IN THE GODS FAVOR
I make no claim to Xena, Gabrielle, or Joxer. These lovely ladies belong solely to the creators of Xena.
This story has got a teeny weeny bit of subtext, and also hints to a relationship between the two wonderful stars of XWP, and also depicts a relationship between two women.
Xena drew her sword, and laid it over her crossed leg, bringing the sharpening rock over the blade methodically. The grating sound broke the long-preserved silence that had developed in Gabrielle's absence. Xena hadn't minded the silence; it gave her a chance to sort through her thoughts, catch up with the moment, and quit dwelling on the past.
The last few days had been trying for her and her young bard. After the death of her husband, Gabrielle had experienced pure hatred for the first time, but had somehow managed to overcome it. Xena knew it was the young girl's heart which had overthrown the hatred despite the murder of her beloved Perticus; something Xena could never boast. Her past hatred had poisoned her for so many years, and still left a remarkable dent in not only her own life, but the lives of others. She liked to believe she was past the years of hatred; past the years of blind rage taken out on the thousands of innocent lives, but was she really? Could she really say, with definition and solid honesty, that her hatred was far behind her, and would never rise from deep within her gut again? She could not. But the bard could.
Gabrielle was the most precious embodiment of Xena's quest for redemption. She wanted to achieve what came so naturally for the bard, but Xena felt she might be far beyond ever reaching that point. It was strange because Gabrielle had always thought herself Xena's pupil, but in reality Xena learned much more from the young bard then Gabrielle could ever hope to learn from the mysterious warrior princess.
Xena smiled vaguely with thoughts of the young bard. She seemed impeccable in every facet of her being, but Xena knew deep down inside that her bard was flawed just like every other human being. However, some people had greater flaws than others, and Xena's past was a gaping gash that screamed flaws throughout the empty halls of her soul.
She was suddenly startled with the sound of soft footsteps. Her head jerked up, and her piercing eyes searched through the darkness, past the dancing light of the campfire, and into the dark bushes before her. Gabrielle emerged, smiling apologetically as she saw she had disturbed the warrior princess.
"Back so soon?" Xena asked. The sound of her voice against the silence seemed strange to her.
"It didn't take that long," Gabrielle assured her. "Got a new blanket, see?" She held up a thick blanket with one hand, smiling weakly.
"I'm glad," Xena said with a faint smile. She turned her attention back to her sword laying across her knees. "I thought you were getting new scrolls."
"No. I decided not to," Gabrielle replied. She sat down beside Xena. Her eyes fixed on her seriously. "I visited Perticus' grave on the way back." Her voice was heavy.
Xena made no reply.
"The flowers are still there," Gabrielle told her. "But they're wilting. Dying slowly."
Xena ran the rock along the edge of the blade slowly. "We can find some more fresh flowers in the morning," Xena suggested.
"Xena," Gabrielle said meaningfully. "We need to talk."
"Talk?" Xena repeated dully. Her eyes never lifted from the blade as she said the single word, and then mouthed it vaguely.
"Xena," Gabrielle addressed her. She lay her hand over Xena's coarse hand still clutching the sharpening rock. "Please."
Xena nodded, and sheathed her sword. She lay the sharpening rock aside, and cast her eyes up to Gabrielle's. She met the serious blue eyes with equal intensity. "What do you want to talk about?"
"Xena," Gabrielle said. "I can't do this anymore." The words came out strangely. When Xena heard them she felt them to be foreign, not making any sense at all, jumbling up in her head with confusion.
"Do what?" she asked, her voice weak and quiet. The words were so simple, but Xena felt they lead to impending doom.
"I can't travel with you anymore," Gabrielle said. "I can't go to these places, see people I love die." Gabrielle's eyes began to glaze a little with tears. "I can't see you die."
"But I'm not going to," Xena said. "I'm right here." Xena put her hand consolingly on Gabrielle's shoulder. Gabrielle smiled and patted the hand softly.
"I know, Xena," Gabrielle said. "But someday you won't be so lucky. Someday, you'll be somewhere and you will make a wrong choice, a wrong move, a wrong step. And I can't be there to see you do it." She wiped tears from her eyes, and returned to Xena's longing gaze. "Xena, I watched the man I loved die. I can't see my best friend do the same." Gabrielle turned her eyes to the campfire. "There's too much death, Xena. I can't stand to see the people I love most die."
Xena mouthed soundless words. Her hand fell from Gabrielle's shoulder to her side. It was the moment Xena had feared from the second Perticus had fell dead to the ground. It was the moment Gabrielle would sever their relationship forever. A lonely tear rolled down Xena's cheek. Gabrielle stood, her golden body outlined against the campfire.
"I'm sorry, Xena," Gabrielle said. "But I think it would be best if I leave." She lingered for a moment before disappearing the way she had came. Xena watched her leave breathlessly, holding onto the last visions of her figure passing into the dark bushes, and melting into darkness.
Xena was alone.
"Isn't Xena going to get worried?" Joxer asked as he followed Gabrielle throughout the marketplace. "I mean, isn't she expecting you back sometime?"
"Joxer," Gabrielle said. "I told Xena I'd be back when I finished getting some scrolls and things. She knows I'll be back. Stop worrying."
"All right," Joxer said. "I just don't want Xena to be angry with us."
Gabrielle smiled. He had every reason to be cautious. An angry Xena always made for a very unhappy event. "Ah!" Gabrielle said. "There's a scroll merchant."
She fumbled through her small wallet, and took a quick inventory of how many dinars she had left. Judging the amount all right, she approached the scroll merchant boldly. "How much are you selling these for?" she asked.
The scroll merchant looked her over. "Six dinars a piece," he answered.
"Six dinars?" Gabrielle repeated. She turned to Joxer. "Six dinars isn't what they were selling scrolls for at the other place, was it?"
"What other place?" Joxer asked stupidly.
Gabrielle gave Joxer a long, hard, meaningful look.
"Oh! That other place," Joxer said. "Oh no. They were selling their scrolls for seven---"
"Joxer!" Gabrielle hissed underneath her breath. "I want him to lower the price, you moron!"
"Oh," Joxer said, reddening a little. He turned to the scroll merchant. "Did I say seven? 'Cause what I really meant was three. . ." He laughed nervously. Gabrielle shoved him roughly out of the way.
"Look," Gabrielle said. "I'm not paying six dinars for a fresh scroll. The most I'll pay is four."
"Five," the scroll merchant challenged.
"That is way over-priced!" Gabrielle asserted herself. "Four, take it or leave it."
"I stop at five," the merchant replied.
"Oh, now just wait a minute----"
"What seems to be the problem?" A familiar voice cut in. Gabrielle turned to its owner, and smiled broadly.
"Xena!" she said. "What are you doing here? I thought you were going to wait at the camp."
"I got bored," Xena replied dryly. "What's going on here?"
"Nothing I can't handle," Gabrielle assured her.
"Uh-huh," Xena said, unbelieving. She turned from them to the marketplace. "You almost done here?"
"Oh yeah," Gabrielle said. "I'm practically finished." She turned to the scroll merchant. "Four dinars, right?"
"Five," the scroll merchant countered.
Gabrielle glared at the man, and jerked her head in Xena's direction. "She's my best friend," she said quietly.
He nodded. "That's great," he said. "It's still going to be five dinars."
"Xena," Gabrielle said sweetly. "I guess I could use your help a little after all." Xena turned, and looked at her questioningly. "A little persuasion wouldn't hurt. . ." Gabrielle trailed her voice off meaningfully.
"Oh, right," Xena said. She turned to the scroll merchant. "Either sell that scroll to my friend here for a fair price, or I'll shove that scroll up your---"
"Thank you, Xena," Gabrielle interrupted. She turned to the persuaded scroll merchant. "How much will that be now?"
"Four dinars," the scroll merchant said quickly.
"That's more like it!" Gabrielle exclaimed. They made the quick exchange of goods for money, and then Gabrielle turned back to Xena. "Thanks for the help."
"No problem," Xena said, smiling.
"Why didn't you ask me?" Joxer demanded. "I was right here. I could've helped."
"I'm sure you could have," Gabrielle said, disbelieving. She patted him on the shoulder. "Maybe next time."
Xena jerked her head in the opposite direction of the marketplace. She urged Gabrielle to follow her, and with her came Joxer. Xena spun around, and looked Joxer in the eye. "I need to be alone with Gabrielle for a moment," she said, her eyes growing more threatening with each word. "Surely you don't mind respecting our privacy?"
Joxer looked from Gabrielle to Xena. He smiled a little to himself. "No," he said. "I'll be right over here if you need me."
"Oh, we'll come and get you," Xena said sarcastically. She shook her head, and turned back to the bard.
"What is it you have to talk to me about?" Gabrielle questioned.
"Come over here and I'll tell you," Xena said. They moved from the marketplace into an alley. Xena led Gabrielle deeper into the shadows until they couldn't be seen from the marketplace. Xena glanced quickly around as if checking for witnesses. No one was around. She focused her gaze on Gabrielle.
"What is it, Xena?" Gabrielle asked curiously.
"I've got something to tell you," Xena said.
Gabrielle readied herself, but she could never have been fully prepared for what happened next. Xena's fist somehow met Gabrielle's face with amazing swiftness and accuracy. Gabrielle's eyes rolled to the back of her head as she sunk into Xena's arms. The alley suddenly became much darker, growing increasingly darker with each passing moment. Gabrielle felt heavy, and her eyes closed under the weight.
"You're not Xena," she said groggily.
And then her world was black.
"Amazing, sister," Ares mused more to himself than his sister watching his back. "You have succeeded in doing what I only dreamed of."
He turned to Athena, his eyes illuminated with new hopes of conquest, but not of land or kingdoms; of a mortal named Xena. His skin trembled at the thought of her name and the vision behind it. He could almost feel her icy blue eyes penetrating him even though she was no where to be found. He smiled adoringly at his sister.
"Your plan was brilliant. You couldn't have played a more convincing Gabrielle, or a better Xena." He shuddered in pleasure slightly at the mention of her name. "Now Xena's emotions are torn. She'll have to give into me." His dark eyes fixed intensely on his sister. "Why? Why bother to do this? What do you gain?"
"Gain?" Athena echoed amusedly. "Everything."
"Everything?" Ares repeated. "You succeeded in handing me an emotionally damaged warrior princess who I can restore back to her proper state, and a clobbered sidekick who. . ." His voice trailed off. "What are you doing with her anyway?"
Athena sighed. "Gabrielle," she said softly. She met the eyes of her powerful brother. "The same passion you feel for Xena. . .that same fire. . .I feel it for Gabrielle."
"That irritating blonde?" Ares cringed in disgust. "Sister, you've really lowered your standards. What's so great about the brat?"
"What isn't?" Athena asked, her eyes wild with thoughts of Gabrielle. "Am I not the Goddess of Wisdom and Skills? Never has such a divine mortal held such wisdom, such purity, such beauty, such talent! I have watched her for many days on end, and not one of those days has she disappointed me! And her stories! If you have ever heard her tell a story, the inflection in her tone, the way she builds up to the climax, descending down to the ending, the spark in her eyes as she spins a web of ambrosial glory with words, beautiful words, poetry to my ears, Ares, you would know. You would know why I cherish her so. Ares, she is my Xena." Athena had moved close enough to Ares to grab a hold of his arms, and plead reason with her eyes. She smiled. "Gabrielle is to me, what Xena is to you. She is my Xena."
"Where are you keeping her?" he asked.
"Under my temple," Athena told him.
"What makes you think she's going to stay there?" Ares asked. "Or that she wants to."
Athena shrugged. "After Gabrielle has seen the love I have for her," Athena said, "she will understand."
"So why bring Xena into this?" Ares asked, adding, "Not that I'm complaining. I love what you've done to her."
Athena smiled vaguely. "I needed to get Xena out of the way," she explained. "Xena has a tendency to. . .ruin things if she can. This way she'll never know."
Ares watched his sister in disbelief for a moment. Finally, he shrugged. "Whatever turns you on," he said simply, and disappeared.
Athena let her hands fall from where her brother's arms previously
occupied, and to her side. Her brother did not understand; would not understand, but that didn't matter. She turned from where he had stood, and vanished herself. After all, she needed to return to her Gabrielle.
Gabrielle smelled the faint scent of incense drifting into her wanting nostrils. Her eyes fluttered open, and she became quickly aware of a throbbing pain in her head. She winced, and pressed her hands to her temples. "Ow," she said aloud. "What happened?"
She was vaguely aware that she was laying on a bed of plush pillows in a dimly lit room filled with baubles; offerings was what it looked like, to a god or goddess of some sort. Directly in front of her a long banquet table extended across the room layered with delicacies and food fit for a feast. At the sight of the food, her stomach growled a little in protest of hunger. She somehow managed to stumble to her feet, and walk over to the table. She examined the extreme variety of choices, her eyes settling on a particularly becoming plate of chocolate-dipped fruit. Her mouth watered a little at the sight of it, and she felt her hand moving for some. Quickly, her hand withdrew. What if they were poisoned? She didn't really know where she was after all or who brought her here. The last thing she remembered was. . .Xena punching her out?
"Are you hurting?" a thick, female voice behind her asked.
Gabrielle spun around. The woman was beautiful; as enticing as the bowl of chocolate-covered fruit was. She was clothed in a thin, blood-red gown that trailed along at her feet, and fit snugly over the rest of her body. Her hair fell in long, tumbling, red curls over her shoulders, and her eyes were a strange, chameleon green, changing as the light hit them from different angles. Gabrielle was taken aback by the woman, and she moved slowly away from her, her hands gripping firmly on the table edge.
"No. I'm fine," Gabrielle said. She cringed again as a wave of pain passed through her temples.
"No," the woman said. "You're hurting, I can see. Let me help you."
She moved closer to Gabrielle. Gabrielle watched her warily, anticipating the extraordinary woman's every movement as she advanced closer. Fear and wonder flooded into her all at the same time, and her eyes grew wide with curiosity as the woman reached for her.
"I won't hurt you," the woman assured her. "I am only trying to heal you. Don't be afraid."
She placed her hands on Gabrielle's temples, and closed her eyes. Gabrielle watched her hands with fascination as they methodically began to massage her temples, and the woman conjured up some strange healing power that quivered through her fingertips into Gabrielle's head. Gabrielle felt relief of the pain immediately. Her head felt lighter; no longer troubled by the condensed pain she had felt pulsing in her temples before. She smiled thankfully at the woman.
"Thank you," she said softly. "That was amazing."
"It is a small fee," the woman said. "A small fee for what I had to do to bring you here."
"You. . .?" Gabrielle began. "You were the one that posed as Xena,
and knocked me out. . .?" Her voice trailed off.
The woman nodded. "I am Athena," she said. "Goddess of Wisdom, Skills, Warfare, Medicine, and the Arts."
"Athena," Gabrielle repeated, bewildered. She frowned as she thought of Athena posing as Xena to bring her here for some unknown reason. "Why am I here?"
Athena mused quietly to herself. "Why are you here?" she repeated. "Why do you think you are here?"
"I don't know," Gabrielle said honestly. "All I remember is you posing as Xena and knocking me out. . ."
"Don't concentrate on that," Athena instructed. "Ask yourself why I would want you here. Why do you think?"
Gabrielle's brows furrowed in confusion. "I don't know," she said. "Do you want me to do something for you? A favor or something?"
"Oh, Gabrielle," Athena said, touching Gabrielle's arm softly. "You have already done more than enough for me."
"Then what?" Gabrielle asked.
"First," Athena said. "Eat. Replenish yourself. You deserve it. There is plenty of time for talking afterwards, but now, eat." She spread her arms wide, taking in the banquet table, offering Gabrielle whatever she desired. She smiled contentedly as her young bard eagerly began to select food from the banquet table, hungrily sampling everything.
Xena rode in silence, fixing her fathomless blue eyes coldly ahead on the trail, her expression an emotionless, unchanging, lifeless semblance that mirrored the emptiness she felt inside. Argo trotted slowly along the path, somehow sensing her master's unhappiness, therefore smothering the immediate demand of thirst. Xena felt the horse's thirst, and veered off the path. She swung off of the horse, cooing soft, loving words into the horse's ear as she led her off the path, and down to a nearby stream trickling alongside the road. She implored the horse to drink, stroking its mane gently, and stooping over to disturb the water with her fingers.
"Come on," Xena said. "It's water. Drink, girl."
Argo objected at first, but then obliged happily, reaching her long neck down to the water, and lapping it up greedily with her tongue. Xena watched the horse drinking so voraciously, and wondered vaguely if she had been pushing her too hard. True, they had been traveling since daybreak, but Xena's mind had not traveled too far from the camp last night where she and Gabrielle had parted. Thoughts of her bard were weighing heavily in her mind, but she tried to cloud them with traveling. Xena was an indefatigable traveler; Argo was not.
Xena was so distracted, she almost failed to feel that familiar, creeping presence she knew so well. She looked around, anxiously anticipating Ares to show. Soon enough, he appeared before her, arms folded, and eyebrows raised.
"Where's the brat?" he asked simply.
"She left," Xena replied softly.
"Left? Or left you?" he asked pryingly.
"She left me," Xena clarified, turning from him to her horse. "And I suppose you've come to rub it in my face."
"No," Ares said. "I sympathize with you, Xena. Women can be so tough sometimes." He smiled a little. "But none are as tough as you. You should know that by now."
"I don't need to know to know anything from you," Xena said, her eyes clouding. "So leave."
Tears were forming in her eyes, and she refused to look at him. She didn't want to give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry. Much to her surprise, she felt him behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders. She was much too weak to object to him, so she allowed him to stay in this position.
"Xena," he said softly. His voice was almost comforting. "I understand what it's like to lose someone. To feel rejected and hurt." He leaned closer to her, so his lips almost pressed against her ear. "And that's how you feel, don't you? You love her, and you thought she loved you, too. And she does, but not enough to stay with you. Not enough to travel with you anymore."
A solitary tear streamed down her cheek. Her lower lip quivered.
"You wouldn't have left her," he went on. "Not even if all the gods were against you. You wouldn't have left her side. But she leaves you because she's afraid. She leaves you because she's afraid to die. To see people she loves die. She left you because she was afraid." His lips touched her ear gently. "Would you leave her out of fear? No. But she leaves you the minute things get tough. Would you? No. You would not. She doesn't deserve you, Xena."
"I don't deserve her!" Xena cried. The tears came easier now, trickling down her cheeks, forming small rivers that connected and parted like tributaries flowing from an even greater river. "I never deserved her. I still don't."
She pulled away from him. He moved up behind her, and wrapped his arms around her hips, urging her close once again. She permitted it, wiping the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand.
"You're wrong, Xena," Ares said softly. "She doesn't deserve you. She can't handle your lifestyle, Xena. She's not brave enough." His hand moved slowly through her black mane of hair. "What good has she ever done you? She has helped you change your dark side, and made you promises that in the end, she couldn't keep. She left a job unfinished, Xena. She doesn't care about helping you conquer your dark side. Her reason for traveling with you was purely selfish. She wanted to see the world. And she saw the world, Xena. And she didn't like it." He pressed close to her. "And now she's left. Left for good." He reached up and brushed the tears from her cheek, stroking her lovingly. "Don't waste your time mourning over the loss of a fair-weather friend. You could be so much more, Xena. So much more. You don't need her. Forget her. What good are you doing crying over her? Forget her."
His words shook her, but she realized they made sense. They fell into place perfectly; the golden answer to her mourning. She didn't need her. She didn't.
"I don't need her," Xena said softly. The voice she heard was not her own, but it felt right. She repeated the words in her head with more conviction, I don't need her.
"That's right," Ares cooed. "You don't need her. Come with me. Share my kingdom. Taste the sweet reward of war once again. Come. Share my lust. Share my passion." She made no response. He pressed his lips against her ear. "Do you remember that?"
She closed her eyes, and remembered.
Remembered the feeling of victory after a battle flowing through her like electricity; electrical currents of satisfaction and pleasure, lusting for more blood, more power, more conformation of her superiority; her ability to conquer other powerless mortals. She loved it. It's familiarity beckoned her; promising her the longevity of a lifetime, assuring her that she would die in battle where she belonged, sword in hand. She would die on the battlefield, die hand-in-hand with war, another victim of its murderous storm. But she would live with it, and die with it. The feeling would never leave her side; instead it would live in her. It would be in every breath of sweet air she took, in every artery and vein in her body, pumping to and from her heart. That feeling would never leave her.
Never leave her like Gabrielle.
"Do you remember?" Ares asked again. He felt her skin grow hotter, and he knew she was sharing his thoughts of conquest with equal intensity. She was melting slowly in his hands.
"I remember," she whispered. "Everything."
"Then come with me," Ares taunted. "Join me, Xena. It's your destiny."
"What about Gabrielle?" Xena asked, a temporary voice of reason flooding into her.
"You don't need her," Ares assured her. "Besides, my sister will take good care of her."
Xena stopped. Ares' stomach sank as he felt her muscles tense underneath his touch. He swore quietly to himself as Xena opened her eyes.
"Your sister?" she inquired. "What do you mean, your sister?"
"It's nothing, Xena," Ares said. He gripped her arms firmly. "It's nothing."
"If it's nothing why did you mention it?" Xena asked. "Tell me. What do you mean about your sister taking care of Gabrielle?"
Ares sighed. "My sister, Athena," Ares said. "She's taken a. . .liking to Gabrielle. She'll protect her. That's all."
"That's all?" Xena inquired. She spun around, and met Ares' eyes darkly.
"Yes," Ares said. "That's all."
"Why do I not believe you?" Xena asked with increasing anger. "Why do I feel like you know more than you're telling me?" Any thoughts of ever rejoining Ares had vanished from her eyes, and Ares knew it. "Why do I feel like this is all part of your clever scheme to get me back?"
"Xena," Ares said. "You're acting drastically. It's to be expected. Your best friend left you. You're jumping to paranoid conclusions just to escape the fact that your best friend left you. You're not yourself at all."
"But you are," Xena said, her eyes narrowing and focusing on
Ares. "You're acting more yourself than ever." Xena chuckled. "I should've known. When you come here, pleading for me to come back to you, it's always because you've got something up your sleeve. Something's going on. Something you're not telling me about."
Ares sighed. "There's nothing going on, Xena," he assured her. "Nothing I'm not telling you about." His eyes told her that every word he spoke was truth. She felt herself falling for his words. She was too weak to resist.
"All right," she said. "I believe you."
"Good," he said. He took her arm gently. "Come back to my temple with me. You can rest there, uninterrupted. I promise."
Xena nodded vaguely, allowing him to escort her away from Argo. They both vanished moments later, leaving Argo to sort out his master's absence by himself in quiet confusion.
Gabrielle popped a grape into her mouth; the last thing she could possibly fit into her swollen stomach. She had gorged herself on all of the unimaginably glorious splendors Athena had laid out for her, and now she could eat nothing more. She turned to Athena, licking the ends of her fingers, dutifully cleaning sauce off of them. She smiled apologetically.
"Sorry," she said. "I was really hungry."
"I figured you would be," Athena said. "You were unconscious for nearly six hours."
"Six hours?" Gabrielle wondered to herself. "Wow. I was really out cold."
"Yes," Athena said. "I'm sorry I had to do that to you. I just. . .I thought it was the only way I could get you to come with me."
"You could have asked," Gabrielle suggested, smiling. "And if you offered me this food, I surely would have come. I'm sure Xena wouldn't have minded coming either. . ."
Athena's eyes cast down to the bed of pillows she was laying on. "Yes. Xena," she repeated strangely. "She's a remarkable woman."
"More than remarkable!" Gabrielle exclaimed, licking her last finger. "She's the most amazing person I've ever met."
"Yes," Athena said. "She is amazing." She said the words dully, lacking feeling or conviction. And if Gabrielle had been paying closer attention to Athena's words, she would have detected the slightest tinge of jealousy. "But so are you, Gabrielle. You are the most amazing person I've ever met."
"Me?" Gabrielle asked weakly. She laughed nervously. "You can't mean me---"
"But I do," Athena said. "I've been watching you for many months, Gabrielle. I hear your stories, I see the good you do. I know the pureness of your heart. I see how amazing you truly are. . .something Xena takes for granted."
"Xena doesn't take me for granted," Gabrielle said. "She loves me very much---"
"Oh, I don't doubt that," Athena cut in. "She does love you. But she doesn't respect you, she doesn't listen to you." Athena focused her green eyes on Gabrielle. "How many times has Xena actually taken one of your plans? Or listened to one of your suggestions? Does Xena ever listen to your stories? Or listen to your views on various subjects? Does Xena ever listen to you?"
"Of course she does," Gabrielle said quickly. "Xena loves me very
"That's not the issue, Gabrielle," Athena said. "The issue is whether Xena really respects you, or sees how great you really are. She doesn't. She takes you for granted. I don't. I listen to you. I love everything about you, and I cherish it. I don't take you for granted in the least bit---"
"What are you getting at?" Gabrielle demanded. "Why am I here? What do you want with me?"
Athena felt sympathy for the exasperated young mortal. She patted the bed of pillows, motioning for Gabrielle to come over. Gabrielle sat down, but her eyes were constantly wary of all Athena's movements. Athena smiled lightly, and patted the young girl's hand.
"Tell me a story."
Xena woke up, slowly gathering her surroundings. She gradually began to remember her conversation with Ares and where she was. Her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, taking in Ares' temple quickly. Candles lit the room on one side, and the other side was shadowed in darkness. Xena peered through the darkness cautiously, studying the black for any sign of movement. She knew he was somewhere within the room; she could feel him.
"Did you enjoy your nap?" Ares asked idly. He erupted from the shadows, his leather-clad figure slowly beginning to take form against the darkness.
"I slept well," Xena remarked.
"I gave you that gift," Ares said. "A deep sleep. I thought I owed you at least that."
"Thank you," Xena said dryly.
"Your welcome," he replied. "I trust your feeling well?"
Xena smiled weakly. "As well as can be expected," she answered.
Ares stepped out of the shadows completely, his leather garments catching the light from the candles and illuminating him nicely. He approached her, his dark eyes focused on her, penetrating her.
"I think I have something to cheer you up," he said.
Xena watched the god advance slowly. "What's that?"
"An army," he answered swiftly. "An army of six hundred men, waiting to do your bidding." He looked down on her, lifting her chin with his hand. "Command them, Xena."
Xena smiled with the thought. "I'm not much in the mood for commanding an army," she said. "But it was a nice thought."
"You don't think a good battle would get you into better spirits?" Ares coaxed.
"I don't doubt that it would," Xena said. "But it's not good for me."
She met his gaze with an equally intense one. "I've been down this road, Ares. It only leads to destruction."
"Not your destruction," Ares corrected. "Destruction you cause."
"I don't want to cause destruction anymore, Ares," Xena said. "It will only hurt me. I've changed, Ares. I've changed for good."
Ares removed his hand from her chin. He watched her carefully. "That's the funny thing about change, Xena," he said. "It can change." He smiled, and turned around, spreading his arms wide. "Now, come on, Xena! One more battle! Just one more battle! Tell me you don't want to do it."
He turned around, and captured with his eyes again. She smiled.
"I don't want to do it," she said simply.
A moment of anger passed across his face, but left as soon as it had come. He remembered that only hours ago he had held her, and she had grew hot with thoughts of war. She still had the passion, and she could still be aroused.
"One battle, Xena," he coaxed. "One battle."
Xena shook her head slowly, and stood up. She gathered her armor lying beside the bed, and pulled it over her head once again. She fastened her armor in the front, but couldn't reach the fastenings in the back. She tried to contort herself so she could reach them, but it was all in vain. Her muscles were far too sore from intense traveling to be stretched. She remembered how Gabrielle used to help her with the fastenings on her armor when her arms were sore from a hard day's work. Her eyes clouded, and she began to cry softly. Ares noticed this, and smiled, coming up behind her, and taking the fastenings in his own, capable hands. He fastened them together slowly while she wept, and straightened her armor.
"Go ahead," he said. "Leave if you want." He ran a strong hand down the length of her arm. "But don't forget my offer. Come back if you reconsider."
Xena said nothing, instead she slid from Ares' hands towards the door of the temple. He watched her leave, shaking his head slowly. It would take time, but she would be his once again, he thought to himself.
Argo was not where she had left her.
Xena looked around, puzzled. She whistled, and peered through the thick trees, expecting to see the familiar form of her horse running for her. Instead she saw nothing. Nothing except the placid forest, undisturbed by human or animal. Xena shook her head sadly, and rejoined the path.
She started down the path, but stopped when she heard a noise. Horse's hooves. She sharpened her hearing, and listened more carefully. The gait was Argo's. Sure enough, the majestic horse appeared ahead, a clumsy rider on top of her. Xena knew the rider, too. She sighed. Joxer.
"Hey, Xena!" Joxer said, trying his utmost to stay righted on Argo. "I was just out for a walk when I happened to see Argo all by herself. I thought she ran away or something."
Xena shook her head. "No," she said. "Argo doesn't run away." Xena smiled as her favorite horse came up beside her, and nuzzled close to her. "I'm surprised she let you ride her."
"Yeah, well, she did," Joxer said. "Must be because she knows me."
"Must be," Xena agreed. She petted the horse's snout lovingly. "Thank you."
"No problem," Joxer said. He looked around, puzzled. "Where's Gabrielle?"
Xena's eyes grazed the ground. She said nothing.
"She's not around?" Joxer asked, concerned.
"No," Xena replied.
Joxer searched Xena's troubled expression for an answer. "Is she hurt?" he asked quickly.
"No," Xena said. "No. She's not hurt."
Joxer thought for a moment. "Then she went back to the village?" Joxer asked hopefully. "To get some more scrolls, right?"
"No," Xena said.
"Then what?" Joxer demanded. His eyes were starting to get wild with worry. Xena looked up at him, her eyes filled with hurt.
Suddenly, something didn't make sense.
"Scrolls?" Xena said. "Gabrielle didn't get scrolls back at the
village. . ."
"What?" Joxer wondered. "What are you talking about? Of course she did. I was right there. . .so were you."
"Right where?" Xena asked. "I was back at the camp, waiting for Gabrielle to return. I never went into the village."
Joxer frowned. "Then who was it with Gabrielle. . .?" Joxer wondered. "She looked just like you. . ." Joxer lit up with an idea. "Princess Diana?"
"No." Xena dismissed his thoughts quickly. "No. It's something else."
"Like what?" Joxer wondered. "Like another lookalike?" Joxer frowned with the thought. "Zeus, you'd think two would be enough!" He looked her over. "Not that I'm complaining or anything."
"Be quiet for a second!" Xena hissed. Joxer shut up immediately. Xena moved away from Joxer and Argo, her thoughts racing. "Someone was pretending to be me. . ." She looked back to Joxer quickly. "What did I do? What did I say?"
Joxer squinted, trying to remember the conversation. "Well," Joxer said. "First you said, 'What seems to be the problem?' and then you said something about shoving a scroll up that scroll merchant's---"
"Yeah," Xena interrupted. "What else? What important things did I say?"
"Well, before you told me to leave, you said you needed to talk to Gabrielle," Joxer went on. "That it was important, and you guys needed privacy. I thought you guys were sneaking out back for---"
Xena glared at him. He gulped, and went on.
"Anyway," he said. "You said you really needed to talk to Gabrielle. . .
"When was this? Before dark or after dark?" Xena demanded.
"Gabrielle and I were in the village long after dark," Joxer explained. "I told her you'd be worried, but she didn't listen."
"You two were in the village after dark?" Xena asked hopefully.
"I thought I said that already. . ." Joxer said. "Xena? Are you okay?"
If Gabrielle was in the village after dark, then who was with me? Xena thought. If Gabrielle had left the village after dark, she would have arrived at the camp far longer than she had. . .
"I'm fine," Xena said, her spirits lifted. "I'm really fine." She turned back to Joxer. "When did I arrive at the village?"
Joxer shook his head, straining to think back. "After dark," Joxer said. "Long after dark."
Someone had pretended to be Gabrielle, than after that, pretended to be herself. Someone wanted them separated. . .someone. . .but who?
"Athena," Xena whispered. "What Ares said about Athena and
Gabrielle. . .that's got to be it!"
"Huh? Athena and Gabrielle?" Joxer asked confusedly.
"Thanks, Joxer," Xena said quickly, jerking him off of Argo, and mounting the horse herself. "You've been a lot of help. I can't explain it, but you've been a lot of help."
"Your welcome?" Joxer said, his brows still furrowed in confusion.
Xena urged Argo forward. Argo lurched ahead, gaining momentum and speed as she ran swiftly down the path. Joxer shook his head, turning to the path ahead.
"That was weird," he said.
Xena arrived at Athena's temple in a gallop. She slowed Argo down as she saw the temple take form against the trees in the heavy woods, and stopped her right before the temple. She swung herself off of the horse, and led Argo to a tree, tying her braces to one of the many branches that extended from the trunk of the tree. She turned quickly to the temple, a new hope dawned inside of her, a new inspiration.
She entered the temple, swinging the doors wide open, and stepping boldly inside.
"Athena!" she called. "Are you here?"
". . .and that's how Xena and defeated Bacchus and his bacchae," Gabrielle finished. She yawned a little, hoping Athena wouldn't catch it, but she did.
"You're tired, Gabrielle?" Athena asked. "You can go to sleep if you like."
Gabrielle smiled warmly. "Yes. I think I'd like that."
"Anything you want is yours, Gabrielle," Athena said. She watched Gabrielle suppress another yawn, and smiled. "You're so beautiful." She lifted one of her hands, and stroked Gabrielle's cheek gently. Gabrielle watched her do this, a slightly worried look increasing in her eyes. Athena caught this, and smiled warmly. "That was a wonderful story. I can't wait to hear more of your stories." She smiled. "But we have plenty of time for that now that you're living with me."
Gabrielle sighed and nodded.
"Are you unhappy?" Athena asked. "Is there something you desire, my bard?"
Gabrielle met Athena's green eyes with seriousness. "I don't want to live here with you," she said honestly.
"Why?" Athena demanded. "I, Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom chose you to live with me. Is that not an honor of your skills?"
Gabrielle smiled. "It's surely an honor," she said. "But I belong with Xena. My life is with Xena."
"I'm getting dreadfully tired of hearing about Xena," Athena said, sighing. "I do wish you'd speak of someone else."
"I love Xena," Gabrielle said truthfully.
Athena looked up. "I know you. . .love her," Athena said vaguely. "But I was hoping that you could forget that, and take me instead. Xena doesn't love you like I do---"
"But I don't love you," Gabrielle said. "Don't get me wrong. You're really nice, and you're a goddess, but I love Xena. She's my best friend. I love her."
Athena's lips tightened. She stood from the bed of pillows, and walked to the table angrily. Eventually, she managed to spit:
"You'll forget about her with time."
Gabrielle shook her head helplessly. "No, I won't---"
"You will!" Athena shouted, her voice surprisingly different from her previous, soft, encouraging tone. Gabrielle jumped with the sound of her bellow, and sat still. Athena could not meet her eyes, and instead turned to the tabletop. "After a while of living with me you will forget her. You will learn to love me as I love you." She looked blankly into the grain of the tabletop. "A goddess and her bard."
"---and one unhappy warrior princess," another voice cut in.
Athena looked up, surprised to find an intruder in the basement of her temple. Her heart sank as she saw it was indeed, Xena, the warrior princess.
"You don't quit, do you?" Athena asked softly. "Nothing stops you." She reached down, her lips tightening in bitterness, and grabbed a hold of her bow underneath the table. She drew the bow, fitting an arrow neatly into it, and aimed it at the warrior princess. "Except this maybe."
The arrow whizzed swiftly through the air, faster than any other arrow Xena had ever seen. It was surely too fast to catch. Xena tucked and rolled underneath it. She came to her feet several paces away, challenging Athena with her eyes.
"You can't win," Xena said. "You can kill me now, and make your bard unhappy forever, or you can hand her over to me, and see happiness pass over her face once again." She waited before speaking again, letting Athena think on her words. "You think you love her. If you love her you will let her do what she wants. What's in her heart."
"I love her more than you ever will!" Athena countered angrily.
"Do you?" Xena asked. "If you loved her so much why would you keep her in captivity with you if she doesn't wish it?" Xena words rang true, and even Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom could not counter them. Xena straightened. "Two nights ago, Gabrielle, or someone like her, told me she wanted to leave me. I wanted to her to stay, I wanted to make her stay, but I didn't." She focused her azure eyes on Athena's green ones. "Do you know why? Because I love her, and I expect her to do what makes her happy, and if that meant leaving me, then I was ready to accept that." Xena's even gaze grew suddenly edgier. "And today I found out that it was not Gabrielle at all. It was someone selfishly trying to tear Gabrielle from a life she was already happy with. Someone who couldn't bear to share her, and now can't bear to let her go."
Athena's glare dampened. She stared blankly into Xena's harsh blue eyes, searching for some compassion, but there was none. She turned to Gabrielle. "I only did this because I loved you," she assured her.
"I know," Gabrielle said softly. "But Xena's right---"
"Yes. Xena," Athena said grimly. "Xena is right." She turned unhappily away from Gabrielle. "You may go now if you wish."
Gabrielle stood, and moved from the bed. She walked past Athena, laying a sympathetic hand on her shoulder, and smiling weakly. "I'm sorry," she said.
Athena shook her head. "No. I am."
Gabrielle let her hand slide from Athena's shoulder. She joined Xena at her side, smiling briefly at the warrior princess. Xena smiled back, cherishing the sight of her beloved bard once again. Gabrielle touched her arm, and motioned for them to leave. Xena nodded, and the bard and warrior left the temple.
"I can't believe you," Gabrielle said as they walked side by side down the path. There had been silence since they left the temple. Neither of them had known what to say. Xena was too stricken with happiness to speak, and Gabrielle was just plain confused.
Xena turned to Gabrielle in surprise. "Why? What did I do?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "You actually thought that I would leave you," she said.
"Well, you---Athena---sounded very convincing," Xena said in her defense.
"Xena," Gabrielle said, turning to her companion. "I would never leave you. Not if it meant my own death." She placed a hand on Xena's shoulder, forcing her to look into her eyes and see that she truly meant what she said. "I love you, Xena. And I will never leave you. Never."
Xena nodded. "I know," Xena said. "But I really thought that that was it. . .I thought that you had left me forever. . ." She smiled weakly. "I'm glad you didn't." She patted the bard's hand lightly. "Those days, when you were gone. . .they were some of the hardest days of my
life. . .I was so unhappy. . .I missed you so much. . ." Her tears didn't even give warning this time, instead they came pouring down, her sobs choking in her throat. Gabrielle pulled Xena close to her; Xena rarely ever cried. The sound of Xena crying was so foreign to Gabrielle, it was like seeing a totally different side of Xena, a side that she only showed occasionally to selective people. Gabrielle was the only one right now. Gabrielle was the only one.
"I love you, Xena," she whispered.
"I love you, too, Gabrielle," Xena said in return.
Gabrielle rested her chin on top of Xena's head. "I will never leave you."
Gabrielle finished her tale, and sat back proudly. Xena smiled and laughed.
"Are you going to write this one down?" she asked. "I think it's a good one."
"What? Athena falling for a bard like me? It's a classic tale," Gabrielle said. "Of course I'm going to write it down."
Xena chuckled. She grew silent for a moment. "You don't really believe all that stuff about me not listening to you, do you?" she asked.
"No," Gabrielle said. "Of course not."
"Good," Xena said. Her eyes lifted and met Gabrielle's. "Because I love to hear you tell your stories. I may not always show it, but I do."
Gabrielle smiled. "That's nice to know," she said.
"Yeah," Xena said. "Well, it's true."
They shared a tacit, knowing smile for a long moment, then Gabrielle turned to the fire. She clapped her hands together.
"So what shall we do tomorrow?" Gabrielle asked. "Have another goddess fall for me? How about Artemis?"
Xena chuckled. "I have a feeling I'm going to be hearing about this for a while," she said. "Bet you feel pretty special being loved by a goddess."
"Especially Athena," Gabrielle said triumphantly. "Can you imagine that? The Goddess of Wisdom so stricken with me---"
"Well, I can see why," Xena said coyly. "But I found you first."
Gabrielle laughed. "I'd choose you over a goddess any day, Xena," Gabrielle said, smiling.
"What are you talking about? I am a goddess," Xena said. They both joined in a chorus of laughter. Gabrielle loved these rare moments went Xena let loose, and let her true personality show through.
"You talk about me bragging about being the object of Athena's desire," Gabrielle said, "you're going to be musing over the fact I chose you over a goddess for weeks!"
Xena laughed. It was great to be close to the bard again, to be with her, to be loved by her. The firelight touched Gabrielle's well-defined body in an amazingly good light, and Xena felt for a moment pure happiness. And by the way Gabrielle stared back so intensely, Xena sensed she was feeling exactly the same thing.
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