Disclaimer: All characters belong to RenPics/Universal. No copyright infringement is intended. No profit is to be made from this story.
Spoilers: Takes place immediately after "Married With Fishticks."
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It was being socked in the face that did it. I was fed up. Frustrated beyond all measure with that bard! That's it. It's over. I've had enough!
When she fell into that water, my stomach dropped to my knees. I didn't think, I just jumped in and plunged down after her rapidly sinking body. My armor made it easy for me to sink quickly in the water and grab her around the waist, but going back up was much harder.
My waterlogged armor, as well as an unconscious bard, weighed me down and I kicked and kicked and fought with everything in me to get us back to the surface. My lungs burned and my back and arms ached, but I kept swimming and pushing us up up up.
Breaking the surface, I gasped for breath and pulled her head above the water. Dragging blessed air into my lungs, I shook her jaw and slapped lightly at her cheeks, but nothing.
Worried, I swam frantically over to the dock and pushed her onto the slick wooden pier. I climbed up beside her and called her name over and over, but nothing. She lay quiet and cold and I was never more scared in all my life than at that moment.
Pushing her wet hair off of her face, I gave her my breath, the same way she told me Xena had once done to save her life. I pressed my lips to her cold ones and breathed into her mouth over and over, calling her name and shaking her shoulders. My hands shook and heart pounded, but I kept going, desperate and frightened. She just had to wake up!
Breathing into her mouth again, I was relieved to feel them warm and moving against mine. She was alive! She was breathing! I pulled back and looked into her eyes, shining and warm. Then her hand was on the back of my neck and pulling my head back down to kiss me.
That's right, she kissed me. I was too shocked to do anything for a few moments, but the feel of her lips on mine and her hand squeezing my neck made my breath short and my head dizzy and desire clench in my belly like a fist. Blood pulsed fire through my body, my heart pounded like a hammer, but I couldn't move, couldn't do a thing but think: she's kissing me, she's kissing me, she's kissing me!
Her warm mouth opened under mine and I felt her tongue, oh gods, her tongue, pushing gently between my lips to slide alongside mine. I was so surprised I gasped against her mouth, but that only served to pull her tongue more fully against mine. Somewhere through the pounding and pulsing in my head I heard a low moan. Was that me? Was it her? I didn't know. I didn't care.
Then she was pulling away from me, her hand sliding from around my neck to fall at her side. Dazed, I looked down into her puzzled eyes and realized she had asked me a question.
I must have said something, but I don't know what, my mind was so foggy. I didn't realize I had spoken until I saw her eyes change. Those incredible green eyes that had been glowing with warmth and something else so inviting it thrilled me and terrified me at the same time. Those beautiful eyes I was drowning in suddenly flashed with surprise and anger and irritation.
I knew that irritated look only too well. She always had that look when I said something really stupid, and I wanted to rip my lips off for speaking and ruining the most wonderful moment of my life. Oh gods, this is bad! What did I say? What did I say? My frantic mind tried to recall, but could only draw a blank. Maybe if I just kissed her again, she'd forget about it...
In a flash, I had a fist in my face and was landing on my butt several feet away. Pain exploded in my left eye and for a moment I was afraid it was going to pop out of my head, so I pressed my hands hard against it. After several moments the pain receded to a throbbing ache, so I gently opened it. The bard and the warrior were already walking away, several paces down the road, cooing over the baby. I sat there stunned, simply unable to wrap my mind around the fact that they were leaving. Just like that.
As I sat there on the dock, my mind going over and over what had just happened, I was aware of a chill seeping into my body that had nothing to do with the water dripping from me. This chill went down to the bone and settled like a stone in my heart. And there was pain. So very much pain. The hurt just crashed over me like waves and stabbed in my heart. They're just leaving! I can't believe they're just leaving like that!
I watched them turn a corner in the road and disappear from view and sat there shaking my head. I saved her. She was drowning, sinking like a stone and I pulled her out. She wasn't breathing! The woman wasn't breathing and would have died if I hadn't been there to breathe for her. I saved her life!
I got to my feet and began to pace. Okay, I said something really stupid that ticked her off. I don't know what it was, I doubt it warranted punching me in the face like that. I'm always saying stupid things, I know, and I can take the nose twisting and pinching and all the mean words she can dish out, but this... she hit me like I insulted her or something.
Frowning, I stopped pacing and looked in the direction they had left. And SHE kissed ME, for Zeus's sake! I wasn't doing anything more than enjoying it. I didn't even get a chance to kiss her back before she ended it. I wanted to, yes. Oh, yes, I wanted to kiss her back and keep on kissing her, but I didn't. Then she punches me in the face like I'm the one who did something wrong.
The pain searing at my heart was suddenly pushed out of the way by a burst of anger. Anger like nothing I had ever felt before. And what the hell was so wrong about that kiss? What? Does she think so little of me that something like that is beneath her, an insult, a crime? How dare a stupid little nothing of a Joxer touch his lips to the fine, perfect lips of the great, beautiful, oh-so-worthy Bard! Was that it? Was I so low in her eyes? One little bitty - okay, so it wasn't so little bitty, but deep and hot and glorious and anything but little bitty - but one kiss and now I'm so insignificant in her mind that she just walks away.
My hands curled into tights fists, pressed against my thighs. I must be for her to just walk away like that and not even thank me for saving her life. No matter what else happened, the fact remained that she'd be dead right now if I hadn't pulled her out of the water and helped her breathe again. There may have been no way to bring her back this time, either. The warrior and the bard mean everything to each other and what I'd done didn't even merit a thanks. No, I don't deserve even that. From either of them. They just walk away.
I was suddenly so tired I knew if I didn't sit down I would fall down. There was a large crate behind me and I sank onto it like a broken doll. After all this time I finally know what my friendship means to them. I've been the best person I know how to be around them. Hell, being around them has made me a better person than I thought I could be! Yes, they've both gotten me out of more than a few scrapes that I was stupid enough to get myself into, but there was a time or two when even a bumbling fool like me has helped those fine, strong women out of, too. All I have ever wanted from them was their friendship and respect, and maybe a little admiration, but I know that would be a stretch. I've loved that bard for so long, I had always hoped for more from her, but I never expected it.
Hoped, wished, dreamed and prayed for it, but I never really expected her love in return. I did, however, expect more from a friend than a fist in the face and to just walk away after I saved her freaking life! Friends. HAH!
A warm hand on my shoulder startled me out of my reverie. I whirled around, but calmed when I saw Aphrodite sitting next to me. "Are you all right, Studmuffin?"
Studmuffin. It must give her some kick to call me that. I shook my head, "Yeah, Aphrodite, I'm fine. I'm great. I'm just dandy!" Her surprised expression made me realize that I had yelled those last words right into the Goddess of Love's face. Sighing, I looked away and rested my elbows on my knees, my head in my hands.
"So you're not fine." I felt her hand patting my back. "Come on, loverboy, you've taken worse from small, blonde and sassy before."
"Worse?" I laughed bitterly, "Not this time."
There was a long moment of silence before she spoke again. "Well, cutie, love can be a real bitch sometimes. I should know." She suddenly smiled, "I could always, you know --" she twiddled her fingers in the air, sparkles glimmering at her fingertips.
I lifted my head and looked at her. There was a rare compassion in her bright blue eyes. This beautiful blonde goddess, swathed in pink gauze that hid very little of her luscious figure, was the very image of love and romance and unbridled lust. How could such a powerful being, one that could read the hearts of men like a scroll, be so blind?
"Love? Aphrodite, love has nothing to do with what I'm feeling right now." Glancing down the road where my friends had walked away, I could feel that cold stone sinking heavy in my heart again. Love. What a joke! Turning toward the puzzled goddess, I considered her for a moment, then nodded. "If you really want to help, Aphrodite, there is something you can do."
"Joxey, honey, I'm not sure about this..."
I stood up and faced her, a hard knot in my stomach at the decision I was making, but I knew what I had to do. "Well, I am. This is what I want. Now are you going to call him or not?"
There was a flash of anger in her eyes and for a moment I couldn't breathe. Speaking to a goddess that way was not a smart move, but I was determined. She must have seen that, or something in my eyes that touched her because her fierce expression faded, replaced with a sudden worry. Why in the world should she be worried? She scooted closer to me and lifted one soft hand to my cheek and searched my eyes. "You're serious!"
I didn't move, didn't blink, just nodded. "Yes, I am." I took her hand from my cheek and held it between my mine. "Please, Aphrodite."
Amazed, I watched tears well in her eyes as she sighed and stood up. "All right, all right. I'll just go and get the crossbow and --"
"No!" I stood and stepped in front of her. "None of your tricks, Aphrodite. I want Cupid here, in person, to do this with his own arrows."
She crossed her arms in front of her and frowned, "I'm the Goddess of Love! Who do you think gave him those arrows?"
I crossed my own arms and raised an eyebrow, "Zeus." My lips quirked at the way her jaw dropped. "You hang around a bard long enough, you learn a few things."
Throwing up her hands, she rolled her eyes, "Fine!"
In a shower of sparkles she was gone. I had only a moment to wipe a hand across my face before the sparkles were back and two figures stood in front of me.
Cupid stood beside his mother and glared at me. "I was pulled out of a wedding in Corinth for this. Do you have any idea how many people fall in love at weddings?"
"Just hit me with one of your lead arrows and you can get back to it." I raked my fingers through my hair, eager to get this over with.
Cupid looked at Aphrodite, puzzled. "A lead arrow?" When she nodded sadly, he looked back at me. "When she said you needed one of my arrows, I assumed..." He stepped closer to me and spoke in a low voice, "You do understand that lead arrows push love OUT of your heart, right?"
I nodded, "Yeah, I know. I'm sick of loving someone who treats me like the dirt under her boots. Just sick of it. I've heard your arrows are better than any spell, so..." I looked pointedly at Aphrodite and she looked away.
The winged god considered me for a long moment, then shrugged and snapped his fingers. In a flash, a small, elegantly carved wooden crossbow lay in his hands. Pulling back the arrow to lock it in place, he pointed it at my chest.
I closed my eyes and heard a loud TWANG, then felt a strange burning in my chest. Pressing a hand to my heart, I looked down, but saw nothing, just felt that curious burning pressing deeper and deeper through my chest. I could feel it pushing through my body and out my back. My breath came fast, like I had run a race, and a feeling like ice water flowing over my skin made me shiver. After a few moments the sensation passed and I stood there rubbing a hand over my heart.
"Is that it? Did it work?" I asked them.
Aphrodite shrugged, her arms wrapped around her waist, but stayed silent. Cupid stepped closer to his mother and looked at me. "You tell me. Close your eyes and think of her."
I closed my eyes and said her name in my mind, saw her smiling face and laughing green eyes. I looked at the image in my mind and kept looking at it, waiting. My heart didn't leap at the sight, there were no butterflies, no clenching in my belly. There was no burst of overwhelming love or even affection. Nothing. No love, no hate, not even the anger and hurt I had been feeling only moments ago. I then realized that to be hurt by someone, you had to care about their opinion, and now I didn't.
My eyes popped open in shock at the fact that I just didn't care one way or the other for this woman. It felt so different, so strange. Wait a minute, did this mean I wouldn't care about anyone? Taking a deep breath I closed my eyes tight and thought of the warrior. A rush of admiration flooded my heart and that gentle affection I felt every time I saw her with the baby. The baby. Yes, all the love I felt for that beautiful child was a warmth in my heart that hadn't changed. My mind went over every person I could think of that I knew, or had met even briefly and all the emotions, positive or negative were just as they had always been.
But thinking of the bard... no, not a thing. Just a simple acknowledgment of knowing her and that was all. Well, no, actually that wasn't all. There was an emptiness, a void, a strange numbness when I thought of her. Frowning, I rubbed my hand over my heart again.
"Well?" Cupid asked, obviously in a hurry. "Do you feel anything for her, or not?"
I took a moment to search as deep as I could into my heart. I shook my head, "Just an emptiness--"
Cupid nodded, "Well, there you go! That's what happens when love is removed. Don't worry, you'll get used to it."
I smiled a little, and thanked him.
He waved his thanks away, "Mom called in a favor, so the thanks go to her." He then gave me a pointed look, "You realize you owe her a favor for this, right?"
I looked at the goddess, who now had her back to us, and nodded, "It's worth it."
Cupid glanced at the goddess, too, then shrugged, "We'll see. Later!" With that, he flashed away.
"No!" She whirled around, her hands curling into fists at her sides. Her eyes were wild, burning with an expression I'd never seen before. I wasn't sure if I should feel worried for myself or for her. "Don't you dare thank me!"
My jaw dropped at her fierce tone, but before I could speak, she vanished in a burst of sparkles. Now what on earth was that about? Sighing, I decided not to try to figure her out since the mind of a goddess was certainly beyond me.
I turned away from the docks and headed down the road, eager to catch up with the bard and test my improved heart. Already the numb feeling was hardly noticeable, making my steps quick and light. Yes, things will be much better now.
ON MOUNT OLYMPUS
Aphrodite sparkled into her temple and began to pace, not even noticing her son perched on the ledge of a nearby steaming hot tub.
"Chill, Mom! You got what you wanted, didn't you?"
Aphrodite sank down onto a pile of large satin pillows, rubbing her upper arms as if they were cold. "I didn't want this, Cupid. Joxer wanted this. I know it's not what he really wants. He thinks he wants it, he thinks she wants it, but nobody wants this. He just doesn't know it, but I know it, and I don't like it!"
Cupid stared at his mother for several minutes, dumbfounded. He hopped down and sat next to his mother, taking her by the shoulders. "Mom, I haven't seen you like this since Orpheus lost Euridice. C'mon! This is Joxer we're talking about!"
Aphrodite shook her head, her golden curls bouncing. "No, Cupid, this is love we're talking about. No arrows or spells, but the Real Deal! Can't you feel that?"
Cupid frowned, "Well, yeah, I know he loved her. I was there when it happened, remember?" He looked closely at the goddess, his eyes widening. "Wait a minute, you can't mean...?"
She nodded, "That's what makes this so totally wrong! Pushing true love out of his heart majorly screws up one of my best matches!" She stood and began to pace again.
"But, Mom, you know which crossbow I used," Cupid pointed out.
Aphrodite stopped in front of the hot tub, trailing her fingers through the swirling water. "I don't think using the small bow instead of the regular one will help things much. It's still going to take something major to get him to love her again."
Cupid put an arm around her shoulders, "Well, that's our specialty, right? Tell you what, after I'm done at the wedding in Corinth, I'll hang around the mortals and see what I can come up with. How's that?"
Aphrodite smiled up at her son and pinched his cheek, "That's my boy!"
Relieved to see some of the spark back in her eyes, Cupid blew a kiss to his mother and vanished in a burst of sparkles.
The smiled faded immediately from the goddess's mouth. With a wave of her hand, the water in the hot tub mounded up with frothy bubbles and rose petals. Another wave of the hand had her nude and sinking into the tub, sighing with pleasure. Leaning her head back against a conveniently placed pillow, she closed her eyes and pressed a hand to her heart, rubbing at the rare ache she felt there.
I don't know why I hit him so hard. I suppose it was a reflex, like the way your knee jumps when you hit it in a certain spot. Everything was just so confusing. One moment I'm caught up in a dream, caught up in a kiss unlike any kiss. One that, strangely enough, gave me breath, then took it away. The feel of it sizzled down my spine, so I held on and gave into it, feasting on it until my body ached with a wanting that amazed me.
The next moment, I'm staring up at Joxer's face. That face... oh gods, Joxer! He's got that cocky grin and spouting some irritating macho crap and trying to kiss me. Shock and anger burst through me and my fist just flew, slamming into his face hard enough to send him flying.
I struggled to stand, my breath coming fast and my heart pounding so hard it almost hurt. My knuckles burned and my armed ached from the force of the punch and I stared down at it like it was some foreign object attached to my body. A body that was dripping wet and cold. What was going on?
It came back to me in a dizzying rush. The goddesses fighting, the pain of something hitting my head, the vague, fading images of a strange dream. A kiss. My body grew very warm remembering, but before I thought much about it, I heard Xena behind me.
Eve started to cry and a strong maternal pull had me reaching for her and soothing her like I hadn't been able to do before. I was so caught up in cuddling the baby and telling her a story that I didn't even realize Xena and I had walked back to our camp alone. After handing the baby to Xena to be fed, I stoked up our fire and sat close to it wrapped up in my blanket to stay warm. I sat and stared at the flames, listening to Xena sing softly to Eve, trying to capture the fading images of that strange dream, but I could only summon the strong emotions I had felt. Confusion, frustration, that unbearably strong maternal pull, and a curious warmth in my heart... was that affection? Was it love?
I rubbed my forehead and shook my head, it was just a dream. A crazy dream from swallowing too much sea water. I suddenly found it difficult to breathe and felt a burning in my chest. By the gods, I must have swallowed half the ocean! I pressed a hand to my chest, but the burning faded.
"Gabrielle?" Xena looked at me with worry, "Are you all right?"
I couldn't speak, my heart was racing like I'd run a mile. Holding the suckling Eve securely in one arm, Xena kneeled next to me and felt my forehead. I tried to reassure her I was fine, but then I could only suck in a breath as iciness sluiced down my spine.
A terrible ache clenched in my chest and I pressed my hands to it. I could hear the alarm in Xena's voice as she gently pushed me to lay on my pallet. Xena tucked the sleepy and satisfied baby into her little basket and kept her nearby as she ran a hand over my forehead.
"No fever, that's good," she sighed in relief. She leaned down and put her ear flush against my chest. "Take a deep breath." I breathed in deep and then did it again and again as she listened intently. Raising up, she quirked up an eyebrow. "Your lungs sound great for someone who's swallowed half the ocean and you're breathing is good. Where are you hurting?"
I shook my head, "I'm fine, it's just--" I paused, rubbing against that terrible ache.
"Your heart?" Xena asked.
"Gabrielle, you're pressing against your heart. Is that where it hurts?" Xena sounded puzzled and concerned.
I looked down and realized my hands were indeed on my chest over my heart. "It doesn't hurt exactly, it aches. I feel a terrible ache." I took a deep breath, trying to ease the pressure, but it throbbed and throbbed.
"A hot compress might help." Xena grabbed her little bag of medical supplies, fished out a couple large bandages and folded them together into a pad. She fixed up a pot of water and set it to boil over the fire. "It's a good thing Joxer pulled you out of the water when he did, or you'd be in worse shape."
Joxer. I closed my eyes and sighed, "Yeah, I guess I'm lucky he didn't manage to drown me, huh?" Glancing at Xena, I was surprised to see a rather disgusted look on her face as she brought over a wineskin and handed it to me.
"Drink," she said shortly, her eyes narrowed.
Good grief, what's wrong with her? I took the wineskin from her and she turned quickly away. Her shoulders lifted as she took a very deep breath. "Xena?"
She didn't look at me, she just shook her head and jerked a thumb at the wineskin. "Just drink, Gabrielle."
Keeping my eyes on her, I lifted my head up to drink and gasped at the sudden shooting pain in the right side of my head. The wineskin fell from my fingers as I clutched my head. Sharp, lightning throbs pounded my head as my hand found the egg-sized lump above my ear.
Xena jerked my fingers away from my head, "Breathe, Gabrielle. Just breathe, it's okay."
I gasped air into my lungs and felt her kneel close to my side. Oh, gods my head hurt! She placed one hand on the top of my head and the other on my neck. "Okay, just breathe, Gabrielle, and let me see."
I closed my eyes and concentrated on breathing in and out as she gently felt around the lump, murmuring soothingly. "Oh yeah, that's a goose egg, all right! Just hold still and I'll get a cold compress."
Soon there was a cool bandage pressed against the lump and the pain began to slowly ebb. I held the compress to my head as Xena helped me lay back down and then began laying the hot compresses on my chest. "Well, it looks like Joxer did a lot more than manage not to drown you."
Joxer again. My head ached, my chest ached, and she's talking about Joxer again. "What in the world are you talking about, Xena?"
A loud, exasperated sigh burst from Xena's lips. "Gabrielle, you have a lump the size of Mount Olympus on your head. Whatever hit you knocked you out cold. You probably did swallow half the ocean and Joxer got you out of the water before you could swallow the other half."
Her words swam around in my head as I thought back. The goddesses fighting, the pain of something hitting my head, the dream. The kiss. No, wait! I closed my eyes and recalled the feeling of warm breath filling my lungs. Oh, gods! That wasn't a kiss, was it? It turned into a kiss... I turned it into a kiss... but it didn't start as a kiss. And I hit him so hard... so hard... A terrible sinking feeling pulled at my heart and I wanted to just melt into the ground, I felt so low.
"Gabrielle!" Xena's voice was worried. "What is it?"
"Joxer," I whispered. "It wasn't a kiss, Xena!"
Xena frowned, "Come again?"
"He saved my life, Xena. He didn't kiss me, he gave me his breath. He made me breathe again!"
Xena smiled sadly, "Yes, he did. I'm glad you finally realize that."
I nodded, then shook my head and groaned. "I hit him. I thought he was kissing me and I hit him."
Xena sighed heavily, "Well, when he comes back to camp you can apologize."
"If he comes back." I sighed just a heavily, "I hit him really hard, Xena, then just left him there. Oh gods, what a mess!"
Xena smiled, "Well, then you'll just have to think of a good way to make it up to him, won't you?"
Immediately, the memory of the kiss sprang to mind. The memory of those warm lips... My cheeks got warm and I firmly pushed the memory away. Gods, girl, what are you thinking! This is Joxer! So what if he has warm lips, very warm, very strong lips...
My eyes shot open as my ears picked up faint, but very familiar clanking sounds in the distance.