Between the Times - 6

'One to Grow On…'

Brigid Doyle

LPDir@aol.com

June 2001

Disclaimer: I've borrowed this wonderful characters again set off on a quest to fill in a void left by a casual comment. I don't own them and lay no claim to fame. But I have a great time here and hope readers do too.

No subtext ahead, no spoilers, no violence…lots of teasing and hopefully some laughs.

Enjoy


 

"Come on, Gabrielle…out with it." Xena sighed with exasperation. Two days of the bard's sulking was more than enough.

"With what?" Gabrielle answered as she carefully, but lackadaisically stepped over the rocky trail that led down a steep hill. She kept her eyes to the ground, partly to be sure she did not lose her footing but mostly so she would not have to meet the steel blue eyes she knew were drilling a hole into her back.

The warrior huffed in disgust. She had vowed she would not play this game. She would not let Gabrielle's sudden sullen moodiness get to her. For now she let the subject drop as she slid from Argo's saddle to allow the animal the ease in finding its way down this god's awful path. Just to release some of her welling frustration she kicked at one of the melon sized rocks sending it sailing across the scrubby grass hill, before it tumbled end over end to the foot of the knoll.

Gabrielle watched it roll away, stumbled once then caught her balance and continued in the same direction. Xena was angry. 'So what. Nothing new.' She sighed as she silently told herself.

Warrior and bard reached the base of the trail and turned onto a much easier well-worn path. Even Argo breathed a sigh of relief.

"Listen, Gabrielle if it's the short cut I made you take…I didn't know it would be so difficult. From here on we'll stay on the main roads." Xena tried a different path around the subject she hesitated to approach.

"Ok…" Gabrielle breathed, barely audible as she marched forward.

Xena stopped, rolled her eyes and watched as the young girl advanced without realizing her companion had come to a halt. Argo whickered softly in what might have been mistaken for a horsy giggle. She folded her arms over her chest, wrapping the animal's reins around one hand and let out a long breath. Gabrielle continued forward. Xena shook her head then looked back at the large brown eyes of her steed. Argo had found a few sweet blossoms on the lowest branch of one of the many trees that lined this part of the road. She was happily munching and had absolutely no interest in the youngster that had done nothing but sulk for days.

The warrior pursed her lips, twisting them comically to one side, as she looked off into the distance asking whoever might be listening to give her enough patience to get through whatever this phase of Gabrielle-ism this would turn out to be. She counted slowly to three before placed two fingers against her lips and let out an ear-piercing whistle.

Argo's ears shot up at attention as she sidestepped the blossom treats and moved into mounting position. Why on earth would the warrior summon her when she was so close and still holding her reins?

Gabrielle halted as if she had hit an invisible wall. Her shoulders and back arched with the shriek of Xena's whistle. She turned slowly and looked back, the hundred feet or more, toward the warrior. For a moment she merely stared at the woman who was staring at her, then held out her palms and shrugged. A crooked half-smile turned up one side of her face.

Xena closed her eyes, shook her head and let out a breath over her lips, then cocked her head toward the horizon. The sun was dipping closer to the mountains in the distance and the sky had turned a rosy color. Half of her mind told her that meant clear weather and the promise of a good tomorrow. The clouds over the face of the girl standing in the middle of the road were harbingers of the exact opposite.

Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it out with much embellishment, but followed the warrior's unspoken order and stepped to the side of the road, around a row of hedge and into the clearing a few feet beyond, knowing that the warrior was following close behind.

 

With camp set up and a quick supper all but finished, Xena tried once again to break the barrier and get to the root of whatever this problem could be.

"Glad we still had a bit of dried fruit left, huh?" She uncharacteristically tried small talk.

"Uh huh," Gabrielle nodded more than spoke as she pushed the bread and dried venison around on her plate before setting it on the ground next to her. She drew her knees up to her chest and rested her arms across the top of them. Once her chin was set on the back of her hands she simply stared into the crackling fire, drifting away to wherever she had been drifting for the last three nights.

"You're foot's on fire." Xena mentioned casually as she took Gabrielle's plate as well as her own and dumped the scraps into the fire. The flames shot higher, sparking blue and white, fed by the tallow in the bits of meat.

"Ok." Gabrielle mumbled.

That was it. The warrior had had it. No more. This was over, tonight. Now. She dropped the wooden plates to the ground and snatched the girl by both shoulders, bringing her quickly to her feet.

"What!" Gabrielle exclaimed, wide eyed.

"Exactly," the warrior agreed bending to the bard's eye level and peering into her eyes. "What in Hades' harpies is wrong with you?!" She stood straight, but kept a strong hold on her young friend.

"Nothing," Gabrielle whined as she made a vain attempt to shake off the warrior's grip.

Xena quickly slipped her left hand to the back of the girl's neck and pushed her right palm against her forehead. "I swear, Gabrielle, if you're sick and not telling me…I'll find the worse remedy in the known world to cure you or kill you."

The girl could do little to escape the warrior's strong hold, especially in this position. She sighed heavily, rolled her eyes and allowed Xena to be 'mothering'. The warrior's hands moved to the girl's cheeks as she held her face still and glanced from eye to eye looking for any redness or glossiness that might alert her to oncoming illness. Satisfied there was nothing to fear, Xena released her captive. Normally, Gabrielle would fuss and complain, brushing off the warrior and her over-protectiveness. Now she simply stood in place, staring at the ground in front of her.

It occurred to Xena that maybe illness wasn't the problem. Gabrielle did not handle guilt well and if she'd gotten herself into some sort of trouble she'd have a hard time making a confession. She folded her hands over her chest and stood back, waiting for the bard to make the first move. Seconds ticked by as the silence became deafening.

"Is there something you want to tell me?" Xena caved in first, her patience waning.

Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. "Uh uh," again there came a mumbled reply.

The warrior threw up her arms and stormed away. "Okay, Gabrielle, I give up! What did I do or say or not do or not say? What is it?!" She stormed back toward the girl who had not moved. "You've been sulking around like a horse-less chariot driver for days!" Argo whinnied loudly in agreement. Xena looked over her shoulder at the animal then turned back to the girl, waiting for a response.

"There's nothing wrong, Xena…It's just…" Gabrielle shook her head and spoke softly, without feeling.

Xena waited, resisting the urge to shake the rest of the statement out of her.

"Nothing…it's just…nothing…" Gabrielle finished as she turned away, her voice fading as she did.

The warrior thought for a moment, watching as the girl began cleaning up after their meal and setting out the blankets that would be their sleeping place. Her movements were stiff, almost remote.

"You haven't been on another cheese and goose egg binge have you??" Xena asked as her brows rose, thinking she had hit the nail on the head. "You know what happened the last time. I don't blame you, but if a good cleansing is what you need, I…"

"XENA!!!" Gabrielle spun toward the warrior, a deep blush covered her cheeks. "YOU PROMISED WE WOULD NEVER EVER TALK ABOUT THAT!!!" The plates she had been holding in either hand were sent violently to the ground as her small hands turned into whitened fists and her arms became rigid at her sides. "YOU PROMISED!!!!" She stomped her foot to emphasize her displeasure, then just as quickly scooped up every item and utensil they had used for their meal and huffed away toward the nearby stream, grumbling something under her breath that Xena did not want or need to hear. She wouldn't have heard anyway, her own bellowing growl drowned out most of whatever Gabrielle had said.

The warrior's tantrum was matched only by the bard's fit, as each let loose their frustrations against the things of nature. In turn both exhausted their anger as well as their resolve and each dropped to their bedroll welcoming the escape they would find in sleep.

Gabrielle tossed and turned a few times before surrendering to the gods of sleep. Xena was not as fortunate.

'Everything had been fine, just fine,' Xena told herself as she stared at the starless sky. 'Gabrielle had been in wonderful spirits when they left Trachis. Lord Revco had been more than grateful for their help in convincing a disgruntled soldier to release a young man he held responsible for his son's death. In truth it had been a tragic accident that no one could have prevented. The young man returned to his family and the soldier left without incident. Lord Revco had even invited them to a party held in his court. It lasted well into the evening and the warrior did not miss the fact that Gabrielle had danced with every young man in the great hall and put away more food than even Xena thought she was capable of consuming. She practically had to carry the girl to the chamber the host had offered them for the night. For the next week it was all Gabrielle spoke of, retelling the story of the great ball over and over and wishing that she had had such a wonderful sixteenth birthday…'

"Shi…" The warrior growled, then clapped a hand over her own mouth as she sat up. Gabrielle grumbled a bit in her sleep, pulled her blanket closer to her chin and rolled away, still held tightly in the grip of Morpheus. It couldn't be…they had only talked about it right after that incident with that odd King who refused to allow any celebration of Solstice. Xena quickly did the mental calculations. "Damn!" She spit in a harsh whisper. "Birthday! That's it. Her birthday is just days away and she thinks I forgot."

Xena sighed. She had no means to give the little bard a birthday celebration like the young princess had enjoyed and there was little time to get her all the way to Potidaea for festivities with her own family. No, all that Gabrielle had was Xena. Again the warrior sighed. Now, battles, strategies and warfare the woman could plan in the blink of an eye. Birthdays were not something she had thought of for quite a number of years and something she had lost count of a very long time ago.

The warrior lay back against her saddle and drummed her fingers on her stomach. Birthdays weren't a real big deal back in Amphipolis, especially since she had the audacity to be born on her brother Toris', one of the many things on the list of why he resented her mere existence. It was Cyrene who finally ended the argument between her two strong willed children. Every year, the day before their birthday, was a sort of competition. Instead of the usual arguing they would play jokes or tricks on each other, one trying to outdo the other from sun up to sun down. (The only rule mom had made was that no one was to be hurt, one drop of blood, one bruise or broken limb and the whole deal was off!) The winner would be awarded the honor of having the other wait on her (or him) for the entire day following. Year after year mom called it a draw saying they were even and spent the day waiting on both.

Xena smiled at the memory, one of the few good things she remembered about growing up. It was something they looked forward to even more so than Solstice. Eventually Lyceus got involved and soon they were even playing tricks on Cyrene for one full day before her own birthday. The only day they got away with such pranks played on their mother without the threat of punishment. It was a family tradition that lasted…

The warrior quickly shook away the dark memories that would spoil her moment.

Gabrielle deserved a great birthday. There had been so much pain in the past few months. Xena thought hard then remembered they were only three day's walk from Pharsalus. Her eyes sparkled in the moonlight as she thought of the spring festival held in that city. It was just the thing.

But…she couldn't help the snicker that escaped her…that was three days away. One to plot and plan…one to introduce the young bard to the family tradition of practical jokes…and one to spring on her the best birthday surprise she would ever have…this year.

Xena snuggled down into her blanket. She hadn't been this excited since she was twelve. She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep recalling some of the best pranks she had used all those years ago. Again she laughed quietly….'you won't have any time to mope around now, my little friend…you'll be too busy, much too busy watching your backside!'

 

There just didn't seem to be enough hours between dawn and dusk for Xena to plot every diabolical prank she could play on her sulky bard to usher out another year of her life. It wasn't like the 'old days' when she had a whole year to connive and scheme fiendish efforts to drive her brother mad before surprising him with some endearing (and usually embarrassing gift). One of her favorite methods of torture was to plant a huge sloppy kiss on him in front of his macho friends. She laughed out loud breaking the quiet of early morning. A flock of dark colored birds lit from the branches of a large tree, fluttering wildly and squawking in protest. Gabrielle huffed out a sigh of her own protest before curling into a tight ball and yanking the blanket over her head.

"Oh, you get your beauty rest, my dear little pigeon," Xena whispered. "Get all your rest today for tomorrow…" The warrior laughed a very deep evil laugh as she flipped the item she was whittling in the air, caught it easily and stashed it deep in her saddle bag.

Gabrielle woke midmorning, feeling more rested than she had in more days than she could count. She couldn't remember the last time Xena had let her sleep late when she wasn't sick or hurt nor could she remember ever waking on her own and not to the claxon-like voice of the warrior 'calling her to arms'.

"Bout time…" Xena's dull drawl called to her as she let out a loud yawn and stretched a long stretch.

Gabrielle scratched her head and made a futile effort to push her tangled locks into some sort of order. "Why didn't you wake me?" She asked around a yawn.

Xena flipped one of the horse's stirrups up and over Argo's saddle then pulled the cinch tight and fastened the buckle. She let it fall back as she turned and picked up a bedroll from the ground. "Thought it might help lighten your moodiness." The warrior replied without stopping her chore. She pulled herself up into the saddle and glared down at the girl who was still attempting to rub the sleep from her eyes. "I'm going to ride ahead, do a little scouting. See if you can catch up before the sun starts back down." With that Xena clicked her cheek and tugged Argo's reins in the direction of the road, leaving the sleepy bard without so much as a nod.

Gabrielle stared after the warrior until she and the large horse disappeared beyond the large hedgerow. "I deserved that." She shook her head, chastising herself mentally for her childish behavior the past few days. Xena was a woman with a lot on her mind, she was on a mission (99% of the time) and had little time to waste remembering such little insignificant things like birthdays…even if it was her best friend's. Gabrielle yawned one last time, before pulling herself up to collect her own bedding and follow after the warrior. 'Maybe,' she thought, 'just maybe, I'll try being a bit less miserable today.'

A few hours later the bard was once again walking at least twenty paces ahead of the warrior on horseback. Xena was acting very strange. In fact, more than once Gabrielle sneaked a peek over her shoulder to be sure the snickering woman was not imbibing in some fermented concoction old King What's His Name filled her waterskin with back in Tarsius or Tracheros or whatever the heck that last city was called. Every time the girl did manage to make eye contact with the giddy warrior Xena quickly looked away at some distant object or suddenly began whistling an unfamiliar tune while gazing into the clouds. Gabrielle turned back toward the road, "Humph! Probably just her way of getting even with me…ignoring me…humph!" The bard was indignant.

And so went the day before the beginning of Xena's ingenious, if not mischievous, strategy.

BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! CLANG! BANG! "RISE AND SHINE!!!" The warrior's voice cracked the veil of sleep wide open and Gabrielle fell from it as if dropped from a castle's turret. She sprang to her feet, poised for any danger that was about to befall them, her heart raced to compete with her rapid breathing. Wide-eyed she glanced in every direction, fearing the worst.

Xena stood a few feet away still holding her sword and the frying pan she had been beating upon. "No slouching today, girl! We have a lot of miles to make up. Eat your breakfast and get a move on." She tapped the pan a few times for emphasis, causing Gabrielle to blink in unison as she backed away from the source of the clamor.

"Xena…" The girl began, clearing her throat to bring her rather scratchy high pitched tone to a normal level.

"Ah ah! No, no, no! Don't Xena me this morning, Gabrielle. Get moving! There's ham in your pail!" The warrior dropped the pan to the ground and slammed her sword into its scabbard. She plopped down on an overturned stump, snatched a handful of deep purple grapes from a pile near the dying fire and popped on in her mouth. "Mmmmmm, nothing like the taste of fresh spring grapes…wakes up taste buds ya didn't know ya had." She closed her eyes, savoring the fruit. "Help yourself." She nodded to the girl as she swallowed another.

Gabrielle blinked a few times and shook her head. Maybe this was some horrid dream…maybe there was strong Trachian wine in that skin. "Are you all right?" She asked timidly as the blanket that had remained on her shoulders slid to the ground and she stepped toward her large friend.

"Never better!" Xena mumbled around a mouthful of grapes. She reached for one of the mugs that rested near the fire and took a long draught then wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "You better get some now, Gabrielle or I'll just finish it all."

The girl shrugged her shoulders as she reached down and took a few of the thumb-sized fruits and popped two into her mouth. She bit down on the hard skin, immediately regretting that action. The sour juice squirted across her tongue and down her throat with a buzz so sharp it pierced her jaws and stabbed into both of her ears. The girl's eyes, nose and lips pinched together in a tight squeeze and her body trembled with the acerbic taste. She swallowed hard, dropped the remaining grapes to the ground and pulled the unchewed bits from her mouth, tossing them into the dwindling flame of their fire. Drawing a deep breath that caught in the tartness of the lingering flavor that remained in her throat, she exhaled in a croupy cough. Xena was on her feet in an instant, slamming her palm against the bard's back with such force it was hard for Gabrielle to keep her balance.

"Hey! Hey! Go down the wrong pipe?" The warrior inquired. "Maybe you better have some of this…" She handed the girl one of the mugs, but continued to strike the center of her back as she attempted to bring it to her lips. This action made for more splashing and spilling than it did for drinking. As the spasm relented, Gabrielle held up a hand to halt the warrior and finally drew the cup to her lips hoping to refresh her palate.

The liquid left her mouth quicker than it went it, as she spurted the vile juice in a spray that Xena had to leap to avoid. Gabrielle spent the next few seconds spitting out every drop of every bit of whatever was in that cup in every direction but up. Xena wrinkled her nose in disgust as she stepped back and away. Finally the girl turned toward the warrior. She glared with red rimmed eyes from the contents of the cup to Xena and then back again. "What…" She began in a raspy voice.

Xena shrugged her shoulders and held out her palms as her eyebrows went high. "I thought you'd like a little grape juice as well. Made it myself." She nodded with pride.

Gabrielle put a hand over her mouth and wiped away the remnants of the putrid liquid. She turned the cup upside down and dumped its contents to the ground at her side. "Don't quit your day job." She growled at the warrior as she stormed past on her way back to her bedroll.

Xena almost snickered when the girl's back was turned and could not help the huge smile that crossed her face.

"Where are my boots!?" Gabrielle demanded as she cleared her throat for what seemed like the tenth time.

"Wasn't my turn to watch them." Xena replied with a smirk as she turned her back almost unable to compose her usual stoic composure.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes and pointed a finger in the warrior's direction. "I don't know what you're up to, Xena but you better knock it off. I'm not in the mood. Got it?" She turned and began tossing blankets and furs side to side before moving to the hedge and mumbling under her breath about her missing footwear.

Xena covered her mouth with one hand to hide her grin. Oh, this was way too easy!

Gabrielle turned back. "I didn't even take my boots off last night! I distinctly remember…"

"Must be wherever you put 'em." The warrior interrupted as she began breaking camp. "Hope some animal didn't drag them off."

The girl froze with one hand about to separate the leafy shrub that stood before her. If something had dragged off her boots then it might.… She let the hedge snap back into place. Whatever would snatch her worn out, hole ridden, smelly boots, was probably not something she wished to confront. She turned toward the warrior with a wide-eyed stare. "Wh…what kind of animal?"

Xena shrugged her shoulders as she continued to stow the rest of their gear in the various sacks and packs hanging from Argo's saddle. For all apparent purposes she seemed to be disinterested in the bard's plight. 'Gotcha!' She chuckled to herself under her breath. 'Oh, Gabrielle, you are making this soooo easy.' The warrior turned back to the girl, poker-faced as ever.

"I've heard stories," she paused, glancing toward the girl to be sure she was hooked. "Mind you, they're only stories of course."

Gabrielle's eyebrows went high under her disheveled bangs as she slowly inched away from the hedge.

Xena struggled to contain the smile that was threatening to take over her serious fašade. "They say in some parts of the world there are big cats. I mean BIG cats!" She stretched her arms out as far as they could reach to emphasize the point. "Bigger than Argo, I'd guess, all orange with black stripes. These things can carry off a full-grown man, so I guess a pair of boots would be nothing…" She let the statement hang, unfinished.

Gabrielle's eyes narrowed as she let out a short breath and her shoulder's dropped. "HA! You're making that up." She sneered, but glanced quickly over her shoulders and stepped closer to the middle of their almost empty camp.

Xena shrugged again, her bottom lip jutting out just a bit. "I never saw one, myself, but…" she shuddered as she emptied a water skin over the last of the fire and began kicking lose dirt on top of that. "Anyway, around here you'd probably only have to worry about wolves or maybe a lion, good thing too because I hear those big cats usually took some personal article just to see if they liked the taste before coming for the whole meal." She pulled herself up onto her horse and leaned on the saddle horn. "So, you gonna keep looking for your boots or are we ready to move on?"

Gabrielle huffed in disgust and snatched her bedding off the ground then stormed toward the warrior. She stuffed the wad of blankets and furs under one arm and shook a finger at Xena. "I am not walking all the way to Pheres in my bare feet!" She whined in a puppy-ish growl. "Xena, if you have my boots and this is your way of getting even with me for being a grump…"

"What would I want with your boots?" The warrior interrupted with a slight laugh, "I can only wear one pair, besides your feet are a li…"

It was the bard's turn to interrupt. "And don't go making cracks about my size, Xena. I might be little but…"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Xena pishawed the girl's tirade. "Just think of it as getting closer to nature, anyway you only have to walk to Pharsalus. We can pick up a new pair there." The warrior nudged her horse forward at a slow walk.

"Pharsalus? Since when are we going to Pharsalus?! Xena, I wish you would tell me when you change things. Why do you do that?" Gabrielle grumbled as she carefully fell into step along side the large horse, barely realizing she was still carrying her bedding.

Xena smiled, high atop Argo, as she wriggled her brows. Gabrielle did not notice.

 

The day was unusually hot, the road unbearably dusty. Gabrielle had haphazardly rolled her blankets and tossed them up to the warrior, who used them to cover the suspicious bulges in her own bed-roll. If she hadn't been so concerned with where she stepped and why Xena was acting so bizarre, Gabrielle might have just noticed the familiar shape of those extra bumps.

Now she stopped and stared at the hills that loomed in the distance as she wiped the sweat from her brow and took a long breath. "Xena," the girl exhaled heavily as she glanced up at the warrior a few yards ahead. "Don't you think it's time we took a little break?" She placed a quick hand over her stomach to hide the hungry protest it was grumbling. Those horrible grapes were not what she considered any kind of breakfast and since her anger had long ago dissipated her hunger was in full control.

"Gabrielle," Xena sighed, "at this pace we won't reach the village until next week." The warrior did her best to harden her voice although the glee was tickling its edge. She didn't have to turn around to see the pout on the girl's face or hear the loud breath she exhaled. "You should have eaten your breakfast instead of fretting over those old boots." She commented casually.

Gabrielle snarled silently.

"There's a stream up ahead," Xena started…she'd traveled this road many times and knew each landmark perfectly, but delighted in letting Gabrielle think she could hear the babbling water. She stood in the saddle and turned her head as if listening intently. The girl imitated the warrior's action straining to hear what might be the slightest sound of water in the distance. Xena grinned as she glanced sidelong at her young friend. "If you really must," she sighed, "we can make a short stop there." She reached forward and patted her steed's neck. "Besides, Argo needs a break. Doncha, girl?" She cooed.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes and shook her head. She closed her eyes and counted slowly. It rarely helped but she promised herself…SQUISH!!!

Xena cringed and stifled her laughter by biting hard on her lip. Gabrielle's screech broke the silence of the day and sent several small animals skittering through the brush. The string of curses that poured forth afterward burned even the hardened warrior's ears. Lucky this was the day all was in fun otherwise the warrior would consider remedying the situation with a dose of strong soap. Instead she ducked her head and snickered into her hand before turning toward the commotion.

"OH! UGH! OH! I…DISGUSTING…YOU…BIG DUMB STUPID…UGH…I…YOU ROTTEN STINKING DAUGHTER OF A HARPY'S HAG RIDDEN HO…" Gabrielle ranted as she pulled her feet from the warm pile of steaming stench she had stepped into.

"HEY!" Xena protested, "That's my horse you're insulting!"

"INSUL…YOUR…XE…I…Oooo," Gabrielle stammered through her fury. She shifted from foot to foot trying to keep her balance in the slippery mass. Finally she pulled herself free and moved quickly to the grass swiping her feet one at a time to remove the goo.

Xena rested her arm on the saddle-horn to watch the bard's performance. She knew that if she didn't laugh soon she would probably split her guts holding it in. Gabrielle danced back and forth on each foot, hopping up and down while continuing her nonsensical litany of incomplete sentences and threats.

"I thought you grew up on a farm." The warrior remarked nonchalantly.

"Oooooooooo!!" Gabrielle squealed back, clenching her teeth and turning a deep shade of reddish purple.

"Ya know, in some societies that's considered good luck." Xena pointed toward the mess as she sucked a squeaky breath through her teeth.

"Arrrrrggggghhhh!" Gabrielle growled as she turned in a complete circle, jumping up and down several times.

"I've even heard some folks say if ya walk in it enough you start growing. Hey! You mi…" Xena knew she had struck a nerve.

"XENA!" Gabrielle squawked as she narrowed her gaze and raised a fist at the warrior.

Xena shrugged her shoulders and wrinkled up one side of her face. "Well, if you're finished we can move on."

Gabrielle drew a breath. "XENA!" She repeated in the same furious tone. "I CAN'T JUST MOVE ON LIKE THIS!!"

Xena raised an eyebrow and looked at the girl whose rampage had sent the stinky manure up as far as both knees. "Sure you can, you can clean up in the creek." She sighed as she turned and clicked her tongue to get the mare moving again. Once again she patted the animal's hide and smiled. Good old Argo always came through in a pinch. "Long as ya promise to stay down wind till we get there."

The girl bellowed in frustration and watched as the warrior moved slowly down the road. She wrinkled her face into the nasty scowl possible and kicked one foul foot at the high grass striking her toe on a rock hidden there. "OUCH!" She yelled and instinctively pulled the foot up and snatched the injury in her hand before she had a chance to think. The dark smelly material now covered her hands as well as her feet. Dropping her foot to the ground she stared at her hands for a moment as a shiver ran across her entire being. She shook her hands to both sides releasing as much of the disgusting matter as possible, growled silently at her large friend and that mangy beast she was riding, then stepped back into the road to follow.

 

 By the time Gabrielle caught up, Xena had arrived at the stream and dismounted, setting up a makeshift camp, the kind they used when they didn't plan on staying very long. The warrior had even started a small fire. Argo was still saddled, another sign they wouldn't be here very long, and close to the water's edge quenching her thirst with the cool liquid. The day was hot, unusual for early spring, but the stream fed by the frozen streams in the far off mountains was frigid.

Gabrielle entered the small grove and headed toward the fire and the warrior who sat cooking something that smelled wonderful.

"STOP RIGHT THERE!" Xena commanded, raising a hand before Gabrielle who was still more than twenty feet away. The girl froze, scanning the area for some unforeseen danger. "Don't even think about coming closer until you wash the stink off you." The warrior pointed toward the stream with the stick she had been poking the something she was cooking.

 Gabrielle glared at the warrior and let a breath escape over her clenched teeth then turned toward the stream mumbling under her breath the threats she would someday carry out in return. She stormed toward the water and marched directly into its depth. With a quick intake of a squeaky breath she hurried out twice as quickly then peddled her feet rapidly on the sun-warmed grass to shake off the cold. Argo looked up from her drinking and whickered softly as if amused by the girl's antics.

"Oh shut up!" Gabrielle balked. "If it weren't for you I wouldn't be here. You and your…" The animal blinked its large brown eyes at the raving human. Gabrielle rolled her eyes again. She couldn't believe she was talking to this animal. She walked to the edge of the water and bent down placing her hands in the frigid liquid. Quickly she scrubbed them together removing all of the matter that had hardened in the two hours it had taken to get this far. Argo whickered again and moved closer to the girl, nudging her softly on the cheek. Gabrielle pushed the animal's muzzle away. "Not a chance." She warned the horse.

Carefully, she put one foot into the cold water and scrubbed it for as long as she could bear to hold it there. Argo nudged her again, this time nibbling softly on the hair atop her head. Gabrielle waved a hand over her head, inadvertently dropping the cold water on her head and face. "Knock it off, horse." She grumbled as she began scrubbing the opposite foot. Argo nudged again almost setting the girl off balance. She righted herself quickly and shoved the horseback. "Will you pul-eez?" She admonished.

Gradually she had eased both feet into the icy water and grown accustomed to its temperature for a bit longer periods of time. She bent forward to give her legs one last good scrub before rushing back to the fire to warm them enough to restart the flow of blood. Argo whinnied loudly, tossing her head side to side and then up and down. Before Gabrielle could turn back the horse once again threw up its head and nudge her backside, this time succeeding in knocking the girl headlong into the cold rushing water with a loud splash.

At the top of the bank Xena bent over in laughter, grabbing her sides and spluttering out the mirth she could no longer contain. Luckily all the splashing and squawking below drown out all of the warrior's glee.

Gabrielle was up in a second, teeth chattering, clothing and hair soak and stuck to her goose flesh covered body. The mossy rocks under her bare feet gave no purchase and the girl teetered and swayed like a newborn foal taking its first steps. Before she could take a second dip into the much too cold water, a strong arm pulled her forward and set her on the bank.

The warrior pulled her scowl back into place before speaking. "This is no time for a swim, Gabrielle. What in Hades is wrong with you? You know its way too cold!" Xena used a scolding tone tinged with sparkles of laughter. "Now, get out of those wet things before you end up sick and even more miserable!" She pushed the girl ahead of her up the grassy bank in order to hide the every growing smile that spread across her features. In doing so, it was much easier to harden her voice. "Great, now we'll waste even more time. What is it with you today?" The warrior continued as she moved in front and away from Gabrielle leaving the girl with her mouth hanging open in disbelief.

 

"I am not…and I mean absolutely NOT wearing this!" A large shrub trembled with the volume of the voice that came from its depths.

Xena shook a large piece of cloth in front of her, examining it closely before tossing it over her shoulder. "Suit yourself," she told the quivering hedge, "you wanna walk all the way to Pharsalus in the buff, that's your business." She smiled broadly. "At least you'll get an even tan."

"XE-NA!" Gabrielle barked as she stepped from behind the foliage. "This is NOT funny!" She pointed at the odd garment the warrior had fashioned from one of Argo's saddle blankets. In essence it was just that, a scratchy blanket with a hole cut in the center, draped over the girl's head and tied around the waste with a piece of vine the warrior had cut from a tree nearby. She had trimmed it to a better walking length with her sword, giving it a very jagged hem. The remnants of which were now over the warrior's shoulder. "The slaves in Sparta dress better than this!" Gabrielle held her arms out at her sides to emphasize her point.

Xena put a hand to her mouth and coughed to cover her mirth. "Now, Gabrielle we've been over and over this. There's not even a hint of a breeze. It'll take all day for your clothes to dry and we just don't have that much time. I'll just drape them across the back of the saddle and they can dry in the sun."

Gabrielle frowned and scratched at her shoulder then wriggled her whole body in a vain effort to relieve the itch this horrid frock was creating. "Rotten horse!" She grumbled as she stormed past the warrior and snatched a small rock from the ground.

Xena caught her wrist and held up one finger. "Ahh, Gabrielle she was just trying to apologize for the…" Xena glanced quickly down toward the girl's bare feet and then back up. "She didn't mean it."

Gabrielle glared at the blue eyes that seemed to be enjoying her woes far too much. Her mouth twitched with the words she could not say as she yanked to free her captured hand.

Xena squeezed a little tighter and pulled the girl close, whispering in her ear. "Besides, if you hit my horse…" She let the threat go unsaid as the rock slipped from Gabrielle's hand and bounced away. "Good girl." Xena smiled as she released the wrist she had held and patted Gabrielle's head.

"OOOOOOOO!" Gabrielle growled and frantically danced from foot to foot, as the warrior strode away. Her steps were just a little too light.

"Why don't you have something to eat so we can get moving? We don't have all day, ya know." Xena suggested as she dropped down next to the small fire she had made to warm her shivering bard and pulled on of the long sticks from the fire. She slid a few pieces of white meat from it and tasted one. "Could use a little of your sister's spice stuff, but it isn't too bad."

"Huh!" Gabrielle huffed, refusing to move any closer to the 'meal' the warrior had prepared. "Planning on poisoning me, again?"

"Gabrielle?" Xena did her best to sound hurt. "How was I supposed to know you have such a tender palate? Those grapes were fine. I ate them!"

The bard refused to take the bait. She narrowed her eyes and silently dared the warrior to convince her.

Xena was a master at this game. She shrugged her shoulders and reached for the other long poker that lay across the fire. "Okay then, more for me…"

Gabrielle's stomach growled so fiercely that Xena almost reached for her sword, fearing an attack by some wild creature. "Not so fast, warrior!" The girl warned as she took three giant steps to reach her friend. "Gimme that!" She pulled the second stick from Xena's hand and plopped down on the soft grass. The girl sniffed the unfamiliar meat and found it to be rather enticing. Slowly she slid a small bite from the skewer and took a very teeny taste. If it were poison, it was appetizing poison. She put the rest of the piece into her mouth and chewed slowly for a bit, then faster as the taste was pleasing and she was ravenous. In no time she had devoured all of the small cubes, in addition to a good sized chunk of dark bread and half of one water-skin.

Xena chewed her food very slowly, enjoying the sight of her young friend savoring the meal more that the satisfaction of her own hunger.

Gabrielle wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and smiled for the first time all day. "I have to say, Xena, that for someone who has no cooking ability, that was an excellent meal." The warrior shrugged off the compliment as she broke the charred skewers and tossed them into the fire then began to break their small temporary camp. "I don't think I've ever had that meat before." The girl commented as she rose to help. "What was it, not rabbit, pheasant maybe?"

"Nope." The warrior quipped as she poured water over the fire effectively extinguishing it.

"It wasn't fish." Gabrielle guessed again.

"Ah huh." Xena agreed.

"Squirrel?" The girl grimaced, knowing how much she hated to see the fuzzy little beasties sacrifice themselves to satiate human hunger.

"No." Xena answered as she pulled herself up onto Argo's back. "Come on, we've got time to make up."

Gabrielle carefully sidestepped the few remnants of fertilizer Argo had graced the clearing with as she fell into step behind the warrior. "Xena? It was meat, wasn't it?" Now, she was worried.

"Yep." The woman answered as she brought her horse to a slow walk, allowing Gabrielle to take the lead. 'The better to see you, my dear.' She laughed under her breath.

Gabrielle walked for a few moments turning over ideas in her mind. She hated when that big old warrior made her work for an answer. But the game made her forget her wardrobe woes, for the time being. "Was it a kind of bird?" She finally asked, breaking the silence between them.

"No." Xena answered then laughed silently as the girl's shoulders slumped in defeat.

"Not a lizard!?" Gabrielle spun on the warrior, eyes wide in potential shock.

Xena scowled. "Of course not."

Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief and she turned and continued walking. Once again a silence fell over the companions as the bard contemplated a new guess and the warrior enjoyed her sport.

"You used some dried venison we had left!" Gabrielle snapped her fingers, sure she had found the answer. She looked over her shoulder to see the warrior's reaction to her success.

Xena shook her head and smiled as the girl let out a frustrated breath.

"Chicken?" Gabrielle hoped. "A really small chicken." The warrior's laughter was an immediate clue that the guess was more than a little ridiculous.

"Give up?" Xena quipped, knowing her little chum would never admit defeat.

"Duck!" Gabrielle verified the warrior's knowledge.

"No, not duck either." Xena chuckled.

"Xena! There's nothing else left!" Now the girl was extremely frustrated. "It couldn't have been a bear or a deer. What would you have done with the rest of it? And I know you weren't fishing and it wasn't an eel. I've had eel. I know eel. Unless you skewered one or two of those puny snakes slithering around that stream…" A sudden realization crept over the bard as she froze in her footsteps. Her mouth fell open in stunned shock as she turned to face the warrior.

Xena had stopped the horse at the beginning of the girl's tirade. She simply shrugged her shoulders. "There wasn't much game around and I told you we didn't have a lot of time so I just grabbed a few…"

"SNAKES!!!?" Gabrielle squealed. "You fed me SNAKES!??? ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND????" Once again she scooped a handful of small pebbles from the road and pelted the warrior, who very easily deflected each projectile.

Xena could not help laughing out loud as she knocked the rocks side to side. "You ate it yourself, I didn't force you to do anything more than that growling beast that lives in your gut did."

"I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU TODAY!!! WHAT IN HADES IS YOUR PROBLEM ANYWAY?" Gabrielle continued to rant and rave.

"You won't die." Xena snickered as she slid from the saddle. "I made sure they weren't the poisonous kind and I cleaned all the muck off them that I could before I…"

Slowly the bard turned an odd shade of green that seemed to stop her tantrum flat. She tried twice to admonish the warrior even further but resorted to clapping a hand over her mouth before dashing into the brush. From the gagging sounds coming from yet another quivering rhododendron, it was clear that whatever went down was now coming up. Xena grimaced, shrugged her shoulders and walked her horse ahead giving Gabrielle her privacy as well as putting some space between them. She was sure she would need it when the bard emerged.

 

The sky was a mosaic of pinks, purples, yellows and blues as the warrior followed the silent and sullen bard to the top of the rocky knoll they had been climbing for the past few hours. Gabrielle had made four more trips into the brush emptying her stomach of its contents until she was sure one more trip might cause her belly button to scrape against her spine in its effort to expel her indigestible lunch. If Xena hadn't whistled an order for her to stop she might just have kept walking into the night, just to get away from her torment. But traveling in the dark was dangerous and even though the warrior had been acting bizarre all day, she would certainly not allow such action.

They moved off the road and into a small cave, setting up their space for the night in complete uneasy silence. It was not long before a fire crackled in the center of the cavern bringing both light and heat to the pair. They sat at opposite sides, both staring into the flames that wriggled upward in the light draft. Argo whickered softly a few feet from the entrance as she too settled in for a restful night.

"Your clothes are dry." Xena announced quietly.

"So?" Gabrielle sneered.

"There's a warm spring over there." The warrior pointed with a quick toss of her head.

"Yeah?" Gabrielle looked in the direction the warrior had pointed, thought for a moment about how wonderful a warm bath would feel, but instead challenged. "What's in it, acid, leeches, a displaced sea monster…no let me guess." She tapped her index finger on her chin and rolled her eyes up to the ceiling…"you just want to drown me?"

Xena snuffed then rolled her eyes as she reached across the fire and grabbed the bard by the shoulder of her makeshift shift. A second later, Gabrielle found herself seated in the shallow pool of bubbly warm water. Before she could protest a large soggy sponge hit her face with a splat and a bar of fragrant soap splashed water in her eyes. "You smell a little horsy." The warrior smiled dangling the scratchy blanket 'dress' on one finger in front of the bard's nose. She flicked a finger on the water's surface sending a quick splash into Gabrielle's eyes then turned and walked back to the fire, dropping the blanket dress on to the fire.

Gabrielle let a breath out over her lips, wiped the drips from her face and sent a wall of water toward the woman. She kicked her feet and slapped at the warm liquid sending a deluge in all directions until her frustration was fully released.

Back at the fire, Xena laughed to herself, enjoying this day of pranks way too much.

The warm bath helped relax the young exasperated bard, as did the jasmine soap the warrior had been sure to supply. She found the clean cloth Xena had left across a large boulder and wrapped it around herself both for warmth and covering. It was soft and held the same scent as the soap she had used. She walked back to the campfire and lowered herself onto the blankets and furs Xena had spread out as a bed.

The silence that had spread between them now seemed impossible to break. The promise of sleep and a better tomorrow were the best she could hope for as she pulled a blanket over herself and wriggled into a comfortable position. A cup was suddenly held before her. Gabrielle looked at it and then to the warrior that held it.

"Go ahead, it'll settle your stomach." Xena coaxed.

Gabrielle stared into those blue eyes that seemed so very sincere. She exhaled in defeat and took the cup looking suspiciously at its contents.

"Cross my heart." The warrior added, making an 'x' over her chest with one finger. A small smile crept across the girl's face as she sipped the brew. "If you want I can snare a…"

"I not very hungry." Gabrielle yawned.

Seconds later Xena gently took the cup from the sleeping bard's hands and tucked another blanket under her chin.

 

The chirping of what seemed like all of the birds in the known world brought Gabrielle from her sound sleep. She rolled over and stretched mightily, snatching her covers before they slipped away from her. As usual Xena was up and away. She rose quickly and dressed then stepped out of the cave into the early morning sun. From the top of the hill she could see the village below still shrouded in the mists of dawn. She wriggled her cold toes on the even colder ground, happy that once she reached that little town she'd have a new pair of boots to cover them.

"Ready?" Xena's voice startled her out of her thoughts as the warrior rounded a large rocky outcropping with Argo in tow. "It's only about an hour's ride into town. We can get breakfast there." She stepped into the stirrup then bounced once on her right foot and landed in the saddle, already reaching a hand down to help the bard mount as well. Gabrielle thought for a moment, considering the way things had been going lately and wondering if maybe this wacky warrior might whip her right over the horse and into yet another freezing body of water. The thought of another barefoot trek and the hazards of such convinced her to take the risk. She gazed at the warrior who simply gazed back, still holding out a hand and patiently waiting. That in itself was a harbinger of some sort of something. Gabrielle was at a loss and Xena knew it. The girl shrugged in defeat as she shook her head and reached up to the warrior.

"What about…" Gabrielle started, as she settled into the saddle behind the warrior. She wondered about the remains of their cave encampment.

"Taken care of." Xena answered, once again answering an unasked question. Neither wondered about their uncanny ability to complete the other's thought. The campsite was secure, fire doused and gear stowed. Gabrielle scrunched up the side of her nose. Someday she'd figure out how Xena did that so quickly and without her noticing. The warrior clicked her tongue and urged the mighty steed forward. What the bard could not see was the smile that brightened her warrior's face.

 

Just as Xena had said, they entered the town of Pharsalus in a little less than an hour. It seemed a very empty little village, there wasn't a soul in sight.

"Close your eyes, Gabrielle." Xena commanded in a hushed tone.

"Xena?" The bard questioned with trepidation.

"Shh!" The warrior warned sternly. "Do as I say?"

Gabrielle swallowed hard and shivered with a cold fear. For an entire population to be wiped out only a horrid tragedy could have occurred. For Xena to order her not to look, it had to be more than hideous. She had no desire to see who had brought it about or what the aftermath had left. Those things were just too gruesome so early in the morning. She tightened her hold around the warrior's middle and squeezed her eyes shut. Sure she'd be there when Xena needed her, whatever she had to do would be done.

'Not today. Couldn't just this one day, just this once special private day be without tragedy or tribulation.' She shook off the selfish thought.

Argo was moving much too slowly. Xena was stalking someone or something. She wondered if she could fight in her bare feet then just as quickly wondered why she would have such a peculiar thought. The thought lasted only a second, interrupted by the sound of screams and wailing that filled the air. Gabrielle's senses braced themselves for what was to come and she tensed in preparation for the sudden drop that would leave her on the ground as Xena sped into battle. Even before it started she could imagine the warrior's ululating battle cry. It brought a strange excited terror to her heart. Her skin prickled in anticipation.

But no battle cry came, no rush to defense was mounted, no sword swooshed from its scabbard and no firm hands eased her quickly but carefully to the ground. Instead the horse stopped, just stopped in the midst of whatever the commotion was, seemingly surrounded by the sounds of tortured village people. The people were close enough to touch. A few brushed past her bare feet. She could her the sound of a child wailing unmercifully, begging for something he or she would never have. A shrill shriek from a young girl was followed by the maniacal laughter of a deep voiced man. Gabrielle refused to open her eyes, partly because she really didn't want to look and partly because Xena wouldn't have order her to keep them shut unless there was a good reason. This could not be happening. Why wasn't Xena helping? Why was Argo frozen in place? Why hadn't the warrior even budged from her place on the saddle? Had they met someone so horrible, not even Xena would raise her sword against him or her? Questions formed and bounced against her mind in rapid succession, when the warrior's hand touched her own she jumped slightly.

"Gabrielle." Xena's voice sounded odd, it held a tone she hadn't heard before. It was soft and reassuring, yet held a twinge of excitement, soft of like when Lila had a secret she just could not keep. That frightened her all the more. This had to be horrendous. Xena nudged back with her elbow. "Gabrielle." She repeated.

The girl swallowed hard and opened her eyes enough to peek through tiny slits. The sight before her was unbelievable. Slowly her eyes opened wide taking in the spectacle before her. She blinked in the bright sunlight as her jaw dropped open in awe.

A spectrum of color spread across the village-square in banners, scarves and flags that fluttered in the breeze. Jugglers tossed colored balls and men walked on stilts back and forth across the expanse of the areas. A small boy wailed and pointed at a brightly colored stand, begging his mother toward it. She shook her head and tugged the 'little man' in the opposite direction. Merchants hawked food, fruit, pastries, sweets, baubles, and trinkets from colorful tents and stands. A young man stood on the wall surrounding a fountain strumming a lyre and warbling a happy tune. Several young girls watched as a handsome magician performed tricks on a small stage, shrieking when he pulled a live hare from a large oddly shaped hat. The man chuckled deeply, smiling a wide toothy smile. Children giggled happily at the puppets that performed at a small makeshift stage. A large heavy-set man in wild clothing smiled and laughed as he moved among the crowd passing out large flowers to every maid and maiden. The air was full of wonderful smells, sounds and colors.

Xena easily slipped from the grasp of her astounded young friend and landed soundlessly on the ground. She reached into one of the large bags that hung over the horse's saddle then smiled up at the still speechless girl that sat atop the animal.

Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief. She had never seen a festival the likes of this, not in all of her seventeen…no make that eighteen years. She let the smile that had been growing spread across her face before she glanced down at the warrior next to her.

"Happy Birthday, Gabrielle." Xena remarked in a hushed tone, almost as if she were revealing a marvelous secret. It was apparent she was uncomfortable with it, unused to such amenities.

Gabrielle threw one leg over the saddle and dropped to the ground. She threw her arms around the warrior. "You knew! You remembered!" It had been so very long since the night they stared at the stars and spoke of family and celebrations and things of frivolity. It had been such a rare occasion that Gabrielle was sure Xena would never think of it again. It was nonsense, not something a warrior would ever keep in even the farthest corner of the deepest part of her mind. But, Xena remembered…remembered her birthday…even after all this time.

Xena smiled a guilty smile and shrugged her shoulders, holding both arms behind her back. Gabrielle turned, and took a step, eager to join in the merriment.

"Wait!" The warrior called, snatching the girl by the elbow. Gabrielle turned back, mid-step. "You might need these." Xena pulled her hands forward revealing Gabrielle's mysteriously missing boots.

The girl laughed a short laugh. "You…" She wagged a finger at the warrior and shook her head as she took her footwear. It was apparent they had been cleaned and polished to a shine. Even the holes that had worn in both soles were covered with brand new leather uppers. "How?" She cocked her head toward the warrior who merely shrugged and looked away.

"Yeah well," Xena hedged. "That saddle bag was beat up anyway…we can…shop for a new one while we're here." Her voice trailed away into an unintelligible mumble as she rubbed one hand over her mouth and turned away.

Gabrielle laughed as she once again wrapped Xena in a warmth embrace. "I heard that." She scolded, knowing the warrior's aversion to shopping. This time Xena returned the hug, squeezing the girl tightly and kissing the top of her head.

"Okay," the warrior remarked holding the girl at arm's length. "Get your boots on. I'm starved!" She wriggled her eyebrows and moved toward the first of many stands.

Gabrielle pulled on one boot and hopped on one foot until she pulled on the other then followed the warrior into the fray.

 

The moon was full before the last of the revelers staggered to their homes and one very satisfied warrior half dragged, half carried a very tired bard to the local Inn.

"Ah ha!" A portly Innkeeper smiled as they entered. "The guest of honor finally arrives!" She clapped her hands twice and raised her arm signaling someone from behind. Gabrielle looked up at Xena who merely shrugged her shoulders and turned down the corners of her mouth. Before the bard could accuse the warrior of withholding still something else the room fell into sudden darkness. Everything went silent in the black interior until a small light came from behind the bar and slowly began making its way toward the two women standing in the center of the room. It seemed to bob up and down as it moved slowly and erratically across the room.

Instinctively, Gabrielle half-stepped behind the much larger warrior but a reassuring arm around her shoulders kept her in place. Finally the small source of light stopped before the young bard, illuminating the freckled face of a beaming young boy. "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" He chirped happily. "You have to be the luckiest girl in town! Your birthday is festival day!" He balanced the heavy cake valiantly. "Mother always bakes her famous sweet cake for festival and uses it to light the way of spring! The person who is born closest to the Spring Equinox must blow out the candles for luck. You get to make a wish too!" He seemed as excited as if it were he who would have the honor. "Since today is your birthday, no one can be born closer!!

Gabrielle smiled back, placing a hand on her heart. "Me? But how did you know?"

The boy's eyebrows knit together in a disgusted frown, as if this silly girl didn't know. He tilted his head toward Xena as the cake tilted sideways. He brought it back quickly, stifling a gasp. It would be very bad luck to drop this special treat. "She told us. Last night."

Gabrielle turned open mouthed toward the warrior and placed her hands on her hips. "So that's why everyone in town was wishing me well all day. Xena…"

The warrior cut her short. "Gabrielle, maybe you oughta blow out the candles before the kid…"

The bard looked back at the boy who was struggling to maintain his hold on his prize. She reached out to help, placing her hands on the opposite side of the large platter. She smiled across the small blaze at the child whose eyes sparkled in its reflection. "How about a little help?" She grinned.

"Sure!" The child agreed, glancing quickly toward his mother for permission. The large innkeeper nodded.

"On three, okay?" Gabrielle informed her young benefactor. He nodded as he drew a deep breath. "One…two…three!" Both the child and the bard blew a breath across the short stubby candles that decorated the top of the cake extinguishing the flame and once again casting the room into complete darkness.

A rousing cheer went up around the room as the lamps and torches were lit. Patron after patron took turns congratulating the celebrant with pats on the back and wishes for many many more years to come. After consuming not one, but two healthy pieces of the wonderful cake and before her shoulder was sure to be dislocated, both warrior and bard politely excused themselves to the best room the Inn had to offer.

 

Gabrielle dropped on to the soft mattress half asleep before she hit the pillow. Xena smiled as she too dropped onto the bed.

"Thank you." A tired voice barely mumbled.

"Thank you." Xena's equally tired voice replied.

"Sure was a better day than yesterday." Gabrielle remarked around a yawn.

"Just family tradition." Xena mumbled as she rolled onto one side and pulled the pillow into a ball under her head, her eyes closed slowly.

For a moment the room was silent, promising its occupants a well deserved good night's sleep.

"Tradition?" Gabrielle's delayed reaction barely affected the drowsy warrior. It was getting harder and harder to respond.

"Mmm hmm," Xena hummed. "Pranks all day then…surprise…birthday…tradition…fa…" The warrior's statement was cut short by the pillow that suddenly and forcefully slammed into her head.

Gabrielle pulled the cushion back then battered the warrior again. "YOU DID ALL THAT ON PURPOSE!"

Xena rolled onto her back and snatched the 'weapon' before it could hit her again, pulling it easily from the girl's grip. She swung it back with just enough force to put the bard back in her spot on the bed. Xena laughed as she rose and grabbed the girl's wrists before she could rearm herself with another pillow.

"Xena if I wasn't so tired I'd…" Gabrielle threatened

"You'd what?" The warrior teased, knowing she had the upper hand.

"I'd…I'd…you…" The bard warned.

"You'd?" The warrior waited for the threat that would never come.

"I'd…" Gabrielle dissolved into laughter, knowing how silly it was to threaten Xena and joyfully thankful that she had the ability to do it anyway.

Xena released her captive and sat back. "You should be thankful I decided to pull pranks instead of initiating you with birthday whacks." The warrior flicked her finger on the tip of the girl's nose before flopping back onto her pillow and the confiscated pillow of her young companion.

Gabrielle grabbed her pillow and yanked several times before the warrior released the object allowing the girl to tumble back across the large bed, striking her head against the wall. She let out a small 'oof' before tossing the pillow back in its place then diving onto it.

Xena chuckled under her breath. Again silence permeated the room, broken only by the occasional huff of air from the exasperated bard.

"Xena?" There was a question in that statement.

"Hmmmm?" The warrior answered sleepily.

"When's your birthday?" Gabrielle asked in a tone dripping with innocence.

Xena snorted a laugh. "Warriors don't have birthdays."

"Come on!" Gabrielle whined, elbowing her large friend in the ribs.

Xena hadn't had a birthday in a very long time. Not one she cared to remember, anyway. Celebrations for the past ten years had been limited to those times her army sacked a town or conquered a rival warlord. Those were not memories she cared to relive tonight. She hadn't even thought about her birthday in years. Birthdays were something you shared with family and friends, with people you loved and those who loved you back. People like Gabrielle.

"It's already passed, two moons ago." She informed the girl, almost feeling sad that it had.

"Honest?" Gabrielle sighed.

"Honest." Xena assured her.

"Well, there's always next year." The bard quipped, always finding the silver lining.

Xena smiled. "Oh yeah!" She agreed, "just you wait'll next year."

Gabrielle groaned. "You mean I have to go through this every year?"

"Wouldn't want to spoil a family tradition now would you?" Xena asked, seemingly appalled.

Gabrielle thought for a moment then answered sarcastically. "Ohhhh no, not me." Again both friends shared a moment of laughter.

"Good!" Xena quirked, "that gives me a whole year to plot."

Gabrielle tried to raise her hand to land another soft strike on the warrior's ribs, but it refused to move. Instead she flicked her fingertips toward her friend. She breathed a deep sigh as the god of sleep took her into his arms and her breathing fell into the steady rhythm of slumber.

Xena gazed on the sleeping girl for a moment. No she hadn't had a birthday in a very long while and yes her birthday had passed this year but just as Gabrielle had been a Solstice gift just in her being, so too was she a birthday gift. Rarely did the warrior find anything to thank the gods for, but on this night she found herself making a silent pray of thanks to the one that brought this very special young person to life. She brushed a stray hair from the sleeping face and smiled as Gabrielle brushed at her hand then pulled herself into a tight ball and snuggled just a bit closer.

Xena turned away and snuffed out the candle that had brightened their room. She rolled back on her side, chuckling at the very small space the very small girl had left her at the edge of the bed.

"Happy Birthday, Gabrielle." She whispered once before she too surrendered to the bliss of sleep.

 


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