Title: 'Twas the Night Before Solstice
Characters: Gabrielle & Iolaus, Minya & Hower, Lila & Joxer, Hercules & Minya, Xena & Hercules, Autolycus & f (Rebecca)
Summary: It's Solstice time and everyone's come together at Cyrene's tavern. It's trouble for Joxer when a romantic plan to woo Gabrielle's sister Lila falls flat (no pun), and Hercules isn't safe when Minya can't keep her hands off him!
Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo, Hercules, Iolaus, Jason and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series' Xena: Warrior Princess, and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
NOTE: All works remain the © copyright (2001) of the original author. These may not be republished without the author's consent.
Author's Note: Author's Note: This is clearly a winter solstice tale. A number of characters pulling together for a bit of christmasy fun. I will try to keep the moralistic nonsense to a minimum. A Dark Day by me was referenced in this story but it is not imperative that you read that story first. Thanks go out to Beckers for her feedback on the progress of this story, and to Warrior Queen 1049 who helped me out with some Hercisms. Last but not least in the thank-you department, as always, my trusty pal Ramleaf is always a great help. And one last thing yes, I realize that this weather is, shall we say, uncommon for the hot, southern country of Greece. But what can ya do? It's a fricken Christmas story.
Sex: Mild steam. More likely to gross you out with its doe-eyed cutesieness. (PG 13)
Language: A few unsavoury things said, but no four-letter words.
Episodes Referenced: The Royal Couple of Thieves, Remember Nothing, Return of Callisto, A Solstice Carol, Destiny, The Quest, A Necessary Evil, A Day in the Life, The Furies, The King of Assassins
You can also find Jrpanther's stories at Amphipolis Cafe
Email this bard with your comments! firstname.lastname@example.org
'Twas the Night Before Solstice
It was a winter the likes of which Greece hadn't seen in a number of years. There were times during their journey that the snow seemed to come down in buckets, piling up on the branches and bowing them with the extra weight. The stars in the night sky were just visible, twinkling between the large flakes that floated peacefully to the snow-laden ground.
It was the picture of peacefulness. She just hoped that she and her stoic companion, the tall, striking woman with raven black hair and ice blue eyes that had the ability to chill to the very bone, could make it to the inn in time without the weather crossing the rather thin, blurry line from peaceful and beautiful to harsh and cruel. Gabrielle's sister Lila had also joined the pair on their journey, and being one who was used to warm fires and home cooking, their swift passage was crucial.
Her green eyes focused on the trail ahead. The trudge through the freezing white powder had been taxing on all three of them. The Amazon held herself tightly and rubbed her arms, hoping to build up just a little heat beneath her furs. A warm breath froze in the biting air.
"Are you cold, Gabrielle?" asked the warrior princess with a cheeky smirk on her face.
"No, no. I'm okay." The response was short. Gabrielle averted her eyes from her friend. Sometimes her pride got in the way, but what else could be expected? Without it being the ex-warlord's intention, Gabrielle was always riding the coat tails of Xena's infamy. Often, that wasn't a good thing, what with Xena's dark past. Gabrielle had quickly felt the strange feeling of 'second rate' when she began following the woman. It wasn't as if Xena made her feel that way, to be sure. But every single town they walked through, Xena's was a household name and Gabrielle was virtually unheard of.
Gabrielle had stopped worrying about that quite a while ago, however. She'd been traveling with the Warrior Princess for just over two years now. But, Gabrielle's pride still managed to get the better of her in small instances such as this one.
"Gabrielle, your teeth are chattering."
Blue eyes met green, and Gabrielle immediately rectified. "I didn't even notice, honest. I was lost in thought."
"As usual," Xena teased.
"That's not funny."
"Yes it is."
The tall man wore a fur-lined hood tightly against his cheeks. He hadn't seen weather like this very many times in his life, in fact, he could only think of one year when the snow became this heavy. His breath came in white plumes from his nostrils as he looked towards the stars. I can't be too far, now, can I? He thought to himself, brightening as he came over the crest of a snowy hill and saw the light of a village below him. It wasn't Amphipolis, but it was the neighbouring village and that was enough for him.
I can take a moment to rest and warm up, maybe get something to eat.
He made his way carefully down the slope. The walk was difficult. The snow reached halfway up his calves in every step that he took, exhausting his energy. After what seemed like a lifetime to the traveler who was not yet ready to admit that he wasn't quite a young man anymore, he shook off the snow from his cloak and pushed open the door to a lavish looking inn.
What a place. The decorations were all of the highest quality. Velvet fitting of a king was draped across windows and doorways. The furniture was all the finest polished mahogany. Even the kitchen, from what he could see of the women bustling in and out with trays of dishes, was clean. This was definitely a high quality establishment.
The patrons all looked to be the highest class next to royalty. The women wore gowns of the finest silk and velvet, their wrists, necks, fingers and ears were adorned with sparkling jewels. "I've died and gone to Olympus," he said under his breath.
His eyes swept the room, taking in the threat of his opposition. The men were also fancifully dressed. Many had scabbards on their hips, however, that carried swords that Autolycus could tell, even from the distance, were of remarkable craftsmanship. Being an expert in this type of situation led Autolycus to the conclusion that most of these weapons were just for show and status. The men were likely not more than averagely skilled with them. If that.
Autolycus was suddenly very grateful for the high quality, fur lined cloak that he'd lifted from one of the King's men at the last castle he visited after his encounter with Cleopatra. He made his way confidently to the center of the room, taking a seat at one of the few empty tables, drawing hardly an eye. He scanned across the room, looking for the perfect mark. He spotted a snotty looking duo at the bar, barking at the barmaid for more drinks. This pair seemed to be the least decorated of the room except for Autolycus himself. He watched them curiously.
His eyes sparkled as the ugly one on the left with green silk tunic produced a beautiful necklace. It looked to be made of white gold and carried a pendant of the deepest blue sapphire he'd seen in many, many years. Jackpot. Autolycus unconsciously moistened his lips as he kept his eyes fixed on them. It looked like a deal was being made.
Then, the man in green put the necklace back in his purse, stood up from his stool at the bar and began towards the door. Autolycus knew better than to panic, but he had to get that jewel. It belonged around the neck of a future ex-Queen of Thieves.
The moustached man made his move.
He stood up and made his way casually towards the bar. "The service here, honestly," he mumbled audibly under his breath as he bumped into the man with the necklace in his purse. "Oh, oh, I'm awfully sorry," he said, slipping the sharpened coin into his sleeve and the purse along with it.
"Oh, no worries. No worries at all," came the reply, a toothy grin spreading across his face as he pat the King of Thieves on the back. Almost smug. Hmm.
He continued on past the man and up to the bar, studying the menu for no real purpose than to complete his act. "Those are your prices? I could get an entire pitcher of ale for that elsewhere. My apologies, dear lady," he said, kissing the back of the barmaid's hand, "but I shall take my leave from this establishment. Good day to you." He turned around to make his way to the exit when he saw the man in green behind him, looking very angry. Autolycus gulped.
"I believe you have something of mine," he said menacingly, his eyes cold and piercing like icicles.
"Oh, I do?" Autolycus chuckled nervously. "I think you've got me mistaken."
"My coin pouch. The one that was hanging from my hip."
Dammit, they don't usually figure these things out so fast! Autolycus began to sweat. "No, no good sir. I have no such thing. If you wish to search my person, I will be happy to oblige," he said, licking his lips seductively and smiling coyly at his accuser.
"No, no! No. That's quite alright. No search necessary," he said, half growling and half disgusted, "I can see the string hanging out of your sleeve."
"Oh. So you do then. Right. Goodbye!" Autolycus dashed for the door and the man followed. He lifted a pair of dinner rolls from a waitress' tray as he passed, throwing them at his pursuer. All eyes had turned towards him at this point, so when he snatched the bowl of mashed potatoes from the buffet to use if the man got too close, it was hardly a surprise. He held it up threateningly as he made his way to the exit, but the thought of creamy mashed potatoes on his head slowed the salesman down.
"After him!" he cried as the other patrons from the bar stood from their seats.
Autolycus dove behind a snow bank before the angry customers reached the exit and breathed a sigh of relief as they chased into the night.
Lila had been quiet for most of the journey. It wasn't often that she managed to get out of the little village of Poteidaia, so whenever she did, she tried to drink in all the sights and sounds around her to remember in perfect detail. Her boots crunched in the new-fallen snow as she tagged along, keeping up as best as could be expected for one who wasn't a seasoned traveler like the Warrior Princess and the bard.
"How's the food doing?" asked Gabrielle, turning towards her sister, eyeing her pack.
"Okay, I think. I haven't heard anything bad, and I can't feel anything wet, so I think we're safe."
The last few days had been spent quietly in Poteidaia. The food had been excellent, and the solstice spirit had helped Hecuba and Herodotus, Gabrielle's parents, to be a bit more accepting and forgiving of the dark, sinister looking woman who had swept their young daughter from under their noses. They were simple folk, they lived modestly in their small home, but the atmosphere was one of love for each other, often making Xena feel a little bit uncomfortable, as if she was intruding. And deep down, that was how Hecuba and Herodotus felt, but outwardly they were kind and giving. They made a genuine effort to make her feel welcome this time, for Gabrielle's sake.
The morning sun had glanced off the pristine white blanket, but the air remained crisp enough to keep the snow coming down should the clouds move over. They had left for Amphipolis bright and early, heading out just after first light. This type of weather could be treacherous when the darkness shrouded the forest. Accidents happened.
The winterberry crumble Gabrielle and Lila had prepared the night before was tucked snugly in the ordinary young girl's pack. Lila was quick to offer the service of carrying the dish. It was still slightly warm from baking and for the first leg of the journey; it helped to keep away the cruel bite of the freezing air.
"You'll like Amphipolis," Gabrielle said with a smile. "Xena's mother is really friendly, and her tavern serves the best stew. Actually, everything they serve is great. Cyrene is a wonderful cook."
Xena agreed. "I can't wait for the roast. Remember last year, Gabrielle?"
"I sure do!" replied Gabrielle excitedly. After their little adventure with King Silvas, they'd stumbled in on Cyrene's tavern and were greeted warmly with spiced cider and a piping hot roast. Cyrene always outdid herself prepared was a honey ham, a couple of large pheasants, and a rack of lamb. That's not including all the vegetable dishes she made, the bread, the dessert so Xena and Gabrielle decided for Cyrene that this year, mother could handle the meat and everyone else could bring something. It took a bit of convincing, but finally Cyrene conceded with a chuckle and the plans were set.
Lila glanced at her sister. How much she had changed She was no longer the young girl she remembered. She'd had so many experiences that Lila had always dreamed of. They'd spent several hours in the room that she used to share with Gabrielle that always seemed a little empty these days, just catching up. Gabrielle told her of many things. How she'd become an Amazon princess and then after that a queen, how she'd been hunted by the immortal and now god Callisto, and helped to send her to her death in a fiery lava pit. Her life was not only filled with adventure, but also romance. She'd met up with Perdicas again and gotten married (and Lila was more than just a little hurt that she hadn't been at the wedding). Poor Gabrielle had lost her husband, but managed to find a spark of happiness briefly with Hercules' companion, whom she couldn't wait to meet. Hercules! A celebrity!
"This year will be just as good, I think," stated the ex-warlord, never one to over-dramatize. "That is, if Joxer doesn't bring his beet stew "
The bard paled and then began to laugh. "Lila, Joxer's one of our closest friends, you'll meet him there, but I warn you for your own good. Stay away from his cooking!"
Lila grinned a response.
"You're awfully quiet today. Are you alright?" Gabrielle asked her sister in concern. Usually Lila was like Gabrielle, in the sense that she loved to talk. But only when she was comfortable.
"I'm okay, Gabrielle. I'm just a little cold and tired, but we'll be there soon, won't we?"
"Yes, it's just about half a candlemark's walk from here," replied the bard. Gabrielle was very pleased to have been able to pick up some winter clothes from Poteidaia. The long coat she'd bought in the bazaar at Liguria helped a little, but not much when all she had underneath was a tight green halter top and a short skirt. Luckily, they had made it to Poteidaia before the snow began to come down. Gabrielle was now bedecked in a fur-lined ensemble; hide leggings, gloves and warm boots. Her matching deerskin coat helped to keep the wind from cutting through the material of her undyed woolen sweater. Again she rubbed her arms as she walked with Xena and Lila, listening to the crunch crunch crunch of three sets of boots in the snow.
Xena was similarly dressed, giving up her standard leathers for fur-lined deerskin as well. Hecuba had knitted woolen scarves for all three of 'the girls', which they both kept tightly wrapped around their necks (despite Xena's earlier protests). Hecuba had chuckled, saying something about Xena 'seeing warlords behind every tree', but inside it made her smile and feel that her daughter was a little bit safer.
Gabrielle had made protests of her own as well. The idea of coating nearly her entire body in animal skin left her a little ill, but she decided that if Lila and Xena were going to do it, she would just have to suck it up and go along. The bard quickly came to learn of the benefits of fur lined hide when she, Xena and Lila stepped out for the first time into the cold.
They had been walking an entire day, however, and the cold was beginning to come through for Gabrielle. She was more than just a little glad that their journey was coming to an end and she'd soon be inside a warm inn filled with warm people.
Soon enough, the lights from Cyrene's tavern window sparkled off the snow as they emerged from the trees. It was a welcome sight for the three exhausted, cold wanderers. The little silver bell tinkled a greeting as Xena pushed the old door open.
Lila gasped in astonishment at the beauty of the place. The atmosphere was warm there was a roaring fire in the fireplace, and around it was a set of cushioned dark green couches and chairs. In the center of the sitting room stood a large wooden flat chest, on which writing could be done, or tankards could sit. A soft rug completed the atmosphere, providing somewhere to sit if the seats filled up, as often they did.
The decorations were up. Boughs were strewn artistically around the inn, as well as small nut and branch wreaths. A large fir tree stood in one corner next to the alcove that held the warming fire, waiting to be decorated. The entire room had a homey smell to it, a mixture between the natural scent of fresh pine, and spiced wine and cider.
Cyrene sauntered up to the three of them casually, before throwing her arms around her daughter in a motherly squeeze. Xena hugged her back, but true to her character she looked uncomfortable with such an affectionate public display.
"Xena! It's been too long. I've missed you, you know. Have you been well?"
"Well enough, I'm doing much better than I was the last time we met " Xena couldn't help but feel the embarrassment and guilt wash over her. It hadn't been her fault, it had been the Furies, but she had tried to kill her own mother.
Avoiding the painful subject, "Well, you're just going to have to take more time off your busy hero lifestyle to visit your old mother, aren't you?" Cyrene held her daughter by the hips and smiled at her. "Aren't you?"
"Of course, mom." A small smile played across the ex-warlord's lips. It really was good to be home.
"Gabrielle, have you ever changed! Look at you!" smiled Cyrene, turning her attention to the smaller of the women. "It's only been a few moons and every time I see you, you seem to get just a little taller. You're growing into a beautiful woman!"
Gabrielle immediately reddened at the compliment, a thank you just barely managing to slip out meekly under her breath. "Happy Winter Solstice, Cyrene," she said warmly, drawing her best friend's mother into a hug.
"She may be taller, but she's still the same nuisance she always was," Xena quipped, only to receive an elbow to the ribs from the blonde bard.
Regaining her voice, "Nuisance, she says!" cried Gabrielle in mock offense. "I'm such a nuisance that I cook her dinner every night-"
"That's the dinner that I catch, right?"
Gabrielle opened her mouth to respond when a familiar figure swaggered towards them, flashing his usual winning smile.
"Hello, ladies," he charmed, putting his arm around both Xena and the blonder of the two Poteidaian sisters, earning him a stern glare from the Warrior Princess. "Nice digs! Animal carcass motif. Classy!"
"Hello Autolycus," said Gabrielle shortly, then warming with a smile. "Get your arm off me and I might introduce you to my little sister."
"Oh, well in that case!" Autolycus made a sweeping motion of removing his arms before swooping down on the ordinary looking young girl that stood next to Gabrielle. He kissed the back of her hand in his typical gentlemanly fashion before introducing himself. "Autolycus, King of Thieves at your service, my lady."
Lila, like many a woman before her, was instantly taken in by the man's dashing good looks and confidence. "Ohh!" She giggled shyly at the male attention that she wasn't used to receiving. "King of Thieves?"
"We try not to talk about that," Xena interrupted with a quick wink to the silver tongued man.
"Oh, oh yes. We don't talk about that. Well, you don't talk about it, Xena. I'm a braggart by nature," Autolycus replied smoothly, eyeing the ex-Destroyer of Nations with a teasing glance as he again turned his attention to Gabrielle's sister. "You never told me your name, you pretty thing you."
The blood rushed to Lila's cheeks as she struggled to respond through her embarrassment. "Lila."
"Lila. Beautiful name for a beautiful lady."
"Okay, Autolycus. You can stop putting the moves on my sister. You're embarrassing her!" Gabrielle interrupted, stepping between the two. Lila returned Gabrielle a relieved glance and a look that said Thank you. Gabrielle knew that Lila probably liked the attention, to a degree. She'd always been a romantic, but the King of Thieves could only have typically male intentions and Lila was a little inexperienced in the romance department. It was like taking someone with a nervous stutter and asking them to read Euripides in front of a large crowd.
"Cyrene," Lila piped shyly to the friendly stranger, as she pulled off and opened the flap of her pack, "Gabrielle and I made some winterberry crumble last night. Should we put it in the kitchen?"
"Oh, you didn't have to do that, this looks wonderful. I'll take it to the kitchen myself." She accepted the dessert dish from the young brunette before asking, "Well, who's for something to drink? I've got wine, hot cider, ale, hot cocoa any of this sounding good?"
Xena and Gabrielle both placed an order for hot spiced cider, while Lila agreed heartily to a mug of hot cocoa. Autolycus decided to play it straight for the time being.
"Are you sure, Autolycus?" Cyrene asked.
"It's been rumoured that the King of Thieves can't take his ale, mother. I wouldn't push it." Xena struggled to keep her usually infallible poker face, but it was difficult in the light of the outwardly calm and collected expression that rested on Autolycus' face that masked a slightly deeper sense of good-natured irritation. Gabrielle began to laugh and Lila followed suit. The four of them took a seat while Cyrene carried the dish into the kitchen and called on her serving girl to prepare the drinks.
Small talk went back and forth between them as they waited for Cyrene; the beauty of the snow, how nice a job Cyrene had done with the place lately, Autolycus' new lock pick
"So, what have you two been up to since that whole fiasco with Cleopatra and Jett?" Autolycus queried, looking more than confident. After all, that had been a very beneficial adventure for all of them, except for Jett, of course. Joxer gained a little respect from his brother, Autolycus "closed a deal", and Okay, maybe not everybody.
"Would you believe not much?" Xena replied, accepting the warm mug from her mother who took a seat next to her on the sofa after handing out the rest of the first round of libations. "We rendered a small group of bandits defunct on the road to Poteidaia for the Solstice celebrations there, but other than that, it's been relatively quiet."
"Must be the weather," Gabrielle mused as she turned the cinnamon stick in her steaming mug. A fat orange tabby rubbed up against her calf and she reached down to pet it behind the ears.
"Well, Gabrielle," Cyrene began with a chuckle, "it's not the slightest bit cold in my tavern. You must be sweltering in those skins. You too, Xena, Lila. Did you want something else to wear?" Cyrene was such a typical mother sometimes, yet outstanding in many ways. Despite her daughter's obvious abilities that showed she could take care of herself far beyond the basics like food, shelter and clothing, when Xena came to visit with her friend, not even Zeus' lightning bolts could stop Cyrene from mother henning her.
"No mother, I'm doing fine," Xena lied. She knew that a change of clothing into her battle leathers would not be deemed acceptable, Cyrene would have her in some horrid floaty gown of some kind that would absolutely not suit the Warrior Princess.
"Xena, you're flushed."
"It's the cider."
"You're lying." Before Xena could open her mouth, Cyrene turned to Gabrielle and Lila who were sweating next to each other on the opposite sofa. "You two?"
A mischievous smirk crossed the bard's lips as she recalled the morning's tweaking about the animal skins. I told you I'd get you back, Warrior Princess. "Boiling. I didn't want to say anything. You, Lila?" she asked, knowing that her sister was truthful at all costs.
"I'm awfully hot," Lila admitted embarrassedly, pushing her hair back from her face, showing off flushed cheeks.
"Well, that settles it. I've got some of your old dresses Xena, they should still fit you no problem."
There it was. Xena exchanged glances with the snickering bard and her sister who was clearly out of the 'let's-irritate-the-Warrior-Princess' loop. Her lip curled in annoyance as she stood up. "Yes, mother." A sigh of resignation. This argument would never be won. Cyrene was the only one besides Gabrielle who had any say in anything Xena did, and it irked her beyond comprehension. A quick eye at the King of Thieves confirmed that he was thoroughly enjoying this little exchange. He'd never let her live this down.
"Gabrielle, you're about my size. Let's the four of us go upstairs and find something. I should have had it laid out but I was just so busy I didn't think-"
"Alright mother, enough. Let's just get this done with." She couldn't help but remember the times she'd said those words to a very different Gabrielle herself. It was Winter Solstice, however, not the time for such mood-killing thoughts.
"I'm glad to see you're being so cooperative. You may be a strong, self sufficient woman but you're still my daughter." A teasing gleam came across Cyrene's face, leaving a sparkle in her eyes as Lila and especially Gabrielle and Autolycus tried to hide their grins and giggles. "Autolycus, I trust you'll be okay on your own for a few minutes? The other guests should be arriving sometime this evening. If you change your mind about something to drink, just ask Rebecca. Alright?"
"Your wish is my command. But I think I'll just streeetch out here and enjoy the warmth of the fire while I wait for you four lovely ladies to come down the stairs so I can fully appreciate your beauty when you do." A wink to the Warrior Princess was returned with a furious, seething stare. This stare was enough to make most men soil themselves in the process of running for dear life, but Autolycus responded as only he could, with a winning smile.
The King of Thieves grinned and rubbed his hands together as the four women disappeared up the old creaking stairs. It had never been any big secret that he liked the Warrior Princess in her finery. At the very least, watching Xena itch in feminine attire would be a hoot worth sticking around for.
The sound of the bell jingling against the old oak door turned Autolycus' head. There he was, the self described Master of Mayhem and warrior wannabe, his perpetual goofy grin plastered all over his face. He removed his gawky helmet and shook the snow from it to the ground before allowing the door to close on its own. "Autolycus!" he bellowed, striding into the room with a manly gait.
"Hey, Master Moron."
"That's Joxer the Mighty to you, thank-you-very-much," Joxer replied, straightening to his full height and placing his hands on his hips.
"Well, whatever you are, Happy Solstice to you." A quick two-finger salute off the temple of the moustached man and a nod were sent in Joxer's direction.
Joxer nodded back at Autolycus and returned the greeting before stepping up to the bar. "Ale, please. Your strongest, brewed for the manliest of warriors. You know, throat stripper. That's what I want." He whacked his palm onto the bar to assert his masculinity, but quickly regretted it and screwed up his face real tight. Opening one eye and hoping that nobody noticed, he saw the pretty blonde barmaid standing before him with a tankard in her hand. "Oh, uh, thanks." And then, quickly composing himself and using a voice that he deemed sultry, "Thank you very much, my lady." He winked at her, causing her to arch an eyebrow before finding a seat next to the King of Thieves. He gave Autolycus a nudge in the ribs, "You see that? I'm going to make that woman very lucky tonight."
"So hey, who else is here? Who else is coming?" Joxer asked before first taking a gulp of the ale, then nearly spitting it back into the tankard. He swallowed the mouthful he'd taken of the potent beverage and pursed his lips as his eyes began to water. He coughed as discreetly as humanly possible and squeaked out, "Strong stuff."
"Ohh-ho-ho-ho," chuckled Autolycus, slapping the 'Master of Mayhem' on the back, causing a large belch to come forth from the cavernous depths of Joxer's belly, turning the heads of all who had patronized the tavern, and more than a few stomachs. "Well, let's see. I'm here, Xena's here, Gabrielle's here-"
"Gabrielle's here already?" Joxer interrupted excitedly. "Where is she?"
"Let me finish, knucklehead. Yes, Gabrielle's here, and her sister is here. Lila. Pretty thing."
"So where's Gabrielle?"
"Well, that's the best part," said Autolycus, slapping his knee and beginning to hoot with laughter. "She's upstairs with Xena, I kid you not, being goaded by Xena's mother into elegant, womanly clothing."
"No big deal, I've seen Xena in a dress. I've seen Meg without a dress. And that's just like seeing Xena without a dress." A knowing nod of the head and a goofy grin later and Joxer was, much to Autolycus' chagrin, the subject of his great envy.
"Yes, yes. Meg. I've heard of her," he covered. "That's not so great. It's still not Xena."
Joxer shrugged. "Well, I've been closer than you have," he replied while thrusting his thumb pointedly into his chest.
"You know," said Autolycus firmly and slowly, "we'd better stop talking about this or we'll find ourselves to be the roast beast for the evening."
"Good point. Speaking of good food, I brought with my special vegetable stew. Carrots, turnips, parsnips, beets " He pulled the bowl from his sack that he'd carried over his shoulder, and pulled off the lid.
"Smells great," Autolycus said with a grimace. "You'd better take that to the kitchen." Or preferably the outhouse.
"What do you think, Xena?" Her grin was wide as she pulled the laces tight on a forest green linen gown. It wasn't the fanciest of dresses but the colour was perfect for Gabrielle.
"Lovely," mumbled the Warrior Princess. She was fidgeting non-stop as Cyrene pulled her laces tight.
"Stand still! Honestly, Xena."
"Sorry, mom." Xena made an effort from then on to stand still and just get this little charade over with. She wasn't going to let herself have this kind of fun. She was far too serious for that.
Lila was fumbling with a dress she'd chosen, a deep red one similar to that Gabrielle was wearing. It was stuck on her head and she couldn't quite seem to find the neck hole. Gabrielle rolled her eyes and chuckled, abandoning her laces to help out her sister.
Gabrielle was in fact very pleased that Cyrene had suggested they dress up, not only to get her quiet revenge on Xena, but also because she wasn't too thrilled with Hercules' companion, Iolaus, seeing her sweaty and draped in animal skin. Sometimes in the later months she'd had a hard time admitting to herself how much she really liked the golden hunter. His company was always pleasant, and he was always making her laugh, or short of that, making her feel better. Every time he left, she always seemed to be on more of an up than she was before he'd arrived. She smiled to herself at the thought as she tied Lila's laces into a tight bow. It had been a while since she'd seen him, not since they ran into each other on the road when Xena had been killed.
He'd been so wonderful, staying the night with her, helping to calm her fears. She'd been facing the prospect of spending her life alone every night without the ex-warlord who she called her best friend. In fact, they were closer than sisters.
At that moment, Lila turned around to thank Gabrielle for tying her bodice, and Gabrielle felt a small pang of guilt for her thoughts. She shook them off and smiled at her sister. "No problem."
"Well, I must say all three of you girls look lovely. I just wish that I had some jewellery to go with it."
"What happened to yours, mom?" asked the Warrior Princess, cocking her head at her mother.
"We had a break in just a few days ago. Very sad. I lost some really nice stuff."
"Did you see anything? Gabrielle and I, we can go get your stuff-"
"Don't be silly, Xena. They're long gone. I'll just have to slowly build my collection up again. Don't worry about it."
Cyrene stood back and eyed them all with a satisfied smile on her face. "Still, without it you all look breathtaking. Are we ready to go?"
"Yes," said Gabrielle and Lila in unison, accompanied by a grunt from the ex-Destroyer of Nations. Gabrielle suppressed a snicker as Xena swatted her mother's hand away as she tried to fiddle with her hair.
They began their descent down the stairs. None of them thought much of it after all, they were merely changing out of their animal skins because they were too hot, and who was here to impress anyways? Certainly not Autolycus.
Autolycus dropped his jaw as the four ladies stepped lightly down the stairs. My, my my. Xena looked the most stunning of them all in his eyes (but then again, he'd always had a soft spot for that one). She was draped in a simple white linen gown, not befitting of any royalty, but it hung from her long, lean form just as well as it must've however long ago it was that she'd spent her days at home in Amphipolis. Gabrielle was also a vision to behold. She also was in a simple country frock of rich green linen, but it held firmly to her trim form. Lila, the simple farmer's daughter and sister of the bard was bedecked in a dress similar to Gabrielle's, only red. Autolycus couldn't help but notice that she filled it out nicely.
"Hey, some of that food-" Joxer crashed back into the common room and noticed the three women coming down the stairs, "looks really good." His voice became dreamy.
"Yeah, sure does, doesn't it." Autolycus was almost in a trance like state. He pulled up his jaw promptly and shook his head to clear his rather impure thoughts. He wasn't going to give these women the impression that he was under their power, absolutely not! "Well," he began, standing up and clapping his hands together. "You look a lot cooler than you did in those skins."
"I feel a lot cooler too," said Gabrielle. "Those skins were great outside, but in a warm tavern with a roaring fire, let's just say I was less than comfortable."
"Yes, yes." Autolycus himself was a little warm and less than comfortable at that moment. "Indeed."
All four of them took their seats and reclaimed their mugs, still warm. Joxer sipped slowly on his murderous brew, trying to hide the grimace that forced its way onto his face with every taste.
"Is Toris coming, mother?" asked Xena, inhaling the fragrant steam from her mug.
"He's not, Xena. He's had to go up north to aid with some rebellion. I don't know what that character is up to."
"That's too bad. I haven't seen him in a good long while, since last Solstice."
"Me neither, Xena. He has promised to come and visit me when he gets the chance, but I don't know when that will be."
Amidst the conversation held by Xena and her mother, Joxer was busy chatting small talk with Gabrielle. "So, while I was on my way here, I crossed paths with this band of thugs. There musta been, oh, three of them. See this scratch? That's where one of them got me."
"Wow, that's a pretty deep scratch!" Lila blurted, getting herself into the conversation. Truth be told, she did find Joxer a little bit attractive, despite a few of the things she'd heard from her sister. "Did you get that cleaned off? Do you want a bandage? I can bandage it up for you."
"Oh, oh." Joxer coughed a pause, then deepened his voice. Lila leaned forward, listening intently. "I heal quickly. Very quickly. I just sorta rubbed some snow on it when I finished with them, their evil, murderous bodies littered on the ground, and continued on my way. Oh, uhm, what's your name?" Joxer rubbed the back of his neck nervously, peering at the girl. "I never knew Gabrielle's sister was as pretty as she was."
Gabrielle and Lila both blushed a vibrant pink at this compliment, but of course it was Lila who spoke. "I'm Lila," she said shyly.
"You know," his voice taking on its usual slightly whiny quality, "this really is beginning to hurt. Maybe I'll take you up on that bandage?"
Cyrene, overhearing Joxer, nodded to him and said to Lila, "Bandages are in the storage room. It's just through that doorway and off to the left."
"Thanks, Cyrene," said Lila, the blush still apparent on her face as she stood up and curtsied before heading towards the doorway with Joxer in tow.
As the pair left the room, Gabrielle and Xena grinned at each other.
Turning again to Cyrene, Gabrielle said: "So, who besides Hercules and Iolaus is going to be arriving?"
"A lovely couple I met in a nearby village. They have some beautiful orchards there, in fact I used some of the apples from that orchard in the apple pie I made."
Xena rolled her eyes and chuckled at her mother. "Mom, we told you not to worry about desserts. We've got plenty of people to bring food!"
The little silver bell tinkled and the door creaked as two rather rotund figures burst through it. "Sorry we're late everybody!" cried the female of the two with gusto. "Whew! It's chilly out there!"
"Oh, speak of the king of Tartarus," Cyrene said with a smile. "I'd like to introduce you to-"
"Minya?" said Xena in shock.
"Hower?" continued Gabrielle.
Joxer closed the door behind them as Lila turned up the oil lamp. Joxer moved to pull up a wooden crate filled with sacks of flour for him to sit on, but succeeded in tripping over the corner and knocking his head into a shelf. "Oww!" he bellowed, stumbling backwards over the crate and landing on his back with his feet in the air.
"Joxer, are you okay?" said Lila, her eyes widening in surprise. She bent over to help him up, but he'd already begun to sit up on his own and their heads knocked together. They each squinted tightly and clutched at their foreheads, howling lowly in pain and surprise.
When they finally managed to get themselves properly seated on their respective crates, Lila looked at the handsome young warrior and smiled. "Let's see that arm," she said, turning her eyes down shyly.
Joxer smiled at Lila he did love it when girls blushed, it made him blush. Despite his boasts, Joxer was extremely shy with women, mostly because he'd been rejected far more times than he could count. It was the nature of being him, a tall, gawky figure who really wasn't all that skilled with a sword, managing to do more damage to himself on a daily basis than most people do in an entire season. He removed his gauntlet and offered his arm to this young beauty. "Here ya go. Think I'm gonna have to lose it?" he joked.
"Hmm," said Lila, playing along, affixing a stern gaze at the arm in question. "You might. But if we deal with it right now, we might be able to save it." She peered upwards shyly as her fingers traced the wound. Her cheeks flushed and she became rather warm with embarrassment when she noticed that he was still smiling at her. "Let me just get some antiseptic " She rooted through the medicine cabinet affixed to the wall, knocking over several bottles of this and that, sat back down, again taking Joxer's arm into her lap. "This is going to sting a bit."
"I know. I'm used to pain, trust me."
A quick giggle escaped the brunette as she dampened some cotton with the antiseptic. Joxer closed his eyes and gritted his teeth as she began to draw the cotton painfully along the wound, killing all bacteria there that could cause a serious infection. "It's a good thing we caught this. The wrong kind of infection can lead to a fever, and the wrong kind of fever can "
"Wow, you know a lot about this stuff don't you?"
A quick shrug, "I guess. I learned a lot from my mother I suppose, me and Gabrielle both did. But I think Gabrielle learned more from Xena."
Gabrielle Joxer shook his head to clear her from his memory. He did have strong feelings for the blonde bard, but she'd made it clear to him that she loved him like a brother and not more than that. Besides, Lila seemed to carry some of the same qualities that he so admired in Gabrielle, from what he could tell, anyways. So innocent, so kind, and she really was quite pretty. He screwed up his face again as she went for a second pass, inhaling sharply through his nose.
"Sorry Joxer, I should have warned you " Her voice was apologetic and Joxer opened his eyes to find her staring at him widely with her baby blues. Gods, she was cute.
"I'm okay Lila, it just took me by surprise. It didn't really hurt. It was shock more than anything, honest." He kept his eyes locked on hers, a smile appearing goofily, forcing a smile to peek through on Lila's face.
"Oh, okay." Still embarrassed, she averted her eyes, stumbling a little over her words, and began to wrap the cotton bandage around his scratch. It was a fairly long one, just under half the length of his forearm, so it took several feet of bandage to do the trick. Soon enough, it was wrapped just tight enough and the ends were tied together.
"Well that's it I guess, isn't it," said Lila, rather sadly. She was enjoying this time alone with Joxer, and from what she could tell, he was enjoying it as well.
"Yeah, I guess so."
"Guess we'd better get back out there. I'm sure they're beginning to talk. I mean, I would be."
"Oh would you?" replied Joxer, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
The both of them stood up to leave, but ended up bonking into each other. Lila tripped backwards at the impact, but Joxer reached out and caught her. They remained there like that in an infamous dance position for just a moment. Joxer's lips were awfully close to her forehead. He kinda wanted to kiss her, and he nearly did, but she moved upwards slightly shifting her weight in the uncomfortable yet strangely comforting position. Her forehead clanged noiselessly against his lips, pushing them sharply against his teeth.
"Owww!" cried Joxer, instinctively raising both hands to his mouth, sending Lila crashing to the ground.
"Ahhh! I'm sorry!"
"It's okay," she said, peering at him with one eye. She raised herself from the ground slightly and extended her hand to him for help in getting up. Joxer took it, but in a calamity born from the cramped space littered with boxes and proneness to accidents, he found himself also on the ground, and on top of the innocent young brunette. Kiss him! Her mind was telling her, and she wanted to. He was so gallant, such a tall handsome warrior, and so kind Just do it! Taking her fate into her own hands, she puckered up and raised her lips to meet his.
Joxer, suddenly very embarrassed, scrambled to his feet. You idiot! He chastised himself. She was going to kiss you and you blew it! "We should go back outside," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. He wanted to just go for it, to kiss her and take away the embarrassed and disappointed look in her eyes, but something was keeping him from doing so. It was times like this that he really, really hated his neuroticisms.
"Yeah," she repeated dejectedly. "Let's go."
"Oh, it's you," said Minya, eyeing Xena from head to foot with disdain. Her lip curled in annoyance and a breath shot forth through her nostrils sharply, like that of a bull preparing to charge. She leaned an elbow on Hower's shoulder to keep a hold on her territory. "The home wrecker."
"Minya " Gabrielle trailed, looking at the tall, dark haired woman with a hint of warning.
"Hi Xena," piped Hower, gazing at Xena with stars in his eyes. He'd clearly not fully gotten over the Warrior Princess.
Minya regarded Hower incredulously before shaking it off and again focusing on the blonde bard, "you're here too, huh. Xena's little concubine. Shoulda known you wouldn't be far from her heels."
Gabrielle's eyebrows raised in disbelief.
"Wait a minute," began Cyrene, looking from Xena to Hower to Gabrielle to Minya, "You know each other?"
"Ha! You could say that!" began Minya's confrontational response. She continued her leveled, feral stare at the Warrior Princess, Xena herself not backing down. "She," emphasized Minya, "tried to woo my Hower from right under my nose."
"Now Minya," Hower chastised, putting his arm around the appropriate black haired giantess.
"Don't you 'now Minya' me!"
"Minya. Listen. Hower is yours. Believe me, I have no interest in him." Xena gave Minya a look as if to say, 'okay?'
"What, like Hower isn't good enough for you? Is he not a big enough piece of man-meat to satisfy your primal Warrior Princess needs?"
The only one in the room who wasn't staring at Minya, gaping in disbelief was the ex-warlord herself.
"Well," stumbled Gabrielle, breaking the awkward silence. "We, ah, met Minya and Hower here maybe two seasons ago in Laurel." Eyeing them both with irritation, "we helped them get rid of a giant who was threatening them."
"Yeah." A small, embarrassed cough came through and Minya admitted, "Yeah, they did."
"You should've seen her! Well, I didn't see her. But you should have heard Gabrielle tell the story afterwords." Hower was quite emphatic and excited, rocking back and forth on his heels as he consciously kept his arm around Minya who was grunting indignantly at the short, bald man.
"Gabrielle is quite the storyteller," smiled Xena. "So, did you guys bring anything that I can take into the kitchen?"
"Xena, nonsense." Her mother stood up and gave her a smiling eye. After all, Cyrene was the host of this little get-together and she did very much enjoy playing the role. How often was it that she got to take care of her 'little girl' anymore?
"Well, let me get it out of my pack, first! Geez!" She opened her bag and pulled out a strange looking orange pie.
"What in the known world is that?" asked Gabrielle, looking at it in utter confusion and just a little horror.
"It's a pumpkin pie," stated Minya matter-of-factly, "I made it myself. I've always liked pumpkins, I don't know why I didn't think of it before."
"A pumpkin pie?" inquired Xena. She wasn't sure she liked pumpkins at all, let alone a pie made from them.
"Pumpkin pie, hey? Never heard of that. Sounds interesting to say the least. Food's food, and dessert is dessert, I've never been one to pass up something sweet," Autolycus said, tossing a wink at the good looking blonde behind the counter. Rebecca coughed nervously and brushed a few stray strands away from her forehead, which dutifully slipped back to their unwanted place.
"It sounds wonderful," said Cyrene with a smile, accepting the dish from the tall, dark haired woman. "I'll just bring this into the kitchen."
"Oh, wait. There's more," said Hower proudly. "Take it out, Minya." Minya rolled her eyes and breathed heavily as she pulled out a dish that contained a rather jumbled collection of slightly burnt potatoes. Hower's expression was that of a proud father as he took the dish from his girlfriend and offered it in a gentleman-like fashion to the mother of the Warrior Princess.
Cyrene thanked them and went off to the kitchen with the two dishes while Minya and Hower took off their winter coats and sat down on the seats, introducing themselves to the King of Thieves, who shook both their hands.
Gabrielle joined in on the small talk, but found herself looking out at the darkened sky. "Hercules and Iolaus are supposed to be showing up tonight, aren't they?" she asked as Cyrene returned from the kitchen. The bard's brow creased in worry. It was a cold, bitter night out there and she didn't feel comfortable with her friends still being in the snow. Friends
She was pretty certain that the golden hunter and the demigod could take care of themselves in the bitter cold, but the fact that they weren't here yet did concern her. "Do you know where they're coming from?"
Cyrene shrugged her shoulders. "Not too sure. I gave them the word when they stopped by here a few weeks ago so I don't imagine they're coming from more than a few days walk. Are you worried about them?"
"A little. I probably shouldn't be they'll be okay." Despite Gabrielle's words, there was a heaviness in the pit of her stomach that made her feel uneasy. She knew it was freezing out there and there was a special place in her heart for the blonde warrior. No man had ever made her feel the way Iolaus did guiltily enough, she thought, not even Perdicas. The desire she felt for the hunter the night they met on the road had been more than she'd ever felt for her husband, despite the fact that she'd actually given herself to the Poteidaian man and not to Iolaus. There was also an intelligence to Iolaus that Perdicas never had. A sense of humour They also shared the experiences of life on the road, fighting for the greater good. They both experienced very different things except for the few times they'd crossed paths, but that was one thing that really drew her to Iolaus. He understood that she couldn't leave Xena's side on their journeys, and she understood the same about him and Hercules.
Maybe sometime when they were too old to fight anymore, if they both made it that far It was a dangerous life they led.
There was just something about that curly-haired man that stirred at her insides whenever she thought of him, and even more so when they were face to face.
"Hercules and Iolaus? Are you kidding me? I know those boys like the back of my hand and they've got no problems. They'll be just fine." Autolycus chuckled at the seemingly unfounded worry that was written all over Gabrielle's face.
Everyone slowly turned towards Minya when they realized that she was just staring blankly ahead, her jaw hung slack, a dreamy look in her eyes. "Hercules "
"Hey!" said Hower, placing his hands on his hips authoritatively.
"Wow the real Hercules? An Olympian god " Her hands clasped each other over her knees and she smiled with stars in her eyes.
"Half god really, and he's not a fan of the Olympians " Xena corrected. A lot of people made this mistake.
"Wow " she repeated.
"Minya!" Hower said, suddenly getting very jealous. He was a simple man.
It was luck that Lila and Joxer stumbled in awkwardly at this moment, both pairs of cheeks just a little pink with nervousness, averting what could possibly have been a big conniption between Hower and Minya. "Whew, glad we got that done!" said Joxer, waving his bandaged arm around. "It feels so much better." He took a seat, leaving a spot between himself and Autolycus, and patted it for Lila to sit down.
"I bet it does," deadpanned the Warrior Princess, emitting stifled laughter from Autolycus and Gabrielle. Try as she might, Gabrielle just couldn't keep the irritated poker face with Xena.
True to her shy nature, Lila coloured even more than she already had done, if possible. In fact, on her way to find a seat, she tripped over the corner of the chest and crashed into her seat, stepping on toes in her lack of balance. She smiled again nervously once the commotion ended, wishing somebody would say something! By what seemed a miracle, she spotted two figures through the heavily falling snow, fighting against the whistling winds. "Hey, who's that?" she asked, pointing at the window.
Gabrielle stood up from her seat and nimbly made it past the tangled collection of feet. She peered through the window, squinting between the thick curtain of flakes. "I think it's Hercules and Iolaus!"
Xena grinned at her mother and said under her breath, "She's got a thing for the blonde one."
Cyrene whispered back, "I don't blame her."
Gabrielle had opened the tavern door, sending in a rush of cold air that had everyone shivering for just a moment. The unfortunate, freezing men were admitted and Gabrielle quickly closed the door behind them.
"For the love of Zeus! We almost didn't make it!" A chuckle escaped the blonde hunter, wrapped in furs from head to toe. "Hello, Gabrielle. You look "
"Nice to see you again, Iolaus."
A small smile played across Iolaus' lips, and his eyes sparkled, his affection for the bard evident. He opened his arms to her and they came together in a brief embrace. Neither of them were really comfortable with public displays of affection when that affection really mattered. There would be time for them to talk later.
Xena had also stood up to greet the demigod and his companion. Being even less comfortable with showing their emotions publicly, they gripped each other by the forearms and shook. They smiled at each other.
"Well, we're not world renowned for our cooking skills, but we did bring a little something for the dinner," said Iolaus, presenting Cyrene with a large bowl of obviously now cold steamed vegetables.
Minya had scampered up next to Xena, staring at Hercules in a way that made him less than comfortable. "Hercules. You're Hercules! By the gods, it's great to meet you! My name's Minya " she said breathlessly, clearly captivated by the hero demigod. She extended her hand to shake, gazing into his warm blue eyes.
"Hi," he responded uncomfortably, looking at Xena questioningly. "Nice to meet you, Minya."
Hower, in the meantime, screwed up his face in distaste.
"You guys didn't cook this, did you? I'm impressed!" exclaimed Cyrene. "It smells wonderful! You really didn't have to!" She beamed happily at them as they both removed their furs, hanging them up on the coat racks just by the door.
"Well, like I said, we're not renowned cooks. Right Herc? We couldn't subject you to our own cooking. So we stopped at Iphicles' on the way here. Hope you don't mind!"
"I don't remember your cooking being so bad," sad Gabrielle with the smile that had the ability to turn Iolaus to jelly. He smiled as he thought back to the night he'd roasted her a quail, and it actually turned out wonderfully. He'd told her it was a fluke, and truly it was.
"Well, like I said, that wasn't natural plus, Herc's even worse than I am!"
"Very funny," replied the demigod. "That's not all. After all, we did stop at the King of Corinth's. They couldn't help but load us up for the journey. I suppose it's a good thing they did, if we got lost outside in that weather, we would have been in some serious trouble, especially without food."
"That's very true Herc, but I think we would've been screwed either way. It was a good thing we saw your light when we did because we were getting pretty disheartened out there!" Iolaus shook the snow from his golden curls before taking several loaves of bread, a roasted butter squash with brown sugar and walnuts and a bean salad from his pack. "There, that's about it, I think."
"That's about it, my foot! Please do thank Iphicles for me! Oh, nevermind, I'll just send him word Xena, why don't you help me into the kitchen with this?"
Xena obliged and accepted what Cyrene could not carry from Iolaus, following her mother into the kitchen.
"Well, if it isn't you two," said the King of Thieves, standing from his reclined position on the couch.
"Hello, Autolycus," Hercules said with a chuckle, and began to move towards the moustached man who had in the meantime been speaking with Joxer and the young woman who sat next to him. His progress, however, was impeded by the tall woman in the muted floral print stola who stood in his way, batting her eyelashes.
"Excuse me," he said, trying to get by.
"Oh, yeah. Yeah." Not lifting her gaze, she stepped aside, allowing Hercules to pass her by. She checked out his leathered backside and sighed happily, much to Hower's chagrin. He stood up and forcefully linked his arm with hers and kissed her on the cheek.
"Hi Hower " she trailed, not taking her eyes off the well-muscled demigod as he spoke to Autolycus.
"Good to see you, Herc ol' buddy ol' pal. How's it going? What've you been up to?" Autolycus absently palmed and unpalmed a silver dinar, impressing Lila with the simple trick, making Joxer more than a little jealous.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Oh, ha! Ha! I bet that I would."
"So, Joxer," Hercules addressed Joxer, changing the subject, "care to introduce me to this young lady?"
"Oh, yes. Yes! Hercules, this is Lila. Lila, this is Hercules." Joxer rushed through the introductions, sounding a little nervous. He was really beginning to like this one after all, and Hercules was the son of Zeus! What girl wouldn't want to get with that!
"Sooo," crooned Cyrene to her daughter as she put the dishes away for the next day, "Hercules is here."
Xena chuckled. "Yes, he is."
"How are things between you two?"
"Mother, there isn't really an us two to speak of."
"Well, there could be!"
"You know," came a sigh from the ex-warlord, "I don't know. I don't really find myself feeling that way anymore, and I think it's mutual. I want to. I really do. But we're so different. I just don't think it's realistic."
"I saw the way he looked at you, Xena. I think those feelings are still there. He's a good man," stated Cyrene, looking for space in the cold cupboard.
"Yes, he is."
"So, what's the problem?"
"I just think those feelings they aren't very strong for me anymore. In fact, they're barely there. He's handsome. He's more than handsome. He's kind, and wonderful. And he's well hoo! Yeah." A quick shake of the head only did a poor job of clearing her mind. "The point is mother, he's too good for me."
"Xena, I will not stand for you saying that. Nobody is too good for you. You may have done some things in the past-"
"Mom, that's not what I meant. He's just a little too good for me. We're like black and white, night and day. I just don't think it would work in the long run."
"Oh, I don't know Xena. I think you're making a mistake. A big mistake. Don't let this one pass you by."
Gabrielle sat across from the blonde headed warrior. Hercules sat across from Hower, leaning forward and clasping his hands between his knees. Minya immediately squashed herself down beside him and began to bombard him with questions. It really was a curse to be the son of Zeus and rather shy with attention at the same time.
"So, how often do you work out?" Minya refused to take her gaze from the demigod who was fidgeting in discomfort.
"Whenever I visit my mother. She always seems to have a stone wall that needs building or fixing."
Minya made a big show of laughing at Hercules' 'joke'. She guffawed bawdily, slapping the son of Zeus across the arm causing him to sink back into his seat.
"Minya, I could build you a wall," interjected Hower, sitting up straight in his seat and puffing out his chest. How could Minya so obviously flirt with Hercules in front of him? He was a hero and he was the son of Zeus but that didn't matter to Hower. At least Minya had been out of the room when he and Xena had had their illicit affair. Geeez
Joxer, Lila, Autolycus, Gabrielle and especially Iolaus watched the scene that was unfolding and heroically managed to contain (almost) all laughter. Hercules looked positively miserable under this woman's attentions, as did Hower who was miserable because he wasn't the subject of said attentions. Gabrielle remembered the time when Xena's sense of celebrity was enough to send Minya's mind swirling with praise and compliments that is, until Hower showed an interest in the Warrior Princess.
Rebecca spoke up: "Do you two want something hot to drink? Hercules?"
"Yes! Thank you, hot tea please," replied the demigod, looking gratefully to the shortish hazeleyed girl behind the bar.
Rebecca gave her acknowledgement and nodded to Iolaus, "And for you?"
"Same. Thank you." Iolaus wasn't generally a tea man, but the weather outside and his still damp clothing led him to pick something a little warmer and weaker than he was used to.
Xena and her mother returned from the kitchen, and the small talk went on for about another candlemark before the raucous laughter was replaced with yawning. It was quite late and everyone was tired from the journey. Autolycus was the first to make bedtime motions.
"Well, fun though it's been, ladies and gentlemen, this King of Thieves is off to the land of Zs."
"Autolycus, just go up the stairs and to your right. I did my best to keep that wing free. If the door's open, it's empty." Cyrene smiled at him and he bowed gallantly before making his way up the stairs.
"I think I should go to sleep too." Lila stood up and stretched widely. The simple farm girl had had more than enough for one day. Plus, big crowds of people she wasn't all that familiar with did make her a little nervous. "Goodnight Joxer," she said with a smile and an awkward curtsey.
"Oh. Oh wait, let me," Joxer coughed, "escort you up the stairs to your room. I'm pooped anyways, I should probably hit the sack too."
"Alright," she agreed with a shy smile, slightly embarrassed by their romance budding in front of an audience. After their goodnights, they both ambled up the creaking stairs and took a right, finding two doors closed out of many.
The hallway was dimly lit by the oil lamps that sat in alcoves hollowed into the wall. They cast a flickering yellow glow across Lila's face. There was something so endearing about this man, something so familiar. They were both impossibly awkward. She didn't feel embarrassed when she stumbled in front of him, and she thought it was cute when he did so.
In a move that Joxer deemed smooth, he rested one elbow against the wall and leaned in towards Lila. Both their hearts were pounding at the moment that they knew was coming next. This was the culmination of what they began in the storage room, she could feel it. There was a heat emanating off him. Beads of sweat were forming on his forehead. Joxer was nervous as Tartarus. She wanted just as badly what he did, and it was just as hard for her to break the ice but she wasn't going to let him get away without a kiss this time.
She rose onto her tiptoes, her neck arcing gently as she tilted her chin. Joxer's free hand stroked her cheek affectionately and he brought his lips down to meet hers. They were a hairs breadth apart when the sound of a weary tavern-mother padding up the stairs brought their tender moment to a screeching halt. Lila pressed her back up against the wall and pushed Joxer away from her so that he stumbled backwards.
"Oh, hello you two," said Cyrene as she rounded the corner and came upon the nervous couple.
Lila hoped to Hades that Cyrene couldn't hear how hard she was breathing. "Hi, Cyrene!" Lila flashed a toothy grin at the mother of the Warrior Princess. "Uhm. We were just going to bed. I mean I was just going to bed. Thanks for the lovely evening!" With that, she picked the nearest room, dashed through the open archway and closed the door behind her. Phew.
And Joxer was left standing with his jaw hanging.
Cyrene chuckled and made her way to her room at the end of the hall, calling out her goodnight to the warrior wannabe.
The only guests who remained seated downstairs were the four heroes themselves. Hower and Minya had headed up the stairs not too long after Cyrene. Rebecca was just preparing to close up for the night. She picked up the mugs of those who'd gone to bed, Joxer's not surprisingly three quarters full of ale, and ushered the rest of the evening patrons out the door who hadn't already left of their own accord. The tavern's common room was empty short of herself, Xena, Gabrielle, Hercules and Iolaus.
"The snow is just beautiful out there. I'm going to have to do some writing before I leave here. It's so inspirational. I don't think I've ever seen a winter like this one." Gabrielle rested her chin in the palm of her hand as she gazed out the window. Slowly, a yawn spread over her face and she nearly slumped down in her seat.
"I've heard that you're a great writer," said Iolaus. He smiled at her tiredly, and she returned the affection.
"I prefer telling the story out loud. I enjoy both, but I think a story comes out much better when it's read."
"Only if the storyteller is talented."
Gabrielle grinned at him and then stopped when she noticed the silence. She glanced over at Xena and Hercules who were both asleep on the couch! "For the love of Zeus, wouldja look at that!" she began to laugh.
"Herc's like that," Iolaus replied, chuckling. "He doesn't sleep often, but when he does "
"Well, maybe we should leave them be." There really was no reason to do so, but Gabrielle just wanted some time alone with the golden hunter. The both stood up and stretched.
Understanding the bard's motives, Iolaus let out a small giggle and said, "sounds like a good idea. Where shall we go?"
"Have you ever seen snow like this in your life Iolaus? Let's go outside in it!"
"Gabrielle, I'm too tired for that "
"Oh come on! It'll be fun!"
"You'll freeze in that, Gabrielle. Are you crazy?"
"Only a little. Besides, I've got some skins upstairs. The winds have stopped, the snow's not falling too hard come on Iolaus! You're never going to get the chance to do this again."
"How do you know that?" The hunter crossed his arms over his chest and looked at the bard with a challenging smile.
"Okay, well, I don't. Just put your furs on and I'll be right back. This'll be fun!"
Shaking his head and chuckling, "Women are too crazy. But I guess that's why I'm so crazy about women " When he looked up again, the Amazon was already heading up the stairs. She's so spunky. One of the things that attracted Iolaus to Gabrielle was the fire that she had. She was ready to confront anything to do what was right, or just to have a good time. She was also childlike in a sense she'd grown up a lot in the years that he'd known her but she was unmistakably now a woman. And a fun woman at that. Iolaus chuckled again to himself and walked up to the coat rack and removed his fur from the hook. He pulled it around himself and fastened the belt tightly before pulling on his gloves and positioning his hat on his curly blonde head.
He'd only been ready to go for a minute or two when the small woman came bounding down the stairs, covered head to foot in fur-lined deer hide, much like himself.
Just perfect, Joxer thought miserably as he sat in his bed for the night. He folded his arms over his night shirt and pouted. First I blow it, then Cyrene blows it for me. They were so close! His stomach had been jumping around inside him but he'd managed to overcome that sense of discomfort, just to be interrupted. Then, an idea struck the warrior wannabe. Hmmm
He swung his legs over the bed and stood up. He made his way over to the desk on the opposite end of the room, managing to keep himself vertical. He sat at the seat and turned up the oil lamp before taking a piece of parchment from the drawer, lifting the quill and dipping it in ink.
Gabrielle was the first to plod out into the snow. It reached just below the fur at the top of her boots on the covered deck; she marveled at just how deep it would be on the yard. Iolaus stepped out just after her, rubbing his gloved hands together.
"Sure is chilly out here," he said between the falling flakes.
"Well, what did you expect?" She regarded him with a smirk across her face and a hand on her hip.
"Good point," said the golden hunter, bursting into a playful giggle. "C'mon, Gabrielle!" He pulled her by the arm, the two of them clomping awkwardly through the thick white blanket. They managed their way down the stairs and were amazed to find that the snow reached waist deep in the open. Iolaus threw a grin Gabrielle's way. "You're right. I haven't played in the snow like this since I was a kid. I don't think we've had snow like this since I was a kid."
"Or since I was born," countered Gabrielle, as she began to jump around playfully in the soft, cold powder. "This is great!" She bent over and picked up a handful of the stuff, compacting it into a firm ball. Her eyes narrowed and her angelic face was briefly overcome with a puerile look of evil.
"What are you planning on doing with that, Gabrielle?" asked Iolaus, not really wanting to hear the answer, shifting his eyes back and forth suspiciously. He recognized that evil grin on the bard's face, knowing that her intentions were not benign. When she wound her arm back he instinctively ducked, but Gabrielle had aimed downwards, clocking him right on the noggin with the hard packed ball of snow. "Oww!" Iolaus cried, breaking into a laugh. "You're in big trouble now, bard "
He raised his arms and growled at her like a monster, and something that resembled a cross between a laugh and a squeal slipped from the bard as she tried to run. Unused to the waist high obstruction, she pitched forward and found herself lying two feet under, looking up at the stars in the night sky, blinking to fend off the flakes that threatened her eyes. She heard Iolaus' telltale laugh, and soon enough, his face loomed over her. "What did I tell you, Gabrielle, big trouble." A cheeky grin plastered across his face as he looked at the bard, lying on her back in the snow.
Her stunning green eyes caught his for a moment and she smirked, sending a ripple up and down the golden hunter's spine. Too bad Iolaus was too busy admiring the Amazon, as her hand was cunningly scraping at her icy entombment. When she felt she had a handful, she caught Iolaus by surprise by packing it into a ball swiftly, and hucking it in his direction. The snowball hit him squarely across his nose, emitting a wild shriek from the blonde warrior.
The sharp sound of a male shrieking woke both Xena and Hercules up at the same time. They both scrambled to the window to see Iolaus outside, amidst the gently cascading white flakes, holding his nose. Gabrielle immediately shot up from the snow, shaking the cold from her hair.
Xena and Hercules both chuckled embarrassedly and pulled the curtains. "Alright Gabrielle " she commended the unhearing bard, and followed up with nervous laughter.
Hercules stretched and impersonated a lion's yawn. "That journey really took it out of me."
"Tell me about it, me too. We only walked for a day from Poteidaia, but that snow just makes it seem so much longer."
"Well, at least the company was decent," deadpanned the demigod, bringing a smile from the Warrior Princess.
There was an uncomfortable silence between them for a moment. Xena's mind brought her back to the conversation she had with her mother in the kitchen. The thought then led to the time, three summers ago, when Hercules had taught her what it felt like to be him, and they'd shared that special moment while the hunter had gone off to forage for food, as he often did. While there was always room for the mad, conqueror-conquered, animal passion that she shared with Borias, this was a very different form of the act of love that she'd experienced with Hercules. It was just that, an act of love.
And the fact that she no longer felt the love in that way for Hercules made her feel strange. It had to be hiding in there somewhere, didn't it? Didn't it?
"What?" Xena arched an eyebrow when she saw the perplexed look that Hercules was giving her.
"Dinar for your thoughts?" Xena had the strangest far away look on her face. The Xena he was used to was constantly focused, even while in thought.
"Oh, no no." Xena chuckled dismissively. "It's not important."
"Are you sure?" The son of Zeus pressed on. This was definitely unusual. Xena was one who always spoke her mind when in close company. Unless of course, she's holding back because she's thinking about me
"Oh gods, Iolaus! I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"
Iolaus kept his hand clutched firmly against his nose. "It's okay Gabrielle, really " His voice was nasal.
The bard scrambled to her knees, bringing her level to the blonde warrior.
"Shh, shh. Move your hand, let me take a look." Gabrielle's look was that of worry and guilt as Iolaus chuckled and rolled his eyes. He removed his hand and let the bard take a look at the reddened area around his nose. "Well, it's not bleeding "
"See? It's not so bad."
"I suppose not, but I still feel bad about it!" shot Gabrielle, more at herself than anyone or anything else. She leaned in for a closer look and touched her index finger to the tender swelling. Iolaus inhaled sharply, wincing at her touch. She removed her finger quickly and her guilty look doubled in intensity.
"Gabrielle, honestly. It's okay. You didn't mean to hit me in the face, and frankly, I didn't think you could!" He waggled his eyebrows at her and grinned as best he could, inspiring a mischievous grin from the bard.
"Later you'll pay for that," she said with a wink.
"Thought I just did!" His held his hand over his nose again, and his voice became muffled.
"Here, take some of this," said Gabrielle, scooping up a handful of the bitterly cold snow from the ground.
"That's what got us into this mess in the first place!" he quipped, but accepted the handful from the bard and held it against the swelling.
"Oh gods, I'm so sorry Iolaus," she said, feeling very embarrassed. Her cheeks were already rosy from cold but she managed to colour anyways.
Iolaus rolled his eyes at her. "Look Gabrielle, you don't need to keep apologizing, okay?"
"No! No buts. You're awfully sweet to feel so guilty, but believe me, I've suffered much worse. Besides, I can't think of anyone I'd rather hit me with a snowball." He smiled genuinely at her, and her guilt began to subside. She returned the affectionate gesture.
Gabrielle collapsed back into the snow, stretching out with the gleefulness of a child. "This is so amazing, Iolaus! The beauty of it, it's so natural."
"I'd say it's unrivaled in all of Greece."
"Oh, I don't know about that, I bet the mountains and the thicker forests in the north are stunning too-" She stopped to breathe and noticed that it wasn't the snowy bliss he'd been speaking of. He was staring at her. "Iolaus "
"Yes Gabrielle?" he replied, an affectionate smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Suddenly, what seemed to be Gabrielle's most prominent skill, her ability to talk, abruptly left her. "I " She shut her eyes to compose her thoughts for a moment. They snapped open when she felt the warm presence of the hunter's lips on her forehead. He was leaning over her in the snow, and smiled at her playfully when he pulled back to look at her. Suddenly, she blurted: "Thank you for last time, Iolaus." Oh, SMOOTH, thought the bard. We're having fun, let's bring up death and angst, shall we?
"No need, Gabrielle." His gloved fingers brushed the honey coloured bangs from her forehead, and all of a sudden the bard was filled with an overwhelming desire to just hang on to Iolaus. He had felt so good that night in the forest clearing, just comforting her and helping to keep her spirits up in the face of adversity. She arched her back and brought her lips to meet his. They connected warmly and tenderly, a sharp contrast to the chill of the night air on their cheeks.
Iolaus ran his fingers along the gentle curve of her jaw before closing in to claim her mouth again, progressing slowly and unassumingly. The tender touch of her soft lips sent a warm wave through his system, igniting his senses and urging him forward. He tugged at the lip of the woolen scarf, exposing a section of the soft flesh of Gabrielle's neck, and began to kiss along a line slowly, sending stirrings of desire through the both of them. The golden hunter pulled away and was immediately captivated by the sparkling green eyes that gazed up at him.
He leaned down to kiss the bard's cheek chastely before standing up to brush himself off. "You know, we'd better head inside. After all, there's no sleeping in tomorrow."
"Yeah, you're right." Gabrielle nodded, knowing full well that they were both saving each other from themselves. It was already difficult every time they parted. Early rising didn't enter into it.
"So what is it? What can I do to help?" The demigod wrung his hands together, feeling the heat of the question as the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He was pretty sure that both their discomfort stemmed from their rather intimate past.
Xena creased her brow. She just needed to know one way or the other. Her mother did have a point, this was not the type you let go. "Just trust me on this, okay?" Her voice cracked with nerves that she was not used to having.
"Okay," responded the baffled son of Zeus, but when Xena stood up from the opposite couch and took a seat next to him, his heart began to pound, and not in a good way. This was just not the same as it was back then, though he wanted to love her so badly. She had been the first to heal the hole in his heart left by Deianeira's death. As healed as it could be, anyways.
The modest man jumped when the woman who at one time made him feel complete took his angular cheeks in her battle hardened hands and kissed him. She held herself there for a while, doing her best, as was Hercules, to feel something in the kisses that had at one time been so fiery between them. But this was just different, and somehow wrong, to the both of them.
Hercules, ever consciousness of the awkwardness of the moment and the feelings at stake, allowed the ex-warlord to be the first to pull away.
"Nothing," she stated flatly. "You?"
"You expect me to say that it was wonderful and that I'm overcome with love for you after what you just said?" countered Hercules with a chuckle. "But no honestly, nothing but awkwardness for me too."
"Well, I'm glad it's mutual. I can't deny that I wish I felt more, you were wonderful to me, Hercules."
"It's a lot easier to believe in yourself if someone believes in you first."
"And for the record," stated the demigod, "I wish I felt more too."
The Warrior Princess accepted Hercules into her arms for an affectionate embrace, as friends. And they were that, great friends. She smiled at him.
Their heads turned to the door at the sound of the bell. In stepped a snow-covered pair of short statured people, shaking the cold flakes from their skins and wiping their boots on the mat.
"Hey, you two," said the ex-Destroyer of Nations, giving her bardic friend a teasing grin.
"Hi," they both said nervously in unison. Gabrielle continued: "You're up?"
"Yeah, we woke up to the strange sound of a man shrieking," said Hercules. Xena waggled her eyebrows evilly at the Amazon, bringing about the exact response it was meant to, a pair of extremely red cheeks.
"Well, long day, I'm pooped," said Iolaus.
"Mm. Straight to sleep with me. Straight to sleep for me!" she quickly corrected herself, looking horrified, and they both scampered up the stairs, leaving Xena and Hercules in stitches in the common room.
"That was embarrassing," said the blonde bard, fanning herself as they slowed in front of a vacant room. Looking at the hunter, it was getting rather hot in here
"Yeah, Zeus on Olympus! Gabrielle you certainly have a way with words." The hunter giggled at the embarrassed Poteidaian girl, giving her a playful punch on the arm. "One could almost think that you were thinking about, well you know." An evil grin spread across his face as he watched Gabrielle writhe in embarrassment. He giggled again, clearly very amused by her current state of discomfort.
"Don't flatter yourself!" she stated, standing straight and jutting out her chin haughtily. "Men these days."
"Alright, Gabrielle, I'm sorry. I'm just teasing you. It's what I do." He smiled warmly at her, causing whatever slight irritation she carried for Iolaus to melt away into nothing.
She returned the smile affectionately and approached him, wrapping her arms loosely around his waist. "Well, guess it's bedtime. I wish I got to spend more time with you, Iolaus. We really don't see each other enough."
"Believe me, I know it." He pulled her tighter to him and kissed her forehead, allowing his lips to linger, brushing lightly against her soft skin. She closed her eyes, reveling in the ethereal feeling of the moment before tilting her chin to meet his lips with hers. Her fingers played with his blonde curls as she took her time exploring the sweet taste of his mouth. With deep regret, they parted.
"Time for bed." The hunter's blue eyes searched hers, almost hoping despite what they knew it would do to them when they went their separate ways that she would change her mind. He knew that they were both right about what was right, but there was just something about this bard of incredibly natural beauty and talent that made him want to throw it all into the wind.
Gabrielle knew what he was thinking, and wished she didn't. Because she was thinking the exact same things. Before another moment made her lose her resolve, she stood on her tiptoes, cupped his cheeks in her palms, and delivered a short yet tender kiss to his lips. "Goodnight, Iolaus," she said regretfully, before slipping quietly into the room.
"They really are cute, aren't they," said the demigod as he stretched and yawned.
"They are. Every once and a while, Gabrielle finds some excuse to bring him up in conversation. You know, like, 'I wonder how Hercules and Iolaus are,' and, 'Do you think we'll run into Hercules and Iolaus in such-and-such town'. It's pretty funny." Xena chuckled briefly.
"You know, ever since your accident," began Hercules, hoping that he hadn't just made a tactless faux pas, "Iolaus has been the same. Sometimes I wonder what went on between those two when they bumped into each other."
"Gabrielle would have told me." The Warrior Princess shrugged.
"Yeah. Iolaus would have told me too, I think. But maybe not if it was Gabrielle."
"It doesn't matter really, they seem really happy right now. I hope they're okay when it's time to go."
Hercules nodded. "Me too. But speaking of going, I think it's time for me to get some sleep," he said, standing up to his full height.
"Good idea." Xena rose as well. They made their way upstairs silently, finding the last two of the open doors facing across each other. She clasped the demigod's hand for a handshake, and then realizing the true absurdity of that motion, and leaned in to give Hercules a friendly kiss on the cheek partially to prove that there was no awkwardness between them, for her anyways. "Goodnight, Hercules."
Placing the quill silently on the cherrywood writing table, Joxer reread his masterpiece. Yes, he thought, giving himself a mental pat on the back, this is just what the healer ordered. It had been two or three candlemarks since he sat down to write. Never being one with the gift of the written word (or the spoken for that matter), to get his poem and note just right, he had spent every second deep in thought or painstakingly fixing anything he didn't think sounded right. The warrior wannabe rolled up the small piece of crinkly parchment and tied it neatly with a soft red Solstice ribbon. Now, the difficult bit
Her crept, silent as a mouse, down the hall after closing his bedroom door with a short click. He stopped before the door to the room that Lila had so hastily entered after their encounter. His heart was pounding and his right leg was jiggling nervously. It's hard to be smooth when you're a bumbling idiot, Joxer thought ruefully. He was painfully aware of his own inadequacies, despite his ever-present bravado. Especially so when he was about to make an incredibly daring move. Go in, leave the scroll on her bedside table, and get the hell out.
He took a deep breath to prepare himself before opening the door carefully. He peered through the narrow crack. The only illumination whatsoever was a small area over the girl herself, who was sleeping peacefully. The oil in the lamp was burning very low, and anything beyond Lila's head and the table itself was pitch black.
He pushed the door open a little further. To his horror, it creaked. Joxer froze, his eyes locked on the sleeping figure. Her only movement was the rhythmic rise and fall of her breath beneath the blankets. Good, I'm safe, he concluded, and began to tiptoe noiselessly into the room.
Noiselessly, that is, until a pair of Lila's boots found their way in front of the would-be hero's bare feet. "Whelp!" he cried as he stumbled forward, landing face-first into the unsuspecting girl's chest.
The moment that Joxer realized just what it was that had happened, he panicked.
Lila's eyes snapped open and she readied her mouth to scream when she caught sight of the tousled mousy brown hair. In a move that he would end up regretting, Joxer clamped his palm over the girl's lips to keep her from waking the entire tavern. Lila's eyes widened in fright and she quickly shoved his hand away. "Joxer?!" She was heaving in anger. "What in the name of the gods "
"Lila, I-" he began, stumbling over his own words.
"You pervert!" she shrieked, whomping him over the head with a pillow. "Get out! To think I actually trusted you! To think I actually thought I was well, that's not important. You just get out, you sicko!"
His mind was racing. He didn't mean it, he was trying to be nice, but he couldn't quite think of how to explain that when he'd wound up with a faceful of her cleavage. "I " he dribbled again, before taking off, note in hand, through the door.
"Minya, will you stop kicking me?"
"Mrffhrrm " came the half-asleep, grunted response.
The feeling of a cold foot kicking Hower sharply in the calf was the last straw. "Minya!"
"What!" bellowed the big-boned woman, rolling over to face Hower. Her nostrils were flaring.
"Stop kicking me!"
"I'm sorry," said Minya, making a face, "but I was dreaming. You can't control your feet when you're dreaming."
"What were you dreaming about, huh Minya? Hercules?" Hower's response was indignant and he folded his arms over his chest and sulked.
"Actually, I was." The words cut into Hower like a dull knife. "A good dream, too. Probably just as good as the dreams you've been having about Xena, you arse!"
"I haven't had any dreams about Xena," Hower lied.
"Oh really? Then what was that, 'Oh Xena, oh Xena yes, do it again. You're woooonderful' stuff about Hower? It took me two candlemarks to get to sleep because you were grunting and groaning the night through, speaking her name! And now you have the nerve to wake me up like this?"
Hower's lips moved subtly as he tried to form a coherent sentence in his brain. He really didn't think he was a sleep-talker. "Minya " he babbled as she threw off the covers and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. "You're not leaving me are you?"
"No, Hower, I'm going to get a glass of water. Sheesh." With that, she stood up, threw on a dressing gown and stormed angrily through the door.
Rebecca and Cyrene had been up for a good candlemark or two when the morning sun broke free from the horizon, bathing the sky in its subtle pink and orange hues. The wooden sign with the word 'closed' etched into it had been placed outside the door, to keep away any non-related patrons. Winter Solstice was a time for family and close friends.
The sounds were that of the clinking of kitchen utensils and a crackling fire. The meal being prepared was a big one. Most of it had been taken care of, but the main items like the roast ham, rack of lamb, and goose still had to be dealt with. Cyrene had been lucky to find the biggest, fattest goose she'd ever seen, and promptly purchased it from the market, squawking and flapping its wings as she carried it home. The doomed creature had spent the last few days in a pen just outside the tavern, and Cyrene, wielding a large kitchen knife, had just stepped out to slaughter it for the meal.
Autolycus was the first of the guests to descend down the stairs that morning. Being the first to go to sleep the night before, the King of Thieves was feeling extremely well rested. He stretched languorously before making his way into the kitchen that managed to bustle with the work of just one small blonde. She was busy chopping onions and garlic to place about the peppered lamb racks that were marinating in a glass dish.
He sauntered in casually and quietly. She startled when he spoke: "Hello, my sweet."
The knife clattered on the cutting board as she spun around, "You scared me "
"Apologies, it's what I do best, I suppose. Taking people by surprise. It's my career of choice."
The blonde was clearly not too impressed.
Hmmm. She is going to be more difficult to woo than I thought, he mused, fingering his beard. Usually my bad boy appeal is enough. Couple that with my good looks and charm He put his hand in his pocket and felt the necklace inside.
A great amount of bashing and crashing could be heard as Joxer made his way down the stairs, riding them like a carpet. "Ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay " he finished before toppling, the hardwood floor rushing towards him and clonking him on the noggin. A groan escaped his half-open lips. The sound of footsteps scampering around him made him lift his head dozily, only to see Cyrene standing over him with a bloodied kitchen knife, her apron covered in suspect red stains.
The warrior wannabe shrieked and jumped to his feet, before Cyrene cried, "No no! It's from the Solstice goose!"
By that time, the King of Thieves and Rebecca had made their way out from the kitchen to see the trembling, still slightly concussed man standing hunched before them. Rebecca approached him carefully. "Are you okay?" she asked with concern, watching as the man teetered to and fro. She held her arms out to steady him.
"Yeah," he slurred, his voice wavering.
She helped Joxer over to the couch and bent over him, taking her time feeling his forehead. His vision began to clear and he suddenly realized that there was a beautiful woman standing in front of him. While he wouldn't deny it was a pleasant sight, the memories it brought back were embarrassing and he began to panic. He averted his eyes as best he could, and in doing so, noted that Lila was now standing behind him with her arms folded and a stern look on her face that was only betrayed by the sparkle of fresh tears in her eyes. She had clearly seen where his blurry, unseeing gaze had landed. Sheesh! Why do I keep screwing up, he chastised himself sorrowfully as the Poteidaian brunette simply walked away.
"Excuse me, sorry," he said, still dazed, as he nudged Rebecca out of the way to amble after Lila. A massive headache had spread across his entire cranium. He could hardly see, let alone fix what he ruined with his idiocy. "Where did she go?" he demanded, clutching at his forehead and trying to make sense of the spinning room. The arms seemed to point in all directions, but thankfully, one helpful voice said "left," and Joxer turned left, wobbling slightly as he made his way in the direction she had gone.
The crowd was coming together well that morning. Cyrene had killed and cleaned the goose, and was now taking a moment for herself to change out of her bloody apron and have a bath. Rebecca was whipping up a butter sauce for Iphicles' vegetables, and even Autolycus was helping with the cheeses. Iolaus and Hercules, having come down the stairs not too long after Lila, vowed to stay out of the kitchen and help in other ways. They were most certainly not heroes of a culinary nature.
Hercules looked up from his table settings towards the stairs, where shouting could be heard. He couldn't make out the words, but an angry exchange was going on and Hercules put his dinars on the culprits being Hower and Minya.
"Not morning people, are they Herc," Iolaus quipped, peering up the darkened stairway.
"I should go up there and break it up, shouldn't I," said Hercules with a sigh. That was truly the last thing the son of Zeus needed.
"Guess so," grinned Iolaus, punching his friend playfully on the arm, nearly dropping the silverware he kept in the other hand.
"Why don't you do it, Iolaus? You seem to be in a really good mood."
Iolaus then laughed. "No way, Herc! That's your department! I'll stick to being the good looking one who charms all the women, okay?"
The demigod had just put down the cloth napkin to make his way up the stairs when he heard the sound of heavy footsteps. It was Hower. Not an especially tall man, but his stomps could have woken the whole inn.
He must be pretty ticked off, thought Iolaus, watching the balding man as he sat heavily in his seat, sulking with his arms folded over his chest.
"Hower, Hower! You get back here!" demanded the taller of the arguing pair as she lumbered down the stairs. "Oh! Oh Hercules," she said, her facial expression changing in an instant from seething anger to dreamy. "Good morning," she cooed, sashaying up to the muscular man and linking her arm in his.
Iolaus began to giggle surreptitiously, much to the demigod's annoyance. Minya shot a look at the hunter, then cringed in his direction. "Eeuuww. What happened to your face!"
"That's not important." Iolaus dropped his giggle and folded his arms defensively, looking somewhat grumpy.
"Yes, Hercules?" The dark haired dominatrix breathed, leaning into Hercules so her chest squashed against his arm. He carefully untangled from her claw-like grasp, trying to communicate with her that he just wasn't interested.
"What's he got that I don't," grunted Hower, standing up from his seat and striding over to Hercules. "I mean, Zeus, he may be tall "
"Handsome " supplied Minya, gazing dreamily at the demigod. "Smart-"
"You don't know that, how can you know that? You've met Hercules for five minutes and you can't possibly know if he's smart."
"Smarter than you, farmer boy. That hussy you're so fond of, isn't she upstairs? You know, the one you dream about?"
"You'd better not be talking about Xena." Hercules' eyes darkened and the large-ish woman gave him a backhand that would have been vicious if he hadn't been a half-god. As he was, the smack felt like it had come from somebody's grandma's grandma.
"That wench!" she boomed. "She's taken another one from me. I just know it! Xena, I'll turn your backside into burger meat!"
Iolaus stood back, fighting a losing battle to keep a straight face as Hercules grasped at Minya's wrists, holding them firmly. Minya began to melt, her eyelashes fluttering seductively at the demigod. "That masculine grip," she said breathily, not even realizing that the words had processed any further than her own mind.
The golden hunter was almost about to explode with laughter. He quickly excused himself from Hercules' side and Minya's field of view sidling up to the King of Thieves who was leaning on the doorframe that entered into the kitchen. "What's going on?" he whispered to the moustached man.
"You know how girls get when they meet Hercules. They go all strange."
"Yeah, I know. And on Winter Solstice too. What a shame." Iolaus leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest as he continued to watch the display.
"Oh, they're not the only ones," continued Autolycus in hushed tones. "Joxer and Lila, too. They had some kind of fight too. Joxer chased after her when she stormed out just before you came down."
"Maybe I'll go see how he's doing."
"He went thattaway," directed the King of Thieves, pointing left. "By the way, what happened to your face?"
"Oh, it's nothing, really " shrugged Iolaus, inwardly cringing at the large purple mark he knew resided in a dark patch around his nose. He quickly thanked Autolycus for his directions and made his way silently out of the room. Autolycus leaned back and continued to watch the exchange in amusement.
"I don't think you want to take on Xena. Besides, I was never yours." Hercules leveled an intimidating, authoritative look at Minya with the intent of silencing her. It only served to fuel the fire.
"How can you say that, after "
"After what?!" snorted Hower, placing his hands on his hips and trying to stand up to the son of Zeus. "Those steamy dreams you keep having about Hercules? Hate to break it to you Minya, but they're not real!" He stood back with a satisfied smirk.
"No, no.." shouted Minya, before Cyrene, much to everyone's relief, charged into the room and interrupted her:
"Everyone just calm down!"
Joxer searched every archway frantically, until he found the softly sobbing girl sitting in the same storage room where she'd bandaged his arm. She was sitting on the crate, her shoulders hunched over as she cried into her hands. "Lila?" he said quietly, knocking on the door that was slightly ajar.
"Go away, Joxer."
"Please " he begged, his heart felt like it was being pulled from every which direction. "Let me talk to you?"
"I don't have anything to say to you," she said, turning her face away from him.
Despite her refusal, he stepped inside. "Just let me explain myself."
Her eyes flashed with anger as she turned again towards him. "Fine. Say what you will. It had better be good, Joxer."
"It is, I promise. I wrote you a note. I was going to give it to you. But I tripped over something "
"And landed with your face in my in my " she couldn't quite finish her sentence.
"Well, yeah." Joxer rubbed the back of his neck nervously as he began to break out into a sweat.
"Show me the note then."
"Sure, sure " he said, rummaging around in his pockets. "It's in here. Just give me a sec." She didn't look too patient, and that made Joxer's frenzied search even heavier with pressure. He almost cursed, but caught himself. "It was here when I left your room. It was here! In this pocket!" he gestured, continuing the fruitless search through his baggy clothing. Just perfect, he thought to himself.
"Nice try, Joxer," sighed the girl sadly, before standing up and taking her leave.
Joxer just sat there and tried to absorb what had just happened. He rested his chin in his palms and took a deep breath. You're such an idiot, he scolded himself. Why did you have to trip over her boot, and land there of all places. And now she thinks you're a liar as well as a pervert. Great!
"Dinar for your thoughts?" A curly blonde head poked through the crack in the door.
Joxer simply shrugged and sighed before squinting at the hunter with a semi-disgusted expression. "What happened to your face?"
"Can we just leave that for a moment?" Iolaus said with some irritation, "Didn't go too well, did it?"
"Not really, no," said Joxer indignantly, picking up a small roll of bandage that had been left sitting on the crate from the night before and chucked it rather anticlimactically against the wall.
"I could tell. She looked pretty angry. I saw her storm out." He paused, and took a seat on the crate opposite the bumbler. "Joxer, women act in strange ways. They're mysteries, every one."
"You seem to know all the answers with women," he spat, "why don't you give me some of them?" He frowned at his words, "Sorry, I didn't mean that. I'm just "
"I know. There really isn't a lot of difference between us, Joxer. Like you, when I fall, I fall hard. There have been a lot of women, but I mean about as much to them as they mean to me, which was very little. Until you find the right one. And then you have to fight for it. Fight hard." Iolaus leaned forward, resting his forearms along his thighs and clasping his hands together.
"Sometimes you can't have the one you think is right for you."
"Well, yes, that's very true. But you can't just give up on Lila already-"
Joxer shook his head. "I'm not talking about Lila."
Iolaus scratched at his tousled locks, "I'm confused. Who are we talking about here?"
Pain flickered in the would-be hero's eyes. "Gabrielle."
"Oh." The hunter was speechless. Despite how hard he tried, he couldn't think of a single thing to say.
"It's okay. I know how you guys are, and I think that's great. I really do. The point was slowly getting to is this: Lila is the first one I've had real feelings for since Gabrielle broke my heart. She's the closest thing there is to the right thing, and I think maybe sometime, she can become the right one. After I've fully gotten over Gabby." Joxer shrugged dismissively, slightly embarrassed that he'd brought up the bard, especially to Iolaus.
"That's a good thing isn't it? You've found love beyond Gabrielle. Some people don't love more than once."
"We'll see. I don't know if I love Lila yet, but it sure feels like it's going in that direction. I hope I didn't blow it."
"What happened, anyways?"
"You don't wanna know. I tried to leave a romantic note on her bedside table. I tripped over something in the dark and I fell right on top of her, waking her up. Now she thinks I'm a jerk."
"So show her the note."
"I can't find it, so she doesn't believe me."
"Well, are you going to try talking to her again?" asked Iolaus, looking for every possible avenue.
Joxer just shrugged. "I wouldn't want to make it any worse than I already have."
Iolaus was getting frustrated now. "Well, do you want me to talk to her for you?"
Gabrielle rolled over onto her side. Facing the early morning sunlight, she opened her eyes, but quickly shut them again, as it seemed to pierce her brain. The bright rays were glinting peacefully off the new fallen snow. She yawned and smiled as she remembered the events of the night before, her eyes sparkling with merriment.
She stood up and stretched her aching muscles, ready to face the day. The blonde bard dressed herself in her usual green top and brown skirt, tying the laces of her boots tightly. With a few strokes of a brush through her honey coloured hair, Gabrielle was ready to make her way to the common room.
She could hardly believe the commotion when she entered the sitting area. The crackling fire, homey scent and solstice decorations were all offset by the blazing row that was taking place. Cyrene seemed to be doing her best to calm everyone down, especially Hower and Minya. She thought, briefly, how strange it was that such a pair would be considered good company to the Inn mother, then dashed such musings. Obviously, there wasn't a tall, bronzed hero of any variety to pique their hormones or their jealousy at the time, she rationalized.
Hercules had an irritated look on his face, but remained ever calm. Autolycus, of course, looked amused. Rebecca looked tired, but neither Joxer, Lila, Xena nor Iolaus were anywhere to be seen.
"Good morning sunshine," cooed the King of Thieves, as Gabrielle made her way towards him, gliding her fingertips along the wall as she walked.
"Why is everybody asking me," he groaned, tossing his hands up in mock despair. Beneath the din, he confided: "Hower and Minya were having some kind of disagreement and then she started making a stink about O Great Hero of the Known World over there. Why does Hercules get all the action? Legendary hero or not, The King of Thieves should be worth something, shouldn't it?"
Nodding as if she cared, she quickly smirked before quipping, "Well, when Minya's done with Hercules over there, I'll send her your way, okay?"
"Now Gabrielle, I didn't say " he said nervously. Gabrielle was sporting a no-nonsense expression, one that he'd seen to be the only one to hold any sway with the Warrior Princess herself. A mischievous glint flickered in her vibrant green eyes and he pleaded, "you wouldn't "
She smiled, and Autolycus let out the breath he'd been holding. "No, I wouldn't do that to Minya. But Cyrene looks like she needs some help."
"Yeah. Perfect timing," said the thief, vainly inspecting his fingernails. Turning back to Gabrielle, "Hey!"
The less-than-graceful clomping of soldier's boots alerted the room to the presence of the ex-warlord's somewhat sleepy descent.
"Good, I was just about to step in. Something tells me a sensitive chat isn't going to do the trick here," admitted the bard. She gave a good morning nod to Xena.
"Whoa, whoa WHOA!" boomed the woman in leather. "What in the name of Tartarus is going on here?"
Minya span around and rolled her eyes at the sight of Xena. "What is your problem?" she whined.
Xena looked questioningly at the angry woman before her. Taken a little aback, "My problem?"
"Isn't your little blonde tart enough for you?" A surprised gasp rippled through the audience.
"Oh Minya," sighed Gabrielle, hiding her face in her hands as all eyes turned towards her.
Minya didn't pause. "First Hower, then Hercules, why are you doing this?" Her voice seemed to calm down and became almost sorrowful.
"Look Minya I thought I told you this already. Hower is not someone I'm interested in. Nor Hercules, in that manner," she interjected her word with a knowing nod to the demigod, to which he responded in kind. "Now, just please calm down. For the sake of everyone here. For Hower's sake."
Gabrielle smiled at her friend. She was doing pretty well with this. Considering that I'm the one who usually does the sensitive chats
Minya began to pace back and forth, then eventually took a seat on one of the cushions before turning to the son of Zeus. "Okay. I'll calm down. But I'm still mad at you, Hercules." She paused, almost expecting some kind of heartfelt 'apology' from him.
"Okay," he replied confusedly, still unclear at what it was he had done to warrant such wrath.
" and Hower," she continued irritably, "this doesn't mean we're back together."
"Right," came the small voice from the short, balding man as he chewed his bottom lip and played the carpet with his boot.
Lila appeared at this time looking somewhat sullen, but brightened when she saw the familiar face of her sister.
"Well, let's get this tree decorated, shall we?" piped Cyrene.
Everyone heartily agreed. It was a much needed distraction from the boiling tempers of a certain pair in the room, a pair that Cyrene was beginning to regret inviting at all. Still, things seemed to have calmed down for the moment and they were enjoying a relatively pain free time after such a horrific morning. Soon the room would fill with the smells of the enormous roasting bird, and later the ham and racks of lamb. Nobody was planning to eat a bite before dinner.
Iolaus and Joxer came in through the hall and joined in the festivities. Joxer tried to make eye contact with Lila, but she refused it. She kept at her work busily, picking the carefully wrapped, blown glass ornaments from their cushioned boxes and finding the perfect place on the tree for them. The warrior wannabe chewed his bottom lip and looked at Lila with a creased brow. Her back was too him as she fumbled with a small wooden ornament, nearly dropping it. Joxer admired the way her soft brown hair curled subtly as it coursed down the nape of her neck.
She could feel the heat of his eyes on her back. Why can't he just leave me alone? This is hard enough already! She sighed and stood on her tip-toes, hanging the wooden soldier from the bending branch. She felt his hand on her shoulder, and her first instinct was to welcome it, but the image of him lying on top of her in the middle of the night flashed before her and she shrugged away, disgusted with herself.
"Morning, Joxer," said Gabrielle.
He turned around and greeted the bard, who was standing next to Iolaus. Iolaus cast his eyes elsewhere, almost looking guilty standing next to her, knowing how Joxer felt. "Hi, Gabby."
She smiled. "Are you going to help out with the tree? We're just about done and you won't get an ornament hung if you don't get in soon." She picked out a small figurine of what the lesser educated mortals believed that cupid looked like, and offered it to the warrior wannabe.
"Oh.. oh. Yeah." He accepted the decoration. He found a spot that looked like it could use some colour, and hung it.
"That's it!" announced Cyrene, clapping her hands together for emphasis. "Only one left." She took a glittering star from the old crate and handed it to Xena. "Next to Hercules, you're the tallest and well, you're my daughter so you get to put it on the tree."
Hercules chuckled, and everyone watched as Xena reached up to the very top of the tree and fitted the star to its apex, then broke into a vigorous applause. The tree itself was a sight to behold; draped from top to bottom in dried berry garlands, dried flowers from the summer, some wooden and glass ornaments. It was placed between two oil lamps in the wall that lit it beautifully.
Hower and Minya even did their best to get along during the festivities. Their words were curt and their smiles forced, but it was the general opinion of the crowd that it was better to be curt than full out yelling.
The always quiet Rebecca made her way back to the kitchen with Cyrene in tow, to continue preparing for the meal of the evening. Lila decided that she would also help. She found that distraction was the best way to keep her mind off the hurt of Joxer's intrusion.
Joxer plopped himself onto the couch lackadaisically and propped his elbow up on its arm. He rested his chin in his palm and breathed out listlessly as he watched Gabrielle's sister follow Cyrene and Rebecca into the kitchen.
"Why so glum, chum?"
The voice startled him. Had he been wearing his pointy hat, it surely would have clattered to the floor with the jolt. "Oh, nothing. Women," he said. Gallant warriors showed no emotion and as such, he played down his situation. It would not do to be less of a man in front of the King of Thieves.
"Thought so. Trouble. All of them."
"You're just saying that cause you haven't got one," Joxer gloated, returning a bit to his former self. He nodded sagely.
"You're right. Not one a lot."
"That's not what you told me," said Gabrielle, nudging into the conversation with a cheeky grin.
"Well, you just wait. I'll have one by the end of the night, I guarantee you." The King of Thieves bowed in a gentlemanly fashion and went off to find Rebecca.
The warrior wannabe sighed through his fingers and looked up towards the kitchen again. The sounds of utensils clinking against dishes didn't hide the sound of voices inside, one of them, the most muted, was Lila's.
"Maybe I ought to talk to my sister." Gabrielle looked sadly at the face of her friend. He can't have done anything too bad, could he? She thought it best not to bring it up at the time. She would corner Lila when she had a moment just to find out what it was that was so terrible that he did, and try to put it right. Joxer would never intentionally hurt a fly.
Joxer shrugged. "Wouldn't help. I wouldn't bother if I were you."
"Can I steal this one for just a moment?" The moustached man poked his head through the doorway into the kitchen and gestured at Rebecca.
"Why don't you ask me that question," she said dryly, but put down her spoon. "Keep it quick. There's a lot to be done "
By the time I'm done with you, my sweet, you'll wish you didn't have to go back into that kitchen, he mused as he flashed her his charming smile. "I'll have you back in no time."
They took the quick stroll to an area where Autolycus was sure they wouldn't be interrupted. "I've brought something for you. Never until now has a beauty stricken me enough to give this away. But it is a trinket next to your most enchanting beauty," he said, his voice smooth like honey.
"Oh," she said, a little taken aback.
Autolycus pulled the sapphire necklace from his pocket and held it before the woman. Her eyes widened in surprise. "You see, I knew you'd love it." And now me!
"This is mine, you arse!" she cried angrily, snatching the trinket from the grasp of the dark haired man, leaving his jaw slack with surprise.
"Ahh of course it is, I'm giving it to you."
"No, you idiot, I mean it's mine. It was stolen just the other day. Where did you get it?"
"I, ah bought it. Yes, that's it I bought it in a tavern at the next town."
"What? You're the King of Thieves, aren't you. Well, some King! Very smooth work, Autolycus. Steal it from my jewellery box, then give it to me as a present. More like the village idiot of thieves."
"No no I stole it from oh Zeus on Olympus. I got it from the next town, I told you!" Of all the unlikely things to happen. Hermes, you're not getting one dinar of an offering from me for the next decade!
"Well, thanks for it back. I hope that you give back the rest of my belongings, and Cyrene's too. Or I'll have to tell her who took them. It's your choice." She stormed out of the room and left Autolycus with his jaw hanging.
How come the only time I get caught is when I didn't do it? 'Because you're the King of Thieves,' he answered himself aloud, groaning.
"I heard that!" came Rebecca's voice as it faded down the hallway with her footfalls.
"Gabrielle, would you mind grabbing some cordial and wine from the cellar downstairs? I've got my hands full over here," asked the weary looking inn-mother.
"Sure," said Gabrielle. "I wonder how you managed to do all this on your own last year!"
"I'll come with you. You can always use an extra pair of arms, especially with this group of lushes." Iolaus grinned at her with a twinkle in his eye. He hadn't had any alone time with the bard since the night before and he was aching for it.
They made their way down to the cellar, taking their time slowly along the creaking hallway. They found the steps leading down, and took them blindly in the dark.
"I suppose we should have brought a candle with us," said Gabrielle as she allowed Iolaus to take the lead.
"These hunter's eyes have a keen sense of the dark," he said rather proudly, before taking Gabrielle's hand.
She smiled, unbeknownst to the blonde warrior. "Well, hopefully you can read the old labels on the bottles. Cyrene's got many talents, but handwriting isn't one of them."
They were lucky enough to find an oil lamp burning dimly in an alcove in the wall. Iolaus turned it up and they headed inside the cellar. There were bottles and bottles of different kinds of drinks. Red wine, roman poscas, ale fermenting in wooden barrels
Out of nowhere, while inspecting the wines, Iolaus said: "I didn't know that you and Joxer had a past." His voice was curious, and also registered the shock and mild hurt he felt for not being told.
Gabrielle cocked her head at the hunter, leaning against the shelving. "What?"
Iolaus shrugged, looking a little embarrassed. "It's nothing really, I just didn't know."
"Well," said the bard, tucking her golden mane behind her ears, "we don't really. It was just a calamity involving cupid's arrow. I nearly married him, but neither of us were in our right mind. Why, what did Joxer say?"
"Ah. Nothing. He just mentioned that there had been something. I think I misunderstood what he meant." Iolaus cringed internally for the poor wannabe.
Gabrielle thought for a moment, then said, "Do you know anything about what happened between Joxer and Lila?"
Some time had passed.
For Joxer, the minutes went by like hours and the hours went by like days. Every time he tried to look at Lila, she turned away. He eventually stood up and looked for some way to help out. Nobody was interested in his cooking. He offered to go chop some more firewood but Hercules suggested that it might be a better idea if he did that. The table was already set, the sitting room was cleaned, everyone seemed to have some excuse for him not to get involved so he sat down on the couch and waited, yet he still felt guilty about doing nothing.
Gabrielle came in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on an old towel. "I never want to see another dirty dish again," she chuckled.
"Yeah, dishes are the worst." Joxer looked at the ground.
The honey-haired woman took a seat next to the bumbler. "I haven't had a chance to talk to her alone yet. I'll do it."
"You really don't have to."
"Maybe not, but Joxer I suppose Xena and I don't always show it very well, but we care about you. I care about you."
A quick shrug was Joxer's only response.
She bit her bottom lip briefly before continuing, "My sister is a lucky girl to have someone like you be interested in her. You're kind, you're a gentleman in your own way you may be a bit awkward sometimes but we all are. Lila especially. I think she sees how lucky she is but she's a bit misguided. Iolaus told me what happened."
"Oh, great," he said, sighing upwards from his bottom lip and flipping his always out of control bangs. How embarrassing. Does the whole world have to know?
"No no it's okay Joxer. I know you're telling the truth. I think I can get Lila to see that too."
Joxer half-smiled at the irony of the situation. Gabrielle was the woman his heart burst with love for. But at the moment, worry and determination were the most prominent emotions he was experiencing. No use chasing after what you can never have, he rationalized. But it made him so happy to hear Gabrielle tell him that she actually cared about him. Both her and Xena. They thought he was more than just a nuisance. He smiled briefly, resolute in his decision not to let Lila get away from him for something he didn't do. "Thanks, Gabrielle. I guess I just think that if anyone does this, it should be me."
"Alright, if that's what you want, I'll stay out of it. But don't leave here without her believing the truth, okay?"
He smiled again. "Okay, I guess."
"Good." The bard stood up from her seat next to the warrior wannabe, coached him up, and gave him a warm, friendly hug. "I'd wait until after dinner. Things are a little hectic in the kitchen, they're all just finishing up."
"Oh. Okay. I don't know if I can wait that long, but I'll give it a try."
The silver bell jingled and Hercules and Iolaus came through the door, both carrying armfuls of chopped wood for the fire. "I figured Cyrene should have enough to last a while," said Hercules with little strain, while placing the wood in their proper basket by the fireplace. "Ahh, that's it." He brushed his hands off on his leathers as Iolaus crouched down to build the logs into something that would burn with the most efficiency.
It was mid-afternoon now, and the sky was already beginning to darken. The snow was coming down in torrents, the soft flakes forming small piles in the corners of the windowpanes.
The first signs of dinner made their way to the long table. The fragrance of home cooking was enough to begin the mouths of even the sickliest of men watering. Soon enough, the entire meal was spread before them, the dishes for just the dinner course taking up the entire table.
Everyone sat down, except for Cyrene who was still bustling about looking for the wine that Gabrielle and Iolaus had earlier brought up and put in the cold cupboard for chilling. She finally returned with several glass bottles and began filling the ornamental goblets that she only brought out for special occasions.
The conversation was, for the most part, light and airy. There were tensions between Hower and Minya, of course, who kept their words civil but carried an undertone that was cold and unfeeling. Joxer and Lila were placed, not coincidentally, across from each other, which made it very difficult for Lila to avoid eye contact with the would-be hero, though she tried valiantly. Xena and Hercules sat opposite each other as well, and next to them were Iolaus and Gabrielle. Autolycus, much to his disdain, faced an empty chair. Cyrene and Rebecca headed opposite ends of the table.
"This is great, mom," said Xena, tucking heartily into the solstice goose, avoiding her vegetables like the plague as she was wont to do.
Cyrene thanked her daughter for the praises given, as well as everyone else who jumped on the congratulatory bandwagon. "Xena, you should eat your vegetables," she added, scooping out several spoonfuls of buttered herbed carrots onto her daughter's plate.
"Oh, yeah. Thanks mom," she replied, doing her best to hide her annoyance. "That's enough. Thanks."
"She's right Xena," added Hower, gulping as he caught Minya's suddenly evil eye. "Ah, they say vegetables keep you from going blind. And they keep you fertile, too. At least, that's what Beas the doctor in Laurel says."
"He's not a real doctor, Hower," retorted the tall woman tersely, concerned that Hower would even mention Xena's fertility. "He just says that and gets away with it because sucks like you believe him. Ever notice that Beas mans the vegetable stand in Laurel too?"
"Well, he got rid of your wart pretty good."
"You jerk!" she cried, embarrassed. She picked up a dinner roll and lobbed it in Hower's general direction. It whizzed past his ear, smacking Lila in the temple.
"Hey!" cried the Poteidaian, trying to pull the butter out of her hair.
"What do you think you're doing, Minya!" Hower grunted as he scooped up a handful of mashed potatoes from his plate and threw it at his girlfriend, hitting her smack in the eye.
Here we go again, thought Xena, looking at the big boned woman next to her who sported a most unfashionable new eyepatch. Minya scraped the potato from her face, and picked up a large piece of broccoli.
Gabrielle looked at Iolaus and he sighed, shrugging in a 'what can ya do' manner. Her brows furrowed. She stood up and breathed deeply before slapping her hand down onto the table for attention: "You know what, just stop!"
All eyes turned to the blonde bard and Minya was stopped in the middle of her wind-up.
"It's Winter Solstice." She paused, before continuing, as the crowd began to murmur. "The solstice festival is a time for love and celebration, not anger and fighting. Take a look around you!" she admonished in disbelief as those at the table followed her advice, and made eye contact with all around them, even Joxer and Lila. "These are the people you love, all of them.
"Hower, how long have you and Minya been together?"
"I dunno, five or six summers?"
"You can't even remember, you oaf? Why should I be surprised, you've missed every anniv-"
"Shut up, Minya." Gabrielle threw an almost feral glare in her direction, and began again: "Think about what it was that brought you two together. Just think about it. How did you meet?"
"Who cares. Things aren't the same. I want romance along with the mad animal " she stopped herself. "Just because I don't look delicate, doesn't mean I don't want those things things like romance "
"I can be romantic!" Hower said, puffing out his chest.
"You haven't since two years ago, Hower! And then Hercules " She sighed dreamily as she looked at the demigod.
Hercules, silent up until his recognition, raised a confused eyebrow. "What?"
"That poem you wrote."
"I didn't write any poem," he said flatly, looking at Minya.
"Oh come on, Herkie, you know, Your eyes they shine like stars so bright, To light my soul in dead of night "
"Your skin so soft and heart so light, Hair like chocolate mousse done right " concluded Joxer, gulping loudly.
All eyes turned to the warrior wannabe, including Lila's. She moistened her lips nervously as her gaze locked on Joxer's. Her soft brown eyes held the weight of guilt.
"You wrote me a love poem?" grunted Minya before laughing loudly.
"I didn't write it for you," he answered, turning again towards Minya. Irritation showed in his voice. "I wrote it for "
"Then why was it outside my door in the middle of the night?" she demanded, leaning back in her chair, raising an eyebrow questioningly.
"I must have dropped it."
"Well." Minya couldn't think of another thing to say, so she again said, "Well!"
"I'm sorry I didn't believe you, Joxer," said Lila awkwardly.
"We'll talk about it later, okay?" She nodded shyly, but reached her foot out to touch his under the table. She giggled and bit her lip, spreading a wide grin over Joxer's face.
Gabrielle smiled. One down, one to go. "Now, Hower and Minya?"
"What." Minya looked up at Gabrielle sulkily, before shooting a glare at Hercules.
"You still haven't told us the story of how you met."
"Well," coughed Minya, "I was milking the goats back home in Laurel, and one of the damn things started thrashing around, and it managed to kick me in the hand. Broke two fingers!" she stated somewhat proudly, lifting a little out of her funk as she held up a pair of fingers that curved in a slightly unnatural way.
"And I took her to Beas."
"Yes, he was so kind. He would have carried me if he could."
"I remember, pumpkin."
"Oh Minya "
"Oh Hower "
They looked at each other with moons in their eyes as they leaned across the table and rubbed noses. "I'm so sorry. So so sorry my sweet thing. I'll never look at another woman again."
"Hower, there's nobody else for me. Oh poopie. I'm so sorry."
Rebecca gave Autolycus an eye from across the spans of the long table, as if to say, Don't you have anything to say? He looked back at her helplessly and shrugged. She breathed out loudly. Don't make me do this.
At that moment, a figure came up to the window and began to bang loudly on it. His breath came hot against the glass.
"He's trapped out there in the cold!" said Cyrene of the figure, nodding to Gabrielle. "Let him in. It's Solstice after all."
Gabrielle obliged, and motioned through the window to the door. She made her way there and opened it up, and the man stumbled inside, covered in snow. "Thank you, thank you. It's so cold outside "
and then he noticed the familiar face of the moustached man staring at him. "You! Thief!"
"You!" replied Autolycus, standing up and making his way over to the man. The intruder's menacing glare seemed to evaporate as the strangers stood up, one by one, in support of the thief with the moustache. "Gabrielle, don't let him get away!"
Gabrielle moved in position against the door. "What's going on? What did he do?"
"Let's not have another fight in my tavern!" cried Cyrene, collapsing forward onto the table, clutching at her hair.
The man who had come in from the cold shrank back from Autolycus as he had nowhere to run. Autolycus had no intention of harming the man, he simply picked him up, turned him upside down and shook vigorously.
Scores of jewels and coins fell from the unfortunate man's pockets, among which were some of the belongings missing from the tavern itself.
"Cyrene!" cried Rebecca, rushing over to her end of the table and shaking her shoulder. "Look!"
"Let me go, let me go!" cried the man, writhing around beneath Autolycus' grip. From his upside down position, the man caught a rather unsteady sight of the indominant blonde man with the large purple swelling around his nose. "What happened to your face?"
Iolaus ignored him.
When Autolycus was convinced that the jingling had stopped he turned him right side up but held his wrists tight. "I don't think so. And you're a terrible thief, I might add."
"Am I? Then where's your wallet?"
"Nice try. I'm not letting go of you to check for my wallet, either."
"No matter. I'm not a thief by trade."
"Well, whatever you are, you're going away for a while. It's one thing to steal from the hopelessly rich, but a middle class inn mother? Don't you have any style?" Autolycus rolled his eyes in disgust at the pitiable man.
At this point, Rebecca and Cyrene had made their way to the pile on the floor, and were picking through it to find what belonged to them.
"My mother's bracelet!" cried Rebecca, overjoyed.
"This necklace it was from Atrius. He gave it to me while we were courting," said Cyrene, holding up a golden chain with a leaf shaped pendant. Her eyes sparkled briefly, recalling the pleasant time in their marriage, before he changed.
Rebecca approached Autolycus looking a little sheepish. "I'm sorry I didn't believe you," she mumbled. Autolycus closed his eyes and puckered up his lips in waiting, but was most disappointed to feel Rebecca's lips press briefly against his cheek. She pulled away, much to Autolycus' disenchantment, and turned to address the thief. "Where did the rest of this stuff come from?" Her hazel eyes pierced his determinedly.
"I told you, I didn't steal it. I'm not really a thief. I'm a fence!"
"Well, it's going to have to go back somewhere. Why don't we sell the jewels and use the profits to help some of the hungry children in Athens something to eat?" said the Warrior Princess, leaning over to eye the 'fence' critically.
His fears heightened by Xena's stare, he wriggled his way free from the King of Thieves, scooped up a handful of jewels, and dashed quickly for the exit. Xena grabbed a dried berry garland from the nearby Solstice tree, lashed out in his direction, and managed to snare his ankles, bringing him to the ground. "Who's for dessert?" She flashed a grin.
And so, the fence was bound and gagged. Nobody trusted him, so he was placed in the seat opposite to Autolycus'. He was beginning to lament for the time when that seat was empty, because the fence's muffled, gagging conversation was not especially gripping.
The winterberry crumble, apple pie, and surprisingly enough the pumpkin pie were all a big hit. The rest of the evening went off without a hitch, turning out to be, much to everyone's delight, one of the loveliest Winter Solstice celebrations yet.
The Morning After (Epilogue)
Gabrielle pulled the laces of her boots tight with a heavy sigh. It was a shame that they had to leave Cyrene's so soon, though Cyrene insisted that they were welcome to stay at the tavern as long as they wished. With the promise to return soon, Xena had declined the offer, saying that she had given her word to help out a friend, and therefore both the warrior and the bard had to begin journeying south, stopping quickly in Poteidaia on the way.
Her deerskin coat buttoned, she pulled on her gloves and wrapped her scarf before heading down the stairs. Xena was already on the first floor preparing herself for the trip. The fence was with her, still trying unsuccessfully to escape his restraints. She greeted Gabrielle with a good morning before securing her shoulder bag.
Iolaus and Hercules made their way down the stairs, yawning widely. Gabrielle immediately brightened at the sight of the golden hunter, and he smiled at her in return.
"You're all ready to go then," he said.
The amazon's face fell at his words. "Yeah, I guess so." She knew at the beginning that this time would come, but it didn't make it any easier.
"Why don't we wait for everyone outside," said the blonde man. The bard agreed, and they opened the door and stepped out into the snow, shutting the door behind them.
"I guess this is goodbye. Again." Gabrielle looked at Iolaus sadly, trailing her gloved fingers affectionately along his forearm until she reached his hands, taking them both in hers.
"Guess so," came the reply. "I hate how we always end up saying that."
"Me too. But maybe I'll see you soon," Gabrielle said with a subdued voice, both of them knowing that it could be several seasons before they saw each other again.
"I hope so. I really enjoy being with you, Gabrielle." Iolaus drew his bard into an affectionate embrace, stroking her smooth hair softly as he spoke.
She pulled back to look at him. His eyes mirrored the sadness that she felt at the idea of such a separation. She studied the lines of his face, drinking in every aspect of him. This could be the last she saw of him for a very long time, and she wanted to remember it with crystal clarity. Finally, after a silent moment, Gabrielle's words crept out, with an almost haunting quietness. "You're wonderful, Iolaus," she said. "No one's ever made me feel as special as you have, not even Xena. You should know that. You're very important to me, and hopefully one day we can explore this more fully."
Iolaus simply smiled at the sweet blonde woman, unable to find the right words. He kissed her forehead with a tender gentleness that seemed to melt Gabrielle in his arms. Iolaus again pulled her tight to him, feeling the urge to refuse ever letting her go again. They remained like that for a few moments in silence, simply appreciating the other's presence, before Iolaus gently nudged her chin upwards and pressed his lips lovingly against hers, sending a warm wave of bittersweet happiness and desire through Gabrielle. Their kiss was different from the nights before. Its only agenda was to keep The hunter and the bard connected when they knew they'd be apart for a good long while. It was soft, but more than that, it was sorrowful and longing. It finally ended, and when it did, they rested their foreheads against each other, sighing lowly.
"I'm going to miss you," Gabrielle murmured.
"So am I." He smiled at her and squeezed her tight.
The door opened, and Xena, and Lila both stepped out, Xena pulling the uncooperative fence behind her. "Are you guys ready to go, asked the Warrior Princess regretfully, knowing how hard it was for the bard to leave Iolaus.
"As ready as I'll ever be." Gabrielle chuckled lightly.
"Gab, have you seen Joxer?" asked Lila hopefully, looking worried.
"No, didn't you see him last night?"
"I didn't get a chance to. I was up late helping Cyrene and Rebecca with the dishes, and by the time we were finished, he'd gone to bed, I guess. I couldn't find him."
A large crashing could be heard when Joxer came barreling down the stairs at full speed, looking for the petite brunette. "Hey," he cried anxiously, his eyes sweeping across the empty common room, "did they leave yet?"
"They're just waiting outside. Lila was looking for you."
"Thanks, Herc, buddy. I'm looking for her too."
Lila, hearing the racket and knowing that it was most likely that Joxer was the cause of it, opened the door just as Joxer was about to grip the handle. A resounding thok could be heard, accompanied shortly by an "Owwww, be careful, willya?" as the bumbler squinted tightly and rubbed his rapidly swelling forehead. He opened his eyes to see the wide eyed, pretty young girl staring unblinkingly at him, clutching her mouth in shock.
"Oh Joxer!" she squealed, "I'm sorry!"
"Hi," he replied, somewhat in a daze, "glad you haven't left yet."
"Yeah, me too!"
"You know, I think I'll excuse myself outside." Hercules nodded towards the two of them and slipped out the door, closing it with a jingle behind him.
"Sorry I didn't get to talk to you last night," said Joxer sullenly, "I meant to, honest. I just got so tired, and the next thing I knew, it was morning."
"It's okay, Joxer." Lila shrugged. "We're talking now, aren't we?"
"Yeah. I'm really sorry about all this."
"Joxer, if anyone deserves an apology, it's you. Cause I was so stubborn and didn't believe you."
"But I shouldn't have been sneaking in your room."
"I like that you wrote me a poem."
"You do?" Joxer's goofy smile spread radiantly across his cheeks.
"Yeah." Lila looked him in the eye, smiling affectionately. It felt like butterflies were flapping around in her stomach as she lifted her hand to touch his blushing cheek. "I wish we didn't have to go our separate ways."
"Me too," said Joxer nervously, drawing closer to the girl and placing his hands loosely around her hips. "I like you a lot, Lila."
"Thanks Joxer, I like you too." She spoke bashfully, leaning closer into him and standing on her tip toes. She hesitated for a moment, until Joxer, overcome with a moment of courage, pressed his lips against Lila's, and her eyes widened in surprise before she closed them and allowed him to pull her against him. It was more awkward than anything, but the spark when they connected was undeniable.
The kiss was short and chaste. He pulled away quickly, not wanting to move too fast. Guilt was still heavy with him about the night before last. She sensed what was bothering him, and it made her feel guilty. In an effort to show that she understood and all the negative events of the last few days were forgotten, she leaned forward and kissed him again, this time more assertively. Joxer didn't expect such boldness from Lila, and it more than pleased him. He opened up a little, allowing his nerves to settle.
His lips were warm and soft against hers, moving subtly and unassumingly. Lila had nothing to compare Joxer's kisses to, but the way she felt about him swelled a hundredfold with them. His mouth was surprisingly sweet as she moved a little more brashly, holding him so tight that not even Hercules could have pulled them apart.
Xena was looking at the sun impatiently. It was a day's journey to Poteidaia on foot, and she wanted to get moving. Joxer and Lila finally came out, red cheeked and smiling. Hower and Minya had decided to take Cyrene up on her offer to stay a few more days, and Autolycus opted for a sleep in before setting out on his journey. With the arrival of Lila, Xena and Gabrielle were ready to make their journey to the Amphipolis magistrate and then on to Poteidaia to drop off Lila and pick up Argo, once Cyrene came outside for her goodbyes.
"Good to see you again, Joxer," said Xena, gripping him by the forearm like she did her most respected comrades.
"Well, thanks Xena, but I'm coming with you guys."
"You are?" she replied, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah. Just until Poteidaia. I'm staying there with Lila." Joxer shrugged uncomfortably at the grins he was getting from Iolaus and Gabrielle.
Xena's mother finally stepped out, drying her hands on a towel. She kissed her daughter on the cheek, and gave both Gabrielle and Lila hugs. Joxer bowed to her, before Cyrene dashed the formalities and gave him a hug too, as well as Iolaus and Hercules. The short woman grinned at her daughter from over the demigod's shoulder as she received her hug.
The two groups of people went their separate ways after their goodbyes. The sun was a little warmer that morning, and the snow was thankfully already beginning to melt.
"That was fun, wasn't it Xena," said Gabrielle, lost in thought as usual. Only this time the Warrior Princess knew what or who- it was that the bard was thinking about.
and the more everyone thought about it, they couldn't help but come to the conclusion that despite all the things that went wrong, they were looking forward to the Winter Solstice next year.
Disclaimer: No solstice celebrations were harmed in the making of this fiction, despite the fights between Hower and Minya, and the intrusion of the fence, who nobody even thought much about, except for Autolycus, when his wallet turned up missing during a visit to a kebab shop.