Memories, Dreams, and Schemes
by Azurenon & Savanna Mac
Please see part one for all disclaimers.
Gabrielle was lying in Xena's arms; her head on the warrior's shoulder; index finger tracing patterns on her lover's midsection and straying, every once in awhile, to encircle a light brown nipple and watch it rise at her touch.
"What... are you doing?" Xena finally inquired, her voice low and husky still.
"I like the way your body reacts to my touch. It makes me feel... I don't know... powerful maybe?"
"You are powerful," the warrior admitted. "You bring me to my knees. Not as often as I'd like perhaps, but..."
"I promise, Xena, I'll start making more time for us." The bard looked up at her lover.
"Slip off in the woods with me at night, when he' s around?"
"Yes," Gabrielle agreed. "I see now that we do need our time alone. And Joxer... well, if he finds out then... so be it. I don't mean I'm going to throw it in his face, mind you, but... I know we need this time. I haven't felt this close to you in... quite awhile."
"It's been nearly a moon," Xena added.
"You've been keeping track?"
"My body has. It's been reminding me everyday for the past... ten suns or more."
Gabrielle merely grunted and laid her head back down.
"Yours doesn't? I mean... you don't get... urges?" Xena inquired.
"Oh yes, I do," the bard agreed. "I just... try not to think about it... too much."
Xena groaned. "I can't help but think about it. Watching you brush your hair... making a fire... cooking our meals... taking a bath... and when you fight... UMPH!"
Gabrielle raised up again. "You mean you get turned on by watching me fight?"
"Big time," Xena assured. "You're beautiful when you're angry."
"XE-NA!" Gabrielle pinched her belly.
The warrior grunted and shrugged. "Well, you are. Not that you're not beautiful all the time. It's just... that passion in your eyes... umph, it just... gets my juices going."
Gabrielle laid her head back down and giggled.
"What? What's so funny?"
"Remember the last time you said that?"
"No-o," Xena responded, as if she thought this absurd. How could she remember the last time she'd mentioned her juices.
"The day you killed Gareth? That morning you ruined our best frying pan?"
"How could I forget?" the warrior mumbled.
"Remember you said you liked to be creative in a fight, because it got your juices going? And I said, 'Can we cook with your juices?'"
The warrior smiled. "Yeah, I remember. I also remember the bath we had that day. Whoa! Being that close to you. And all that hot water Menya kept pouring in that tub. Boy, what... sweet torture that was."
"Torture?" Gabrielle looked up again.
"Oh yeah, definitely torture, love. You don't know how much I wanted to... be alone with you that day. You washing my back... umph, it was all I could do to keep my hands off you, much less my eyes."
"But Xena..." The bard raised up this time. "You washed my neck and ears and... you were kinda rough. And I don't remember feeling that you were..."
"Why do you think I was rough, hmm? I was trying to stay focused, when inside... all I wanted was to take you in my arms and... to my bed." She reached up and stroked the bard's cheek with her fingers, her eyes focused on Gabrielle's lips.
"Ah, but, didn't I... oh yes, that's the night I hit you with my staff and... kissed you on the cheek afterwards. And you... you just turned away," the bard accused.
"Well, you'd just creamed my nose, Gabrielle," the warrior reminded.
"You let me."
"No, I didn't. You really nailed me fair and square. I've still got a little knot there." She reached up and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Wanna kiss it and make it better?"
"You do not have a knot, but... I will kiss it." The bard eased over and placed a soft kiss on her lover's nose.
Xena grabbed the back of her head and promptly planted a searing kiss upon her lips. "That's what I wanted to do that night," she said, after breaking away.
"Anymore nights you wanna reminisce about and... show me what you wanted to do?" Gabrielle queried, hovering over her lover.
"Plenty," Xena responded, rolling the bard over on her back. "Now where should I begin? The day we first met?"
"Xena, you can't be serious," Gabrielle said in disbelief. "You couldn't have..."
"Remember when I pulled you up on Argo and you put your arms around my waist?"
"Xena, you didn't feel anything that far back.... did you?"
"Why do you think I didn't want you following me, hmm? And... I didn't take you back home, now did I?"
Gabrielle's mouth formed a small "o".
"You're a very attractive woman, Gabrielle. I noticed you the first moment I laid eyes on you. Your beautiful long blonde hair." Xena fingered the silky tresses, curling one around her finger. "That fire in your eyes. The spirit and courage you had to possess in order to stand up to Draco's goons. 'Take me', you said, 'And leave the others alone'. I wanted to get to know you then." She paused for a moment. "Something clicked inside me, that day, Gabrielle. There was no way I could stand there and let you be harmed. I'd put down my sword only moments before, intent on never fighting again. I was going back to my home village and... turn myself in for my crimes, I suppose. Let them do what they wanted with me. I wanted death to set me free, Gabrielle. But, when I saw you... how brave and noble and courageous you were... I... I don't know... I felt there was something left in this world worth fighting for. People like you."
Tears were streaming down Gabrielle's cheeks now. Never had Xena revealed so much of her feelings about their shared past. She' d had no idea that the proud, strong warrior had even taken notice of her. She'd always felt that she'd forced herself on Xena; tagging along behind her everywhere she went. Now, even though Xena had said something similar to this before, she felt she knew the truth and it warmed her heart through and through. "Cum'mere," she said softly, pulling her lover's face towards her; her own lips trembling and eager to taste the sweet mouth from whence these words had fallen.
Ares sent the scrying bowl flying across the room with merely a wave of his hand. The bowl shattered into a million tiny pieces. The images of Xena and Gabrielle evaporating into thin air. Xena had revealed too much. She'd been in love with the bard a long time; longer than he assumed, which only made him that much angrier. He had been making a fool of himself, like Artemis said. Plotting to get her back. And for what? So she could turn to another woman?
Gabrielle was not the first Xena had bedded, it was true. Yet, he'd always believed that his warrior princess was like himself: an opportunistic sexual predator; taking her satisfaction where she could get it. At least, that's how she'd been until the irritating blonde came along. After that, she'd slip off into the woods and take care of her own needs, alone. Ares had assumed this had something to do with the atonement kick she was on, since she wasn't sharing her bed with anyone. And he had wanted to be the one to fulfill those needs. He fantasized that he was the one she was thinking of when she was out there alone. But, now he knew, that all along, she'd been thinking about that little bitch!
He slammed his fist down on the table. "Let's just see if you fall in love with her again," he grumbled. "Without any help from Dad or Hercules." He snatched his studded vest down, trying to regain his composure.
He knew the possibility existed that Xena could find the little bitch attractive enough. And he couldn't blame her, really. But would she fall in love with her? That was the question. And he wasn't sure of the answer. The question he did feel more confident of the answer to was: Would Gabrielle fall in love with the old Xena? Could she possibly love the Destroyer of Nations? He didn't think so. The irritating blonde was afraid of Xena's dark side. Very afraid.
"She can't possibly love who you used to be, Xena," he said aloud. "It's the person you are now... that's who she loves. And only because you keep that dark side under control. So just wait'll she gets a loada what you've been keeping secret from her!" He let loose an evil laugh. "I think it's time to pay dear ol' Dad a long overdue visit." He chuckled once again.
"Hmm?" the warrior responded from behind the bard,;her long body fitted spoon shaped against the smaller one in front of her. Her right hand was busy lightly stroking the underside of one firm round breast; her lips and tongue savoring the taste of her lover's neck.
"We... we never did talk about Ulysses."
"Umph," Xena grunted. "And let's not go there now, hmm?"
"Why not? He's not part of your past, which we agreed not to discuss, he's... a part of our shared past. I mean... I was there, remember?"
"Um-hm, I remember," the warrior answered unenthusiastically.
"You know how I felt about Perdicus and... how I don't feel about Joxer and.. I think I have a right to know..."
"Okay, alright." Xena sighed heavily and rolled over on her back. "Cum'mere... then you can ask your questions."
Gabrielle quickly turned over and snuggled her body close to the tall warrior. Xena's arm went around her shoulder; her hand reaching up and brushing a stray strand of blonde hair away from the bard' s face.
"I love you, Gabrielle."
"Uh-huh. I love you, too. And don't change the subject," the bard admonished, well aware of the distraction techniques of her lover, who had subsequently shifted her gaze to the ceiling and now sighed heavily. "Did... Did you really love him?"
Xena blew air through her lips, sounding like Argo after a hard run. "Not like I love you, no."
"But... you could have?"
"I never gave it much thought."
"Were you going to stay with him before... before you found out his wife was still alive?"
The warrior sighed heavily again, without so much noise this time. "Honestly, Gabrielle... I really don't know." Xena's gaze returned to her lover's. "If you're asking if I would have stayed with him, without you? Then no, I wouldn't."
"You mean you would have wanted me to stay, too?"
"Absolutely. If I had stayed, that is."
"Xena, you're not just saying that because..."
"No, Gabrielle, I'm not. Don't you remember what I said to you before we landed in Ithaca?"
"The part about... showing you how to love?" The bard glanced away from the blue eyes focused on her.
"Yes, exactly. At the time, I didn't realize what I was saying... or at least, not what it meant. Like you... I'd been running away from and hiding my feelings for so long that... I didn't realize just what I did feel deep inside. Hearing myself say the word 'love' though, it... it kinda all hit me at once."
"What hit you?"
"That I loved you. And much more than just as a friend. Remember what I told Ulysses in that tunnel about... him not being my type?"
"Yeah, but you just said that so..."
"No, Gabrielle, that felt like the truth. I coulda made up something else." She paused a moment. "No, I wouldn't have stayed without you, Gabrielle. I knew that even then. So... I can't really say whether I ever truly loved Ulysses or not. I knew I loved you, but... you were... or seemed to be... out of reach."
The bard smiled. "I was never out of reach, Xena. I was only waiting for you to reach out to me. Why did you wait so long, anyway?"
"I didn't know how you felt. You liked... and often seemed to love, many people, Gabrielle. It's just the kind of person you are. So... how could I know, for sure?"
"But, I didn't bathe, kiss and... sleep with just anyone."
"You hid your feelings well, Gabrielle. You know that."
"Maybe you just weren't looking close enough."
Xena arched one dark eyebrow. "Oh, believe me, I was looking alright." Her gaze fell to the bard's breasts.
Gabrielle popped her arm. "I mean at my feelings."
"And maybe you weren't looking too closely at mine, either, hmm?" The eyebrow arched again.
"Hmph," the bard grunted. "You may have a point there." Her index finger made tiny circles on Xena's chest. The warrior held her breath, hoping this had ended their conversation for awhile, because she had other things on her mind. "Where'd you get this scar?" was the next question the bard asked, referring to the small white area above Xena's right breast.
"Long time ago," the warrior murmured.
"What's it from an arrow or what?"
"It was before you came along."
"I know that. Or it better be, since I don't know anything about it." Xena smiled, at this. "I'm not asking who, I'm only asking what made it?"
Xena sighed heavily. "Is it that important to you?"
"Yes, I want to know everything about my... mate. Even down to every little bitty scar." Gabrielle circled the scar again with her finger. Sea-green eyes meeting blue.
"I'm not so sure you want to hear about this one," the warrior said, as she looked away.
"How bad can it be? It's only a small scar." Xena cut her eyes in Gabrielle's direction. "Oh, you're not talking about the scar, are you? It's the story behind it?" The warrior nodded. "It's... pretty painful, huh?" Xena shrugged. "If you want to tell me, Xena, there's nothing about you that I don't want to hear. If it's too painful, though, I'll understand." Gabrielle laid her head down on the warrior's shoulder, waiting for Xena's decision.
"It was after Cortez attacked our village," the warrior began, then cleared her throat. Gabrielle remained where she was, thinking it maybe easier for Xena not to have to look her in the eye. "Lyceus had been killed." She paused again and took a deep breath. "The army we had assembled... some of the men didn't like the idea of following a woman into battle. Well... I was taking a bath one day, in a nearby creek. I told no one where I was going, but... two men showed up... armed, just as I was coming out of the water."
Gabrielle snuggled closer, not liking the sound of this.
"My weapons were too far away," Xena continued, "I couldn't get to them in time. One of the men had this... rather thin, sharp bladed sword and... when I wouldn't cooperate with him, he... held it to my chest. The other man came up behind me and... grabbed me. The sword tip... pierced my chest."
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle said, her fingers tentatively circling the scar again. Her lips aching to kiss it and wipe away all the pain. "What happened then? You... got away and killed them, right?"
Xena grunted. "Later on, I took care of them."
"Later on? You mean, they took over your army?" Gabrielle raised up now. She'd seldom heard of Xena losing a battle, though she'd expected there had to have been some.
"Only for a short while." Xena cleared her throat. "It took me a few days to... recover."
"Recover? What did they do, beat you up badly or...?" The bard paused, as watery blue eyes stared into her disbelieving blue-green ones. "No, Xena, they... they didn't...?"
The proud warrior turned away; her jaw muscles working as she ground her teeth, desperately fighting back the tears.
"Xena, no... tell me you weren't still a..." The warrior bit her upper lip. "Oh Xe-na, how aw-wful!" The bard inched upward, burying her face against the side of her lover's neck. "I'm so sor-ry, Xena. I didn't know... I didn't mean to..."
"It's.. o-kay, love," the warrior soothed, both arms around the bard now, pressing her close. "You... needed to know, I think."
Gabrielle was nearly beside herself with sadness, mixed with anger and above all deep concern for her lover. She could not imagine what this must have been like for Xena. "Never again," she vowed, her voice soft as a caress against the warrior's ear. "You re my warrior princess now. And I'll protect you with my very life! I promise, Xena."
"Cum'mere," the warrior commanded, moving her head slightly to look over at Gabrielle. The latter raised up slowly. The warrior brushed the long blonde tresses away from her face. "Just... love me, Gabrielle. That's all I ask."
"Oh Xena!" The warrior's lips covered hers. Gabrielle could feel the dampness of her lover's tears against her own cheek. I wish I could give you back what they took from you, she thought. "I will love you, Xena," she said aloud. "Forever and always!"
"Hear that?" Ares said to his father.
Zeus, king of gods, turned away. He wasn't thrilled with the warrior princess and the bard's relationship. Mortal women needed men. If more turned to each other, what would his world become? There'd be utter chaos, that's what!
"This wouldn't have happened if... someone hadn' t interfered," Ares stated.
"What do you mean, someone interfered?" Zeus turned on his son. "Who caused this?"
"You mean you don't know?" Ares acted shocked.
"No, who? Whose been going behind my back?"
"Well..." Ares scratched his beard. "I kinda assumed you did this."
"Me? Cause that? Have you lost what's left of your immortal brain?" The king of the gods stormed.
"Well, someone had to turn Xena's head a good while ago, for all this to come about."
"Turned her from you, you mean?" Zeus stared at his son with the same dark eyes Ares made such menacing use of with his mortal subjects.
"Well, yes, she was my... chosen warrior, as you well know. And then one day she was fighting Hercules, the next... well, you saw that one, as well, I'm sure."
"Still jealous of your half-brother." Zeus shook his head, his long white wavy hair moving only slightly with the motion. "Still such a child, Ares."
"Jealous? Me? Come on, Dad. I'm not talking about jealousy, I'm talking about someone interfering in Xena's destiny. I thought maybe you had a hand in it." Zeus glared at him. "Well, I mean... I know how much Hercules means to you and... women to equal him are... in short supply. So, what better gift for a half-god than... the most magnificent warrioress that ever walked the earth?"
Zeus turned away. "I never interfered nor intervened with Hercules and Xena. And I don't think she'd be the perfect match for him, either."
"Well... someone must have. What about Mother?"
"Send Xena to kill Hercules, yes. But not to lay down with him. Of course we all know why Xena wanted to kill him to begin with, don't we?"
"Aphrodite... Artemis?" Ares suggested, overlooking the barb from his father.
"No, one of Dite's spells would have them together still. And as for Artemis... think about what you're suggesting."
"Yeah, well... she could've done some spell after... ya know, with the bra... bard," he corrected himself.
Zeus gave his son a disbelieving look. "I thought you said this happened before they met?"
"Yeah, well, it did, it did. I... Well, Dad, you have to admit that she changed so quickly that... I mean, you know how she used to be... so fierce and strong, at the head of the mightiest army the world has ever..."
"I know all about the Destroyer of Nations, son. And who was behind her campaign, if you can call it that." Zeus glared at his son.
"But, you must admit, I do have a valid point."
Zeus glanced over to the large scrying bowl in the middle of the room. "Perhaps. But, you should have brought this up long ago. What's done is done."
"Doesn't have to be," Ares noted.
"All you want is to get Xena back, as usual." Zeus turned his back and strode toward his throne.
Ares shrugged. "Well, Dad, you know, I feel like I've been... cheated, really. I mean, someone got involved in this and... now look what's happened?" He pointed at the scrying bowl.
"Son, you know as well as I do, that the little bard is not the first of Xena's... female conquests." Zeus sat down on his throne.
Ares cleared his throat. "No, but she is the first one she's... fallen in love with."
"Your point being?"
"Only that if someone hadn't interfered, they'd never be together. Xena would still be the warrior she once was. And the bra... bard could never love her like that."
"I don't know, son. Mortal love is a powerful and strange thing. Even if I don't understand the depths of their feelings in that regard."
"Neither do I," Ares muttered. "But, look Dad, you don't like this anymore than I do. I mean, they could set an example that has... far reaching consequences."
Zeus stroked his long white beard.
"For all we know, Hercules may have been the one responsible for this," Ares suggested, moving onto plan C, since his father didn't seem to be buying his first bill of goods.
"Hercules?" Zeus proclaimed. "Now I know you've lost what's left of your immortal brain. He is half-mortal, son, you know that."
"Yes, the operative word there being half."
"What are you getting at?"
Ares knew he had his father's full attention now, but he needed to tread lightly around this Hercules issue. "Well, half-mortal, half-god... the possibilities are there."
"He has no powers, other than his strength," Zeus scoffed.
"None that we know of," Ares corrected, gently. "Maybe he doesn't even know he has any. But, he sure seems to have... a way with the ladies."
"As well he should," Zeus said proudly. "After all, he is my son."
Ares grunted. "Well, what if your half mortal son has the power to... cast spells and... doesn't even realize it? Take for instance, Xena was intent on killing him, then suddenly..." Ares snapped his fingers. "... she's throwing herself at him."
Zeus drummed his fingers on the arm of his throne. "Then why didn't she stay with him?"
"I suppose, if you don't know you have such a power, then... you don't know how to control it," Ares suggested, watching his father' s reaction out of the corner of his eye. "And what with Xena and... Gabrielle traveling all over... well, some women are bound to... notice how close they are and how well they get along without a man. Could start a trend down there. I think Mother and Artemis might just like that, but...."
Zeus came up off his throne. "And just what do you suggest to turn this around?"
Ares wanted to jump for joy. His father had finally taken the bait: hook, line and sinker. He pulled down on his silver studded leather vest and remained calm. "Well... taking Xena back to the time before she last fought with Hercules would be a start."
"You wanna repeat the last few years? What good will that do?" Zeus asked incredulously.
"No, not repeat. More like erase them for her. She doesn't have to fight Hercules again, ya know."
"And the bard, what of her?"
We... well, you... have them meet, under different circumstances, of course. And I think this will prove my theory about my half brother."
"You know I can't just arbitrarily do this, son. You know the rules about interference. I can't undo what mortals have chosen for themselves. And so far you have presented no evidence that any one else was involved."
"I know, Dad. But, we're talking about possible interference by a god-of sorts here, which has set things on this course. I'm only suggesting... a temporary test, if you will, to see if things would be different if Hercules wasn't involved. Ya see, if the bra... bard and Xena don't..."Ares hesitated, then said the next three words very quickly. "...fall in love, it proves there was someone else involved, right? And then you can set things straight. I mean, you did this for Hercules when Hera interfered with Hippolyta. I'm only asking for the same consideration."
Zeus grunted. "Now let me get this straight. This little test of yours involves how many people?"
"Just Xena and the... bard."
"And you want me to take Xena back in time, is that it?"
"Well, doesn't have to be that complicated right now. I mean, I can see how that could be... a pain."
"To say the least," Zeus commented.
"Maybe we... you could just take away both of their memories back to that time. So that they don't remember one another."
"If I recall Xena didn't have an army when she met Gabrielle."
"Well, no and neither did she have one after they made her walk the gauntlet."
"But, that's when she went after Hercules alone, which is where you're suggesting this... casting of spells happened?"
"Look, Dad, it's simple," Ares said, close to losing his patience. "You take their memories away, we-you put them somewhere so that Xena won't meet up with Hercules and then... we sit back and see what happens."
"And if Xena and Gabrielle don't fall in love, then what?"
"Then you change their past. Xena never fights Hercules, never ends up with Gabrielle, yada, yada, yada."
"And if they do... fall in love, that is?"
Ares frowned, he didn't like the sound of those words in association with Xena. And his father seemed to have added them, just to irritate him. "Then things go back to normal; they have no memory of this event. Simple as that."
"No, it's not as simple as that, son. I've put up with your meddling in Xena's life for a long time now. And here you stand before me, wanting me to intervene on your behalf, with nothing to offer me, except a theory. I'm not blind nor stupid, son. I know a bet when I see one. And so, in order for me to play your little game, then you've got to put up something in return."
Ares braced himself, hoping his father would not ask for more than he was willing to wager.
Zeus put his arm around his son. "If Xena and Gabrielle fall in love... again, you have to promise to stop meddling in their lives."
Ares stared at him in disbelief. "But, Dad.. I don't know if I can... I mean, Xena... she... I..."
"No interference for one full mortal year," Zeus added.
"One mortal year?" Ares considered this rather quickly. "No meddling in Xena and Gabrielle's life?"
"Good," Zeus patted him on the back. "Now, how long does this test last, hmm?"
"Oh... seven turnings of the sun outta be enough."
"Hmm... perhaps we should make it double... fourteen. Just to be fair."
"Umph, sure... fair." Ares turned his head and rolled his eyes.
"Now about where to put them... No great harm should come to either of them, right?"
"No, no great harm."
"And no humans to interact with?"
"We-ell, that's not exactly what I had in mind. The bra.. bard needs to see who Xena really...."
"But, if we let them interact with other mortals, this... could get complicated," Zeus interjected.
"Tartarus is filled with souls at your disposal, Dad," Ares reminded. "Just have a talk with your brother, Hades and bring one... or two back. For a short while, mind you. Just for the test... just to be fair."
Zeus contemplated this for a moment. "I assume Xena will kill.. whoever?"
Ares shrugged, then nodded. "More than likely."
"Umph, just for the test then," Zeus agreed. "And... I think I know the perfect place to put them. A uninhabited little island... plenty of edible food and animals to hunt." Zeus paused. "Oh yes, and we agree, no interference from either of us, right?"
"Sure, sure." Ares was getting very bored with all the minute details.
"Good then. Sounds like a fair test, son." Zeus patted him on the back again and turned to walk back to his throne.
"Hey, Dad... aren't you forgetting something? You didn't... do anything," Ares reminded.
"No, and I m not going to, until they are out of Artemis' territory. 'Cause I don't want her storming in here with Athena and possibly your mother hot on her heels. You know how they can be."
"Yeah. And... ya know, I don't understand why Mother is so friendly with Art or Athena, for that matter. Neither is her child. Seems to me she'd hate both as much as she does Hercules."
"Their both strong young women. And pure god. Neither has ever tried to lay claim to anything of Hera's. Both respect your mother's power and your mother respects them. Especially so of Artemis for standing up to me about Iphhie. A strange bond, I agree, and tentative at best, I assure you, but.. it's there. You won't see Hera meddling with your girl, as long as she's with the little bard. And if I were you, I wouldn' t let anyone know about our little wager here. Your mother is very fussy about mortal women. She'll read more into it than there is, believe me."
And with good reason, Ares thought, but said, "My lips are sealed."
"Good. Then go keep an eye on your girl. Let me know when they're out of your sister's territory and bedded down for the night. That's when we'll cast the spell. If Hercules does have this power, I wanna know about it."
"Yes, Dad. Catch ya later." With that Ares vanished in a flash of silver light.
"Um-um-um, that boy and his fixations. I told him choosing war would mean most of his subjects would be men. But did he listen? And then along comes Xena... a woman with the heart of a lion and the courage and prowess of a lioness... who could blame him, really? She is a beauty. So like her mother. One day I'll have to have a long talk with that boy. Although, I don't know which would be worse, having him love her or having him hate her."
"Hating her would be worse," said a deep feminine voice.
"I suppose. So, you approve of our little wager, I take it?"
"Fair enough, I suppose. As long as neither one of them is hurt."
"I said no great harm. Mortals are always getting hurt, my dear. Falling down, which they tend to do quite often, even bloodies their knees. But, no great harm will come to them, unless it's absolutely necessary."
The goddess glanced over at her father, who arched one white eyebrow. They had an understanding. "And his interference?" she queried.
"We'll deal with that, together."
"Fair enough," the goddess agreed. "I have other matters to attend to," she added, as she dematerialized in a golden light.
"This family of mine..." Zeus sighed heavily. "... they're hardly any different from their mortal subjects." He glanced around himself. "Did I say that? Hope none of them heard me."
Joxer was back in the village. "Where's Xena and Gabrielle?" he asked of a pretty Amazon passing by the purification hut. She merely shrugged and kept going. "How about Ephiny?"
The young woman pointed to the large council hut in the center of the village. "She's in session, right now. They should be through in a little while."
Joxer nodded and looked around the village, hoping to catch a glimpse of his comrades. Especially, one in particular: the lovely bard who had captured his heart. His gaze fell on a fawn colored horse that looked like Argo. She was tied to a tree, staring at him and her saddle missing. He was relieved to see this; for, it meant Xena and Gabrielle had not left him behind. He sat down outside the purification hut to wait. In a few moments, he was fast asleep.
Ephiny noticed Joxer as she started toward her own hut. He was back much sooner than she'd expected. For a moment, her heart went out to the bumbling warrior. He was definitely devoted to Gabrielle, but she knew he was not the bard's type. Even if she weren't with Xena, Ephiny knew Joxer would not be the chatty, courageous, strong-willed woman's choice for a mate. Xena, however, fit her to a "T".
Although, secretly Ephiny wished this wasn't so. For, she'd had designs on Xena, herself, from the first day she'd laid eyes on her. She'd challenged the warrior in order to hide her true attraction. Then after getting her butt whipped and life saved, all in the same night, by the same woman, she'd decided that approaching Xena, at that time, would be futile, at best. And after later noticing Xena's seeming devotion to Gabrielle, she knew the tall warrior would more than likely turn her down flat. So instead, her attention had shifted to Phantes, the centaur whose life Xena had saved. Her tastes always had ran to the extreme. Velesca being her biggest mistake. But how was she to know the woman was merely using her to get close to Queen Milosa. Few people in the village even knew that she'd briefly shared the queen's furs; how Velesca, an outsider, found out, she never had determined. How she knew to offer comfort to Ephiny, who was on the rebound, had never been clear, either.
Joxer snored loudly, pulling Ephiny out of her reverie. "Oh well, might as well get this over with," she mumbled. "I hope I can tell a convincing lie. Because it's not an art I've cared to perfect."
"Left without Argo?" Joxer questioned, standing up and wiping the sleep out of his eyes.
"Xena said Argo needed the rest. They left on foot with the messenger King Lias sent.," Ephiny explained. "They should be back in... four or five days."
"King Lias, huh? I guess Diana's in some sort of trouble again?"
Ephiny shrugged. "They didn't say. Just that you should wait here for them."
"Yeah, I always seem to get in trouble with... more than one Xena, I mean Xena look-a-like around," he grumbled, toeing the ground in front of him. "Wonder if Meg is mixed up in this, too?"
"Who's Meg?" Ephiny asked. She'd heard of Diana before and her similarity to Xena.
"Well... she looks exactly like Xena and Diana, but..." He paused, his eyes growing bright and alive again. "...but she acts nothing like either one, believe me. She runs a broth... tavern, not far from here actually. In King Lias' kingdom. Hmm. Maybe I'll just pay Meg a visit. And meet up with Xena and Gabrielle on their way back."
"Joxer, I don't think you should..."
"Meg'll be happy to see me, I bet," he continued, as if Ephiny hadn't spoken. "She's got a slight crush on me, ya know." He blushed slightly. "Uh, here... I'll leave these things with you, in case I miss the two of them." He picked up the sack containing scrolls, ink and whetstone and handed it to Ephiny. "If I'm not back before they are... tell'em where I've gone. Uh, no... no, on second thought, just tell Xena, not Gabrielle. Xena will understand."
Ephiny smiled slightly. Joxer obviously knew more than he realized. His love for Gabrielle, however, blinding him to the truth he didn't want to acknowledge. Ephiny sighed, watching the bumbling warrior gather his belongings.
"Remember, just tell Xena," he reiterated.
Ephiny nodded. "Just Xena. Gotcha." She shook her head, as the warrior stumbled away.
"Hi Jox-er," a Nubian beauty named Phoenicia (Fo-ne-sha) said in passing. Then she paused, watching him. "Where you going in such a hurry? I thought you'd be staying with us awhile."
"I... um... you did?" he stammered, stopping in his tracks.
"Oh yeah. I thought we'd... get to know each other a little better if... you know what I mean?"
A slight tinge of pink inched up his neck to his cheeks. "I... um.. well, I was... hmm... I guess I'm not in that big'a hurry."
Ephiny shook her head once again. She wasn't sure which was worse, Joxer leaving, possibly in search of Xena and Gabrielle, or staying with Phoenicia. Because the Nubian beauty was known for being a real heartbreaker. Especially so, for male hearts. Of course, she had a few Amazon's hanging from her scalp belt, so the speak. But most were wise to her now. And Ephiny feared that Phoenicia would end up alone in her old age. And so will you, she thought, if you don't make up with Shalala concerning her jealousy over Gabrielle.
The queen turned on her heels and quickened her step towards the tall blonde warrior's hut. Shalala was the first to even come close to winning her heart since Phantes, and she couldn't let a little unfounded jealousy come between them.
It had been four glorious days. But, they'd ran out of food and subsequently returned to the village to find Joxer nowhere in sight.
Ephiny sat down at their table in the Amazon's open air, communal food hut, where meals were served three times a day. The premise of communal dining being: less food wasted and less hands needed to prepare it. "Well, you two are looking... much happier," Ephiny remarked.
"We are," both women said in unison, then looked at one another.
Xena could hardly resist the look in her lover' s smiling blue-green eyes. Nor the urge to lick the tiny particle of bread clinging to the corner of the bard's mouth. She leaned over, intent on doing just that, when Gabrielle quickly turned her head and glanced around.
"Where's Joxer?" the bard asked.
Xena groaned and straightened up. Ephiny watched the warrior. If she were Gabrielle, she would not care one bit about the male warrior. What with those bright blue eyes, those full red lips that appeared so utterly kissable, she'd..."
"Huh?" The Amazon Queen quickly turned her attention to Gabrielle.
"I asked where Joxer is? Do you know?"
"Probably... with someone named Midge... no, Meg, I think he said." Ephiny frowned. "He was with Phoenicia, but..." She left the rest unsaid.
"Who's Phoenicia?" the bard inquired.
"The Nubian princess," Xena answered. "Bet that was short lived," she added with a slight smirk, as she sat back and crossed her arms.
"You know her?" Ephiny queried, her gaze inadvertently falling to the warrior's chest, before she caught herself.
"When?" Gabrielle questioned. "I've never heard of her."
"She showed up several suns after you two took care of Velesca," Ephiny explained. "Said she heard we were having trouble and came to help."
"You believe that?" Xena queried.
"So far, no trouble. Unless you count a few broken hearts."
"When did you meet her, Xena?" Gabrielle tried again.
"I'd be careful, Eph," the warrior suggested, ignoring the bard's question. "Looks like she could be trouble to me."
"She's no Velesca, but... I'm keeping my eye on her."
"This Meg that Joxer may be with, she looks like me?" the warrior further queried, not giving Gabrielle a chance to ask her question again.
"Oops. I wasn't supposed to tell you, Gabrielle."
"He told you that?" the bard asked. Ephiny nodded, a sly smile on her face. "I know all about Meg and..." She glanced over at Xena, her previous question all but forgotten now. "... I wish he'd fall in love with her."
"She is good looking," Xena added, trying to keep a straight face.
"Uh-huh, how well I know," the bard quipped.
"She looks that much like Xena?" Ephiny questioned.
"Exactly like her," Gabrielle responded. "Except for the leather and... maybe a few other... slight differences." She glanced down at Xena's chest.
"And how would you know?" The tall warrior arched one dark eyebrow.
"She doesn't fill out your leathers as well as you do," the bard responded, arching one light brown eyebrow of her own. "Front... or back."
Ephiny cleared her throat, trying not to picture the parts Gabrielle was referring to. She hadn't been able to make up with Shalala, as of yet. The stubborn warrior just wouldn't listen to her pleas of innocence. She claimed she knew Ephiny's attention was elsewhere for the past several days, and blamed this on Gabrielle. And Ephiny couldn't very well tell her that her jealousy was directed at the wrong person, now could she? All she could do was try to soothe her fears, which Shalala would have no part of. This had subsequently left Ephiny feeling very frustrated, to say the least, and caused her attention to stray to Xena, even more. Yet, she knew now, that the beautiful warrior princess was thoroughly out of reach. "Oh, he did leave those supplies you asked for," Ephiny said, changing the subject.
"Good," Xena commented. "I could use that whetstone. And... we should be going." She glanced over at Gabrielle.
"Uh, yeah, I'm sure we've worn out our welcome here," the bard added.
"No, no, not at all." Ephiny watched as Xena stood up, then put her hand on the bard's shoulder.
"I'll go saddle up Argo," the warrior said, giving the bard's shoulder a gentle squeeze. "I'll be back to say my good-byes."
"You better," Ephiny announced without thinking. Xena and Gabrielle were both looking at her now. "I mean... we owe you... both so much that... I'm sure everyone will want to thank you."
"You don't owe us anything, Eph," the warrior objected. "And no big send-offs, hmm? We'd just rather say our good-byes and leave quietly. Right, love?"
"Yes," the bard answered. "And if anyone owes anyone anything, it's us, Ephiny. I mean, suggesting we... make that commitment and... the way you had that chamber fixed for us... it was... really wonderful. Thank you."
Ephiny swallowed the lump in her throat. "It was nothing... compared to what you two have done for us."
"I guess that's what friends are for," the bard suggested, reaching over and touching Ephiny's hand.
"Um, yeah." the queen squeezed Gabrielle's hand. "I... uh, guess I'll go get those supplies for you." She then jumped up and was out of the open air hut in a flash.
"What's wrong with her?" the bard queried. "Think she doesn't want us to leave or what?"
"I think she's having a few problems with Shalala," the warrior answered and Gabrielle frowned. "A bit jealous, I believe."
"Oh, over who?" The bard's eyes lit up. The storyteller always eager to hear the latest gossip.
"Me? But Xena..."
"I'll be back shortly. Have us packed and ready to go. I'd like to put some distance between us and Joxer... if you don't mind?"
"No, I don't mind." Xena was already striding away. "But, wait... where are we going?" Gabrielle called after her.
"Anywhere but King Lias' kingdom." Xena shot over her shoulder.
"Umph, that makes sense," the bard mumbled. "A day without Joxer is like a day without... the headache even thinking about him causes me," she concluded. Please Meg, keep him occupied a little longer. Or better yet, get him to fall in love with you. Please!
Continued in Part 4