"A Childhood Solstice"
Standard disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, etc... are owned by MCA/Universal. All I'm doing is boring them for a little while for a short story. I ain't making any money off of this so please don't sue me. This story was originally posted on Del's Solstice Contest Site. If you already read it, sorry, I made some minor changes but that's it. Violence? Sex? Language? Geez, it's a Solstice Story for goodness sake! Enjoy and please write if you have any comments or questions.
The warrior let out a sigh, "I told you before, you don't have to give me anything. Just being with you is enough."
"That's a lovely sentiment, but I want to give you something real. Last year you gave me that sheep from Senticles and I didn't get you anything." Gabrielle thought back to the previous Solstice and how they had helped the orphanage and reunited the King and Queen. She had already picked out a small gift, but wanted something big to give her best friend. 'I'm going to find out what she really wants and get it for her if it kills me.'
Xena nudged Gabrielle. "I don't like that look on your face. You're up to something, I know it."
The bard pointed to herself. "Who? Me?"
Xena lowered her head slightly and stared at her friend. Gabrielle quickly started whistling a Solstice Carol and took off along the trail. Xena shook her head and followed. If they hurried they would be at the Amazons Nation by tomorrow. It had been a difficult choice for Gabrielle this year on where to spend Solstice. For once, they were close enough to go either to Poteidaia or Amphipolis. Gabrielle had argued for Amphipolis, while Xena had pushed for the bard to spend time with her family in Poteidaia. The young woman quietly, but forcefully eliminated Poteidaia since her family didn't like Xena and she wanted to spend Solstice with her. Xena promptly took Amphipolis out of the running citing her mother would be too busy with running the inn to have any spare time. Gabrielle suspected her friend didn't want to risk making a scene after missing so many Solstices while she was a warlord, but accepted the excuse. A compromise was reached, the Amazons. The Amazon Nation had become a second home to both Xena and Gabrielle in their travels, a sort of haven to take a break from the dangers on the road.
The two heroines continued their journey until dusk before setting up camp a short distance from the road. After nearly three years of traveling together the two friends had formed a normal routine. Xena unpacked and took care of Argo and then went to hut for dinner while Gabrielle setup the campsite, filled the waterskins and laid out the bedrolls. There wasn't any need for talking and tonight Xena was grateful since she knew what the topic of conversation would be. She caught Gabrielle's eye before heading out to hunt. Gabrielle nodded and started talking to herself.
"A new dagger? No, she likes to pick out her own weapons. A new set of leathers? No, she needs them, but I wouldn't know where to find them. I could always get her a nice dress." Gabrielle laughed as she imagined Xena's response to receiving a dress. "Okay, so clothes are out as well. We've been together for over two years and I still don't know what her favorite things are, except for the little dumplings with red stuff and I'm not about to try to make those again."
Gabrielle setup camp and had the waterskins refilled and a fire started by the time Xena returned. The rabbit was quickly cut up and a stew started. Gabrielle decided she needed to be a bit more tactful in getting information out of her stoic companion.
'Oh boy, here we go again,' thought Xena. Out loud she said, "Yes?"
"What was Solstice like when you were growing up? I mean, every village has different customs, what were some of the things you did in Amphipolis?"
Xena was taken aback. She had expected a more direct line of questioning about what she wanted, not Solstice in general. "Well...there was a big Solstice Eve feast, the presents the next morning and a day of doing nothing."
Gabrielle gave her friend an exasperated look. "I meant as a child. You must have done something special other than eat, open presents and be lazy for a whole day."
"Oh. Let's see...I usually helped my mother prepare the food for the feast..."
"You cooked?!?" interrupted Gabrielle.
Xena smirked, but continued. "Even I can boil water...well on a good day. Mother usually shooed me out of the kitchen before I could do too much damage to play with the other kids." Xena's voice dropped to a whisper, "Don't tell her, but I did it on purpose to go out to play."
The warrior paused to let her friend get all the giggles out of her system.
"What kind of games would you play?"
"The usual kids' games; hide and seek, skipping rope, foot races, all though I had trouble running wearing a long dress."
"You wore a dress?" interrupted Gabrielle, again.
Xena looked at Gabrielle strangely. "What did you expected? That my mother dressed me in leather and armor since I was little?"
"Sorry, I just can't picture you wearing a dress, that's all."
"You want me to continue?"
Gabrielle nodded emphatically.
"Okay, where was I? Oh yeah, the kids would all play games while our mothers cooked and fathers made preparations for the town festival. Later that night the village would gather in the center of town and have a big party and enjoy each other's company. Adults would talk about things other than work and business while the kids would be forced to wear nice, uncomfortable clothes and behave themselves. There would be singing and dancing all night, and of course the food that all the families would bring and pile up on a big table for everybody to enjoy."
Gabrielle's brow furrowed. "You mean you didn't have Solstice dinner at home with your family?"
"No, in Amphipolis it was traditional to have everybody bring something and share it. That way no matter how poor, nobody went home hungry that night."
Xena went on late into the evening, long after dinner reminiscing about past Solstices in Amphipolis. Gabrielle noted the dreamy expression that invaded the warrior's face as she talked about playing with other kids and singing Solstice Carols around the town Solstice tree. It wasn't often that the bard saw this side of her friend. Slowly a plan formed in her head. It wouldn't be easy and would require asking for some high powered help, but it would be worth it to have Xena enjoy Solstice.
Xena stopped talking when she noticed Gabrielle getting up and heading for the river. "Am I boring you?"
"No...no, I was just going to refill the waterskin. It's not often you talk this much in one sitting and I didn't want you to lose your voice," joked Gabrielle.
"Real cute, bard. Be careful, I don't think there is anything out here to worry about, but..."
"I know, take my staff anyway."
Gabrielle took her staff and picked up the waterskin and headed down to the river. She quickly filled the waterskin and placed on the ground next to her staff. The young Amazon Queen got down on one knee and looked up at the moon.
"Artemis, patron Goddess of the Amazons, I humbly request an audience with you."
Gabrielle waited for what seemed an eternity. She was about to give up when she felt a presence behind her. The bard grabbed her staff and rolled away from the unknown stranger and brought her staff up into a defensive stance.
"Is that how you greet all the gods?" asked Artemis jokingly. The Goddess stood in a fawn colored tunic and skirt and was leaning on her bow. There was a faint aura surrounding her that caused her to glow like the moon. Gabrielle quickly put down her staff.
"Sorry. I guess sometimes my reflexes just take over and..."
"Don't apologize, Gabrielle. It's good to know you can defend yourself. Xena has taught you well."
"Funny you should bring her up, that's why I wanted to talk to you."
"Oh?" Artemis's eyebrows went up. "She isn't in any trouble is she? You know how she is about the Gods interfering."
Gabrielle waved her hands. "No, she isn't in any trouble." She paused as she tried to figure out what to say. "It's Solstice."
Artemis smiled. "And you want some help figuring out what to get her?"
Gabrielle's eyes went wide. The Goddess couldn't help, but let out a small laugh. "You really should think of something on your own though."
"I have, but I need your help to pull it off."
"You want a favor?" asked Artemis, surprised that her normally self-reliant Queen would turn to her for assistance.
"Not for me, but for Xena." Gabrielle paused again, then pushed on. "I figure between being my champion, and saving Ephiny and Xenan, and Velaska well...you might owe her a favor or two." Gabrielle cringed slightly as she said the last words.
Artemis seemed amused. "I guess you are right about that. Despite that fact that you seem to find trouble all the time," Gabrielle winced, "Xena has managed to bail you out. And you are right about Velaska. I think I would agree that The Warrior Princess has earned a few favors."
Gabrielle let out a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding causing Artemis to laugh again. The Goddess became serious. "Does Xena know you are talking to me?"
"I thought not. What is the request?"
Gabrielle went into bard mode as she told Artemis about Xena's childhood Solstices and the look on her face when she spoke about them. Artemis began to understand, but quickly got confused again.
"So what exactly do you want from me, Gabrielle?"
It was Gabrielle's turn to look confused. "I don't exactly know. I want to give her the kind of Solstice that she remembers, but I think that now that she is grown up she won't enjoy them like that anymore and THAT is what I want to give her."
"You want her to enjoy Solstice the way she did as a child?" Artemis asked to make sure she had heard the bard correctly.
"Exactly!" Gabrielle shouted. She covered her mouth and looked up at the campsite to see if she had been heard.
Artemis shook her head. "Relax, as soon as you told me Xena didn't know you were talking to me I made sure she wouldn't hear us."
"Good, so any ideas on how to do that?"
"Well, there are a couple of choices. First, I send you both back in time to when she was a child. Xena would be able to watch herself enjoy Solstice and even participate as long as she kept her identity a secret."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I really wanted to let her enjoy Solstice now, not relive the past."
"All right, second choice is to turn her into a child in the present and you could have the Amazons throw her a traditional Solstice party."
Gabrielle grimaced. "I don't think she would appreciate being turned into a child, even for a little while. Besides, we might run into trouble and an eight year old wouldn't be much help."
"Good point, about her being mad, that is. Do you have any ideas?"
The bard bit her bottom lip and closed her eyes in concentration. She opened them again and addressed Artemis. "How about let her THINK she was a child again, or at least make her believe that it's perfectly natural to behave like one. That way she can enjoy Solstice and I don't think she would be too mad. Can you do that?"
The Goddesss face lit up. "That's a wonderful idea! She would be herself, but enjoy Solstice with a child's innocence again. Once Solstice is over I can make her see things from an adult's point of view again, and still feel and remember everything."
"Great! Now all I have to do is figure out how to get the Amazons to go along with this. Not too mention the fact that Solstice Eve is the day after tomorrow which doesn't leave very much time to prepare."
Artemis smiled. "I'll take care of the of the preparations and inform Ephiny of what is going on. Just get Xena to the Amazons on the morning of Solstice Eve so you two can help with the final preparations. Consider it my Solstice present to you."
Gabrielle gave Artemis a big hug. "Thank you."
"My pleasure, it isn't often you see somebody willing to go to such lengths for a friend. I'm more than happy to help out. Wait until you are just about to enter Amazon territory, then say the following to Xena, 'I-hope-you-have-a-happy-Solstice' and then stand back and watch the magic work."
"I better get back to Xena, thanks again Artemis."
The Goddess gave Gabrielle a smile and vanished in a bright light. Gabrielle gathered her staff and the waterskin and headed back to camp.
"You took long enough. Did you wait for the water to jump up into the waterskin?" asked Xena sarcastically.
Gabrielle stuck out her tongue and crawled into her bedroll. She still had to figure out how to stall Xena for an entire day since their original schedule had them reaching Amazon territory by noon tomorrow. The bard smiled in her sleep as she dreamed of her Solstice present for her best friend.
As usual Xena was up before the sun and had the camp packed up before Gabrielle woke up.
"Wake up, Gabrielle. If we want to make it to the Amazons today we need to get going."
Gabrielle rolled out of her bedroll and hesitated until she recalled her plan.
"Xena? Did you get a Solstice present for Xenan?"
Xena glared at her. "You said you got him a toy."
"Yeah, that's what I got him. What did you get him?" asked Gabrielle knowing full well that the toy centaur was supposed to be from both of them.
"That's supposed to be from both of us," exclaimed Xena as she marched towards the bard.
"Uh uh, I distinctly remember deciding that since this was the first Solstice we would be spending with him we should both get him something."
"We never talked about that!" argued Xena.
"Sure we did, back at the market place in the town we went through two days ago."
The warrior thought back to the events surrounding the time shopping. She didn't remember talking about separate gifts, but she admitted to herself that she tuned out most of what Gabrielle had said while shopping. Gabrielle watched Xena deep in thought. She knew that her friend always ignored her while shopping. For reasons the young woman failed to understand her friend didn't enjoy the bargaining and haggling while shopping, something Gabrielle loved to do. She also knew her friends wasn't about to admit she hadn't paid attention, despite the fact that Gabrielle had made the whole story up.
Xena came to a decision. "I guess we have time to swing by a village and pick something up. We might be late, though since the nearest village is a days journey in the wrong direction."
Gabrielle smiled to herself. 'Perfect! That takes care of getting there too early.' She turned to Xena. "That's okay, I told Ephiny we might not get there till Solstice Eve if we ran into trouble. We don't have to tell her you forgot your adopted nephew's present."
"I still don't think you mentioned anything about separate presents, but let's get going anyway." They packed up their gear and headed towards the village. They got to the village market place right as many vendors were preparing to go home. Xena scanned the area and hastily walked to a vendor and examined his wares. She didn't even look at the vendor until he shouted.
"XENA! What a nice surprise!"
"Salmoneus," groaned Xena, "what are you doing here? I thought you were in Northern Thrace trying to sell left-handed spoons."
The slightly overweight and balding man smiled. "I decided it was time to return to my roots and..."
"...And they ran you out of town," finished Gabrielle who had finally caught up to her long legged companion.
"Please! The locals merely suggested I leave with undo haste," replied Salmoneus trying to act noble.
"Right," drawled Xena, "and THEN they ran you out of town."
Salmoneus nodded, but kept the smile on his face. There was no use trying to lie to these two.
Xena picked up an intricately decorated knife and examined it. Gabrielle looked horrified.
"You aren't going to give him a weapon, are you?"
"Relax, Gabrielle. This kind of knife is used for carving wood, not people. I thought I would teach how to carve so he can make his own toys."
"You have a good eye, Xena," interjected Salmoneus. "That knife is all the way from Carthage. I can let you have it for...30 dinars."
"You expect me to believe this came from Carthage? Give me a break, 10 dinars," responded Xena.
"Honest, it's from Carthage and as you well know Carthaginian blades are the strongest in the world. How about 18 dinars?"
Xena stared at him. "15 dinars and the leather sheath."
"Deal!" exclaimed the merchant as he pocketed the dinars and handed the blade over to Xena. The three exchanged goodbyes and Xena and Gabrielle returned to heading towards the Amazons.
Gabrielle kept walking as she faced Xena. "I never realized you could bargain like that. You managed to get Salmoneus to drop his price in half, and on a Carthaginian blade too boot."
Xena had a funny look on her face. "It's not from Carthage."
"You mean he cheated you?" Gabrielle was astonished that Salmoneus would dare to try to pull a fast one on Xena.
"No, I cheated him."
"I don't understand."
The warrior let out a wicked grin. "This knife was made in Damascus, not Carthage. Damascus makes the best weapons and blades in the known world. This knife is worth ten times what I paid for it."
Gabrielle burst out laughing, Xena joined in as they made their way down the road. Camp was setup with usual efficiency and Xena failed to notice that her friend hadn't bothered her about a Solstice gift all day. The next morning they went about their normal routine and headed towards Amazon territory.
"Xena? Do you mind if I ride with you this morning?"
The tall warrior turned toward her companion with a quizzical expression, "You WANT to ride?"
"I know, I know I just want to get there so we can help with the preparations," responded Gabrielle. She was looking forward to watching Xena enjoy Solstice and didn't want to wait.
"What preparations? I thought you said all we had to do was show up and that the Amazons liked to keep Solstice simple."
Gabrielle's mind starting working overtime to come up with an excuse. "Um...I guess I forgot to tell you that this year they wanted to do something different."
"Yes, look I'll explain everything later. Are you going to give me a lift or not?"
Xena reached down and pulled her friend up onto Argo. They made good time and arrived at the border shortly after noon. Gabrielle spotted the Amazon sentries hiding in the trees and quickly motioned them to wait before coming out. If she had spotted them, certainly Xena had, but she wanted to make sure things went right from the beginning.
"Let's dismount for a minute, Xena."
"I thought you were in a hurry." Xena shrugged and helped her friend off before jumping off Argo. "Okay, now what?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath and looked into Xena's eyes. "I hope you have a happy Solstice."
Xena looked at the bard like she was nuts. "Of course I..." Xena blinked a couple of times and shook her head. She finally focused on Gabrielle and threw her arms around the bard. "Gee thanks Gabby. I hope you have a happy Solstice too."
Gabrielle returned the embrace and examined Xena. Xena's normally ice blue eyes were wide and she had a look of excitement that Gabrielle had never seen before on her normally stoic friend. Xena face was all lit up as she took in her surroundings.
"C'mon, Gabby! The Amazons are waiting." Xena grabbed Gabrielle's hand and started to drag her down the road. Gabrielle shook her head in amazement and signaled for the sentries to go ahead and drop in. Eponin jumped out a nearby tree while the others remained in the trees to continue their watch.
"Gabrielle, Xena it's good to..." was all Eponin got out before nearly being bowled over by Xena rushing to hug her.
"Eponin!" shouted Xena as she gave the Amazon a bear hug. Poor Eponin's eyes pleaded to Gabrielle to save her from her attacker. Gabrielle covered her mouth to hide a grin that was quickly forming. Xena released Eponin, much to the Amazon's relief, and grabbed Gabrielle with one hand and Eponin with the other and started skipping down the road. Argo gave a snort and followed after.
"Hey! You wanna play hide-and-seek later?" asked Xena as they reached the main village.
"Uh...sure, we can do that," replied a still reeling Eponin. 'Ephiny told us to expect Xena to act a little strange for a while and to humor her, but this is getting ridiculous.'
Gabrielle decided it was time to save Eponin and pulled Xena towards the hut they always shared when visiting the Amazons. "We'll see you later, Eponin."
"Yeah, see you later Ep," echoed Xena as she waved good-bye to the Amazon.
Eponin nodded her head and headed toward Ephiny's hut to tell her what to expect. Xena and Gabrielle started to unpack their gear when Gabrielle notice a small package on her pallet with a note. Gabrielle picked the note, written on gold parchment with silver ink, it could only be from Artemis. In the note were a series of instructions and suggestions relating to Xena, including the location of several other packages. Gabrielle folded the note and hid it under her pillow. She picked up the package on her pallet and peeked inside.
"Xena, could you come here for a minute?"
The Warrior Princess bounced into the room twirling her chakram in one hand and balancing the tip of her sword on her finger on the other. "Watcha need, Gabrielle?"
"First, why don't we leave the sword and chakram here. I don't think you'll need them for a while."
'Okey dokey?" thought Gabrielle. She handed the package to Xena. "This is an early Solstice present so you won't have to wear your armor."
"Really? For me? Oh boy, oh boy!" shouted Xena as she ripped open the package. Xena pulled out the contents to reveal a light yellow dress very similar to the style worn in Amphipolis. "Oooo this is pretty! Can I put it on now?"
Gabrielle couldn't help but smile at her friend who was holding the dress up in front of a mirror. "Sure, go change and then we can go see if we can help out with the preparations."
As Xena headed back to her room to change Gabrielle heard a knock at the door. "Go ahead and change, I'll get the door."
Ephiny poked her head in as Xena closed the door to her room. Gabrielle waved her inside.
"So, how are things going so far? Eponin wouldn't say much, except to say that Xena was quote 'enthusiastic' end quote. What does that mean?"
"You'll see," was Gabrielle's cryptic response. "Is everything else in place?"
"Just about. The tree still needs to be decorated and the cooks are still working on the food. Artemis gave the cooks some special instructions, but they wouldn't let me in on the secret. They only laughed amongst themselves."
"Perfect. I wanted to thank you for helping to set this up."
Ephiny put an arm around Gabrielle. "Anything for you two. I must admit, I was a little surprised when Artemis arrived and told us your plan. She supplied most of the material and food. It threw everybody into confusion, but once they were told who this was for everybody rushed to pitch in. Xena has done a lot for the Amazons, I think we can manage to give her a Solstice she'll never forget."
"Great, now all I have to..."
"Ephiny!" Xena came bouncing out of her room and embraced her friend. Eponin had at least told Ephiny to expect that so she returned the hug without missing a beat. She decided to take it a step further and see just how different Xena was behaving.
"That's a nice dress you have on."
"Thank you," replied Xena as she spun around to show it off. "Gabrielle gave it to me as an early Solstice gift so I wouldn't have to wear my armor."
"Well she made a good choice, it's a pretty dress for a pretty lady."
Xena blushed which almost made Ephiny laugh. "Where's Xenan? Isn't he going to spend Solstice with us?"
Ephiny held the door open as Xena and Gabrielle exited, before answering. "He is spending Solstice Eve with his grandparents in the Centaur village. Xenan will join us tomorrow for Solstice itself."
"Gee, I was hoping we could play before the feast tonight." Xena hung her head and pouted which almost caused Ephiny to laugh again. Gabrielle stepped in.
"We'll all see him tomorrow, Xena. We don't have time to play anyway, we need to help cook for the feast."
"Awwww, C'mon Gabrielle," started Xena.
"You and Xena are our guests..." began Ephiny.
"That's no excuse, come on Xena," interrupted the bard as she gave Xena a gentle shove into the main kitchen for the village. "We can play after the cooks say we have helped enough. You go ahead and get started, I need to talk to Ephiny for a few minutes."
Gabrielle grabbed Ephiny's arm to keep her from following Xena inside. Ephiny took the hint and waited until Xena was asking the cooks how she could help before speaking.
"What is going on? I thought you wanted Xena to enjoy Solstice."
Gabrielle's eyes twinkled with amusement. She was guessing at the instructions that Artemis had left for the cooks, but it seemed to fit into the plan perfectly and was too good of an opportunity to pass up. "Just wait a few minutes, Ephiny."
Ephiny leaned against the building and waited. Suddenly they heard pots dropping and what sounded like a small explosion. A few moments later Xena exited, biting her lower lip and with an unreadable expression on her face.
"Um...the cooks said they don't need any more help."
Ephiny peeked into the kitchen and saw a huge mess, but instead of being furious, the cooks looked like they were trying to keep from laughing. One of them winked at Ephiny who shook her head and closed the door.
"I guess that means we have some free time," said Gabrielle as the threesome headed toward the center of the village.
"Great! We can...Eponin!" Xena waved the reluctant Amazon over. Eponin joined the group. "Let's jump rope!"
"Uh...I'd love to Xena, but..." Eponin stopped when she saw the most pathetic puppy dog look on Xena's face she had ever seen.
"Pleeeeaaasseee," whined Xena. Behind her, both Gabrielle and Ephiny were trying to hide their amusement.
"Sure, why not?" said Eponin, trying to sound up beat about the prospect of having the entire village watch her jumping rope with The Warrior Princess. A few minutes later Eponin and Xena were jumping rope with Ephiny and the Amazon Queen holding the ends and keeping pace with a child's song.
"Whee! Isn't this fun?" exclaimed Xena a she jumped up and down in time with the rope. Eponin was too busy trying to keep from tripping on the rope to notice the large congregation of people watching them. Finally she caught her foot on the rope and would have ended up kissing the ground, but right before she did Xena caught her.
"I win! I win!" shouted an excited Xena jumping for joy while she helped Eponin regain her balance.
Eponin glanced upward and saw Solari grinning at her. 'Oh Gods, why did it have to be Solari to catch me doing this?'
Solari gave her a shove that pushed her out of the way of the rope. "My turn!"
Eponin's jaw dropped as she watched Solari jumping rope with Xena, while Ephiny and Gabrielle started another song. Her jaw dropped even further when she saw the other Amazons break up into small groups and start playing various children's games. Every where she looked she saw grown Amazon warriors playing, some with other warriors and some with Amazon children. Gabrielle winked at her. Eponin decided that if everybody was acting strange, the perhaps she might as well join them. She found a group playing tag and quickly joined in. The rest of the afternoon Xena and Gabrielle wandered from group to group playing different games. The bard lost track of Xena for a short period, but her friend reappeared before she got too worried. Gabrielle had never seen a more peaceful expression on her friend's face. Xena seemed to be enjoying everything and played until she was exhausted several candlemarks later when the group broke up to prepare for the Solstice Eve feast.
"That was fun," exclaimed Xena as they neared their hut.
Gabrielle and Xena entered their hut. "I'm glad you enjoyed yourself. Now we better get cleaned up and change for the celebration tonight."
When Xena didn't respond Gabrielle looked over at her friend. Xena had a disappointed look on her face.
"What's wrong?" asked the young woman, suddenly concerned.
"It's gotta be something. You were in such a happy mood until I mentioned changing...oh so that's it," said Gabrielle, knowingly.
"It's all right, I can wear what I have on."
"Oh no you won't. Have you checked your closet?"
"Go look inside, I'm sure there is something that will fit you," ordered Gabrielle.
Xena went to her closet and opened the door. Her eyes lit up when she saw its contents. Gabrielle smiled and went to her room to change while Xena did the same. A short while later they both emerged and looked each other over. Gabrielle had put on a simple green dress and wore a small diamond tiara to signify her position in Amazon society. She stood is amazement when she saw Xena. The Warrior Princess looked more the Princess than the Warrior in Gabrielle's opinion. Xena was wearing a sky blue gown with silver patterns adorning it, intricately weaved to resemble her armor. On her wrists were gold and silver bracelets patterned after her gauntlets. Gabrielle was about to say something when she took a good look at Xena's face and noticed she was wearing earrings with sapphires that matched her eyes and a light blue ribbon holding her hair in place. In all the time they had been together, Gabrielle had never seen Xena wear any kind of jewelry. The warrior had always thought it a waste of money.
Xena twirled around. "How do I look?"
"Beautiful, Xena. I don't think I have ever seen you all dressed up before."
"Never really been a cause. Tonight it just felt right."
Gabrielle was about to reply when there was a knock at the door. "Come in."
Eponin opened the door and froze when she saw Xena. She gave a big smile and a wolf's whistle. "Not bad, Xena, not bad at all."
"Thanks," replied Xena bashfully.
"Ephiny sent me over to fetch you two. The cooks decided it would be easier to simply put the food out and let everybody serve themselves rather than a formal setting. Ephiny didn't think you would mind."
"Wow! Just like we did back home," said Xena as they headed out the door.
They found Ephiny making last minute changes to the tree decorations. Gabrielle saw Solari out of the corner of her eye trying to get a make shift choir sing in the same key. Xena was trying to appear interested in what Ephiny was telling them about the tree, but Gabrielle saw her attention returning to the choir. The bard nudged her in the direction of the struggling woman. Xena didn't need a second nudge, she ran over to Solari and joined in. The only times Gabrielle had heard her friend sing were at funerals to send the dead on their way to Hades. This was the first time she had heard Xena sing for fun and she was awestruck by what she heard. The young Queen wasn't the only one who took notice of Xena's voice, soon the entire village was listening to her sing Solstice songs with the choir. This was a side of the warrior they had never seen, and coupled with her playful antics earlier in the day, made her seem more approachable. Gabrielle convinced her to sing solo for a while which Xena gladly did, singing everything from slow emotional songs to playful children's songs. Throughout the evening Xena spent time switching from singing to playing with the children to simply talking with the adults and somewhere in between having an unofficial eating contest with Gabrielle. At one point in the evening Gabrielle gathered the women around and told the story of how Xena had saved Solstice and the orphanage. Gabrielle noticed that Xena didn't try to hide while she told the tale, instead she seemed to be taking notes. After Gabrielle finished Xena got up and retold the tale, making sure to include Gabrielle's part in the story and down playing her own. The crowd loved both versions and as they broke apart faint murmuring could be heard debating on which story was accurate, the consensus seemed to be that the truth was somewhere in between.
As the evening drew to a close, Gabrielle gave a speech to the gathered Amazons about the past year and the events that took place. She gave equal attention to both the good and the bad, finding a silver lining in everything. Before they broke up for the night, Xena started singing a traditional Solstice carol about love and friendship. The Amazons all stood mesmerized as Xena sang. When she began the second verse Gabrielle and Eponin joined in and soon the entire village was singing. After the carol the Amazons dispersed to their collective homes. Ephiny invited Xena and Gabrielle over to her home to open presents on Solstice morning with her son, Xenan, who would be arriving early. The two friends accepted and headed back to their hut.
"I haven't had this much fun in ages, Gabrielle," said Xena as she got into bed.
"I'm glad, you looked like you were enjoying yourself."
"I did, I don't know why, but I feel like a kid again."
Gabrielle stifled a giggle before replying, "Good night, Xena."
"You too, my friend, you too."
The next morning Gabrielle nearly screamed when Xena jumped onto her bed. "C'mon, get up! It's Solstice morning! Get up!" shouted an exuberant warrior.
Gabrielle groaned and covered her head with her pillow. "What time is it?"
"Morning! C'mon let's go exchange presents," continued Xena still jumping on the bed.
The bard peeled the pillow off of her face and looked toward the window. "Xena! It's still dark outside. Go back to bed."
"Gee, who can sleep in on Solstice morning?" asked Xena rhetorically.
Gabrielle deliberately ignored the tone in Xena's voice and replied, "ME!"
"Oh, pooh!" retorted the warrior as she stomped back to her room
'Pooh?' thought Gabrielle. 'Was I ever that young?'
Several candlemarks later, and after the sun had come up, Gabrielle got out of bed and looked into Xena's room. She saw Xena sitting at the desk with her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth and an intense look on her face. "What are you doing?"
"I forgot to wrap Xenan's gift."
Xena attached a small bow and pronounced she was finished. They quickly dressed and armed with Solstice cheer they headed toward Ephiny's hut. As they approached the hut the heard a child's voice. "Can't I open just one? I've been up for hours and can't wait another moment."
"No," replied a woman's voice, "you have to wait for Aunt Xena and Aunt Gabrielle. It's not my fault you woke up so early."
Xena stuck her tongue out at Gabrielle. "Told you nobody slept in on Solstice morning."
Gabrielle shook her head and knocked on the door. It opened almost instantly and they were ushered in. "It's about time you got here. Xenan has been driving me crazy waiting for you."
Xena laughed and pointed to Gabrielle. "SOMEBODY, we won't mention names, wanted to get some extra shut eye."
"Aunt Xena! Aunt Gabrielle!" shouted an excited young centaur who was prancing around the room.
"C'mere you," commanded Xena who knelt down to hug her adopted nephew. She pulled Xenan into a big, long hug before letting Gabrielle have her turn. They all sat down in the parlor and began passing out presents. Gabrielle handed Xenan her gift to him, wrapped in plain, brown parchment, and another one to Xena. Xenan ripped open the package, sending pieces of parchment all over the room. Ephiny was about to scold her son for making a mess when she noticed Xena tearing open her gift with equal enthusiasm, and causing just as big of a mess.
"Hey thanks, Aunt Gabrielle," said Xenan as he showed his mother the toy centaur. He turned to watch Xena as she finished removing the last of the parchment covering her gift. She pulled out a small doll, but instead of wearing the usual fancy dress found on most dolls this one was wearing leather and appeared to be wearing armor breastplates. Xena looked at Gabrielle with an amused expression on her face. "Neat! Is this what I think this is?"
"Yep! I found a vendor selling 'Official Xena Dolls' when we passed through Amphipolis a month ago," replied Gabrielle grinning from ear to ear. "Your mother said they were a big seller and that the merchant couldn't keep enough of them in stock."
Xena smirked. "I think I'm going to have to have a little talk with that merchant when we pass through Amphipolis again."
"Your mother already did. He agreed to give a portion of his profits to the local orphanage in return for you not sending your chakram his way. Cyrene didn't think you would mind."
Xena sighed, "I guess it's all right, but he's going to have to drop the 'official' part."
"Just don't scare him too much. He promised to make a 'Gabrielle' doll next."
"Can I see it, Aunt Xena?" asked Xenan, wanting to see what all the commotion was about. Xena handed him the doll, which was almost the same size as the centaur. "Can I play with it for a while?"
"Sure, Xenan, in fact, why don't you hold onto him for me when Gabrielle and I leave. It's special and I don't want anything to happen to it while we are on the road." Xena looked over at Gabrielle to make sure she approved of her decision. Gabrielle nodded and smiled as she watched her nephew playing in the corner. They spent the remainder of the morning watching Xenan open presents as well as the few exchanged between the adults. Xena had given Gabrielle a carrying case for her scrolls and quills so they wouldn't get damaged while traveling. Ephiny received a new Amazon mask the resembled Gabrielle's mask of Royalty to signify her position as Queen Regent in Gabrielle's absence. The morning changed into afternoon and Ephiny went to tuck Xenan in for a nap, leaving Gabrielle and Xena alone.
"This has been the bestest Solstice I have ever had, Gabrielle," said Xena giving her friend a big hug. "I just wish I could have given you something special for Solstice," continued Xena with a hint of regret in her voice.
"You did, Xena. I'm can't think of anyone I would rather spend Solstice with." Gabrielle stopped smiling when she noticed that Xena had lost the childlike expression that she had been carrying since early yesterday afternoon.
"I'm glad, but would like to tell me why I have been acting like a child?" Xena stared into Gabrielle's eyes.
"Well...what? I get the impression there is more here than meets the eye."
Before Gabrielle could answer a bright light temporarily blinded her, when it diminished she saw Artemis standing in front of her and Xena. "I think I can answer that. It was a Solstice present."
Gabrielle took Xena's hands into her own. "It was my Solstice present to you." She looked over at Artemis before continuing. "But you weren't supposed to remember the part about acting like a child again, only that you had a good time."
Artemis placed a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "If I had done that, Xena wouldn't have known that you received the Solstice present she asked me to help get you."
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other and then turned to the Goddess for an explanation. "You came to me because you wanted to give Xena a childhood Solstice like she remembered, right Gabrielle?" Xena looked at Gabrielle, astonished that her friend would go to such lengths for a Solstice present. Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. "I saw how much you missed them and I wanted to give you something special." Artemis glanced over at Xena. "Was it everything you remembered, Xena?"
Xena returned her attention to Gabrielle. "No...it was better. I'll always have those memories of Solstice with my family, now I have a new one with my new family."
Gabrielle smiled, but turned to Artemis. "I don't understand what this has to do with Xena's gift to me."
Artemis watched as Xena pretended to examine the floor, too embarrassed to explain to Gabrielle her role. "Xena asked me nearly a moon ago to help find out what YOU wanted for Solstice, Gabrielle."
"I still don't understand, Artemis."
Xena looked puzzled as well. "I don't either."
Artemis laughed lightly. "Gabrielle wanted more than anything for you to have a Solstice like you remembered. By granting her wish, I granted yours as well, Xena. You both got what you wanted." Artemis became serious for a moment. "In these dark times, it is refreshing to see a friendship as strong as yours. I wish you both many more happy Solstices to come." Artemis gave both of them a kiss on the cheek and disappeared in a bright ball of light. Gabrielle and Xena stood there, staring at each other.
"I don't know what to say," said Gabrielle, speechless for the first time in her life.
"I do," replied Xena drawing Gabrielle in for another hug, "Happy Solstice."
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