"Hercules," one said, smiling in recognition, "thereís a rumor going around tható"
"I know," the son of Zeus said, smiling. "You know, you really ought to be more careful what you listen to."
"Shall we announce you?" the other guard said, a young and eager man.
"No, no, thatís okay. I just wanted to tell you guys I was sorry."
The guards glanced at each other. "Sorry? For what?"
"For this," the big man said as he reached out quickly and smashed their helmeted heads together. Both guards let out a groan as the collapsed atop one another on the ground. "I really am sorry," Hercules said as he opened the gate and shut it behind him quietly, bending one of the bars around the gate and the frame so that no one would be able to follow him soon. "I just need this to be a surprise," he murmured as he took off into the palace grounds.
The gardens were still empty this early, and Hercules used them as both cover to avoid being seen and as a very convenient way to get close to the palace. I suppose I ought to tell Iphicles that his security needs a little brushing up, Hercules considered as he vaulted over the edge of the high shrubs nearest the castle and ran the dozen yards to the kitchen entrance. It was open, as he thought it would be, and the smell of baking bread and pastries reached him. The heat was a bit much, but fortunately the rest of the kitchen staff felt the same way; they had adjourned to a small room off the side of the large kitchen, presumably to escape the swelter, but also likely because it was still early and their break would go unnoticed by anyone higher up on the palace staff. Hercules dashed quickly along the back wall and moved through the kitchen to the dim hallway beyond. It was deserted, and he paused in an alcove to get his bearings.
After he figured where the guest wings would be, he moved off in that direction, treading quietly but still quickly. He moved up the staircase two or three steps at a time, pausing before each landing to check for guards; but as he progressed deeper into the castle, he realized it was less likely he would encounter any, especially so early. After several minutes, he had reached the guest wing, a long row of large apartments and rooms that either gave a splendid view of the elaborately decorated courtyard, or a splendid view of the finest sections of Corinth. Where would he house Xena? Hercules wondered as he padded silently into the hallway.
He stopped at each doorway, listening, but most of the rooms were silent. Most likely still sleeping, he thought, when suddenly down the hallway there was a creak of a door opening. Hercules flattened himself against the door he stood in front of, hoping that whoever was getting an early start on the day wouldnít notice him.
Light from a candle flickered along the hallway; it was light enough to see by outside, but the hallway had no windows, and only a single oil lamp halfway down its length. Hercules risked a glance down the hall and saw a woman in a long blue robe, her light hair pulled back. It might have been years since heíd seen her, but he still recognized her; Gabrielle, he thought as he watched her move to another door and rap gently on it. "Xena," she said, softly, but loud enough for the son of Zeus to hear. "Itís me. Are you awake?"
There was a muffled response, and Hercules heard another door creak open. He glanced again to mark its position and took a deep breath as he heard it close. He moved from the shadow of the doorway and started walking along the hallway, slowly and silently.
His heart began to pound in his chest, and suddenly his hands and throat were dry. Whatís this? he asked himself, as if his body would respond. Whatís going on here?
He came to the door and raised his hand; to his surprise it trembled as it hung above the door. Thereís still time to leave, a small part of him said. No one knows you are here. The guards will say it was you, but there will be no proof. You can just leave, now, and never be...
He stilled the voice by knocking on the door, twice, gently.
Gabrielleís voice asked, "Who is it?"
Hercules took a deep breath, but said nothing. He could hear a murmured conversation between the two women, and feet shuffling toward the door. Gabrielle opened the door a crack, and her green eyes widened in surprise.
"Hercules!" she gasped.
"Can I come in?" he whispered.
Gabrielle nodded mutely and opened the door, letting him in.
He moved past her and turned to thank her when he saw Xena, sitting on the edge of her bed, looking up at him with a slight smile on her faceó that same smile she had worn so often in his presence.
"I knew you would come," she said quietly, and the son of Zeus found that he had no words, no gestures, not even the ability to move.
Gabrielle murmured, "Iíll be in my room if you need me, Xena," and slipped out the door.
The warrior princess stood, her blue eyes gazing at the demigod. "The others may have doubted your heart, but I never did," Xena said.
Hercules felt a heat come over his face, and he looked down at the floor, still unable to speak. Why did I stay away so long? What purpose did that serve? Why did I...
Xena moved to him and ran a hand down his face, cupping his chin and lifting his head so that their eyes met. "You have no words for a bride to be?" she whispered as one corner of her mouth tilted upwards.
"I..." he began, but the words escaped him as he gazed at her, seeing not the middle aged woman with crowís feet around her eyes and a touch of grey in her hair, but rather the powerful warrior that had wrestled him to the ground and planted kiss upon kiss on him so many years ago. He saw the sunlight streaming through her dark mane as she combed it out, and he could almost taste her lips as he gazed down at them.
"Iím sorry," he managed at last. "I shouldnít have come."
Xena only smiled at him. "You canít deny your heart forever, Hercules. Havenít you done so long enough already?"
He closed his eyes rather than continue to gaze at her, rather than let the memories wash over him in a flood he couldnít control. "But I came for the wrong reasons... these others, your friends... they came for you." At length he opened his eyes and stared down at her. "I only came for me, to see you again." He brushed some hair from her face. "One last time."
Xena slid a hand up his chest. "You donít have to return to your farm," she said to him. "There are people here who love you, Hercules. Stay with your friends. We have all missed you."
He shook his head. "I canít. I... not after this. I just..." he sighed, and his eyes met hers again. "Not without you," he whispered at last, and Xena closed her eyes and looked away.
She shook her head. "All those years, and you never said anything?"
"I couldnít," he said. She looked back up at him. "You... you were on a journey. You had to take care of your selfó you own needs." He ran a hand down her cheek. "It wouldnít have been fair to for me to get in the way of that."
Xenaís voice was a whisper. "All you had to do was ask. All you had to say to me was ĎWhenever youíre finished...í"
He slid his long fingers to her lips. "Donít," he said. "Itís bad enough that door is closed. Donít tell me it stood open all those years waiting for me to enter." He shut his eyes, inhaling as he felt the tears slide down his cheeks.
Xena pulled her to him, kissing him, her lips parting his, her hands sliding up behind his head and stroking his neck, his shoulders, running through his hair; his strong arms wrapped around her, pulling her lean body to him, and for a moment, his entire world dropped away. He felt only the pulse of her heart and the fire that coursed through his veins, felt only her hands run down his back, and reveled in the sheer joy that it was to hold this woman again, to touch her lips with his and feel the strength and love that she evoked in him.
They parted, faces close, and Xena brushed aside a tear. "Youíd better leave," she said, her voice breaking.
"I know," he said, his own voice hoarse and rough, tears rolling down his face as well. But he couldnít bring himself to let her go, to allow her to stand away from him, to be separated from her for even a second.
She placed her hands on his chest. "Stay for the wedding?" she asked, her eyes full of tears, knowing what he would say.
He kissed her again, gently, on the lips, and let her go, stepping back. "I canít," he said, brushing aside a tear. "I..." He sighed. "I wish I could, Xena But I canít."
"I know," she smiled sadly. "It was selfish of me to ask."
He nodded and turned to leave.
"Hercules," she murmured as he walked toward the door, and he stopped and turned, his eyes still wet with tears.
"Years ago you taught me how to love again. You gave me my life back." She took a step toward him. "You made all of this possible for me."
She closed the distance between them. "Listen to your own lessons," she whispered. "Donít chain your heart up for me. Love another as I have learned to." She grabbed his hand. "Donít deny the world your heart. That would be too great a loss." She raised his hands to her lips and kissed it. "And we have all lived long enough without you."
He gathered her to him for one last embrace, crushing her body against his, and then he was gone. Xena sat on her bed with her eyes closed for some time, thinking of the man who had believed in her when no one else would, and how that belief had changed her life. "Please let him hear my words," she whispered, and then she looked up as Gabrielle entered the room.
Long strides carried him across the field, cutting sharply across the green grass as he headed for the gate. Once again the field parted in his wake, but this time the sun also played across his frame, lighting him with its warmth in the early morning. He ran because to walk would take too long; he ran for the sheer joy of the feeling of the wind against his face; but most of all he ran because he wanted to be someplace else, the first time in years he had ever really wanted to be anywhere at all. So he continued to run, a smile breaking out on his face as he climbed the hill that led to his destination.
He slowed to a stop, catching his breath, and saluted the guard in the crimson cape.
"Hercules!" the guard saluted him back.
"I know I donít have my invitation," the son of Zeus said, a smile still on his face, "but I was hoping you could make an exception..."
"Follow me, please," the young guard said. "There are some people expecting you."
Yes, Iíll bet there are, he thought as his smile widened. Hercules gestured toward the heart of the city. "By all means," he said, and the guard led him toward the palace, where the wedding was to take place.
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