"Come on, Joxer!" Xena reached toward Joxer who was on his hands and knees. She grasped his shoulder and attempted to pull him to a standing position. He was dead weight. Xena was exhausted after the battle with Callisto, Ares, Dahak and his followers. Frustrated and overcome, Xena stood her ground momentarily and looked toward the destroyed temple. Heat and dust from the dying flames hung in the air.
"Joxer, we gotta get outta here!"
"No, leave me alone Xena." Joxer raised his head slightly and looked at her. His eyes were red and swollen; his face was covered with soot except for fresh red blood from a cut on his mouth.
"Damn!" Xena had lost her patience. She put her foot under his hip and forced him over onto his back. He offered no resistance.
"Then, fine. Stay. Whatever!" Xena walked several paces away and picked up her sword, wiped it in the wet moss and sheathed it. She whistled for Argo. Momentarily she heard the mare's hooves as she emerged from the dense woods.
"I...I could have saved her ...oh, gods..." Joxer sobbed uncontrollably. Xena turned to see him lying where she had left him, his body wracked with grief. She saw Argo enter the clearing and fought the impulse to mount her and leave this place. Instead she returned to where Joxer lay and knelt beside him.
"Joxer, no. Nothing could have been ... there was nothing you could have done."
"Oh, yes there was!" His eyes opened widely and suddenly there was energy in his body. He abruptly sat up and grasped Xena by both forearms. "I saw the look in Gabrielle's eyes, Xena. I knew what she was thinking when I saw it. She was not going to let you kill Hope if that meant your death. I knew she was going to sacrifice herself to save you...and the instant I knew it, my legs became ... stones. I was paralyzed. I couldn't move. Oh, gods, I am more of a coward than even I thought. I stood by and did nothing. I let the only woman I ever loved...perish. I could have saved her! What am I, Xena? I'm not even a man."
Xena's heart wrenched, and for a moment, Joxer's pain overcame her own.
She cradled his head in her arms and held him to her breast. He wept as Xena knelt and witnessed his sorrow. Her own would have to wait.
Neither knew how long they'd been there when Xena gently released Joxer. He clumsily stood and followed her when she summoned Argo. From the saddlebag she removed a piece of linen and a tightly bound assortment of leaves and roots. She turned to Joxer and wiped the blood from his face and carefully dabbed his cut. From the depth of it she could tell it would need stitching, and soon. But it was growing dark and she wanted to be away from this place of death.
"Joxer, I'm going to have to sew this, but not here. I'll need water and better light. Let's get going. You can ride with me on Argo." Xena halfway expected resistance but got none. She mounted Argo and offered Joxer a hand up into the saddle.
"What about your helmet and weapon, Joxer?"
"What about them?"
"Well, do you want to look around for them before ... "
"No, let's just go." His voice trailed off and she felt his head against her back.
They rode first at a slow gallop and eventually a trot for an unknown number of candlemarks. It was well beyond sunset when Xena's keen sense of hearing alerted her to nearby rushing water. She pulled Argo gently to a halt and felt Joxer behind her. He had fallen asleep.
"What?" He mumbled, not totally awake but aware the big mare had stopped.
"I think we should stop now. We're close to water and it's not safe to stay on the road in the dark."
They left the road and headed into the forest and a small clearing that sloped into the bank of a rushing stream. Joxer dismounted first, landing clumsily on one knee. Xena followed and extended a hand to help him up.
"Now I know why Gabby hates being..." His voice weakened as the weight of realization descended upon him. A painful and uncomfortable silence hung between them.
"Yeah." Xena replied, herself barely audibly, and proceeded to unsaddle Argo. The grooming could and would wait. Years of habit went onto autopilot and Xena set about gathering wood and setting camp. She watched Joxer stand at the bank, and wondered if she should leave him alone or insist he do something. She decided to let him be. In not too long Xena had a fire going and she and Gabrielle's bedrolls laid out on either side. She found smoked meat and dried fruit in the saddlebags. Joxer made his way to the edge of the tumbling stream.
"Come on, let's get something to eat, then I gotta tend your wound."
A moment passed before he returned to the campfire and sat down across from her. She handed him a share of the fruit and meat. Xena could see the firelight reflected in his eyes, but knew intuitively that Joxer was not present. They ate in silence.
Nearly a candlemark passed when Xena opened the saddlebag and retrieved a second piece of linen and the medicinals. Carefully she selected a root, enclosed it in the linen, then crushed it, wetting the linen with the herbs. She moved over to Joxer's side of the fire. He did not move and continued to stare impassively into the flames. Xena placed a metal cup of cool stream water in front of them along with thread and the fine piece of shiny bent metal she intended to use to suture his wound.
"First I need to clean this." She explained as she began to wipe the dried blood and mud from the one-inch cut beneath his lip. As the mud dissolved into the cloth she could see the wound better and wondered if she had enough thread. Well, at least there was enough to close it up until they could get to wherever they were going. Wherever that was. She had never felt more lost. Joxer didn't move. In fact, the warrior noted, he barely blinked. Next she applied the salve from the roots. Expecting it to sting, she cradled Joxer's jaw to steady him. Still, he did not move. Satisfied the wound had sufficient salve, Xena closed the linen, returned to her saddlebag. She retrieved a wineskin and she handed it to Joxer.
"Here, this is pretty fair port. There's not much, but you're going to need it."
"Umm." was Joxer's only response, that and a slight nod of his head as he accepted the wineskin and put it to his lips. He took a long swallow.
"Hey, whoa! Save some, will ya!" Xena took the skin away from him. "You're going to need some for later, too."
Joxer simply handed the skin over to Xena and turned back to the fire. She then set about preparing the metal and thread for her next task, estimating that the wound ideally would need about twenty fine fish type sutures, but knowing there was not sufficient thread. She settled for half as much criss-crossed, sure to leave a scar, but sufficient to close the wound. She also knew the effects of the port wouldn't keep the pain dulled for very long. And, Xena suspected it was Joxer's emotional pain that was buffering him from his physical pain. She also sensed that getting Joxer to safety and tending his injury was only a temporary distraction from her own inevitable anguish, waiting for her in the moments ahead, ready to consume her completely.
"There, that should hold. It's not pretty, my friend, but it'll do."
"Yeah", was all Joxer uttered as he gestured to the wineskin. Xena handed it to him. 'Why not' she thought, 'and save some for me.' She put away the medical supplies and rejoined him at the fire. He had stretched out with one arm behind his head against a blanket. She shook the wineskin. Actually, it felt fuller than she originally thought. Just as well. The rich red port caressed her throat when she swallowed. She took a second long drink and laid the skin between them. In a moment the wine pooled in her stomach and suddenly, without warning, Xena felt the avalanche of grief as Gabrielle appeared before her in the flames of the campfire - Gabrielle's face, the look in her eyes before she fell into the fiery pit, taking Hope with her. Xena's insides spasmed and she stood and ran from the clearing. Safely away from the firelight, she fell to her knees and wretched, emptying her stomach completely. When her body would give up no more, still she continued to heave until her throat was dry and burned. She felt as if she were emptying what was left of her soul. That, too, then was spilled unceremoniously onto the forest floor. Spent, she crawled away from her undigested dinner and the wine in which she'd attempted to seek refuge to lay on her back. In the distance she could hear Joxer call after her but she did not answer.
A candlemark passed and she stood and walked the short distance to the stream. She stooped and cupped the chilly waters to her lips and face. Slowly she removed her armor, letting it fall to the ground. Her leathers followed and lastly her linen shift. Naked, the warrior entered the stream and shivered as she immersed herself in the cold rushing water, seeking cleansing of body and soul. The current pushed against her strong legs and for a moment she struggled to maintain her footing. Light from the half moon danced rhythmically on the white water swirling around her. She felt her left leg slip and began to steady herself when suddenly the simplicity of it struck her. Gabrielle's face appeared before her again, her expression, all that was unspoken between them suspended almost tangibly in the brief distance which separated them in the temple, but now would separate them for eternity. Xena suddenly felt the immense heat of the fire, followed by the intense cold of the water, and at the climax of a shallow breath, she passively surrendered to the current. The frigid foamy water rushed into her nose and mouth. She drank it in thirstily, and obligingly it filled her lungs. In a matter of seconds Xena sank into darkness.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Xena! Xena!" From some far away place she felt air being forced into her, causing her lungs to stretch and burn. Instinctively she flailed her arms and caught Joxer off guard, sending him careening against the trunk of a nearby tree.
"Uuooohhh" he gasped as the wind was knocked from him. He braced himself against the tree and looked over at Xena, naked, muddied and wet, and she rolled onto her side, yet to open her eyes. Likewise exhausted, drenched and cold, Joxer pushed himself up, found a blanket and covered her.
"Ssshh, Xena. It's okay. You're going to be okay."
"Oohhhh" was all she could manage as her brain searched for a spark of consciousness. Wet and cold she began to shudder and Joxer pulled the blanket tight around her then held her in his arms for warmth. Soon Morpheus mercifully claimed them and they fell into a deep sleep.
The morning mist dulled the sun's rays as Joxer stirred and blinked awake. His movements slightly aroused the warrior. The blanket she was wrapped in by then had partially dried. Not knowing what frame of mind the warrior would wake in, Joxer carefully stood to look around for her shift and armor. He gathered them, grateful they were dry. Meticulously Joxer wiped the mud from the armor and cleaned the sword which was still bloodied from yesterday's battle. When Joxer saw Xena still slept, he headed for the stream to clean up. The twinge of pain at his mouth reminded him of his wound. If only he could forget the wound that had cut open his heart.
Following the same route he had taken in the dark just hours ago in search of Xena when she did not return, Joxer returned to the spot where he had dragged the warrior from the angry waters. The mud was smooth and slick and he could see where her heels had been when he, depleted of will, somehow found what he needed to pull her safely onto the bank and out of harm's way. He cleaned his face and arms and drank from the stream. He wasn't certain what led him to her, only that even in the light of the half moon, something inexplicable pulled him. 'Gabrielle'? Joxer smiled at the thought and then the pain sank into the middle of him again like a sword that had been plunged then twisted. taking his breath away.
When Joxer returned to the campsite, Xena had awakened and dressed. She had packed the bedrolls and was tying them onto Argo when she heard Joxer approach. Not bothering to turn from her task, Xena motioned to the dying fire. "Kill that, will ya? We gotta get going. I think there's a village not too far where there's a healer and a decent inn. I could use something hot to eat. What about you?" She fastened the last bit of leather sash around the cargo.
Joxer smothered what was left of the fire and made his way over to Xena who was already aboard Argo. She leaned to extend her hand to him. He waved her off. "That's okay. I can walk now."
"Okay," Xena shrugged and nudged Argo in the ribs. It was a short trek back to the road and soon with the sun to their backs, the two survivors of yesterday's public battle and private holocaust were on their way again in silence. Neither spoke of the events of yesterday or last night.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The moon had just risen when they arrived in the village. The smell of stew cooking and fresh hops hung in the air. A young boy whose arms were full of bread nodded in the direction of the stables. Joxer made his way to the inn across the plaza where he was to meet Xena after she settled Argo for the night. He paused by the heavy wooden door, took a breath and pushed it open. There were many empty tables and the few patrons were farmers and a couple of traveling merchants. Joxer approached the bar and ordered ale.
"Two. I'm not alone."
"Oh, I see." The portly, unshaven innkeeper proceeded to pour two tankards and set them on the counter.
"Oh, and two rooms and a hot bath in one of them."
"I can serve that up, mate."
"That and a couple of dinners." Joxer placed the dinars on the innkeeper studied the freshly sutured cut on his face. Joxer noticed the innkeeper look up as he heard the wooden door creak open. By the expression on his face and the accompanying hush that settled over the room, Joxer knew Xena had arrived. Without turning he took the two tankards and found a table in the back where they could have a view of the room. Xena joined him at the table at the same time as the young red headed server set the two steaming dinners down.
"Thanks." Xena acknowledged the ale and food as she broke off a piece of bread. This meal was shared in the same silence as that of the previous evening. The pair quickly downed the ale and Xena waved her empty tankard signaling the want of a refill, which the server quickly answered. Then again. And again.
"So, my warrior..." Despite the food, the ale had combined with exhaustion and grief, and Joxer was now well under its influence. "...after your warm bath and good night's sleep, ... what adventure, pray tell, lays before us. What heroic deed remains yet undone? What wrong now cries to be righted ? What..."
"Knock it off, Joxer, you're drunk." Xena snarled.
"Drunk? Me, drunk? Hardly!" He paused momentarily and then stood to demonstrate his sobriety only to spill the remainder of his ale.
Impatient and tired, Xena stood and pushed the table slightly toward Joxer. Unsteady, he fell across it and the two metal dinner plates slid onto the stone floor.
"Goodnight, Joxer. Sleep well."
As Xena stepped past Joxer he took her arm and attempted to push back her into the chair. Her instinct was to forearm him across the room, but she didn't, choosing instead to see this through to what she hoped could be a peaceful conclusion. Tonight she didn't have the will to strike another blow for any reason. And she knew she didn't want to hurt Joxer.
"I need to talk, Xena."
Xena inhaled deeply, "This is not the time. You've had too much ale and we're both exhausted."
Joxer pounded his fist onto the table and tried to focus his bloodshot eyes into Xena's. "I been wanting to say this to you a long time, Xena, a very long time."
Realizing he would not be dissuaded short of a pounding, and eager to flee into the refuge of her bed and sleep, Xena acquiesced. "Okay, Joxer, you have my attention. Say whatever you have to say."
"Gabrielle's dead, Xena. She's dead. Gone. And it's all because ... "
The heat rushed to Xena's cheeks and she was on her feet instantly. Her breast dagger was in her hand and at Joxer's throat.
"You shut your sorry face unless you want to join her?" Further words escaped her when she felt her breath stop flowing from her lungs.
Joxer's eyes widened and his arms hung loosely at his sides.
"Please, Xena! Yes, please, go ahead. Cut my throat! Do it, Xena! Kill me. Do me the favor. You can do it."
Xena relaxed her tight grip on the dagger and moved it slowly away from Joxer's straining neck.
"Maybe you can go on without her, but I know I can't." he pleaded. Tears began to stream down his cheeks and he slumped into her arms. She leaned into his chest and let him fall across her shoulder. The innkeeper, who had been watching the scene attentively, with a nod directed her toward the passage leading to the rooms. Xena pushed open the door and laid him across the small bed. She removed his boots and closed the door behind her.
Back in the hall, she saw an open door further down as the innkeeper passed and gestured indicating the second rented room. Entering, she found the large tub and eyed the bed. She removed her armor and underclothing and climbed into the tub. The warm water and the few candles were a welcome respite. When she awoke she was chilled by the then cold tub water. Slowly in the dying candlelight she dried off then fell across the bed. Xena sighed at the realization that while she had outrun everything else in her life, this was the one thing she wouldn't. Deep within she felt the emptiness and knew lacked the courage to look into the chasm of what had once been her soul. Joxer's words "Maybe you can go on without her..." were her last conscious thought before a restless sleep.
When Xena entered the dining room the next morning Joxer was already there sipping on a mug of hot tea. She spoke to a woman who she thought was the innkeeper's wife and ordered the same and a bowl of cooked oats and milk. She took a place across from Joxer. Her intense blue eyes searched his out.
"How're ya doin' this morning?"
"Better. I suppose." Joxer talked directly to his mug of tea.
The server placed the tea and hot cereal in front of Xena. Slowly she started to eat her breakfast and gave Joxer space to talk or not.
"Xena?" He began falteringly.
"Yes, Joxer?" She didn't look up.
"Uh, about last night..."
"Forget it." She assured him between spoonsful of the hot cereal.
"I...I can't. I'm sorry I was an ass, but I have something to say to you. I should have done this a long time ago. I suppose it's too late, Xena, but on the other hand, if I don't, well, I would be dishonoring Gab's memory."
Just the sound of Gabrielle's name shot through Xena like an arrow. She felt her heart spasm in pain and looked up at Joxer.
"Go ahead." She put down the spoon and pushed the cereal away.
"What I have to say, Xena, well, it's hard and it'll be harder to hear. You'll probably want to crack my head, and in a way, I would welcome it. I wasn't that drunk last night when you had your dagger at my throat, and I meant what I said." He looked down and his voice cracked. "I honestly don't know how I am going to go on."
Xena reached over and touched his forearm lightly.
"I really loved her, you know. I doubt she ever told you that I loved her." Joxer straightened up and looked directly into Xena's eyes. "I...I asked Gabrielle to, no, I begged her to ...marry me. My family is well off and I knew if I took her home with me, I could give her anything she wanted."
Xena could feel the tightening in her chest as Joxer continued.
"I'm no warrior, Xena. I never was. I knew I couldn't compete with my brothers to please my family, so I left home. I felt orphaned. But when I met Gabrielle, well, she was so ..." The tears caught in his throat.
"I know, Joxer. I know." Xena assured him softly.
He sighed and continued, "With Gabrielle, it was always you, Xena. I never stood a chance. No one did. Hades! Even Perdicus never stood a chance, and she married him!"
"What?" Xena started and raised one eyebrow, leaning in to listen more closely, unsure what she was hearing.
"It was you, Xena. You were the one Gabby loved, loved and wanted...loved and needed." Joxer paused. "Not me. Not Perdicus. Only you."
Xena was speechless, unable to find words when she could not identify the emotions she felt erupting inside her.
"And you seemed oblivious, Xena. I mean, it was obvious to everyone. Me. The Amazons. Your own mother. Hercules and Iolaus. Did I leave anyone out?" Joxer paused, swallowed and continued. "Gabrielle... adored you. She was ... in love with you, Xena. And, she died never knowing your love in return." His last words took every ounce of energy he had to get them out. Tears followed cascading down his cheeks as they had many times in the last two days. Joxer's fingers held tightly onto the edge of the table and he continued. Xena felt paralyzed by what she was hearing.
"Xena, I know you don't think much of me, and I'm not saying you should. But I am going to tell you what I think of you." He paused again, sighed and continued. "I both love you and hate you. I love you because you accepted me when my own family wouldn't. Oh, sure, you gave me a hard time, but I never minded. I was just glad to be around you, you and Gabrielle. I learned a lot from you both. I love you in part because Gabby loved you. Gods, she could see in you what you couldn't see in yourself. We were quite a threesome when we were together, wouldn't you say, Xena? I loved Gabrielle and she loved you and you loved ...let's see...who was it you loved, Xena? Oh, I know! You loved your suffering and your angst! You loved being inconsolable and perpetually unforgiven. Yeah, we were a threesome. I pursued Gabs, and she pursued you and you pursued ...uh, what exactly was it you sought, Xena? Forgetfulness? You were so consumed with your past, Xena, you were blind to the present, and in that blindness, you lost the future. You broke Gabrielle's heart. And I hate you for that. I hate you for hurting her."
"Look, Joxer, I never made any promises to Gabrielle and I certainly never made any claims on her."
"Exactly! That's exactly my point! And you're proud of that?" Frustrated, Joxer pounded both fists onto the table. Xena saw the veins in his neck. The cold tea spilled from the mugs
"Are you going to tell me you never knew? You never once suspected she loved you?"
"Joxer, I..." Xena fumbled for words only to discover she could not find her feelings! She fought the urge to run from Joxer, from the inn, from the truth. The paralysis deepened.
"Answer me!" Joxer was yelling now. "Did you have any feelings for her other than as a friend? I can tell you, that's not how she loved you. Come on, Xena, you can tell the truth now and it won't cost you anything. Did you ever love her the way she wanted you to, the way she loved you. She died to save you. What did you ever give her except??"
The cracking sound made by the back of Xena's hand across Joxer's face was so sharp and loud the innkeeper thought a plate had broken. Blood spit from his wound and spewed onto Xena's hand. "Did you love her?" Joxer screamed undauntedly as he wiped blood from across his lips and backed away from the table.
"Yes, damn you! I loved her!" Xena screamed back at him and recognized the darkness that was rising within her. It was the same nothingness she felt in the water two nights ago. Only now, there was nothing to escape into. Nothing but reality.
* * * * * * * * * ** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The healer mumbled to herself the entire time she tended to Joxer's cut. Xena watched the thin old woman with Joxer who was alternately wincing and sipping on a tankard of ale during the process. When Xena could see the woman was nearing the end of her work, she placed several dinars in a metal bowl, patted Joxer's shoulder and went outside. Xena was busy adjusting Argo's harness when Joxer entered the dimly lit stable.
"Thanks for the repair." He moved his jaw about gently.
"Sure." Xena answered keeping her attention on Argo's bridlery.
"So, where to now?" He asked.
Xena stopped to reflect and pat Argo's long neck. "I have to see Gabrielle's parents and the Amazons. She was their queen afterall, and ..."
"Yeah." Joxer looked away.
"I'm closer to Amazonia here and it makes sense to go there first." Xena finished with Argo and she took the reins and led her from the stable into the daylight. Joxer ambled alongside.
"I don't guess you want company?"
"Neither of us is fit company." Xena mounted Argo and settled into the saddle. "Gabrielle wouldn't want the Amazons or her family to hear this from anyone else."
Joxer shrugged his shoulders and covered his forehead with his hand to shield his eyes from the sunlight. "Xena, if I mis-spoke and said something..."
"Joxer, you only said what you felt. You've been a good friend to both me and Gabrielle. That hasn't changed." She paused and continued. "Last night you called yourself a coward. "The truth is," Xena paused a moment before continuing. "There's only one coward here and it isn't you. We've both lost the love of our lives." With that, Xena pulled on Argo's reins, turned the mare north and rode out of the village. Joxer watched until she disappeared in the dry dust Argo left in her wake. Reminded of his fresh wound, he put his finger to the new stitches, winced, turned and walked in the opposite direction.
When I wrote this I originally intended it to be the first of a several part tale. Other things, mostly life, have gotten in the way since. If you believe it should be continued, I am interested in your thoughts.