Their experiences early on in DREAMWORKER and CRADLE OF HOPE inspire Xena and Gabrielle to appreciate what they might miss without the other’s eye for a good bargain.

FIRST SOLSTICE, SECOND THOUGHTS

By IseQween

December 2006

IseQween@aol.com

"Hey, you fight, I talk. We each have our gifts."

 – Gabrielle to Xena in CRADLE OF HOPE

Xena cradled the wood she’d gathered and propped herself against a tree. Talk about "adventure," her new travel mate sure qualified. Not just the escapades she’d gotten them into. Simply being Gabrielle. Like now. Shuffling around their campsite with a stick, mumbling to herself. Poking the ground, parting the grass, inspecting every inch as if she might find gold. Or a snake. Or something as mystifying as the redhead herself.

The warrior chuckled, wryly acknowledging mystification at her own behavior. She never would’ve tolerated a Gabrielle in her army. Challenging her orders, finding creative ways around them. Questioning her about any and everything. Forcing her to question herself about issues or actions natural to her violent world.

She was still processing the emotions provoked by Gabrielle’s abduction shortly before their latest adventure. One moment she’d been scowling at the girl for hiding her purchase of a breast dagger. The next, she’d plunged the confiscated weapon into one of Morpheus’ henchmen – unconditionally committed to sacrificing her sanity, her life, whatever she had to give to save her bubbly tagalong. It occurred to her maybe they were both nuts.

"What’re you doing?"

Gabrielle’s head jerked up. "Xena! I told you about sneaking up like that! Are you trying to scare me to death?"

"You’re still breathing aren’t you?" Xena pushed off and sauntered forward. "Look like a chicken pecking for seeds. Dare I ask why?"

"You should know."

Xena’s brow rose. "Me?"

"You blamed the Pandora’s Box thing on me, didn’t you?"

"What?"

"`I slept like a rock,’" Gabrielle drawled, mimicking the warrior. "Whereas I slept on a rock. Which meant I woke up late. If we’d left sooner, we wouldn’t have heard the baby crying. You seemed to forget I wanted to keep him, whereas you insisted we find his mother. In the end you still said everything happened because – ."

"I was joking." Xena deposited the wood. "You can’t take everything I say –."

"I know." Gabrielle smirked. "I’m joking too. Not about the rocks though." She glowered at the ground. "That’s the last time I let one of them sneak up on me," she declared, continuing her examination.

"Oh yeah. Gotta watch out for them all right." Xena began arranging the wood. "Especially around certain individuals," she mumbled.

Gabrielle knelt and patted a section that seemed suitable. "Laugh if you want. A good night’s sleep is important. Especially to growing young individuals such as myself."

"I’m surprised you didn’t see the rock’s sunny side. You know, helping a baby, a kingdom, the hope of humankind? Surely you wouldn’t’ve wanted to miss that?"

"Huh. Got a point there." Gabrielle cocked her head. "Maybe even ‘bad’ rocks can do that?"

Xena considered the nightmares that still kept her up sometimes. Rocks she deserved to lie on. Which shouldn’t let her rest in her quest for atonement until being awake wasn’t an option anymore. They’d led her by chance to encounter Gabrielle, to allow the young runaway into her presence on faith. A more comforting, if equally disturbing, means to the same end. Like that stone she’d recently tossed into a lake to show the girl how a rippling surface might look calm as before but underneath be forever changed.

"Yeah," she answered, suspecting Gabrielle had already left a lasting impression even if she wasn’t there physically. "Maybe so."

*****

"Sleep well?"

"Mmmm." Gabrielle languorously rolled to her side. "Like a rock." Eyes closed, she enjoyed the sun on her face. She frowned. Sun? This early in the morning? Her eyes shot open. "Xena?! Why didn’t you wake me? I thought you said …." She stared at the warrior calmly gutting a fish. "What happened to ‘up at the crack of dawn?’"

"I was. Groomed Argo. Did some drills. Scouted around a bit. All in peace and quiet." Xena smirked. "No babies crying. Or something."

Gabrielle pursed her lips. "Lucky I know how much you need me. Somebody else might get the wrong impression."

"Absolutely. Even made sure it wasn’t a sign we could miss something."

"Xena, what are you talking about?"

"Could be a reason we’re still here. Another infant floating up in a basket. Somebody we’re supposed to meet. Travelers needing our help. Never can tell. So I checked it out for you."

"Did you now," Gabrielle said, crossing her arms. "I take it this time I overslept for nothing?"

"Mm, not necessarily." Xena gestured toward several items displayed behind Gabrielle.  A soggy old boot. Broken wagon wheel. Muddy shirt. Tattered bird’s nest. Small rotting box with the lid dangling half off.

"Xena, what in Tartarus – ."

"Whaddya think? See any clues we oughtta follow up on?"

Gabrielle scowled at the warrior. "You know, I’m starting to understand why your mother thought you deserved … a little discipline."

"You’re the one said I should lighten up."

"A junk yard isn’t what I had in mind."

"Hey, one person’s throwaway is another’s treasure." Xena snorted. "According to you anyway." Her jaw clenched at thoughts of the orphaned baby they’d found, set adrift to protect him from King Gregor’s power-hungry advisor. "Kidding aside, it led us to rescue Gabriel. He would’ve been abandoned otherwise. Probably killed by Nemos."

"Gabriel?!" Gabrielle’s mouth dropped. "The baby? That’s what they’re calling him?"

"Yeah." Xena suddenly became focused on picking out another fish. "I think so."

"You think so?"

"I … um …. The King asked how he could repay me … us …. I said if all three of `em had a good life – him, Pandora, the baby. You’d already picked a name." Xena shrugged. "Figured they might as well go with your choice as any. You did say he had your nose."

"Oh, Xena, that was so sweet!" Gabrielle crawled closer, but stopped short of demonstrating too much affection. Not with the warrior doggedly slicing the bloody corpse in her hands. "Now I see why your mother forgave you."

"Mm. Nothing to get carried away about. Even at my worst I couldn’t hurt a child." Xena swallowed. "Not on purpose."

"What could be more pure of harm than a newborn?" Gabrielle asked, preparing their fire pit. "Amazing, huh, how somebody like Nemos could fear what brings such joy and hope to others."

"Not really." Xena rested her hands in her lap. "People like him thrive on business as usual. Innocence usually means something new, fresh. Change. Threatens the status quo." She smiled at Gabrielle. "If you let it touch you, hard to stay the same old stick in the mud."

"Yeah?" Gabrielle ducked her head. "Like maybe collecting orphans and bird’s nests?"

Xena sucked in her cheeks. "Among other things."

*****

Xena glanced up from sharpening her sword to check on her unusually quiet companion. Gabrielle lay on her side with her back to the fire, toying with something the warrior couldn’t quite make out in the darkness.

"I trust that’s not another secret weapon."

"Hmmm?"

"Whatever you’ve got there that’s so engrossing."

"Oh this?" Gabrielle rolled over. "It’s just that box you found."

"You brought it with you? Gabrielle, it’s useless. What in Tartarus –."

"It wasn’t useless once." Gabrielle sat up, cupping the box. "Could be somebody kept their jewelry in it. Maybe coins or knickknacks. It has a story, you know?" She fiddled with the broken lid until it closed, albeit crookedly. "I was trying to imagine who it belonged to."

Xena rolled her eyes. "See what ‘fun’ gets me? Even that’s dangerous."

Gabrielle laughed. "Nah. Your junk pile kinda grew on me. At least you didn’t pick up something gross." She shuddered. "Like a skull. Or a blood-encrusted knife. Oooo or a dead – ."

"Glad my selections exceeded your expectations."

"Ohhhh, Xena. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just …. Well, you’re usually so practical. I probably would’ve picked the same things."

"They happened to be there. Out of place. Caught my eye. Figured they’d appeal to that … quaint … nature of yours."

Gabrielle bit her lip, eyes twinkling. "So I am rubbing off on you? Or maybe you’re more sensitive than you let on?"

"Mm. Haven’t had much practice with fun in awhile. Could be I went overboard `cause I didn’t know what I was doing." Xena snorted. "Or why."

"Not to worry." Gabrielle gave the warrior an indulgent grin. "I’ve got that covered."

"Ah. One of your many skills?"

"Uh huh. And not all talking either. You should’ve seen me running, dodging Morpheus’ guys. Pitting them against each other like you told me." She looked down at her hands. "When they made me pick up that sword …. My only option to kill or be killed …. I still wonder if I might’ve …."

"What’s to wonder? You did good. Survived long enough for backup. That’s all I asked."

"‘Wisdom before weapons,’ right?" Gabrielle snickered. "And you’re supposed to be the fighter among us."

"Hey, I had to get creative with Nemos and his boys. Fire breathing. Dancing. Tossing poor Gabriel around like a sack of grain."

"I would have to miss the dancing." Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "Were you any good? I’m having a hard time picturing you putting your heart and soul into it."

"Good enough." Xena blew on her fingers. "Nemos picked me."

"What?! As his concubine for the evening?"

"He wanted pleasure. I gave him pain."

Gabrielle shook her head. "Never underestimate the Warrior Princess. She’ll fool you every time."

Xena chuckled. "She fools herself sometimes. Lately in particular." She raised a brow at her odd companion before resuming work on her sword.

Pleased at the warrior’s backhanded compliments, Gabrielle lay on her blanket gazing up at the stars. She resumed her musings about how her curiosity and clumsiness could’ve been disastrous to Pandora’s Box. She’d dropped it early on, before knocking it over to discover nothing inside – amazed to touch such an infamous legend, let alone open it. Though the box had been a curse to Pandora’s grandmother, it proved a blessing to Pandora. Gabrielle had asked Xena whether chance made the difference or faith.

She couldn’t help comparisons to her enigmatic friend. The stoic woman kept so many secrets locked inside. Memories that sometimes rattled her at night. Emotions she didn’t trust letting out. Despite all that, Gabrielle considered her a blessing. A chance encounter her own faith had led her to follow. To unwittingly crack open when she least expected. Each glimpse revealed a hint of Xena’s enormous passion, intelligence, dedication, courage. Gabrielle felt herself illuminated as a result – more confident about her dreams, capabilities and decisions.

"You definitely have a thing for boxes. Maybe it’s not too late."

"Huh?"

"You were sorry we spent Solstice on the Morpheus escapade. Didn’t get a chance to exchange gifts."

"Oh, yeah. One of my favorite times of the year." Gabrielle brightened. "What about the breast dagger? Well, actually, I bought it for myself. And I didn’t exactly give it to you. But we did exchange it. You had it because of me. I’m still breathing because you used it to – ."

"I had something else in mind." Xena indicated the box Gabrielle unconsciously caressed.

Gabrielle sat up, a sheepish grin on her face. She ran a finger over the box. "Huh. I do seem rather attached to it." She flicked the dangling lid. "Doesn’t mean you couldn’t get me another one. I’ve pretty much imagined all I can for this specimen."

"You sure? You almost broke Pandora’s. Now you’ve latched onto this one. Maybe you prefer the sort with imperfections?"

Gabrielle studied the warrior. "We’re still talking about boxes, right?"

"Something else around here with imperfections?"

"Um …." Gabrielle bit her lip, searching for clues on the warrior’s face.

"S’okay." The corner of Xena’s mouth twitched. "Can’t argue with that." She tossed her polishing cloth to Gabrielle. "Maybe if you clean that up a bit, it’ll do until the next one." She began preparing for bed. "Tomorrow. Time to turn in."

"Good idea." Gabrielle giggled. "All this chatting’s tired me out."

Xena bemusedly watched the redhead smooth her hand across her blanket, apparently ensuring no rocks had crept under since her last check. The warrior’s eyes fell on the box Gabrielle had put to the side. Her mind drifted back to Pandora’s paranoia about resetting the lock on the box she’d felt compelled to carry with her. According to legend, it originally contained humankind’s desires. Pandora’s grandmother inadvertently let all but hope escape.

Gabrielle had accidentally knocked the box to the ground, horrified when it sprang open and empty. Xena reassured her that, while all the other desires were fleeting, hope would always be safe because everyone carried it inside them. She’d surprised herself uttering something like that with a straight face, as she had with much of the positive advice she’d begun spouting of late. Initially she’d attributed it to her new role as guardian of an idealistic young woman. Yet somehow Gabrielle’s pure heart made the words true, her troublesome curiosity and clumsiness giving them air.

Xena blew out a long breath. Pandora had nothing on the former Destroyer of Nations when it came to an existence consumed by keeping the lid on. Except she’d believed hope already lost, guarding instead against desires better left rotting where they were. Along comes Gabrielle, blithely unafraid to stick her hand where others – herself included – dared not. Examining what she found with neither pity nor scorn. Fascinated by whatever she pulled out. Sometimes crinkling her nose at something she expected to smell better when she got around to it again.

Shaking her head, Xena stoked the fire before sitting on her bedroll. What could she do? Warn Gabrielle against exploring? To ignore possibilities jaded eyes might disdain? Stop finding delight in simply having the chance? Discourage her determination not to let anything disturb her peace of mind, her naďve faith in a "monster" whose rocky past littered the known world from one end to the other?

"Nothing wrong with your taste in boxes."

"Mmm," Gabrielle murmured drowsily. She rolled her head toward Xena. "What’s that?"

Xena lay back and gazed at the night sky. "Your taste in boxes. Lots more ‘junk’ around without folks to see the good in it."

Gabrielle scrubbed her eyes, sensing the need to focus. "Boxes?"

"That’s what I said. Boxes."

"Just checking." Gabrielle smiled fondly at her companion’s profile. "Since we’re on the subject, I have second thoughts about that. Think I’ll stick with the one I had. The … old … one."

Xena faced Gabrielle, brow raised. "The one I found, right?"

"Hmmm." Gabrielle rubbed her nose. "Technically, I suppose. Not sure we see it the same way yet."

Xena snorted. "True." She gazed at the sky again, recalling King Gregor’s initial reaction to the Warrior Princess. How much easier it had been to let his disgust for "a cold blooded killer" wash over her when she could envision saving a child in the process. Didn’t change her past deeds, but they felt more bearable. Lighter. Her perspective more open to life beyond self-imposed restrictions. "Someday perhaps."

Gabrielle smiled. "You’ll get there. A wise woman told me hope is inside every one of us. I guess some let it out in big poofs that hang around them all the time. Others eek it out so it’s hard to tell at first."

"Gotta be careful of ‘wise’ women. Sometimes they know about as much as a newborn."

"Which is good, right? Isn’t that what you said?" Gabrielle blinked innocently. "The person I had in mind was confronted with a prophecy about an orphan who’d one day take Gregor’s throne. It could’ve meant death – either killing a future rebel now, or a war for power later. Instead, she saw a man grieving the loss of his son, a king without an heir. A child needing a father. A woman lugging around a ‘cursed’ box, no home or family. Bringing them together – fulfilling the prophecy that way – took wisdom and heart. Wouldn’t you agree?"

Xena growled under her breath. Gabrielle’s chats were like the chakram – loops leaving you so dizzy you didn’t realize you were the target until too late to duck. "I’m having second thoughts about you and boxes. Could be dangerous feeding your obsession."

"Heh. You already gave me a better gift."

"That soggy boot? Sorry, left it behind."

"Nooo. A baby named in my honor."

"Ah." Xena sucked in her cheeks. "In that case, I could take that box off your hands."

"Oh?" Gabrielle raised a suspicious brow. "You gonna smash it?"

"Nooo." Xena focused on a particularly bright star. "As your present to me."

Gabrielle gaped at the warrior. She truly was like her chakram sometimes – circling away one moment, coming at you from a completely different direction the next. "Seriously? What could you – ."

"A reminder I can only lose what’s not worth having anyway." Xena turned to smile at Gabrielle. "Be grateful for hope I may be stuck with no matter what."

Gabrielle returned the smile. She cleared her throat. "A rock, a box and a baby. Who would’ve imagined shopping could be so easy?"

Xena chuckled. "For some of us anyway." She closed her eyes. "Happy belated Solstice."

"Happy belated Solstice to you too, Xena." Gabrielle grabbed the box, wrapping it in the blanket with her.

The two snuggled into their bedrolls, grateful they’d celebrated this special occasion late rather than not at all. Comforted, as on the day they met, that what began badly could end up pretty good. Settling in to the wonder that maybe they needn’t search again for better gifts. Not since fortune had tossed them together, into discovering each other to change their lives forever.

THE END

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