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Xena grinned when she spotted Hercules in the distance putting the finishing touches on a stone retaining wall that surrounded a small house. Xena climbed aboard Argo and called down to Eve, "Iím going ahead. See you when you get down there."
She took Argo into a full gallop, kicking dusty behind her on the trail.
Hercules looked up when her heard the hoofs approaching. Is that Xena? No she canít look that young . . .Well Iíll be. It is Xena. He gave a smile and chuckled as she approached and he hopped the fence with ease to meet her. Xena reeled Argo in when she was close enough and leapt from the mare, jogging over to see her friend.
They both laughed as they embraced and Herc gave her a playful twirl in the air, gently putting her down.
"Whereís Gabrielle?" He asked with a smile. But soon his smile began to fade realizing that perhaps Gabrielle was no longer on the earthly plain.
"We decided to go our separate ways . . . well she decided that but weíll discuss that later," Xena gave a nervous chuckle. He looked as old as when he had battled Zeus for Eveís life and not a day older. "Anyway, youíre looking as young as ever," she commented on his appearance.
"You should talk," he said pulling her arms up and away from her body giving her an appraising eye. "Did you find the Tree of Fietus too?"
Xena smiled. Ah ha. "So you do know where the tree is? Any mortal that eats the fruit is said to become immortal? Looks like itís true ummm?"
Herc smiled and dug his toe in the dirt a moment. "I didnít want to do it but Iolaus convinced me otherwise."
"Damn right I did. The world needs the big guy around," they heard a voice behind them add. Iolaus, it appears didnít eat the fruit. His hair was thinning and graying. The laughlines around his lips and eyes were more prominent but he still appeared very dashing with the same mischievous sparkle in his blue eyes. He offered his arm to Xena in greeting. "How have you been Xena? Forgive me for saying it but the last we heard . . . you were dead."
"We were in a way I suppose," Xena said before silently cursing herself for using the word Ďweí. We? Sheís not here anymore. When are you gonna realize that? "Gabrielle and I, I mean, we . . .". Why the hell am I stumbling all over this? Just spit it out already! "Ares froze us accidentally when he thought we died but we managed to escape and come back. Some. . .things . . . happened and she decided to go out on her own."
Xenaís voice cracked and Hercís eyebrows crunched in examination. "Actually I heard part of the story already. My sister told me. Are you okay?"
Sister? Ahh - Dite. . . Xena chewed on her lip to push down the tears that threatened to come forth with Hercís question.
"Yeah, Iím doing okay," she sighed. "Itís been about two months now since she left. Iíve been so busy with dealing with Ares being a mortal and getting to know Eve that I havenít had much time to really consider things with Gabrielle. . . I mean I think of her all the time but I just havenít thought about it . . . Does that make any sense?" she asked exasperated at trying to explain to the men who stood silently watching her.
"Well do you mean that you miss her?You just havenít had time to realize that itís over. .for good?"
"Yeah," Xena smiled bitter-sweetly. "Gabrielle was always good with words like that." The smile was only brief as she began to hear Hercís words sink in deeper . . . Itís over. For good. . . She shook her head to rid herself of the thoughts. The sooner she could get Ares out of her life the better. She pointed up the path to Ares and Eve who were now almost within earshot.
"Anyway, Iíve got ex-god trouble and thought you could lend a hand," she chuckled.
With that Herc looked up the path and he saw Ares and a young woman walking toward them. "Whoís the girl?" Herc asked, nodding toward her.
"Thatís our daughter . . . Eve."
You did it again - using words like Ďourí as if Gabrielle is standing right here. Xena took an unsteady breath. Come on and get a grip here. Why are you acting so mushy now? Pull it together warrior. Xena wiped her eyes with her fingertips to guard against any tears that might escape. She didnít think being near Herc would have this kind of effect on her - the overwhelming urge to Ďspill her gutsí as it were. At the moment she couldnít even lock eyes with the demi-god for fear of losing what control she had over her tear ducts.
"Ares gave up his godhood to save Eveís life . . . and Gabrielle. . . I donít want to make him a god again but life as a mortal is just too painful for ME with him around," she joked. "And itís tough for him too I guess. Will you help? . . . Make him immortal, I mean? Obviously you have the answer to immortality," she teasingly prodded.
Finally Xena looked up to see the beam on Hercís face as he watched Eve come down the path. "Sheís a beautiful girl Xena."
"Yes she is," Xena answered. "Does that mean youíll help us?"
"Help Ares?" Herc chuckled.
Xena simply nodded.
"No," Herc answered. "But Iíll help you. And who knows since he did something unselfish for ONCE in his life . . . perhaps he could change too . . . but Iím not holding my breath," the demi-god winked.
"Eve," Xena called out, pulling her closer. "Iíd like you to met Hercules and his partner Iolaus."
"Nice to meet you sounds like an understatement," Eve said offering her forearm.
Herc took her gently by the hand and gave a light kiss to her knuckles instead. "Itís my pleasure," he grinned warmly. He escorted her over to Iolaus who still stood behind the wall where they shook hands.
"Come in everyone," Iolaus instructed. "Yes . . . even you Ares," he teased.
Ares rolled his eyes but joined the group passing through the gate, making their way to the house.
"So this is the kinda pad heroes have when they retire huh?" Xena said giving the home an appraising eye. "Not bad," she grinned. "Kinda reminds me of Gabrielleís hut at the amazon village."
"Yeah but thereís no naked woman running around in the front window," Iolaus teased as they walked inside which earned him a jab from his buddy. "Have a seat. Supperís almost done," he said pointing to the dinning table.
Xena noticed a limp as Iolaus went to the stew pot. "Hurt your leg Iolaus?" Xena asked.
"Nahh, just old war wounds catching up to me. It comes and goes and today itís flaring up. Come on and grab some spoons and bowls. There should be enough for everyone."
As Xena and Eve went to the kitchen area, Herc and Ares spent the time just looking at each other, neither one willing to lose in the staring contest.
"What?!" Ares finally asked irritated.
"I could kick your fanny allllllll over the place right now," Herc chuckled.
"Well why donít you give it a shot tough guy," Ares taunted.
Xena could hear their voices behind her, beginning to rise. She didnít even bother to turn around to face them. "Canít you two give it a rest?" she sighed.
"I take it they donít get along too well," Eve whispered to Xena.
"Like Greek Fire and water," Iolaus said whispering into the conversation.
"I HEARD that," Herc called into the kitchen.
"Well itís not like itís untrue," Iolaus said bringing a bowl for Herc too as he sat down at the table.
Xena had two bowls and she slid one over to Ares. "Donít argue. Just eat. That will keep your mouth busy for awhile."
"He started it," Ares rebutted pointing his spoon at his half-brother.
"Well if Daddy were around you could go back and cry to him. But since heís not shut up and eat," Xena warned.
Herc could tell by the snap in her voice that Xena had about all she could take of the former god of war.
"Iím sorry," Herc apologized to the group, hoping it would give Xena a respite he felt she very much needed.. "I promise Ares, no more arguing. Agreed?" Herc offered his hand in truce.
Ares pushed Hercís hand away, along with the bowl. "Iíll be outside if you need me," he told Xena.
Herc shrugged his shoulders and settled himself down to eat. "Well so much for trying," he replied before putting a spoonful of stew in his mouth. Xena and Eve ate in silence until Xena complimented Iolaus on the food, a comment that Eve quickly echoed with a thanks.
"Donít mention it," he grinned. "Itís just nice to see you again Xena. We havenít see our old friends in ages," Iolaus added before turning to Herc. "How longís it been since we seen Autolycus?" he asked. "At least a year I think."
Herc nodded, "Yeah around last summer."
"You mean the King of Thieves is still around?" Xena smiled warmly. "Whatís he doing?"
"Well he DID about 15 years in prison after getting caught in a diamond mind," Herc grinned. "But he paid his debt to society and decided to take up woodworking."
Woodworking? Xena couldnít hold back the laugh at the thought. "Youíre pulling my leg arenít you?"
"No," Iolaus said shaking his head. "That sofa over there was a house warming present he made for us when we built this place. Heís really creative and heís got a knack for that kinda stuff. Heís actually making a better living doing that than stealing."
"Eh, who thought Autolycus had other skills," Xena said checking it out from across the room.
Everyone took a moment to go back to their stew. Autolycus is still alive. I wonder now about mother. And Lila! Lila is probably still alive. Damn it! We should have gone to Potiedaia. Maybe thatís where Gabrielleís gone too. Maybe we should-
"You okay?" Herc asked.
Xena realized Herc had been talking to her but she got so caught up in her mind she didnít hear him. "Iím sorry," she grinned bashfully. "I didnít catch that."
"Yeah you seem pretty distracted. Are you finished eating? Would you like some more?" the demi-god asked.
"Oh no, Iím fine. Thank you both. It was very good," Xena remarked.
"Youíre welcome," Herc answered. "Now letís go out back. Iíll show you the pond we made. Iolaus . . . maybe you can show Eve some of those scrolls weíve got?"
"Do you like scrolls?" Iolaus asked, the young woman.
"Are you kidding?! I love them - especially the oneís my mom wrote- I mean Gabrielle."
"Actually, I have a couple of Gabbyís scrolls," he winked.
"You do?" Eve and Xena both asked in harmony.
"She didnít say sheíd given any away . . . but then again I never asked," Xena replied guiltily.
The room fell quiet, not sure of what to add at the moment. The tone of Ďregretí hung in the air a few more seconds until Herc spoke up. "Well, weíll be back later. Come on Xena," Herc said wrapping his arm around Xenaís shoulder and leading her out the back door.
"So are you ready to tell me what happened?" Herc asked.
"About what?" Xena said evasively. Herc didnít reply. He just gave her a Ďlookí that spoke volumes. No getting around it with him. "Iím not sure. I mean I know why I just . . . Oh damn it." Xena broke down into sobs.
She wasnít sure how long it lasted but when she calmed her breathing enough to speak again she noticed that Hercís shirt was slightly wet.
"Iím sorry. I donít know why I did that," Xena chuckled nervous.
"Because youíre sad . . . youíre confused . . . and if I know you, you havenít taken time to grieve yet. Youíve been babysitting Ares because of some unspoken debt you feel you owe him for saving your family and as a result . . . youíve avoided dealing with your breakup with Gabrielle."
Xena gave a genuine chuckle of amusement for the first time since her arrival. "Youíre good," she smiled. "I guess thatís exactly whatís going on."
Herc took Xena by the hand as they walked toward the waterís edge. They stood there for a moment and just looked out at the water and the small rippling when a fish would jump now and then. "Are you going to look for her?" he asked quietly. "Or have you given up on getting her back?"
Xena sighed and consider the question. Yes. No. Maybe. "I havenít decided," she answered. "I figured that if she wants to see me then sheíll come to me."
"What if sheís thinking the same thing?" Herc asked. "What if sheís waiting for you? Someone has to make the first step. You said itís been what? Two months?"
"Are you ready to see her?"
"Iím not sure," Xena answered honestly. "I took Gabrielle for granted in many ways but . . ."
"But what?" Herc asked sincerely.
"But she let me down too . . . No . . . she spent some time examining who she was and I didnít see us having a future. She always did though . . . I was scared of her . . . and me."
"Scared? Of what?"
"Of losing her, of loving her . . . I mean she was on a path of non-violence. With our life itís not the safest path to be on and I worried that I might not be able to help her. And then later . . . when she realized that the warrior life was what she was truly destined for instead of supporting that I . . . I got scared again. My brother was a warrior and I lost him. Then a time came and I lost myself. I was worried that Gabrielle might die. I was worried that I might lose her to the darkness of war someday - just like my soul had been lost . . . I didnít say anything though. I just . . . shut her out.
Sheíd make comments about how much she loved Eve and how we could build a future together and instead of loving her like I should have . . . like I wanted to . . . I turned away because I was scarred to get TOO close. I could give this woman my sword and my body . . . but I couldnít give her my heart. And when I reacted and struck her with my chakram . . . that was it for her. Sheíd had enough and left . . . and the sad part is I donít blame her. And the really sad part is what I feared most. . . losing her . . . came true in the end anyway."
Herc was speechless. Heíd never heard Xena be so Ďwordyí; so open. He wondered if Gabrielle had heard all these thoughts Xena just expressed to him.
"But thatís my story," she grinned for show. "If I could take it all back I would. If I could show her how much I love her and trust her I would. But it doesnít look like thatís meant to be. Iím sure sheíll move on. Sheíll fall in love. Sheíll find someone who sees how wonderful and special she is. . . that person could have been me if I hadnít been so proud or so cowardly . . . perhaps both."
Sheís gone. Sheís really gone now.
Xena started to cry hysterically at that point. She never took the time since Gabrielle left that night on the beach to really cry. Her time was spent training Ares on being human or telling the Ďhappyí stories about Gabrielle to Eve. It kept the darkness of it all at bay. But now. Now that she had time to think about it. Emotions she didnít have time for before hit her full force - the devastating feeling of loss and dread and on a certain level anger.
How could see just leave? After five years just walk away.
Xena pulled away from Hercís embrace and she found herself starting to pace. Okay. Enough is enough. Quit feeling sorry for yourself Xena. . . Iím gonna find that damn tree. Iím gonna lay out all the cards for Eve about Gabrielle and I from now on, even the ugly ones. Then with Ares out of my hair and Eve knowing the whole truth . . .
Xena wiped her eyes and looked at Herc. "I need your help," she told him.
"You got it Xena. You know that. What do you want?" he asked noticing a shift in her mood to one of gloom to one of determination.
"Iím gonna find that tree. Will you help?" she asked him.
"Consider me there," he smiled.
"Good," she grinned confidently. "Because after that . . . Iím gonna find my bard."
CONTINUED IN PART VII: SIDEKICKS