If someone had been watching them they'd say the couple resembled a master dragging his dog by a leash. Gabrielle went with Perdicus but the closer they got to Iolaus tent the more faltering she became. What was wrong with this picture? She adored Iolaus but here she was, ready to break in on his private quarters, prepared to be persuaded that her instincts about Iolaus were all wrong.
"Come on." Perdicus yanked on Gabrielle's wrist and she followed him inside the tent. He then released her and pulled a dark, top cover off Iolaus bed, "You see. He's a thief."
Crossbows, swords, tightly packed provisions and various pieces of heavy leather armor lay there for anyone who cared to engage in an investigation.
"And if we look a little harder I bet we'll find more of our supplies, all the things that have been turning up missing over the past months, in his friends tents as well." Perdicus watched Gabrielle with a secretive smile. He observed as she lifted a battered helmet in her hand and gaze at it with uncertainty. "The only thing I can't figure out is why he left this here like this. He should have known someone like me might stop by this morning."
"Maybe he was distracted." Gabrielle murmured and could just hear her own voice in a fog. No, this wasn't possible. Her brain couldn't accept it although here were their missing things, laid out for all to see.
"Distracted?" Perdicus asked with feigned innocence, "By what?"
"Me, I think."
"You? What do you mean, Gabrielle?"
"He ..." Gabrielle turned very slowly, laying the helmet once again on the bed, still in shock and not really knowing what she was exposing, "He was with me last night."
Perdicus jaw set. He already knew of the affair, of course, but it was good to have something to launch in on: "So you slept with him." He stated grimly, "Iolaus has gotten everything he wanted, Gabrielle. You're just used goods to him now. He can throw you aside, like he has most everything else in his miserable life, and recall your time together as 'a few good laughs'." When she appeared to be barely listening to him Perdicus, grasped Gabrielle's shoulders and shook her slightly. He was going to make a point and, damn it, she was going to listen! "He'll probably talk later with those wretches he calls friends in secret and they'll laugh behind your back, Gabrielle. Iolaus will tell him what a great little conquest you were, how eager you were to fall under his spell. Were they placing bets on how fast he could get you in bed?"
"Oh no, Perdicus. No. You don't understand ..."
"Has he ever told you he loves you, Gabrielle?"
"He doesn't have to ..."
"I thought so. Iolaus exploited you. He's gotten what he wants and he now plans to take these things, plus the money Dandilus has already given to him to entice the amazons and centaurs, and - with his men - leave us high and dry. Any wonder why he *and his men* are going? Smart of them to leave Brucitius behind. He'll probably sneak off and join them later. Those mercenaries probably plan to sell these weapons on the black market. And did you notice what women they're taking? *Only* the ones Lepacles and Regus formed a attachments with. Any wonder why Iolaus didn't want you with them?"
"Stop it!" Gabrielle cried out suddenly and pulled free of him. She suppressed an overwhelming urge to slap Perdicus. "You're wrong! Iolaus wouldn't do that. Not to me or any of us. He's loyal ..."
"He's played you, all of us, for a fool Gabrielle. I'm sorry but you know it's true. Look at the evidence in front of your eyes!"
She again looked down at the damning proof laying on his cot then, with a strangled cry, Gabrielle exited the tent.
Folding his arms over a well muscled chest, Perdicus again smiled. He then, with some regret, looked again at the collection on the bed. He had hurt her but he loved her. Perdicus hoped, one day, Gabrielle would understand. He moved forward to collect the gear before Iolaus returned to the tent.
Later in the day, when the fog had lifted and the morning meeting broke up, Iolaus found Gabrielle in her quanrters, laying down on her bed, fitfully asleep. He hadn't meant to hurt her, making her feel small and trivial despite their words to the contrary, but like Stancles before her she had to understand. Gabrielle's main talent did not lay in physical battle but in the words and leadership. Oh sure, she could fight. She was great. But Gabrielle could do so much more by being the born ringleader she was meant to be. Not a brute. Not an unwashed killer ...
* ... not like you ...*
Slowly, sitting beside the young woman as she dozed, Iolaus looked closely into her unaware expression. Did she have a single clue what she did to him? So beautiful and controlled but not fierce and never vicious. She could be stubborn but it was all a part of her charm. And there was more. So much more ...
"Do you love me Iolaus?"
Stunned by the unexpected question he centered on Gabrielle. She was awake and looking up at him, her expression enigmatic. Iolaus looked at her for a long while. "I don't understand."
"It's not a hard question. Are you in love with me?"
Iolaus opened his mouth to say something but for a few brief moments no words came from between his lips. Then, struggling with his concentration, he spoke vaguely, "I don't love much in this world, Gabrielle. But I do know," his voice dropped to a whispered, "that I loved deeply, truly and not too wisely once in my life and that love nearly destroyed me." Deep in thought he unconsciously licked his bottom lip, "It still may one of these days."
Gabrielle said nothing, nervous and waiting patiently.
"When you're a kid growing up you think the friends and brothers you've mad, particularly in a gang, will be yours forever and ever. You're joined at the hip and they have a bond with you that cannot be severed. It's not until you become an adult that you realize it was all fiction. Those friends in crime never really were friends in the first place. Soon, if you have a conscience, you have to make up for all past wrongs." He glanced at Gabrielle sheepishly, "When I went to the academy I learned so much. Jason and Demetrius became my best friends. But, even then, there was something missing. When we graduated I had a decision to make. Either go home to my parents, go with Jason and serve with him as an army advisor in Corinth, go with Demetrius and start a warfare business, or go off on my own to discover the world. ...."
"I bet you chose the world." Gabrielle chimed in, not really ratifying the choice but understanding.
He nodded with regret, "It seemed the right move. My parents could do without me, Demetrius was far more of an entrepreneur then I could ever be, Jason was too important to be tied to and, to be honest, none of those other options felt right. I never met anyone I trusted one hundred percent, someone I would walk through Tartarus with. So, going off on my own seemed like the right thing. I had a young man's plans of earning a great fortune ... and not causing pain to any of those I loved. Little did I know that choice caused everyone more pain than I could ever imagine. My father died in war, Mother died diseased, Demetrius had been corrupted, and Jason was murdered and his palace taken by The Conqueror ..." Iolaus shook his head back and forth at her forlorn expression, "If I stayed I could have made a difference, Gabrielle. I was self-absorbed and destroyed the people I loved."
"Iolaus, you had to live your own life. You can't blame yourself for anything that happened."
"But I do. And I did. In the end all that tragedy had two common denominators: Me and Xena. My indifference and her ruthlessness."
"But Iolaus .."
"No, wait. I'm not finished, Gabrielle."
She took in his hesitation, watched as Iolaus looked about her quarters, attempting to tell Gabrielle something that had been eating at him for the gods knew how many months.
"Three years ago, after Jason's assassination, I made plans to destroy Xena. I infiltrated the palace, presented myself to her as a great lieutenant, and eventually - to Darphus horror - won Xena over. Or so I thought."
Gabrielle's eyes were huge saucers, "You and Xena ...?"
"We became lovers. It was all in my plan. I wanted to lull her into a false sense of security." Iolaus eyes shifted unexpectedly, "I know she liked to play mind-games and I was there, meeting and sometimes topping her challenges. She likes a man who can take as much as she gives. But then something went wrong. Somehow I managed to touch an assailable part of Xena. There were times she could be so different when we were together; soft and nearly vulnerable, and I had to wonder if I was wrong about her. I found myself questioning my feelings for this women who disguised herself as a monster. As incredible as it is to believe ..." Iolaus then looked at Gabrielle, embarrassed and pained. " ... I fell in love with her."
Emotionally wounded, Gabrielle closed her eyes and her brow furrowed as she listened.
"I was with her for two months experiencing luxury, victory on the battlefield, and exciting sex. It was blinding and unreal. Xena was unreal. I had never been around anyone like her. So beautiful ... so cold. I forgot everything. She had destroyed everything I loved ... but I made myself forget what she did because she had stolen my heart."
Unconsciously, Iolaus raised a hand and placed it on chest, where his heart lay.
Gabrielle followed the motion with her eyes. She wanted him to stop. It was too much to bare but she continued to listen in morbid fascination.
"But then one day she did something that opened my eyes. Xena always made a point of never killing women and children when villages were raided. Accidents happened, of course, but she had a standing order to evacuate all women and children or, if they ignorantly remained, to make them slaves. But one day I saw a woman brought before her. Her name was Meg and she was a common girl, a prostitute. She looked remarkably like Xena. The Conqueror had hopes of making Meg her double in case of assassination attempts. Meg refused. Not just refused she cursed Xena and told her it would be a cold day in Tartarus before she'd do anything Xena told her to do ... In her own way she was funny and I admired Meg's spunk. For awhile I thought Xena did too." Iolaus paused.
"Did Xena kill her?" Gabrielle asked in an uneasy murmur.
"She put a pinch on the girl's neck that stopped the flow of blood to her brain. Xena wanted something and intended to have it. I don't know where she learned to do that. Probably in the orient, I'm not sure. But Xena watched and smiled as Meg slowly turned into a human vegetable before her ... and Xena was pleased. I saw no regret. Just cold pleasure. Everyone was laughing, watching Meg walk into things and fall to the floor. She would never be the same but she would be Xena's double when assassins came to call. Xena got what she wanted without cooperation and without torture." Iolaus gulped at the memory, "It was then that I knew Xena had to die. She had gone beyond a warlord and even The Conqueror. She had become an inhuman demon, a creature intent on keeping her hold on power at any cost. Someone had to take the initiative."
"What did you do?"
"One evening, when I was supposed to be on patrol, I snuck into her bedroom through a secret passage Xena had trusted me with. I had my sword ... and I was caught. Xena asked me to deny it. She told me she'd believe me if I told her is was a mistake. It's odd but, in a bizarre way, I think Xena did care for me -- at least for the two months I was with her. It would have been so easy for me to deny what I had planned but I couldn't. I told her the truth ... and also some lies. I shouted, telling her she was and had never been anything but a whore to me ... She said nothing. For an instant an incredible, deranged look came over her face. Then she was a stone. She calmly told me a quick death was too good for me, years of hard labor too good as well. She even said torture might not be good enough. I thought she might put the pinch on me as she did with Meg but then Xena smiled coldly and said she 'knew people' ... and I was turned over to the palace Minister of Justice." Iolaus looked into Gabrielle's eyes. "You've seen my back."
Yes, she had seen it. Without knowing the story Gabrielle had loved him for it. She still loved him.
"I was imprisoned for a month with three other men. We talked and made plans to escape. They made the arrangements because I was usually way, taken out daily and tormented from morning to night. I guess I impressed the others because, through it all, my stubborn hate for the world and everyone in it managed to keep me alive. Later, when I broke free from The Plague Pits I met up again with Regus, Lepacles and Brucitius who took our plan and did managed that escape from Xena's dungeon. They were fugitives and I was thought dead. When I learned about Iphicles and Rena ..." Iolaus looked down at is hands, " ... that was the last straw. Any good we could have done wasn't an option anymore. We were living for the moment, all four of us, and we didn't care who we worked for as long as it put denars in our hands. But we did have one rule. We worked for no one associated directly with The Conqueror. Regus, Lepacles and Brucitius don't know about my past with Xena and I like it that way. I never asked to be their leader but it is an understanding they're satisfied with."
"Did you ever see Xena again after the night you were arrested?"
Iolaus nodded, "She came to the dungeon once for an examination of the premises. I recall her looking at me as I hung in chains, naked against a wall. She had forgotten about us. She didn't even recognize me. She had to ask a guard my name and when he told her she was stumped. Then she shrugged and departed. Our two month long affair that had meant so much to me had meant nothing to her. All my plans and I had been her toy, to be discarded when broken."
How easy it was to recall that intolerable nightmare from over two years ago. How agonizing.
Iolaus shook himself free from the images then gazed at the young woman who stared up at him with such sadness. "No, Gabrielle. I'm not in love with you. I'll never love ever again. Xena's taken that from me. Ruined me for love. I won't patronize you by saying we have a future and I can't learn to love you because I just don't think it's in me. I know it isn't." Then he relented slightly, "But I do care for you like I haven't for a woman in a very long time. You're so beautiful and kindhearted and I feel almost human when I'm with you ..."
Gabrielle sat, stunned, both by his story and an even harder truth being told. He had deeply wounded her with his honesty. Xena. How could he ever have been in love with Xena? She was a ghoul. Yet, Gabrielle could not - even while anguished - forget the woman's allure. Gabrielle had been close to The Conqueror just before she pronounced sentence on the younger woman. There *was* something penetrating and even a little familiar about Xena. Gabrielle felt she should some how know her although, before this, they had never seen each other before. And oddly, even while being dragged to that cross, mentally cursing the horrid woman's name, Gabrielle felt - for a split second - that even The Conqueror could have been good, possibly even helping people, if she would have just been caught early on, before evil claimed her. So unfortunate poor Iolaus had found her so late. He might have made a difference if he met her when she was still a fledgling warlord. So yes, Gabrielle understood why Iolaus, a good man who knew better, could fall in love with such a fiend ....
" ... and I do like the way you make me feel." Iolaus continued." He had grasped Gabrielle's hand, very gently rubbing her knuckles, although she did not seem to recognize the contact. She now seemed away somewhere, thinking deep thoughts or perhaps even clamping down on the pain he had caused her. Iolaus was nearly desperate in his attempt to make Gabrielle feel that not all was lost. Had he been a fool for telling her his secret? He could not love her but she had taught him to care for the opposite sex again, not just as objects of pleasure but as warm, thinking people. That had to account for something. Did she understand? "I like the incredible way your perfect body fits into my arms when we lay together. You fit in toto, Gabrielle. It's almost as if a higher power saw fit to lend me a goddess of my own size and temperament for awhile, to make me feel joy again. And I like the smart, deep things you say. There's such fire in your words and actions."
"But you don't love me."
Iolaus pressed his lips together hard, then: "I do in my own way I guess but ..."
"No Iolaus, don't back off now." Gabrielle's voice was firm, "You were right about one thing. In so many ways I'm still a nave little girl. You call me that every so often, "little girl", and you're right. I fell in love with you, your very touch made me crave more and more of whatever you were willing to offer. I'd take anything from you because it was from you. And, because you were doing this to me, making me feel as if I had found my soulmate, I automatically thought I was doing the same for you." She had been looking away from him and now Gabrielle stared deeply into Iolaus eyes, "It's not your fault at all. My expectations were too high. They always are."
Iolaus felt anguish as he watched the softness and a last shred of girlish innocence evaporate from her eyes. "No, no they aren't. If I had been any other man, Gabrielle, and if history had been different ..."
She lifted fingers and gently placed them over his mouth, "Don't try to make this better, Iolaus. If you had been any other man I wouldn't feel about you as I do. What's happened has happened and there is no way to change it. Just understand that no matter what you do, or have done, I love you. I've fallen too far now to stop. It doesn't make me feel good to tell you that I may not ever get over you. However," Gabrielle cleared her throat, "I *will** go on because it's all I know how to do. Like you, I've seen what life is, how cruel it can be to the unfortunate, but have persevered." She lowered her hand, "A lone broken heart on the top of that means nothing." The hand turned to cup his left cheek, "You don't have to love me. I accept it. Thank you for being genuine, my darling."
This time it was Iolaus who closed his eyes, the endearment affecting him deeply. The last person to call him 'darling' was his mother and until now he hadn't realized how much he enjoyed being looked upon as anyone's 'darling'. Iolaus took her hand and held it firmly. More than ever he knew Gabrielle was a born leader, a strong and charismatic woman, not a denar a dozen warrior. She was amazing. If he could not love her he could not love anyone.
Weapons. *He's bad.* She could hear Perdicus voice. Angered by the mental intrusion, Gabrielle stared at Iolaus, examining his searching eyes, wondering what **he** was thinking. She wanted so much to know his side of the story, why those supplies were in his tent. She almost mentioned it. A burning question and a near accusation were all just at the tip of her tongue. But, for love's sake she hesitated and much later, when privately recalling the misjudgment in a journal, Gabrielle would thank the gods they had been interrupted.
"Gabrielle ..." Najara ran, without preamble, into her tent. "Iolaus ..." She caught her breath at the sight of the warrior. "It's the amazons and centaurs!" she said, breathlessly.
"What about them?" Iolaus asked, puzzled.
"They're here! They didn't wait for us to go to them. They've come to meet with us!"
MORE TO COME .....