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"I certainly can."
"No, you can't." Gabrielle laughed derisively.
Xena lifted an eyebrow in irritation. "I have many skills," she sniffed.
"Not this one," the bard declared with certainty.
Xena whirled and grabbed her companion by the arms, raising her to eye level. "Yes...I...do!" Shaking the bard gently once for emphasis.
Gabrielle looked at the powerful arms holding her in the air and then looked into Xena's eyes, giving her a knowing smirk. "Oh, yeah?"she asked dryly.
Oops. Xena slowly lowered her to the ground. "I just don't want to now," she said primly.
Gabrielle poked her friend in the ribs. "Want to make a little wager on it?"
Xena looked at her suspiciously. "What did you have in mind?"
"I bet you can't go from sunrise to sunset without some act of intimidation or aggression against something living, be it human, animal, or vegetable." The bard thought for a moment before continuing. "These are the conditions. We stay at an inn in the next town. You have to be among people from sunrise to sunset. You have to wear regular clothes..." This got an upraised eyebrow and an icy stare. "...you can't give intimidating looks like that," continued the bard noting the look.
"Hey!" protested the warrior. "I don't know what you mean. I always look like this." Knowing full well what look her companion was referring to.
"Uh huh...and you can't carry weapons, at least where they can be seen. In other words, you're just a regular woman going through a regular day, relating to other people in an unaggressive manner, no matter how offensive they are. Think you can do that?"
Xena looked down the road impassively thinking it over. She could do this. It was just one day. She glanced up at the sun. Of course, the summer solstice had just passed, so the days were pretty long. She glanced down at Gabrielle. "I don't know if it would be worth my while. What do I get if I win?"
"What do you want?"
Xena smiled wickedly, then shook her head. Better not go there. "Well, I've always wanted to see the island of Limnos. It's a two day journey by boat and it will take us a day to get to the coast. You'll have to ride Argo, of course. And you do all the hunting and cooking on the trip."
Gabrielle blanched. "All...right," she said slowly. "If I win, we go to Athens for three days of nonstop shopping and we see every play in town. We walk there and we get up each morning when I wake up, not you. I'll still cook."
"It'll take months to get there," Xena protested.
"Very funny. Take it or leave it."
Xena chewed on her lower lip. There was a lot to lose here. But it was only for one day and surely she could last one day without punching out anyone.
Gabrielle started to cluck like a chicken. Even knowing she was being played like a fine fiddle didn't help, the hairs on Xena's neck rose with the sound and her competitive juices began to gush. She gave her companion a feral smile. "You're on," she said with an ominous chuckle. Argo snorted in her ear. Fool, the snort said. Xena brushed her away.
They continued walking down the road each thinking not so much of what they would win, but worrying about the awful price to pay if they lost.
They arrived in Helkinde at supper time and found a room at the Fair Maiden Inn. The food was good and the accommodations adequate. The owner, a portly affable man by the name of Theoclus allowed Gabrielle to perform that evening for their meals. The room remained packed while the bard wove her magical spell telling story after story.
During a break, Xena watched with narrowed eyes from across the room while her companion had a genial conversation with Theoclus, laughing at something he said and patting his arm. At the end of the evening, the bard gathered up her tips and the two headed up to their room.
Gabrielle was curiously quiet as she got ready for bed. Xena watched her with growing impatience. "All right, when are you going to tell me what you were talking to Theoclus about?"
Gabrielle looked up innocently. "Oh, nothing much. But now that you asked, I got you a job for tomorrow."
"You get to work for our room tonight and tomorrow. As a serving girl in the dining room. Remember our wager? This will get you out among people and pay for the room besides. If you can get through the day, I'll be happy to ride Argo and sail on your stinking ship." She moved over to help the warrior out of her armor. "You won't be needing this tomorrow. Theoclus thinks he can find some appropriate clothing for you."
"Got this all planned out, don't you?" Xena observed archly. She washed up and changed into a shift for sleep. "Go ahead, it won't matter. I'll be as docile as a two year-old all day tomorrow."
Gabrielle stretched out on the bed sighing happily. "You don't much about two year-olds, do you, oh great warrior. Three days of shopping, what could be better?" She grunted as her body was roughly shoved over to the far edge of the bed.
"Fighting a harpy in Tartarus comes to mind," replied Xena laying down in the now vacated spot. "They never make these beds big enough," she grumbled, her feet sticking over the end. Sighing, she turned over on her side and tucked her knees. "I don't suppose you could stay on your side of the bed for once?"
"Of course I can," replied the bard sleepily. Before long she was snoring daintily and not long after that she had rolled over on her side, snuggled up against the warm body of her companion, arm flung over Xena's face.
Xena grit her teeth and carefully moved the offending arm away from her face. It found her waist. She sighed, not quite understanding how Gabrielle's small frame always managed to take up the whole bed. Or how she always ended up with all the covers.
But worse than that was how the young bard sometimes acted out stories in her sleep. It happened mostly when Gabrielle expected to perform. Some stories weren't too bad. The romantic tales usually consisted of soft sighs, some kissy noises and an occasional erotic moan.
The tragedies just produced tears. Xena had wracked her bewildered brain, frantically trying to remember what she had done to cause them until she had finally realized the bard was just composing in her sleep.
It was the rare epic battle that usually drove Xena out of the inn and into the stables with Argo. The horse might snore a bit but at least her four-footed friend had never tried to pummel her to death. Gabrielle never knew how close to dying she came the first time she attacked the warrior while acting out the Peloponnesian war and she still wondered why Xena preferred the wide open spaces outdoors to a comfortable bed at an inn. Or why on some mornings her friend took such sadistic measures to wake her up. Xena knew why it was so hard for the prolific bard to wake up some mornings even if Gabrielle didn't have a clue.
Though Gabrielle slept quietly, Xena didn't sleep well that night. She was more worried about their wager than she cared to admit. It was easy being nice to the nice. The trick would be reining in her temper at the annoying. She didn't tolerate fools easily. After spending most of the night intoning, "I can do this, I will be nice, I will not hit, I will not sneer, I can do this, I will be nice..." she finally fell into an uneasy sleep.
Gabrielle slept the sleep of the contented no-so-innocent. She had a plan.
Gabrielle woke up the next morning feeling refreshed. She lay still for a few moments trying to figure out what was different. It was the warm body tucked up behind hers and the arm draped over her shoulder. Her eyes widened as she realized that Xena was still asleep. She grinned and carefully slid out from under the warrior's arm. Xena murmured "I will..." in her sleep and rolled onto her back. Gabrielle crawled over her companion making sure she planted a firm knee into the warrior's bladder as she bounced out of bed.
Xena bolted upright with a surprised groan. "What the..." She glared at the bard opening her mouth to curse.
"No, no," Gabrielle said waving a finger. "The sun is rising and it's going to be a glorious day for our little bet."
The glare slowly disappeared as Xena struggled to keep the snarl off her lips. Gabrielle laughed. "I'm going to use the facilities, see you in a bit." She disappeared out the door. The snarl reappeared as Xena let loose with a string of invectives. The door opened and Gabrielle stuck her head back in. "Did you say something," she asked in wide-eyed innocence.
Xena smiled at her. "I was just thinking how great that sea voyage is going to be. Waves rolling over our bow, the deck rocking up and down, up and down..." Gabrielle disappeared in a hurry. The smile disappeared as Xena watched the sun rise in all it's wondrous glory. The gods were conspiring against her, of that she was sure.
She climbed out of bed and splashed cold water on her face trying to wash away her black mood. Gabrielle returned to the room carrying a skirt and blouse. "I think these will fit, Xena. Try them on." Xena eyed the clothes skeptically. She struggled into them, trying hard not to tear the seams. It was a tight fit. Gabrielle brushed her hair and tied it back, then stood back and eyed her companion. It amazed her how much younger and softer her friend looked in regular clothes and not swinging a elbow at someone.
"Well?" demanded Xena. "Do you think I'll scare anyone in this outfit?" She whirled around, skirt flaring out. Gabrielle shook her head. "You'll fit in just fine," she replied with a smile.
"Good. Now if you'll excuse me, I have an overpowering urge to relieve myself for some reason." She flounced out of the room with an exaggerated swish of her skirts.
This should be a piece of cake, Xena reasoned. She had grown up working in her mother's tavern and this couldn't be any harder. The dining room had twenty tables and was almost always full this time of year. The inn sat on a main thoroughfare through town and people wandered in anytime of the day and evening. Theoclus explained the routine. There was only one meal served and the food changed depending on the time of day. They served wine, port, milk and cider to drink. If a customer lingered for the entertainment, they had to buy a meal and something to drink. Anyone not drinking was encouraged to leave. No seat sat empty. Strangers ate together if there was an empty chair and people waiting to eat.
Theoclus introduced her to the other serving girl. "This is Elaisa. She's been here a long time, so if you have any problems, just ask her." Elaisa gave the new girl a sullen smile and an appraising once over. Xena smiled at her. "Nice to meet you, Elaisa." The girl grunted and walked away. Yeah, she's going to be a big help, Xena thought.
Gabrielle came out of the kitchen. "I'm going to be helping out in the kitchen until this afternoon, then I'll be telling stories." She glanced over at the tables. "You have customers, Xena, better hustle. Don't want to make them grumpy, do you?"
Xena plastered a smile on her face and headed for her tables. She knew she would lose the bet in a hurry if she told the bard what she really wanted to do to them. Tables were filling up fast.
"What do you want to drink?" she asked a young couple with three small children. She could barely hear the man's answer over the bickering and wailing of the kids. Stifling the urge to administer a little discipline, she hurried away. Taking orders from the surrounding tables, Xena headed back to the kitchen. Plates of food were already dished up. Grabbing a tray she loaded it up and poured drinks. Spinning around she threw the tray up over Elaisa's head as the serving girl came barreling into the kitchen and nearly ran into her. Catching the tray without spilling a drop, Xena hurried to deliver her meals.
Elaisa's mouth dropped open as she watched Xena leave. "Wow, how did she do that?"
"Oh," said Gabrielle with a tight smile. "She has many skills."
Xena slapped the plates on the tables along with the drinks. A polite older woman held up her spoon. "There's food on this spoon, dear. Would you get me another?"
"Yes, ma'am," replied Xena, taking the utensil and returning with a new one. As she was moving away, the woman stopped her. "Oh, you know I really wanted cider instead of this milk, could I have some?"
"Yes, ma'am," replied Xena getting the cider and taking more orders from the surrounding tables.
As she passed by the table with the noisy children one of the little boys looked at the food and made a face. Grabbing a fist full of eggs he threw them at his server hitting her in the chest. Xena stopped abruptly, struggling to maintain a straight face as eggs slid down the cleft between her breasts.
"Karvius!" exclaimed his mother. "That wasn't very nice. Now apologize to the nice lady."
Karvius shook his head stubbornly. "I'm not eating this swill." He stuck his tongue out at the warrior princess.
Xena held up her hand. "It's all right." She turned to the boy. "If you don't want it, don't eat it." She leaned down and looked him in the eye. "But never, never throw it," she warned softly. The boy didn't know exactly what it was, not her words, not the tone of her voice, not even the look she gave him, but he felt a presence much larger than himself. He ducked his head and said, "I'm sorry." Xena smiled grimly and headed back toward the kitchen deciding the boy might reach manhood after all.
Gabrielle had been watching from the kitchen door. "No looks, remember?" she reminded her companion. "Wait a minute." She gently fished out a large chunk of egg peaking out of Xena's blouse and popped it into her mouth. "Waste not, want not. Hmm...that's good. I don't know what that boy was complaining about." She licked her fingers. "Of course, that bite did have a little extra flavoring," she said laughing as she walked away. Xena glared at her retreating back. "I did not look," she denied hotly.
"Miss, oh miss!" It was the polite old woman. Xena went back to her table. "Could I have more bread, please?" The warrior wondered what would happen if she said no.
"Of course you can," she said sweetly. She turned to go, then turned back. "Was there anything else?"
"Oh, no. I'll be fine," the old woman assured her. Xena served a couple of more tables then returned with her bread. "You know," said the woman. "I really don't like this cider. Could I have some wine?"
Willing her fist to unclench, Xena smiled tightly. "I'll be right back. Do you need anything else?"
"Are...you...sure?" Xena emphasized each word as only she could.
The old woman looked at her sharply. "There's no need to get snippy with me, young lady. All I want is some wine."
So do I, thought the serving girl as she fetched the wine.
The rest of the breakfast meal proceeded at a breakneck pace with the warrior carrying trays of food and drink with amazing speed and grace. Not a drop of food or drink did she spill. The customers were a different story. By the time she cleaned the second cup of milk, third glass of cider, and second plate of food up from the floor she could feel her patience beginning to fray.
Gabrielle could feel it too. The bard knew people and even more importantly she liked them. She watched them, talked to them, empathized with them. She touched, she hugged, she loved, and she comforted them. And people were drawn to her like a moth to flame. So after traveling with Xena for more than two years, she knew every mood, every twitch, every nuance of the warrior's body language. She smiled in satisfaction. That shopping spree was well within her grasp and the day was still young.
Just before the midday meal there was a lull and Xena whipped off her apron. "I'm going on a break," she announced. As she stalked out the door, Gabrielle yelled after her, "Remember Xena, trees are living things!" Xena snarled under her breath and stomped on. An empty barrel sitting near the entrance became tiny pieces of kindling with three powerful kicks. Gabrielle stuck her head out the door at the noise looking thoughtfully at the shattered barrel. Xena narrowed her eyes at the bard and said through clenched teeth, "It wasn't alive!"
Gabrielle pursed her lips. "It certainly isn't now," she agreed. Then noticing the glare she was getting said, "You're giving me that look. I win."
"Oh, no you don't," Xena retorted. "You're not intimidated by my looks anymore."
The bard grinned. "Well, not most of them. All right, let the game continue."
Xena whirled and when she reached the road she began to run, and ran until her breath was coming in gasps. Then she sat and centered herself, meditating until her breathing and pulse were back to normal. She walked back to the inn feeling immeasurably better and smiled darkly, thinking of her companion tossing her cookies over the railing of the ship. This time she was going to enjoy it.
If it were possible, the midday rush was even worse than breakfast. Chairs filled as soon as one emptied. Xena was doing a masterful job until she ran into Tobias. When she served him his meal, he took one look and announced, "I can't eat this. The mutton is touching the greens. Take it back." She looked at him in astonishment.
"So what? It all goes into the same place." she retorted.
"They're touching!" He was starting to whine. "I can't eat this. Get me another plate."
She picked up the plate slowly. If I shove his pointy little face in it, I'll have to go shopping, she thought. It was enough to get her back to the kitchen, plate intact. Elaisa and Gabrielle grinned at her when she walked in. Xena looked at the other serving girl. "You knew about him?"
The other girl nodded. "He's a regular customer. Why do you think he's sitting one of your tables?"
"Don't you think you should have warned me about him?" she asked mildly. The tone was gentle, but Gabrielle noticed a slight redness beginning to creep up Xena's neck. We're at simmer, she thought with satisfaction. Visions of jewels and frying pans danced in her head.
"What and have you miss the whole Tobias experience. I think not." Elaisa swept out of the room with a tray on her arm. Xena didn't miss the wink she gave Gabrielle on her way out. Her foot started to snake out.
Gabrielle shook a finger at her companion. "Tripping is an aggressive act too, Xena." Xena stared impassively at Gabrielle, but the redness on her neck became a little darker. Slapping the plate down, she took her hand and moved the greens to one side and the meat to the other making sure they did not touch. Wiping her hand on her apron, she hurried out and set the plate before Tobias.
"There you go," she said cheerfully.
He looked at the plate carefully while picking up a piece of bread. It slipped out of his hand, landing on the meat. "Ohh," he wailed. "I can't eat this. Bring me another plate!" She reached down and flicked the offending bread off his meat.
"There you go. Good as new."
He looked at her in horror. "You touched it!" he gasped. He stood up. "She touched my food!" he proclaimed to the entire room. Silence reigned as everyone stopped to look at her. She felt a snarl coming to her lips, the urge to wring his scrawny neck nearly overcoming her, but she grabbed the plate instead and headed back. "Shopping, shopping, shopping," became her mantra all the way to the kitchen to get a new plate of food. She barely felt the caress on her buttocks that trip.
But she felt it much stronger on the trip back. Shopping, shopping, shop... The hand grabbed her cheek. The lower one on the right side. Gasping she turned and stared at the man grinning up at her.
"Liked that, did you?" He put one hand around her waist and slowly slid the other hand up the inside of her thigh. She couldn't kill him or maim him or look at him. Her options were limited. She fumbled with the plate, accidentally dropping the hot food over his head.
"Hey," he yelled, standing up cursing at her.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" she apologized, wiping at his face with a cloth and accidentally pushing him over his chair. He landed in a heap, hitting his head against the next table. Xena helped him up. "I know you want to wash off, let me give you a hand." She propelled him out the door and accidentally dropped him into a nearby horse trough. Another barrel became kindling on her way back to the inn.
Gabrielle met her at the door. "Since that was an 'accident', I'll let this one go," she said with a smile. Xena brushed by her without speaking. The flush on her neck was spreading. Now we're cooking, thought the bard, dreaming of bolts of cloth, fine parchment, and boots.
"Where's my food!" whined Tobias. "That's what we want to know," said someone at the next table. And the next. Xena walked to the kitchen and picked up another tray full of plates. She bowed her head for a minute trying to control her temper. It didn't work. Setting the tray down, she walked out the back door and soon a series of loud crashes could be heard. Five minutes later she walked back into the kitchen, wiping the dust off her hands and looking a little calmer.
Putting the tray down in front of the persnickety customer, she said, "Pick one. There won't be any more." He looked up at her and knew this to be the truth. After a few minutes of whining and deliberating he finally chose one. She snatched up the tray and deposited food to the other customers.
The crowd was beginning to thin out by midafternoon and Xena was breathing a sigh of relief when a young lad of about fourteen years sauntered in and sat at one of her tables. "What's good, sweetcheeks," he asked impudently.
She blinked. Not again. "Aren't you a little young for that kind of language," Xena asked calmly.
"Nah, I'm a man." He leered at her.
"No, you're not," she answered and went to get his food. When she came back, he suddenly stuck out his foot trying to trip her. Doing a somersault over his foot, she kept the tray level and landed on her feet. "Nice try...sweetcheeks," she said, slamming the plate down in front of the lad. He looked at her with new respect, then noticed the beautiful light blue eyes, the full lips, the bountiful breasts straining against the tight fitting blouse, the curve of her hips. His mouth dropped open and his eyes suddenly glazed over, his food forgotten as he watched the woman of his dreams walk back to the kitchen. Sweetcheeks was in love.
"You landed another one," Gabrielle informed her, watching the drool begin to form at the corner of the lad's mouth. Xena looked back with irritation. "Great, just great." The boy's mouth snapped shut and he ducked his head blushing when he realized she was looking at him.
"I'm going for a break," Xena said to her and walked to the door. When she reached the boy's table, she reached down and touched his cheek, whispering in his ear. He grinned and blushed even more, then watched her in dewy eyed wonder as she left the inn, his elbow planted unnoticed in the middle of his food.
Gabrielle heard the distinct sounds of another barrel being turned into kindling. Do I want to see a comedy or a drama first, she wondered.
Xena walked into the stable and picked up a brush. "Everything all right, Argo?" she asked as she started to brush the golden mare. It was a soothing exercise for both her and the horse. "I've never worked so hard in my life, even at the tavern. Of course I was twelve years younger." She laughed then sobered. "I guess I just got used to people doing what I wanted...or they died. It was effective but not very subtle, was it?" She sighed and continued to talk to her horse. It was the best conversation she had had all day.
By the time Xena walked back into the inn, Gabrielle was well into a rousing tale about a certain warrior princess saving the small town of Poteidaia from Draco and his band of cutthroats. Xena smiled at her and went back to wash her hands and put on a clean apron. The bard noted that the flush had receded somewhat from Xena's neck.
The evening rush was even worse than lunch. Word got around that an entertaining new bard was performing at the inn and people filled not only the tables, but every inch of available floor space. Xena was suffocating in the confined space. She couldn't turn around without bumping into someone. Hands touched her everywhere and she knew not all of it was inadvertent. The wine and port flowed freely and the atmosphere was becoming decidedly more rowdy. She glanced out of the window in desperation. The sun was still a couple of hours from setting.
Elaisa moved around the room with easy grace, bantering with the customers, filling up cups with more liquid refreshment, sliding away from groping hands. Theoclus was beaming. Profits were never so good and the bard was inspirational, alternating stories depending on the mood and wishes of the crowd. Only the warrior princess seemed ready to explode even though her trips outside had become more frequent as the day wore on. More than once her hand had reached for her sword only to remember it was safely stored in their room. Her jaws were sore from being clenched so tight. Her hands hurt from being curled into white little balls. The little annoyances that Elaisa and Gabrielle handled with ease caused her teeth to grind and her temper to flare. She just didn't know how they stood being around so many people day after day without killing, maiming or going insane.
"Girl, oh girl!" a woman called to her. Xena made her way over to the gesturing woman.
"Yes, ma'am?" Xena inquired.
"This isn't what I ordered. This is port and I ordered wine."
Xena looked into the cup. There wasn't more than two drops left in the cup. "You must have liked it a little. It's empty," she observed.
"Well," the woman huffed. "I had to drink something. I've been waiting forever for you to notice me. I've never seen such incompetence in my life. I want my wine and I want it now! And don't expect me to pay for your mistake!"
"Yeah," said the woman's companion. "And bring me one while you're at it, slut."
Xena stared at them for a moment. The only sign of her inner struggle was the metal cup slowly being crushed in her hand. The two obnoxious customers were too inebriated to notice. "Shopping, shopping, shopping," she intoned as she went to get the wine.
Gabrielle glanced out the window. Not long now, she thought. The bard was having some misgivings. It began as innocent fun, but as she watched her companion's frustration grow, she was beginning to regret the wager. It had been great sport at first to watch Xena try and rein in her temper but now it was almost painful. The warrior was trying so hard to turn her life around and all this bet would prove was that she couldn't control her aggression for one lousy day.
Xena stretched in frustration and looked around at the crowded room. She had a splitting headache from all the noise and her back hurt from lifting trays all day. Wearily she slapped a plate down and turned away.
"Hey," the big man said grabbing the warrior's arm.
Xena whipped around and brought her fist within an inch of the man's nose before hastily dropping it down and smoothing out his collar. "Let me get that off your shirt," she said brightly, brushing off a non-existent piece of lint.
He smiled and dropped her arm. "I don't want this," he explained. "I want the mutton."
"The mutton was for the midday meal. We stopped serving that three hours ago. This is all we have."
"Oh come on," he wheedled. "I know you have some mutton back there somewhere. Go look for me."
Feeling the heat rising in her neck, she turned without a word and headed back to the kitchen. She stood slowly counting to ten. All right, now she wouldn't kill him. She shifted her weight and counted to ten again. Beating him to a bloody pulp was out. She turned to the door and counted to ten again. Nope, she wouldn't toss him out on his ear. She made it to the door before counting to ten again. And guessed she wouldn't smack him. Xena sighed in disappointment and reentered the noisy dining room.
"No mutton," she curtly told the big man.
He laughed. "Of course there is. You just didn't look hard enough."
"Miss.." A woman at the next table was waving at her.
"Go look again," he urged.
"Hey, girl..." An older man at another table yelled at her.
"There...is...no...mutton," she paced her words hoping to get
the concept through to this simpleton.
"Yoohoo! We need food over here..." Came another voice from another table.
"Sure there is. Go look," he said confidently.
Xena shut her eyes and listened to the cacophony of voices demanding her attention. Where was her army when she needed it? Kill em all!' came the fantasized command.
"I'll be back in a minute," she told him grimly. She hurried to take care of her other tables then headed back to the kitchen. Elaisa was just heading back out with a tray full of food. Xena's eyes narrowed and she stopped her and pointed out mutton man. "See that big guy over there? Is he another one of your regular customers?"
Elaisa did her best to hide a smile but didn't quite succeed. "Yeah," she admitted. "Does he want his mutton?" Knowing full well he did.
"So there is mutton here somewhere?" Xena asked, thunderclouds beginning to form on her brow.
"Of course," she explained patiently to the simpleton standing before her. "He always asks for it. It's easier to set aside a plate of it for him than to spend the rest of the evening telling him there isn't any. Unless you prefer to waste your time arguing with him. You'll lose." She brushed by the seething warrior and entered the dining area. Not if we argued my way, thought Xena.
Xena looked over at the cook who was coming over with a plate of mutton in her hands. "I'm sorry child. I didn't know what you were looking for. There's no shame in asking for help, you know." She smiled and handed Xena the plate. The serving girl smiled ruefully and went out to serve the meal to the big man.
"Ah, I knew there was mutton in there somewhere," he exclaimed in triumph and attacked the meat with gusto. Xena shook her head and headed back to the sanctuary of the kitchen.
Gabrielle stepped down from the platform, pleading a dry throat and walked over to find Xena. She was suddenly grabbed from behind by an over enthusiastic admirer. "That was great," the young man crowed. "Come sit with me and my friends." She looked around at the group of drunken youths at the table.
"No, thank you," the bard said extricating herself from his grasp. "I just need to take care of some personal business and I don't think you can help with that."
"I could try," he winked at her, still following as she headed to the kitchen. He was still following her as they entered the room. Xena and the cook were making up more plates of food and looked up as they entered.
"Look," Gabrielle said, trying to be nice to the besotted youth, "just go back to your table, I'll be back in a minute." She tried to push him out of the kitchen. Xena watched with growing concern.
The young man grabbed her arm. "Just one little kiss," he pleaded, puckering his lips. Gabrielle shrank away from his alcohol laced breath. Xena had seen enough. Even though she knew the bard could handle the young man without her help, Xena couldn't stifle the obsessive need to defend her friend. She would never take the chance that Gabrielle could be hurt because of her failure to act. She vaulted the table and came up between the two.
"Let her go," she said calmly. The lad released the bard startled by the tall serving girl's sudden appearance. Then he laughed and tried to push his way past her. When that didn't work, he took a wild swing at her, which she evaded easily. But a feral smile appeared on her lips and the gleam in her eye was a familiar one to Gabrielle. The pot was about to boil over and the bard knew victory was at hand. All she had to do was stand by and be quiet.
Xena raised a surprised eyebrow when Gabrielle suddenly grabbed a frying pan off a hook and whacked the young man over the head with it. He sat on the floor with a stunned look on his face. She helped him to his feet, and with one hand on his pants and the other on his back, the bard propelled him out the back door and into the mud off the stoop.
Xena joined her and they watched the youth pick himself up and stagger around the corner of the building. Gabrielle smiled fondly up at her companion. "You're right. Frying pans do make good weapons. This was my fight Xena." She looked at the huge pile of kindling in the middle of the yard. "My goodness! How many barrels did you slaughter?"
"Only two...back here," Xena replied uneasily.
Gabrielle gave her a skeptical look.
"And a couple of tables..." She gave her companion a quick glance. Gabrielle continued to look at her.
"Oh, all right! And a wagon. But it was a little wagon."
Gabrielle shook her head, laughing softly. They watched the sun dim as it set over the horizon.
Xena looked down at her friend in wonder, trying to find the words to express her feelings. Before she could speak, Gabrielle said, "I'm proud of you, Xena. I put you in the worse situation I could think of and you didn't give in. You bent a little, well...a lot, but you didn't break. You won fair and square. We can start for the coast tomorrow." She patted the warrior's arm and headed back inside, leaving Xena still groping for words.
Xena stayed out in the fresh air thinking. She had been ready to toss the young man out on his ear. Oh, it wouldn't have caused major damage, but it would have definitely been an act of aggression. Gabrielle had known that and had interfered anyway. The warrior felt a stab of irritation at her friend for throwing the game. The bard was just as competitive as she was. Maybe more. For the love of Zeus, did Gabrielle think she would fall to pieces if she lost? She didn't need or want the bard's pity. Then Xena felt the stirrings of a warm glow. Not many friends would do that for her. Especially considering the stakes. Xena glanced around. Then stopped as a startled expression crossed her face. She realized it wasn't pity that caused her companion to act. It was love. Gabrielle was defending her. Defending her...what? Psyche? She scowled. She didn't need defending. A small smile fought it's way to the surface. A bet was a bet and the young bard would have to face the consequences of her rash, albeit compassionate act. It was time she learned that no good deed goes unpunished. She swatted irritably at the warm glow but the darn thing just refused to die.
Xena entered the dining room and continued her serving duties. Only now that the sun had set she was going to do it her way. Two men at a table found themselves unceremoniously dumped out on the street when their argument over which was the greater god, Ares or Athena, reached a noise level deemed unacceptable by the warrior. She thought it was a stupid argument anyway. No god was very great in her opinion.
Gabrielle soon noticed the crowd was listening in almost awed reverence. No, she decided, make that fearful silence. She threw an exasperated look in the direction of the warrior princess who studiously ignored it. Her headache was improving.
"Here you go," she said to two men at one of her tables slapping their plates of food down.
One of the men looked at his food. "Could I have..."
"No," the warlord said curtly daring him to continue.
He looked at her in surprise, then wisely shut his mouth. When she was safely across the room he turned to his companion. "Where do you suppose Theoclus found that harridan?" he whispered in bewilderment.
"Tartarus is a safe bet," replied his friend with a grimace. They both froze as the woman whirled around and fixed them with the deadliest glare either one had ever seen. There would have been two pools of warm yellow fluid under their chairs if she had chosen to return to their table but instead she turned back and entered the kitchen. Ahh, that felt good, she thought with a satisfied smile.
Gabrielle had seen enough. She stormed into the kitchen. "You're destroying my rapport with my audience Xena," she fumed. "Get out of here! Go talk to Argo, go find a warlord to beat up, go be rude to Ares, just get out of here!" She pushed the warrior toward the back door.
"What did I do?" Xena protested as she let herself be propelled out the room. The door slammed in her face. "Geeze, some people are never happy," she grumbled. But there was a song on her lips and a bounce in her step as she walked over to the stables.
The evening wore on and Gabrielle continued performing until she was hoarse. Then she excused herself and wandered up to the room, exhausted but elated at the response of the crowd. Not to mention the standing ovation she had received when she announced that Xena had been shown the door. The tips she had made these last two days would have made that shopping trip very enjoyable. She shook her head regretfully. To her surprise, Xena was already in bed.
"What are you doing in bed?" she asked with concern.
"I'm tired," Xena responded with a groan. "Everything aches. That was worse than most of the battles I've fought. There's not a muscle in my body that's not screaming at me. I'm just too old for this."
Gabrielle snorted. "Yeah, sure. It was probably all that wood you chopped today...with your hands and feet." She hastily washed up and put on her shift. Walking over to the bed she tried to push her companion over.
"Nope," said Xena. "You know I always get the side nearest to the door."
The bard shrugged. "All right," she said climbing over Xena, testing out a new spot to tickle on the way. She'd like to find at least one some day. Then yelped as she found herself tossed in the air, landing on the other side of the bed.
"I don't suppose you could stay on your side of the bed for once," Xena asked.
"Sure," replied her friend.
Xena turned over on her side, tucking up her knees.
"Yeah?" came the sleepy reply.
"Thank you," Xena said softly.
"Always," the bard mumbled and soon she was snoring daintily. And not long after that she had rolled over on her side, snuggled up against the warm body of her companion, and had flung an arm over Xena's face.
Xena smiled ruefully and kissed the offending hand before moving it off her face She felt it tighten around her waist. And she finally slept soundly that night for the first time in a long while knowing she was well protected.
Gabrielle woke up the next morning wondering what was different. Her eyes opened wide as she realized there was a warm body tucked next to hers. Xena was still asleep. Two days in a row, that must be some kind of record. She turned over cautiously and felt the warrior's brow.
"I'm awake, Gabrielle." Xena stretched and yawned. "I was just waiting for you, sleepyhead."
"What? No water in the face, no boot to the back, no hauling me up by the scuff of my neck? You are getting soft in your old age." Gabrielle reached over to feel the warrior's brow again.
Xena slapped her hand away. "I just want you to get plenty of rest." She raised an eyebrow. "We have a long journey to make, you know."
Gabrielle's face fell. She was getting seasick just thinking about it. Flopping back down, she buried her face into the bed linen. "Just go without me and have a good time. I'll just wait for you here. I can make a few dinars, sleep in a nice bed, have plenty to eat..." She felt herself being lifted up by the back of her shift.
"I couldn't quite hear all that with your face in the sheets. C'mon. A bet's a bet and it's time to pay up."
Gabrielle reluctantly dressed and packed. They wandered downstairs and helped themselves to breakfast. Theoclus was in a great mood. "Best night I ever had. Except I can't figure out how this happened." He gestured to a pile of crushed goblets sitting on the table. Then he shrugged. "Probably some kind of contest." He turned to Gabrielle. "Sure I can't talk you into another night?"
The bard looked hopefully at her companion. She saw a twitch in the otherwise impassive face and sighed. Turning back to the innkeeper she said, "We'll be back soon, but we must go. We have places to see, guts to puke out, things to do..."
Xena looked around. "Where's Elaisa?" she asked.
"Oh, she'll be in later this afternoon. Last night kind of wore her out," the innkeeper replied.
Xena leaned close and gave him a look. "Whatever you're paying her, double it, Theoclus."
"Double it?" the innkeeper sputtered. Then he noted the icy blue eyes aimed in his direction and his eyes widened. "Sur...Sure, Xena. She deserves it."
"Yes, she does and probably more. Remember, I'm keeping an eye on you."
Theoclus gulped and nodded. The pair bid him farewell and headed for the stables.
Gabrielle grinned and stared up at her companion.
"Whaat?!" finally asked the exasperated warrior.
"Remind me never to complain about that look again. It does have it's uses."
"It has come in handy from time to time," Xena admitted.
They entered the stables and greeted Argo. After feeding and brushing the horse, Xena saddled her. She held out a hand to Gabrielle. "Time's a wasting. Let's go."
Gabrielle sighed and broke down her staff, storing it in the saddle bags. Without another word she grabbed Xena's hand and was hoisted up behind the warrior.
They headed down the road in silence. Finally Xena glanced back. "Aren't you going to say anything?"
"About how unfair you think it is that you have to go sailing when you threw the contest for my sake."
"No, I wasn't going to complain. I knew what I was doing. And I'd do it again."
Xena laughed. "You never learn, do you."
"It was just a silly wager. I wouldn't see my best friend hurt over a stupid bet... hey!" she glanced at the road they just passed. "Not that I'm complaining, and believe me I'm not, but wasn't that the road to the coast?"
"I've changed my mind, we're not going to the coast."
"Oh? What new torture have you devised now?" the bard inquired.
"I just remembered there was this weapons shop in Athens that I wanted to visit."
Gabrielle held her breath in surprise. "Don't tease me, Xena. We're going shopping?"
"Well, maybe for one day."
"And we'll see some plays?"
"Well, maybe one play."
"Don't push it, Gabrielle."
There was silence for a moment as Gabrielle digested this piece of happy news. But as long as they were in Athens they might as well see more than one play. "Want to make a little wager...?" she asked the warrior. And stifled a triumphant laugh as Xena's shoulders stiffened imperceptibly.
"Two plays and no more!" Xena growled.
"Oh, all right." Gabrielle said with feigned regret. "Do I still have to hunt?"
"Hunting was never the problem was it? It was the killing part you have trouble with."
"I can fish well," the bard reminded her.
"Even I can't stomach fish three times a day until we get to Athens. I'll hunt, you cook."
"Sounds good to me," Gabrielle said happily. This was beginning to sound like a great trip. Now if she could only figure some way to get out of riding Argo, life would be perfect. Then she asked, "Why are you doing this? You won the bet. And you're the one who's such a stickler for taking responsibility for what we do."
She couldn't see Xena's gentle smile but she felt it. "I think we both won this one, my friend. Let's not keep those shopkeepers waiting."
Gabrielle tightened her grip as Xena urged the war-horse into an easy canter. No, life was never perfect, the bard mused. But this was close enough.