'Ares, show yourself!' Xena stood in the middle of the clearing waiting for the feeling that the god of War had arrived. He finally materialized. His hair was unusually disheveled, and he looked more annoyed than usual.
Tucking his shirt into his trousers, he said, 'What now? This had better be important, you interrupted me at a very bad moment.'
Xena smiled, pretty much knowing what that moment had been. 'Do you have any idea what your idiot nephew's done?'
He slicked back his hair, trying to neaten it a little. 'You know, he's a big boy now, and I'm not his father.'
Xena's glare stopped him.
'Alright, now what's he done?'
She pointed through the clearing at the masculine form of the sleeping Gabrielle.
Jealous, he demanded, 'Hey, what about us?'
'Ares, there is no us,' Xena said exasperated. 'Plus which look again.'
Ares took a few steps. 'What? He's kinda good looking if you like that type.'
'Ares, your idiot nephew turned my best friend into a man.'
'You're telling me that's Gabrielle?'
'Yes, that's what I'm telling you. And I want you to talk to him and tell him to change her back.'
'Well hold on, if he changed her, he had a good reason.'
'Yeah, she said that he did it because she rejected his advances. Ares, I'm warning you. You had better do something about this.'
'Or what? You're mortal, and I'm a god. I can pretty much do what I want.'
'Ares, please. You have to do it. For me.'
He looked at the tall dark beauty standing before him. How could he resist those perfect blue eyes? Lowering his head he nodded. 'Alright, I'll talk to him. But it'll be his decision if and when he changes her back.'
Xena nodded. 'That's all I'm asking. Thank you.'
He disappeared, leaving Xena to watch her friend sleep.
Ares paced his room. The pretty young thing he'd picked up at one of the better establishments in Athens watched him from the bed. She pouted. 'Ares, baby, come back to bed, I'm getting cold.'
It was hard to miss, but he ignored her anyway.
'MENACE! Get your rear end in here NOW!' He continued pacing until the lad was standing in front of him. Dressed in an equally outrageous out fit, as the last time he'd seen him.
He scowled, 'What?'
'I want you to change Gabrielle back, now.'
'No way. For starters, I'm having way too much fun, and secondly, it's my business.'
'Listen, I know what it's like. When I was young, Zeus never let me do anything either, and teaching that irritating blond a little lesson, not a bad idea, but you have to change her back.'
Deciding this was his discerning moment, Menace stood fast. 'No. I'll deal with it my own way in my own time.'
With that he disappeared from the room.
The anonymous lake lay aquamarine in the early morning sunshine. The sun had risen only moments earlier and it was shaping up to be another hot, humid day. Xena looked over her shoulder at Gabrielle's sleeping form. She walked back to the campsite and placed the last of the firewood on the dying embers. Sitting down on her blanket, she watched Gabrielle sleep. It was still weird to see masculine features. Noticing the beginnings of a beard growing in, she wondered idly whether Gabrielle had any idea how to shave.
She tapped her sleeping friend lightly on the shoulder. 'Gabrielle wake up.'
Gabrielle mumbled a few unintelligible words and burrowed further under her blanket.
'Wake up!' Xena said shaking the sleeping bard.
Gabrielle's eyes flew open, and she sat up. 'What? What's the matter?'
Sitting back, Xena smiled. 'Nothing. Just wanted to let you know the water's great, and I'm going for a swim.'
Bleary eyed, and blinking with disbelief, Gabrielle said, 'You woke me just to tell me you were going for a swim?'
'Well, I was going to ask you if you wanted to join me.'
Gabrielle yawned expansively. 'You know, I was having the most…' Images of the dream flashed through her mind. Lots of warm water, generous amounts of steam, and the two of them engaged in a passionate embrace. Gabrielle cleared her throat. '… the most intense dream.' She paused. Xena waited for the answer she knew was coming.
Gabrielle blew out a breath. They both smiled.
'Alright, give me a minute.' Gabrielle said pulling her blanket aside. It was then that she realized something uncomfortable and extremely embarrassing was happening. She quickly pulled the blanket back over herself. Meanwhile, Xena had already stripped and was making a beeline for the water yelling, 'Last one in's a rotten Stymphalian egg!'
She executed a graceful dive into the cool shallow water. Surfacing a short time later, she swam a few strokes out into the lake before turning around. She was surprised to see Gabrielle still in bed. Xena called out, 'Hey, what are you waiting for? If you're embarrassed, I can turn around.'
Rising cautiously Gabrielle turned her back to the shore. 'Ah, I'll stay and start breakfast.'
Xena swam back to the shore. 'Breakfast can wait. Come on, the water's wonderful.'
More alarmed than angry, Gabrielle snapped back, 'Look, I changed my mind alright.'
'Okay, no problem.' Xena answered, bewildered and a little hurt.
Gabrielle turned to apologize, but found Xena had already swum out of earshot. She sighed and walked uncomfortably into the woods to collect more fuel for the fire.
Gabrielle transferred the wood to one arm and scratched her stubbled cheek. It was yet another side effect she'd never considered. Her mind drifted back to the dream Xena had woken her from. The long embrace. The promise of more to come. Even the memory of a long ago innocent kiss, became the fiery catalyst to further imaginings.
'Oh for goodness sake,' she said aloud. 'Get a grip. She's your best friend. That's the end of it. That's all.'
She bent to pick up another stick. The unbidden images didn't go away, and she tolerated, even entertained a quiet joy from them. So engrossed in her daydreams, the normally astute, and alert bard, didn't notice the flight of startled birds.
Menace watched the young man from behind a tree. He stepped out as Gabrielle straightened up. Thinking she'd been alone, Gabrielle screamed, very much like a girl and dropped the firewood. 'Son of a…!'
Smiling maliciously, Menace stood back. He loved this part of being a god. The part where you got to scare a few years of life out of people by merely appearing without warning. 'You know,' he said smoothly. 'You startle really easily!'
Recovering quickly from her fright, Gabrielle retrieved the dropped wood. 'Oh, it's you,' she said and kept walking. 'Hey, haven't you done enough, or have you just come to admire your handy work? No, I've got it you've come to finish the job! So, what's it going to be a minotaur, centaur? Why not, I'm about as hairy as one. Got a manual maybe, so I know how to work this body, or at least know what to expect?'
Menace listened to the litany. He really did love his job. Putting a consolatory arm around her shoulder. 'Ooh, you are in a bad mood. What's the matter, sleep on a rock?'
Furious, she shrugged off the arm. 'I slept fine. It was waking up that was all weird.
'Weird how?' he asked, almost salivating. This was turning out a lot better than he'd imagined.
Gabrielle flushed bright red, and almost said nothing, but she had to know if what had happened was normal. 'Well, apparently another part had already woken up before me.'
Menace looked confused, so she looked down for emphasis. Finally cottoning on to what she meant, he started giggling, which quickly turned into a roaring laugh. Gabrielle watched him growing more livid, the longer his laughter lasted. Finally his laughter tapered off into an occasional snort.
'Finished?' Gabrielle asked keeping her raging temper barely under control.
He wiped his eyes, chuckled a little more, and nodded. 'That, well I've heard it's quite normal for mortal males to wake in various stages of excitement. So, tell me what bought it on? Did you have to pee, or did you have a dirty dream?'
He waited for her to tell him which of the two had caused the morning salute. 'None of your business.' Gabrielle said walking away. Menace ran a little to catch up.
'Ooh, you had a dirty dream.' Then after a few seconds thought he added, 'It was about Xena wasn't it?'
Gabrielle ignored him. 'You might have mentioned a few of the things that might happen when you did this.'
'Why? You're the most fun I've had in a long time. So while you still have hold of my interest, do you have any other questions, queries, posers?'
'Yeah, actually. Xena says the only Southern Oracle, would be the one at Delphi.'
Of course it was, but he was having way too much fun. The longer they believed it, the more annoyed they'd be when they found out there was no Southern Oracle. 'Your friend Xena doesn't always know everything. Just keep heading south, you'll find it.' He lied.
'I'm kinda bored now though, so as much as I'd like to stay and shoot the breeze, I've got despots to create, and kings to destroy. Next time though I want to hear about that dream,' he said disappearing in the typical god fashion she so hated.
'Hey, wait! I need to ask a few more…' but he was already gone. She turned back to camp and muttered, 'Butthead,' under her breath.
She walked back into camp to see Xena skinning a freshly caught fish. The warrior woman looked up as Gabrielle approached. 'Fish alright for breakfast?'
Upset from her encounter with Menace, Gabrielle threw the wood next to the fire. 'Sure, fine. Whatever!'
Worried, Xena asked, 'Are you alright?'
Plundering their bags, Gabrielle replied, 'No I'm not!'
Before Xena could ask what she was looking for, the strange young man yelled, 'Damn it! Why isn't there ever a knife when I need one?'
Startled, Xena rose to her feet. She fished out her breast dagger. 'Here you go. What are you going to do with it?'
Gabrielle ignored her. 'Soap?' Xena grabbed the bar she'd used earlier and handed it to her irate friend.
'Thank you,' she said heading for the waters edge. Xena watched as Gabrielle lathered up, and started shaving. She smiled at Gabrielle's surprise when she nicked herself. The smile faded when with just one stroke of the knife, she cut herself three more times. Xena went to help her before she died of severe blood loss. She took the knife from Gabrielle, who relinquished it with some relief.
'Must be blunt,' she said expecting Xena to sharpen it for her.
Xena smiled a little. 'Yeah, that must be it.' She took Gabrielle's chin in her hand, gently tilted it to the side, and began expertly to scrape away the stubble. Five minutes later, Gabrielle ran her hand over the now smooth skin and smiled, a little contrite. 'Thanks.'
Xena shrugged. 'I have many skills.'
Later, the silence was heavy. 'I'm sorry.' Gabrielle started.
Xena looked up from her breakfast. 'What about?'
'About snapping, and yelling at you. The bad mood in general. Until things are back to normal, please don't take anything I say to heart.'
'Don't worry about it. Remember though, you never have to be ashamed, or embarrassed to tell me anything.' Xena said trying to re-establish some level of trust. The last few days, she known there was something more than the obvious bothering her, but Gabrielle assured her she was fine.
At that moment, Gabrielle wanted to blurt it all out. To tell her about the fantasies she was having about her, about them. The dreams, everything. She nodded. 'I know it's just … I mean, what if I'm stuck like this the rest of my life?'
Shaking her head Xena said, 'That's not going to happen.' Although what she didn't tell Gabrielle was that it was looking like a very good probability.
'But what if it does?'
'Nothing has to change.' The thought of Gabrielle remaining a man made Xena incredibly uncomfortable. She'd noticed slight personality changes. Most pronounced was her short temper. It took a lot for Gabrielle to loose her cool, but since being cursed, the smallest things were liable to set her off. Equally disturbing, was the increase of violent impulses, which the old Gabrielle would never have given in to. She could see her trying to fight them, the old Gabrielle winning most of the time, but it seemed inevitable that she would eventually give in. Although these alone weren't enough to stop a friendship like theirs, there was the possibility of more changes. Changes that would alter the very core of Gabrielle's being. Her gentle nature, good humor. All the things she'd come to depend on.
'It's already changed. Xena, doesn't it strike you as slightly bizarre that you had to shave me just now?'
'Well, it was that or watch you bleed to death,' Xena said trying to lighten the mood.
Gabrielle looked up from her writing. Xena stood in front of her, still a little went and smelling of warm chamomile. Until that very moment, Gabrielle hadn't given any thought to how sensual that smell was.
'How's it going/' Xena asked drying off her hair a little more, and sitting next to Gabrielle.
'They're both asleep.' She shifted uncomfortably. The impulse to run her hands through Xena's hair, to kiss those full lips, was difficult to ignore. Finally she scrambled to her feet, and moved away from her friend. 'I've got to get out of here.'
'But you're still wet, and it hasn't stopped raining.'
'I've been cooped up here a little too long,' she said heading for the door. 'I need to stretch my legs.'
Xena nodded and watched her leave. Her apprehension at the current situation grew. Despite her own reassurances, Xena felt the gulf between them growing. Gabrielle's enigmatic evasion of what was bothering her was upsetting. On top of the orphan they were trying to help, it was becoming more complicated every day. She wanted to help, but the closest she'd come to knowing what was wrong was a comment Gabrielle had made about something Siromos had said. Xena remembered the deep flush that had come over her friend. Something the captured warrior had said about the two of them together.
Gabrielle leaned against the closed door and took a deep breath. That was a little too close, she thought. Choosing a path at random, she began walking. Not caring where it led, just needing to walk. A short time later, she was surprised to find herself in the bar of the Minotaur, ordering a pitcher of honey ale.
Three hours later and Gabrielle knew she was drunk, and it felt surprisingly good. She was only vaguely aware of why she'd gotten drunk. But in the state she was in it didn't seem too important.
A busty brunette took the seat next to her. 'Hey handsome. You here alone tonight?'
Gabrielle looked at the woman through an alcoholic haze. 'What? Oh yeah. I'm alone.' She sighed. 'All alone.'
The dark beauty ran her hand up Gabrielle's thigh. A now all too familiar flutter started warming the pit of her stomach. 'You want some company?'
'Yeah.' The alcohol was beginning to have a melancholy effect on her.
Facing the brunette Gabrielle asked. 'Do you have a best friend?'
'I'll be your best friend if you like,' she said and gently kissed the young man.
Gabrielle pulled back in surprise, and almost fell off her chair. Suddenly quite sober she demanded. 'Why'd you do that?'
'Honey, you look like you need company tonight, and that's what I'm here for.'
Gabrielle's initial reaction was to shy away from the suggestion, even the thought. But her modified psyche began to wage a war against her old way of thinking. She looked at the brunette hooker. Defeated she lowered her eyes.
'How much?' It was little more than a whisper.
'Forty Dinar for half an hour,' she said leading Gabrielle from the bar and up the stairs.
Gabrielle's apprehension grew, as they neared the top of the stairs, but her common sense was drowned by alcohol, which was beginning to reassert its effect on her. The woman closed the door, and gave her a deep kiss. Gabrielle started pushing away, but gave in. A minute or so later, and out of breath, she asked, 'What's your name?'
Running her hand down Gabrielle's chest she said, 'Priscilla.'
Xena woke slowly. She'd fallen asleep, sitting where Gabrielle had left her. Estimating she'd only slept for about half an hour, she looked around the barn. Gabrielle hadn't returned. She checked the prisoner, and climbed to the loft to check on Coralyn, whom she found sleeping burrowed in a haystack. Satisfied that everything was secure, she left the barn in search of her friend.
The rain had stopped, and she saw a small swatch of stars through a tear in the clouds. The Minotaur was still lit and doing business. She looked in. Gabrielle was not at the bar. Xena went in and checked all the tables. The barkeep watched her. As she turned to leave, he called her over.
'You looking for a young man? Blond, about your height?'
She grew anxious. 'Yeah, have you seen him?'
The man nodded. 'Sure, he went upstairs with one of the local lasses about five minutes ago.'
The brunette nudged Gabrielle over to the bed. Slowly undoing her shirt until it hung loose around her waist. Gabrielle backed into the bed, causing her to sit suddenly. She let herself be gently pushed until she was lying down. Still very much inebriated, Gabrielle lay motionless as Priscilla straddled her thighs and gently caressed the bruises coloring her ribs. Priscilla then began slowly undoing the waistband of her trousers.
Xena bounded up the stairs two at a time. She checked in each room, and hastily apologized three times before finally bursting in on Gabrielle spread eagle on a bed, being undressed by a large breasted, dark haired bimbo.
Startled, Gabrielle sat up. 'Xena! What are you doing here?'
A cold stare from Xena was all the convincing Priscilla needed to vacate the room.
Gabrielle swung her legs over the side of the bed. 'Why'd you do that?'
Xena looked at her horrified. 'Gabrielle, you were just about to sleep with a hooker.'
'What if I had? It's my money, and my choice.' She pulled her shirt back on. 'And no concern of yours.'
'That's where you're wrong. I'm worried about you. You've become evasive, combative, irritable, and sullen. All I want is to help, but you seem determined to leave me out of what you're going through.'
Gabrielle felt like bursting at the continuous barrage of emotions. 'I didn't do it to hurt you. You weren't even supposed to know. But I needed to forget. Even if it was for only a little while.'
Confused Xena asked, 'What are you talking about? Do something to forget about what?'
The silence stretched an eternity. Gabrielle looked away, ashamed. The weight of Xena's piercing gaze suddenly became too much for the confused bard. Gabrielle pushed past her and fled the room.
Dismayed, Xena followed slowly down the stairs. She found her in the bar, alone at one of the tables. Xena sat next to her. 'Please tell me,' she said softly.
'I… I' Gabrielle took a deep breath. 'I love you.'
Smiling Xena said, 'I love you too.'
Gabrielle's heart tripped and quickened a few more beats. 'No, I'm in love with you.'
Gabrielle's heart sank. This was the reason she'd kept things to herself. The gut wrenching knowledge that the feelings weren't reciprocated were being confirmed. She stood to leave, but Xena pulled her back down. 'Gabrielle, when I said I love you, it's not restricted friendship, it reaches every part of who I am, and who I hope you are. I'd love you no matter what. That you're in love with me is great.'
Color rose in Gabrielle's cheeks. 'I just thought… well, that you …'
Xena reached behind her head and pulled her over. 'That's your problem, you think too much.'
As they drew closer, Gabrielle closed her eyes. They kissed soft passionate. She'd imagined it many times, but nothing could have compared to the real thing. Their passion was barely contained as they hurriedly made their way back to the barn. In an isolated corner, Xena removed Gabrielle's shirt, and unbuttoned her trousers.
Gabrielle pulled back. 'Are you sure?'
Xena sighed, 'Would you shut up already?'
Waking slowly, Gabrielle smiled at the memory of the previous night. She turned on her side and watched Xena's sleeping form. It wasn't long before she woke.
'What?' she asked with a smile.
Picking a piece of straw from her dark hair Gabrielle said, 'This was my dream. This is what I was keeping from you.'
'I thought I could deal with it. Until I got my body back, and then it wouldn't have made a difference.'
'But… we've already…'
'I know, but as a man.'
'As a man it was very different, but still great. You still don't get it. I love you, no matter what shape you are.'