The characters belong to MCA/Universal and were used without permission. No copyright infringement was intended and no money was made.
GENRE: May not seem like it at first, but it's definitely Gabby/Joxer. Xena/Rafe
(you remember that guy, right?) I've even been tempted to do a Gabby/Ares
piece (ducks tomatoes thrown at her) I said tempted! Geez. ;-)
RATING: Unsure yet, probably an R, just to be on the safe side for some violence.
SUBTEXT: None. Nope. But you can interpret things however you will.
SPOILERS: Up to Married With Fishsticks, references to For Him the Bell Tolls, King Con, A Family Affair and other previous episodes.
DISTRIBUTION: As always, That Was Scary, Raye can have it if she likes, anyone else, please ask. I have this strange habit of saying yes.
DEDICATION: To Lori, for being the Beta Queen with this. To Christie, for tolerating my constant bugging and reading this puppy for me. To Danielle and Nickle, for their encouraging notes.
XENA: The Kick Ass Warrior Princess
JOXER: The wannabe warrior with the heart of gold
GABRIELLE: The Amazon Queen/bard/sidekick/hero
EVE: The cute kid of Xena's
ARGO: The wonderhorse
LILA: Sister of Gabrielle
Hecuba: Mother of Gabrielle
Herodotus: Father of Gabrielle
Rafe : that cutie we saw in 'King Con'
NOTES: Want my reason for doing this? I hate Joxer's clothes. I HATE his hat. Ted is just so adorable, and that hat... eww.. just takes so much from his cuteness. So when Gabby goes away, Xena gets to play, and we finally get rid of the damn hat. *G*
You can also find more stories by Misty at her Gabrielle/Joxer website That Was Scary
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
He's All That
By Melissa Flores aka Misty
Chapter One - When the Gabs away...
The clearing was miraculously silent. With the exception of the birds chirping, the wind swaying the trees and the occasional clomp, clomp of hooves on the beaten path, there was no sound. The meadow was peaceful; the sky was clear, and the weather warm. There was nothing that could feasibly alarm the blonde-haired woman.
Yet her eyes still held a worried look as she leaned against the brown animal that stood stoically beside her. She pursed her lips, her face wearing an uncertain expression as she patted his mane absently; her eyes riveted on the taller brunette with the striking blue eyes and an equally striking baby in her arms.
"I'm still not sure," she said doubtfully.
Xena, Warrior Princess rolled her eyes, shaking her head in slight exasperation. "Honestly, Gabrielle," she began, a smirk on her perfect mouth. "Ever since I've had Eve you've been treating me like I'm five. I'll be fine. Joxer's on his way, and he'll be more than enough help."
"Help? Joxer? This is our friend in the pointed hat we're talking about, right?" Xena gave her a look and Gabrielle smiled sheepishly. Despite the fact the lanky young man was perhaps their best and most loyal friend, Gabrielle still had endless fun teasing him, even when he wasn't around. Xena didn't mind so much, now that she knew Gabrielle's teasing was only affectionate nudges, much like the ones she couldn't quite help giving the blonde bard herself. "Xena, even so. I know things have been quiet lately, but we don't know that the Gods haven't stopped their attacks. It doesn't seem right that-"
"Gabrielle." Xena gave her a serious look, shaking her head to cut her best friend off. "Stop it. You're exhausted, and you know it. You need this vacation and you haven't gone to see your family since... since we died. They need to see you."
"Well, you're my family too," she grumbled, slumping her shoulders as she came forward to plant a soft kiss on Eve's forehead.
Xena smiled at the complaint and laid her free hand on her best friend's forearm. "Gabrielle, go on. I'll be fine."
"I still don't see why you can't come with me," Gabrielle said, obeying, though a bit reluctantly, as she turned and tightened the stirrups on the animal.
"I've heard a rumor about the town around here that disturbs me. It won't hurt to check it out. And anyway, one of us needs to get the supplies. Look, stop worrying. Go. Have fun."
"I don't want to leave-"
"You aren't leaving me alone," was the Warrior Princess's reassurance. "Joxer's coming."
Gabrielle sighed, and nodded, putting a palm to her head in an attempt to allay her fears. "You're right. I just... I feel -"
"I'm going to kick you onto that horse if you don't get out of here."
Gabrielle's eyes met hers and then her mouth burst into a gorgeous smile as she caught Xena's sparkling eyes. With a sigh of defeat, she leaned forward, squeezing her best friend in a strong hug and kissing her, and then her child, on the cheek.
"I'll be back in a week. I'll meet you both in Cinderus."
Xena nodded, stepping back as Gabrielle slid easily up and onto the horse. "And if you need anything-"
"I'll know exactly where to find you," Xena finished easily.
Gabrielle nodded, bit her lip, and then smiled tightly. "I'll miss you."
Xena smiled back. "Likewise."
With a clouded face, Gabrielle took one last look at mother and daughter, and then pulled at the reigns, turning the horse around and galloping away, leaving a cloud of dust in her wake.
Xena watched her go, a soft expression of loving affection on her face as she squeezed her daughter. Waiting until her companion was out of sight, she whistled. Immediately, a tan horse came trotting over.
"Well, guys," she informed both horse and daughter, who were looking at her with inquisitive glances, "Let's go find Joxer."
Hopping on the horse, she eased her into a canter, resisting the urge to look back for her beautiful shaggy-haired companion. Despite the easiness in her voice when she had urged Gabrielle to leave, Xena still couldn't quite shake the nervous tension that had been so blatantly obvious on Gabrielle's face. Gabrielle was right, they had no way of knowing whether or not the Gods had given up trying to kill the child they deemed responsible for their imminent demise, and they had attacked so hard lately.
But there was a lull now, a lull that the two women had desperately needed. Xena could see the stress, the fear and the exhaustion in Gabrielle's features. The young woman had been subjected to so much pain, so much hatred and anger, and had fought so hard to stay by her. There wasn't a day that went by when Xena didn't thank whoever was responsible for keeping her bound to the young bard. Gabrielle was her saving grace, and she knew that there had been many times when Xena would have lost everything had it not been for her.
But even a pillar could be weakened. The past few months had been a virtual emotional whirlwind for the both of them, as they lost friends and made enemies of the Gods, welcomed Eve into their hearts and once again almost lost Joxer. Gabrielle had had to deal with more than her fair share of trials: Xena's complete helplessness when they were brought back from heaven, then with Joxer's revelation of his love for her, Xena's sudden miraculous pregnancy, and the death of Eli, and to be honest, even Xena was surprised that Gabrielle had handled it as well as she had.
The woman was a rock, but she wasn't immortal. Even now it was odd to watch Gabrielle slash throats and run soldiers through with her sais, and Xena often wondered if Gabrielle ever stopped to ponder how different she had become, how tired those gorgeous eyes appeared.
Gabrielle needed to see her family. She needed her mother's comfort and her father's love and her sister Lila's wide-eyed innocence. She needed to rest alone, with her family, without what Xena represented, what she had become as a result of her union with her. She needed time without fighting, even if it was only a week.
But acknowledging this basic truth didn't make the fact that Xena was going to go stir crazy without her any easier.
Oh, well. It was only a week.
"Just a week, right?" she asked Eve, who was watching her silently as she held a finger in her little mouth. "We'll see Auntie Gabrielle in a week."
The baby gurgled and Xena smiled. Oh, it would be nice if she could find some trouble, some good asses to kick. Not that she didn't have a problem with rest. Resting, in it's proper time, could be nice.
If it just wasn't so boring.
She was a mile away from the village when she heard a familiar metallic clanking coming her way.
Pulling at the reigns slightly, she instructed Argo to halt, and then waited with an amused expression as her old friend came lumbering up the road.
She saw him before he saw her, and for a moment, she was able to observe him unnoticed. Joxer the (self-proclaimed) Mighty, was walking as carefree as she had ever seen him, whistling and swinging around the horrible monstrosity he liked to call a sword. On his head at a jaunty angle, was his cone-shaped hat. Its origin had been the subject of conversation many a time for Gabrielle and Xena on their travels.
Where on earth had their friend managed to find such awful armor, and why on earth was he still wearing it?
Xena smiled, a fond grin on her features as she studied the loyal young man. A dork? Yes. Thoughtless? Sometimes. But steadfast and completely pure in heart and soul as well. He had more than proved his worth to her and to Gabrielle, shown enough of his lion hearted-bravery to earn him a special place in their hearts that no one else had managed to take.
Her smile faded a bit when she thought of Gabrielle. The sadness of his unrequited love was not lost on her. For years he had adored Gabrielle, and he had stated that he always would.
Despite the fact that Gabrielle didn't or wouldn't feel the same way.
He spotted her then, his face lifting up and breaking out in a huge grin. "Hey! Xena!"
"Joxer," she responded, waiting as he picked up his pace, running toward her with his clumsy gait that always made her wonder why he didn't topple and fall.
"Eve!" he cried with enthusiasm, hands out to take the child from Xena's arms and cradle her tenderly in his own. "Aren't you looking precious?" he cooed, tickling her chin.
Xena watched in content silence, before leaning over and sliding off her horse. "You got here awful fast."
He shrugged, his eyes never leaving the baby.
"I was in the neighborhood, lookin' for you guys anyway."
"Oh, really?" He blushed and nodded, turning to walk with Xena as she led the horse on the trail.
"I guess I can't seem to stay away."
"Well, you know Gabrielle isn't here, right?" Xena said softly, her meaning clear as she gave him a pointed stare.
He swallowed, and nodded, looking away for a minute, and then shrugged. "Yeah, actually. That's why you needed me." He trailed off at that thought, and a smile floated onto his face. "You needed me, Xena. And hey, I have a great time with you too! You know, us warrior types."
Xena rolled her eyes, slapping him lightly on the shoulder as she took in a breath. "Well, come on, what's a Warrior without a baby-sitter?"
He gave her a look, but just shrugged. Holding up the child, he gave the happily drooling Eve a big grin. "Aren't you Joxer's girl, aren't you Joxer's girl?" he cooed in a cartoonish voice. Xena rolled her eyes, fighting to keep a smirk from coming onto her lips and failing miserably.
"You just came from Cinderus, right?" she asked him as they continued to walk.
"Uh huh," he answered distractedly, staring intently into the baby's eyes.
"Notice anything.... out of the ordinary? Problems? Family feuds... people needing to be saved?
"Nope. Everything was fine," he answered mechanically.
"Damn," she muttered. He gave her a curious look.
"Do you have any idea how bored I'm going to be, Joxer?" Xena moaned, patting Argo absently. "One week with... nothing to do. No warlords to kill, no Gods to fight. Nothing."
"Aww, come on, Xena," he said reassuringly. "You and trouble go together like... well, like you and Gabby. I'll betcha by the end of the week you'll have found some problem, or warlord, or hell, a feuding family."
She gave him a hopeful look. "You think so?"
Feeling slightly better, she gave him a slap on the back. "That's my boy." She mussed his hair affectionately. "Come on, let's go into town and get some rooms. I feel an urge for a good meal." Looking into her saddlebag, she grimaced at the lack of funds. "Got any dinars?"
"Do I have dinars?" he scoffed, giving her a proud grin. "Of course I have dinars. Don't I always have dinars when I come to you? Worked extra hard to get them, too. And even had enough left over for this." He handed Eve back to Xena and dug into the pouch at his side, finally pulling out a small blanket. "You like it?"
Xena's eyes grew wide as she came forward to inspect the cloth, rubbing her fingers over the fabric. "Joxer, this is amazing." And it was. The little quilt was practical and snug, soft and warm enough for a baby, but the workmanship was remarkable. It was a beautiful blanket, one that Xena knew Eve could appreciate for years. Casting soft eyes on her friend, the Warrior Princess spoke with an unusually husky voice. "How did you pay for this?"
"I worked for it," he answered matter-of-factly. "I saw it when I was passing this town and I thought of Eve and well.... I was meeting you and…. I kinda liked it. I mean, I'm like her uncle, right?"
Xena's blue eyes met his hopeful chocolate brown ones, and she felt her heart soften. Every year her affection for Joxer grew by leaps and bounds. He was the sort of guy that just grew on you. Despite the bluster and blunder that he liked to carry around in that obnoxious way of his, he had the most loyal of hearts, constantly trying to prove himself to both Xena and Gabrielle every chance he could. And he was still so uncertain. Despite the fact that Xena knew he considered them the most important two people in his life, up until recently he had never been aware that Gabrielle and Xena felt the same way back.
What a loyal, kind soul.
Damn maternal instincts. They were starting to take over and Xena wasn't quite sure how to deal with them. Feeling the tears well up in her eyes, she coughed, swallowed and finally took the blanket, carefully wrapping Eve up in it. "Thank you, Joxer. It's perfect."
His eyes lit up, and he blew his breath out. "Good, good." Looking quite proud of himself, he turned, and the trio continued on their way.
"So... wha'd you do to earn it?"
"Doing, you know... warrior stuff."
"Oh? Shoveling or fishing?" she asked sardonically.
"I was a warrior for it," he retorted.
"A warrior?" she returned dryly. "What'd you do? Stop an army?"
"Nah. Rich old lady's cat was in a tree," he answered sheepishly, "I brought it down for her."
"Ah," Xena gave him a smirk, and then smiled at Eve, who cooed happily. Argo snorted, and Joxer began to relate the tale, ending with the engaging plotline of him falling into the mud puddle when he fell out of the tree after the cat had scratched him for the fifth time.
Xena shook her head and felt a swell of contentment fill her chest.
He was no Gabrielle, but she still enjoyed the clumsy dork's company.
Looked like this week wasn't going to be so bad after all.
This was going to be a bad week. Gabrielle dug her heels into her horse as she began to recognize the trail that would lead her to her home. She slowed up, taking a moment to stare at the place where she had grown up. The woods, the shrubs, nothing had changed. It was all the same.
And she was so different. She felt her heart skip a beat, looked down at her clothes, felt her hand creep up to her short hair. This really wasn't home anymore. The realization hit her like an arrow, and for a moment, all she could do was swallow and concentrate on breathing.
So much had changed since she had last been here. She felt so old, and yet she knew the second she stepped into that village... they would treat her like a child.
Taking a breath she started forward, trying to force her mind off of Xena and the baby in an attempt to ready herself for the homecoming. Xena would be fine; she could take care of herself. And Joxer was with her.
Yeah, Gabrielle, like Joxer is going to be any help. Gabrielle sighed, closing her eyes as she pictured the dorky wannabe with the sweet smile. She did love the galoot, but most of the time he had proven more a hindrance than help.
And yet, he was loyal and brave, qualities that were quite rare, and for that, Gabrielle did have to admit she enjoyed having him around. He was a rock for her to rely on, and besides Xena, her closest friend. His love had seen her through her worst times, and here and now, trotting to her old house, to her old self, she understood him.
She used to be Joxer. A wannabe who wanted to experience the world, who had annoyed a Warrior Princess into taking her with her to see things. She had somehow wormed her way into Xena's tainted heart, and in the process had gotten more experience than she had asked for or wanted.
Memories of her best and worst moments flooded her and Gabrielle slowly shook her head. Now wasn't the time to think of her other family. She had a true family here, one that she had sorely neglected, and it was time to face up to them, to love them and be healed by them.
Then she would go back to where she belonged, with Xena. And as much as she hated to admit it, with her dorky pal Joxer.
"Wow. That rich old lady must have really been grateful to you," Xena remarked, taking another handful of cut up potatoes and popping them piece-by-piece into her mouth. The tavern was miraculously full. Apparently the pair had arrived during some carnival, and it had taken them a half an hour just to get their order in. Now, an hour later, Xena was famished, and very grateful for Joxer's dinars. They had provided them with a meal like she hadn't had in weeks.
Joxer shrugged, resting Eve on his knee and hopping her up and down.
Xena's eyes narrowed when she saw the action. "Don't make her sick, Joxer."
"I'm not gonna make her sick," he said defensively, smiling his trademark goofy grin as he rubbed noses with the giggling child.
"Well, if she has a little problem, you're cleaning it up," she said, shrugging it off and digging in again.
"She won't." Joxer gave Xena a confident smile and hugged the child to his chest. He was silent for a moment, watching Xena eat ravenously.
Feeling the unwanted attention, Xena's eyes floated up, stopping her movements to gaze at her friend. "What's up?"
"Ummm." He blushed, shuffled in his seat, and cleared his throat. "Well... um... remember what you said ... about Gabby not being here?"
He coughed nervously, the tips of his ears turning slightly pink. "Actually I'm kinda glad you're alone."
She gave him a curious look. "Oh?" she asked, leaning forward to try and hear him against the din of the tavern.
"Umm... Xena.... I uh... I kinda wanted to talk to you."
There was an uncertain tone in his voice that immediately made her gaze at him warily. "What is it, Joxer?"
He struggled with his words, coughing into his hands twice, shuffling so much Eve looked green. Xena dutifully took her daughter away from him, and she was glad she did, because suddenly he began thumping at the table with his fists in his agitation. "Well umm..."
"Spit it out, Joxer."
"Umm... you kinda notice that Gabby's been acting all.... weird around me?" he finally blurted out.
"Yeah." He looked odd, as if he was trying to picture something far off in the distance. "Kind of like... well ever since she told me she loves me but you know... only like a friend..."
"Yes?" Xena prodded, feeling the young man's confusion and hurt immediately. Poor guy. She knew well enough that the love-you-as-a-friend speech was the kiss of death. It must have hurt him tremendously. Yet he had taken it well. Honestly, Xena really didn't understand why Gabrielle had decided Joxer wasn't more than friend material. He was cute enough, and no man would love her more, Xena was quite sure of that. Maybe it was the hat. His taste in clothes was terrible. Realizing he was still rambling, Xena shook herself out of her thoughts and tuned back in.
"Well... she's been weird... kind of like...she doesn't..."
"Know how to act around you?" she finished softly. He looked startled, but gave a slight nod, his face sad and grim.
"Yeah," he confirmed. "I just ... I don't want to make her feel this way. My loving her... it's my problem. Not hers."
Xena cocked her head, in her blue eyes a look of sympathy. "Joxer, don't say that," she said softly. "It's nothing. Look, Gabrielle probably is just very confused right now."
He looked bewildered. "Confused? About what? I mean, this thing with me... she's already told me. I mean, we resolved it..." he trailed off, and then looked back up her. "Didn't we?"
She had thought so. Now... she wasn't so sure. Xena gazed at the young man with speculative eyes and realized he was right. Gabrielle had been acting odd around him. Not really standoffish, more like... awkward. They had been so busy trying to protect Eve, Xena hadn't noticed. Until now. Hmm.
Realizing he was still waiting for an answer, Xena just swallowed, and shook her head. "Joxer. It'll be fine. Gabrielle is just... like that. I mean, this was a big thing, what happened between the two of you. She admitted she cared for you. You almost died."
"Yeah, I guess," he muttered.
She pursed her lips, gazing at the heartbroken man thoughtfully. Poor guy. He was really taking it hard. Not many guys would be as noble about it as Joxer. Even if he couldn't have Gabrielle the way he wanted her, he was still trying to be content enough to be her friend. He was a true friend. It saddened Xena that he would spend an admittedly long time pining for her sometimes very clueless and brusque best friend. Leaning forward, Xena laid a hand on his arm. "Hey. You'll be okay, Joxer."
"I don't know, Xena," he sighed, giving her a shrug. "I just.... knowing ... now that I know. There's no hope."
"There's always hope." He shook his head. "At least you know she loves you, Joxer. That we love you. "
"I know. And that means a lot to me, Xena. But... I'm gonna love Gabrielle for a long time, and... I just... I don't want her to feel like... like closed in and stuff, because of that. I just want... I guess I want to try and get over this. Stop thinkin' about her, you know? Stop making her so uncomfortable."
The table went silent, even little Eve stayed quiet as she watched the two adults confer with wide eyes. In an effort to try and find something to say to cheer her friend up, Xena found her eyes roving over the tavern. Lots of woman here. Lots of single woman here. Lots of single, pretty woman here.
She felt her eyes float back to Joxer. He was a cute guy, honestly he was. He even would have been considered handsome in a certain light. Cocking her head, she studied him. Hmm. It was just that hat. That hat and his hair. He never combed his hair. And that shirt. What was that shirt, anyway? Rags? And that coat! DRACO had better taste than that. And those pants! And that breastplate! What was that, a pasta strainer?
Gods, if he had just bought himself a new shirt, maybe a new pair of pants, combed his hair, then maybe-
Xena felt herself freeze as her mind began to reel. Oh, Gods, was this a plan? Was she actually thinking up a plan for this? Well, Good Goddess, it was a plan.
Gabrielle would kill her. Well... maybe she would kill her. But, maybe this would be just what the blonde bard needed. A good swift kick in the pants. And hell, if Gabrielle truly didn't see him that way, then she'd be doing them all a favor. Joxer was in sore need of it. He had reached an all time low.
She felt a wicked, excited smile float on her face. Maybe she wouldn't be so bored this week after all. "JOXER!"
She slammed her hand on the table, making such a thump that not only Joxer, but the whole tavern jumped and turned to stare at her.
Xena looked a bit sheepish, but just waved everyone away. "Sorry. Talkin' to my friend here. Go back to your business." Slowly, people did. After a particularly mean glare she gave one man who kept insisting on staring, he finally turned too, leaving her to lean forward and talk to Joxer in peace.
"So what if I had a way for you to take your mind off of Gabrielle? To make yourself feel better about yourself, and maybe, just maybe... get yourself a little action in the process?"
He gave her a completely bewildered look, narrowing his eyes, and leaning back. "What are you talking about?"
"What am I talking about?" She grinned excitedly, "What am I talking about? Oh, Joxer, I'm talking about the greatest thing we could do to kill time. I'm talking about taking a man I know and turning him into the stud I know he could be. I'm talking getting your self-esteem back." She clamped a hand on his shoulder, and her eyes glittered dangerously. "I'm talking about a makeover," she purred.
At the look of pure resolve, Joxer could positively hear the wheels whirling in her brain. And in his haze of confusion, there was only one emotion he could quite filter.
He was a little scared.
Joxer could only stare at her, his face a mask of utter bewilderment. "Huh?" He let his haunches sink down on the rock next to the stream where they were now standing. Xena had dragged him to the place when the tavern had gotten too loud for discussion. In his opinion, they might as well have stayed at the tavern, because she still was making absolutely no sense.
Xena rolled her eyes and held her breath, counting to ten before she retried explaining her intended plan to her friend for what had to be the tenth time. "Joxer... all I'm asking is to let me work."
"You're asking me to let you... change me, Xena."
"Not change you!" Xena came forward, her index finger raised in an earnest gesture. "IMPROVE you."
He only stared at her blankly.
The damn man refused to get the point.
Xena huffed, looking at Eve who merely gazed right back, and with a sigh, she moved to her bag. After fishing around for a few minutes, she held up a small object.
"You see this?" she asked, holding up a small stick of bone with teeth carved into it. Joxer gave it a dubious glance.
"Good, then you know what it is?"
He rolled his eyes, his hands on his hips as he gave her an exasperated glance. "It's a comb, Xena."
"Good, you can recognize one on sight. That' s a start. Now tell me why you don't use it." Her eyes bore into his as he gave her a shocked look. With a helpless shrug, he crossed his arms.
"I ... I comb my hair!"
"With what, a straw?" She glared at him, and then sighed, motioning him toward her. "Come here, Joxer." He came forward, as she leaned down wetting her hand in the stream and then plastering his hair with it. When his hair was sufficiently wet, she roughly put the comb through it, ignoring his outburst of pain as she swiftly parted his hair and arranged his bangs so that they fell neatly to the side.
Standing back, she smiled, admiring her work. There it was, a nice hairstyle did wonders for him.
"There, see? What an improvement!" He gazed at his reflection in the water, and then turned back, trying to understand what combing his hair was supposed to signify. She merely folded her hands and let him try and figure it out. Hell, it was a blow to his ego, she knew that, but he needed the truth, and she really wanted to help the guy.
She couldn't help it. She loved the big dork.
He gave her an incredulous stare, and finally just threw his hands up in the air.
"Xena... you want to comb my hair? You want to change my clothes? A makeover? Is this sounding crazy to anyone but me? Do you even realize what you're saying?"
"Of course I do. Look, I'm offering to help you Joxer, discover who you really are, beneath this image you put out. I'm offering to get you some action, for Zeus's sake!" She rolled her eyes, throwing her hands up in the air for emphasis. Forcing herself to calm down when the last of her words emerged edged a little bit in anger, she put a hand to her mouth, and remained silent. After a minute, she took it away.
Taking a breath, she began again. "Don't you want to know who you are?"
"I know who I am. These clothes? These are who I am," he answered emphatically, pulling at his breastplate for emphasis.
Xena let her shoulders slump, walking towards him and laying a hand on his shoulder, beginning as gently as she could. "No, Joxer. Those clothes are who you want to be. And I think by now you know that deep down... it's not you."
The words struck him like a slap in the face, and when he turned to look at her, the dull hurt in his eyes stung her. Wincing, she bit her lip, cursing herself for not having Gabrielle's way with words.
"I'm sorry," she said immediately, her voice soft. "I might have been a little... coarse, but Joxer... don't you want to be happier with yourself?"
"You know I do." The answer was low, and the young man appeared completely broken. He didn't even look at her as he spoke, seeming to lower himself before the glorious Warrior Princess. He was more than a friend to her at that moment, he was her brother.
"Then stop trying to be something you're not!" she said fervently.
"Xena..." his voice was unsteady, but the tremor came with a very pointed question. "Do you think I can't be a hero?"
She saw the true earnestness on his face as he looked at her, dreading her answer, because for once, he was truly being sincere with her. There was no bluster, no self-delusion. Joxer was seriously scared of what she might say, because he would believe it.
On her face floated a gentle smile, and in an even tone that left no room for argument, she replied, "Joxer, I think you already ARE a hero."
He stared at her, and suddenly a soft grin of relief and true affection floated onto his face. Tears seemed to have filled his eyes, but he blinked them away, instead only blushing and turning back to face the ground.
"Thanks, Xena." he said meaningfully. She nudged him and the pair fell silent, Joxer's concentration on his hands. Finally, he looked up at her. "So who do YOU think I am?
She cocked her head. "I think you a brave and loyal man, who's a little confused and a lot insecure."
He nodded, swallowing heavily. "Sounds about right." He took a breath, turning to face her. "So if we do this, and you... make me into this... stud-"
"Joxer, all I'll be doing is helping you find your look," Xena warned.
"Right... but you said I could be handsome."
"You ARE handsome," she said with a smile. "Or else Meg wouldn't have liked you so much."
He grinned, a wicked grin that got him a slap on the shoulder. "Okay, right. Well... if we do... " He coughed, blushing before starting up again. "You think... Gabby might..."
Xena's smile fell off of her face when she realized what he was alluding to. "Joxer..." she cut him off with a warning tone. "If we do this, we're doing this for you. Not Gabrielle. Because then it won't be who you are. It'll be who you think she wants you to be."
He gave her a serious look, as if contemplating if indeed that was so bad. He just gulped, again starting in a hopeful voice. "You don't think... maybe if I change-"
"Joxer," Xena's voice was firm, but kind. "I'm going to be honest with you, and I'm going to do it because I care about you." She took a breath, and began. "I think if she really- if she really loved you that way, Joxer, she would have seen it before now. You wouldn't have to change to prove that to her."
His face grew passive, she could see in his wounded eyes that he knew she was telling the truth. His shoulders slumped again, but his voice was steady. "Yeah, I know," he said, looking back to his hands. "You're right. I know you're right. It's just that glutton for punishment inside of me that keeps hoping."
"Yeah, well, it's good to hope. Despairing... well... we'll just say it sucks." He nodded, acknowledging that her answer made sense. She smiled hopefully, "So what do you say? Can I get you as a project?"
He appeared to think about it, and when he turned to inspect her waiting face, something seemed to give. A gorgeous grin floated across his face and he reached out a hand. "I'm in."
Xena took it and jumped up, startling Eve as she shook on the deal. "Yes! Come on, I can't wait to get started."
Keeping her hold on his wrist in a death grip, Xena pulled him up, leading him at a staggering pace. The excitement in her voice affected him; he could feel the giddiness fill his soul.
Even then, he had to wonder what on earth he had gotten himself into.
Upon entering Poteidaia, Gabrielle had felt the joy of homecoming seep into her soul. Her mother and her father had greeted her with open arms. Indeed, the whole town had responded to her with what only could be described with as almost awe. It had been a relief to come into her old house, to eat her mother's food and sit in her old chair, to know she would be treated as Gabrielle, not Xena's companion, not a hero, but simply Gabrielle.
Two hours later, she wondered what in the world she had thought was so great about being able to be treated like just Gabrielle by her parents. It was, quite simply, an overrated pleasure. Downright irritating, in fact. And after only being home about two hours she was already ready to leave.
It had started during dinner. Gabrielle had forgotten about her father Herodotus' habit of bringing up every family problem he could during dinner. He was a good father, and he loved his wife and his children, but he always seemed to find something wrong with them at dinnertime. Lila and her mother Hecuba were obviously quite used to it. Lila ate with her shoulders slumped, taking her soupspoon and sipping quietly, her eyes on her bowl.
Her mother merely rolled her eyes and waited for her father to finish.
But Gabrielle wasn't used to it, not anymore. Nor was she used to the subtle way her mother brought up the exact same topic of conversation she had the last time she was here.
They were sitting silently, when her mother looked up and smiled ever so slightly. "Dear, you know I think you're beautiful, but don't you think you might be showing a bit... much?"
Gabrielle gave her a startled glance and then looked down at her outfit. "Well, Mom... this is what I feel comfortable in."
"Of course dear, of course." Her mother pursed her lips, and then looked at her father, who merely stared at Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, wouldn't you rather wear a nice dress?"
Gabrielle gave her father an incredulous glance, and then looked at Lila, who merely gave her a sympathetic shrug. "Father," she bit her lip, trying to suppress a grin at the thought of ever going back to a lovely long skirt in which she could barely run, "I don't think it would be very... wise of me to wear a dress while I'm fighting warlords."
Her mother sighed and yet again her parents exchanged a glance that could only mean they were at their wit's end.
Gabrielle gritted her teeth and tried to remember that this dinner was very, very delicious. Somehow it had lost its taste the moment her father began to speak up.
"Well, honey, see the thing is... you're not getting any younger, and, that outfit, as practical as it is, tends to give off the wrong image to the gentlemen."
Gabrielle's jaw dropped at just what her father was insinuating. Oh, Gods. She put her fork down on the table and tried to breathe, getting her temper under control before she said quickly, "Mom, Dad. Getting married and settling down is the last thing on my mind."
Hecuba sucked in her breath, and looked at her husband. Gabrielle clamped her jaw and Lila's eyes grew wide as she turned to her father.
"Daddy, I think Gabr-"
"What do you mean, the last thing on your mind?" he asked, pointedly cutting off her sister as he stared at the bard.
"I mean, settling down and getting married is the last thing on my mind," reiterated Gabrielle, her shoulders straight as she gazed at her father from across the table. "Dad, I've got things to do right now-"
"So you plan to wandering around with Xena for the rest for the rest of your life?"
She shrugged, "I really don't see what's wrong with that, Daddy."
"Nothing wrong with that?" he burst. "Gabrielle! Look at you! You... you're dressed like an Amazon har-"
"I AM an Amazon harlot!" she spoke up, suddenly losing her temper, rising and planting her palms on the table.
Hecuba gasped, her hand to her chest. "Gabrielle!"
"That's what he was going to say, wasn't he?" She swallowed, turning back to her father. "Father, I am an Amazon Queen. I am a warrior. Getting married and settling down and wearing a nice respectable dress is most likely not in my near future. Why can't you understand that?"
"Gabrielle, you watch your tone with me," he responded, his eyes glittering. "Despite what you may think, I am still your father."
"Good. Because I'm still your daughter. But I'm not a child." With a powerful move, Gabrielle pushed her chair back away from the table, storming out of the house.
Tears of frustration and anger welled up in her eyes as she strode to the clearing behind her house. She paused, looking at the tree that was now tall and beautiful. She remembered when she was four, frolicking and playing around it with Lila and her old friends, telling stories, in her long dress and her long hair.
She was always the peacemaker in the group, trying to get everyone to stop fighting, using her uncanny way with words to ease away from the tension.
That wasn't her anymore. Nowadays, she was more likely to give up on words when they didn't work after about five minutes and then take out her Sais and beat the sense into them.
But she wasn't a monster. There was nothing wrong with who she was, who she had become. Yes, she killed, but she killed so that others would live.
It mattered that everyone she had killed had had a mother and a father, but that didn't make the son or daughter any less responsible.
She had the wonderful memory of Hope to remind her of that.
Innocents died unnecessarily, like Solan, and it was her mission, her goal, to make sure it didn't happen too often.
She used to be innocent, and that part of her had died. That part of Joxer had died too, and even though there was still a part of him that hoped, a light that was still in his eyes, it was her worst fear that one day he would wake up and that part about him would be gone. She was terrified that one day he would have the same look at Xena had, that she had.
That was that last thing she wanted for him. For anyone.
That was why she changed, that was why she had become who she was. To protect those she loved.
But who was she now?
There was a hand on her shoulder, and when Gabrielle looked up, she saw her sister smiling down at her.
Gabrielle gave her a soft smile, and then looked away, as Lila settled down next to her, arranging her skirt and pushing her long black hair back to get herself comfortable.
"Are those knives?" she asked casually. Gabrielle looked down and saw her motioning to her Sais.
"No," she responded with a smile. "They're Sais. You use them together, would you like to see them?"
"Oh, no, no," Lila said, chuckling nervously. "I'd be no good with that."
"Okay." Gabrielle pursed her lips and looked back at the tree. She grinned. "Do you remember when you climbed to the top and then couldn't get down?"
Lila laughed. "Yeah, you kept telling me to just let go and you'd catch me and I wouldn't believe you."
"Well I don't know how I could've caught you. You would have smooshed me."
"And Dad had to get Perdicas to climb up after me before I finally got down." Gabrielle's smile fell at the memory of her dead husband, and could only manage a chuckle. Lila seemed realize what she had said, and went silent.
"It scares them, you know," Lila began softly. "To know you're exposed to the things you are. To know you don't have a family with you."
"I have a family," Gabrielle returned softly. "Xena takes cares of me, and I take of her..." She chuckled. "And we both take care of Joxer."
"Joxer does need taking care of." The two women laughed, easing the tension. Gabrielle swallowed, turning to face her sister.
"Why do they act the way they do?"
Lila shrugged, cocking her head. "Maybe because they know you love Xena more than you love them."
Gabrielle went still, looking at her sister with wide eyes, before looking away. Oh, Gods. She closed her eyes, trying to come to terms with that claim. She wanted to negate the fact, to tell her blood sister that it wasn't true.
But it was. And she knew it. And it hurt that they had picked up on it.
When she opened her eyes, she saw Lila smiling at her, on her face a look of sympathy, of understanding. Her hand stole to cover her sister's, and she squeezed.
"They'll never understand, will they?" she asked morosely.
"Gabrielle... you have to understand. They're your parents. When they see you, they see their child, they don't see an Amazon Queen, they just see you. Their daughter. Whom they love very much." Lila swallowed, leaned her head on her shoulder, and squeezed harder. "I think they keep hoping that one day you'll just come home and stay, get married, be safe."
"But Lila..." Gabrielle moved away to stare into her sister's eyes. "This isn't home anymore. Not to me. I live the way I live... to keep this home for you, for my family."
"It's not home for them unless you're here, Gabrielle," Lila said softly.
Gabrielle felt the tears in her eyes and quickly wiped them away, gazing at her searchingly. "Do you understand Lila?"
Lila shrugged. "I understand that your destiny lies with Xena, that you're supposed to be out there fighting, supposed to be this great warrior. But it is hard, to know you're out there, fighting... Gabrielle, you've DIED."
"I'm still here, Lila," Gabrielle said fervently. Lila looked at her, and swallowed, shaking her head as she began speaking in a gentle voice.
"That's the thing, Gabrielle. I don't think you are. You're so different. You've got this glint in your eyes. I'm afraid you're going to come home one day, and we won't be able to recognize you at all."
Gabrielle shook her head, her denial evident in her eyes, as she looked almost wounded. "I haven't changed that much."
"Yes you have." Lila's voice was firm, but kind, and she continued to speak. "Gabrielle, it's not really a bad thing. You're still amazing, you're just not... the little innocent girl from Poteidaia. Look at you, you're wearing a Warrior's outfit. You've got knives on your boots. You've got muscles. Your hair is cropped short. You're beautiful, Gabrielle. But you're not... you're not the Gabrielle we knew."
That scared Gabrielle. For so long, who she was was where she came from, and it just didn't feel true anymore.
She was proud of who she had become, and she didn't regret what she was. Her parents didn't understand, and that was something she had to resign herself to.
But to hear her sister say it, to see the truth in her eyes, it was scary.
Oh, Gods, who was she?
Gabrielle swallowed down her emotion, and in an attempt to relieve the tension, grabbed onto her sister's hand.
"Come on, let's go back to the house. I brought you a gift."
"A gift?" Gabrielle smiled at the surprised expression and laughed.
"Yeah, come on!" And giggling like they were twelve again, both women walked back to the house, talking in excited whispers.
"Are you sure we're gonna find what we're looking for in here?" Joxer looked around dubiously. The clothing shop was among the largest he had seen, and yet, he felt strangely out of place.
Lifelike replicas of people stuffed with straw stood in displays around him, each dressed in the style of the store.
It was fashionable, it was colorful. And it just didn't feel like him.
But Xena merely nodded, tugging at his forearm. "Come on, let's find you something that we could start you off on." She turned; both her and Eve studying him up and down.
Joxer lifted an eyebrow, waiting for the verdict. "You've got good arms, and nice hips." Xena cocked her head. "Nice collarbone. We could accentuate that."
He gave her a bewildered look. "Accentu-what?"
"Can I help you?" Xena swung and gave the salesgirl a no-nonsense nod.
"Yes. I'm here to give my friend a completely new wardrobe." The salesgirl looked him over and pursed her lips. She mumbled something, and Xena gave him a triumphant smirk.
"What? Wha'd she say?" he asked defensively.
"She said you need it, Joxer," Xena retorted, causing the girl to cough in embarrassment. Joxer blushed and crossed his arms, while Xena began her instructions. "All right, we don't have much time. My friend is a warrior," Joxer's face lit up at that comment, "so we'll need something practical. But it should be something that accents his arms and collarbone, something fashionable. And some pants. Not too baggy."
The salesgirl, Xena and the baby continued to eye Joxer. He could feel their eyes going over every inch of his body and he began to shuffle, feeling his face go red.
"Well... he's not bad," was the sales girl's conclusion. "Cute, in a goofy sort of way. Can he smile?"
"Joxer, smile," Xena ordered curtly.
Joxer gave her a glare, but obeyed.
"Ooh. Nice smile," the salesgirl approved. She began to eye the racks. "Practical, but stylish."
"He's a funny, sweet, loyal guy. We need something that will indicate that, but also play off on his boyish charm, and still not hide the fact that he is very much a man," Xena summed up.
Joxer gave her a surprised look. She winked. "Don't look so shocked. I think I know you better than you know yourself."
"You've nailed him perfectly," the salesgirl agreed. "You two related?"
"Practically," Xena affirmed. "A leather vest would suit him nicely, don't you think?"
"Let me see." The salesgirl, who was rather pretty, came forward, and grabbed Joxer's hand, running her hand up and down his arm, pushing the sleeve up to his shoulder. "Oh, yes, but nothing too bulky. Anything bulky like this makes him look weak, when really, he's just lean."
"I agree, completely," Xena confirmed.
"I look weak?!" Joxer sputtered. The salesgirl moved his body, and then inspected his backside, lifting up his shirt from the back to check.
He jumped away. "Do you MIND?!" he hissed.
"No time to be shy, Joxer." Xena grabbed him and held him still.
"You're right, those baggy pants do nothing for him." The salesgirl pursed her lips. "Something a bit tighter, but black leather would give the wrong impression. A nice brown?"
"A dark brown would work very nicely." Xena held Joxer's shoulders so tightly he winced when he tried to move. "Joxer, do you want to know who you are?" she asked him pointedly.
He huffed, nodding.
"Good, then hold still while she measures you." The salesgirl came forward with a piece of rope, measuring the length of his leg, as well as various other parts of his body that made him blush.
"You know, the last pair of pants I got I made myself, and they work FINE," he mumbled. Xena and the salesgirl exchanged looks of pity.
"Poor, misguided soul," clucked the salesgirl. "Well, don't you worry that scruffy head, Joxer, was it? We're going to dress you up so well they'll think you're Apollo himself."
"Well, I wouldn't go that far," Xena chuckled.
The salesgirl gave him an appreciative once-over and winked. "I would." Joxer's eyes widened at the look she gave him and he shot Xena a startled glance.
Xena looked at Eve proudly. "See? It's working already," she told her.
They had stayed in the store a total of three hours. Joxer had never shopped so much. By the time they trudged outside, he was exhausted, weighed down with the parchment packages that he had accumulated while he was inside.
He had to admit though; he was much more comfortable in the clothes that Xena had insisted he wear out. The dark brown pants were tighter than the ones he was used to, but they fit into his boots quite nicely, and were well made. They didn't ride up his butt, and so he was able to walk easier. The white shirt didn't itch. It wasn't as warm as his previous one, but it was light, and airy. It was short-sleeved, and tucked into his pants, making him look well put together when in fact it had taken him two seconds to slip it on.
Xena had even insisted on a leather vest to wear over it. It was simple, heavy enough so that he was warm when it was cold, and light enough so he could take it off easily and stow it away when it got too hot. She said something about it making his shoulders broader because it accented the v line of his shirt, but he didn't really care about any of that. It wasn't itchy, and it was really comfortable, and he had to admit, it did make him look a little... better.
The salesgirl had told him he looked incredibly handsome in it, but he didn't really believe her. He was paying her an awful lot, she had to say it, but there was a pleased look in Xena's eyes that made him want to believe it.
But he still was Joxer; he had made sure of that. He even fell in the store, twice, but instead of rolling their eyes, Xena and the girl only laughed good-naturedly. Xena said that the clothes accented him, and to top it off, she had even insisted he buy a leather necklace, a commemorative gift to remind himself that he was still Joxer.
But he had no armor, and he felt naked without it. When he walked, there was no squeaking, and no creaking, and no familiar weight of his sword. Xena had almost gone livid when she had caught him trying to put his armor on over his new outfit, and in her earnest efforts had even given him a slight cut when she had torn it out of his hands.
He hadn't even had time to say good-bye to it, not even his helmet, which she held like it was an offending roach or something. She had given it all to the salesgirl, telling her to melt it down to make knives or something.
Joxer had almost lost it then and there, but one look at the Warrior Princess and her trademark don't-screw-with-me glare, he shut up. After all, she was Xena right? And that meant she knew what was best.
And he best follow her orders. Even if that... meant... losing his hat. Oh, he was gonna miss his hat.
"I need armor," he muttered grumpily. Xena waved at him distractedly and then motioned for him to follow her.
"Where are we going now?" he asked.
"We're getting you some GOOD armor," she growled, and pulled him into the next weapons store. Tossing Eve into his hands, she walked in, eyeing the rows of merchandise with the confidence of an expert. She didn't even look at the seller, merely began to peruse the weapons, muttering, "junk, junk" in the process.
"AHA!" She emerged with a victorious smile on her face. "Give me your hand." He gave her a suspicious look, but dutifully held his free hand out. She slid on a long cuff. "There you are, Joxer. Light, but strong. And attractive to the eye." Joxer eyed the armor, and felt a soft smile float onto his face. It WAS kind of nice. A lot less heavy then his other gauntlets, too.
"They're probably expensive," he muttered.
"Nah, I've got a feeling I can wheedle the guy down," Xena said, sending the salesclerk such a mean look he actually seemed to shrink in the corner.
"For the warrior queen Xena, it's on the house," he said shakily. Xena gave him a brilliant smile, and cocked her head at Joxer.
Joxer gave her a smile, and she clapped her hands together. "Okay, other hand!"
When she had found what she had deemed was an appropriate cuff for the other hand, she then went about finding a scabbard. This she also found in good time, and arranged it so that it swung over his shoulder, and down to his hip.
"Ooh, nice. That won't be too bulky, and you won't have any problem drawing a sword. NOT that you'll have to, cause you know that drawing a sword is only a last recourse."
Joxer gave her a puzzled look. "Whaddya mean?"
She clamped a hand on his shoulder, leading him to the side of the store. "Well, Joxer, I notice that when you enter a fight, which doesn't happen that often, mind you, your hand isn't usually on your sword, at least not at first. Where is it usually?"
"I don't know," he answered, a bit confused.
"They're both in front of you, like this," she demonstrated, her palms held up and facing forward. "In a lot of ways, you're like Gabrielle. You like to talk things out before you have to fight, and just like Gabrielle, you like to make stories up about them afterwards." She cocked her eyebrow. "Though I have to admit, your stories are a bit more... fictional than hers."
He gave her a sheepish grin.
"The point is, you like to talk more than fight, and that's a good thing."
"But you like to fight."
"Yes," she admitted. "But that doesn't mean that way is for everyone.
"And Gabrielle likes to fight."
She gave him a startled look, and then her eyes grew pensive. "Gabrielle has become a warrior because of her fierce need to protect those that she loves. She's a warrior for peace, Joxer, not a warrior because she has to fight, or because she wants to be a warrior. Gabrielle's accepted whose she's become, only because she feels there is no other recourse."
Joxer watched the emotions flit through Xena's face and he swallowed, hugging Eve closer to him. "You feel responsible, don't you, Xena? For Gabrielle?"
She shrugged, giving him a grim smile, but she refused to answer. "Come on, Joxer, let's get you a sword."
He swallowed, grabbing her shoulder. "Xena." She paused, turning to look at him with suspiciously moist eyes. "Gabrielle does what she does because she loves you. Because she'd rather fight by your side than stay away from you. She's happiest when she's with you. She doesn't regret who she's become, you shouldn't either."
Xena gave him a long, searching look, and then a soft, fond expression floated across her face. "Thank you, Joxer," she said huskily. "Now come on, dufus. Let's find you that sword."
It was another day before Gabrielle was able to get up the courage to talk to her father. He was out in the fields, tilling the ground when she walked up to him.
He had seen her coming, but had given no indication. Instead he merely continued his work, spreading the dried stalks of hay and throwing them into the trough.
"Do you need any help?" she asked, coming forward and gathering a tool in her hands.
He gave her a passing glance, and shrugged. "I always could use an extra hand."
She nodded, taking the pitchfork and picking up the hay with one powerful move. He watched her silently, and sighed, shaking his head.
"You're a lot stronger than you used to be."
She smiled grimly. "Yeah, well, fighting day in and day out will do that to you." He stiffened and she winced. "I'm sorry, Father," she said with a soft, apologetic tone. "I didn't mean to storm out the way I did or disrespect you."
He slowed his work, leaning his hand on the pitchfork he held to turn and stare at her. "I'm sorry too, Gabrielle. I didn't mean-"
She cut him off with a wave to his hand. "Father, I think you did." He swallowed, and she merely bit her lip, taking a breath. "Father, when are you going to realize that I'm not coming home to stay?"
"Honestly, Gabrielle, do you think your mother and I can ever feasibly give up hope?"
She shut her mouth, looking away. He was right. Now that she had Eve to look after, she understood the protection that her parents tried to give her. They had raised her, and raised her well, and she knew that they had never expected their eldest daughter to turn out the way she did.
Gabrielle's way had been unforeseen, but it was HER way. And as much as it hurt them to admit their daughter wasn't the talkative, innocent bard they once knew, they would have to accept it.
"Your mother and I only care about you. You expose yourself to so much danger, Gabrielle. We've heard rumors, about the Twilight, and about Xena's child. Gabrielle, how can you expect us to just accept that you've got the wrath of the Gods on your head?"
Gabrielle gave him one searching glance. "We've been able to handle it so far." He looked down, obviously not convinced. "Father, I have people that can take care of me. And I take care of them. I've got Xena and I've got Joxer. And I can take care of myself"
He was silent, and then looked up, a slight twinkle in his eye. "So how is that Joxer boy?"
She gave him a grim smile, and cocked her head. "He's good, Dad. He's with Xena now."
His face lit up. "So what about him, Gabrielle? You care about him, and he'd make a good husband."
She let out an involuntary groan, and then quickly smothered it, in no mood to get into another argument with her father.
"Dad, Joxer and I are only friends."
He looked a little disappointed, but looked up again, a different gleam in his eye. "You think he might be interested in Lila?"
"No way," Gabrielle said immediately. Somehow, even the thought made her want to gag. She had learned a while ago that she didn't take too well to Joxer hooking up with ANYONE, least of all her sister. It wasn't that she was ... jealous... nope. She had decided long ago that protectiveness that she felt for Xena also extended to Joxer. She liked their close knit family, and she knew she felt threatened when anyone tried to ruin that.
Sometimes she thought it was downright evil of her, not to want Joxer to be with anyone, even if she knew he had no chance with her. But now, she thought she knew what it was. Joxer was a loyal, kind soul. He deserved someone wonderful, and she knew the type of woman that would be perfect for him.
She just hadn't found anyone who would match that profile yet. Not that Lila wasn't an amazing girl, she just ... wasn't the girl for Joxer.
But her father merely looked confused.
"Gabrielle-" He was cut off when a loud eruption of shouting and screaming filled the air. Both he and Gabrielle exchanged quick glances, and then both began to run in the direction of the noise, toward the center of town.
"All right." Xena clapped her hands together as she gave Joxer a once-over. "Now that we've got the look down, we're ready to get started."
Joxer shuffled, allowing himself to grin a bit excitedly. This was starting to really get a hold of him. Maybe it was the way Xena was so hopeful, so earnest in her quest to help him. Maybe it was because he was starting to realize that he really looked good in the outfit, or maybe he was just giddy over his new sword, a darn spanking nice one, but he couldn't quite keep the goofy smile that insisted on staying on his face off.
His heart was beating rapidly, and even though Xena had warned him against it, he couldn't help wondering what Gabrielle would say if she saw him now.
"So what now?" he asked breathlessly. Xena gave him a wicked wink.
"Now, we start working on your one major problem when it comes to anything you think you want."
He gave her a startled glance. "W-w-w-what?" he stuttered. "What's that?"
"You try too hard." Before he had a chance to respond, she pulled him to the entrance of the tavern, taking Eve from him and kissing her daughter on the cheek once before looking back at him. "Psst. Joxer."
She grabbed him and pulled him close, craning his neck to see what she was seeing. "See that girl?"
He cocked his head, and then his eyes caught on a particularly pretty young woman sitting at the bar. He swallowed. "Yeah."
"You're going to talk to her."
His eyes widened and he stepped back. "What?! No!"
Xena rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on, Joxer." Honestly, this man could be incredibly dense when he wanted to be.
Joxer planted his feet firmly, his form stiff as he tried to keep from being pushed into the tavern by the Warrior Princess.
"Joxer," Xena growled, clamping a hand on his shoulder. "Get your butt inside of that tavern right now!"
"Xena what about Gabrielle!?" he yelped, squirming away from her.
She looked confused. "What about Gabrielle?"
"I'm in love with Gabrielle! I can't go and-" Xena raised an eyebrow, cutting him off with a hand to his mouth.
"Joxer, you said so yourself. You want to move on, if not for your sake, then for hers, am I right?" He nodded, unable to speak as her hand was still attached to his mouth. "And you know that the best away to attempt to move on is to act on a rebound, right?" He nodded yet again. "And you also realize that if you don't go into that tavern and talk to that girl right now I'll kick your ass straight to Tartarus?" Another fervent nod. Xena gave him a winning smile, and released her hand. "Good. Then we're all understood. Get that cute butt of yours in that tavern, and talk to the pretty chick. Okay?"
He gave her a glare, but obeyed, taking a breath and proceeded to walk towards the doors. Apparently this wasn't fast enough for Xena, and she huffed, picking up one boot shod foot and kicking him in the seat of the pants.
He flew into the tavern with a yelp, attracting quite a bit of attention. Dusting himself off and apologizing to the kindly fat old lady who had broken his fall, he swallowed, smiling at the group who merely stared at him before turning away.
Turning back, he gave Xena a pointed glare as she sidled into the tavern with a seductive smile and a knowing smirk. She barely acknowledged him, instead opting for the bar, about five feet away from the girl she had instructed him to speak to.
He gave her an uncertain glance, but Xena merely jerked a hand to the girl and ordered a glass of milk, murmuring something to Eve.
Joxer's hands suddenly felt clammy. Looking down at them, he swallowed, and then wiped them against his pants, before walking up to the side of the girl who was still sitting at the bar.
He leaned against it, now only a foot away from her. His throat felt dry, and his heart was beating really fast.
He gave her a sidelong look. She was pretty enough, but honestly, didn't look a thing like Gabrielle, and he was pretty sure she wasn't as nearly as special as Gabrielle either.
But then again, no one would ever come close to Gabrielle. His chest began to ache for a second, and he felt his face close down. Quickly he lowered his face to his hands, trying to control his breathing. Even now, now that he knew that Gabrielle didn't feel the same way he had, even when he had heard it from her lips, he couldn't help hoping.
And it hurt so much to hope, because there was that deep down nudge in his heart that told him that he was an idiot. Gabrielle didn't love him that way; she would never love him that way. He was doing the right thing, moving on. Xena was doing this to him as a favor. Because she loved him and wanted him to move on.
And he was doing this FOR Gabrielle. Didn't he want her to be comfortable with him again? Didn't he want her not to have more troubles on her mind? Didn't he want to be a part of her life anyway he could? This was for Gabrielle.
'Cos he loved her.
Groaning, he buried his face in his arms, ignoring the drink the bartender set before him.
"Something wrong?" Joxer froze, and looked up to see the pretty girl gazing at him with concern.
"Huh?" he asked, and then immediately winced. Oh, yeah, real smooth, Joxer.
"Is something wrong?" She cocked her head.
"Uh... what makes you say that?"
"Well, you groaned, and you look pretty pathetic."
His eyes widened, and he heard Xena suck in her breath a few feet away. He closed his eyes, and shook his head. Oh, yeah, he was really making THIS work.
"No, I'm fine," he stammered. "But thanks for the concern." He forced a smile on his face and turned to face her. "Umm... I'm Joxer."
"Lydia." She shook his hand quickly and then returned to her drink. Joxer opened his mouth, and then closed it when he realized he had lost her attention. He gave Xena a helpless glance, but all he got from her was a furious motion to continue the conversation.
He shrugged, and tried again. "So... you live in this town?"
"Nope," she answered, looking up momentarily and flashing him a quick smile. "Just passing through. You?"
"Same," he answered, and then they fell into an awkward silence. "I ... uh... see, I'm a warrior, and so I go where-"
"A warrior?" Her eyes lit up and then floated down his body, catching his sword. "Really?"
"Uh... yeah." He gave her a stunned look, and felt a huge smile emerge on his face at her avid interest. A fan of dangerous types, huh? He could play on that.
"Why don't we go somewhere quiet and I'll show you my sword?" he suggested.
Her face changed so fast he could have sworn it had morphed into that of a bacchae. "What?! Oh! You animal!"
The next thing he knew his face was jerked sideways when a palm struck his cheek, and he was sopping wet with water that had been thrown at him.
He looked stunned, and turned to see Lydia huff away. "Wha'd I say?!" he asked, thoroughly confused.
There was laughter and pointing, but he didn't pay attention to any of that, merely grabbed a rag off the counter and wiped at his face with it. There was movement, and with a wince, he looked up to see Xena staring at him with a passive face.
"Did you just ask that woman if she wanted to go outside and see your SWORD?" she asked dryly.
He gave her a meek smile. "Uh... yes?"
Xena gave him a searching stare, and then raised her eyes to the heavens, a palm on her forehead. "You idiot," she murmured. "Let's get out of here before you do any more damage."
He gave her a sincerely hurt look. "Xena, wha'd I say?"
There was no response, merely an arm around his shoulder as they stepped away from the bar. "Joxer, remember what I told you outside the tavern?"
"What was it?"
"You'd kick my ass if I did-"
"The part before that," she said, cutting him off.
He thought about it as they walked out of the tavern. "I try too hard?"
"Exactly." She paused, turning him to face her as she transferred a cooing Eve to her other hip. "Joxer, you don't need to come up with a line. The reason these girls will like you is because of you. You are a great guy, you don't need fancy lines or stupid come-ons. All you need is you."
He looked away, feeling his heart sink slightly. "It didn't work with Gabrielle."
Xena gave him a small smile. "Well, Gabrielle is a special case. She's a little... confused right now, Joxer. Can you blame her? She's got a lot to deal with."
He nodded, blowing his breath out in a sigh as he thought of the beautiful blonde. "You're right."
"Of course I'm right." She looked over to the stables, and pursed her lips. "I think I'll go check on Argo. Do me a favor, hold Eve for me while I go in?"
"Huh? Oh sure." He took the wiggling child in his arms, and nodded. "You want me to just wait out here?"
"I think so. Argo's been feeling a little left out recently, what with Eve and the new horse and everything. I think I should spend a little quality time alone with the old girl."
Joxer gave her funny grin and just shook his head. "Sure, Xena. I'll go sit over there."
"That's my boy." She patted him on the shoulder and ran off in the direction of the stables. Joxer stared after her, and then sighed, turning the baby so that she was nose to nose with him.
"Well, Mommy went to go visit her OTHER baby, so whaddya say we go take a seat and chat, huh?"
Eve gave him a gummy smile.
"Good, me too." Cradling her affectionately against his chest, Joxer carefully bore his burden to a rock on the other side of the road.
"See, here, Eve. This is the perfect place to look at people," he said, planting a kiss on her head. "See, that man over there? He likes that girl." He pointed as he whispered. "See the flowers he's gonna give her? Well, girls like flowers." Eve gurgled and kicked her feet in consensus. "Yup, I'll bet you'll get lotsa flowers, huh? You know, Gabrielle's favorite flower is the daisy."
Eve turned to study him, her blue eyes beautiful and sparkling. He gave her a soft smile. "You sure are pretty. Just like your momma. Both of them." Eve's face burst into a radiant grin, and her chubby hands reached up to carefully grab at his nose.
"Whoa!" He laughed, pulling back. "Be careful, what if you have Gabby's grip?"
"Oh! What a precious baby!" Joxer jumped, and felt his head swivel up to discover two young women gazing at him from not two feet away.
One of them clapped her hands together, and came scurrying up. "Oh, she's so precious! Is she yours?"
Joxer felt himself smile at the woman's appreciation of the amazing Eve and shook his head. "No, I'm the uncle. I'm just baby-sitting."
"Oh!" The other one came forward to sit on the other side of him, leaning against him to grab Eve's tiny hand.
Joxer was suddenly sandwiched between the two girls, but he didn't really notice, he was also focused on the child. "Her name is Eve," he said deliberately, unable to keep the smile off of his face as he let his eyes twinkle with affection for the child.
"Oh, she's adorable, and she adores you!" The one on his left put a hand on his shoulder, and then looked up. "Ada! Come look at this... what's your name?"
"Joxer," he answered conversationally.
"Oh, it's not my bab-"
"Oh! She's so cute! You two look so cute together!" The third one scurried forward. "Hello, little girl!"
Joxer suddenly began to realize exactly what his situation was, and bit his lip, feeling his heart hammer in his chest slightly. "Uhh... well, It's been nice-"
"So where's your wife?" one queried.
"Oh, I'm not married," he answered quickly.
"Really? And you're so good with children." He felt his chest puff up with pride at that sentiment, and was about to turn and thank the kind young lady for the compliment when he realized her hand was planted quite firmly against his chest and her eyes were twinkling with a look that could only be described as hunger.
Joxer's throat suddenly went dry when he realized the rest of them were looking at him the exact same way.
"So, a handsome unmarried man who is amazing with children. Quite a catch, hey girls?" The girl's eyes were positively dancing now.
Gabrielle easily outran her father, and reached the middle of town a few minutes before he did.
Stopping at Lila and her mother, she grabbed Lila's shoulder and looked to see what had caused the commotion.
Her breath caught. Five ugly, burly, dirty men in armor were talking with the town elders and one held the lead elder quite firmly by the cuff of his shirt.
"What's going on?" she asked, pulling her Sais out of her boots and starting forward.
Her mother caught her arm before she could break away from the crowd. "Gabrielle!"
Lila caught her other arm, whispering hastily in her ear. "These men come every year. They take the best of our crop and then they leave."
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "What?! And you allow this?"
"They'd kill us otherwise!"
Gabrielle felt her throat go dry, and her head swiveled to study the five men. They weren't incredibly strong. Not intimidating at all, at least not to her.
She looked back at Lila. "But there are only five!"
"There are more than five, Gabrielle." Her mother waved a hand in her face, motioning her to quiet down. "There are at least ten more at their camp."
"What camp?" she breathed. "How long will they stay here?"
"Usually at least about three days."
Gabrielle's eyes were hooded as she watched the thugs, holding the elder with an arrogance that she had seen too often before. Her eyes narrowed, and her jaw clenched. This had gone on long enough.
With a quick move, she pulled Lila away from the group, making sure the thugs who were inspecting the crowd hadn't seen her yet.
"Lila," she whispered fiercely. "Do these men know about me?"
Lila gave her an inquisitive stare. "What? No, Gabrielle. I mean, they've never mentioned the fact that you or Xena pass through here occasionally. I guess they just picked Poteidaia cause it was easy to capture. Gabrielle." Lila licked her lips, grabbing onto her sister's forearm. "Every year they kill someone to set an example. This year... I think it'll be our elder."
Gabrielle's eyes darted to the kindly old man, the fear in his face quite evident.
"I'm not going to let that happen, Lila," she breathed. "Don't tell Mom or Dad I've left." She turned to move away, but Lila caught her arm again.
"Gabrielle! What are you doing?"
"What do you think I'm doing? I'm going to stop them."
"But there are at least 20, Gabrielle!"
Gabrielle gave her sister an uncertain nod, and then smiled. "Lila, I'll be fine. Trust me, I can hold my own."
"Against twenty men?!"
She winked at her sister, a gleam in her eye that made Lila look at her with an expression that made it clear she wasn't sure she was seeing her sister. "Against more than that."
With that, she slunk away, running back to the fields, and skirting the edge of town.
It was just a matter of finding their camp, and putting them out of commission. That was all.
After about ten minutes of petting her other baby, Xena emerged from the stables happier and relaxed.
Joxer's little change was progressing nicely, and his willingness to really help himself put a smile on her lips.
As she stepped through the doorway, the thought hit her that she was doing with Joxer what she had done with so many - molded them to become what she had believed to be extensions of what they truly were.
But then she had created monsters. Now... she was creating a confident man, one who truly knew himself, and could be proud of himself.
He could have a true sense of pride, of honor and knowledge that he was a loyal, brave, good, albeit clumsy, man.
Stopping in a few feet from the tavern, she searched for her old friend, her blue eyes roving over the crowds milling about until they landed on a group of about five young women fawning over someone.
Her eyebrow rose. Cocking her head, the Warrior Princess let her steely gaze linger on the group, cracking her knuckles as she walked forward slowly.
Poor Joxer looked like he was about to get eaten alive.
Xena let a smirk grace her beautiful lips and came forward, catching snippets of the conversation between Joxer, Eve and the baby groupies.
Joxer was stammering now, not used to the attention, and quite unsure how to handle it. He held Eve tightly to him, almost as if he was using her as a shield against the women to keep them at arms length, trying to be as polite as possible.
He was frustrating them, she could tell. It was quite obvious he refused to get the hint that a couple of those girls wanted to get asked out.
A low chuckle rumbled in her throat at his frightened look, and she decided it was time to butt in.
"Oh, Joxer, honey," she purred, coming forward, looking each one of the women in the eye, with a cool icy gaze.
"Xena!" Joxer had never looked so happy to see her in his life. "Baby! Eve! Here!" He thrust the baby at her, and immediately stepped behind her. Xena took Eve calmly in her arms, and then glared at the women with a dangerous, smoldering look.
"Xena, Warrior Princess?" stammered one.
"Yup!" Joxer's head bobbed up and down. "Xena!"
Xena suppressed a smirk at the relief in his voice. "Well, thank you ladies, for keeping my boy Joxer company. You can leave."
The women exchanged glances, but quickly dispersed. Joxer gave Xena a thankful pat. "Thanks, Xena. I don't know what happened there."
"They were definitely into you," she murmured, holding Eve tighter. "Wha'd you do?"
"Nothing! I mean, I was just sitting there, talking to Eve and one of them asked about her so I answered her, and wasn't even thinkin' about hitting on her and the next thing I knew-"
"They were all over you." Xena chuckled, and motioned for him to follow her. "Duh, Joxer."
He gave her a bewildered look. She rolled her eyes, proceeding to expand her claim. "Joxer, you weren't thinking up any cheesy lines, you were just being yourself, with no pretension, and the times when you're being sincere, you're sweet, mellow, even charismatic. But when you try to turn up the charm, you come off like a ...jerk. You just proved it. You are attractive to women, Joxer. You just have to be yourself."
He thought about what she said, and suddenly a radiant smile floated on his face. "So that's my secret?"
She rolled her eyes, smacking him lightly. "There IS no secret, Joxer. You're just being you. That's enough. The minute you start to THINK about it, you lose it."
He pursed his lips, lost in thought. "I don't know how to turn it off, Xena. I don't even know I'm doing it. What happened back there happened like, without me even noticing? It was ... to tell you the truth, it was scary."
Xena laughed out loud then, and nudged her friend once. "Oh, Joxer. What am I going to do with you?" He gave her a sheepish smile, and Eve giggled. Xena shook her head morosely. "Come on, I'm getting stir-crazy wandering around this place with no fighting. Let's see if we can round up some warlord or something. I've been itching for a good fight."
Joxer nodded his assent. "You know, us warrior types aren't used to the peaceful lifestyle, huh? Good thing that Gabrielle's getting her quiet time with her parents. You know, the safe and restful life."
There was a tick in Xena's jaw, but she refused to follow through on the urge to smack him upside the head. She only just shook it off and nodded. "Yes, Joxer. Good thing. Gabrielle deserves a rest."
The blonde quietly stole down the length of the branch, making sure it would hold her as she arranged herself to look down into the camp.
There were only ten. A paltry number, to be sure. Gabrielle narrowed her eyes and looked over their weapons. Bows, arrows... swords... nothing too hard to deal with. No need to call Xena in on this. She doubted there would be time.
With a sigh, she waited quietly, as one began to move around. They had gotten lazy; no one had expected opposition, and that gave her time, the advantage.
Waiting, she tossed a pebble directly beneath her. The slight movement caused the soldier to stiffen immediately, grip his sword and walk forward carefully. It never occurred to the other soldiers to watch his back, or to him to look up.
Swiftly, she flew down, directly on top of him, knocking him out with a swift kick to his head.
That alarmed the rest of the thugs, who each scrambled up to their feet to view the new threat.
Gabrielle gave them a brilliant smile. "Hi, guys." With no other warning, she scooped up the sword that had been dropped, forgotten, by the fallen warrior, with her foot and hurled it at the front soldier.
The yell that accompanied it sprang them into action, and with the exception of the thug that had been knocked out by the flat of the sword, the soldiers came charging toward her.
Gabrielle lost no time, ducking into a somersault and punching deep and hard into the gut of the tallest one, making sure the butt of the sais buried deep, knocking the wind out of him. With a furious yell, she swung to the rear, effectively blocking the blow of one who tried to get her from behind, and thrust her leg back, knocking him down with a jab to his right knee.
It was utter chaos for about five minutes. There was shouting, but it was quickly muffled, followed by the clanging of metal, and suddenly a cloud of dust. Before she knew it, she was the only one standing, and every one of the men were on the ground in various states of pain.
Gabrielle clenched her jaw, rubbing at a spot of blood that had appeared on her arm that wasn't hers.
None of them were dead. She cocked her head, thanking the Gods that she hadn't had to kill any of them as she began to peruse the camp for a rope. She wouldn't have thought twice, true, but killing was not something she took lightly. She had gone through too much to kill without thinking about it.
So far, the only things these men had done was attack a village. However, the moment they dare threaten any one of her loved ones, they were as good as dead, and she knew they could see it in her eyes.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to kill you," she told them. "Not now. But don't push it."
So close to Poteidaia, to be feeling this dispassionate nature. Gabrielle closed her eyes, allowed her heart skip a beat as she thought of the time when she had left this little village, with her high hopes and her even bigger expectations.
She was doing this for love. She remembered her first meeting with Aphrodite, during the time Joxer had changed personalities every time a bell rang.
She remembered telling her, soft and sweetly. "Love is soft and gentle; it's not violent and cruel."
Aphrodite had turned to her and given her a blank stare before smiling wickedly. "You don't know much about love, do you?"
Gabrielle looked at the men who lay groaning on the ground, acknowledging that she was doing this for love.
"I guess not," she murmured.
Shaking her head, she allowed one soft smile of remembrance before sliding the Sais into her boots, and gathering the rope in her hand. She was running out of time. She still had those five in the village to contend with, and those, most likely the leaders, were not going to be as easy to defeat.
Joxer held Eve tighter to him, and ducked as a body flew over him. "Uh... Xena? Do you mind keeping the fighting away from us?"
Xena gave him a look from her tussle with the five men. "Oh, yeah. Sorry." She let out a war cry and flipped over their heads, turning the direction of the fighting.
Eve gave Joxer a soft smile of contentment, used to the thwacks and screams that were caused by her mommy. He sat in the corner of the tavern, shaking his head at the men who had dared to try and rob it while Xena was inside.
She was having the time of her life. Her eyes lit up dangerously, and she was grinning from ear to ear, using everything the innkeeper had, from bottles to clay jugs to chairs, to fight the men. The rest of the customers were kept just as busy trying to scurry away from the flying bodies.
"You sure you're okay, Xena?" he asked, knowing the answer before she spoke.
"FINE! Watch Eve!" He nodded, wincing as her opponent got a particularly nasty hit to the head.
A part of him wanted to be in on that, but he remembered Gabrielle's lecture well, and he knew that right now, he was probably helping the best he could just taking care of the baby.
"So that's it," he murmured to the child. "I'm a baby-sitter." Eve gave him a wide smile, and seemed quite pleased with the fact. He waggled an eyebrow at the child, and she giggled.
There was a crash, the wall next to him rattled, and suddenly it was all quiet. He smiled at Eve. "See? All done."
He looked up to see Xena conversing with the still trembling innkeeper, and then turned, walked to Joxer, and took Eve with a gentleness that seemed almost out of place after the fighting she had just done.
"Well, that was nice, wasn't it Eve?" she cooed. "We've got free room and board, and Mommy got her violent streak taken care of for now."
Joxer just shook his head, and smiled. "Told ya you'd find something to keep you busy."
"Yup," she turned, and looked at him up and down. "So, now...what's next for you?" He shrugged, looking around the bar as the people tried to reconstruct something out of the mess Xena had made flinging the thugs about.
"Gabby'll be here soon."
"Well, we don't have much time to get you some dates then, do we?" Xena murmured, one finger to her lips in thought. She gave him another glance and snapped her fingers. "I've got it! One last touch!"
Grabbing his forearm, she led him out of the tavern.
Joxer rolled his eyes, allowing himself to be strung along, as he thought of Gabrielle. Hopefully she was having a good time.
She was with her family after all. What could go wrong in little old Poteidaia?
It was getting dark, and Gabrielle rode hard, pushing her horse faster as she rode back to Poteidaia.
Her muscles were tensed, but she didn't waver, leaning forward, her mind concentrating on getting back in time to save the kindly elder.
She remembered him well. When she was a child, she had scraped her knee on a dirt road, and had cried so hard Lila had been at her wit's end. The old man had picked her up, fed her cookies and milk and bandaged her knee with such care she had followed him around for weeks.
She felt her throat close up at the memory. Gods, this used to be home. It was a good home.
And yet it wasn't enough anymore.
She entered the village and saw the crowd still hadn't dissipated. She saw the villagers; saw the farmers putting their hard earned crop in the wagon; saw her father doing the same, and felt her chest tighten.
With a kick in her horses ribs, she galloped quickly, causing such a commotion that the crowds parted before her, leaving her to freely gallop into the center of the dirt town square.
The five men looked up, stunned at both her boldness and her entrance. One kept his hold on the elder, tightening it, causing the old man to cry out in pain.
The leader came forward, eyeing Gabrielle up and down, and then smiled with a leer, obviously liking what he saw. "An Amazon?"
She gave him a grim smile. "An Amazon Queen," she corrected. "And you're looting a village whose crops don't deserve to be taken."
He gave her a grin, and then laughed, "So you're their little protector, is that it? Who do you think you are, Xena?" The other warriors joined in the laughter. Gabrielle merely raised an eyebrow, and out of the corner of her eye, saw Lila step a few feet from the crowd.
"She's Xena's best friend!"
The crowd murmured their agreement, and the smiles slid off the men's faces. The leader looked at her more closely this time, and his eyes widened, and the smile returned.
"You're the little blonde sidekick?" He laughed in delight. "Well this is great, I always wanted to see how good you were in action."
Gabrielle saw her father's eyes darken with rage at the innuendo and she shot him a look, warning him to keep quiet. His father caught her eyes, seemed surprised by the intensity within them, and without thinking, obeyed.
"Leave." Her command rang with authority, her eyes sparkled with challenge. "Leave and nothing will happen to you. Don't make me kill you."
The leader cocked his head, motioned to the man who held the elder to keep holding him tight, and merely shook his head. "There are five of us here, little girl. And I don't see no Xena backing you up."
"I don't need Xena, and you don't have back up. Your men are tied up and on their way to a jail," came Gabrielle's response. "Here's proof." She took up the belts she had removed from them and tossed them into the dust at their feet.
They stared at the belts in disbelief.
"Let him go, and I won't kill you," Gabrielle said softly. There was something wrong with killing here, tainting the soil where she and Lila had played with the blood of murder. She didn't want to kill here. Any other place, with Xena, she would not have questioned it. But not here, not in her little peaceful town.
"I got a better idea. Why don't we kill that old man, a few others, and have our way with you?"
The man spit at her, unbelieving, and with a wave of his hand, motioned to the others to draw their knives.
Gabrielle saw the elder get pulled back roughly, saw the knife come down.
Without a second thought, she slid her knife from the sheath on the saddle and hurled it with a yell.
Her aim was true, and before the killer had time to blink, he was on the floor, convulsing in his own blood, the elder falling free away from him.
Without a second thought, Gabrielle slid off her horse; her eyes blazing as the other four came forward.
Two came at her at once, and it only took a second to duck under their swinging swords and lunge, burying her Sais into their stomachs.
She grabbed the sword of one and yelled, blocking the attack of the third. He swung again, and she jumped over the moving sword, falling into a somersault and sticking her sword up, wounding him severely in his right leg.
Kicking his sword away, she turned to face the last of them.
The leader was bulky and tall, and there was insecurity in his eyes at her recent acts, but he still stood firm.
"I won't kill you if you stop now," she said softly.
And he laughed, he actually laughed as he came forward. Immediately Gabrielle was on the defensive, meeting each swing of his sword with a clang.
He was fighting to kill, and Gabrielle felt her mind go blank, concentrating on every move he made. Her body became slick with sweat as she countered his advances, which came rapidly.
Biting her lip, she blocked a heavy hit with the sword, and with a yell buried her knee in his groin.
He groaned, but recovered quickly, felling her with a sideswipe, causing her to fall to the ground.
His sword came down fast, but she was faster, rolling to her side, and sticking the sharp end of her sword up with a furious yell.
There was the sickening sound of her sword plunging into his gut, and Gabrielle drove it in to the hilt, not even noticing when her mother gasped and the crowds stepped back.
She didn't notice anything as she planted her foot on the dead man's chest, pushed with her leg and slid the sword out, studying the blood on it and dropping it on the ground next to him.
The village was in absolute silence.
Gabrielle's horse trotted up to her, nudged her in the back and she patted him absently.
"Good boy," she whispered, pressing her lips against her muzzle before turning to the wounded elder.
Her eyes were shining brilliantly, her skin glowing from the exertion; concern etched in her beautiful face as she leaned down and inspected the cut on the elder's cheek.
"You'll be fine," she said softly, holding it together. "All we need are some stitches." She looked up, saw her sister Lila staring at her with wide eyes. "Lila, will you fetch me some needle and thread?" Lila shook herself, and then took a breath, gathering her skirt and running back to their little house.
"That's Gabrielle?!" murmured an old friend, and Gabrielle pretended she hadn't heard. She looked at them all, saw the faces with which they were looking at her. She wasn't Gabrielle to them. She had seen that look before; she had often pitied Xena because she had always been on the receiving end.
It was fear, mixed with awe. The knowledge that although she was good, although she fought for them, she also had the strength and capability to be a true killer, to be an enemy.
They no longer knew who she was; they were looking at a stranger.
They were looking at Xena.
Lila scurried back. Gabrielle wiped her hands on a rag that she had taken out of her horse's pouch and quickly set to work patching the old man up.
She was done in five minutes, and then she gave him a tender, loving smile.
"Thank you, Gabrielle," he whispered back. She placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, and Lila and herself picked him up, and gave him to his thankful wife.
Gabrielle turned, her blue green eyes sparkling as she looked each and every one of the villagers in the eyes. There was dead quiet, not even her father nor her mother quite sure what to do.
Gabrielle gave them a small smile, a familiar grin that spoke of childhood and memories.
She moved to the men who had her knives impaled in them, and covering their wounds with rags, pulled them out, ignoring their outbursts of pain. She motioned to the man she knew to be the town healer. "These three can still be saved." He nodded, coming forward with two other men to tend to them.
"They would have killed you," she explained to the stunned throng, shrugging. Squeezing Lila's hand, she turned, walking through the crowd.
As she walked away, back to the hut, to the place where she had grown up, the spot where she had written on her scrolls, dreamed of being a great bard, dreaming of greatness and the peace that she would bring about in the world, Gabrielle heard the resounding cheers encompass the area behind her.
They were cheering for Gabrielle, their new champion.
Peace was worth fighting for. This she strongly believed. She was proud of who she was. She was happy with who she was.
But Poteidaia had now become tainted. Gabrielle had killed in her hometown, she had tainted its and her own pure memories forever.
Her daughter had died here, and Gabrielle had killed here.
For some reason, as she walked away, Gabrielle had tears in her eyes.
"You're making me smell like flowers?!" Joxer had taken a lot from Xena, but making him smell? "Xena, I'll smell like a woman!"
Xena rolled her eyes, and just shook her head. "It's a masculine smell, Joxer. Trust me, it'll drive women crazy." Joxer narrowed his eyes at her, but said nothing.
He merely held Eve closer and whispered in her ear about her mother's insanity. Eve giggled.
Xena watched their exchange with a raised eyebrow, and crossed her arms. "Well, since you two are getting along SO well, why don't you spend the rest of the afternoon together?"
Joxer's eyes widened. "But-"
"I'll be around. Be good, and take care of Joxer, all right Eve?" Xena kissed the child on the forehead, and smacked Joxer on the shoulder with a bit more force than necessary. "Here's her bag, change her in half an hour. Have fun!"
With wide eyes, Joxer watched her walk out of the store, never looking back. He looked down at Eve with a furiously beating heart, and she stared right back at him, as if unsure of what to think about spending the whole afternoon with him.
"Aww, don't worry, Eve. You and I will have a great old time together," he assured the child, rocking her gently. "Come on, let's go look at the pigs, that's always fun." He turned abruptly, and almost smacked into the salesgirl that had helped him before. "Ah! Ooops! I'm sorry!" he apologized profusely.
The salesgirl smiled good-naturedly, just shaking her head as she rearranged her clothes. "Oh, it's fine. I remember you now. Joxer, right?"
He nodded, blushing. "Sorry, about that. I mean, you're not hurt are ya?"
"Fine, though I don't think you got my name," she responded. "I'm Tara."
"Hi, Tara," he nodded politely.
Her eyes went down to Eve. "And that's... Eve, right?" He nodded, smiling back. "Playing baby-sitter tonight?"
"I guess so," Joxer shrugged. "I don't mind."
She raised an eyebrow, and her eyes went over his ensemble. "Those clothes are really working for you, Joxer. How's the make-over thing going?"
He sighed, transferring a scrambling Eve to the other arm. "Okay, I guess. I mean, Xena says I have my look, but as far as... you know... the other part-"
"Dating?" supplied Tara.
He sighed, "Yeah, dating. I'm not doin' so well. I can't seem to have a decent conversation with a girl without screwing up."
She cocked an eyebrow. "Well, you're talking to me, and you're doing fine."
"Well, yeah, but that's different," he shrugged off.
"You're helping me. I don't have a problem really talking to you. You, and Gabby and Xena, are kinda like my friends. I mean, you helped me with my clothes, and stuff."
She gave him a pretty smile. "Okay, so how about I keep helping? Ask me out."
He gave her a surprised glance, and then his face lit up realization. "Oh, you mean, like for practice?"
She chuckled. "Yeah, for practice, Joxer."
He smiled, and took a breath. "Okay. Umm..."
"Start off by asking me what I'm doing tomorrow night," she suggested.
"What are you doing tomorrow night?" he repeated obediently.
"I'm free," she responded. He nodded, pursing his lips, trying to come up with the next sentence. She rolled her eyes. "Now ask me if I like to do something with you? Say a play, or... a dance?"
"I'm a terrible dancer," he responded.
"So you'll learn. Now ask," she ordered.
He took a breath. "Okay. Tara, would you like to do something with me tomorrow night? Like a play or... dancing, which I'll learn how to do?"
She seemed to think about it, and then burst into a smile. "I would love to. I live on the north end of town, with my parents. My house has the gray fence. Be there at seven and don't be late."
His eyebrows narrowed in confusion as she tapped his chest lightly, smiled at Eve and turned around. "But wait! Um... wasn't that practice?"
She stopped, turning her head as her eyes twinkled at him. "For sure. And we can 'practice' going out on a date tomorrow. Just don't be late. Girls hate that. We like to be the ones to keep you waiting." She winked, and walked back to her part of the store.
Joxer was left with his jaw hanging open. Did he just get a date? Oh, Gods. He just got a date. By just being himself.
He looked down at Eve who was watching him solemnly. "It's got to be you, Eve. You're my lucky charm."
The baby smiled a gummy smile. It seemed that she agreed whole-heartedly.
It had taken Gabrielle a full three days to get used to her own bed again. But today, as she reached the cottage and slipped inside, she was asleep immediately.
She dreamed, and they were good dreams. Dreams of Xena and Eve, and Joxer. In her dreams she was laughing and telling stories.
In her dreams she was holding Eve, and hugging Xena. She was even holding Joxer, her cheek was against his scruffy hair and he was holding her. A nice firm hold.
They were both looking at her and there was never a question in their eyes of who she was.
They loved her unconditionally. It didn't matter who she was, or who she thought she was, or how much she changed. They loved her no matter what, and more than she had ever conceived it was possible to be loved.
She slept and dreamt for a long time, and it felt nice. It felt nice to dream about being across from that warm fire and feeling Joxer's arms around her, hearing Xena's purr of a voice and Eve's warm gurgle. It was who she was, her family.
She missed them. In her dreams, she closed her eyes, and she felt the haze of the battle pour from her, felt the fondness of love in Joxer's arms. She could hear his voice telling her that he loved her, and she felt the fierce hardness of her heart melt away, and be replaced with a love that was soft and gentle.
In his arms, she wasn't protecting anyone. He was protecting her, his love was keeping her safe from so many things. His love was keeping the gentleness inside of her safe and warm. She wasn't a killer in his arms. For the minutes there, she was Gabrielle, the little girl of Poteidaia, who dreamed of love and peace and contentment.
She sighed, and felt her heart swell with emotion, catching Xena's eyes from across the campfire and seeing the Warrior Princess' blue orbs twinkle with love and amusement.
She smiled back, and then turned her head, looking up into Joxer's brown eyes. His gaze caught hers, and on his face was that beautiful goofy grin.
Her eyes glittered, and she felt his arms tighten around her, felt her head lean up and felt his lips descend onto hers in one beautiful kiss-
"Gabrielle!" Gabrielle's eyes opened, and she found her body was flushed with warmth. She shook the thoughts from her mind, and held a shaking hand to her head.
What had she been dreaming? Oh, Gods, no. It was just a dream. Just a crazy, stupid dream.
"Gabrielle? Are you all right?" Her eyes squinted and suddenly her father's concerned face came into focus.
She groaned and nodded, trying to blink away the sleep and the feelings that her dream had brought her.
"Yeah, I'm fine. It's just a... stupid... dream." She sat up, rubbing at her arms as if to warm herself, and then turned to her father. "How long was I asleep?"
"A good day. You were exhausted, Gabrielle."
She yawned, and stretched, smiling sheepishly at her father. "It's been a stressful year.
"I sensed that," he remarked softly. There was a moment of silence, as she waited for her father to speak, and he smiled grimly. "You saved our village, Gabrielle. Those men had been bothering us for years."
She shrugged. "I only did what I had to, Father."
"Yes, but you saved Nebuth's life. His wife and his family are very grateful. You've saved our crops. My little girl." A small smile of pride arose on his face before he quickly stifled it. "And you killed."
She froze, looking away from her father. "I did what I had to, Father," she repeated. "Those men would have done much worse."
"I'm aware of that. It's just that... no one, least of all myself, ever thought that you would plunge a sword into a man, or throw a knife into another's head." She winced, but her face remained passive as her father continued to speak. "My little bard, almost as good as the Warrior Princess herself. You're a hero, Gabrielle, and I notice you've become quite aware of the consequences."
She swallowed, her eyes surprised as she looked at her father's wise face. "As a child, I knew you were special, Gabrielle. You always had a pure soul, a soul that I never wanted anything to hurt. I wanted you to experience only the good in life. And yet you always insisted on biting off more than you could chew." He smiled lightly at the memory. "Your mother and I thought that marrying you to Perdicas would be a way of... curbing that, saving you from the pain that you might have inflicted on yourself. And instead you ran away with Xena. You got married, but because of her, he died the next day. You've died twice, Gabrielle. You've suffered more than I can sometimes bear." She felt tears in her eyes at her father's pain, but forced herself not to move from her bed. "My little girl has become a glorious woman, one that I am sure, is very confused about who she is. And that's partly our fault. Your mother and I never supported your decision to live the life the way you did because of the pain it caused you. But it what you're destined for, isn't it?"
Her throat was full and her voice unsteady as she spoke. "Father, you can't think that my life has been full of pain. Yes, some of my worst times have been with Xena, but so have been some of the best. I chose the path I did because of love. For my family. For you. I know what I've become, but I'm still Gabrielle. And it's because of the way you raised me that I still have this love in my heart."
He nodded, swallowing heavily. "I love you, Gabrielle."
A tear slid from her eye as she answered, "I love you, Daddy." He gathered her in his arms. Gabrielle cried, and the strong father comforted the Amazon Queen, the archangel, the storyteller, the warrior, the bard.
In that moment Gabrielle knew the truth about herself, and she began to sob, a mixture of relief and a torrent of emotion as the release that she had tried so hard to prevent from coming escaped her with a shudder.
She knew that no matter what happened, no matter what she had become, one thing would always remain the same, as her father put it into words.
"I'm so very proud of you," he whispered. "And no matter what, you'll always be my little girl."
Xena had made sure he was on time. She had covered etiquette with him over and over so many times his head was swimming, and she had even coached him on the art of small talk. Truthfully, Joxer thought he came off rather small-minded when he tried, and it showed.
Tara was sitting in the bar with him, and looked slightly bored as he tried to stammer through the compliments, and tried to even remember Xena's one main piece of advice.
"No matter what happens, be yourself."
Who was she kidding? What had being himself got him? Nothing. Gabrielle didn't love him. She barely tolerated him at times, and even though she said she loved him, it had taken him almost dying for her to admit it. He was a loser. Auto could turn on the charm, and woman fell all over that guy. Why not Joxer?
And he tried, he really tried. And he bombed. He really bombed.
"And gee... you look pretty tonight. Did you smell like that on purpose? Augh... I mean, that-"
Tara sighed, her hand holding her head up as she gazed at him in resigned silence.
"Joxer," she said finally.
"You're trying too hard," he answered in chorus with her, and she smiled. He groaned, putting his head on the table and covering it with his hands.
He heard Tara laugh, and then move around, sitting next to him. "All right, mighty man. What is it really?"
"I'm no good at this." He opened one eye to look up at her. "Have you ever been in love with someone and you just KNOW that you'll never ever love anyone else?"
Tara's face grew wide and a little frightened. "Well, Joxer... um... I'm flattered but-"
"Not you," he cut her off, then quickly amended, "Not that you're not a vision of beauty-"
"Cut the crap," she said, her eyes twinkling. "Okay, if it's not beautiful me, who is it, Xena?"
He gave her a strange look. "No. Not that Xena isn't a vision of beauty but-"
"Okay, okay." She waved him to silence and cocked her head. "Then who, oh mighty dork?"
He smiled, a nice, soft dazed look cascading over his face and a bit of a chuckle in his voice. "Her name's Gabrielle."
Tara leaned against the table, and raised an eyebrow. "THE Gabrielle? Xena's side-kicky person?"
"The one that writes down all their adventures?"
"The one that mentions you as a clumsy-"
"Really?" She crossed her arms, a small smile of amusement floating across her features. "So, does she know?"
He nodded, his smile fading a bit. "Yeah. And she doesn't feel the same way."
"Hmm." Tara looked genuinely sorry for Joxer as she studied the man, her eyes darkening a bit. "So that's why you turned into the cutie that I see before me?"
"No." He shook his head violently. "Well, yes, but not the yes you think. See... I don't like making her uncomfortable, and well, I travel with them a whole lot, and Xena and I thought that maybe if I learn to be myself, and try to... move on, I might... make her a bit more...comfortable," he mumbled. He sighed. "Sounds stupid, huh?"
A small, fond smile floated onto her face. "Actually, Joxer, that has to be the sweetest thing I've ever heard. She doesn't deserve you. But I'll tell you what," she leaned forward, and winked, "If it's dates you want, I can give them to you. I know tons of girls who would LOVE to dance or... stumble the night away with a wonderful guy who isn't a jerk, and who's cute."
He gave her a strange look, and suddenly he grinned. "You think I'm cute?"
"Joxer, if I wasn't madly in love with that guy over there, and wasn't using you to make him jealous, I'd be all over you."
He turned to see a particularly bulky guy staring daggers at him from across the room. "Oh... I'm ... flattered?"
Tara laughed. "Don't worry, he won't kill you. We'll just let him stew and then we'll leave. After we give you some nice exposure. What do you say, Joxer? Can I help you on your little quest?"
He gave her a questioning glance. "Why do you wanna?"
She shrugged. "Hey, I dressed you! I feel committed. Besides, you are just too adorable to be mooning over some Amazon Queen who doesn't see enough in you to really love you like that. I won't even charge you. How's that?"
He shrugged, deciding that help from the obnoxious pretty sales girl was better than no help at all. At least she wouldn't kick him in the seat of the pants like Xena did. He cast suspicious eyes at the angry boyfriend. Though she just might succeed in getting him killed, regardless.
He smiled, and let his eyes twinkled at her. "You know what?"
"Tonight has been pretty great. Xena's right. I mean... I guess I never thought that being myself was good enough. So I had to pretend to be something else. But that's not true, huh?"
Tara shrugged, giving him a small smile. "Well, I barely know you, and I think you're a big clumsy dork." Her face broke out in a gorgeous grin. "But an irresistible clumsy dork." Her eyes narrowed. "You sure this isn't just an act?"
He chuckled. "Do you anyone would fall like that on purpose?"
She laughed. "I guess not. Come on, let's dance."
"No! I told you! I don't dance."
Tara pulled at his hand. "Come on, Joxer! Any idiot knows that the way to a woman's heart is through dancing."
"Not this idiot," he responded. "And I'm funny. Isn't that enough?"
"Not in this town."
He kept still, his butt firmly on the bench. "All right, Tara. Do you want squashed feet?"
The salesgirl looked down at her tiny feet, and immediately had a change of heart. "Okay, fine," she said, sitting down next to him.
He laughed. "And you said I didn't know how to talk to women."
Tara smacked his arm, and Joxer smiled. Maybe this date wasn't a total
The Warrior Princess was seething. Xena ducked into the tavern, eyes looking out for her very fickle friend Joxer. Where the hell was he?
She had ordered him to stay put so that she could check up on him. After all, this was his first date, and since she had invested so much in his little studliness, she wanted to make sure the guy didn't screw it up.
A soft smile of affection caressed her lips and she gave Eve a wink. "You know, when he's not trying so hard, he really can be quite charming, can't he?"
Eve kicked her feet and gurgled, grinning at her mother.
"Yeah, so we're agreed." She held the baby tighter to her, and searched the place, finding it was rather crowded. Without his little pointed hat, it was harder to catch sight of the young man.
She froze, her mind registering the familiar voice and yet unable to quite remember whose it was. Turning, her eyes fell on a handsome man in a black studded vest, his expression casual, but his eyes bright.
"Rafe?" He nodded, smiling, and Xena felt her heartbeat quicken, suddenly remembering how long it had been since she had seen the con artist. It had been a year or two, at the very least.
He looked down at the child who was scrambling around in her arms, and a small smile floated across his face. "I take it that's Eve?"
Xena held her tighter, her blue eyes filled with suspicion. "Yes."
He laughed at the wary tone. "Xena, don't look so surprised. I mean, come on, a war with the Gods over a child? That's big news, and it travels fast."
"Mmmhmm," Xena cocked an eyebrow, suddenly smirking. "And what are the odds?"
"55/45, God's favor," he responded immediately.
"Really?" Xena leaned against the bar. "I'm losing?"
"Well, they ARE the Gods, Xena," he answered, winking once. "After word gets around about that Amphipolis siege, though, I'm sure things will even up."
"I can't wait," Xena responded dryly, her eyes roving around the tavern.
Rafe saw her eyes wandering, and queried, "Waiting for someone?"
"Not really, more like looking," she said, and suddenly her eyes fell on a young man at a table, surrounded by women. He was in the middle of a huge discussion, and suddenly slipped, landing on the ground, and the table erupted in laughter. Two girls helped him back up and slapped the dust off his tunic. "Aha."
Rafe's eyes followed and he gasped. "Hey! Isn't that that-"
"The guy you conned out of his money and almost got killed?" Xena shot at him. He narrowed his eyes at her.
"Hey, I think I paid my dues concerning that. I did help you bring down that jerk, if I remember correctly."
"After a lot of nudging on my part."
He gave her a shrug. "But I did." He fell silent for a moment, and then sighed. "Wow, Xena. You... you still look beautiful. I have to say, motherhood agrees with you."
She cocked an eyebrow, not impressed with his flowery words. "I should hope so, otherwise Eve and I would be in a heap of trouble."
He looked down at the child, who smiled at him, and then asked quickly, "Can I hold her?"
Xena stared him down. "Depends on who your money's on."
He looked into her eyes and smiled, "The Warrior Princess, of course. Never bet against a sure thing."
She grinned, and handed him the child. "Spoken like a true con artist."
"Well there's a reason we're called artists." He gently took the child, cradling her securely against him. Eve giggled.
Xena gave him a glance filled with mirth. "She likes you."
"I do have a certain way with little ladies," he said self-assuredly, seconds before she spit up in his face. Xena's look was amused, and she tossed him a rag as she took back the baby.
"So what are you doing here, anyway?"
He motioned to the back, where a group of tables were devoted solely to gambling.
"I like the odds."
"And where's your partner?"
"Oh, him." Rafe sighed, shrugging. "Well, he went straight on me. Got himself a little wife and a baby, and isn't conning anymore."
"How dare he," was the droll reply.
"No kidding. Well. At least I have a place to go for Solstice. And Gabrielle? Married to the dork yet?"
"No, no. Gabrielle is still as single as they come. Visiting her parents. We should be meeting up in a day or so."
"Ahh. So you've got some extra time, then," confirmed Rafe. Xena gave him a startled glance.
"Why?" she asked suspiciously.
He blushed, which was actually quite charming on the conman, and Xena had to fight not to respond with a smile of her own. "Well, see, that guy over there?" He pointed out a particularly tough individual hanging out near the tables.
"Well, he's running a scam. Fixing the odds. Now, I'm not exactly the... straight-as-an-arrow type of guy, but uh... I like my gambling fair. And... uh... I was hoping..." he looked down, swallowing.
"Rafe," Xena interrupted, "Are you asking me to join you in a con?" Her eyes were dancing as she waited for his answer.
He looked nervous, and almost blushed but he just shrugged. "Yes."
She found herself smiling, a beautiful seductive grin, as she cocked an eyebrow. "I thought you'd never ask."
It was early in the morning when Gabrielle saddled her horse, trying to good-naturedly ignore the group of children that had taken to following her around since she had emerged from her parent's cottage. She didn't recognize any of them, and decided they must have been born after she had left.
"Is that your horse?" asked one, who had a thumb in his mouth.
Gabrielle nodded, brushing her horse's coat with an affectionate pat. "Yes, his name's Amber."
"Amber." The child scrunched his nose. "That's a girl's name."
A smirk floated on her face as she turned, pretending to stare him down. "And is there anything wrong with being a girl?"
"Nope! Silly," came his slightly older big sister, narrowing her eyes at him. "Looky at Gabrielle. She's a girl and she's the strongest person we've ever seen."
Gabrielle let a short burst of laughter escape her before she quickly muffled it. "I highly doubt that," she returned lightly.
But the little girl barely seemed dissuaded as she walked shyly up to Gabrielle, and whispered with her eyes glowing, "When I grows up, I'm going to be a big warrior like you, so's I can kill anyone that tries to harm our village."
Gabrielle's smile fell off of her face and her heart clenched tightly in her chest. Biting her lip, she turned from Amber and knelt down in front of the child. "What's your name?"
"Amaryllis, that's a pretty name," she responded seriously, taking the child's small hands in her own. "Listen to me, Amaryllis. Fighting is the last option. Being a warrior is very hard, and I betcha you can find something else that makes you even happier. That goes for all of you," she called out to the rest of the children. "War is not a good thing. People die, and every person that dies, you feel it, in here." She carefully pressed a finger to the area over her heart. "It hurts, a whole lot. You can be anything you want to be, but just remember, that you have to follow your heart to do it." She rose, reaching into her saddlebag and pulling out a necklace. "You see this?" she asked gruffly. The child nodded, her eyes filled with rapture at the sight of the beautiful necklace with the leather and the beads. Gabrielle's throat was oddly full as she fingered it. "This belonged to a friend of mine. She was raised to be a warrior, and she thought that was all that she could be. But she learned different. She helped me, and saved my life, and even learned to love someone she never thought she could. She died believing in that love and she became one of the greatest leaders I've ever seen. She was the type of woman you should aspire to become. Her name was Ephiny." Tears choked Gabrielle's voice, but she continued, "And she was a true Amazon, who believed in peace, fighting only when necessary. She believed in love." Her hands shook slightly, but nimbly she slid the leather necklace around the girl's neck. "Amaryllis, I want you to have this."
The child gasped in delight, her hands running over the jewelry as Gabrielle tied the bands together and smiled at her. "And every time you look at it, I want you to remember that love is the way to live, not war."
Amaryllis gazed at her with eyes of adoration and then lunged forward, clasping Gabrielle in a huge hug that almost choked the Amazon bard. She pressed her lips against Gabrielle's cheek, kissing her with a loud smack. "I won't forget, Gabrielle. And I won't lose it. Ever."
"That's good to know," Gabrielle responded. "'Cause I'm going to ask you all about it when I come back."
Amaryllis smiled and hugged her again. Then she turned, scampering off with the other children in her wake, running and calling out about the gift Gabrielle had given her.
Gabrielle rose, a soft smile on her lips, until she turned, and saw her mother gazing at her from the doorway.
Her mother's eyes were misty.
"No matter how much you think you've changed, dear, you'll never lose your way with words," she said huskily.
Gabrielle felt her throat close up and she turned, trying to still her emotion by returning to her original task of packing up her horse.
Hecuba came forward, her arms clasped around herself. "Are you sure you don't want to stay longer?"
Gabrielle smiled, and shook her head. "I promised Xena I'd meet her in Cinderus in a day, Mom. I can't keep her waiting. With all the craziness of the Gods I felt bad leaving her and Eve as long as I did."
"Hmmm. Why didn't she just come along?"
Gabrielle shrugged, her eyes on her horse as she answered. "I don't know. I think maybe... she knew that I needed this time alone. With my family." She looked back to her mother and smiled softly.
Hecuba walked up to the horse, laying one hand on his mane. "He's a magnificent horse, Gabrielle."
"Yes, he is." Gabrielle smiled, sliding her fingers through Amber's mane.
Her mother nodded her agreement, and then turned. "Well, dear, you tell your Xena and your Joxer to come along next time. I want to see this daughter of hers, and that boy Joxer needs some fattening up. He's too skinny. They are welcome here anytime."
"I'm sure they'll be glad to hear that."
Her mother was quiet, and her tone had softened when she spoke again, "Just don't wait too long for your next visit, Gabrielle. I promise, we'll make dinner a better experience. And you can wear whatever you like. Anything you wear you carry like a princess."
Gabrielle smiled, her eyes twinkling with hidden emotion. "Thank you, Mom." Her mother's eyes were shiny with unshed tears as she hugged her daughter. She leaned back, her hands gently cradling Gabrielle's face as she inspected her.
"I don't know what your father was talking about. You haven't changed one bit. You've still got that beautiful fire in your eyes."
Gabrielle's throat filled immediately and she reached forward, crushing her mother in an embrace that she returned.
"Gabrielle!" Lila came rushing out the house, and hugged her sister fiercely. "Don't forget! My birthday's in a month! You can't miss it."
"I wouldn't for the world," Gabrielle said warmly.
"Good, because I'm expecting a VERY nice gift from you," she returned pointedly.
Gabrielle laughed. "How about I bring Eve, Xena and Joxer? There's the entertainment right there!"
Lila narrowed her eyes and winked. "Only if you finally pay attention to the guy!"
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "What?"
"Yeah, you heard me. What is it with you? He's cute, he's sweet... what on earth are you waiting for? Or if not, at least let me have him!"
Gabrielle's jaw dropped, and she was about to respond when her mother stepped in. "Oh, you two! Gabrielle isn't interested in nice young men, Lila. Only rogues." Lila laughed, and Gabrielle huffed, but her mother only smiled, hugging her again before stepping back as her father came forward.
"Be good, my princess," he said, kissing the top of her head. Gabrielle smiled back, and then turned, sliding up onto her horse.
"I'll be back soon," she promised, looking at her family one more time with affectionate eyes before turning the horse away from them.
Her eyes were watery as she left, knowing they were watching her go, but she was smiling. It was nice to have two families that loved her so much.
Deep down, inside whoever she was, it was nice.
The ride to Cinderus was quick and uneventful, although Gabrielle could probably attribute that fact to the simple overwhelming urge to see Xena, Eve and, hell, even Joxer.
She hadn't seen Joxer in a while, and yes, she was big enough to admit it, she liked to have him around. He was a dork, but in a strictly platonic sort of way, he was HER dork, and she liked it that way.
It just felt so nice to finally be returning to where she felt she belonged, at Xena's side, with Eve and Joxer and Argo, righting wrongs, and … well, even singing songs.
She stifled the smirk on her face and attempted to still the giddiness in her heart. She was going home. Her real home and it felt so good.
She rode into the town just as the sun had begun to set. The rays had been at her rear, warming her back, and she was able to look at the village people as they scurried about. It was more crowded than she thought it would be.
Her eyes roved around, and then they lit up with realization. It was some sort of festival. Hmm.
Dismounting quickly, she led her horse carefully through the throngs, keeping her eyes peeled for a pointed hat or a tall striking blue-eyed warrior princess.
They were nowhere to be found.
After a bit of inquiring at a local merchant, she had gotten the information that the guy hadn't seen a dorky fellow in weird armor anywhere, but the Warrior Princess had been seen frequenting the tavern with a baby and two different men, both handsome.
Two DIFFERENT men? Gabrielle felt her eyes narrow at the thought, and quickly decided not to let the rumors get the better of her judgment.
Xena hadn't thought about men in ages. Her life, like Gabrielle's, was her child. There was no reason for that to change now.
Besides, Gabrielle had only been gone less than a week.
She made her way past the tavern, and found the stables, and to her great relief, Argo. The tan mare pranced and neighed, recognizing both rider and horse with a toss of her golden mane.
Gabrielle had spent the appropriate time patting and giving affection to the animal before corralling her own with her for the day.
The stable master had asked her if perhaps she wanted to pay for another day, but she had refused. After all, Xena was only waiting for her; they would most likely leave as soon as Gabrielle found them.
She walked out into the streets, only to find they had gotten even more crowded. All around her were couples and families, running, laughing, weaving among the stalls and wandering into the crowded tavern.
Gabrielle felt several appreciative sets of eyes upon her, and ignored them. She was very used to it by now, and quite honestly, nowadays, it did nothing but annoy her. She had just proven, at home, that she had no time for romance.
Hell, the closest thing she came anything of the sort was her weird pseudo-relationship with JOXER.
She rolled her eyes, and placed her hands on her hips, blowing her breath out in irritation. "Dammit, Xena," she breathed. "Where ARE you?"
"Gabrielle!" Gabrielle's heart lightened, and she shook her head, turning to the direction of the voice with a smile on her face.
"Finally!" she said sternly, as her best friend flew into her arms, crushing her in a loving embrace.
"There you are! You're early!" Xena pulled back, smiling at her widely.
"I missed you guys," Gabrielle said, grinning. Her eyes looked down to Xena's arms and saw they were empty. "Where's Eve?"
"Joxer's got her," she answered flippantly. "He's around here somewhere. Have a nice restful vacation?"
Gabrielle sighed, and shrugged. "Well, if that's what you call Mom and Dad's attempts to marry me off to every single man in sight, then yes. I finally had to tell them I was marrying Joxer just to get them off my back."
"I was this close." Gabrielle gave her a teasing grin. "A woman does some crazy things in desperation. Luckily, some thugs wandered into town on the third day and I was able to run them off. That was fun, and gave them a bit of perspective. I would like to talk to you about it later. How were things here?"
"Well, I missed out on thugs? Now I feel bad." Xena looked almost put out. "But to be honest, I actually had a good time."
"Yeah? Joxer not completely annoying?"
Xena gave her a look, and shook her head. "Nope, not at all. In fact, I have to say this has been some of the most fun I've had since the baby."
"Really? What'd you and Joxer do?" Gabrielle asked curiously.
"Played dress up."
Gabrielle's eyes widened in confusion, and she put a hand on her friend's arm, forcing her to look her in the eyes. "What? What are you talking about?"
"Take a look, here he comes." Xena's eyes were looking over her head, and curious, Gabrielle turned.
She didn't see him. Not at first. She was looking for the pointed hat, and she didn't see the setting sun glinting off one at all.
It wasn't until she heard a familiar laugh that her eyes finally landed on his figure. She found herself gasping without even realizing it.
Joxer looked... incredible...ly different. His hair was combed back nicely, and the armor and the hat were gone. He was wearing a dark brown vest over a short-sleeved shirt and a pair of nice pants and boots.
The only ornaments on his body were two light gauntlets on his arms, a leather necklace at his neck, and a thin sword hanging from his waist.
And he wasn't alone. He was with a girl, two girls, ... no wait, three girls, and they weren't ugly. Not at all. And he was talking... and they were actually listening. And there wasn't one pained face in the bunch.
"What did you do to him?" Gabrielle asked, her voice holding an element of surprise and shock that only succeeded in making the brunette's smile wider.
"Introduced him to a comb, and finally convinced him to get rid of that armor, that's all." Xena gave her a proud smile. "He did the rest himself." Gabrielle gave her a wide-eyed glance, and then went back to staring at her old friend. "Joxer!" Xena raised her hand and motioned him over.
Joxer looked up from Tara's friends, who were actually very nice, and spotted Xena waving at him. He nodded, and excused himself, hugging Eve to his body and winking at Tara, who rolled her eyes and winked back. Laughing, he wove through the crowd, and suddenly stopped when he spotted a familiar blonde standing next to Xena, eyeing him with a definitely odd expression in her face.
He gulped, felt his palms sweating and forced himself to breathe. He tried to remember what Xena had told him.
It wasn't for Gabrielle. Gabrielle didn't love him. She wouldn't see him any differently. Don't get your hopes up, Joxer.
Still, his heart was beating tremendously as he made his way over. But he managed a genuine goofy smile for her benefit, truly happy to see her.
"Gabby!" He reached the pair, and obediently gave the child to Xena, who kissed her temple.
"Hi, Joxer." Gabrielle's face didn't look pleased at all. If anything, she looked angry, as she looked him up and down. "New outfit?"
"Umm... yeah. It's really comfortable." He blushed, smoothing out his vest and running a nervous hand through his hair. "Xena... did you tell her Xena?"
"Only the very gist, Joxer," Xena said, winking. "Hey, what time is it?"
"About seven," Gabrielle responded absently, her eyes still riveted on her dorky friend who somehow didn't seem so dorky in those clothes.
"Oh, darn. I'm late! I have to change." Xena handed Eve back over to Joxer, and shrugged helplessly. Gabrielle tore her gaze from Joxer to look at Xena.
"Wait! Where are you going?"
Xena looked a bit hurried, but laid a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I'll explain it all later, but umm... do you remember Rafe?"
Gabrielle stared at her blankly.
"He was the con guy, when Joxer got beat up?"
"Xena, Joxer gets beat up a lot," Gabrielle reminded her. Joxer gave her a look, and rolled his eyes.
"The gambling casino?"
"Oh, right." Gabrielle nodded. "What about him?"
"I'm helping him out, now. So, our room's in the inn, and we'll catch up tonight."
"Xena... wait." Gabrielle caught her best friend's arm, and then found herself at a loss for words. This homecoming wasn't exactly going the way she had expected, and for some reason, there was an ache in her heart that hadn't been there when she had arrived. "I just got here."
"I know, Gabrielle. I'm sorry. We WILL talk, but I need to do this. But Joxer's free-"
"No, I'm not." Joxer cleared his throat, looking slightly embarrassed when both blonde and brunette looked at him. "But I can cancel-"
"Don't you dare!" Xena ordered, giving him a warning glance. Joxer shot a look at Gabrielle and swallowed.
Gabrielle just looked confused.
"I'll see you guys later." Squeezing Gabrielle's shoulder, she disappeared into the crowds, leaving Joxer and Gabrielle to stare at each other.
"Are you okay?" Joxer asked, noting the far away expression on Gabrielle's face hadn't quite disappeared.
"What? Yeah, yeah I'm fine, Joxer." Gabrielle put a palm to her forehead, but the not pleased expression still didn't change. She looked up at the concerned young man, and once again found her eyes drifting down to his clothes. "You're busy tonight too, then?"
He gave her a sheepish smile and nodded to the three girls waiting for him at the other side of the courtyard.
"They're just friends, but... one's really nice."
Gabrielle gave them an appraising glance, and felt her chest tighten even more.
Gods, this was NOT going the way she had expected it to.
"But you know, I'm free right now, how about dinner or something?"
She gave him a second look, and found herself offering a grim smile. "That'd be nice." She took Eve from him and held the baby close as he led her to the tavern. "And then you can tell me when exactly you became the town stud."
Xena didn't dress up often, but when she did, she made sure she did it in style.
She had a philosophy. Dress to kill. Literally. Every piece of clothing had a purpose, and if it wasn't hiding a weapon, it was barely hiding a voluptuous body that was deadly to men.
She knew it. She had used it often in her more vindictive days to get what she wanted.
She had never met a man she couldn't seduce, and it was nice to know that even after two children, she still had it.
Xena, Warrior Princess applied the last finishing touches, putting the wig into place and looking at herself.
"Well," she breathed. "It's no Helen of Troy, but it'll have to do." There was a knock at her door, and taking a knife and sliding it down her cleavage until it was hidden, out of sight, she opened it.
Rafe took one look at her, and although he valiantly tried to not seem to impressed, it was quite obvious he liked what he saw.
She pursed her lips, hiding the smirk. Men.
Though, as men went, this one didn't look bad at all.
"You ready?" She pretended not to notice the way his voice cracked, merely waited patiently until his devil-may-care attitude was back in place safely.
"Yup," she responded, stepping out and closing the door behind her.
"You look great," he said quietly, as they walked down the hall. "Though no one will recognize you."
"That's the idea, isn't it?" Xena cocked an eyebrow. "Xena being in a gambling hall is sure to raise suspicion."
"Yeah, I know. It's just... it's a shock how different you can look with just different color hair."
"It's a perk of having a nice color tone," Xena grimaced, "that's what Gabrielle tells me, anyway."
Rafe nodded, and then slowed when they reached the main hall of the tavern. "There," he whispered, pointing to a particularly fat man who was seated at one of the tables, "that's our guy."
Xena eyed him with a disgusted glance. "Okay," she answered evenly. "Got him. How long do you need?"
"Give me ten minutes, and… feel free to ham it up. You know, REALLY play the part."
Xena's gaze was smoldering. "Pig."
He grinned, and winked, sliding on a ring of ample value and fixing his very expensive clothes.
"A bang's off."
He nodded, and reached up, fixing his hair back into position as well. Xena smirked. This guy seemed to define "pretty boy" to the letter.
Taking a breath, and putting a careless, handsome expression on his face, Rafe walked confidently into the room, letting his gaze linger on the prettier women there before sitting down at the gambling table.
Xena watched him settle in and sighed, leaning against the door. It had been too long since she had done this.
She had to admit she was having a good time. This was no war with the Gods, but it was diverting, challenging, and it honed skills that lately she hadn't had much chance to use.
Her mind drifted slightly to Ares, and she closed her eyes, feeling her body shudder with emotion.
Gods, that God was enticing.
Biting her lip, she shook herself and crossed her arms, trying to rub out the goose bumps that had suddenly appeared. He was also a conniving bastard, who threw the word "love" around like it was one of those balls of fire he loved to hurl.
If only, deep down, she hadn't wanted to believe it so badly. Xena swallowed, and straightened, taking a mug of ale from a wench passing by and downing it quickly.
She waited another minute and then took the ring Rafe had handed to her and slipped it onto her finger.
She braced herself, and then quickly plastered on a face that she knew looked very bimbo-ish as she swayed into the tavern.
Immediately, the place quieted, and Xena pretended not to notice the leering glances that the men who occupied the place gave her, not mention the glares the woman inside chose to give her as well.
She pretended not to see any of it. Instead, her eyes roved around, taking the long route before landing on the gambling tables at the end of the room.
Her face lit up with a huge smile. "RAFE! HONEY!"
She saw Rafe's head jerk around and had to fight to hide the smirk when he groaned, trying to hide his head in his cards.
She scurried to him, making sure everything bounced as she pushed past the men and landed with a plop on his lap.
"There you aahh!" she squealed, wrapping her arms around him and grinning triumphantly. "Thought you could hide from me, didn't you? Well you didn't! Here I am!" And with that she proceeded to attack his lips with a passionate kiss.
Hmm… nice lips. She had forgotten what a good kisser this guy was.
He tore away, his face bright red as she snuggled against him. She turned to see the reaction they were getting from the table.
The fat man Rafe had pointed out to her was staring at them both with a cocked head and not at all amused smile. He looked like he was caught between leering at her or killing her for disturbing the game. "Who's this?" he asked pointedly.
Rafe took her hands and removed them from around him, pushing her off of him with no real gentleness whatsoever. "Virginia! I thought I told you to STAY in the room!"
She glared at him, hands on her hips. "And just wait there like some sort of hookah while you play with your friends? I think not. 'Sides, I gotta meet 'em sometime." She turned, grinning grandly. "Hello, gentlemen. I'm Virginia! Rafe's new wife."
"WIFE?!" The fat man spat out the drink he had been gulping. "You're MARRIED?"
Rafe looked pained, and shifted in his seat. "I was in Vegath. Got drunk. It happened. I'm not exactly proud."
She whirled on him and slapped him soundly. "What a thing to say to youah wife!" She turned, and smiled invitingly to the fat man. "Just like a man to not appreciate a good thing when they have it, doncha think?"
The fat man smiled, showing his rotting teeth with a wink. "Definitely. I'm Byron." He leaned over the table, kissing her hand with what she swore was a bit of tongue.
"Charmed, I'm shore," she drawled.
Rafe stood, and pulled her back. "All right, sweetheart, that's nice. You've met the men, can you go now?"
"What? No, she can't go!" Byron glared at Rafe, and took her hand, seating her next to him. "Such a charming lady brings luck."
"Not to me," muttered Rafe under his breath.
"Oh, shut up," she remarked, sitting prettily and batting her eyelashes. "So what are you playing?"
Rafe glared at her, and she winked. "I'll just watch."
The cards were dealt, and she was quiet for a moment, waiting until just until Rafe made his bet as high as he could afford before walking behind him, eyeing his cards and gasping.
"Honey! You have a terrible hand! What'd you do that for?"
If looks could kill, she'd be a smoldering ash heap right then. Rafe lost the hand.
And a lot of dinars to go with it.
Byron's eyes gleamed, and she smirked, sliding her hands down Rafe's chest and nuzzling his neck before gliding her lips up to his ear.
"Keep losing. They like it."
He nodded ever so slightly, and then with a decisive shrug, put her off. She glared at him, catching the gleam in his eyes and pointedly ignoring the trickle of sweat on his forehead.
He was good at this game, pretending she repulsed him. Xena smiled, sliding onto his lap, talking so loud that he pretended to lose his concentration and made a bad bet, losing his hard won earnings yet again.
She saw Bryon's eyes light up, saw he was enjoying this thoroughly. Rafe was a man with a reputation, and it was quickly going down the tubes.
It was just perfect.
She smiled, squeezing his hand, and felt him squeeze back, acknowledging what she already knew.
It was going perfectly.
For some reason, Gabrielle hadn't been in the mood to eat in the actual tavern. Joxer, picking up on it, had suggested ordering room service, and she had readily agreed.
And both were quite happy that she had, because an hour later, they were stuffed, Eve quite content in her playpen, and the two of them got a chance to do something that they hadn't been able to do in a long time; talk.
But something in the wine that the tavern owner had brought up had made Gabrielle a bit lightheaded. She wasn't drunk, not even close, but she felt a bit giddy, and it showed.
She was sprawled out on Joxer's bed, giggling breathlessly while Joxer was sprawled out on the floor, doing the exact same thing.
"Wait, wait," she gasped, sitting up and settling down so she was half hanging off the bed as she looked at him. "So you actually asked her if she wanted to see your SWORD?!"
He shrugged helplessly. "I didn't know she'd take it THAT way!"
Gabrielle burst out laughing, "Oh, Joxer," she breathed. "Thank the Gods it's still the same ole' you under those new clothes."
He narrowed his eyes at her. "Hey! I think I look pretty darn good in these threads!"
"Threads?" she repeated dryly.
He blushed at the slang. "Tara talks that way, it catches on."
Gabrielle's smile faded a bit at the mention of Joxer's new friend. "You should be careful, Joxer. If she's got a jealous boyfriend-"
"No, no, it's fine, Gabby," he assured her. "Nothing's going on between us, that guy has NOTHING to worry about. She's just letting him stew a bit."
Something about that put the smile back on Gabrielle's face. "So, you got anymore stories?"
He shrugged, reaching up to rub at his ear absently. "Not really. I mean, I've been pretty lucky. That may all fly out the window tonight, though."
"How come?" she asked.
"Tara says I have to dance tonight."
"Oh." Gabrielle winced. She had seen Joxer in action. The Dancing Queen he was not. "I see."
"Yeah." He looked genuinely worried. "I may go down in flames tonight."
"Nah," she said softly, somehow feeling the need to reassure him. "They'll think it's cute."
He gave her a skeptical glance. "Gabrielle, how cute do you think I look falling flat on my butt?"
"Pretty darn cute, Joxer," she said, a peculiar smile on her face.
"Yeah, well, enough about me," he said, blushing a little and moving back, reaching out to finger Eve's hand. "How was your little trip? Family okay?"
"Oh, Gods, don't ask," she said, moaning, burying her face into the sheets. "Joxer, it was hell."
"Hmmm, yeah, my visits home aren't always the greatest things either."
"When WAS the last time you were home?"
He shrugged. "A few months before I met you guys."
Gabrielle's eyes widened and she gazed at him. "Joxer! That's been years!"
He nodded. "I haven't exactly missed it."
She saw the pain in his eyes and forced herself not to press the issue, knowing she would probably do more harm than good if she got it out of him. She would, one day.
She found her eyes flowing down over his vest and his pants, and felt herself smile. "Those clothes really do look good on you, Joxer."
He smiled. "Thanks."
They fell silent again, and Gabrielle's eyes grew dim, her thoughts wandering slightly.
"You know... when I was home, guys invaded Poteidaia."
He looked up, concern immediately in his eyes. "Rough guys?" Joxer queried.
"Yeah, I ... I had to kill a couple people," she looked pensive, sad. "It wasn't easy, you know? To have that whole crowd of people I grew up with, seeing me kill those men... I just... I never thought I would ever get to this point, you know?"
Joxer was silent for a minute, and then spoke quietly. "You know you haven't really changed all that much Gabrielle. I mean, so you fight a little, and you kill. I know it's hard, but you do it, because ... well you love people, and you protect them. That's not bad, Gabrielle. I mean... I wish I could back to Athens, and just you know, be different."
"What do you mean?" she asked softly.
"Well, in Athens, everybody knows me like you and Xena used to think of me. Never good enough, a big loser-"
"Joxer," Gabrielle began, shaking her head.
"No, it's okay. I know you guys don't think that anymore," he cut her off with a grim smile. "But it'd be nice you know? To go back and prove to them that I'm not."
Gabrielle gazed at him for a long time, and her voice was soft and tender when she spoke. "Joxer, what do you think you're doing right now? You've proved time and time again that you're not a loser. You never were. Gods, Joxer. I mean, sometimes, I wonder what I would have done countless times without you there. I know I don't say it a lot, but... I do notice."
He looked up, gazed into her eyes for one long moment, and a bright spark emerged into his.
"Thanks, Gabby. That means a lot to me."
She swallowed, and nodded, as the pair both fell silent again. She looked at him sitting dejectedly on the floor, and suddenly a thought popped into her head.
A smile floated onto her face and she sat up. "Hey Joxer! I have an idea on how we can cheer each other up!"
He looked up, a bit startled, and then gave her a playful leer. "Yeah?"
"Oh, you jerk," she chuckled, rolling her eyes as she slid off the bed and smacked him playfully. "I'm talking about helping you by teaching you a few dance basics!"
"Dancing?" He raised an eyebrow skeptically. "Didn't you tell me they wouldn't let you dance at the crop festival?"
She rolled her eyes and pulled him up. "Come on, I'm a good dancer! Good enough to teach you a few things!"
"All right, all right," he grumbled. "But if you end up with flat feet, don't blame me."
He smiled at her and she felt her heart leap slightly, and found herself smiling back.
Maybe tonight wouldn't be so bad after all.
Xena had completely ruined the game for him. He had lost everything he had, and Byron had enjoyed every minute. If the fat bastard wasn't grinning ear to ear, he was eyeing Xena with lust in every gesture.
He was so filled with contempt for the cheating idiot he almost lost control then and there, but Xena, still in her lost bimbo character, had sat on him and held him down ever so subtly.
What was wrong with him? He never lost his cool in a con, and yet only one evening with the Warrior Princess and already he was losing it. It wasn't right; this wasn't good for him, or his game. Even for a con, Rafe would never stake his reputation, or his composure, but all it had taken was one look into the Warrior Princess' eyes, and he had agreed to Xena's scam the minute she had told him.
It was smart, so he wasn't really doing it blindly, but still. Something about the deadly vixen churned a spot in his stomach, made him heady and not altogether mindful of his senses.
It was a little scary, and Rafe never got scared. Never. He wasn't exactly honorable, being a conman didn't exactly allow that. But something about being with her, smelling her hair and looking into those eyes full of mystery and passion, and he found himself wishing he was a better man, wishing he really did deserve her.
It was hard to concentrate on his game, and he knew that a lot of his miscalls and bad judgments were not entirely done on purpose, but seemed to only happen when she would squirm in his lap or trace her fingertips down his neck and into his shirt.
It was over too soon. He found himself trying to gather the vestiges of his pride and forcing a sour expression on his face.
"Let's go, Virginia," he growled, grabbing her hand and pulling her up.
"Oh, Rafe! I was having a good time, wasn't I Byron?" She winked at the fat bastard.
"That's right, baby, you were. And I was having an even greater time. You're sure my lucky charm!"
No one could even discern the disgust that he could feel rippling through her body. She was good. Too bad she went straight, she was an excellent con artist. One of the best he'd seen.
"Yeah, well, the game's over."
"What's your rush, Rafe?" Byron heaved himself up, resting his arms on the table. "How about a game tomorrow?"
"No, thank you. I think my reputation AND my wallet have taking a bit too much of a beating," he responded shortly. "Besides, I don't have any more money."
"I'll give you a chance to win your money back, and you have something else that's of great value to me," Byron answered, his eyes flashing.
Rafe's eyes went to where Byron was staring, saw Xena smiling, her face purposefully blank.
"You're out of your mind," Rafe bit.
"You've got nothing else, and I KNOW you can't resist a good game with high odds. I'll make it worth your while. If you win you could be a very rich man."
Rafe glared at him, and closed his eyes, taking a breath, then looking to Xena. "Fine," he finally spat, "tomorrow. Here."
"I'll be here," Byron smiled, "and do make sure you bring the merchandise."
"She's coming," he agreed, turning and dragging Xena out of the tavern.
She pulled away from him in a powerful move that almost made him trip as soon as they were outside of the tavern.
"Well, that went perfectly," she mentioned drolly.
"Like clockwork," he agreed. "Though you did ham it up quite a bit."
She raised an eyebrow. "You told me to."
"I'm meant the part about playing my WIFE, not about tarnishing my rep," he said hotly, craning his neck in his frustration. "I still have to work after this."
Xena's eyes danced as she leaned forward, planting a quick kiss on his cheek before moving back.
"Don't worry your conceited perfect head, Rafe. We'll make it worth your while, Byron promised."
With that she turned, sauntering around the tavern, pulling the wig off as she did.
Rafe was frozen still, the pressure of her silken lips against his rough cheek still burning.
He groaned, rubbing it away, and stomping off into the town.
This was not good, that woman was no good for him.
She made him lose his edge, and that was death for a conman.
And damn it, despite that, he still couldn't wait to see her tomorrow.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorr-"
"Joxer!" Gabrielle held a hand to his mouth, while the other was concentrated on rubbing her throbbing foot. "It's okay. You did warn me."
"I did," he agreed immediately.
Gabrielle winced and then stood up. "Okay, Joxer, we're going to try this again. And you will WATCH your FEET." The menacing note at the end of her sentence left nothing to the imagination, and Joxer nodded quickly.
"I'll be good, I promise."
Gabrielle sighed, and gingerly limped to his form again. "Stand straight," she commanded, and then let him slide his hand around her bare waist. He had nice fingers; she hadn't noticed that. Rough enough to tickle, but soft enough to feel… nice.
Gabrielle shook thoughts off of her dorky friend's hands and instead placed her own in his other one, entwining their fingers carefully before placing the other on his shoulder.
"Hmmm," she remarked absently.
"Hmmm, what?" Joxer asked curiously.
She shrugged, but fingered the material. "This is nice fabric." She inhaled, and pursed her lips. "And is that perfume?"
"It's scent!" Joxer replied defensively, "And both Tara AND Xena say it smells nice."
"It does," Gabrielle said quickly, "I'm not saying it doesn't, I'm just not used to you smelling like anything other than… you."
"Not bad, well, not all the time." He gave her a look, and rolled his eyes, sighing.
"Okay, can we keep going, before you start insulting me more?"
"Yeah, sorry," Gabrielle leaned back so she wouldn't smell the nice scent that had mingled with his regular masculine smell, and took a breath, clearing her head.
What was the matter with her anyway? Joxer was still Joxer. And she had liked him the old way. These new clothes and smell and combing of the hair were doing something to her that she didn't like one bit.
Things were crazy enough, with Eve and angry Gods and hormone-high Xena without Joxer changing on her.
And yet here she was, teaching the guy to DANCE.
"Okay, remember Joxer, forward with the right, then follow with your left, slide together and then back with the left, follow with the right, and slide together. Simple box step."
"Right." His eyebrows had knit together in concentration and she felt herself smile at the thought.
"Ready, go-RIGHT FOOT, JOXER!" she yelped, jumping back seconds before his feet almost landed on hers.
"Right! Sorry!" he apologized sheepishly. She glared at him, and sighed, running her hands through her bangs and going back into position.
"We'll go slowly," she said through gritted teeth.
"Right, okay," he stammered.
She rolled her eyes. Dorky klutz.
"And one, two and three." He stepped forward tentatively, with the right foot this time, and she smiled in reward. He followed through shakily, but after a few minutes he had successfully preformed a badly botched version of the box step.
She grinned at him, and slapped at his chest in excitement. "See? That wasn't hard, was it?"
"Nope, okay, well, a little, but I did okay, yeah?"
"Yes, you did. Try it again?" He nodded, and swallowed, and the two preformed another, quicker full rotation.
"We did it again!" he said excitedly. She felt his excitement seeping into her soul as well, and she nodded.
"Faster?" she asked breathlessly.
He nodded, and they began to dance, this time with actual rhythm, around Joxer's small room. Soon they were laughing, frolicking around, skipping and changing patterns together.
Gabrielle felt the grin on her face grow wider, felt her heart beating fast. She slid Joxer in closer, and they kept dancing to the imaginary music, both laughing in excitement.
"I'm doing it!" he said with a triumphant yell, seconds before they lost track of where they were going and crashed into a chair.
Both sides of the pair went flying, landing in an entangled heap on top of each other on the floor.
Gabrielle groaned, and looked down to Joxer, who was watching her with nervous eyes.
"I'm sorry?" he said meekly.
She looked down at the apologetic expression, the dark brown eyes, at their impossible situation, and before she could stop it, a bubble of laughter escaped from her.
Soon she was cracking up, laughing so hard he began to laugh as well. Gabrielle felt herself grow weak, leaning against his chest in an effort to contain herself.
He slid his arms around her and gave her an impulsive hug, one she returned without thinking.
The laughter suddenly ceased, and she found her ear pressed against his chest, hearing his heart beat faster, her hand sliding over the fabric to touch the spot.
He was absolutely quiet, and she felt as if her nerves were on fire.
The door knocking jarred her back into her senses. With a swallow she looked up to Joxer's eyes, so dark they seemed almost black, and looking away, felt warmth seep through her.
"I'll get it," she said quickly, disentangling from him as fast as she could.
Without looking back, she quickly forced herself to take a few deep breaths, thanking the Gods that the interruption had happened when it did.
She quickly opened the door, and found herself face to face with the three pretty girls from the courtyard.
She stared for a minute, then quickly recovered, clearing her throat. "Can I help you?" she asked, hardness in her voice that wasn't quite there before.
"Umm… I think so. This IS Joxer's room, right?" asked the redhead in the middle, who was staring at Gabrielle coolly. The other two didn't look too pleased with her either, both looking at her up and down.
"Tara! Hi! I'm ready." Joxer's voice popped up from inside, and Gabrielle turned back to see him scrambling up, fixing his vest and giving his hair a quick comb-through with his hand.
She looked back to see Tara smile and nod. "Well then, let's go!"
He nodded, and started forward, suddenly stopping when Eve giggled. "Oh, Gods, wait. I have Eve-"
"I'll take care of her tonight, Joxer. Go, have fun," Gabrielle said softly, smiling at him tightly.
He gave her a hopeful look. "You will?"
She nodded, "I've wanted to spend sometime with her anyway. Go ahead. I'll take her to my room."
Tara made some sort of noise, but when Gabrielle turned to look at her, her face was smiling slightly.
"Bye," she said sweetly, as Joxer went through the doorway, and joined the girls.
Gabrielle felt odd as she watched Joxer leave amidst the group of giggling woman.
Her face was placid, almost blank, and she didn't say a word as she sighed, moving to Eve and picking her up.
"Come on, Eve. Looks like it's just you and me tonight."
Xena walked slowly through the hallways, feeling more tired than she had felt in ages.
She felt a smile creep onto her face, and didn't bother to hide it. She had to admit she had gotten a bit of perverse pleasure out of seeing Rafe in such a lurch over his reputation. It was everything for a conman, and she had all but destroyed it tonight.
Still, he would get it back tomorrow, and with a little more polish on it. If it didn't get out that he was working with Xena, at least. She knew what an association with an acknowledged good guy; no matter if it were Xena, would do to a man's collateral.
She reached her doorway, and opened it, flooding light into the room.
She found Gabrielle sitting in a chair, rocking her baby gently.
"Hi," Gabrielle said from her position, smiling slightly. She studied Xena and smirked. "Nice outfit."
Xena closed the door behind her and moved forward to light a lamp. "Hi, yourself. Any reason why you were sitting in the dark?" She came forward, kissing her daughter once before pulling out the knife from her cleavage.
Gabrielle shrugged, pulling Eve in tighter. "I just felt like it. How'd it go tonight?"
"Perfectly. Rafe lost pretty much everything."
"Oh," Gabrielle looked confused, not sure how to respond. "I'm … happy for him?"
Xena smiled, "It'll make more sense when I explain it all to you later. What'd you do?"
"Hung out with Joxer until he went out on his date with those three girls." She looked pensive for a minute. "Have you actually met them?"
"Who, Tara and her friends? Tara I have. She helped Joxer pick out his outfit; the other girls seem nice enough. Not a lot going on upstairs, if you know what I mean, but nice enough for Joxer to get a little experience with the opposite sex."
Gabrielle gave her an irritated smile. "Xena, you and I aren't exactly men," she reminded her.
Xena cocked her eyebrow. "You know what I mean." She grabbed a rag from the bowl of water sitting on the table and began wiping at her face carefully. "I intimidate the hell out of him, and despite the fact he's in love with you, you don't exactly treat him like a normal girl would either, nose squeezer."
Gabrielle was silent for a moment. "You know, for someone who ‘loves' me, Joxer sure didn't waste any time," Gabrielle found herself remarking in a slightly annoyed voice.
Xena looked up at the comment, and then did a double take at Gabrielle's expression. Her eyes widened. "No, Gabrielle! No! Don't you dare!" she hissed.
Shock at the anger in Xena's eyes was evident as Gabrielle stared at her blankly. "What? Don't I dare what?"
"What I know you're going to do," Xena replied evenly, getting up and stalking to her friend. "Get all catty and find something wrong with that girl, and convince Joxer he may have some sort of chance with you by screwing with his head to break them up, and then go back to treating him like crap. Don't you dare!"
"What?" Gabrielle retorted, her eyes darkening. "Xena, I don't do that!"
"Oh, yeah? You are the Queen of Mixed Signals, Gabrielle. You kiss him one minute, punch him out the next. If you don't want him, fine. But don't stop him from trying to be happy."
The implication in Xena's voice hit a spot inside of Gabrielle that seemed to wrench. She stared at her best friend defiantly, felt the anger slip inside of her, the confusion of the last few weeks forcing her head to swim. She didn't need this crap right now.
"Xena, not that it's any of your business," she said icily, "But I could care less who Joxer dates. He's my friend, and I care about his friendship-"
"No, Gabrielle," Xena's eyes flashed as she raised a finger to Gabrielle's eye level. "You only want him when you think you might lose him. Then you get him back and suddenly he's the same old annoying Joxer who can't seem to do anything right for you. And suddenly all those times when he's pulled your body off of crosses and defended you from lunatic best friends mean nothing to you. So don't try and fool me. It's not fair to him and it's selfish. Leave him alone."
The rage in Xena's words hurt Gabrielle beyond measure. Xena was painting her as a tease; a selfish, bitch of a tease that didn't care a whit about anyone but herself. And that wasn't true. Gabrielle had dedicated her life to taking care of her and Eve, and it wasn't fair that Xena was pointing fingers when it came to Joxer.
"Xena, why are you saying this?" she asked, the fight out of her as she stared at her friend beseechingly.
"Because Joxer is my friend, and I love him," Xena replied evenly, closing her eyes as she tried to catch her anger. She opened them and then her face softened when she saw just how hurt Gabrielle was. She took a breath and started again, this time her tone gentler. "You're not in love with him, fine. But if you really love him, you'd want him to be happy too, and let him get over you."
She took Eve from Gabrielle's arms, and looked at her best friend. "Just leave him alone, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle was stock still as Xena moved away from her, and her heart beating tremendously. Had Xena gone crazy?
She felt on the brink of tears and found she could think of nothing to say.
The only thing she felt was a furious chasm in her heart.
Somehow, between the time she left and the time she returned, things had changed on her, and Gabrielle knew that inside her heart, she wasn't ready to accept that.
Not the change in Xena, not the change in Joxer. Not even the change in herself.
"So that was Gabrielle, huh?"
Joxer looked up from his previous task of inspecting the etchings in the wooden tabletop and blinked. "What?"
Tara gave him an odd look. "Gabrielle. Warrior chick in your room?"
"Oh." He nodded. "Yeah."
"Yeah, she's beautiful," he answered absently.
"And she's turned you into a sour mop." Joxer's face looked bewildered.
Tara rolled her eyes and gave Jheira a knowing smile. "He loves her."
"OHHH." The brunette beauty looked slightly pained, and nodded. "So that's why he's been acting all out of it and not paying any attention to me."
"No I haven't."
"Joxer, we've had to call you THREE TIMES before you would say a word. So what is it about this Gabby person?"
He blinked again as the girls suddenly went into a discussion about the bard.
"Well, she's got a good body, but she was a little rough around the edges. And those clothes."
"She has to wear those clothes," Joxer interrupted indignantly. "She's an Amazon Queen. And I think she looks great in them."
"Oh, even better. Well, rumor has it, that she was Ares' choice for the successor for Xena AND she turned him DOWN," Tara informed her friends. "What is wrong with her! Ares is such a babe!"
Joxer's eyes widened. "Hey!"
"Oh, Joxer honey, nothing against you, you are adorable," Jheira assured him, patting him absently. "But you're more… the marriage type."
"Right," both girls agreed. "You're the type we fall in love with. ARES, well, he's our secret fantasy."
"He's EVERY woman's secret fantasy," Tara corrected.
Joxer wasn't sure how to take that. "Umm… okay."
Tara looked around and suddenly gasped. "Oh, GODS, he's here. Joxer, hold me."
Before he could quite figure out what was going on, Tara had jumped into his lap. Jheira didn't look too pleased.
"Tara, get your hands off of him. We all agreed he was mine." Lydia smirked.
Joxer gave her a shocked look but Tara only brushed her hand at her in dismissal. "Gareth is here."
"She's using our cute dork to make Gareth jealous," Lydia informed Jheira.
The brunette still didn't look pleased. "I don't care. Get off of him. He doesn't seem to be too pleased about it either."
"I'm not," Joxer said quickly. Tara only rolled her eyes and stayed put, eyeing the tall man who was glaring at them both.
"It's working perfectly. He deserves to suffer for what he did. Cheating on me with that Cally bitch."
"Doesn't he have like, a temper?"
Joxer gulped, and looked at Lydia. "He DOES?"
Tara snuggled closer. "He won't do anything," she assured him. "And besides, don't you have that sword to protect you?"
"I only fight when I have to."
Jheira gave him a pitying glance. "Joxer, if she doesn't get off of you, trust me, you might have to."
Joxer gulped, and closed his eyes. Not good.
Xena was gone with Eve when Gabrielle woke up the next morning. The two women had had an uneasy night, with Gabrielle refusing to talk to Xena.
Gabrielle knew Xena was sorry for spouting off on her, but honestly, Gabrielle couldn't talk to her, not that night.
Still, she couldn't blame Xena. The words that Xena had spoken had been said out of love for a mutual friend, and like always, Xena startled her with her clarity.
Was she really like that? Did she really want Joxer only when she thought she might lose him? Could she really be that selfish?
Somehow, she couldn't fathom that. Yes, she took advantage of Joxer. Yes, she had punched him out when SHE had kissed him. Yes, she liked to tease him and yell at him and even grab his nose from time to time. Yes, she didn't have a good feeling when she saw him with those three girls.
But that didn't mean she didn't care about him. Or that she didn't have his best interests at heart.
Was she only thinking of herself? Gabrielle sighed, burying her head against the pillow. She did have a tendency to get jealous of anyone who paid attention to Xena; she was big enough to acknowledge that. She and Xena were so close, and yet she knew that somehow, things could change. And she would lose what she had fought so desperately to keep together. Her only real family, the family that had changed and forged her.
She had never thought of Joxer being included in that family until she had woken up in that cavern and found his face illuminated with love for her, the joy in his eyes so unspeakable, that she felt her heart tremor for just one second, so unsure.
And she had had to come to terms with the fact that that protective vibe that she had felt with Xena now extended to Joxer as well.
But why did she have it? In a way, it didn't quite feel the same as with Xena. Whereas with Xena, Gabrielle only felt a slight twinge of doubt, one that would quickly be stilled because she would be reassured that Xena and her lives were knit together, with Joxer her stomach twisted in this painful knot. Her heart would wrench just a little bit and she would suddenly get hostile and angry.
That was so unlike her. She never got so out of control unless she was with him. She was fighting something inside of herself, something that made her irritable and cranky, and Gods, sometimes… even a bitch.
What was it about Joxer that set her so on edge?
She hadn't even thought she could be attracted to him until she had that weird mermaid dream.
Gabrielle swallowed, and reached across to the dresser, slowly picking up the ring that she had found on her finger and now carried in her most precious pouch.
A small smile floated onto her lips. Hagar had been a complete dolt. An idiot, a pig, patronizing, and utterly sweet in his own way.
He had made her feel special, and she had even liked him just a little bit. Enough to want to kiss him, to embrace him and want to marry him… again, so she thought.
And Hagar had looked just like Joxer.
Except Joxer, now in his brand new attire and haircut, looked even cuter.
Gabrielle groaned, remembering the shocked look on everyone's face when she had pulled Joxer down for a sweet, passionate kiss.
It had felt nice. Better than nice.
Course the shock of discovering the fact that she was kissing JOXER and not Hagar and Joxer's idiotic reply did nothing to soothe her.
What was happening to her?! God, she couldn't be having feelings for JOXER. Not now, when she had so much to deal with.
There were still Gods running amuck, trying to kill her and Xena and the baby. There were Amazon civil wars to contend with.
There was the fact that she didn't even know what was going on in her own mind or her body.
She didn't need another aggravation. She didn't need to be trying to figure out mixed feelings for her devoted friend.
It was just another straw on an already breaking camel's back.
With a sigh, she got up, slipping on her clothes and washing her face. Joxer had gone out with his groupies the night before.
One had seemed especially interested.
She stared at herself in the looking glass. There it was again. That knot in her stomach that twisted just a little, followed by the emptiness in her chest as her heart wrenched once, painfully.
"I should go check on him," she told herself. "A good friend would see how things went."
The identical face on the other side of the glass seemed to agree with her and Gabrielle nodded purposefully.
"That's what a good friend would do. Doesn't mean anything else," she mumbled, walking out of the door and closing it behind her.
There was a loud rapping at his door that knocked Joxer out of his snoring. He opened one eye, and blinked at the doorway in confusion.
The door shook again, the rapping harder this time.
Joxer mumbled a bit of an obscenity, before sliding off the bed and shuffling to the door, fumbling with the lock before inching it open.
Gabrielle gave him a tight smile from the other side of the door.
"Hi, Joxer! You're awake!"
He gave her a searching glance. "I am NOW," he said pointedly.
"Right. So… are you alone?"
He gave her a narrowed glance. "I'm talking to YOU."
She gave him an odd look, and suddenly smiled for no reason. "I was hoping maybe you weren't too tired to talk."
Something about her face made him try and rub the sleep from his eyes and hold the door open. "No, no. I'm good. Come on in, let me just put on a shirt." She gave him a sidelong glance and said nothing as he grabbed a simple white shirt and pulled it on. "Are you okay?"
She gave him a tight smile. "No, actually, not really. Xena and I had a fight, and um... I wasn't exactly in the right, so... I wanted to apologize."
He looked bewildered, a small smile on his face as he asked, "For what?"
"For taking advantage of you. For treating you like crap some days for no reason. For punching you out when I kissed you."
He looked confused, as if he wasn't sure what had caused her little confession, but only gave her a grin. "It's okay, Gabrielle," he said sincerely. "I don't bruise too easy."
"No, it's not. But thanks for thinking so." She fell into silence, and sat down on the bed, picking at the sheet before looking up at him, her eyes unusually bright. "So, how's the dating game?'
"Oh," he shrugged, rolling his eyes. "Okay, I guess. Tara's ex-boyfriend doesn't like me at all. But the girls are really nice. But hey, how was your trip? How's your mom and dad?'
"The same, everything about that place is the same." Gabrielle sighed. "You know, they still had nothing else on their mind but marrying me off to the first farmer they saw?"
Joxer looked at her seriously for a minute, didn't join her in scoffing her family. "Well, they want you to be safe and happy."
"I know, I know." Gabrielle conceded quickly. "And we DID talk about it. And they do realize that I won't get married anytime soon. It's just… the thought of ANY relationship right now… I just can't even THINK about it."
Something about the way she said it made her look at him, at the stricken look of pain on his face and she suddenly felt her heart lurch. "Oh, Gods, Joxer, I'm sorry. I didn't mean-"
"Nah, Gabby. It's okay. Really." He grinned weakly at her before rising and splashing his face with water. "It wasn't like I was planning wedding bells or anything."
She gave him a lovingly skeptical look. "Oh yeah?"
"Well, just a little," he admitted with a sheepish grin. "But hey, a guy's gotta have at least ONE fantasy."
"Uh-huh, just remember I can knock you out," she reminded him. "So you better watch those daydreams."
He winked. "Can't stop me in my dreams, Gabby." Before she could sputter and huff, he quickly said, "I kissed a girl last night."
Her mouth dropped wide open. "What?!"
He gave her an odd smile. "Well, she kissed me, just a peck, but it was … it was nice. I mean, she didn't punch me out or anything afterwards."
Gabrielle winced, and felt herself grow hot. Was that a dig at her expense? Suddenly all the playfulness had gone out of her.
"Really," she responded icily.
Joxer's smile slid from his face when he realized Gabrielle's tone had changed considerably.
"Gabrielle, it was a joke."
"Well, I didn't appreciate it," she replied hotly. "Listen, Joxer, if I punched you, maybe it was because you deserved it."
Joxer stared at her, watching her eyes flash, and suddenly felt something inside of himself snap. Yes, he loved her. Yes, he would probably ALWAYS love her, but did that give her a right to treat him like a thing? Like her own little personal Joxer doll just because of that? No. Xena, Tara and even Jheira had taught him to be proud of who he was now. And it angered him, really angered him, deep down inside the buried hurt and pain that Gabrielle refused to see that, to treat him at least a little bit nicer because of it.
Maybe the old Joxer wouldn't say anything about it, just take it, but the real Joxer, the new Joxer that was proud of himself, of who he was, wasn't gonna take it. Nose breaks or not.
"No, I DIDN'T deserve it, Gabrielle," he said sharply, so loud and so angry she actually stopped and looked at him, her eyes wide. "I didn't kiss you, YOU kissed ME."
"Get over it, Joxer, it meant nothing," Gabrielle retorted, feeling suddenly exposed.
"Yeah, well it meant a hell of a lot to me," he said quickly. "How could you do that? Knowing how I feel?"
"How you feel?" Gabrielle scoffed, crossing her arms. "Last time I checked, I thought you loved me."
"I do," he retorted. "But-"
"Really? Because a person in love doesn't go out with three different girls and kiss other people in front of me, and turn into super stud just to-"
"WHAT?!" he retorted, now completely bewildered. "Are you actually- this is ridiculous!"
"Don't you get it?! I liked you the way you WERE!" she said tightly.
"Well I didn't!" he snapped. "Gabby, I didn't change for you. I changed because…because I wanted you to move on!"
The words didn't come out quite the way he wanted them to, and he could see it immediately in her infuriated face.
"Move on? Me? I'm not the one in love with you, Joxer!"
The words hit him like a slap in the face, and he reeled. Gabrielle's face broke then, her eyes filled with tears, and she suddenly licked her lips, crossing her arms and looking away, aware of what she had just said.
"Yeah, I got that, Gabrielle. Thank you," he said dryly. "And for that exact reason, I don't care anymore."
She looked up, surprise flitting across her face at his hard expression. "What?"
"I don't deserve this, Gabrielle. I don't deserve the way you treat me, and I don't care that I love you anymore. Because no matter how many times you made me feel special, there's always been that one time when you've just taken my heart and just torn it into pieces. I don't have to take this, I'm TIRED of taking it, Gabrielle. I'm leaving." He strode to the door, and then paused uncomfortably. "This is my room," he murmured.
"Right. Okay, Then I'LL leave," Gabrielle shot, getting up and brushing past him.
He didn't see the tears in her eyes, or the way she seemed to waver a bit, the way she seemed to want to turn back, to go back, the way she seemed more sad, more confused and hurt than angry.
He was too busy slamming the door shut, letting the tears slide down his own cheeks.
Xena looked extremely disconcerted as she looked at Eve. "You think I was too mean?"
Eve just stared.
Xena pursed her lips together, and continued on her way. Sure, what she had said to Gabrielle needed to be said, but did she have to be so harsh about it? Didn't Gabrielle have enough problems without Xena adding to it?
Xena sighed, hugging her daughter closer to her as she approached her room. "I shouldn't have snapped at her," she muttered under her breath. "You notice she's been acting a little weird? But NOOOO, instead of prying and getting it out of her, I go and snap at her and make her damn near cry. I'm just the greatest friend in the world, huh Eve?"
Eve was too busy sucking her thumb to notice.
"Yeah, thanks, you're a BIG help," she muttered. A few women passed by, giving her strange looks. She only had to glare at them once before they stammered and hurried on their way.
Xena smirked. "Ha! Even post baby, I still have it." She opened the door, and quickly spotted Gabrielle lying on her bed. Her back was to her.
Xena's heart quickened, and she swallowed. "Hi, Gabrielle," she began casually.
There was a sniffle, and Gabrielle turned to her with tearstained eyes. "Hi, Xena."
Xena's eyes widened, and immediately her face was filled with concern. "Gabrielle, what's wrong? Was it me? I'm sorry, I had no idea-"
"No, Xena, it's okay." Gabrielle sat up and offered her a small smile. "You were right."
"No, Gabrielle, that's the thing. I wasn't. I… I should have-"
"Xena, it's not you." Gabrielle quickly reached up and hugged her friend. "You didn't do anything wrong. I'm sorry if I made you feel that way. If you can't tell me stuff then who can?"
Xena gave her a small smile of relief, but still looked at her hesitantly. "Then what is it?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "Stuff. I'll be fine. I just, uh… Joxer's an idiot, but so am I." She trailed off for a second, wiping her tears away and then looking at Xena pensively. "He's happy, isn't he?"
Xena gazed at her calmly. "Yes, I think he is," she said gently.
Gabrielle swallowed, and nodded. "He's changed. He used to take my insults, and he doesn't do that anymore. You know if he wanted to, he could zing them right back, but he usually doesn't."
"Of course he doesn't," Xena settled on the bed next to her, gently wrapping arm around Gabrielle's waist. "He loves you."
Gabrielle didn't answer that, she merely nodded. "I hurt him, didn't I? A lot of times. Without thinking."
Xena sighed, leaning her forehead against Gabrielle's head, rocking her slightly. "I'm sorry you're feeling this way, Gabrielle. If you want to talk, I'm here."
Gabrielle pulled away, and looked at her once, smiling slightly. "I did miss you, Xena."
Xena gave her a gentle grin. "Hey, I missed you more."
Gabrielle smiled, and leaned back against the bed. "You have time to talk?"
"Always, for you." Gabrielle reached for Eve and cradled the baby against her.
"Alright, ‘cause I've got a long story to tell you, all about Poteidaia, and the idiots who decided to try and steal the crops."
Xena chuckled. "I can't wait."
Rafe paced back and forth, glancing at the moon one more time. He sighed, then resumed his pacing, not even bothering to try and maintain the look of composure he was so famous for.
This was one crazy con. Granted, those were the ones that worked, but still. He should have just kept his mouth shut. Said hello to Xena, and goodbye.
Of course then he would have never gotten to feel those lips against him, or see that mind at work, to see the woman in action that he had been comparing every woman he had ever met to since he had met her.
"There you are." He looked up to see Xena, if it was possible, in an even more seductive dress, and her little baby in her arms.
She shrugged. "Gabrielle needed to vent, I needed to listen."
He nodded, understanding immediately. He looked down to eye the baby. Rafe cocked an eyebrow. "You're bringing a baby to a poker game?"
Xena gave him a cool glare. "I only trust two other people with my baby, and they are otherwise occupied tonight. She'll be good."
"Hey, I like the kid," Rafe said quickly. "I was just wondering."
Xena smirked. "Hey, this kid has been through more battles than you have."
"I'll bet she has. What if the fat bastard recognizes her?"
"You mean Byron?" she asked. "He won't." And with that, she carefully put a small hat on the child. "I've got it all figured out."
Rafe nodded, and then took a breath, trying to calm down. "You ready?"
Xena smiled drolly. "Aren't I always?"
Rafe grinned at her, his eyes twinkling slightly, and took another deep breath. "Well, let's go ruin me."
"Oh, stop. You coward."
Gabrielle wasn't sure how she ended up in the tavern that night. Perhaps it was because Xena had filled her in on the con and she was just dying of curiosity to see her friend ham it up, or the off chance that she would see the man who had been driving her crazy for the last five hours, or maybe she just wanted a good meal, she wasn't sure. At any rate, here she was, sitting alone, casting glares at any man who came towards her and keeping her eyes peeled for anything.
She jumped when she heard a familiar voice with a horrible unfamiliar accent yell, "ANYBODY LOSE A BABY?!" Gabrielle's head whirled, and she almost choked on her drink when she saw Xena come into the room in a skimpy gown, holding Eve above her like a melon.
Behind her, she saw Rafe looking pained, and had to smile. That guy was still hot.
Xena looked around, and when her eyes met Gabrielle's, she winked, and then seemed to look right through her.
Gabrielle just smiled, and looked back down at her glass.
Xena kept looking around, and when no one stepped forward, looked at Eve with an exasperated glare and pulled her in closer. "Well, Rafey, looks like we're stuck with her tonight."
Gabrielle bit her lip from laughing out loud. She watched, along with the rest of the tavern as the pair made their way to the back, where a fat old lech of a guy was staring at Xena like she was a tart.
Oh, Gods, this would be interesting.
Gabrielle watched as Xena flounced, seating herself on the edge of the table, obviously enjoying ever minute. Her thigh was exposed, and the men noticed. Everyone except Rafe, who didn't look a bit pleased as he grabbed her hand and pulled her off.
Gabrielle chuckled. The conman played the jealous husband part quite well.
Gabrielle was about to move to another table to get a closer look when the giggles of three different girls caught her attention. Her heart suddenly thumped, and she didn't say anything, merely slid back a bit, making sure the three burly men sitting at the table next to her hid her from their sight.
They were all chirping, and the annoying brunette looked back and suddenly pulled a familiar face into view.
Gabrielle's eyes were dark with emotion as she watched Joxer come into the room.
He didn't look happy. His face was drawn and sullen, and he looked … sad. Gabrielle frowned, leaning forward.
"Hey, baby, see anything you like?" Gabrielle narrowed her eyes and then turned to see a handsome, strapping man staring at her with a sure expression.
"Umm… not particularly," she said, rolling her eyes. "You can leave." He looked a little put out, and he turned to see what she was staring at. Suddenly he growled, and muttered some not too nice words under his breath.
That was enough to catch Gabrielle's attention. Her head cocked, and she watched as the handsome guy walked a few feet away, began talking angrily to some other big guys and pointing in Joxer's direction.
Gabrielle looked back. Joxer still seemed out of it, but that Tara girl was hanging all over him and looking back at the guy that had just hit on Gabrielle to make sure he was watching.
That guy was quickly reaching boiling point.
Okay, not good.
Gabrielle felt her hands creep to her Sais, but still made no move, her mind alert.
She looked back at Joxer, who really didn't look like he was in the mood for a party.
She looked back to the strapping guy whose eyes were hooded and hands were balled into fists.
Definitely not good.
"Alright, Rafe. You know the deal. The wife for everything you lost- AND CAN YOU SHUT THAT BABY UP?!"
Xena held the crying Eve closer. "Hey! It ain't my fault this kid's a brat! It's not like she's mine! I just found her!"
"Well it makes sense that no one's claimed her, don't you think?" muttered Rafe.
Xena, ever so subtly, kicked him soundly, so hard he actually lurched over.
Byron raised an eyebrow. "You okay?"
"Fine," gasped Rafe. "Let's start."
"Wait, wait." Xena pushed her way to the front of the table. "Did I just hear right? You guys are bettin' for ME?!"
Byron gazed at her coolly. "That's right, toots. You got a problem with that?"
"Who, me? Heck no. He's poor as a pauper right now. I'd be much better off with a rich fella like you."
"Virginia!" Rafe gave her a murderous glare.
Xena raised her eyebrow coolly. "Hey pal, you snooze, you lose." She smiled at Byron and leaned forward, allowing him a nice, ample view of her cleavage. "But if you're gonna own me, you gotta earn it."
"Huh?" he asked, not looking at her face.
"I mean, the way he did," Xena thumbed a gesture to the fuming Rafe. "In a one round bet. Winner takes all. I deal the cards, just to make things fair." Xena pulled a pack of cards from the fold of her dress and tossed it to Byron. "Those are fair."
"Are you saying mine AREN'T?!" Byron fumed.
Xena smiled, and leaned forward, tracing a finger down his face. "No, honey, not at all. But if you want me, you play by MY rules." With that, she shook a bit, boring her eyes into his, letting them twinkle. "Unless you're not… man enough to handle me… or my … cards."
Rafe watched, breathless.
Byron seemed transfixed upon the gleam in her eyes. It was clear as he moved back. He HAD to have her, and he would do whatever it took to get her.
"Fine," he gasped, wiping the back of his neck. "We do what the wench wants. Rafe and I will play by her rules."
It was all Rafe could not to crack up laughing, or grab Xena and kiss her senseless right then and there.
She was just too good.
Gabrielle had begun to sweat a little, every nerve on edge as she tried to figure out exactly what was going to happen.
The three girls and Joxer seemed to have no clue. Joxer looked very put out and their attempts at trying to cheer him up were proving to have no effect.
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes, wondering what was wrong with him, before looking back to find that the man motioned to his buddies and started forward.
Gabrielle stood, not wanting to cause commotion if she didn't have to, and was about to approach them when she saw Joxer get up, say something, and against the girl's obvious protests, leave the tavern.
The men immediately followed, and her heart in her throat, she tried to follow them too. She didn't even notice she was passing the girl's table until the redhead got up and blocked her path.
"Gabrielle, isn't it?" she asked coolly.
Gabrielle shot her a surprised look, and just rolled her eyes, trying to go around her. Tara wouldn't allow it.
"Look, I don't have time for pleasantries," Gabrielle muttered, trying once again to go past her, but was stopped by another brunette standing up, looking positively furious.
"Joxer's been acting like a wounded puppy because of you. What did you say to him?"
Gabrielle felt her temper rise, and her eyes flashed. "I don't have time for this. Because of you and your damn little games-" she sighed, cutting herself off, reminding herself that Joxer was in serious danger, and it was not the time to beat up these little bimbos, as pleasurable as it would be. "Look, you care about Joxer, and you were his friends. For that I won't kick your ass. Now get out of my way."
"Why should I?" scoffed the dark haired one. Gabrielle lost patience and grabbed the taller girl by the neck, twisting her around and placing the Sai to her throat.
"Is THIS a good enough reason?" she hissed.
The other girls gasped, and Tara immediately sat down. "Good enough for me," she muttered.
Gabrielle sighed, letting the brunette go, pushing past her with a forceful shove, and wavering for half a second before turning back.
"Do yourself a favor. Stop kissing Joxer," she told her.
"Why?" she asked, coughing to try and get her breath back.
Gabrielle didn't even know the answer until it came from her mouth. "Because he's mine." With that, she turned, and ran out of the tavern, leaving the girls with their mouths wide open behind.
She ran outside and looked around wildly, her hands gripping her Sais. She couldn't see anything in the darkness, but her ears picked up a scuffle on the other side of the building.
She turned the corner, and felt her heart tremor at the sight. Two of his friends were holding Joxer, and the big guy was punching him in the gut.
Gabrielle's eyes glinted, and she ran forward, kicking the man as hard as she could in the exact same place he had hit Joxer.
He grunted in pain, going down, and Gabrielle turned quickly, punching each man who held Joxer in the face, forcing them to let go.
Joxer fell the ground, coughing and sputtering. Gabrielle sensed the other guy was up, and yelled, delivering a sidekick that sent him flying backwards.
She turned, and glared at the two others, who were still holding their faces. "You want to try me?" she breathed, holding up her Sais.
They looked at each other, and furiously shook their heads, grabbing their friend and running off into the night.
Gabrielle looked down, her face softening quickly as she leaned over.
"Joxer," she whispered. He groaned, holding his hands to his chest where they had hit him. One eye opened groggily as she winced in sympathy, holding his face between her hands.
"Gabby?" he groaned. She nodded, swallowing. "Gabby, I'm sorry. I couldn't... I didn't mean what I said. I love-"
"Joxer, you're hurt," she said thickly, helping him scramble up, feeling his knees buckle. She grunted, holding him up.
"I'm sorry, Gabr-" he tried again, and winced in pain.
"Joxer, shut up," she said firmly, and stilled, looking at him once, one hand tenderly stroking his face before she slid it around his waist. "Let's get you to your room."
Xena gave Rafe her first serious look of the evening. She had done her part; it was up to him to rescue his reputation now.
The pressure was on, and to his credit, he didn't seem to care one whit about it. His hands were steady, and his gaze was clear.
He didn't look at her, didn't even acknowledge she was there for the first time in the evening, and she wasn't offended. His game was his first love, and it took all of his concentration, especially to win against a cheater.
She had talked to him before about fixing the cards, something she knew she could pull off, but he had immediately shaken his head no.
"I play by my own rules, Xena," he had told her briskly. "And I'm good at it. I can beat the odds, as long as the game's fair."
She let a smirk float on her face as she thought about that conversation. He was an honorable man, in spite of his trade. She had to give him that much.
She did admire him; he had managed to keep a good heart despite the fact he had a somewhat questionable profession.
In a way he reminded her much of Marcus, a straight man caught on the wrong side.
That thought made her still, as she remembered her dead lover and she swallowed, squeezing Eve a bit tighter.
The table was crowded now, and Xena kept her eyes open, knowing that Byron wouldn't take it too well if he lost.
There were at least ten of his men around Rafe; their hands ready to go into their pockets for what she knew were weapons. Rafe had insisted on not carrying any weapons, he said they weighed his concentration down, but that hadn't deterred the Warrior Princess from stowing a few of her own.
Eve was asleep. How she had managed that feat in the middle of all this commotion, Xena didn't know; but the child didn't stir as the men swore and cheered on Byron.
Rafe's face was completely closed, and he nodded ever so imperceptibly to Xena. She looked to Byron, who winked.
Xena nodded, her poker face on now as she quickly dealt the cards.
"Alright fellas," she drawled, "you remember the rules, no cheating, and I'll be watchin', ‘cause the only man who'll win me will play fair." She gave Byron a meaningful look and the lecher just grinned wickedly.
She paused for a minute, and then quickly drawled, "Take off your shirts."
Both of them looked at her like she was crazy. "I mean it, boys, take off your shirts. You play by my rules, and I want to see chests."
Rafe gave her a murderous look but obeyed, unbuckling his vest amidst the hoots and hollers. Xena smiled, looking down at his chest appreciatively. Nice, very nice.
He saw her staring and glared at her, but she merely grinned drolly, leaning forward and brushing her lips against his chest. "Now you know what it's like to be leered at," she whispered.
He didn't answer.
She turned to Byron, and holding the sleeping baby tighter, raised an eyebrow. "Your turn."
He looked very hesitant, looking first at Xena, then at Rafe, who merely crossed his arms over his very muscular chest, and waited.
"You scared of playing without your shirt, Byron?" he cracked. "Might have something up your sleeve?"
Byron frowned, and then looked to Xena, who only gave him an easy glance.
"Come on, Byron, my rules. Let's go, off with the shirt."
He didn't move, getting redder by the second, the whistles and shouts of the ever-growing crowd causing a blush to move up his face. Again he looked at Xena.
"If you win me, you'll be doing it a lot," she pointed out with a gleam in her eye. "Might as well do it now."
"Have some balls, man. Take off the shirt. Let's see what you're like without your little tricks."
That set him off, and snorting like an ox, Byron threw his shirt off. Xena almost blanched, but she only betrayed the faintest hint of a smile as she nodded.
"Yummy," she said, winking, and then turned before she cracked up. She held the cards in her hands and gave one last look around the tavern.
Gabrielle and Joxer were nowhere to be seen. Concern flitted through her mind for a second, but she let it go. Gabrielle and Joxer could take care of themselves, and she needed all her concentration. Rafe was good with cards, but she knew Byron was just as adept, and it would take tricky dealing and some very good contact with Rafe, if they were going to pull this off.
Xena took a breath, put on a bimbo-ish face and began shuffling the cards.
"All right, boys," she drawled. "Let's play cards."
Gabrielle kicked the door open, half-carrying, half dragging her friend into his dark room. "Come on," she whispered to her groggy friend, leading him to his bed and setting him down gently before going back and closing the door behind her.
He sat, holding one hand to his head and the other to his stomach, apparently not quite able to speak yet.
Gabrielle came forward, and gently helped him pull off his vest.
"Let's take a look at your chest, Joxer," she said softly. "See if they did any damage."
"Guy had a brass knuckle thing, or somethin'," he said, wincing. Gabrielle pulled his shirt up and off, and then quickly lit the lamp next to the bed.
Standing up, she quickly parted his hair, checking what was only a sizable lump. "This isn't too bad," she said, pursing her lips as she felt it. "Sorry," she said after a minute, when she felt him wince.
"I coulda taken 'em," Joxer said weakly. "But I didn't even know who they were or what they wanted-"
"They were your friend Tara's boyfriend's crew," Gabrielle informed him, a bit of anger slipping through as she felt her muscles tense at the thought. "Bitch," she muttered under her breath.
Joxer looked at her strangely for a second, as she quickly moved her fingers from his scalp to his chest.
"You were watching?"
"I was in the tavern, keeping an eye on Xena," she informed him tersely, and gently pressed at a spot above his ribs. He yelped.
"Just a little," he grumbled. "Gabby, I'm fi-IPE!"
She raised a skeptical eyebrow, and rolled her eyes. "You might have a bruised rib, it doesn't seem broken." She felt around a bit more, felt him jump, but he didn't say a word, despite the pain. "You'll live."
He was quiet, and she looked at him in curiosity. "What?" she finally asked, when he gazed at her.
There was a pause, and after a second, Joxer pulled her hands into his lap. "Gabby," he whispered, his voice urgent, "You didn't have to-"
She felt herself suddenly tremble, suddenly realized their close proximity, and swallowing without thinking, she pulled away, and moved down to remove his boots. "You need to rest," she said hastily. "Sleep the night off, Joxer, and we'll talk in the morning.
"No, Gabby, no, I've been miserable all day-"
"Joxer, I mean it." She pushed him down, pulled the covers over his pants and moved over him to adjust his pillow, but he merely sat back up, gasping from the pain but otherwise barely acknowledging it before he grabbed her arms, forcing her to look at him.
"Gabby, I'm sorry," he whispered hoarsely, his face glazed over with pain. "I'm sorry for what I said, I didn't mean it-"
"Joxer," she cut him off with one finger on his lips, on her face only concern and genuine love. "It's okay, don't worry about it. Just go to sleep."
"No." He shook her hand away and grimaced, before trying again. "I'm sorry about it. Gods, Gabby, all of this, who I am... I could never- I love you. Who I am, is who loving you made me. I can't NOT love you Gabrielle, and I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I don't care if you don' t love me. I love you, you make me special. I love you." The words came out harried and fast, but the sincerity was clear in the gleam in his eyes.
Her throat was full, as she stared at him, her eyes shining brightly. "I know you do, Joxer. Go to sleep."
With that she firmly planted her hands on his chest, holding him down, and running her fingertips gently in a caress down his face, kissed his forehead once.
He held her hand tightly, and she didn't complain, merely sat next to him on the bed, waiting for him to let the agony subside, and let the lull of sleep take over.
Soon he was breathing evenly, but the thought never occurred to her to leave. Instead, she pulled up a chair and settled into it comfortably.
She felt unbearably warm, his words ringing through her ears and washing over her. She could still hear them, as loudly as if he were saying them to her at that moment.
She licked her lips, and closed her eyes, taking a breath. Her eyes opened and she found herself studying his form. He really was a handsome man, she decided; that was something she had seen a while ago.
But he was Joxer, and he loved her. He loved more than any man had ever loved her.
And for some reason, it no longer scared her. Instead, it made her wonder what it would be like to take comfort in those arms, those lips. She already knew what it felt like to not have it, to have it taken away. It was a terrible feeling, and now she had it back. And she wondered what a kiss from a Joxer, a real kiss, with no spells or mistaken identities, his lips pressed against hers, just like in that dream. Would she really feel that way? The way she had felt in her dream? The feeling that had been escaping her for so long- Gods, was Joxer the key?
At that moment, the curiosity was too great. He was asleep, out cold as a matter of fact, and there was no way he would ever know she had taken this liberty.
The temptation was too much to resist. It had been ages since she had really kissed a man, since she had felt her own lips pressed against someone else's, and something about Joxer's lips fascinated her. She remembered their feel, remembered their softness, and just the touch against her fingertips sent a fluttering in her heart that seemed new, and yet seemed so familiar she couldn't stop.
She swallowed, looking to the doorway and then back down to her clumsy fool. He was breathing evenly, and he slept so soundly. He would never know. No one would ever know that Gabrielle had given in to such a fool thing.
She had loved him too late, she knew that, and Xena was right. She wasn't prepared to give him everything, not nearly what he was prepared to give her.
But she needed him. She needed his love, and she didn't want to let it go. More than that, she refused to let it go. It wasn't fair that she couldn't have it; it belonged to her. He belonged to her. He would always belong to her.
Taking a breath, she leaned forward, her eyes watching his face as she came closer. He was breathing evenly, not noticing her ever-nearing proximity.
Finally, she was inches from his face, every nerve set on end as she felt his breath, tainted slightly of alcohol, dancing on her lips in hot puffs. She inhaled for a moment, and then swallowed, not being able to stop what she was about to do.
One hand went gently to cradle his cheek, making sure to skirt the bruise that marred the fair skin, the other to rest lightly on his bare chest.
She couldn't hold it in any longer, and she found the words coming out of her mouth before she had ever realized she had said them.
"I love you too, Joxer," came the soft whisper, and suddenly her lips pressed tenderly against his. She lingered against him for a second, her eyes closing at the sensation, caressing his lips once with her own, sighing softly at the silkiness, before taking a breath, and inching away.
Her eyes stayed shut, trying to capture the memory, and she swallowed, regrettably opening her eyes, finding them focused on the lips she had just kissed.
Oh, Gods, did she just say-
She did. She had said it. And it was time she stopped deluding herself from the fear that was in her heart and the truth of the depth of her affection for this man.
She had once thought that she had been waiting for him to grow up, to emotionally mature before she would even able to allow herself to think of herself in any sort of way with him.
Perhaps the person that had needed to grow instead… was herself.
Gabrielle swallowed, and suddenly froze, her breath releasing in one quick gasp as she felt a hand on her forearm. She looked down, saw the contact, and her eyes quickly flew to the hand's owner.
Joxer's eyes were shiny and unsure, and wide open. Her heart began to beat furiously as she realized he had been awake. Oh, Gods, he had been awake. Oh, Gods.
Her throat went dry and she licked her lips, trying hard to think of anything to say to explain what she had just done, but he beat her to the punch.
"Gabrielle," he whispered thickly. "Did you just… did you just say-"
Gabrielle's eyes suddenly became watery at the disbelief in Joxer's eyes, at the tears behind them. Her hand slipped to his and she squeezed tightly, her face firm and her voice steady.
"Yes, Joxer," she told him softly. "Yes, I did."
His eyes were glazed over, but if it was from the pain or from her revelation she didn't know. It wasn't wise of her to do this to him when he was so dazed, but somehow she felt she had no choice. It was now or never, and she knew in her heart that she couldn't stand there being a never. She needed him now.
There was a moment when they both stared at each other and suddenly they both reached forward, their lips moving instantaneously as they touched. She kissed him desperately, feeling his lips move hotly over hers, felt herself whine in response. Her hands slid up his chest and around his neck, pressing her chest to his, trying with all her might to remember that he was hurt, and still losing all control when he continued to kiss her beautifully. His lips were firm, and so very sure.
It was a homecoming, and Gabrielle felt the beauty of it stir inside of her heart. She felt hot tears sliding down her cheeks, and knew they were hers, and didn't care.
The only thing she cared about then was Joxer, Joxer's lips, Joxer's body.
And the fact that she loved him.
There was absolute silence, as Rafe showed no emotion whatsoever. Xena didn't allow any to cross her face either, but noted with some concern the sweat upon Rafe's brow. She didn't dare follow through on her impulse to help him out and wipe it off, however, and instead looked toward Byron, who was sweating like a pig.
And no way was she wiping THAT off.
"Alright, boys," she drawled, "Call it."
Rafe didn't look at her as he gazed at Byron, who didn't reveal one emotion as he looked down at his cards.
"Let's make this a bit more interesting," he commented.
"I've got nothing left to bet," Rafe said quickly.
Byron looked at him seriously, and then smiled. "Yes, you do."
Rafe gave him a surprised glance, and then did a double take. "What are you talking about? You mean myself?"
"I could use a good conman in my service."
He seemed to think about it for a minute. "In return, if I win, I get everything you own."
Byron didn't seem to like that proposition, but he took another look at his cards, and nodded. "Can't wait to see you on your knees, pretty boy."
Rafe didn't answer, merely stared at him through the bright eyes, and the man's smile slid off.
"Call it," Xena said, hugging Eve and rocking her gently.
Byron looked at Rafe, and then slowly showed his cards. The crowd gasped and applauded. It was a beautiful hand, nearly impossible to beat, and everyone, including Byron, knew it. He smiled self assuredly and winked at Xena. "We'll be having some time alone before long."
Xena didn't answer, instead gave him a smoldering glare that seemed so unlike her previous character he appeared slightly unsure of himself.
All gazes turned to the handsome conman, who didn't say a word as he stared down Byron. "You're a cheater and a coward," Rafe bit out, his eyes flashing. "And a disgrace to the game."
Byron raised an eyebrow, leaned his head back and laughed. "Oh, that doesn't sound good for your hand, Rafe."
"No, no, I just wanted to make things clear, before I brought you down," Rafe said, seconds before showing his cards.
There was utter silence, and Xena felt her heartbeat skip slightly, as a smirk emerged onto her face.
Byron couldn't believe it, none of the table could.
Rafe didn't seem the least surprised; he merely flicked the cards toward Byron, and stood. "You've just been conned, and with EVEN odds, Byron. How does it feel?"
The crowd suddenly erupted into cheers, and Rafe turned to pull on his shirt, while Xena stood, holding his gaze with a smile that was both seductive and proud.
Byron looked at the winning hand; his face seemed to hold utter shock. "No, no," he whispered. "I made sure... I-"
"You tried to cheat, Byron," Xena said, smiling at him slyly. "So I just evened up the game." With that she reached under the table and pulled out the dazed man who had been hiding there, trying to hand his boss the cards.
Byron stared at the man, then at the dazzling blue eyes, and whispered, "You're no harlot."
Rafe smiled wickedly. "Told you you've been conned." He nodded to Xena, who merely raised an eyebrow, and shrugged, reaching up and pulling off the wig.
There were gasps around the tavern. "Xena! It's the Warrior Princess!"
Rafe reached forward, plucking the paper that held the list of the winnings. "We'll be taking our winnings now."
"Over my dead body," the fat lech roared. "Get them."
There were tables overturned, and the crowd began to scatter, but the only expression on Xena's face was a smile, as she held Eve closely with one hand, and sent Byron flying with the other.
Rafe gave her a grin, and she winked. She turned, her eyes glinting to the others. "You want a piece of me?" she purred. "Let's get it on."
They charged, and Xena ducked, sending them flying over her, narrowly missing Rafe when he jumped to the side.
"Oops." Xena grinned. "Sorry."
He gave her a look, but didn't have a chance to comment, because he was hit from behind. Xena winced, but noticed he recovered quickly, blocking the next punch, and elbowing the guy.
Her attention was diverted when five charged her at once, and she jumped, kicking two in the head before landing.
"What?" He turned, and yelped when he saw a baby flying his way. He jumped, catching the baby like a ball, before bringing her in and landing with a thud on his back.
Xena jumped on a table, using it as a springboard to fly over their heads.
Rafe leaned up, cradling the child against his chest as he sat. Xena stood over him, dispatching the men one by one.
"Thanks," she said, taking the baby from him and flipping to the other side of the room.
Rafe shook his head and scrambled up, kicking another man out of his way.
The bodies went flying, and suddenly the tavern was still.
Xena stood, her child in her arms and viewed the room. There was a body hanging on the chandelier. It fell after a second of swinging.
Groaning heaps of men were littered around the tables, and the place had emptied. In the end, there were only two people standing.
Xena turned, and locked eyes with the handsome conman who was breathing heavily and running his hands through his perfect hair.
He stilled, and gave her an intense gaze of admiration, respect, and desire.
And she smiled.
His lips glided over hers, nestling into her mouth and moving away, turning to brush against her temple before sighing, moving back.
She closed her eyes, and then opened them to let them shine brilliantly at him. "I'm glad someone knocked you upside the head," she whispered against his ear.
He froze, and then chuckled, groaning painfully when the vibration seemed to hurt his face.
"Oh, Joxer," Gabrielle shook her head, and quickly slid off of him, freezing when his grip tightened.
"No, no, of course not," she assured him. "I'm just rearranging myself, carefully so I won't hurt you. But I'm not leaving."
He swallowed, and raised a weary hand, caressing her cheek gently before closing his eyes. "I'm sorry I can't-"
"I don't want you to." She smiled at him. "Sleep, Joxer," she whispered, pressing her lips gently against his bruise and sliding her hand around his waist. "Sleep."
Joxer was trembling, and feeling the movement, she only held him tighter, feeling her mouth pull into one soft smile at his emotion. It was all for her.
Closing her eyes, she laid her head on his chest, kissed the pectoral, just over his heart, and then laid her cheek against it.
Her heartbeat was almost synchronous with his. The thought made her smile wider, and she gave a soft sigh of contentment when his arms slipped around her, and held her close.
I love you, Joxer the clumsy, she mouthed to herself drowsily, and found her dreams becoming a reality, the peace and contentment, the fire that purified her, pouring over her soul.
She fell asleep with that smile still on her face.
Joxer awoke to a searing sensation of agony in his chest. He sucked in his breath, and groaned, feeling the pressure on his ribcage.
The light of the morning sun came in from the window and hit him in the eyes, forcing him to close them for a minute, sending daggers into his brain.
Memories of the night before seemed rather vague, mixed with small taints of alcohol and the piercing ache in his head.
He looked down to what was causing the pain against his body and his eyes widened.
Gabrielle was sleeping soundly, nestled into his side, half of her weight on his chest. He looked at her for a second, unbelieving, and then the pain got the better of him and he carefully scooted her off of him and to the side. True to her nature, Gabrielle didn't stir, merely readjusted herself and sighed.
Joxer watched her for a minute, and swallowed. Had what he thought happened really happened? Did she really? Did he really? She had kissed him; told him she loved him.
He closed his eyes, rubbing at his eyelids.
A surge of overwhelming joy filled him, followed by immediate guilt. Gods, the way she had looked at him last night. He had been dazed, not thinking, but he knew Gabrielle's tender nature. He knew that she did love him in a very platonic way, that she cared about him and relied on him, that she had been through so many whirling emotions the last few days...
She hadn't needed him going off on her, and he had left her in an emotional state. He had made her feel guilty when he knew she had nothing to feel guilty for.
She didn't love him. He knew that. She had told him that repeatedly. That wasn't her fault; it was just how she felt.
And in her guilt... she must have said that to him, to make him feel better.... Maybe even thinking she herself believed it when-
He closed his eyes against the wrenching sensation in his chest, and as gently as his bruised ribs would allow, got up and off the bed.
He knew what would happen when she woke. She would look at him, realize what had happened and suddenly take it all back. Like she always did with him.
And he would see the look of regret, of the mistake that she had made and he would die just a little bit inside.
He couldn't take that now, not now. Biting his lip, he pulled on his shirt, praying she would wake up and not remember.
He swallowed, sliding out the door, and closing it gently, leaving the woman he loved sleeping in his bed.
He had been so dazed, so foggy and in pain. All he had thought about was telling her how he felt, trying to tell her what had been on his heart. He had used her beautiful caring nature and mistaken that for love. She had been so vulnerable.
He knew she was vulnerable, what with all that was going on. And he hadn't cared. All he cared about was himself.
He felt horrible.
The birds were chirping a harmonious melody outside of their window, and Gabrielle felt herself smile in her sleep, not bothering to open her eyes yet.
She wanted to savor the moment, the sleepy haze of wonderful emotion that filled her heart at the thought that this was the start of something completely new.
She sighed, and slid her hand up the silken sheet.
Her eyes snapped open when she realized there was no body there. Sitting up, she looked around, and suddenly the chirping birds and the warm sunlight didn't matter.
The room was completely empty. She blinked once, thinking maybe she might have missed him, but again, he wasn't in the room.
Her heart was in her throat as she tried to understand what could have happened, what could have made him leave.
Slipping off the bed, she opened the door, looking around. Nope, not in the hallway.
"Joxer, where are you?" she whispered. Closing the door behind her, she ran to her own bedroom, opened it, and found Xena in bed, sound asleep. Eve was wide eyed, and when she saw Gabrielle, she squealed and held her hands out. Gabrielle smiled, blowing an air kiss to the baby before closing the door gently.
"Okay, if I was Joxer, where would I be?" she whispered to herself. Shaking her head, she suddenly froze, and snapped her fingers.
She found him in the stables, grooming the two horses that were relishing the attention. Stopping in the doorway, she took a moment to study his pained, sad expression, the grimness filling her soul with confusion.
Taking a breath, she strode to him.
"Joxer, you shouldn't be doing that," she said firmly, taking the brush from him, ignoring both his surprised expression and the horses' neigh of protest. She gazed at him for a second, as he looked at her once, and looked away.
"You have a bruised rib, and if that lump on your head is ANY indication, one hell of a headache. Joxer, what are you doing out of bed?"
He froze, and licked his lips, trying to take the brush from her, and failing when she tossed it a few feet away. He gazed at her, and saw her face was earnest, serious and a bit angered.
She placed a hand on his arm, and forced him to keep looking at her. "Joxer," she said a bit more gently, "What's wrong?"
He swallowed, and shrugged, feeling the words barely manage to eek out. "Nothing."
"Tell me the truth, Joxer." The words were edged in anger, and her grip on him tightened.
He closed his eyes, taking a breath, before beginning again. "I was thinkin' maybe you didn't want me to be there when... when you woke up."
"WHAT?!" Gabrielle looked completely bewildered. "Joxer, that is ridiculous! What is this complex you have that you think I couldn't ... oh wait. Okay." She paused, blushing when he looked at her pointedly. Okay, so he had a point. She had a reputation for being a bit fickle with the guy. Taking a breath, she squeezed gently. "Can we go somewhere and talk? Seriously?"
He gave her a searching look, but when she raised an eyebrow, he finally nodded. "Yeah, okay."
She rolled her eyes. "Well don't sound so excited," she murmured. Shaking her head, she grabbed his hand and pulled him out of the stables.
She had opened the door to find the con man scrubbed up and holding a tray of steaming hot food. Blinking, she looked at it with a closed face, and then gave him a cocked eyebrow.
Rafe looked a little out of his element, but shrugged. "Breakfast in bed?"
"But I'm not in bed anymore," she pointed out.
He winced. "Okay, so it had one flaw." He waited at the door, and when she only leaned against the doorway and crossed her arms, finally gave her an exasperated glare. "Well?"
She smirked. "Well what?"
"Can I come in?"
"I don't invite strange men into my room," she commented dryly.
He narrowed his eyes. "You tossed your baby to me last night."
"And you said so yourself. You don't trust Eve with just anyone."
She stared at him for a moment, and allowed a small smile to grace her beautiful face. "Point taken. Come on in."
He grinned, and walked through the doorway, setting the tray down and turning, licking his lips, almost as if he was going to prepare for a speech.
"Umm... Xena." He blew his breath out, and ran his hand through his hair. "I uh... I'm not very good at this. I'm good with flowery words, and with the charm, but rarely am I ever sincere... so if I am going to sound like a bumbling idiot-"
"Too late," she drawled.
He gave her a look, and rolled his eyes. "You're not helping."
"Sorry, keep going, I'm all ears." She gave him a teasing smile, and quickly straightened it when he didn't smile back.
"This will work better if you just... you know... shut UP, until I'm done."
She raised one skeptical eyebrow, but merely pursed her lips and picked up Eve, sitting on the chair and waiting expectantly.
He wrung his hands together. "Xena... since I've met you... I've never been able to...stop thinking about you...I've never met anyone like you and.... and ... it scares me a bit, because you make me lose my edge, which is death for me... and the scariest thing is... I don't mind."
He paused, licking his lips, and suddenly finding the floor fascinating, he continued, "See, I know you're leaving today, and I might not see you for a while... and I don't like that idea, and I know that... that... well I know... this isn't a good idea, and I know that you've got way too many things on your mind, and you could have Gods, and would rather kiss the floor than be with a guy like me... but if in the future... if you decide that maybe... you... you... you... want to ... you know... be with someone... like... full time... and not settle down, mind you... cause I know you won't... but maybe-"
"Rafe," Xena finally interrupted.
He paused, looking at her curiously. "What?"
"Just shut up and kiss me."
His eyes widened, and he froze, eyeing her almost suspiciously. "What?"
"You heard me."
He still wasn't quite ready to believe his fortune, but when she stood, he finally grinned, and stepped forward, sliding his arms around her carefully, and gingerly, tenderly placed his lips on hers.
He had a complex. A serious complex. She was getting involved with a very insecure man. And although she had seen it before, now it suddenly mattered so much it hurt her inside to see him in that state.
She took a breath, sitting on the log by the stream, and looking up at him while he waited for her to speak. His eyes were dark, the guilt evident, the fear of what she was going to say, mentally preparing himself for the worst.
She closed her eyes, and then took a breath, releasing it as she began to speak. "Okay, look. I was kinda hoping you would BE there, when I woke up."
He looked genuinely surprised. "You were?"
She gave him an incredulous look. "Yes, Joxer, I was! I mean, look at you! You're a mess! You're in no shape- and that's not the best way to start this, is it?" she muttered, running a hand through her short hair at his bewildered face. She rose, mentally cursing herself. "I used to be so GOOD at this."
She got up, clasping at his hands in a gentle hold. "Let's try it again. Joxer, I meant what I said last night. I don't know what you thought... but I meant it. I wouldn't have said it or... done what I did, if I hadn't."
There. That wasn't so hard. No one could misinterpret that. No one. It was concise, clear. Just the right words.
And yet still, the annoying man refused to get the point. He only stared at her blankly, his hands on his hips as he gazed at her in concern, the love in his eyes brilliantly resilient.
With a groan, Gabrielle realized suddenly that words weren't going to help her this time and something inside of her snapped. She lunged forward, grabbing his face with her hands and pulling him down toward her.
With an aggressiveness that completely took him by surprise, Gabrielle kissed him. It was a passionate kiss, leaving no room for error in judgment of just what she wanted. Her mouth plundered his dazed lips, pulling, searching for entrance, and sighing with a moan when she was rewarded.
Pulling away, she stared into his eyes, holding onto him as if she desperately needed his arms around her, accidentally ignoring his gasp of pain.
"I'm in love with you," she whispered, her eyes sparkling as she spoke unsteadily. "I'm in love with you, Joxer, and it's not because of your new look, and it's not because of those other girls. It's because of you. Somewhere in the middle of when you told me you loved me and now, I've fallen in love with you, Joxer."
He was stock-still; scared even to breathe at the intensity with which she spoke. Her eyes were clear, slightly moist and she smiled a brilliant grin that set his heart racing, and made him smile just as widely.
She nodded, and he licked his lips, still not quite sure, until she reached up to try and kiss him again.
"Wait, wait." Joxer looked incredibly confused as he put his hands in front of him, a weak attempt to try and literally keep her at arm's length.
She found herself smiling at the thought.
"Gabrielle." He seemed to be bracing himself, and she noticed that his eyes had turned into a beautiful chocolate hue that resonated with love. And confusion. "Are you sure? Because I don't want you to-"
GODS, how DENSE WAS HE?!
"Okay, you still don't get it. I'm going to try this again. And if this time if it doesn't actually get through your thick skull, I'm going to beat it into you, you understand?" He gave her an odd look, but nodded, licking his lips as he waited. She smiled softly, one hand stealing up to run her hand through his hair lovingly. "See, I was looking at this all wrong. I thought that if I let myself feel what I did for you, if I gave in, then it would just complicate things further. That I would be asking for extra trouble; for me, for Xena, for you." She shrugged sheepishly, as he looked at her, his eyes dark as he listened to her intently. "But last night I realized something. When I was in your arms, when I was kissing you, Joxer… that tension, that feeling that I didn't know who I was becoming, it was gone. The feelings that you gave me, they were GOOD, Joxer. And I realized that was what I needed. I need someone who will love me no matter what I do, because deep down, even though they've seen the worst of me, they know who I really am, who I'll always be. I need someone who isn't a warrior, but a beautiful soul, with gorgeous eyes, and undying loyalty. I need someone who'll hold me, and someone that I love."
Joxer still looked slightly unsure. "Isn't that Xena?" he whispered unsteadily.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and smiled. "No, silly. Xena is my soulmate, yes. And I'll always love her, and I'll always be beside her. But that doesn't mean I don't want you beside me too. Joxer, you've kept a part of me inside of you that I cherish, and it comes out every time you say 'Gabby', every time you look at me with those eyes and tell me that you love me. Joxer, that's all of what I need, and you're all that, Joxer. All of it. I love you. And I need you."
Again he was at a loss for words. His eyes glistened, and he slowly began to reach for her, and then pulled back.
Gabrielle gently grabbed his unsure hands and slid them around her waist, pressing against him firmly, leaning up and glaring at him, finally losing patience.
"Joxer, part of who I am depends on being with you, on loving you. So will you stop being a clueless dork and just kiss me already?"
He looked at her, gazing into her eyes, and suddenly he seemed to understand. His eyes lit up, and the pure joy in his face made Gabrielle laugh.
Without preamble, he attacked her lips furiously, ravaging her in an embrace so passionate they fell backwards into a groaning heap on the ground.
Strangely, she didn't seem to mind at all.
He kissed her once, his lips brushing over hers in a beautiful, chaste kiss. He held her as if he was afraid of breaking her, and when he let her go, he was smiling like an idiot.
She, on the other hand, was looking at him like he had grown a second head.
"That's it?" Xena asked.
Rafe gave her a confused look. "What?"
"That's it?" She licked her lips, her eyebrow cocked. "Kinda chaste, isn't it?"
He gave her a hurt look, but her eyes only twinkled. Sighing, he gave her a pointed look. "I thought it went quite well. I've never gotten any complaints."
"Have you ever KISSED anyone like that?"
He shrugged. "I've only wanted to kiss one person like that. I didn't want our first real kiss to be some wanton lust act-"
"Oh, that is such a pathetic excuse," Xena muttered, rolling her eyes. Turning, she settled the baby on the bed, and said with a wink, "Well, Eve, just goes to show, if you want something done right, gotta ask a woman." Rafe looked bewildered, and was about to open his mouth to ask what she meant when Xena's hands shot forward, grabbing him by the lapels and pulling him towards her.
He groaned when she began to search his lips in a searing kiss, and responded immediately, crushing her to him, battling with her for control of the embrace. She gave it to him, though not without a fight, and triumphantly, he opened the kiss and made it wetter, hotter, leaving them both panting with desire when he finally released her.
She raised an eyebrow. "Now see, wasn't that better?" He gave her a shocked look, and suddenly laughed, reaching out and hugging her in a tender embrace that threw Xena off for a bit. As he held her, her eyes widened slightly.
This really wasn't just desire for him. Gods, he was really in love with her. He held her close, burying his face in her neck, inhaling, and she could feel him trembling against her.
Oh, Gods. Xena felt her heartbeat quicken, and closed her eyes, letting
her forehead fall to rest against his shoulder, allowing the embrace, knowing
that somehow she needed it.
But she didn't love him. Granted, she very well could. She could feel it in her body, the way her senses were heightened, the furious swell of heat that was quickly spreading through her. She could fall in love with him, but she didn't love him now. She couldn't love him now.
There was Gabrielle to consider. There was a battle with the Gods, there was Eve. There was Ares.
She licked her lips, pulling away quickly. He looked startled, and then embarrassed, adjusting his shirt. "I'm sorry," he said after a moment.
Xena just shook her head, and not quite able to speak, raised a hand to her forehead, trying to cool herself off.
"Rafe," she began hoarsely. "You know-"
His face quickly fell, but he raised a tender hand to her lips, stopping her sentence. "Yes, I know, Xena." He swallowed, and his eyes looked suspiciously moist as he took a breath. "You can't... not now... not for a long time."
She nodded thickly, reaching up to tenderly run a thumb down his face. "I'm not saying never, Rafe. Please understand that."
He nodded, forcing a grim smile on his face. "I know. And the offer stands, Xena. Look me up when you can. I'll be there. I'll be waiting."
Her gaze softened, she felt tears in her eyes and suddenly she was embracing him again, the fierce Warrior Princess allowing her heart to melt for just a few seconds, opening it to him in a small window of time.
He pulled away, cradling her face gently with his fingers, leaning forward and tenderly brushing his lips against hers again. She returned the gentle kiss, with as much emotion as she could, and their lips stayed against each other for a long minute, breath mingling, until he pulled away, not daring to break their gaze.
"See you soon, Xena," he whispered, swallowing quickly. He turned to Eve, and leaned down to kiss her little hand. "And you, dear lady. You treat your mother well." Eve smiled, and Rafe bowed.
He looked again to the blue-eyed Warrior, and he nodded, walking to the doorway. Opening it, he paused, his back to her for a second. "I love you," he rasped, seconds before he closed the door behind him.
Xena felt herself rooted to the floor. Her eyes welled up, and she had to force herself not to blink, instead wrapping her arms around herself and holding on tightly.
Gods, she couldn't feel this way. Not now. Closing her eyes, she let a trickle slide down her cheeks.
Eve began to cry. Xena's eyes stole to the baby, and she swallowed. "Oh, Eve, honey." She picked her child up, cradling her to her bosom gently. "It's okay, baby. It's okay."
She kissed her daughter's forehead, and held her tightly, watching her child's face with wonder. Her heart lifted slightly, and she found herself smiling just a bit.
"We'll be okay, won't we? We'll take care of this twilight mess and then figure stuff out. We just may see him again, right?"
Xena looked down at Eve, who was watching her mother curiously.
"Yeah, yeah, I know," she grumbled. "I'm a coward. What do you expect? I can't do it ALL." Eve giggled, and Xena felt herself grinning, reaching up to wipe away her tears. "Alright, high roads and adventures await. Let's go find Joxer and Gabrielle."
She sighed, leaning her head against his chest, caressing his chest with her hand, smiling when she felt him shudder as she slid her fingers under his shirt.
"I like this," she whispered.
"Yeah, me too." His hand rose to her hair, sliding his fingers through it, massaging at her scalp.
She smiled, closing her eyes against the sensation, stretching gracefully against him, when something made her freeze.
Gabrielle was suddenly acutely aware of someone watching them, and stilled, pulling away slightly.
She looked up, and felt her heart jump into her throat.
Not more than ten feet away, her free hand on her hip, and looking ready to murder Gabrielle, was Xena.
Gabrielle and Joxer looked at each other in panic, and when Joxer tried to get up, Gabrielle held him down.
"No, I'll talk to her." He gulped, but nodded, looking slightly scared. Gabrielle kissed his hand in reassurance, and jumped up, smoothing out her clothes and walking to Xena quickly.
"Okay," she began quickly. "I know what you're thinking and before you start hitting me, I love him. I'm in love with him. I have just been very stupid about the way I've found out." Gabrielle held her hands in front of her, as to ward off any attack from the still very immobile Xena. "I love him, Xena! It wasn't the clothes or the girls that made me love him, it was other stuff, but that helped me... realize that. And I may be a little selfish here, but he loves me too, and usually that's a good thing. So... umm... I love him?"
Xena crossed her arms, and narrowed her eyes at Gabrielle, her expression unreadable. "You love him," she returned dryly.
"Right," Gabrielle gave her a winning smile that didn't seem to match the apprehension in her eyes.
Joxer looked at them both, not sure of what to do or say.
Still glaring at Gabrielle, Xena called out to Joxer. "Hey, clumsy, take Eve for a second. I want my hands free."
Joxer quickly exchanged looks with Gabrielle, but at a glare from the Warrior Princess, scrambled to obey, taking Eve about ten feet away.
Gabrielle swallowed, as Xena continued to regard her.
Time seemed to stand still until Xena smiled, a gorgeous grin, and she opened her arms wide and enveloped her friend into a hug.
"Well congrats, then."
Gabrielle sighed with relief and hugged her back with as much strength as she could muster. Joxer looked incredibly relieved and sensing the tender moment looked away, turning his attention to bouncing Eve on his lap.
"Thank you," Gabrielle answered steadily, blowing her breath out quickly. "I feel much better now."
Xena chuckled. "Oh, now, come on. You think I thought any of those chicks deserved Joxer?"
"Of course not!" Gabrielle looked horrified at the thought.
Xena laughed, and squeezed her once. "So what was it about him that suddenly made you realize you had the 'more than friends' feeling?" she inquired curiously. "If it wasn't the clothes or the girls?"
Gabrielle looked at her, and found herself shrugging. "I looked into his eyes, and realized that I really couldn't stop. Xena, I realized I couldn't picture my life without him, anymore than I could picture my life without you."
"Gabrielle," Xena's voice held a slight warning to it as she gazed at her best friend. "Are you sure you're in love with him, or are you afraid of losing him?"
Gabrielle turned, her eyes roving and finally landing on Joxer about twenty feet away. The young man had taken off the vest, was only in his shirt and pants. His hair was tousled, and his eyes were glowing as he lay back on the grass, holding the giggling Eve above him and gently tossing her up and down. Eve rewarded him with furious giggles.
He looked like a complete dork.
Gabrielle felt a smile rise onto her face at the warm, contented feeling that seeped up through her stomach. "Oh, I'm in love with him, Xena. I'm incredibly in love with him. And you know something weird?"
"What?" Xena asked, her eyes unusually misty.
"I have NO idea what took me so long," she finished simply, sliding her arms around her best friend's waist, and holding her tight, her head resting on her shoulder as they both stood in the embrace, watching the dork and the baby play together.
Xena laughed, her eyes suddenly teary at her friend's sincerity. "I know why."
"'Cause you're dense and incredibly full of denial." Gabrielle pinched her and Xena pinched back, harder. "Come on, let's get ready to get out of here."
Gabrielle gave her a quick look. "Are you okay with this, Xena?" she asked seriously.
Xena saw the concern in her eyes, and felt a small smile float on her face. "Yeah. Actually, I'm more okay with it than you think."
Gabrielle smiled in relief, and then turned back to look at Joxer before suddenly turning back to Xena. "So is Rafe going to be joining us?"
Xena stiffened, and pulled away, causing Gabrielle to study her, her head cocked. "I don't have time for romance right now, Gabrielle," she said flippantly. "As much I hate to admit, Ares is still a very big part of our lives, and-"
"You're confused," was Gabrielle's startling perception.
Xena gave her a cool stare, and looked away. "Maybe," she said a little huskily.
Gabrielle was quiet for a minute, and ever so slowly leaned her chin on her friend's shoulder. "Yeah, well join the club." Xena looked down to see her friend smiling sympathetically. Xena smiled, acknowledging her friend's admitted turmoil of the past few days. "But I figured it out. I know you will too, Xena."
"I love you, Gabrielle," she said quietly, leaning forward and kissing her once on the forehead.
Gabrielle grinned, and squeezed her back. "I love you too, Xena. Come on, we've still got some good daylight left. I bet we can get a lot of traveling done- JOXER DON'T DROP HER!" Xena turned to see the baby swinging precariously from her perch on Joxer's hands.
Joxer jumped, looking a little guilty before gathering the baby to him. "I was not going to drop her!" he said indignantly.
Xena raised an eyebrow while Gabrielle sighed in exasperation.
"Joxer, you can't even keep YOURSELF from falling over. Give her to me." The bard came forward, arms outstretched.
He pushed her away. "I wanna carry her," he said quickly. "You always get to carry her."
Xena pushed Gabrielle out of the way and began to take Eve gently. "Give her to me, Joxer."
Gabrielle sighed, rolling her eyes heavenward before she came forward quickly, catching Joxer's head between her hands. She lowered it forcefully, and despite Joxer's surprised expression, she began to kiss him furiously.
He was stock still for a minute, not quite used to the fact that it was in fact, Gabrielle kissing him so passionately, but he quickly recovered, using his free arm to wrap around her waist and pull her toward him, moving his lips against hers at breathtaking speed.
Xena gave them both a strange look, but Gabrielle didn't seem to mind at all when she pulled away, her eyes twinkling slightly. "Give, Xena the baby, Joxer," she breathed softly, reaching up to press her lips against him one more time.
"Okay," he responded immediately, handing the baby over obediently, his eyes glazed over just a little.
Gabrielle smiled, glancing at Xena and winking.
Xena only smirked. Well, no matter. No matter what this was, this would definitely be amusing.
"So where are we headed?" Gabrielle asked, leading her horse and pausing in the middle of the road to squint back at her friends.
"Anywhere," Xena said, shrugging. "I just need to move. Staying in one place for too long gives me the whiggins."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. "Whiggins?"
Xena shrugged. "Slang I picked up."
"You're not usually the type to use slang."
Xena cocked an eyebrow. "I am now."
"Oh, really?" Gabrielle's tone was dry. "Since when?"
"Since you fell in love with our dork," Xena shot back. Gabrielle narrowed her eyes.
"Low blow." Xena smiled prettily.
Joxer came crashing out of the woods with a rock. "Alright! Who wants to bet dinner I can hit that tree over there with this rock!"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. Joxer, you couldn't hit that with a ten foot pole."
Joxer gave her a narrowed glance. "Hey! I can do it!"
"Really? Go ahead, clumsy, I can't wait."
Bickering at each other, Gabrielle and Joxer walked ahead, Joxer with a determined gleam in his eyes, Gabrielle with a skeptical one in hers.
Xena slowed to a stop, watching her two friends as they continued to argue even as Gabrielle slipped her hand into his and even as he leaned down to kiss her once tenderly.
Xena grinned, and then called out, "You know, I'll only deal with this cutesy stuff for so long."
Joxer blushed and Gabrielle turned to glare at her, hands on her hips. "We are ANYTHING but cute, Xena."
"You don't think we're cute?" Joxer asked, a hurt tone in his voice.
She gave him a look, and she rolled her eyes. "Joxer, that's not what I meant."
"So you don't think I'M cute."
"I didn't say that either. Why are you always putting words in my mouth?"
"You SAID I wasn't cute!"
"I said WE weren't. You know, like in a cutesy way."
"Well do you think I'm cute?"
"Yes I think you're cute, but that's not the point here! The point is that-"
"So how cute am I?"
Xena smiled. Her life seemed pleasantly full right about now. And although in a few minutes, she'd probably whack them both, at this moment, there was a bit of charm about them, something that filled her heart, and made her stop and gaze and feel strangely whole.
Her mind drifted to a certain conman, with a beautiful smile and a good heart, and she felt her heart tremor slightly.
She took a breath, and smiled. It would be okay. It would work itself out. Looking at Joxer and Gabrielle and their bickering frenzy seemed to reassure her of that.
She just needed to give it time.
"Xena! Get over here and tell this clumsy oaf that he does NOT need another HAT!"
With a sigh, Xena walked forward, and winked at both horse and daughter.
"Well, guys. Nice to know some things never change."
Eve giggled, and Argo snorted, and Xena continued on her way, overtaking the couple and leaving her bickering friends to catch up.
They all seemed to agree.
It was midnight before she slid out of her pelt, shivering in the chilly air as she walked slowly to the fire, looking at both of her friend's forms sleeping soundly around the fire.
She felt herself smile, and rubbed at her arms, yawning a bit. Her gaze lingered around the camp, and stopped at Joxer's new sword, seeing it shine a bit against the firelight.
She shook her head. Joxer's new look had been turning more heads than she liked. She was quite aware of her jealousy by now, and it didn't help that Xena liked to tease her to no end about it. One particular time, when yet ANOTHER Amazon had taken to flirting with HER man, Gabrielle had found herself wishing for the dorky armor back. That way it would be her own little secret. Only she would know what was under that armor.
But then she'd remember the hat and cringe. Besides, the new clothes were so much more comfortable, and gave her easier access. She smiled at the thought. It was still odd to be thinking about Joxer that way, but it was a nice kind of weirdness. Taking a sip of water from a bowl, she walked quietly to the pelt where he lay, and nudged him gently.
Almost immediately, although his eyes were still closed, he turned, and held his pelt open. Gabrielle smiled, and slid in, sighing when she felt the warmth envelop her as he slid his arms around her and adjusted himself so he was lying on his side, cradling her with his much longer body.
She closed her eyes in contentment, felt him kiss the back of her neck, and settle back down again. She waited a minute, and then turned, readjusting herself so that they were lying face to face.
"Hi," she breathed, and gently pressed her lips against his. Used to this, Joxer's eyes fluttered open sleepily, and he grinned, pulling her in closer, taking her lips with his and moving with slow, sustained, languid passion that made her curl her toes and shudder against him.
He pulled away; moved down to nip at her throat slightly, before pulling back a bit. "Hey."
She sighed with contentment, resting her head on his chest. She didn't mind stopping. Joxer was taking things achingly slow, though she knew the reasons, and couldn't fight them. He wanted their first time making love to be perfect, and something about Xena being two feet away didn't help that.
She had to admit, she loved that about him. He loved her with a passion, and yet he was willing to wait... not many men would.
"Joxer," she began softly.
"What?" he asked drowsily.
"Was it worth it?" He opened one eye and studied her.
"Me?" She smiled and shrugged. "All those years, all those nose pinches," she reached up and tweaked his nose playfully. "Was it worth it?"
"Do I really have to answer that?"
"Answer her so you two can shut up," came a grumpy voice from across the camp.
Gabrielle winced, and smiled sheepishly. "Sorry, Xena, we'll be good."
Joxer merely grinned, waiting a minute before answering. "I'd have waited forever for you."
How on earth did he always know the perfect thing to tell her?
"Now I have a question," he responded.
"Shh. Okay, tell me."
He licked his lips for a minute, and sighed. "Does it bother you, that I can't protect you like... maybe Iolaus would?"
She gave him an incredulous look and then laughed, garnering yet another curse and threat from Xena.
"You idiot," she continued softly. "You DO protect me. Just not the way you think. You protect me here," she led his hand to a place just above her beating heart. "Being with you keeps that spot in here still there. I'll never lose it now, because of you."
"Oh. Good." She smiled at the response, and settled against him once more.
"Gabby, did you-"
"SHHH." She indicated to Xena, and then they both laughed silently, until Gabrielle leaned forward and captured his lips with hers for another loving embrace.
She should have been furious with them. Or at least annoyed. At the very least annoyed. Gabrielle and Joxer were being as loud as squawks, and the fact that they kept shushing each other with loud rushes of air only worsened the situation.
It wasn't like she hadn't heard them the first night. Gabrielle waiting until she thought Xena was asleep and then stealing to Joxer's pelt, slipping under the covers and then cuddling the rest of the night.
They hadn't consummated the relationship, at least not as far as she knew. And she often wondered what the hell was taking them so long.
Hell, even THAT would be less annoying than their little cutesy conversations that only happened at night.
She had warned them to calm it down the first night. They tried to listen, but the little SHHH's were even worse than the actual conversations.
She should have been furious. Nobody slept when Joxer and Gabrielle went all lovey dovey on her, and the next day they were ALL tired. Gabrielle would get cranky; Xena irritable; and Joxer's annoying habit of being purposely cheerful only made things worse.
Yep, yep. By all rights, she should really want to kill them. But every time she felt like flipping over, getting up and knocking their heads together, she'd hear a particularly tender word escape in Gabrielle's voice. And then she'd remember the look in Gabrielle's eyes the day before, just a fleeting glimpse that made her pause, and bury her head in her pelts, and just squeeze Eve tighter.
Gabrielle and Joxer still fought like children when they hung out together, and Joxer still left on occasion, wandering off on his own only to come back like he always did. Gabrielle welcomed him in her usual way, and just like before, allowed herself to get just as annoyed with him as possible.
But it was in the moments when they thought Xena wasn't looking when Gabrielle was unexpectedly tender. Little moments when she would catch her looking into his eyes, would see her hand slip up to caress his cheek, would see the passionate embrace that Gabrielle gave wholeheartedly. Those were the moments when Xena realized that her friend was the happiest she had ever been. With the realization of her love for Joxer came a spark in her eyes, a hope for the future, a naïve and excited innocence within her that Xena hadn't seen since Perdicas had been killed.
And it had affected Joxer as well. The knowledge that Gabrielle finally loved him, not for who he had tried to be, but for who he really was, had done wonders for his self-esteem. He wasn't nearly as obnoxious, and instead, became more selfless than ever, his love for his blonde bard showing in every movement and gesture he made, even when he was squabbling with her over idiotic things.
It warmed Xena's heart. She still hadn't forgotten Rafe, far from it, and the thought that her two best friends had managed, though it had taken years, to make something work, to be truly happy with each other despite the craziness that surrounded them, gave her hope.
Not all things ended in heartbreak, and maybe someday she would be able to fill the ache in her heart that had been reopened when she had kissed Rafe, when she was trying to avoid the feelings the God of War instilled in her.
Until then, she was content to live her life the way it was. Joxer and Gabrielle belonged together; she saw that before they did.
And for the gleam in their eyes, she would bear the passionate whispers, the smacking of lips, never muttering more than a rude yell to quiet things down.
She should have been furious, because they were about to do it again tonight. Honestly, she wondered why Gabrielle didn't just forget her pelt when Joxer was with them and just slip into bed with him to begin with.
She should knock them both unconscious. That way she could have a good night's rest of a change.
But she didn't. Instead, she merely pulled her sleeping daughter closer to her, and closed her eyes.
One more night. She'd give them one more night to cuddle and be all cute.
And then she'd knock them out.