DISCLAIMER: All characters and their backgrounds in this story belong to good ol' Renaissance and those wonderful TPTB who let us all think what we want about the show. This story may not be reproduced in any form without the prior consent of the author (namely me!) so don't go doing anything silly now, else I'll have to send over my boomerang-wielding lawyers! And believe me, they love the sight of blood ... they once bathed in a tub of blood ... their nicknames are bloody lawyers ... they -- oh, you get the drift now? Jolly good.NOTE: Okay kiddies. Do we all remember the great game we used to play called "Hot Chocolate" (sometimes called "Red Letter")? Well, for those who don't remember, here's the lowdown on it:     One person is nominated to be "it". They stand at one end of the yard (e.g. backyard, picnic area in park, or in Xena's case, village courtyard) with their back facing towards everyone else who is lined up at the other end.     The aim of the game is to make your way up to the "it" person, tag them, then run back to the start without being caught (when you're tagged you become "it"). Sounds easy enough? Well, there's a catch (like with everything in life): you can't let them see you moving in any way. They turn their back towards everyone and that's when you move, but as soon as they turn to face you (which they can do whenever they like), you can't move an inch. If they see you move, you get sent back to the other end of the yard and have to start over again.     Now, I don't know about you, but whenever we played the game, we'd always strike funny poses in the time the person's back was turned. It was just our wicked way of making the people behind us laugh and move, therefore being sent back to the beginning. It worked most times, but other times our pose would be so difficult to hold, and the "it" person would watch us for so long, that we would inevitably move. It was all in good fun though :)     Anyhoo, that's the rundown on it, so no one should have any confusing thoughts during this story ... hopefully.
"Xena, let's stop at this village. I heard that it has some really great stalls and I'm in the shopping mood," Gabrielle's voice came through the warrior's back as they rode atop Argo.
Blue eyes rolled skyward and their owner sighed softly. "Okay, okay. I need to get a few things myself. I dropped my whetstone in the river last night."
"You dropped your whetstone in the river?" the bard asked, disbelieving. "That's not like you ... getting clumsy in your old age, huh?" The wickedness in her voice made Xena toss "the look" at her companion over her shoulder.
"Not so much with the "old" thank you. I was just tired after catching your dinner."
"Sure, sure. I'm sorry, Xena, but guilt trips don't work on me." She exhaled noisily as she stretched out her muscles, squealing slightly when she nearly fell off the back of Argo.
"And you're calling me clumsy," the warrior quipped as she steered the Palomino towards the village gates.
The courtyard was a buzz of activity as they entered. Men and women were hoarding around stalls and little children would run between their legs, giggling when the adults would curse and glare at them. Stall owners shouted out their great deals, attempting to attract customers to buy their goods. Some offered comestibles, while others sold materials and fine clothes. Gabrielle was instantly attracted to one of the clothing stalls and she slid off Argo's back, mumbling something about getting some material for a new top. Xena sighed and tied the Palomino war-horse to a wood rail and made her way into one of the armoury shops.
"What can I do you for, ma'am?" the clerk asked.
"Just a whetstone, thanks. Oh, and I'll take one of those furs for my horse."
"Certainly, ma'am." The clerk quickly collected the items his customer desired, slightly intimidated by her tall stature and gleaming weaponry. He attempted to make light conversation as he rolled up a thick fur rug. "You've got some pretty impressive weapons there. I've never seen one of those before," he added, indicating cautiously to her chakram.
Xena sighed and made her way over to the counter to pay for the items. She always attracted interest whenever she went into a shop to buy something. The last clerk had gone as far as to reach out and touch her sword. Of course, when she was finished with him, he had vowed to never even look at her again. She admitted silently to herself that she had over-reacted a little, but the one thing she would not tolerate was someone entering her personal zone uninvited. Unfortunately, her personal zone was much larger than most and a lot of people found that out the hard way. Gabrielle was the only person who could get close to the warrior without arousing even the slightest warning signal in the deadly fighter's body.
Xena smiled to herself. Being able to physically touch the warrior was not the only thing the bard could do. She had many times over the past three years touched and healed Xena's tormented soul. The two women had been through a lot and it had brought them closer than anything or anybody either of them knew.
"That'll be 10 Dinar, ma'am," the clerk said, letting the subject of the woman's weaponry drop when she flashed him a look. She was very beautiful, but he could see in her icy eyes that she was not to be trifled with. The last thing he needed was fight on his hands. Especially with all the swords and daggers and other killing items so readily available in his shop.
Xena handed him the coin and carried her purchased items out of the store, glancing around the outside stalls for her companion. She spied Gabrielle walking towards her and chuckled when the bard wrapped a sheet of patterned material around her shoulders, prancing towards the warrior like a pageant contestant.
"Oh, very seductive," Xena cooed when her friend strode past her.
Gabrielle grinned and rolled up the material, shoving it into her shoulder bag and looking over at what the warrior had bought.
"Oh, is that for Argo? 'Bout time."
"I know. She'll certainly appreciate it." Xena's attention was drawn to childish screams in the distance and her eyes lifted above and beyond Gabrielle to a far corner of the courtyard.
"What is it?" the bard asked, seeing the grin on the warrior's face.
"There's some children playing a game you may like."
"Oh really?" Gabrielle asked, turning around and looking off towards the large group of children who were standing -- scattered in front of a boy who was watching them -- perfectly still. He slowly turned his back to them and they moved towards him, stopping suddenly when he turned around again. The boy laughed and pointed at a child who had sneezed while everyone else was still. The child hung her head and trudged back to the other end of the yard.
"It's called Nutbread," Xena said as she changed Argo's old fur rug for the new fluffy one. The horse whinnied softly in gratitude and the warrior smiled, whispering something into its ear as she replaced the saddle.
"Nutbread, you say? I like the sound of that," her mouth starting to water.
Xena chuckled and began walking towards the children, indicating for Gabrielle to follow.
"Mind if we join you?" she asked once they were nearer.
"Sure," the boy at the front said, happy at the chance to catch some more people out. Everyone moved from their positions and lined up at the opposite end of the courtyard. Xena and Gabrielle made their way over, the warrior telling her friend how to play.
"You've gotta make your way over to him and tag him ... but you can only move when his back it turned. If he turns around and sees you moving, you get sent back to the beginning. When you tag him, you have to shout out "Nutbread!" and run back to the start without being tagged yourself. Get it?"
"Sounds easy enough."
They took their places and the boy turned away from them. A number of the children ran forward a few steps before stopping and remaining very still. Gabrielle did the same, but was unprepared when Xena flipped over her head, landing in front of her and striking a hilarious pose with her hands on her hips and a gallant look on her face. When the boy turned around to look at them, Gabrielle couldn't stop herself from laughing and was instantly sent back to the start.
"So," she mumbled. "It's gonna be like this is it?" A cheeky grin grew on her face and she waited for the boy to turn around again. When he did, she dropped to her hands and knees next to a small child and lifted her left leg, imitating the pose a dog takes when it marks its territory. The child started to giggle uncontrollably and was sent back to the start, the bard remaining perfectly still.
For the next few turns, both Xena and Gabrielle made their way up towards the boy, striking poses and making those around them laugh. Soon, it was just the two of them left standing as their last pose had made everyone roll around on the floor laughing and were consequently sent back to the beginning.
Gabrielle, still riding the warrior who was posing as a horse, lowered her upraised arm as the boy turned away and jumped over Xena's head, lying on the ground in front of her and doing her best imitation of a worm -- that had just been stepped on. Much to her delight, that pose won her a giggle from the warrior that the boy saw, directing the mumbling culprit back to the start.
Everyone made their way forward once again when the boy turned away, expecting, but still unprepared for the pose the bard struck when he looked at them. Gabrielle stood, staff held firmly between her teeth like a rose, left arm outstretched to the side while her right was wrapped around an invisible dance partner. The look on her face made even the boy laugh and he turned around, having successfully caught a number of people once again.
The next time he looked over his shoulder, Gabrielle had advanced even closer. A few more steps and she would be able to tag him. As he looked behind her at the others, he saw the warrior who seemed to have changed her tactic. She was now advancing towards the bard rather than towards him. "Ah," he thought to himself with a sly grin. "She's going to scare her. Goodie." He wiped the grin from his face and turned his back on them.
Xena flipped like a gentle breeze in the air and landed soundlessly behind the bard who was moving into another pose. The warrior leaned as close as she dared towards Gabrielle, making sure the bard didn't know she was there and waited. As the boy turned around, Xena -- without moving a muscle -- blew in Gabrielle's ear and the bard squealed.
Everyone laughed and the boy pointed happily.
"I saw you! I saw you!" he chanted.
"But that's not fair!" she wailed. "Xena blew in my ear!"
"Well, I didn't see her move, so it don't matter," he said truthfully.
Gabrielle shot the warrior her best imitation of "the look" but Xena refused to move. The cheeky look in her eyes was not lost on the younger woman who poked out her tongue ... then danced around like a headless chicken ... then blew in the warrior's ear ... until finally, Xena moved.
"I saw you! I saw you!" the boy chanted with delight. He liked this new rule much better and stood tall, pointing to the far end of the courtyard and looking at them sternly. "Back youse go."
The two women glared at each other as they headed back towards the start. Just then, the children's mothers came out of their huts and called them in for dinner.
"Seems we'll never find out who would've won," Xena cooed in the bard's ear. Gabrielle just looked at her and smiled innocently.
"Thanks for playing with us, ma'ams," the boy said as he ran over to his mother. "We had a real fun time." All the other children agreed and waved happily to the two woman as they made their own way back to Argo.
Xena and Gabrielle waved to the children, feeling a strange sense of peace within them as the warrior mounted the horse and helped her companion up behind her.
"Xena," Gabrielle's voice came through the warrior's back as they made their way out of the village.
"You didn't have to stop in that village. I saw you pack your whetstone away in the saddle just before we left this morning. You never lost it."
"Yeah, well. I thought you needed a break."
Gabrielle smiled and squeezed Xena's waist gently, feeling rather than hearing the low chuckle in response. She had certainly needed a good laugh and it didn't surprise her, now that she thought about it, that Xena would know exactly what the bard needed. It was just her way. And Gabrielle certainly loved her for it.
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