Gabrielle closed the door behind her, turned around to lean on it and massaged her temples. "Gods, what a day!" After a moment, she walked over to the bed and sat down beside a dejected Joxer. "All right, I figure we wait about half an hour, then sneak out and go get Xena..."
"Unless my father puts guards on the door."
Gabrielle leapt up, rushed to the door and swung it upon. Two of Nikolaos' men stood in the hallway, blocking the way out. "Nikolaos doesn't want you two disturbed," said one of the guards, grinning horribly. "He though you might want some... 'quality time' together." Both men chuckled.
"Gee, how considerate of him." She slammed the door shut. Turning her back to the door once again, she let out a short scream of frustration and looked around the room. "And those windows are barely big enough to get my head through! What kind of an inn is this?" Gabrielle noticed how quiet Joxer was being. She sat on the bed beside him again. "Hey, are you all right?"
Joxer removed his helmet and threw it on a small table by the bed. "Gabby, I'm sorry you have to go through this. If I had the guts to stand up to my father--"
"You'd be dead, you said so yourself. Now, don't worry." She put her hand on his and gave it a quick squeeze. "Everything will be fine, I promise. Xena will get here and it'll all work out."
Joxer looked down at Gabrielle's hand on his. I love it when she touches me. I just wish it meant more to her. He looked up into her eyes. A part of him screamed, Tell her, dammit, tell her! But another part rationalized the impulse away by reminding him that she had enough to deal with right now. He settled on trying to reassure her by putting on a brave front. "You're right. After all, what can happen to Joxer the Mighty?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and sighed. "Yeah, what could possibly go wrong?"
They sat in silence for almost a full minute before Joxer felt he needed to say something. "Um... Gabby?"
"My father's not around; you don't have to keep holding my hand."
Gabrielle looked down to see that her hand was, in fact, still laying on top of Joxer's. Her eyes widened in shock and she snatched her hand away. She hopped up off the bed. "Um... we... uh... we... should probably... us... go to bedSLEEP! Go to sleep... We should make some plans for tomorrow and go to sleep!" That was creepy! I didn't mind holding his hand! I was actually comfortable with it! It was almost... pleasant? Nonono, I'm just getting into the role, that's all. I'm a better actress than I thought. Yes, that must be it... She finally got a hold of herself and calmed down. "Yes, we need to come up with more delaying tactics and then turn in."
Look at the way she reacts to just holding my hand. I'd never have a chance with her. Well, at least she's my friend; I'll just have to be content with that. "Sure thing. I'll sleep on the floor," he offered.
Gabrielle examined the "floor" beneath her feet. It was really no more than the bare earth covered with a thin layer of straw. "No, Joxer, that's fine, you take the bed. I'll be all right on the floor."
"No, Gabrielle," spoke Joxer firmly. "You're doing all this for me, it's the least I can do."
Gabrielle smiled gratefully. "Okay, I'm too beat to argue. Let's figure out how can mess up wedding plans for tomorrow."
They stayed up for almost another hour, discussing what kind of trouble they could cause the next day. When they were done, Joxer gathered up a couple of pillows and one of the blankets from the bed and placed them on the ground. Gabrielle removed her boots, and slipped under the covers of the bed. As she did so, Joxer removed his armour, leaving only his plain clothes underneath.
He's actually kind of cute when he's not wearing that ridiculous-looking outfit. Gabrielle squeezed her eyes tight, as if wincing from a headache. Gods, there I go again. I must be tired. She opened her eyes again, and watched as Joxer snuffed out the lamp. Then, by the moonlight, she saw him lie down on the floor and pull the blanket over himself.
"Goodnight, Joxer," she answered, and rolled over to sleep.
Joxer watched her for a short while, marveling at the way her hair shone in the moonlight. Eventually, he settled down to sleep himself. Goodnight, Gabrielle, he thought. I love you.
The next morning, when the pair left their room, they discovered Nikolaos already awaiting them.
"Well, about time you two got up! Got to get to work, or this wedding'll never happen!"
"If it's all right with you," said Gabrielle, "we would like to get something to eat first."
"Of course you would," replied the warlord, "got to keep your strength up after any 'nocturnal activities,' eh?" With this, he gave Gabrielle's behind a solid smack.
She froze, and slowly turned to face Nikolaos, attempting to give him "the look" that she had seen Xena use in similar circumstances. On Xena, it usually sent every male in the room cowering into corners. On Gabrielle's face, with its softer features, "the look" was not very menacing at all.
"You kids certainly are quiet, though," Nikolaos continued, oblivious to Gabrielle's reaction. "Couldn't hear a thing from the next room! Prefer my women loud myself!"
"Father, don't do that!" Joxer's voice was surprisingly menacing.
"Eh? Do what, boy?"
Joxer took an angry step towards his father. "You know godsdamn well what!"
Gabrielle stepped between the two men, blocking Joxer. "Joxer, cut it out!" she hissed. "Don't worry about it!"
The three stood there for a few moments, Joxer fuming, Nikolaos completely relaxed and at ease, Gabrielle acting as a barrier.
Finally, Nikolaos spoke. "Well, boy, what's the problem?"
Joxer looked at Gabrielle. She just mouthed the word "No." He stood looking at her for a moment, then addressed his father.
The huge man's face split into a grin. "Good! Let's go eat, shall we?" Without waiting for a reply, he turned and headed for the inn's front door. Joxer and Gabrielle followed more slowly.
"Joxer, what is wrong with you?" Gabrielle whispered. "The way you're acting, anyone would think that you're--" She stopped speaking, but the thought continued unbidden. Anyone would think that you're really in love with me... No, that can't be it; it's just Joxer trying to be a "mighty" hero again. That's all; it has to be. "Never mind, let's just get going." She hooked her arm through Joxer's, and together they left the inn.
"I don't understand what you need all this fuss for!" boomed Nikolaos, as he, Joxer and Gabrielle walked through town to their next appointment. "In my day, all you had to do was take your woman, go to a temple, tell each other how you felt, and you were done! Didn't even need anyone to watch. We figured the gods were good enough witnesses! Give her a nice piece of jewelry and start building a house!"
"Well, sure, if you want to, you can do it the old-fashioned way," replied Gabrielle evasively, "but Joxer and I decided we'd like a little spectacle. Isn't that right, sweetie?"
"Uh, right, sure... You bet!"
"'A little spectacle?' Banners, streamers, flowers of every kind! Ridiculous amounts of food for guests who might not even make it!"
"It's not our fault that people can't get here in time," Gabrielle pointed out. "If you're worried about the cost..."
"Gods, no! Money's no object! I've gotten stinking rich looting and pillaging!" He lowered his voice menacingly, which meant that he was only shouting. "It's just that, what with the occasion getting more elaborate each moment..." Nikolaos started to chuckle. "Someone might begin to think that you're just stalling for time," he grinned.
Gabrielle began to laugh along with the warlord. Unfortunately, it wasn't very convincing. Joxer, back me up here, she thought and she brought a heel down hard on Joxer's foot.
"HAAAAAAhahahaha!! That's a good one, sir!" Joxer turned to Gabrielle. "That's my father! Best sense of humour in the world! Laugh a minute! He's funnier than--"
"That's enough, boy."
After an awkward moment of silence, Gabrielle spoke. "You're not serious, though, are you?" She attempted to make her voice grow dark. "I certainly hope you're not doubting that I really want to marry Joxer, because nothing in the world means more to me!" With this, Gabrielle stormed off. As she walked away, she thought, Well, if I can keep this up, I should be able to convince that ogre that I'm serious about Joxer... Not that I am, she amended immediately, and hopefully end his suspicions.
Meanwhile, Nikolaos scolded his son. "Are you going to let your woman talk to me like that, boy?"
"Father, please, you've got to understand. Gabrielle was really looking forward to having a big to-do. She had a lot of friends that she wanted to meet me. Sort of... show me off." Joxer inflated slightly with false pride.
"Can't imagine why," replied Nikolaos dryly.
Joxer deflated again. "Anyway, this is the way she wants things, so I agreed. I... I love her," he said, quite honestly, "and I only want her to be happy."
The warlord looked at Joxer with mild disgust. "Gods, boy, I always knew you were a pansy, but to let a woman affect you like this..." He sighed. "All right, we'll continue with this ridiculousness. For now."
"Thank you, sir."
"Let's go find your woman and get this over with."
"What kind of flowers were you thinking of?" asked yet another flower vendor.
"I'd like some myrtle."
"Well, of course, myrtle for a wedding. What else?"
Gabrielle mentally ran through a list of flowers that were completely out of season. "Daffodils. Yes, I really want lots and lots of daffodils."
The vendor hesitated before responding. He didn't want to lose a sale, but... "Daffodils?"
"Is there a problem with that?" responded the bard archly.
"Well, daffodils aren't the most... appropriate flowers for a wedding, and they are a little out of season." By about three months! he added to himself.
"I like daffodils and I want daffodils. Lots."
"It may take some time to acquire them..."
"That's all right, I've really got my heart set on them." Gabrielle turned to leave, but Nikolaos strode forward and confronted the vendor.
"You will have what the woman wants in three days or you'll wish I had killed you," he said menacingly.
"No!" burst out Gabrielle. "All right! We'll take what you can give us by then!"
Nikolaos grinned. "Good. See how easy it is to be reasonable?"
Reasonable? What does this guy know about reasonable. "Maybe we should just get going."
As the three left the flower stand, Nikolaos stared at Joxer intensely, scrutinizing him.
"Boy, where's my scabbard?"
Joxer made a timid squeak in the back of his throat. His eyes widened in terror and he gulped audibly. "Uh... which scabbard?"
"Which scabbard? The scabbard I gave you when you left home, boy! The scabbard I entrusted to you! The one thing I ever entrusted to you!"
"Oh, that scabbard..." said Joxer weakly.
"Yes, that scabbard! You practically cried when I gave it to you! You didn't lose it, did you, boy?!"
"Then where in Tartarus IS IT?!"
Gabrielle quickly used her body to shield Joxer from his father. "He did it for me!"
"He... he..." Gabrielle was silent for a moment. "He gave it up for me," she said softly. "To get me a gift. A necklace..." A very nice necklace. And I was so mad at him at the time, I completely forgot to thank him for it after. "Even though it obviously meant more to him than anything, he gave up the only thing you ever gave him, just so I could have something special. It was probably the sweetest thing anyone had ever done for me." She grabbed one of Joxer's hands and held it tightly. "Thank you, Joxer," she almost whispered.
"You're welcome," answered Joxer quietly, the fear of his father momentarily forgotten. He just stared into those beautiful green eyes and saw something there he saw all to infrequently: genuine affection. Maybe now! he thought. Maybe if I tell her right now, I've got the slightest chance. "Gabrielle, I really do--"
"A necklace!" interrupted Nikolaos. "You said you'd never let the damned scabbard out of your sight for as long as you lived! Gods! Can't trust you to do anything right, can I?"
Joxer saw the flash of anger in Gabrielle's eyes. "No," he said quietly, before she could do anything, "you promised to wait for Xena."
"So where is this necklace, anyway?"
Gabrielle relented and let go of Joxer's hand. "I've left it with a friend because I don't like to travel with it. I only wear it on special occasions."
"Like weddings?" asked Nikolaos archly.
"Yes, like weddings," Gabrielle replied pointedly. "As a matter of fact, my friend should be able to make it here soon, so I can wear the necklace. I can't wait for you to meet her," she added with a grin.
"I'm sure it will be a pleasure. Now, let's get going. At least the boy got the jewelry part right," Nikolaos grumbled to himself as he led the way.
As he and Gabrielle followed behind, hand in hand, Joxer sighed to himself. I'll never get to tell her. I only get the courage to tell her at the worst moments. It's just not meant to be. He concentrated on how her hand felt in his. At least I'm close to her. That's all I really want, to be with her, whether she loves me or just likes me...
The latter part of the day was spent deciding on who would officiate at the ceremony. Nikolaos disapproved of their choice of the temple of Aphrodite.
"Only harlots would be married in the temple of Aphrodite!" This produced several angry glances from the nearby priestesses. "What's wrong with the temple of Hera? She is the goddess of marriage, after all!"
Joxer and Gabrielle glanced at each other uncomfortably. "Well, the truth is," said Gabrielle, "that we don't really get along with Hera. She's given a friend of ours... trouble." She hoped that she wouldn't have to explain that Joxer and she knew Hercules; she didn't think the warlord would buy it.
Unfortunately, Joxer then proceeded to tell his father something even more unbelievable. "Yeah, and anyway, we know Aphrodite. She's sort of responsible for getting us together."
"Um, yes, that's right," added Gabrielle. While this wasn't really accurate, she guessed that Joxer was referring to the first time they had ever kissed. The memory returned of a suave, extremely competent and Aphrodite-influenced Joxer planting a kiss on her lips. She remembered the tingle she had experienced in the pit of stomach, until she had pulled herself together and reminded herself that, now matter how he was acting, it had still been Joxer.
"Olympus above, boy! You certainly are full of surprises!" boomed Nikolaos.
He had actually accepted the story. Gabrielle breathed a silent sigh of relief as they left the temple.
In an effort to get away from Nikolaos, Joxer and Gabrielle feigned fatigue and begged an early night. Nikolaos once again posted guards so that no one could disturb the "happy couple."
After removing his armour, Joxer started to set up his sleeping area on the floor.
Gabrielle looked up from pulling off her boots. "Joxer, I had no idea that you traded something so dear to you for that necklace. What was all that fuss about?"
Joxer sighed wearily and sat down on the bed next to Gabrielle. "When my father gave me that scabbard, it was the only time he ever showed any amount of trust in my abilities."
"He doesn't strike me as the most supportive father."
"You don't know the half of it..."
A horrible thought struck Gabrielle. "Joxer... did your father ever... hurt you?"
"Oh, if you mean did he beat me or anything like that, no. Well, the occasional smack on the head when I did something really stupid. But certainly nothing worse that when you give me a whack with your staff."
Gabrielle felt a pang of guilt. "Joxer, I know I treat you badly sometimes, but I don't want you to ever doubt that I care about you. Xena, too," she added hastily, "we both care about you. You're our friend."
"Thanks," smiled Joxer, "it means a lot to hear that. Anyway, my father never really hurt me. At least, physically. But he always put me down. My whole family did. My father, my mom, my brother--" Joxer hesitated momentarily. She only knows about Jett, and I really don't want to have to explain Jace. Let's leave it at one brother. "They all teased me and put me down, called me a 'fraidy-cat, stuff like that..."
"Aw, I got used to it. Mostly. I just tried harder. Didn't work out, though. Every time I tried to prove myself to my family, something would go wrong. Usually I'd get scared or walk into another wall. My whole childhood was like that. Then, on the day I finally left home, my father took me aside, gave me the scabbard, and said to me..." An Joxer started a fair impersonation of his father. "'Boy, as a going-away gift, I'm entrusting you with this. Prove to me you're not completely worthless, and keep it safe. Now go out there and lay waste to something.' I nearly cried. He finally trusted me with something. And I even m-messed th-that up..." Joxer's voice choked and tears shone in his eyes. "Oh, gods, I can't believe this, I'm crying in front of you. Warriors don't cry..."
"Shh, it's all right," said Gabrielle softly. "Here." She pulled Joxer's head down and cradled it on her shoulder. "Of course, warriors cry. Even Xena cries, I've seen it."
They sat like that for a few minutes, Joxer with his head on Gabrielle's shoulder, sobbing very softly. Eventually, he was able to pull himself together.
"I'm sorry, this wasn't the right time to dump my problems on you. We've got enough to deal with right now."
"It's all right, there's no need to apologize. Like I said, you're my friend." I never thought I'd actually admit that out loud, she thought. "Listen, if you like, you can sleep on the bed tonight."
"No! I refuse to let you sleep in the floor when there's no need."
"Tell you what, it's a big bed. I think we can both stay up here without getting in each other's way. Just don't get any funny ideas, okay?"
Joxer saluted. "Yes, ma'am," he said with mock seriousness.
Gabrielle smiled in return. "C'mon, let's get some sleep."
The light was extinguished. Each of them curled up on their respective sides of the bed, and both were almost instantly asleep.
End of Part Two
Continue to Part Three, the conclusion.