Cupid looked over at Aphrodite and caught a motion. “You did something, didn’t you?”
“Me?” she asked, innocently.
Iolaus had caught four fish.
He really wasn’t sure what happened after that.
One minute he was pulling the carp onto land and handing it over to Dirce to put with their other three and the next minute she was throwing the fish aside and passionately attacking him with hugs and kisses galore.
“Oh, Iolaus, Iolaus, Iolaus!” she wailed, amorously.
“Dirce, what are you doing?” he asked her, striving to take breaths between kisses. It really made no sense. One minute she was pining over Joxer and the next she was all over him. Normally Iolaus wouldn’t mind being accosted in this manner from such a lovely young woman -- but this was just weird!
Then, as if suddenly conscious of what was happening but not knowing all the facts, Dirce pushed herself away from Iolaus - stared at him as if insulted - and slapped him soundly across the cheek. She jumped to her feet and looked down at the hunter as he stared up at her, astonished. “How dare you!” she cried, “I pour out my heart to you and you...take advantage of me this way!”
“What?!” Iolaus' hand touched his cheek where her hand had made impact. He was so confused he didn’t know how to react.
She then took the fish, turned on the heel of her sandaled foot and stalked off, back to camp.
Neither of them saw Gabrielle, who had been watching the scene. Downhearted, she walked back to camp before Dirce’s verbal explosion.
“That was just heinous, Ma.” Cupid crossed arms in front of his muscular chest, “Really, just too bogus.”
With a smile, Aphrodite blew at the tip of her forefinger as she might a smoking pistol, and said, “I’m really good.”
The dying embers of the fire crackled, waking a tired and grumpy Gabrielle first. She had slept very little during the night, preoccupied by what she considered a deception by Iolaus. The Amazons were right. Men were such jerks...
Joxer yawned loudly beside the bard.
Joxer unexpectedly turned, inched himself a little too close to her as they lay on the ground and threw an arm out, to lay across Gabrielle’s stomach, "Gabby..." He said sleepily leaning against her, with a wide grin.
Normally, Gabrielle would try to be understanding. She knew how Joxer felt about her and it wouldn’t be fair to fault him for whatever erotic dreams his subconscious was churning out. Yes, his dreams...those disgusting, perverted, malignant man dreams.
Unable to control herself, Gabrielle grabbed his arm and shoved it hard, "Get away from me!" She shouted and pushed him off of her. When Joxer didn't budge, the woman grabbed his nose hard, cutting off his air. "I said get off!"
"Owww!" Joxer, suddenly awake, howled, "Gabby!!"
"Wha - " Iolaus, awakened by the cries, jumped up from his blanket into a fighter's stance, much to the amusement of Joxer.
"I taught him that." The warrior-baffoon explained to Gabrielle, who finally let go of his nose.
She sighed and began to fold her blanket.
"We should get breakfast then get going." Iolaus crouched down and gently shook Dirce’s shoulder.
"Hmm...Joxer..." The princess murmured in a sleep-haze and rolled onto her back.
"Ugh, must be a nightmare." Iolaus said, standing to his full height and stepping over her form.
"HEY!" Joxer protested, "Was that necessary? I mean, why do you always have to make fun of me?"
"Do I really have to answer that?" Iolaus asked.
“Oh, I know. You think I’m an easy target and...”
“Joxer, I was just joking but if you...”
“Please, just stop with the arguing.” Gabrielle raised her hands and stepped between the men. She really wasn’t in the mood to see the two going at it with each other right now. "Just wake up Dirce, okay? We should get going."
Iolaus stepped back a little. Her tone was cool as Gabrielle looked at him and he felt that angry gaze pierce his heart. What did he do? What was wrong with Gabrielle?
Then without warning, Iolaus turned from Joxer and Gabrielle and seemed to be focusing on something in the trees surrounding them. "Wait..." Iolaus paused, concentrating.
Gabrielle could tell he had either heard or was listening for something.
"What now, mighty hunter?" Joxer asked sarcastically.
Gabrielle's eyes widened as she too began to hear them. "How many?"
Joxer scowled, "I don't hear anything."
"Shh!” Iolaus lifted a hand, demanding silence. “Five or six, easy. All on horseback."
The warrior-bard grabbed her fighting knives, carefully stepping around the sleeping princess-lawyer, "Dirce, come on! There's trouble coming!"
"Huh?...at this time of day?" Dirce whined.
"Get UP!" Gabrielle kicked her blanketed rump firmly and was a little astonished at how good it felt to do such a thing to the princess.
"All right, already!"
Finally, the riders came into view, reminding Gabrielle not quite of the Horde but of the barbarians she'd sent off to the caves when Aphrodite had put that spell on her scroll a couple years ago.
"Well, hello!" The supposed leader said, flashing a cheeky grin at Dirce.
"Dirce, get behind me!" Iolaus ordered.
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. What about me? At least I can fight them off with you. Realizing she had just answered her own question, Gabrielle lifted her blades but was nevertheless annoyed.
The bandits attacked.
Invisible to the mortals, Cupid watched from a distance, shaking his head. Aphrodite was so busy surfing bitchin' waves at Naxos that he knew she'd never find out that he had dropped in from Olympus. But hey, if his mom could spy, then like, why not him? Thinking herself victorious, Aphrodite had all but totally ditched their bet anyway.
Cupid, not liking how matters had turned from what was natural, thought long and hard about intervening. After all, if Ma hadn’t stuck her nose in the first place... He poised an arrow, I’m only setting matters straight. he pressed and readied to shoot Gabrielle. She would take one look at Iolaus and all would be as it should.
If only those groddy bandits would just go away.
"So, my own son's cheating his dear mom out of a bet, is he? Low blow, Cupid." Aphrodite appeared in a lavish display of pink smoke and flower petals.
"Getting a little over-dramatic on the entrance, Mom."
"I'm the goddess of love! Entrances are my thing! Now, what are our mortals in peril up to?"
"A fight. Seen one you seen them all but Iolaus isn't bad... for a mortal.”
The gods watched him kick out and saw the villain fly across their camp to lay crumpled against a tree.
“That guy must be a foot taller than him." Cupid exclaimed, impressed.
Aphrodite shrugged, "Curly hangs around with my brother all day, what do you expect? Same with bard-chick and the Warrior-Babe.”
Cupid nodded, studying how Gabrielle elbow a bandit in the stomach then flipped him over her shoulder, “She’s good and Joxer...”
They watched as Joxer attempted to pull his sword but couldn’t quite get it out of his scabbard. Then, as dumb luck would have it, he fell backward just as a brute swung wide with his own sword. He missed being decapitated by inches.
“Well, two out of three aint bad.” Aphrodite summed up.
"Joxer, use the frying pan!" Gabrielle saw her friend fall and shouted as she kicked out with her left heel then thrust forward, at another bandit, with her knives, connecting with his shoulder.
Dirce stood back and watched in awe as the fighting took place in front of her.
Unknown, coming up beside the princess, one of the warrior's threw his arms around Dirce, laughing lasciviously. "Seems like your friends are a little distracted, so -"
“Let go of me!” she cried, unable to free her arms as he had caught her in a tight hug. The ruffian tried to drag her off behind a bush but Dirce screamed and flailed, making it as difficult as possible.
Without warning, the man let go of her and fell from a blow to the back of his head.
"You'll be sorry you ever messed with Joxer the Mighty!" Joxer waved the frying pan high above his head, "Blood, valor, victory, ha ha!" he sang.
Mouth opened in amazement at this incredible hero’s chivalry, Dirce threw her arms around him and kissed Joxer full on his thin lips, "Oh, Joxer! That was amazing! You truly are mighty!"
Stunned, Joxer dropped the pan.
The couple hugged, unaware of the leader bandit. He held a cross bow on them and was aiming carefully.
After dispatching his own assailant, Iolaus saw what was happening and was dazed into stillness for a few seconds. He knew what he had to do and that was throw himself in front of that arrow. What else?
"You can't save both of them with your sacrifice, little man." The leader of the bandits taunted Iolaus, knowing what he was thinking. He pulled back on the arrow’s release.
"But I don't want him to hurt Curly!" She insisted, pulling at his bow string. “Let me...”
It was too late. The arrow sailed over the clearing, hitting the leader with the crossbow before he pressed the trigger. "You should've kept traveling while you had the..." Suddenly, he stopped, looking over at the bandit that had held Dirce before being hit by Joxer’s frying pan and was now just getting groggily to his feet.. "Draxus ...” he called, “Beloved, are you hurt?!" The leader dropped his crossbow and ran to the shorter thug.
"What the..." Joxer began, watching the love-struck leader of the bandits chase his man down the path. The other bandits, confused, jumped on their horses and followed.
“Who knew?” Iolaus looked over at Gabrielle and smiled.
For a second the bard smiled back at him but, remembering his betrayal, she quickly changed expressions and turned away, picking up her blanket. “Time to go.” she said, directing the comment on the still hugging Dirce and Joxer.
So, this is the way it's going to be. Iolaus began to pick up his own gear. For as long as he lived, he would never understand women!
Aphrodite triumphantly winked at her son, “I’ll be watching, so no funny business, Babycakes.” she said and disappeared with a shimmer of pink hearts.
With a grunt of disapproval, Cupid flapped his wings and also disappeared.
It sizzled in the old weathered and recently dented frying pan. The noise alone annoyed Gabrielle. Fish, fish and more fish. If they had to eat fish one more day after this, she'd scream.
Joxer and Dirce had gone to get some water over ten minutes ago which made her really worry. If they ran into any danger could Dirce defend herself? After all, it wasn't Iolaus with her, it was Joxer.
Iolaus. Yeah, I bet he'd like to be alone with her again, to be her defender. Oh, how could I ever think there was any chance we... She dismissed such thoughts and stared out into the open field just beyond their campsite.
Iolaus wordlessly dished out the fish and handed a plate to the uncommunicative Gabrielle. She looked up, expressionless as she took it from him.
Finally they saw Dirce and Joxer in the distance, laughing about something, their movements making the small bucket of water between them splash every which way.
Iolaus sighed. At least some people were having a good time. Gabrielle had been virtually ignoring his existence since the run-in with the bandits earlier that morning. He tried to talk with her, asking her what was wrong but she was giving him the silent treatment. He could almost read her mind: If you don’t know I’m not going to tell you.
Dirce sat down, giggling over a joke with Joxer. She also ignored Iolaus and reached all the way across the fire for her plate.
"Dirce, I could've gotten that for..." The hunter stopped - she wasn't even looking at him. She was still under the delusion that it was he who took advantage of her last night. She was the one who acted like the gods put a... He nearly dropped a piece of fish into their campfire, ...a spell on her or something. It all unraveled in his thoughts at that moment. Could this be why she had taken such a liking to Joxer all of the sudden? A spell?
"Eat up, Iolaus, it's going to get cold." Joxer said, giving him a friendly pat on the back as he leaned over to take his share. He could dispense a little sympathy now that Dirce was crazy about him. A royal princess! Joxer’s mind boasted, Now, that’s class!
There was silence over the campfire as they all scrupulously ate their lunch.
Then: "Dirce, could you please tell The Golden Hunter of Corinth to pass my pack over here for the butter?" Gabrielle asked, almost too sweetly and formally.
The princess gave her an odd look but didn't question her, "Joxer, can you give Gabrielle's pack to her?"
Before Joxer could rise, Iolaus turned around dramatically, picking up the tote and tossing it to the bard over Dirce's head. He was tired of being treated like a rabid dog.
"Oookay...did I miss something?" Joxer asked.
Iolaus shook his head. "No...but the ice queen over there has to have her way."
Joxer was openly puzzled, "What's going on? Come on, guys, we're all friends here!"
Gabrielle shot him a look of utter disgust. “Some of us are far more friendly than others.” she murmured then bit angrily into her fillet.
"Ooookay...maybe not all of us, but we just have to make it to Scyros, right? So, be nice."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, "If Iolaus and Dirce can stand not being alone for two seconds maybe we’ll get to where we’re going..."
Dirce stood straight and placed her hands on her hips as she looked down at Gabrielle, "What are you talking about? He's the one who tried to have his way with me by the lake!"
Joxer dropped his plate of fish and looked over at Iolaus, "You did what?”
The hunter shook his head, wild blonde curls whirling about his head, "I did NOT! She was the one who turned on me like some kind of hormonally charged, love-crazed..."
“Me?!” Dirce turned, “How dare you! I never...”
Gabrielle piped, “Look, I know what I saw and Iolaus wasn’t the only one...”
“But Dirce, you told me - ” Joxer joined in.
“Hold it!” Iolaus shouted and was amazed when the chaotic conversation muted as he intended. All eyes were on him “Now, let’s really think about this rationally for a minute. Think about what’s going on here and those bandits this morning. Peculiar things are happening and relationships are being confused and...”
All it took was a moment and they said in unison, except one, "APHRODITE!"
"What - why?" Dirce asked.
"Come on, we've got to get to Scyros before she throws something else at us!" Iolaus said, at once edgy and quickly putting out the fire. If they hurried they’d get to Scyros by supper time.
They grabbed their gear and ran for the clearing, leaving a bewildered young princess-lawyer beside herself. "Is there something you guys aren't telling me?" She shouted, running after them.
Hercules and Xena sat together in the town tavern, she nursing a tall ale and he fumbling with his tankard of water. Both were involved with their own disquieting thoughts.
“It just doesn’t feel right.” Xena murmured, “I’ve fought every manner of scum in chain mail and these guys... they’re hearts just weren’t into it.’ she brooded.
Hercules nearly laughed out loud. She sounded genuinely disappointed. But, in a sense, he understood. The Cyclops of Cressida had been remarkably easy to defeat. Hercules had to throw only a few mammoth punches and he fell over like a sack of particularly rank potatoes. The Cyclops, once regaining consciousness, then promised to go on his way and never hurt anyone again, no matter how much they deserved it. The village people were satisfied. That was it. It took less than an hour.
Then, hearing from a few pedestrians that there was trouble in Scyros - which wasn’t all that far from Cressida - Hercules made tracks here. Only to discover that Xena seemed to have matters well in hand, having just vanquished a band of cut throats out to kill the king. Hercules shrugged, “Either the villains are getting less villainous or our expectations are just too high.” he offered.
Xena lifted her tankard and snorted a depressed chuckled. “Times change.” she agreed. “Now King Manelaus has twenty armed guards surrounding his palace. I feel as useless as a Minotaur in a China shop.”
“Hercules! Xena!” A young, dark boy ran into the tavern, his eyes searching.
“Here.” Hercules called to him.
“You have to come to the palace!” the boy exclaimed, “The King has been wounded by assassins!”
He lay in his plush bed, a thick bandage over his chest, his hands clutching that of his daughter’s.
Iolaus, Gabrielle and Joxer were also in the royal bedroom, staring grimly at the scene as Xena and Hercules entered.
Bewildered to see Iolaus with the group, Hercules looked at his partner as if to ask what he was doing there.
“Long story. I’ll tell you later.” Iolaus whispered, with a tired look.
Dirce, kneeling by her mortally wounded father’s bedside, sobbed, “Who did this to you?”
“Mercenaries.” the royal healer said quickly as he stood a little to one side of the royals.
“Are you sure?” Xena approached, eyeing King Manelaus closely. “How did they get passed your guards?”
“The knaves were crafty.” Manelaus answered, smiling at his daughter through his pain and squeezing her hand, “As long as Dirce was here, tending to the palace and seeing that all was working as it should, we never had problems like this...” he murmured weakly.
“Oh father!” Dirce whimpered tearfully at his bedside and lay her head by the hand she held.
Hercules brow furrowed. Something just didn’t seem to be adding up. If the assassins, any one of them, were anything like Xena described they weren’t smart, agile or powerful enough to get by twenty armed soldiers. “Your wound must be very painful.” Hercules queried, “How long ago was it changed?”
“Just a half hour ago.” the healer answered, quickly.
The king coughed feebly and nodded.
“Xena’s well practiced in medicine.” Hercules said, “And my cousin is the healer of the gods. I’ve learned a few tricks from him.”
Xena caught on to Hercules’ thought train, “We would both be honored if you’d let us take a look. Perhaps we can help ...” she spoke with deceptive gentleness.
“Would you?” Dirce turned to them and smiled.
“No, no!” the king suddenly yelped, very nervous, his eyes growing wide. “Surgeous here is the best healer in the land. I wouldn’t want to insult him by turning myself over to your more than capable hands.” he explained.
The healer nodded but didn’t look at all comfortable. As a matter of fact, Xena thought, he was looking rather green and in need of a healer himself.
Dirce’s eyes narrowed in confusion. Her father had always called Surgeous “a quack”. This was a switch.
Both Iolaus and Gabrielle picked up on the nervousness in the royal’s tone and looked at one another. Something was fishy here.
"Father, I'm sure you're in good hands!" Dirce insisted, moving quickly forward and helping Hercules take off the bandaging despite the king's attempt to prevent them.
Then, when the gauss was pulled aside, the princess gasped and looked up at Hercules in confusion. There was no sign of a wound caused by *any* weapon known to humankind.
"Wow!" Joxer said, interrupting silence at the most awkward time possible, "This guy heals like the gods! Or was that your doing, Hercules?” He then pulled off his helmet and pointed to the back of his neck, “I've got a scar you might like to see if you - -"
"Joxer, hush!" Gabrielle silence him with a quick elbow jab to his ribs.
Hercules crossed arms over his massive chest and stared at the guilty looking king. "Perhaps you'd like to tell us exactly what's going on here?" he suggested and glanced once at Xena who seemed to be fighting an inward urge to strike out at someone.
King Manelaus glanced from face to face, plainly embarrassed about the whole event. He then took his daughter's hand as she continued to kneel by his bedside.
"Dirce, you've always lived here at the palace... When you're mother died, you became all I had. And when you convinced me to let you attend classes in Corinth, well, it seemed like a good idea at first.” Manelaus grimaced a bit, recalling how he felt it would do the young woman good and he could finally get some peace and quiet. “Yet later, I knew in my heart I would miss you so much. Still, you were so determined and those letters you sent, where you said you were learning so much, I just didn’t know what to do.” Manelaus shrugged, “I thought I had lost you. I could see you running off to Athens to become a great attorney, never to return to Scyros again.” His eyes stared into her’s. “But I missed you terribly, dear, and I wanted you back home with me so much. I still do.” He looked away from her and down at his embroidered bed sheets, “If it's a crime for a father to love his daughter too much, then I'm guilty. I'm so sorry, Dirce. I know I've disappointed you. Can you forgive a foolish old man?"
Xena glanced at Hercules, who was hiding his anger well. She recalled the thugs who had attacked she and the palace yesterday and how hap-hazard it all seemed. The whole deception was all falling into place now.
Iolaus said, "You mean this whole thing - the Cyclops Hercules was called to defeat, the assassins that came after you, and the bandits that attacked us while we traveled here - it was all...a set-up?"
The king nodded, "Yes, all of it, I’m afraid." then Manelaus suddenly appeared puzzled by something said. Bandits? He thought.
The chamber was quiet.
Slowly, to Iolaus' amazement, Dirce began to smile, and whispered, "You think I could be a great attorney?” At her father’s nod she arose gleefully, “That's just so...so...oh, Father! This is the *sweetest* thing anyone's ever done for me! Oh, you little rascal, give me a hug!" and she laughed, embracing her father where he lay.
Hercules and all who stood and watched the scene were astounded. Was she kidding? No screams? No outrage? The old man had deceived, cajoled and could have caused a great deal of harm if matters had escalated. Some of the people he hired could have been badly hurt. Xena wasn’t one to pull back on a sword thrust if she thought danger imminent.
"I can’t promise I’ll never leave home again," Dirce smiled and spoke enthusiastically to Manelaus, “I have exams next week. But before you know it, I will have graduated my class and I’ll be back here again to take care of you and my hometown!” she hugged the king again and helped him stand. “Then we’ll just make sure everything is running smoothly here again and...”
"Are they insane or am I crazy?" Iolaus asked from the corner of his mouth.
"Which question would you like me to answer first?" Gabrielle quipped, annoyed.
King Manelaus finally turned to the reeling group of on-lookers. "I've caused you so much trouble and I want to make it up to you - I know! A feast! We will celebrate the return of my dear daughter. Then, afterwards there will be a band and dancing. We’ll have jugglers and singers and actors and...” He began to move out of the bedroom, an arm linked with Dirce’s, “You will help to plan the menu, won’t you dear?"
“Of course, father.”
Xena cleared her throat roughly, stopping Manelaus in his tracks. “Look, I don’t know if we can stick around.”
Hercules nodded his head in agreement, "Well, you know, Iolaus and I should be heading back to Corinth. Jason is expecting us."
"But you must stay!" the king insisted, "We’ll have duck, pheasant, boar and anything your hearts desire."
"Duck?" Iolaus asked, his eyes lighting up.
“Pheasant?” Gabrielle chimed in, recalling the horrid fish they had been forced to eat while on the road. “Will there be desserts?”
Hercules and Xena looked at one another, simultaneously rolling their his eyes, knowing their friends would never want to leave now. "Okay, we’ll stay."
Fan Fic Main