The Joining
by Kamouraskan

Part 6

"Donít you think that youíre moving a little fast, bro?"

Ares turned to face Aphrodite and an implacable Artemis. He didnít notice Xena move slightly closer to his sword side.

"Ladies, I would like to assume that the two of you arenít here to interfere." He placed the child down, keeping between her and Xena. "After all, Artemis, I believe you already have a Chosen?"

Artemis gestured up the hill where the first light of the sun was reaching, and Ares spotted a familiar little strawberry-blonde in Amazon leathers standing beside James. The Goddesses voice was cold.

"Yes I do, and sheís waiting for her child to be returned." "What do you plan to do about it? Complain to Daddy?" Ares scoffed "Iím within my rights; you canít interfere directly." "But perhaps, I can," scratched a strange, gravelly voice behind him. Ares spun about, and to his shock was staring at Gabrielleís duplicate, who responded with a thin smile. Glancing up again at the figure on the hill, and then down at the apparition in front of him he blurted "Hope? How could you...?"

Aresí confusion had given Xena more than enough time. He never saw the blow that sent him flying, even while her hand grasped the hilt of his sword from its sheath. Immediately she felt an almost drunken rush as the energy flowed into her.

"Now, letís see. You were saying...?" she said, twirling the sword about casually, watching the sunrise reflect off of it. "Nice. Iíd forgotten what an excellent balance it has", she commented professionally. "What do you think, Ares, Goddess of War have a nice ring to it?" She looked down at the now mortal Ares.

Ares leapt up to retrieve the child but found himself facing an angry and armed Gabrielle who struck him in the chest and then swept his feet out from under him with her staff, before dropping her weapon and bending over to clutch her daughter to her heart. James and Robin came running towards them, Robin taking the time to remove the blonde wig on the way.

Gabrielle then turned to Xena, who shifted the sword somewhat defensively, as her angry soulmate stalked towards her warrior in fury and said " And YOU, if you think being the Goddess of War is going to protect you from me, youíve got another think coming..."

"Yes, Gabrielle..." said a suddenly subdued Xena. "What were you THINKING about? Walking beyond the protection of the borders when we werenít ready? For months we planned this! And you KNEW that as soon as Lycea was walking, He would show up! We had this planned for MONTHS, and you nearly risked our CHILD in another demented, impulsive....Did you know we almost couldnít find Robin? How many other Amazons do you think are MY SIZE?"

By now Xena had been backed up to the edge of the water, and had stopped trying to make any more placating noises. She had closed her eyes and was waiting to be shoved in to the stream. But Gabrielle surprised her by growling deep in her throat, spinning on her heel, and walking away. As she sat down in the shade of a tree, they could hear her telling Lycea in the softest of voices, what an asshole her mommy wummy was.

"I thought she liked it when a plan came together?" James said mildly, as the chastened Xena approached. "Maybe you should seriously consider this Goddess of War thing for a bit?"

Ares moaned from the ground. "Goddess ĎTHINGí?" He slowly pulled himself up, watching as Xena began again to practice her drills with his sword. " Stop that. We all know that you have no intention of keeping it. Why donít you all stop this gloating and tell me what you want from me?"

Xena paused. "Oh, youíre right, Iím not planning on keeping it. But we didnít do all this just to get another of your useless promises."

There was another flash of light and Robin stared as a stunning woman appeared with a shield and goat skin draped over her shoulder.

"So nice when the family can get together like this." Athena smiled. "Ares....Artemis...íDite..." Each acknowledged their sisterís greeting in turn. She turned to Gabrielle.

"Is this the child? And she has stood alone?"

Gabrielle nodded and carefully presented her daughter to the Goddess. Athena turned to the Goddess of the Hunt.

"Artemis, are you certain that you have no problem with this? The future ruler of your nation sponsored by another?"

Artemis looked to Gabrielle and spoke. "It is the request of my Chosen, and I am bound to agree." Athena raised her hand and a glow touched the child. "No!" shouted Ares in dismay. Athena ignored him. "I then claim this child. To be prepared as my Chosen upon her maturity, and grief to any who harm her."

Then she reached over to Xena, and taking Aresí sword, said, "I think Iíll keep this for a while, until my brother and I can reach an arrangement." And then she and the sword were gone.

Ares looked at the remaining mortals and Gods and blurted "What?" Gabrielle just grinned. Keeping one eye on her staff, Ares said, "You donít think that this ends it? There are always loopholes..."

"Ares, Ares, Ares...." said Aphrodite. "Pretty tough talk from a guy who needs a lift home?" He gave her a pout, and she touched him, and the mortals were again alone in the early morning mist.

To James` surprise it was Robin who snapped out of the reverie first. "Breakfast or sleep?" she said brightly. They all turned to the Queen.

Gabrielle looked at Lycea for her opinion and voted "Breakfast, and no one make any cracks." 25

Afraid that their return would be used as an excuse to continue the party at Cyrene`s, the two couples and child opted to make the long walk to the dining hut. The mist had dissipated and it looked to be another glorious day. Neither Robin or James noticed the slight tap on the ass that forced the dark warrior forward with a sigh. Robin soon fell into step along the well worn path with Gabrielle and Lycea as their taller companions drew ahead under the canopy of the forest.

Xena was staring straight ahead when she asked " So, whatís up with you and Robin?"

James stopped dead. "Wha?" He looked suspiciously at the dark woman at his side, but she seemed to be engrossed in checking her teeth with her tongue. He glanced back at Gabrielle, smirked knowingly, and then continued walking.

"So," he said casually," when did you get so..."

"Donít say it." Growled Xena.

"...whipped?"

There was another, deeper growl. "I dunno. When did I start cutting you so much slack?"

"Around the time you found out I could make dumplings on an outdoor fire."

There was chuckle. "Thatís right. That was when Gabrielle was..." and both fell silent.

"Damn, Iím sorry, I shouldnít joke about that time..." James apologized.

"No, thatís all a part of it...." and she put her hand on his shoulder and clenched it gently

/

 


When she knew that James, if not Xena, was out of earshot, Gabrielle asked Robin "Do you know whatís bugging James?"

Robin was walking with Gabrielleís precious staff, and striking the end aggressively into the ground "How would I know? Heís been avoiding ME. If he wants to talk, Iím right here."

Gabrielle sighed, and shifted Lycea. "I feel Iím sort of to blame, Ďcause I havenít been much help. The last time you were here, you were avoiding him, and I...I convinced him to talk with you."

Remembering the conversation with Joxer she had overheard, Robin blushed. "He asked me, about us, and I told him Ďnoí. Right?"

"Not exactly, more that this bond thing scared the Tarterus out of you. You told me he was very calm. Even apologized to you for putting you on the spot. Left with a joke, you said."

Robin closed her eyes. "Oh....
 


/


 


" ...Gods , I really miss my daughter," James said to Xena, and received what he took to be an understanding grunt. "And since all the crises have passed...." he waited.

Xena didnít slow her step, but turned and asked "You stay for a week, or a day, you still go back to the same moment in her life, right?"

"Yeah, but.." "You planning on missing our joining?" There was no hurt in her tone, merely a statement. "Not planning, but the assignment is over..."

"When did this become an assignment?" Xena asked.

"Well, no..." Flustered, James was searching for excuses. "You know Iím not exactly a free agent. Things happen. Itís only..."

/

 


"...only chance, Robin, that James brought you here the first time?"

Robin looked over at her companion, and they both stopped while she thought for a moment. "Could I...?" she gestured towards Lycea. Gabrielle passed her over gratefully, and took back her staff. "Sheís getting so big...." They continued walking.

"James said that he was leaning over me, arms sort of, wrapped around me, showing me the fingering on a chord, when he was ....transported. He figured I was just in the field...or something, so I came too."

"So, it just made a mistake, what James calls his..."
/

 


"... friendly force in the cosmos, the one that has always seemed only concerned with emotional pain, it suddenly decided to send you to kill Andrea, help stop Raza,....?"

"You donít think so." James said.

"Iím not sure. But Iím beginning to think that if youíve decided that you should leave, you will."
 


/

"Iím beginning to think James is like Dorothy." Robin jumped as a partridge fluttered out of their path.

Gabrielle grinned in anticipation. "This sounds like a story...."

/

 


James glanced over at Xena. "You know itís funny you should say that, because I was just thinking about this childrenís book, itís about this farm girl who gets picked up by a cyclone..."
 


/

"Been there, done that, " Gabrielle laughed. "Well, she finds herself in this strange land, filled with magic and really odd people.."

Amused Gabrielle interrupted. "And you think James is like her?"
 


/


 


"So she thinks that she has to complete each of these challenges on her quest to get home..."
 


/


 


"...but in the end she finds out that she had the power with her all along."
 


/


 


James decided to change the subject. "I went and had a talk with Jessan..."
 


/


 


"You know, I had a talk with Elaini..." Robin smiled at the trepidation with which she had approached the forest dwellers` tent. She had felt like Beauty meeting the Beast right up until she had seen the furry healer playing with her children.

"And..."Gabrielle prompted.

"And...." Robin sighed. "She saw that there was a ...bond. Faint, but she saw it."

"Bet you she told you Jessan`s mum would be pissed."

Robin relaxed and laughed. "Yeah, she told me that they were just getting used to the idea that you and Xena shared the same...connection. She asked though, , if we were, uhh, related..."

"She did, did she...?" Robin ears pricked up at the note in the bards voice.
 


/

"And..." Xena prompted. "He told me that for he and Elaini, the bond had gotten stronger with contact, especially when they acknowledged that they were linked..." "So, youíre gonna try avoiding contact?"

James hated to be seen as a coward. "Look. What do you expect? Remember, I saw you, when Gabrielle was..."

Once again they shared the memory, of the loss, the pain, the warrior curled up like a child, agony so great that tears would have been a blessed relief...

James mumbled "I could barely handle the rejection before. I know I couldnít handle that..."

/

 


"...pain, when separated from your bond, or what happens when a bondmate dies? Yeah, she told me."

"Thatís gotta scare you. I still see the shadows in Xenaís eyes when she doesnít know Iím watching. But," and Robin could hear the conviction in her voice, " itís still the greatest gift, the most extraordinary thing that IĎve ever known or even imagined, the...completeness... I feel with Xena , I wouldnít, I couldnít ever trade it just for peace of mind." The Bard held Robin with her eyes. "For two to find each other. To love each other. There is nothing more important than that.But it is frightening. Scary as Tarterus. And itís something James has seen. So imagine wondering how your soulmate could say no. Or forget you..."

Robin stopped. She saw that James and Xena had closed the distance, and Xena was looking longingly at Lycea. She eyed Gabrielle, and asked "Do you think Lycea would like to see her other mother?"

Gabrielle frowned, and leaned over to the child. "Are we going to trust that warrior with you?" Lycea pursed her lips and gurgled happily. She looked towards Xena and nodded. Robin ran along with her bundle only to pass James halfway . He gave her a shy grin, as he retreated to where Gabrielle stood leaning on her staff. Robin sighed and moved on to join Xena. Thus coupled, they continued the walk.

"Well, that worked." Gabrielle commented with asperity.

James fell into her stride. "What?"

Gabrielle just looked exasperated. "Nevermind. So, what were you and Xena talking about?" "Cars."

"What?"

"Guy stuff, you know, gladiators..."

"Uh huh."
 


/


 


Xena took Lycea into her arms gratefully. "Eponin told me she was impressed with your sword work."

Robinís eyes widened. "Really? Thatís funny, she told me that Lycea had more upper body strength than I did."

"Well, she told me, you were a natural."

"For real?"

Xena smiled at her glowing face. "She said with some exercise, you should be in the intermediate class in a week."

"Wow." Robin beamed. "I mean it felt right, you know?" The warrior gave her a grin, reminding her that if anyone knew what it was like, it was this woman. Robin added "But then a lot of things feel right lately...."
 


/


 


"You know, this isnít like last time, for her. Sheís becoming stronger, sheís not frightened by all this, now."

"I know, Being around you and Xena challenges people."

"Being around Xena, you mean."

"Gabrielle..."

The Bard blushed.

He paused. "I wish I could bring my daughter here...."

Gabrielle appraised him. "And you think maybe you could, now? Why?"

Deliberately avoiding her point, he said " Because of the confidence in your abilities. Because, where we come from, itís different for girls, for kids, growing up. They get beat up, one way or another every day. I was thinking about what you said about Xena leaping onto Cecrops ship. You said that the sailors were amazed that she could make that jump, but you were amazed she did it knowing it was a cursed ship. Just because you were trapped on it.
"I think what was amazing, was that she knew that she could do it...Thatís the type of hero my daughter, and even Robin and I need. Someone who is confident, and doesnít give a damn who sees that they can handle anything....I just wish your scrolls existed in our times..."
 


/


 


Robin tried to explain. "It isnít about holding the sword. Itís knowing I can use it. When Solari gave me Titanís reins, you know, when we first arrived this time, I backed off. I said, `but I havenít ridden since I was twelve`. And, sure, that was me. But, in Amphipolis, when I was needed, I said `I can ride`. That was me, too. But I like the woman that got on the horse a lot more, you know? James asked me if I was getting hooked on adventure, but itís just that I want to do whatever it takes to be that person..."
 


/


 


Gabrielle pointed ahead at Xena and Robin. " I think Robin is already making a lot of discoveries lately. Sheís had a chance to see what she can do. And sheís really enjoying it. Those two have a lot in common, donít you think?"

James looked askance at the tall muscular warrior, and her shorter companion, then back to the bard."O.....K! No no no..."
 


/


 


"No, I know what you mean." Answered Xena. "Sometimes I wonder if Gabrielle..."

"What?"

"Well. " The reticent warrior tried again. " I think she only feels a responsibility to help other people. She doesnít often feel the ...joy of the fight. I think James is like that too..." She glanced down at Robin. "What do you think about that...?"
 


/


 


"Quit this right now, Gabrielle." James stopped "Weíre not going to have that conversation where you figure that I`ll end up calling you grandma, or great great great grandma. Robin and I are not like you and Xena. I donít know where our bond comes from, but whenever or whatever this place is, Iím sure that it isnít my past. And I am not your future. You already have one kid. Donít try to adopt me."

"Then," said Gabrielle, "if thereís no link, than there wouldnít be any harm if you and I were to talk about...say, flying machines...."
 


/


 


"Oh no, " said Xena looking back at where their companions had halted. She watched as her partner made a pointing motion to her finger.

"Sheís going to her Beta plan."

"What is that?"

"Gabrielle, likes to add one and two and get six sometimes. She thinks that where you come, from has flying machines. And that James wonít tell her because heís afraid she might invent them too early." She laughed, waiting for Robin to join in. And waited.
 


/


 


Gabrielle was counting points on her fingers. "Six. When we were in the mountains you told me where you live is rather flat. So where do you go para-whatever jumping?" She quickly cut him off. " No, donít start that. Youíve never lied to me before, you arenít going to start now. Seven. You also said you were looking at the landmarks if there was a chance you could recognize it from the air..."

"What is it with you and flying? You hate heights." James was getting what he thought of as his Gabrielle headache.
 


/


 


"Umm, Xena, I heard James telling you all about TV... umm... pictures through the air? He seems pretty free about telling you about some things from our era. Why would flying be such a big deal?"

"Because Gabrielle isnít obsessed with pictures flying through the air."
 


/


 


"Gabrielle. History of man flying starts with Icarus, and then goes downhill. Itís full of people studying birds, and then jumping from barns and castles and cliffs and ending up at the bottom, real fast. I just think you could be doing other stuff, you know?"

"Oh, I agree. I donít want to do that."

"Good."

"No, Iíve been thinking about Xena`s flying parchment."

"What about her kite, ...er, parchment?"

"Well, if it stayed up there because it was like a bag or a sail, and it caught the wind, I could understand. But, Xena showed me it had to have a certain curve. So, I was thinking that if I watched it through your telescope, and tried different curves and shapes...."

"Uh huh." James grunt was non-committal, but the bard noticed with amusement that his patronizing smile was as phony as his relaxed air, and that his hand was clenching slightly. "And then, "she continued ingenuously, " thereís the business with the sparks."

Relieved that the subject seemed to have been changed, James said "The sparks? What about the sparks? " He nodded encouragingly.

"Well, you know how sparks fly upwards in a fire? And then fall down when they drift away from the heat? Well, Iíve played with a lot of fires in my life, and I donít think they float because theyíre burning. I think the heat makes the air around them lighter somehow." She looked up at James. He had his eyes closed and was using one hand to massage his temples.
 


/


 


"James told me, that you destroyed some dynamite, black powder, coming back from Chin, even though Gabrielle thought it could have some good uses." Xena grunted an assent. She still had nightmares because the formula had been so simple.

"Well imagine how much more dangerous it would be if you could drop that from a flying machine. And what if the powder got more and more powerful. Till they could drop a..." She hunted for a word "... a big amount of it, so powerful, that if they dropped it here, that people in Amphipolis would die a second after we did, and then those in Potedia would die from the poison from the explosion days later..."

Xena stopped and stared and the earnest face beside her. This wasnít hypothetical to the smaller woman, she knew. "You will not tell Gabrielle any of this." Her voice had become harsh.

Robin froze, realizing she had crossed a line. She waited for Xena to explain. Looking away from her, the warrior began, "You see she believes..."
 


/


 


"...in education. Knowledge isnít a problem. Itís the key to peace. Understanding ourselves. What is wrong with believing in that?"

James thought about all of the places he was terrified he could be sent to. The deliberate famines, the genocideís, the Holocaust... He forgot about their connection until he noticed the shock on Gabrielle`s face. He tried to push his visions away to a far corner of his mind and although Gabrielle wasnít sure what he had been seeing, caught enough to demand " What are you hiding? If there are such terrible things in the future, what difference would it make if...why are you always afraid of altering it?"
 


/


 


Xena was sober. "James once told me, you have these huge cities. Like a thousand Athens packed together. I couldnít, I did not want to imagine that. People living like ants in an ant hill... Someone dropped one of those bombs youíre talking about on a city, a city big like that, didnít they?"

Robin couldnít look at the warrior.. " I shouldnít... sometimes it seems in our time we see each other like ants, and so life isnít as...precious......so that we could do..."

"Gods..." Xena was surprised she could still be shocked at war. "If thatís the future, what in Tarterus does it matter what we do here?"
 


/


 


"Gabrielle, I want to believe that, but Iíve seen..." He was searching, trying to find the words. How do you explain global warming? "Humans invent ahead of their capacity to use new things wisely. People get lost in all the bright shiny inventions,...But I still truly believe what my mother believed. That if all that was best in the world, worked for the good, then there were no problems that couldnít be solved. That, itís all in the hands of those people." But in his mind a picture flashed of a small boy shocked to see his mother weeping, this middle-aged white woman crying helplessly, because a black man named King had been shot. Because she believed he had been one of those people.

He tried again. "You and Xena, in this time, doing what you do, I believe you are holding off even greater evils. Itís a burden, but itís a glory too..."

"That," The Bard spoke for the first time, "is also a good description of the Bond..."

James stopped, and mumbled, "maybe, I donít know. But I do know this....
 


/


 


"...what you and Gabrielle do, thatís what ultimately counts." Robin implored. " I really...know...peopleís dreams come from inspiration. Not from envy or power. Itís the caring, and Love, and Sacrifice, thatís what changes the world for the better. Thatís what keeps us apart from the animals. You and Gabrielle, youíre heroes...

"...And the world has never had enough heroes..."

"...And the world has never had enough heroes..." Robin and James heard their words echo and all four stared at one other. There was an uncomfortable silence.

"Weíre here...?", Gabrielle pointed at the dining hut. She pointed at James. "This isnít over...." James smiled and said, "Yeah, yeah, " and speaking to the others, mocked in a low guttural voice, "Sheíll be back..."

26

Robin had anticipated that the dining Hall to be empty, forgetting that there were children and the next patrol shifts who had not been up all night. But none of them expected to see the figure slumped at the rear table preferred by Xena.

"Eponin?"

"Is that the same flagon?"

"I think we can guess itís not the same ale."

"I know that itís the same leathers."

"Phew... Pony, go take a bath, and go to bed." ordered Gabrielle.

Eponin blinked, and smiled widely, greeting them. "Aww, Gabrielle, you donít tell me that, please. I could fall asleep and drown." Robin, breathing cautiously through her mouth, whispered to Xena, "That might be safer."

Eponin caught that. "Hey!"

Xena slumped onto the bench. "Letís all eat, then sleep. Please. Weíre all exhausted."

Eponin disagreed. "Youíre all exhausted. My staying awake has become a spiritual quest. The first three days up are hard, but after that ..." She looked at James, "I know youíve done this. You know what I mean, donít you?"

James looked at her sourly "I know after three days drinking without sleep, humanity becomes THEM."

"And the downside of this is....? Anyways, Iíve got a class of trainees in an hour, and so do you, Missy."

Robin hung her head. "Oh Gods..." By now the hall was filling up with warriors, many from the party, if the groans and moans were any indication. Gabrielle and James were ignoring them all, arguing again.

"I could make it an order..." Gabrielle was warning.

"No you couldnít." James said confidently

"James...."

"Gabrielle...The Amazon nation has had just about enough of me. They donít need to have a male leading the Queenís escort at her Joining. Itís supposed to be someone who is your second in command. Thatís Ephiny."

"Sheís conducting the ceremony. Anyways, itís also supposed to be someone who helped bring you to this point, to the person that youíre being joined to. Thatís why Xena chose Hercules."

"Another male. All the more reason to choose.... I know! Your Mom!"

"You really think that my Mom wants to be considered accountable for my life with Xena?"

Point taken. "Lila."

"I pick Lila and then my Mom would be hurt."

"Of course, that makes sense" he said sarcastically."....Maleager."

"I thought you said it couldnít be a male. And I want you."

"Gabrielle..."

"Youíre being overly sensitive."

"Overly sensitive? Gabrielle, I think that Artemis and I had a talk last night."

"Artemis?"

"Well, a talking deer in the dreamscape, maybe I jumped to a conclusion..."

"And she said no, too?"

"I hadnít thought of it that way. Maybe itís my look. I should grow a beard."

Gabrielle didnít laugh. "Itís not up to her to say no."

"I say no, I withdraw any application to this tribe. Regretfully."

She stared at her friend.

"How many women are here because of violence from men?" he asked.

"Directly? Less than a quarter. But if you count children and next generation... maybe half."

"So this is a refuge." She nodded. James put his hand on hers. "Gabrielle, she was right. Iím playing that this is a big joke, reverse sexism, and Iím doing it amongst people who are wounded."

"James, you believe that a soul has no sex, right? You also told me that you didnít like to get into subsections of human rights. Thatís what womenís rights were, you argued. Human rights, right?"

"Thatís philosophy. This is their lives. I canít pretend to be a role model, when Iím part of the enemy."

"Centaur crap. I refuse to see you even as an exception to a rule. Youíre chickening out."

She called over to the Weaponís Master. "Pony, as a member of the tribe, would you object to James leading you in the escort?"

Eponin popped a nut into her mouth, and looked at James . "Xena`s already asked me for her side. Iím going to be a token Amazon."

"Great. Well, what do you think the other warriors would think?"

"I dunno. Letís ask them."

"No, Pony, Donít..."

It was too late. Clambering on top of the table. Eponin clapped her hands for attention. Robin found herself completely blocked and looking up the warriorís skirt. She looked to Xena in dismay.

"For Hade`s sake, Pony" Xena said. "If you canít take a bath, at least close your legs. Weíre trying to eat here."

Eponin ignored them and addressed the room. "Apparently, the Queenís choice to lead her escort has worries about how the members of this nation will react to...his ... being chosen." Various hazy faces looked to James, and then back to their bowls. "Maybe, some of you might feel itís embarrassing to have a male lead the Queenís contingent." There was a murmur of agreement from some of the younger warriors. "Me, I have trouble seeing why there might be embarrassment. Of course, weíre the ones who set the rules for admission into the tribe. He just went ahead and completed them, with honour, and we still wonít let him join, because of whatís between his legs. That, I find embarrassing. Unless thereís something else..."

There was some grumbling. "Oh yeah, maybe some people could worry about establishing a precedent, having a male in a command capacity, even honourary..."

Several older Amazons nodded at this. "Donít really see that either. Whatís the precedent? That some one could come and save the Queenís sanity, her child, her love and her mask, and get properly acknowledged for it? Tarterus, if it happens again, exactly like that, which I sort of doubt, then yeah, I think weíre stuck with them, even if theyíre a Cyclops.

"Meanwhile, Xena has Hercules leading her group. Anyone here want to tell her no?"

There was silence. "So, could it be that we have less respect for our Queen than her Consort?" There were mutterings of denial.

"Then I donít see a problem, do you?"

This time the muttering was agreeable, and any tension left the room. James noticed several Amazons giving him shy grins of acceptance, as Eponin climbed off the table towards them.

Gabrielle was smiling complacently, until she saw Jamesí smile didnít reach his eyes. He whispered to her "I still want a Knife at the throat for the rest of the stay, and Iím going to go talk to Hercules, and try to explain it to him, too."

James then turned to grasp Eponinís arm, and she returned the clasp. "You were amazing. Thank you. I know, well...anyways, thank you. You still smell like day-old fish, though."

"Youíre welcome. I think I`ll try a shower. I`ll see you," pointing to Robin, "and your little friends in half a candlemark."
 


******


 


Hercules had been put in a bed in the corner of the hospice, surrounded by a single sheet to separate him from the rest of the patients. He was sitting on the edge of the pallet, stripped to the waist, his normally tanned complexion pale, and he was sweating as he was vainly reaching up for his shirt on a hook.

He didnít look at James as he dropped the dividing sheet behind him.

"Let me get that for you..." James said as he reached for the shirt. ""Donít bother." The Demi-Godís voice was quiet but firm.

"Look. Iím already getting a complex about the fact that half the women here have bigger biceps that I do; yesterday I was declared not a man, now you want to force me stare at YOUR chest? Please, let me give you the damned shirt, OK?"

Hercules laughed and acquiesced as James lifted his arms to place them in the sleeves.

"Going somewhere?" James asked.

"Well, I believe thereís a Joining to organize and I heard you planned to withdraw as Gabrielleís proxy." "Thatís right."

"So you went to tell Gabrielle....?

"Yeah..."

"And of course now youíre back in?"

"Oh yeah." The two shared a smile. "But", James continued, "Gabrielleís family is only arriving today, as well as a few other guests, so I was planning to put off our picks until tomorrow morning, when we know whoís here." "I hear Hades is coming. And Athena." There was a note of surprise in Herculesí voice.

"Not her usual thing? Actually, I think She and Artemis are more or less bouncers."

"Bouncers?"

"You know, Ares, Callisto..."

"Ah."

James looked at the big man curiously. "How do you know all that? Youíve been locked away here..."

Hercules grimaced. "Thatís really why I have to get out of here. Do you know what injured Amazons do all day? And night?"

James shook his head.

"They gossip."

James shook his head. "Itís called purging, Herc. Traditionally, sick Amazons pass on their stories...."

"OK, thatís bad enough. But the younger ones Gossip. Continuously. About everything. Everybody. When, who, how many times..." The strain increased in his tone. "I have got to get out of here."

James began to laugh. "Learn anything interesting?"

"Mainly things I didnít want to know. But I did hear that Ephiny finally decided what Xenaís challenge was..."

"You mean to prove herself worthy of the Queen? What was it? Nobodies talking. She has to fight a dozen warriors with a fish?"

"No. Ephiny figured that would be pointless and only injure more Amazons." "Climb a mountain barefoot?"

"Gabrielle was against anything that might injure Xena. No, they decided on self-discipline. Xena had to stop working on her palace."

"What? Why that?"

"I think the real reason was Ephiny wanted to get some work out her warriors." Hercules grinned. "Xena was conscripting Amazons to work on her house?"

"No, they were all sitting around watching her. You know, lifting stone blocks...sweating away...Nothing was getting else was getting done..."

"Oh yeah, I can see that ..." "See what?" James spun about to see a inquisitorial Xena behind him. Gabrielle and Ephiny behind her. "Hercules was telling me about your challenge..."

"Bunch of Centaur dung," the warrior mumbled.

James thought about Xena having to watch Gabrielle fight to the death, staying back while the Amazons captured Razaís mercenaries. Building their home had been her only outlet. Then he remembered. "But you did get to punch Ares today!" Xenaís face brightened, as did Herculesí, "Yeah..." But as quickly darkened. "Only once." She pouted and Hercules patted her shoulder consolingly. The Demi-God made a move to stand. "What do you think youíre doing?" Yelled Gabrielle. James moved between them. "Ah..., Gabrielle. Hercules was telling me, that he needs a bit of...quiet, that itís a little too...noisy here He doesnít need any real care, so if he could get a bit of exercise walking to his hut, then heíd be happy to lie down and relax until tomorrow." Hercules threw James a grateful look. Then the Demi-God thought for a second, "There are a few things I should probably be..." Gabrielle interrupted. "Iolaus keeps asking for you, heís really hates being separated like this. If you let him do some of that stuff, it would really make him feel better." Hercules, looked at Gabrielle and then James and Xena, and shook his head ruefully, and all three smiled.

It was then that the fear started. James felt it first, and looked, panic-stricken to Xena.

The warrior and bard both tensed and said. "Robin?" James nearly fell as another wave of emotion bore through him. "Sheís...sheís OK now, but... what was that?"

James tried to read the Warriorsís expression. "Oh damn..." she whispered.

"What?" James eyes darted between the Xena and Gabrielle.

Gabrielle took his hand and said softly "Robin... you have to find her...now."

Part 7


Taiko's Scrolls of the Xenaverse