The Dark Side of my Soul

Chapter 3

In my dream I was drowning my sorrows
But my sorrows they learned to swim
Surrounding me, going down on me
Spilling over the brim
In waves of regret, waves of joy
I reached out for the one I tried to destroy
You, you said you'd wait until the end of the world
--U2, "Until the End of the World," Achtung Baby (Island Records, 1991)

When they went back to the house, Gabrielle felt better about having dissipated some of her rage, but Hercules' revelation about Callisto left her troubled and perplexed.  Xena was asleep, with Iolaus still holding her hand.  Wonderingly, he whispered, "I never thought I'd see her so . . . frightened."  Gabrielle took his place, and Hercules assured her that he'd stay close.

"I should help Mother while I have the chance," said Hercules as they walked out of the bedroom.

"Wait a minute, Herc--talk to me," insisted Iolaus.  Hercules nodded wearily, and they went outside.   "Tell me--how're you doing?"

Hercules sighed.  "I've been better.  I'm angry, and I feel helpless, and it hurts like Hades to see her like that.  I'm sorry, Iolaus--I know it's hard for you.  It doesn't change anything I . . ."

Iolaus raised a finger to his partner's lips.  "That's what I wanted to say, Herc.  I'm really worried about her too, and I know she'll always be a part of you, and you'll always care about her--I'm OK with that."

"Do you know what you mean to me?" asked the demigod, pulling Iolaus into his arms.

Iolaus flashed his sunny grin and just said, "Yeah, I do, Herc.  No matter what happens."

"No matter what happens," said Hercules, a slow smile emerging on his face, "You're mine."  He laced his fingers through his lover's golden curls, and pulled him up to meet his lips.

Inside, Xena woke up with her usual frightened start, but she relaxed some when her eyes focused on Gabrielle.  Wordlessly, they clung together in a fierce hug.  "He told you?" Xena finally asked.

"Everything, I think," answered Gabrielle. "I don't know what to say, Xena.  I don't know how to begin to understand how it must be for you.  All I know is that I love you more than the world, and I'll do whatever I can to help you.  Whatever you need."

Xena smiled a tremulous smile, and said, "I needed to hear that, Gabrielle.  I'm . . . scared . . . all the time.  I hope you understand why I need Hercules around.  I'm so afraid of her coming back.  And I'm afraid of myself, too--afraid of what she showed me about myself.  No, Gabrielle, don't stop me.  I know that's not all of me, but it's a part of me, and I can't run away from it.  But I want to.  I want to run away from everything.  It feels like something's cracked inside me, Gabrielle--much deeper than all these surface scratches."

* * *

After a few days, Xena was walking better and eating more, and her bruises and marks were fading.  Gabrielle stayed with Xena almost continuously, and Hercules helped his mother and Jason around the house.  Soon Xena was joining the family for meals, and was grateful for their quiet but unobtrusive sympathy.  Otherwise, she remained in bed, nursing her injuries and avoiding going outside the house as much as possible.  She realized, however, that she wanted her mother.  At the same time, she was afraid to be far from Hercules.  When Gabrielle realized what was going on, she talked to Hercules and Iolaus, and they volunteered to escort Xena back to Amphipolis and to stay with her as long as she needed.  Jason arranged the loan of a horse and a wagon for Xena to ride in, and they departed with profuse outpourings of thanks from Xena and Gabrielle.

As they drew closer to Amphipolis, Gabrielle suggested that she go ahead to let Cyrene know what was going on.  Xena agreed, and Iolaus offered to keep Gabrielle company.  Hercules was walking beside the wagon, as the horse needed minimal direction with a road in front of him.  Hercules turned to Xena and asked gently, "How are you doing?"

"Better," she said tentatively.  "Listen, Hercules, you don't need to stay with me in Amphipolis.  Gabrielle and my mother can take care of me."

"Do you mean that?" asked Hercules.

Xena laughed ruefully.  "No, I don't."

"Then we'll stay as long as your mother will put up with us.  I told you I was going to do whatever you needed."  He made a sweeping bow and announced, "I am at your service."

Xena felt warmed by the smile that flashed across his face and smiled in turn.  "Thank you, Hercules," she began.

He interrupted her with another smile and said, "What makes you think I'm doing all this entirely for your sake?"  She reached for his hand, and he took it, and they proceeded along the road in companionable silence.

Suddenly the air shimmered in front of them, and Ares emerged out of the shimmer, his arms crossed over his chest and shaking his head.  Hercules stopped the horse, then leapt between the god and the wagon.  Ares ignored him, and said, "Xena, Xena, Xena, this is pa-thet-ic.  Look at you.  Feeble as a child and with this useless hulk protecting you.  I never thought I'd see you dragged down this low."

"Ares," said Hercules warningly.

"It's OK," murmured Xena.  Turning to Ares, she said coldly, "What is it you want, Ares?  Didn't I discourage you enough from bothering me last time?"  Inside she was quaking at the god's power, and despising herself for it, but she kept her voice steady and cool.

"Well," said Ares, "you don't seem to be in much of a position to discourage me now."

"Yes, but I can!" snapped Hercules.

"Ah, my lovesick half-brother," sneered Ares.  "Isn't your golden-haired boy enough for you?"

"Leave him out of this," said Hercules with quiet menace.  "Who did you come here to harrass, me or Xena?"

"Yes," drawled Ares, then laughed heartily at his own wit.  "You two are hopeless!  No wonder the irritating blondes couldn't wait to get away from you."

"Are you ever going to get around to a point, Ares?" asked Xena coolly.  "Or are we going to be here all day?"

"My point, my lovely one, is this," he answered.  "Why did you let that bitch do such a number on you?"

Xena trembled slightly, and Hercules took a step forward, "Ares, drop it!"

"It's all right," said Xena.  "Why?  I didn't have much choice."

"You always have a choice," insisted the god.  "You know perfectly well that you could have called my name, and I would have gotten you out of there.  And, I can still help you."

"Oh, really?" asked Xena, folding her arms across her chest.  "How so?"

"Number one," said Ares, ostentatiously counting on his fingers, "I can heal you instantaneously so that you're in better shape than before.  Number two, I can give you the ability to tear that loony bitch Callisto to shreds and get her back for every single thing she did to you."

"How so?" asked Xena, pursing her lips.

Ares beamed and opened a pouch on his belt.  He dangled a substantial chunk of ambrosia tantalizingly in front of her face, then snatched it back and put it away.  "Think of it, Xena!  Stronger than ever, maybe even immortal.  No more fear--and I know you're afraid, darling.  You'd be virtually unstoppable."

Hercules, also with his arms folded, raised his eyebrows and shook his head, but Xena decided to play along a while longer.  "Why have you never offered me this before, Ares?"

"You never needed it before.  Don't you get it?  You've been hurt before, but you've never really been forced to confront your own . . ." his voice lingered silkily on the last word, vulnerability."  He paused, then added with urgency, "And you hate it don't you, Xena?  You hate being scared.  You hate having to depend on someone else, even my oh-so-noble and self-sacrificing half-brother.  You hate knowing you can't defend yourself against me right now, if I decided I wanted to hurt you.  You hate having to be on the lookout for Callisto all the time and knowing you'd be helpless if she showed up.  Imagine being able to leap out of that rickety wagon and do this!"  A bolt of lightning leapt from his hand, splitting a nearby tree.  "Imagine ruling the world by my side . . . as a god!"

Xena glanced at Hercules, during this speech, but he was steadily staring at the god, occasionally shaking his head in disgust.  Part of her was demanding, "Say yes!  Say yes!", and she knew a look from Hercules would quiet that particular voice.  But she knew without him saying so that Hercules had faith that she would resist Ares' temptation on her own.

"Enough!" she snapped, holding up her hand.  "Listen, Ares," she continued in a steely voice while fixing the god with a stare from ice-cold blue eyes.  "I knew I could have called you when I was in that cave.  I know I can call you at any time.  You were obviously nearby--did you get a kick from watching her do those things to me?  You're the one who's pathetic here.  Do you want to know why I didn't call you, Ares?" she asked with an absolute contempt lacing her pronounciation of his name.  "Even while she beat me and tortured me and starved me and humiliated me and raped me, I didn't call you because what you have to offer isn't worth the price you want me to pay.  Ever.  Under any circumstances."  Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Hercules pulling back his fist in a gesture of "YES!"

"I hope I'm making myself myself clear, Ares," she continued.  "You can take your ambrosia and shove it up your godly ass."  Hercules was struggling to prevent himself from doubling over in laughter at this point.  "But get your head out of there first, so you can hear what I'm saying because," she echoed Ares' own words, "you just don't get it.  I WOULD RATHER SUFFER ALL THE TORMENTS OF CALLISTO AND TARTARUS COMBINED THAN BECOME WHAT YOU WANT ME TO BE!"

Ares was furious.  "You're going to regret that, Xena!" he threatened.

In a bored voice belied by a wide grin, Hercules interjected, "Can I take out this loser now?"

"Be my guest," said Xena with a grin.  God and demigod came together in a furious flurry of arms, gauntlets clashing.  Seizing an opening, Hercules struck Ares in the stomach, sending the god flying backward.  Ares flipped and flew over his half-brother's head, landing behind him, but Hercules spun around, leapt, and gave the god a flying kick in the chest.  Ares vanished in mid-air, reappeared behind the demigod and kicked him squarely in the lower back, making him stagger forward.  Hercules reversed direction, flung his body into a roll, and knocked Ares off his feet, coming up behind him, to hook an arm around his neck.  The god leapt to his feet, grabbing Hercules' arm and pulled him right over his head, to land on his back with a crash.  Ares pulled his sword, raised his arm, and brought it down toward his half-brother's neck, but Hercules clapped his hands on the blade.  Their faces strained as they fought for control of the sword.  Xena cursed her weakness, but she realized that Hercules wanted to take care of this on his own.  Hercules kicked out, forcing Ares to tumble backward and drop the sword.  Hercules jumped up at the same time that Ares did.  The god lunged for the sword, but Hercules tossed it to Xena, who had to reach out with both hands to grab the hilt.  Hercules then swung his right arm in a solid blow across Ares' chest.  Ares growled and charged Hercules, knocking him down, and the two rolled furiously across the grass.

Xena couldn't help laughing.  "You two look like a couple of kids on the schoolyard!" she yelled.  Ares, who was on top at the moment, left off trying to throttle Hercules and glanced back at Xena, his face in a furious snarl.  Hercules took the opportunity to push the god off of himself, roll over, and wrestle his opponent to the ground, pulling the god's arms behind his back and yanking Ares up onto his knees.  His arms trembled with the strain of keeping the god restrained, and he grimaced with the exertion.

"Have you had e-nough?" Hercules demanded roughly, but his eyes shone.  Taking out his fears for Xena and his rage at Callisto on his half-brother made him feel a lot better, and watching Xena stand up to Ares had filled his heart with hope.  Ares growled inarticulately, and Hercules glanced at Xena, tipping his head slightly in her direction.

She jumped out of the wagon, wincing slightly at the pain in her bruised legs, and limped over to the half-brothers, pointing Ares' sword and trying not to show just how heavy it felt to her weakened arm.  She pressed the point into Ares's chest, just above the vee opening in his vest.  "Ares," she said smoothly, her voice like dark honey.  "Don't you have anything better to do?  You're a lousy advertisement for godhood.  Why don't you go play with Callisto--you two have a lot in common.  Now, we'll give you your sword and let you go, if you promise to get out of here and leave us alone.  And Gabrielle and Iolaus too."

Ares snarled, and Xena pushed the point deeper, desperately hoping she wouldn't have to prop up her sword arm with her other hand.  "Promise.  On your word.  Or I might just add this pretty sword to my collection."

She began to turn away, when Ares muttered, "I promise.  But I'll be back one day!"

"That's what I was afraid of," sighed Hercules, rising to his feet and yanking Ares up with him.  Xena tossed Ares the sword, and Hercules gave him a firm boot in the rear before he vanished.

Xena slumped weakly, shaking her arm.  Hercules caught her up in his arms and exclaimed, "Gods, Xena, you were magnificent!  If I hadn't already been completely smitten with you, I would be now.  You are amazing."

"You knew I'd turn him down," she said, her face bright with a delighted smile.

"Yes, I did," said Hercules seriously.  "I know you, love.  I had absolute faith in you.  But the way you turned him down!  He'll be fuming for weeks."  Hercules began laughing uncontrollably.  "Did you see the look on his face when you told him to take his ambrosia and shove it?" he gasped.  "That was priceless!"

Xena cracked up at the memory, and they both howled with laughter at the god of war's humiliation.  With the laughter, the massive knot that had settled in her chest from the moment she had first woken up in Callisto's cave began to loosen, and she felt the edges of an aching fissure inside her just begin to come back together.  When the laughter had finally bubbled all the way out of them, Hercules asked, "Do you feel a little better?"

"Yeah, I do.  But I have a ways to go."

"You're going to be OK--however long it takes," he insisted.  "Don't ever let anyone tell you you're not strong.  I know you're going to be able to work this out."

"Well, I'm beginning to think it's possible, at least," she said, and he gently kissed her on the forehead, before placing her gently back in the wagon.  She added, "Thank you for taking him on."

"It was my pleasure," responded the demigod, and they both laughed, continuing on their journey.

When they arrived in Amphipolis, Gabrielle and Iolaus ran out of the inn, demanding, "What happened?"

"Oh, we just had a little trouble on the road," answered Hercules.  "Nothing we couldn't handle."

Cyrene ran outside to see her daughter, as Hercules helped Xena out of the wagon.  "Mother," she whispered, and they hugged fiercely, Cyrene's tears dropping into her daughter's hair.

"I'm all right, Mother," said Xena.  "Well, no, I'm not all right," she admitted.  "But I'm getting better."  Xena introduced Hercules and her mother, and they both helped her into the inn.

"I've got rooms ready for you," said Cyrene, "and dinner's almost ready."

During dinner Xena explained to her mother, somewhat abashed, why Hercules and Iolaus would be staying for a while.  She felt much better since the encounter with Ares, but she still felt the need of the demigod's protection, and she knew it would be a while before she was back in prime physical condition.  Cyrene was delighted to make the heroes welcome, and they both offered to help with any work or repairs needed around the inn.

Xena smiled, feeling more relaxed than she could remember feeling, and said, "I'm not the only one here with many skills."

After dinner, she asked Hercules for an arm to lean on so she could pay a visit to Argo in the stable.  She wrapped her arms around the horse's neck and rested her head, while Argo nickered at her.

"I think she missed you," said Hercules with a smile.  "We're going to start working out tomorrow, and you'll be back on her in no time."

"Yeah," said Xena.  "That sword felt awfully heavy.  I've been lying around long enough."

* * *

"What happened to you on the road?" asked Gabrielle, when they had gone to bed.

"Oh, we just happened to run into a god of our mutual acquaintance."


"Ares," replied Xena.  "He offered to make me a god and have the power to fight Callisto--had ambrosia on him and everything."

Gabrielle was aghast.  "On what conditions?"

"The usual.  Rule the world with him, yadda, yadda, yadda."

"What did you say?"

"What do you think I said?" asked Xena, slightly exasperated.  "Don't you trust me?"

"Yes, I trust you, Xena, but weren't you the least bit tempted?"

"Sure, part of me was, but there was never any doubt in my mind that I'd turn him down.  I told him to take his ambrosia and shove it up his godly ass."  Gabrielle whooped at the image, and Xena continued.  "I told him that even with everything Callisto did to me, asking for his help was never an option.  And then Hercules kicked his butt.  I can't tell you how much better I feel."

"I'm sorry I missed it," said Gabrielle.

"His jaw just about dropped off when I told him to shove his ambrosia.  Kinda like this."  Xena imitated Ares' look of dismay, and Gabrielle cracked up.

"Now enough about Ares," said Xena, her voice dropping into a sultry register.  "Like I said, I'm feeling a lot better."

"A lot better?" asked Gabrielle, hopefully.

"Well, why don't you kiss me and find out?"

Gabrielle claimed Xena's mouth and gave her a kiss that was long and sweet.  She paused and lightly stroked the warrior's face with her fingertips, tracing her eyebrows and the line of her jaw.  "Are you up for this?" she asked softly.  "Can I make love to you?"

"Yes, Gabrielle, just be gentle," the warrior replied,  "I love it when you touch me like that."

Gabrielle continued to stroke her lover's face before moving down to deposit a kiss in the hollow of her neck and trace circles there with her tongue.  She paused.  "Xena, you're a bit overdressed."  Xena sat up and pulled off the sleep shift she wore, then snuggled back down in the bed.  She felt Gabrielle's eyes travelling over her body and looked up warily to see Gabrielle smiling.  "You look so much better," said Gabrielle warmly.  Xena wasn't as rail-thin as she'd been when Hercules found her, and the various bruises and marks had mostly faded, and the blisters from Callisto's fireplay had almost healed.

Xena tensed up slightly--her nakedness under another's gaze couldn't help but remind her of her ordeal, and she felt both afraid of being touched intimately and still repulsed at some of her reactions to Callisto.  Gabrielle noted Xena's widening eyes, and assured her, "It's going to be all right, and you can stop me any time you need to.  I won't take it personally."

Xena nodded and relaxed slightly, and Gabrielle kissed her again, light grazing kisses all over her lips, before parting her own lips to invite Xena's tongue to enter her mouth.  The warrior put her arms around her lover and accepted the invitation.  Gabrielle then sat up slightly, and ran her fingertips up and down Xena's arms, then traced circles in the palms of her hands and drew her fingertips down the length of Xena's fingers.  Xena began to feel a slow heat kindle at her center and moaned softly.

Gabrielle very carefully turned her attention to Xena's breasts, mapping their contours with the same featherlight touches.  They heard a stifled groan from the room next door that had been assigned to their friends, and Xena laughed, "Good thing mother's room is down the hall."

Gabrielle deposited a kiss on each nipple and continued to stroke Xena's breasts.  "Do you feel at all funny about doing this in your mother's house?" she asked.

"Not any more," laughed Xena.  "I'm old enough not to have to worry about being caught."

"I see," said Gabrielle and decided that her own mouth could be better used than to comment on Xena's extensive sexual history.  She began lightly kissing Xena's breasts, then tracing delicate circles around each nipple with her tongue.  She was terrified of doing anything that would frighten her lover, but she did want to give her pleasure.  Her mouth craved being filled, and she enclosed a nipple and the surrounding flesh with her lips, and began sucking slowly and firmly.

"Oh, yesss," moaned Xena, wrapping her fingers into Gabrielle's hair.  "Don't stop."  Gabrielle murmured something inarticulate, which Xena took to be assent, since she kept sucking.  The heat at Xena's center began to glow with a warmth that spread through her body.

Gabrielle shifted to the other nipple, commenting, "I don't want it to feel neglected."

"My thoughts exactly," gasped Xena, as the heat of Gabrielle's mouth surrounded her nipple and areola.  The sensation was both soothing and erotic at the same time, and she felt relaxed enough not to jump when Gabrielle's hand experimentally cupped her mound.  She spread her legs to allow more access, and Gabrielle began very lighly stroking her, all the while continuing to suck on her breast, maintaining the same slow rhythm with her fingers and her mouth.  Her finger now slid between the lips, gliding back and forth in the slippery wetness she discovered.

Gabrielle felt Xena tense up as she dipped one finger just inside her, and she stopped what she was doing, to slide down in the bed.  She continued her explorations with her mouth, and Xena relaxed, spreading her legs further.  Gabrielle felt a surge of rage at Callisto pass through her, but she quickly dismissed it as irrelevant at the moment.  What she wanted to do here was make her lover feel good and feel safe.  She focused her attention on Xena's clitoris, patiently drawing circles around it with her tongue, while her lover moaned and wriggled.  Her hands were resting on Xena's hips, and the warrior reached down with her own to grasp them tightly, while she tilted her hips upward toward Gabrielle's face.  Gabrielle sucked the quivering knot of flesh into her mouth, and continued to stroke it with her tongue until a stifled shriek and a jolt of Xena's body let her know she had succeeded in her endeavors.

"Gabrielle, come here!" she suddenly pleaded, her voice trembling.  Gabrielle immediately moved up to the head of the bed and took Xena in her arms.  Xena was in tears, but she was smiling.  "Oh Gabrielle, I was so afraid I wouldn't be able to . . . to like it any more.  Thank you, my dearest."

Gabrielle held her lover and kissed the tears from her face.  "I love you, Xena.  I'm so happy I could make you feel good."  They cuddled together, finally ending up lying spoon-fashion, with Xena's arm wrapped tightly around Gabrielle as they drifted off to sleep.  A couple of times she awoke with a start and with her heart pounding, but the warm bed and the warmth of her companion and the comforting knowledge of Hercules and Iolaus next door all reassured her.  She knew wasn't really safe--she didn't think there was anything anyone could do should Callisto decide to come for her--but she was starting to feel just a little bit safer.

* * *

Days followed of exercise, alternating with periods of collapse.  Cyrene persistently tried to get her daughter to eat, and her daughter, just as persistently, insisted on working out as much as possible.  The four friends would run together, and when her legs tired, Xena threw her chakram over and over until she hit multiple targets with accuracy and caught it without hesitation.  As her arms grew stronger, she drilled for hours with her sword, until its weight again felt like an extension of her arm, and she practiced with Iolaus, her reflexes getting slightly faster every time.  Iolaus was a good practice partner, quick and alert, and he carefully increased the difficulty of his moves as Xena's ability to counter them improved.

Xena was ecstatic the day she easily disarmed Iolaus and had him on his back with her sword pointing at him.  She whooped in delight and held her hand out to help him up, then hugged him and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek to thank him.  Her muscles were remembering and easing into their former flexibility, and she felt her whole body returning to its usual perfect condition.  She practiced flips complete with energetic war cries, and she celebrated the day she felt up to taking a running flip onto Argo's back.  As she ran up the wall of the inn, flipping and landing neatly on her feet, she remembered feeling like this after Lao Ma had healed her legs, and she took a moment to mentally thank her former mentor and lover.

One day a messenger came for Hercules from a village that was being terrorized by a Cyclops.  Xena heard and swallowed hard.  "Yes, of course you should go," she said.  Her eyes grew slightly wider, and she realized how much she had been relying on his presence for her sense of safety.  "I'm a lot better, and I can take care of myself," she asserted.

Hercules took both her hands in his.  "I'll be back as soon as possible, Xena," he said, understanding her fears.  "We both will."

Xena nodded and said faintly, "I'd like that.  I know you can't baby sit me forever, but I'd like it a while longer.  I should be ready to move on, but I'm not quite there yet."

Hercules said, "Remember.  Whatever you need--you'll get there when you're ready, and until then I'm at your disposal--except for dealing with the occasional Cyclops."

He kissed her on the forehead and left with Iolaus, and Xena called out, "Be safe, both of you!"

Gabrielle came outside to find Xena hugging herself tightly and pacing back and forth.  She ran to her.  "I'm sorry," muttered the warrior.  "I'm still scared, I guess."

"Do you want to come inside?" asked Gabrielle softly.

"No, not yet."  Xena continued to practice, but Gabrielle noticed she was repeatedly scanning the field around her in every direction, and her eyes were wide with anxiety.  She was restless and anxious during the three days that Hercules and Iolaus were gone, but she continued to drill and to work her muscles.  Inside the house, she spent an uncharacteristic amount of time gazing in mirrors, but it was to assure herself that all the marks Callisto had laid on her body were gone, except for the slowly healing lettering on her back.  Color had returned to her skin, instead of the pallor that was there during the initial days of her recovery, and she had gained back the weight she had lost due to her mother's persistent cooking of her favorite treats.

"Hades, I'm getting spoiled," she told herself, and worked out all the harder.  When she spotted her friends down the road, she quickly resheathed her sword, and flew down the road to greet them, forgetting to be embarrassed at her eagerness.

Hercules gave her a quick hug and swept her up in his arms.  He grinned.  "You're feeling more like yourself--before you felt so light I was afraid you'd snap."

"How was the Cyclops?" she asked when he put her down, after a kiss on the forehead, and she turned to greet Iolaus with a hug.

"No sweat," they said simultaneously.  Iolaus turned to go greet Gabrielle, who had been practicing her own moves with her staff, not wanting the luxury of living inside and getting filling meals to let her get out of shape.

"How're you doing?" asked Hercules seriously.

"Not terrible, not great," answered Xena.  "In case you didn't notice, I was pretty glad to see you two."

"And not just for our great company?" asked Hercules with a half-smile.

"Well always for that," said Xena, playfully smacking him on the arm.  "I know if she came after me, there probably wouldn't be much you could do, but I feel safer with you around."

"That's good enough for me," said the demigod.

"Listen, I need your help," said Xena suddenly, uncomfortable with revealing her fears.

"Anything," replied Hercules.

"I've practiced with my sword and chakram.  I've practiced flips.  But I haven't really practiced just fighting, and I really don't want to pulverize Gabrielle," explained the warrior.

"I'm glad you're feeling well enough to pulverize anybody," said Hercules, "but are you sure you want to do this?  I don't want to hurt you."

"Hercules, it's important!" insisted Xena.  "Much as I enjoy looking at you, I can't spend the rest of my life using you as my bodyguard . . . and I imagine Iolaus and Gabrielle are going to get pretty tired of this arrangement at some point.  C'mon!" she cried, punching him in the arm.

"All right," said Hercules, and turned to face his opponent.  Still terrified of hurting Xena, he mostly blocked and deflected her kicks and blows, without striking out himself.

Xena noticed immediately.  "Ares' balls, Hercules!" she snapped.  "Give me something to work with.  Some day I'm going to need to be able to fight like this, or I'm going to really get hurt!"

His face fell as understanding sunk in.  "Of course, Xena.  I'm sorry."  He looked so pained, she felt guilty, but soon found herself lifted in the air and flying across the field.

She landed with a roll, and charged back yelling, "Yeah!  That's the idea!"  She leapt into the air, landing a solid kick to the demigod's chest.  He staggered slightly, but managed to grab her wrist and flip her over his head.

Gabrielle and Iolaus, meanwhile, sat down on a log, their mouths gaping.  Although Xena was definitely losing, she managed to land a number of kicks and blows and was obviously enjoying herself.  The blood sang in her veins, her war cries echoed across the field, and she laughed in triumph when she manged to do a flip and land behind Hercules and get in a blow before he did.  "We'd better keep an eye on them," said Iolaus to Gabrielle ruefully.  "I'd hate to think this is some exotic form of foreplay."

Gabrielle laughed.  "Yeah, no kidding.  But I have to admit it's entertaining."

The next time Hercules grabbed Xena's arm and flung her, she curled her body into a midair somersault and landed on her feet.  "Yes!" she yelled, pumping her fist.  Her reflexes were coming back, and her muscle-memory was recovering old routines.

Hercules took advantage of the distraction of her moment of triumph to kick out, knocking her off her feet.  "Gotta concentrate, love" he said with a grin, and she leapt to her feet, chagrined but grinning too.  She swung her fist, delivering a solid blow to his chest, a blow that would have flattened anyone else, then whirled, her leg kicking out and connecting with his side.  He grabbed her ankle before she had a chance to pull her leg back and upended her again.  She rolled to the side, jumped to her feet and charged him, crouched low so she sent him flying over her back.

"Maybe we should sell tickets," commented Iolaus.

"I like it," answered Gabrielle.  "It'd do wonders for Cyrene's business."  They looked at each other and both laughed.  One side effect of Xena's recuperation was that it had allowed Gabrielle and Iolaus to develop a close and warm friendship, one with a slightly bittersweet tinge of a romantic attraction from a couple of years back.  As they each had a partner who was larger-than-life, they had a lot in common to talk about and found each other's company both reviving and relaxing.

The combatants were now moving so fast that they seemed to be a blur of flying arms and legs, punctuated by an occasional "uufff!" from Hercules and "yah!" from Xena as feet, fists, and elbows connected with flesh and muscle.  Xena drove an elbow into Hercules's stomach, and he gasped, but recovered immediately, and swung her up into his arms.  "E-nough!" he panted.

"Hah!" said Xena.  "You just didn't want to lose!"

"Whatever you say, Xena," said Hercules.  He leaned backward in a controlled fall, and they both collapsed on the ground laughing.

Iolaus glanced at Gabrielle, and jerked his head toward the house.  Gabrielle nodded and smiled wryly, and they both got up and headed inside.  Neither felt particularly threatened by the bond between Xena and Hercules.  Iolaus and Gabrielle both knew that it was a bond that now ran so deep it was inextricable from who Hercules and Xena were, but they also knew that it somehow did not get in the way of their love for their partners.

Xena and Hercules were dissolving into a fit of giggles.  They had both noticed Iolaus and Gabrielle's departure, and Xena asked, "D'you think they're trying to tell us something?"

"Yeah," said Hercules.  "Like maybe I should kiss you just this once.  I don't think they'd mind."

"I get the feeling they expect it," mused Xena.

Hercules cupped her jaw in his hand, and she marvelled again at the gentleness that accompanied his strength.  She reached for the back of his neck and grasped a handful of his long hair, and their lips came together.  In a rush of emotion, he pulled her closer, and she greedily sucked his tongue into her mouth.  For a long time, their mouths clung together, lips and tongues straining and grasping to express floods of emotion, a bond of friendship, affection, respect, gratitude, and love that would give them both a strength to lean on no matter how far apart.

They broke the kiss, and Xena leapt to her feet, extending a hand to Hercules.  As they walked to the house, she said, "Thanks for the practice."

"My pleasure," he answered.

"Yeah, you only say that because you convinced yourself you were winning," she laughed, and brought up a foot to kick him in the rear end.

"I was winning," he insisted, giving her a returning smack in the same place with his hand, and they both laughed.

to Chapter 4

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