Unfinished Business

by Doc


Copyright 2/99

Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and all of their friends and enemies are the property of MCA/Universal Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended. All other characters and the story depicted here are from my deranged mind.

TIMELINE: The events in this story take place sometime between "A Necessary Evil" and "Sacrifice 1 & 2" with one less body falling in the lava. (And definitely before TPTB killed our favorite sidekicks.)

VIOLENCE: Not too much since this is my first effort at a story. It is a Xena story with Callisto, eventually, so who knows.

DEDICATION: This story is dedicated to all the bards whose stories I read after moving to a different state and being jobless for a month and a half. Thanks for the memories. I wish to express thanks specifically to Maggie for depicting humor, to Cat for depicting tenderness and compassion, to Onora for all her help in starting J, and to Susan for her support and friendship. Most importantly, thanks to my husband for those "unsolicited" logic and plausibility reviews and for still waking up next to me after those long nights of creating and typing.

Comments and suggestions are welcomed and greatly appreciated.

doctar@swbell.net

Reference to the story "Berries" by Cat is used with permission.


Part 1

The cool mist drifted lazily through the foliage leaving a gentle kiss as it slipped away from the warm rays of the morning sun. It seemed the normal inhabitants of the forest were in a purposeful hush as a sacrificial gift to the four mortals who currently occupied the clearing near the river.

As usual, Xena was the first to rise. Quietly she gathered her armor and weapons and left to find an area suitable to perform her daily exercises. Though the workout kept her strength and skills in top form, the true reason for her ritual was the calming and meditative state she achieved as a result. Often when the bard's persistence had strained the warrior's patience she found that a hard and tiring workout was the least dangerous avenue of escape. Not that Xena and Gabrielle fought often, but it is a known fact that if two people, even friends, are with each other, day in and day out, conflict and disagreements will come. Xena and Gabrielle had been through more than their share in the last few years and they understood the price each was paying to be together.

'Is sleeping contagious and I'm the only one immune?' Xena pondered as she entered the clearing to find her three companions still tucked cozily in their bedrolls. Quietly Xena walked over to the far side of the fire and tapped Hercules and Iolaus on the shoulders. With a finger to her lips, Xena motioned for the pair to follow. Like panthers on a hunt the trio encircled their prey.... Only inches away from the slumbering form the conspirators summoned all their strength to stifle the laughter and giggles that threatened to explode from each.

Unlike the Warrior Princess, sleep was usually a comforting and rewarding experience for Gabrielle. She often lulled herself into Morpheus' arms with her colorful palette of words and ideas, weaving the patterns until the images unfolded into a glorious story. If she could only write and dream at the same time, life would be perfect. Somewhere in the periphery of her current dream, somewhere in the hazy shadows, there was a sound...no a sensation...which spasmodically beckoned her.

The feather delicately teased the soft skin below the bard's nostrils. A woman of few words, Xena knew she would one day find an appropriate use for the quill. 'Gabrielle has always told me that I could use it whenever I wanted.'

"Mmm..." Gabrielle moaned as she brushed at her nose and rolled onto her back just missing Hercules' arm. The cohorts held their collective breaths as they watched the bard's feathery lashes flutter then fall still, leaving a more cherubic countenance, if that were possible, on the sleeping form.

Taking a slow, steady breath and holding it, Xena leaned over the bard's head and applied the feather one last time.

Gabrielle's eyelids fluttered slightly as she scrunched her nose, her subconscious registering a vague sense of oppressing powers. Instantly mist-green eyes burst open only to be met by three pair of mischievous orbs and a rising crescendo of laughter.

"Uh-oh," was all the sound the bard could voice as she abruptly launched her trim form past her tormentors and across the camp into a dense and, more private, area of the forest.

'Is there nothing sacred?' she thought...as nature began to run its course.

~~~~~~~~~~

"I can't believe you did that!" Gabrielle said while glancing over and catching Hercules' and Iolaus' eyes just before their heads lowered to control the laughter that still lingered. "Whose idea was this anyway?" the bard demanded with all the false bravado she could muster as the grins and snickers broke through her charade.

Three fingers pointed in different directions as no one was willing to take responsibility...or liability, as the case might be, for the recent prank.

"Who's hungry?" Xena blurted, raising her hand to scratch the nape of her neck and avoiding the probing mist-green eyes.

"Ah-ha. The guilty party always changes the subject," Gabrielle confirmed with a jabbing finger in Xena's chest.

"I'm sorry Gabrielle, it was just a joke. We were just playing and you looked so darn cute and sweet snuggled in your bedroll." Xena tried her best but couldn't hide the broad grin forming on her lips. Gabrielle played jokes on her constantly during their travels so turnabout was only fair play.

"It could have been worse, you know. What if an animal had crept into the camp..." Hercules suggested.

"Or maybe a vicious thug coming to kidnap you..." Iolaus added.

"Or the middle of summer," Xena quipped slightly under her breath but loud enough for the bard to hear.

Gabrielle's brows arched beneath her blonde bangs as a light flush played over her face, the meaning behind Xena's statement finally dawning. 'Oh, gods, she's right.' On a few occasions during those sweltering summer nights Gabrielle could recall sleeping along the shoreline, sans clothes, praying to any god who would listen for a cool breeze.

"All right, all right. If this is the most embarrassing thing that happens to me today, then I'll consider myself blessed."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

CHAPTER 2

Breakfast was caught, sacrificed and choked down in short order.

"Remember it was your idea for me to cook," Xena chided, her back to the bard as she raked the remnants from the dishes into the fire. 'I told her I was sorry. Can't she take a joke?'

"Yeah, but I thought it would be punishment for YOU, not the other way around. With all the skills that you have Xena, how is it that cooking isn't one of them?"

"That's why I let you stay, Gabrielle," Xena said with a sly smirk on her lips as she turned to face the bard. 'Careful Gabrielle, don't start something you can't finish.'

"So that's what I mean to you," Gabrielle said, throwing her hands in the air in disgust. 'That's all I am to you, just your own personal maid!'

"Is that a question or a statement?" Xena retorted while folding her arms across her chest and giving the bard a steely gaze.

"Neither, it's an accusation!" Gabrielle said pressing her petite frame to it's fullest height meeting Xena's cold blue eyes with her own blazing emerald green.

Hercules knew enough from being around the Olympian goddesses that a wise man, or demi-god, steered far away from any disputes involving females of the species. Iolaus, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy learning some of life's lessons the hard way.

"Now Xena and Gabrielle, play fa..."

"Shut up, Iolaus!" both women said simultaneously as they each turned and left to complete their morning chores.

"You just can't learn, can you?" Hercules asked as Iolaus approached with a look of confusion.

"I've never heard them speak to each other like that. Are they really mad at each other?" Iolaus asked innocently.

Hercules continued to observe the two women as they went about the activities for breaking camp. 'No, not mad, just hurting. Why do the gods like to play so many games with us? "No, they just vent stress and tension differently than you and I." Looking at his friend Hercules exhaled deeply and continued. "We're not sure who or what we will be up against. If the rumors are true and Callisto is alive then no one is safe."

Iolaus kicked at a few stray embers from the fire and asked, "Does Gabrielle know everything?"

"No and that's why we need you here. If Xena and I fail you and Gabrielle are the only chance we have left." Laying a strong hand on Iolaus' shoulder Hercules gave a squeeze and a silent nod of gratitude. "Let's hope our little excursion gives us the needed edge."

~~~~~~~~~~

Gabrielle busied herself with washing the utensils from breakfast and making certain all the wineskins were filled. 'Why does she treat me like a child? I thought we had been through all this. Haven't I proven myself? I am the Amazon Queen, for Gaia's sake. I hate it when we argue but sometimes she infuriates me so much I don't know what to do.' Looking up from her duties Gabrielle could see Xena's attempts at looking busy making adjustments to Argo's saddle. Gabrielle had watched the warrior perform the daily rituals for almost two years and could tell when the actions were a faade for brooding. Herodotus and Hecuba had taught their daughters from a young age to resolve differences before leaving or going to bed and Gabrielle still felt pains of guilt at having left home while her parents and fiancŽe slept quietly. 'I don't want her leaving with silence between us.' Determined not to make the same mistake twice, Gabrielle placed the utensils in the leather bag and with a heavy sigh slowly and cautiously approached the warrior.

Xena often used Argo as a confidant when she needed to deal with emotional issues. She could say as much or as little as she wanted without the usual emotional displays that accompanied conversations with people. Sensing the bard's presence, Xena inwardly flinched but continued her methodical examinations of Argo's bridle and saddle. 'Argo, you talk to her, please!' Without turning, for she knew better, Xena began to speak.

"I'm sorry Gabrielle. I don't know why I reacted that way. 'I want you with me but I can't bear the thought of Callisto taking you again. I won't lose you twice. If that means secrets, then so be it.' Xena closed her eyes as she waited for the bard to respond.

"I don't understand why you won't let me go with you." Gabrielle stood firmly behind Xena with her hands on her hips, shaking her head. "You're shutting me out just like you always do. You need someone to help you but obviously it's not me," Gabrielle said, hurt evident in her voice. 'Why do you always do this?' Fighting desperately to maintain her composure the bard studied a dying leaf on a nearby bush and swallowed hard before continuing.

"Why is this mission so important that you need Hercules? You don't trust me to watch your back, is that it?" Gabrielle kept her eyes focused on the leaf, straining to keep the tears at bay.

Xena felt the sting of each word as it spilled from the bard's lips. Surely the girl didn't believe what she was saying. Pausing for a moment she chose her next words with care. "Gabrielle, it's not that I don't want you beside me, or that I don't trust you. I do, on both counts, but we might run into some trouble with a few gods and with Hercules' help we can hopefully take care of this once and for all. Do you understand?"

"No, I don't. All I see is that you are trying to protect me again," Gabrielle said as her voice cracked with emotion.

Gabrielle had reached her breaking point and grabbed Xena's arm. She knew Xena was keeping something from her. How often in the last two years had they played-out this same scenario? Xena would withhold information from the bard hoping that it would be better, more protection. In the end it usually caused more harm than good.

'Yes I am. I'm your friend and your champion and I'll do whatever it takes, to Tartarus and back if need be, to keep you safe.' Xena blinked away the unshed tears that glistened on her lashes as she loosened her grip on the cinch on Argo's saddle. Turning to face the bard she decided on a different approach.

"Always. It's a tough job but someone has to do it. Can I help it if trouble seems to find you?" Xena's lips pursed together as she tried to maintain a serious expression.

"Hey, I didn't have these problems when I lived in Poteidaia," Gabrielle said placing both hands on her hips.

Rubbing her chin and contemplating the logistics of travel Xena replied, "Poteidaia. That sounds like a safe, dull place."

"Oh no, don't even think about it, Xena. I'm not running back home...safe, dull or whatever," Gabrielle said, crossing her arms over her chest and raising her right eyebrow.

Leaning close and gently cupping the bard's chin, Xena gazed into the face of the friend she cherished more than life itself. 'For once just do as I say. Please, if not for your own safety then at least for my heart's sake.'

"Promise me you will stay here and keep out of trouble." Tilting her head slightly Xena waited for an answer. After a long silence Xena raised her eyebrow to press the issue.

"Okay," Gabrielle said as her shoulders and arms fell in reluctant submission. 'I hate it when you do this to me. One day you'll see me as an equal.'

"Promise me," Xena said still holding the bard's chin and staring deep into the mist-green eyes.

"I promise."

~~~~~~~~~~

Hercules and Iolaus could see the interchange between the women and though the conversation was unintelligible from their distance, the body language spoke sharp and true. The men stood and waited patiently as Xena, leading Argo, and Gabrielle following slowly behind, made their way back to the center of camp. "Xena, we should be going if we want to make it back by tomorrow morning," Hercules said as he reached to gather his bedroll and a wineskin.

Nodding to Hercules, Xena took Iolaus' arm in the common warrior handshake. "Keep your eye on her," Xena said as her steely eyes held Iolaus' gaze.

"I will," replied Iolaus. 'How does Gabrielle stand up to her? Can any one say no to that look?'

Xena turned to follow Hercules but was halted by a gentle hand on her forearm. 'Gabrielle please don't make this any harder than it already is. Don't force me to look into those lie-detecting eyes of yours or I won't be able to complete this mission.' Summoning all the strength she could, Xena's eyes fell upon warm, glistening, mist-green eyes. 'Stay strong. Don't break.' Long slender arms reached out and embraced the bard. Gabrielle held tightly to Xena's waist, biting her lower lip to stem the tears that threatened.

"Tomorrow...right?" Gabrielle managed through a choked cry.

"Tomorrow, I promise."

Gently freeing Gabrielle's arms from around her waist Xena turned and accepted the offered hand from Hercules who was already mounted on Argo. With a nod of their heads the four friends parted. Two on their way to what was, two on their way to what might be, but all on their way to...unfinished business.

CHAPTER 3

The silence surrounding the camp would have been deafening had it not been for the sporadic scraping noise of a stick Iolaus used to draw geometric designs in the dirt at his feet. His eyes had occasionally stolen glances at the petite form while she sat quietly, almost in a trance, twirling her quill above a blank parchment.

"Unm-hmm," Iolaus cleared his voice trying to capture Gabrielle's attention. 'Great, I could be dying here and she would be totally oblivious.' "Unm-hmm. Gabrielle..."

"What?" the bard replied with irritation in her voice. Casually raising her head she focused on the only other person in camp. Irritation immediately turned to shock.

"Gabrielle...I think I swallowed...a bug. I'm choking here. Think you can help me?"

Quickly and without hesitation the bard ran to her friend, raised her hand and sharply delivered four strikes to his back. "Did that help?" Gabrielle asked as she brought her arm back ready to strike again.

"Whoa...whoa, that's enough," Iolaus coughed as he looked down expecting to see his lungs forced out the front of his chest from the strength of the bard's blows.

Kneeling to the side with one arm on his shoulder and one arm resting on his thigh Gabrielle gave a crooked grin. "Well, at least you got a nutritious addition to your breakfast."

Still holding his chest Iolaus took a long breath and said, "Gabrielle, I appreciate your help but I really wasn't choking."

The bard's face moved closer and Iolaus would swear the look on her face could rival that of Xena's. 'She has definitely been around that woman too long,' Iolaus thought to himself.

"What?!" the bard demanded. 'This isn't a joking matter.'

"Uh, yeah...uh...I was just trying to break the tension and you jumped in so fast that I couldn't stop you," Iolaus answered with a guilty, sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"Is this pick on Gabrielle day or something?" the bard asked gruffly as she stood and gathered her parchment and quill and headed for the river.

"Gabrielle...don't go too far.É" Iolaus yelled to the bard's back as it vanished from sight.

"Arrgghh!" was all the response that came from the forest.

~~~~~~~~~~

She didn't know how long she had been asleep but the ache in her neck and the numbness in her arm testified to the fact it had been too long. Opening and closing her fist she pressed through the tingling, burning sensation of blood flowing back to her fingers. Sleep laden eyes fluttered open as pupils constricted against the brightness of the midday sun. 'I guess I needed a nap,' the bard thought to herself. 'Or maybe my stories are beginning to put ME to sleep.' Gabrielle pushed her body into a sitting position and brushed the stray leaves and grass from her arms and clothing.

"Feeling better?" came the voice from somewhere near the river. She didn't need to look to confirm the owner. She knew that voice, a voice that seemed to match the body of the owner. Mid-range, earthy, comical at times...tender at times, were words a gifted storyteller might use to describe him. Gabrielle's thoughts traveled to a dark cave where arms gently cradled the man while telling a story of one soul and two hearts torn apart. 'Why did that story spark such feelings then and why do I have the same stirrings now?'

"Yes, thank you," the bard answered in a soft voice. As Gabrielle stood she straightened the flaps of her skirt and combed fingers through the long blonde hair that draped her shoulders. Raising her arms above her head she stretched her trim body and leaned from side to side, then with elbows shoulder height she rotated her torso, right and left. 'Oh, that feels so good.' Lifting her arms to the side and above her head, like a butterfly, she inhaled and exhaled slowly and deeply. 'Now I know why Xena calls this a cleansing breath.' Inspecting her clothing one last time she noticed a pink irritation just under the right shoulder strap of her top. 'Hmm. What is that?' Casually, yet discretely, she checked the left shoulder. 'Must be a heat rash of some sort,' the bard thought while gently scratching the pink tissue.

Iolaus sat patiently on the large boulder and watched the bard as she stretched, brushed and adjusted...whatever it is that women adjust. 'She is so beautiful. I can't believe someone hasn't caught her yet. Well, there was Perdicas but unfortunately no one else. Of course her life with Xena is like my life with Hercules and none of us have time for romance much less marriage. Romance...' his thoughts drifted to a tree in the meadow with a soft breeze caressing shoulder length blonde hair and the trembling lips of a sweet young bard. The kiss began cautiously and tenderly and ended with a hint of the passion that lie in wait.

"Iolaus are you okay?" the bard asked as she waved her hand in front of his eyes.

Abruptly reined from his dreaminess Iolaus' face flushed slightly. "It's a little warm today isn't it?" Iolaus asked trying to conceal his embarrassment.

"Yeah, a little. Why don't we move over to the boulder under that large willow tree and we can fish for our lunch. You catch and clean, I'll cook and clean," the bard offered.

"Sounds like a fair deal to me," Iolaus replied.

~~~~~~~~~~

They had been riding hard trying to cover as much distance as possible. Xena could hear and feel Argo's labored breathing and knew they must stop soon or they would be completely afoot. Their current path followed parallel to the river and with a slight tightening of her grip around Hercules' waist she made her request known.

"I know Xena. We'll stop just ahead and take a breather." Hercules slowed Argo down to a trot as they approached a clearing. Dismounting Argo, Hercules and Xena lead the warhorse down a well-worn trail to the banks of the river. After removing the saddle and blanket, Xena released the reins and allowed the horse to drink and feed at her leisure for she knew Argo would not stray far from her mistress. Hercules was refilling the wineskins when Xena slowly knelt and cupped her hands in the cool water.

"We'll rest and eat here if that's okay with you?" Xena said as she splashed her face with the refreshing water.

"Sounds fine to me," Hercules replied as he capped both wineskins and tossed them to the side. "Do you want to hunt our lunch or cook it?"

"Breakfast...remember...?" Xena said as she raised her eyebrow with a look of disbelief.

"Hey, I think everyone deserves nine chances just like a cat," Hercules teased, taking a seat on the grass beside the warrior.

Xena cocked her head just enough for Hercules to catch a glimpse of her wicked grin. "I don't think it will take that many chances for you to die from my cooking." In one smooth move Xena pulled her sword out of its sheath and studied it for a moment as it glistened in the sunlight. "Stabbing would be easier," she said dryly, "but I just cleaned my sword."

Hercules chuckled at Xena's sense of humor. There weren't many people who saw this side of the Warrior Princess and he was honored that she felt comfortable enough around him to let her guard down. "Breakfast wasn't that bad. Remember I have to eat Iolaus' cooking sometimes."

'Iolaus. Why did he have to mention his name? Is Gabrielle all right? I hate leaving her but I can't do this and worry about her safety. Of course, I worry about her whether she's with me or not. I don't want to think what my life would be like if she had not forced her way in that day. She sat there on the log, afraid of every little noise, refusing to go home and saying she would run away if I took her back. So adventurous, so courageous...so stubborn. Yeah, that's the word. Of all the words in Gabrielle's vocabulary, and I've heard just about all of them, stubborn is probably the most accurate.'

"Xena, are you still with me?" Hercules asked with concern in his blue eyes as he placed a strong hand on the warrior's shoulder.

"I was just thinking about Iolaus and Gabrielle. You know how trouble seems to find them."

"I'm sure they're fine and I know Iolaus would never let any harm come to Gabrielle," Hercules said reassuringly.

"I know. I've never doubted that," Xena replied with a look that could only be described as sorrowful.

"It's just that you would never forgive yourself if something happened to Gabrielle and you weren't there to save her," Hercules said with personal conviction. He knew exactly how the warrior felt because his friendship with Iolaus ran the same depth. 'If I couldn't save my best friend, with all the power I have, it would utterly destroy me.'

With a look of pain and helplessness that only a small circle of friends were allowed privy to, Xena softly replied, "Yeah."

Extending his arm further to surround both shoulders, Hercules drew the warrior to his chest into a comforting embrace. Though tense at first, Xena's body soon relaxed beneath the familiar arms which soothed and warmed her. 'We were like this once. So close. You said I unchained your heart but you never knew what affect you had on me. I didn't have the words or the courage to tell you everything I felt that day. I couldn't beg you to stay when I knew you had to do this on your own. The words came from your lips but my heart knew them to be true. To change for my sake would only destroy you in the end. Some emotions and desires cannot be silenced. They lie dormant in our hearts, cocooned in silken memories, only to be released once again by a familiar word, a look...a touch.'

"Okay, I'll hunt and you cook," the warrior whispered as she gently patted the arms that encircled her. "Guess I should get up and start hunting if we're going to eat." Despite understanding the commands, her body did not seem to be responding to the logical portion of her brain. Her body was listening instead to the thumping which began in her chest and resonated through her entire being.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

CHAPTER 4

"What is taking him so long?" 'Even I'm faster than that,' the bard mentally teased as she finished stoking the fire. Hearing a noise from behind her the bard jumped to her feet, grabbed her staff, and turned just in time to greet four large bass, eyeballs to eyeballs.

"Think that's enough for the two of us?" Iolaus asked, a small giggle evident in his voice. He knew about his appetite and he remembered Gabrielle's so he wasn't taking any chances. 'How can anyone so small eat so much?' Gabrielle was quite simply a paradox. There was a sweetness and compassion in her that you couldn't resist. Maybe it was the innocence of a young girl or maybe her hunger for excitement but it was tangible and contagious and it made him feel alive whenever she was around. On the other hand, he had seen Gabrielle hold her own in several battles on and off the field. Who else could stand toe to toe against the Warrior Princess, the Destroyer of Nations and live to tell the tale?

"Where were you? I was worried. Are you hurt? Did you find something?" the bard blurted without taking a breath.

"Uh...fishing, thanks, no and yes," Iolaus replied with a twinkle in his eyes.

Taken aback, the bard stood with her mouth open and a puzzled look on her face. Her thoughts finally catching up, she rubbed her furrowed brow and asked, "Yes?! Yes, what?"

"Yes, I found something," Iolaus said continuing the game, savoring every moment.

"What did you find?" 'You know, I could do Xena's pinch on you and find out everything I need to know,' Gabrielle thought as she began to unconsciously rub her index and second fingers. 'Isn't it bad enough that I have to deal with Xena's short answers?

Pulling his left hand from behind his back he presented a small pouch.

"You found someone's pouch? This is your big discovery?" the bard asked, pointing to the pouch, her frustration rising another degree. 'Is it thirty or forty seconds on the pinch before they die?'

"No, that's my pouch," Iolaus said biting his bottom lip, fighting the urge to giggle.

'Xena, I swear, if Iolaus is dead when you get back don't blame me.' Gabrielle rolled her eyes in disbelief. "You lost your pouch and then you found it? Is that what you're telling me? Even Joxer is smarter than that."

"No, I didn't lose MY pouch! Just look inside!"

Snatching the pouch and jerking it open her eyes grew wide. "Berries! You found berries!" the bard said joyfully. Thinking to herself the bard paused, examined the pouch closely, and then gave a sigh of relief.

"Gabrielle, I already checked for spiders. I wouldn't want either of us to go through that again."

"It's a habit," Gabrielle said shrugging her shoulders and smiling as she looked back at a lopsided grin and the bass Iolaus held. "Those will make wonderful filets. I'll go find some tubers and maybe some mushrooms while you clean them. We'll feast like royalty."

With a curtsy and an impish grin she asked, "By your leave?"

"Oh, but of course," Iolaus said in his most aristocratic voice.

~~~~~~~~~~

"Xena, I realize you didn't tell Gabrielle everything about our trip, and I won't be the one to tell her, but are you certain she will forgive you?" Hercules asked as he saddled Argo.

"I'm not certain of anything...anymore. As much as I love her, I would rather have her hating me and be alive, than loving me and be...dead." The last word fell hauntingly from her lips as if it held prophetic powers. "Our first goal is to get the dagger. If Callisto gets to it there will be no stopping her."

"She can't kill all of us at once, god or not," Hercules said flatly.

"Where Callisto is concerned, I've found that anything is possible. Who would have thought she could survive that fall with Velasca? She was bad enough as an immortal. And to think I TOLD Gabrielle to give her the ambrosia," Xena said with contempt as her mind recalled the fateful scene on the rope bridge. Gabrielle hung perilously by her hands above the lava flow, the pouch with ambrosia clinched between her teeth. Xena watched as Callisto moved toward the bard. Her world could have been shattered in one single stroke but Callisto's greed for the ambrosia was stronger than her need for revenge and Xena knew in that moment her choice was made.

"You only did what you thought was right to protect Gabrielle and the Amazons." Hercules knew from his own experiences that some decisions were nearly impossible and sometimes you simply had to make them, forgive yourself and move on. But forgiveness wasn't a gift the Warrior Princess allowed for herself.

"Yeah, that's what I keep telling myself. You had her secure and imprisoned but no... I had to let her LOOSE. I thought I could control and manipulate her like I had done so many others before. I was wrong...so wrong."

"Stop beating yourself over the past. What has happened cannot be changed. We can't go back in time and correct our mistakes. We live each day with the choices we make and pray they are right. No one can ask more of you than that," Hercules said as he mounted Argo. "Come on, we have work to do."

Taking the extended arm Xena easily lifted herself into position behind her friend. "Let's get this over with!" Xena said as she placed her arms around Hercules' waist.

"Work, work, work...that's all you think about," Hercules chided.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

CHAPTER 5

"Uh, Gabrielle, I don't want to be nosey, but you seem to be scratching a lot. Did you sit in poison ivy?"

"No, I don't think so. Xena taught me a long time ago what it looks like." 'I wish she had shown me before I sat down though.' "I've been itching all over for the last day but I just thought it was a heat rash," Gabrielle said as she scratched and searched her body.

"Let me take a look," Iolaus said as he stood and walked over to the log where the bard sat. "Do you have problems like this when you eat certain foods? Have you eaten anything different in the last few days?" Iolaus asked with concern.

"No, I haven't found anything that I can't eat." 'Except Joxer's cooking.'

Twisting and turning arms and legs, Iolaus did a quick inspection of the bard. "Hmm....Un huh...Hmm."

"Hmm....what?" Gabrielle asked as she became slightly embarrassed at the attention that Iolaus was giving her body. Xena examined her all the time for injuries after a battle or skirmish and it was just routine, but somehow this time felt different. She noticed her temperature rise and her pulse quicken as he made his way around her trim form. 'Stop looking at me that way. You're making me uncomfortable. Breathe Gabrielle, inÉout, inÉout.'

"Well, it seems most of the rash is concentrated in the areas where your clothing rubs," Iolaus said as a matter of fact. "See, you don't have a rash on your stomach, back, neck or legs." Stepping behind her and lifting the bottom edge of her top Iolaus confirmed his suspicions. "Gabrielle, look at the skin under your waist band and see if there is any redness," Iolaus said while maintaining his position behind her.

Gabrielle felt the warmth of his hand as he lifted the edge of her top and hoped he didn't notice the shiver that ran through her body. "IÉI can tell you that answer without looking. I've been scratching there already." 'Keep your head Gabrielle, this is just Iolaus.'

"That settles it."

"That settles what? Do you know what's wrong?" Gabrielle asked, as she turned around, relieved, yet somehow not, that he had moved his hand.

"Gabrielle, have you and Xena changed the soap you use lately?"

"No, we use the same lavender scented soap we always...." the bard said but stopped before completing the sentence.

"So you did change soaps?"

"Well, not exactly."

"What do you mean, not exactly?"

"After helping the villagers in the last town all of our clothes were caked with mud and smoke so a kind elderly woman said she would wash our clothes and they would be ready for us the next morning. It had been some time since our clothes had been washed in something other than the river so we gave her all of our clothes and blankets. She was extremely gracious and said she would be more than happy to wash them. She brought them to our room the next morning and they smelled so wonderful...like roses." 'I can almost smell them now.'

"So you haven't washed them since?"

"No, it was just two days ago. Why?"

'It will probably go away if we wash everything again and rinse them well.' Iolaus thought to himself as he formed a plan. "Okay, all we need to do is wash your clothes again."

"Okay," Gabrielle agreed.

"So gather your clothes, blanket and soap and...oh, yeah, we'll need the clothes you're wearing."

"Excuse me!" Gabrielle said as both brows disappeared beneath blonde bangs. 'Did you say what I think you said?'

"Gabrielle, we have to get the soap out of all of your clothes. Is there a problem?"

"Yeah, there's a problem." Gabrielle snapped back. Since she and Xena had been traveling together a certain amount of personal space had fallen by the wayside. It wasn't a matter of not respecting each other's privacy but simply a lack of need in most instances, after all, they were both women. The current problem was different though, and this person was definitely NOT Xena.

"Xena's not ashamed of her body. Why should you be ashamed of yours?" Iolaus asked a bit confused.

Gabrielle squared her shoulders in a defiant posture and shook her finger at Iolaus. "Look, I'm not ashamed of my body! I just have more modesty than Xena!"

'Oops, hit a touchy subject did we?' "Okay, okay. I'll think of something," Iolaus said raising his hands in a sign of submission. "While I'm washing your clothes you need to rinse off in the river." Gabrielle arched her eyebrow. Seeing the look, Iolaus thought he should explain his request. "One, to soothe the itch and reduce the redness and two, to rinse any residue off your skin. We want everything to be clean. Go on and I'll get your clothes after you get in the water. I promise I'll stay right here until I hear you tell me it's okay," he said reassuringly.

Gabrielle knew she was fighting a losing battle. Her clothes did need to be cleaned and a bath might help. Wasting no time she ran to the river, quickly shed her garments and yelled just before diving into the water. A man of his word he had remained until hearing her call.

The cool water did feel soothing to her skin, just like Iolaus had said. 'I'll try almost anything if it will get rid of this itch. This feels so good. I think there should be a law that says you have to go swimming after lunch. Maybe I could suggest that to Xena when she gets back.' Feeling relaxed, Gabrielle began to let her body flow gently and effortlessly in the current of the river. She was almost asleep when she heard Iolaus call her name.

"GabrielleÉ"

Jerking abruptly, she caught a mouthful of water and began coughing and sputtering. When her eyes opened a second time she looked around in confusion. 'How did I get here?'

"I thought I told you to bathe, not sleep," Iolaus teased. "Come on out and you can wrap yourself in my blanket until you dry and I find you something to wear." Turning his back and holding the blanket behind him, he waited for the bard to come out of the river.

Gabrielle felt uneasy about stepping out of the water, after all it was Iolaus, not Xena standing on the bank with the blanket. 'He's always been a gentleman with me, why would this be any different?' Convincing herself, Gabrielle quickly stepped out of the river and up the bank and took the blanket. "Thank you," Gabrielle said softly as she wrapped the blanket around herself.

"You're welcome," Iolaus replied tilting his head slightly. "I guess this is one way of keeping you from running off half-cocked."

Gabrielle opened her mouth to respond to the teasing but nothing came out as her mind and eyes focused on something else. "Iolaus, where is your vest?" Gabrielle asked seeing Iolaus's bare chest. 'Stop staring, Gabrielle. You've seen bare chests before.'

Reaching over to a nearby rock, Iolaus picked up his vest. "I thought you could wear it as a top while your clothes dry and I found this piece of cloth for you to use as a skirt."

"I'm not sure this will work but I'll try it." Wiggling and adjusting her grip Gabrielle managed to get one arm free under the blanket and took the clothes from Iolaus. Spotting a dense cluster of bushes she quickly stepped behind them for privacy.

"Well? How do they fit? Do they look okay?" Iolaus asked as he stopped whistling.

Feeling a cool breeze on soft tissue that wasn't usuallyÉexposedÉeven in her skimpy top Gabrielle said softly under her breath, "I don't know about this. This is so humiliating. I'm NOT doing this!"

"Are you talking to me?" Iolaus paused again from his whistling.

"No!" Gabrielle answered a bit more harshly than she intended. 'Xena where are you when I need you?'

"Step out here and let me take a look," Iolaus said while trying to guess the reason for the bard's delay.

Gabrielle shyly stepped from behind the bushes and stood a few paces in front of Iolaus keeping her arms folded across her trim waist. 'I can't do this. This won't work.'

Iolaus paused a moment and studied the image in front of him. "The cloth works well as a skirt. Move your arms and let me see the vest."

"Un-un," the bard replied, shaking her head adamantly.

"What's the problem?" Iolaus asked in puzzlement.

With reluctance and a bit of embarrassment Gabrielle raised her arms up and down quickly then placed them back in their original position. 'ThereÉsatisfied!?' The motion was over in an instant but Iolaus did catch a glimpse of what the bard might consider to be a problem. Since Iolaus' chest was so broad and Gabrielle's body so trim, the vest overlapped completely in the front but left gapping holes on the sides.

"UhÉyeahÉuhÉthat could be a problem," Iolaus said, quickly covering his mouth with his fingers to stifle the laugh that was beginning in his throat. He swallowed hard before continuing. "Where do you keep your needle and thread?"

"We keep them with the other medical supplies in the saddlebag onÉ"

"Argo," they said in unison.

"Okay, do you have an extra pair of boot laces?"

"Those I have," Gabrielle said, strolling over and picking up a leather bag. Rummaging through the bag she quickly found the laces. "Here you are."

"You wouldn't happen to have a small knife in there too, would you?" Iolaus asked looking over her shoulder and peering into the bag.

Reaching in the bag a second time Gabrielle produced a small petite dagger. "It's called a Breast Dagger."

"That's appropriate," Iolaus teased with a sparkle in his blue eyes.

"Funny," Gabrielle said as a smirk formed on her lips. "Just don't tell Xena that I have one. She always said to use words before weapons."

"All right. Raise your right arm and hold it steady."

"You're going to close you're eyes, right?" Gabrielle asked with pleading green eyes.

"Gabrielle, do you want the holes in the vest or do you want the holes in you?" Iolaus asked playfully.

"Oh, all right!" Gabrielle said resigning herself to yet another embarrassing moment in her day. 'Why do these things always happen to me? This wouldn't happen to Xena.'

"Gabrielle, hold still. Stop squirming." 'My hands are having trouble as it is.'

"You don't know how humiliating this is for me," Gabrielle said, clinching her teeth and shaking her head.

"You don't know how difficult this is for me," Iolaus said under his breath. 'I can't believe I'm doing this. She is so beautiful, so sweetÉso trusting. Don't blow this Iolaus. You can get through this. Concentrate. You're just helping a friend. A good friend. A goodÉbeautifulÉsexyÉ.' "Did I say sexy?"

"What? Did you say something?"

"Nothing."

Finished with the right side, Iolaus crossed in front of the bard and said, "Raise your left arm." Looking toward the sky, Gabrielle sighed and did as requested. "Close your eyes and imagine that it's Xena and not me."

'How do I imagine that you're Xena? What I'm I saying? I'm a bard, imagination is my gift,' she thought to herself. Closing her eyes she pictured the many times Xena would use her sewing skills to mend a tear in her leathers. There was hardly a day that went by that Xena didn't have to put a stitch in something. 'Hey, this really works.' She was just starting to get a handle on the problem when she was abruptly pulled from the mental images by a shiver running through her trim form.

"What's wrong?" Iolaus asked although he knew the answer.

"Your hands are a littleÉcold," Gabrielle answered shyly.

"Sorry. 'Trust me I'm doing this as fast as I can.' One more hole andÉthere, that got it." Iolaus took a step back to view his handiwork. 'Whoa, glad that's over. Not bad if I do say so myself.' "There, does that feel better?"

Gabrielle twisted and lifted each arm to examine the effect for herself. Reaching out and placing her hand tenderly on Iolaus' forearm she said, "Much better, thank you. At least I can keep my dignity for a little longer."

'What about MY dignity?' "Uh, Gabrielle, uhÉ I'lÉI'll be right back. Iolaus stuttered hoping his embarrassment was not evident.

"Okay. I'm not going anywhere," Gabrielle said innocently as she took a seat close to the fire.

Returning to camp, dripping wet, Iolaus took a seat on the far log.

"What happened to you, Iolaus?" Gabrielle asked placing one hand over her mouth and one hand on her stomach to control the giggles.

"IÉuhÉfelt an itch coming on. Thought I'd catch it before it got out of control," he said in a guilty schoolboy way.

"Yeah, we wouldn't want that to happen," Gabrielle said mischievously. 'Well, it's nice to know that I still have an effect on men,' Gabrielle thought to herself. "Do you want me to get your blanket?" Gabrielle asked choking on her fits of laughter.

"No, no. Cold is good. It's an old hunter's trick," Iolaus said as he removed his boots and drained the water out of them.

"Remind me to let Xena do all the hunting," Gabrielle said before doubling over unable to control the laughter any longer.

~~~~~~~~~~

Raising his fist, Hercules brought it crashing down causing the stone to disintegrate into fine particles of dust. Anticipation turned abruptly to horror as they viewed the empty space.

"It's gone!" they said almost as one.

"Is this what you're looking for Princess?" A voice sounded from the temple door, the Hind's Blood Dagger dangling from her fingertips.

"Callisto." Xena said as she turned toward the familiar voice that had tormented so much of her life in the last year.

"Oh Xena, you didn't forget me. That's so sweet," Callisto replied in a mocking tone, her hand absently fondling her blonde mane. 'No, if I have my way Xena, you will remember me for all eternity in Tartarus.' Fueled by hatred and bitterness at the events that had shattered and shaped her young life Callisto had only on goal in mindÉto make Xena pay.

"Callisto, you can't win so give it up," Hercules commanded as he positioned himself beside Xena.

"Give up?! You should know by now that I never give upÉdo I XENA?" Callisto hissed, her voice dripping with venom. "This battle is mine and you can't stop me. Oh but you'll try won't you Princess?" Turning back and locking eyes with the warrior she started down the temple steps and came to a stop approximately twenty feet away. Their eyes bore into one another as if their battle could be fought and won solely by the force of their wills. Callisto was the first to relent as her mind registered a missing participant to her "favorite game".

"I see you left the irritating blonde at home again or did she get smart and leave you?"

"Leave Gabrielle out of this Callisto," Xena snapped as she slowly placed her hand on her Chakrum.

"But where would be the fun in that?" Callisto said as her maniacal laugh trailed through the air. "We'll see each other again. Count on it!" she said waving her hand above her head with a flourish.

Before Xena or Hercules could move Callisto vanished in a fireball of light. Mounting Argo quickly, Xena and Hercules knew the countdown had begun. Only one thought ruled Xena's mindÉGABRIELLE.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

CHAPTER 6

The sun had set shortly after finishing their evening meal and Gabrielle relaxed into her nightly routine of composing and revising stories while Iolaus sharpened his sword. 'It must be a warrior thing.' Gabrielle thought to herself. Periodically she recited portions of a story, accepting ideas and criticism wherever needed.

"I think we should call it a night. Xena and Hercules should be back in the morning," Iolaus said as he rose to prepare his bedroll. With a yawn the bard nodded her head and returned the scrolls and quill to the leather bag. "Your blanket isn't dry yet so you can use mine."

"No, you keep it," Gabrielle insisted. She had managed during other times and she could do it again. No sense in making Iolaus uncomfortable. It wasn't his fault.

"No, no. I'm use to roughing it. I'll be fine by the fire. Please, take it."

"All right," Gabrielle said as she laid on her bedroll and fell to sleep almost immediately.

Iolaus placed his bedroll beside the fire and stared into the flames in an attempt to fall asleep but succeeded only in being able to recall the events of the dayÉ 'Her sweet smileÉher laughterÉthe smell of her hairÉthe feel of her skinÉMorpheus, help me!'

Sometime during the night a cold wind began to blow through the camp. Gabrielle's peaceful sleep was rudely interrupted by a strange clicking sound. Rising on her elbows she scanned the camp trying to find the source of the noise. It appeared to come from the center but since the fire had burned down to embers it was difficult to see. Quietly and cautiously the bard walked toward the sound, noticing that it grew louder with each advancing step. Kneeling behind Iolaus she suppressed a small giggle. The sight caused a mixture of laughter and guilt to vie for attention in the bard's mind. He lay on his side with knees and arms curled against his chest like a child. The noise that had so rudely drawn her from Morpheus' care was simply the chattering of Iolaus' teeth. Knowing she was the cause of Iolaus' discomfort Gabrielle quickly returned with the blanket and huddled closely behind him to share in the warmth. It wasn't long before the shivering and chattering from her companion stopped and Gabrielle once again found sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~

The road was difficult to see as they galloped through the darkness. Relying heavily on Argo's natural instincts to guide them, Hercules hoped they would make it back to camp by morning. Even the weather seemed to be turning against the trio as the wind gusted frequently from the north and dense clouds hid the only source of light. Xena clutched the woolen blanket tightly around their bodies in a vain attempt to ward off the chilly air.

Although Argo was in fit condition even her endurance was waning. Hercules could feel Xena's head resting against his back as sleep would frequently overtake her stoic resolve. It was during one of these slumbers that the war-horse was forced to swerve to miss a fallen boulder. Argo recovered quickly but her riders, being caught off guard, lost their balance and fell hard to the ground. Realizing the inevitable, Hercules had attempted to twist and take the impact himself but Xena's body unfortunately took the brunt of the fall. He could hear the terrible sound of air being forcibly pushed from Xena's lungs as their bodies came to a sudden halt. Moving cautiously so as not to cause any further harm, Hercules lifted himself off Xena's chest and checked for breathing and a pulse.

"You could have simply asked me for a kiss," Xena said in a seductive voice as she opened her eyes and tried to focus on the figure before her.

"You know me. I like to knock women off their feet before I make my move," Hercules said in a similar tone, keeping the banter going. "Seriously, Xena, are you hurt anywhere?"

"I don't think so. Nothing feels broken. I just got the wind knocked out of me that's all," Xena said, slowly rising to a sitting position. Balancing herself on one arm she rubbed the back of her head with the other arm.

"Did you hit your head?" Hercules asked as he began his own examination of Xena's head. "There is a small knot but no skin was broken. Good thing you are hard headed."

"Then I'm in good company, aren't I?" Xena said while cutting her eyes and giving a playful smirk to her friend.

"WhatÉmeÉhard headed?" Hercules asked pointing at himself.

"YeahÉyou." Xena shook her head at her friend's clueless act.

"Well at least I'm not stubborn like some people I know."

"I'm not stubborn. I'm strong-willed."

Hercules' eyes opened wide. "Is that what their calling it now?"

"Gabrielle is the stubborn one."

"And Iolaus."

"How did we do thatÉI mean each of us getting stuck with two stubborn people?"

"Opposites attract?" Hercules offered somewhat timidly as he gazed into azure pools.

"Must be," Xena said as she felt her emotions betraying her. It always amazed her how quickly thoughts and feelings could change when she was in Hercules' presence. Very few men had this effect on herÉbut then again Hercules wasn't like most men. 'You helped me see there was another way. I could conquer the anger and rage and replace it with love and compassion. I could defeat those demons that feasted like piranha on my wounded soul. I could recreate myself each and every day. But even more than that you showed me the unconditional forgiveness of love. I had buried those feelings so long ago. Was it fate that brought us together then and is it fate that brings us together now? No one ignites the passions that I've kept buried deep in the recesses of my heart the way you do. Are you my destinyÉ?'

'I think I could free-fall into those pools and never reach the bottom. Not since Deianeira has anyone captured my heart as you have. I set you free once to find your way but what about this time? Have the Fates intertwined our life threads and set us on a different course? Are you my destinyÉ?'

Lost in the moment, they had forgotten about Argo until a nudge to Hercules' back quickly brought them to reality. Reluctantly Hercules reached an arm forward and helped Xena to her feet. Hercules gently caressed the back of Xena's hands with his thumbs as he stalled for time. 'Courage my friend. Just tell her how you feel. It's just Xena.'

Feeling a little self-conscious with Hercules' touch Xena tried to control the fires that were igniting throughout her entire body. 'Be strong. Tell him how you feel. It's just Hercules.'

"XenaÉ"

"HerculesÉ." They both spoke at the same time.

Slightly embarrassed by the situation Hercules grinned and said, "Ladies first."

"No, no. I interrupted so you go first," Xena replied.

Swallowing hard and exhaling Hercules gazed into crystalline pools. "Xena, I think we shouldÉbe on our way." 'You are such a chicken.'

"Yeah, uhÉyou're right," Xena said turning away quickly so Hercules couldn't see the look of relief on her face.

They traveled quietly through the darkness with Xena's arms encircling his waist and Hercules' hand firmly but gently holding her arm, each lost in their own thoughts of what wasÉand what could beÉ.

Continued in Part 2.


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