One Wild Ride
Xena rested her hands on her thigh, and looked out at the dawning day. The sun was rising over the plateau, and from her viewpoint on the slope she could see the entirety of it spreading away from her towards the horizon.
The burned areas were easy to spot, but they only marked a thick, jagged black line across the center. The rain had come in time to save most of the grass and the herd was there taking advantage of that in the early light.
It was a peaceful scene. Xena herself felt pretty peaceful, after her first night’s real rest since they’d gotten into the valley. She had Pony had split the watch, and they’d both ended up getting a decent amount of sleep out of the bargain.
To top it off, there’d been enough dry wood for a fire, which she could smell behind her as their little camp was stirring in the freshening breeze. That meant they’d be able to get everything dry and have something hot for breakfast in the bargain, even if that was only hot tea.
Terrible, really. Xena mused wryly at herself. The older she got, the more those little inconsequential comforts mattered to her and the more she looked forward to them.
At first she’d dismissed it as a passing phase.. maybe something related to her involvement with Gabrielle but lately she’d been forced to realize the fact that she had someone in her life willing to pamper her really didn’t have anything to do with the fact that she savored the pampering.
“Hey.” Gabrielle emerged from the bushes nearby. “Guess what I found?” Her skin glistened damply from an early morning wash in the nearby stream and the droplets glittered in the pink light.
Speaking of the little bacchae. “Trouble?” Xena replied lightly, as she turned to face her partner, spreading her arms in jesting question.
“Besides you.” The bard displayed what the small basket clasped in her hands contained. “Duck eggs. Fresh ones.”
“Ahhh!” Xena made a pleased sound. “My favorite.”
Gabrielle grinned. “Gee, really?”
“You spoil me rotten, my bard.” Xena draped her arms over her partner’s shoulders, gazing at her affectionately. “And I love you for it.”
“Only for that?” Gabrielle smiled, though , visibly charmed by the words.
“Well, that and a few other things.” The warrior allowed, with a return smile. “How are you feeling?”
“Always glad to know I’m appreciated.” The bard exhaled, turning her head to gaze out over the grass. “Nice morning.” She commented, glancing back at her partner. “Everything seems okay.”
The warrior nodded, her expression shifting to a more serious one. “We’ll have to move back towards where those caves were today.” She said. “Might want to say your goodbyes to your buddies.” Her eyes indicated the herd.
Gabrielle regarded the animals, then shifted her gaze back to her partner. “Y’know.. I bet if you really put your mind to it you could figure out how to get them home with us.”
The bard sighed. “I know. But I really like them.” She acknowledged. “I’m trying really hard not to give the little baby a name.”
Xena produced a sound somewhere between a groan and a chuckle.
Gabrielle chuckled ruefully herself. “Okay, after I cook these up, I’ll go down there.” She said. “You figure the hooters’ll follow us?”
The warrior nodded. “Hope so.” She answered briefly. “We’ll head back the way they were chasing them, in case they get a bright idea to try that torch idea again.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle said. “I like that idea.” She gave Xena a bump with her shoulder, and moved past, heading back towards their campsite.
Xena watched her disappear, shaking her head a little before she turned and faced the sun again, leaning against the rock and reviewing her strategy. Amazing, really, what a couple of Amazons and sword could do for her outlook.
She was a realist, generally. She knew that going after the hooters was probably not a smart idea, and despite the help and the metal they were still at a serious disadvantage. However, what Gabrielle had said, about cleaning up messes had in fact been drilled into her by Xena, and she felt as strongly about it as the bard did.
She wasn’t emotionally invested in the animals, as Gabrielle appeared to be. Nevertheless, she had no desire to see the big, intelligent creatures slaughtered, especially not by a pack of half human barbarians who’d gotten the idea from her.
Just didn’t sit right. Besides… Xena’s palms itched and she flexed her hands, remembering the grasping, hungry clutches on her skin. She had her own bone to pick with the dirty bastards.
Her nostrils flared, and she turned from the rock, feeling a dark energy flush her skin and chase the morning chill from it. Once, that would have also triggered a feeling of guilt in her, but now – well, she accepted that duality of her nature a lot easier these days.
All part of life, she supposed. With a faint, wry chuckle she headed back towards the camp, following in Gabrielle’s footsteps as the rising sun splashed over her back.
“Hey guys.” Gabrielle finished her stroll through the high grass, her fingers trailing over the scorch marks as she ended up next to where the herd was grazing. They had spotted her long before she arrived, of course, and now they moseyed over to her in an unhurried, but purposeful way.
Except, of course, the baby. He let out a squirting little trumpet and rambled right over to her, shoving his snout into her chest as she sat down on a boulder in the center of the grass. She gave him a hug and scratched his ears, feeling a sense of affection for the young animal that warmed her inside and out. “You’re so cute.”
She wondered, briefly, what would happen to him as he got older. The rest of the herd was female, and they hadn’t seen any males around, but that really didn’t mean much. She knew of many animal families where the females lived together, and the males just…
Well, visited when required.
Gabrielle eyed the baby thoughtfully. Not really too different from the Amazons, were they? Maybe that’s why she felt an affinity to them. “That what it is?” She asked the animal. “Are you guys like my adopted family?”
The baby flapped his small ears at her.
“Should I call you Xenan, then?” The bard asked, with a somewhat sad smile. “Will it be like that for you, when you get bigger? You’ll have to leave your family?”
The animal tilted his head at her, as though listening intently. The biggest of the animals, the one Gabrielle had figured to be the baby’s mother, wandered over and draped it’s snout over him, her dark eyes regarding the bard with equal intensity.
“I hope not.” Gabrielle let the baby examine her hand, his nub curiously exploring the length of her fingers. “You have a beautiful family.”
The big animal bugled softly, raising it’s snout and wrapping the nub around a bit of Gabrielle’s hair to give it an almost playful tug.
“Well, you are.” The bard chuckled. “Of all the people we’ve met in our travels, you’re some of the best.” She kicked her heels a little, against the rock. “And you know, I’ll be telling other people stories about you, when we get home.”
The baby wrapped his snout around her wrist and held on, as his mother shifted over, giving her much bigger ears a flap and gently tapping the rock with her hub.
Gabrielle held her breath, almost sensing the communication happening. It was like hearing voices just right out of range, so that you could almost make out the words but not.. quite. “I know that sounds funny.” She went on slowly. “I mean, me telling stories about you, but that’s what I do, you know.”
The big, intelligent brown eye watched her, with a thoughtful expression.
“I’m a bard.” Gabrielle said. “That’s someone who goes around to different places, and tells people stories about people in other places, and about things that happened, like great feats, and about heroes.”
The rest of the herd had closed in, and they were standing by, idly browsing as they listened to her. Gabrielle suddenly felt absolutely sure they were listening, too, and it wasn’t just her imagination. “Xena’s a hero, did you know that?.” She already felt the internal rhythm starting, her words slowly edging into a cadence as her mind shifted into storytelling mode. “A lot of the stories I tell are about the wonderful things she’s done to help people, just like she’s going to help make you safe, here.”
And Xena would, Gabrielle believed that utterly. For all the good reasons, to protect these unique creatures, and for all the bad ones, because Xena hated the hooters and wanted to kill them.
Curious, how she could absorb that now with sober understanding, and no tinge of horror.
The baby sat down and looked up at her expectantly.
“So.. I guess I should tell you a story, huh?” She spoke directly to him. “Since we’re going to leave soon, and I won’t be seeing you again.” Her face creased into a smile as he stuck his tongue out a little, a thick, pinkish gray stub that gave him a comical expression. “How about I tell you a story about how Xena was very brave, and very clever, and she saved a whole lot of people from being hurt?”
Casually, the big animal pulled up a bundle of grass and tossed it at her, landing it on her lap. Gabrielle wondered if it was a commentary on her story idea, then figured it was probably a polite offer of a snack instead. “Well, I can’t eat this.” She reviewed the grass regretfully. “But I can make something out of it while I tell my story. How about that?”
The animals continued their idle browsing, but she could sense the attention on her, and she sorted the grasses out in her fingers as she sorted Xena’s stories in her mind. With those young, trusting eyes on her, she found herself veering away from the darker ones, towards some of their equally exciting, but less violent adventures.
A smile appeared on her face again. “Do you know what a whale is?” She asked the animal. “I bet you don’t.”
The baby gurgled and tilted his head.
“A whale is a really big fish, I think it’s the biggest fish, just like I think you’re the biggest animals I’ve ever seen.” Gabrielle told him. “And one time, when Xena and I were on this boat crossing the ocean…oh, I bet you don’t know what a boat is, either, huh?”
The bard sorted the grass into a canoe shape. “When we want to cross the water, like that lake over there and it’s too deep or too big for us to swim, then we make boats.” She explained. “We sit in the boats, and we float on the water.” She moved her hands with the grass in them.
The big animal reached over and took the grass, and ate it. She watched Gabrielle with a very amused expression.
“No, really, we do.” Gabrielle explained. “Our friends have one, down by the river. We can show it to you before we go. Anyway.” She laid her hands on her knees. “You’ll just have to take my word for it.”
The baby squeezed her wrist and stuck his tongue out at her again. He pulled at her arm a little, with childish impatience.
“Okay, I get the message.” Gabrielle paused and took a breath, straightening her shoulders as her mind slipped back to that day on the ocean, when the sun had lit the green waves in a thousand reflections and it had been them on their merchant boat and the whaling skiff, and Xena’s tall, wave drenched form standing on the bow, and a huge iron tipped spear and…
“What’s she doing?”
Xena didn’t look up from sharpening her sword. “What’s it look like?”
Pony was leaning against one of the boulders. “She looks like she’s talking to them.”
“Okay.” Xena paused to scratch the side of her nose. “Probably that’s what she’s doing then.”
“No she’s not.” Granella finished tying up her pack. “She’s telling a story.” She said. “Can’t you see that? Look at her hands.” She pointed. “See? She’s doing that little wiggly thing.”
“Huh..yeah.” Pony grunted. “Lookit that.”
Xena paused again, and craned her neck around to look at her soulmate. “What?”
“The thing with her shoulders.” Her sister in law placidly responded. “Sort of like she’s hearing music or something.”
“Oh.” Xena turned back around. “That.” She smiled, unseen by her companions as she recalled the memory of being newly smitten and mesmerized by that little wiggle once up on a time ago. “Yeah, just leave her alone. Let her finish her story.”
Pony came over and sat down next to her. “Why is she telling stories to animals?”
“Why does she tell stories to anything?” The warrior replied. “She gets that stuff roiling up inside and she has to tell someone or she goes nuts.” She slid the edge of her blade against the flat of a stone. “I remember the day I first asked her to tell me one, matter of fact.”
“Yeah?” Pony said, after a hesitation.
Xena nodded slowly. “Yeah. I’d heard her tell em… in villages, towns, places we went through, but one night we were out in the forest.” She paused. “In the cold. So I made a big fire, and after the stars came out I asked her to tell me something.. you know, fill the night and all that.. stuff.”
Pony was staring goggle eyed at her. “That’s the longest freaking thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
“What story did she tell, Xena?” Granella distracted the warrior. “That night?”
Xena pondered a minute, then shook her head. “Not a damn thing.” She admitted, frankly. “I freaked her out so badly she ended up stuttering for two days.”
Pony started laughing, and after a minute Granella joined her.
“Is it that funny?” Xena wondered aloud. “I felt bad about it.” Then, after a moment her face broke into a grin, and she shook her head again. “Couple days later she came up with some crazy tale, had to tell me it while we were trying to climb up a damn hill in the rain.”
“Sounds like Gabrielle.” Granella chuckled. “I think for her.. those stories are a gift, and nothing makes her happier than giving them to people.”
Xena studiously wiped her blade on a bit of her leathers. “That’s one of the things I love most about her.” She commented casually, then looked up as the silence lengthened. “Am I not allowed to say that?” She looked from one stunned face to another. “I do love her.”
Pony’s nostrils flared. “Uh…”
“We know that, Xena.” Granella finally got her tongue unstuck from her mouth. “You just don’t.. uh.. usually say.. um.. stuff like that.”
No, probably not. Xena stood up and sheathed the sword, seating it with a satisfied thunk. “Yeah, I know.” She admitted. “Bad for the image.” Her hands came to rest on her hips. “But to Hades with it. After all these years it feels damn good to say it and I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks.”
Pony and Granella watched her walk off towards the seated bard, their pack slung casually over her shoulder as she made her way through the grass. “Who in Hades was that.” Pony finally said. “And what’s she done with the real Xena?”
Granella hoisted her own pack to her back and tightened the straps. “I think that is the real Xena.” She said. “You know, the one Gabrielle is head over heels in love with and never minds telling everyone on earth about?”
“C’mon.” Granella headed off after Xena. “At least we can go hear part of the story. I hate missing anything.”
Pony stood quietly for a few moments, before she lifted up her own gear and began walking through the scrub down towards the plateau. Things were getting odder by the minute, and she was beginning to wonder if the valley hadn’t worked it’s own kind of magic.
On certain people.
“So, the whale and her baby escaped, and the mean old men in their nasty old boat ended up having to swim home.” Gabrielle finished up. “And Xena was the hero of the day.”
“And you had to feed me soup for a week from the sore throat I got swimming in that damn cold sea like the fool I was.” Xena added, as she took a seat on the rock and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle from behind. “You never tell em that part.”
The sudden warmth of the warrior’s presence and the casual embrace caught the bard by surprise. “Ah.” She collected herself. “Well, that was after.”
“Uh huh.” Xena produced a droll expression.
“Besides, you’re not a fool.” Gabrielle covered Xena’s hands with her own. “Even the captain thought what you did was wonderful.. he gave you that pretty carved fish, remember?”
“I remember.” The warrior agreed readily. “But I did it for you, not for him.”
“You did it for you.” The bard demurred. “Because you wanted to, didn’t you?”
Gabrielle turned her head to look at her partner. “You did it for me?”
“I do everything for you.” Xena replied. “After all, did I know those whales?” She asked, in a practical tone. “They were perfect strangers.” Her eyes shifted to the big animals, who were watching them with bemused eyes. “But I bet you’d get along with them.”
The baby reached over and pulled on a bit of her armor. Xena released one hand from around Gabrielle and ran her fingers up the small snout, feeling the tough rings of muscle under the prickly haired skin. “Hey buddy. Whatcha doing?”
Gabrielle had to catch her breath from the sense of well being oozing from her soulmate, warm and real, that surrounded her with tingly effectiveness. She felt her body relaxing into it, as she leaned back, her shoulders coming into contact with Xena’s chest.
“Dja give him a name?” The warrior teased.
“No.” The bard replied, smiling. “I was considering calling him Xenon, because these guys reminded me of the Amazons.”
“HEY!” Pony had come up and heard the last sentence, and now she stood with her hands on her hips staring goggle eyed at her queen. “Scuse ME?”
Xena started laughing, that silent, faint shaking that Gabrielle could feel running through her as she herself turned a darker shade of tan realizing what she’d said. “Um..” She lifted a hand and briefly hid her eyes. “That’s not what I meant.”
Pony cleared her throat.
“Not visually.. I mean, is what I..” The bard tried again.
Granella now started audibly laughing.
“Oh, damn. Forget it.” Gabrielle put her hand down. “Yeah, I did mean you all look like giant hairy animals with big noses. Yeah.”
Xena was now laughing so hard she was nearly pulling them both off the rock.
“We’re such a bunch of idiots.” Gabrielle sighed. “I swear, I wonder why we don’t run away and join a traveling circus.”
“Speak for yourself, Queen of the giant hairy animals with big noses.” Xena chuckled.
“Yeah, so look who I married.” Gabrielle shot right back, rolling her head around to look up at her partner.
“Three times.” The warrior confirmed, with a charming smirk. “Guess you knew a good thing when you saw it.”
A thousand moments of their history suddenly floated around them, dusting the air between them with golden flecks and Gabrielle took a moment to simply let her heart fill with the emotions it evoked in her until her chest ached, and her throat closed with the intensity of it. “Been telling you all along I did.” She answered, her voice husky.
The amusement altered in Xena’s eyes, and the smirk faded, becoming a gentler smile.
“A thousand times wouldn’t be too many.” Gabrielle added softly, reaching up to lay a gentle hand along her soulmate’s cheek.
They could have been alone in the field, or in the valley, or in the world.
“Ahem.” Pony glanced around nervously. “Are you guys okay?”
Gabrielle let her hand drop, and she turned back towards them. “Yeah, we’re fine.” She answered, in an almost normal voice. “Sorry. This is what my life is like when you all aren’t around.”
Pony and Granella exchanged somewhat embarrassed looks. “I’m surprised you didn’t move to Tibet, in that case.” Granella answered gravely. “But that up the mountain thing sure makes more sense now.” She knelt down and cautiously put a hand out to pet the baby animal.
“Mm.” Gabrielle acknowledged the sentiment, her face shifting into a wry expression. She glanced back at Xena, who was gazing at the baby animal bemusedly. “Have you ever been to Tibet?”
The warrior lifted her eyes, her expression shifting. “Tibet.” She spoke the word slowly. “That’s where llamas come from.”
They both started laughing. “Gods. It figures.” Gabrielle shook her head, trying to ignore the confused looks from their two companions. “Okay, well, I guess we’d better get going, huh?” She eased loose from Xena’s embrace and knelt, giving the baby animal a hug. “Listen, cutie, you be good, okay?”
The baby wrapped his snout around her neck and stared at her, his eyes wide. He gurgled a little.
Xena slid forward on the rock and put her hand on Gabrielle’s back, rubbing it gently as she felt the pang through their connection. She tilted her head back and looked up at the mother animal, who was gazing back at her solemnly. “Been a pleasure.”
The big animal reached over and touched Xena’s face with her snout, moving across her cheekbone in a gentle motion. The warrior could feel the warm breath moist against her skin as she met the animal’s eyes, and once again her inner ear buzzed with something that was almost sound.
In reflex, she lifted her hand and pressed her fingers behind her ear, tilting her head slightly to one side.
The animal’s touch halted, then suddenly the nub was exploring the side of her face, touching the fingers she had rubbing her scalp.
“What’s wrong?” Granella asked, softly. “Xena, are you okay?”
Gabrielle, predictably, turned hearing that and looked back at her partner. “Xe?”
The warrior looked back up at the animal, her eardrums still buzzing. “I hear something.” She said. “It’s.. “ Her voice faded a little, her brow creasing. “Just a rumble.”
Pony looked quickly around, her arms spreading out. “Earthquake?” She questioned. “I don’t hear anything.”
“Me either.” Granella eyed the warrior nervously.
The sound stopped, and Xena straightened, as the herd shifted around them and came in closer. Then the noise came back, louder and in a different rhythm that almost seemed like harmonics to her sensitive ears. She looked at the ground, kneeling beside Gabrielle and putting her hand flat on it. “Not an earthquake.”
The big animal snorted. Gabrielle examined the animal’s expression, then she turned towards the warrior. “Xena, is it them?” She pointed at the animals. “Are they.. is that sound coming from them?”
Xena got up and walked right over to the biggest animal, pressing the side of her head against it’s throat. She stood there for a moment, then she backed off, tipping her chin back to make eye contact. “It is.” She confirmed, wonderingly.
“What is it?” Pony asked. “Some kind of warning?”
Xena reached out and touched the animal’s throat with her hand. She felt the vibration stop as the sound faded in her ears, then it came back, then it faded again. There was a pattern there, but it wasn’t anything she’d ever encountered. “I’m not sure.”
“They’re talking to each other, Xena.” Gabrielle reasoned. “You know they understand us. Makes sense they understand each other, doesn’t it?” The big animal rumbled softly, audible to the bard’s hearing. “See?”
Was it? Xena listened to the sound, which almost sounded to her like the low rumble of far off crowd voices. Could the creatures be speaking to each other? She looked up at the intelligent eye, watching her with what could only be expectant amusement. Why not?
Why not? “Could be.” The warrior said. “They’re pretty smart.” She had to smile, as the creature snaked it’s snout around her and gave her a playful swat.
“Wow.” Gabrielle gave the baby another hug. “Xena..”
Xena knew what was coming. She could see it in Gabrielle’s eyes. “Can we get out and go home, first?”
Caught in mid word, the bard closed her mouth and shook a finger at her.
The warrior shrugged modestly.
“Promise?” Gabrielle caught her gaze and held it.
“Promise.” Xena replied at once.
Pony and Granella looked from one woman to the other. “If this is what it’s like when no one’s around, it’s probably a good thing no one’s around, cause they’d be calling the mind healers by now.” Pony said.
“Tell you what.” Granella shook her head.
Gabrielle gave the baby a final hug, this time with a happy smile on her face. She leaned over and put her lips near his ear. “Wait till my daughter meets you.”
The baby gurgled, flapping his ears and waggling his tongue.
Xena gave the big animal a slap on the shoulder. “Take it easy.” She told her. “We’ll take care of those hairy bastards for ya.”
The animal lifted it’s snout and touched the warrior’s throat, her dark eye questioning. She moved and touched Xena’s lips with the tip of her nub, then touched her throat again.
“Now what?” Pony muttered.
“Dunno. Gabrielle’s translating.” Granella responded. “Gabrielle?”
The bard stood and went over to her partner. “Um..” She watched the animal patiently repeat her motions. “Xe, I’m not sure what she wants.”
Xena heard the sound again, and she put her hand against the big throat, feeling the vibration against her fingers as her mind tried to work out the signals. Imitatively, she made a low humming noise in her own throat, then looked up in surprise as the animal patted her cheek encouragingly.
She hummed again, and got another pat. “Ah.” She murmured. “Lemme try this.” She took a breath and after a brief hesitation, started singing.
The result was amazing. The herd all reacted, jostling each other and getting as close as they could to Xena, reaching out with their snouts to touch her. With slightly widened eyes, the warrior continued, a low, almost wordless song she’d first heard from her mother’s lips when she was very, very young.
The noise returned, this time manifold as all the animals joined in, octaves lower than Xena but keeping the same rhythm.
It was incredible. It made every hair on her body prickle and Xena closed her eyes to simply live the experience and savor the harmony only she could hear.
Gabrielle looked around in wonder, hearing only her soulmate’s voice, but sensing some other motion in the air that vibrated soundlessly against her skin. She saw Xena’s eyes close, and saw the faint smile and wished fervently she could get inside that dark head and listen in.
The baby curled his snout around her hand and simply held it, his eyes wide and bright as he listened to his family and Xena, until the last of the warrior’s low tones faded out, and the music was replaced by the rush of wind through the grasses that sounded loud in the silence.
After a brief pause, Xena opened her eyes. “Thanks.” She gave the animal a pat on the shoulder, and turned, enveloping Gabrielle in a brief, wordless hug before she eased past, through the milling bodies and into the open space beyond.
Gabrielle reached out and took the big animal’s snout in her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Take care.” She said, turning to give the baby one last pat. “You too, cutie.”
The baby sat down and bugled at her, a woebegone expression on his face.
Resolutely, the bard turned and followed Xena, emerging into the grass to find the three other women waiting. “Okay, let’s go.” She picked up her staff and fell into step beside her partner as they headed away from their new friends and back towards the scrub forest.
They’d walked for a few minutes in silence, before Pony finally cleared her throat. “You.. uh… “ She glanced behind them. “Gonna tell us what that was all about?”
“No.” Xena and Gabrielle answered together, without even exchanging a glance.
They walked a few more steps in silence. “It’s… complicated.” Gabrielle added, in an apologetic tone. “Really.”
A few more steps. “Right.” Pony said.
“Okay.” Granella chimed in. “But hey. Xena sure has a pretty voice, huh?”
“Sure does.” Pony agreed. “Yep, sure does.”
As they reached the forest, a chorus of brassy trumpets sounded a farewell. They turned, and Xena and Gabrielle both lifted their arms and waved, before they disappeared into the trees and the sound faded slowly out.
“What’s up with them?” Pony crossed her arms, shaking her head a little as she watched Xena explore a nearby ridge.
“What do you mean??” Granella asked. “What’s up with them what?”
The weapons master gave her a look. “You know damn well what I mean.”
Granella glanced briefly at the ground, then shrugged. “I don’t know.. maybe nothing.” She said. “They do act different at home… it’s not that weird.” After a brief silence, she edged past Pony and headed down the slope towards to join their two companions.
Pony scowled, not really sure just why she was so unsettled. After all, it’s not like all that love stuff was something she didn’t know about.
It was just so damn weird to hear Xena of all people talking about it.
“You know what just occurred to me?” Granella gingerly picked her way across the loose shale, and sat down next to Gabrielle.
The bard was perched on a boulder lodged into the side of the mountain, and had been kicking her heels against it. Now she paused and looked Granella’s way. “What?”
“We’re going to double back and head down the slope where Pon and I came up after this, right?”
Gabrielle leaned on her hands, keeping one eye on a restlessly prowling Xena. “Right.”
“Back to our canoe.”
“Right.” The bard repeated, watching her partner spring up and catch hold of a ledge, pulling herself up onto it as bits of rock broke off under her grip. “Yeesh.. Xena!”
“We’re not all gonna fit in that boat.”
The bard’s eyes were glued on the lithe figure now balancing along the razor edge of rock. Her fingertips twitched against the stone surface as a few pebbles slid under Xena’s boots. “Xeeeeeeennnaa…” She muttered softly, under her breath. “Bad girl!”
“Uh?” Gabrielle turned to look fully at Granella. “I know.” She agreed. “So either we ditch the boat, or build another one.”
Granella blinked at her. “Build another one?” She repeated. “Gabrielle, do you want to get out of here before you have grandkids?”
The green eyes twinkled. “You’ve obviously never seen Xena build a boat, have you?”
“Anyway.” The bard hopped off the rock and dusted her hands off. “Let me go keep the love of my life over there from knocking herself silly.” She made her way along the narrow path to where Xena was balanced, reviewing the steep slope ahead of them. “Xe?”
“Mm?” The warrior looked down at her.
“What are you doing?” Gabrielle put a hand up and casually rested it on Xena’s boot. “We know where this leads to already. Those caves.”
“Right.” Xena agreed. “We know they came up this way. If we don’t want them to head back to the plateau, we’ve gotta block it.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle looked around them. Towards the top of the path a huge jumble of boulders had made their descent a bit tricky with the slough they’d scattered and now she studied the pile thoughtfully. “You know what?”
“Take too long.” The warrior replied absently. “Maybe I could channel that stream down here…”
Pony was leaning against the rock wall listening. At the last suggestion, she opened her eyes wider and her eyebrows lifted.
“What if we got one of those big guys to come and push the rocks down.” Gabrielle suggested. “Wouldn’t that be easier than rerouting the river?”
“You just want to bring them with us.” Xena stepped off the ledge casually, landing just to one side of where the bard was standing and taking a single, small hop. “Let’s…”
“Xe.” Gabrielle had spotted motion beneath them, and she laid her hand on her partner’s arm. “Look.” She added unnecessarily, as Xena’s sharp eyes caught the movement and tracked it.
Creeping down the path just below them was a hooter. He had a big club in one hand, and what looked like some kind of hook in the other. He was one of the larger specimens, and he had a thick, dark beard to match his hairy body.
Xena leaned back into the slope, one hand gently pressing Gabrielle back as well. Then she reached over her shoulder and drew her sword, twirling it as she stepped back onto the path, heading down.
“Xe.” Gabrielle called out, in a low tone.
One hand lifted, and the warrior made a sign, then continued on.
Gabrielle sighed, gave a slight shake of her head and immediately started following, with a surprised Pony and Granella in tow.
“Um.” Pony got up close enough to whisper. “Didn’t that sign mean stay here?”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle answered, trying her best to be quiet, and not send rocks rattling down after her partner.
“And so we’re going after her.. why, now?”
“Well.” The bard put her hand against the rock wall to steady herself. “It’s like this. Xena tells me to stay put. I don’t. Most of the time I get knocked head over tail and..” She paused, sensing a sudden, specific tension from the warrior. “Hold that thought.”
Xena’s battle yell erupted, and Gabrielle bolted forward with truly startling rapidity, going from standing still to a full out run in less than a breath. “Sometimes I get away with it because she needs me!” The bard yelled back at them. “C’mon!”
“Crap.” Pony took off after her, pulling her sword out. “Damn little bugger…”
Granella took up the rear, feeling an unexpected but definite clenching in her guts as she heard that wild yell let out again and the chilling, distinctive ring of steel hitting bone followed it. She took her dagger out, until she could see if her bow was going to do any good and concentrated on keeping up.
Gabrielle was deceptively fast, and they had to really work at it as they swept around the corner of the path, spotting Xena immediately in the center of a group of hooters, all attacking her with energetic vigor.
The bard didn’t slow at all. She bolted for the melee, hauling her staff around and ducking under a tree limb as she gracefully set her balance and whipped the stick in a short arc, taking the feet of one of the hooters out from under him as he was about to hit Xena.
Pony charged the group as well, but circled and attacked from the rear, driving her sword into one of the smaller hooters up to it’s hilt with a sound of cracking bone. “Yeahhh!!!”
Granella pulled up and removed her bow from her back, stringing it and setting an arrow in place as she searched for a target.
It was hard, since there was so much movement, and she didn’t want to risk hitting one of her companions. Xena, especially, shifted so quickly and so unexpectedly every time she lifted her tip and aimed, she lowered it again as the warrior slid into her potential range.
Gabrielle stuck to her partner like a tick, working her staff inside Xena’s reach in a synergy that was startling to behold once Granella realized what she was doing. Anyone else, she knew, would have gotten body parts chopped off getting that close to the battling warrior; but Gabrielle slid right through those slices and backchops without Xena disturbing a hair on her blond head.
How in the Hades?
She’d seen Xena fight, of course. She’d even seen Gabrielle fight, and seen her teach some of her staff tricks to the Amazons. But this was one of the rare times she’d seen them fighting together and as she watched Xena seem to sense Gabrielle’s staff and duck to one side as it whipped past her into the face of her opponent she got a new appreciation for this facet of their partnership.
Xena spun suddenly, then stabbed backwards with her sword as two of the hooters rushed her back. She gutted one of them, and wrenched her arms to one side, spilling his entrails out as the second slipped in them right into the butt end of Gabrielle’s staff.
The sound of his head splitting echoed softly to Granella’s watching ears.
Then the attack broke off, and the hooters were running, responding to their hooting cries as the two biggest remaining ones turned tail and escaped. They ran through the trees, with shambling strides that were very deceptive in their speed.
Xena let out her yell after them, walking a few paces, then bounding a few, blood dripping from her sword as she brandished it.
Gabrielle let the end of her staff come to rest on the ground, the wood stained in it’s own coating of crimson. Her eyes dropped to it, then she slowly turned and knelt next to the hooter she’d killed, folding her hands over the staff and simply looking at the body for a long moment.
“Bastards.” The warrior glared after them. “They were setting a trap.”
Gabrielle got up and went over to her. The bard’s face was quiet, but there was a mature acceptance in her expression that surprised Granella as she ran over to join them. “They sure were.. for us?”
Xena walked over to the half dug pit, and looked in. “Not big enough for one of those guys.’ She glanced up to the top of the slope. She wiped her sword off on a patch of scrub grass and sheathed it. “They were working on it when I interrupted their little party.”
Gabrielle walked over to look into the pit, crouching down and keeping her balance with her staff. At the bottom, the pit was lined with sharp rocks, their edges facing upwards. “Wow.” She murmured. “They sure do learn fast, huh?”
The warrior stared after the vanished hooters. “Yeah.” She murmured. “And I don’t think I want to give them any more time to learn.”
The bard looked up at her. “Change in plans?”
Pony came over, licking a nick in her thumb. “Boy, those things are ugly.” She commented. “And they stink.”
“Xena, they’re not likely to master steelwork any time soon. Are they?” Gabrielle got up and came around to face the warrior. “That gave us the edge this time.”
Xena nodded. “This time.” She agreed. “But every time we encounter them, they’re upping the ante, Gabrielle. We have to go after them, and keep hitting them instead of letting them come after us. They won’t be metalsmiths, but..” She glanced at the pit. “I don’t want to know what else they’ll come up with.”
Pony looked from one to the other. “Can I ask what in Artemis’ quiver we’re talking about here? I thought we were going to block the path, then head home.”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged long, complex looks. “Not exactly.” Gabrielle responded, squaring her shoulders as she turned to face them. “What Xena thinks is – if we just try to block the path, they’ll find a way around it because they learn incredibly fast. So the idea is, we go after them, and force them away from here until we..”
Xena’s hand fell on her shoulder, and the bard stopped talking. “You can go back the way you came if you want.” She offered, in a quiet voice.
“Oh, shut up, Xena.” Pony gave her an exasperated look. “I just want to know what the Hades is going on, that’s all. We’re gonna go splice these hairy bastards? Fine! Just tell me!”
There was a bit of silence. “That’s what we’re going to do.” Xena finally said. “Besides, if we block the path up here, those animals won’t be able to get down either.”
“Right.” Gabrielle said. “We don’t want that to happen.”
“Great. Let’s go.” Pony tightened the straps on her pack and sheathed her sword. She went past them and started to explore the edge of the forest, watching warily for any motion. After a brief pause, Granella joined her, keeping a troubled silence.
Gabrielle waited for them to move out of hearing range before she exhaled, allowing her head to drop and her eyes to close.
“You okay” Xena asked, after a bit. She reached up and clasped the back of her partner’s neck with one hand, easing the stiffness she felt under the tan skin.
“No.” Gabrielle answered readily. “Life sucks right now and I want to throw up.”
Xena stepped up behind her and circled her with both arms, giving her a gentle hug and a kiss on the top of the head. “Thanks for watching my back.” She said, as the bard turned and rested her cheek on Xena’s chest, her exhaled warming the skin above the warrior’s armor. “You don’t know what a difference it is to me having someone I can trust doing that.”
Trust. Gabrielle allowed the sound of her partner’s heartbeat to chase the echoes of the hooter’s head splitting from her hearing. “That’s my job.” She answered, returning the hug and giving Xena a pat on the side. “C’mon, let’s get going. We’re freaking them out as it is.”
“Pony and Gran.” The bard collected herself, running her fingers through her hair before she turned and joined Xena as the warrior started after their friends.
Her job. Gabrielle lifted her head and straightened her shoulders. Her life.
That’s just how it was.
Granella held a springy branch back, clearing the way for Pony to carry an armful of firewood past her. She looked around carefully, before she followed the weapons master, letting the branch come back to cover the path into their campsite.
They were in enemy territory, the different sharp and cold as the lines of Xena’s body as the warrior stood watch nearby. “Looks clear.” Granella said, as she knelt to help Pony arrange the fire. “Sure we can risk this?”
Xena stood up from her crouching position on the rock and lifted her head, closing her eyes and drinking in the wind as it blew back her dark hair. After a long moment, she shifted her attention back to them. “I think we’re okay.” She said. “For now, anyway. Long as the wind doesn’t shift.”
“I think it’s worth the risk.” Gabrielle appeared from the nearby brush, carrying the grotesque half skull she and Xena had been using. It was full of water, and she knelt near the two other women and nestled it into a hollow in the dirt to hold it upright. “It’s getting colder.”
Xena sat down on her rock, content to let the breeze carry it’s messages to her where she was sitting a bodylength over the heads of her companions. It was chilly, and she was glad she’d added the catskin as a cloak to her sturdy leather since she hadn’t succeeded in getting Gabrielle to wear it.
She used her peripheral vision to watch her partner, seeing the strain of the long day in the tense lines across the bard’s shoulders and in the set of her jaw. As if sensing the attention, Gabrielle turned her head and looked back at her, a faint, wry grin appearing on her face.
Xena returned the grin, then went back to studying their surroundings. They’d taken a fork coming back down the ridge that they’d missed going up, after she’d found a hidden path that stank of the hooters and avoided some of the tougher climbs.
On the way they’d found two sites the hooters used frequently, stone scuffed free of earth, and the remnants of leaf nests and bones marked the spots prominently. One even had a long dead hooter in it, a scrap of dried hide and hair half buried in dirt, cast off with the rest of the campsite’s garbage.
Shocking, to Granella and Pony. Gabrielle had merely frowned and shook her head, taking the lead as they continued down in the footsteps of these half human, half animals they barely understood.
It was dangerous, following them. But it was also night time, and they had both weapons and fire. Xena suspected they had turned the hooters attention from the big creatures and she viewed that as both a plus and a minus.
Minus, for the obvious reasons, and a plus, because it meant the creatures were safe and she could use their fixation on them to lead them where she wanted them. Smart as they were, and in their numbers – still, she was Xena and after living as long as she had, and fighting the battles she had, well, damned if they were going to get the better of her again.
Especially now with Pony and Granella with them. Xena didn’t mind looking like an idiot occasionally in front of Gabrielle, because the bard knew her through and through, but no one else would she accord that privilege to.
So when the time had come to make camp themselves, when the growing dusk made it dangerous to keep climbing down, she’d taken especial care in choosing where to stop. Far enough from any signs of the hooters and yet using the same sheltering boulders they did to block the wind. The camp was surrounded on three sides by stone, and one by thick trees, with an acceptable view of the slope they would head down tomorrow.
She didn’t feel safe, exactly. There were touches of musk on the wind and an edgy energy around them that kept a tension in her muscles and her senses on alert. Her fingers twitched, and clenched a little and she only just kept herself from drawing her sword against this ethereal threat she suspected was half imaginary and half instinctual.
The imaginary part didn’t bother her. The instinctual part, on the other hand, was triggered by things inside of her that went past conscious thought and she knew she ignored that at her own and everyone elses peril.
Like when she’d been tracking the hooter earlier. One moment, she’d been following him as he crept along, the next, she’d turned and been fighting before her waking mind had even registered the presence of the others behind her.
Ah. Xena half smiled. The look of shock on the first one’s face as she’d cut his arm off. It was one thing to swing at something with a stick in her hands, something else quite again to have her hands locked around her sword hilt, her strength and weight behind a razor sharp blade capable of cutting through the trunk of an armored man if she really put her mind to it.
Her second blow had split his skull. The third, a backswing, had plunged into the sternum of one of the bigger ones about to jump on her back. The copper scent of blood had been everywhere, and she’d sensed the panic and fear even before Gabrielle had come charging up to join her.
Ahh. Xena savored the victory.
The warrior glanced down. “Mm?”
Gabrielle laid both hands on the rock and leaned against it. “I’d like to make some soup.”
“Sounds great.” Xena replied.
“Yeah, but I know you hate boiled leaves and grass.” There was a muted, but perceptible hint of humor in Gabrielle’s eyes. “Especially if I have to toss dirt in on top of it.”
“Ah.” Xena stood, then stepped off the rock and landed lightly. “I get it. You want me to hunt.” She lifted the catskin cloak off her shoulders and settled it around Gabrielle’s before the bard could protest. “Your goosebumps are giving me goosebumps. Hang on to this for me, huh?”
Unable to refute the observation, Gabrielle gathered the skin along with her dignity around her. “I’d have gone, but you know I’m not the best hunter around, and in the dark… ehh…”
Xena’s peripheral vision caught Pony and Granella listening in. “Oh, I dunno, sweetheart.” She remarked. “You do lots of things well in the dark.”
Gabrielle opened her mouth to answer, then her nostrils flared and she closed her jaw with a click when the words stopped echoing. She took another breath, then released it, ending up biting the very end of her tongue. “Um.”
Granella started laughing softly, while Pony merely rolled her eyes. Xena leaned forward and kissed her nonplussed partner on the lips, then ducked past her gracefully and disappeared into the forest’s shadows.
“Gods.” Gabrielle finally sighed, returning to the fire and removing a few tubers from her pack. She set to work scraping the outsides off, making an effort not to meet the eyes she knew were watching her. “What a punk.”
There was a period of silence, into which the crackle of the newly born fire sounded, loud and crisp. The growing glow banished back the gloom of twilight and sent the smell of burning pine through the campsite.
“Hey Gabrielle.” Pony suddenly broke the quiet. “Are you really putting sticks in the soup?”
Lost in her own thoughts, Gabrielle’s head snapped up, and she met Pony’s eyes. “Huh?”
Pony indicated the tuber. “Thought you were joking with the big X.”
“Oh.” The bard chuckled wanly. “No, this is a.. it’s a root.” She explained.
“Well, yeah.” Pony agreed. “I can see that.. it’s why I asked, y’know?” She gamely went on. “I mean, it’s not like I’m no expert about cooking or anything, but even our cooks don’t put branches in the soup.”
“It’s not a branch.” Gabrielle gathered her wits. “Some plants have these, and if you cook them, you can eat them. They’re good.” She said. “I like to bake these, sometimes, and put spices on them but we don’t really have time for that, and they’re okay in soup too.”
“Really?” Granella eased closer. “I”ve never seen those.. not even in Cyrene’s kitchen.” She took a piece that Gabrielle’s knife had carved off and tasted it warily. “Hm.”
“There’s starch in it.” Gabrielle said. “It makes the soup thicker too.. and when you don’t have much in there, every bit counts, you know?” She put the cut pieces of tuber in the cookpot that Granella had brought in her kit, and poured the skull full of water over them. “I found them one night when Xena and I were out in the wild and we only had a bunch of leeks, and a handful of grain between us.”
“Don’t’ tell me Xena couldn’t find anything to catch.” Pony said. “No way.”
Gabrielle smiled in memory. “Yes way, matter of fact. I don’t’ think she even tried. We’d fought a bunch of raiders from before sunrise until almost dark, and we were both so tired it was all we could do just to make a fire.”
Gods, they had been tired. Too tired to argue, too tired to do their usual chores.
Too tired to dissemble, as they sat together, sharing one wooden bowl and two spoons, leaning against each other in a companionable silence so sweet she could hear it still.
Broken finally by Xena’s voice, murmuring a gentle thanks.
The brush of lips against her cheek.
By the sound, she’d been called more than once. “Sorry.” The bard tucked her thoughts away. “Just remembering something.” She pulled out another root to cut it up. “Anyway, we ended up with all that in a soup.”
“Ah.” Pony cleared her throat. “Any good?”
Gabrielle felt a smile appear. “Best darn soup I ever made.” She said. “So anyway… I’m sure this’ll work out.. you guys doing okay?”
Granella laid the last bit of the fire, and then warmed her hands over the crackling tinder Pony had started. “I think we’re doing fine.” She said, looking up at Gabrielle through the glow. “Are you okay?” She studied the familiar face under it’s mop of pale hair seriously. “Those critters looked pretty horrific.”
The mist green eyes, hazel in the firelight, took on gentle shadows. “Are you asking me if killing one of them is bothering me?” She said, meeting Granella’s glance. “If you are, well… I haven’t been blood innocent for a very long time, Gran.”
Granella winced, a little. “Well, that’s…”
“Hey.”Pony had been crouching near the fire. Now she came down to kneel on one knee and rested her elbow on her other, her eyes fixed on her queen. “Gabrielle. Please don’t whack me for saying this, okay?”
One pale brow edged up.
“Look, I know youre’ my queen and all that, but I gotta tell you this.” Pony continued, stolidly. “You could kill three hundred people in an afternoon and there’d still be parts of you innocent.” She watched Gabrielle’s face. “’s’a compliment, y’know?”
Slowly, the still expression relaxed, and Gabrielle smiled, one of her real, sunny smiles that wrinkled up her nose and made her eyes sparkle. “Thank you, Eponin.” She replied.
Unaccountably, Pony blushed. “Anytime.” She muttered, going back to fiddling with the fire.
Granella sat down next to Gabrielle and cracked a walnut, offering the bard half. “I didn’t mean to get you pissed off, Gabrielle.”
“You didn’t.” Gabrielle accepted the nut and nibbled it. “It’s just.. sometimes people do treat me like I’m still a kid, and it gets me frustrated sometimes.” She admitted. “Yeah, I’m okay. It just never gets any easier, and I don’t know if that’s a bad thing.”
“Bet I know what Xena’d say to that.”
“Eh huh.” The bard chuckled wryly. “Yeah, I bet I do too.” She exhaled, then turned towards her sister in law. “Listen, Xena was serious before. If you guys want out of this, no problem with me, you know?”
The two women just looked at her. “Oh, sure.” Pony snorted. “Hey, Eph.. yeah, listen, I’m back. Yeah, we found the two of them but they were going after some huge hairy freaks trying to kill them so we just took off and ran away.”
Gabrielle started laughing in pure reflex.
“Have my butt kicked right out of the Amazon Nation for that, for sure.” Pony said, indignantly. “Gee thanks, your Maj.”
“Yeah, and I won’t even go into what Cyrene would say.” Granella chimed in. “C’mon, Gabrielle… you can’t really be serious even asking us that, can you? Do you really think we’d run off and leave you two here?”
Gabrielle felt Xena returning, the gentle wash of hunting blood lust and satisfied triumph unmistakable. “No.” She picked up her knife and wiped the blade off. “I think it’s just… we’ve both gotten other people involved in our problems on more than one occasion and it hurts when those people get hurt.”
“Ah.” Granella looked up as she heard a soft crackling. “Wh..” She started to get up, but stopped when Gabrielle quickly reached out and took hold of her arm. “Someone’s coming.”
“Xena.” The bard replied in a tone of absolute certainty. “She’s got dinner.” She reassured Granella, who slowly sat back down. “Honest.”
“Yeah?” Pony retied a bootlace. “What color fur does it have?”
A moment later, Xena appeared out of the shadows, moving with a jaunty swagger as she circled the fire and dropped two large rabbits down at Gabrielle’s side. “There you go, my love.”
Gabrielle looked up in some surprise at the endearment, but Xena merely took a seat next to her on the hide and stretched her long legs out, leaning back on her hands and half closing her eyes. “Thanks.” She took the already dressed carcasses and untied the legs, letting the meat fall into the pot. “Yet another of your many skills.”
Xena smirked, giving Pony and Granella a wink.
“I think I like this one second best.” Gabrielle continued, stirring her newly becoming soup.
“Second?” The warrior inquired. “What’s first?”
The bard gave her a sideways glance. “Making love.” She answered matter of factly, nearly making her beloved soulmate’s pretty blue eyeballs come right out of her beautifully shaped head. “You really rock at that, Xe.”
Xena’s jaw literally dropped.
Pony spit a mouthful of water right over the fire, droplets hissing and spattering down into it as Granella slowly collapsed into a laughing ball, covering her mouth with one hand.
“What were you saying before about innocence?” Gabrielle asked Pony, her eyes twinkling. “Hm?”
“Anyone want to hear about cooking with Xena’s juices?”
Xena sat on her rock, the crystal clarity of the night brushing around her like a living thing. Her ears were cocked, listening to the soft rattling of the wind through the branches, and her nostrils were flared to catch the slightest breeze in order to sort out the rich scent of the earth and the dusty smell of rock from the other, more ethereal hints of the creatures around her.
So far, though, it had been quiet.
Too quiet, really, which had left her with plenty of time on her hands and she found her thoughts focusing again and again on Gabrielle, not anything specific really, just idle daydreams of their life together that made it difficult for her to concentrate.
It was an almost familiar feeling, this faint disconnection at the damndest of times. Xena wasn’t sure whether to be frustrated or delirious about it, and so she ended up just drumming her heels against the rock and forcing herself to concentrate on the darkness around them.
From behind her, she heard a faint sound, though, and her attention swiveled from the forest to their campsite. Someone was approaching with caution, but her senses immediately knew it wasn’t Gabrielle much to her disappointment.
Crazy, since she’d worked hard to convince the bard to go to sleep and let her keep watch. Xena sighed, recognizing the person approaching as Pony. She turned and let her legs dangle over the rock as the Amazon reached her position, focusing her powerful night vision on the shadowy form. “Hey.”
“Hi.” Pony leaned against the rock. “Listen.. I can’t sleep.”
“That my problem?” Xena smiled though, taking the sting from the words.
“No sense both of us being up.” Pony replied stolidly. “Gwan and keep her nibs warm.”
“She’s got a blanket.”
Pony put her hand up and touched Xena’s boot. “Yeah, I know.” She said. “But I bet she’d swap it for ya like nothing, yeah?”
Xena felt a certain tug at the edge of her perceptions, and she hopped down off the rock without further argument. “Watch out for that patch of brush down to the left.” She said. “Something’s moving in there, not sure what it is.”
“Okay.” Pony put her back to the rock and focused her attention on the patch.
“Yell if you see anything.”
The Amazon looked over at her. “Go to bed, will ya?” She instructed the warrior. “I’ve been doing this long as you have.”
Xena put her hands on her hips and cocked her head to one side.
“Gwan.” Pony shooed her off. “Save the ‘tude. Ya blew it with all that I love you stuff. Scram.” She added. “Besides, I don’t wanna hear Gabrielle start up again about your many skills.”
The warrior snorted and shook her head, then she turned and left Pony to her watch, letting her hands drop to her sides as she walked back towards the low burning fire that shed only the dimmest of crimson light to break the darkness.
The moon had long set, and the quiet of the night was draped over them like a still blanket. Gabrielle was curled up on their hide, her body wrapped in the catskin, but her body refused to relax into sleep and her eyes were somberly searching the stars overhead.
Xena had first watch. They hadn’t had a chance to talk since dinner, and even though Gabrielle was absolutely positive her banter hadn’t pissed her partner off, there still was that part of her deep inside restlessly wondering.
Damn it. The insecurity bothered her, and she wondered how many years at this rate it would take her to get past it, past that haunting fear that sometime, someday, something she said would trigger that long, cold slide again.
At this stage in her life, that was the biggest nightmare she had left. Gabrielle exhaled, understanding bleakly the likelihood that if it ever did happen again, she’d never survive it. Not sane, at any rate and in all truth, wouldn’t death be kinder?
For both of them?
Would she ever get past it? She shifted a little, rolling more onto her back as she followed the familiar patterns in the sky, tracing her eye over the Warrior standing prominently between the trees.
Then her focus dropped, to the shadows around them and her head turned towards one patch of gloom that after a brief moment resolved itself in silver dapples as Xena walked out of it towards her.
It was too dark for her to see her partner’s features, but the lines of her body were relaxed, and she dropped down next to Gabrielle onto the skin with a reassuringly casual air. “Hey.” The bard murmured in greeting.
“Hey.” Xena responded readily, leaning over onto one elbow as her hand came to rest on the fur between them. “Why aren’t you sleeping?”
The tension in her guts started to uncoil. “Just thinking.” Gabrielle answered. “About stuff.”
Xena paused, and after a moment, she reached out and ran her fingers through Gabrielle’s hair, giving her nose an affectionate tweak. “You and your thinking.”
The tension dissolved completely, and Gabrielle had to swallow a few times, glad of the darkness that hid her expression, and the few, brief tears produced by a haunting she’d thought she’d finally gotten past. Then she felt Xena’s fingertips gently wipe the moisture away, and realized the night wasn’t nearly dense enough for those sharp blue eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Xena asked, stretching out on her side next to where Gabrielle was curled up. “You hurting?” Her voice dropped, taking on a hint of concern as she cupped the bard’s cheek in her palm. “Hey.”
“Nah.” The bard whispered back. “Just being stupid. No biggie.”
Gabrielle hesitated, then half shook her head. “Ghosts.” She said. “My mind playing tricks on me.”
“Sometimes I wish my imagination was like.. um..”
Yeah. “Something like that.” Gabrielle wriggled a little closer. “I’m okay, just a little nutty or something.”
Unexpectedly, the warrior’s hand dropped to rest on Gabrielle’s stomach, giving it a light pat. “That’s a good sign.” She said, with a easy chuckle. “I can just imagine what this kid’s gonna be like if it’s already making you tell everyone how I treat you in bed.”
The gloomy track her thoughts had been on shifted so suddenly it almost made Gabrielle squeak. “Gods.” She half covered her face with one hand. “I don’t know what got into me tonight.” She peeked up at Xena’s face, now close enough for her to make out the expression, despite the darkness.
The look of warmly amused affection almost shone with it’s own light, at least to her eyes. She knew seeing it that Xena was all the way not mad, since the warrior never produced it when she was even a little irritated and trying to hide it. “Well, I’m not a little innocent anymore, damn it!”
Xena chuckled silently.
“Freaking Amazons!” The bard grumbled. “They don’t even curse in front of me, for Zeus’ sake. What the heck is that all about? I’m not a little darn kid!”
Xena laughed harder, rolling over onto her stomach and burying her face into the hide to stifle the noise.
“Xena!” Gabrielle hissed. “Cut that out! It’s not that funny!”
The warrior pushed herself over onto her back. “If you could see your face when you said that, you’d know why I’m laughing.” She informed her partner. “Your real problem is your too damned cute.”
“I am not!”
“Hey.” Granella’s voice floated over from past the fire. “What’s going on over there? Or do I want to know?”
“Sorry.” Gabrielle called over her shoulder, then turned back to her still snickering soulmate. “I am not!” She repeated, lowering her voice. “So cut that out.”
Xena slid closer, putting her head down on the folded bit of hide Gabrielle was using as a pillow, and getting pretty much nose to nose with her. “Listen.” She said. “What are you getting mad for? You’re adorable, hon. Nothing wrong with that.”
“There is if people treat me like a puppy because of it.”
The bard sighed. “I’m being a piss-ant, aren’t I?”
“Sorry.” Gabrielle reached out and took hold of one of Xena’s hands, folding her fingers around it gently. “And here I was tossing and turning because I was afraid you..” She paused. “Anyway.”
“Afraid I was mad?” Xena’s voice came from the darkness, with gentle clarity. “About your sudden sexual honesty?”
The bard remained silent for a few moments. “Were you?”
“No.” Xena’s free hand lifted to stroke Gabrielle’s face. “I was surprised.” She admitted. “But nothing you can say would get me mad, not now.”
“Mm.” The bard ran her thumb over Xena’s palm. “I’ve just never said anything like that before, and I wasn’t sure if you… if it would get you upset.”
Gabrielle stared into the darkness for a long moment. “I always wondered.. if it was something, some one thing I’d said the last time that started everything bad.”
Xena went still. “Last t..” She stopped speaking, then exhaled. “It wasn’t ever anything you did.. or you said that ever did anything. You know that.”
“My head does, sure.” The bard admitted, simply.
Xena leaned her forehead against her partner’s. “Gabrielle.. what happened to us before.. that’s never going to happen again.” She heard the audible swallow. “Before.. we were in love with the best of each other.” She said. “And now.. we’re in love with the worst.”
Gabrielle listened intently to the words, letting them soak into her as she tasted the truth of them. “You know something?”
“You’ve got a bard’s soul inside you somewhere.”
Xena chuckled faintly. “I just borrowed yours for a minute.” She demurred. “Take it back. Quick.”
Gabrielle lifted her hand up and kissed it, pressing her cheek against the backs of Xena’s fingers, feeling the absolution of her words cleanse and polish a few tarnished facets of what she saw inside herself in a wholly unexpected way.
Beauty unlooked for. “I can’t.” She opened her eyes, finding Xena’s looking back at her. “That soul’s yours forever.”
Now it was Xena’s turn to fall silent, the faint starlight sparkling briefly as her eyelashes fluttered and Gabrielle felt a warm droplet hit the back of her hand. “Good grief.” She whispered. “If we keep this up for nine months they’re going to have to sop us up with sea sponge by the time we’re done.”
“Yeah.” The warrior sniffled a little, and cleared her throat. “We’d better try and save it for when we get outta here.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle felt the long day catch up with her suddenly. She unwrapped the catskin and draped it over the warrior’s shoulders as they snuggled together in long familiar comfort. As she put her head down on Xena’s chest, she could already feel her perceptions slipping and as that happened, she was foggily aware of something inside her slipping as well, some last shadow lifting under the warmth of Xena’s touch.
She tried to think about it, but her dreams took her too quickly, and she let it go for another day.
Far off, the wind brought a cat’s yowl to Xena’s ears, and she listened for what would come next, her eyes watching the stars wheel over her head in fascination as though for the very first time.