Additionally, the story below contains references, explicit and implied, of a sexual relationship between two consenting adults of the same sex. If you are not of legal age to read this story, or such material is illegal where you live, or you do not feel comfortable with such content, please refrain from reading this story.
Timeline Notes: After "When We Dance, Who Leads?" and between episodes "A Comedy of Eros" and "The Furies."
(c) June 1998
Xena and Gabrielle approached one of the final rises before western Greece would be spread out in the lower land before them. The bard sat in front of the warrior on Argo, having chosen the close quarters when Xena had reached down one too many times to touch Gabrielle's shoulder. She hadn't said anything, but Gabrielle knew she preferred the bard to stay close. So she'd hopped aboard to Xena's great relief.
Now Xena, her hands lightly resting on Gabrielle's waist as she gripped the reins, pulled Argo to a stop.
"What's up?" Gabrielle looked around.
"Shh, I hear something." Xena looked over her shoulder and then peered into the trees off to their left. "There's a fight over there."
Gabrielle began to slide off Argo, but Xena stayed her with a firm hand. "Let's go see what's up," insisted the bard.
"We will. Just ride into it with me instead of walking, okay?" Xena turned Argo and with a sharp nudge to the mare's flanks, broke into the tree line following the sounds of the battle, which were finally becoming clear to the less skilled ears of the bard.
Metal clashed with metal and grunts and groans filled the air as they got closer. Xena pushed Argo into a short jump to break free of the foliage into the clearing occupied with battle.
Gabrielle slid off the mare's back pulling her staff from the loops in the saddle blanket. Xena leapt forward over Argo's head, dropping into the middle of the fight, her sword already swinging. She intercepted a blow meant to decapitate.
Gabrielle turned to find her first opponent and froze momentarily as she saw Xena standing next to the man they were defending. Joxer. He swung his sword in time with Xena, but was nowhere near as effective. He yelled across the clearing, "Hi Gabrielle. Hold on, I'm coming!"
Gabrielle shook her head and turned away from him. Xena watched out of the corner of her eye as Joxer thrust this way and that with his sword trying to cross the space separating him and the bard. She kicked a man trying to sneak up behind the warrior, and then turned to gauge Gabrielle's situation. The bard was surrounded but doing all right and holding her own. Joxer stepped up behind one man nearing Gabrielle. Xena grabbed for her chakram. Gabrielle had turned and her attention was caught by Joxer's motions, so she missed seeing a man raise his sword to her from behind.
Joxer saw the threat at the same time as Xena. The man leapt for the sword, grabbing it, preventing Xena from getting a clear shot. She growled, and kicked a nearby assailant in the groin in her anger. "Gabrielle!" she yelled for the bard, since Joxer's interference only managed to change the angle of the man's swing and it was still headed for Gabrielle's back.
The bard jumped aside and Joxer and the man fell together, rolling and wrestling on the dirt. Gabrielle and Xena poised over the situation, looking for an opening to hit Joxer's opponent. The way they were rolling around, neither woman could get a clear shot. Finally, Xena reached down and was able to grab a fistful of a shirt collar flinging Joxer's opponent aside.
The lanky warrior was down on his hands and knees, blood streaming from several wounds. The bard could not see the extent of his injuries, but didn't have time to look any closer as a burly man with a sword tried to sneak up behind her. With a quick flick of her wrist and arms, she slammed the end of her staff into his stomach, doubling him over. Then she swung the other end around in an arc and brought the staff's heavy weight crashing down on his helmeted head. He fell over like an axed tree, lying full out on the ground.
She turned to her task in full concentration, defending a circle around Argo, while Xena defended a circle around Joxer. The fight finished quickly, and Gabrielle knocked her last opponent unconscious before approaching Xena.
The woman warrior was already on her knees, assessing Joxer's wounds. The man had passed out. Gabrielle, as she came closer, saw why.The lanky warrior had several body wounds, two severe enough that blood pooled under his still form. His left arm lay at an impossible angle, obviously broken in several places, and his right leg twisted underneath his body awkwardly, also broken.
Gabrielle knelt next to Xena, watching the warrior put Joxer out of most of his pain with pressure points. Gabrielle could see a huge purple lump beginning to form at Joxer's right temple. "Is he going to be all right?" asked Gabrielle.
"Everything appears to be repairable. I need to straighten him out a bit in order to check his ribs. What in Hades' name was he doing out here?" The warrior mumbled something else that Gabrielle didn't catch as she helped Xena gently straighten Joxer's legs, and settled his arms at his side.
"Can we move him?" Gabrielle looked at the men beginning to stir in the clearing.
"We'll have to. You get a blanket and lay it out. I'll see that we're not disturbed when we finally get him onto it and move to a campsite for a while." Gabrielle fetched one of their blankets from the saddle, and smoothed it out next to the unconscious Joxer.
Xena went around to the men in the clearing assuring their continued unconsciousness. "When they wake up, they'll take off, and we'll be out of sight by then," Xena explained as she came back to Gabrielle at Joxer's side. The lanky warrior had not stirred once.
Gabrielle used a small cloth to clean up what she could, removing blood and caked dirt from several of the deep gashes on his face and shoulders. Xena stayed her hand when the warrior began to moan. "We've got to get him out of here first."
"Right." Gabrielle stood and backed up. Xena examined the situation and the bard could see her make a decision.
"Don't help. This is going to be painful enough for him as it is." Xena rolled Joxer onto his stomach, supporting as much of his body as possible in the rotation. It worried Gabrielle greatly that Joxer didn't moan or make any sound at all. "Now, move the blanket underneath."
Gabrielle quickly smoothed the blanket where Joxer had been lying and stepped back again. Xena rolled him back over, this time onto the blanket.
"Think you can help me lift? Dragging him over the ground could kill him. A broken rib could puncture a lung."
Gabrielle nodded and bent down, grasping the corners of the blanket on either side of Joxer's legs. Xena grabbed the corners of the blanket on either side of Joxer's head. "Ready?"
"Ready. Heave." Trying to move in tandem, Xena and Gabrielle both lifted straight up. "Be careful," warned Xena. "We've got to keep his body pretty level. There's a spring over here. We'll set up camp there."
Gabrielle gritted her teeth and she and Xena moved Joxer as carefully as possible. She cautiously stepped over and around rocks and sticks so she didn't risk tripping herself and dropping Joxer. Xena moved just as carefully. If Gabrielle raised or lowered her arms, Xena would adjust so that Joxer remained nearly level. "Think he was coming to get us?"
Xena shook her head, her face drawn in worry. "I have no idea. Hopefully we can get him to tell us soon."
"When do you think he'll wake up?"
"I don't know." The warrior shook her head and studied Joxer's face. Gabrielle watched as Xena's face grew dark, then forbiddingly angry. But the bard knew she wasn't angry at Gabrielle. And it wasn't Joxer. Every time her eyes roamed his broken and battered body, a furrow of worry appeared in her brow.
"Is he going to be all right?" Gabrielle asked. "How bad does it look?"
"There's the broken arm and leg. Four broken ribs that I can see clearly. A concussion, and a stomach wound," Xena ran down the list clinically as the two women gently laid Joxer down in the middle of a clearing by a spring-fed lake.
Xena went back to get Argo and her medical supplies while Gabrielle set up camp. Xena would need the fire as close as possible to Joxer so that she could easily work on him while also preparing mixtures. So Gabrielle built the fire pit about four feet from where Joxer lay, still unconscious. Then she gathered kindling in the clearing. As Gabrielle set spark to the dry wood with flint and tinder, Xena returned with Argo and their supplies. As Xena knelt by Joxer and began removing his armor, Gabrielle left the clearing in search of wood to keep up the fire she'd started with flint and kindling.
When she returned, Xena had Joxer's stomach wound staunched, and was just leaning back from having set his broken leg. Xena had sliced the leather pantleg away.
"The leg set pretty quickly."
"Did he wake up?" Gabrielle stacked the wood by the fire, and leaned over Xena's shoulder, studying Joxer's face.
"I'm going to have to try and bring him around next. Get a sense about his head injury." Xena laid her hand over Gabrielle's when the bard clutched her shoulder.
Gabrielle shook her head and rubbed her arm. "If he hadn't tried to protect me..." Xena put a finger over the bard's lips, when she pulled it away, Gabrielle finished with, "When will he learn not to stretch beyond his skills?"
Xena shook her head. "I don't know, Gabrielle. But let's get him up and around and then I'll try and have a talk with him."
"More trail rations tonight?"
"I think you ought to go fishing," replied Xena, leaning forward to check the status of Joxer's stomach wound. "I'll need the fish oil to mix with the paste I'm going to have to put in here."
Gabrielle stood, and moved back to let Xena stand beside her. She ran a hand over the warrior's skin, just above her armor plate. Then pinned the warrior with her green eyes. "Come with me? He'll be fine for a few minutes."
Xena smiled warmly at Gabrielle and bent to gently touch her lips in a soft kiss. When she lifted her head away though, she said, "Once I'm sure Joxer's sleeping, not in any danger from his injuries, okay?" Gabrielle gripped the warrior's hand and pressed it to her collarbone. Xena let her fingers drift over the bard's soft skin. "I promise."
Gabrielle nodded and stepped back. "I'll get the fish. You think he'll eat anything by tonight?"
Xena shook her head. "Probably not. I do hope he'll be awake by then though. Find out what he was doing out here. And assure myself he'll live."
Gabrielle watched Xena return to Joxer's side and begin to work on the man's broken arm. The warrior shook her head and whispered something to the unconscious man, but Gabrielle didn't hear. The bard turned, picked up the waterskins and headed for the spring. She'd come back with fresh water as well as fish.
Xena was half finished strapping
Joxer's ribs when the man
finally came around. She had lifted him up and was pulling the cloths under his back when his eyes opened. Finding himself in a soft bosom, he cleared his throat.
"Glad to know you're still in the land of the living, Joxer," commented Xena dryly, continuing her work. "Let me know if I pull anything wrong. I've not deadened any of the areas I've been working on since you've been out cold."
Joxer groaned then, feeling the pain in his leg first. The ache started to move up his back. "Um, now that you mention it..."
"Yes?" She settled him back down and finished pulling the cloths tight around his chest.
"Ah, thanks." He breathed a small sigh of relief as the pressure released. Then he groaned again as the pressure on his ribs twitched while she tied off the bandage. "So, what's the damages?"
Xena shook her head but answered him truthfully. "Your arm's broken in two places. Looks like a horse stepped on your left leg. Four broken ribs that I can see clearly. A stomach wound which I finally staunched," Xena replied. "Let me take a look at your eyes." She leaned close and pulled his chin up, studying the pupils. "And a concussion."
"Ah, typical day on the road," commented Joxer. "Thanks, Xena. I'll be going now."
"You're not going anywhere, Joxer. That leg won't be useful for at least a week, and even then you're going to need to keep as much weight off it as possible for about two more weeks."
Joxer snorted. "Don't think I can take a little pain? You've never seen me..."
Xena shook her head, and grabbed his chin. "Joxer, I've never seen you this badly broken either. I'd prefer you not get yourself killed."
"I'm my own man, Xena, you can't --"
"You're staying put and that's final. I'll let you go as soon as you can get around under your own power, and I'm sure you'll live out a week's travel." Xena's voice raised a bit as she tried to make him understand. Then she fell silent.
"I'm sorry I'm such a problem for you, Xena. Here you go saving my life again." Joxer laid back and studied his disarrayed body. "Where's Gabrielle?"
"Down at the lake fishing for our dinner."
"You let her go alone?"
Xena shook her head. "She can take care of herself."
Joxer frowned and pursed his lips. Xena wanted to divine his thoughts, but after another moment she didn't have to guess. There was a lot of self-directed derision in his tone when he remarked, "Yeah, unlike me, stupid, incompetent Joxer."
Xena sat back. "You are not stupid, Joxer," she said sternly.
"Noticed you didn't argue the 'incompetent' part." Joxer saw her face darken. "No, you're right, Xena. I should have figured it out long ago."
"What is that?" Gabrielle appeared at the clearing.
Joxer and Xena both looked up at Gabrielle, taking in the bard's wet hair, and damp skin. Both felt a sharp twinge of passion. Then one caught sight of the cut, just closing itself on her shoulder. Joxer growled at himself.
"How'd you get that?" he asked.
Gabrielle shrugged. "Probably in the fight this afternoon. Just a scratch."
"That's it. I'm getting out of here." He struggled a bit to sit up, and ignored Xena's warning glare. "Gabrielle shouldn't have been out there fighting for me." He didn't say it, but Xena understood what went unsaid: I should have been out there fighting for her.
Gabrielle pushed him back down. "Just let Xena get you healed and then you can go. For now, we'll stay here. All of us."
Then she went to the fire and began preparing their dinner. Xena turned back and gave Joxer another stern look, saying nothing.
Joxer watched Gabrielle's profile flickering in the firelight. It wasn't dark yet, but the fire still cast her face in a soft orange glow and added fire to the highlights of her hair. "Xena?"
"Yes, Joxer?" She accepted a waterskin from Gabrielle and mixed some pain herbs into a cup of water. She handed it to Joxer and though it looked for a moment he would refuse. The words barely formed in his head before her look quelled him and he sheepishly took the cup, drinking down the contents. He handed back the cup, laid back gingerly, and closed his eyes. She nodded approval and turned to Gabrielle at the fireside.
The bard had just laid the fish over the fire. Xena came up behind her, resting her hands on the bard's bare shoulders. "Enjoy your swim?" she murmured quietly.
"Yes, I did."
"Come here." Xena pulled Gabrielle to her feet and looked over her shoulder at Joxer. She tugged Gabrielle just out of sight of the sleeping man on the bedroll.
When Xena let her up from the kiss, Gabrielle sighed, "I'll have to come back to the campsite damp more often."
Xena chuckled and nibbled the bard's chin and throat. She ran a hand down the bard's side and rested it against her bare stomach. "You do that."
"So what did Joxer have to say when I was coming in?"
Xena shook her head. "I started to talk to him but he's pretty down on himself. I'm not sure what's going to happen next." She looked back at Joxer. "I have this feeling. And it's not good."
Gabrielle sighed and put her hand on Xena's chest. "So, you're going to stay up tonight?"
Xena caught the note of disappointment in Gabrielle's voice. "Just until this uneasy feeling goes away."
The bard nodded and then smiled. "All right. But just until then. I trust your uneasy feelings."
Xena returned the smile and turned away from Gabrielle. The warrior laid out her blanket near Joxer's so that she could be close during the night. The bard settled on her blanket on the other side of the fire and retrieved the fish from the flames.
"Dinner is served," Gabrielle said, passing across a platter with the fish and some bread and cheese.
"Thanks." Xena started eating, keeping one eye on sleeping Joxer.
"Did he happen to tell you why he was in the area at least?"
"Not just yet. Time enough to learn that. He's going to be laid up for a while."
Gabrielle shook her head as she thought about the damage Joxer had taken. "I've never seen him so bad off. I mean stubbed toes, pulled muscles, that's usually the extent of it."
"He got in well over his head this time. There were five of them."
Gabrielle almost said something but then shrugged, apparently changing her mind. "What are we going to do?"
"I'm going to get him back on his feet, then well, then maybe what's next is your department."
"Get him to go someplace and settle down. Maybe send him off to Meg?"
"He'll just come running after us again."
"Then you've got to be convincing."
"I don't think I can, Xena. Joxer is just too..."
"Too what?" interjected the warrior having opened his eyes and hearing himself being discussed.
"Well, I -- " Gabrielle came to an embarrassed halt.
"Just say it Gabrielle. I'm what?"
"Joxer, she didn't mean anything by it. We're just concerned."
"Concerned about me? What for? You think I'm a joke." He struggled to sit up, and finally Xena reached over and helped him up. His face just got darker. "Well, you know what, Xena? You're right. I can't fight." He held himself stiffly, his face turning red with the effort, but his voice had an uncommon venom. "I can't defend myself, and I certainly am not getting any better at staying out of trouble. What's this make? The fourth or fifth time you've rescued me? What would have happened to me if you hadn't come along? Well? Tell me that."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks. Since Gabrielle had been the one to stick her foot in it, Xena tried to answer. "You've told us you came from a family of warlords, Joxer. We met Jett. You're a better man than he is, but you're no fighter."
"Because no one has ever taught me," he replied. "Everything I've learned I've taught myself."
Gabrielle looked from Joxer to Xena and took a nod from the latter to say, "I think I'll go clean our dishes." She stood and gathered the platters.
When Gabrielle was out of earshot, Xena shook her head and responded under her breath, "Then that should be a clue, Joxer."
"You weren't perfect your entire life either, Xena. Somebody taught you. Didn't they?"
"Yeah, and look what I did with that knowledge."
Joxer would not be swayed. "Xena, you've got to teach me how to fight. Or at least defend myself."
Xena adamantly shook her head. "Not a chance, Joxer."
"Why not? You taught Gabrielle."
"She chooses to spar with me."
"So, spar with me. You have to, Xena. I'm tired of being the butt of everyone's jokes."
"You're not the butt of any jokes, Joxer. Your heart is always in the right place."
"Yeah? So help me put my sword in the right places too."
"Joxer, you don't know what you're asking."
The warrior grabbed the knife Gabrielle had used to debone the fish. "Gabrielle is better than I am. Xena, don't you understand? I can't live with that!" He threw the knife across the campsite. The path of the flying knife narrowly missed Argo's hindquarters. The mare skittered and neighed, turning her head to stare at the two by the campfire. The knife imbedded itself in a tree.
"Joxer!" Xena grabbed for the warrior, valiantly restraining her urge to hit him for endangering her horse.
He pulled free of Xena's grasp and grabbed another knife, threatening her with it. She let go of him only because she was startled. If the look in his eyes had been less dark, Xena might have laughed at being held at knifepoint. Sweet, affable Joxer had given way to a man Xena wasn't sure she knew. The Warrior Princess knew then that Joxer was probably capable of harming himself further before the night was over.
She grabbed his hand and pried the knife from his grip. "We'll talk about this in the morning, when you're feeling more yourself," she said between tightly clenched teeth. "Go to sleep."
Joxer grimaced at the pain in his hand from her grip, but would not back down. "This is not over, Xena. If you don't teach me, I'll find someone who will."
"You'll get killed Joxer," she replied grimly.
"Better that than living like this. In front of her," he replied lowering his voice and lying back as Gabrielle returned to the campsite.
Xena shook her head and moved away. Gabrielle met her just outside the firelight.
"Get a better sense of that uneasy feeling?" asked the bard.
Xena didn't want to worry Gabrielle with Joxer's shocking words, so she said simply, "It'll look better to him in the morning. You get some sleep." She kissed the bard's forehead and let her go to her blanket.
Xena sat up by the fire, staring into the flames intently trying to figure out what to do about Joxer. She couldn't teach him. That would be to condone his continued pursuit of becoming a warrior. She didn't want to do that.
But that look. Xena shivered, remembering that look. She'd never seen Joxer that angry before. Something about that look spoke of a dangerous promise to do himself harm. She couldn't allow that either.
Something cracked a branch just outside
the clearing. Xena jumped up to see what it was, after noting that both
Gabrielle and Joxer slept soundly.
Xena released the rabbit from the branches in which it had caught itself, and was watching it disappear when Gabrielle's scream brought Xena racing back to the camp.
"What is it?" Xena found Gabrielle wrestling with Joxer.
"He was cutting at his bandages."
Xena pulled Gabrielle off Joxer and gently set the bard aside. She grasped the warrior's shoulders and pinned him with her gaze. He did not wither. "So what?" he snapped.
Gabrielle rubbed her shoulder where Joxer had struck her with his fist. "I think I'll go out for a few minutes." For the second time that evening, Gabrielle judiciously took herself away.
"You hit Gabrielle?!" Xena shook the man until his groan reminded her he was injured. "Joxer! What in Hades' name has gotten into you?"
"You don't care!"
"Joxer, I care enough not to strike you right now. A very close thing, okay? I will... not permit you... to harm Gabrielle. Ever." She took a deep breath. "Now. What were you doing with the knife?"
"None of your business."
"Do you know what it would do to Gabrielle to find you dead in the morning?"
"I wouldn't be stupid enough to let her find me."
"So you were trying to kill yourself?"
"I needed to get up and walk around for a while," he retorted, not really answering her question.
"Joxer, your leg is broken. You weren't going to be able to go anywhere very quickly."
"I wanted to get away from here."
"From her you mean?" Xena nodded when he looked up. "Yes, Joxer, I know how you feel. It's not hard. I feel it myself. Whether or not you're a good warrior is not important. You're a good man, Joxer. That's what matters."
"But -- "
"Joxer listen to me. Gabrielle would never forgive you." She braced herself. She'd have to argue with Gabrielle about what she was about to say, so she wanted to make absolutely sure Joxer understood. "I'll teach you enough to defend yourself. Nothing more."
Gabrielle returned to find such a look of happiness on Joxer's face before the warrior hugged Xena that she felt a moment of uncertainty. "Feeling better, Joxer?"
"Um, yeah, sure." Joxer pulled away from Xena. "Thank you for telling me I won't lose my leg, Xena."
"You'll be fine, Joxer. As long as you listen to me for the next few days." Xena shot him a look that he correctly interpreted as Don't say anything. I'll talk to Gabrielle myself.
"You got it, Xena."
Gabrielle went back to her blanket and settled again looking into the fire. Xena walked out of the campsite. When they were alone, Gabrielle asked Joxer, "Were you trying to leave before Xena gave you a bill of good health?"
"No, I... I saw a panther out there and was going to stop him before he came into the camp," replied Joxer with a fierce look.
Gabrielle nodded. "Good night, Joxer." The bard laid back on her blanket and looked up at the stars briefly before closing her eyes.
"Good night, Gabrielle."
Just outside the campsite, Xena leaned against a tree watching Joxer and Gabrielle's exchange. Now I've done it, Xena thought. She made a promise to herself to knock Joxer on his butt a few times just because he continued in his false bravery. That'd be his first lesson.
When both Gabrielle and Joxer were asleep, Xena returned to the camp and rolled into her own blanket, wishing morning would never come.
It did, of course. Xena was up before Gabrielle or Joxer moving quickly through her morning workout. She returned to camp just as Gabrielle was stirring.
"Morning, sleepyhead," Xena said warmly, leaning close. Gabrielle was always so soft looking in the morning, it made Xena want to repeatedly ravish the bard. Gabrielle walked with Xena down to the spring. Both women stripped and slid into the water. Gabrielle moved behind Xena with the soap.
Gabrielle looked up and smiled at the look of lust on Xena's face, then she noticed the thin sheen of perspiration she was washing off. "Good workout this morning?"
"Couldn't do any other workout," replied Xena with a lustful smile.
"What did you promise Joxer last night, Xena?"
Xena pulled back and answered honestly, watching Gabrielle's face carefully. "I promised I'd teach him." She held up a hand. "To defend himself."
"He wants more."
"Can you do this?"
"What other choice do I have? I won't be responsible for his death."
"I'll talk him into going back to Meg."
"He won't do that. Something in his face, Gabrielle. I saw... I don't know. I saw Jett there for a moment."
Gabrielle shivered. "Joxer could never do anything like that."
"I'm not so sure, Gabrielle." Xena shook her head. "If I don't teach him he will get himself killed. I'm certain of it now."
Gabrielle sighed. "Along with some fighting skill, do you think you can explain to him when he should run?"
Xena laughed. "I'll certainly try. We'd better get back to camp."
When the two women returned to camp, they found Joxer sitting up stiffly trying to pull his own pack toward him. Exchanging a look with Gabrielle, Xena picked up the pack and dropped it next to Joxer. "First thing, Joxer. Speak up when you need something. I won't train you if you don't get your full strength back. And you can't do that until you mend."
Gabrielle watched Joxer's back stiffen but then he caught a look from Xena and the bravado fell aside. This might work after all.
It took five more days of changing bandages and replacing the splints both Joxer's arm and leg but soon the warrior was moving about the campsite with the help of a staff. His leg was still encased in a splint, though it was separated at the knee so he could bend it if necessary. His thigh bone would take many weeks to fully mend. Until then he needed the extra support from the wood strips.
Each night, Xena talked strategy with him before he fell asleep and after Gabrielle had retired. Slowly his spirits lifted. Xena taught him how to wield his staff as a weapon even as he leaned against a tree or other support.
"You need to know how to fight even wounded," she explained when he asked why.
"But the whole point is to learn to fight so I don't get wounded," he replied.
"No. Even I get wounded, Joxer. Fighting takes a lot of skills, and one of them is the skill to remain in the fight even when you have injuries."
She reached out and swung a fist at him. He didn't stop it and she clipped his shoulder almost knocking him off balance. "Hey!"
"Another skill you have to develop is your reflexes, Joxer. You have to concentrate all the time. Again, that doesn't matter whether you're wounded or perfectly healthy. Got it?"
Gabrielle called out from the campsite. "Lunch!"
Joxer stumbled away from the tree. "Great! I'm starving," he said, in his usual cheerful voice.
Xena shook her head and followed him back to camp.
That night, Gabrielle sat up a little while, listening as Xena and Joxer conversed about strategies for close quarters fighting. Joxer yawned and Gabrielle straightened a bit. "Hey, Joxer, why don't you go to bed? You two can finish this discussion in the morning."
Joxer looked over at Gabrielle, and for an unguarded moment, she saw the flash of pleasure he felt at her words, obviously considering them in a different light. "Thanks, Gabrielle. Yeah, Xena, we'll finish in the morning."
Xena watched Joxer lay back and immediately close his eyes. When she was assured he slept, the warrior moved to Gabrielle's blankets. "Hi, stranger," she whispered to the bard.
"Hi there, yourself. So, do you think it's working?" Gabrielle slipped her hand into Xena's on the warrior's knee and looked up into blue eyes, noticing a watery sheen and half-closed lids. "Hey, you're tired. Come here."
"I should get to the perimeter."
"There's nothing out there, Xena. For once, just sleep tonight?" Gabrielle rubbed a hand over the warrior's shoulder. "And get out of this stuff," she tugged at the shoulder plate.
Xena smiled and unbuckled her breastplate and shoulder coverings, setting them aside. Now the bard's nimble fingers slipped across hard, and truth to tell, knotted muscle.
"Is he improving at least?" The bard posed her question while her fingers dug into the layers of muscle.
Sigh. "He's got a long way to go, Gabrielle."
"But he's getting better?"
"I've managed to kill some of that false bravado, so I guess yeah, he's getting better," replied the warrior, just before she groaned as Gabrielle's fingers crumbled the last knot in her right shoulder. "Geez... ah..." commented Xena gratefully, dropping her head forward.
Gabrielle worked on the muscles in Xena's shoulders until she could hear the warrior's breathing even. Gabrielle was pleased. It wasn't often Xena allowed herself to fall asleep during a massage. The bard lifted Xena's chin, the simple movement enough to awaken her. "Lie down," she instructed softly.
Xena nodded and laid herself out on Gabrielle's blanket, face down. The bard slipped a leg over her buttocks and straddled her hips, soft firm hands rubbed at the aches and tensions in Xena's back. Gabrielle leaned forward, kissing Xena's cheek as she prodded the muscles loose in the warrior's neck and along her spine. "You smell nice," commented the warrior in a faint voice as Gabrielle's scent filled her nose. She rolled over onto her back, until Gabrielle's and her centers were pressed close. The heat of their bodies there mingled, and intensified. Xena caressed Gabrielle's extended arms.
Gabrielle smiled and slid her body along Xena's until she was lying with her own shoulder tucked into Xena's. Their eyes were inches apart as their bodies met and warmed, at their breasts, hips and thighs. Gabrielle's fingers traced over Xena's defined cheekbones and the warrior closed her eyes, a smile on her lips.
"Too bad we can't do anything," murmured Xena. "I think I could be persuaded..."
Gabrielle murmured in Xena's ear. "Why can't we?" Xena looked up into tempting green eyes. "It's our camp."
Xena was interested, very interested, but Joxer... Something about his presence dampened her desire. "What would you say to ducking out of our camp for a while?" Xena ran a finger over Gabrielle's collarbone.
Gabrielle sucked in her breath. That was one of the bard's most sensitive spots and Xena knew it. Just the thought of Xena's touch, as this light caress promised, made Gabrielle wet with expectation. Her voice was husky with desire when she met Xena's eyes and whispered back, "Let's go."
Xena smiled and sat up, pulling Gabrielle with her. She wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's slim waist and nibbled the soft skin behind the bard's ear, even as she guided herself and the bard into seclusion behind some bushes.
There, lying in the clover, Xena stripped Gabrielle and caressed the bard until the blonde wanted to scream, and finally she did, passionately crying out even as the warrior's mouth swallowed her cry.
Xena chuckled, and laid back, pulling the weak-as-a-kitten bard into the cradle of her shoulder. "I love making you weak for me," Xena murmured, kissing the bard's damp brow. "You're always so strong. It's like you give me your strength, if only for a few moments," she added with a whisper.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and, smiling into the warrior's skin, kissed Xena's throat. "Mmmmm," she murmured contentedly, stroking the warrior's flat stomach and then tugging at the curls at the top of Xena's mound. "I want my strength back, but I don't have the energy to get it right now. Let's stay here, and in the morning... yeah, in the morning, I'll give you paybacks."
Xena chuckled and closed her eyes, feeling Gabrielle tuck her head beneath Xena's chin.
Gabrielle felt Xena's muscles tense beneath her sleepy form only a half moment before the warrior sat up suddenly.
"What's wrong?" Gabrielle cleared her throat when her voice came out all sleepy and gravelly. She tugged at Xena's shift. The warrior scanned their immediate surroundings, a look of unfamiliarity crossing it briefly. Gabrielle poked at a strong arm. "If you say you can't remember how we got here, we're in big trouble," Gabrielle added. "Would you look at me?"
Xena scooted back, leaning against a nearby tree as Gabrielle sat up. Crystal blue eyes finally settled on Gabrielle's face and Xena shook her head. "I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry about. What's up?" Gabrielle nestled in Xena's shoulder as the warrior tried to shrug. "And don't tell me something's not up."
"You know me so well then?" Xena's eyebrow quirked and Gabrielle laughed, running a gentle hand over the warrior's inner thigh. Xena tried to stifle the laugh that bubbled up in her chest at the bard's soft touch. Gabrielle's eyes twinkled. "Okay, okay, so you know me a little bit."
Gabrielle began tickling in earnest and Xena slid down the tree's trunk until she was laughing right along with her bard. Finally
Gabrielle pulled back and, as Xena sat up, said, "So tell me what's going on?"
Xena nodded, thinking for a moment. "Where's Joxer?"
"Back at camp -- our camp, probably sleeping like a baby. Why?" Gabrielle crossed her arms over her knees as she sat up and waited for the explanation.
"Do you remember me saying I had a feeling about Joxer earlier?" Xena ruminated, remembering the sudden rush of anxiety that had crossed her mind as she'd studied Joxer's face. "It... Well, it brought back a few things."
"Things? Like warlord days things?" Gabrielle shifted her position again and grasped Xena's upper arm, stroking the muscles gently.
"No, older than that."
Gabrielle thought a moment. "Back in Amphipolis? When Cortese attacked?"
Xena shook her head. "I was twelve."
Gabrielle nodded. "You were twelve?" She smiled, trying to lighten the mood a little. Xena's face had grown very dark, shadowed by some memory Gabrielle didn't yet understand.
Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand and settled their interlocked hands on her own lap. "His name was Metanus. He was older than me. One of my brother Toris' friends."
Gabrielle was quiet. Xena looked over and found soft green eyes looking back. Finally Gabrielle spoke. "I'm listening. I'm just trying to wrap my mind around a picture of you at twelve. Must've been adorable."
"I had already been training with the village men in warfare for a year, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle sighed. "Really?"
Xena nodded. "I can't remember a time when I didn't have a sword in my hand."
Gabrielle nodded. "The whole life of a 'Chosen', they say, no matter which god or goddess, is guided from birth."
Xena shrugged. "Funny thing is I don't remember meeting Ares until I was already a military leader."
Gabrielle was startled by that, but then remembered that wasn't the point of this conversation. "Oh. Hmmm. Well, tell me some more about Metanus."
Xena closed her eyes. It was her fault for even mentioning what was actually bothering her. Now Gabrielle wouldn't let it go. Xena knew she should explain and sighed. Life had been a lot simpler, a lot more private, before she'd given in to the love she felt for the slender blonde.
Gabrielle rested a gentle hand on her forearm. Xena looked up from the hand on her skin and sank into green limpid pools. Suddenly, Xena knew she'd never go back. Before Gabrielle, before a mere moon ago, when she'd been alone... Even at the center of a massive army. No matter the pain, Xena now knew she had someone to share it.
"Metanus was very competitive. Anything I could do, he could do better. Or so he constantly tried to prove."
"Sounds like he had a problem. Not you."
"Well, his problem became mine."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Maybe you'd better start at the beginning."
Xena looked uncertain. Finally with the gentle encouraging pressure of Gabrielle's hands gripping hers the warrior settled against the tree trunk and accepted Gabrielle's hug while she drifted back through her memories.
Xena stepped out into the competition corral. The brunette young girl stood as tall as any of the youths circling the outside of the fence. On her right arm, she had strapped a small kite shield, and in her left hand she spun a lightweight sword. The edge was dulled and the end covered in a thin padding.
"Metanus can take her," called out a few of the boys as a youth, at height with Xena, slipped through the wooden slats. Xena watched as his tunic caught on a splintered edge and everyone heard the loud rip as the cloth was ripped. Metanus rolled out of the shirt tumbling over and over until he sprang to his feet, shirtless, about ten paces from her. "Ready to be beaten, Xena?"
Saying nothing, she spun the sword hilt through her palm once more.
"You're holding the sword in the wrong hand you know, girl!" The shout came from the gathering crowd. Xena didn't look for the speaker. Instead she kept her eyes on Metanus, who slipped on his own kite shield and flipped a sword into his hand. As Xena and Metanus circled, she noticed the arrival of a small group of girls from their village. Metanus' sister, Brianna, a year younger than Xena, was among them.
Xena and Brianna were night and day when it came to temperament, but Brianna was one of the few other girls in Amphipolis who didn't look askance at Xena's skills with weapons, or her choice of playing war games instead of with dolls. Brianna had always accepted Xena just as she was, and the brunette considered her a friend. Xena was unable to consider further as Metanus struck first.
His blade swept outward and then in and down. Before it could complete its path to Xena's left thigh, her own blade was there to meet it. A sharp clang rang out and the impact shoved Metanus' blade back up.
The two combatants separated and Metanus shook out the sting in his sword arm, circling around for another strike. When Metanus struck a second time, Xena again deflected the blow, this time aimed for her stomach. With a roundhouse kick and a yell, she caught the blade across the side of her boot, and only a moment later, Metanus was on the ground. His fist was pinned tightly under Xena's boot. His sword skittered away across the dirt and Xena punched him in the face, breaking his nose with a sickening crunch.
Metanus looked up into wild eyes. Xena tried to calm the rush of her heart. She stepped back, and Metanus sprang to his feet, groaning against the pain in his back, but in fighting spirit nonetheless.
Then there was the laughter. It echoed around both of them, directly entirely at Metanus. Xena stopped thinking, trying to shut out the laughter, the people, having felt a rush so strong she was afraid.
"Though I could let no one else know that. Look what they were doing to Metanus," commented Xena drily.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Even back then..." She sighed. "Go on. What happened next?"
Xena shrugged. "I'm not entirely sure. But next thing I knew Metanus came at me with his boot knife."
"Angry about being shown up, probably," Gabrielle commented. "What'd you do? Break his wrist?"
Xena shook her head. "No, the fight was over as far as I was concerned. He turned around to come again after I stepped aside." Xena closed her eyes. "Bri stepped in front of him, trying to get him to step down. To see he'd been defeated. He hit her, so I hit him. She grabbed for his arm, preventing him from striking me."
In that moment, Xena knew, Metanus felt Brianna had chosen Xena over him, her own brother, blood kin.
"You have taken everything!" His eyes wild, tormented fell on Xena like a cudgel blow. "Unholy witch!" Metanus yelled, stabbing at Xena, and then... in a flash, things began happening both too fast, and torturously slow.
Brianna stepped in front of Metanus' blade, calling his name. The short dagger sank to its hilt into the girl's stomach. Xena and Metanus' eyes locked in that moment as the horror of what happened, sank into both.
"Oh gods!" Gabrielle squeezed Xena's arm in empathy. "I -- I'm sorry."
"Brianna was very special, Gabrielle. She... she liked me. No matter what." Xena's eyes clouded again. "Even at the end."
Brianna's doe brown eyes flickered up to Xena and Metanus as they both grabbed for the falling girl's body.
"Xena," whispered Brianna. "I'm sorry."
"You know it'll be all right, Bri." Xena pressed the thin cloth of Brianna's tunic against the stomach wound, hoping to staunch the blood flow, which trickled out through Xena's fingers.
Metanus saw and heard the exchange between Xena and his sister. He pushed away from Xena and Brianna, circling in the ring liked a caged tiger. Xena listened to his ranting grow in pitch and urgency.
"She is blessed by hatred and war, and I, I am cursed now by the Furies. The blood of my sister is on my hands." Xena and a hundred other pairs of eyes fixed on him suddenly as the turn of his rant became alarming. "I can hear their screams," Metanus shouted, waving the blood dagger in his hands. "Come take me! Take me now, mother Furies! Sisters of the blood and the sacrifice, and the love of family --" and turning on Xena, he finished, "and friends!"
"He... Metanus plunged the dagger into his own chest, his sister's and his blood mingling in his final moments. Bri cried out barely breathing herself." Xena closed her eyes. "I couldn't stop it. Bri died in my arms at the same moment Metanus' last breath rasped free of his chest."
"By the gods, Xena! He took his life over an accident! The Furies weren't going to condemn him for that."
"No, Gabrielle. No. Metanus took his life because of me. Because of the challenge I was to his happiness. Brianna sided with me, a demon warrior child, over her own brother. I tore apart his family..." Xena sighed. "He ended his life because of that."
Gabrielle shook her head. "How can you say that? Metanus was unstable. Brianna was trying to stop him from fighting, because she didn't like fighting. Not because she didn't like him."
"That doesn't matter, Gabrielle. Not really. He saw me as competition. That was just the last time we fought. Any time he came over to play with Toris, Metanus challenged me to this or that test of strength or skill."
"Xena you don't have control over choices like that."
"I could have refused. I could have ended the competition, real or imagined, by simply refusing to fight."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Xena, that's not always a positive thing, I know, but it's who you are. You never back down from a challenge, or a fight."
Xena quirked her eyebrow. "You like that about me?"
Gabrielle squared her shoulders. "Brianna wasn't the only one, Xena. I take you as you are. There are a few things I'd like to help mellow. But your challenging nature -- that part of you that never gives up, never gives in -- I'll learn to live with the all the fights it can cause... because I couldn't bear living with a woman who was dead in the eyes... lacking the fire you have. It explodes from your soul." Xena flushed, and Gabrielle was proud of herself. "Now, as I see it, Metanus' death wasn't your fault. Do you agree?"
Xena didn't really, but Gabrielle's eyes flashed green fire of their own, and Xena's body was becoming more interested in starting something new than rehashing something old. She nodded slowly.
"Gabrielle," Xena leaned close and ran a light hand over the bard's bare arms.
"Yes, Xena?" Gabrielle slid across the small space of ground separating their two bodies, until her knees were tucked tightly against Xena's thigh. She reached up and stroked the warrior's brow smooth. The silk feel of jet black hair surrounded her fingers, and she gave in to the urge.
"Thank you," whispered the warrior.
Xena and Gabrielle sank into each other with a kiss. Tender and soothing lips slid against one another, conveying more than their conversation. A sense of calm relief relaxed Xena's shoulders even as Gabrielle's hands slid up the warrior's chest, over the strong muscles and tangled in her hair, locking their bodies together at the lips.
Gabrielle chuckled against Xena's mouth when the warrior swept Gabrielle beneath her on the blanket where they were sleeping. "Time to have sweet dreams, princess," Gabrielle giggled.
"I'd rather make sweet memories," Xena responded, nuzzling the bard's breasts through the thin shift.
Over in the women's campsite, Joxer stirred, shivering in the declining warmth from the fire. The motion woke him up. He kicked off his blanket and looked around. "Hmm... Xena and Gabrielle aren't back yet. Maybe they went on a night hunt." He smiled. "I can restart the fire and clean up camp a bit while waiting."
He blew a bit on the embers and was rewarded with a small flame. "Now for some small wood to really get it going."
Joxer scampered to his feet and stepped out of the campsite searching among the foliage for fallen deadwood and easy to snap off branches. He came around a small bush, studying the ground for twigs.
His eyes slid up a slender calf... First thing his brain told him was this was not a dead deer. As his eyes slid up further on the creamy white, next thing he realized was it was a naked woman's leg.
For a split second, Joxer considered yelling for Xena and Gabrielle, thinking he'd found a dead body. Then the leg moved and was joined by another leg sliding over it langorously. His eyes slid up and quickly moved away. His cheeks went red hot, and his chest started pounding furiously. "Xena!"
Gabrielle rolled over and out from under Xena, startled at the sharply barked word and thought they were being attacked. Xena also apparently thought so, and in the quick glance before Gabrielle got completely clear of the warrior, the bard saw the fire ignite in her lover's eyes.
Xena leapt to her feet and swung out in the direction of the voice, catching Joxer with a fist under his chin.
"Joxer!" Xena and Gabrielle shouted in unison as Joxer fell and his face was more clearly illuminated.
Joxer, however, was more surprised than hurt by Xena's punch. Shaking his head to clear the spots from his vision, he recognized Xena leaning over him, Gabrielle over her shoulder, also looking down at him. The bard's hand rested on Xena's shoulder. He frowned noticing Xena's bare shoulder. He looked over at Gabrielle.
"Are you all right, Joxer?" she asked.
"I'm fine, Gabrielle." He tried to hide his aggravation at the situation, but failed.
Xena hauled him to his feet and he reached out to steady himself. He grasped shift instead of leather and Xena frowned when his face grew darker still. Gabrielle stepped forward.
Gabrielle swept up the blanket she and Xena had been lying on and pulled it around herself. "Joxer," she said, while regaining her composure. "Is there something you needed?"
Joxer sighed, meeting Gabrielle's eyes. I need you, Gabrielle. He thought the words, but the pain constricting his chest ripped the breath from his lungs so he could not speak. Then anger filled the void in his chest, making his heart pound and his thoughts run amok. He swung at Xena, only to find his wrist trapped in a vise-like grip.
"Joxer." There was a slight note of question in Xena's voice, and Joxer dropped his hand.
"I was fixing up the campsite for your return. Thought you might like that," he replied neutrally, then turned on his heel and stalked away from the scene. "But it seems there's something else you'd like."
The murmur was barely heard by Gabrielle, who only looked up at Xena quizzically. But Xena heard every word clearly, and her chest began to hurt. She looked down into Gabrielle's eyes and lifted her left hand to caress Gabrielle's bare shoulder.
"I think we have a problem," the warrior said simply. "You'd better get dressed. I'll meet you back at camp." Under her breath, she added, "This wasn't exactly how I pictured telling him."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Telling him what?"
Xena leaned against a tree. "I should've seen this coming."
Gabrielle replied, "I'm sorry if I caused you to lose your concentration."
"No, it's not that." Xena's blue eyes came back and slid up Gabrielle's blanketed figure. "Joxer... Well, Joxer likes you."
Gabrielle nodded. "What are you going to do?"
Xena shrugged. "I'm going to see what he does first."
Gabrielle smiled, and Xena was pleased she'd thought to give that answer. Honestly though, she didn't know what she was going to do.
A lot would depend on Joxer. This is going to be a disaster, Xena thought. She didn't depend on others very easily.
Joxer crouched, tending the fire with vicious stabs of a short stick. Xena strode into the camp's clearing, pulling the last piece of her leather into place. She went to the saddlebags and withdrew a small length of fishing line.
"Going fishing?" Joxer asked. "Why? You already got the catch for the day."
Xena took the opening presented. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner."
Joxer stabbed the stick into the dirt and stood. "Come on, Xena. You didn't think I'd find out. 'Dumb ol' Joxer, too much the invalid still to wonder where we are?' Right? Isn't that right?"
Xena shook her head. "No. It's all too new. We ... I didn't think about it."
"She better be more than an overnight fling. Gabrielle deserves far more than that."
Xena shook her head. Her voice became deeper as she struggled between anger, her natural reaction to being challenged, and her feelings that Joxer was right. Was right that she was using Gabrielle. Right that she was to blame for taking away someone Joxer loved. "I don't know what..."
"You're patronizing me. Damn I know what was going on. So... How long ago did you seduce her? How long have you kept her in your bedroll at night?"
Joxer stepped close to Xena, stabbing his little stick in the air to punctuate his emotions. Xena reacted without thinking and grabbed the threatening arm, snapping the wrist. Her face was completely impassive until he was on the ground. Her head dropped with the realization of what she had done and turned away, hoping to get away before she did anything else stupid.
Joxer wasn't going to let her get away. With his wrist hurting, he nevertheless jumped to his feet and lunged. He didn't realize until he suddenly had grabbed both her legs with his flying leap, that he was going to be successful in pulling down the "undownable" Warrior Princess.
She rolled over beneath him and started to push him away. "Joxer, please!"
"Damn you!" Joxer swung and Xena started to block the punch when suddenly she saw Metanus ghostly visage above her and remained still. Joxer's fist connected with Xena's jaw.
Surprise crossed both faces, and Xena whispered, "I'm sorry." Joxer didn't stop her when she rolled away from him. He fell backward looking from his fist to Xena, now standing, but not looking at him.
"Why'd it have to be her?" Joxer kicked the dirt at Xena's feet, studying the slump of the warrior's shoulders. He picked up a fistful of dirt, studying it alternately with Xena's back.
Gabrielle strode into the clearing at that moment. She noticed the contemplative look on Joxer's face, and the dejected set to Xena's shoulders in the next second. "Joxer, don't you dare!"
"Gabrielle, she seduced you. I understand, and I'll make her pay."
"I'm not some green kid, Joxer. Who says Xena had to seduce me?"
"She's Xena. Come on, Gabrielle, you have told stories about the warlord who used her body to get her way with her army of followers."
"Well, it's not true in this case," Gabrielle replied.
Xena interjected, "Gabrielle, please --"
Gabrielle shook her head. "No." Xena covered her eyes with an exasperated hand and awaited the explanation that would end Joxer's confusion, but ruin her carefully cultivated reputation... all in the same breath.
Joxer looked from Xena to Gabrielle. "Well, what the Hades happened then?"
Gabrielle was sympathetic to Xena's needs, but obviously the respite they'd had from reality was going to have to come crashing to an end. Joxer could not be permitted to see her as a child any more. Not at the expense of her relationship with Xena. "Xena didn't seduce me. I seduced her."
The air collectively left the campsite clearing with those seven words. Joxer sank to the ground head in hands. Over by Argo, Xena too sank to the ground, hiding her head in her arms. Gabrielle walked over to Joxer, who looked up at her briefly before being cowed by the fierce look on the blonde's delicate features.
Gabrielle said nothing, only walking over to Xena and putting a hand on the warrior's shoulder for a moment. Then she fetched up Argo's lead rope. "I'm taking Argo to the river for a drink. If you want breakfast fetched, you might want to come with me," she told both before walking out of sight.
Joxer spoke into the silence. "Must be nice to have the catch of the province." He came to his feet and walked away, opposite the direction Gabrielle had taken. "I'd fight you for her, but I'd be dead in a second. So what's the point?" He grabbed up his pack, winced at the pressure on his wrist and walked out of sight while wrapping a cloth around the broken joint.
Xena watched Joxer leave, then turned to look down the path Gabrielle had taken with Argo. Her stomach churned, but from the twisting of the muscles she knew she wasn't hungry, just upset. Slowly she rose to her feet and walked in the direction of the river.
The warrior had just broken free of the heavy foliage just before reaching the riverbank when she heard a scream. Gabrielle too, looked up as the yell, Joxer's yell, sounded from somewhere off to the left. "What's happened now?" Gabrielle bounded out of the shallow river water and followed the fleeter foot Xena through the underbrush in the direction of the sound.
They broke through the trees at the same time and Gabrielle stepped back. Joxer was caught up in the massive paws of a huge bear, battling to get free. He batted at the huge claws to no avail and Xena leapt into action.
Xena bounced in a flip just out of the bear's reach but through its line of sight. The bear, intrigued by the sudden movement, left Joxer after another moment, turning to get a look at the new intrusion. Xena backed up slowly as the bear approached with thundering steps. Keeping her eyes on the bear, who was swinging its head side to side while advancing, she yelled to Gabrielle, "See about Joxer. Move quickly!"
Gabrielle waited until the bear was fully occupied with Xena, then ran to Joxer. The downed warrior pushed her away when she first knelt at his side. Behind them, Xena was talking to the bear. Nonsense really, but the soft voice seemed to calm it. "Joxer, don't be an idiot! We have to get out of here!" Gabrielle pulled on him and finally Joxer came to his feet. The pair stumbled and fell into the thick brush where the bear would not see them.
Xena watched with relief as Gabrielle and Joxer dove out of sight. "Well, it's been really nice meeting you. My friends and I have to be going." She leapt straight up as the bear came within paw-swiping range, landing in the branches of an oak overhead. "Get back to camp!"
There was no answer, but Xena could see Gabrielle and Joxer move quickly, but quietly through the woods back toward camp. Xena traversed the distance using the treetops. She dropped into the campsite clearing just a moment ahead of Gabrielle and Joxer's arrival.
Gabrielle ran up to Xena, shivering with the aftereffects of reaction. Xena hugged her. The warrior met Joxer's eyes over the bard's head and knew they still had a problem. She'd seen the same look in Metanus' eyes when Brianna looked up into her face and not his when she died.
Xena stifled her reaction to fight at the challenge in Joxer's eyes. She reminded herself over and over again: I could kill him in an instant. Gabrielle would never forgive her for that. Especially too, Xena felt affection for Joxer, and knew she'd never forgive herself if anything happened to him either because of her, or because he fought her.
Gabrielle calmed enough to go sit by the fire again. She began assembling some of their supplies into a pan over the flames.
Xena studied Joxer. "Come on, Joxer. We still have some supplies. Let's eat and then close up camp."
Joxer studied her in return. "Why?"
Xena knew he wasn't talking about her invitation to join them at a meal. Xena looked over to Gabrielle. Because that's what Gabrielle expects. "Come on, Joxer, let's eat. Aren't you hungry?"
Joxer came up to Xena and said quietly, "I don't understand."
Xena admitted quietly, "I don't understand either. But she loves me anyway."
Gabrielle offered up bowls of warmed meat and crusty bread. While Joxer and Xena settled at the fire side, the bard fetched a water skin. "There's a bit of water left in this one," she commented, bringing one of the leather skins back to the fire. She crouched between Xena and Joxer and offered the skin to Joxer first. "Here, have some."
Joxer took a swig of the water and eyes on Gabrielle, passed it to Xena. "Thanks," he said to the bard, but in the passing of the skin to Xena, the warrior knew the thanks was for her as well. A measure of a peace offering she accepted gladly.
"You're welcome," Gabrielle replied.
"After breakfast, we'll clear camp. I think we can start moving on again," Xena said.
"Yeah," Gabrielle piped in. "Amazons await."
Joxer groaned. "Yeah, Amazons."
Gabrielle laughed. "You're welcome to come, Joxer."
Xena added with a smile. "They couldn't refuse to house a friend of the Queen, you know."
Joxer looked up at Gabrielle and his face was the perfect picture of shock.
"Oh, yeah. I forgot. You didn't hear about that."
Gabrielle regaled them with a short version of how she'd become Queen of Melosa's Amazons. Xena interjected when she thought the bard was selling herself short. Joxer asked a few questions, and learned about a gutsy Autolycus standing up to Velasca.
"Who is this guy, 'The King of Thieves'?" He cleaned his bowl with a swipe of the crusty bread in the remaining sauce.
"We'll have to see that you two meet sometime," said Gabrielle.
"Finished?" asked Xena.
"Yeah, let's get moving." Joxer came to his feet.
Continued in Mantles are Heavy
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