling.
Gabrielle looked to him insistently, nodding to indicate that he should go along with it. "I -" Unfortunately, his clever excuses had run out a while ago. He blinked. "You - I - there was nothing wrong with what I said, you... you're taking everything wrong today!"
"I can't beLIEVE you!" Gabrielle said, her voice rising in pitch and volume as the sentence went on. "Xena, do you know what he just said?"
Xena had her hand over her eyes. "Oh, for crying out loud," she muttered.
Ignoring her, Gabrielle said, "He told me... He told me that - that I was too cranky and I needed to 'get some'!" Joxer nearly groaned out loud at that. *Thanks a lot, Gabby.*
To his surprise, Xena snorted. "Hoo boy," she said softly. "Couldn't have put it better myself."
Gabrielle whirled on her. "You're taking HIS side?!"
"You're taking MY side??" Joxer echoed.
In a flash, the blonde bard turned back to her lover and snarled, "I have heard ENOUGH from you! You don't have to rub it in!"
"Gabrielle-" Xena began, stepping forward with her hands spread out in a placating gesture.
The bard would have none of it. "Okay. That's it. I don't want to talk to or even see *either* of you. ESPECIALLY you," she said, pointing at Joxer with a dangerous glare on her face. The young man couldn't for the life of him figure out if it was in any way faked. A moment later, she stalked off, and quiet settled in amongst the two remaining friends.
Joxer sighed, wishing she could have found a slightly more pleasant way of diverting Xena's suspicions. Not that he wouldn't put up with it, of course. She was Gabrielle, he always put up with her. But he had to wonder if she even *thought* about how the actions of a moment ago had left him feeling.
He stood. "Welllll, guess I better go apologize, huh?" Xena didn't answer, so he cleared his throat. "Heh. I didn't mean that the way she took it, ya know. I was just, uh, kidding around-"
"Let her go for a while, Joxer," Xena said seriously, turning a solemn look on him. "We need to talk."
His stomach hit his boots. "Um - but, Gabby-"
She cut him off as he gestured futilely in the direction his beloved had stalked off in. "Sit. Now."
Something inside him screamed, as he sat back down on his log and managed to keep a very calm, very blank expression on his face. Xena's expression was her "lie to me and I'll pull out some part of your anatomy, and it won't be a part you like having pulled out" expression. That didn't bode well. He cleared his throat. "Is something wrong?"
"What's going on between you and Gabrielle?"
*Play dumb play dumb play dumb* the voice advised. He blinked. "Between me and - and Gabby? What do you -"
"Don't play dumb with me," Xena said darkly. The voice abruptly shut up, and Joxer knew it wouldn't say anything else for the rest of the evening. "For more than a full month now, there has been something going on, and she won't tell me about it. I know it happened when I left you two alone together. She was a nervous wreck when I first came back, and you two wouldn't look at each other for a full *day* the next time you saw each other. Since then it's been some kind of weird back and forth between you two, in particular with her. I know something happened and I am getting SICK of not knowing WHAT." She slammed a breast dagger into the ground at her feet, punctuating the word "sick".
Joxer gulped. "Um..."
"Look," Xena said in a more reasonable tone, "all I want to know is what happened. You don't have to tell me anything *personal*, and it won't be betraying her trust. I just want to know."
He fidgeted. "Xena, I really can't..."
The eyebrow went up. "Oh, I think you *can*."
Any irritation he'd been feeling whimpered and crawled away at this point, along with the lingering sexual desire he'd been dealing with all day. "Gabrielle... really... would rather tell you stuff like this herself... I bet," he said, edging away from her slightly and hoping she didn't notice. "If there's something to tell," he added. "I don't really... know," he tacked on, just in case.
Xena screwed up her mouth in thought, as she picked up the dagger and began waggling it absently. "But that's just *it*. She's NOT telling me. Normally she tells me everything, and she's not telling me this, which means it's something really BIG. *And*," she said, holding the dagger still and jabbing a finger in his direction, "I can tell it's something that really bothers her. See, Joxer, I'm not *nosy*. I'm WORRIED." The finger retreated, and the dagger began waving under his nose. Xena didn't seem to be paying attention to it at all. "When something is bothering a friend I wanna know about it. I know I'm not that great at all that touchy-feely kinda stuff, but hey, that doesn't mean I don't *care*. And when something is bothering *Gabrielle*, that makes it the most important thing in the world."
"Yeah," he said, hanging his head, "I know what you mean."
She was quiet for a beat. "Maybe you do," she muttered, with a hint of something that resembled realization in her voice. Then she shook her head, and the dagger was shoved back into the dirt. Joxer jumped. "You know, when I said all that about things bothering friends... that applies to you, too."
He didn't know what to say to that. He looked up and she was looking at him earnestly, searching his face, and to be honest he was surprised and a little embarrassed. The surprise was so strong that he forgot to be afraid of her. "Hey, um... forget it, there's nothing." He grinned.
"C'mon Joxer, it's me. Your pal Xena. You can tell me." She put a hand on his arm. "You might feel better getting it all out in the open."
Boy, it was tempting. For all this time he'd kept the entire situation completely to himself, and even though there was a lot less awkwardness now to have to deal with than there had been when they started, he still felt trapped sometimes, not being able to talk about it at all. And Xena - Xena *was* his friend, too. His best friend... The only person, other than Gabrielle, who even *cared* about his life.
Really, it was only fair that he be allowed to talk to her, if he wanted.
Now the question was... did he want to?
Telling her any of this - even just the first night - could get him in a lot of trouble. Xena might actually *like* him, sure, but that paled in comparison to how much she loved Gabrielle. And if he told her how the whole thing had started ... Even HE had trouble believing at times that he hadn't taken advantage of her vulnerable state. Telling Xena could put his entire relationship with her at risk.
Then again, maybe it *wouldn't*. She had been awfully supportive of him lately. She hadn't even gotten mad at that stupid thing Gabby had claimed he'd said. Maybe she wouldn't *mind*. Maybe there was a way he could frame the basics of this so that it wouldn't sound BAD - because really, it WASN'T bad, and she'd certainly see that, wouldn't she?
His stomach flopped. What was he *thinking*?! Gabrielle would KILL him if he told Xena! Not only would it jeopardize his relationship with his best friend, it would also effectively destroy his strange semi-relationship with the woman he loved. Who was, he realized with increasing alarm, WAITING for him with what was probably a severely dwindling amount of patience.
Xena was watching him, waiting for an answer. Obviously he had to tell her something. He winced. "Uh - well - okay, well, what happened. Lemme see. Well, uh... it was so long ago... it was really nothing... Heh, you'll probably laugh when you hear about this. I know Gabby and me, we laugh about it all the time. Uhhh, where to start..."
The expression on Xena's face had gone from expectant to barely-tolerant-and-falling-fast. "Don't strain yourself."
Maybe if he kept stalling... "Hey, no problem. Well, let's see... Okay, I'll start at the beginning. I'd been in Melos, see, for the past week. And I remember I picked up this coin on the road, and it wasn't a dinar, it was from someplace else-"
"XENA!!!" His first reaction to Gabrielle's scream was unadulterated relief. Merciful interruption! For a split second he relaxed, and wondered why Xena was jumping up and grabbing her sword and running in the direction that Gab- Oh, Gods!
He was after her in a flash. When they reached Gabrielle, the bard was clobbering a would-be attacker with her staff. Joxer stared for a moment - at least this meant she was letting out some of that pent-up frustration on someone other than him. A good six other men, brutish thugs all, were watching her and either looking for an opening or cringing over her treatment of their comrade.
"Now this isn't fair," Xena said, drawing their attention away from her friend, "who are YOU guys gonna get to play with?"
The thugs had a sort of wordless consultation with one another, and then one yelled "Get 'er!" and that seemed to spur them all to action. Three charged Xena all at once, yelling stupidly and waving their swords. No problem. Joxer rolled his eyes and turned back to Gabrielle, who gave her attacker one final shove and he fell over.
"Bad date?" he asked, grinning, and she turned and glared at him.
"Niiiiice timing." The remaining three men smirked and closed in on them, and Gabrielle stood against Joxer's back, brandishing her staff. She whacked one of the thugs across the face, leaned back against Joxer, and shoved the end of her staff at the second man.
The third approached Joxer, who found himself severely limited in the reach of his sword due to Gabrielle's presence right behind him. The usual roundhouse swing would not work with her there (which, since it usually made him a bit dizzy, might not have been a bad thing). "Hey, it's not my fault. Besides, if I'd been here, and then these guys had shown up, it woulda been pretty awkward!" The man on Joxer's side swung his sword, which Joxer had been afraid he was going to do, because it meant he had to find a way to get out of its way without just ducking and letting Gabrielle get hit with it. He raised his own sword quickly and held it as firmly as he could, teeth clenched together. The thug's sword hit his and stopped, making a huge clanging sound the way it was supposed to and miraculously NOT knocking Joxer's own sword out of his hands. "Hey," he said to himself happily.
He looked up to find himself in direct line with the thug's follow up swing. "Gah-"
Behind him, Gabrielle thrust her staff past his arm. It hit his attacker in the gut, knocking the wind out of him. Joxer took the opportunity to thump him on the head with his sword handle, and the man went down, out cold. "Hey," he said again, grinning. "Thanks!"
"You *could* return the favour!" she snapped. He turned and saw that both the remaining men were moving on her at once. One was holding her staff, trying to wrest it from her grip, while the other was trying to find an opening in her defense. Joxer pulled his sword at the ready, trying to judge the best angle of attack, when something whooshed past his head, clanked off a tree, and hit the helmet of the man holding Gabrielle's staff. He collapsed as the chakram ricocheted off his head, back to its owner. With her weapon free the bard made short work of the remaining thug.
Feeling rather worthless, Joxer sheathed his sword. Gabrielle turned, breathing hard, gave him a brief glance, and looked at Xena with a glowing smile. "Thanks."
"No problem. I got bored with waiting," Xena said, a smile playing at her lips, and stepped away from the prone bodies of the three men she'd been fighting.
That night in camp, Gabrielle nearly glowed with disapproval. She was slightly less edgy, a bit less snappy with Xena, and didn't yell at Joxer at all. Mostly, it seemed, because she barely acknowledged his presence. She did, however, tap him on the shoulder at one point when Xena's back was turned. "Meet me when she goes to sleep, Joxer," she whispered.
He gave her an uncertain look. "Are you sure? You don't seem exactly-"
"I am SURE, Joxer." She grit her teeth and half-growled, half-purred, "Trust me. I'll show you how sure I am."
Her words had an odd double-effect on him - they were both arousing and hurtful, somehow. She didn't know she was hurting him. He shouldn't take it personally. But in a way, it was the lack of personal connection that was hurting.
The evening was mostly uneventful other than that, except that Xena approached him while Gabrielle's back was turned, and lay a hand on his shoulder, and for a cold moment he had a frightening thought that *she* was going to tell him to meet *her* after Gabby went to sleep. Then she said in a low voice, "You can tell me about it when you're comfortable with it. Talk to me any time." The comfort in that statement was offset only by the fear inspired in knowing that their conversation was far from over.
He thought about it a bit as he lay down on his pelt and tried to relax. Too much tension today, all day. Too many ups and downs. Maybe he needed a break from Gabrielle for a while. It was something he never expected he'd have thought, but in light of the past few days, some time apart was seeming more and more appealing.
He didn't know he'd slept until he woke up. The early morning cast a blue-grey light over his surroundings, and for a moment he just lay there and felt himself and the world waking up.
Then he blinked. It couldn't be morning.
Shit. No. No, no, PLEASE don't let it be morning...
He looked around. The fire had long since gone out, somehow his fur cover had been pulled up to his chin, and Xena and Gabrielle were both huddled on their own pelts, to his left. There was no doubt that it was definitely dawn, and he had definitely not remembered to meet Gabrielle the night before. Shit!
He got to his hands and knees and quietly crept over to Gabrielle. Even in sleep, she looked tense, with her brow furrowed and her hands balled into fists.
"Awww, SHIT!" he said out loud, and Xena stirred. He covered his mouth belatedly and looked down at his bard again before crawling back to his pelt and lying back down. He was *so* screwed... and not in a good way.
"I'm sorry," he said again.
She looked at him coldly. "Don't worry about it," she said lightly, and walked a bit faster, catching up to Xena.
Joxer sighed behind her, and caught her arm, pulling her gently back. "You keep saying that. I don't think you mean it. I think you do want me to worry about it."
Gabrielle's expression was too blank, too innocent. "Why would I want that?"
He ignored her question. "I meant to meet you, I really did."
"Uh-huh. It's fine."
"But after those guys..."
"Of course, the guys."
"I dunno, warrior hazes can take a lot out of a guy."
"Oh, it was a warrior haze."
He pursed his lips. "I was really tired, Gabby. It was a long day. A long, *confusing* day," he said pointedly.
She shrugged. "Perfectly understandable." As she sped up again, she shot over her shoulder, "Don't worry about it."
She hadn't looked him in the face once since the morning. He'd been giving her this hangdog expression all day, and when she looked at him she could tell he was really sorry. And if she had *cared*, which she didn't, she'd have WANTED him to be sorry.
Her resolve seemed to falter when she looked at him. She'd almost forgiven him after the first apology, but when they'd started walking and she'd had some time to think about it the whole thing had just swollen up again. He'd left her waiting - *twice*. Nobody kept her waiting - well, no one *should* anyway. Few things pissed her off like being kept waiting. But Joxer always seemed to do it, because he always got so easily distracted, and sure that "Xena wanted to talk" excuse sounded good when he had said it but looking back it just had SO many holes in it.
By noon that day, she was NOT happy, and she liked it that way, dammit. When he came up and talked to her again, she refused to look at him, and that just made it easier to stay mad at him, which for some reason was really satisfying today. He had *no* idea how she felt. Guys dealt with unresolved sexual desire all the time, they were used to it. *She* was dealing with hormones, he had no idea what that was like. Jerk. If she looked at him she might think maybe he did know, and end up tricking herself into letting him off the hook. Nope, not this time - this time he was going to SUFFER.
Joxer watched her back, his heart twisting. Okay, so he loved her. He would always love her. There had even been a time when he'd loved it when she'd do things like this, because it meant that at least he had an effect on her. Those days were over now, though. *I should say something,* he thought. *Just once. I should just tell her to knock it off. She always gets away with this. I always let her. I'm gonna let her this time, too.* He sighed. *Chicken.*
He watched as she caught up with Xena, and the two women spoke in low, friendly murmurs for a few moments. Then Gabrielle said something a bit more sharply. Xena looked back at him, her eyes knowing, and raised an eyebrow. *We'll talk about this,* her look promised. He scowled and wished he had something to throw.
It wasn't until Xena had given the "nature calls" excuse herself that he found the nerve to speak to her again. "I'm sorry," he said again, and wished he could think of a better way to start. Because when he started this way, it just gave her a chance to say -
"Don't worry about it." To say *that*. It somehow seemed to stop the conversation cold every time.
"I *am* worrying about it. I- hey," he said, and moved in front of her so that she had to look at him. "I'm worrying. I *wanted* to meet you."
Caught by surprise, she blinked for a second, then set her face and looked away. "I know. It's -"
"Don't say it's fine." He crossed his arms. "And don't say it's okay, either. Or anything like that."
"Well what do you WANT me to say, Joxer?!" she exploded finally. "Do you *want* me to yell at you, and tell you that you're an inconsiderate jerk? Do you *want* me to say that I waited for two HOURS for you? What? What am I supposed to say?" She looked at him, then looked away again quickly, because he looked like he'd just been whipped. The anger faltered again.
"I said I was sorry," he said quietly.
"Ah. And that's just going to fix everything. You left me in the lurch *twice*."
He straightened, and said, "And I'm not an inconsiderate jerk. I told you, I was talking to Xena."
She snorted. "Oooh, can't miss talking to Xena."
"Gab, it's not like that! She grabbed me! She made me sit down, I didn't have a choice in the matter!" He flung his hands about in frustration. "This is *Xena* we're talking about!"
Okay, so he had a point. She wasn't going to let him keep it. "I suppose it was too hard to do the *polite* thing and ask if it can be continued later, because your friend's feelings are hurt and maybe you should-"
"She was asking me about US." Gabrielle fell silent, her eyes going to his in panic. "What's up between us. If anything had happened. If I knew what was bothering you, 'cause I was probably a part-"
"You didn't TELL her." Her voice was quiet, but carried more intensity than a shout could have managed.
"'Course not. I was stalling, and then you yelled, and I was off the hook."
Gabrielle visibly relaxed. "Good. Don't tell her *anything*. At all. I'll handle it. Next time she asks, do something stupid and shut her up."
"Thanks," he muttered. "She wouldn't *take* no answer, Gabby. She kept saying she knew there was *something*, and asked about us, and-"
"Joxer," she said, rapidly losing patience, "STOP using that word."
"Huh? What word?" He thought for a moment. "'Something'?"
"US!" she shouted. Her fists clenched. "Don't say 'us' like there's some kind of entity with that name! There is NO 'us', Joxer!" He backed up a step, and she moved closer. "There is you. There is me. There is XENA. There is no US in there anywhere!"
With a shell-shocked expression on his face, he said, "But then... what-"
"I don't know. An arrangement. A way to pass the time. It's not a *relationship*, that's for damn sure."
Joxer was scowling now, and Gabrielle felt both wretched and giddy at the same time. "That's ridiculous. You can't just have two friends, meeting regularly like this, and not have them mean ANYTH-"
"Oh *really*," she said, and felt an urge to grin maliciously. She fought it. "Then how do you explain Meg? Either she's a convenience, or you're cheating on her."
His eyes bugged for a second, and three times he took a breath and seemed to be about to say something. Finally he managed, "*Different* - that's *different*," and jabbed a finger at her. "Meg and me - we're friends, it's not... we just hang out - we-"
"Meet up every now and then and have sex?"
He made a choked noise. "Because - we - well Meg is different from you, and-"
"Semantics, Joxer. There's no relationship here, it's... it's convenience. No relationship. No *romance*. We agreed on that when we started. If you're not adult enough to-"
"Stop. Okay? Just stop." He glared at her silently for a moment, then turned away. "Fine. You win. I'm an inconsiderate jerk." Gabrielle didn't answer, she just held her staff and felt distinctly less than giddy.
Xena returned a moment later, took one look at the two of them standing now on opposite sides of Argo and looking anywhere but at each other, and sighed. "Figures," she muttered, and just took Argo's reins and began walking again in silence.
If there was one place Joxer didn't want to be, it was to be where he was right now: sitting at a table in a tavern with Gabrielle while Xena went and got them a round of drinks.
He would rather have been up in his room. He would rather have been camped in the forest. He would rather have been skewered on some warlord's sword, for that matter. Because while Xena was away, Gabrielle wouldn't stop talking about Meg.
"I just think it's awfully immature to put two different labels on the situations. I hate that - that kind of double-standard," she was saying.
He couldn't bring himself to answer. He didn't know what his answer would be. He was afraid he'd open his mouth and start whining, pleading with her to leave him alone, and wouldn't THAT win her respect? *Tell her you love her,* the voice from the night before said insistently. *That'll shut her up.* Shut up, voice, he told it. "Where's that ale? Xena better get back soon."
"You're not even listening. Why do I bother?" Gabrielle said, her eyes roving over the assembled patrons of the tavern.
*Tell her how you feel. Let's see how self-righteous she is in the face of that.* Shut up. "I'm getting awfully thirsty here."
"Hey, I just realized, this whole convenience arrangement doesn't have any kind of commitment strings to it, does it?" she asked in a casual tone that announced that she had not just realized it but had been waiting for the exactly right moment to say it.
The voice was silent, apparently in shock. "Thirsty," he repeated brokenly, "you bet. Where's that ale."
"I think," Gabrielle said evilly, "it's about time I found out about sampling the other men life has to offer."
He snapped. "Okay - don't?"
"Why not? I don't think you really have the right to object, Joxer, since it's pretty much just what you're doing to Meg..." She gave him a cheerful smile, then turned her back to him and muttered, "Oooh, look at the butt on *that* guy."
*Meg's not head over heels in love with me, though, Gabrielle,* he thought. *Meg's not following me around like a puppy dog and doing whatever I tell her to. Meg's not sworn off sex with anyone else for the rest of her life, as long as I'll pay the slightest bit of attention to her.* Why didn't he say that? A bigger man could say that. He just sighed, scanned the room, and found Xena as she carried three tankards back to the table. He rose to meet her on the way, grabbed one, and drained half of it before she got the rest back to their table.
"Soooo, I see we're just as happy as when I left," Xena said drolly, as Joxer exhaled heavily and wiped his mouth. Gabrielle shrugged, staring at the men in the bar.
"Hey Xena. See that guy over there- the one in the red vest?" she said, pointing at a blonde man with a sword strapped to his waist.
Xena nodded. "Yeah. Looks kinda puny."
"Really?" Gabrielle grinned. "I think he's handsome." She ignored when Joxer sighed and took another long drink. "Well, who in here would you pick?"
"This really isn't my kind of thing," Xena said, a little impatiently, but looked around. "Well, the one in the black leather over there's not bad."
Gabrielle followed here gaze. "Oooh. How'd I miss THAT?"
"Good question." She looked around some more. "What about the dark one over there? The one with the helmet?"
"Ugh. Too hairy." The bard wrinkled her nose. "Hmmm - ooh. Tall, goatee, black leather pants and an open vest."
Xena found the man Gabrielle was indicating. "Ah. Not bad," she said approvingly.
"I want him," Gabrielle giggled.
Joxer made a wounded sound. "I'm still HERE, you guys..."
Xena nursed her drink for a while, giving the occasional scrutiny to a man Gabrielle picked out of the crowd, but not often volunteering an opinion unless asked. Joxer started in on Gabrielle's ale, which remained untouched by her. The blonde instead spent her time eyeing guys, a fluttery feeling in the pit of her stomach as she truly began to consider just... picking one. Any one. She wouldn't even have to ask his name.
Well... why not? Other people did it all the time.
She felt flushed, excited, stupid and nervous and giggly. She felt that she wouldn't really go through with it. She felt that she had to. It was a life experience, a barding experience, a... a sexual adventure. She grinned. Think of the scrolls that could come out of this.
She forgot about Joxer, about their argument, and all of that. This was about *her*, now, and she was going to concentrate on herself for a while.
Her train of thought broke when Xena tapped her on her shoulder. "I'm gonna turn in," she said, "are you coming?"
Gabrielle bit her lip. "I think... I think I'm gonna stay here for a while." She gave a little grin, feeling scared and delighted at the same time, aching to talk to Xena about this. But she'd wait - she'd wait until she'd actually gone through with it, so that she didn't look stupid if she chickened out. She *wouldn't* chicken out, though, she swore.
Joxer stood. "I'm going too." He looked sulky. Gabrielle rolled her eyes, unable to keep from getting irritated at him. He was taking the whole thing so seriously - she wasn't even mad anymore.
"Good night then," she offered. He pouted and wouldn't look at her.
"Take care of yourself, Gabrielle," Xena said softly in her ear, giving her a serious look.
"I *know*," the bard answered testily, blushing. Xena still thought of her as naive, a child.... that *really* irritated her. Another reason for a one-night stand... to put an end to that goodie-goodie reputation she couldn't seem to shake.
She watched her friends go, then turned back to the bar and stared for a few minutes. The guy in the leather pants was looking in her direction. She swallowed and looked around cautiously, then smiled at him. He grinned and turned back to the bar. Was that a good sign, or a bad sign? A moment later he looked back over his shoulder again, and she made eye contact. He raised an eyebrow, a smile at the corner of his mouth, and looked away again.
Okay. This was good. She was about three-quarters of the way sure it was good. She stood, her knees quivering enough to severely hamper her balance, and walked casually to the bar, finding a spot about half the length down from him. *Don't look. Just glance,* she told herself, trying her best to look natural, and gave a sideways gaze from under her eyelids.
He was looking. She smiled, then caught the bartender's attention and ordered a drink. When she looked back, he was gone.
Her stomach dropped. Had she blown it? But wasn't it supposed to go that way? Had all the stories she'd heard in Poteidaia about the 'bad girls' lied to her?
"What are you having?" a smooth voice purred next to her ear. She looked up, and there he was, leaning against the bar at her side. She giggled, then immediately regretted it and wished there was a way to cover for it.
"Ah, what do you recommend?" Smoky voice. Men like that. It sounds confident. She gave him another half-lidded gaze, and he grinned, a perfect smile that brought out a little dimple in the side of one of his cheeks, beneath the day or so's worth of stubble that she hadn't noticed from farther away. It was even sexier than the goatee alone had been.
He shrugged. Even his shrug was graceful. "How drunk do you want to get?"
Pursing her lips, she answered, "Not drunk enough to forget what I do tonight." The grin again. It left her breathless. Could she have found a more perfect man?
"Well," he said, and licked his lips. She hoped the fact that she was staring wasn't too obvious. "Maybe I can find what you need up in my room, if you want to join me."
"I was just hoping you'd ask that," she said. He took her hand, and without any more words led her out of the bar and towards the lodgings. Gabrielle didn't know how she managed to make it all the way there without her legs giving way. A thousand voices shot through her head at once - *Are you an idiot? He could rob you! This is gonna be great! You're insane. What would your mother say?* All she heard, however, was her heartbeat; all she felt was his rough hand surrounding her own, pulling her down the hall, through his door.
No turning back now.
*What about Joxer?*
She blinked as her stomach gave a sudden unwilling lurch. That had nothing to do with anything. Stupid to even think about it. She stared up at her appointed lover, as he looked her up and down, pursing his lips. He nodded. "Nice," he said, a slow, predatory grin spreading across his features. "Definitely nice."
*Should I be here?* she wondered, suddenly nervous, a strange tightness in the pit of her stomach that still mingled with unfulfilled desire and excitement. "Um... thanks... You too?" Wow. That was Joxer-level stupid.
He chuckled. "You don't do this much."
"What..." She took a step back without noticing it. "What would make you think that?"
With another chuckle, he took two steps forward. "It's okay. I think it's kind of cute. Kind of... arousing." With that he lunged forward and pulled her against him, claiming her mouth ferociously, his hands gripping her buttocks and pushing her groin against his.
As the shock wore off, she had just enough time to realize that this was the most intensely skillful kiss she'd ever received before her mind seemed to shut down for the evening. She moaned into his open mouth, as his tongue snaked past her lips, darting over her teeth and against the roof of her mouth, eliciting a shiver from her. He pulled back a bit, sucking at her bottom lip, nibbling at it gently before leaning his forehead against hers and looking into her eyes darkly.
When she opened her eyes she had to fight back a gasp - he wasn't who she had expected to see. *Not Joxer,* she thought hazily, *you're not with Joxer, remember?* But the kiss - the lip thing - he had done that, last time...
*No. Not Joxer.* She shook her head slightly, and grabbing his face she gave him her own fiery kiss, as his hands massaged her bottom and his erection strained through his pants, pressing against her hip. And suddenly she had to pull back, repressing a shudder, and push his hands away.
"What?" he said in exasperation.
She blinked, trying to catch her breath. "Nothing." What, indeed? She hadn't the first idea. Damn it - no second thoughts! She had done this multiple times, she was no stranger to casual sex - just because it was with a different person this time didn't make it different! She hadn't had to hesitate this way with Joxer the first time -
Although - with Joxer it had been different. She knew him. She cared for him. She knew he cared for her. *No second thoughts,* she told herself silently, and shook her head again.
"Sorry. Nothing. I just - too much to drink?"
The lovely man scowled, diminishing his loveliness, and Gabrielle had another moment of doubt.
*No. Lose yourself. Go with this. It's good, Gabrielle.*
"Better be 'nothing'," he muttered, and took her again before she had a chance to even begin to doubt. His hands were at her breasts now, pawing - that was the best word for it - against her top, tugging at the laces without making an effort to actually untie them. He kneaded each one roughly, and she arched her back. She'd have to tell Joxer to do this - she liked it more than she thought she would.
The thought of him cut through her like a knife. *STOP THINKING ABOUT JOXER!* she told herself. But her lover's hands swept her hair back from her neck, and his mouth kissed and licked her throat and collarbone, the stubble on his face scratching along her skin in a not-unpleasant way, and she shivered and sighed and crooned her lover's name.
Shit. She didn't *know* his name.
"Who the hell is Joxer?" he asked, lifting his head and glaring at her.
Through a dry mouth, she said, "...Huh? I, I, I don't know-"
"You *must* know, you just called me that." He looked genuinely angered. "Look, if you got some fantasies you wanna live out, that's one thing but I'm not here to -"
"No, no, no!" she said, laughing and blushing and waving her hands. "No, it's not like that at all! He's just - he's, he's an ex-boyfriend... sort of- well, it's all really complicated-"
He shrugged, cutting her off. "Fine. I can be rebound. I don't care. He can even be your current boyfriend, I don't care. Just don't *call* me by his name. It's weird." He pulled her closer again, and she stepped back.
"Okay, you know what... I can't do this," she said, and all the tension that had been in her stomach finally cleared up, taking the desire and the little bit of excitement that was left right along with it. "I'm sorry...I want to, but it's just obviously not right for me right now."
He was staring at her. "You gotta be kidding."
She shrugged, giving him a nervous, apologetic grin. "Sorry."
He looked to his left, and sighed, then said matter-of-factly, "You stupid little virgin TEASE."
For some reason this brought her up short. "I am *not* a virgin."
With a snort of laughter, he ran a hand through his hair. "What, do you get off on getting men hot and then dumpin' them? That's sick!"
She glared at him, her hands balling into fists. "I am *not* a tease... and *not* a virgin. In fact, I've never had *any* complaints... you just won't know what you're missing." She turned to the door.
He streaked past her, barring her exit, and snarled. "Ohhh, no. You don't just walk out of here like that. You promised, now you gotta deliver." He grabbed her arm, his fingers digging into her flesh, almost bruising.
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes.
She stepped out of his room, shutting the door gently behind her and shaking her free hand. Man, that smarted. She was glad she usually had her staff to handle guys like that - if she had to hit them every day, her career as a bard would be over! She looked closely at her hand. *Is that MY blood?* It wiped off easily, painlessly, and she felt relieved. *Oh, whew. Must've been his. Ick.*
She leaned back against the wall, and sighed. How had that gone so wrong? Okay, so he was a jerk. He hadn't *started* as a jerk, but she'd still had misgivings - why? What had been so different about this, from when she was with Joxer?
Joxer. Her heart sank a little in her chest - she'd really been cruel to him the past couple of days, hadn't she? After *that* experience, she didn't think she could ever refer to Joxer as an "inconsiderate jerk" again. Her heart sank again as she realized she'd done more than that. That experience had just, in some bizarre way, proven almost *everything* she'd been saying for the past day to be wrong.
She needed to talk to him. Desperately. Hopefully he wasn't asleep yet, but if he was, that was just too bad. Gabrielle didn't think she'd ever needed to talk to anyone so urgently, and the first words out of her mouth needed to be "I'm sorry."
He wasn't in the room she had been certain was his. Gabrielle walked quickly back towards the bar at the inn's front, deciding that if he wasn't there she'd check the registry until she found out what room he *was* in.
Fortunately, she found him in the bar almost right away. He probably hadn't even been up to his room yet - his armour was still on, and his helmet was languishing on the surface of the bar next to him. He had been given a wide berth by the other patrons, particularly on the side his helmet was on.
She gave a smile of relief when she saw him, the familiar lanky figure leaning against the bar with the familiar pout creasing his lips and forehead. She'd seen him so many times before, but never had he been such a welcome sight. "Joxer!" she called, waving to get his attention.
His head rolled rather loosely to face her at the sound of her voice, and after a moment of staring at her he blinked and looked down at his tankard of ale. She bit her lip. Okay, she deserved that... They hadn't exactly parted company as the best of friends.
By the time she reached him, he still hadn't looked back up at her. He was running a finger along the edge of the tankard when she stepped up next to him and perched her elbows on the polished wood of the bar. "Hey."
"Hey," he said solemnly, without taking his eyes from his drink. "That was quick."
There was an edge to his tone she had never heard before. The tone, along with his comment, took her by surprise. "W-well - I didn't... I didn't do it." She shrugged, and smiled at him, but he wasn't looking at her.
"Ah," he said, the word somehow sort of knowingly sarcastic and bitter in its single syllable. "Was he not tall enough?"
The smile faded. "Are we talking about the same thing?"
"You tell me." He looked up from his drink, finally, and casually leaned on one elbow as he gave her a very probing look. "I'm talking about sex. Did you have sex with that guy? The ... vesty one?"
Gabrielle's mouth inadvertently pulled down at the corners. "I - no. I didn't... couldn't. Joxer," she said with incredulity, leaning closer to him as if to verify, "are you DRUNK?"
"Yup," he said, almost cheerfully, and raised his glass to her in a silent toast to nothing.
She processed this information while he drained the last of the tankard. "How ... how many of those have you had?"
"Uh, ooh, let me think. Ahhh... This was the second... but I had two before I came back down here. So- three. I mean four." He gave her that look again, a very serious gaze borne, she now saw, of alcohol consumption. He still didn't smile. "I'd call it 'lightly buzzed', really. Definitely not pissed, or smashed, or hammered..." He trailed off, nodding.
"You should get to bed," she said absently. He snorted, but didn't otherwise answer. A pause stretched between them, which she finally broke. "I've never seen you drunk before." She didn't add that she wasn't sure she liked it.
"Yeah. Don't drink much around you and Xena." He blew out a breath forcefully, for no reason Gabrielle could fathom.
"Do you drink much when you're not with us?"
"Nahhh," he said, shrugging. "Not *often* anyway. Not unless I'm really, really bored. Or pissed off."
"Or upset?" she asked softly.
He rolled his eyes. "Subtle."
"I'm sorry, Joxer," she said. The words slipped out, and once she'd said them she somehow felt it had been the wrong time.
His only response was to shrug again, and grunt, "Mmm."
She was instantly infuriated. It was a moment before she could speak. "I *meant* that."
The infuriation grew. He *was* an inconsiderate jerk! What, was she just in the habit of idealizing men when she wasn't around them-? She stopped herself short. *Gabrielle, he's drunk. This isn't Joxer - not YOUR Joxer. Give him a break.* "For - all of this. Upsetting you... the things I said..."
He snorted, waving a hand, and looked bored. "I don't care. Why should I care? You do what you wanna. Say what you wanna. It's all the same to me."
"I don't believe you."
"Believe what you wanna." The ennui in his expression spread through his body, and he caught her in a lazy, half-lidded gaze that had such hidden intensity beneath it it was almost frightening.
This wasn't going the way she wanted. She toyed with the idea of leaving the whole thing until morning, when he was more rational, but something in her set its heels stubbornly and decided she was going to see this through. He didn't seem *that* drunk... She wasn't going to bed until she got through to him. They were not going to go to bed mad, neither of them.
Her voice was trembling when she softly asked, "Joxer, what do you think of... what we're doing?"
"Whatever," he said casually, waving a hand.
She shook her head, keeping her eyes locked on his. "That's not an answer. What do you *think*?"
He took a deep breath, looked at the ceiling, and then back at her. "I think we're fuck buddies, Gabrielle, is that what you want to hear?"
Gasping involuntarily, she turned away from him, her face burning. She'd heard the words before, even from Joxer - like when he stepped on something sharp - but not in such a context, not relating to... to *her*. It was so blunt, so... ugly. She wiped her mouth as if expunging the taste of the words, but she still stung as if she'd been slapped. Offended, debased, demoralized, and what made it worse was that in the back of her memory Joxer's voice said, *You're the brains... I'm just the body.*
And she'd agreed, implicitly, by not even noticing. Treated him like cattle, like a pet, like a prop. Sure, Joxer, you're the body - now shut up and do me and don't expect any gratitude.
She wiped her mouth again. "That's... not true," she managed to push out finally, her head turned so that he was just outside her line of sight. It hadn't been like that. It hadn't *felt* like that... She liked him, she valued him, he was her *friend* dammit. He had a mind, and she liked that mind. But ... it was how she'd made *him* feel, wasn't it.
And that mattered. Right now that mattered more than what she felt, herself.
"Hmm," he mumbled, listlessly. "Okay. I guess you're right. You're always right."
"Don't say it like that," she said. She wanted to cry, and hated herself for that. The only alternative seemed to be to get angry, and she hated herself for *that*, too, but it helped her keep control.
She spun to face him, her ire sparkling in her bright green-blue eyes. "STOP it, Joxer. You have a say, too. And I am going to let you have it, starting now, so TAKE it."
For the first time, interest sparked somewhere in the back of his eyes. "You're not always right?"
"No," she growled, trying to at least remain focussed in her anger. "And you *know* I'm not. And you *let* me win, don't you? You *let* me. Stop LETTING me win and FIGHT me, Joxer. We're not ... 'fuck buddies'. I don't think that and I know you don't either." She paused, the anger ebbing away, being replaced with a sudden uncertainty. "...Do you?"
There was no sadness in his face, no melancholy, just a sort of exasperated bitterness as he pushed a hand back over his hair and sighed. "What *do* you think of us, then, Gabrielle?"
Her mouth hung open, as she searched for the words. None came; the bard, so proud of her skills, was speechless. She tried to explain it somehow in a look, in the shaking of her head. Joxer just pushed his hair back again and scowled.
"Oops, I used the 'us' word."
He came to life suddenly, leaning forward and gesturing intensely, "No, no, you don't GET it. You don't GET it." He waved his hands in frustration, staring at her as if she was supposed to find what he was trying to say in the air, without words. She shook her head, and he growled. "No, Gab, DAMMIT - Okay look. You're wrong, okay? That's the thing. We're not strangers, we *know* each other - we - this IS a relationship. We don't just randomly meet and fuck in a corner - we don't..." He sighed in frustration and leaned on the counter, the sudden burst of energy flowing out of him just as unexpectedly, and put his face in his hands. "'Scuse my language," he muttered through his fingers.
"Joxer," she said, and put a hand over one of his. "Calm down. Say it again, a little differently. I'm listening, okay?"
He nodded, and sighed, then lifted his head and took her hand in his own. "You said - you said there's you, and there's me, and Xena. But there's... there's THIS, too. This thing between you and me that isn't THERE with her. I'm saying - I'm saying you're my friend. So is she, but..." He shook his head, sighed, and tried again. "I'm saying... Like it or not, we're involved. We're a part of each other. You see?" He gripped her hand, staring into her eyes, almost pleading with her to understand. "There IS an 'us'."
She looked back into his eyes, staring into the velvet depths as they softened, as his expression changed from intense to tired to almost miserable. He tried to pull his hand away, but she held it fast, thinking carefully.
"I'm sorry," he muttered. "That was too much, wasn't it?" He tugged at her grip again, but not forcefully, as if testing it for weaknesses without actually intending to put up any effort.
"No - no," she said. She put her other hand to the side of his face. "Joxer - you're right." His eyebrows went up, and it changed the entire composition of his face. She almost smiled, but couldn't quite - the moment itself was too serious. "Yes, you are. I thought... I thought this whole thing was about the sex, and how it affected me. I thought that was all I had to think about - me, having casual sex with someone, but ... that's not it. You're right. It is about us. Our friendship - our trust... our relationship. It's about what we share, that no one else has."
"Yeah, y'know, that's what I was saying," he mumbled quietly to the bar.
"See? I got it."
He smiled a little, just for a moment.
"Joxer, no matter what I thought, or what I wanted to think ... I'm with you because it's YOU, not because it's an opportunity to ... have relations. I trust you. I... I feel closer to you because of this. I think I'm - I'm just starting to realize all this. But you got it a long time ago, didn't you?"
He shrugged, now smiling a little more. "Kinda. Maybe not in those words."
"Very insightful." She grinned as he mumbled something about her patronizing him, and snorted. "Are you going to remember any of this tomorrow, do you think?"
He lifted his head, and it was a bit wobblier than before. "I'm not THAT drunk, Gab," he said, his speech still quite clear, although physically he looked exhausted, really out of it. "I remember stuff."
"Good. I want you to remember this."
"I'm GONNA," he insisted. She slipped around to his other side and slid beneath his arm, then grabbed his helmet and pushed away from the bar. "Hey -"
"I think it's bedtime," she said, surprised to find that he was walking much more steadily than she'd expected... Only slightly worse than usual, in fact.
He straightened next to her. "Woohoo!" When she glared at him, he grinned and winked. "Kidding, kidding. I know." She wasn't prepared for the surge of feeling that she felt when he grinned - she hadn't known she'd missed it until she saw it again.
They were halfway to his room when he said, "I don't see Meg anymore, Gabby."
It took her by surprise. She looked up at him again, and he was no longer grinning; the somber expression was back. She hated that expression, suddenly. "It's okay if you do, Joxer." *Don't avoid her on MY account,* she stopped herself from adding. They still had no commitment to one another - no strings. That meant no possessiveness, either. He wasn't her pet.
"No, that's not the point." He shook his head, and lost his balance. She grabbed his waist and hauled him back up before he hit the ground. "The point - the point is that I don't see her." She got the impression that he *wanted* to look at her, but doing so would compromise his balance again, so she looked at him instead. "I don't see her, I haven't seen her since we... started, and I'm not gonna see her ever again. Not like that, anyway. This is my room."
"Ah." She stopped outside his door, relieved to see that she'd picked the right one earlier. Feeling she should say something, she stuttered, "You - you can, if you want-"
"No." He held her arms when he shook his head, this time, and stayed upright. "I don't want to."
And nothing more needed to be said. A weight lifted off her chest, somehow, and she smiled, but he moved past her to his door and opened it, focusing all his attention on that task.
She stepped aside, to give him room, feeling mildly disappointed but not sure why. "Good night, Joxer..."
He turned again, supporting himself on the doorframe, and gave her a steady look for a few extended seconds. Then, wordlessly, he put a hand to the back of her head and drew her forward, kissing her lips with a natural confidence she'd never felt from him before, not even during their lovemaking. Not like this, anyway. It wasn't forceful, just firm - controlled, somehow.
The only thing that she really thought during it was that it was odd - the "vesty" guy had kissed her skillfully and sexually, and it had never been as good as this. This encapsulated everything that was right about Joxer, and that had been missing with that one - Trust. Affection. Equality.
He stopped suddenly, his balance on the doorframe faltering, and she caught him again. "Better get to bed," she said, steadying him.
His expression indicated that he'd barely heard her - instead he looked distinctly sappy. She was about to repeat herself when he said, "I love you, Gabrielle."
Biting her lip to keep from smirking, she pushed him a bit to turn him back to the door. "*I* know," she said, a bit of a patronizing tone creeping into her words, "I love you too, Joxer."
"No, Gabrielle, no," he said insistently, "I *really*-"
"Get some sleep," she told him, patting him on the shoulder, "promise me, okay? Get in there and *sleep.*"
"Okaaaay," he said, sounding deflated, and she handed him his helmet and waved as he shut the door behind him. She heard several muffled thumps, assumed one of them was him flopping on the bed, and let out a breath.
What a night.
At least, however, she'd finally sorted this whole Joxer thing out. It was all out in the open now, and although she knew she shouldn't feel better knowing he wasn't visiting Meg anymore, she admittedly *did*. If nothing else, it gave her an 'excuse' not to seek out anymore lovers for herself.
*Please, let him be happy tomorrow,* she thought. *Please don't let anything else get in the way, at least for tomorrow.* He deserved it. And besides - she wanted to see that grin as much as possible.
She lingered outside his door for a while longer, her fingers unconsciously brushing against her lips, smiling slightly.
Continue on to the sequel Bodyrock