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Content Disclaimer: None, this is a clean story.
A Simple Gift
The inn was crowded, and the crush of bodies made the temperature warmer than Xena would have liked, so she was sitting on a bench with her back to an open window. The air was much cooler outside, and she calmly sipped her ale as a light breeze fluttered her hair.
Gabrielle stood on a small stage, using her hands to weave a story as the patrons looked on. Ambient noises filtered in from the market outside, and Xena was sitting far enough away that it was difficult to hear the young bard, though based on the rapt attention of the room's occupants, her story was a good one.
Since her visit to the Academy last year, Gabrielle's storytelling had improved a great deal; she was more confident, which showed in the set of her shoulders, and the way her steady green gaze met the eye of every listener. Torchlight gilded her shoulder-length blonde hair, and sent a shaft of orange across her green tunic.
Gabrielle's expression remained open and earnest, a thing Xena privately hoped would never change. The warrior did not really know why Gabrielle had decided to go with her instead of staying at the Academy, and she felt guiltily pleased that the bard had done so. The bard had said she wanted to live adventures, but Xena thought that most of her life did not feel like an adventure anyone, let alone an innocent woman like Gabrielle, would want to live.
A sigh escaped her lips, and she dropped her eyes, examining the contents of her mug as though all the secrets of Olympus were swimming there. For a moment her thoughts swam with them, until she felt the need to return to the present, raising her eyes again. A pair of green eyes met hers as though waiting, and Gabrielle's face broke into a wide smile. Unconsciously Xena felt herself returning the grin, feeling the corners of her lips quirk as they moved of their own accord. Whatever reservations Xena had about allowing Gabrielle to follow her were swept away by that trusting smile, burned away by the warmth that had crept into Gabrielle's voice.
At this point Gabrielle had told so many stories that she rarely had to think about them as she was on stage. The words just rolled from her tongue as though pulled out of her by an unseen force, falling easily, and landing exactly where she wanted. Her eyes flickered to her feet; the sack she had placed there was filled with coins, and though it was full night, she was not even tired. Travel the past few days had been rather uneventful, but she was glad they had come across this sleepy little town where they could get a good meal and she would get the chance to make a little money.
They didn't spend much; Xena hunted for most of the food they ate, and they often slept under the stars. She wondered what she would buy. Unable to think of anything she wanted for herself, she idly considered buying something for Xena. But what? Gabrielle didn't want to buy her weapons or a sharpening stone, she had enough of those already, and if Xena wanted those she would buy them for herself. She could peruse the market to get an idea.
Her eyes drifted past the face of a bearded farmer toward the back of the room. There Xena sat on a bench, the wooden mug in her right hand balanced on her knee. The warrior's chest expanded as a sigh left her, the motion so slight as to be barely noticeable. The distance and the darkness made her expression unreadable, and her dark hair had fallen over her face as she looked down, drifting like bits of gossamer in the soft breeze.
Gabrielle thought that perhaps the warrior was bored, but the set of her shoulders indicated that she was thinking on something. Xena was difficult to read at the best of times, and almost never volunteered her thoughts unless asked. The bard wondered what her thoughts were now, and if the warrior would be willing to share them. As though Xena could somehow read her mind, the dark head lifted. Low torchlight cast her angular features in half shadow, but her pale blue eyes flickered in the fire's glare. There was something in that face that reminded Gabrielle of the time she had found Xena in Lyceus' tomb, as though the warrior were looking for something lost. Gabrielle remembered what she had said in the tomb, and smiled at the memory. You're not alone. Her friend grinned back, reassuring Gabrielle as she wrapped up the story.
Gabrielle bent down to tie the purse shut, jingling it as she straightened back up. Patrons were shuffling out of the common room, either leaving or heading upstairs to their rooms. Many gave her casual compliments and waves as they left, and she was feeling quite proud of herself.
A low, rich voice from behind her grabbed her attention. “Quite a stash, huh?”
As Gabrielle turned, Xena took the purse from her and hefted it. “Whatcha gonna spend it on?” the warrior inquired with a wry grin.
The bard countered with a smirk of her own. “Actually, I was thinking of buying something for you.” The blue eyes looked mildly surprised, which pleased Gabrielle.
Xena chuckled a little, handing back the purse. Her dark head shook. “Gabrielle, you've given me more than I deserve already.” Her tone was light, and her face smiling, but Gabrielle couldn't help but sense the melancholy seriousness that sometimes stole into Xena's voice.
“You deserve a little present, if only for sitting here patiently.” Gabrielle casually put a hand on Xena's forearm, giving it a tiny squeeze. The strength there was evident; thick muscles from years of sword-handling bunched under the skin. It had taken Xena a long time to trust her; just a few months ago Xena would have drawn her arm away, uncomfortable with even the lightest touch. Now, instead, she gave Gabrielle a look that reminded the bard very much of a child, warmly affectionate, and completely at odds with the raw power coiled beneath her fingertips. Whatever storm clouds that had been brewing behind those blue eyes were now gone, and Xena's lips curled into the tiniest of grateful smiles.
“We haven't bashed anyone's head in for days. I know you must be getting bored,” Gabrielle said with a laugh as she removed her hand. They both turned for the exit, avoiding jostling anyone in the thinning crowd.
“No,” Xena said, placing a hand on Gabrielle arm to lead her around a table, “I was just glad you weren't telling stories about me.”
“You asked me not to,” Gabrielle replied as they made their way outside, the cool breeze sending a pleasant chill through her woolen tunic. Xena found it embarrassing listening to stories about herself, though the warrior would never admit it. The excuse she gave was that it was too easy for bounty hunters to find them if Gabrielle drew more attention to Xena than was necessary. Gabrielle saw through that ruse in an instant, having always seen the warrior's faint blush as she rehearsed her scrolls aloud.
“Yeah, but you never listen to me,” the warrior replied wryly as they made their way to the stable.
“True,” Gabrielle said, “But you've heard those stories so many times you wouldn't listen to them anyway.”
Xena paused with her hand on the door, turning her head to regard Gabrielle. Moonlight illuminated her features, which were somewhat abashed. “Gabrielle, I always listen to you.”
“Do you?” Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. “What was my story about tonight?”
Xena took up the challenge, answering easily, “The king was really a llama.” She smiled, both in triumph and in remembrance. “That was pretty funny.”
Gabrielle should have known better than to contradict Xena, but knowing that the recalcitrant warrior not only listened to her stories but actually enjoyed them gave her a sense of pride that wouldn't have dimmed if the Muses themselves had been applauding. She gave Xena a light push, making the warrior chuckle.
“I have to check on Argo,” Xena said, opening the door, “you can go ahead and go up to the room if you're tired.”
“Oh, no,” Gabrielle countered, “I'm going to stop by the market.”
“Maybe you could get something for Argo,” came the warrior's reply.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “I'm not going to bribe her into liking me.”
“She doesn't hate you.”
“Yes she-” Gabrielle felt the stirrings of an old argument. “You won't distract me with this.” She turned to go before Xena could argue.
A few minutes later, Gabrielle was looking at a textile vendor's wares, deciding whether or not she should have the thick blue wool made into a cloak. But that's something she needs. I want to get her something she likes. Something she wouldn't think of. Deciding what would be difficult, because she had never seen Xena buy anything not strictly necessary. She continued walking, glancing at the various and sundry items available from the traveling market. It was a small town, and a small market, so the selection was limited but familiar, things that she would have seen in Potadeia, or that Xena would have seen in Amphipolis, when she was a child.
She almost passed the next peddler, but the moonlight shining off the blown glass shapes had an aesthetic quality that drew her eye. She lifted one that was of a creature she didn't recognize, a leaping fish with a large fin on its back and a pointed nose. These were beautiful, but too delicate, and meant to be displayed. It would only get broken inside Argo's saddlebags. She set the item down with a small sigh.
“That there's called a dolphin.” The peddler stood up from his seat behind the table. He was an older man, with a well-kept beard that had streaks of grey in it. Gabrielle looked down at the zoo of shapes sitting on the cloth-covered surface.
“They're all very beautiful.” She looked up as she selected a shape that was a fierce cat. “Have you seen all of these things up close?”
The man shook his head, giving her a friendly grin. “No, I just blow the glass.” He cocked his head. “Do you want to buy one? It'd go good on a mantelpiece. I'd give you a good price.”
Gabrielle smiled, but shook her head. “I travel too much. I'm afraid it would just get broken.” A disappointed look skittered across her face as she delicately lay the cat amongst the glass menagerie.
The man considered her for a long moment. “My brother's a traveler too. He's the one that sees all these things. He makes wood carvings, and I copy those in the glass. Do you want to see those?”
Gabrielle nodded eagerly, and the man bent down to retrieve a box that rumbled with the noise of small wooden shapes knocking together. He set the box down on the ground next to the table, and the bard knelt to look through it.
She found the carving of the dolphin. Even in the moonlight she could tell that in was carved inexpertly, yet there was something about the crude style of it that was appealing. It was obvious why the peddler had not tried to sell these, but for some reason Gabrielle preferred them to the overtly beautiful glass creatures. These wooden things were imperfect, yet it was obvious that the one who had carved them had done so with great care. The scent of old wood drifted up from the box's confines, reminding her of her old room in Potadeia.
Her hand found a carving, a round shape that fit into the palm of her hand, of an animal she knew. A hedgehog, with tiny clawed feet and a pointed nose, and blunt spines decorating its back. It stared at her with eyes that were just dots, and she knew that this was what she wanted. Not some grand, exotic creature, but this.
She straightened and held up the carving. “How much would you like for this one?” Normally, she would haggle, but the man had been so kind that she felt he would not cheat her. Besides, she knew she was going to buy the carving anyway.
The man waved a diffident hand. “Just take it. I can't sell it anyway.”
“No,” Gabrielle argued, as she reached into her full coin purse for a few dinars, “Here, take this.”
He attempted to wave her off, but she pressed the coins into his hand. “Use it to visit your brother,okay?”
The man nodded gratefully, giving her another smile. “Thank you.” After a moment, he added, “Don't stay away from your family too long. They'll miss you.”
Gabrielle gave him an enigmatic grin, holding the wooden hedgehog to her chest. “I'm with my family every day.”
Thanking him, she turned back toward the inn. The night was young, but even so, some of the peddlers were already loading their wagons in preparation for leave-taking. Pausing, she opened her coin purse, planning to hide the carving there until she met Xena in their room. Her hand fumbled, and dropped the hedgehog in the dirt under one of the wagons. Cursing herself for being so clumsy, she got on her knees and reached for it, but just as she did so, the wagon began to move, and one of the wheels rolled right over her outstretched hand.
She was too shocked to cry out, and it was so quick that she did not immediately feel any pain. As soon as the wheel lifted, however, a bolt of white hot agony snaked up her arm and through her elbow. She withdrew her injured hand and clutched it to her chest, where it began to throb.
Muttering curses at herself, she picked up the carving with her other hand, managing to get it into the purse she had laid on the ground. She struggled to close it with one hand, but was able to. Standing and making her way to the inn, she examined her hand, which was beginning to swell, and hurt like all get out. She tried to flex her fingers, and bit her lip as the sharp pain returned.
Xena, exiting the stable, intercepted her as she reached the inn. Gabrielle's pain must have showed on her face, because the warrior immediately became concerned, placing a hand on her bicep. “Are you all right? Did someone hurt you?” Concern and threat flashed in her eyes in equal measure.
Gabrielle put a placating hand on the warrior's tensed arm, explaining that a wagon wheel had run over her hand. Xena held her wrist, lifting it delicately to examine it, then shook her head in frustration. “My kit's in our room, and I can't see well enough out here anyway. C'mon.”
Even though Xena knew Gabrielle's balance would not be affected by a hand injury, she placed a warm hand on her lower back to guide the bard up the stairs, reaching past her to open the door as they entered their room. Gabrielle sat on the bed, cradling her hand as Xena lit a hanging lantern with a flint and striker.
The warrior knelt in front of Gabrielle and gingerly took her hand, glancing at her face to see how Gabrielle was handling the pain. She appeared fairly composed, but Xena knew she must be in a lot of pain, even by her own standards. Her hand was red and swollen, and Xena could tell from long experience that some of the bones inside were broken. Xena stood, finding her medical kit in the saddlebags she had brought up earlier.
“I'm going to make you a tea that will dull the pain,” she explained, “I don't want to try pinching the nerves when it's that swollen, and the tea will help you sleep.” As she put a pot of water in the room's fireplace she asked, “How did shopping go?” Partly, she wanted to take Gabrielle's mind off her injury, and another part of her was curious as to whether the bard had found her a gift. Despite her protests do the contrary, it felt uncommonly good to have someone want to give her something, for no reason but they wanted to.
Gabrielle smiled, and reached for the coin purse with her uninjured hand. “I got you something. It's in here.”
Xena gave her a quizzical look, but sat on the bed and opened the bag, reaching a hand in to retrieve the hedgehog. It was subtle, but Gabrielle saw her eyes light up as she rested it on her palm, where it looked considerably smaller than it had in Gabrielle's. Xena looked at it for a long moment, then her eyes slid past it to meet Gabrielle's. Gabrielle found in her face that same expression of childlike wonder she had seen earlier, magnified a thousandfold. Muscles in Xena's jaw worked as though she were considering what to say, by finally she gave a laugh that trembled just slightly. “He's looking at me.”
Gabrielle laughed too. “You like it?”
Xena nodded seriously. “I love it.” From behind her she heard the sound of water boiling, so she stood, placing the hedgehog carefully on Gabrielle's knee. “Hold him for a second.”
Gabrielle watched Xena mix the tea and remove a strip of bandages from her medical kit. The warrior's reaction to the gift had been worth the pain of having her hand crushed, and in that moment she had hardly felt the injury. Xena handed her the tea to drink, which she did, feeling the warm liquid cascade down her throat. It did not numb the pain right away, but Xena knelt and began to examine her hand. Her touch was surprisingly gentle given the warrior's strength, but she had to move the bones back into position. She did so quickly and surely, but even so, Gabrielle bit back a cry and closed her eyes against the pain.
Her eyes still closed, she felt a featherlight touch against the back of her hand, and a moist warmth as breath ghosted against her skin. Surprised, she opened her eyes, finding Xena in exactly the same position she had been before, calmly cradling Gabrielle's hand in both of her own. Gabrielle wasn't sure, but she thought she could see a faint blush beneath the warrior's dark tan.
Xena began wrapping a bandage around Gabrielle's wrist, crossing it over her hand and securing it over her knuckles to keep the joints as immobile as possible. She could still feel the warmth in her face, resisting the urge to rub it away. She was unsure what had made her kiss Gabrielle's hand, only that it was something her mother had done when she and Lyceus were children, and always getting hurt. Why she had done that now, she didn't know. She had certainly set bones for men in her army, and she never had the urge to comfort them like that. It was probably Gabrielle's gift, which had reminded her of toys she and Lyceus used to play with when they were young. That was probably it.
The tea kicked in, and the feeling went out of Gabrielle's hand. It had been painful, but Gabrielle was glad her hand had not been numb when Xena set it. Otherwise she never would have felt what she was sure was a kiss. She wondered what had prompted so uncharacteristic an action from the normally very stoic warrior, but she knew asking would somehow ruin the moment. Instead, when Xena was finished, Gabrielle simply said, “Thank you.”
Xena looked up at her and gave her a warm smile. “Thank you.”
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