The King of Corinth took him into a back room, a place few people knew about and even less dared to explore. The cheery expression Iphicles had reserved for the others, those who were watching he and his brother's reunion, suddenly became idle desperation.
"Okay, Iphicles." Unsmiling, Hercules watched the king with growing impatience, "What's going on here? Where is Jason and why does this celebration look like a funeral?"
Iphicles spoke lowly, "I can't fool my own people I don't know what made me think you wouldn't guess something is up." With an effort, he focused. "Jason's invaluable to me, Hercules. Since Mother died he's become one of my closest confidants."
Although he'd never admit it, Hercules felt momentarily wronged. He was glad Jason was there for Iphicles but he couldn't quite get pass the fact that his brother had found a close friend in a man Hercules himself counted among his own heroes. If they were still boys, unable to see things from an adult perspective, Hercules might have been tempted to say: 'I saw him first!'
"He's off now to track down the Argonauts. He was preparing to leave just as you arrived."
"Why do you need the Argonauts?"
"Because Corinth is on the verge of destruction."
Puzzled, seeing no sign of disaster on his way into Corinth, Hercules lifted his hands, "Who?"
The name sent chills up the halfgod's spine. Yet, Hera was gone ... He'd destroyed her himself, sending his evil step mother into the pit of Tartarus for eternity. "What's happening, Iphicles? Tell me."
The king's voice caught in his throat, "She's cursed my son." He strained, attempting to hide his fears, "And she's going to kill him if I don't send you to her right away. He's all I have ..."
Raising a sympathetic hand and placing it on Iphicles' shoulder, the son of Zeus took in his brother's story with the ear of someone who felt immense guilt that his immediate family was being threatened by a very distant and deadly relative.
Iphicles told Hercules of a visit from an old, dark-cloaked woman who had come to the castle and managed to enter, slipping past his guards and nearly every device Iphicles had sanctioned to insure castle security. He said her avoidance of these traps should have been his first clue that this woman was not mortal.
Then, she approached him in the throne room. King Iphicles hadn't been doing anything particularly interesting, signing a few parchments that would regulate water rights between farmers and shepherds, and didn't yet feel danger. He smiled charmingly at the woman, "How can I help you?"
"It's true," she croaked, "The King of Corinth does bare a striking if marred resemblance to The God of War."
He stared at her, wondering who she was - thinking her an old harmless healer woman or perhaps one of those wanderers who profess to see the future.
"Is there something I can do for you?" Iphicles asked, gently.
"You might well ask that question ..." she cackled, "I have information for you, my King. It is about your brother ... Hera says Hercules is to die soon."
"My brother is in good health." Iphicles assured, a little less tolerant than he was seconds before. Hera? Was the old woman daft? Hera was no longer a threat to Greece. "I saw him a little over a month ago and ..."
"Never the less, he is scheduled to die. For, if not he then it will be your son, Antak."
Iphicles immediately stood, "Who are you?"
"A messenger. A follower. A priestess of Hecrtich - Hera's most mystic and sacred temple." She spoke in a monotone, "Tell Hercules he must come to the temple, as only his kind can, or Antak will die. Even now the boy sleeps in his bed, not to be awakened until Hera has Hercules in her grasps."
The King ran to Antak's bedroom and fell to the side of his small bed. He tried, all in vain, to rouse the boy but it was true. He was asleep and could not be awakened. Iphicles called in the best healers of the kingdom but they could do nothing. This was a spell from the gods and totally out of their realm. That was when Iphicles sent the messenger for Hercules.
Advisors told King Iphicles if he were to announce to the kingdom that Antak was in danger of losing his life there could be a frenzied upheaval, unlike anything Corinth had never known. The peasants were still reeling over Queen Rena's death and that was well over a year ago. Though grieved, Iphicles agreed and the lie of a gala was developed. "Right now only my closest advisors know the whole truth - and some trusted house servants. But the villagers suspect something is wrong ... When it comes to this sort of deception I'm not that convincing. Hercules," Iphicles, who hadn't slept well since that terrible moment of realization, when he knew for certain his son was in mortal peril - tensely grasped his brother's powerful shoulder, "She also told me that if you didn't show up others would suffer. Hera's going to blow Corinth off our maps. Destroy everyone." Then he blinked in confusion, "I know you told me she was dead -- but can I take such a risk?"
Hercules nodded understanding. Could any of them really believe Hera was snuffed out of existence? She had followers, both gods and humans, and it wouldn't surprise him to find someone had devised a way to bring her back. "You're hoping the Argonauts can save Corinth while I go to Hechrtich?"
"I feel like I'm feeding you to the wolves." Iphicles closed his eyes, "I don't know of any mortal who has climbed Hechrtich and lived to tell about it."
"I'm a halfgod." Hercules reminded with no sign of ego. He considered the situation for a moment, "If I'm going to save Antak I can't do it on my own. I'll need Iolaus."
"Do you think that's wise?" Iphicles opened his eyes, "He could end up dead. He's mortal."
"So is Antak."
Iolaus, his best friend and 'brother' in danger. This was a dilemma constantly on the demigod's mind. Through his friendship with a target of the gods (and others), Iolaus was also a sitting duck and could truly end up dead one day - with no return. You could only have Hades owe you favors for so long before there was no more pay-back. Sumeria, and what had happened to Iolaus there, flashed through Hercules mind and he pushed it aside. He couldn't go there now.
"There is no one else I trust more than Iolaus and we've both had dealings with Hera and her minions. I need him, Iphicles -- and something he's holding for me."
The rest of Iolaus and Gabrielle's denars went straight into the hand of the proprietor of Gickis Tavern and Place to Eat Food. They owed him. Smashed chairs, tables, plates, waiters - not to mention the frantic flight of frightened clientele that shot out of the tavern when the battle began. It might not have happened if the couple had kept their tempers in check.
Gickis could only watch in agony as the hunter and his girlfriend beat off the troublemakers. He with his quick agility and the girl with that staff she brought along with her. He couldn't really blame them. They didn't initiate the brawl and Iolaus was a good man. Unfortunately, wherever he went a fight was sure to follow and it was always at a poor business owner's expense. Still, if it wasn't for people like Iolaus, Hercules, Xena and Gabrielle men like him, trying to earn an honest denar, would have been out of business long ago.
Later, bleeding slightly from his temple where one of Prvi's goons had sliced Iolaus with a sharp edged ring, he apologized to Gickis and helped him clean up. Iolaus and Gabrielle's triumph - with Privy and his men running from the tavern in fear - had been expensive.
The Amazon Princess, a bump on the back of her pale head, felt as if the roof had caved in on her (it was raised by a heavy metal platter). She held a cool cloth on her injury and smiled when Iolaus asked her if she was all right. "On our next date I'll pick the eatery." she commented.
Gickis looked down at the denars in his hand and the supplies Iolaus laid on one of the uprighted tables. "Iolaus, you don't have to do this." Gickis smiled tiredly. "I know how it is ... and you two haven't even eaten yet."
Hunger had completely left her and Gabrielle couldn't prevent a snorting laugh. Iolaus followed up with one of his own and Gickis chimed in. If you thought about it the situation was actually pretty funny. It could be worse, they thought, at least no one had been badly hurt.
It was evening by the time Iolaus and Gabrielle returned to the house and by then the couple were famished again. They had given up everything they bought, with the exception of one small package Iolaus hid in his traveling pouch, and there was nothing in the house.
"This wasn't one of my more productive days." Gabrielle said, slumping into a kitchen chair. She had changed out of her walking clothes into her night toga and was glad to see Iolaus looking more comfortable as well.
Despite it all, Iolaus smiled. "That's okay. I have something that will make you feel better. Let's go to the hearth."
She followed Iolaus, noting he had procured a salt shaker and a handful of something from a jar sitting on a shelf near the front door ... They looked like little kernels. He threw them into a deep frying pan, a lid firmly in place and a bit of oil added.
"Jason brought a pouch of this back with him from a land in uncharted regions of the ocean. It's amazing. Watch and listen."
The girl felt a little foolish, listening so closely at the crackling fire and the oil inside of the pan sizzling but it wasn't unpleasant either. Iolaus sat right next to her on the fur rug and the fire before them was warm in contrast to the bad, rainy weather brewing outside. This is tea weather, she thought, and snuggling weather ....
"What?" Her attention focused on the pan.
"What's it doing?" she whispered at Iolaus a little nervously.
"Magic." he replied with a grin.
A few minutes later he brought the pan out of the fire and removed the lid. He added salt. Inside were white, fluffy pieces of popped kernels - something Gabrielle had never seen before.
"Was this something created by the gods?" she asked sincerely, amazed and tentatively reaching for a portion.
"No god could create this. I told you, Jason brought it over from a land far away. He said the people were dark skinned and spoke in an odd tongue. They wore ceremonial head dresses and grew certain vegetables on stalks ... It was all very interesting. I'll have to get him to tell you about it some day."
"What's this called?" She asked, reaching for more.
"Popped-wheat, I think. Be careful. Sometimes they get stuck in your teeth."
"They ate the treat and when the pan was empty between them, Iolaus moved it out of the way.
Becoming aware of his earlier injury, Gabrielle reached up and gently touched the hunter's temple, which was turning slightly purple. "That cut may leave a scar." she said, concern in her tone. "Oh, those men ... children."
"Just one more line to add to the rest." he said.
"Laugh lines. Lines of character." she reminded.
A soft rain began to fall outside, followed by a flash of lightening and a loud, unanticipated thunderclap.
Caught off guard, Gabrielle shuddered and nervously leaned into Iolaus, "Sorry, thunder always alarms me a little. When I was a child I use to get teased about it all of the time."
"I don't mind." He smiled and put his arms around her.
Iolaus and Gabrielle, now sitting very close, gazed at one another ... Then, seemingly on their own, his hands drew gently upward to cup her face. Hesitantly, he leaned forward and their lips touched. At first very gently then, as a mutual longing grew, with more conviction.
Her arms lifted without reluctance, hands resting on the back of his golden head, her fingers gently running through a thick tangle of blond curls. His mouth tugged at hers, the skin soft and sensuous. Gripped firmly and held close, his body was hard and well muscled, reminding Gabrielle of Iolaus' dedication, his will to keep fit, knowing his fragile life depended on good reflexes and stamina. Then, she was falling gently back on the fur rug in front of the fire and taking him with her, tenderly massaging his broad shoulders through the tunic as he hovered above her. Iolaus carefully - slowly - rained kisses on her lips, cheeks, neck and shoulders. Gods, he knew just what to do -- He was perfect.
Iolaus was lost in his desire for her. Gabrielle's ingenuous sensuality and purity of spirit was as arousing as the strongest aphrodisiac. Soft skin, gloriously perfumed hair and a sleek, unblemished body -- and an obvious uncomplicated attraction. A craving and need for only the love he could give her. He ached to hold her even closer. She was perfect.
"Iolaus," Gabrielle whispered in his ear, a slight catch in her throat, "Let's go into the other room ..." she urged. No flowery language. Just expectation and suggestion.
And suddenly, as if someone had thrown a bucket of cold river water over his head, Iolaus was away from her, sitting up and looking entirely lost.
In a stunned love-haze, Gabrielle didn't know what was happening, only that he had moved away and it wasn't in response to her request, "Wha ..." she started, sitting upward - "Iolaus ...?"
But he didn't look at her, only at the flames in the hearth. He couldn't look at her. But he had to ...
Rejection. What could have been one of the most exquisite moments of her life was unceremoniously torn away. The expression on Gabrielle's face was agonizing to behold. She suddenly appeared the perfect recipient for betrayal and her tears, as they stood out in her eyes, were enough to make even the strongest warrior's heart break, "Gab, no --" He made an attempt to touch her hand but she was away from him, sobbing and running for the bedroom. He wanted to go after her but couldn't.
When the door slammed behind her and he heard the young woman's raw emotion pouring out in muffled sobs, it was as if a sword had been thrust into his stomach. Gods, what had he done? It was wonderful, her passionate kisses and physical response - better than even he could imagine - but then Iolaus suddenly realized he wasn't just with any female but Gabrielle. A woman-child he could not hurt or take advantage of if his life depended on it.
But no, it wasn't that. He had stopped for a purely selfish reason.
She was someone he desperately wanted, yet she scared him.
Xena didn't scream when something frightened her. She had trained herself to be above that reaction in the face of fear. However, if she did now would have been a good time. She was nearly halfway up the mountain when an unexpected rock slide caught her in it's dangerous path. She fell a little way, landing on a cliff, avoiding the carnage of rock and rubble. She would have to start again when she caught her breath. Xena turned to look down and could vaguely see Argo below, romping through a field
Then, she swiveled and saw them. Hands, mostly bones with decaying flesh attached, were pointing rusted swords in her direction and up at the sky. The skeletons were frozen that way, looking as if they had been fighting some thing unearthly. Instinctively, Xena looked about and put a hand on her own sword. Satisfied for the moment, pushing back fear, she visually examined the others. Women and children. Eyes, or what was left of them, were opened wide and their mouths parted, as if screaming. This was the last thing they did as living beings. All bony remains now in mocking poses. They had been travelers or seekers of knowledge, she assumed, who had attempted to climb Hecrtich but never quite made it. Poor misguided men and women. Didn't they know only the anointed or gods themselves were privileged to come to this particular temple? It was Hera's favorite, therefore guarded well. But that was so long ago ... and Hera was gone now.
The warrior sighed. Was it that long ago that Xena assumed she was a mere mortal? Taking a deep breath, she narrowed her blue eyes and looked up the mountain. Xena continued the climb. In the back of her mind she could hear Ares call :
"Are you sure you don't want my help?"
Morning brought with it a respite from the rain. The sky was still cloudy and off in the distance he could hear soft rumblings of thunder but, for now, it was calm.
So why did he feel dread and a tightening in his chest? Iolaus stood on the porch, dressed in his daily wear, with a cup of warm cider in his hands. He stared out at his land. He had lent most of it out to farmers in the area (why not? I'm not using it), and a good portion, off in the horizon, was plowed and ready for seeding. He hated farming. He'd tried it once but just couldn't see himself doing it for the rest of his existence. Life was made for heroics, exploits and fun. Wine, women and song ... Funny how the mind of a youth could come back to haunt you. Iolaus had told Gabrielle that he had responsibilities. He didn't really. He did what he wanted - which was adventuring with Hercules. He seldom saw his mother and her poet husband, although they told him they understood and respected what he and Hercules did for people.
Maybe it wasn't Gabrielle who was young, needing to grow, but himself.
"Good morning." She came out, the shawl wrapped around her shoulders, hair slightly disheveled. Gabrielle appeared delicate and a bit embarrassed. Her eyes were slightly puffy from her night of misery.
He smiled weakly at her. "Hi."
They stood silently next to each other for a few moments, breathing in the cool air and watching the beauty of nature before them.
"The roof held up last night." she commented timidly. "Not one leak."
"Yeah." He didn't look at her. His mind raced.
Then, taking a shallow breath, Gabrielle said - "Iolaus, I'm so sorry." She spoke in a tiny, nearly inaudible voice, "I behaved badly." Her bottom lip trembled as she sought the right words, "I was such a dunderhead ...."
He couldn't believe it. She was apologizing to him. "No Gabrielle, you weren't." and he finally turned to gaze at her, "I hurt you. I didn't mean to but ... if you had reacted any differently last night I'd probably be wondering why." There was a pause as he put his hands on her shoulders and gently tried to meet her eyes. "Let's put it in the past. Can we?"
She felt suddenly relieved and, closing her eyes, nodded. 'Forget last night. Yeah, this is good.'
Feeling as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders, Iolaus decided on a change of subject: "Gabrielle, I'm going to work around the house this morning and later go off on a hunt." . His eyes exhibited slight struggle. A need to make amends as only a not so simple hunter could. "Would you like to go?" There was something hidden in that request - 'Please don't say no. I couldn't take it if you said no.'
Gabrielle understood what he was trying to impart and she did want to spend time with him. "Yes, I would."
Apology accepted. Let's start over.
"Well Hera, if you want me I'm on my way." Hercules thought but question after troubled question entered his head. What was she up to this time? Why did she feel it necessary to have him go to Hecrtich? If she wanted to destroy him, as she undoubtedly did, why not just send some of her henchmen? That was Hera's usual standard of operation yet, after their last encounter, maybe she felt the need to expand her efforts. Was that it? Was The Queen of the Gods stretching her depraved imagination these days? But why involve Iphicles and Antak? And - of course - where was Zeus? Why didn't he warn him? Gods, should it surprise him that his father was no where to found?
He was nearly to the boarder of the kingdom when an old woman came up behind Hercules and cackled bizarrely. Hercules quickly turned about and looked at her as she stood only a few meters away. This had to be the woman who came to Iphicles. "Who are you!? What do you want? Why are you doing this?"
"Oh child," she nearly scolded in a raspy voice, "I can tell you nothing. Just go and go quickly because if you don't Xena will surely find trouble -- and she may not overcome the power of Hera this time. Not without your help."
"Yes, The Queen of the Gods wants you both but she is counting on Xena getting there first -- because she wants to turn her from good to evil yet again. The Warrior Princess is teetering. In the temple of Hecrtich a transformation can happen. Unless someone stops her." The last sentence was mocking.
"But why? Why is Hera going through all of this?"
"Haven't you guessed, Son of Zeus?" The woman laughed yet again and just before she disappeared said, "Hera wants Hebe, her daughter, to annihilate you once and for all!"
"Iolaus, please don't!" Gabrielle pulled on his arm just before he was ready to release the arrow from its bow.
The hunter-warrior sighed in exasperation as the doe ran off. "Gabrielle, this is the third time you've done that since we've been in the woods." He almost told her that he was sorry he asked her to come -- but that wouldn't have been the truth. He was actually very happy to have her with him, with her warm touch and humor, even though she was scaring off dinner.
"I'm sorry," She punch the sharp end of her staff into the moist ground beside her, "but I saw a baby buck back there a little ways and it occurred to me that the doe might be his mother ... I just couldn't stand the thought of that poor baby out here all by itself."
Iolaus half smiled, "How do you expect us to eat tonight if you ...?"
"Is there a stream around here somewhere? I know there is because I can hear it. I have no problems with the murdering of fish." she said with a straight face - at first - then when Iolaus started to chuckle she broke down too.
"Fine, fish!" He threw his hands up in mock exasperation. "I hope you like perch." he muttered.
"I do." she said as they walked to the lake, only about fifty yards away. "By the way, can you catch fish with your hands? Xena can, you know. I can too if I put my mind to it."
"Now, that I'd like to see."
When they reached the lake Gabrielle leaned her Amazon staff against the trunk of a tree, took off her boots and waded into the water.
"You're really going to try it, aren't you?" Iolaus said, amazed. He thought she was joking.
"Of course!" she called, concentrating on the water as Xena had taught her. Listen for the fish, feel for the fish, understand how the fish thinks ... "And this is a lot more reasonable than what you did to that poor beast you now have laying in front of your hearth. At least we're catching fish for a reason - to eat." she verbally shot at Iolaus but there was no real malice in the words.
Iolaus sighed and sat on the river's edge, "That 'poor beast' was three times my size, had a row of jagged teeth and nearly decapitated me." the hunter protested in his defense, "And the meat went to three hungry families in Corinth." he added. The last part was a fib but Gabrielle didn't need to know that. A sudden clap of thunder was heard and Iolaus looked up. The clouds had lowered and were turning a deeper shade of gray. "It's going to rain again, Gabrielle. You better hurry."
"Hush, you're frightening the fish." Gabrielle's hands raised as, knee deep, she saw a denizen of the deep of her liking, swimming near her right ankle. Carefully, she reached down and attempted to pluck dinner up like she'd seen her Warrior Princess partner do so many times in the past. Unfortunately, Gabrielle misjudged the distance and just how slimy the creature was. There was a brief struggle but the fish eventually won out, slapping her soundly in the face with its tail, causing the young woman to spasm and fall back with a startled cry. She ended up landing on her hind end right in the middle of the shallow lake. Embarrassed, she could hear Iolaus' unrestrained laughter at her predicament. Gabrielle looked at the blond warrior with peeved eyes. "All right, Hunter-Boy, if you think you can do a better job, be my guest!" she challenged.
Still chuckling, Iolaus waded into the water. When he reached her he put a hand out to help Gabrielle stand, "Why don't we just make fishing poles. I have twine and we can make poles from tree branches. " he suggested. "It'll be faster, easier and maybe we'll get back to the house before we get caught in a thundershower." Then, he added, "Of course, some of us are already soggier than others."
Shaking off his helping hands, Gabrielle grimace. "Oh, all right." she agreed, taking a portion of her skirt and trying - with all due dignity - to wring it out. "But Xena would be disappointed if she knew I didn't give it a second try."
"I won't tell her if you don't."
Another clap of thunder, a bit milder this time, rumbled through the sky.
"Well, look what we have here ... A couple of fish poachers." came a familiar and galling voice. He was leaning against Gabrielle's staff, which he'd taken from against the tree trunk he was standing next to.
Iolaus and Gabrielle look at who was addressing them.
"I don't believe it ..." The Amazon Princess suddenly looked tired but also alerted to sudden danger.
Kicking through the water, Iolaus carefully approached the men and their leader, "Privi, leave us alone." he demanded, "We're not hurting you here in any way. You only want to cause trouble."
The man with the whispy hair tossed the Amazon staff to a goon behind him and folded his arms in a defying gesture. He spoke to his three companions, including "the beast" - Bubus - who was eyeing Gabrielle with wanton lust. "The little man thinks that just because he got lucky in the tavern he'll be able to beat us all here in the wild. Think it can be done, men?!"
"NOT!" the two henchmen shouted in unison.
Iolaus sighed, "Privi, I beat you every time we get together."
"But this time you got your girl with you ..."
Gabrielle, without her weapon of choice, suddenly felt a little naked and defenseless and she remained standing in the water. 'Improvise!' she could hear Xena shout in her mind and the bard immediately scanned the water for rocks or branches to use as weapons -- just in case. The two goons behind Privi were big, not as big as "the beast" but quite formidable. Iolaus was a good fighter but, without a weapon, could he hope to take care of four strong men on his own?
"Bubus here," Privy indicated 'the beast' - "says he likes your girl. He wants her and will be happy to take you on for her."
Iolaus sighed. Didn't it just figure? A pretty girl shows up and these guys decide she's their own personal property. "Look, I'm not willing to give her up and even if I was I guarantee you that she won't go willingly. She's a handful, you know." Iolaus tossed out, his expression tough and impassable
"Hey," Gabrielle, hands on her hips, felt piqued. "I'm standing right here."
Iolaus and Privi ignored her, eyeing each other with contempt.
"I like her." Bubus grunted. "Cute and little." He smiled in her direction, revealing missing teeth.
Gabrielle suddenly got the willies. Geez, why couldn't men with an I.Q. above swamp fungus be attracted to her?
Iolaus walked the rest of the way out of the lake, "Let's do it." he capitulated.
Prvi was delighted. "Very good. Bubus versus the Bigmouth -- for the irritating blond."
'When this is over,' Gabrielle thought, 'I'm really going to have to hurt that man.'
A fair fight wasn't possible considering how much one opponent outweighed the other. However, a chance of civility went truly afoul when, as Iolaus came out of the lake, one of Privi's men stuck out a foot and tripped the hunter. Iolaus cursed himself. He should have seen that coming. There was no chance they were going to fight by the rules. Bubas was there, kicking Iolaus awkwardly in the stomach the minute the unfair advantage was taken.
"Stop it!" Gabrielle screamed, initiating a wade to land.
"Stay put, Gabrielle!" Iolaus demanded with a grunt, still on the ground and fending off Bubus blows. His tone left no room for argument.
Now was not the time to quibble and she was immediately still. Iolaus had too much to deal with right now to worry about the feelings of a unfocused Amazon bard. Besides, the way the goons were occasionally looking in her direction - licking their lips with anticipation - Gabrielle was really in no hurry to leave the somewhat safe confines of the water. She eyed a few stones she thought might make perfect missiles if Iolaus found himself in a bad situation.
While Bubus laughed deeply and heartily Iolaus got slowly to his feet and sized the situation up as best he could. Strength against strength obviously wasn't going to do it. If the man's fists were even just a bit stronger than the blows he received from his meaty feet Iolaus didn't have a chance. He would have to use his skill, brain and agility.
Iolaus took a well practiced leap when Bubus lunged for him, rolling between "the beast" legs and jumping quickly to his own feet. He managed a quick kick-out at the back of Bubus' calves and watched as he, all three hundred pounds of him, collapsed to his knees. That accomplished, Iolaus spotted Gabrielle's staff. It lay on the ground where one goon had dropped it. Iolaus leapt for the staff as Bubus attempted to get to his feet again. Swinging with purpose, the hunter-warrior clipped him twice, short and choppy strokes, against the back of his neck and head.
With an "Ooomph!" the giant lay sprawled, face forward, on the ground, unconscious.
It started to rain.
"Get the girl!" Privi shouted at his remaining men, pulling a knife from his own boot.
"Gabrielle!" Iolaus threw the staff, long and hard, at the woman. She caught it with both hands in one smooth motion as the two ruffians waded into the water to assault her.
Privi took a swipe at the dodging Iolaus and missed him cleanly. The hunter had his hands up and his body was in a fighter's stance, prepared for whatever the thug had in mind.
Meanwhile Gabrielle, tossing damp hair over a shoulder, had already given a gut punch to one of the burley goons and while he attempted to recover from the unexpected force of the girl's staff she worked on the other. Fighting in the water, with the rain pouring down upon them, wasn't easy but as hard as it was on her it was even more difficult on the clumsy men. Every time they made an attempt to grab for one of Gabrielle's slick arms she was able to pull away with relative ease. She made an easy lower swipe with her staff and managed to get both goons in the water, sitting and wondering what happened. In pain, neither were ready to follow the girl as she ran for ground. The bard watched Iolaus' predicament but wouldn't interfere. This was his fight. But she wanted to be there in case she was needed.
Recklessly, Privi made another move on Iolaus, managing to cut into his colorful vest but not hitting skin.
"Hey!" Iolaus paused and looked at the damaged garment, "This is my favorite!" With new incentive, the hunter - using the quick movements a hand to hand combat expert once taught him - struck out at Privi with several fast yet stunningly effective blows. The knife dropped from the assailant's hand and Iolaus kicked it away.
Gabrielle watch in amazement. She'd never seen moves like them - not even from Xena or Hercules.
Privi, sitting on the ground and nursing a bloodied mouth and sore scalp, lifted a hand in surrender, "All right!' he shouted, "Just take the girl and get out of here!" He held his head in his hands.
"Maybe --" Iolaus, slightly more relaxed now that the danger had past, " -- but you never did apologize to my friend. I think the word you used was "trollop". She didn't like it and neither did I."
"All right, I'm sorry!" Privi huffed, painfully squinting his beady eyes..
"And --" This time Gabrielle spoke, positioning herself next to Iolaus, "you'll never bother Iolaus or myself ever again?"
Iolaus fold his arms over his chest, awaiting the reply.
"No, we won't bother either of you ever again." Privi finally said, gritting his teeth.
"Good," Iolaus decided to toss one more thing into the pot, "Now, why don't you and your friends catch us some fish. Gabrielle and I haven't had lunch and we're hungry."
With a chuckle, The Amazon Princess saw that Privi's two goons - minus the unconscious Bubus - were already trying to do as the golden-haired hunter suggested. Catching fish -- with their hands.
Running into the house from the outside downpour they giggled like children.
"I'm soaked!" Gabrielle exclaimed but it was with a hardy laugh of triumph. They had mastered the enemy and all on their own. No one could take it away from them. Not that either Hercules or Xena would try but it was nice to know that at least four bad guys now had a healthy respect for two less than godly humans.
Iolaus shut the front door and tossed their fish, with little care, onto the kitchen table, "Gabrielle, you're amazing with that staff. You get better each time I see you." he complimented in earnest.
She was giddy and allowed her weapon to drop beside them. Happy, excited and drunk with victory she fell into the hunter's embrace without thought. "And you're just so wonderful ..."
And suddenly they were holding one another gently but close, both soaked to the skin, and the giggles ceased. Gabrielle and Iolaus had their eyes closed, trying hard to control whatever thoughts they were having, and drank in the moment - the feel of their arms around each other, their faces very close to each other, the warm deep breaths coming from one another -- and neither spoke for a long while.
Finally, Iolaus broke the silence. "Gabrielle, there is something here between us. I don't understand it. I'm not sure I'm suppose to understand it. But it's here - and I don't feel with you what I feel around other women."
"Oh." her tone quivered slightly, "I see. What happened last evening - the kissing and touching - was a fluke ---" she suggested, not convinced but trying hard not to fall apart again like she did last night. "Because you think me still a child?"
"You're no child." He opened his eyes. Pulling back slightly, Iolaus lifted a finger and touched her smooth left cheek, "You've experienced so much -- known too many horrors and hardships. You're a woman and a damned incredible one. And what makes you unique is, after all you have been through, you have remained gentle and pure of heart. It's beautiful."
"Last night ..."
"I've known women, Gabrielle. I've cared for many but have only truly fell in love twice in my adult life."
"Was Xena one of those times?" Gabrielle said before she could take it back, "Oh .. I mean ..." It was too late. And honestly, she wanted to know.
Iolaus felt a little flustered. How much had Xena told Gabrielle about their relationship? "I don't think I ever really loved Xena." he said, "I know that sounds odd now. It does to me. But I've been going over it for awhile - especially after we discovered her connection with Hera - and I believe what I was feeling for Xena had far more to do with her then unknown powers as a half goddess than my own true feelings for her at that time."
Gabrielle, her hands on his shoulders, suddenly looked very interested, "What do you mean?"
"I really didn't know Xena very well at that time but I was willing to give up my friendship with Hercules and even kill him because I supposedly loved Xena. It all happened in a matter of days! It never made sense to me. I grew up with Hercules. We were and are best friends. A woman has never come between us - because neither of us would let that happen -- so why did Xena?"
"Love can do odd things ..."
"Given time maybe. But not like that. I wasn't even willing to listen to reason." He sighed, still puzzled and angry over what Hercules referred to as ancient history - "It was totally out of character for me. At least where Hercules is concerned."
'After all of this time he still feels guilty', she thought and suddenly felt a tide of loving warmth. 'What a wonderful friend he is.' And what a wonderful man. "Later you hated Xena." Gabrielle reminded.
"I blamed her for what happened when I couldn't accept my own short comings. But, I don't think she even rationalized her own powers. Xena knew she was attractive to men with weak minds but she didn't know anything about me and what I had built up with Hercules." Then, with a mild smile, "Tell me, have there been many men who have fallen for Xena?"
"It happens all of the time." Gabrielle confessed. "Of course, she is beautiful."
"Yes, she is. But even the most beautiful women have their limits. I think Xena could get any man or woman to do what she wants just by turning her godpower on them."
"That certain something she doesn't know she has." Gabrielle went over it in her mind. That settled, she looked again at Iolaus. Well, she started this so .... "Who were the two women you loved?"
"Maybe some day I'll tell you about them, Gabrielle. But not now ..."
'It still pains him ...' The Amazon Princess took his chin in her hands and raised his face so she could look into his eyes. That was what she had originally planned but, instead, she leaned in and brushed her lips across his. Then, she pulled back. What was she thinking after last night? 'Not that hurt again, please.'. "I'm sorry." Gabrielle apologized, nervously trying to push away from him.
He wouldn't let her out of his grasp so quickly, "You didn't allow me to finish what I was saying --" and "I know what it is like to fall in love, Gabrielle, and I know what it's like to leave the person you love when you know you can't be together. It hurts worse than anything you could ever imagine -- and I'm afraid if we do what we could very well do while you're staying here I will fall in love with you ... and be lost when you go back to Xena. Because we both know it will happen. I'm with Hercules and you're with Xena. These are the lives we are living right now." Then, emotion choking his tone, "I don't think I can put either of us through what we could go through if we fall in love. The sadness and heartache. We've both been through it too many times ... and once is really enough."
"Did you say LOVE, Iolaus?" she smiled, in a daze. She had heard every sentence but it was that one word that burned itself into her brain - "Real love or the love a brother might feel for his sister?" she teased. Gabrielle wasn't being cruel but Iolaus had grown too serious and it saddened her to see him so confused about something that could be so wonderful.
He had to smile, "Only if you're Ares." Iolaus said, "No Gabrielle, I'm talking about a love a man feels for a woman -- a companion he wants to spend the rest of his life with. A soulmate." How to make her understand - "What we do, Gabrielle, traveling with Xena and Hercules - fighting for justice and foiling evil -- It set's us up. There is a very real possibility that one or the other of us will end up dead. Do we dare open up something like this between us, knowing the person we love could die -- and never come back?"
She reached forward, her fingers gently caressing the amulet around his neck. Somehow, this action seemed even more intimate than a kiss. "Please believe me when I say I understand what you're trying to tell me, Iolaus but ..." she searched for the right words, "If one of us does die in the course of an adventure ... wouldn't it be horrible if we never had the chance to love each other at all?"
It was as if a door suddenly swung open. It could happen. They both had gone and come back, he more than once, and next time how could he be certain Gabrielle wouldn't be gone forever? The mere thought made him want to shudder. Gabrielle dead, away from him for a lifetime ... Perhaps one day to be reunited on the other side? What then? How cruel if she forgot him! And to never have loved her as a living human being when he had the chance ...
And suddenly, with out a doubt, he swept her into his arms, gently crushing the woman to him, and kissed
Gabrielle firmly on the mouth. How odd ... and blissful ... and natural it felt.
Her heart skipped a beat as passions were aroused. Her lips parted beneath his, "Iolaus ..." she breathed and smiled as his kisses moved to her neck. Thank the gods, he was finally realizing how wondrous their situation was. And she felt herself being literally lifted off of the floor and held across his arms.
"Are you sure, Gabrielle?" He asked softly, breathing in her scent and magnetic nearness. Her arms encircled him in a tight embrace as he held her weight.
She kissed his temple, still slightly purple from an earlier wound, and his hair - "Absolutely." Gabrielle gasped between kisses.
And he slowly walked with her to the bedroom ...
... but before they had even reached the door ...
Shaken out of his passionate reverie, Iolaus turned - still with Gabrielle across his arms - to look at the front door.
"What was that?" He then deposited the young woman gently onto her feet.
"It sounded like something hit the door." she acknowledged, equally alert and immediately snapped out of her love-haze. "It could be Privi." she thought aloud, her eyes suddenly searching for her staff, "Maybe he's setting us up for another ambush."
The hunter nodded with a frown, angry with the interruption. On alert, he looked at the fish on the kitchen table and a desperate-furious thought entered his head. If it was Privi he would force him to swallow each fish, one by one - raw.
"Iolaus!" came a familiar and desperate call, "Open up, it's Hercules!"