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A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to Scyros...
by Ingrid and Beckers
- Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream
They were on vacation but Hercules, as always, had to leave. A Cyclops needed to be tamed near the city of Cressida and the skinny little red-haired man who ran to the demigod, begging for his help, just looked so pathetic and desperate. What was a hero to do?
Peeved, recalling the scene which took place yesterday - all the whining, begging and crying - Iolaus mumbled distractedly over his ale while he leaned against the bar in a local tavern. How many times had Iolaus told his best friend, "Just say NO, Hercules." only to be ignored? "Whenever we go on vacation you never vacation!" He had bellowed once again as the demigod was pulled and pushed out of Corinth, to go where danger was prevalent. Sure, a hero's work is never done but - sheesh - this is ridiculous!
No, Iolaus was determined, he was not going with Hercules this time. This was a vacation and - send it all to Tartarus! - this hunter-warrior was going to relax! With a sigh of disgust, Iolaus put his tankard down, tossed a dinar on the bar and walked from the tavern.
If only relaxing by ones self wasn't so dull.
It was one of those inevitable things, Iolaus thought. After all, as Hercules constantly reminded his pal: "Helping people is its own reward." Maybe, but it certainly put a crimp in their social lives. Hercules, of course, didn't see this. There were times when Iolaus wanted to just reach up and choke the demigod...
He heard a call from across the dusty street. Female. He was instantly interested. He peered for a moment, seeing nothing but a row of ramshackle legal building, when he suddenly spotted her. How could he have miss this exuberant woman with those flashy clothes, big smile, sparkling eyes and dark hair piled on either side of her head in odd but fashionable twists. She radiated like the morning sun on a clear day.
"Dirce!" Iolaus cheered and felt good for the first time that day.
She trotted across the street to meet him, smiling her brilliant smile and hugging him, excited by their reunion. "I'm so glad to see you because I need you!" she declared rather abruptly.
Iolaus paused for just a moment, considering the possibilities of such a statement. He smiled carelessly. "It's good to be needed." He flirted.
"My father's in trouble," she said quickly, "I've been schooling here in Corinth, learning a few new legal maneuvers, when it came to me by messenger that he and our kingdom are in jeopardy!"
Of course. Disappointed, Iolaus sighed. He had to keep reminding himself that Dirce was a royal princess although she was less like royalty than any woman he had ever met in his life. "What's the matter?"
"I'm not really sure, but I need to go home."
"To Scyros?" Iolaus grimaced, recalling his last nearly fatal visit to Dirce's hometown. Deliberately, he put a hand to his throat and rubbed it gently.
"Yes, and I want you to go with me."
"Why, me?" Iolaus dropped his hand.
"Because, whatever it is must be serious, something only a hero of your caliber can deal with." she said with determination, slipping her hand into his.
Iolaus smiled, his ego boosted by the young princess-lawyer's praise.
"And besides that," She hesitated a moment considering, moving to start their journey out of Corinth, "Hercules isn't around."
Iolaus' smile drooped. You'd think I'd get used to this sort of thing by now. He thought but, instead of voicing his disappointment, Iolaus concurred, "I'm glad you happened to catch me. We'll walk together and do a little catching up."
It would take them at least two days by foot to get to Scyros from Corinth. Dirce nodded enthusiastically then, biting her lip, considering something else: "Let's pick up something for the road, Iolaus..." She leaned in boldly and held him closer, "I know how hungry you get." She vamped.
Iolaus nervously giggled and reluctantly let go of her. If King Menelaus thought it justice to have a prisoner's head removed for robbing the royal treasury then what would the king consider removing if he thought a cad was taking advantage of the Princess of Scyros?
Unconcerned with such thoughts, Dirce quickly walked ahead and Iolaus turned the corner to follow her.
That song. That whistle. His voice. It was driving her insane.
"Joxer, please!" Gabrielle cried, shoving the lanky warrior-wannabe away from her, "PLEASE stop with the song! I'm not your sidekick, and I'm not fighting with a 'little stick'! For the gods' sake, write a new verse!"
Joxer pouted, a bit offended that "Gabby" didn't share the same affection for his valiant warrior song as he. "But - blood, valor, victory, Gabby! It's our song!"
She continued walking, trying desperately to ignore his voice.
"Fine..." Joxer called, watching Gabrielle move ahead of him, "I'll find Xena and sing it with her!"
"Not if she knocks your block off with her chakram first..." Gabrielle muttered.
"I heard that!" Joxer yelled then unexpectedly tripped over his own feet, landing in the crisp gravel of the path they were following, his legs getting tangled in his father's sword.
Gabrielle, silently thanking the gods for intervention, doubled her pace. Joxer would be all right and he could meet her in Scyros, where Xena was waiting for them. Right now she just had to get away from him and this constant attention. Ever since Joxer had told Gabrielle he was in love with her, she and the warrior-wannabe hadn't been the same. He made her uncomfortable. Even more than usual. She wished, for his sake, she could return just a little of his affection, because it meant so much to him, but she just couldn't and it was time he accepted it.
Still, he was a friend and a nice guy and, concerned for his welfare, Gabrielle quickly looked back over her shoulder to double-check, making sure he was well and to see how far ahead of him she had progressed.
Iolaus had just begun rounding a corner, a large bush obstructing his view, attempting to catch up with the quick on her feet Dirce when he looked behind him, startled by the call of a grain seller that looked remarkably like fast-food merchant, Falafel.
A young woman ran right into him from out of nowhere, the collision knocking both of them to the ground. Her small leather tote and its contents went flying, scattering across the ground.
He helped her up and at the same time picked up her bag, shoveling its contents - scrolls it seemed - inside. "You know, nobody should be in this much of a hurry to -- "
It was at that moment that he looked into her eyes, expecting a stranger, instead finding himself grinning - and speechless. "Iolaus?!" Gabrielle finally managed, also having a hard time believing it.
Her hair was shorter and her clothes had changed - boy, had they changed - but he'd know those clear, intelligent eyes and that pretty face anywhere, "Gabrielle!" He immediately accepted her offer of an embrace.
"What has it been...two winters? Gods, Iolaus, I can't believe you're here!" she laughed, honestly delighted. The last time she'd heard about Iolaus was when he and Hercules went to Sumeria ... Well, it didn't matter now.
Still holding onto her, reluctant to part, Iolaus closed his eyes and sighed. "Nothing like meeting an old friend, is there?" he said over her shoulder.
"No...there isn't." Then, because she knew politeness demanded it, "Where's Hercules?"
They finally pushed back and let go of one another.
Iolaus peered over Gabrielle's shoulder, wondering what had become of Dirce. "Playing hero. You know, saving humanity yet again from monsters and other evils. I'm on my way to Scyros. I'm needed there."
Gabrielle's smile widened. She then noticed his distracted look, "Are you traveling with someone else?"
He nodded. "Yeah, The Princess of Scyros. Dirce and I go a long way back. She helped saved my life, you know."
Gabrielle nodded, recalling. "I think Autolycus told me that story, but in his version he's the legendary hero."
"Figures..." Iolaus spotted Dirce a bit ahead of he and Gabrielle. With her was a bedraggled man that could be none other than Joxer, The Mighty. She seemed to be brushing dust from his clothes and talking about something he was enthusiastically agreeing with. "Come on," Iolaus took Gabrielle's hand and pulled her with him, "I'll introduce you to Dirce."
Far above them, on Mount Olympus, gazing through a gently cascading fountain that served as a mirror to the mortal world, Cupid watched, sighing. He loved when soulmates such as these met up. It made him realize that just because his mother was more concerned with her hair, make up, clothes and surfboard than her duties as the love goddess, that things like this could still happen on their own. Just like he and his beloved Psyche...
"Spying on someone again?" Aphrodite's sweet but rather obnoxious voice filled the room.
"Chill, Mom. I'm not spying on anyone. I'm witnessing what should have been...and what could still be."
Aphrodite glanced at the mortals displayed in the pool but couldn't see them clearly. One thing she did know was that they were heroes; she sensed it with inherent goddess abilities. Aphrodite then rolled her eyes, "Don't be stupid, Cupid! Like, you know very well that my little bro and that Warrior Princess babe can never be together! I mean, it would be like a total --"
"I'm talking about Iolaus and Gabrielle, Ma!"
"Aha!" She laughed, shaking her head, amused. "My son, the matchmaker. That's my job, Sweetcheeks, you just shoot the arrows." She looked into the water and could see them all clearly now. Four mortals, all right. Curly, Xena's tag-a-long, Joxer the Mighty Lame and Dirce, Princess of...something.
"They belong together, Mom! Gabrielle knows it herself! She's just scared and won't tell Iolaus how she feels."
The goddess picked up another petition from one of her temples. "I don't blame her. What was that little girl thinking when she did that to her hair..." she murmured.
Cupid sighed as she exploded into a fit of giggles.
Reading the scroll, "Hey, this one's in love with Ares! Can you imagine?" Aphrodite gestured with a finger in her mouth, "Blecch!"
"Are you sure I'm related to you?" Cupid asked, deadpan.
Ignoring his sarcastic remark, she put down the scroll and looked again into the small pool of water that the fountain had created. "Give it up, Cupid. I'm telling you, Iolaus and Dirce were made for each other! He just looks at her and gets these big puppy dog eyes and...ugh! Honestly, Goddess of Love or not, it makes me sick!"
"Mom, you know that dude never has luck with royalty. Nebula, Niobe..." he stopped a minute, pondering, "and what's with him and women with names that begin with 'N,' anyway?"
For a moment she looked as if she was seriously listening to him, "Yeah, you know, I always wondered about that, too. Even the Curly from the Swirly fell in love and married Princess Nautica..." Aphrodite then shook the thought from her mind. She missed that little guy. "...but this Gabby thing is not happening, Cupid. She and the Warrior-babe are cut from the same cloth. You can see the sign on her forehead: 'No Men Allowed'."
"You're wrong, Mom." Cupid insisted.
She smiled, "Whoa -- that sounds like a challenge, boy of mine." Simpering, looking slyly at her son, Aphrodite balanced her hands on shapely hips, "Well, why don't we make it official? I bet you she and Curly won't last half way to Scyros with Dirce tagging along. Someone's gonna to blow!"
Cupid set his jaw, knowing that it was against his better instincts. Every time he let his mother have her way, something chaotic happened. But he had to prove her wrong. "Bet's on, Mom. If I win, you let nature take its course with these two. No interfering. And if you win..."
Aphrodite smiled, "I get an entire week alone with my grandson!" she said quickly, bouncing on her heels, "With no interference from either you or Psyche. He's mine, all mine!"
Cupid nodded but knew he'd just been had, by his scatter-brained mother no less. Psyche was going to kill him.
Gabrielle eyed Joxer with disdain. What was with him, telling the Princess of Scyros that she, Gabrielle, was his girlfriend? The warrior-bard was now very happy that she had left 'the way of peace', that which had been taught to her in India, behind because she now had no qualms about asking Xena to thump him hard upside the head. As a matter of fact, Gabrielle would really enjoy doing it herself if she could reach up in time and not have Joxer skitter away like some possessed jack rabbit. As it was, he was trying very hard to keep a space between them, bringing up the rear of their group. He said he was watching for highwaymen.
Thank the gods for little favors. Gabrielle thought with a sigh, but she was not content. Dirce was charming and very smart. Regularly Gabrielle would like talking to such an accomplished young woman, comparing notes about law and world views, but there was one little thing bothering her. Gabrielle really did not like the way Dirce's pretty hand clung so greedily to Iolaus'. A little thing, really. They were friends, after all. But the more she watched them, saw how Dirce leaned into The Golden Hunter and giggled at the quiet comments he made, the more Gabrielle felt animosity. Perhaps there was a little more to this relationship than what she had been led to believe? Gabrielle's mind raced. Could they be...lovers? Should she care?
"Okay, let's stop right here." Iolaus announced.
Gabrielle halted in her tracks, stunned for a moment. Did he just read her mind? He released Dirce's hand and made a motion to a clearing, "It's getting late and it's going to get dark. We need to make camp and gather some food."
"I can make a fire." Dirce volunteered.
Joxer looked off and listened, "There's a stream nearby. I'll get water." He said with a goofy smile, pleased to be able to pitch in.
Iolaus nearly laughed, wondering how long it would take before Joxer fell into that lake.
"I'll go hunting with you if you'd like, Iolaus." Gabrielle offered, happy to be spending at least a little time alone with him.
"I'd like that." he smiled and winked. He then walked off with her into the woods.
Dirce, watching them go, involuntarily found herself envious.
"He's supposed to be one of those," Joxer gestured with quotes in the air, "'great hunters', so we should be eating good in no time." At her thoughtful silence he continued onto another subject, "So...you're a princess, huh?"
Dirce smiled, quickly finding herself unaccountably shy around the new acquaintance. "But I'm a lawyer first." she insisted, "Helping my fellow man against injustice is what's important to me." Then, throwing a few sticks onto the campfire, "Are you and Gabrielle having some kind of trouble?"
Her comment plainly caught Joxer off guard, "Um...we um... Why do you ask?"
"Oh, I don't know," Dirce pursed her lips, "Her avoiding you like the plague the whole day like she has usually isn't a good sign of a healthy relationship."
Embarrassed, Joxer abruptly stood - "I better go get some cooking water." He said and moved off to the lake.
They hunted as they talked quietly. Iolaus admitted to Gabrielle that he wasn't much interested in either dramatic plays or reading but he did like a good story and music.
"Have you ever heard of "Beautius"? It's an arrangement so lyrical and perfect that it has been said that the writer, Thexus, was inspired by the goddess Calliope." she mused. "It's my favorite."
"Mine, too." Iolaus said and looked over at her, smiling as they walked.
"Really?" Her eyes widened slightly. "You're not just teasing me? You really know of it?"
"I heard it during a party, at Queen Astraea's castle, while Hercules and I were in Crete last season. It's an exquisite piece."
Gabrielle's heart unexpectedly fluttered. She doubted Iolaus would share this bit of information with just anyone. After all, the male sex of this age were supposed to be interested in manly pursuits like sword play, building, hunting, forging, practicing fighting skills and weight lifting. Then she smiled. Gabrielle realized she had been mentally listing items that Xena enjoyed engaging in her spare time.
"Then, I guess we'll just have to call it our song." she said with a small smile.
Iolaus gazed at her a moment as they walked then chuckled, "I guess so."
Then they heard the snap of a twig. Food was near. They moved on ...
"You can shoot now. I'm sure it's not watching." Gabrielle mused in hushed tones.
Iolaus was leaning against a tree trunk, peering over a patch of brush near the rushing water of the lake, about one hundred meters south of their campsite. "Yeah, I could... but a great hunter can catch his dinner with bare hands alone." He motioned for her to crouch down behind the thicket with him. Iolaus loved to show off and hoped he wasn't being too obvious.
"I still don't see it...I don't even hear it! One rabbit isn't enough to feed four people, Iolaus."
He smiled, "How about if Joxer suddenly decides he's a vegetarian?"
Gabrielle giggled and placed a hand over her mouth. She didn't want to scare the rabbit away.
Iolaus slowly rose, gesturing Gabrielle to follow him. "Ever shoot a bow?" He asked her, apparently completely serious.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Xena's the one with many skills." she confessed. "And you don't want to test me now, Iolaus. If we don't come back with something plump and succulent your hunter reputation could be in real danger." Then, finding humor in what she just said, Gabrielle playfully shoved him, not realizing Iolaus was resting his weight on his opposite foot.
He fell backwards onto Gabrielle, temporarily pinning her to the base of a tree. He then twisted about a little to be certain she wasn't harmed, his face suddenly very close to hers. There was silence as they stared at one another, unmoving.
Gabrielle didn't know why she wasn't pushing Iolaus away, hastily attempting to get back on her feet. Maybe it had something to do with the way he was looking at her and the warmth of his breath against her cheeks. Then there were those blue eyes, that tanned skin and the marvelous way the breeze about them blew tuffs of his thick blond hair this way and that.
Iolaus came back to himself first, "I'm...sorry." He took her hands and helped Gabrielle to stand, "I think we scared the rabbit away."
"There's plenty of them out here." Gabrielle reasoned, her voice gentle and unsure. She attempted to turn and pretend what just passed between them was nothing at all. But her eyes locked with his again, those incredible orbs that seemed to look right through her, and Gabrielle felt herself losing a brief battle with control. His gaze kept her where she was. She didn't want to move away. She didn't want to stop looking at him.
"Plenty of what?" he asked sensitively, unable to concentrate on anything but the softness of her upper arms beneath his hands and those lovely lips that were slowly inching closer and closer to his.
"Rabbit." she said, breathlessly. Eager yet a little afraid.
Their lips very nearly touched.
A huge thunderclap interrupted the moment, followed by a sudden heavy shower that soaked them both instantly. Iolaus grasped her hand, throwing the sling of arrows back over his shoulder as they frantically ran for shelter - if they could find it!
"What...!" Gabrielle cried, "There isn't a cloud in the sky!"
Worried about what this could mean, possibly interference of some kind from a wicked god, Iolaus replied, "Let's head back to camp and make sure Dirce and Joxer are all right!"
The storm lessened, and by the time they reached the other two travelers, it had completely stopped.
"Gods...some rain that was, huh?" Gabrielle exclaimed, drenched. She was smiling but out of breath from running. With an uncomfortable feeling creeping in, she looked from Dirce to Joxer. Why weren't they wet?
"Rain?" Joxer echoed.
Dirce looked up at their two soaked friends. "Did you fall into the river or something?" she asked, much to Joxer's amusement.
Iolaus looked from a dumbfounded Gabrielle to the two seated figures. "What are you talking about? We got caught up in the..." Then it hit him as it had Gabrielle, "Why aren't you wet?" Iolaus then noticed the fire was still lit. There was no sign of rain water anywhere. He exhaled and rolled his eyes to the heavens.
I don't believe this, Iolaus internally sighed, Hercules is gone, playing tag with a Cyclops, and now I'm stuck with all the weird stuff.
Could they never have a normal vacation?
Cupid was furious, throwing his hands into the air with exasperation. "Mom! That was like, totally harsh!" he accused, "I thought we agreed not to mess with any of them!"
Aphrodite hid her smile, though her son knew it was there, "Take a chill pill, okay? She was asking for it! Somebody had to cool her down! Later she'll thank me for it."
"Looked to me like they both wanted that kiss to happen, Mom. Why do you always have to interfere with true love?"
Aphrodite arched a knowing brow, "Duh!" was all the goddess needed to say. He hadn't seen nothin' yet.
Fish. It always came back to catching fish. Iolaus was tired of fish. He wanted rabbit stew. He craved rabbit stew. But it had grown too late to hunt, the sky now on the darker side of twilight, and the safest method of procuring dinner was from this stream. He'd have to leave the furry little beasts alone for another day.
Well, maybe when they finally got to Scyros the king would have a feast waiting for them. Especially if they managed to solve the problems plaguing Menelaus' kingdom, whatever they might be. Then he and his friends could all settle down and relax.
Maybe then he'd find a few moment to be alone with Gabrielle, when they were both totally dry, and discuss what had happened out in the woods. No, not the weather but that very real sensation of warmth and tenderness that had gripped his soul and, he suspected, also touched hers. He had to know if it was mutual. Was she feeling some of the things he thought he felt? If so, what should they do about it? Anything at all?
Iolaus sat by the stream, holding a fishing pole cut from a slim branch and leaned against a bulky tree by the water's edge. The rain storm had been a freak thing, they all decided. Still, Iolaus couldn't help thinking there were other powers at work. He looked upward, "Okay, which one of you are playing games?" he wondered aloud.
No answer. In a way, he was relieved.
Then he heard a rusting in the bushes behind him. Alerted, Iolaus slowly laid his pole down beside him then swung around and grasped the first thing that came his way -- which happened to be Dirce's slender wrist.
"Hey!" she cried, "What are you doing?"
Iolaus immediately let her go, "Sorry." He apologized as the young woman came forward and sat beside him. "Guess I'm just a little paranoid."
"Oh?" with a teasing lilt to her voice Dirce sat and leaned in a little closer, "Do I make you nervous, Iolaus?"
The hunter-warrior turned a bit in her direction and smiled out the corner of his mouth, "Nervous no, breathless yes."
She laughed and looked out at the water, "Actually, I have a question for you."
"Ask away." he said, picking up the pole.
"How well do you know Joxer?"
Iolaus straightened his shoulders and cast the line again. "Well, not as well as Gabrielle and Xena do, but I know him enough to say he's a good guy. A little boastful maybe but decent enough." Then he looked at her, "Why?"
"I think he's kind of cute."
Iolaus nearly dropped the pole, "Really?"
"I was talking with him while you and Gabrielle were hunting and you wouldn't believe the adventures he's been on and...he's just so deep. And Joxer's considerate and kind and heroic and..."
"Okay, I get it. You like him."
"But he also has a broken heart." Dirce folded her hands on her colorful skirt and looked suddenly sympathetic, "I think someone loved him and then just tossed him aside."
"And you'd like to be the one to mend his emotional wounds." Iolaus sighed and nodded, understanding the 'tossed aside' scenario all too well. Didn't it just figure his own luck with women was running lean while Joxer the Mighty was on the verge of getting lucky. What a day!
"Joxer!" Aphrodite bemoaned, "She likes Joxer?!"
"I knew it!" Cupid gently slapped a palm on the rim of the fountain, "So kewl!"
Aphrodite looked at her son, pouting. Oh no, she thought, not if this Goddess of Love has anything to say about it!
"I wonder what's taking them so long." Gabrielle wondered, warming her hands against the campfire and trying to dry out her still damp leathers. The sun was nearly down.
"By this time Iolaus, that mighty hunter, should have caught enough fish to feed an army." Joxer said, sarcastically. As far as he could see that little blond guy wasn't such hot stuff and he didn't know what Dirce and Gabrielle saw in him. Dirce... Joxer suddenly thought with a smile. She was awfully pretty and funny too. Then he frowned. Why did Iolaus get all the girls? "Oh, they're probably out there rolling around in the grass together." he brooded.
Gabrielle's ducked head suddenly popped up and she looked at Joxer, wide eyed, over the campfire. She hadn't really thought about that. Not after what nearly happened in the woods between the two of them. Gabrielle thought she had felt something exclusive in Iolaus, but... No, he wouldn't. But he and Dirce did seem rather close and....
Abruptly, Gabrielle stood. "Wait here. I'm going to go check on them, just in case." Then, she clarified, "Just in case they're hurt or lost or something. It's getting dark and..." She walked off, the rest of her words fading from the campsite as she disappeared from view.
Joxer sighed. It would be nice to have someone care that much for him.
Cupid looked over at Aphrodite and caught a motion. "You did something, didn't you?"
"Me?" she asked, innocently.
Iolaus had caught four fish.
He really wasn't sure what happened after that.
One minute he was pulling the carp onto land and handing it over to Dirce to put with their other three and the next minute she was throwing the fish aside and passionately attacking him with hugs and kisses galore.
"Oh, Iolaus, Iolaus, Iolaus!" she wailed, amorously.
"Dirce, what are you doing?" he asked her, striving to take breaths between kisses. It really made no sense. One minute she was pining over Joxer and the next she was all over him. Normally Iolaus wouldn't mind being accosted in this manner from such a lovely young woman -- but this was just weird!
Then, as if suddenly conscious of what was happening but not knowing all the facts, Dirce pushed herself away from Iolaus - stared at him as if insulted - and slapped him soundly across the cheek. She jumped to her feet and looked down at the hunter as he stared up at her, astonished. "How dare you!" she cried, "I pour out my heart to you and you...take advantage of me this way!"
"What?!" Iolaus' hand touched his cheek where her hand had made impact. He was so confused he didn't know how to react.
She then took the fish, turned on the heel of her sandaled foot and stalked off, back to camp.
Neither of them saw Gabrielle, who had been watching the scene. Downhearted, she walked back to camp before Dirce's verbal explosion.
"That was just heinous, Ma." Cupid crossed arms in front of his muscular chest, "Really, just too bogus."
With a smile, Aphrodite blew at the tip of her forefinger as she might a smoking pistol, and said, "I'm really good."
The dying embers of the fire crackled, waking a tired and grumpy Gabrielle first. She had slept very little during the night, preoccupied by what she considered a deception by Iolaus. The Amazons were right. Men were such jerks...
Joxer yawned loudly beside the bard.
Joxer unexpectedly turned, inched himself a little too close to her as they lay on the ground and threw an arm out, to lay across Gabrielle's stomach, "Gabby..." He said sleepily leaning against her, with a wide grin.
Normally, Gabrielle would try to be understanding. She knew how Joxer felt about her and it wouldn't be fair to fault him for whatever erotic dreams his subconscious was churning out. Yes, his dreams...those disgusting, perverted, malignant man dreams.
Unable to control herself, Gabrielle grabbed his arm and shoved it hard, "Get away from me!" She shouted and pushed him off of her. When Joxer didn't budge, the woman grabbed his nose hard, cutting off his air. "I said get off!"
"Owww!" Joxer, suddenly awake, howled, "Gabby!!"
"Wha - " Iolaus, awakened by the cries, jumped up from his blanket into a fighter's stance, much to the amusement of Joxer.
"I taught him that." The warrior-buffoon explained to Gabrielle, who finally let go of his nose.
She sighed and began to fold her blanket.
"We should get breakfast then get going." Iolaus crouched down and gently shook Dirce's shoulder.
"Hmm...Joxer..." The princess murmured in a sleep-haze and rolled onto her back.
"Ugh, must be a nightmare." Iolaus said, standing to his full height and stepping over her form.
"HEY!" Joxer protested, "Was that necessary? I mean, why do you always have to make fun of me?"
"Do I really have to answer that?" Iolaus asked.
"Oh, I know. You think I'm an easy target and..."
"Joxer, I was just joking but if you..."
"Please, just stop with the arguing." Gabrielle raised her hands and stepped between the men. She really wasn't in the mood to see the two going at it with each other right now. "Just wake up Dirce, okay? We should get going."
Iolaus stepped back a little. Her tone was cool as Gabrielle looked at him and he felt that angry gaze pierce his heart. What did he do? What was wrong with Gabrielle?
Then without warning, Iolaus turned from Joxer and Gabrielle and seemed to be focusing on something in the trees surrounding them. "Wait..." Iolaus paused, concentrating.
Gabrielle could tell he had either heard or was listening for something.
"What now, mighty hunter?" Joxer asked sarcastically.
Gabrielle's eyes widened as she too began to hear them. "How many?"
Joxer scowled, "I don't hear anything."
"Shh!" Iolaus lifted a hand, demanding silence. "Five or six, easy. All on horseback."
The warrior-bard grabbed her fighting knives, carefully stepping around the sleeping princess-lawyer, "Dirce, come on! There's trouble coming!"
"Huh?...at this time of day?" Dirce whined.
"Get UP!" Gabrielle kicked her blanketed rump firmly and was a little astonished at how good it felt to do such a thing to the princess.
"All right, already!"
Finally, the riders came into view, reminding Gabrielle not quite of the Horde but of the barbarians she'd sent off to the caves when Aphrodite had put that spell on her scroll a couple years ago.
"Well, hello!" The supposed leader said, flashing a cheeky grin at Dirce.
"Dirce, get behind me!" Iolaus ordered.
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. What about me? At least I can fight them off with you. Realizing she had just answered her own question, Gabrielle lifted her blades but was nevertheless annoyed.
The bandits attacked.
Invisible to the mortals, Cupid watched from a distance, shaking his head. Aphrodite was so busy surfing bitchin' waves at Naxos that he knew she'd never find out that he had dropped in from Olympus. But hey, if his mom could spy, then like, why not him? Thinking herself victorious, Aphrodite had all but totally ditched their bet anyway.
Cupid, not liking how matters had turned from what was natural, thought long and hard about intervening. After all, if Ma hadn't stuck her nose in the first place... He poised an arrow, I'm only setting matters straight. he pressed and readied to shoot Gabrielle. She would take one look at Iolaus and all would be as it should.
If only those groody bandits would just go away.
"So, my own son's cheating his dear mom out of a bet, is he? Low blow, Cupid." Aphrodite appeared in a lavish display of pink smoke and flower petals.
"Getting a little over-dramatic on the entrance, Mom."
"I'm the goddess of love! Entrances are my thing! Now, what are our mortals in peril up to?"
"A fight. Seen one you seen them all but Iolaus isn't bad... for a mortal."
The gods watched him kick out and saw the villain fly across their camp to lay crumpled against a tree.
"That guy must be a foot taller than him." Cupid exclaimed, impressed.
Aphrodite shrugged, "Curly hangs around with my brother all day, what do you expect? Same with bard-chick and the Warrior-Babe."
Cupid nodded, studying how Gabrielle elbow a bandit in the stomach then flipped him over her shoulder, "She's good and Joxer..."
They watched as Joxer attempted to pull his sword but couldn't quite get it out of his scabbard. Then, as dumb luck would have it, he fell backward just as a brute swung wide with his own sword. He missed being decapitated by inches.
"Well, two out of three ain't bad." Aphrodite summed up.
"Joxer, use the frying pan!" Gabrielle saw her friend fall and shouted as she kicked out with her left heel then thrust forward, at another bandit, with her knives, connecting with his shoulder.
Dirce stood back and watched in awe as the fighting took place in front of her.
Unknown, coming up beside the princess, one of the warrior's threw his arms around Dirce, laughing lasciviously. "Seems like your friends are a little distracted, so -"
"Let go of me!" she cried, unable to free her arms as he had caught her in a tight hug. The ruffian tried to drag her off behind a bush but Dirce screamed and flailed, making it as difficult as possible.
Without warning, the man let go of her and fell from a blow to the back of his head.
"You'll be sorry you ever messed with Joxer the Mighty!" Joxer waved the frying pan high above his head, "Blood, valor, victory, ha ha!" he sang.
Mouth opened in amazement at this incredible hero's chivalry, Dirce threw her arms around him and kissed Joxer full on his thin lips, "Oh, Joxer! That was amazing! You truly are mighty!"
Stunned, Joxer dropped the pan.
The couple hugged, unaware of the leader bandit. He held a cross bow on them and was aiming carefully.
After dispatching his own assailant, Iolaus saw what was happening and was dazed into stillness for a few seconds. He knew what he had to do and that was throw himself in front of that arrow. What else?
"You can't save both of them with your sacrifice, little man." The leader of the bandits taunted Iolaus, knowing what he was thinking. He pulled back on the arrow's release.
Cupid lifted his own bow. Now was as good a time as any. "Mom, I'm warning you, don't interfere!" he said.
"But I don't want him to hurt Curly!" She insisted, pulling at his bow string. "Let me..."
It was too late. The arrow sailed over the clearing, hitting the leader with the crossbow before he pressed the trigger. "You should've kept traveling while you had the..." Suddenly, he stopped, looking over at the bandit that had held Dirce before being hit by Joxer's frying pan and was now just getting groggily to his feet.. "Draxus ..." he called, "Beloved, are you hurt?!" The leader dropped his crossbow and ran to the shorter thug.
"What the..." Joxer began, watching the love-struck leader of the bandits chase his man down the path. The other bandits, confused, jumped on their horses and followed.
"Who knew?" Iolaus looked over at Gabrielle and smiled.
For a second the bard smiled back at him but, remembering his betrayal, she quickly changed expressions and turned away, picking up her blanket. "Time to go." she said, directing the comment on the still hugging Dirce and Joxer.
So, this is the way it's going to be. Iolaus began to pick up his own gear. For as long as he lived, he would never understand women!
Aphrodite triumphantly winked at her son, "I'll be watching, so no funny business, Babycakes." she said and disappeared with a shimmer of pink hearts.
With a grunt of disapproval, Cupid flapped his wings and also disappeared.
It sizzled in the old weathered and recently dented frying pan. The noise alone annoyed Gabrielle. Fish, fish and more fish. If they had to eat fish one more day after this, she'd scream.
Joxer and Dirce had gone to get some water over ten minutes ago which made her really worry. If they ran into any danger could Dirce defend herself? After all, it wasn't Iolaus with her, it was Joxer.
Iolaus. Yeah, I bet he'd like to be alone with her again, to be her defender. Oh, how could I ever think there was any chance we... She dismissed such thoughts and stared out into the open field just beyond their campsite.
Iolaus wordlessly dished out the fish and handed a plate to the uncommunicative Gabrielle. She looked up, expressionless as she took it from him.
Finally they saw Dirce and Joxer in the distance, laughing about something, their movements making the small bucket of water between them splash every which way.
Iolaus sighed. At least some people were having a good time. Gabrielle had been virtually ignoring his existence since the run-in with the bandits earlier that morning. He tried to talk with her, asking her what was wrong but she was giving him the silent treatment. He could almost read her mind: If you don't know I'm not going to tell you.
Dirce sat down, giggling over a joke with Joxer. She also ignored Iolaus and reached all the way across the fire for her plate.
"Dirce, I could've gotten that for..." The hunter stopped - she wasn't even looking at him. She was still under the delusion that it was he who took advantage of her last night. She was the one who acted like the gods put a... He nearly dropped a piece of fish into their campfire, ...a spell on her or something. It all unraveled in his thoughts at that moment. Could this be why she had taken such a liking to Joxer all of the sudden? A spell?
"Eat up, Iolaus, it's going to get cold." Joxer said, giving him a friendly pat on the back as he leaned over to take his share. He could dispense a little sympathy now that Dirce was crazy about him. A royal princess! Joxer's mind boasted, Now, that's class!
There was silence over the campfire as they all scrupulously ate their lunch.
Then: "Dirce, could you please tell The Golden Hunter of Corinth to pass my pack over here for the butter?" Gabrielle asked, almost too sweetly and formally.
The princess gave her an odd look but didn't question her, "Joxer, can you give Gabrielle's pack to her?"
Before Joxer could rise, Iolaus turned around dramatically, picking up the tote and tossing it to the bard over Dirce's head. He was tired of being treated like a rabid dog.
"Oookay...did I miss something?" Joxer asked.
Iolaus shook his head. "No...but the ice queen over there has to have her way."
Joxer was openly puzzled, "What's going on? Come on, guys, we're all friends here!"
Gabrielle shot him a look of utter disgust. "Some of us are far more friendly than others." she murmured then bit angrily into her fillet.
"Ooookay...maybe not all of us, but we just have to make it to Scyros, right? So, be nice."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, "If Iolaus and Dirce can stand not being alone for two seconds maybe we'll get to where we're going..."
Dirce stood straight and placed her hands on her hips as she looked down at Gabrielle, "What are you talking about? He's the one who tried to have his way with me by the lake!"
Joxer dropped his plate of fish and looked over at Iolaus, "You did what?"
The hunter shook his head, wild blonde curls whirling about his head, "I did NOT! She was the one who turned on me like some kind of hormonally charged, love-crazed..."
"Me?!" Dirce turned, "How dare you! I never..."
Gabrielle piped, "Look, I know what I saw and Iolaus wasn't the only one..."
"But Dirce, you told me - " Joxer joined in.
"Hold it!" Iolaus shouted and was amazed when the chaotic conversation muted as he intended. All eyes were on him "Now, let's really think about this rationally for a minute. Think about what's going on here and those bandits this morning. Peculiar things are happening and relationships are being confused and..."
All it took was a moment and they said in unison, except one, "APHRODITE!"
"What - why?" Dirce asked.
"Come on, we've got to get to Scyros before she throws something else at us!" Iolaus said, at once edgy and quickly putting out the fire. If they hurried they'd get to Scyros by supper time.
They grabbed their gear and ran for the clearing, leaving a bewildered young princess-lawyer beside herself. "Is there something you guys aren't telling me?" She shouted, running after them.
Hercules and Xena sat together in the town tavern, she nursing a tall ale and he fumbling with his tankard of water. Both were involved with their own disquieting thoughts.
"It just doesn't feel right." Xena murmured, "I've fought every manner of scum in chain mail and these guys... they're hearts just weren't into it.' she brooded.
Hercules nearly laughed out loud. She sounded genuinely disappointed. But, in a sense, he understood. The Cyclops of Cressida had been remarkably easy to defeat. Hercules had to throw only a few mammoth punches and he fell over like a sack of particularly rank potatoes. The Cyclops, once regaining consciousness, then promised to go on his way and never hurt anyone again, no matter how much they deserved it. The village people were satisfied. That was it. It took less than an hour.
Then, hearing from a few pedestrians that there was trouble in Scyros - which wasn't all that far from Cressida - Hercules made tracks here. Only to discover that Xena seemed to have matters well in hand, having just vanquished a band of cut throats out to kill the king. Hercules shrugged, "Either the villains are getting less villainous or our expectations are just too high." he offered.
Xena lifted her tankard and snorted a depressed chuckled. "Times change." she agreed. "Now King Menelaus has twenty armed guards surrounding his palace. I feel as useless as a Minotaur in a China shop."
"Hercules! Xena!" A young, dark boy ran into the tavern, his eyes searching.
"Here." Hercules called to him.
"You have to come to the palace!" the boy exclaimed, "The King has been wounded by assassins!"
He lay in his plush bed, a thick bandage over his chest, his hands clutching that of his daughter's.
Iolaus, Gabrielle and Joxer were also in the royal bedroom, staring grimly at the scene as Xena and Hercules entered.
Bewildered to see Iolaus with the group, Hercules looked at his partner as if to ask what he was doing there.
"Long story. I'll tell you later." Iolaus whispered, with a tired look.
Dirce, kneeling by her mortally wounded father's bedside, sobbed, "Who did this to you?"
"Mercenaries." the royal healer said quickly as he stood a little to one side of the royals.
"Are you sure?" Xena approached, eyeing King Menelaus closely. "How did they get passed your guards?"
"The knaves were crafty." Menelaus answered, smiling at his daughter through his pain and squeezing her hand, "As long as Dirce was here, tending to the palace and seeing that all was working as it should, we never had problems like this..." he murmured weakly.
"Oh father!" Dirce whimpered tearfully at his bedside and lay her head by the hand she held.
Hercules brow furrowed. Something just didn't seem to be adding up. If the assassins, any one of them, were anything like Xena described they weren't smart, agile or powerful enough to get by twenty armed soldiers. "Your wound must be very painful." Hercules queried, "How long ago was it changed?"
"Just a half hour ago." the healer answered, quickly.
The king coughed feebly and nodded.
"Xena's well practiced in medicine." Hercules said, "And my cousin is the healer of the gods. I've learned a few tricks from him."
Xena caught on to Hercules' thought train, "We would both be honored if you'd let us take a look. Perhaps we can help ..." she spoke with deceptive gentleness.
"Would you?" Dirce turned to them and smiled.
"No, no!" the king suddenly yelped, very nervous, his eyes growing wide. "Surgeous here is the best healer in the land. I wouldn't want to insult him by turning myself over to your more than capable hands." he explained.
The healer nodded but didn't look at all comfortable. As a matter of fact, Xena thought, he was looking rather green and in need of a healer himself.
Dirce's eyes narrowed in confusion. Her father had always called Surgeous "a quack". This was a switch.
Both Iolaus and Gabrielle picked up on the nervousness in the royal's tone and looked at one another. Something was fishy here.
"Father, I'm sure you're in good hands!" Dirce insisted, moving quickly forward and helping Hercules take off the bandaging despite the king's attempt to prevent them.
Then, when the gauss was pulled aside, the princess gasped and looked up at Hercules in confusion. There was no sign of a wound caused by *any* weapon known to humankind.
"Wow!" Joxer said, interrupting silence at the most awkward time possible, "This guy heals like the gods! Or was that your doing, Hercules?" He then pulled off his helmet and pointed to the back of his neck, "I've got a scar you might like to see if you - -"
"Joxer, hush!" Gabrielle silence him with a quick elbow jab to his ribs.
Hercules crossed arms over his massive chest and stared at the guilty looking king. "Perhaps you'd like to tell us exactly what's going on here?" he suggested and glanced once at Xena who seemed to be fighting an inward urge to strike out at someone.
King Menelaus glanced from face to face, plainly embarrassed about the whole event. He then took his daughter's hand as she continued to kneel by his bedside.
"Dirce, you've always lived here at the palace... When you're mother died, you became all I had. And when you convinced me to let you attend classes in Corinth, well, it seemed like a good idea at first." Menelaus grimaced a bit, recalling how he felt it would do the young woman good and he could finally get some peace and quiet. "Yet later, I knew in my heart I would miss you so much. Still, you were so determined and those letters you sent, where you said you were learning so much, I just didn't know what to do." Menelaus shrugged, "I thought I had lost you. I could see you running off to Athens to become a great attorney, never to return to Scyros again." His eyes stared into hers. "But I missed you terribly, dear, and I wanted you back home with me so much. I still do." He looked away from her and down at his embroidered bed sheets, "If it's a crime for a father to love his daughter too much, then I'm guilty. I'm so sorry, Dirce. I know I've disappointed you. Can you forgive a foolish old man?"
Xena glanced at Hercules, who was hiding his anger well. She recalled the thugs who had attacked she and the palace yesterday and how hap-hazard it all seemed. The whole deception was all falling into place now.
Iolaus said, "You mean this whole thing - the Cyclops Hercules was called to defeat, the assassins that came after you, and the bandits that attacked us while we traveled here - it was all...a set-up?"
The king nodded, "Yes, all of it, I'm afraid." then Menelaus suddenly appeared puzzled by something said. Bandits? He thought.
The chamber was quiet.
Slowly, to Iolaus' amazement, Dirce began to smile, and whispered, "You think I could be a great attorney?" At her father's nod she arose gleefully, "That's just so...so...oh, Father! This is the *sweetest* thing anyone's ever done for me! Oh, you little rascal, give me a hug!" and she laughed, embracing her father where he lay.
Hercules and all who stood and watched the scene were astounded. Was she kidding? No screams? No outrage? The old man had deceived, cajoled and could have caused a great deal of harm if matters had escalated. Some of the people he hired could have been badly hurt. Xena wasn't one to pull back on a sword thrust if she thought danger imminent.
"I can't promise I'll never leave home again," Dirce smiled and spoke enthusiastically to Menelaus, "I have exams next week. But before you know it, I will have graduated my class and I'll be back here again to take care of you and my hometown!" she hugged the king again and helped him stand. "Then we'll just make sure everything is running smoothly here again and..."
"Are they insane or am I crazy?" Iolaus asked from the corner of his mouth.
"Which question would you like me to answer first?" Gabrielle quipped, annoyed.
King Menelaus finally turned to the reeling group of on-lookers. "I've caused you so much trouble and I want to make it up to you - I know! A feast! We will celebrate the return of my dear daughter. Then, afterwards there will be a band and dancing. We'll have jugglers and singers and actors and..." He began to move out of the bedroom, an arm linked with Dirce's, "You will help to plan the menu, won't you dear?"
"Of course, father."
Xena cleared her throat roughly, stopping Menelaus in his tracks. "Look, I don't know if we can stick around."
Hercules nodded his head in agreement, "Well, you know, Iolaus and I should be heading back to Corinth. Jason is expecting us."
"But you must stay!" the king insisted, "We'll have duck, pheasant, boar and anything your hearts desire."
"Duck?" Iolaus asked, his eyes lighting up.
"Pheasant?" Gabrielle chimed in, recalling the horrid fish they had been forced to eat while on the road. "Will there be desserts?"
Hercules and Xena looked at one another, simultaneously rolling their his eyes, knowing their friends would never want to leave now. "Okay, we'll stay."
Dirce, in a world of her own, was thinking about the menu, "We'll have those little berry cakes ..."
King Menelaus nodded, victorious, when a thought occurred to him. "I just have one question, dear. You said something about bandits attacking you and your friends on the road. I never sent any people after you."
Dirce gasped. "They were real! By the gods, that means Joxer really did save my life!" She ran to Joxer and gratefully embraced the surprised warrior-fool where he stood.
"Say, Dirce..." Joxer began, genuinely happy but also a little surprised by his heroics.
"Daddy, this is Joxer The Mighty." She pulled Joxer with her as she and the men walked to the opened door of the bedroom, "He saved my life while we were coming here! Isn't he just wonderful!" She dragged out the last word. "During the feast he can relate tales of his other acts of heroism and..."
They could hear their footsteps and conversation fading as the royals plus one walked down the stone tiled hall.
Iolaus closed his eyes and sighed. He'd hit rock bottom. A woman had actually dumped him for Joxer. The mighty. His brain supplied.
"Come on." Xena said in an 'I give up' tone of voice. Hercules followed her and the healer did the same.
Gabrielle and Iolaus were left to stare into space, still skeptical. What a strange couple of days!
"You know," Iolaus began, looking over at her, "I never thought she'd go for Joxer but they are rather well matched."
Gabrielle nodded, guardedly staring at him. "I know."
"I guess what I'm saying, Gabrielle, is that some people were meant to be together and others..."
"Iolaus," Gabrielle raised her hands in warning, "A spell from Aphrodite or not I know you had a thing for Dirce. You have a *thing* for every woman you meet. Now, don't insult my intelligence by suddenly coming to the conclusion that it's me you should have been wooing."
"Well, I didn't..." he started.
"You're not capable of loving just one woman and besides that - " Her face was turning red in an effort to keep herself from suddenly weeping, "...if there is one thing a girl doesn't like it's when a man chooses her on the rebound. Second best just doesn't cut it with me..." Gabrielle walked out of the room, clearly unforgiving.
Iolaus put a hand to his forehead and closed his eyes. He was getting a terrible headache.
Cupid held his young son, Eros, in his arms then looked down at his mother as they watched the couple through the mirror pool, "See, the Iolaus dude didn't end up with Dirce. Told you."
"Yeah, but I don't see him with the bard-chick either." Aphrodite reminded, "She's blown him off big time. Not that I can blame her. Guys are so fickle."
"Hey, those two were getting along just fine until you meddled." Cupid reminded.
"Maybe, but if it's meant to be then anything I did won't matter." Then she looked up at her son and grandson and smiled slyly, "I think the first place I'm going to take Eros is to Panathenaland -- and I'm going to spoil him rotten!" She tittered then started to make cooing sounds at the two year old cherub. "That's right, your Nanna is just going to be soooo good to you!"
"Not so fast, Ma. these things have a way of working out, you know." Cupid held the boy a bit more snugly to him. It better work out or Psyche really *was* going to kill him. The last time Eros went with his grandmother for a couple of days there was absolutely nothing he or Psyche could do with him upon his return. Then, shortly thereafter, their was that mess with the boy running away and taking his father's arrows with him. Not that it was that big a deal where the gods were concerned but Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer still wore the wounds of the little boy's shenanigans.
The feast took place in the palace's Great Hall and Dirce was allowed to invite anyone she wished, which included nobles, palace workers and peasants. Food and drink were distributed in great quantities and the entertainment - particularly the actors who recited the works of Homer and Herodotus - were well received.
"I knew Homer." Gabrielle whispered to Hercules, as they sat at the long white clothed supper table, appearing a bit depressed as she lifted her tankard of ale. "He was a wonderful story teller and he reminded me a lot of..." She cut her words off and took a gulp.
Xena, on her other side, pulled the tankard from her friend's hand. "Gabrielle, you should never drink when you're upset." she reminded her friend.
"I'm not upset." the bard pouted, childlike.
Hercules looked to his left, where Iolaus was sitting and sighed. His partner, despite the great food and merriment looked miserable. Very unlike him considering the festive atmosphere. The demigod then looked a bit passed him and saw Dirce who was feeding grapes, one at a time, to Joxer. The warrior was obviously enjoying every minute of the attention.
When the juggler had left the stage to be replaced by musicians, there was a loud applause.
Xena, as if suddenly recalling an important bit of information, sat up straight and looked over Gabrielle's head at Hercules. She cleared her throat until he looked at her, "Hercules, I need to talk with you in private, do you mind?" she asked.
He looked at her, puzzled for a moment, then moved to stand: "Sure." he said.
The couple walked over to a punch bowl and as she scooped the red drink into a mug Xena spoke quietly to the demigod.
Hercules looked up at Xena after hearing what she said then over to where Iolaus sat, "You're kidding, right? Iolaus?"
"Gabrielle told me last night before she fell asleep. She was depressed and I think it helped to get these little matters off her chest. Besides, I think she was hoping I'd tell you and you'd tease Iolaus mercilessly about it. She isn't happy with him -- but I think she could be led to change her mind if Iolaus takes the cue."
"He can be pretty headstrong." Hercules warned.
"It's up to the two of them. We can only give them the opportunity."
Hercules nodded and chuckled, "You're right. Go to the band leader."
As the minutes passed Gabrielle sneaked side glances at Iolaus and caught an occasional sigh. Was he as unhappy as she? Oh, what was the matter with her? Why couldn't she just go over there and say she understood, was sorry and make peace? It wasn't like he had really done anything bad. They'd already determined that it was Aphrodite who had been causing all of the trouble. What Gabrielle saw between Iolaus and Dirce was a part of whatever game it was the goddess was playing.
Still, Iolaus could have at least tried to take her feelings into consideration. After the conversation and near-kiss while hunting he knew she was having some rather deep feeling for him. Yet he didn't seem to think even once about it afterwards. Hadn't he felt anything?
And what about he and Dirce? If she hadn't decided Joxer was her soulmate would she be feeding Iolaus those grapes and calling him her hero? And would Iolaus be sitting there, enjoying it, while she - that sweet little bard from Poteidaia - was watching them from afar?
Iolaus closed his eyes for a few seconds and tried to reason it out in his head. Okay, maybe he should have paid a little more attention to Gabrielle when it seemed, for just a minute there, that things were getting warm between them. They had found common interests and - oh yeah - when she began to move in on him, hoping for a kiss that he was more than eager to exchange, he knew there was something special brewing. But now she was being so damn stubborn! Sure, he screwed up, especially when it came to Dirce but...
He looked over again at the couple as she leaned into her hero and tickled him underneath his weak chin. They giggled during their play.
Iolaus felt like he was going to be sick. I really must be losing my touch, he thought. There was a time when beautiful women would just come to him and not demand that he be perfect in every way as long as he engaged them and made them feel special. Having a dazzling smile, good physique and being fun used to be quite enough to entice the ladies.
But were they the right ladies? Any of them? And would losing any one of those many beauties make him feel as forlorn as he felt right now?
The band played, just finishing up it's second fairly fast tune, when it lapsed into a soft melody...
...a tune both Iolaus and Gabrielle recognized.
Beautius. Music inspired by Calliope. Their song.
Standing next to the punch bowl, Hercules and Xena watched the couple.
"They're not moving." Xena whispered, "I was so sure - "
"Wait." He studied Iolaus, saw the thoughts racing through his mind and emotions chasing across his face.
Xena watched as the stern mask on Gabrielle's pretty face softened. She couldn't quite look over at the hunter but it was obvious where the warrior-bard's thoughts were.
"Here we go..." Hercules murmured and smiled.
Iolaus stood, pushing his chair behind him. He then placed a hand behind his blond head and rubbed, a familiar gesture when he was undecided about his next move. Slowly, almost lackadaisically, he inched closer to the still-seated Gabrielle.
Unexpectedly afraid, she stood and attempted to move off but his hand caught Gabrielle's arm and held her still for just a few seconds. He was behind her and she still could not look directly at him. Yet, she could sense him and, truth be told, she liked the feel of his hand on her arm, gently moving up to her shoulder.
He softly pushed her to the dance floor.
"That a boy..." Hercules quietly encouraged, watching closely.
"Directing her but not strong arming. A good move." Xena nodded with a smile of her own. "You read Iolaus very well, Hercules."
He looked down at Xena, "He's better at picking up on signals than I am." Hercules confessed. "I learned from him."
Iolaus moved Gabrielle out onto the dance floor and gently took her in his arms. They swayed back and forth but she still did not quite look at him. Her arms remained down by her sides, her hands dangling.
Then, very carefully, he leaned his forehead gently against hers and whispered a very few words.
Neither Hercules or Xena could hear them and didn't know what it was Iolaus said but they did see an immediate reaction from Gabrielle.
She lifted her head, her eyes were filling with unavoidable tears, but she smiled for the first time that evening. Gabrielle's arms lifted and moved around Iolaus. They held one another, their cheeks touching. Their movements were gentle and sensuous - and very forgiving.
He breathed in her scent, a mix of lilacs and wild flowers. He could die right now and be a very happy man.
She lifted a hand to touch the back of his head, to run her fingertips through his blond curls. This was bliss.
Hercules took Xena's hand in his, "Shall we?" and he pulled the reluctant warrior woman to the dance floor.
"You dance?" she asked, stunned.
"I was taught by an expert."
Far above them on Olympus, Aphrodite reluctantly allowed Cupid to take her grandson from her. "Come on, Cupid!" She whined, "This is totally NOT fair! I think you did something. You did the arrow thing, didn't you?"
"You were standing right here with me, Mom." he laughed, "Time to pay up!" Cupid grinned.
"All right! I'll let the romances run their course! No interference - Nothing." she promised with a pout. "But it's just not right. I'm the Goddess of Love! I should be there for my little bro's friends ... I can do such incredible things for them!"
"Chill, will you?" Cupid interrupted, "Ma, it's now time for you to see some real mortal romances. Not something you or I manufactured because it seemed a bitchin' idea at the time." He mimed at the fountain, "You want to watch the party, don't you?"
Aphrodite sighed. "I guess so." She folded her arms under her ample bosom and peered into the pool as Cupid began to move away with his little boy. "Son..." She gazed at Cupid's retreating form, a little vulnerable as he turned to look at her, "Can I at least sometimes tuck Eros in at night, like a good grandma?"
Cupid face spread in a wide smile, "That's a really cool idea, Ma. I think Psyche and the little guy here would like it a lot."
"Thanks, dude." she said, feeling a little happier.
Aphrodite once again looked into the pool and now saw Joxer and Dirce on the dance floor. And - could it be? The Goddess of Love's eyes stretched a bit. Hercules and Xena? Dancing together? "Oh, now here lay possibilities!" she exclaimed with a dazzling smile.
Then Aphrodite's attention returned to Iolaus and Gabrielle. Well, they were kind of cute in a way. "Have fun, Curly." she whispered, "And if you and the bard-chick decide to have kids together - don't make bets with them. You'll lose every time."
With a sigh, Aphrodite blew a kiss at the fountain water.
It was time to go to Vulcan mountain and see what her Hephy was up to. There were times when a girl just had to experience unending adulation...
Written by Jackie and Beckers