DISCLAIMER: I don't own them
if I did subtext would have become maintext. This story is not intended for profit but simply to test my ability to create something I am happy with that others might enjoy.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks to Chicafrom3 for her amazing patience with beta'ing stories for me.
CHALLENGE: Written for the Dead of Winter ficathon.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
It was a cool night in the forest and the creatures living there were especially active. Two of the forest's temporary occupants were doing their best to sleep despite the incessant chirping and buzzing.
"Xena, I can't sleep! Can't you do anything about this noise?"
"Gabrielle, I may have many skills, but even I can't do anything about the creatures of the forest." Smirking at the pouting bard, Xena added, "Besides, don't you think if I could do something about this noise that I would have done it by now?"
"I guess you're right." Trying to come up with something to help her sleep, Gabrielle got an idea. "Hey, Xena, do you still have any of that soft stuffing you used when I used to get blisters?"
"Yep, but how's that gonna help? You planning to make a pillow out of it?"
"No, I thought maybe I could put some in each ear to muffle the noise. It's nice and soft so I don't think it will hurt."
"Hmm, that idea's not half bad." Grabbing a saddlebag, the brunette produced the soft material and pulled off a few small tufts placing them in her ears. Eyes wide, she smiled at the bard. "Hey, it works!"
Holding her ears against the warrior's bellowing, Gabrielle motioned for her to remove the earplugs. Once removed, the blonde laughed, "Jeez, Xena, no need to yell. Now hand over some of that so I can get some sleep." Taking her own portion, she once again addressed the warrior: "So say anything you need to say now because once I put these in, I'm not gonna be able to hear you."
"Alright, then get some shut-eye, we're starting out at dawn."
Rolling her eyes, Gabrielle flopped down on her bedroll. "Ugh, what else is new, we're up at the crack of dawn every morning."
"One of us is and she's not blonde."
"Oh, Xena, you know I'm not a morning person. Anyway-" Slipping the stuffing into one ear, Gabrielle smiled at the warrior. "Goodnight, Xena."
Smiling at the bard, Xena turned away to her own bedroll. "Good night, my bard, sweet dreams," she said to the night air, thinking the bard had stuffed her other ear.
What she didn't know was that Gabrielle had a little trouble with the one ear and had removed it... just in time to hear the warrior's words. My bard how I wish she would say it when she knows I can hear her.
Dawn arrived much too early for the bard as she trudged along, bleary-eyed, behind Argo. "Xena, are you sure you don't want to stop in Amphipolis first?"
"Gabrielle, we've had this discussion how many times now? What makes you think today will be any different?" the brunette called over her shoulder. "Your folks are expecting you for solstice, and you know how excited Lila is to see you."
"I know, you're right, but I really wish you'd stay with us."
"I don't think that would be such a good idea, as you well know your father made it a point to say that I was not welcome in your home. After all, I'm the big bad warrior that took his poor innocent daughter away." The warrior in question chuckled.
"Xena, that's really not funny. You know the truth and he needs to know it. Besides, don't you think I'd like to spend solstice with you?"
Although she had her back to her, Xena could picture the adorable pout that was more than likely gracing the blonde's face. Truth be told, she really wanted to spend solstice with the bard as well. "Tell you what, I'll stop in for a visit and if your father doesn't act as if I don't exist I'll consider staying." The whoop her comment elicited put a smile on the warrior's face.
"Thank you, Xena! I'm sure father will be more amenable to you staying. I've written often letting them know how exciting my travels with you have been."
"Well, considering all the times we've nearly been killed, I doubt his opinion of me will be much improved."
"You don't think I've been telling them about that stuff, do you? Father was always interested in traveling, seeing different places, so I've been writing about that. I thought perhaps you could talk to him about all the places you've been, like Chin and Britannia."
"We'll see, Gabrielle." Guess I'll have to figure out some way to make her parents hate me less. Telling them I think I'm in love with their daughter probably wouldn't work though. Hmmm
As the pair walked on in silence the warrior caught sight of a nice buck off in the distance. "That's it!"
Thoroughly confused by the warrior's sudden outburst, Gabrielle asked, "What's it?"
"Shhh," the warrior hushed the even more confused blonde. "You'll scare him off."
Looking around for who she might be scaring off, Gabrielle watched as the brunette slipped from the saddle and retrieved her bow and quiver. Okay, there must be some game nearby. Wonder why she feels the need to hunt all of a sudden? The blonde watched as the warrior slipped silently through the brush to hunt her prey. A short time later she returned to retrieve her knife and kit to dress the buck.
"Xena, why the sudden urge to hunt? I mean, we're going to be in Poteidaia in a few hours?"
Smiling at the exhilaration of a successful hunt and the promise of a truce with Gabrielle's parents, Xena replied, "Well, I figured I'd bring a peace offering, ya know. There's nothing like a nice venison stew to make friends."
Enveloping the surprised warrior in a grateful hug, Gabrielle gushed, "Xena, that's perfect! My father loves venison and Mother makes an amazing stew." Giving the warrior one last squeeze, she released her.
"Hey, leave a little air in my lungs, woman, I need to dress this deer!" Xena chuckled, secretly wishing the bard would never let her go.
Arriving in Poteidaia mid-day, Xena stabled Argo and unloaded the 'gift' in the barn while Gabrielle went up to the house to announce their arrival. The door opened quickly and she was met by the beaming face of her mother.
"Gabrielle, I'm so glad you're here!" Turning into the house, she called out, "Husband, our daughter has returned, come greet her." Turning back to her daughter, Hecuba reached out and embraced her. Looking over her shoulders, she asked, "Where is Xena?"
"Hopefully on her way to Tartarus," Herodotus intoned as he entered the room.
"Husband! Must you be so cruel?" Hecuba admonished.
Trying her best to ignore her father's remark, Gabrielle prayed that Xena's efforts to mend fences with her father wouldn't be in vain. "Father, good to see you. Please, both of you, we've got something in the barn for you."
They all entered the barn just as the warrior had finished settling Argo. She turned and greeted Gabrielle's parents. "Herodotus, Hecuba, I hope you are both well."
"We are well, thank you. And you, Xena, how are you?" Hecuba smiled at the brunette.
"Fine, thank you." Xena motioned to the bundle on the tack table. "I caught a nice buck a few candle marks ago, I dressed it and cut some nice roasts and steaks."
"We don't need your charity, warrior," Herodotus sneered.
"Father! This isn't charity, it's a gift." Gabrielle couldn't believe how stubborn her father was.
"A gift for what? Solstice?" Turning his glare from the warrior to his daughter, Herodotus continued to rant. "Solstice is about being together with your loved ones, sharing gifts with those you care about. She's no loved one, nor is she someone I care about, so why should I accept a gift from her?"
"Why? Because it is given with the purest of intentions, Father, that's why." Growing red-faced, the blonde continued, "Do you want to know why she did it, father? Who she did it for? She did it for me, because I wanted to spend solstice with the people I love and that includes her!"
"What are you saying? Are you telling me that you love this this abomination?"
"Husband!" Hecuba could hear no more. "Why can you not believe that this warrior has found her way to the right path? Has our daughter not told us in her letters of the countless good deeds Xena has been doing?"
"Don't try to sway my opinion, woman! I'll not be told what to think in my own home." His glare now moved to his wife's face.
"Well, husband, then I'd say it's a good thing we're in the barn." Turning toward the warrior, Hecuba motioned toward a small shed in the back. "Xena, thank you for the venison, it was very thoughtful of you. Would you be a dear and put some of it up in the smokehouse?" Turning to her daughter, she added, "Gabrielle, I trust you still remember how to get the smoke started?"
"Yes, Mother, I do, thank you." She smiled gratefully at her mother as she followed the warrior out to the smokehouse.
"And you, husband, bring that roast into the house so I can season it for our eve-meal."
Completely at a loss for words Herodotus could do nothing but comply as he picked up the meat and followed his wife.
"Oh Gods, Xena, did you see my father's face? And Mother, I can't believe how she put Father in his place!" Chuckling at the memory, it took a second before she realized that Xena was not answering. Looking over at the brunette, Gabrielle noticed her wiping at her eyes. "Are you alright? My father didn't mean what he said, Xena."
"I know - that's not what has me acting so foolishly," Xena admitted as she continued to wipe at her eyes.
Wrapping the warrior in a loose hug, Gabrielle was very concerned about Xena's sudden emotion. "What is it, what can I do?"
Pulling the bard in to a tighter embrace, Xena answered, "I can't remember the last time someone stuck up for me, not because they feared me, but because they cared truly cared." Sniffling as she regained her composure, Xena kissed the top of the blonde head. "You, I expected, but your mother it touched me deeply."
"Well, you big dumb warrior, not everyone thinks badly of you. Although Mother did surprise me with the way she stood up to Father." Gabrielle couldn't help but chuckle at the memory of her father's dumbstruck face.
"Yes, well, I doubt that put me in good stead with your father, but I promise to try to reach out to him."
"As long as you're not reaching for his throat I appreciate it, Xena. He can be so pig-headed at times."
Xena released her hold on the bard. "Well, I'm beginning to see where you got some of your finer qualities." Flinching as the blonde smacked her, she added, "Hey, I meant that in a good way!"
"Sure Xena, whatever you say." Gabrielle turned toward the small shed. "Let's get this meat put up so we can go find out where Lila is?"
A short time later the pair returned from the smokehouse to find Hecuba bustling about in the kitchen. "Ah, just in time. I've seasoned the roast and cut it for a stew, I've taken a bit of the meat and fried it with some vegetables." She motioned toward the table. "There's some flatbread to eat it with, and a bit of cheese. That'll need to hold you over until this evening."
She was met by a chorus of thank you's as the pair tucked in to the light meal. "Mother, where's Lila? She knew I was coming today, right?"
"Yes, but she isn't expecting you until this evening. It seems your sister has found her very own raven haired, blue-eyed warrior." Hecuba chuckled at the twin looks of astonishment her comment garnered. "Yes, he has quite the army of sheep."
"Mother, that's not funny."
"Well, it seems Lila spoke so much about your warrior, Gabrielle, that poor Pelus had to do something. The boy has quite a vivid imagination for a shepherd, and so he began to tell Lila of his adventures with his army of sheep." Sighing as she thought of her youngest child, she added, "Needless to say it worked. Lila is quite taken with her Pelus and your father is agreeable to the match."
"That's wonderful!" The bard beamed at her sister's good fortune. "I can't wait to meet him, and to talk to her about him."
"She should be home in a few candle marks. She promised to help prepare the meal."
Xena saw an opportunity to excuse herself and allow mother and daughter some time to catch up. "Well, why don't I go out to the barn, I need to groom Argo and get her some feed." Looking at her arm, she noticed a small smear of blood. "It seems I've got a little blood still on me as well."
"More than a little, warrior," Herodotus stated as he walked into the room.
Holding up her hand, the warrior looked the farmer in the eye. "He's right. I do have more than a little blood on my hands. Blood that will never truly be washed away." Holding his gaze, she continued, "I know that I can never change what happened before, only what happens now. I also know that I can never truly atone for the things I've done, but I will spend the rest of my days doing what I can to help people." Xena turned her gaze to the bard. "When you have someone who believes so strongly in you, you can't help but try not to disappoint them." Feeling tears welling up, the warrior turned and walked out the door.
Gabrielle watched the warrior retreat; she looked to her mother before following after the brunette.
"Go to her. I have things I wish to discuss with my husband."
Rushing out the door, the blonde was glad to see that Xena was just on the porch. Wrapping her arms around the warrior's waist, she mumbled against her back, "Father is such a pig-headed man. I'm sorry, Xena, for what he said."
"No, Gabrielle. He is right, I have done terrible things in my life, and sometimes I need to be reminded of that." Turning in the embrace, she looked down into the blonde's eyes. "Just as I need to be reminded on occasion of the good things I've done. They are both a part of who I am, and your father only knows the first part."
Squeezing the warrior tightly, Gabrielle vowed, "Then I'll just have to make him see what a beautiful, wonderful person you are now."
The pair stood in each other's arms; no words were needed as they simply reveled in the embrace. Meanwhile, just inside the door
"Why must you torment that woman so?"
"She's no woman, she's a ruthless killer, a bloodthirsty warlord. How can you welcome her into our home?"
"Have you no compassion, man! Have you not heard the stories of her good deeds? Have you read any of the letters your daughter sent?" She stood, hands on hips, awaiting her husband's reply.
"Of course I've heard, doesn't make it true!" Herodotus stood his ground.
"Are you calling Gabrielle a liar then?"
"No, of course not! But that still doesn't mean I have to believe whatever she put in her letters." He watched as his wife turned away from him and left the room. He had no idea what she was doing now, or earlier on when she was defending the warrior.
Hecuba returned with a small bundle of parchments in her hand. "Husband, I suggest you take a seat by the fire and read. You have much to learn about the woman your daughter travels with. These will be a good start." Her look brooked no argument and she received none as her husband took the parchments and settled in to read.
"Gabrielle, you're here!" The young brunette squealed with joy as she approached.
Turning toward the sound a smile split the bard's face, and Xena gave her a squeeze before releasing her to greet her sister. "Go on. I'll go tend to Argo." Xena waved toward Lila before heading to the barn. "Hello, Lila."
A slight blush covered the young woman's face as she responded to the warrior's attention. "Hi, Xena," she shyly said before being lifted off the ground by her sister's embrace.
"Gods, Lila, it's so good to see you!"
The warrior was quickly forgotten as the sisters began an animated discussion catching up on all that had been going on in their lives these past few moons. And so Xena retreated to the barn and the comfort of the familiar. Pulling open the door, she was met with a whickering from her beloved horse. "Hey, Argo. I'm glad to see you too." Xena attached the bag of oats to the horse's bridle as she prepared to groom the mare. "Gods, everything is so confusing, girl. My emotions are all over the place between wanting to clobber her father, and hug her mother, and kiss her " The rhythmic stoking of the brush was soothing the warrior's nerves a bit. "I love her so much, girl, but I can never tell her. I mean, what kind of a life can I offer her, nothing but traveling and fighting, she deserves more than that."
"Then you don't know my daughter as well as I thought you did."
"Hecuba!" Startled, the warrior spun toward the voice. "I You weren't meant to hear that."
"I know, but I was here gathering a few eggs when you came in." She gestured to the half-dozen eggs in her apron. "I was about to call out to you when I heard what you said. Are you almost finished here?" At the warrior's affirmative nod, she said, "Then join me in the kitchen, Xena, we have much to discuss." The last bit was said as she was leaving the barn.
Xena was at a loss for what to do so she decided to face the music and quickly finished up with Argo. "Well, girl, wish me luck." A soft nuzzle and a snort were her answer.
Hecuba entered the house to find her husband rolling up the last of the parchments. "So, do you understand a bit more about things?" she asked.
Herodotus kept his head down as he answered. "I didn't know about her brother, and I don't understand how they could fault her for doing what she could to protect her family and her village."
"Yes, Husband, now imagine how a young girl would handle that kind of loss and rejection." She watched as her husband raised his eyes to meet hers, watched as what she said became clear and watched as he shook his head.
"I have much to think about, Wife. I'll be back for eve-meal." As he reached for the door, it opened to reveal the warrior herself, and Herodotus merely nodded and walked past her.
Xena was more than a bit confused by his actions, or rather his inactions, and she missed Hecuba's comment. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"Come in and have a seat, Xena." Hecuba gathered a few things from the shelves and cupboard as Xena moved to sit. "I hope you don't mind if I continue preparing for this evening's meal while we chat?"
"Not at all, actually I'd really like it if you'd let me help you." Xena chuckled at the older woman's incredulous look. "My mother is an inn keeper with a tavern, I know my way around a kitchen. I happen to be quite good at slicing and chopping, as you can imagine."
That comment earned her a swat on the arm. "As I can imagine well, then, I guess we'll have to put your skills to the test." Grabbing a bowl of fresh vegetables, she set it down in front of the warrior. "Peel and chop these into thumb-sized bits."
"Yes, ma'am," Xena answered and got down to it. "Hecuba, what you heard in the barn "
"Xena, I know you love my daughter, I knew even before I caught you telling your horse. I could see it in your eyes how you are always looking out for her." She watched as the warrior continued to peel and chop. "I also know that my daughter loves you as well."
At this Xena's head popped up. "She does?"
"Oh, Xena. How can the two of you not see what is so plainly obvious to anyone who sees you together." Smiling at the woman hanging intently on every word she was saying, she added, "You think you are no good for her and she thinks you are too good for her."
"Too good for her?"
"Yes, Xena, she most likely feels you are too worldly for a simple farm girl."
"How do you know all this?"
"Gabrielle's letters the way she writes about you and your adventures, it's easy to see that she cares deeply for you. But she's still worried that the day will come when you'll grow tired of her, or find someone who'll steal your heart."
"Someone already has." Xena stopped what she was doing for fear of cutting herself, and looked to the woman across from her.
"Be brave and tell her how you feel, warrior." Grey-green eyes smiled at the brunette. "Tonight is the night of Winter Dreams, when that which we thought unattainable can be ours." She saw her words register and a slight smile graced her lips. "Now let's get back to peeling and chopping."
Almost a full candle mark later a pair of giggling girls burst into the kitchen and stopped dead in their tracks at the sight before them. For there, in all her glory, stood the Warrior Princess setting the table!
"Well, Xena, if I didn't know better I'd think those two were waiting until we'd finished before setting foot in here."
The warrior simply chuckled as she set the last of the dishes down. Crossing the floor, she walked toward the still shocked duo and, giving them each a smirk, reached out and pushed their mouths closed. "Seems we have a pair of fly catchers, Hecuba."
As the warrior continued to the other side of the room, the older woman gave her a warm hug. "Thank you for your help today, Xena, it was truly appreciated as it seems my original helper was nowhere to be seen." After giving her daughters an admonishing look, she guided the brunette to the table. "Please, have a seat, Xena, Herodotus should be returning soon, so we can eat."
As if prescient, Herodotus chose that moment to enter. "Smells good," he commented as he took his seat at the head of the table. Looking around at the room's occupants, he cocked his head to the side. "Well, what are you all waiting for? Have a seat, I'm starved."
After bringing in the stew Hecuba took her place at the other end of the table. "Daughters, bring the rest to the table." Xena moved to help them but was stopped by the older woman's words. "Xena, you've done more than your share in helping me prepare this meal, please have a seat." Gabrielle and Lila placed the rest of the meal on the table and took their seats. Hecuba took Xena and Gabrielle's hands and lowered her head to pray. "We have received many gifts this day, not just this wonderful venison but the safe return of our daughter and Xena." The older woman paused for a moment before adding, "Well, let's eat before it gets cold."
And so the meal was consumed as light conversation permeated the room. Herodotus retreated to the porch to smoke his pipe as the girls cleaned up and Hecuba poured Xena a glass of port. "Xena, there's a chill in the air tonight, are you sure you'll be warm enough in the barn?"
"I have my bedroll and an extra fur so I'll be fine. Besides I spend most night under the stars so this is actually a treat." Yawning a bit, the brunette stood and stretched. "As a matter of fact, I'm pretty tired so I think I'll go hit the hay."
Hecuba smiled and nodded. "Alright, goodnight, Xena."
"Night, Xena." Lila added.
Gabrielle stood and walked toward the door. "I'll walk you out."
As the two exited, they saw Herodotus at the end of the porch. "Good night, Herodotus," Xena called out. A grunt was her answer, and it was more than she expected.
"Wow, I don't know what Mother said to him but it seems to be working," Gabrielle stated brightly. They entered the barn and the bard walked over to Argo. "Hey, girl, you watch over Xena for me tonight, alright?" A nudge and snort was her answer. She turned back to the warrior. "I'm so glad you're staying, Xena, it was one of my solstice wishes."
Raising an eyebrow at that, Xena just had to ask. "Oh, and what are your other wishes?"
"Oh, well " A blush rose up the blonde's neck to cover her face. "I can't tell you or they might not come true."
"I see. Well then, I hope all your wishes come true, my bard." Xena was unrolling her bedroll at the time or she would have witnessed the transformation from embarrassment to elation her words put on the bard's face. As it was, by the time she turned around the only remaining sign was a beaming smile. Returning the smile, Xena held out her arms. "Better get some sleep, Gabrielle, tomorrow may be solstice eve but I'm sure there's still work to be done around the farm."
Moving into the brunette's arms, Gabrielle squeezed tightly. "You're right, Xena, there's always work to do on a farm." Releasing her hold, Gabrielle headed for the door. Just before she closed it, she whispered, "Sleep well, my warrior."
Of course, with her superior hearing, Xena heard the bard. My warrior! Gods, what I wouldn't give for that to be true.
In the wee hours of the morning, a shadow fell over the kitchen table as a body bumped into a nearby chair. "Rats, I can't see a thing." As if in answer to her dilemma, a candle was lit. Startled, she looked up into a pair of familiar eyes. "Mother! I I'm just "
"Shhh, Daughter. I know you miss your warrior." Handing her the candle, she lightly kissed her cheek. "Go on, go to her and tell her what's in your heart." Hecuba smiled at the stunned look on her daughter's face. "It is the night of Winter Dreams, Gabrielle, the night when "
"That which we thought unattainable can be ours," the bard finished for her. Turning toward the older woman with tears in her eyes, she took her into a rough embrace. "Oh, Mother, thank you!"
"She loves you very much, Gabrielle, trust in that."
And so it was, under a canopy of stars, that the bard made the longest journey of her life. As she neared the barn she saw the door open and the silhouette of the woman who invaded her every dream appeared. When Gabrielle reached her Xena said nothing, she simply took her hand and led her into the barn. Closing the door she pulled the bard to her and blew out the candle in her hand. For long moments they stared deeply into each other's eyes until finally, slowly, their lips met. Gentle kisses soon grew more heated as they began moving toward the bedroll, silent still as they moved to lie down side by side. Their lips once again met as their hands joined in and soon they were touching everywhere skin to skin heart to heart. They made love silently, as if any sound would break the spell.
They rested for a moment as Xena trailed her hand over the bard's cooling skin. "Is this real or is it my Winter Dream?"
Grasping the brunette's hand, the blonde brought it up to her mouth and kissed her open palm. "It's both, my love." Placing the recently kissed hand upon her own breast, the bard pulled the warrior down. "And may it never end."
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