Joxer awoke lying on his side with a soft, warm bundle cuddled against him. He didn't think too hard about why, only how good it felt to sleep with a woman again. He buried his face in her hair and nuzzled her neck and shoulder, planting delicate kisses on sweetly scented skin. He recognized that smell, but...
Joxer cuddled up closer, matching the curve of her sleeping form and wriggled his hips up against her for maximum contact. Why are we clothed? a tiny voice in his head wondered. He caressed the curve of her shoulder with his free hand and ran it down her arm to the elbow, then continued tracing her form down her hip and around the firm round buttock giving it a playful squeeze. He froze in mid-grope and his eyes snapped open as the fog of sleep lifted with sudden finality. Gabrielle! Oh gods, oh gods, oh gods. He willed her not to wake until he could put a bit of distance between them. And maybe calm down Mr. Happy, he thought grimly. She'll hate me, she'll never trust me again.
Joxer pulled his hand away, trying desperately not to startle her, but, to his surprise, she snuggled backwards against him, making little contented noises.
Joxer realized he had to quickly get out of this compromising position. If only I could've remembered it was her as soon as I awoke, he chided himself, I could've just laid quietly and been near her and watched her sleep. He sighed deeply and pushed himself away from her until he was facing the wall on the far side of the bed. He lay there, listening to the day begin to stir around him and aching for the woman who always seemed just out of his reach.
After several minutes, he realized that he wasn't going to get back to sleep. This is stupid, I'm wide awake. He left the bed as gently as possible, so as not to awaken Gabrielle. Well, I have something I need to do alone anyway. Joxer gathered up his armour and dressed as quietly as he could. He fumbled once or twice, but, fortunately, Gabrielle was sleeping very soundly. She muttered slightly at the noise Joxer made, but did not awake.
Now armoured, Joxer crept out of the room. Closing the door behind him, he found himself confronted by his father's guards.
"Uh, hi, guys," he said, with his most disarming smile. "Nice day, isn't it? Keep up the good work. Gotta go!" He started to walk away.
"Hold it!" called one of the men. Joxer froze. "Where do you think you're going?"
"I've got a wedding to plan."
"On your own?" The guard sounded skeptical. "Where's the woman?"
"She's... resting! Long night, if you know what I mean." Joxer attempted to waggle his eyebrows. Instead, he looked like his helmet was on too tight.
The guards chuckled appreciatively and nudged each other, but almost immediately became serious again. "I don't know if we should be letting you wander around without Nikolaos. He seemed to want to keep an eye on you two."
"Aw, don't worry about him," interrupted the second guard. "Nikolaos is more concerned about the girl. He didn't seem to think 'the boy' was any kind of threat at all."
Thanks, father. Even when you're not around, you manage to put me down. Joxer could use this to his advantage, however. "He's right," said Joxer, indicating the second man with his hand. "What harm could I do? I mean, look at me!" And Joxer gave the goofiest grin he could muster. Yeah, look at me! he thought bitterly. World's biggest idiot! Thank you again, father!
The first guard scrutinized Joxer for a moment before finally acknowledging that Joxer did not appear to be much of a threat. "All right, off you go."
With that, the guards resumed their posts and Joxer quickly headed for the inn's entrance.
Some time later, Gabrielle finally started to awaken. She'd had one of her best sleeps in recent memory. And some of her most pleasant dreams. All night long she had dreamed of nothing but being held by her deceased beloved, Perdicus.
At least, she assumed it was Perdicus. In the dream, she hadn't actually seen the face of the man holding her through the night. But she had felt safe and protected and above all she had felt loved. Who else could it have been?
Still only half-awake, Gabrielle turned over and automatically reached out for a form that was not there. Her arm flailed slightly as she found only the empty bed. She frowned and grunted disappointment. Where'd Joxer go?
The bard's head jerked in surprised and she sat bolt upright, her eyes finally opening all the way. "Joxer?!" she yelped, staring in shock at the empty bed beside her. By the gods, I was reaching out for Joxer! She shook her head, trying to clear the cobwebs out of her head. It wasn't Perdicus I dreamt about last night, was it? It was... Joxer?
Gabrielle swung her legs around so that she sat on the edge of the bed. Oh, this is weird. There must be something wrong with me. I can't feel this way. I cannot feel this way. She got up and started to pace, speaking aloud to herself.
"Okay, Gabrielle, calm down, calm down. Just think. No, on second thought, don't think about it. It was just a dream; you didn't really enjoy feeling Joxer up against you all night... Wait a minute." She stopped pacing and looked around the room. "Where did Joxer go?" Sitting back down on the bed, she put her boots back on. "I swear," she muttered, "if he's off somewhere doing something 'heroic' and messing this whole thing up, I'll kill him!"
Gabrielle picked up her staff, opened the door and found the guards still there. She attempted to walk past them, but one of them grabbed her arm.
"And where do you think you're off to, missy?"
"I'm not in the mood for this," growled Gabrielle. "Let go."
"I don't think Nikolaos wants both you and the idiot wandering around town without hi--OOF!"
The bard and amazon princess swiftly swung her staff around and knocked the man out. Without the slightest hesitation, the staff continued its arc, hitting the second guard. He joined his companion in unconsciousness.
Moments later, a still fuming Gabrielle exited the inn and surveyed her surroundings. Then, picking a direction, she started searching for Joxer.
"Uh-oh." Joxer spotted Gabrielle just as she rounded a corner up ahead. She looked angry. She knows. She figured out what happened last night and now she's gonna kill me.
By now Gabrielle had reached Joxer, waving her staff furiously. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Why?" she interrupted. "What happened last night?"
"Nothing, I swear! We were just lying like that when I woke up!" Here it comes, he thought, shutting his eyes and bracing himself. Any second now, she'll bonk me in the head, or worse, do that thing with my nose...
But the pain he was expecting never came. He opened one eye cautiously and peeked at Gabrielle. She looked confused, so he felt it was safe to open his other eye. "Are you okay?" he asked, feeling as bewildered as she looked.
It wasn't even a dream, thought Gabrielle. She had a momentary flash of how... good lying next to Joxer had felt. I must have woken up once or twice in the night and felt him against me. Part of me had to known it was Joxer. Part of me... No, I'm over-reacting here. I was half asleep, I was confused...
Gabrielle mustered as much anger as she could towards Joxer. "That's not what I was talking about. Although we will discuss that later," she added darkly. "I was talking about you wandering off without me this morning!" As she spoke, she noticed that Joxer was holding a bunch of flowers and what looked like a small bottle of scented water. "Joxer, it's very nice of you to get these things for me, but you don't need to court me for your father's benefit. We're supposed to be past that stage."
Joxer looked uncomfortable. "Uhh... well... they're not actually for you."
Gabrielle was stunned. She felt as if she had just been slapped. "What?"
"They're not for you," repeated Joxer sheepishly.
Gabrielle felt unaccountably angry. "Then who are they for?" she asked, raising her voice.
"I... I can't tell you..."
"You... you can't... Well, fine! Be like that! See if it matters to me! I go to all this trouble to help you out, and then you turn around and do something like this! If your father found you giving gifts to some... some... woman, this whole thing blows up in our faces!"
Wow, she's really steamed! thought Joxer.
"Go on! See whoever it is! I certainly don't care!" And with that, Gabrielle stormed off.
Joxer stood for a second, embarrassed by the stares of the passers-by who had stopped to watch the rather one-sided argument. Boy, I wasn't expecting that! But I just couldn't tell her where I'm going. Gathering as much dignity as he could, Joxer continued on his way.
"Ooo, that man!" glowered Gabrielle, as she rounded the corner. "He makes me so mad sometimes!" She slowed down and eventually stopped, trying to calm herself. She took a few deep breaths. "Okay, calm down, everything's fine, you're over-reacting. And you're talking to yourself. Stop it." It's really none of my business what Joxer does on his own. I'm just worried about the plan going wrong, that's all. Who can he possibly be going to see, though? We've only been in town for three days. She came to a decision. I have to find out. He should be pretty easy to follow.
Gabrielle turned around and backtracked far enough to spot Joxer heading in his original direction. She followed at a discreet distance.
Back at the inn, the warlord Nikolaos sat at a table in silence. He was very unhappy. Before him stood the guards assigned to Gabrielle and Joxer's room. Nikolaos said nothing; he just stared at them for several long minutes. The guards sweated visibly.
Eventually, Joxer's father spoke. "Well, do you have anything to say?"
One guard nudged the other. He glared at his companion in return before speaking. "Uh, well, sir, we, uh, were under the impression that, uh, you weren't really, um, concerned about your son walking around on his own, so, uh, we, uh, let him go..."
Nikolaos' stare bored into the man. "I'm not concerned about the boy. He's an idiot and a coward; he won't do anything that might possibly make me angry. But the girl..." He got up from the chair and shoved his face into that of the guard who had spoken. "The girl actually has half a brain. And she has... spunk!" He used the word as an insult. "Spunk causes problems. Spunk," he repeated, his voice becoming louder and louder as he continued, "causes trouble! And YOU and YOU," he bellowed, indicating each man in turn, "have let that SPUNK GET AWAY!"
I think I just wet myself, thought the guard who had not spoken.
"Now," continued Nikolaos, more calmly, "I'm going to give you both a chance to redeem yourselves. Take some of the other men, and find the boy and his little friend. If you don't find them within an hour... I'LL SKIN YOU ALIVE!"
The guards almost ran each down trying to leave their master's presence.
"Idiots!" Nikolaos grumbled to himself.
Joxer finally arrived at his destination, the local temple of Aphrodite. As he entered, he removed his helmet and checked to make sure that no one else was around. A couple of priestesses were just exiting through another door, leaving Joxer alone in the temple.
He walked up to the altar in the center of the main chamber and laid the flowers and scented water on it. While doing this, he failed to notice the small figure that snuck through the temple door and hid behind a pillar.
Joxer took a step back from the altar and cleared his throat. "Aphrodite? Hi, it's me, Joxer, again. I hope the flowers and water are okay as tributes; I didn't have much time to pick up anything else. Anyway..." He started to pace a bit as he spoke, occasionally glancing around to ensure his privacy.
"It's about Gabby, again. I just don't know what to do about her. About how I feel about her. Every time I try to show or tell her, something goes wrong, or I chicken out." He snorted. "Story of my life! The truth is... I'm really afraid of what would happen if I did tell her... how much I love her."
Joxer thought he heard a noise, like a small, short gasp. He spun around to look behind him, but could see nothing out of the ordinary. Great, I'm hearing things. I must be getting paranoid.
He sat down on the steps leading up to the altar and addressed the empty temple. "I'm afraid if I tell her, it'll bring our friendship to an end. And I value my friendship with her too much to risk that."
Joxer got up and paced once again, creaking slightly. "These last couple of days have been even worse. Being so close to her for so long, without Xena or any other allies around. 'Pretending' to be in love." He slapped a hand against his chest, producing a slight clang. "Well, I'm not pretending!" he exclaimed.
Joxer stopped pacing and addressed a statue of Aphrodite directly. "Sometimes I wish the feeling would just go away, you know? That I didn't love her anymore, or at least not as much." His eyes shone wetly and a tear ran down one cheek. "But only for a second. I realize that, even with all the grief it's caused me, I could never stop loving her. She's so beautiful, and kind, and... and I'm... what am I? Joxer the Mighty? Yeah, right!" His voice dripped with sarcasm.
The warrior wiped the wetness from his face and sighed deeply. "Still, I've had these last couple of days, at least. Most of the time, just being near her is enough. And as long as she's happy, that's the most important thing to me, even if it means being she's happy without me."
There was a long pause as Joxer appeared to be mulling something over. "Right," he finally said. He took his helmet from under his arm, and pulled it down firmly on his head. "This has gone on long enough. I'm not letting Gabrielle go though anymore; I'm putting an end to it. Thanks for listening again, Aphrodite. If you really are listening. Who can tell with gods? If I get a chance, I'll drop in to talk again sometime." And with that, Joxer strode out of the temple.
After she was sure that Joxer was gone, Gabrielle stepped out from behind the pillar, walked up to the altar and stared at Joxer's tributes to the Goddess of Love. A single tear ran down cheek, matching Joxer's earlier drop. "Oh, Joxer," she whispered, "I'm so sorry. I didn't know. How could I have known?"
Gabrielle turned around and stared after Joxer. How could I not have known? It's so obvious. The necklace, the way he looks at me, how protective he's been of me towards his father... Ephiny told me that he was there the entire three days I spent in the purification ritual, worried sick about me... How could I possibly not have known?
The bard looked at the same statue of Aphrodite Joxer had been talking to, and spoke aloud. "You know, when he said he loved me... I felt that tingle in my stomach again. The one I felt when he kissed me while he was under your spell. Does that mean...?" Gabrielle frowned and shook her head. "No, it can't mean that I have feelings for Joxer... can it?"
Gabrielle sat on the altar steps, closed her eyes, and thought about Joxer. Thought about how kind he could be, thought about the things he'd done for her, thought about his goofy smile, thought about how she felt about him...
I'm always happy to see him when he joins us, although I never say it. And I'm always a little sad to see him go. It tore me up to see him hurt so badly the time he was beat up by that casino owner...
She opened her eyes again and gasped. "By the gods," she whispered, stunned. "Joxer... I... I..." A concerned look crossed Gabrielle's face. "Wait a minute. He said he was 'putting an end to it.' He's going to confront his father!" She grabbed her staff and ran from Aphrodite's temple.
The temple was still. Then, the statue addressed by Joxer and Gabrielle vanished in a flash of golden light, only to be replaced by the genuine Goddess of Love. Aphrodite put her hands on her hips and grimaced. "Well, finally! They took their sweet time about it." She hopped down from the statue's pedestal and walked over to her altar to examine Joxer's gifts.
Aphrodite reached out, picked up one of the flowers and smelled it. "Well, not my favorite..." Then she opened the bottle of scented water and gave it a sniff. A smile brightened her face. "Cool!"
With her gifts in hand, the Goddess of Love disappeared in another shower of light.
Gabrielle ran through the streets of Pydna as fast as her legs could carry her. She had to stop Joxer before he did anything stupid.
Eventually she reached the inn, darting through the front door. She was greeted with the sight of Nikolaos, three of his men and Joxer, who had apparently arrived just moments before. The awkward young man strode up to his father.
"Father, we need to talk."
Nikolaos glanced unconcernedly, first at Joxer and then at Gabrielle arriving. "Ah, good, the happy couple. I've decided that I can't stay in town any longer."
"So, you'll miss the wedding," responded Gabrielle.
Joxer started at the sound of her voice and turned to see her. "Gabby! Uh... you might not want to be here for this."
"My place right now is with you, Joxer," she replied, with a surprising amount of conviction. For a second, Joxer almost believed that she had meant it.
"No, Gabrielle, you don't understand. You don't have to pret--"
Ignoring this exchange, Nikolaos went on. "Actually, I don't plan on missing the wedding at all. I've sent some of my men for the priestess. You're getting married now!"
Joxer swung his head back to glare at his father. "No, father, it's over. Gabrielle and I are not getting married."
"Trouble in paradise?" smirked the warlord.
"There never was a paradise." Joxer's voice was tinged with sadness. "It's all been a lie. Gabrielle is just my friend, not my betrothed. She was never even my girlfriend."
Nikolaos chuckled. "Tell me something I don't know, boy."
"Wha-?" The confusion on Joxer's face was clear.
"You don't think I bought this for even a moment, do you? What kind of an idiot do you take me for?"
Joxer was too stunned to say anything. Instead, Gabrielle spoke the question they were both thinking. "Then why did you play along for as long as you did?"
Nikolaos grinned. "I liked watching you and the boy squirm. I can't believe you thought I'd fall for it!"
"You... you... heartless monster! How can you treat him like this? Joxer is the kindest man I know and you've done nothing but treat him with contempt his entire life!"
Nikolaos' face grew dark. "I have had about enough of you! I don't know where you found this little tramp, boy, but--"
"Shut up, father!"
The warlord turned his head slowly and glared at Joxer. "What did you say, boy?" he said quietly. Somehow, his speaking in this low tone of voice was more frightening than any amount of shouting he had done.
"I won't have you insulting Gabrielle! You can say anything you like about me. You can insult me, you can put me down, you can degrade me, I don't care anymore! But don't you ever say a word against her!"
Nikolaos seemed somewhat bemused. "I thought your outburst yesterday was just for show, but it wasn't, was it? You really love her, boy!"
Joxer looked at Gabrielle, tears starting to form in his eyes. "Yes, I do," he whispered hoarsely. "More than life itself. I'm sorry, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle took a step towards Joxer. "It's all right, Joxer, I heard you in the temple, and I need to tell you--"
"It's okay, Gabby, after this, I'll stop hanging around you and Xena from now on. I don't want you to feel uncomfortable when I'm around."
"Joxer, you don't understand--"
Joxer wasn't listening. Instead, he addressed his father. "Now, father, you're going to take back what you said about Gabrielle, and then leave Pydna without any fuss." Joxer's voice was trembling with fear.
"Joxer," shouted Gabrielle, "you don't have to do this!"
"Yes, Gabrielle, I do," he answered without looking away from his father.
Nikolaos sighed. "Boy, I really hate to have to do this, especially since you've finally shown some spine after all this time, back if I back away from this, I'll look bad in front of my men. Sorry."
The warlord's fist connected solidly with Joxer's face, sending him flying across the room, where his head slammed into the wall with a thud. Joxer fell to the floor unconscious.
Rage filled Gabrielle. "You bastard!" she yelled, lunging at Nikolaos with her staff, pummeling him with blow after blow. He easily blocked the attacks with his massive arms, but kept falling back, surprised by the intensity of the blows. Nikolaos' men watched in stunned silence, unsure what to do. Surely their leader could deal with this girl.
"What is your problem, girl?" Nikolaos shouted.
II can't believe you're his father!" she shouted back, between blows. "He is nothing like you! He has never been anything but kind to me, no matter how badly I treated him! He's always been there for me! He is the kindest and bravest man I know, and he is ten times the man you could ever be!"
"This is insane, girl! Give it up!" Nikolaos reached out with one hand and stopped Gabrielle's staff in mid-blow. "Anyone would think that you really love him!"
"I DO love him!"
The room was silent for several moments. No one moved. Nikolaos looked into Gabrielle's eyes and saw...
"By the gods, so you do! I really didn't think the runt had it in him to affect a woman like that."
"His name is Joxer! Use it!" snapped Gabrielle.
Nikolaos frowned. "Whether you're the boy's woman or not, I'm not putting up with this kind of lip anymore!" He started to draw his sword.
"Leave my friends alone!" a new voice interrupted.
Gabrielle knew that voice. She looked at the entrance and saw a familiar form standing in the doorway. "Xena!"
Nikolaos' jaw dropped and he removed his hand from his half-drawn weapon. "Xena? The Xena?"
Xena smiled slightly. "The one and only. And I'm not alone."
The warrior stepped aside and several large, well-armed men entered the building. They quickly and easily disarmed Nikolaos' few men. Then one of them spoke to Joxer's father. "Warlord Nikolaos, you're to come with us to finish serving your sentence in Marimus, which will probably be extended because of your escape. There is little point in resisting. We found the rest of your men wandering the streets and they've been rounded up, with the timely assistance of Xena, here." The soldier nodded his thanks to Xena, who nodded back graciously.
Nikolaos was still staring in amazement at Xena. "The boy is really friends with you? I though Jett was just exaggerating so he wouldn't look bad." He sighed. "Well, you've got me dead to rights, fellows. Take us away." He then grinned broadly. "Maybe I'll break out again some day!"
Xena walked over to Gabrielle, who had rushed to Joxer's side to check on his condition and was now cradling his head in her arms.
While Xena removed Joxer's helmet and examined his injury, Gabrielle looked up at her friend and said quietly, "Xena... I... I love him..."
Xena smiled at Gabrielle and simply said, "I know." Returning her attention to Joxer, she continued, "He'll be all right with a night's sleep; just a nasty bump on the head."
Joxer returned to consciousness enough to hear the last statement. "Oh, good," he mumbled, "I didn't hurt anything important..."
Gabrielle half-laughed, half-sobbed and wrapped her arms around Joxer's neck. "Oh, gods, Joxer, I love you!"
Joxer's face creased with confusion. "I must've hit my head harder than you think, Xena. I could have sworn Gabby just said she loved me."
Gabrielle let go of Joxer and looked him straight in the eyes. "I've been trying to tell you for the last five minutes. I do love you, Joxer. I really do." She lowered her face to his and gave him the sweetest kiss he had ever experienced. The first kiss his beloved bard had given him without any outside influence, from the gods or otherwise. It lasted several seconds, but was interrupted by a loud voice.
Gabrielle pulled her head away from her newfound love, and Joxer gazed up at her in wonder. "Gabrielle..." he murmured. Then he realized who had spoken. "Father?"
Nikolaos stood over the three friends, wrists clapped in irons, soldiers standing on either side of him. "Didn't want to leave without saying good-bye." He paused and stared at Joxer for a moment. "Seems I've possibly... under-estimated you, boy." The warlord glanced at Gabrielle, then back to his son. "Do one thing right in your life, boy. Don't screw this up," he said, indicating Gabrielle with a nod. "See you around. All right, let's get going, shall we, fellows!" The guards led Nikolaos and his men away.
"He used my name," realized Joxer. "I can't remember the last time he used my name."
"Come on, Gabrielle, let's help him up." The women each grabbed one of Joxer's arms and managed to haul him to his feet. Joxer teetered slightly and put a hand to his head.
"Oooh, my achin'..." His voice trailed off as the last few moments finally sank in. "Gabby? Did you just...?
"Yes, Joxer, I did. We'll talk about it in a bit, but first, let's get you back to our room so you can lie down."
As Xena and Gabrielle led him away, a huge grin spread across Joxer's face. "Wow!"
Send all feedback to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Back to my homepage.