"Well?" asked Gabrielle. Xena took that to mean she could open her eyes, and with an indulgent sigh did so, only to stare straight at the bard. She didn't say anything for a moment. Gabrielle frowned. Xena swallowed.
"A little...impractical..isn't it?" Xena ran an eye down the...whatever it was... that wrapped itself so lovingly around Gabrielle's body.
Gabrielle looked up at the ceiling for a moment. "For Lila, this *is* practical. She'd tell you this is just the thing to find a kindred spirit." Xena raised a dubious eyebrow. "Don't say it," the bard cautioned with a sigh.
The room glowed with light cast by the candles and the fire that kept out the chilly afternoon air of Winter Solstice Eve. Comfortable chairs were invitingly close to the hearth, and the fine wood paneling set off the colourful quilts that covered the bed. While Xena had struggled in with saddlebags and gear, Gabrielle had pushed ahead of her through the door, pointing out every detail. The overburdened warrior had looked up when the bard stopped in mid-sentence.
"Do you know the owner here?" Gabrielle asked.
Gabrielle gestured around. "Look at this room. This must be the best Inn in town. The biggest festival of the year is going on, and they just happen to have a room free? With dinner? For 8 dinars?" She looked concerned. "It must be some sort of trap. Did you see anybody you recognized?"
"You know, Gabrielle, sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence," Xena looked slightly amused.
"I guess so." The bard didn't look completely convinced, but let it go. "Hand me that package from Lila, will you?"
****** "Just leave all that stuff. Let's go look around, there's a festival going on out there without us."
The warrior blinked, then shook her head slightly. "I'd like a bath..." she began, then smoothly continued at the crestfallen look on Gabrielle's face, "but it can wait." Gabrielle loved festivals and hardly ever had a chance to enjoy them. She smiled to herself as the bard's face brightened.
"Wait," said Xena, tugging at Gabrielle's shoulder as she headed out the door. She took her cloak from the saddlebag and settled it around the bard. "Cold out there," she remarked.
Gabrielle had her own cloak, and it fit just fine. Xena's, on the other hand, was sized for her and covered Gabrielle almost from neck to ankle. The bard grinned inwardly, took the arm Xena extended and swept out of the room, feeling very unbardlike.
Gabrielle wanted to see everything. As afternoon darkened into evening, torches were lit throughout the crowded town. Xena saw puppet shows, dancers, musicians, jugglers and bards, and watched Gabrielle. Eyes sparkling with pleasure, she outpaced Xena to every new sight with wearying enthusiasm, frequently making comments to her tall, largely silent shadow.
"You're not enjoying yourself, are you?" Gabrielle asked as they threaded their way through the crowded streets towards the Inn.
"Yes, I am," Xena steered Gabrielle around a group of men standing outside a tavern. "Puppets, bards, musicians...what's not to enjoy?" Gabrielle made a skeptical sound.
"You could smile every once in a while," the bard chided. Xena obediently smiled and Gabrielle laughed and squeezed the arm she was holding.
"What?" Gabrielle asked absently, trying to decide whether to have another pastry now or wait until later. Xena shot a glare at yet another admirer of the bard's advancing in their direction, and watched in satisfaction as he turned around and headed back to the bar.
"Nothing," she replied. It was hard to believe that a single person, and one the size of Gabrielle, could consume the amount of food the bard had. Xena leaned back, comfortably replete. "Aren't the bards on soon?"
Gabrielle looked over, surprised. Innocent blue eyes looked back.
"Yeah. You're staying?" she asked hopefully.
"Wouldn't miss it." Xena ignored Gabrielle's look of disbelief. Tonight was sure to be a night for the romantic tales Gabrielle loved. A jug of wine wouldn't hurt, though.
To her surprise, it wasn't as bad as she'd been afraid it would be. Some of the stories were actually quite funny, even if they were ridiculous. Xena didn't have to look at Gabrielle to know how much she was ejoying them. The pressure of her hand holding Xena's larger one kept changing. The bards, switching with each other every couple of stories, seemed to be having an impromptu competition, with each trying to outdo the last. They'd go on all night, Xena knew.
Gabrielle had been so absorbed in the tales that she started slightly when Xena began to gently disengage her hand. She looked up, and the warrior gestured with the empty jug. The fire was being rebuilt, and she was surprised to realize how much time had passed. Xena had been sitting for some time with nothing to drink. Her own was still untouched.
"Sorry, I guess I.." she stopped as Xena held up a hand. "If I wanted to get up, I could have."
Gabrielle gave her that special smile, the one that always made Xena's heart turn over.
"Let's go up," said the bard.
"Stay here for a moment." Xena crossed to the bar and spoke to the man waiting behind it. He nodded and she worked her way back to their table, returning Gabrielle's questioning look with a smile and a shrug of a shoulder.
"I thought you said you didn't know the owner," Gabrielle ventured, as they headed up the stairs.
********* Gabrielle looked at the fresh candles, the built-up fire and the wine jug on the side table. A smile tugged at the corners of Xena's mouth as she tossed her cloak over one of the chairs.
Gabrielle watched her for a moment.
"You planned this, didn't you?" she asked suddenly. "You must have. A room like this, and every single one of my favorite foods for dinner?"
"I've never seen food that wasn't a favorite of yours," said Xena dryly, "but yes, I planned it."
"Sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence? That's true, this just isn't one of those times."
Xena grunted slightly as the bard flung her arms around her neck in a fierce hug.
"This is wonderful, I'll never forget this." Gabrielle's voice was muffled, her breath warm against Xena's neck "How did you arrange it without me knowing?"
Xena tightened her grip to pull the bard a little closer. "I sent a messenger from Thellios"
"We weren't anywhere near there."
"I took a sidetrip on my way back from Thebes."
Gabrielle frowned and drew back. "Why would you do that?"
"There was a competition, so I spent an extra day. I didn't tell you for obvious reasons." Gabrielle looked at her appraisingly. Xena gave her the best expressionless look she could manage with Gabrielle in her arms, dressed as she was.
"And you didn't send the message from Thebes, because you hadn't won yet, and you needed to send the money with the messenger."
"Something like that," the warrior admitted. "I know we could just as easily have camped, or found another Inn, but this is our first Solstice together." She looked at Gabrielle's face turned up to her. "I wanted it to be special."
The bard swallowed, and smiled. "Xena, it would be special if we were stuck out in the middle of nowhere, all by ourselves." She urged Xena's mouth down to hers, and it was the warrior who finally pulled away from soft lips that said so much without words.
"I think this would be a good time for your gift," she told the bard.
"You got me a gift? After all this?" Gabrielle was startled at Xena's slightly embarrassed expression. She'd never seen Xena look embarrassed about anything.
"Um, two gifts, actually. One of them is for tomorrow." She looked into Gabrielle's eyes. "I haven't had any reason to celebrate Solstice for a long time. This year is different."
She led the bard over to the bed and sat her down before crossing the room to lift a package carefully wrapped in cloth from behind a chair. Gabrielle thought she knew what Xena's conversation with the bartender had been about: she was sure there had been nothing in the room before they'd left it.
Xena brought it over and stood looking down at it for a moment, then silently held it out.
Gabrielle removed the protective cloth, and her breath caught at the burnished gleam of the soft, rich leather. She opened it carefully and slowly turned through the parchments cunningly bound within the covers. Each of the pages bore the firm hand immediately recognizable as Xena's. Choosing a parchment, she started to read.
Xena felt the sudden grip of nervousness, and resisted an urge to reach out and take the gift back. Why she felt that something that had seemed like such a good idea, for so long, suddenly wasn't, she didn't know, but it was too late now. She grimaced, and wished Gabrielle would say something.
Without looking up from her reading, Gabrielle caught Xena's hand and pulled her down to sit beside her. Endless silent moments went by.
"They're different, but these are my stories.." the bard started quietly. Shimmering eyes finally looked into Xena's.
"Not really so different," Xena said softly. "They just include the parts of the tales you never tell. Everything that you did. All the people you've reached out to, all the lives you've touched, what a difference you've made to so many people. How important you are in my life."
Gabrielle looked back down to the pages. "But how did..."
"I've had Salmoneus backtracking us. People like to talk to him," her eyebrow went up, "and he likes to talk to people. I did most of the writing at night." She looked down at her hands.
"The last one is mine."
"I'm not a bard," Xena said apologetically, as Gabrielle read the warrior's thoughts about the first night they had made love, "I don't have your gift for words."
"Hey, you'll stain the page." Xena ran a thumb gently over Gabrielle's cheek, catching the tears.
The bard looked at the warrior's blurred image and moved into strong arms that loved her, wanted her and kept her safe. Warm tears spilled onto Xena's neck and she barely heard, so soft was the voice, "you take all my words away."
Guttering candles and a low burning fire still gave off a soft glow, more than enough for Xena to trace the outlines of the bard's face. Gabrielle was asleep, her head on Xena's breast, arms wrapped around the warrior. Gently, Xena smoothed her hand down the bard's soft cheek, and smiled at the sound of contentment Gabrielle made. She should sleep, she knew, no doubt Gabrielle had a full day planned. Lifting her head, she touched her lips to the bard's forehead.
"A happy Solstice to you, Gabrielle," she whispered, and closed her eyes.