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"Yeah, just as long as I carry it myself, right? Nuh-unh. No way am I gonna drag that monstrosity all over the surface of the known world. Just look at it, Xena." Gabrielle gestured across the deserted dining room to the center table, upon which stood a gaudy miniature gilded man mounted atop a long bronze scroll, mouth wide open, hands raised to the sky in a shameless display of histrionics. "I do not look like that when I tell a story."
"No, you almost never resemble a half-meter high golden man when you tell a story," Xena snickered as she reached for yet another goblet of amazingly tasty port.
The bard furrowed her brow and sneered at her companion. "You know what I mean. That whole wailing and gnashing-of-teeth thing that seems to be all the rage in this kingdom. All those tales of tragedy, despair, lost love. I think I'm the only bard in this contest who told a story with a happy ending."
"Which is probably why you won. Things haven't been too bad in Clericia lately. But with no wars to fight, no famine, drought or other hardship to overcome...well, people tend to start creating their own dramas," Xena shrugged. "Anyhow, I'm sure King Alton will keep it in a place of honor here in the castle. Just in case you ever want to visit your 'lil gold pal with the scroll up his..."
"XENA! I told you already, he's only sitting on the scroll."
"Doesn't mean he isn't enjoying it, Gabrielle. Look at his face, for Plato's sake!" The warrior dissolved into drunken giggles with one look at the tiny figure, which through her inebriated haze, appeared less like a bard engrossed in the telling of a tale, and more like a man screaming in ecstasy. "I would LOVE to meet the artist who gave him that expression."
"How much wine did you have tonight, anyway?" asked the bard. Receiving no intelligible answer, she fixed an inquisitive stare on the trophy in question. "Well...maybe, if you look at it expectantly, it might look like...oh." She craned her neck slightly for a better angle. "OKAY! There we have it! Now you have me thinking like you. Happy now, gutter-brain?"
"Oh yeah. My dream has been realized. I have corrupted the pure mind of the artist with wicked notions of carnality! Wheee!" Xena managed to squeal, before the laughter reclaimed her.
"What made you think of that in the first place? That's what I want to know."
"I have seen that look before, my friend. On many happy faces," replied the warrior, arching a brow suggestively.
Gabrielle colored slightly, then pressed on with her inquiry. "Oh, really? About how many of these happy faces were there, then?" She leaned her elbow on the polished wood dining table and waited for Xena to register that she was genuinely interested.
"How many, hmm? Let's see here..." the warrior's low voice trailed away as she began to tally the exact number, ticking off each on her fingers as she muttered names and occasionally cracked a knowing smile. "You want an exact figure?"
"Unless you can't count that high," Gabrielle smirked.
"Ouch. No hitting below the chakram, please." Xena resumed her accounting for a moment, then looked her friend dead in the eye. "Twenty-seven. Not counting the ones who couldn't get the job done, of course."
"Of course," responded the younger woman, in as worldly a tone as she could manage. "But, for my edification, about how many couldn't 'get the job done,' as you say?"
After draining the last of the port from her goblet, Xena answered, "About one in six. Not a bad percentage, considering what I had to choose from sometimes."
Intrigued now, Gabrielle pressed on. "But, you were surrounded by all those virile soldiers, probably all of whom would have done whatever you asked. What was the problem with the, ahh...failures?"
"No imagination, no spontaneity," Xena threw her hands up. "Awkward. Scared, maybe. Other than that, nothing really. Just a total lack of creativity. Like, Boom! Boom! Boom!, 'Was that good for you? Was that okay?' Even in bed, I had to give orders because every time I let things take their course unguided, it was like, is that all there is?" She waited for a response from Gabrielle, but the redhead seemed lost in thought. Xena reached for an olive and expertly sucked out the pit and spat it into a dish, occupying herself while waiting for her friend to return from wherever she drifted off to.
When she finally spoke, the bard's voice was soft and low. "I think I know what you mean."
Sensing the turn in the conversation, Xena adopted a gentler tone. "You mean, your wedding night wasn't..."
"No, don't get me wrong. It was really nice and all, but...awkward, like you said. I think we were just afraid to touch each other at first. It turned out all right. He was very sweet, very gentle, but it wasn't all I had expected."
"It rarely is, the first time. It takes time to get to know someone, Gabrielle. Time to grow comfortable with them, time to build confidence in both yourself and your lover." Xena's voice was almost a whisper. "You and Perdicus didn't get that chance. It would have gotten better, for both of you. In time."
Gabrielle lifted her head and met Xena's eyes. "How do you know that?"
"Because...anyone who knows you -- and loves you -- would move the earth and the heavens to make you happy."
Their eyes held on for a moment, then Xena turned her attention back to her empty goblet. Gabrielle shifted her gaze back to the trophy and chuckled.
"I still don't think I'm capable of making a face like that."
Xena sputtered and reached for another olive. "Maybe, maybe not. Anything's possible." Vacuuming out the pit and disposing of it, she looked from the bard to the statue and back again. "Hold your hands up like he's doing."
"C'mon! Do it! I just want to see something."
Gabrielle grudgingly lifted her arms and turned her palms face-up.
"Now open your mouth. Wide."
"Unh-unh. Nope. This is as far as I go."
"Please, Gabrielle? No one's here but me, and I'm not gonna tell," Xena smiled.
The bard's green eyes scanned the empty dining hall, confirming the fact that they were still alone, then she slowly stretched her mouth open as wide as she could.
"Good, good. Now close your eyes."
As soon as she complied with the warrior's last request, something landed on her tongue, and she heard Xena laughing. "Perfect, Gabrielle! You could be the model for next year's award."
Closing her mouth around the olive, the bard lowered her arms and frowned as she chewed the salty flesh. "Ha ha ha. Nice shot. You are sooo much fun when you're drunk."
"I am not drunk! I just got a little buzz, that's all. Lets down the inhibitions. I mean, when was the last time we talked about sex, anyway?"
"We never talk about sex, Xena. Not directly."
Scowling a little, Xena nodded. "You're right. We don't , do we? Wonder why that is?"
After reflecting briefly, the bard replied, "I guess it just seemed safer not to. For me, I mean. It's yet another area where you know everything and I'm a complete amateur. Makes me feel a little...inadequate. Ignorant."
"No, no, no," the warrior said, narrowing her blue eyes and shaking her head vigorously. "Don't think of it like that. It's not something you can master through study or even repetition. It's instinctive, born of desire to please yourself by pleasing someone else. And it takes trust, confidence, and imagination. You've got all three in abundance, Gabrielle. It's only a matter of time before you find someone who counts, someone to loose your naturally creative nature on," Xena predicted, grinning. "And may the gods have mercy on whoever it may be."
Blushing again, hotly this time, Gabrielle murmured a 'thank you' and suggested that they turn in for the evening.
"Fine. You want me to bring golden boy upstairs?"
"Yeah. I'd like to give him to King Alton in the morning. If I leave him here, someone might steal him."
"Gabrielle, I have never met a thief with such bad taste that they would make off with that little scroll-rider."
"Not even Autolycus?"
"Especially not Autolycus."
"I like this room!" Gabrielle strode the length of the floor, moving from the large fireplace at one end to the fully stocked dressing closet at the other. In between was a desk set, a tall cabinet containing various foodstuffs and bottles of wine, the door to the private bathing room, and an enormous canopy bed piled with down pillows.
"Well, you should enter royal bard contests more often. Guys like Alton live to pamper artists," Xena said as she settled 'golden boy' on a trunk at the foot of the bed.
"Yeah, he's a sweetie. Hey, where are you going?"
Xena's hand was on the door handle as the question was asked. "To my room. Down the hall. Not as nice as the 'first bard's suite', but it'll do."
"You don't have to go. There's plenty of room here, and I thought we could talk some more," Gabrielle said hopefully. "Besides, I'm not tired at all. Come on, it'll be fun. I might even share my secret stash of sugared dates with you."
"I don't know. I haven't talked this much in ages. I think I may have injured my jaw," Xena complained, rubbing her fingertips along her cheek.
"Which is precisely why you should stay with me. We're making progress, Xena. I haven't really talked about this stuff with anyone, and there's no one in the world I trust more than you." Moving to the warrior's side, the young woman smiled warmly. "And it means a lot to me that you opened up as much as you did. Talking about yourself to anyone is a real leap of faith for you, and I appreciate your trust in me, too." She took one of Xena's hand's and tugged lightly. "Please stay. I promise not to snore or hog all the blankets."
Smiling in spite of herself, Xena allowed Gabrielle to lead her away from the door. "First of all, it's too warm in here for blankets. Second, you can't help snoring. You just don't like sleeping on your side, so don't worry about it. Third, where are those sugared dates?"
"At each house we would take some of the cloth bundles filled with flour, dunk 'em in the water, and THWAP!! Right up against their doors. Covered the front of the house in sticky white paste," Xena finished, grinning from ear to ear at the memory, then at the giggling redhead beside her.
"Oh, Xena! I bet your mother really let the two of you have it when she found out!" Gabrielle gasped.
Xena shifted position and brought her feet down from the wall, rolling backward and coming to rest flat on her stomach. "Naah, not really. Mother knew we hadn't caused any real damage. And I think she knew why we did it, too. Those old crones were all foul-mouthed, small-minded snobs." Xena turned on her side to look at Gabrielle just as the bard attempted the same repositioning maneuver...with less finesse. The wine, the food, the conversation, and the generally lazy vibe of the evening all combined to sap Gabrielle of the energy necessary to execute the move. She stalled out midway through, with her legs folded over her torso, unable to dislodge her upper body from beneath the weight of her legs. Her arms flailed helplessly, grasping vainly for purchase on the smooth silk sheets. Xena started laughing.
"Dond you laugh at be! Hep be, Deena!" Gabrielle cried, her voice muffled against her own thigh. Xena stood on the bed and grabbed Gabrielle's ankles, hoisting her into the air until her body was perpendicular to the bed, then swinging her forward and dropping her unceremoniously, face-first, into the pillows. Another party rescued, Xena brushed her hands together and settled herself alongside the deathly still young woman whose face was still buried under mountains of white down cushions.
Gabrielle raised her head slowly and looked into the self-satisfied face of the Warrior Princess. "You could have just rolled me over, you know," the bard acidly intoned. "I'm well aware how strong you are. You don't have to show off for little ol' me."
Xena smiled sweetly in return, blushing imperceptibly. "I know that, Gabrielle. But you're practically the only person who isn't intimidated by that side of me. If I can't show off for you, then who?"
Way past the point of discerning rhetorical questions, the bard rolled to her side and contemplated the query as seriously as any she had ever heard. "Hercules, maybe. He gets you, Xena. He understands that part of you and accepts it like I do. After all, you saved his demi-god butt not too long ago. You don't intimidate him."
Nodding her assent, Xena mused over the phrase 'demi-god butt' and smiled to herself, recalling said asset. Her thoughtful silence did not go unnoticed.
"Bet he wasn't a failure, huh?" the bard asked with an impish grin.
"Gabrielle!" Xena was startled by the question, but soon regained her calm as she recalled the candid nature of the evening's discourse. The question was not without precedent, so she gamely answered, "No. No he wasn't a failure. Hercules is just very...straight-forward."
"And?" the bard prompted, hungry for details. "Elaborate, please."
The warrior huffed and covered her face with her arms, worrying what sort of Pandora's box she had opened when she and Gabrielle stepped into this arena of discussion. Settling on a relatively benign analogy, Xena lowered her arms and re-entered the fray. "You know how some inns and taverns only serve one dish a day?" Gabrielle nodded and raised her head slightly. "Well," Xena continued, "some lovers are just like those inns and taverns. Not much on the menu, just the one item, so you better pray that it's good."
"I take it that Hercules was a one-dish kind of tavern?"
"Yeah. But the roast beef was lovely," Xena sighed, raising her arm just in time to block a pillow flung toward her head.
"You really are a wicked, wicked woman, aren't you?" Gabrielle asked after her assault had gone unanswered. "Maybe not in the evil sense anymore, just in the way that you like to tease people. Namely me."
"Hey, you asked and I answered. What more do you want from me?"
"I -- I don't know. Was he at least creative and imaginative with the, uh, roast beef?" the bard inquired, eyebrows raised expectantly.
Now it was Xena's turn to blush hotly. "W-w-well, umm...sort of...I guess. OH HADES, Gabrielle! It's just roast beef, for Gaia's sake! It's not art!" stammered the flustered warrior.
"But I thought you said that those things were important to you. Being spontaneous and all that," added the bard in a gentle voice.
Softening a bit at the tone of her friend's voice, Xena took a deep breath and mustered her courage. "Those things are important to me. It's just that, sometimes they aren't foremost in my mind. That was a really stressful time, and I wasn't concerned with all the bells and whistles. I needed someone and Hercules was there for me. I'm not about to criticize him because we didn't create a masterpiece together. It was enough for me just to be with him, just to believe that I deserve that kind of caring from a truly good person." Sighing deeply, the warrior rolled onto her back, indicating that she was done with the subject.
Gabrielle reached out with a tentative hand and touched Xena's shoulder, trying to impart some comfort with her touch. "You do deserve that, Xena," the bard whispered, slowly stroking her thumb across white cotton, feeling the muscle tense underneath. "All that and more. Bells, whistles, lyres -- even pan flutes if you want them."
That brought a light chuckle from the dark woman, who impulsively covered the small hand with her own and brought it to her lips, planting a quick peck near the wrist. "Thank you for saying that, but the pan flutes won't be necessary."
"Sheesh. Everybody's a critic," groaned the redhead, remembering how her own pan flute had been mysteriously 'misplaced' a few moons earlier. However, since things were going so well, she decided not to mention it tonight. One of the candles had burned itself out, the fire was banked and smoldering away, she was warm and clean and safe, full of excellent food and expensive wine, lying in a soft bed in the 'first bard's suite' of a royal castle, and holding the hand of the person whom she loved more than any other in the world. As she looked into the smiling, open face of the woman who had brought her to this place in her life, Gabrielle realized she had never imagined she could be so happy, so content.
Perhaps it was this profound sense of blissful gratitude which led her to raise herself on one elbow, tuck a few strands of hair behind her ear, and lean towards that smiling, open face. Maybe it was a need to express her thanks which urged the bard to opt for actions instead of words, lowering her lips to meet those of her dearest friend, her protector, her home. If that was her intent, she quickly realized her mistake. And thanked the gods as the kiss changed and grew, and she heard bells.
"Did you hear that, Xena?"
"Of course I heard it. I am, after all, me," Xena answered, fending off a swat from the woman curled against her side. "It's just the dawn bell calling the priests to the temple. Don't worry about it. You don't have to get up yet, unless you really want to."
Gabrielle smiled and laid her head back down on Xena's chest. "I am never going to get up again. Neither are you, for that matter." The bard punctuated this declaration with a quick series of wet kisses across the warrior's collarbone. Laughing from toes to scalp, the dark warrior closed her vibrant blue eyes and tightened her arms around her lover. "I take it you're happy, then?"
"Bells, whistles, lyres, pan flutes, drums -- LOTS of drums, zithers, horns, harps..."
"I get it, I get it! A simple 'yes' would have sufficed, Gabrielle."
Both brows shot up in protest at the modesty implied in those words. "Hardly! Xena, a simple 'yes, I'm happy' does not begin to cover it for me. Does it for you?"
"You know it doesn't." A matter-of-fact statement.
"So allow me to engage in a fit of hyperbole, please."
"As if I could stop you."
"Exactly. So as I was saying...this is better than hearing the finest musicians in Greece play in concert, better than the tragedies of Euripedes and the comedies of Aristophanes combined, better than the seven wonders of the modern world, better than the finest epicurean delights of Rome and Athens..."
"Especially roast beef."
"...especially roast beef...HEY! You wait your turn, big mouth," ordered the bard, delivering a poke to Xena's ribs.
"Basically what you are trying to say is that we created a masterpiece, a work of art," Xena tried to sum up, anxious to reclaim that babbling mouth for other purposes.
"Better than art; after all, art is just an imitation of nature. This is the kind of thing that inspires art, makes it possible," Gabrielle asserted, nearly breathless.
Xena looked a bit sulky. "Just when I was starting to think of myself as a fellow creative artist."
"Oh, you're an artist, all right. You just work in a non-traditional medium. Specifically, me."
Glancing toward the foot of the bed, Xena caught sight of 'golden boy,' looking as happy as the day he was cast. "I can live with that. I could have done worse," she chuckled. "In fact, I have done worse."
"You know something, Xena?"
"You talk entirely too much."
After initiating another project to exploit the warrior's creativity, Gabrielle made a silent vow that someday, when their travels were over, she would reclaim her trophy from King Alton and display the odious little pervert proudly in a place of honor, somewhere with high visibility. Maybe over the mantle...
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