One Wild Ride
Xena felt the water suddenly rush over her as she stepped into the whirlpool, and the suction of it pulled her under. A tumbled moment of disorientation later she broke the surface and sucked in a breath, glad she’d tied the rope tightly around her.
She was too off balance, with her hands behind her to stay upright, however. “I’m gonna let go!” She called back. “Gotta swim!”
She released her grip on the pallet and was immediately sucked under again, as the water pushed her through a gap between two stones and rattled her against both of them like a rubber ball.
Ow. Xena kicked away from the closer rock and got her head above water again, coughing a mouthful from her lungs as she emerged into the half light of the cavern.
“Xena!” Gabrielle’s hoarse bellow was equal parts warning and worry.
Predictable as the day is long. The warrior shook the hair from her eyes and started swimming, pulling herself forward with powerful breaststrokes. “Hang on!” She yelled back over the sound of the water. “I’m all right!”
The rope went taut, stopping her progress very briefly before it grudgingly gave way and she felt the strain as she pulled her companions after her. The force of the water wanted to pull them in circles, and she found it hard to move forward, most of her energy going towards staying belly down as the underground river wanted to roll her over.
She let her feet drop briefly, but couldn’t touch bottom so she cursed silently and kept on swimming as hard as she could, making scant headway despite going with the current. She glanced behind her, anxious until she spotted both Pony’s and Gabrielle’s heads above the water, sticking by the pallet as the river shoved them to and fro.
Ares was half underwater, but she really didn’t have time to worry about him right now. Xena felt the water pull her sideways, and she fought against the current, ending up going under again as the rope tangled on her leg and stopped her progress.
Damn it. She rolled and freed her boot, then kicked up ward, reaching out as she felt something closing in on her. Her hands struck hard stone, and the next moment she was forced up and out of the water, blown over a slick boulder in a rush of white froth.
Twisting quickly she got her hands on a ridge and managed to stop her progress, pulling herself up onto her knees as the current broke over her chest.
She barely had time to recognize the dark shapes hurtling towards her, and her eyes widened as Pony, Gabrielle and Ares whipped by her on the other side of the rock, moving at a rapid clip downstream.
Her heart started beating double time as she reversed her position, putting her back to the current as she got her boots braced just in time to take the strain as the rope snapped taut and came very close to yanking her right off her perch headfirst.
For a moment, her balance hung on a thin line as she threw her weight backwards and teetered on her heels, the weight on the other end of the rope pulling her inexorably forward.
Then she crouched more deeply and shoved backwards, her thigh muscles standing out in rigid relief. Through the swirling half light, she saw the current grab the pallet and swing both Gabrielle and Pony around vicously as they fought to hang onto it, the extra drag almost pulling her in.
The experience of a thousand battles stood her in good stead, and a cold reason narrowed her choices without effort. “Gabrielle!” Xena yelled at the top of her lungs. “Let him go!”
Pony released the pallet with little hesitation, grabbing the rope instead as Gabrielle swung around, her hands still clamped on the ends of the sticks just long enough for her to turn towards Xena, making eye contact through the swirling surf and half-lit dimness.
An unspoken question and immediate answer floated between them, then Gabrielle uncurled her hands and released the pallet, letting the water take it swirling away into the darkness beyond them.
Xena released a held breath. Then she wrapped her hands around the rope and unlocked her knees, hopping quickly to the next boulder while keeping her weight back on her heels. “Keep feeling for higher ground!” She called to her partner. “I’ve gotcha!”
Resolutely, Gabrielle turned her head and ignored the press of the water behind her, the rope keeping her steady in the cold water as she felt around with her hands and feet for the ground beneath them.
She knew she’d just done something wrong. Both in a personal sense, and in the bigger picture because she’d dealt with Ares long enough to know their fates were intertwined with his in some dark, yet final way.
If he died, from what she’d just done, nothing good would come from it for herself or for Xena. She didn’t know what his family would do, but she knew in her heart they would do something and whatever it was wouldn’t be kind.
And yet, knowing that, her gut instincts agreed fully with what Xena had ordered.
She felt a jerk, then a release on the rope and she moved forward in the water a few bodylengths. Despite the shift, she still felt nothing under her and she had to wonder where in the world the path had gone to.
More importantly, how had Gran and her kidnappers gotten down here, and had Ares really seen nothing of this when he’d come up? It seemed so unlikely that it would have come on like this so suddenly…
A bleak thought occurred to her. What if this wasn’t they way out?
What if there was another way, a fork, and they’d missed it?
“Gabrielle! I’m jumping in.. hang on!”
From a near stop, she suddenly started moving again as the rope slacked behind her and she had to fight to stop from going face first into the water. Gabrielle threw her hands out instinctively and tried to lean back, keeping her head above the surface as she hurtled into the churning darkness. “Pony!”
“Yeowp!” Pony tumbled past her with a squawk, out of control.
Gabrielle grabbed at her, wrapping her hand into the rope between them and hauling her back as they both twirled around each other as the water swirled into a whirlpool with them in the center. She could just barely see the fear in Pony’s face as she linked arms with her and knew a moment of odd pride as she knew she didn’t share it. “Gotcha!”
Moments later, something big and heavy slammed into the back of both of them and they were slammed forward for a split second before they were grabbed by the scruffs of their necks and hauled backwards. “Now I gotcha.” Xena’s voice rose above the water as she took hold of them both. “Everyone hang on.”
Gabrielle took hold of her partner’s leathers as Pony somewhat warily grabbed Xena’s arm. Once in a somewhat circle she realized they stablilzed each other and for a brief moment she felt a margin of safety as they bobbed in the current. “Wow.”
“Shit.” Pony took a ragged breath. “That sucked. Really, really, really sucked.”
Xena refrained from adding to the conversational pool and concentrated on searching the darkness ahead of them the best she could. They’d lost the torches at the pool and she only hoped they didn’t need them before the water pushed them out into whatever end it eventually came into.
She hoped it was aboveground.
She hoped the water didn’t go underground first.. under the rock, in the darkness, where they’d be trapped for who knew how…
Xena slowly let out her breath, refusing to let the old fear take her over. She felt an icy cold block form in her guts, only faintly counteracted by the bit of warmth on her hand where Gabrielle’s cheek was pressed.
She knew if she looked up, the bard would be looking back at her despite the water boiling between them and the darkness around, understanding to an almost uncomfortable intimacy how she was feeling. Had it been anyone else, she would have hated that feeling.
Xena looked up. “Yeah?”
“Desert.” Gabrielle’s tone was wryly humorous. “Please?”
“Sure.” The warrior agreed easily. “Until you start bitching about the sand.”
The bard stuck out her tongue, and despite it’s blue tinge, they both smiled. Then Gabrielle shifted her eyes towards Pony. “You okay?”
“I suck.” Pony’s teeth were chattering. “I can’t tell ya how much I suck right now.” She glanced down stream. “Where the Hades are we going?”
“Hades.” Xena replied dryly. “We figured long as you’re on our tour, we might as well do it right.”
“Shut up, Xena.” Pony snapped at her. “Stop the damn bullshit jokes this ain’t funny.”
Gabrielle leaned a little more against the hand on her shoulder. The walls were rushing past them at a scary rate, but now it was so dark she could barely see them, in fact, she could barely see anything and her world was narrowing down to the icy touch of the water and the solid warmth of Xena’s hold on her.
The only thing missing was fear, and feeling Xena’s through their connection Gabrielle found herself glad she had none of her own to worry about for the moment. She brushed her lips against the warrior’s knuckles and tightened her grip on the bit of leather she was clutching, simply hoping it would end sometime soon.
“How much longer/” Pony asked, suddenly.
“Don’t know.” Xena answered. The water had smoothed out, past the rumbling boulders and they were moving fast through a narrow, dark channel that seemed to be pitching downward at the steeper rate. She could hear the water slapping against the rocks on either side of them, but below that, at the very edge of her hearing she became aware of a very soft, low rumble.
“I think we’re coming to the end.” Gabrielle spoke up.
“Why?” The Amazon asked. “You got some vision super warrior here doesn’t?”
“Definitely.” Xena didn’t even sound angry, just tired.
“I just.. I think we are.” The bard replied in a quiet tone. “It feels like we’re coming to an end. To the finish.” She paused. “I mean, of the tunnel.” Her focus turned to Xena. “You know, I think those walls..”
“Mm.” Gingerly, Gabrielle poked her foot down, hoping to feel bottom. She felt her toe brush against something, but not close enough for them to be able to stop. “You don’t think..”
Gabrielle sighed again.
“Would you talk like normal people!” Pony snapped. “Artemis’ left tit, damn it!”
“Why?” The bard asked, as she took a firmer hold on Xena, and felt the warrior’s grip tighten on her. “We’re not normal.”
“Stupid son of a…”
“DUCK.” Xena suddenly bellowed at the top of her lungs. “TAKE A BREATH and HOLD IT!” She grabbed Pony and Gabrielle by the back of the neck again as the tunnel narrowed swiftly into a hold in the rock wall and just like that, in a rush of deathly cold they were underwater and slamming through it.
Too narrow. Xena instinctively grabbed both her companions and pulled them closer as they hurtled feet first through the dark water. The walls on either side scraped her shoulders and she felt the pressure begin to build in her lungs.
Pony started to struggle wildly. Xena hesitated, then shifted her grip and jabbed, sharp and hard at the side of her neck, taking hold of the suddenly limp body and hoping Pony didn’t breath in too much water. She felt Gabrielle wind her arms around her and jerk slightly, and then there was really nothing more for her to do but wait.
Wonder if this was finally it, for them.
Gabrielle’s body began to shake, and Xena ducked her head, pressing her lips against her partner’s chilled ones. She felt them part, and she contracted her chest, forcing the little remaining air she had into the bard’s mouth.
Only to feel it warm against her tongue as Gabrielle forced it right back at her.
Then just as quickly, darkness exploded into light and for a minute Xena thought they’d died, it was so brilliant around them.
Her senses kicked in, though, and filled with the smell of water and foliage as they spilled out into a thickly grassed marsh full of heat, and mud and sunlight.
They rolled over and over and over, finally separating as the thick grass and the water slowed them, rapidly warming from the icy blast of the cave to sun drenched soggy heat and the pungent scent of algae.
Xena ended up half on her side, the breath knocked out of her as she rubbed the water from her eyes and got quickly to her knees, reaching for Pony’s still form. She unblocked the nerves and got quickly out of the way as the Amazon started retching into the grass, her body convulsing hard as her hands grasped the stalks.
Content that she was breathing, the warrior turned to Gabrielle, who had landed sitting up in the marsh, legs splayed and covered in mud and pollywogs. “You okay?”
The bard’s chest was still heaving, and she looked up at her partner through wet bangs hanging into her eyes. “Pony all right?” She asked, after a moment.
Xena studied her briefly, then, apparently satisified with what she saw, she turned back to the weakly writhing Amazon. “Hey.”
Pony rolled over onto her back , her arm slapping into the shallow water. She blinked her eyes open into the sun and turned her head slightly, still coughing. “What the crap happened?”
“You passed out.” Xena informed her calmly. “Under the water.”
Pony looked at her, then she rotated her head round and stared at the gushing torrent coming from the hole in the mountain, the water spreading across the marsh in all directions. “We came outta that?”
“We did.” Gabrielle confirmed.
“Godsbedamned good thing I passed out.” Pony coughed again. “Crap!”
Xena scanned the area around them, her eyes catching no sign of Ares, or the pallet, or Granella for that matter. The marsh was quiet, save the rush of the water and a few crickets, and even as she watched the flow of the outlet seemed to be lessening. “Figures.”
“What?” Gabrielle stirred and rolled onto her side, getting to her hands and knees and half sloshing, half crawling over to where Xena was sitting. She sat down next to the warrior and draped one arm over her thigh, exhaling heavily. “Well, at least we’re not sitting on rocks anymore.”
Xena nodded mutely. She studied the empty marsh again, then gathered herself to stand up. “Let’s get to higher ground.” She said. “And see what we can find.”
“Sounds good to me.” Gabrielle got up and shook her hands rapidly, ridding them of mud and a few other things, then pausing as she felt her knees start to give out and the world start to spin. “Uh..” She reached out blindly and felt Xena’s presence envelope her as everything faded out and the cricket’s chirp turned into an unpleasant buzz.
“Easy.” Xena patted her cheek gently. “Stay with me.”
It was so tempting just to give in to the overwhelming urge to close her eyes and let the darkness take her. Gabrielle knew Xena would take care of her, and she’d be in no danger.
However, she just couldn’t take advantage of her partner like that. “Yeah, I’m here.” The bard rubbed her eyes and took a deep breath, the dizziness receding as Xena’s fingertips traveled lightly up and down her spine. “Sorry.”
“For what?” Pony was still seated I the muck, resting her hands on her thighs. “That sucked.” She added. “Least you didn’t conk out in the middle of it like I did.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle glanced at Xena, who looked off over her shoulder into the distance. “Well, don’t feel bad. That was really stressful.” She said. “I guess I just had a delayed reaction.. happens to everybody.”
Pony tilted her head and peered up at Xena. “Bet it don’t.”
Gabrielle smiled in sweet memory. “Bet you’re wrong.” She stopped there, though, leaving the hint floated neatly above the grass.
“Ugh.” The Amazon straightened out one leg, which had a long, red scrape on it. “Least we’re outta there.”
Gabrielle found herself in heartfelt agreement, as the rough travel was now making itself know forcibly as dozens of scrapes and bruises and a throbbing headache that the watery sun was only making worse. She gave Pony a sympathetic grimace, but held her hand out to the Amazon. “We sure are. Now let’s get out of this muck, huh?”
Pony got to her knees, waving off the help and staggered to her feet. She rubbed her neck and coughed. “Bleah.” She slowly turned in a circle and looked around. There wasn’t much to be seen anywhere but marsh, and in reflex, she looked down at the foot or so of water covering her boots. “So much for a trail.”
Xena moved away from the gushing water, stepping carefully through the muck as she searched the area. Her head swept slowly back and forth, but the sodden grass gave up no hints of anything other than frogs and buzzing flies.
No sign of the hooters. No sign of Granella. No sign of Ares, or the pallet. Xena put her hands on her hips, and searched again, hoping to see any hint of debris, but nothing met her eyes more significant than a few waving green leaves she recognized. With a sigh, she waded over to them and knelt down, rooting in the marshy grass with her back turned to her companions.
Pony rubbed the back of her neck, watching Gabrielle from the corner of her eye. “You okay?” She asked, hesitantly. “Ya look kinda wobbly.”
Gabrielle located a patch of sunlight and edged over to stand in it, a little disturbed at the lingering shakiness she could feel in her legs. She rubbed her arms with both hands to warm up, and refused to think about how empty her guts felt. “Oh well.” She shrugged slightly. “I guess I just.. a reaction to all the action, you know?”
Pony came over to stand next to her, blinking into the sun. “Yeah, I know.” She replied briefly. “But you do this stuff all the time and I ain’t never seen you turn that shade of pale before.”
Ah. “Yeah, I feel kinda.. um..”
“You want some water or something?” Pony’s voice took on a hint of alarm.
“No, I’m okay, I just..” Gabrielle half turned as Xena stolidly sloshed up next to her, the warrior’s blue eyes fastened knowingly on her face. “Hey, Xe..”
“Here.” Xena opened her fist and offered up a handful of brown nuggets.
Gabrielle selected one of the water chestnuts and studied it, allowing Xena to put an arm around her as they started moving through the water. “Thanks” She removed her small knife from her boot and cut a delicate slice from the crunchy vegetable, nibbling on it with a sense of rueful embarrassment.
“Got any more of those?” Pony asked, giving Xena a look. Without comment, the warrior handed some over and they continued on, moving away from the gushing water and across the open space in front of them.
They walked in silence through the marsh. Xena left her arm around Gabrielle more for the contact than for support as the bard seemed steady enough on her feet now, but she was making no effort to move away either.
“Xe.” Gabrielle murmured, after a few minutes. “What do you think..”
“I don’t know.” The warrior cut her off gently.
The bard exhaled unhappily. “This.. is gonna be trouble.”
Gabrielle finished her water chestnuts and put her knife away, dusting her fingers off lightly. “Maybe it’s a good thing we’re nowhere near home.” She stated, in a reflective tone. “Less chance of anyone else getting hurt.”
Xena glanced quickly at Pony, then nodded. “Yeah.” She repeated the word, with a completely different intonation and meaning.
Gabrielle ran over the moment in her mind, closing her fingers into a light fist and releasing them as she recalled the feeling of the pallet supports leaving her grip. Despite how she felt about Ares, few things had gone against her grain the way doing that had, not only just for moral reasons, but from a bone deep instinct that no matter the cost, the act itself was just wrong.
But what choice had she really had? “I wasn’t ready to die for him, Xena.”
The warrior laughed shortly, with little humor. “I wasn’t ready for any of us to die for him, Gabrielle. Least of all you.” She gazed pensively at the grass, the tips becoming drier as they moved slowly away from the rock wall.
Despite the sun, she felt cold of a sudden, and she was glad she had Gabrielle tucked up against her right side sharing admittedly damp body heat with her.
“But hey.” Gabrielle’s optimism surfaced unexpectedly. “You never know, hon.. maybe that was his best chance too, going down there. We could have really done a good thing there.”
“With a sword wound the length of my arm in his chest?” Xena’s pragmatism responded. “That I gave him?”
Gabrielle sighed. “How about a story?”
With another wry chuckle, Xena leaned over and gave the bard a kiss on the top of her head. “Too late to worry about it now. Let’s find Gran and fix what we can.”
The ground started to slope upward, into a grassy plain that stretched to the walls on either side. It was warm with sunlight, and the sound of crickets rose around them as they left the water at last and climbed onto dry land.
It seemed eerily peaceful, especially to Xena who kept expecting hooters or the gods only knew what else to pop up in front of her at every step. After what they’d just been through, it seemed impossible to now be strolling through a quiet afternoon where the most threatening thing she could see was a single bird of prey circling high overhead, wings stretched lazily out to catch the updrafts.
Damn, she wished she had those wings. Xena sighed silently, her head turning right and left as she hoped for any sign of.. well, anything.
“Maybe I’ll make up a story about turtles.” Gabrielle said. “I remember you showing me a box turtle once, Xena.. but you never did tell me why they call it that.” She put her arm around Xena’s waist and matched strides as best she could with her. “It wasn’t square or anything, so why do they call it that, anyway?”
Xena reached up and rubbed the side of her nose, appreciating her loving partner’s intent at least. “Sweetheart..”
“I mean, I understand why they call snapping turtles that.” Gabrielle rambled on. “I sure remember that one nearly snapping your nose off, remember that?”
“But I don’t get that whole box thing.” The bard said, shaping a vaguely circular motion with her free hand. “It was roundish, sorta.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle looked up at Xena.
“Shut up, willya?
Green eyes sparkled gently as Gabrielle smiled at the words. “You know I knew you really loved me the first time you said that to me instead of just ignoring what I was saying.” Of course, it hadn’t really been the words that time either, she conceded, as she acceded to her partner’s request. It had been the tone and the smile, that sweet exasperation Xena used only with those closest to her heart.
Even par with Argo. Ah, what a beautiful moment that had been. Gabrielle felt a silent chuckle shake Xena’s body and knew a squeeze of her shoulders with follow, which it promptly did.
So they were in trouble, again. Gabrielle gazed across the grass, savoring it’s creamy golden contrast to the deep green trees and the blue of the sky. They’d find a way through it, one way or the other.
“C’n I ask a question?” Pony spoke up after a few quiet minutes.
“Sure.” Gabrielle looked up from trying to wring the dampness from her skirt.
“If he didn’t.. like.. make it.” The Amazon responded slowly. “What.. does that mean? What happens now?” She asked. “They draw straws up there? Someone else just steps in.. or.. like what?”
Both Pony and Gabrielle looked over at Xena, who looked right back at them, both eyebrow lifting sharply.
“How should I know?” The warrior asked. “Don’t say it.” She warned the bard. “I don’t have a damn clue what’ll happen.. “ She paused. “But I don’t’ like the idea of them having that sword.”
Serious now, Gabrielle frowned. “You don’t think just them having it makes one of them the God of War, do you?” She asked. “You said before they already had to be a god for that to happen.”
“We think.” Xena clarified. “I think.” She said. “But you know the gods, Gabrielle. They make and break rules to suit themselves.”
“Mm.” The bard nodded. “Well, but so do we, most of the time.” She turned to Pony. “Somehow I can’t imagine Zeus letting a hooter take over as God of War, Pon.”
Pony nibbled on her lower lip, then she shrugged. “Didn’t see that much difference, y’know?”
Xena paused, her peripheral vision catching motion at the very edge of the grass and she focused intently on it, the corners of her eyes tensing as she sorted the tiny images into something her mind recognized. “There they go.” She felt almost a sense of relief, as a goal presented itself.
“Critters?” Pony seemed relieved as well. “They got Gran?”
Xena blinked, and focused again. “They’ve got something.” She concluded. “Let’s go.” She tightened the straps on their much battered gear pack, wincing at the clammy chill of it against her shoulders. There’d be little time to dry anything, and she suspected a lot of what she had in there would be ruined, but there wasn’t any help for it.
They started off at an angle towards the treeline, only to pull up seconds later as a wavering in the grass right in front of them brought Xena’s sword out and Pony a close second.
“Whoa.” Ares voice rose weakly from the earth. “Not so fast, chickenshits.”
Gabrielle found herself in a moment of total emotional conflict. She stepped up to Xena’s side as the warrior brushed the grass aside with one booted foot, exposing the battered figure lying on the ground, just covered in the tatters of the catskin.
The blood had been washed off him, but so had most of the bandage, and the wound she’d made in his chest was oozing several different color fluids. Bruises from the passage through the mountain had been added to the ones he already had, and the god of war didn’t look particularly godly, or even manly at the moment. “Ares.”
“Say it like ya mean it.” Ares rasped. “Thought you were rid of me, eh?.” His fever had apparently broken, but there were dark circles under his eyes and he was very pale. “Nice.”
“Great.” Pony spoke up glumly. “Just what we needed. I was just getting over being a bitch.”
Ares stared steadily at Xena, then his eyes shifted to Gabrielle. “I’ll remember you did that, kid.”
Gabrielle didn’t even blink. “So now we both have memories.” She replied. “But we all had the same chance in there, Ares.”
Unaccountably, Ares smiled at her. Then he focused on Xena again. “Nice try, babycakes. But you got me into this and you’re gonna get me out of it.”
Xena studied the bedraggled god with a serious expression. “I didn’t get you into anything, Ares. You got yourself here. So the deal’s the same as last time – keep up, or get lost.” She walked around him and headed off in the direction of the now vanished hooters.
“Hey, I’m bleeding here.” Ares reminded her. “From your hole, remember?”
Xena paused and looked back at him. “I’m out of bandages, and out of patience. If we find something, I’ll see what I can do.” She turned her head and kept moving, keeping the edge of the grass in her focus.
After a brief pause, Pony followed her leaving Gabrielle and Ares alone together. The bard and the god eyed each other, then Gabrielle stepped forward and offered him her hand. “We have to go find our friend.” She explained quietly. “And your sword. You know how Xena gets when she’s on a mission.”
Ares looked at her for a very long moment. Then he reached up and took her hand, watching intently as she leaned back and helped him stand up, the muscles standing out on her arms and shoulders. “Know something, blondie?” The god remarked conversationally. “You’re getting to be very, very interesting.”
Gabrielle released his hand and retrieved the three quarters of a staff left of the pallet, brushing it off and handing it to him. “I’m not trying to be.” She said. “I’m just who I am.” Her eyes briefly met his, then she turned and began following Xena and Pony.
Ares put most of his weight on the stick and limped slowly forward, obviously in pain. “Question is.. who the blazes are ya?” He muttered, as he followed in her footsteps. “And by the way.. humanity sucks!” He added, in a louder voice.
“Go find some gods to get ya out of here then.” Xena called back. “See if they care.”
“Bitch.” Ares snorted, shaking his head, glancing at Gabrielle who had slowed a little to let him catch up. “What do you see in her, again?”
The turnabout wasn’t lost on the bard. “The cornerstone of my life.” She answered, with a smile. “The other half of my soul, my best friend…”
Ares rolled his eyes. “Oh, gag me.”
“Don’t give us any ideas.” Gabrielle said. “Want to hear a story about a turtle?” She couldn’t pretend even to herself that she wasn’t relieved Ares had made it, but she knew it wasn’t for the right reasons.
Maybe he knew that too. She could see the smirk lurking there behind those exhausted eyes. Even as a human, there was a sense of old knowledge there and she was struck abruptly with the realization that this adversary of hers might understand her far better than she was comfortable with.
“Turtles. Yeah. Sure.”
On the other hand.. Gabrielle guided them both in Xena’s footsteps, knowing her partner would have found the easiest path for them. On the other hand, it was just possible she might have more insight into parts of Ares than he ever dreamed. “Okay, no turtles.” She agreed. “How about the story of the Trojan War?”
“Now you’re talking.” Ares struggled to keep up with her. “And if you’re a good little girl, I’ll tell you the really juicy parts you ain’t never heard of.”
Oo. Gabrielle couldn’t stop her ears from pricking up at that. Temptation, after all, came in all sorts of flavors now didn’t it?
Yes, it did, indeed.
Night fall found them deep inside the forest, in a quiet dell surrounded on three sides by overgrown trees with interlaced branches that were thick enough to block out almost all the stars overhead. The fourth side was filled by a neatly laid fire, and Pony knelt beside it to light the tinder as the last bit of twilight faded.
Gabrielle was sorting out what gear they had left, her legs sprawled out as she leaned back against a tree trunk, sparing an occasional glance over at Ares, who was seated nearby, slumped against a second trunk with his eyes closed. A bandage of leaves was tied around his chest with a bit of hide, some of the leaves stained a deep rust.
Two dead rabbits, and three fish, likewise, were laying near the fire, waiting for it to catch and provide their first real meal of the day, and Xena was kneeling over them sharpening sticks to use to cook them with.
“Think we’ll catch up to them in the morning?” Pony broke the silence. “Maybe we shoulda kept going.”
Xena looked up briefly, then returned her attention to what she was doing. “They don’t travel at night.” She replied, in a flat tone. “Things hunt them.”
“And us.” Gabrielle spoke up. She was glad enough to be sitting down after being on the move all day, after their adventure in the mountain and she felt an almost affection for the big hunting cats and the huge bears she knew the hooters would be hiding from.
Pony simply nodded, and went back to starting the fire.
Xena finished getting the sticks ready, and started threading chunks of meat and fish on them.
“Xe, you want me to..”
“No.’ The warrior wiggled another piece onto a branch.
Gabrielle went peacefully back to her sorting, setting aside the few nuts and by now dried berries she’d found in the bottom of the pack. The hide was already stretched between two of the tree branches, having been beaten free of a degree of it’s travel dirt and she’d washed out their skull and had some dried figs soaking in it.
The fire caught, and the glade started to fill with crimson light, spreading a familiar rich scent along with welcome heat Gabrielle could feel against her bare feet. She flexed her toes gratefully and set the last bits of tools and rocks down as she leaned back to watch Xena from across the glade.
The warrior was tense. Gabrielle could see the stiffness in her shoulders, and the faint grimace as she twisted her neck as she worked. They’d really made pretty good time, considering they had Ares to deal with and had to watch out for ambushes, but she knew her partner was really worried about Granella and wanted to find her.
Had it been Xena alone, she’d have kept going. Gabrielle knew that absolutely, and in fact, if it had been just the two of them they still might have, if Xena didn’t think it would be too much for Gabrielle to handle.
Or if Gabrielle couldn’t have talked her into it. The bard set her things aside and got to her feet, crossing soundlessly over the leaf strewn ground over to where Xena was hunkered. She circled around the warrior and put her hands on her shoulders, beginning a gentle kneading of the tense muscles there. “Xena, is this the valley we saw from up there?” She glanced up at the looming wall now lost in the darkness.
“One of them.” The warrior exhaled, leaning back a trifle into her touch. “That path they’re taking.. looks like it leads back to those caves.”
“The one with the bear?” Gabrielle put a little more pressure into what she was doing.
“No.. that wasn’t.. ah.” Xena rocked her head back and forth. “The place with the eyes.”
“Eyes?” Pony looked around from where she was holding her hands out to the fire. “What does that mean?” She watched Xena lay her kabobs down and surrender herself to Gabrielle’s touch, the bard standing over her with an expression of gentle indulgence on her face. “Whose eyes?”
“We don’t know.” Gabrielle answered. “Xena, are you sure that’s where they’re headed?” She glanced down at the dark head bowed in front of her. “They were more scared of those things than we were.”
“What things?” Pony asked.
Xena straightened, and tipped her head back to rest against Gabrielle’s belly. “It’s just past the cleft up above us.” She exhaled. “They could be going somewhere else, but something tells me that’s where we’ll find them.”
The warrior nodded. “Yeah.”
Pony turned and rested her elbows on her knees. “Why?” She asked. “I figure if I keep asking you’ll answer something sometime.”
Gabrielle gave her an apologetic look. “Sorry, Pony.” She took a breath to continue, then frowned and looked back down at her partner. “Why?”
“Because it’s the place I least want to go.” Xena responded readily. “And that’s just how my life’s been going the last week or so.” She reached behind her and patted Gabrielle’s calf. “Thanks. You want to cook those now? I’ll just burn em.”
Gabrielle gave her a kiss on the head and then eased around from behind her and took possession of the kabobs. Seating herself on a flat rock to one side of the fire, she carefully sorted them and set them into the structure of the campfire, some closer to the heart and some further away. “We found a cave while we were looking for a way out.”
“One of many.” Xena muttered.
“Mm..” The bard moved a stick closer, watching it with a knowledgeable eye. “Anyway, we found some really creepy invisible things with floating eyeballs in there and didn’t stick around.”
Pony merely stared at her.
“You asked.” Gabrielle smiled.
“Uh huh.” The Amazon watched her curiously. “How do you know how to do that?”
“What?” Gabrielle paused in confusion.
“That.” Pony pointed at the kabobs.
Xena had seated herself on the ground, and pulled her boots up under her cross legged. “Self preservation.” She said. “She’d have starved a long time ago if she hadn’t figured it out.” She rested her fist against one hand. “Anyway, their track is heading for that pass, so that’s where we’ll make for tomorrow.”
Gabrielle glanced past her partner’s shoulder, as she caught motion from Ares from the corner of her eye. “Xe.”
The warrior turned as Ares sat up. “Don’t move around.”
The god glared at her, his arm clamped over his chest. “Don’t you tell me what to do.” He snarled. “Thought you were supposed to be this great healer, Xena. I’m not healing.”
The warrior got to her feet and dusted her hands off, walking over to crouch down next to Ares, pushing him back down and reaching for the leaf bandage. “Lay still.” She removed the leaves and studied the wound, grimacing at the swollen, red edges. “You’re not helping.”
Gabrielle watched them for a moment, then she went back to her careful turning and arranging of kabobs. “Xena’s half right.” She commented, more to take Pony’s attention off the two at the far end of the campsite than anything. “I’m sure I wouldn’t have starved.”
“And, I kinda knew how to do this before I met Xena, so it’s something that.. “ Gabrielle edged one kabob over a little. “Something that I brought to our partnership, in a way. Something I could do well.”
“Oh.” Pony wrapped her arms around her knees. “Some people are like that in the village.” She offered. “They kinda come to it early, I guess, and the kitchen bosses catch em and put em to work.”
“Mm.” The bard nodded slowly. “Well, I like to cook.. but really I was told when I was little that I’d better develop some kind of skill.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle half smiled. “So I’d be worth a bride price, you know?”
Pony blinked. “Oh.”
“Yeah.” The bard chuckled softly. “I’d have been a good little wife, huh? Demure, obedient…”
Pony burst out laughing, covering her mouth hastily.
Gabrielle glanced over at her, with a wicked grin. “Yup.. Xena picked up a bargain that day, didn’t she?”
“What?” Xena turned her head and looked at the bard. “You better not be telling stories about me shopping, Gabrielle T. Bard.”
“Pon wanted some lingerie tips.. you’ve got the nicest I know of, hon.” Gabrielle called back. “Boy, you should see her in this little lacy blue number she go.”
Pony had merely covered her ears, and was humming tunelessly.
The bard chuckled again and went back to her cooking. “Anyway.” She lowered her voice. “It’s nice to be good at something, you know?”
“Yeah.” Pony agreed. “You know I’m a leather crafter, right?”
“Eph told me that, yea.”
The Amazon was silent for a moment. “She did?” Her voice rose a little in surprise. “Really?”
“She did.” Gabrielle confirmed. “She was talking about those bracers you made for her. She really likes them.” Her eyes lifted as she studied Pony’s face, seeing a startling openness there that charmed her. “We were talking about gifts that meant the most to us.”
What had she told Ephiny? What gift could she consider the most valuable? Gabrielle smiled to herself. Eph had expected her to say something incredibly sappy, like Xena’s heart. And of course, that was the absolute truth, but she remembered saying something very trivial – was it her flavored quills? Something so completely pointless it meant nothing to anyone but her.
A warmed linen in the chill weather when she got out of the bath? Her scrolls neatly ordered? A cup of hot tea waiting by the bedside when she woke?
The truth was, she cherished every moment she had with her partner now, because she knew exactly what the price of what she had was. “You know, being in love is such a special thing. I’m glad you got to experience that, Pony.”
Pony twisted her hands together, looking up after a moment to meet Gabrielle’s eyes. “I never figured to understand what you meant by that.” She admitted. “I mean, I always knew you had this whole gooshy thing going, y’know?”
Pony nodded slowly. “Y’know, then one day I realized you knew what the Hades you were talking about and I gotta be honest.. that’s the first day I really looked at you as my Queen.”
Gabrielle slowly turned the kabobs. “Really?”
The fire crackled and popped, sending sparks flying upward. “Well.” The bard sighed. “The day the Amazons accepted Xena as my partner.. was the first day I really thought of myself as your Queen.”
Pony considered that in silence for a bit. “Figures.”
Across the campfire, Xena emerged from the shadows, her arm around Ares as they moved slowly towards the fire.
“There goes the neighborhood.” Pony muttered.
Gabrielle examined a bit of leaf she’d removed from under her knee. Though it was dead, it fascinated her to see the lacy filigree left once the flesh of the leaf had fallen away. A skeleton of sorts, but far more beautiful than an animals collection of large bones.
Nature was funny that way. It gloried in the tiniest details, like the wonderful patterns on a bumblebee and the exquisite perfection of a feather – and yet so much of it was senseless like the flooding that had overtaken their home.
The bard carefully folded a bit of bark around the dead leaf and tied the makeshift case up with a scrap of gut. Then she put the whole thing into their carry bag and leaned back on her hands, stretching her legs towards the fire.
She’d finished telling stories a little while ago, and an exhausted silence had fallen over the camp. Ares was huddled close to the fire, Pony was as opposite him as she could get, and she and Xena were sitting next to each other on the side of the fire closest to the opening.
Xena was gazing into the flames, her hands curled around a cup she was slowly sipping from. She was keeping an eye on Ares, but as Gabrielle shifted she turned her attention fully to her partner. “You should get some sleep.”
Just the suggestion almost made her close her eyes. “Are you?” Gabrielle countered, studying the tired furrows in her partner’s brow.
For an answer, Xena glanced around the camp, then swirled her cup and cocked an eyebrow.
Gabrielle clucked her tongue and shook her head. “What am I going to do with you?”
Xena’s lips twitched. “Anything you damn want.”
“Would you two cut it out.” Ares glowered at them, wrapping his catskin more firmly around his shoulders. “No wonder you turned away from me, Xena. You got caught in goo-ville.”
Gabrielle rested her cheek against Xena’s shoulder and fought the urge to stick her tongue out at him. “You sound just like your sister when you talk like that.”
“Yeah, he does, doesn’t he?” Xena agreed. “Maybe she’s rubbing off on him.”
“When I get out of here.” Ares warned. “I’m gonna turn both of you into chipmunks.”
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other. Gabrielle solemnly reached up and put her fingertip on Xena’s nose. “Wiggle for me.”
The warrior bit her finger instead, mock shaking her head and making a growling noise.
“I’m gonna throw up.” Ares turned away from them and looked back at the fire. “You coulda really been someone, Xena.”
Coulda. Xena gazed thoughtfully up at the night sky, and pondered as to whether that was the first time she’d really heard Ares speak about her.. about her potential, in the past tense. Before it had always seemed to her that he’d been trying to turn her, trying to get her away from what he’d considered a useless path.
So, did that mean he’d finally acknowledged the strength of her relationship with Gabrielle, or had he simply given up on her?
Curiously, she wasn’t sure exactly which option she considered more appealing. “Ares, I am somebody.” She remarked mildly.
The god snorted, and shook his head.
“I like who I am.” In a moment of personal revelation, Xena realized how true the words really were, and she wondered how she’d come so full circle in herself without even noticing it. She looked down at Gabrielle, surprised, or perhaps unsurprised to see tears rolling down the bard’s face, as she, too, gazed into the fire.
“You’re a fool.”
“You’re the fool, Ares.” Xena replied. “For thinking you could give me, or anyone anything worth having.”
Ares turned and stared at her, shadows erasing the pain from his face and replacing it with menace.
“What could you offer me?” The warrior asked, unfazed. “Glory? War? Fighting? Blood?” She watched Gabrielle’s hand close around hers, the fingers tightening. “It’s nothing, Ares. Nothing without family. Friends.. “ She rested her cheek against the bard’s hair. “Love.” She laughed faintly. “I’ve had both, remember? You haven’t. I know, you don’t.”
Pony was curled up on the ground across the fire from them, and Xena could see her eyes flicking between Ares and her, wide and fascinated.
“You don’t know anything.” Ares told her. “Life isn’t anything without power. You don’t have that, you’re just so much cattle. That’s what you are now, Xena. Just a cow.
Xena thought the words should have stung her more. Certainly, Ares meant them to, this sharp edge lashing at her grounded in his own pain and discomfort. She thought about what he’d said, and nodded a bit as she acknowledged the grain of truth in it.
She was never going to rule the world. Even if she turned away from her family now, gave up all she had, and went with Ares it was too late. She’d seen too much, done too much. Experienced too much.
Grown too much as a person. Xena licked her lips, tasting a hint of the broiled fish Gabrielle had made them. Gotten too old? A faint smile appeared. Maybe. “Power only matters when you’ve got an eternity to wield it in, Ares.” She answered him finally. “When you don’t, you find out just how useless it really is.”
The god snorted. “Spare me the mortal martyrdom, Xena.”
Gabrielle felt her thigh muscles uncoil as she listened to the evenly beating heart under her ear, realizing that Ares taunting wasn’t having it’s intended effect. She could almost feel the steady confidence exuding from Xena, as the warrior’s arms curled around her and she was pulled a little closer into the warmth of Xena’s embrace.
“What would you know about it, Ares?” Xena asked. “You’ve never lost anything. Maybe if you had, you’d understand why your way doesn’t hold any interest for me anymore.”
Ares curled up against the rock he’d been leaning on and pulled the catskin closer. “Shows how little you know about anything, doesn’t it.” He focused on the fire and turned his back on them, letting the silence lengthen into the darkness.
Gabrielle waited through it, breathing in rhythm with her soulmate quietly before she looked up at the firelit profile above her. After a brief pause, Xena tilted her head and their eyes met and the connection surge between them so strongly it made the hair on the back of her neck stiffen in reflex.
There were times, and this is one of them, that she could sense that other facet of her partner. The thing that was more than human in her, that sense of destiny that sometimes took Gabrielle by surprised and left her wondering if her own life could live up to the potential of her soulmates.
The something that made her ask, every once in a while, ‘why me?’
Why me? Why was I in that little clearing on that day all those years ago?
Why was I the one she chose? Why did I choose her?
“Hey.” Xena broke her profound musings. “Got any of those herbs left for tea?” She leaned down and gave Gabrielle a kiss on the lips. “On second thought…” She murmured, going back for a second and lingering there as they gently explored each other.
They’d been suffering hardship for so long now, the surge of passion was almost a shock and it took them both somewhat by surprise. Gabrielle felt a shiver work it’s way down her body and her hands reached for Xena before she remembered they were in front of others.
She felt Xena inhale sharply as her fingertips gently traced the curve o the warrior’s breast and an insistent growl started in her own guts as Xena’s hand dropped casually to her thigh and the edge of her thumb stroked the inside of it.
They separated a little, and Gabrielle pulled back to see a definite, dark passion gazing at her from the depths of Xena’s eyes. “Hon.” She exhaled in audible frustration, her eyes flicking to Ares turned back.
Xena smiled, one of her sexy, impudent ones that usually got them both into trouble. Gabrielle captured her hand in her own, and kissed the knuckles of it, then rubbed her cheek against them.
Xena sighed, but she leaned back against the rock and patted her lap, pointing at Gabrielle’s head and indicating she should lay down. She draped her arm over the bard as she complied, regretfully putting her libido on hold.
She had no problem necking in front of Ares. But she respected the fact that Gabrielle did, and she knew the bard was exhausted, though…
Damn. Xena could feel her skin tingling, and she couldn’t help tracing a lazy circle on Gabrielle’s shoulder as the bard settled herself down with a sigh. After a minute, she wriggled backward a little and tucked the back of her head up against Xena’s stomach, her hand casually coming to rest on the inside of the warrior’s thigh.
Xena threaded her fingers through the bard’s hair, tracing the edge of her ear. She could feel the warmth of Gabrielle’s breath against her leg, and the energy that was running between them, the warm sensuality overriding their conscious decision effortlessly.
Now that, that had surprised her, frankly. Xena smiled, half closing her eyes as Gabrielle drew a teasing line up the inside of her thigh. She loved Gabrielle with all her heart, but she never expected her village born partner, so innocent in many ways, to be as openly seductive as she was.
The warrior brushed her knuckles over Gabrielle’s cheek. “Mm?”’
“You’re so not a cow.”
Xena laughed softly. “I’m not?” She asked.
“No.” Gabrielle leaned over and kissed the slightly dusty skin she was lying over. “You’re wild.” She curled her arm around the warrior’s leg and continued her attentions, placing tiny kisses up her thigh. “Totally undomesticated.”
Xena felt her heart rate jump, and she was suddenly a little short of breath. Her eyes flicked to the fire, realizing Ares was now curled against the stone with his head resting on it, and Pony was wrapped up on te other side of the flames. “I am, huh?”
Gabrielle’s hand reached the edge of her leathers, and slipped under it. “Yeah.”
The touch was getting to her, dark energy rising as her fingers started twitching and she reached for Gabrielle in return, wanting the feel of her warm skin and stifling a gasp as she felt teeth nibbling just on the inside of her knee.
Undomesticated. The warrior almost laughed. Yeah right.
Slave to love, more like it. .
Xena was ripped out of sleep mostly by her own conscience, her eyes opening as she gazed somewhat dazedly around at the quiet, dimly lit camp. The air was lightening around them in the secluded dell, and her time sense told her dawn was not far off.
Exhaling, she eased down off her elbow and tried to collect her wits, not even remembering falling asleep. Gabrielle, tucked against her left side, was still deeply so, the bard’s slow, even breathing and completely relaxed body oblivious to their surroundings.
Well. Xena rubbed her eyes with one hand. That was good at least. Gabrielle had needed the rest badly and apparently so had she. The warrior glanced around the campsite again with a touch of chagrin, hoping neither of their companions had been aware of the lapse.
Gabrielle shifted slightly, wrapping her arm more firmly around Xena’s waist and murmuring softly under her breath. “Love you.” The words floated up, just audible to Xena’s ears and they immediately melted her heart in a small, surprising wave of joy.
Funny, how that worked. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know how Gabrielle felt about her, after all, and it wasn’t as though Gabrielle didn’t regularly tell her she loved her, but somehow these tiny leaks of her unconscious mind affected her differently.
She remembered at the end of their estrangement, during those long uncertain weeks they’d spent working back towards each other, how she’d stayed up at night, listening for those odd, occasional broken whispers.
So often they’d hurt. So often she’d had to listen to the aching heartbreak there was a twin to inside her. But one night, during a rainstorm, something changed.
Xena sat against the wall, her knees drawn up and her forearms resting on them as she watched the fire consume the last batch of wood she’d just put into it.
They were in a sandy cave, protected from the weather she could hear lashing hard outside, and she was able to gather to herself a moment of bleak peace as her eyes strayed to the furs next to her, where Gabrielle was curled up asleep.
Close, but not too close. Side by side, but with just enough distance to clearly mark that there was, in fact, distance between them still.
So much strain was etched across the bard’s face. It aged her beyond her years and Xena could see the exhaustion even in the dim firelight, more emotional even than physical as being together every minute brought them both a certain level of unending pain.
She looked, pretty much, like how Xena felt, in fact. Tired, and sad, and aching inside – holding on gingerly to the tentatively re-emerging relationship between them, wishing for better, wanting a healing, but bowed under the weight of the dark clouds overhead.
Gabrielle’s whisper caught her ear, and she leaned closer, despite the fear that almost made her cover her ears and turn away. “”I’m here.” She whispered back, lifting her hand, then letting it drop back down in a moment of sour uncertainty. “I’m here, Gabrielle.”
The bard remained silent, her fingertips twitching slightly. Xena could see her eyes moving behind her eyelids and realized she really almost didn’t want to know what she was dreaming about.
Not if it included her, at any rate. She’d heard enough pained utterings lately to understand that while waking they were making progress, deep inside the both of them things were still very broken.
And damn, that hurt.
Suddenly, Gabrielle shifted, rolling half onto her back and reaching out blindly into the air. Without really thinking, Xena caught her hand and held it, catching her breath as the bard went very still.
She saw Gabrielle swallow, the movement visible against the skin of her throat. “Gab.” She mouthed the word, wanting for the thousandth time for things to be different again.
She was so tired of the pain, for both of them. So tired of the lost possibilities she saw reflected in Gabrielle’s eyes whenever they looked at each other.
Then Gabrielle’s fingers closed around hers, and the bard’s body relaxed, as she pulled Xena’s hand closer and her expression lightened. “Good.” She mumbled softly.
And just like that, the cave around her became friendlier, the fire crackled with cheerful warmth, and the rain outside brought back to her memories of a better time.
An immeasurable gift she was only now coming to truly understand and appreciate.
Xena sat in silence, watching Gabrielle sleep for a long time, gaining peace from giving it. Eventually she carefully lay down next to the bard, leaving her hand right where it was, and released a slow breath, blinking as warm tears rolled down her face.
It was just such a relief not to hurt for a little while. She wished it would last just long enough to see the dawn.
Then, after a popping crack from the fire, Gabrielle’s eyes opened and she looked around in confusion, finally focusing on their joined hands. After a frozen moment, her eyes lifted slowly, almost fearfully to Xena’s and they lay there in silence staring at each other.
The world, so echoingly large around them shrunk to the simple sound of two hearts.
Gabrielle finally smiled. Then she closed her eyes and sighed, tightening her hold on Xena’s hand as her body relaxed again into sleep, coming to a crossroads in their life and passing through it with no more fanfare than that.
No more fanfare. No more knot in her throat, no more ball of festering tension in her gut. For this one moment in this one crossroad in their lives she could lay back and savor the warmth curled around her hand and just listen to the rain outside not falling on them.
Xena let her head rest back against the leaves, taking a moment to sort out her thoughts as she cradled Gabrielle against her and she waited for her heartbeat to even out and steady. As she studied the sky above them, watching the first hint of dawn bleaching the solid black and dimming the stars, Gabrielle shifted again and squirmed closer, sliding her knee over Xena’s and pinning the warrior firmly to the ground.
Xena eyed the blond head tucked into her shoulder with a look of mild bemusement. She could roll the bard over, of course, but the look of utter, blissful contentment on her face was hard to disturb immediately. She let her fingers tangle idly through the bard’s thick, blond hair as her breathing slowed to match her partner’s and she felt the tension in her shoulders relax.
If she stayed like this, she suspected she’d drop back off to sleep, a somewhat unnerving side effect of the deepening bond she had with Gabrielle that could now override even her most profound defensive instincts. This was in no way a safe place for her to unaware, but her partner’s sleeping peace was stealing over her and making it hard to even keep her eyes open.
Well, damn. “Gab.” Xena ran her fingertips up and down the bard’s spine. “Gabrielle?”
Reluctantly, the bard stirred, opening one eye to examine her grumpily. “It’s still dark out.” She complained. “Sheeps, Xena.”
“I know.” The warrior agreed. “But I need you to wake up.” She told her partner. “Or else find something else to use as a pillow.”
Gabrielle’s eyes dropped momentarily, then lifted again. “Knocked you out, huh?” Her lips twitched wryly, silently acknowledging the recently developed issue’s complication in their lives.
“Well, you needed the rest.” The bard gave up her spot, though, easing over onto her side, then sitting up. She felt much better for the night’s sleep, so even though she could have easily remained snoozing until dawn, she really didn’t mind starting her day now. “And anyway, nothing happened.”
“This time.” The warrior groused.
“Sorry, hon.” Gabrielle watched Xena sit up and rub her eyes with the back of one hand. The warrior had dust smeared across one cheekbone, and her dark hair was in disarray, and when she looked back at her partner there was a wry plaintiveness in her expression that tugged strongly at the bard’s caregiving instincts.
She reached over and smoothed the disheveled bangs from Xena’s forehead. “Better we get ready to move as soon as it’s light anyway, huh?”
“Uh huh.” The warrior nodded. “You want to..”
“Yep.” Gabrielle stood up and twisted her body right and left, loosening up the stiffness from a night lying on the ground. Well, mostly on the ground. “Be right back.” She picked up their deer skull and went to the back of the clearing, where a tiny brook trickled past the trees, heading for the plateau below.
She set the skull down and plunged her hands into the water, flexing her fingers against the chill. “Brr.” She steeled herself, then leaned over and splashed the handful into her face, shocking her senses into complete wakefulness as she scrubbed the dust from her skin. “Buuuhhhhh…”
Away from the fire, the chill worked it’s way down her body and made her shiver, but she kept washing, running the water up her arms and giving her hair a quick rinse. It seemed, perhaps, a bit crazy but she did it out of personal preference, and long habit, and she knew Xena would do the same when it came her turn in a little while.
There were some, she knew, who reasoned that traveling was a dirty business, and keeping your body clean when it was just going to get dirty again made no sense. That had a certain logic, but from the very start of their travels Gabrielle had realized that her rough, tough, no nonsense, gruff and dour companion was really quite the princess in terms of disliking being grungy.
It was really kind of funny, in a way. Xena never minded getting dirty, or muddy, or gods knew, bloody – but she really hated staying that way for any length of time and the first thing she always browsed the market for was local kinds of soap and things to apply it with.
Sponges, mostly. Gabrielle sighed, and wished for a sponge herself, as she shook her hands rapidly to rid them of droplets. Then she dipped the skull in and filled it with clean water, rising with it and turning to make her way back to the fire.
Xena was still reclining next to it, her ankles crossed, hands folded on her stomach as she watched Gabrielle return. As the bard approached, she gracefully got to her feet and stretched, then shook the sand off her leathers and met her partner as she neared the fire. “Tea?”
“Yep.” Gabrielle bumped her with one shoulder, then stopped as Xena circled her waist and drew her close for a simple, passionate kiss before she released her and gave her a slap on the behind as she continued past. “Eheh.” She cleared her throat and wrinkled her nose at the sudden flare of passion. “Thanks, Xe.”
“Anytime.” The warrior called over her shoulder as she knelt by the brook.
With a tiny shake of her head, Gabrielle lowered herself to the ground near the fire, setting the skull in an ashy depression to heat the water within it. She heard a sound nearby as she finished her task, and looked up to see Ares stirring, and across the fire, Pony rising and shaking herself. “Good morning.” She called out in a cheerful voice.
Both turned and glared at her. Gabrielle muffled a smile, and dug in her pouch for some herbs to soak for tea, whistling softly under her breath.