Looking Back

by Lori Bush (lwbush@gw.total-web.net)

Disclaimer: Joxer, Gabrielle and their respective families are the property of RenPics and Universal/USA Studios. This is a non-profit organization (me, not them).

Rating: PG

Violence: Child abuse; other beatings.

Sex: Discussed - off stage.

Archive: Any of the lists to which it is posted, and Raye, of course. *g*

This story is a wrap-around story, connected with the story "Innocence." It was inspired by the Mary Chapin-Carpenter song quoted here, and the way people responded to the original story and the idea of the two sidekicks as kids. And the fact that I love writing Lila, Jett and Jace... And recent discussion on the SUJE list about Jace and Jett particularly made me want to let this one out.

You can read this without having ever read "Innocence", although it is referred to within, but vaguely. If this strikes you as familiar, you've visited Janet-Elizabeth's "New Bard's Library" - I let her have this one a while ago, but it hasn't appeared anywhere else, as yet.

Un-beta'd. Goofies are all mine.

Only a Dream
By Mary-Chapin Carpenter

I can recall the sound of the wind
As it blew through the trees and the trees would bend
And I can recall the smell of the rain
On a hot summer night coming through the screen
I'd crawl in your bed when the lightning flashed
And I'd still be there when the storm had passed
Dead to the world till the morning cast
Its light all around your room

We lived on a street where the tall elm shade
Was as green as the grass and as cool as a blade
That you held in your teeth as we lay on our backs
Staring up at the blue, and the blue stared back
I used to believe we were just like those trees,
We'd grow just as tall and as proud as we pleased
With our feet on the ground and our arms in the breeze
Under a sheltering sky

Twirl me around and twirl me around
Let me grow dizzy and fall to the ground
And when I look up at you looking down
Say it was only a dream

A big truck was parked in the drive one day
They wrapped us in paper and moved us away
Your room was no longer next-door to mine
This kid sister thing was old by that time
But oh, how our dreams went bump in the night
And the voices downstairs getting into a fight
And the next day a silence you could cut with a knife
And feel like a blade at your throat

Twirl me around and twirl me around
Let me grow dizzy and fall to the ground
And when I look up at you looking down
Say it was only a dream

The day you left home you got an early start
I watched your car back out in the dark
I opened the door to your room down the hall
I turned on the light and all that I saw
Was a bed and a desk and a couple of tacks
No sign of someone who expects to be back
It must've been one hell of a suitcase you packed

Twirl me around and twirl me around
Let me grow dizzy and fall to the ground
And when I look up at you looking down
Say it was only a dream

The thunder rattled the looking glass on the wall. "Lila?" a quiet voice asked, fearfully. "Can I get in your bed with you?"

"Yeth," the six-year-old assured her older sister.

Gabrielle's voice became more confident as she slid beneath the sheet beside her sibling. "I just wanted to make sure you weren't too scared by the storm."

The smaller child hugged her beloved sister close. "Thith way, we'll bof be safe," she answered contentedly.

"Jett? Let me in! Jett!" The boy beat the door helplessly, praying for mercy from a brother who knew little. The storm was turning violent, the wind whipping his dark hair into his face as the rain mixed with his tears. "I don't wanna stay out here, Jett. You know how I feel about storms."

A wicked laugh came from the warmth and safety of the house. "Too bad, wimp! Mother and Dad are away, and I'm the oldest, so I say you can sleep in the barn tonight."

Lightning crackled across the Athenenian sky, followed almost instantly by the sound of thunder. Joxer screamed involuntarily, provoking another wicked laugh from the other side of the door. His triplet would have never let anyone else abuse him like this, but got great joy out of doing it himself. "C'mon, Jett. Please?" He knew begging rarely worked, but he had run out of options. Joxer was aware that at ten, he was far too old to be frightened by a storm, but some of his worst torture from both his brother and his father had occurred on such nights as this, so his fear was rooted in rationality. He associated such weather with abuse of both mental and physical nature. "Jett, don't make me stay in the barn." He slid helplessly down the door to a heap on the wet ground, his voice a whisper, "Alone."

A placid hand touched his shoulder. "You don't have to be alone, little brother." Although he'd asked Jace time and again not to call him that, since he was only 30 minutes older, Joxer still welcomed the voice of the middle triplet. "I'll stay in the barn with you. We'll leave Jett alone. It serves him right." And although Joxer knew this would not trouble his violent brother in the least, he still smiled. Grasping the outstretched hand, he allowed his gentle brother to pull him up and lead him into the bleak but dry barn, out of the storm.

The dark-haired child bounced in the side of her sister's bed. "Wake up, Gabrielle. Today's the day we get to go help Father at the market! If you don't get up, you won't get breakfast first, and I know how you feel about that."

The older girl moaned, and rolled away from the bouncing dynamo to the other side of the bed. She'd been going to market for the past two years with her father, but Lila had finally turned nine and been decreed old enough to join them, and today was to be her first trip. Gabrielle was sure she hadn't been so excited -- so childish -- about her first market trip. As her brain awoke, however, it inconveniently recalled spilling her morning milk down the front of her everyday dress, and having to wear her old dress, threadbare and outgrown, because she was so keyed up her first market day that she couldn't sit still at the table. The blonde girl ratcheted one eye open to stare down her giddy sibling. "Get off my covers, and maybe I can sit up and get out of bed." The child jumped up, and giggled. Her sister gave out her best evil glare.

"I'm gonna help Mother get breakfast ready. Hurry! We don't want to be late!" With that, the younger girl flounced out of the room.

Gabrielle sat up, pulling the ties from the ends of her braids and finger-combing her hair. As she moved to the mirror, already mechanically re-braiding her hair, she smiled. Maybe Perdicas would be at the market with his father today. She knew the young teenager barely knew she was alive, but she had a hopeless crush on him, and just knew that maybe someday he would notice her, as well. Humming tunelessly, she poured water from the pitcher into the bowl and began to wash her face. Peering out the window, she saw the cart, filled and waiting. Market days were great fun...

Joxer looked at the cart, piled full of the family's worldly goods. Father had declared that they would leave Athens. The family deity was Ares, so living in Athena's city was inappropriate. They were moving to Corinth. They boys had discussed it between themselves and decided that father had either won the deed to the new homestead in a gambling victory or simply killed the former owner and claimed it. Regardless of its origin, their new home was practically a castle, to hear their father tell it. The triplets would not longer sleep crushed together in one large bed, but would each have their own room. Joxer looked down at his changing body, and silently thanked whatever god had seen to that.

He was now the tallest of the three, and the most uncomfortable in their old bed, as a result. Adolescence had attacked each boy differently, but all at about the same time. Joxer had grown like the proverbial weed. Overnight, it seemed, his ankles and wrists stuck out of all his clothes. His shoes were too small. Everywhere he was elbows and awkward angles, trying to cope with his new center of gravity. He was grateful when his mother finally noticed and took him to the tailor for new clothing.

Jace's voice had begun to wander all over the scale, seeking a lower place to settle, but not having yet found it. His beautiful boyish soprano cracked and squealed painfully, and for the time being the brother who most loved singing had given it up entirely. He barely spoke these days due to the way his vanity suffered when his voice would break.

As for Jett, those outside the family would be hard pressed to see any change -- he was as nasty and vile as ever. But his family knew that he was suffering mood swings -- one moment manic glee, the next, it seemed, violent depression. The other two as well as most of the household servants simply tried to stay out his way, most of the time. It was better for their health. Father had taken Jett's favorite knife away after he had used it to remove a finger from a stable hand that had saddled his horse improperly. Not that Jett didn't have plenty of other knives. He also appeared to be the first of the three that would need to shave, and his face kept breaking out.

Right now, the boys followed the cart silently, each caught up in private thoughts. Joxer had his lute on his back, Jett was tossing an Oriental throwing star in the air and carefully catching it, and Jace was humming softly to himself. He stopped his tune and looked at his younger brother. "Hey, Jox," the middle boy said softly, "You scared?"

Joxer shook himself out of the internal conversation he was having. "Of what?" he countered, unconsciously matching the soft tone.

Jett fell back to join them, having stuffed his new toy in the pocket of his vest. "Moving to a new place, right?"

Jace nodded. The two older boys looked at the younger.

He shrugged. "I guess. I never knew anybody who moved because they wanted to before. People only leave when they're forced, usually. So that's kinda weird. There's some people I'm gonna miss." He smiled, thinking of Akhmar the meat man, stepping out of his shop and waving as the family trudged by on their way out of town. He and Joxer had been friends since the young boy first wandered two blocks down to the shop full of odd smells and sounds. "But the good part is that nobody knows us there, so we can start over, if we want to. As far as I know, Dad hasn't even killed anybody there yet."

"We don't know that for sure," Jett pointed out. "He does travel a lot." The other two nodded in agreement. "I'm looking forward to getting rid of the two of you and having my own room," the eldest snorted, shoving both his brothers affectionately. Joxer wondered if Jett in a room without any tempering influence could be a good thing, but wisely remained silent. "Whattabout you, Jace?" Both sets of dark eyes turned on the other brother.

He was thoughtful for a while. "I'm not sure how long I'm gonna stay here," he mused aloud. Joxer's eyebrows rose into his hairline. Jace noticed and smiled gently. "I'll never be what Dad wants, and we all know it." The middle boy's gentle artistic temperament had always rubbed the warlord the wrong way, and everyone knew it. Not that Joxer's awkwardness was any better. Only the eldest brother seemed to satisfy their father in any way, and only Jett had never been beaten. "It's just a matter of time before he lays down the law with me, telling me to shape up or he'll throw me out. I'd rather leave on my own first." The three fell into thoughtful silence after that statement, that lasted until they stopped to set up camp for the night.

Gabrielle had seen her sister sneaking glances her way throughout the morning's chores and breakfast, and she was sure she knew why. She was hardly surprised when, after the dishes were done, Lila grabbed her hand and dragged her to their secret place in the woods. As younger girls, they would lay for hours staring up at the trees, sharing their most cherished dreams here.

"Tell me about it," the younger sister demanded, pulling the elder down beside her on the soft ground.

Gabrielle scowled. "What's there to tell? I'm betrothed." She spit the words out like a bad piece of meat.

"To Perdicas," Lila sighed dreamily. "Your childhood crush. It's what you always wanted."

"Not always," the elder sister snarled. "And the key word there is 'want-ed. ' Past tense. Not 'want.' Not now." She had noticed that, ever since her trip to Corinth, all her old dreams had grown dull. She had seen the world, part of it anyway, and she wanted to see the rest. She read every scroll she could get her hands on, studied maps, and managed to finagle a way to see each and every traveling bard that came to town. Greece was bigger than just Poteidaia, and there was so much to learn out there.

Now she was betrothed. To Perdicas, the dull, homebody farm boy she had once thought herself in love with. She would end up married and endlessly pregnant, stuck in this colorless town forever. When her parents had told her last night, she had run off to this very place in the woods, where she knew they wouldn't find her. Dragging herself back to the house well after her usual bedtime, she had been aware of her mother's eyes peering through the window as she approached, but when she entered the door, prepared for the expected dressing-down, Hecuba was nowhere to be seen.

If things continued along this course, she would never travel, never write, never know what else there was to know. She steeled herself, pinning her startled sister with a determined gaze. "I have time before we're due to marry. I'll think of something."

Joxer stood in the empty bedroom, staring at the walls. Every sign of human occupation was gone, save the carefully made bed in one corner. He smiled in spite of himself. Even when leaving in anger, Jace left everything neat. He sensed his older brother's presence at his shoulder rather than heard him.

"So, the little fairy finally did it, huh?" The words were spoken without malice, but rather said with deep sadness. Joxer always knew Jett was closer to Jace than to him, and he, too, turned most frequently to the middle triplet. "I guess it was past time."

Joxer turned, wincing at the pain that reminded him of the incident that had precipitated Jace's departure. "He couldn't take the pressure off me anymore, so he left. He asked me to come with him, you know."

"I figured he would. Why didn't you go?"

"Mama," Joxer replied, the single word saying it all.

Jett nodded. Joxer had always been their mother's favorite, although Jace ran a pretty close second. He didn't care -- as the sole receiver of their father's positive attentions, he figured he didn't much need their mother's, and his brothers could have them. Besides, she was proud of her oldest. She was just closer to his brothers. His father's less than positive attentions, however, were evenly split between the other two boys.

Jace had been in his bad graces ever since the incident in town with the traveling bard. Apparently confused about his sexual identity, the middle triplet had gone to the young man whose songs of romance and adventure had captured his imagination to seek counsel. What else he had received was never discussed, but Father had dragged his son half-conscious back to the house late that night, and the bard was not expected to live, at first. He did survive, but was never seen again in Corinth.

Jace had pulled even further into himself after that, his music his only joy. Joxer would play his lyre, and Jace would sing for hours on end while their father was away on a campaign. Whenever he was home, however, they hid their music, since it seemed to irritate the already volatile man even more. Last night, though, the warlord had returned early from a campaign. Jett was off on one of his mysterious jobs, or would have warned his brothers of their father's approach. As it was, the big man burst into the sitting room, finding his two youngest sons entertaining their mother with lyre and voice. His anger exploded.

"What have I told you about that pansy music?" he screamed at the room's occupants. He glared at his wife. "You're trying to make girlies out of these two, aren't you, woman?" Joxer had rarely seen his father yell directly at his mother, although lately things had been tense between the two.

The youngest boy was unaware his father's attentions had shifted until he was lifted by the front of his shirt. Although lean, Joxer was tall and reasonably strong, yet his father, several inches taller, lifted him effortlessly. "You want to be a stupid queer like your brother, boy? You need to be toughened up?" As if he were tossing a feather, the big man threw his teenaged son against the wall. Joxer's head spun, but he remained conscious as he slid to the floor. In fact, it was at least the fourth kick in the ribs before he finally passed out.

He looked sadly at his eldest brother, standing beside him in the deathly quiet bedroom. "She'd have never made it if we both left. He's starting to turn against her, now, too." Jett had seen his mother's red-rimmed eyes, and knew the truth to his brother's statement. He knew Joxer would leave, too, as soon as he thought he could. He just couldn't go now.

Joxer wondered silently at his love/hate relationship with his remaining brother. How could two boys look so much alike, and be so different? He knew that Jett had already begun killing for hire, and that his father was proud of his eldest son's abilities in his chosen profession. The younger boy couldn't complain, since he was spared most of his brother's ire now that there was a creative outlet for his tendencies.

Joxer had received all the same warrior training that both his brothers had, but had no innate skill. Still, he supposed he would become a warrior someday. He could trade on his father's reputation for while, at least until his ineptitude was eventually discovered. He knew his father hated him for his lack of abilities. Both he and Jace had been enormous disappointments.

His thought turning to Jace, he felt the familiar confusion. How could his brother ever even wonder if he liked girls or boys? Perhaps he had never known what it was to be with a girl. It was the one thing Joxer felt comfortable with -- he knew about girls. At least, Kalynda...

He didn't love her, and she didn't love him. That was fine. Actually, she was in love with Jett, and had come to him to talk about it, hoping his brother would be able to offer her insight into the darkness that suffused Jett's soul. She was older than they were, and had a reputation, with a capital "R". She knew that was Jett's main interest in her. Since she was used to being used, it didn't bother her, at first. But the day he left and she cried, she knew she was in too deep. The next day, the young woman sought Joxer out.

She was almost speechless when she saw him. The same mahogany hair and obsidian eyes, the same lanky yet powerful frame, but such a soft aura, as compared to Jett's razor sharp veneer. Perhaps she had seen him before, and never realized he wasn't her lover. Jett had never acknowledged her in public, so that would have been no clue.

They talked for hours, that first day. They talked almost daily after that. Not only about Jett, into whom Joxer could offer little insight that gave her any real hope, but about everything. Joxer liked to talk, and loved having someone around who enjoyed listening to him. Kalynda was an extremely intelligent girl, and knew just which questions to ask to set off a lively discussion. She was unused to spending time with a man who valued her company out of bed, and so found herself drawn to him in a strange way. They became the closest of friends.

When she offered to teach him about girls, it had begun innocently enough. She told him about things like why girls liked flowers, and how to ask one to dinner, and why they cried when they were happy, which made little sense to him. Finally, she offered to teach him what a girl liked in bed. He had been hesitant, but she convinced him it was knowledge he would find useful, so he gave in. He had been awkward and scared, but she had been gentle and patient, and soon he felt confident that there were now two things in life he did well. Playing the lyre, and this. Now if he just had the courage to talk to a girl and get to know her. That had to come from inside of him, and it couldn't really be taught. Kalynda was different. He didn't love her...

Later that day, Joxer and Jett went to the agora, Joxer's tunic covering his bruises and Jett showing the caring and concerned side that only his brothers knew. As they walked by, Kalynda wondered at the pair. Only she knew that she was now in love with both of them. No one else ever need be aware of that fact.

Gabrielle stood at the door, replaying her last conversation with her sister. She would be a warrior someday. Xena would teach her how. She had to get away -- she was suffocating here. Gathering her bag of meager belongings to her chest, she pushed her way out, into the unknown. She never looked back.

Joxer looked down happily at the armor he had fashioned for himself. He would make his father proud. He would be a warrior. He had thought of merely sneaking off in the night, as Jace had done, but he was glad he had told his father. His hand lovingly caressed the scabbard at his side -- the only piece of genuine warrior equipment on his body. His father had given it to him after Jett had waved it off -- an assassin didn't need flashy scabbards, but rather concealed knives and weapons of stealth. Had he not announced his leaving, he would never have received this.

His mother had cried, but he saw the relief in her eyes. His father rarely beat him anymore, but he was getting nowhere fast at home. She too knew it was time for her baby to leave. Her baby -- he thought again of Jace calling him "little brother." He wondered if the rumors he had heard were true. Father had forbidden them to so much as mention his name in public.

Only Jett remained at home, but he came and went like a shadow, sometimes gone for weeks at a time. He wondered idly what his parents would do, rattling around in this big old place together. Actually, it would just be his mother for a while -- his father had just been jailed in Marimas for some fancy operation he had thought impenetrable, but at which he had been caught. He was relieved -- mother was really safer with him gone.

He squared his shoulders and set out to find his place in the world. He never looked back.