Star Light, Star Bright ...
--- I ---
The campsite was in perfect order. The saddle sat gleaming in the firelight, and Gabrielle picked up the sleeping rugs, shaking them out yet again. Xena looked up from where she sat rewrapping the grip on her sword, and raised an eyebrow.
"Enough with the compulsive cleaning," she said, working to align the leather strap perfectly.
Gabrielle dropped the rugs, putting her hands on her hips, and allowing a dangerous glare to settle on her face. She threw visual daggers at the warrior.
"Im not going to get dragged into an argument, Gabrielle. We can yell until were blue in the face, and that letter will still be waiting."
"That makes absolutely no sense," Gabrielle said curtly. "Like usual, I might add."
"Nope, isnt going to work. Sit down and read the letter. Its just from your parents."
"Are you saying Im afraid to read it?" The bards voice held an open challenge. "Do you think I dont like it when my parents write to me?"
Xena stabbed the tip of the sword into the dirt to get a better angle on the wrap. She glanced up at the younger woman, her eyebrow arched.
"Fine," Gabrielle said, collapsing on the rugs in a huff. "Theyre just my parents. What could they possibly say that could upset me?"
"Just read it."
Gabrielle reached inside her bag, and removed a nicely folded parchment, which was sealed with a red dollop of wax. Xena looked away when Gabrielle glanced her way, but she couldnt hide the grin that lightened her face as Gabrielle contemplated the letter. From the corner of her eye she watched as her young lover broke the seal and began to read. Her sword repair seemed forgotten as she watched a rush of emotions cross Gabrielles face, and after the bard dropped the parchment into her lap she slyly resumed her duty.
"Upset?" she asked, forced to unwrap the entire grip and start over.
"Theyre too much. Seriously," the bard breathed. "You know when I was younger I kept hoping I was adopted, but this ... Its too much. Unbelievable."
"Where to start?" Gabrielle said with a slight huff. "First I get a run down on Lila and the great young man shes seeing. Seems his name is Tyrone and hes a shepard. Yup, he watches sheep. Like what? Are they going to run off to greener pastures? Theyre sheep."
"Go on," Xena said, stopping what was about to become a tirade.
"Well, I guess Lila is quite taken with Tyrone. Must be all those deep philosophical debates they have on the different ways to prevent sheep from walking too fast. Or maybe they just sit around and commune with the sheep. You know they have teeny tiny brains ... dont know when to come in out of the rain."
"Lila or the sheep?" Xena asked, wondering what lay beneath the bards acerbity.
"Of course Lila! Whats she thinking marrying this creepy guy who hangs with sheep?"
"Shes marrying him?"
"So mom says. And I dont know why mom thinks what Lilas doing is so much better than what Im doing," Gabrielle said, poking the fire with a stick, while Xena waited for her to continue. "But looks like well be heading home for the wedding. I cant even begin to imagine what ridiculous get-up Lila will have me wear in the wedding. Shes never been very good with clothes."
"If she dresses at all like you did when we first me, then I tend to agree."
"My dress was nice. What are you talking about?" A slight smile spread across Gabrielles strained features. "Okay, it was a bit provincial, wasnt it?"
"Thats putting it nicely. It was practically a tent," Xena ribbed. "But go on, what else does your mom have to say?"
"You want the really good part?"
"Without the biting tone, please," Xena said, lifting her sword to her lap.
"Well, mom has always fashioned herself as something of an artist. Rather amusing for a woman who cant remember the punch line to a knock knock joke. I mean, she cant tell Zeus from Athena, and its like listening to a two year old babble when she tells a story ..."
"The point, please."
"Okay! Mom writes me this poem. Ready? Youre gonna love it," Gabrielle said, composing herself for what Xena knew was the crux of the problem. "Star light, star bright ... My daughters still looking for Mr. Right."
Xena couldnt help it. Her sword feel to the ground, and she burst into laughter.
"Stop laughing!" Gabrielle commanded. "Dont you see what shes saying?"
"Its funny! Think about it."
"Think about what is says about us. I mean, she knows ... I think."
"I thought you told her."
"Well, I kinda did," Gabrielle said, running a hand nervously through her hair. "I mean I hinted, and made it as obvious as possible. We slept in the same room together last time we were there, and I was constantly around you ... practically hanging on you. How hard could it be for them to get the picture?"
"Theyre parents," Xena said, suppressing a smile. "Selective vision. So, whatre you going to do?"
"Dunno. I have to think about it, but right now the idea going through my head isnt good."
"Be nice. Theyre youre parents."
"Im always nice. I have to be, its part of my character."
"You know what happens when you get that look on your face," Xena said, with a slight scowl.
"What look?" Gabrielle asked.
"That little devil look. You narrow your eyes, and you get this dangerous grin ... well, its easy to see whats going on in your head."
"Sure it is."
"That look means youll get yourself into trouble. So, lets just figure someway out of this together, okay?"
Gabrielle didnt answer, and Xena just shrugged. It was best to leave the bard to her little harmless mental assassinations, and the warrior knew by morning it would be easier to talk to her love. "Well, Im beat. Coming to bed?" Xena asked, giving up on her sword word for the night.
"Not just yet," Gabrielle responded absently. "Id like to read Moms letter again ... work on my plan."
"Why did that just send a shiver up my spine?"
"You big baby," Gabrielle said, giving her a push on the shoulder. "Go to bed."
Xena pulled the sleeping fur up over her shoulders, her blue eyes watching her young love absorbing the letter again. The devilish look had settled on Gabrielles face again, and Xena turned onto her stomach knowing that the next few days would be interesting.
--- II ---
The next day found them making good progress towards Poteidaia. Gabrielle was abnormally quiet, and Xena attempted to lighten the bards mood by bumping into her in a playful manner. The bard let this pass the first few times, but finally she shoved Xena away, and resumed her scowl.
"Will you quit that?" she growled. "Im thinking."
"The wedding. I have to make a stellar entrance thatll blow my parents mind."
"That I can do what I want, and I dont need their approval anymore."
"But, havent you done that already?" Xena asked with mild amusement.
"Gee, guess if Id been successful I wouldnt be getting little poems like Star light, star bright ... Do you?"
"Okay ... so, whats your plan?" The warrior braced herself for what she knew was going to be a disaster in the making.
"I have to show them that my taste in men is so bad ... Theyll beg me to dump the guy. Thatll leave me free to tell them about us."
"I see," Xena said solemnly. "So, first youre gonna hit them just to stun them, ... then youll deliver the death blow, huh?"
"Must everything always be about violence with you?" Gabrielle replied with annoyance. "Im going to tell them once and for all, but in my way. If they dont like it ... thats their problem. Let them be happy with Sheep-Boy."
"And who do you have lined up to play the village idiot?" Xena asked, watching as Gabrielle began searching the road behind them. "Gabrielle?"
"Hes my tag along groupie. I can do with him what I want."
"Xena! Gabrielle! Wait up!"
"I shouldve guessed," Xena said watching as Joxer clanked and clattered his way up the road. "Thats really low, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle shrugged. "Get serious, Xena. What parent wouldnt cringe to see that come home with their daughter?"
"Xena ... Gabrielle ... my bestests buddies!" Joxer cried, clapping his arms over their shoulders. "How fares your travels?"
"Joxer," Gabrielle began, pushing his arm off her shoulder. "My message said to meet us, not maul us. And bestest isnt a word. Quit using it."
"Okay, Gabby. I was only funnin with you."
"And funn .." She quit speaking as a hand was clamped over her mouth.
"Good to see you, Joxer. Gabrielle was just talking about you," Xena said, dropping her hand when she felt Gabrielles teeth dance along her skin. "I think she needs a date for her sisters wedding."
"Really? Thats cool! Id love to take you, Gab."
"Im sure you would. But its not a date. Its a plan, right Xena?"
"Me? Im not taking part in this! Its all your game."
"But the wedding? My parents? Star light ... star bright ..." Gabrielle said, and then stamped her foot. "Xena!"
Xena shrugged. "Sorry, I think Im needed in Parnassus, or Pylos, or Pompeii."
"Youre not going to help me?"
"Youve got Joxer. Hell do fine."
Gabrielle threw her hands into the air and walked a few steps away. "I knew I couldnt count on you! Her I need you for this one simple little task, and you fink out on me. How typical! Guess Im only good to cook your meal, wash your clothes, take care of the children, clean the house ..."
"Gabrielle," Xena tried to interrupt.
"I slave for you night and day ... and when I ask you to do on tiny little thing for me, its sorry ...Ive got work to do."
"We dont have children."
The bard tossed her hair over her shoulder. "Well, if we did Im sure theyd be my responsibility. All so you can go off and play. Never giving me a thought ..."
"Are you done yet?"
"I dont know. Are you going to help?"
"No. Theyre your parents. If you want them to accept you for who you are, then you have to tell them and see what happens. If you dont care what they think, then dont tell them. But dont play games."
"But you dont know my parents. My Dads an acolyte at the temple of Zeus, and Mom is a docent at the Hestian temple. I couldnt go to bed at night without asking for Hestias blessing on the home and my chastity."
Xena started laughing, and the bard punched her in the arm.
"Quit laughing. I know it didnt work, but I still had to do it."
"This may not be the bestest ... I mean, best time, but isnt anyone going to talk to me? I did come running up here to meet you guys. Least you could do is tell me your plan."
"Is there still a plan, Gabrielle?" Xena asked.
"I have to, Xena. Its the only way I can tell them."
"Then I cant help you."
"Fine! Be that way. See if I care. Just ride off, and I dont care if you ever come back. I hope a Cyclops eats you for dinner. I hope a giant steps on you. I hope ..."
"I get your general meaning, and I know youre just upset," Xena said, trying to defuse the situation.
"And when are you going to tell your mom, Xena?"
"When I get around to it.," Xena bristled.
"Tell her what?" Joxer asked.
"Cmon, Joxer. Ill tell you what you have to do on the way home," Gabrielle said starting to walk away from Xena. She stopped and turned back. "Guess Ill see you later."
Xena stood on the road until she couldnt make out her friends figures anymore. Gabrielles plan was going to back fire on her, that much was guaranteed. Xena was going to make sure that one way or another Gabrielle decided what she really needed from her family. Shaking her head as she mounted Argo she realized that Gabrielle would then force her to make the same decision with her mother.
"Whyd I give up being a warlord again?" she asked her horse as she spurred her on towards Poteidaia.
--- III ---
The hills around Poteidaia were in bloom, small wildflowers gently blowing in the breeze, and the trees tall and graceful. A flock of small birds jumped from one tree branch another in an effortless dance, and a general feeling of peace and prosperity embraced the tiny hamlet.
Gabrielles face was hard and set as she marched her way towards the town with the clanking super warrior in her wake. Her staff stabbed at the ground with each step, and every few feet she would flip her hair off her shoulder, sending it flying behind her head like a whip.
"Gabrielle ... slow down!" Joxer cried, trying to keep up and retie his breast plate which had come loose in the rush. Gabrielle just shook her head and kept up her relentless march.
At the top of the hill the bard came to a screeching halt, and she stood, her eyes capturing the small village below them. Her shoulders dropped, and a look of forlorn sadness touched her face, as her troubled green eyes reflected the image of her hometown almost as if visions of her childhood flashed with precision in her mind.
"Whats wrong? Whyd we stop," Joxer said, almost out of breath.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Nothing. Just ... I dont like this place much. Too many memories."
The young man nodded. "You know, Im pretty good handling my memories. I just dont think about them."
"Joxer," Gabrielle said, regaining her composure. "Have you ever thought about being a shepard? I think I can get you in the business." Joxer just stared back, his face completely blank, and the bard shakes her head. "Never mind. Now, do you remember the plan?"
"Um, I think so. I supposed to pretend to be your lover," he said stressing the word pretend with his fingers. "I dont know why you want to pretend when we could ..."
"Ah ... lets just stick with the pretend. Trust me, itll work better. --- Now, what else are you supposed to do?"
"Im supposed to brag to everyone what a great warrior I am, and how many men Ive beaten in combat. And Im supposed to brag how I stole you from Xena." A look of fear touched his ferret-like eyes. "Wont she be mad at that?"
"No, Im sure shell find it funny," Gabrielle said, patting his arm. "Now, I need to do something with your clothes ... but I cant think of anyway to make you look ... um ... more ..."
"Manly?" Joxer offered.
Gabrielle walked around him, her eyes appraising his clothes. "Do you have a wooden sword by chance?" she asked, and Joxer shook his head, his eyes confused. "Okay," she continued. "What if we put some flowers in your hat? That might work." The bard leaned down and pulled a handful of flowers off the side of the road, and began sticking them into the warriors straw hat.
"Cut that out!" Joxer cried, pulling at the weeds. "It makes me look funny. Im a warrior for crying out loud." He looked down the road at a figure moving towards them. "Hey, whose that?"
Gabrielle stopped her redecorating, and lifted her hand to her eyes, peering down the road. An audible groan escaped her throat, and her whole body seemed to drop. "Oh gods ... Its my mother." She raised her hand to wave, her face plastered into a tight smile. "Yes, I see you," she said, talking to herself. "Put your arms down ... You look like youre trying to fly."
"Hey, shes pretty. Now I know where you get your hair color."
"Quick, Joxer. Put your arm around me and look possessive."
Without hesitation, Joxer put his arm around Gabrielles shoulder and pulled her tight. The bard found herself crushed awkwardly, and she was forced to lean heavily against the warrior. Joxer furrowed his brow and narrowed his eyes, and Gabrielle shook her head realizing sadly how easy it was for her friend to slip into his ape man impression. Without a doubt the bard knew it was going to be a long weekend.
"Do I look like Xena?" he asked, finally manipulating his face into something almost comical.
"Um ... no. Try relaxing," the bard responded. "Now, here she comes. Remember the plan."
"Gabrielle? Is that you?" A middle aged woman came running up the road, a smile spread across her still youthful face, and her reddish blonde hair still glowing despite the few streaks of gray. She threw her arms open as she approached Gabrielle.
"No, mother. Im really my evil daughter of Dahok," Gabrielle said, embarrassed by the irrelevance of the question.
"Dahok? Your daughter? Gods the things you traveling bards come out with! Ill never understand it." Her eyes wander to Joxer, and Gabrielle knew what the next question would be, and she found herself almost regretting her plan. "Well, Im glad youve finally come to your senses and left that violent woman. So, whose this?"
"Mom! Xena isnt ..." she started to say, but Joxers arm tightened around her. "Mom, this is my boyfriend ... I guess."
"Darlin, you guess? I hope that after our months of carnal knowledge, Id be more than just your boyfriend."
Gabrielle cringed, and for not the first time in her life felt at a loss of words.
"Carnal knowledge?" Hecuba said, raising her eyebrow before a grin creased her face. "Oh, my little girl is all grown up!" Hecuba cried, pulling Gabrielle from Joxers embrace. "Im so ... proud of you, pumpkin!" She crushed Gabrielle to her breast.
"Since my peaches seems unable to speak while basking in the glory that is me," Joxer said, holding himself taller. "Ill introduce myself. Gabrielles mom, I am Joxer. Perhaps youve heard of me?"
"Um, no. Dont think so. Jerkster, you say?"
Gabrielle closes her eyes, wishing to be any place but there.
"No! Joxer, as in Joxer the Mighty. Joxer the Magnificent. Joxer the Warrior. Joxer who captured Callisto and freed Prometheus. Joxer who can kill a thousand men before breakfast ..."
Gabrielle had to end it before he blew her entire plan. "And what a breakfast it is, sweetheart. You have such an appetite. Cant seem to cook it fast enough for you."
"Huh?" Joxer said, slightly annoyed that his speech had been interrupted.
"Um, when you have a taste for blood like my Joxer, you just cant wait to satisfy all your hungers," Gabrielle drawled in her sweetest voice.
"Well, a real man always has a taste for life," Hecuba commented seriously, before nodding her approval. "Its good to meet you, Joxer. My husband will be overjoyed to see our little girl with a real man. A nice big strapping man. A nice big ... very white ... strapping man. A Mr. Right, you might say." She leaned over to Gabrielle. "So, you got my poem?"
"The star light, star bright one? Yeah, I got it. Might even say its my whole motivation for being here," Gabrielle responded. "Hows Lila?"
"Shell be a beautiful blushing bride," Hecuba smiled, before patting Gabrielles cheek. "Of course, theres room under the trellis for two couples."
Gabrielle was about to say something else when a rustle cam from the bushes. The bard saw it as a prime opportunity to showcase Joxers talents, so she nudged the frozen warrior towards the sound.
"Ladies, stand behind me," Joxer said, grabbing them and standing in front. His hand closed around the hilt of his sword, and he contemplated the bush with narrowed eyes. Gabrielle leaned on her staff, trying to suppress her smile, noticing that Hecuba was watching her friend with great concentration. Joxer pulled at his sword in jerky movements, the blade getting caught in the scabbard. When he finally pulled it free, the sword flew from his hand and landed five feet away. Gabrielle was forced to cover her mouth as the wanna-be warrior dove for his sword.
"You go, guy," Gabrielle said, watching Joxer climb to his feet with the sword held in front of him.
"Show yourself or face the wrath of Joxer the Mighty."
A small black and white sheep pushes from the bush and stares at Joxers shaking hands before bellowing a loud baahhaaa at the warrior.
"Damn sheep," Hecuba said stepping forward and shooing the animal away. "Theyre all over the place. Watch where you step, and I dont want any sheep doo in the house."
"Thank the gods that Joxer was with us," Gabrielle said, trying to play the hopeless situation. "What if that had been a bandit? Or a warlord?"
"You mean like your tall, dark and dangerous Xena?" her mother snipped.
Gabrielle couldnt keep the far away look from her eyes. "Yeah," she sung.
Hecuba shakes her head and grabbed Gabrielles arm. "Cmon you two. Lets head back to the house so we can do the introductions. I know your father is going to be so happy you didnt bring that woman with you this time. He didnt like her." Gabrielle stopped, and gave her mother a questioning look. Hecuba shrugged. "Daddy had the strangest idea that she had plans for you."
"Plan? Like sacrifice plans? Slavery plans? What?"
"You know Daddy and his ideas. We just all play along ... one big game."
"Daddy and his games. Who could forget," Gabrielle said with a touch of sadness.
"Hey ... wait up!" Joxer cried. "I was petting the sheep."
"Hes not much upstairs, is he dear?"
"Well, I hope hes got the goods downstairs, if you know what I mean. Nothing in the world like a good orgasm. Now your father is ..."
"Mother! Please. Thats gross." The bard shook her head. "Bad picture. Bad picture."
"Oh, Gabrielle ... grow up."
--- IV ---
The house hugged the outskirts of town. It was a large imposing structure that once could have been described as grand, but now just looked run down. Gabrielle trudged behind her mother as they made their way across the yard and up the stoop. Taking a deep breath the bard hesitated only a second before entering the house.
"Cool decorations," Joxer said, stepping around her and entering the living room.
Gabrielle looked around the room, and groaned in remembrance. The room held an old torn sofa, twp early Greek tables with decorative wagon wheel accents, and a plethora of cheap modern art knock offs which her mother prized and the bard had always hated. Everything reminded her of why she left.
"Will you two knock that off?" Hecuba said, slapping at the top of a dark head on the couch. "Ive seen rabbits with more restraint."
Gabrielle watched as Lilas head lifted far enough to stare at her mother, a strong set of male fingers playing with her lips. "Were hungry. --- Wheres dinner?" Lila demanded, letting her head be pulled back down behind the sofa.
"Perhaps youre looking for it down his throat?" Gabrielle smirked, rewarded when Lilas head raised again. "Hi, Lila."
Lila disengaged herself from her fun, and slowly sat up, her hands casually rearranging her dress. A young man with dark hair raised himself up on his elbows and peered at the bard with disinterested blue eyes. Gabrielle looked the stranger over.
"Gabrielle. Looks like you made good times. Thought you might miss the wedding with that exciting life you lead," Lila said, rolling her eyes. "So, did your precious Xena give you time off for good behavior."
"Arent you going to introduce me?" Gabrielle said, ignoring the comment.
"Sure. Tyrone ... Gabrielle. Gabrielle ... Tyrone."
"Its nice to meet ..."
"Babe, is that a blemish?" Tyrone said, leaning forward and presenting his flawless face to Lila.
"Want me to kiss it away?" Lila crooned, leaning forward and kissing his cheek.
Before Gabrielle knew it, shed been dismissed from their world and they were coddled in a tight embrace. The bard just stared at her younger sister. Hecuba clicked her tongue in disapproval and grabbed Gabrielles arm.
"Ignore them," she said, leading her further into the house.
Her father was sitting at a table by the wall, stacks of parchment and scrolls surrounding him. His graying head was bent over a paper, and deep lines of concentration were etched on his face. "Hi, Daddy," Gabrielle said, smiling at her father.
"He cant hear you," Hecuba said, waving a hand at the older man.
"What do you mean," the bard asked frantically. "Has something happened? Why didnt you tell me? I would have ..."
"Naw, its nothing like that. You know Herodotus, always working on one hobby or another," her mother said, reaching for an apron. "This time he thinks hes going to be the first man to write a comprehensive history of the known world."
"Daddys a scholar?"
"Um ... more like a novelist. I think hes making half of it up," Hecuba said with a roll of her eyes. "But dont bother him when hes like that. You can talk to him at dinner. That never changes, Daddy always stops to eat."
Hecuba tied the apron around her slim waist and reached for a stack of plates.
"Do you need any help?" Gabrielle asked, her eyes still watching her father.
"Well, you can set the table, and Joxer and I can toss together a salad. Thatll give us a chance to talk more."
"Joxers a warrior, Mom. They dont do salads."
"Id love to help, Mrs ... um ... Poteidaia."
Hecuba smiled. "Please, call me Oreo, dear. It was my stage name, you know."
"Ah, I was the best of the best, Joxer. Men came from across the world to see my act."
"Wow, you were in the theater! Cool," Joxer said, flashing a smile at Gabrielle who was rubbing at her temples.
Hecuba crossed the floor, and took Joxers arm. "I had a feather boa pole dance that would pull the sweat from your body, Joxer," Hecuba said, bumping her hip against Joxer for emphasis. "Gabrielle knows the dance. Youll have to ask her sometime."
"Tell me more ... Oreo," Joxer said, giving Gabrielle a waggle of his brow before disappearing into the kitchen with her mother.
Gabrielle stood motionless in the center of the room, a stunned expression touching her face. She looks around the room. Her father was scribbling away, oblivious to the world around him, and Gabrielle realized that her father had never really ever been apart of her world. On the sofa she watched as Tyrones head lifted for a second, and he stared at her. Then one of her sisters hands grabbed his hair, pulling his face down again.
"I wonder what theyd say if I did that with Xena," she mumbled, taking the plates and laying them out on the table.
--- V ---
A thick cloud of smoke hung halfway between the ceiling and the floor, creating a haze in the room. Loud laughter erupted from a table of farmers who pounded their mugs in demand for more ale. The tavern was just recovering from their dinner rush, and no one seemed to notice the hooded figure who sat alone against the wall. A strong had played lazily with a half touched glass of ale, yet her alert eyes betrayed her sedentary demeanor. A comely barmaid carried a tray to a nearby table to clear away the plates.
"You," the figure said. "Cmere."
"Thanks," the girl replied with a half smile. "But Im engaged."
"Uh-huh. Come here. Now."
"I said no."
A hand raised slowly to push back the hood, and two bright blue eyes emerged. The barmaids face froze, and she mutely made her way to the table.
"Thats better," Xena said, pulling the hood back up. "You know who I am?"
"Youre that horrible woman who stole Gabrielle," the maid replied.
"She followed me ..." her voice trailed off, and she waved her hand. "Forget it. Do you know Gabrielle?"
"Sure do. I lost my virginity in her Dads barn."
"What?!? With her?"
"No, with the millers son, Frankus. What a waste that was."
"So, youre a friend of Gabrielles?"
"Nope. Shes way to weird for any of us to hang out with. I mean, she thinks. Way out there, huh?"
Xena shook her head. "But you know her?"
"Sure. Her familys old stock around here. Everyone knows about them."
"Like what do you know?" Xena asked, sensing that there was something here beyond what she personally knew of the family.
"I know her familys got no more money, although they still act all big and proud. I know her mother hits the wine more than she should, and shes been seen coming home real early from the undertakers house. Hes a widower, you know. But mostly I know that Lilas little marriage is arranged out of, shall we say ... necessity."
"What do you know of Gabrielle?" Xena asked, not that surprised to hear about Lila.
"Only that you stole her, and you keep her chained up, probably as a sex slave. You probably, like, beat her and make her perform unspeakable acts on you."
Xena couldnt contain her chuckle. "At least your informations good there."
"Ooooh," the girl cried, adding the information to her arsenal, and Xena shook her head.
"Now, if you want to escape the same fate, then I want you to do something for me. Ill even pay you if you do a good job. Fair?"
"I wont sleep with you. Im engaged, I told you."
"And Im sure hes a lucky guy. But I want you to keep an eye on Gabrielle. Shes here for her sisters wedding and I want to know whats going on. Got it?"
"Arent you on the guest list?"
Xena ignored the comment. "Ill meet you here each night. Okay?"
"Should I tell Gabrielle?"
The warrior ran a hand over her face in disbelief. "You sure Gabrielle wasnt adopted from another town?" She shook her head. "No, dont let Gabrielle or anyone know."
"Sure, whatever," the girl said. "Hey, you want anything? Weve got some lamb fries left over."
Xena suppressed a gag, and forced a smile to her face. "No, thanks. Ive eaten."
--- VI ---
Even though Gabrielle hadnt been home in almost a year, the dinner was rather quiet. Her father had given her a brief hug before taking his seat at the head of the table, and her mother had prattled about Joxer and what a great warrior he was and such. Gabrielle just picked at her food, neither confirming nor denying anything that was being said. Her father made perfunctatory replies, and Gabrielle watched in horror as he began removing green beans and peas from his plate and placing them around the table.
"Mummm," Lila said, and Gabrielles eyes were pulled to her sister. Her head was held back and her eyelids were fluttering. Glancing over she found Tyrones blue eyes watching her, his one hand conspicuously missing from the table, leaving the bard with no doubt exactly where it was in respect to her sisters moan.
"What was that, Lila?" Gabrielle said before she could stop herself. "Did you want to share something with us?"
"Just leave her alone, Gabby, sweetie."
"That was quite a meal, Oreo," Joxer said, pushing his plate back and patting his stomach. "That pot roast just crumbled in my mouth."
"It was practically sawdust," Herodotus cried. "Woman, cant you cook just one decent meal?"
"Whatre you doing, Dad?" Gabrielle asked, pointing at the peas and random green beans.
"Gabrielle, I raised you better than that," her father said, using his thumb to crush a pea. "Dont you recognize the great battle of Miletus?" His hand swept across his vegetables. "The Greeks dealt the Persians a wicked blow at that battle!"
"So the crushed peas are the Persians?" Gabrielle asked.
"Xena and Gabrielle fought the Persian army," Joxer said, and Gabrielle quickly backhands him. "Ow! What was that for?"
"Now, honey, I hate it when youre modest. If it hadnt been for you, we would have fallen to the Persians. Xena was weak, and you were strong. Remember?"
Lilas head snapped up and her eyes began glowing. "You beat the Persians? And the great Xena? Unbelievable."
"Who are the Persians," Tyrone asked, shaking his jet black hair. "Are they coming to the wedding?"
Gabrielle tried not to roll her eyes, but from the glare she received from Lila she knew shed been unsuccessful. "Why dont you tell us about it, Joxer?" Lila said, with a honey sweet voice that sent shivers down Gabrielles spine.
"Well, I dont like to brag ... but I was very important in holding back the advance forces until the Athenian army could get into position."
"You must tell me, young man. I will want to chronicle it for my book. You say the Persians lost? I want all the details."
"Daddy, details are so two dimensional. Joxer and Tyrone can act out his battle scene. Right Joxer?" Gabrielle ran the back of her hand down his cheek, her eyes locked with Tyrone. "Youll do that for Daddy, wont you Tyrone? And you can be as rough as you like in your play. My Joxer can handle anything."
The young man shrugged his shoulders. "Sure. I like to play."
"Um ... well, hehehehe," Joxer tried to laugh.
"Show us, puddin cakes," Gabrielle cooed, her eyes riveted on her mother. "Do it and Ill give you a big surprise later!"
Hecuba clapped her hands. "I knew it! Shes going to do the Boa Dance! I knew it was in your blood, Gabby."
"Um .. okay," Joxer said, rising to his feet. He stood a few feet from the table and motioned Tyrone over. "I wont use my weapon because Id most likely kill you."
"Now, tell me what exactly happened," Herodotus said. "Leave nothing out!"
"There I was," Joxer began. "A wall of Persians surrounding me. All highly trained soldiers. Was I scared, you ask? Of course not! Im Joxer the Mighty and I laughed at them as they charged ... their swords drawn. I felled the first with a mighty slice of my sword. The second feel just to my steely gaze. As a third charged me I decided I wanted to feel the fight so I lay my sword aside. He charged."
Gabrielle listened to the bravado with a small smile. She could see Tyrone tensing and releasing his muscles. She had no doubt that Joxer would lose. It would be a good step in showing her parents that men arent the end all be all of a healthy relationship. As Joxer narrated the story, her mind wandered to Xena for not the first time that evening.
She was still angry at the warrior for letting her do this alone. It would have been so much easier if they could have compared Xena to Joxer right from the start, but the bard wasnt going to give up in her quest. She let her smile spread as Joxer waved Tyrone at him.
"You can come at me now, Tyrone. Try and hit me right here. On the chin," Joxer said, waving the larger man towards him.
Tyrone stepped forward, his fists held before him and a slightly taunting smile on his face. Gabrielle looked over at Lila, who wasnt watch the battle, but her instead. The bard stared at her sister, who raised her eyebrow and cocked her head.
"Cmon ... hit me. Give it your best shot," Joxer taunted as he took a swing at Tyrone and missed. Tyrone swung, and landed solid punch on Joxers chin, sending the warrior up into the air and crashing to the floor. Gabrielle lifted her wine glass, taking a quiet sips as the wanna-be warrior looked suitably stunned.
"Get up, Joxer. I didnt hit you that hard," Tyrone said, offering his hand.
"I only let you hit me." Joxer hauled himself to his feet, and motioned again. "Try it again."
Tyrone shrugged and swung. In the blink of an eye Joxer was back on the floor.
"Is this a joke?" Tyrone said, dismissing Joxer with a wave and taking his seat at the table.
"Gabby, my toothy hurts," Joxer cried, his hand held to his chin.
"Im sure it does, sweetie. But youve had worse, and besides you know how bad I am at that hurt/comfort thing."
"But Ive seen you and Xe ..."
Gabrielle cut him off. "So, is everything ready for the wedding?" she asked, hoping no one caught Joxers slip.
"Well, now that youre here I guess well have to have the seamstress make your bridesmaid dress," Lila said, pushing her plate away with a force.
"Hum," Gabrielle said. "What are your colors?"
"Lime and pink ... and Tyrone want to wear a purple tux."
"Really?" Gabrielle said, trying not to choke on her wine. "Im sure itll be ... um ... nice."
"See Mom? See why I didnt want you to tell her? I knew shed come back here all high and mighty-like and start bossing me around again. This is my wedding, and I can do anything I want."
"Honey," Hecuba cried, trying to calm her daughter. "Gabby didnt mean anything."
"She did too! She thinks shes better than all of us. Just cause she goes down on that warrior .. she seems to think that makes her special! Tell me, Gab, do you like it rough?"
"Lila ... what your sister and Joxer do in private is their own business."
"Oh please ... Joxer? Are you totally blind?"
"Lila," Gabrielle said, her voice barely under control. "I dont know what crawled up your butt and died, but back off. Stop it, or Ill pin your boney ass to the ground so quick youll wish I didnt like it rough."
"What happened to the re-enactment of the Persian battle?" Herodotus interjected. "Who won?"
"Play with your peas, dear," Hecuba said, pushing a random pea towards her husband.
"Does anyone want to play cards?" Joxer asked, trying to defuse the situation.
"Im going to bed," Tyrone said, standing and glaring at Gabrielle. "Lila, come."
"Woof, woof ... Lila ... run to master."
"And who plays the master in your little love affair, Gabrielle? You or Xena?"
"Thats enough, the two of you!" Hecuba cried, pouring herself another glass of wine. "Gabrielle and Xena? Lila, whats gotten into you child?"
"I think shes been hanging around sheep too long," Gabrielle snipped.
"Its only a temporary job," Lila cried. "Hes an actor!"
"Lila, Im waiting! I dont like waiting," Tyrone said from the edge of the room.
"Youre a shepard, Tyrone. Thats all you do is wait," Gabrielle said, her green eyes drilling into her sister. "You wait for the big sheep break out, right? I heard a rumor that theyre going over the hedge tonight, so be on guard."
"Shut up!" Lila cried.
"Gabrielle, thats enough. Tyrone will be your brother-in-law ... your family."
Gabrielle composes herself. "Youre right. Im sorry, Lila ... Tyrone. I was out of line."
"Me, too. Im sorry, too. For whatever it is Im apologizing for," Joxer said.
"Yeah, whatever," Lila said tossing her napkin on the table. "Ill see you all in the morning."
Hecuba lowered her wine glass and waved at her daughter. "Dear, could you try and not scream so loud tonight? Daddy was restless last night."
Gabrielles eyes widened in shock, but Lila just shook her head and walked out of the room. Hecuba shrugged, her eyes saying what can I do, to Gabrielle.
Her father lifted his head. "Did someone say they wanted to hear the story of Dido and Aenaeus?" he asked.
Hecuba rolled her eyes at her husband. "Look, dear ... one of the Persian ships is about to escape and roll off the table."
Herodotus stamped it with his fist, turning it into a flat green paste. He looked up at Gabrielle and smiled. "Its good to see you," he said. "Wheres your friend, whats-her-name?"
"You know her name," Hecuba said, and Gabrielle thought her words sounded slurred. "You know her name so well, I think you screamed it once during sex."
Gabrielles eyes widened, and her mouth fell open. Words were chased from her head, and she looked slowly at her father for his reaction.
"You were the one wearing the leather and holding the whip, Oreo," he said, picking out a new batch of peas.
"Oh, gods," Gabrielle finally managed.
"Yeah, big Hero ... but it was your idea. Youve had the hots for that woman warrior since day one."
"Please ... stop," Gabrielle stammered.
"Ive heard shes got a lot more skills than you do, dear," Herodotus shot back.
"Are we talking about Xena?" Joxer asked with a smile.
Gabrielles hand settled on his arm. "Take me outside, please," she said, pushing her chair back.
"Something the matter, precious?" Herodotus asked.
"Leave her alone. Shes got a problem with us having sex."
"Gabrielle ... You werent an immaculate conception, dear. Grow up," Herodotus said, his face brightening. "Hey, thatd make a great story, though!"
"You two love birds go for a walk," Hecuba said, waving them off. "Ill take care of dishes."
Gabrielle nodded. The room felt so claustrophobic that she had to escape. Before Joxer could help her she fled to the door, pausing only to look back. Her mother was pouring the remaining wine into her glass, and her father was setting up another mock battle in his left over mashed potatoes. Looking up the stairs she could hear the headboard banging against the wall.
"Cmon, Gabrielle," Joxer said. "Lets get out of here."
Gabrielle didnt see Xena leaning against her fathers barn as she sat down on the porch. Joxer was at least smart enough to not say anything, and she half wondered what he thought of her family. But then again ... she really didnt want to know. After seeing all of that tonight, she really wondered how Xena could put up with her. If she acted half as dysfunctional as her family then Xena had every right to leave her.
The night felt warm around her, and she let her thoughts fly into the darkness. She heard a gentle snoring next to her, and looked to see Joxer leaning against the post asleep. The bard smiled at him, and resumed her thoughts. Looking up at the stars she realized that Xena was out under the same sky, and she wanted so badly to be with her.
"How could she let me go into this alone?" she asked, wondering why her warrior hadnt come to her rescue yet.
--- VII ---
Hecuba and Herodotus were sitting on the sofa. Hecuba was swinging her wine cup through the air, and Herodotus gave her a long look of disgust as he tried to read a scroll.
"Well, I dont know about you, but I dont like him." She gesticulated with the cup. "He looks like a weasel. Did you see those beady eyes and feral grin? I tell you, hes treating our little girl badly."
"Hes not much of a warrior, I think."
"Please," Hecuba cried. "I could beat him up. But if Gabby is happy ..."
"Why say that as if we have a choice? Gabrielle is a grown woman, and she can spend her life with whomever she chooses."
"You werent so approving when she wanted to spend her life with that Xena."
"Thats different. Xenas a worldly woman, and who knows what trouble shed get our little girl into. Its immoral, I tell you."
"And I agree! But Joxer? What can she possibly see in him? At least Xena was ..."
"Tall, gorgeous, stacked," Herodotus offered.
"I meant competent. I didnt worry that Gabby was protected and looked after. Now, Im not sure."
"Well, as long as Gabrielle chooses a good man, then well support her decision," Herodotus said, closing his scroll. "Weve supported Lilas decision ... and Tyrone is ..."
"Worthless," Hecuba said, taking a big swallow of wine.
"Exactly," her husband said, standing. "Now, Im off to bed. Coming?"
"Um ... not yet. Have some cleaning to do. Ill see you in the morning."
--- VIII ---
Their breakfast consisted of dry toast, some overripe fruit and a bowl of cereal. Gabrielle realized that the offering made the Amazons food seem epicurean in comparison. All of a sudden she didnt feel so badly about the frugal meals she and Xena shared. At least the taciturn warrior spoke.
The silence around the table was tense, and she couldnt help noticing that her mother looked a little less than great. Her father was holding up the morning scroll, totally absorbed.
"Anything happening in the news today, Daddy?" she asked, hoping to break the tension.
"Ignore him," Hecuba said, glaring at her husband. "He only reads that thing because he knows I hate it."
"So, did you two lovebirds sleep well last night? I didnt hear you come in."
"Um ... yeah, we slept fine. Right Joxer?" she said, giving the warrior a glance.
"Huh? Oh, yeah. We slept great," he said with a waggle of his brow. This seemed to satisfy Hecuba, who lifted her morning tea and held it to her nose.
"So, whats up for today?" Gabrielle asked, pushing away her horrible food.
"Guess well have your dress made," Lila said, speaking for the first time that morning.
"Lila," Gabrielle began, trying to find the right words. "Im sorry that we argued last night. I didnt come home for that. Youre my sister, and I love you. I want to help make your wedding special."
"Um ... well ... sure, I guess," Lila said, her eyes narrowed as she tried to discover the bards sincerity. "But no comments, okay? I dont need the Queen of the Amazons or the Great Bard, or even Xenas partner making me feel my small town ideas suck."
"Ah, my girls made up. I knew you would," Hecuba cried, standing and grabbing for her bag. "Now, lets go shopping."
"So, thats where you get it from," Joxer said, patting her on the butt as she passed. Gabrielle reached around and patted him on the cheek so hard it left a mark.
"Which is why you need to make enough money to support me, sweetie," she said, turning and following her sister out of the house.
The dress shop was the best in town. Gabrielle held her tongue when she thought of the massive shops shed seen in Rome and Athens. Lila looked so proud that she wouldnt do anything to upset her sister anymore. As far as she was concerned, this was the best dress shop in the world.
That was until she saw her dress. Holding her tongue became a full time preoccupation as each piece of the dress was assembled around her. First she was strapped into a huge bell shaped contraption that clicked each time she moved. The seamstress called it a whalebone, but Gabrielle couldnt imagine any whale being proud to have that thing named after it. The seamstress then laid the foundations of the dress over her head. Gabrielle couldnt decide if the color looked more like overripe avocado or gang green. A large pink bustle was attached in the rear, and Gabrielle knew she probably looked like a red ass baboon. But that wasnt the best part. She had to stand stoically while two large pink flowers were attached to each breast. They overpowered every aspect, and the bard found that even if tried to tell a story about this dress it would be marked down as fiction. A high lace collar cinched her chin until she longed for the feel of a hangmans noose, and she was about to say something when two lambchop puffed sleeves were attached.
There was nothing to say except the dress wore Gabrielle instead of the other way around. The bard studied herself in the mirror, plastering a smile on her face.
"Lila ... its lovely. I couldnt have pictured it any better if I tried."
"Do you really love it?"
"Really and truly," Gabrielle said.
"Thank you! I did the design myself," Lila said, primping with the fabric. "Id like to go to Athens and be a clothing designer. You know, do those haute countance shows, or whatever theyre called."
"Then Im sure youll ..."
"If only Daddy hadnt made that agreement with Tyrones father," Lila said, pulling at one of the flowers.
"Thats enough, Lila," Hecuba said. "Dont burden your sister with things she doesnt need to know."
"Whats going on? What agreement?" Gabrielle asked.
"Nothing, dear," her mother said. "Isnt that just the most perfect dress?"
"Mom, youve got to tell me. Lila?"
"Ah, well talk about it over lunch. Theres this great little bistro down near the river. They have this wine thats ... well, its great. And the bread! Some couple from Gaul opened it last winter. They use really creamy sauces, lots of fish, too ... but its surprisingly good."
"Ive been to Gaul. The food is great. Now Britannia leaves something to be desired," Gabrielle said, relieved when the seamstress motioned for her to start undressing. "But, I want to know whats going on. Do you need my help?"
"That dress looks just wonderful on you, honey," Hecuba said, pinching Gabrielles cheeks. "I knew youd be beautiful in it. Didnt I tell you that, Lila? Shell be almost as beautiful as you are."
"Yeah, I guess," Lila mumbled.
"I just wonder what Xena would say if she saw me in this dress?" Gabrielle mused, not realizing shed spoken out loud.
"Shes say youre beautiful, thats what."
"Yeah, Im sure thats what shed say," Gabrielle said, knowing that once she picked the warrior up off the floor from laughing too hard, she might get a semi decent comment.
"Are we going to lunch?" Lila asked.
The restaurant looked more like a decrepit shack, but Gabrielle realized that was part of the Gaul charm. She thought it helped one appreciate the food better. Once inside the shabbiness disappeared, and she was amazed at the white table cloths, candles and polished silverware.
"I only hope the waiters arent as rude here," she commented as a waiter in a long apron approached them. He had the required sneer on his face and Gabrielle shrugged. "Guess that was too much to wish for," she said following him to a table.
"The food here is to die for," Lila said, holding her oversized menu awkwardly.
"I find it hard to believe a place like this can stay open in Poteidaia."
"Well, its mostly us upper class families that keep it going," her mother said, waving at her wine glass.
"Were not upper class, Mom," Gabrielle said, putting a hand over her own wine cup. "We have no money at all anymore. Ever since Dad invested in the man can fly scheme by Icarus, weve been broke."
"We know that, Gabby dear, but everyone else doesnt. So keep your mouth shut." Her mother gave her a piercing stare. "You havent been telling people about us when you travel, have you?"
"What would I say?" Gabrielle answered, amazed at her mothers bravado.
"They have this dish here, Gab, I think its called Lscargot."
"You mean snails?"
"Youve had it! I knew it! Theres nothing you havent done, is there? And Ive done nothing."
"I ... Lila ... I havent tried them. Xena wanted me to, but I didnt. But Ill try them now, if you say theyre good."
"Did Xena try them?" Lila asked.
"Why does that woman enter all our discussions. Shes out of your life, pumpkin, so put her in your past."
"Why dont you like her?" Gabrielle challenged. "What did she ever do to you?"
"Watch your tone, Missy!" her mother said, wagging her finger at Gabrielle. "But since you asked ... She took you away. There, I said it. Xena stole you from us and turned you into ... Well, Ill never forgive her for that."
"Weve been through this before, Mom. I left. On my own. I followed Xena because I knew I had to. I dont belong in Poteidaia. As for turning me into ..."
"Oh, so youre too good for your family, is that it?"
"Ill always love you, but I have to live my own life. I cant be your little girl forever," Gabrielle said, sipping her water.
"No, you left me in that role," Lila said with a sneer.
"What do you mean?"
"You ran off. Followed that woman for gods knows what reasons, and you left me here to fill your place. Do you know what its been like?" Lila narrowed her eyes. "Im at their beck and call all day long. I cant have any dreams. I cant even find any time to dream. All I know is this town. Its all Ill ever know. So, thanks, Gab. Thanks a million."
"Lila you promised," Hecuba warned. "The doctor said youd gotten your sibling rivalry under control, and itd be okay to let you around Gabrielle again."
"Shut up, Mom," Lila said. "I have as much right to my feelings as Gabrielle does to hers. You never question her feelings or her motivations. Only mine. And Im constantly coming up short."
"Lila," Gabrielle began. "I .. I didnt know."
"Why would you? Youre off being crowned Queen of the Amazons, and traipsing around the country becoming a great hero. Why would you care what it was like for me? Stuck in this stinking little village, no knowing whats beyond the hills."
"Then leave. No ones making you stay."
"Gabrielle! Quit putting ideas in your sisters head."
"Shes a grown woman, Mom, she can do what she wants."
"Lila is my daughter, and shell do what I say."
"Leave her alone. If you dont youll drive her away like you did me," Gabrielle said, immediately regretting her words when a look of shock fell over Hecubas face.
"Why ... Ive never! I wont be spoken to this way ... by my own children. Ingrates! Do you know the pain I went through bringing you into this world? The years of sacrifice I did to make sure you had the best? The nights I sat up when you were sick/ The times I kissed your hurts away ..."
"Mom ... enough. I dont need the guilt. I have enough of my own, thanks," Gabrielle said, quietly.
"Gabrielle," Hecuba started, but then pushed her chair away. "Im leaving. Ill see you two at home when you feel youre ready to apologize."
Both Gabrielle and Lila watched their mother leave the restaurant. A strange tension hung between the two sisters, and both found purpose in rearranging their silverware.
"Its been awhile since weve been alone together," Lila said.
"Why do you hate me?" Gabrielle asked.
"I dont. Really. I guess Im just jealous of what youve done ... and who youve become. I always thought you were the strange one in the family. The one wed be making excuse for your whole life, you know."
"Im not sure if I should be hurt or flattered," Gabrielle said, furrowing her brow. "But Lila, I havent done anything you cant. There is a whole world out there ... waiting for you. You can be anything you want."
"Not anymore, Gab. My futures set and I cant change it."
"If you mean Tyrone ... Lila, I ran out on Perdicus. Hell get over it."
"No, its not just that. Daddy and Tyrones dad have made a contract. Im part of it."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle questioned, suspicions rising in her head.
Lila took a deep breath. "Tyrones father is rich. I mean, really rich. And he controls everything ... even Tyrone. This has made it hard for Tyrone who, I dunno ... guess he feels hes always coming up short with his dad. Maybe thats why we get along."
"So, his dads rich ... why a contract?"
"Tyrones father threatened Tyrone with managing his sheep flocks here. Said that if he screwed this job up then hed be cut off for good. So, Tyrone comes to town to watch his dads sheep business. Part of that plan including getting Daddy to sell our pasture land. We met at the house and liked each other, so we went out."
"Sounds normal," Gabrielle said. "What happened?"
"Daddy didnt want to sell the land. Tyrone was looking bad again, and I know his father was sending threatening messages to get our land or else. Tyrone was down, and I thought that if I ... or maybe if we just ... I dunno what I thought, Gab."
"Im pregnant, Gabrielle. Thats why Tyrone and I are getting married."
"Oh, Lila! What did Mom and Dad say?"
"Well, thats where the contract comes in," Lila said, fidgeting with her knife until Gabrielle reached over and pulled it from her hand. Lila took a deep breath. "When I told Mom, she cried and went to Daddy. Daddy screamed, and went to our lawyer. The lawyer consoled Daddy and sent off a threatening letter to Tyrones father demanding reparations for his sons actions. Daddy was going to sue because my virginity had been taken away, and I was now less valuable on the marriage market."
"Well, Tyrones father is a high profile businessman. To avoid a scandal, he and Daddy worked out a marriage contract. When Tyrone and I marry, the land goes into a trust for grazing sheep, and a huge chunk of money goes into an account so Mom and Daddy can really look rich again. The baby will be financially cared for by Tyrones father provided that Tyrone shoulders all his responsibilities."
"But do you love him?" Gabrielle asked, trying to bite back the rage and sorrow she felt.
Lila shrugged, rubbing her hand nervously. "I think so. Things kinda skipped that stage, and I dunno ... I cant change anything, and I think Tyrone will be a good father." Lila looked up at Gabrielle. "So, when I look at what youve been able to do ... I feel ashamed of myself. Im a coward, Gabrielle."
"You are not, Lila!" Gabrielle said, seizing her sisters hand and holding it. "You are a strong person, and if you dont want to marry Tyrone ... then Ill get you out of this. Well figure something out."
"Gabrielle to the rescue, huh?"
"Youre my sister. Ill always do anything I can ... you know that. Who pulled you out of the way of that charging bull when we were little?"
"You did. But again it was you who teased him until he charged."
"I managed to run. You just stood there."
"Our lives were decided even then, werent they?" Lila said, with a small smile. "I am glad youre here, Gab. I know I act horrible sometimes, and I do blame you for ... well, its good to see you." Lilas dark eyes became serious. "Im wondering when youre going to tell Mom and Dad about your little secret."
"Its not a secret," Gabrielle said, shifting slightly under the intense gaze. "Mom and Dad just dont want to see the truth."
"Sure. Thats why you brought that idiot Joxer home, right? Do you really think theyre going to compare him to Xena and be glad for you?"
"What else am I supposed to do? You hear what they say about her. How do I tell them that shes the only person Ill ever love?"
"Maybe just like that."
"I dont think so. Youre overestimating our parents acceptance."
"Then maybe you need to look a little closer at the family, Gab. Maybe you dont need our acceptance. But youve got mine, if you need it."
--- IX ---
The interior of the tavern was gloomy in the late afternoon sun. Men, finishing their tasks for the day, poured through the door in a steady stream until laughter and boasts could be heard from different groups. Teaming trays of frothy ale were carried with precision by scantily clad waitresses, counting on their outfits to earn them some much needed dinars. In the corner a high pitched voice could be heard above the others. His tale was animated, and he punctuated his story with movements. Several of the men standing around nudged and poked each other with bemused expressions.
"So, that was when I decided Id had enough of Draco trying to steal Gabrielle. I marched out of the temple and challenged him to a duel. I could see the fear in Dracos eyes ... he knew about my skills ... but he accepted, as any warrior must. No one has ever beaten me in a duel, and Draco must have known his life was forfeit." Joxer adjusted his chest plate, and gave everyone hard stare. "I pulled out my sword and began to show off my expert moves. Gabrielle was watching from the steps of the temple ... her beautiful face smiling at me as I prepare to kill a man for her love."
"Thats a crock of sheep dung!" a man called from the crowd. "Ive heard this story, and Draco captures you. He ties you up in a tent and you have to be rescued by Xena."
A ripple of laughter erupts from around the room and the young warrior shakes his head, his beady eyes trying to think up a response.
"Well, I was getting to that part. It was all part of the plan, you see. Xena and I were working together to get close to Dracos camp. I let myself get captured to distract everyone. But my main purpose was to rescue Gabrielle from this most evil of warlords ..."
"All for Gabrielle?" another man teased. "Why? Shes way too brainy. And chatty. And nosy. And lots of trouble. I cant see anyone finding her attractive."
"Hey, watch what you say about her. I love her," Joxer cried, his face betraying all his emotions.
"And if we keep insulting her youll have to defend her honor, I bet?" a third man said, crossing his arms over his barrel chest.
"Um ... yes. I mean, youll be sorry if you do!"
"You know, she was known as Go-Go Gabby when she lived here," the first man teased. "Thats cause she was always ready to go."
"Yeah, I remember having to stand in line," the second joined.
"At least we didnt have to pay," the first said, nudging his friend.
"Thats it!" Joxer cried. "Shut up! Thats my friend youre talking about, and if you dont shut up, then Ill make you."
"You and what army?"
"Do I count as an army?" a dark, seductive voice said from behind them.
"Xena ... I didnt know ..." Joxer stammered in relief.
"Quiet, Joxer. Now, were you all saying something about my friend Gabrielle? I could have sworn you were tarnishing her reputation and respect," Xena said, bringing a fist up to her palm for effect. "Did I hear right?"
"Uh ... no. We were talking about another Gabrielle," the second man said, backing away.
"Totally different person," the first man replied. "This Gabrielle had dark hair ... and a wart. Really ugly."
"Yeah. Not youre friend Gabrielle. Nope. Your Gabrielles ... um ... a good girl."
"Well, thats better," Joxer said, pulling himself taller. "I accept your apologies, and Ill not beat you up this time. ... But if you ever say anything about Gabrielle again ... Ill come looking for you."
"Joxer ... get over here," Xena said, trying hard not to roll her eyes. "The rest of you ... beat it."
The young warrior stepped proudly around the men, who were quickly grabbing their things and heading for the door, and sat across from Xena. His eyes fell to his lap, and the woman warrior did roll her eyes.
"You did good, Joxer," she said. "You wouldve protected Gabrielle."
"I would have!" Joxer said, lifting his head and beaming. "I did good?"
"Yeah, thanks," she said, holding up a hand to cut off his next words. "Just tell me whats going on."
"Well, I was telling them about the time you, me, Gabrielle and Draco ..."
"Not a rerun. Whats happening now? Wheres Gabrielle?"
"Oh, that. Shes with her mom and sister. Wedding shopping, I guess. She sure didnt look too happy, either."
"How are things at home," Xena asked.
"Um ... okay. Her familys weird," he said finally. "Her dad plays with peas, her mom is way out there, and the sister and the shepard are always, well ... you know."
"And how does Gabrielle fit in?"
"Wow, thats weird," Joxer said, his eyes widening in understanding. "I hadnt thought about it ... but she doesnt fit in. Its like her family isnt like her at all, and shes not like her family and somewhere in between they ..."
"Got the picture," Xena said. "Has Gabrielle talked about me?"
"Only in passing," the puny warrior replied, fidgeting with his hat. "They seemed pretty happy that you werent there." He looked up quickly, his face knowing he was about to die. "Oh! I shouldnt have said that. Im ..."
"No, its okay. Im know Im not her parents favorite person. They blame me for a lot of who Gabrielle has become."
"Well, if you ask me ... which you havent .. but if you did ... Id say that Gabrielle turned out pretty okay. Considering her family, I think shes great."
"Yeah? Me, too." Xena allowed herself to smile. "What are the plans for the next few days?" she asked, returning to business at hand. "I know the weddings tomorrow ..."
"Um, just the wedding," Joxer said. "Boy is her mom pushy though. She thinks that Gab and I should ..."
"Joxer, I want you to do me a favor," Xena said, a sly smile curling her lip.
The young warrior leaned in as Xena began outlining her plan. His head would bob up and down in understanding, and only once did Xena have to reach out and slap him upside the head. She sat back against the wall as Joxer grabbed his helmet and made his way out of the tavern. She could see the excitement on his face, and only hoped that he realized this was all just a ruse. Shaking her head, she knew that knowing Joxer he didnt, and then either she or Gabrielle would have to have one of those this is this, and that is that, talks with him.
--- X ---Continued...Part 2 (Conclusion)
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