One Wild Ride
Gabrielle huddled down behind a moss covered rock and waited, her hand resting on the furry surface with her fingertips idly rubbing against it. Her attention was focused on the broken ground ahead of them, where Xena and Pony were currently scouting. “Wonder if they found anything?”
Ares was seated with his back against the rock and his long legs extended into the sunlight. “Dead Amazon, maybe?”
The bard sighed. “Next time I’m really going to leave Pony to guard you. You have the suckiest attitude.”
Ares rolled his head to one side and regarded her. “When I get my powers back, I’m gonna turn you into a frog. Then you won’t care about my attitude cause you’ll be too busy croaking.”
Gabrielle scanned the slope in front of them again, searching for any sign of her returning soulmate. “I like frogs.” She resisted the urge to kick him. “Xena does, too.”
The bard glanced at him. “Have you always been this big a jerk? How does Aphrodite put up with you?”
Gabrielle returned her attention to the scrub, straightening a bit as she spotted motion, in tune with the little surge of connection that correctly identified it as Xena. After a brief pause, the flicker morphed into the warrior’s tall form crossing between two large trees and heading back in her direction.
The bard felt her heartrate pick up, as her eyes fastened on Xena, reading the tense body language as the warrior ducked under a pine branch and circled the stone she was hiding behind. “Where’s Pony?”
Xena dropped to a crouch next to her, and put a hand on her knee. “Looks like they’re using that cave.” She said. “We found tracks into it.”
An unspoken message floated in the air between them. Gabrielle could hear it in Xena’s quiet tone, and feel it in the gentle clasp on her leg. It was hard to remember, really, when she’d realized that Xena’s way of preparing her for bad news was that touch, a hand on the shoulder, and later, cupping her cheek; as though her companion, friend, and then lover needed that grounding in a difficult task.
And so now, even without speech, Gabrielle knew what Xena had also found was evidence that Granella had been taken inside the cave. She met the warrior’s eyes, then let her own drop to Xena’s other hand, which held a scrap of tattered, fawn colored leather stained in spots with a darker, rustier hue.
She reached out and took hold of it, taking it from Xena’s fingers and studying it briefly before lifting her head and meeting Xena’s gaze. “Pony watching?”
Gabrielle nodded back. “Okay, so let’s go.” She folded the tattered hide and stood, as Xena rose gracefully to stand next to her, one hand still clasped around the bard’s shoulder. She took a deep, steadying breath and shifted her mind into that place that tapped into the darker side of her own nature.
The place that knew violence, and understood it’s purpose. The side of her that was most closely aligned with the fire so visible to her behind Xena’s carefully calm expression.
She wasn’t an Amazon. Xena had said once she’d never truly be, and she’d been right about that. Gabrielle reached casually over and picked up the three quarter staff Ares had been using as a walking stick. She’d gone past the Amazons, crossing lines through what they were and out the other side, becoming in a sense, what Xena was.
Gabrielle closed her fingers around the staff and sounded the word in her head, finding it as full of light and shadow as she and Xena were. With a faint smile, she tucked the bit of hide into her belt and tucked the staff into the crook of her arm as she put a boot up on the rock and checked to make sure the laces on it were tight.
“Find your other girlfriend?” Ares asked Xena. “Or what’s left of her.”
Xena didn’t react to the jibe. She adjusted the strap on her leathers and shifted her shoulders to settle her sword, barely giving the god a glance. “Stay here.” She told him quietly.
“I don’t think so.” Ares snorted.
“Look.” The warrior turned to face him. “That wasn’t a request.”
The god snorted again. “In case you missed the announcement, you ain’t the boss of me, Xena.”
“Ares.” Xena turned and dropped to one knee beside him with startling suddenness. She grabbed him by the jaw and clamped down. “Just do what I tell you to.” Her eyes fastened on his face. ‘Stay here. Stay out of our way.”
Gabrielle half turned to watch, hearing a note in Xena’s voice she didn’t hear often. She could see Ares expression as he looked at Xena, amusement fading to a dark seriousness as they faced off.
Ares raised his hand and caught Xena’s wrist, yanking it. The warrior’s shoulder muscles twitched, but she didn’t budge. “Let go of me.” He rasped, softly.
Xena remained still, her fingers still clamped around his lower jaw. “Stay here.” She warned, in an equally soft voice. “Ares, I mean it.” She looked him right in the eye, for once feeling no fear of him, only a driving need to take care of a problem that made her twitch with impatience.
Ares studied her in silence, keeping her waiting just long enough for her to come to the edge of her temper before he let his head rest back against the rock. “All right.” He answered. “Get lost.”
Xena released him and stood, turning her back on him and heading past where Gabrielle was standing. She brushed by the bard without a word, circling the stone and starting across the scrub.
Gabrielle remained still, watching Ares intently until her partner was clear of the stone and she was sure the god was going to stay where he was. Then she hefted the staff and stepped around the rock, turning only at the last moment to follow Xena off into the grass.
They were heading into the wind, but Gabrielle saw Xena’s strides shorten as the warrior detected her approach and she lengthened her own to catch up. They walked together side by side through the grass, neither speaking as the time for that seemed to be at an end.
Ares slowly struggled to his knees and turned, leaning against the rock and resting his arms atop it, watching the two women cross the broken ground leading towards the cliff. Despite the size difference, the body posture was identical, right down to the sexy swaggers that brought a wan smirk to the watching god’s face.
Past them, he could see the edge of the rocks, and a curve in the cliff they seemed to be heading for, with visible determination. “Huh.” He let his chin rest on his forearm. “Who’da figured.” After a moment, he turned and sat down again, closing his eyes as a wave of pain washed over him.
It was maddening. His lips twitched into a snarl, before the effort to hold it became too great and he gave it up, crossing his arms and hugging the catskin to his body as a shiver worked through him. “Ugh.” He muttered. “Forgot how much I hated mortality.”
Last time, though, it hadn’t been like this. He hadn’t been hurt.
Hadn’t faced mortality in quite so mortal a way. Ares opened his eyes and looked across the tiny clearing, acknowledging the growing weakness of his body with a grim understanding at odds with his often mocking attitude.
Dying wasn’t in his plans this millennium. He’d seen enough mortals die to know he wanted no part of it – not to mention he remembered clearly watching from afar as Xena had slid down the long, tortured path to Tartarus in the most unappealing way.
He’d despised that weakness. He’d been disgusted at the waste of potential given in the saving of what.. some little ragamuffin nothing? Peh. He’d given up on her, walked away, found something else to occupy his time.
A soft rustle in the brush brought his eyes wide open, but after a moment’s searching he found nothing in the area and went back to his dark musing again.
Returning to Tartarus to find Xena gone, that.. had surprised him. Ares snorted softly. Though damn, it shouldn’t have, since he’d have gotten out of there in a heartbeat too. But he knew he’d missed an opportunity he’d never get again.
Xena had needed something, bad. He could have given it to her. Instead, she’d turned away from everything he’d ever taught her and gone to the weakling side of her nature instead.
Bleah. Ares rolled his eyes. Barf. His damn sister had laughed, and laughed and laughed at him, and he’d hated Xena for that. Hated Gabrielle. Hated that smarmy happiness and set about to destroy it any way he could.
Ares reopened his eyes and gazed bleakly at the green, verdant bushes, so full of life. He’d had wins and losses, over the ages. All of them had, a game, really sometimes.
But Xena had been more than a loss. Xena had been a failure.
Xena had beaten him, and that.. Ares only just kept from grinding his teeth together. That only made him more intent on getting her back. He could have accepted a loss. There was no way he’d ever accept being beaten.
Not even by her – this mortal who was as close to whatever he considered his heart as anything else was.
They found Pony crouched behind a fallen log, her eyes fixed on the entrance to the cave and her elbows resting on her thighs. Xena dropped down next to her and Gabrielle leaned against the bark, peering past the Amazon. “Looks quiet.”
The opening to the cave was empty, though the ground before it was churned up as though something had been digging there. Xena pointed to one side of the entrance, where a pile of debris was laying. “Found the leather there.”
Gabrielle nodded. “What else?”
The warrior shook her head. “Scraps.”
Pony looked at both of them. “What are we waiting for?” She asked.
Xena was briefly silent, then she reached over her shoulder and drew her sword out. “Nothing.” She responded. “Let’s go.” She stepped up onto the fallen log and walked along it, then dropped off the far end and headed for the cave opening.
Gabrielle scrambled after her, and Pony got hastily to her feet and followed, drawing her own sword out in readiness. “Xena.” The bard called softly. “Wait for us.”
“Well, c’mon.” Xena called back, impatiently.
“Wait, wait wait.. now it’s c’mon.” Pony muttered under her breath. “Freaking piece of cycling..oof!”’
Gabrielle didn’t even apologize. She returned her staff to it’s normal carry position and watched the entrance intently, wondering if Xena’s plan was to simply charge right into it and start swinging.
Wouldn’t be the first time. Gabrielle only hoped it wouldn’t be the last time either. She took a firmer grip on her makeshift weapon and for a second, almost wished she had something more potent and the skills to do something with it.
Xena reached the curve in the rock and paused, putting her free hand on it as she studied the opening. “Okay.” She turned to them. “We’ve got two choices.”
In the pause after her words, a thin, wavering scream filled the air, drifting from the cave entrance.
“We have no choices.” Gabrielle said, into the momentary shocked silence, before they all simply bolted and ran, picking up speed as they headed for the dark cavern, moving in for once a solid accord.
As they reached the rock wall, a dark, furred figure emerged from the cave, spotting the motion coming towards him and opening his mouth to scream a warning.
Xena had been carrying her sword reversed, and now she whirled it in her hand into fighting position a split second before she swept her arm around in a tight circle, carving a slice across his throat with the tip as he tried to dive out of the way.
Blood flew. The hooter dropped, and Xena hurdled him as he rolled towards her and kept right going into the darkness beyond with Gabrielle and Eponin right on her heels.
They stepped into chaos. The darkness blurred with figures, flickering in and out of the light from the opening as the hooters spotted them and charged to attack.
Xena let out a yell and swept her sword around, clearing the space around her as she sensed Gabrielle moving in on her left. She punched an ugly face leering at her from the shadows, turning and wrapping her hand around a wrist and wrenching it backwards as she reversed her sword and slugged her nearest attacker in the head.
She was aware of Gabrielle in that odd, displaced way that had developed between them, not needing to see her to know exactly where she was, her body shifting to one side as the bard’s staff came shooting past her, hitting the hooter whose hands were outstretched trying to grab Xena’s leathers.
The staff batted him away, and that gave Xena a chance to turn her head and sweep the interior of the cavern, searching for Granella. The light from outside was dappled from the moving bodies, but her vision was up to the challenge and she saw through the shadows, into the back of the cavern where the swirling, grinding mass of hooters made their own grim marker.
Xena went into motion, gathering up every ounce of energy she could as she started through the crowd. “Gabrielle!” She let out a bellow. “In the back!”
“With you!” Gabrielle charged forward at her partner’s heels, staying to the left side to give Xena the fullest clearance for her sword arm. She ducked under the arms of a leaping hooter, hauling up short as another flung himself at her and flew past as she wasn’t in the place he expected.
She managed to keep her momentum in check until he hit the ground and then she jumped over him, her peripheral vision catching a heavy limb in the hands of one of the creatures heading for Xena’s ribs. “Yeahhh!!!” Gabrielle brought the lower end of her staff around to block the branch, grimacing at the shock of the contact.
Xena spun, switching her sword from her right hand to her left as she brought her left arm down hard, chopping the limb wielder on the back of the neck with the blade and sending blood and bone flying everywhere.
Pony surged past them both unexpectedly, both hands gripped around her sword hilt and the blade moving in savage, short arcs as she plowed through the hooters. “Bastards!”
Xena’s eyes widened as she saw the six creatures turn and jump at the Amazon. She reversed her course and grabbed her own hilt, locking her arms and starting to yell a warning at Gabrielle, only to see the bard sense her motion and dive for the ground, sweeping her staff in a tight circle as she ended up on her knees.
Xena’s sword, sweeping around in a counterpointing circle to the bard’s staff, caught three of the hooters at neck level as their feet were taken from under them and their bodies came right into the path of her blade. She powered her way through them, feeling the grinding wrench as her blade severed bone and the hot splash of blood across her thighs.
She whirled and kicked out, her boot catching the last one and flipping his dying body over Gabrielle’s still kneeling form as the bard ducked and scrambled to her feet, charging right at Xena with an intent look on her face that made the warrior stop in her tracks, staying still as the tip of the staff nearly grazed her jaw before it stopped short with a sound like a splitting melon. She released her right arm and extended it to catch Gabrielle’s lunging form, pulling them both around in a circle as Gabrielle tucked in close to her and she swung her sword left handed and twirled it to back stab the hooter attacking them from behind.
Then they were both bolting across the cavern after Pony, Xena getting a shoulder into one of the hooters and sending him flying as she lifted her sword and started hacking at the hairy backs in the frenzied circle. Pony was already fighting furiously to the right of them, chopping all around her frantically as bodies turned and howls went up.
A bellow rang out from the back of the cavern, and the pile stirred, opening a little as some of the hooters turned to face the sound and became aware of the danger at their backs.
Xena had one fast look at a huge creature, and the flicker of refracted sunlight off something metallic, and the wall of green eyeballs behind him and for a bare instant the world around her halted.
Just stopped, giving her just a second to mentally enunciate a dire curse before everything exploded back into motion and she knew they had to get out of the cave or they’d die in it. “Gabrei..”
“See it.” Gabrielle handed her the staff and went for Pony, dodging through the dark, hairy bodies so fast the grasping hands couldn’t get a hold on her mostly bare skin.
Xena let out the loudest yell she was capable of and started whacking everything in site, using the staff to hold off the nearest of the creatures with it’s end tucked against her ribs as she slashed viciously in a circle around her, her body moving in fast, counterpointed strikes that didn’t give her adversaries time to get a grip on her.
The crowd turned and broke apart, moving from their victim and facing her – giving enough of a glimpse of the tattered, ragged form on the floor to kick Xena’s already racing warrior instincts into overdrive.
It was times like this, her ability to focus on a goal often brought her through places she otherwise would have died easily in. She dropped the makeshift staff and grabbed her sword two handed, slashing through the chest of the hooter in front of her and shoving him back.
Giving her enough space to take one long step, and then she was crouching, letting the arms rush over her before she exploded upward and was airborne over their heads, twisting and flipping her body as she whirled in mid air, slashing downward to clear space to land.
Blood everywhere. Stink everywhere. Yelling.
She landed on her knees near Granella’s limp form and turned, feeling the hot stab of warning in her guts even before she heard Gabrielle’s bellow.
Two creatures were falling towards her, with flaming torches in their hands. Instinctively, she put her body between them and Granella, knowing she had a chance maybe to stop one of them. “Damn.” She got her sword up in front of her. “That’s gonna hurt.”
Pony paused in her slashing, hauled half offbalance by Gabrielle’s grip on the back of her leathers. She turned just in time to see Xena land next to Granella’s body and turn, as the crowd of hooters rushed past her towards the kneeling warrior.
Xena could have gotten out of the way in time, she realized. She could have jumped up past the crowd and escaped.
But she saw the dark haired woman’s head lift, saw the comprehension in her eyes as she prepared to fend off the attack to protect Granella instead and suddenly all the crap Gabrielle had been saying to her for the last two days made some whacko kind of sense.
For a second, she saw Xena’s eyes shift and focus just behind her. “Crap!” Pony wrenched loose from Gabrielle and barreled through the crowd, keeping her sword behind her as she reached out with one hand to grab the back of one of the attackers and just…
“Pony!” Gabrielle caught her intent and ripped herself free of a pair of clutching hands with some difficulty, following the Amazon into the press of bodies and dodging a rapidly falling stick that bounced off her shoulders just as she caught up to her.
The shove on the hooter had come at the wrong moment. It forced the creature foreward and into Xena’s sword, twisting it and the warrior out of position as the second hooter dove right at her.
Gabrielle clawed her way forward as the creature grabbed her with it’s free hand, and they both lunged towards Xena in a flash of torchlight and burning hair. The bard felt her boots hit solid ground for an instant, and she used all of it, shoving her body sideways with all her strength as she caught sight of Xena’s sword splitting the other hooter in half and whispering by Pony’s head so close it shaved a lock of her hair off.
Then she was twisting in mid air, losing track of her balance as she sensed the hard ground coming up and she landed on her back with a painful jar moments before the hooter landed on top of her.
She felt the heat of the torch against her face, and got a hand free to paw at it, managing to get hold of hot bark instead of flames and shove it from her just as the hooter was lifted off her body and flung somewhere. “Xena!”
The warrior’s hand grabbed hers and she was being hauled to her feet in a whirl of burning fur and screams and blasts of chill air at her back that made her nape hairs prickle. “What about..”
“Got her! GO!” Xena’s voice thundered back. “GO GO GO! RUN!!”
Gabrielle caught sight of something big behind them and she decided to listen for a change, moving with Xena as they headed for the entrance. “Pony!”
“RIGHT FREAKING HERE!” The Amazon bawled. “JUST DON’T LET THOSE DAMN THINGS TOUCH ME!”
“What?” Gabrielle spared a glance, and saw the skeletons reaching for them. “Sheeps. GO!”
Screaming. Gabrielle felt a cold, slimy touch on her back and she decided looking behind her again was a bad idea. She followed Xena as the warriors speed picked up, then winced as something hit the rock to one side of her and shards broke off to sting her skin. “Wh..”
Xena grabbed her and bolted, and Gabrielle realized the warrior didn’t have her sword out. She concentrated on just moving and they cleared the cave entrance steps ahead of a screaming mass of wild eyed hooters.
Xena felt something rip through her hair, but she didn’t even pause slightly. She increased her speed and headed for the ridge they’d left Ares on, knowing what she’d see if she looked behind her.
“Xena!” Pony yelled suddenly. “Bastard’s got that damn sword!” The Amazon pulled her own from it’s sheath. “They’re coming after us.. you wanna…”
Face a hooter carrying Ares Sword? “RUN!” Xena directed. “They won’t follow us.”
“They are!” Pony protested. “We can’t get.. Xena! C’mon!”
The almost dead weight on her shoulder was pulling her offbalance, and it was all Xena could do to keep her footing in the broken ground. She kept hold of Gabrielle’s belt and grimly kept moving, hoping her instincts were right just this once.
A rock hit her in the back. “Bastards.”
Gabrielle ducked a second, but as she turned to see where the missiles were coming from, she saw the hooters dropping back.
There were no skeletons with them. Nor anyone carrying a sword. “They’re stopping.” She managed to get out. “Thank the gods.”
“Don’t thank them yet.” Xena headed up the slope, grateful she could just keep going. “We’ve got bigger problems right now.”
Gabrielle glanced up at the silent, limp form over Xena’s shoulders and caught sight of a pair of dull, staring eyes looking back at her without any recognition in them. She exhaled in shock, and forgot about the horror of the cave in a flickering instant. “Xe.”
“Shh.” Xena worked on picking her way up the slope, concentrating on keeping her balance. “Later.”
Gabrielle turned to Pony instead, but the Amazon was keeping her eyes on the ground, her face set in frozen stillness.
Damn. The bard felt an ache settle into her chest. She’d thought they were pretty much at the bottom of the worst, hadn’t she?
“Just keep moving.” Xena was starting to feel the strain across her shoulders as she lead the way through the brush at as fast a clip as she could manage. Behind her, Gabrielle had an arm around Ares and Pony was walking along her other side, shoving branches out of her way with impatient gestures.
They weren’t being followed. That much, at least, she was thankful for but she knew she had to find defensible shelter and find it soon so she could take stock of the woman lying almost lifeless over her shoulders and decide what to do next.
The ground in front of them was more of the same. Broken rocks, thrown from the cliffs overhead that made walking a trial and between them, thorny bushes that raked over their legs and made her grimace every other step.
“Are we.. “ Pony started to ask, then fell silent.
“There’s a cave up ahead.” Xena answered shortly.
“Not another one like that.”
“No.” The warrior said.
“Or like the last one with the water.”
“No. Just a cave.”
Pony nodded, and kept walking. She had her sword drawn and her fingers were clenching and unclenching on the hilt of it, a sentiment Xena fully appreciated as she wished she could do the same.
She knew what this would all boil down to, of course. The big thing with the sword would come after them, and she’d have to stand up to it, and get Ares sword back. Like dozens of other times in her more or less recent path, she’d be called on to do the hero thing and hope against hope that one more time, she’d be up to it.
Xena exhaled, and shook her head to clear the hair from her eyes. They’d been walking for two candlemarks, and the broken ground, combined with carrying Granella was beginning to wear her out a little.
“Yeah?” Xena didn’t turn around, merely calling the greeting back over her shoulder at her partner.
“Can we take a break for a few?”
The warrior looked around, and spotted a thick patch of bushes just to the right of the path she was making. “Okay.” She altered her course. “Back behind those.”
She led the way around the edge of the scrub and found a thankfully flat bit of ground behind the hedges with a covering of short, almost soft grass. With a soft sigh, she dropped to one knee and gently eased Granella off her shoulders and onto the ground, feeling almost lightheaded as she straightened up and felt her back pop into place.
Granella made almost no reaction, simply curling up into a ball and remaining still after that, staring past Xena’s knee as though it wasn’t there. She was covered with scratches and bruises, her leathers in mere tatters around her, but the damaged appeared more in her mind even than body.
That was out of Xena’s realm, really. As a healer, she knew her skills to be more advanced than most, but when it came to the delicate sensibilities of the mind, she had to admit her straightforward often brutal approach didn’t do much of any good.
With Gabrielle, well.. her love for the bard gave her an almost unlimited patience to untangle the untidy threads their relationship often got them both into. She understood her partner more deeply than anyone else, and so sometimes that gave her the insight and occasionally the right words to say.
But Granella – though a member of the family, was almost a virtual stranger to her and honestly she had no idea really where to even start, or if the woman would even respond to her if she did.
The warrior sighed, letting her hands rest on her thigh as she sensed a presence behind her and felt the warmth of Gabrielle’s hands as they settled onto her shoulders and began a gentle kneading. “They must have.. ah..” She hesitated.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle answered, in a quiet tone. “Why don’t you get some water and let me sit with her for a bit.”
Xena tipped her head back and gazed up at the bard’s somber expression, acknowledging once again that their partnership made them far more than the sum of their individual parts. “How’s he doing?”
A faint hint of wry amusement entered Gabrielle’s eyes. “He stopped bitching at me. So not so good, I think.” She admitted. “I figured we could all use a break.”
Xena’s lips twitched a bit as she studied the mud smudged visiage above her. Then she bumped her a tiny bit with her head before she stood, giving Gabrielle a brief hug before she started towards the gushing runoff on the other side of the bushes.
Gabrielle collected herself, before she sat down in the grass next to Granella, pulling her legs up crossed under her. After a short period of silence, she lifted her eyes and looked at her sister in law’s face, remembering bleakly her own experiences.
There were really no words that would mean anything, she figured. So she reached out and simply took Granella’s hand and held it. She watched the woman’s face for any reaction, but the glassy, dull eyes just looked through her, echoing a horror she wished she didn’t understand.
Xena sat down next to the rivulet and scooped up some water in their skull, sipping from it one handed as she let her body recover. Ares had collapsed to lean against the base of one of the shrubs, and now he turned his head to look at her with dark circled eyes.
“Shoulda just killed her.” The God of War commented. “She’s a basket case.”
The words were meant to sting, but Xena accepted them at face value, where their veneer of truth lay. “Shut up, Ares.” She replied quietly. “What’s one more anchor around our necks at this point? “
“You mean me?” Ares pointed at his own chest. “Xena, I’m shattered.” He waited for her to answer, but the warrior simply sat there drinking her water, pretending he didn’t exist. “So which girlfriend was that?” He asked, prodding for a reaction.
“She’s my brother’s wife.” Xena replied, wiping her lips.
Xena merely looked at him and shook her head. “I’ll see if I can find any herbs to put on that cut. It’s going bad.”
Ares looked down at the reddened, seeping wound on his chest. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” The warrior stood up, scooping up a full skull of water to take with her. “If I’m lucky, it’ll kill you.” She walked away, droplets of water scattering the earth around her.
“You don’t really mean that, Xena.” Ares called after her.
“Keep talking, and I will mean it.” The warrior called back, dropping to a crouch next to Gabrielle and offering her the skull. “Here.” She held it while Gabrielle drank from it’s edge, the bard’s cheek brushing her knuckles. “You doing okay?”
Gabrielle made a half scrunched face, but didn’t answer. She finished drinking, then she returned her gaze to the silent women curled up in front of her. After a brief moment, she licked her lips, turning her head again to look up at Xena.
The warrior pressed her lips together and shook her head. Then she stood up and went to where Gabrielle had dropped their pack to return the skull to it.
Pony was sitting nearby, her knees pulled up and her arms wrapped around them. “Know something?”
“What?” Xena sat down to reorganize the packs contents, and root for some herbs.
Xena paused, and glanced up at her, with a wry expression on her face. “It does, yeah.”
Pony scratched her jaw, removing an ant from her skin and flicking it away. “This what it’s like for you guys a lot?”
Xena’s eyes dropped to the ground, her face going still as she fingered a bit of tattered leaf. Then she lifted her head again. “More than I’d like it to be, yeah.”
The Amazon nodded. “This greater good stuff’s a crock, y’know?”
That brought a crooked grin to Xena’s face. “I used to think it was all about doing good stuff to make up for the bad stuff I did.” She remarked. “I never thought there was much about redemption in it.. but the older I get, the more I have to live through the more I realize how much I’m paying for my past.”
Pony remained quiet for a few moments. “Because you do this hero crap now?”
Xena tied the pack shut and started to get up. “Yeah.” She ran her hands through her hair and looked around. “Tell ya what, it hurts a lot less to be a bad guy.” With a sigh, she headed into the scrub, searching the ground intently as she walked.
Pony had no idea what she was looking for, so she decided helping wouldn’t be very damn helpful. She turned her attention to where Gabrielle was sitting, still holding onto Granella’s hand. That didn’t look very helpful either, but when it came to emotions she had no doubt at all Gabrielle knew what she was doing a lot more than anyone else in the camp here did.
So all she could do right now was just sit and rest, and wait for the next bad thing to happen. It wouldn’t do any good to ask questions, and it wouldn’t do any good to ask what they were going to do next. She knew the answers would either piss her off or not make sense and besides she didn’t figure anyone really knew what the Hades was going on any better than she did.
Gabrielle’s voice was, nevertheless, a welcome distraction. Pony looked over at the bard, who had half turned to face her. “Yup?”
“Could you get me some water, and that bit of folded cloth in my bag?” Gabrielle asked. “I’m going to see if I can clean her up a little.”
Clean her up a little. Like that would do anything cause they were sitting in the dirt anyway. “Sure.” Pony turned and reached for the travel worn pack. “Sure it’s worth the time?” She got the damn skull back out and got up to get some water in it.
Gabrielle looked back at the dull eyes and expressionless face. “I think so.” She answered softly. “It’s always a good thing to be clean.. especially when you feel so dirty inside.”
Pony paused in mid step, as something in the tone alerted her to the fact that Gabrielle wasn’t just talking to hear herself speak. “Um.” Warily, she continued forward and offered the bard the cloth and water. “Yeah, uh.. clean’s cool.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle sniffled a bit, and wiped the back of her hand across her eyes in a casual way. “I know we can’t stick around here long.. want to help with this?”
“Uh.” Pony felt a little overwhelmed. “You know, I’m not really too good..”
“Here.” Gabrielle took her hand and put the cloth in it. “It’ll be good practice for you when you’re a mom.”
Xena returned from searching with a handful of herbs, sorting them in her hand as she knelt down next to where Ares was half sitting and half lying. “Not sure these’ll do much, but they’re better than nothing.” She set the leaves down on a rock and picked up a loose bit of stone, mashing the foliage lightly to release their oils.
Ares watched her as she worked, studying the angular profile. “So.” He said, after a bit. “You really want me to die, Xena?”
The warrior cupped the shredded leaves in her hand and moved closer, easing aside the almost useless bandage and putting the herbs onto the wound. “I want you to stop aggravating me.” She said, wincing a little as he did when the juice got into the cut. “So whatever it takes.”
“Stings, I know.” Xena agreed, almost in an undertone. “Done it to myself a thousand times.”
Ares observed the mixture of greenish liquid seeping along with a yellow and red discharge. “If this is what mortality is like you shoulda given it up a long time ago.” He remarked in an almost conversational tone. “This sucks.”
Xena wiped her hands off and sat down, resting her elbow on her knee and propping her chin on her fist. “Shut up, Ares.”
“Here we go with that again.” The god closed his eyes. “Maybe dying wouldn’t be all that bad at this rate.”
Xena sighed, watching as the sunlight slanted across the bushes and made them all a study in light and shadows.
It seemed inordinately appropriate, somehow.
“Gran?” Gabrielle leaned forward again, holding Pony’s wooden cup in her hands. “Can you drink this, a little?” She watched the dark haired woman’s eyes, which slowly tracked to the cup. “Yeah, that’s it.. c’mon. It’s pretty good water, and I bet you’re thirsty.”
To one side, she was aware of Xena strapping the pack to her back, and Pony gathering their things. She knew they had to move on, but she was hoping she could get Gran to respond to her a little before they started. “C’mon.”
The woman had been unresisting as they’d gotten the worst of the grime cleaned off her, but she had curled back up into a ball when they’d finished and just lay there, rocking a little bit as they watched her. Now, after a faintly hopeful start, she put her head back down on the ground and moved her hand back, curling it’s fingers up into a ball.
“Gabrielle?” Xena called over to her. “We need to move.”
Gabrielle exhaled. “Okay.” She got to her knees, and slowly reached out to Granella. “Gran, we’ve got to get going now.. take my hand, okay? Walk with me?”
Behind her, she could almost feel Xena’s impatience. Gabrielle crouched lower, making eye contact with Granella, and dredging up the emotional energy to try and get through to her. “Gran, I know it’s hard where you are right now.” She uttered, softly. “But we need to get somewhere safe.. please. Come with me.” She extended her hand a little further, palm up, and gentled her tone even more. “Please?”
Xena waited quietly, scuffing the toe of her boot in the grass a little as she eyed the inexorably sinking sun. She was hoping what Gabrielle was doing would work for a reason besides the obvious, as climbing up the slope with Gran on her shoulders was something she wasn’t exactly looking forward to.
Pony was waiting on the far side of the hedges, her eyes fixed outward ostensibly on guard, while Ares was still sitting on the ground, half lying really on one elbow having fallen silent for the last while.
Her instincts were urging her to grab Gabrielle, and get moving. Usually, her instincts were right on target, she felt they probably were this time too but she knew some things were worth risking trouble for and the sense she was getting from Gabrielle made this one of them.
After a long hesitation, and just before her nerves were at the breaking point, Granella unexpectedly reached up and took Gabrielle’s hand.
Xena felt the surge of surprise, and spurt of happiness as Gabrielle reacted, this sharing of their emotions no longer strange or unwelcome to her. She didn’t even wonder any more where all that came from, she merely accepted it as part of who they were together and acknowledged she’d gotten the better end of the deal.
“Okay, thanks.” Gabrielle closed her fingers around Granella’s. Her eyes still refused to meet the bard’s, but she got a tiny sense that she was getting through to their friend if only just a little. Slowly, she drew their linked hands towards her, pausing when she felt resistance. “Gran? Can you get up and come with me?”
She thought she caught a faint whimper. “It’s okay.. I mean, we’ll carry you if you can’t, but you know… I’ve spent a little time over Xe’s shoulder and I know how uncomfortable it is.”
There was no reaction, and the bard sighed softly. She started to reach out again when a raucous hooting almost brought her straight upright, her body reacting to a threat her mind hadn’t quite quantified yet. “X.. “
Sudden motion cut the word off as she was almost bowled over by Granella going wild in front of her, eyes bulging as she scrambled to her feet and started to bolt. With a yelp, the bard threw herself after her, trying to get a hold of the woman.
Pony saw the motion and turned, heading across the camp to help Gabrielle as Xena pulled her sword from her sheath and crossed her path in a flicker of powerful motion, moving towards the sound with a ringing curse.
Gabrielle took two rapid steps and got an arm around Granella, pulling her to a halt as she dug her boots into the ground and lifted the other woman off the ground. “Gran.. gran! It’s okay!” She winced as Granella let out a screech of fear, struggling against her hold as Pony skidded to a halt next to her. “I”ve got this.. go help Xena!”
Pony gave her queen a respectful look as the bard hauled Granella off her feet again, and turned to head after Xena. “Yes, ma’am.” She called back over her shoulder as she drew her sword. “But I got a feeling we’re all gonna be… whoa!”
Xena came hurdling back over the hedges, twisting in mid air and landing next to Gabrielle. “Get Ares.” She reached over and put the pinch on Granella, catching the woman as she went limp in Gabrielle’s arms. “We gotta go.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle released her hold and headed for the god of war as Xena hoisted Granella up over her shoulders again, the woman’s arms dangling limply as she shrugged her into place. On the other side of the hedges she’d spotted a hunting pack of the hooters headed down the ridge, and she knew they simply didn’t have the resources to beat them all off.
She started down the ridge, as Pony caught her up and Gabrielle got her arm around a surprisingly silent Ares. “Let’s move this way.” She uttered softly. “Keep the hedges between us and them.”
She led the way, putting her boots carefully on the rocky ground to keep herself from slipping on the loose rocks. Going around this way meant they had to take a longer route to the cave she wanted to shelter the night in, but it gave them the best chance of avoiding the hunters.
They had too many weaknesses to worry about right now. Xena mentally counted how long she’d had Gran out, hoping she could get to the rock wall before she had to release the nerve block or risk long term damage.
They noved from the open scrub into a stand of trees, and she exhaled in mild relief, looking around quickly as she slid through the trees that clustered around them on all sides. The woods around them were quiet, as their passage sent the wild creatures into hiding. Xena thought she spotted eyes watching her from under a fallen log, but the urge to get to shelter kept her from looking any closer as the ground started to slope a little more steeply. “Watch it.” She called back softly.
“Oof.” Gabrielle grunted. “Darn rocks.”
Xena forced her attention forward, trying not to think too much about Gabrielle being pretty much in Ares clutches back there. Given his injury, she didn’t think the bard was in any real danger, but… With a shake of her head, the warrior shoved the thought aside and concentrated on picking a path down the slope.
“Xena.” Pony caught up with her, boots scuffing in the loose dirt. “Is she okay?” The Amazon indicated the limp bundle over the warrior’s shoulders.
“No.” Xena replied. “C’mon, Pony. Don’t ask stupid questions.” She edged sideways past two big trees and continued down the slope. “If we can get to that cave, maybe we can do something for her.”
Pony got in front of her and took the lead, her back stiff with anger.
Well. Xena was glad of the silence at least. She kept one ear cocked back to listen for Gabrielle and contented herself with following Pony’s experienced track through the loose rubble. She was so worried about so many things it was almost overwhelming her and she hoped they could just get down the hill in one piece without something else happening.
Howls rang in the distance, making her head throb. “Damn it.”
“You say something, Xe?”
Xena glanced behind her. “Nothing worth hearing.”
Gabrielle glanced at Ares, then looked back at Xena, an exquisitely expressive expression on her face. “Ah. Probably exactly what I was thinking then.”
“Mm.” Xena returned her attention to the ground in front of her, shaking her head.
“Hey. Slow down.” Ares rasped. “What in Hades are you running for? Wanna die faster?”
Gabrielle resisted the urge to slam the god into a tree. “The goal is, not dying, Ares.”
He snorted softly. “Why?”
“What do you mean, why?” Gabrielle asked. “Maybe it doesn’t mean much to you, but I’m not into dying today. I’ve got things to do.. and a daughter to raise.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Ares rolled his eyes. “Well, babycakes, let me tell ya, I don’t think your snookums is getting her mommies back this time.”
Gabrielle was silent for a few steps. “Are you just trying to piss me off?” She finally asked, as they struggled through a patch of loose rocks. “Is that… entertainment for you?”
Ares shrugged. “Beats spitting on small animals.” He muttered. “Besides, you should be used to it. You nearly get her nibs up there killed every other month.”
Gabrielle felt a slow burn starting at the back of her neck and working forward. “That’s not true.”
“Sure it is.” The god shrugged. “Every time I turn around she’s getting whomped for some stupid thing you did, or some stupid thing you said or… hey!”
Gabrielle had to pull up short to keep from crashing into Xena’s suddenly very present form, the warrior’s eyes almost giving off sparks as she grabbed Ares by the hair and glared at him. “Oh.”
“If you don’t shut up…” Xena growled.
“Xe.” Gabrielle bumped her with an elbow. “C’mon.. let’s get going. He’s just talking trash.”
“She’s knows it’s true.” Ares managed a wan smile. “Don’tcha love dying for your squeeze here, Xena?”
The warrior released her hold and turned, ignoring him again as she continued through the forest.
Ares chuckled, then stopped as he got an elbow in his ribs. “Stop that, you little runt.”
Gabrielle took her arm from around him and released the hand he had over her shoulder, stepping away and moving after Xena. “Carry yourself then, you useless jerk.”
“Hey!” The injured god reeled, grabbing hold of a tree as his support vanished. “Get back here!”
Gabrielle kept walking.
“I said get back here you… you…”
The bard caught up to her partner and walked along side her.
“Thought he was just talking trash?” Xena eyed her.
“Grr.” Gabrielle muttered something unintelligible under her breath.
Xena released her hold on Granella’s leg and gave Gabrielle a quick, one armed hug and a kiss on the head. “Hon, I’d die for you any day of the moon, ya know that?”
The bard exhaled.
“G’wan. Give the old bastard a hand or we’ll never get to the damn cave.”
“Can I call him an old bastard?” Gabrielle perked up. “Hey, yeah, he is ancient, isn’t he?” She dropped back and turned, heading up the slope to where Ares was waiting, leaning against the tree. “Hey Old man.”
“No wonder no one believes you in any more. You’re an old crock.”
Ares glared at her as she came even with him. “You little bitch.”
Gabrielle gazed at him. “So I guess we’re even now, right? Want help or not?” She put her hands on her hips. “Or does it piss you off so much that she’s willing to do anything for me, when she won’t even give you the time of day?’
Ares lip twitched as he looked her right in the eye. “Careful, mortal.”
“Takes one to know one, doesn’t it” The bard shot right back. “Now, you want help, or not?”
A loud howl rang out through the trees, wrenching Gabrielle’s head around as she crouched a little, her fingers clenching on a non existent staff. “They’re getting closer. “ She looked back at Ares. “So you want to come with us, or stay here and wait for them?”
His bloodshot eyes watched her face intently. “You’d leave me behind, Gabrielle?” He asked, softly. “Nice… maybe you’re not so much a lost cause as I thought you were.”
Gabrielle’s nostrils flared briefly. “I”d leave you.” She replied, in a soft voice. “But not today. C’mon.” She stepped forward and grabbed his hand, pulling his arm over her shoulder as he pushed away from the tree. When she turned and headed down the slope again, she wasn’t surprised to see the tall, silent figure standing there, waiting for her. “We’re coming.”
“Speak for yourself.” Ares coughed, stumbling and almost taking them both to the ground.
“You know.” Gabrielle hung onto him grimly, waiting for him to catch his balance before she started forward again. “I’m glad you’re finally getting to feel when we have to go through.”
“I bet you are.”
“But I just wish you cared about anyone except yourself enough to know what it was like to lose them.” Gabrielle finished, enunciating each word clearly and with conviction. “Because I would love to share that experience with you too.”
And for once, Ares didn’t answer. He watched the ground ahead of them, and refused to even meet her eyes.
Past the curve of the trees, Gabrielle could see the beginning of the rock wall that led to the cave. With her last words tasting bittersweet on her tongue, she sped up the pace in Xena’s footsteps, sensing the approach of what Xena had once called a sea change, when she’d felt it on a journey to some far off place they’d been going together.
It was that moment, when they would ride the surging tides of circumstance and decide on a course that would either bring them home, or bring them into the depths of Hades and to know that moment was coming..
To know that moment was coming was a relief, regardless of what happened after.
Xena sat on a rock outside the cave entrance, slowly sharpening her sword as the twilight deepened the shadows around her.
Inside the cave, Gabrielle was fixing up whatever she could scrounge for a meal for them, while Pony sat with Gran in case the suffering woman reacted to some sound and started running again.
Her body felt a little sore, after the long day. Her shoulders were stiff and she could feel the ache as she drew the stone along her blade that meant in a few candlemarks she’d really be hurting.
Ah well. She idly thumped her heels against the stone, taking comfort from the long familiar motions her hands were performing, the tracking of the stone against the steel something she could probably do even in her sleep.
A necessary task, of course; every time she used the weapon the thin edge of it got blunted on whatever it was she was using the sword on, and it had to be patiently worked back into an exquisite sharpness that would amplify her strength and make the cuts and slashes more effective with less effort on her part.
Gabrielle, back in the old days, had once asked her if she just sharpened her sword to intimidate her. To which, Xena had laughed and told her she was being silly, but then had to pause when the bard reminded her she used to work on the blade whether she used it or not.
Obsessive, maybe. Xena remembered those nights, so full of shadows when she’d first changed her ways and been convinced every tree hid an old enemy behind it. Taking care of the sword had been a way for her to ensure she was prepared for anything, hadn’t it?
Xena smiled, sweeping her eyes around the barren ground. And maybe it had been a way to keep a distance between her and her new acquaintance. A way of reminding Gabrielle who she was, and a warning – to not get too close to her.
A warning Gabrielle had completely ignored, naturally.
Xena studied the sword, the tang of warm metal making her nose twitch. She pondered a moment what she would have done if Gabrielle had taken her warning, and left her. Gone home to Potadeia, and Perdicus, in those early days before they’d had a chance to really…
“Hey.” Gabrielle leaned against her, appearing from the darkness of the cave with surprising stealth. “Whatcha thinking about?”
Xena studied her sharpening stone, then she tilted her head and looked at her partner. “Falling in love with you.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle sounded a bit surprised. “Okay.. well.. ah..”
“I did.” The bard admitted. “But I thought maybe you were thinking about Gran, or how we’re going to get out of here, or what I’m making for dinner…”
“Nah.” Xena tucked the stone away and sheathed her sword, letting her hands rest on her thighs and flexing them a little. “I needed a break.”
Gabrielle slid her hand into the crook of Xena’s elbow, her fingertips finding the slow, even heartbeat as they brushed over the blue lines on the inside of her arm. “Soup’s almost ready.” She rested her cheek against Xena’s shoulder.
“Thanks.” Xena studied the bard’s nearly invisible profile, noting the very evident tension. “Everyone could use it tonight.” She leaned over a little, pressing her shoulder against her partner’s. “Me, especially.”
Gabrielle looked up at her. “Tired?”
The warrior nodded. “Real long day.” She said. “In a lotta ways.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle sighed. “But you know, Xena…”
“We got problems.” The warrior acknowledged. “Lots of them.”
“Boy, do we.” Gabrielle murmured. “Xe, Ares is going down hill, and I don’t know what to do with Gran.”
“Mm.” The warrior agreed. “I saw you trying to talk to her again.. any reaction?”
“Not really, no.”
They both stood quietly as the last of the light faded, and the sound of crickets surrounded them. At last, Xena spoke into the darkness, her tone reflective. “All right. This is what we’re going to do.”
Gabrielle leaned closer, as the warrior’s voice took on a decisive tone, though she spoke softly enough that she had to really listen for the words.
“Across the valley here, and up that creek bed is the way we came in.” Xena said. “It’s flat lands, we can make it across if we get moving at first light tomorrow.”
“We get to the wall we fell down, and I’ll climb up it Then I’ll let a rope down, and pull everyone up after me.”
“Okay.” The bard was nodding.
“I’ll pull Pony up first. Then she can help me haul Gran and Ares up.” Xena went on. “Then you come up last, and we keep going from there.”
Gabrielle thought about that. “Okay.” She said, after a brief pause.
“What?” Xena asked, after a moment. “You don’t like that idea?”
The bard slid around and settled herself between Xena’s knees, resting her forearms on the warrior’s thighs as she looked up at her. “I’m trying to figure out if you’re dissing me or complimenting me.” She said. “I could help you pull everyone up.”
Xena laced her fingers behind Gabrielle’s head. “Yeah, you could.” She agreed. “You’re stronger than Pony is. But I trust you more to make sure they get up safe.”
Gabrielle pressed herself against the rock, enjoying the retained heat of the sun against her bare midriff. “What if we get attacked while we’re climbing up?”
“That’s the other reason.” Xena replied, calmly. “You know how to fight them off. Pony doesn’t.. she just goes in there hacking.”
The bard nodded. “What about our obligation to those other guys?”
Xena gazed steadily at her. “Gabrielle, our obligation is to get Granella and Ares out of here.” She said. “That’s what matters.”
The bard’s eyes narrowed a little, and a pucker appeared in the skin between her eyebrows. Then, her shoulders relaxed and she put her head down in Xena’s lap, surrender evident in her posture. “Yeah, I know.”
The warrior ran her fingers through Gabrielle’s hair.
“What about Ares’ sword?” The bard asked, breaking the silence.
Xena didn’t answer for a few minutes, her eyes searching the darkness around them from long habit. “There’s that.” She murmured, finally. “But you know something, Gabrielle?”
“I um.. “ Xena exhaled. “Let me ask you the question. Is my life worth that sword?”
Gabrielle straightened right up so fast she nearly got lightheaded. Her eyes widened and both eyebrows lifted as she released Xena’s legs and put her hands on her hips. “Wh…” She stopped, then started again. “What do you mean by that, Xena?”
Xena bumped her heels against the rock lightly. “That big one has the sword.” She said. “Only way I’m gonna get it is go up against him and take it.”
“I don’t know if I can.” The warrior finished, cutting her off gently with a faint shrug. “Is risking my life worth it?”
Gabrielle put her hands back on Xena’s knees, having to digest something she hadn’t expected. “Of course not.” She whispered. “No thing is worth you even getting a hangnail, Xena.”
Xena let her hands rest on the bard’s. “They are… a lot stronger than I am, Gabrielle.” She said. “Ares sword can cut through mine like mine through butter… even if he’s only figured out what end to hold, I just don’t know if I can handle the combination.”
Gabrielle shook her head a few times. “I…” She leaned forward and looked up at Xena’s face. “No, it’s not worth risking a hair on your head, Xena.”
The warrior smiled, faintly.
“It’s not.” The bard shook her head again. “We get so used to always having to.. sacrifice ourselves for other things that sometimes we forget to stop and ask why the Hades we’re doing this.” She inhaled. “I don’t give a damn what happens to his sword.”
Xena studied her face. “But you do care about the big animals.” Her eyes twinkled, just a trifle.
“Mmph.” Gabrielle shrugged one shoulder. “Not a squinch compared to how much I care about you.” She squeezed the warrior’s knees. “Thank you.”
“Just thanks.” Gabrielle stepped back and tugged gently. “Let’s go inside.”
Xena eased off the rock, dusting her hands off against her leathers as she took a deep breath of the now night air. It was cool, and full of pine and stone dust, and she felt a sense of deep, somewhat surprising relief as she followed her partner inside the cave.
Funny, how telling Gabrielle how she felt about the sword had been so much harder than admitting it to herself. Xena let her hand trail along the stone wall as she walked. She’d been living up to Gabrielle’s expectations for so long, she’d grown almost afraid of disappointing them.
She watched the bard go to the fire and stir the soup. Almost? Xena knew herself to have crossed a path she’d been unconsciously shying from for a very long time, even though she knew very well that she’d never had a much of a shine on her heroism for Gabrielle to lose sight of.
Maybe at the very beginning, there had been. But not for long, and surely not after Dahok. Xena sat down near where Ares was curled up, feeling very tired, and very mortal and for the first time in a while, feeling her age.
Pony got up and came over to her, settling on the rock ledge at her side. “Xena.”
“Yeah?” The warrior examined a bruise across one knuckle.
“Lissen.” Pony twisted her hands together. “I’ve been saying a lot of crap that’s just been.. um.. crap.”
“S’allright.” Xena said.
“No.. just listen.” The Amazon held a hand up. “I don’t understand half the stuff you guys do and I don’t really get why you do it, but I know enough to know you don’t do it for you, y’know?”
“Most people ain’t like that.” Pony said, gamely. “Y’know? They just do stuff for themselves.”
“Yeah.” Xena tasted the irony, as she glanced up to find Gabrielle regarding her with gentle wryness from across the fire. “I know.”
“So that’s cool, and I’m gonna try not to be a jerk, now.” Pony concluded. “So just tell me what to do, okay?”
“Okay.” The warrior agreed. “Go over there and get some dinner.” She directed. “How’s that for a start?”
The Amazon looked at her, then shook her head and got up, trudging over to where Gabrielle was kneeling and crouching next to her.
Xena watched them, then she let her eyes travel around the inside of the cave, taking in Gran’s tightly curled form on the far side of the fire, and the haggard, deeply shadowed visage of the God of War near her knee.
She sighed. The best she could hope for tomorrow was to end the day perched on rocks, trying to find a way out of the valley.
The worst she could hope for? Xena looked up again to find Gabrielle in front of her, offering her a spoonful of soup from their grisly and ghoulish skull bowl. “Thanks.” She half stood and kissed Gabrielle instead, lacing her fingers behind the bard’s neck and ignoring the bowl between them.
There would be no worst.
The strident yowl of a hunting cat woke Gabrielle up, her eyes popping open to stare into the darkness, broken only by a faint hint of starlight from the cave mouth and a dim glow from the dying fire. For a moment, she almost paniced, then a large shadow blocked her view of the cave mouth and she relaxed as Xena returned and sat back down next to her. “Sounds close.”
“It is.” The warrior murmured. “Not hunting us, though. Something else.. something big’s out there.”
“Don’t even think about it.”
Gabrielle rubbed her face with one hand, waiting for her heartbeat to settle. “Wow.” She looked around, but most of the interior of the cave was mere shadows. “Did you get any rest?”
“No.” Xena’s voice sounded muffled.
Gabrielle leaned closer, enough to see that her partner was resting her head in her hands. “Hey.” She squirmed over and put her hand on Xena’s thigh. “What’s wrong?’
Xena didn’t’ answer for a few seconds, then she swallowed audibly. “You didn’t put any mushrooms in that damn soup did you?”
The bard exhaled, lowering her head to rest against Xena’s leg. “No, I didn’t.” She said. “You don’t have any of those herbs, do you?”
“No.” The warrior put a load of misery into a single syllable.
Gabrielle hitched herself up on one elbow and gentle patted her partner’s leg. “Sorry, honey.” She murmured, finding her thoughts focused on herself for the first time in a few days. “Anything I can do?”
Gabrielle hastily did, reaching around for the skull with one hand. “Remember what you tell me all the time? Deep breaths, right? And tip your head back.”
“Ungh.” Xena determinedly swallowed again, refusing to let her body get the better of her. Instead of tipping her head back, though, she eased down onto her side and curled her arm under her head, focusing her thoughts on something other than her twisting guts.
She felt Gabrielle’s hand settle on her shoulder, rubbing it gently. After a few moments, the nausea subsided to something just around bearable as long as she didn’t move around any, and she exhaled again, licking her lips. “Bleah.”
Cautiously, the bard shifted closer. “Here.” She carefully eased her hand under her partner’s head and lifted it, sliding her leg over and letting Xena rest on that instead. “You’ll get a cramp otherwise.”
“Mmhph.” Xena extended her arm and flexed her hand. “Gods, I hate that.”
Gabrielle slowly ran her fingers through Xena’s hair, massaging her scalp lightly. “I’m sorry.” She murmured. “How about some tea? Should I stir up the fire?”
Xena juggled the potential comfort of the tea with the existing comfort of Gabrielle’s presence and shook her head. “Been a lot of activity out there tonight.” She whispered.
“Hunting, I guess.” The warrior shifted back a little, putting the back of her head in contact with Gabrielle’s stomach, feeling the warmth penetrate her scalp and relax the tension there. “Lot of animals on the move.”
“Were you keeping watch?”
“Mmhm.” Xena nodded slightly.
Uh oh. The warrior smothered a wan grin. She’d considered waking Pony up to take a turn at watch, but she knew the Amazon was as tired as she was, and she hadn’t had the heart for it. “I’m getting nice in my old age.”
Gabrielle made a sound that was a cross between a giggle and a snort.
“See? No one even respects me anymore.” Xena sighed mournfully. “I’m just a has been.”
“Oh, my poor little Xena.” Gabrielle warbled softly. “What am I going to do with you? I’ll have to carry you back home.”
“Hey.” Pony’s voice suddenly cut through the darkness. “Would you two shut up?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle didn’t miss a beat. “If you’d be so kind as to go outside and keep watch for us, since Xena did it the rest of the night, I’d be glad to be quiet.”
Xena took a breath to protest, then found her lips covered by Gabrielle’s hand.
There was a sound of rustling around nearby. “She coudla woke me up.” Pony grumbled. “Not make it sound like I’m some kinda slacker or something.” The Amazon got up and headed for the opening, the soft whisper of steel against leather coming clearly back to them as she eased into the starlight.
Gabrielle removed her hand from Xena’s mouth and sighed, wriggling into a more comfortable position and leaning back against the rock wall. “Now, where were we?”
“You were mocking me.” Xena murmured, acknowledging to herself how glad she was to remain curled up on the ground.
“I thought I was sympathizing with you.” Gabrielle went back to her gentle stroking, tracing the edge of one of her partner’s finely shaped ears by touch, her minds eye easily constructing the image for her despite the darkness.
Xena’s hand settled on her leg, bare of it’s boot. The warrior’s fingers stroked her ankle, then dropped to knead her instep with a casual familiarity that made Gabrielle smile. She exhaled, turning her head to look over at the spot she knew Granella was lying in.
In the faint glow from the fire, she saw the other woman looking back at her, though there wasn’t enough light to see any expression on her face. “Hey.” She called over, softly. “How are you doing?”
Those eyes just stared at her for a long time, full of shadows and barely seen. Gabrielle felt Xena’s hand close on her foot, squeezing in a gesture of comfort, thought he warrior remained very still and quiet. “I know you think that’s a pretty stupid question.”
There was no answer, but a rustle of movement.
“I know you’re in a pretty dark place right now.” Gabrielle went on, in a soft voice. “I know… how horrible that place can be.”
“You don’t.” Gran’s voice came, very unexpectedly back, low and hoarse.
Gabrielle felt her breathing pick up, and Xena shifted her position, turning more onto her stomach and draping her left arm over the bard’s lap, mutely giving her support. “Oh, Gran.. I wish I didn’t.” She whispered into the darkness.
“You don’t know anything.” Gran whispered back. “You all abandoned me. To Hades with you.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes, feeling her own pain, and an echo, deeper and more potent, through the connection she had with Xena. “We didn’t abandon you, Gran. We found you as soon as we could.”
“You should have killed me.”
Gabrielle exhaled slowly, as Xena shifted again, rolling over to face her, but remaining silent.
“Told you.” Ares drawled, from his huddle near the fire. “Stupid women… you let all that sentimental crap keep you from doing what needs to be done. “
“Shut up.” Xena spoke up finally. “Or I’ll forget all that sentimental crap and gut you like a fish.”
The god laughed shortly, stifling a cough. “We’re all gonna die anyway, sweetheart. C’mon and get your jollies now. Put me out of my misery.”
Xena looked up at her partner, making out the distinctive profile despite the lack of light. “You know something, Gabrielle?”
“What?” The bard asked, at the end of a long sigh.
“We should stop being heros.” The warrior said. “We should stop risking our lives, and each other just to try and save other people because all we get for it is bullshit.”
“Oh, boo hoo.” Ares snorted. “You don’t do it for anything except making you look good to her, Xena. Don’t pull the altruistic act on me. I know better.”
Gabrielle looked down into the blue eyes she knew were looking up at her. There was some truth in what the god of war had said, and they both knew that, but then, there was more truth in the two of them than what Ares would ever know so how relative was all that anyway? “Gran..”
“Leave me alone.” Gran cut her off. “You’re good at that.”
Ares snickered softly.
“Xena!” Pony called from outside. “You better come lookit this.”
Gabrielle got her feet under her and stood as Xena did and followed the warrior towards the opening to the cave, feeling a little shame at the relief she felt on leaving the barbs and accusations behind as they faced whatever new problem Pony had discovered.
Life was too damn complicated sometimes.
A moment later, all the complications went out the window when she cleared the opening and joined Xena and Pony on the small slope outside the cave, facing the thickly forested valley – a valley now filled with torches and smoke, and flickering light heading directly at them.
Xena exhaled audibly and put her hands on her hips.
“So much for plans, huh?” Gabrielle murmured.
“I don’t do all this stuff to make me look good to you.” The warrior said, turning and facing her. “I do it because I’m just too damn slow to get out of the way in time.” She shook her head and strode back into the cavern, leaving Pony and Gabrielle to watch the approaching lights.
“We’re gonna croak, huh?” Pony finally asked, glancing at her.
Gabrielle sighed, and turned to follow Xena, wondering the same thing. “Eventually, Pony. But lets try something else right now.”
“Like what?” The Amazon asked, to her retreating back. “Ain’t we tried everything already?” When no answer was forthcoming, she threw her hands up and headed inside. “Sheeptits.”