The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Cyrene and Joxer from the TV show 'Xena Warrior Princess' and Iolaus from the TV show 'Hercules The Legendary Journeys' belong to Studio USA/Renaissance Pictures/Universal or whoever actually owns them now. No infringement on their rights is intended. All other characters are created by myself, and belong to me.
This story depicts a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top-right corner and find something else to read.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Thank you for your help, Yorksbard :D
Written : November 13th - 23rd, 2011.
Timeline : Season 2, but I'm not following the canon so there's no Solan, no Perdicus and no Callisto. This story can easily be read on its own, but is actually a continuation of the storyline I started in 'It Happened On Winter Solstice Night'. If you're interested in finding out what happened to 'my' Xena and Gabrielle prior to this story, go ahead and read the other ones:
- (1) It Happened On Winter Solstice Night.
- (2) A Weekend With Aphrodite.
- (3) Under Siege.
- (4) A Big Step For Bards & Warriors.
- (5) The Amazon Way.
- (6) Xena's Birthday.
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Description : Back home in Amphipolis to celebrate Xena's birthday, Xena and Gabrielle have to deal with all kinds of issues, like Ares bringing unwanted news, Aphrodite showing up with an embarrassing gift, Iolaus and Joxer drinking too much sweet ale, Cyrene making so much food that it could support an entire battalion - and someone from Xena's recent past hoping to re-connect with the Warrior Princess…
Dusk was slowly approaching as two women and a golden mare were walking along a dirt road, heading for a small village at the bank of a narrow river.
The two women were very different in appearance - one was tall, dark, heavily armed and clad in dark leathers, and the other was short, fair and dressed far more lightly.
The tall woman was walking with a pronounced limp, and the short woman had her hands on her hips, almost like she couldn't quite believe what she saw.
"Xena… what is it this time?" Gabrielle said in a tone of voice that betrayed that she was getting just a tad fed up with Xena's stalling tactics.
"Oh… I… I think I have a stone in my boot," Xena said, looking down at her feet.
"Yes. Oh, it's a biggie. I better stop here and take it out before it gnaws a hole in my foot. You know how dangerous infections can be."
After looking around for a suitable place to sit, Xena hobbled over to a tree stump and sat down with a bump. Sending a wide smile at her lover, the usually tough warrior began to unlace the bootleg - though quite a bit slower than usual.
"You want some help?" Gabrielle said in a monotone.
"Oh, no, thanks. I've got it."
Sighing, Gabrielle went over to sit down next to the warrior. "Xena…? Have you been possessed by Joxer all of a sudden?"
"I don't think so. Why?"
"Well, since when have you ever paid any attention to a stone in your boot? Usually, you'd just crush it with your toe or your heel."
"Well, this one's a biggie."
"I know what's wrong, Xena."
Finally getting the boot off, Xena turned it upside down and waited for the stone to fall out. Instead of a stone, only a tiny fragment of leather came out into her hand. "Oh… that's funny, it felt bigger."
Smiling, Xena put the boot back on, laced it, and stamped her foot a couple of times to make it fit. "Look at how much the light has gone away while we've been talking. We won't be able to make it to Amphipolis tonight, Gabrielle."
"Oh, really?" Gabrielle said in a tone that dripped with sarcasm.
"Something's bugging you. Go on, spit it out," Xena said and wrapped her arm around her partner's shoulder.
"Xena. Warrior. Chicken. You're afraid to go home because your birthday is the day after tomorrow. You think that if you ignore it long enough, somehow time will skip over it… am I right?"
When Gabrielle didn't get an answer beyond a half-shrug, she took Xena's hands in her own and entwined their fingers. "Xena, a birthday is no big deal. Even this one… all right, it's a major one… but it's still no big deal. It's just a figure on a scroll, right?"
Xena shrugged again and mumbled something Gabrielle couldn't hear.
"Pardon?" the bard said, leaning in towards Xena's mouth.
"I found a gray hair this morning."
Gabrielle gasped and clapped her hand down onto Xena's in a slightly exaggerated fashion. "Oh, Sweet Aphrodite, you didn't!"
"Where is it? Let me see…?" Gabrielle said and began to scrutinize her partner's impressive head of pitch black hair.
"I yanked it out. It was mocking me."
"Xena, Xena, Xena, you're not the first woman to find a gray hair. Nor are you the first woman to turn thirty. You have at least fifteen good years ahead of you, so let's save the angst for when you turn forty, okay?" Gabrielle said and gave Xena's shoulder a good thump with her knuckles.
Getting up, Gabrielle put out her hand and pulled Xena to her feet. "Come on, it's too cold to spend the night outside at this time of the year. You promised me that we'd sleep in a soft bed tonight, and I'm holding you to it."
"Oh, I haven't forgotten. There's an inn just down the road. My plan is to spen-"
'Help! Heeeeelp!' a female voice suddenly shouted from somewhere further up the dirt road. The voice seemed to come from beyond the first few rows of trees, but it was too muffled by the foliage to pinpoint the exact location of the person in trouble.
Xena quickly put on her game face and drew her sword. "Gabrielle, I'll go into the trees. You move up the road… shout if you see anything. Don't do anything before I get there."
"I understand, Xena," Gabrielle said and jumped over to Argo to retrieve her staff. Once she had pulled it out of its restraints, she looked back at where Xena had been standing only seconds before, but could only see empty space. "Argo, get ready, Xena might whistle for you," she continued, patting the golden mare's flank.
Argo answered by whinnying and scraping her hoof on the dirt road.
"That's a good warhorse," Gabrielle said, soon setting off in a fast jog.
Fifty yards further up the road, she could hear the woman shouting again, and this time, it was tinged with desperation and mortal fear. Gritting her teeth, Gabrielle grabbed the staff hard and scouted every last inch of the area beyond the road.
Her eye suddenly caught a brief flash of steel in a small clearing behind the second row of trees, and she took a deep breath and let out a piercing Amazon bird call - an eagle - that was sure to alert Xena. Moments later, the female voice was heard crying and Gabrielle decided on the spot that she was going to help.
Bursting through the shrubbery and the small trees, Gabrielle jumped into the clearing and quickly surveyed the situation: a ruffian in drab clothes was holding a young woman of no more than fifteen summers up against a tree. The thug was pushing a nasty-looking dagger against her throat while his free hand was trying to tear apart her clothes.
Gabrielle growled and raised her staff. Jumping forward, she held it high in the air, intent on pounding the ruffian into oblivion, but at the very last moment, she heard Xena yell at her in a frantic voice.
'No, Gabrielle! Get down!'
Moments later, something metallic screamed past her right ear and embedded itself deeply into the ruffian's back. The thug groaned and dropped the dagger. As he took a staggering step away from the young girl, he let out a grotesque rattle and collapsed onto the ground, dead as a doorknob.
An unnatural silence fell over the small clearing - the young woman was frozen solid with fear, Gabrielle was trembling, thinking about how close she had been to the Chakram, and Xena kept quiet, not wanting to shout at her partner while they had company.
The young girl eventually overcame her shock and began to shriek hysterically. Flailing her arms in the air, she spun around and ran out of the small clearing and onto the dirt road.
Once the girl was away, Gabrielle let out a trembling breath and touched the side of her head where she had very nearly had a facelift, courtesy of the Chakram.
"Gabri-*elle*…!" Xena growled, putting her sword back in her scabbard.
The bard ran her hands through her hair and took a deep breath. "I know, I-" - gulp - "I know. I should've stayed out on the road. B-but… she was crying and I couldn't…"
"I already had everything under control. I heard your bird call loud and clear. You should have looked around… dammit, Gabrielle!"
Xena stomped over to the dead highwayman and yanked the Chakram out of his back. Kicking him over with her foot, she quickly established that, like most of his colleagues, he had been an ugly fellow.
"I'm sorry, Xena," Gabrielle said in a small voice. She bent down and picked up her staff that had slipped from her grasp when the Chakram had flown past her.
Sighing, Xena squatted down next to the dead ruffian and wiped her circular weapon on his tunic. She closed her eyes and forced the anger and the shock out of her system. "It's all right, Gabrielle," she said, still holding her eyes closed. "It was a near miss, but it was a miss, after all. I'm sorry for growling at you."
"I messed up, my love. I expect to be growled at when I do that," Gabrielle said, leaning against the same tree the ruffian had just used.
Xena nodded and put the Chakram on its hook. Getting up, she walked over to stand in front of Gabrielle. "Another inch to the left and we wouldn't be having this conversation now," she said, reaching up to caress Gabrielle's cheek.
As usual, the bard's lips had an irresistible pull on the Warrior Princess. Closing her eyes, she leaned down towards her partner. Moments later, their lips touched in a gentle kiss that was meant to simply re-establish their connection after the fright, but that soon turned slightly heated.
Wearing a relieved smile, Gabrielle chuckled as she pulled back from her partner's lips. "Well, I'm glad I looked to the left rather than the right. Now I get to snuggle down in that soft bed you promised me tonight."
Xena leaned in and gave Gabrielle several little pecks on the lips and the nose. "Well…" - kiss - "I'll even" - kiss - "throw in" - kiss - "a massage." - kiss - "If you're feeling" - kiss - "up to it, of course." - kiss.
"Always," Gabrielle said, grinning cheekily.
Thirty candledrips later, they entered the small village they were hoping to spend the night in. The main street was mostly deserted, but here and there, a few local residents were talking in groups.
After tying Argo to a board outside the inn, Xena took off the saddlebags and slung them over her shoulder. "Gabrielle, after we've rented a room, I need to go down to the local magistrate to report the dead ruffian."
"All right. While you do that, I'll get us settled and order some food," Gabrielle said and picked up her bag with her writing utensils. "Smells pretty good, as a matter of fact," she continued, sniffing the air wafting out from an open window in the kitchen.
Smiling, Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and guided the shorter woman towards the entrance. "Well, let's get on with it, then. I'm surprised your stomach hasn't-"
"… oh. It has."
"Excuse me for being hungry. Those three apples I had for lunch didn't go very far," Gabrielle said, patting her belly. "And with that delicious smell, I mean, how can it not growl…?"
"Mm-hmmm," Xena said and pushed the two of them through the inn's double doors.
The inn was a cozy, if small, establishment that seemed to be clean and well-run. The main dining room consisted of a bar counter and five tables, three of which were occupied by locals. Each table was adorned with a red-and-white checkered table cloth and a wine jar with a candle jammed down the neck. At the far side of the room, a short flight of steps went upstairs, presumably to the rooms.
As the two women stepped through the doors and walked into the inn, the patrons fell quiet, studying the many weapons with weary, resigned expressions.
Picking up the change in the mood, Gabrielle put out her open hands to show that they were empty. "Good evening. We come in peace. Actually, we come to get something to eat and to rent a room for the night," she said with a disarming smile.
A plump woman in her late forties came in from the kitchen holding a large wooden spoon and bringing a whiff of stew that made Gabrielle's stomach growl again. The ruddy woman was dressed in the local garb - a coarse dress, an apron and a woolly bonnet - and she was eyeing the two women standing in her inn suspiciously, almost like she couldn't decide what to say to them.
After a brief pause, she stepped forward and shot Xena a defiant look. "I'm Gressia, the mistress of the inn. We don't want any trouble. Just take what you want and leave us alone, warrior."
"Oh, no, no, no, you got it all wrong, innkeeper, we just want dinner and a room," Gabrielle said, once again showing her empty hands. "We have some dinars… we were going to pay!"
The innkeeper furrowed her brow and crossed her arms in front of her ample bosom. "So… you're not with the thugs?"
"No," Xena said and put down the saddlebags. "But while we're on that subject, there's a dead ruffian out in the clearing. I need to speak with the magistrate."
An elderly man cleared his throat and got up from his chair at one of the tables, wringing a battered, old, greasy hat in his hands. "We don't have one at the moment. What did the ruffian look like?"
"Just a regular thug. He had a nasty scar from above his eye and down to the corner of his mouth," Xena said and moved her finger down her own face to illustrate what she meant. "And he had a underhung jaw. A big one."
"That's Veklos!" the elderly man said in an excited voice. Soon, the other patrons joined in and began to chit-chat loudly with each other.
"And you killed him?" Gressia said, still holding the wooden spoon like a sword.
Gabrielle stepped forward, inexorably drawn towards the wonderful smell coming from the kitchen. "Yes. He was manhandling a young girl up against a tree. We stopped him before he could do anything to her."
"Must be the cobbler's daughter. Veklos was practically drooling over her!" the elderly man said, nodding enthusiastically.
Gressia took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "All right. We believe you. You want a room for the night?"
"Yes, and dinner… perhaps you should make it a double… please!" Gabrielle said loudly, trying to drown out her growling stomach.
"A double room?"
"No, uh, a double dinner…" Gabrielle said with a blush.
"In that case it's four dinars for dinner. Four dinars for the room, clean sheets included. Two dinars extra if you want to use our bathing facilities or if you want your boots polished over night."
"Just the room and dinner," Xena said and picked up the saddlebags.
"That'll be eight dinars, then."
"Eight dinars, here you go," Gabrielle said, finding their money pouch and pouring eight coins out into her hand.
After checking to see if the coins were genuine, Gressia stuffed them down into a leather pouch she had on her belt. "The room is upstairs, off to the right and down the far end. Dinner is almost ready so you can come whenever you want."
"Excellent. Thank you, innkeeper," Gabrielle said and bounded up the short flight of stairs - Xena followed her at a markedly slower pace.
Four candlemarks later.
The result of having eaten more than her share - and going back for seconds - was inevitable: Gabrielle was sprawled flat on her back on the bunk, snoring loudly. Xena was less fortunate, staring at the ceiling and unable to find rest, even in her partner's arms.
After tossing and turning for the umpteenth time, Xena gently moved Gabrielle's arm away from her and sat up on the bed. Scratching her belly through the sleeping shift, she walked over to the door and peeked out into the narrow hallway at the top of the stairs.
The inn had fallen quiet; Gressia, the sturdy innkeeper, had seen to that with a broom and a barely hidden threat of being barred for a few days if the barflies didn't leave at once. Xena chuckled when she remembered her mother doing the same quite often back home in Amphipolis.
Thinking about her mother brought a brief smile to Xena's lips, but it was soon gone. Looking around, she decided on shuffling down the hallway to a window at the far end - once there, she realized that it was jammed shut and that she wouldn't be able to get it opened without waking the entire floor. Rolling her eyes, she shuffled back to their room.
As she stepped inside and closed the door behind her, her nape hairs suddenly stood on edge and she felt her skin crawl, telling her that she was being watched.
A split second later, Ares materialized on the bed, sitting next to Gabrielle's prone body with a nasty smile on his dark features.
"Ares…" Xena growled, clenching her fists.
The God of War grinned and ran his hand over Gabrielle's sleeping form. "Your little friend here sure is loud, huh? Must be the other reason why you keep her. You've always liked it when it got loud."
"State your business and get the Hades out. I'm in no mood to play games."
"Oh, I don't really have any business. I was in the neighborhood and thought it would be fun to drop in on my favorite…" Ares got up and closed the distance between himself and Xena "… subject."
"Pah," Xena said, crossing her arms over her chest.
"Well, actually, there is one thing… I'm disappointed in you, Xena. How could you let yourself become old and gray? Not to mention slow to the point of near-lethargy. I watched you in that brief skirmish today. Let me tell you… if you had thrown that Chakram any slower, it wouldn't have made it all the way there. You moved like an arthritic donkey."
"Gabrielle was in the way," Xena hissed.
Ares turned to look at Gabrielle and waved his hand in a very condescending fashion. "Ah, who cares about that pitiful little wimp. You can find one just like her in any of the villages you go through. Hey, I'll bet you could build a harem in no time. I mean, with your looks," he continued, moving his hand up seemingly to caress Xena's cheek.
Taking a step to the side, Xena swatted his hand away like she would a fat, ugly fly.
The God chuckled and moved even closer to his former student. "Temper, temper, Xena. You know I'd be good for you. I'd bring out a side of you that she never could… that she'd never be able to exploit. Your fire… among other things."
"Well, that's yet another difference between her and you. Gabrielle would never exploit me or our relationship."
"Oh please, you're giving me the burps. By the sound of it, you've been speaking too much to my airhead sister. You should listen to your master, Xena, you're not even capable of loving. Where other mortals have a beating heart, you have a blackened lump, only filled with fiery anger. I should know, I put it there."
"Ares… you're not making any sense," Xena said and walked back to the bed where she sat down and put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, getting some comfort from feeling her partner's steady breath. At the touch, Gabrielle mumbled something unintelligible and smacked her lips a couple of times.
"Aw, isn't that cute," Ares said contemptuously. "Now, I'm about to make you a little offer that I'm sure will make you drop your Ice Queen facade."
"I don't care if you offered me the world, Ares, I'm not interested."
Ares grinned darkly and stroked his goatee. "But you haven't even heard it yet! I'll spell it out for you, Xena… immor-ta-li-ty."
Narrowing her eyes, Xena made a disgusted face at the God's offer. "And why in Tartarus would I want that?"
"Why? You're asking me why? Well, no more gray hairs… no more wrinkles around your eyes… no more aching bones on the cold mornings… let me see… oh yeah, no more worries about getting bloodied in battle. You could just go all-in and kill 'em all. Like you used to, when you weren't afraid of getting a bloody nose."
"But I wouldn't be able to grow old with Gabrielle, would I?"
"Oh, you know, Xena… to throw your own word back at ya, 'pah'. Well, you've heard my offer," Ares said and buffed his fingernails on his black leather vest. "Think about it. I'll be back later for your decision."
Her eyes shooting fire, Xena put her hands on her hips. "You can have it now, Ares. I'm not interested in your offer. You see, Gabrielle and I share something you'll never be able to have… or even understand. And separation doesn't even come into the picture!"
Finally stirring from her deep sleep by the sound of her lover's agitated voice, Gabrielle yawned widely and looked around in a daze. A split second later, she shot up into a sitting position and pulled the blanket up under her nose to shield herself from the God's roaming eyes. "What's he doing here?" she whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
"Nothing and he'll be leaving very soon," Xena replied flatly.
Ares chuckled darkly and closed his black eyes. "Hmmm. All right. But you're wrong about one thing, Xena," he said in a hoarse, menacing whisper. "Separated you will be… and sooner than you think. After all, Licantus of Crete is working for yours truly. So when you go after him, you'll inevitably bump into me. Oh yes, I know your plans. Enjoy the rest of the night." With those words, the God dissolved into thin air.
Shaking her head, Xena ran a hand through her hair in a very frustrated fashion.
Sensing her lover's pain, Gabrielle leapt out of the bunk and ran around the footend on bare feet. Not wasting a second, she wrapped her arms around Xena and pulled her into a warm, silent embrace that lasted for several candledrips.
Once they separated, Xena reached up and mussed Gabrielle's strawberry-blonde
hair. "Thank you. I needed that."
"You looked like you did," Gabrielle said, running her hands down Xena's arms until she found the warrior's strong fingers. "What was his offer?"
"Oh… you don't want to live forever?"
"I don't know what I'd answer if a God gave me that offer," Gabrielle said and leaned forward to bury her face in the nook of Xena's shoulder.
Chuckling, Xena mussed Gabrielle's hair again and led the two of them back to the bunk. "You'd turn it down, too."
"Yeah," Xena said and held the blanket aside so Gabrielle could slip under it.
Once the two lovers were arm in arm under the covers, Gabrielle yawned widely and snuggled down into Xena's strong grip. "I suppose you're right."
"Oh, I very much know I am."
"Mmmm. Love, please don't let this get you down. It's your birthday soon, that's a cause for celebration," Gabrielle said, looking at her partner's profile that was just barely visible in the darkness.
"Ugh. One year older."
"I know, I know, you're getting a year older and all that… but you'll get to see your family and your friends. That's got to count for something… right?"
"Oh, sure. Mother's cooking-"
"Yay!" Gabrielle said and let out a brief whoop.
"Drink some of her strong wine."
"No?" Xena said, tickling Gabrielle's arm under the covers.
"No. After that little incident last Winter Solstice, it took me nearly four moons before I could stomach even the thought of tasting wine again," Gabrielle said, getting the shivers when she remembered the hangover from Tartarus she'd had the first morning they'd been there.
"Of course, now, I can't even smell Amazon ale… before… I…" she continued in a voice that trailed off before she had reached the end of the sentence; her stomach was flip-flopping just thinking about her latest misadventures in the world of alcohol.
"We'll let Joxer drink all the wine, then."
"No, 'cos then we have to carry him upstairs… or out to the stables, whichever is closest."
Chuckling, Xena leaned her head down and kissed Gabrielle's hair. "True."
"I wonder who Cyrene has invited…?" Gabrielle said in a quizzical tone.
"Well," Xena said, moving her hand up underneath the blanket until she found Gabrielle's fingers. "it could be two or it could be a hundred… either way, I don't care, because you're the only one who matters to me."
"Awwww… thank you, love. Uh, Xena?" Gabrielle whispered into the warrior's ear.
"Can you still sense Ares?"
"No. Why?" Xena said and moved a bit away from her lover so she could study her face.
"Well… I was thinking…" Lifting her head up, Gabrielle started nibbling on Xena's earlobe, earning herself a very un-Xena like snicker. Once the earlobe was well-loved, she leaned in even further and began to place a line of little kisses on the warrior's neck. "… that maybe…" - kiss, kiss - "… we could …" - kiss, kiss - "…make love?"
At the same time, she moved her hand across Xena's sleeping shift, stopping at one of the warrior's peaks that she began to knead very gently.
The sensation of Gabrielle's gentle touch on her breast, and warm, soft, moist lips on her neck sent an undeniable buzz through Xena, and she rolled over onto her side so she could look deeply into her partner's eyes. "Now?" she breathed.
"I've created a monster…" Xena continued, seeking - and quickly claiming - Gabrielle's delicate lips in a searing kiss.
Bright and early the next morning, Xena put the saddlebags across Argo's hind quarters and tied them to the saddle. After checking the stirrups, the girth and the tack, she gave Argo a couple of apples so she would take them to Amphipolis without too many dramas.
Wondering what was keeping Gabrielle, she considered going back inside, but at the very last moment before she did so, her partner came out of the inn wearing a less than joyous look on her face.
"Gabrielle, something wrong?"
Grumble, grumble. "For some reason, the innkeeper reneged on her initial price. Out of the blue, she wanted two dinars more," Gabrielle said, stomping the butt of her staff into the ground.
"There must be some reason…?"
"She said we had been too loud." When Xena didn't appear to have any idea what Gabrielle was talking about, the bard leaned in and whispered out of the corner of her mouth: "You know."
"Ohhh. Well, I guess it did get kinda loud," Xena said, took Gabrielle's bag with her writing utensils and stuffed it down one of the saddlebags.
"I suppose… but…" Gabrielle looked left and right to make sure no one was close enough to hear her. "In my opinion, the sounds are half the fun."
Wearing a surprisingly solemn expression, Xena turned around and put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Love? Are you sure you're not related to Aphrodite?" When Gabrielle shot her a dark look, Xena couldn't hold back a grin, and she leaned in and placed a small kiss on the bard's forehead.
"Quite sure, Xena. Quite sure. Anyway, let's get on the road. We have a birthday party to catch in Amphipolis," Gabrielle said and stood up on tip-toes so she could give Xena a proper kiss on the lips.
A handful of candlemarks later, the outskirts of Amphipolis began to appear on the horizon. Almost imperceptibly, Xena made Argo slow down until the golden mare was barely moving forward.
"What's wrong this time, Xena?" Gabrielle said, sitting behind the warrior with her arms safely wrapped around the leather-adorned waist. "Don't tell me you got a stone in your boot sitting up here?"
"No, but, uh… it's close. I think Argo has a rock in her shoe."
"No, no, it's true. Gabrielle, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have pulled that little charade yesterday. Now you think I'm just trying to stall," Xena said and loosened Gabrielle's grip around her waist.
"Stall…? Well, I suppose that works… although I was about to use another word," Gabrielle said and clambered down.
Chuckling, Xena quickly jumped off Argo and went to check up on the mare's right front leg. Raising the hoof in the air, she soon spotted the culprit - a sharp rock had lodged itself in between the shoe and the outer rim of the hoof.
"Ouch…" Gabrielle said, making a face.
"Maybe I'd stall, but Argo wouldn't. We need to get it fixed."
In a flash, Gabrielle ran around Argo and dug into the left saddlebag. After a brief search, she found the correct tool and handed it to Xena.
"Thanks. Now… to… get… that… little… annoyance… outta… there," Xena said, going to work on Argo's hoof. - plop! - "There. That should do it," she continued once the rock had been dislodged.
Argo broke out into a relieved whinny, and Xena put her arms around the mare's neck and gave her a couple of good, strong pats. "You're good to go, girl. Come on, it isn't far," Xena said, continuously stroking Argo's neck and head.
Up on a hill not far from where Xena and Gabrielle were tending to Argo, a figure completely enshrouded in a dark cloak was observing them. Letting out a chuckle, the figure turned around and began to move down the hill to get to Amphipolis before the women and their warhorse.
Half a candlemark later, Xena pulled Argo to a halt in front of her mother's inn. Save for a few people milling about and a lone tumbleweed rolling unhindered from one side of the street to the other, the main street was largely deserted. A chilly wind blew between the houses, giving Xena and Gabrielle the shivers and making them wrap their arms around each other.
"Well, that's different…" Gabrielle said, looking up and down the empty street.
Xena cocked her head and tried to listen for any unusual sounds. "I sure hope they're not planning a surprise party for me. They know I don't like surprises."
"Oooh, I love surprise parties!" Gabrielle said and bounded up the two steps to stand in front of the inn's double doors. "Well, aren't you coming?"
Sighing, Xena looked around. Eventually giving in, she shrugged and followed her lover up the stairs.
Gabrielle opened the doors and peeked in. "Hm!" she said, looking back at Xena. "If they're planning a surprise party, they've definitely borrowed Hades' Helmet of Invisibility, because… uh, there's no one in there."
"Really?" Xena said and moved through the doors to stand next to Gabrielle - sure enough, the inn was as empty as the main street.
Apart from the curious emptiness, the inn looked much the same as it always had; the chairs and the tables were still the same, as was the long counter to the left of the room. The curtains to the kitchen were closed, but a delightful smell of bread being baked wafted through them and lingered in the air.
Gabrielle was about to comment on the wonderful smell when an echoing 'Ha-chooo!' was heard from the first floor, quickly followed by several shushes and a muffled 'sorry' .
Xena groaned, knowing exactly what was going to happen, but Gabrielle just grinned and tip-toed over to the stairs where she placed herself next to one of the support beams. "Oh, Xena!" she said loudly, "There's no one home! We better head over to the stables first!"
'Now?' someone asked from atop the stairs, followed by a 'Now!'
The staircase suddenly came alive with no less than four people bounding down the steps - Cyrene, Joxer, Iolaus and a rather pretty blonde in her late twenties whom Xena was more than a little shocked to see - all shouting 'happy birthday, Xena!' and 'surprise!' in a loud and disharmonious fashion.
While Iolaus and Joxer threw colorful confetti over Xena's head, Cyrene flew into her daughter's strong arms and gave her the hug of a lifetime. Overcome by emotions, Cyrene could only whisper nonsensical words into Xena's ear, and eventually, she began to sob.
"There… there… mother. Please don't cry. This is supposed to be a happy occasion, right?" Xena said, locking eyes with Gabrielle who was close to tears herself.
Cyrene wiped her eyes and pulled back from her daughter. "I know, but it warms my heart to see you here, and in one piece. We heard some rumors that you and Gabrielle had been caught up in an attack on an Amazon village…?"
"We were, but we were unharmed. And it's not my birthday until tomorrow, you know," Xena said, pulling her mother back to her bosom for a new hug.
"I know… but Iolaus told me you've been very busy so I thought there was a risk you might get called away on some heroic mission before then," Cyrene said, wiping her eyes again.
Xena looked at their curly friend and sent him a broad smile. "Good thinking. Hello, Iolaus."
"Hi, Xena. You look great. So do you, Gabrielle," the hunter said, tipping his non-existent cap at Gabrielle.
"Thanks, Iolaus. Hi, Joxer. It's been a while, huh?" Gabrielle said and went over to give their tall and slightly clumsy friend a slap on his home-made armor.
"It has, Gab. I've saved the world more than once in the meantime, ha ha. Why, I faced down a brutal warlord called Abraxus the Terrible not long ago. Hey, the last time we spoke was actually right here, back at the Winter Solstice celebrations. Remember?"
Scenes of finding Xena buried under a foot of snow on Solstice Night - with a deep wound in her side - briefly flashed through Gabrielle's mind, and she settled for nodding out of fear that her voice would break. "Mmmm."
Cyrene noticed that the mysterious blonde woman was standing by herself up against the counter with a shy, but cute, expression on her face, so she waved her over at once. "Xena, look who's here."
While all kinds of alarm bells went off in her head, Xena cocked her head and gave the woman a thorough check. In her late twenties, the woman was fairly tall with a bosom proportionate to the rest of her body, long, deep-blonde hair that almost came to her rear, eyes that were a mix of blue and green and a very sweet, very innocent face. She was wearing a dress made of the finest forest green silk and she wore silver bracelets on her wrists.
Licking her lips, Xena shot Gabrielle a slightly guilty look. "Ahhhh, hello, Lydia," she said hoarsely.
"Hello, Xena. You hesitate… don't tell me you've forgotten about me?" the young woman purred.
"Uh, I… of course not, ha ha," Xena said, suddenly getting the feeling that she was about to head into a fierce thunderstorm.
Without warning, Lydia closed the distance between them and placed a kiss that was anything but chaste right on Xena's lips.
"Oh! Mmmpff!" Xena said as she felt the other woman's lips on her own.
Gabrielle's response was immediate: first her eyes grew as wide as dinner plates, then they narrowed down into green slits. Crossing her arms over her chest, she sent Xena a dark glare and a raised eyebrow.
After Lydia and Xena had separated, the blonde stepped back and hooked her arm inside the warrior's. "Oh, I hope I didn't shock all you good people. You see, Xena and I used to be best friends. No, actually, we were more than that. We were… hmmm… bosom buddies," Lydia said with a saucy smile that belied her sweet, innocent exterior.
Iolaus sidestepped until he was standing next to Gabrielle. "Psst… are you all right, Gab?" he whispered.
"You and Xena are still together, right?"
"Oops. I predict a catfight sometime in the near future. Excellent," the hunter continued before he sidestepped back to his original position.
Xena caught a glimpse of Gabrielle's dark glare and decided on the spot to end the embarrassing scene before it would lead her to her doom. "Actually, Lydia… mother… my friends… I have an announcement to make. You see, I…"
Looking down, Xena noted that Lydia still had her arm hooked inside hers, but with a small tug, she managed to get herself free. She used her liberty to walk over to Gabrielle and put her arm around the bard's waist.
Clearing her throat, she continued: "You see, Gabrielle and I have fallen in love. We love each other very dearly and I'm afraid there isn't room for anyone else in my heart… Lydia."
Now it was Lydia's turn to cross her arms over her chest and shoot Xena a dark glare. Harrumphing, she pretended to smile at Xena and Gabrielle, but in reality, it barely registered on her face.
Iolaus grinned and punched Xena's shoulder. Cyrene and Joxer were both standing with puzzled expressions on their faces, looking very much like they hadn't fully digested the new information yet. Cyrene snapped out of it first and let out a squeal that made everyone jump.
"OHHHHHH!" she howled. Rushing forward, she wrapped her arms around both her daughter and Gabrielle and gave them an almighty squeeze. "I'm so happy for you!"
"Thank you, Cyrene," Gabrielle said in a muffled voice, completely covered by the sleeve of the innkeeper's dress.
After Cyrene had wiped her eyes all over again, she took a step back and sent Gabrielle a knowing little wink. "There's a little something in the oven for you… well, if you're still interested in that sort of thing."
"Would it be… nutbread?" Gabrielle said and clenched her fists.
Smiling, Cyrene turned around and looked at the other guests. "Xena and I need to have a little mother-daughter discussion. Would you mind dressing the tables in the meantime? Lunch isn't far off."
"We're on it as flies, Cyrene," Iolaus said and dragged the still-confused Joxer into the kitchen. Harrumphing, Lydia shuffled after the two guys.
"I'll go with them. Someone has to guard the nutbread," Gabrielle said with a broad smile gracing her features. After giving Xena a quick touch, she spun around and skipped into the kitchen.
As the bard moved behind the curtain, Xena sighed and put an arm around her mother's waist. "You wanted to have a little talk?"
"Yes. In my chamber."
Closing the door to the chamber behind her, Cyrene sat down on a chair at a dresser with a small mirror. When Xena kept standing, Cyrene pointed at the bed, and the warrior duly sat down.
"Xena, I can't tell you how glad I am to hear about you and Gabrielle… but… I'm sorry I invited Lydia… I thought you'd be glad to see her," Cyrene said with a wistful smile. "Last year…"
"Was a long, long time ago. It's all right, mother. You couldn't know."
"How long have you and Gabrielle been together? Since last Solstice?"
"More or less. That was the start of it."
"Is she the one for you? I mean… really the one?"
Looking down, Xena started playing with her long fingers. After a short while, she nodded. "Yes. Gabrielle is the one. She's the last thing on my mind before I fall asleep… and the first when I wake up in the morning. When I'm feeling down, all I have to do is to look at her smile, or listen to her laugh and I forget everything else… Sweet Aphrodite, I got it bad, don't I?"
"Love is beautiful, my daughter."
"Well, yes, but… Ares came to visit me last night with yet another of his so-called offers." Sighing, Xena leaned forward and ran her hands through her hair. "I'm just afraid that I'll be exposing Gabrielle to things she shouldn't see. War… death… When we're constantly scrutinized by the God of War, there's always a risk that-"
"Xena, Gabrielle can speak, can't she?" Cyrene said, leaning over and patting her daughter's knee.
"Then I fully expect her to speak her mind when problems arise."
"Well, she certainly does that…"
"Good. She's a strong and strong-willed young woman, Xena. She's stronger than you think." Getting up from the chair, Cyrene smoothed down her apron and fluffed the sleeves of her dress. "It'll all work out, don't worry," she continued, giving Xena's hands a loving squeeze.
"I hope it will."
Moving over to the door, Cyrene opened it and peeked outside - a split second later, a bump was heard followed by an exasperated 'Oh, Joxer!' .
"Mmmm. We better get back there and help the boys and girls dress the tables," she said with a chuckle.
Fifteen candledrips later, three tables had been put together in the center of the inn, and an endless array of trays, jars, mugs and plates had been put on them.
The party of six were standing behind their chairs, waiting for Cyrene to ring the dinner bell. Xena had been given the seat at the end of the table with Iolaus, Lydia and an empty chair for Cyrene to her left, and Gabrielle and Joxer to her right.
Once Cyrene rang the bell, the guests all sat down rather noisily and waited for the beverages.
"So," Cyrene said, walking in from the kitchen holding two heavy-looking kegs under her arms. "What do you all fancy? We've got rich wine and strong ale."
Both choices left Gabrielle looking a bit green around the gills, something that Lydia immediately picked up on. Holding the napkin to her mouth, she let out a short, slightly patronizing laugh that made Xena narrow her eyes.
"Ale!" Iolaus shouted, holding his mug in the air.
"Ale for you," Cyrene said, pouring a healthy amount into his mug. "And the rest of ya?"
"Ale," Xena echoed, holding up her mug.
"I'd like some wine, please, Cyrene," Lydia said.
"It's an excellent mix, Lydia. I squashed them myself the other moon," Cyrene said and poured the deep red liquid into the blonde's mug.
Walking around the table, Cyrene put down the ale keg and patted Joxer's shoulder. "I have some of my special brew for you, my friend."
"Thank you, Cyrene."
Still holding the wine keg, Cyrene walked up and moved to fill Gabrielle's mug, but the bard put her hand across it.
"Uhhh… would it be too much trouble if I got some of that as well?" Gabrielle said sheepishly, leading to another slightly patronizing laugh by Lydia.
"Of course not, Gabrielle. Hang on, I'll be right with ya."
Once Cyrene had left the table to get the drink she had prepared for Joxer, Gabrielle sent a sideways look at Lydia who had already begun to eat the first course, a chunky chicken and vegetable soup. When the two women briefly locked eyes, Gabrielle felt a shiver run down her back from the jealous glare in the other woman's blue-green eyes.
Tearing a chunk out of his bread, Iolaus dipped it in his soup and took a large bite. "So, you two… how have things gone for you lately? Up and down as usual I hope?" he said around the bread, wearing an impossibly cheeky grin.
Hearing the thinly veiled innuendo nearly made Gabrielle drop her spoon into the soup, but Xena just reached over and patted her hand.
"We've been doing fine, Iolaus. Just fine," Xena said, sending Iolaus a crooked grin.
"Sounds good. Oh, before I forget… Herc told me to say happy birthday. He had to rush down south somewhere. He's always on the move, that man."
"Thanks," Xena said, thumping Iolaus' shoulder.
Lydia opened her mouth to make a comment, but she was interrupted by Cyrene's return and she took a large spoonful of soup instead to hide her disappointment.
"Here we go, Joxer and Gabrielle. Sorry for the delay, I had to open a new keg," Cyrene said and poured her special brew - homemade root beer - into the two mugs.
Joxer held up his mug and didn't take it down until it was filled to the brim. "Thank you, Cyrene. Mmmmm, this stuff sure is tasty. I could drink it all day."
"And the last time, you did just that," Cyrene said, quick to catch the cue. Chuckling, she leaned down towards Gabrielle. "Enjoy it, dear. Even if you emptied the entire keg by yourself, you wouldn't get a hangover. I guarantee it."
Sending Cyrene a relieved smile, Gabrielle saluted her by raising her mug in the air. "Thanks. I appreciate it."
"No, thank you, Gabrielle… you're just what my daughter needs," Cyrene whispered for Gabrielle's ears only.
When Gabrielle blushed furiously, Cyrene gave the bard's shoulder a little squeeze before she went around the table to get something to eat.
"… And there we were, me and Herc… dressed as women, trying to blend in and doing a terrible job of it," Iolaus said and used a chunk of bread to wipe the remaining drops of gravy from his Beef Amphipolis off his plate. "I mean, I'm handsome enough to pass as a woman, right? But Herc, that big lug… forget it. It didn't take the guards half a candledrip to spot us. Then we had to bust some heads."
The party laughed appropriately, especially Lydia who had moved her chair to the right and was practically sitting in Iolaus' lap, gobbling up his story - the hunter didn't seem to mind.
"Well, I think that just about wraps up things here," Xena said and put her napkin down on the plate. "Thank you very much for a delightful meal, mother. Gabrielle and I have to keep our daily schedule now."
"Oh, but you can't leave yet! You haven't had dessert!" Cyrene said.
"Dessert?" Gabrielle said, leaning forward on her chair.
"Halved peaches soaked in port and cream."
Hearing that, Gabrielle's eyes grew wide open and her jaw fell down to her chest. She quickly looked at Xena to beg her to reconsider, but the warrior had made up her mind.
"No, we need to get going. Can't you save one for Gabrielle, mother?"
"Well… of course."
"Please do," Xena said and got up.
"All right, I will. I hope you got enough to eat?"
"Oh, yes. Thank you. I'm stuffed enough to last me a week."
Cyrene rose from her chair and began to collect the mugs. "Well, that's the whole point of eating. And you, Gabrielle?"
"Thank you, Cyrene. It was wonderful."
"Good. Iolaus, Joxer, just keep sitting for now, I need to make room for the dirty dishes before we bring in the dessert," Cyrene said and went into the kitchen.
When the curtain had fluttered down behind the innkeeper, Lydia leaned forward with a patronizing grin on her lips. "Your daily schedule…? Are you teaching your little friend to read and write, Xena?"
"Catfight," Iolaus mouthed at Joxer who nodded in return. Both men hurriedly pushed their chairs back, stacked up their plates and made a swift exit.
Glancing at Gabrielle, Xena could see that her partner was fighting to keep quiet, so she reached over and patted the bard's hand. "Well, no, Lydia, that's not quite it. We're practicing offensive and defensive techniques with an Amazon fighting staff. You're welcome to join us. You might learn a thing or two."
"Oh, no, thank you. I wouldn't dream of touching such a primitive instrument. No, if I wanted to see a fight, I'd just go into one of the ratty establishments right here in Amphipolis. But I don't," Lydia said and got up from her chair. "I think I shall stay here and talk to that charming fellow Iolaus. Oh, I hope that won't make you jealous, Xena? From what I've heard, you and he had a 'thing' once…?"
Before Xena had time to answer, Lydia moved away from the table and waltzed into the kitchen.
Moments later, Gabrielle started tapping her fingers on the table top, mumbling several choice words on Lydia's parentage.
Chuckling, Xena shook her head and helped Gabrielle up. "Don't mind her, she's just being a… you know. Come on, love, let's get the staffs. You could pretend that your opponent had blonde hair and blue-green eyes…?"
Twenty candledrips later, on a grassy knoll on the outskirts of the village.
"Ugh…" - stab - "… who does…" - sweep - "…that…" - parry - "…woman…" - stab - "…think she…" - stab! - "…is!?" Gabrielle said around a series of breathless moans as she was trying to keep up with Xena's advances; her task hampered by her very full belly.
"She's just being Lydia. She was always like that, believe it or not. Double- sweep left, then right," Xena said, holding a staff horizontally to block one of Gabrielle's stabs.
"Well…" - sweep left, then right - "…she's just…" - thrust - "… rude and catty…" - stab - "… and …"
"Switch to defensive moves. Overhead block, now," Xena said and raised her staff to use it in an offensive move.
Unfortunately, Gabrielle didn't hear Xena's command and resumed thrusting and parrying, leaving herself completely exposed to the warrior's attack.
Bringing the staff down with a swoosh, Xena let it come to a rest just above the top of Gabrielle's strawberry-blonde hair to hammer home the point. "Goodbye world, hello Charon," the warrior said in a steely voice.
Gabrielle's lips became a narrow line in her face and she shook her head repeatedly. "Oh… Hades. I'm sorry, Xena. I was distracted… by that… that… woman!"
"In battle, you cannot focus on anything but the person you're fighting, Gabrielle. You know that," Xena said and leaned down to kiss the top of Gabrielle's head.
"Yeah, but you said I could use her as my target…"
"Come on, let's start over. Offensive position… now!"
Gabrielle raised her staff and blocked the next few thrusts and stabs, but then she let her mind wander again. She never spotted the leg-sweep until she was flat on her back in the grass.
"Centaur dung!" the bard grumbled, punching the ground where she had landed.
"You need a break?"
"Yes, please. I also need a hand. After your mother's Beef Amphipolis, I weigh twice as much as I did this morning," Gabrielle said and put out her hand.
With a heave-ho, Xena hoisted her lover onto her feet and gave her a little hug to show that she wasn't upset. "Hey, let's find some place to sit down. We need to talk about something, anyway."
"Something funny I hope," Gabrielle said, rubbing her rear end.
"No, I'm afraid not. It relates to what Ares told me last night. Come on, let's sit there," Xena said and pointed at a boulder protruding from the ground a short distance away.
Smoothing her skirt, Gabrielle sat down on the boulder, shifting to the side to make room for Xena to sit next to her. "So?"
"Well, Ares told me that Licantus of Crete is one of his," the warrior said, toying with her Chakram.
"That makes our mission twice as dangerous. There hasn't been any news from the Amazon camp which leads me to think that there haven't been any further attacks."
"And we still don't know why they went after Amazons in the first place. A veteran slave trader like Licantus would know they're just too hard to break in. Uh, I mean…" Xena said, looking at Gabrielle with a sheepish expression on her face.
"I know what you meant, love. And yes, Amazons can be quite, uh, aggressive."
Chuckling, Xena patted Gabrielle's hand. "But what awaits us when we get to his base on Crete? Perhaps it would be best if-"
"No," Gabrielle said, shaking her head vehemently.
" 'No?' How do you know what I was going to say?"
"I always know what you're going to say. No, Xena, I'm going with you. I know it's going to be dangerous, but who'll protect your back if I'm not there?"
"Well, I think I'd be able to do that just fine on my own, actually… but if you insist…?"
"I do. We're going, and we're going together. Xena, all this talk… this is just another attempt at stalling, isn't it? Well, it isn't working," Gabrielle said and got up from the boulder. "Tomorrow is your big day and I'm gonna make sure you enjoy every last candledrip of it."
"Yes, dear," Xena said and pretended to cower at her lover's sharp tongue.
Nodding, Gabrielle started rolling her shoulders. "All right. Let's go back to the sparring. I need to beat Lydia up a bit more, I think."
Panting hard, Gabrielle threw her staff down on the ground and leaned forward to put her hands on her knees. Her face was flushed and her arms and chest were covered by a sheen of sweat that soon began to steam in the chilly weather.
"This was a good, productive sparring session, Gabrielle. We came a long way today," Xena said, casually picking her teeth with a splinter that had come off Gabrielle's staff in the fracas.
"I'm glad… you think so… because… I can't… even remember… my name…! Two candledrips… more of that… and I… would have lost… my lunch… all over… the ground…!"
Making a face, Xena took a step back from her lover just be on the safe side. "Hmmm! Well, that would have put a damper on things. Tell you what, if you're able to get back to the inn, I could try to persuade mother to let us use the hot tub."
"And I'll give you a deep massage. I think you need it."
"Mass… sage? Oh… I… could use one."
"I know. Come on, Gabrielle, it isn't far," Xena said and put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders to steer her back to the village.
"Hot tub," Gabrielle said with a grin that was practically wider than her face. Standing in the doorway to the bath house behind the inn, she was holding onto the doorjambs just to keep herself erect.
Xena came up to stand behind Gabrielle, holding a bucket of hot water. "And here's the water. Go sit down on the bench, it won't take me long to fill the tub."
Less than ten candledrips later, Gabrielle lowered her aching body into the tub. As the hot water caressed her calves and thighs, a long moan escaped her lips, but it was nothing compared to the throaty groan she let out when the water came up to cover her torso - "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!"
Xena hadn't yet joined her partner in the tub, but the passionate groan made her nape hairs stand on edge and she couldn't stop a wolfish grin from gracing her features. Looking forward to the unexpected adventure, she quickly disrobed and climbed up into the tub.
Once she was seated comfortably, she glanced at Gabrielle who was leaning against the side of the hot tub with a look of pure bliss on her face. "You want that massage now?"
"All right. Stay there, I'll slide in behind you."
After scooting over slowly so the water wouldn't splash over the side, Xena put her legs on either side of Gabrielle's and pulled the petite woman so close that their bodies were touching all the way down.
Snickering, Gabrielle put her hands on top of Xena's below the waterline. "Xena, is this really part of the massage?"
"Yes," Xena breathed into Gabrielle's ear. "It'll make you relax," she continued, moving her skilled hands down to the junction of Gabrielle's legs to begin the massage.
Outside the bath house, Joxer and Iolaus were on their way over to the wood shed to chop some more firewood for the stove and the fireplace when they heard Gabrielle let out a husky moan.
Coming to a stop, Joxer picked up his ears and listened intently. "Iolaus… do you think we should barge in there and help Gabrielle? It sounds very much like she has a belly ache… or something."
"Well… no, Joxer, I don't think we should, actually," Iolaus said with a knowing grin. "And… well, I suppose you could call it a belly ache… but Xena is in there as well and… she has… many skills. Ah, they'll be fine. Come on, let's go chop some wood so we can get back inside. It's too darn cold out here."
"Well… I still think we should help," Joxer said and turned towards the bath house, but Iolaus grabbed his elbow just in time and led him to the wood shed instead.
Xena's actual birthday dawned bright and chilly, and the first rays of the late Autumn sun did their best to illuminate the inside of the bedroom and the two people who lay entangled under the blanket.
Two shifts had been thrown haphazardly on the floor and the state of the pillows proved that more than sleeping had taken place during the night.
Like so many other nights in the past few weeks, Xena had awoken early and was staring at the support beams in the ceiling, mulling over her age, their present situation and what the future might hold for them.
Not wanting to disturb her peacefully slumbering lover, Xena tried to remain as still as she could, but the insistent nagging that came from her bladder meant that she eventually had to disentangle herself from Gabrielle's arms and legs that were sprawled all over the warrior's body.
After quickly donning her shift and wrapping herself in her cloak, she tip-toed across the floor and peeked out into the hall - everything was deathly quiet.
With a quick look back at the sleeping Gabrielle, Xena left the bedroom and padded on bare feet down to the little girls' room at the end of the hall.
On her way back, she heard the unmistakable sounds of people whispering in a conspiratorial fashion. The sounds came from downstairs, the kitchen to be precise, and she could pick out both her mother's, Joxer's and Lydia's voices.
The words had traveled too far for Xena to decipher them, but she had an inkling that she and Gabrielle were about to be submitted to the infamous Amphipolis Choir.
Chuckling, Xena went back inside their bedroom and tip-toed over to her sleeping partner. "Gabrielle… Gabrielle…?" she whispered, sitting down on the edge of the bed.
"You need to get up now."
"Mmmm… don't wanna get up… just ten more candledrips…"
"Gabrielle, I think we're about to get invaded."
"Mmmm… invaded? By what? Ares, Titans, Cylops, Furies, Harpies, Banshees…?" Gabrielle said and sat up in bed; the blanket slipping down to reveal that she hadn't put on anything to replace the sleeping shift that she had thrown on the floor.
"No, worse. Far worse. You need to-"
The words had barely left Xena's mouth before the door was opened behind her, and Cyrene, Joxer, Iolaus and Lydia barged into the bedroom, holding lit candles and breaking out into a traditional birthday song.
Shrieking and flailing her arms madly in the air, Gabrielle dove for cover and buried herself under the blanket. Once she was out of sight of the choir, she started grappling frantically for her shift while letting out an impressive barrage of choice cusswords in a rarely-heard West Poteidaian dialect.
Xena rose from the bed, took Gabrielle's sleeping shift and stuffed it in under the blanket, earning herself a muffled 'thank you' in the process.
After they had finished singing, the Amphipolis Choir took a bow, expecting to be paid a dinar as the tradition dictated - Xena's only response was an arched eyebrow.
"Xena, I believe you're supposed to pay the choir," Cyrene said, holding her hand up to protect the flame on her candle.
Xena made a big show out of patting herself down, eventually coming up short in her quest for finding a coin. "Do I look like I have any money on me?"
"A kiss would suffice," Lydia said, wearing a big grin.
"All right. I'll give mother a kiss and then she can distribute it equally among the rest of you," Xena deadpanned, much to Lydia's apparent disappointment. "No? Oh, that's too bad. All right, you've had your fun. Now let me have mine," she continued, moving over to sit on the bed where the lump containing a rolled-up Gabrielle had become suspiciously quiet.
"Awww…" Iolaus said, wiggling his eyebrows.
Licking her lips, Lydia sent Xena several saucy winks that left very little room for misinterpretation. "And you're sure I couldn't convince you to try something new… just for today? My room is just down the hall, you know."
From her position on the bed, Xena could quite clearly hear - and feel - Gabrielle's reaction to Lydia's offer, and she put on the most pious smile she could muster. "No, Lydia, that won't work. One life, one wife."
"Huh? Oh, that's definitely not the tune you used to sing, Xena. I seem to recall one instance where you had-"
"Ahem," Xena said, adding a sneer to the arched eyebrow.
Iolaus and Joxer took one look at each other and decided simultaneously to vacate the bedroom in a hurry before the claws came out.
Knowing the build-up to a confrontation when she heard it, Cyrene put a hand on Lydia's elbow and pulled the feisty woman back slightly. "Uh, I think it's time for us to go downstairs and prepare the breakfast table. Lydia, you look like a woman who could use a hammer. I need you to crack some nutshells. Xena's favorite cereal used to be chopped nuts with porridge oats and fresh milk, ha ha. …Lydia?"
"Oh, I'd love to help you with that, Cyrene. I'll be downstairs in a candledrip."
"No, I was actually planning on starting right away," Cyrene said and took a firmer grip on Lydia's elbow.
The blonde appeared to ponder her chances against Xena's mother for a few moments, but then relented and turned around. When she made it to the door, she turned back around and blew Xena a farewell kiss.
Cyrene shook her head and let out a slow sigh. On her way out of the door, she looked at her daughter and offered her a small, apologetic smile.
Returning the smile, Xena went over and closed the door. "Hey, you can come out now."
Gabrielle popped out from underneath the blanket, rolling her eyes repeatedly. Her hair had become a mess and her face was rather flushed - not only from the heat, but also from Lydia's cheekiness.
Moving the blanket aside, Gabrielle swung her legs over the side of the bed and punched her fist into the mattress. "By Ares' balls, she's got some nerve…"
"If you say that three times, he'll appear, you know," Xena said with a wink.
"Hm! What in Tartarus did you ever see in her?"
"Oh, you know… blonde hair, green eyes, cute face," Xena said, running her fingers down Gabrielle's hair. Once she had finished the sentence, she pretended to make the connection, and she raised her eyebrows and made a little 'O' with her mouth. "Ohhh, I sense a theme," she continued, mussing Gabrielle's hair again.
"Oh, ha, ha. Very funny, Xena. Verrrry funny."
Gabrielle got up from the bed and stretched out, making all her joints pop and crack. Yawning widely, she put her arms above her head and moved her hips like a big cat to give every last piece of her a good shake.
Xena watched the little performance with an enigmatic smile gracing her features. Cocking her head, she let her eyes glide down the shift that was covering her lover, stopping at a few places that were just begging for a closer inspection. Rising from the bed, she tried to reach for the shift, but Gabrielle just swatted her hand away.
"Happy birthday, my love. Today's your big day," Gabrielle said and put her hands on Xena's shoulders to push the warrior back down to sit on the bed.
With the difference of height now being in her favor, Gabrielle leaned in, put a finger under Xena's chin and lifted it up so their mouths were at a manageable distance to each other.
"Thank you," Xena breathed, already moving her hands up Gabrielle's backside.
Winking, Gabrielle closed the distance between them and placed a very loving kiss on Xena's lips. "Ah. I'm afraid there's no time for fun and games right now, Xena. You heard your mother, breakfast will be served soon," she said once they separated.
"Ohhh… you mean to tell me that you value breakfast higher than making love?"
Gabrielle pulled back and pretended to ponder the question. "Hmmm… let's see… that depends."
"Well, whether or not there's any nutbread. If there is, I'm afraid breakfast wins every time."
"Oh, you!" Xena said and gave Gabrielle's buttocks a squeeze through the shift. "By the way, did you notice that you put the shift on backwards?"
"Never mind… it ain't staying on for long," Xena said and went to work on pulling it off.
"But we've got no tiiiiiime…!"
A short - and fairly rumbustious - romp later, Gabrielle came bouncing down the stairs with a jaunty whistle on her lips and a spring in her step. She was on her way to the kitchen to offer her assistance, but when she went past the fully dressed breakfast table in the center of the inn, she came to a screeching stop.
"Whoa…" she breathed, looking so hard at the many dishes that her eyes nearly rolled out of her head.
Over the course of the morning, Cyrene had made peach pie, sponge cake with rum and raisins, a new loaf of nutbread, eggs and bacon, honey-roasted rabbit and a large portion of Xena's favorite cereal, and there were several jugs of fresh milk which were still warm, ice cold water from the well and a large keg of a very dark, sweet ale that Iolaus had already taken a mugful of.
"By the Gods!" Gabrielle exclaimed, staring at the food and feeling that she had gone to the Elysian Fields without even noticing it.
Hearing that, Cyrene popped her head through the curtains. "Hello again, Gabrielle. Is my daughter down yet?"
"Good morning, Cyrene. Yes, but she wanted to freshen up a bit before we ate. She's out at the bath house."
"The bath house?"
"Yes, out back. Something wrong…?"
"No, but… Lydia just went out there," Cyrene said and bared her teeth in an embarrassed fashion.
Gabrielle clenched her fists and narrowed her eyes down to green slits. "Oh… I, uh, better…"
"Go on, Gabrielle, it can't take long," Cyrene said with a laugh.
Spinning around on her heel, Gabrielle stomped out of the inn and around the building where she quickly spotted Lydia coming the other way with a very red face.
When they met halfway between the inn and the bath house, the tall blonde stopped the shorter one by putting a hand on her shoulder. "You must be some woman," Lydia hissed through clenched teeth. "She wouldn't even give me the time of day. Well, have fun with her and her frigidity. I'm leaving!" she continued, stomping off in a huff.
"Good riddance," Gabrielle said under her breath. Shrugging, she continued towards the bath house.
Xena flipped her wet hair out of her face and sent the door a dark glare strong enough to strip splinters off the wood.
'Xena, is everything all right? Did that horrible woman hurt you?'
Chuckling, Xena squeezed her hair free of excess water and picked up a rag to dry it on. "I'm perfectly fine, Gabrielle. Come on in. I was just washing my hair."
The door opened with a creak and Gabrielle walked in, wringing her hands in front of her. "Hi."
"Hello again. Since you're here, wouldya mind drying my hair?" Xena said and held up the rag.
"Ooh, that's one of my favorite pastimes," Gabrielle said and hurried over to stand behind Xena. Moving quickly and efficiently, she rubbed the hair dry in an instant and then put the rag down on the bench.
"Xena… what was that all about? With Lydia? I need to know the whole story, please."
After pulling the straps for her leather battle dress over her shoulders, Xena sat down and pulled Gabrielle down to sit alongside her. "Well, the whole story… mmmm, the whole story isn't that long, actually. Ten winters ago, before Cortese, Lydia and I had a fling for a few months. Or maybe it was almost a full year… anyway, we had a fling until she was sent off to marry some rich farmer's son somewhere."
"An all too common tale," Gabrielle mumbled.
"Yes. Well, I rarely saw her again after that. Until last year, while you were away at the Academy… I came here to visit mother, as you know."
"You've told m- Wait… wait a candledrip, Xena, you didn't…? Did you…?" Gabrielle said, placing a suddenly trembling hand on Xena's thigh.
"By the Gods!"
"You and I weren't together then, Gabrielle. This was six moons before we had even kissed for the first time!"
"But I had a crush on you!"
"Well, I had one on you…" Xena said and smoothed down her damp hair. "But I was afraid that I might ruin our friendship if I pushed the subject. I… I guess I was afraid you might consider me too aggressive or…"
"I had a hard time reading you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle got up and began to pace back and forth in front of the warrior who appeared less stoic than usual. "If that warlord… I can't even remember his name and it doesn't matter… but if he hadn't injured you last Solstice, we probably wouldn't have kissed then, either. Perhaps you would have woken up with Lydia this morning instead of me!"
"No, no, no, wait a 'drip, Gabrie-"
"Perhaps I would have woken up with Iolaus… or… or Joxer… or somebody."
Gabrielle briefly stopped pacing and put her hands on her hips. "Well, maybe not Joxer," she said, going back to pacing back and forth. "But Iolaus is a nice man. Or somebody else. I had offers, you know."
"Gabri-*elle*. What I said about one life, one wife is true. I don't want anybody but you now. And that's final," Xena said and put out her hand.
Gabrielle took it at once and let herself be pulled close to the warrior. "Mmmm? 'Now?' "
"Now and forever, Gabrielle."
After giving each other a warm hug, the two lovers moved a few inches apart and looked deeply into each other's eyes.
"Oh, I promise."
"Thank you, love," Gabrielle said and moved back into a new hug. "Xena… if the nutbread is gone when we get back to the breakfast table, I'm gonna kill you… slowly," she said, pressing her face against her tall partner's chest.
"We better leave at once," Xena said and reached for her breastplate.
"Where in Tartarus have you been? Cyrene wouldn't let us start before you got back," Iolaus said as soon as Gabrielle and Xena came into the inn.
"Yeah, and we're hungry," Joxer chimed in, holding a spoon vertically in his hand like he was trying to pick up a signal from a higher source.
"Xena, where is Lydia?" Cyrene said, walking in from the kitchen with a tray of freshly sliced bread.
Xena pulled Gabrielle's chair out and waited for her to sit down. "You won't see Lydia again," she said, pushing the chair back in once Gabrielle was seated. "She's gone. She left after I had told her for the umpteenth time that I wasn't interested any longer."
Iolaus grinned and pretended to wipe his eyes. "Oh… what a shame," he said, wearing such a sad face that the corners of his mouth nearly hit the floor.
"No great loss. More nutbread for the rest of us," Gabrielle said and stabbed a knife into a warm slice of her favorite bread that Cyrene had placed on her plate.
"Well, she did chop some nuts for you, dear," Cyrene said and put a bowl of porridge oats and chopped nuts in front of Xena. Reaching over, the innkeeper took one of the jugs of milk and poured it into the bowl, making sure that all the ingredients mixed well.
Watching the scene unfold, Xena arched an eyebrow and took a deep breath. "Mother, I'm thirty years old now… I can make my own breakfast," she said flatly.
"Out on the road, sure… in here, you're still my little girl and I'll make your breakfast for you," Cyrene said firmly. "I'll never forget the time when you choked on a nut. It was too big because you had chopped it yourself. It got stuck in your throat and Toris and I had to turn you upside down to get it out."
Xena narrowed her eyes and looked around at her friends who were all listening to the story with great interest. "Mother…"
"And you weren't even a young child, you were, what… eleven? Twelve? Anyway, you always were a tall girl and we definitely had our hands full trying to hold you up."
Hearing her partner whine so badly forced Gabrielle to clamp her hand over her mouth to stop a belly laugh from escaping her lips. She had trouble swallowing the bite of nutbread she had just taken, but she managed to get it down in the end. Just when she thought it was safe to get back to the breakfast, Xena sent her a dark glare that meant that she had to chase down the bite with half a glass of milk to forget about laughing.
When Cyrene noticed that Xena had wolfed down the bowl of oats and nuts, she cut off a large piece of sausage, put it on a slice of bread and placed it on a plate in front of her daughter. "Don't whine, dear, it doesn't become you," she said, earning herself quite a few laughs from most - but not all - of the people present.
"Anyway, Lyceus was there as well, of course… the two were inseparable back then… Xena, if you were twelve, I guess that means that Lyceus must have been eight or so?"
"Eight, yeah," Xena said, nodding. A brief flash of sadness raced across her face, and she reached under the table to give Gabrielle's hand a little squeeze.
"Eight… well, he adored you, and he thought we were playing with you and ignoring him… so the first thing he did was to swallow a nut. It got stuck in him, too, and pretty soon, we had two children suspended upside down instead of just one. Oh, what a mess. Do you remember it, Xena?"
"Vaguely," Xena mumbled, stabbing her fork into the greasy sausage.
"Cyrene, do you have other funny stories from Xena's childhood?" Iolaus asked, sporting a perfectly pious smile.
"Oh, boy, do I have some stories to tell you. One day-"
Clearing his throat, Joxer stood up and raised his hands in the air. "Before we hear the next story, may I be allowed to hold a short speech?"
"But of course, Joxer," Xena said, relieved to get a respite from the sausage - Gabrielle just looked annoyed at being interrupted in the middle of a slice of nutbread.
"Well. Xena met me towards the end of last year under… uh, slightly less than, uh, happy circumstances. You see, I was still an outlaw then, living off the land and hopping from one gang to the next to find one that was tough enough for me. But when I met Xena, the Warrior Princess, I knew that I was on the wrong trail.
"Uh, literally, actually, because I was traveling to Corinth but she told me it was in the other direction… anyway, where was I…? Oh yeah, the wrong trail. It wasn't long after that, that me, Xena and Gabrielle found ourselves under threat from a gang of outlaws, one I had tried to get into, actually… never mind.
"Well, we fought 'em and we flattened 'em. Pow! Bif! Bof! Ha! After that fight, I felt better than I ever had… usually, I get kinda bloodied and… never mind… but this time, I didn't have a scratch on me. That's when I knew that I should do what Xena had already done… go back to being a good guy. It pays less, but the gals are much better lookin', heh heh.
"Anyway, right now, I'm searching for a little, blonde sidekick of my own who can support me in my own heroic deeds and write stories about me afterwards. Thank you for listening."
As Joxer sat down, the other guests gave him a big round of applause and Iolaus reached over to thump his shoulder.
"Thank you, Joxer. That was a nice speech. Yeah, we have experienced something together, haven't we?" Xena said and pushed the rest of the sausage away, hoping that her mother wouldn't notice - unfortunately, Cyrene did notice and gave her daughter a pointed look. Sighing, Xena resumed eating the greasy sausage.
"Well… I suppose I should hold a little speech as well," Cyrene said and stood up.
The only person who continued to eat was Gabrielle who had just scooped up a chunk of seasoned butter and was spreading it on her slice of nutbread to add an exotic taste to it. Looking up, she noticed that they were all staring at her. "Whaaaat?" she said, drawing out the word. "Oh… more speeches. I'm hungry," she mumbled when she noticed what was going on.
"I'll get mother to make you a picnic basket for later, love," Xena said and patted Gabrielle's thigh, earning herself an embarrassed little snicker.
Cyrene cleared her throat and stood with her eyes closed, quite obviously working out where she should begin. Once she had found her starting point, she opened her eyes and drew a deep breath. "Xena… our little family has seen so much tragedy and heartache over the years that we need to cling onto the few things that have actually blossomed and shone. The love you and your beautiful partner share is remarkable… and unexpected.
"There was a time, not so long ago, when you weren't… when you wouldn't have been prepared to make room in your heart for love. You walked the path of darkness and hatred… but love brought you back from that dark world. The love your family and your friends had for you, and now, finally, the undeniable love that your partner has for you.
"My daughter, when you came back to us a year ago, I wasn't prepared to make room in my heart for you. I saw you as a dark warrior, an enemy of the light… an enemy of love. But you had changed. It was almost like that black, foreboding thundercloud that had always followed you had evaporated. I got my daughter back, how could I ever wish for more?
"Well, I got more. Now, when I see the love between you and Gabrielle, I feel like you're my little girl again, my little knockabout, cheeky, ever-challenging, bright Xena who showed up at dinner with muck up to her elbows, who tore so many dresses playing with the boys that we ran out of fabric, who always helped those who couldn't defend themselves in fisticuffs… and for that I'm grateful.
"Grateful to you, Gabrielle, for loving my daughter, and grateful to you, Xena, for allowing yourself to be loved again. Thank you and happy birthday."
Wiping a few tears from her eyes, Cyrene sat down again, took the keg of sweet ale and poured herself a stiff drink.
Stunned silence filled the inn with the guests all looking at each other and at Cyrene.
Rendered speechless by her mother's words, Xena sat very still and stared down at her fingers that were entwined with Gabrielle's. All kinds of emotions were racing through her - anger for having wasted so many years of her life under Ares' dark influence; sadness for the people she had lost along the way; guilt for those she had harmed; concern for what would happen in the inevitable showdown with Ares… and finally a shimmer of hope for her and Gabrielle.
"Thank you, mother," she whispered, worried that her voice would break if she tried to speak.
Suddenly, Joxer leaned his head back and let out a heartbreaking, echoing sob that made all the other guests jump in their chairs. "Ohhhhh, I miss my Mom!" he said loudly between sobs, breaking the tension.
Chuckling, Xena shook her head and gently moved her hand away from Gabrielle's. Pulling back her chair, she stood up on slightly wobbly legs and went over to her mother to give her a warm, heartfelt hug. "Is that really how you see me?" Xena whispered into Cyrene's ear.
"Yes, it is, my dear. Now… let's finish breakfast. We wouldn't want Gabrielle to keel over from undernourishment, would we?" Cyrene said and put the entire tray with the peach pie in front of the bard.
A candlemark later, Iolaus and Joxer were walking around the inn arm in arm and singing bawdy songs at the top of their lungs - it would be fair to say that both men were rather strongly inebriated by the deceptively sweet ale.
In the kitchen, Cyrene and Gabrielle were doing the dishes, working quickly and efficiently. It didn't take them long to finish, and after Gabrielle had wiped her hands and hung the towel on a nail, she came up to stand next to Xena's mother.
"Cyrene, I want to thank you for that beautiful speech. I know that Xena was very moved. So was I for that matter," Gabrielle said with a sincere smile.
"You're welcome. Every last word of it was true," Cyrene said, running a pruned hand through her hair. "Go be with Xena, Gabrielle, I can manage on my own here."
"I insist. Go on. I'm going to start preparing lunch soon and I need to do it my own way, anyhow."
"Well, if you change your mind, you can-"
"I won't, Gabrielle. Go find Xena. She needs you much more than I do. Now shoo!"
Laughing, Gabrielle moved over to the curtain and pulled it aside. "All right, all right," she said with a smile.
At once, she started looking for Xena, but it didn't take her long to come to the conclusion that the warrior was neither up in their room nor down in the inn itself.
In the meantime, Joxer and Iolaus had emptied another keg of the sweet ale and were swaying back and forth like a couple of reeds caught in a strong breeze.
'Ohhhh… the carpenter's daughter went to the blacksmith's boy
and asked him politely can I play with your toy
the blacksmith's son said sure why not
hang on a 'drip while I whip out my rod…!'
Groaning loudly, Gabrielle clapped her hand over her eyes and shook her head so hard that her strawberry-blonde locks flew everywhere. "Iolaus…? Iolaus! Have you seen Xena?"
"… Sheena?" the hunter slurred, so cross-eyed that he couldn't focus on the bard for more than a few heartbeats at a time.
"You know, tall, dark-haired, baby blue eyes…?"
"Well, where is she?"
"Where 'out', Iolaus?" Gabrielle said in an exasperated voice.
"Well, thanks a bunch for your help! By the Gods!"
"You're welcome, Gabshter. Hey, Joxer, let'sh do the third vershe," Iolaus said and slammed his fist down on the taller man's shoulder.
"O-" - hiccup - "kay. Ohhhh… when she got back home… she… she… Hades, I can't remember the rest," Joxer slurred, promptly keeling over and falling asleep in the middle of the floor.
Having seen more than enough, Gabrielle let out a long, slow sigh and left the inn to find her partner.
The search eventually took her to one of the places she knew that Xena sometimes frequented when she needed to be alone: a quiet, secluded stretch of forest that ran along a babbling stream - sure enough, Xena was sitting on a tree stump, looking at the currents running past her.
"Hey… am I intruding?" Gabrielle said quietly, pulling her cloak closer to get some protection from the chilly wind.
"Never. I just had to think about mother's speech. I'm sorry I didn't say that I was taking a walk."
"Oh, that's all right, love. I found you, didn't I?" Gabrielle said and walked over to stand next to her partner. Sighing, she leaned down and gave Xena a hug from behind.
"Yeah, you found me. And I found you, in more ways than one. Gabrielle, I'm sorry about the whole thing with Lydia… I never mentioned it because it was ancient history by the time we got closer."
"Don't think about it. She's gone now, that's what matters."
Xena nodded and gave Gabrielle's hands a little squeeze. "D'ya wanna walk with me for a little while?"
"Oh, I'd love to," Gabrielle said and helped her partner up from the tree stump. After hooking her arm inside Xena's, the two of them began strolling along the bank of the stream.
After walking for about fifty yards, Xena stopped and turned around so they could look at the babbling stream. "Lyceus and I used to come here and fish many, many years ago. Looks like there are fewer fish now."
"Well, things change over the years, Xena."
"Yeah, I know."
The cold started creeping into their bones and Gabrielle briefly broke out into a shiver. Xena noticed and began to rub her partner's arms.
Enjoying the attention, Gabrielle's face cracked wide open in a loving smile that slowly evolved into a wistful one as she pondered her next question. "Xena, how old would Lyceus have been now?"
"Oh… well… he would have been twenty-six. He was four years younger than me. He was born not long after the Harvest, actually."
"Yes. Toris later told me a story about that Harvest… that mother was so pregnant when she and the other women from the village were sorting and crushing the harvested wheat that she had to sit down to do it because she couldn't see past her belly. I was too young to understand any of it at the time."
"I wish I had known him."
Chuckling, Xena gave Gabrielle a little squeeze through the cloak. "You would certainly have been a perfect couple. Fair, bright, spirited. You would've had two… four… no, six children by now. Maybe eight."
"Ohhh…! Or maybe none… maybe I would've gone for your side of the family tree, huh?"
"Well, one could only hope. Lyceus… he was my entire world growing up. When we lost him, I… his death was one of the reasons why I chose to walk down the dark path. Ares promised me that I would get to avenge my brother's death… but for every person I killed, the black hole inside me just got bigger and stronger."
"I loved him more than I have ever loved anyone… until you showed up, Gabrielle… and even after all this time, I still feel him as strongly in my heart as I did when he was alive."
"Oh, Gods, Xena, you're going to make me cry," Gabrielle said and snuggled up against Xena's strong body.
Sighing, Xena wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulder and gave her another little squeeze. "Sorry. It's getting too chilly out here. What do you say, do you want to go back to the inn, or…?"
"Yes, please. I need a cup of tea."
"I do, too."
"And maybe a biscuit or three…"
Shocked, Xena pulled back and put both hands on her lover's shoulders. "Gabrielle! What happened to the loaf of nutbread you devoured this morning? And the peach pie?!"
"Oh, come now, that was several candlemarks ago," Gabrielle said, waving her hand dismissively.
"Tomorrow when we move on, Argo is gonna refuse to carry ya so I'll have to steal someone's wheelbarrow and put you in it…" Xena mumbled under her breath, earning herself a gentle slap on the stomach for her bother.
After being held up several times by villagers who wanted to congratulate her, Xena and Gabrielle finally made it back to the inn. The first thing they noticed was the peculiar sight of Iolaus dunking his head in a barrel filled with ice cold rain water - the second was a barrage of loud snoring from the inside of the inn.
"Ah yes, mother's sweet ale," Xena said, nodding in Iolaus' direction.
Gabrielle hooked her arm inside Xena's and leaned in towards her partner. "Exactly. And plenty of it."
"Mmmm. I learned that lesson many years ago. And the snoring?"
"Must be Joxer. He keeled over just before I left to look for you. He and Iolaus were singing a bawdy song about the carpenter's daughter or some such nonsense," Gabrielle said, rolling her eyes.
"Oh, really? That's such a funny song."
"A funny song? Don't tell me you've ever sung that…? Please…?"
"Sure I have. Everybody knows that song, Gabrielle. It's practically an anthem around here."
"Oh, how nice," Gabrielle said flatly. "Anyway, neither of them have much of a singing voice now, huh?"
"Nope. Hi, Iolaus," Xena said and resumed walking towards the doors.
The hunter's only reply was a pained groan; then he dunked his head back down into the cold water.
Chuckling, Xena and Gabrielle went inside, careful not to step on Joxer on their way over to the stairs.
A short while later, Xena peeked into the kitchen, hoping to see how far her mother was in preparing for lunch. When she spotted a whole row of fully laden trays of food, she chuckled and made a mental note to make sure that Gabrielle wouldn't eat herself to death.
"In here, Xena," Cyrene said, halfway inside a cupboard. "Do you need anything?"
"Just two mugs of tea."
Holding two jars of lard and coarsely ground salt, Cyrene pushed the cupboard door shut with her rear end. "The kettle is on the stove… help yourself."
"Thanks, mother," Xena said and took two mugs and some of her mother's finely cut leaves.
"Xena, I had planned that we should play some kind of party game before lunch, but with Iolaus and Joxer so under the weather, do you think it would be fun?"
After pouring the hot water into the mugs, Xena distributed the leaves and added a pinch of sugar to each - a luxury she and Gabrielle couldn't afford when they were on the road. "Well, that's hard to say without knowing what you had in mind, mother?" Xena said, stirring the mugs with a spoon.
"Chase the Donkey. Your own mix of Pin the Donkey and Tag. Do you still remember it?"
Picking up the two mugs, Xena turned around and looked at her mother with a nostalgic look in her eyes. "Chase the Donkey… I loved that game."
"That's why I picked it."
"Oh, it would definitely still be funny. I'll just do it at half speed, like when we played all those years ago.
"Well, if you think it'll be fun, I think we should do it. And with Gabrielle in the game, perhaps it'll be just a bit harder for you. From what I know, she's quick as a fox," Cyrene said, sending her daughter a little wink.
Walking into the inn, Xena remembered to step over the sleeping Joxer and then made her way down to Gabrielle who was sitting a table at the rear of the room, working on her journal. "Here's your tea, love," she said, putting both mugs down on the table and finding a chair.
"Thank you. Smells great. What kind of leaves is in it?" Gabrielle said and put away her writing utensils.
"The dried kind."
"Smart-alec. Oooh, you've added some sugar…?"
Nodding, Xena sent her partner a blinding smile. "Yes. Hey, do you feel like playing a game?"
"Uh… down here?" Gabrielle whispered.
"No, silly, not that kind of game," Xena said, looking around. Leaning in, she lowered her voice and said, "We'll save that for tonight. Ahem."
Grinning, Gabrielle winked back at Xena and replied in a similar voice: "I'm looking forward to it."
"Uh, good. Well, first things first. My mother is planning on hosting a game of Chase the Donkey, Xena-style. We always played that when I was a little girl."
"Oh, that sounds like fun, Xena. I loved to play chase games, too," Gabrielle said and put her hand on top of Xena's on the table.
"Mmmmmmm, you probably haven't played it like this before…"
"Is it that different?" Gabrielle said and tried a sip from the mug. When the rich taste filled her mouth, she found it to her liking and sent Xena a charming smile.
"Uh, yes, it's kinda different. It's probably more physical than what you're used to."
Running her thumb across the back of Xena's hand, Gabrielle put on a smile that was borderline cocksure. "Oh, don't worry about that. I'm game… literally. Just the two of us, or…?"
"No, no, Iolaus and Joxer will play as well."
"Oh… is that wise?"
When Xena's only reply was a whistle that was supposed to make her sound all innocent but didn't, Gabrielle glanced at the sleeping Joxer and made a slight face.
"Hmmm. What a sorry bunch of opponents… hmmm!" Xena mumbled quietly to herself fifteen candledrips later, looking across the room at the three people standing opposite her - Gabrielle was looking fresh as a daisy and rearing to go; Iolaus was looking like a drowned rat and Joxer's face was grayer than the floorboards.
Putting her hands on her hips, Xena cast an experienced eye at the playing field that had been created in the center of the inn - tables, chairs and assorted other items had been placed at random around the room, acting like an obstacle course.
"Okay, here's how we play. Once the game starts, you go all-out to catch an opponent and pin one of the red ribbons you have been given to his or her butt!" Xena continued, holding up her batch of colorful pieces of fabric. "You are free to use any means necessary, including sidestepping the obstacles, jumping over or crawling under, or anything else you can think of. Are you with me?"
Gabrielle nodded and punched the air, bobbing up and down on the balls of her feet; Iolaus just groaned, and Joxer couldn't do much more than stare out into space.
"All right. For the first round, it's boy-girl. Get set… ready… go!"
To escape Iolaus, Gabrielle squealed, rolled over the nearest table and ducked under the second one. Once she was in the clear, she looked back over her shoulder to see how far behind the hunter was, only to find out that he hadn't moved an inch from his starting position.
Next, Xena jumped up and performed a perfect forward flip, landing with a thump next to Joxer who just turned his head and looked at her with wide, unfocused eyes.
"You're supposed to run away, Joxer…"
"Oh. Okay." Joxer turned away from her and tried to take a step, but his clumsiness mixed with the sweet ale and sent him falling face-first onto the floor, having stumbled over a leg of one of the chairs.
Grinning, Xena leaned down and thumped the first red ribbon onto his rear end. "Gotcha! That's one."
"Iolaus… come on… at least try to look like you're playing…" Gabrielle said without getting much feedback from the hunter apart from a tired groan. "Ohhh… you're ruining Xena's birthday game!" she continued, stomping her foot on the floor.
"It looks like it's down to us, love," Xena said, wearing a wolfish grin and holding the next ribbon ready.
Matching the wolfish grin with one of her own, Gabrielle began to bob up and down and jerk left and right like a wasp ready to sting. "Oh yeah? Well, come and get me, Warrior Princess! I don't think you can!"
Xena wasn't about to let such a juicy challenge go unanswered, so she drew a deep breath and let out a resounding "ALALALALALALALALALALALALA!" - then she jumped up and went into a corkscrew spin that flipped her over the obstacles.
Before the warrior had even landed, Gabrielle ran forward and crawled under the first line of tables, holding a red ribbon ready for when Xena would follow her.
Moments later, Xena set off after her, flipping over the first line of obstacles and ducking under the second, trying to keep up with Gabrielle who was in the middle of a mad scramble.
Soon, they moved up and down and left and right through the obstacles, ducking under the tables and jumping over the chairs. On occasion, they almost caught each other, but they were always able to escape each other's grasp.
Knowing that she had to use all her tricks to catch her lover, Xena flipped through the air and landed almost silently, balancing effortlessly on top of the backrests of two chairs.
Beneath the tables, Gabrielle looked around, scouting for Xena as she was working out her next move. Deciding to make a run for it, she scooted out on her hands and knees, but she only made it as far as the first line of obstacles when she felt - rather than heard - Xena land behind her.
Knowing that the game was up, she giggled and raised her rear end in the air to give Xena a target she couldn't miss.
One pinned-on red ribbon later, Xena put out her hand and pulled Gabrielle up from the floor. "Well done, Gabrielle," she said, removing some dust from the strawberry-blonde hair.
"Well, I wouldn't exactly say that, you still got me…"
"I did, but I don't think anyone has ever lasted longer than you, love. It was fun, wasn't it?"
"Yeah. I guess it was kinda fun. Wanna go again?" Gabrielle said with a wink.
"Oh, maybe later. Tonight, upsta- YEOW!" Xena howled, suddenly jerking forward and clapping her hands onto her rear end. Grappling frantically, she soon found a red ribbon stuck on her skirt.
Standing right behind her was Iolaus, holding his batch of ribbons and wearing the world's most goofy grin on his beery face.
"Oh…!" Xena said, looking at the ribbon she had plucked off her skirt with wide, disbelieving eyes.
"Gotcha," Iolaus slurred before he staggered over to sit down on one of the obstacles.
Putting her hand on Xena's elbow, Gabrielle turned the warrior back around and leaned in towards her. "Hey, I guess we're both out of the game now. How about a little kiss between the losers…? You know, to make up for the disappointment…?"
"Hmmm, that sounds like a good idea, love," Xena said and reached up to caress Gabrielle's cheek. Closing her eyes, she leaned down and claimed Gabrielle's lips in a soothing, comforting kiss.
Soon, Xena and Gabrielle were so pre-occupied that they didn't even notice the air starting to shimmer next to them. Moments later, a figure dressed in a pink negligee turned up, clapping her hands together when she spotted the kissing couple.
"SCOOOOOORE!" Aphrodite shouted, startling Xena and Gabrielle so badly that they jumped up and bumped their noses.
Exclaiming a cheerful 'Yeehaw!', the Goddess of Love performed a little shimmy that proved quite decisively that she hadn't forgotten how to put on a show.
"Oh, Aphrodite…!" Xena said angrily, pinching her nose.
"Hi, gals! Oh, it's so gooooooood to see you dudettes together. Makes my eternal existence so much easier, yeah? Have you had any adventures lately I should know about? Nudge-nudge-wink-wink!"
Spreading out her arms, Gabrielle pulled the Goddess into a warm hug. "Hello, Aphrodite. How have you been?"
"How have I been? Dudette! How have *you* been? Look at you now… boys and girls jump up and down, whydon'tcha!" the Goddess said, running her hand through Gabrielle's blonde locks.
"Oooooh, I felt your first time, Gabrielle. Oh-My Sweet Word did I feel it! The walls up on Mount Olympus were rockin' I tell ya! Rockin'! Back *and* forth!"
Blushing, Gabrielle let out an embarrassed snicker and started shuffling about on the spot. "Well, I'm glad you got something out of it, too, Aphrodite."
"Yeah! Uh-huh, uh-huh! And I'm glad to see that it wasn't a one-time thing! Boy, have you been keepin' me busy! Uh-huh! Oooooh, yeah!"
Now Gabrielle really broke out into a blush; the flesh on her cheeks, throat, neck and even down her chest blushed crimson red, and she clamped a hand over her eyes and let out a long groan.
"Oh, there's no need for that, Gabs, don't forget I *am* love. I'm just soooooo glad for ya. For you, too, leather gal," Aphrodite said, turning to face the warrior.
"Thanks," Xena said, tweaking her nose back to its correct position.
"Still as talkative as you've always been, huh? I guess you let your lips do the talking, huh? Huh? Huh?"
Nodding so hard that her blonde curls were bobbing up and down, Aphrodite put an index finger on her chin and let out a delighted squeal. "Ooooooh, remember our little journey in time? Wasn't that fun? If you ever want to do anything like that again, just say the word and Auntie Dite will transport you *any*-where you like!"
"Uh… thanks, Aphrodite," Gabrielle said, casting a worried glance at Xena whose face had been scrunched up in disgust.
"Oh, you're welcome, toots. What… what are those two doing?" the Goddess said, pointing at the sleeping Joxer and the bombed-out Iolaus who still had the same goofy grin on his face.
"Ah, don't mind them, they're just, uh…"
Shying back, Aphrodite put up her hands and tip-toed away from Iolaus. "Ewwwww. Alcohol abuse… so uncool. Probably the biggest turnoff."
"WHATever… you beautiful gals just listen to the Goddess now… I have something for you that will make your intimate moments so much better and easier. And I'm talking WAY better, you hear?" the Goddess said and snapped her fingers.
A handbag magically appeared in her hand, and she quickly unbuttoned it and reached into it. "It's a little thing that I had Heffy make for me. If it's a smash hit with you gals, I might put it into production. Happy Birthday, Xena darling."
Smiling broader than ever, Aphrodite handed Xena a cylindrically shaped item made of a hi-gloss, polished metal.
"Ummm… thanks, Aphrodite," Xena said, not quite believing her eyes. Turning the item over in her hands, she looked at it from all angles - Gabrielle just stared at it, wearing a gobsmacked expression on her face.
"Oh, I know what you're thinking, it's cold, right? Ewwww, wouldn't work, dudette!" the Goddess said and flailed her hands in the air in a mock gesture of disgust. "Well, gals, all you need to do is to put it in hot water for a few moments… not long, just a brief moment. It'll warm up all by itself. Take it from me, it really works."
"Er, I don't know what to say…" Xena said, wondering if her partner had suffered some kind of breakdown behind her glassy green eyes.
"But I'll bet your last dinar that you'll know what to say when you use it! You know? You know? Nudge-nudge-wink-wink! Well, that'll be all, my friends, I have SO much work to do today it just isn't funny… I won't have time to have my fingernails done or anything. The work of the Love Goddess is never finished, right?"
Snapping out of her stupor, Gabrielle blinked several times and looked at the Goddess like she hadn't noticed her presence until then. "Tha-" - cough, cough - "Thank you, Aphrodite. We'll… uh, we'll let you know how it works."
"You're welcome, little one. Don't bother using a carrier pigeon, if you know what I mean… trust me, I'll *know* how it works. Later, babes!"
Her job done, the Goddess snapped her fingers and disappeared in a cloud of little, pink hearts that formed the word 'L-8-R' before it slowly dissolved.
"Would you be disappointed if I put it in the saddlebags for now…? I think we need to be alone when we try it for the first time," Xena said, looking at a reflection of herself in the polished metal.
Scratching her hair, Gabrielle began to blush all over again. As she felt the red heat begin to tinge her cheeks, she looked down and began to scoff the tips of her boots on her calves. "Uh, no. And I agree. Boy, that Dite… she… she's…"
"Yeah. And then some."
A candlemark later, Cyrene stepped into the main room to inspect the state of the dining hall. Satisfied that Xena had returned the tables and chairs that had been part of the obstacle course to their rightful place, she found the large dinner bell and swung it back and forth, creating a cacophony that wouldn't have been out of place in the deepest levels of Tartarus.
"LUNCH IS SERVED! LUNCH IS SERVED!" she shouted in a voice that would've left Stentor in the dust had he been there.
Soon, Gabrielle bounded down the stairs and ran over to her favorite chair, the one on Xena's immediate right. Putting her hands on the backrest, she looked with glee at the trays of food Cyrene carried to the table - all kinds of sausages, meat pies, bowls of steaming gravy, pork chops, lamb chops, spicy meatballs with chunks of feta cheese, corned beef, and finally, a small tray with a few apples.
"Oooh!" Gabrielle said when Cyrene came with half a loaf of nutbread and put it on the bard's plate.
"That's the rest of the nutbread, enjoy it. Oh, Gabrielle, while you were upstairs, the mailman dropped by with a few congratulatory scrolls for Xena. You're such a good storyteller, I'd be really grateful if you read a few of them out loud… and I know my daughter would, too," the innkeeper said, patting Gabrielle's hand.
"Oh, absolutely, Cyrene. I'd love to do that."
After checking to see if Xena was near, Cyrene leaned in and began to whisper into Gabrielle's ear: "And one more thing… with everything else going on here, I didn't have time to bake a cake so I've worked out a deal with the baker. In exchange for a hot meal, he'll be around in a candlemark or so with a big one. I'm going to need your help carrying it in here."
"You've got it," Gabrielle replied in a matching whisper.
"What are you two up to?" Xena said, standing at the foot of the stairs.
"Nothing." -- "Nothing at all," Cyrene and Gabrielle said as one.
"Mmmm. I've just checked up on Iolaus and Joxer. They're better. They'll be down in a short while."
"Good," Cyrene said and walked back to the curtains to the kitchen. "This time, I better get two kegs of my special brew…" she added under her breath.
Xena shrugged and moved over to stand behind her partner. Leaning down, she wrapped her arms around the bard and kissed the top of her strawberry-blonde head. "Hello again, love. Did you get your journal updated?"
"Yes I did, thank you. Did you have a good birthday nap?"
"No. I couldn't really sleep. Too many thoughts. I just dozed off now and then," Xena said and sat down on the chair at the end of the table.
Furrowing her brow, Gabrielle took Xena's hands in her own and gave them a little squeeze. "We need to get to the bottom of that, Xena. One day in a fight, you might be too tired, and-"
"I know, but we're not there yet."
"Thanks for caring. We'll talk about that when we're alone. Okay?"
The moment was broken when a loud yawn from the staircase heralded Joxer's arrival. Staggering along, he made a slightly-less-than-straight beeline for the nearest chair and sat down with a bump. His face was less ashen but his eyes were still fairly unfocused.
"Hi," he croaked, scratching his chin.
"Hi, Joxer," Gabrielle said, chuckling over her friend.
"Did I miss anything?"
Briefly looking at Xena, Gabrielle considered telling Joxer about Aphrodite's visit and the unusual gift, but soon thought better of it. "Uh, no, not really."
"Gods, that sweet ale…" - hiccup - "I've never had anything like it. Tasted" - hiccup - "so good, but then… POW! Straight in the gut," he continued, pretending to drive his fist into his stomach.
"I concur," Iolaus croaked, leaning against one of the staircase's support beams. With a loud burp, he shuffled over to sit down next to Joxer.
Chuckling, Xena shook her head. "Well, you know what they say about ale for breakfast, Iolaus…"
Moving the curtain apart, Cyrene came out of the kitchen and grabbed a rag to wipe her greasy fingers on. After putting the rag down on the counter, she bent down and picked up a small bundle of scrolls. "Xena, the mail is here. Gabrielle has promised to read it for us."
Walking over to the table, she put it down next to Gabrielle's plate, laughing out loud when she noticed the expression on the bard's face - once again, she had been caught in the middle of a bite of nutbread.
"Mmmmpfff… all right… mmmpfhh. Uh. Here's the first one, it's from Autolycus. It reads,
'Dear Xena. I'm writing you from a secret location, waiting for the right moment to pull off a heist. And I stress 'secret', so don't get any fancy ideas like coming down here to look for me. Hope you'll have a prosperous year. Happy Birthday, Auto.' "
"Awwww," Cyrene said, smiling.
"Here's the next one, it's from Princess Diana of Treus… that's a very charming lady we met last year, by the way. It reads,
'My dear Xena, I wish you a Happy Birthday. I hope your new year will be filled with joy, laughter and plenty of love. Diana. PS: Please consider adding some color to your battle dress. I know you prefer it dark, but a splash of red has never hurt anyone.' "
Chuckling, Xena downed most of a mug of wine. "Unless it was blood," she said dryly.
"Here's one from D-… Draco!" Gabrielle said, almost choking on the word.
Leaning over, Xena snatched the scroll out of Gabrielle's hands. "What? He's got some b… uh, nerve. What does it say? Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm, we have unfinished business, see you soon?! In his dreams. We can use it in the outhouse," Xena said and threw his scroll over her shoulder.
"Okay… anyway, here's the final one, it's from the Amazons. Oh, this is for me, actually, it's a status update from Ephiny… look, Xena, how nice, the three junior Amazons have added their own little scroll. It reads,
'Many Happy Returns, Xena. Please take good care of our Princess Gabrielle. Thank you for your lessons when you were here. Hope to see you soon under better circumstances. Agata, Elif and Tatiana.' Isn't that's nice?" Gabrielle said and put the scroll down on the table.
"Yeah. There's hope yet for the Amazons," Xena said, draining her mug.
"And now, let's eat," Cyrene said, knowing that Gabrielle had to be close to starving.
"I don't know where you put it all, Gabrielle…" Xena mumbled as Gabrielle pushed away the empty tray where the half-loaf of nutbread had been a scant thirty candledrips before.
"Oh, you know…" Gabrielle said and drained her mug of root beer. "It's all in a day's work. Thank you so much for the wonderful lunch, Cyrene."
Putting down a fork and a knife, Cyrene leaned forward on her chair. "You're welcome, dear. Of course, lunch isn't quite over yet…"
"You've made *more* food, mother?" Xena said in an exasperated tone, looking across the table at the completely stuffed Iolaus and Joxer who had both unbuttoned their pants to make room for it all. Empty plates and equally empty trays were piled up in front of the men who were both leaning back and catching a little shuteye.
"No, I haven't, Xena. But there is more food, yes," Cyrene said and patted her daughter's arm.
"You're as enigmatic as me sometimes, mother…"
"Well, where do you think you got it from? Gabrielle… it's time for the thing we talked about."
At once, Gabrielle pushed her chair back and jumped to her feet. "Ready when you are, Cyrene."
"I'm ready now," Cyrene said and got up from the table. "Xena, please wake the two gentlemen up. This is going to be a showstopper."
Narrowing her eyes, Xena leaned forward and tapped her knuckles on the table top. "All right, I demand to know what you two conspirators have cooked up?" she whispered, using a steely tone of voice that had always worked wonders on the soldiers she had under her command - unfortunately, it didn't work on either her mother or her lover.
"Oh, you'll see in a moment. Come, dear, let's prepare the surprise," Cyrene said and ushered Gabrielle away from the main room and into the kitchen.
Xena briefly considered sneaking after them, but she knew that Gabrielle would be disappointed in her if she did, so she kept sitting. Sighing, she snapped her fingers a few times to get Iolaus and Joxer back to the real world.
"Oh, wow, that's something else!" Gabrielle exclaimed when she laid eyes on the cake the baker had delivered - a two foot wide, two and a half foot tall, three-layer honeycake with bronze-colored icing on all three levels and a single candle in the center of the top layer.
"Yes, Ophistius has really outdone himself this time."
Gabrielle walked up to the table the cake was standing on and squatted down so she was at eye-level with the lower layer. 'Hmmm'-ing quietly to herself, she moved all around the table, eyeing the cake from all angles. "It looks delicious… if a bit, uh, hefty."
"Well, Ophistius' cakes usually are, but they're nearly always pretty good, so… anyway, let's get it in there. I have to reopen the inn at dusk so we don't have much time to get it cut," Cyrene said and rolled up her sleeves.
Xena could hardly believe her eyes when she saw her mother and Gabrielle carry the huge cake into the inn's main room. The cake was wobbling a bit because of the difference in height between the two women, but it was mostly safe, resting on a large piece of wood.
At once, Xena jumped up from her chair and made room on the tables, shoving the empty plates and trays down to the other end. One of the trays rolled off the edge of the table and fell onto the floor with such a loud bang that Joxer jumped up and let out a high-pitched squeak.
After putting the cake down on the table, Gabrielle gave Xena a quick kiss on her forehead. "How about that cake, love? It's yours to eat… all by yourself," she said into the warrior's ear.
"Well, in that case, we'll both need wheelbarrows… except we won't be going anywhere since neither of us would be able to push the other," Xena said and took the knife her mother offered her. As she moved the blade closer to the cake, Cyrene raised an index finger.
"No, no, no, daughter. You don't cut a cake sitting down."
Grumbling, Xena rose and held the knife ready over the huge layer cake. "Are we all ready?" she said in a sing-song voice.
"Uh-huh!" Iolaus and Joxer said as one, holding their plates ready.
"Here we go," Xena said and cut through the outer part of the lower layer. As the knife carved through the cake, honey began to drip down the blade and several raisins, nuts and chunks of chocolate escaped their doughy, pale brown prison.
"Ohhhh!" Gabrielle squealed, clutching her plate to her bosom.
Suddenly getting a vision of an outrageously obese bard, Xena sent her partner a wry smile. "You know, Gabrielle, you can forget the wheelbarrow… we need an ox-driven cart when you're done with this huge thing…"
"I know! Gimme!"
"Easy does it! There's more than enough for the entire village here," Xena said and put the first slice on Gabrielle's plate.
"Happy birthday, dear," Cyrene said and took the next slice.
"Thank you, mother… please give my regards to Ophistius when you see him. I recognize his handiwork."
Stabbing the knife back into the cake, Xena cut slices for both Iolaus and Joxer. Once everyone had a full plate, a contented silence filled the inn as the cake was savored.
The first one to finish off their first slice was - rather predictably - Gabrielle, and she quickly cut herself a second slice and put it on her plate. Before she started on it, she took Xena by the hand and pulled the warrior to her feet.
"Xena, I… I just wanted to say happy birthday… and… and that I love you with all my heart. We live dangerous lives and we never know when it might be over… that's why it's important to say 'I love you' every single day. Oh… this wasn't supposed to turn into a speech, but since it did, I better say it again… I love you, Xena."
Iolaus, Cyrene and Joxer all let out an identical 'Awwwww,' but Xena choked up so badly that she couldn't utter a word. Instead of speaking, she pulled Gabrielle into an embrace that ended with the two of them looking deeply into each other's eyes.
"I love you too, Gabrielle," Xena whispered as she closed the distance between them to claim her lover's lips in a warm and heartfelt kiss flavored with honey, chocolate and the bard's unique taste.
Fifteen candledrips later, Cyrene had opened the inn for the rest of the villagers and they had turned it into a dance hall almost at once. A band was playing a jaunty tune down the other end of the inn, and all of the tables and the chairs had once again been moved to the side to make room for the clog dance.
Xena was standing in the doorway to the inn, looking up at the increasingly dark late afternoon skies. Sighing, she patted her full belly absentmindedly. She was well-fed and well-loved, but still felt something nagging at the back of her mind.
Moments later, Gabrielle showed up behind the Warrior Princess and ducked under her arm. "Hey," she said, taking one of Xena's hands in her own.
"You promised me a dance, you know."
"I did…? I can't remember doing that…?" Xena said, turning to look at her partner.
"At the Solstice party. Before all the bad things happened."
"Oh… okay. Gabrielle, how on Gaia's green earth can you dance after eating that much of the cake?"
Smiling, Gabrielle gave Xena's fingers a little squeeze. "It's a gift."
"Mmmm! I… I just need a few candledrips out here, love. But then I'll come and dance with you the rest of the evening. Deal?"
"Not the entire evening, I hope?" Gabrielle said saucily.
"Then we have a deal. At least there isn't a blizzard you can get lost in this time, huh?"
Xena tracked Gabrielle with her eyes as she walked back inside. Once she had gone through the double doors, the warrior looked up at the dark skies where a new moon was slowly rising and the first stars were twinkling. Over the soundtrack of the band playing inside the inn, her thoughts centered on the things Ares had told her during his brief visit.
'You're wrong about one thing, Xena… separated you will be… and sooner than you think. After all, Licantus of Crete is working for yours truly. So when you go after him, you'll inevitably bump into me…'
Ares' words sent a shiver down Xena's back but she did her best to store it in the deepest, darkest section of her mind. Sighing, she turned around and walked back inside, determined to enjoy the rest of her birthday - and to fulfill her promises to Gabrielle.
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