This could be considered Part 2 of a loose trilogy based around Solstice, the first being "Solstice Eve" and the last being "Crossings". Each of these stories can stand alone, so don't feel that you *have* to read the others. On the other hand, if you like a touch of romance, go for it. Oh, and these characters aren't mine, darn it.
Gabrielle pulled the quilt up around her, and settled her legs under her in the big chair. The fire was burning low, and it was past time for more wood. But not quite yet. The subdued glow highlighted the outlines of the sleeping warrior's face, an image she never tired of, and seldom saw.
The bard ran a fingertip lightly over the soft leather of her gift, and carefully turned the parchments, returning to the passages that had lingered in her mind. It seemed strange, in a way, that these stories, so close to the tales she told of adventure, good and evil, heroes and villains, should have so much of the subtleties of love in them. How could she have been blind to what others had seen so clearly?
She returned to the last story, Xena's story, although it wasn't necessary. She knew the words by heart. Memory added touch, taste, sound and scent to the writing on the page, and for a few moments, she went back in time to a cool night, and a fire much like this one. The bard blinked and smiled to herself, the quilt she'd lifted to her cheek carrying the elusive combination of scents that was Xena. Gabrielle pushed herself to her feet to put another log on the fire, needing to feel the livng woman and not the brush of shadows that would sustain her when they had to be apart.
Xena stirred restlessly under the coverings, seeking Gabrielle even in sleep. A strong arm slid over the bard as she slipped back into bed, fitting herself to the warrior's body and laying her cheek on the warm silk of Xena's breast. Xena sighed and quieted, and Gabrielle thought about the first night they had shared their blankets.
When Gabrielle had left home so impulsively to follow the warrior, it had been summer, and a cloak had been the last thing on her mind. Xena had never said anything, simply tossed over hers when a blanket wasn't practical. As the season changed and the weather grew sharper, Gabrielle spent a great deal of time sitting close to the fire, wrapped in Xena's cloak and her own blankets, shivering and wondering if there was some sort of warrior princess thing that kept Xena from feeling the chill.
One night, when the bard had noticed with dismay that she could see the puff of her breath in the air, Xena had laid out her heavy bedroll close to the fire and gestured to Gabrielle.
"Better sleep with me tonight. It's cold, and it'll be worse before morning."
The bard's teeth were chattering, and it wasn't hard to put aside new thoughts there was no point in thinking. She'd concentrated on not burning the edge of Xena's cloak in the fire, and hadn't seen the look that flickered across the warrior's face. Not that night. That night, they'd done a fair bit of manoevering, Xena trying to adjust to the smaller body of the bard, and Gabrielle trying to adjust to the taller body of the warrior. After she'd misplaced an elbow, she'd rolled over apprehensively and caught Xena's slightly surprised look. She couldn't help it, she'd started to laugh, and Xena had shaken her head and smiled, eyes gleaming in the firelight. She hadn't smiled much, back then, and Gabrielle felt warmed just seeing it.
"This isn't working too well. C'mere." Xena shifted to her side, pulled her gently into her arms, and tucked her in against her. Gabrielle had drifted off, lulled by steady breathing and enveloped in warmth.
As the bard patiently worked at easing Xena out past some of the walls she'd surrounded herself with, she'd started thinking about Solstice, and what to get for her friend. Xena seemed to have everything she needed, and never expressed a desire for anything. Gabrielle had gone half mad trying to come up with an idea for a gift that wasn't completely ridiculous, was small enough to carry concealed, would let Xena know how much Gabrielle loved her, and not frighten the warrior back behind her walls.
It seemed an impossible quest, but the bard was nothing if not determined.
Weapons were out, not much of an expression of love, after all, and Xena preferred to choose her own. She wasn't the type to lounge around the fire at night reading the latest scroll, and the bard would be only too happy to oblige personally if she experienced a sudden urge towards tales of romance. Gabrielle had eyed a few gowns, remembering how Xena had looked during her impersonation of Diana, but at the first opportunity, the leathers had returned. There was always the old standby, hair bands or jewelry, but Gabrielle had worked too hard to persuade Xena to let her brush and braid her hair to give all that up for a hair band. Lila had always loved something frivolous, and since Xena put almost everything in that category, there should be plenty of choice, but the bard had been able to come up with exactly nothing. She'd put it out of her mind, continued to save a dinar here and there, and hoped inspiration would strike in Athens.
They'd never made it. Gabrielle died.
As Xena fought to restore breath and life, the bard had found herself in Hades' timeless domain. As she'd looked about her, the grief and rage reasonating through the connection between her and the warrior built with shattering power. The Lord of the Underworld had pressed no claim to her, and so the bard returned to the one destined to be hers.
Gabrielle felt the slight change in breath, and looked up to meet sleepy blue eyes. She reached, and gently brushed dark silky hair off Xena's forehead.
"Go back to sleep. It's too early to get up," she whispered.
A corner of Xena's mouth twitched, and she mumbled, "S'always too early for you to get up." Her eyes started to fall closed again.
Gabrielle shifted onto her back, Xena needing little encouragement to roll and snuggle against the bard. "Today, it's too early for you, too. Back to sleep." Xena exhaled slowly, warm breath against Gabrielle's skin, and settled her shoulders slightly under the bard's caressing hand. Even breathing told Gabrielle she was asleep, and the bard wanted to enjoy every moment with her arms around Xena. The warrior generally preferred to hold her, and Gabrielle often wondered if Xena believed that she would slip away from her while she slept, unaware.
She opened her eyes as warm lips brushed across hers.
"Morning.....mmm, nice," Xena murmured, mouth trailing along the bard's collarbone.
"Well, yeah, but you'll have to stop," Gabrielle said regretfully.
Xena lifted her head. "Stop? What about celebrating the Solstice?"
The bard chuckled. "Is that what you call it?"
Xena relaxed slightly. "For now," she said amiably. Eyebrows rose in puzzlement as Gabrielle put her hand on her shoulder.
"I have every intention of celebrating Solstice...several times, but I want to give you your gifts, first." She pushed gently, and Xena moved away, leaning back against the pillows as the bard padded over to her bag and withdrew two small pouches. Instead of getting back into the bed, though, Gabrielle sat on the edge. The warrior frowned at the hesitant look on her face as she fingered the small bags, and felt a tiny shiver of cold run down her back.
"I don't need anything," she said cautiously.
The bard looked at her, seeing the shadow of Xena's greatest fear, and drew a breath.
"Yes, you do. You need to know that I love you. Not some of the time, not most of the time, but always. No matter what. There's a small part of your heart that's afraid that something you've done, or will do, could change things between us, could make me leave you." She took Xena's hand and held tightly, feeling the tension in the muscle and sinews.
"It won't happen," she said firmly, looking into shielded blue eyes. She took two twigs, partly wrapped in a small, damp cloth, from one of the pouches.
"These are from the Grove at Delphi. Apollo's laurels, ever green, never withering, his symbol of faithful love and unfading glory. I'll send them to my sister, and whenever the time comes that the Warrior Princess can lay down her sword and be Xena again, no more, no less, we'll plant them side by side, together."
Xena looked at the twigs in the bard's hand and blinked against the tightness in her throat. Gabrielle didn't appear to notice the tear easing its way down her cheek.
"Gabrielle, I need to give you your other gift." Without meeting the bard's wary eyes, Xena reached out a long arm and pulled an old pouch from the depths of the saddlebag resting on the floor next to the bed.
"There are very few old warriors, Gabrielle, and you know I won't be one of them." she started quietly. "And when you find someone who makes you as happy as you've made me, someone you love as much as I love you, then plant the laurels." The warrior gently stroked the tears on the bard's cheeks, stilling the silent shaking of Gabrielle's head. "You will, and I want you to. You deserve all the good things that life can give you." And someone to spent forever with, in the Elysian Fields, she added to herself, throat closing on the emptiness that thought always brought.
"But however long your life may be, Gabrielle, know that we *will* see each other one last time." She turned the pouch over and a gold coin fell into her hand. "Hold this for me, because I will wait for you, Gabrielle. I promise."
A radiant smile lit up the tear-streaked face. The bard's secret fear, that Xena would submit herself to Hades without her by her side, vanished with those last two words. The judgement of the Lord of the Underworld was nothing against the determination of one small, fast-talking bard who would not consider even the possibility of ever being parted from her soul.
Gabrielle carefully replaced the twigs, and looked into the blue eyes that said so many things that the warrior could not. "Someone will plant the laurels for both of us, Xena."
She took up the second pouch. A gold coin slid out and she turned Xena's hand in hers, tucked it into the large palm, then curled her fingers over the warrior's to make a fist.
"Charon's fare. I want you to keep it for me. I won't cross without you. Tartarus or the Fields, Xena, we go together. I promise."
"No more doubts?" the bard whispered to the dark head she cradled against her.
"No more doubts." came the roughly voiced reply.
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