One Wild Ride
Xena stood a little apart from the rest of them, sorting through the bits and pieces of bone and scrap she’d taken from their carrybag. To her right, the path ended in a somberly spectacular fashion, plunging down into a ravine.
To her left, the wall they’d been walking against went straight up, the granite providing scant handholds even to her eyes. It would be difficult for her to climb it, to have the others do it seemed so unlikely Xena just kept shaking her head every so often in reaction to it.
Gabrielle had her back against the wall, as far away from the edge of the path as she could get. She had her legs crossed under her, and she was leaning her elbows on her knees, her eyes studying the dusty surface in silence.
Xena watched her from the corner of her eye, understanding the faint lip motions as her partner tried to talk herself into the challenge before them. The other women were simply giving her disgusted looks. Ares was propped up against the wall with his eyes closed.
Only Gabrielle was totally focused on the goal along with her.
Of course. Xena fitted a piece of the antler she’d saved into her hand, curling her fingers around it. She’d spent many long candlemarks, sevendays, and moons teaching the bard that kind of focus and finally now, here, when she’d just completely screwed everything up she was reaping the benefits.
Ironic. The warrior picked up her selections and walked over to Gabrielle, taking a seat next to her. “Hey.”
Gabrielle turned her head a bit, her green eyes peeking out from shaggy bangs. “Hey.”
“Okay, listen.” Xena took her hand, and fitted a piece of antler to it, curling her fingers around the irregular surface. It resulted in a downward facing bit of bone protruding from Gabrielle’s palm. “We tie this in place.”
“Okay.” The bard answered softly. “Is that to help me climb?”
Gabrielle closed her fingers around the bone, raising her hand a little and miming a downward action. “I don’t know.. when I watched you climb the last time near the cabin you used your fingers. Isn’t that better?”
Xena extended her hand out, and flexed it. “I can hold my body up by my fingertips.” She replied. “You can’t.”
“Mm.” The bard murmured. “What’s this for?” She indicated the bit of antler extending down her wrist.
“I’m going to tie it tight here.” Xena circled her wrist with two fingers. “Give you more support.” She studied the bard with a sigh. “You’re going to get scraped up like Hades, though.”
Gabrielle nodded. “If that’s the worst that happens to me I’ll take it.” She replied, giving Xena an honest look. “I’ll just do the best I can, Xe.”
“I know you will.” Xena said. “I’m counting on you.”
Gabrielle’s head lifted at that, and she shifted, hiking her knee up and pressing her back to the rock. She studied Xena’s face for a long moment, her own expression somber. “You’re counting on me.” She repeated.
Xena nodded. “I can’t do this alone.” She said. “You’re the only one I can trust, Gabrielle. I know you’re scared.” She put a hand on the bard’s knee. “But I also know if anyone can do this, you can.”
Gabrielle got a sense, now, of just how heavy the expectations of a loved one could really be. So often she was in the opposite position, depending on Xena to come through and fix whatever their problem is that finding herself in that blast of torchlight was both unexpected and uncomfortable.
She didn’t want to climb the wall. She didn’t really think she was capable of it physically, no matter what Xena tacked to her hands and not even considering the fact that she was so afraid of heights even climbing trees freaked her out.
But. Gabrielle swallowed, feeling the dryness in her throat. What choice did she have, really? Either she did what Xena asked, or they stayed on the mountain and slowly died, after the little food and water they had ran out. “Xe.” She finally sighed.
“Yeah?” Xena was watching her, with shadowed eyes.
“When we get home.” The bard drew in a breath. “I want you to promise me we’ll spend at least one whole day in bed, and you’ll sing to me whenever I ask you to.”
Xena shifted her hand from the bard’s knee to her cheek. “Promise.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle extended both legs out and let her hands rest on them. “Strap me up, then. Let’s go do this.” She said, tilting her head to look Xena right in the eye. “I’m ready.”
Xena felt a mixture of pride, regret, and a touch of something close to shame as she looked back at Gabrielle. She patted the bard gently on the cheek as she gathered herself to stand. “That was the easy part.” She said, in a wry tone. “Wish me luck with everyone else.”
Gabrielle managed a wry smile back, and she gave Xena a gentle slap on the leg as the warrior stood and straightened her shoulders, turning to face their companions. She waited for her partner to move towards the others, before she stood up herself and faced the wall.
She laid her hand on the surface, curling her fingers around a crack in it. Experimentally, she tried pulling herself up, but released her hold almost immediately as the sharp granite cut into her skin. “Ow.”
Okay, so that proved that. Gabrielle then wedged her antler aid into the same crack, and tightened her grip on the bone, pulling herself upward. With the rounded edges, she was able to hold on and lifted her body up off the ground a little, her toes just brushing the stone.
After a moment, she let herself down, removing the bone from the crack and looking at it. Xena had carefully scraped it smooth, and in the absence of any other comforts at the moment she took some in her partner’s ingenuity.
“You’re out of your mind!”
Gabrielle sighed, and studied the rock as she heard the loud angry voices echo off it. She felt impatience rise, and with a sudden decision she turned and headed for where Xena was facing off against Pony, stepping neatly over Ares legs as thought he god of war wasn’t even there.
“I’m not saying there’s another way!” Pony added, pointing upward. “I’m saying you’re nuts! We can’t just climb up that like some damn pack of rat eared squirrels!” The Amazon seemed more exasperated than truly angry. “Gods be damned, Xena.. things ain’t just gonna happen because you say so!”
“Guys.” Gabrielle stepped past her partner and stopped in front of her, at the end of her wits, her patience, and her sense of humor. “Let’s just make sure we all understand what’s at stake here.”
“Oh, shut up.” Granella gave her a disgusted look. “You’re just going to repeat what Xena said. Like you’d ever disagree with her.”
“You’re wrong.” The bard shot right back. “I disagree with Xena all the time. I used to just do it on general principals, but over the years I learned that butting heads with her when she’s right is not only POINTLESS..” Gabrielle’s voice rose to it’s most powerful level. “It’s USELESS, because we’ve only got one option here!”
Pony glared at her. “Thanks to her!”
“Okay, yeah.” Gabrielle said. “It’s Xena’s fault we’re here. Are you happy now?”
“That’s not the ..”
“Pony, it is the point!” The bard stepped closer, putting as much passion in her voice as she could, remembering that part of her as though it had been slumbering for along while. “The point is, we’re going to die here if we don’t try to get out. Blaming someone.. Xena.. for being here doesn’t change that, does it?”
“No.” Pony said, after a moment.
“Okay.” The bard said, lowering her volume. “So we’re here. We have no way out but what Xena’s suggesting. Xena’s the only one I know of who’s actually climbed up a cliff like that. Doesn’t it make sense to just listen to her, and do what she says, and maybe.. .maybe we’ll have a chance to get home?”
“Well..” Pony hesitated.
“What other choice do we have?” Gabrielle asked, gently. “Do you really think I want to do this? You think I want to try climbing up that, when just getting up on Argo makes my legs shake?” She turned and looked up at the cliff. “I’m so scared of that, my entire body’s hurting, but you know what, Pony.. I have to get a handle on that because I understand we have no choice here.”
Xena had taken a step to one side, and she was leaning against the rock, gazing out at the erstwhile peaceful scene around them as she let Gabrielle do the talking. The bard had, she reasoned, a fifty fifty chance of doing her thing, given the attitudes of the people with them, balanced with the absolute truth of what she was saying.
She wasn’t really sure how much of the anger was frustration, how much was residual from the Sword, and how much was.. well, was what the other women really felt about them. She knew Granella had been through a horrific experience and that she was still mostly in shock over it.
But Pony? Xena’s brow creased. Despite the competitive action that often went on between them, she never suspected Pony hated her, or disliked Gabrielle as much as she seemed to be indicating.
Maybe it was the sword. Xena shifted her shoulders, feeling a minor ache through her neck from having to carry the double weight. Or maybe that’s just how she really felt, and the usual way she treated them was just an act.
“Gabrielle, you’re not getting it.” Granella’s voice was chilly. “I’m not climbing that damn thing.”
Xena took a breath to get into the argument, then stopped when Gabrielle spoke instead.
“Okay.” The bard said. “Then you’re staying here. Pony, you staying too, or you coming with us?”
“Bullpoop.. you’re not going to just leave her here.” Pony protested. “I’m not. That’s’ for damn sure!”
“Okay.” Gabrielle put her hands on her hips, her patience at an end and her decisions made. “We’ll leave whatever supplies we have with you.”
Pony looked at her. “You’d leave us here?”
Without any hesitation, Gabrielle nodded. “Yes.” She studied them both. “I’m going with Xena.”
“Big surprise.” Granella looked away.
“You’re just going to fall off and croak.” Pony told her. “Gabrielle, woudlja look at that thing?”
The bard looked up at the wall, then back at her. “That’s the only way out of here.” She told her, quietly. “So that’s where we’re going.” After a brief hesitation, she moved closer to Pony, gentling her voice even further. “If we have even one chance, I’m going to take it. I want to get home. Don’t you?”
The Amazon’s hazel eyes shifted a little, flickering past Gabrielle to take in Xena’s waiting form, then moving back to the bard’s face. “I…”
“I don’t.” Granella spoke up. Her eyes we’re still out staring at the empty space beyond the ledge.
“You don’t want to go home?” Gabrielle asked, after a brief silence. “Gran, I..”
Pony looked at Granella, then she looked back at Gabrielle, visibly caught in the middle of something she had no real grasp of. “I won’t leave a sister.” The Amazon finally said, but in a subdubded voice. “So I guess I’m stayin.”
She walked over and sat down next to Granella.
Gabrielle was left to stare silently at them, aware of the equally silent blue eyes watching her from behind. After an uncomfortable pause, she let her hands fall. “All right.” She finally said. “Well, good luck.” She waited, but the two women didn’t answer, or turn to look back at her, and she eventually gave up and started to turn away herself.
Xena was there. Not only was she standing there, but she had her arms open, and her expression also, and Gabrielle knowingly took a step away from one world, and a step willingly into a more lonely path as she slid into Xena’s embrace and returned it.
“Did the best you could, my love.” Xena whispered into her ear.
Xena hugged her. “Let’s go get this done.” She said. “We’re running out of time.”
They turned and walked over to Ares, as the sun started to slant across the rock, staining it.
“Here.” Gabrielle knelt beside where Pony was seated, and handed over what was left of their supplies. She glanced up at the sky. “I think the weather’s settled down.”
Pony looked at her, and for a moment, their eyes met.
The Amazon looked away first. “Good luck.” She muttered, almost under her breath.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle responded. “You too.” She hesitated, then she started to stand, pausing when Pony reached out and caught her hand. “What?”
Pony half turned and peered up. “If you get out.. tell Eph.. everything.” She paused. “Like.. everything. Okay?”
The bard cocked her head slightly to one side. Then she nodded faintly. “I will.” She gently disengaged her arm from Pony’s fingers, and stood fully, turning to head back to where Xena was working with the lengths of rope they had left.
The sun was out, and it warmed the side of the mountain. Gabrielle leaned her body against the stone and closed her eyes, soaking in every moment of it she could.
There were, she knew, so few moments of peace left to her.
When it came time to start climbing, Xena was beginning to doubt how far they were going to get. Ares was only marginally coherent, the wound in his chest beginning to seep an ugly, festering yellow. She had tied one end of their rope to herself, then fashioned a rough cradle for the god of war.
He hadn’t liked it. Xena hadn’t cared. She tied off the end of the rope around Gabrielle, passing the length of it through two loops on Ares’ harness so that she, and the bard, were connected together and the god could move between the two of them.
It was uncomfortable and dangerous. Xena understood that, but with the resources she had at her disposal it was simply the best she could do. She peered up at the wall, checking for the nth time if she could find even a marginally better way up.
After a moment, she sighed and shook her head, knowing in her heart that the task might be too much even for her alone, without Gabrielle and Ares to worry about.
However. Her eyes shifted past the silent god of war to where Gabrielle was standing, her head a little down, waiting. “Ready?”
Gabrielle fingered the rough, twisted hemp around her middle and nodded. “Ready.” She murmured in response, knowing there was no other real answer regardless of the truth of it. She faced the rock and exhaled, letting her arms drop to her thighs and flexing her fingers.
Behind them, she was very aware of the pair of eyes on her back, but there were far more important things for her to focus on at the moment. “What do I do first?” She asked, clearing her throat of it’s sudden huskiness.
“Just hang on.. I’ll show you.” Xena finished checking the ropes. “Ares, we’re not dragging your ass all the way. Work for it.”
The god laughed faintly, as he looked at her. “Why?”
Ares leaned his head against the rock, barely able to stand. “Woman’s right.” He told her. “Doesn’t make sense to work so damned hard at croaking, Xena.”
“Ares.” Xena put hand on one of his shoulders. “If we can get you up there.. out of this damn valley.. you might get your godhood back.”
Ares merely blinked at her. “Xena, if my three headed dog could fly, you might get a ride outta here.”
The warrior glanced past him, then focused on his face again. “You don’t want to get out of here? C’mon, Ares… I don’t buy you dying a mortal death here.. not your style.”
Ares swallowed, then looked sharply at her. “You got the sticker.” He jerked his head towards the sword looming over Xena’s shoulder. “Get yourself outta here.”
The god of war’s eyebrows lifted. “Don’t get sentimental on me, Xena. Not your style.” He taunted her, but his heart wasn’t really in it and that was clear. After a moment, he glanced up, then back at her. “I ain’t making it up there.”
“We’ll get you up there.” Xena told him. “This the way you want to go, Ares? Giving up? Just dying here on this damn ledge when you had a chance to live, and get out and win?” She leaned closer to him. “Give me a break!”
Ares gazed quietly at her. “Maybe I did win.” He let his eyes flick to the sword hilt, and a faint smile tugged at his lips. “G’wan, Xena.” His expression sobered. “Go. Get out, take the blond kid with you.” He watched Xena’s face. “You can get outta here. I’ll just pull you both down.”
Pale blue eyes met his. Then slowly, they lifted and went past him. “We all get out, or none of us does.” Xena said, flatly. “So cut the self sacrificing horse crap, Ares.”
She turned away and faced the cliff, reaching up to get her first handhold. “Gabrielle and I are gonna start climbing, Ares. If you decide not to, remember where I tied those ropes between your legs.” She lifted herself up, finding good footing before she turned to look over at Gabrielle.
The bard was, in a hesitant way, copying her and had one hand curled around a bit of jutting rock and the other wedged in a crack. As Xena watched, she flexed her shoulders and pulled herself up, hastily getting her boots into place a tiny ledge.
The strength was there, no question. Xena only hoped the will behind it would live up to the need.
She could see Gabrielle’s whole body vibrating, and she could feel, through the link they had between them, the fear inside her. “Atta girl.” She called over. “Just take it easy.”
Gabrielle looked over at her, the terror evident. “I’m chilling.” She managed a faint, flickering smile.
Xena gave her a brief, understanding grin, before she glanced down. “Let’s go, Ares.”
“Look, I toldja..”
“Ares.” The warrior cut him off. “Be a man.”
“For a change.” Gabrielle added, under her breath.
Ares turned his head and looked at her. “How would you know? You’ve never known any.”
Xena jerked the ropes, almost pulling him offbalance. “C’mon.”
With a long, unfathomable stare, the god of war let her wait for it, before he finally caught hold of a bit of rock and struggled upward.
Xena waited to see if he was going to back down, then she focused her attention to the wall again when it was apparent he wasn’t. She felt over her head for another handhold and cautiously put her weight on it, then moved her boot up to a crag before she lifted herself all the way up. “Gabrielle?”
“Right hand, over your head.”
The bard reached up to curl trembling fingers around a hold. “Got it.”
“Put your foot up on that slanted part.”
“Definitely gonna croak at this rate.” Ares snorted, leaning his head against the stone. “Shouldla told you to leave the little blond rat behind.”
“You’d know all about rats.” Gabrielle managed to get out from between gritted teeth.
“Be a woman.” The god of war mimicked, in a high voice. “For a change.”
“How would you know?” Xena gave the ropes a jerk. “You wouldn’t know one if you bit one.”
“That an invitation?” Ares inched up, scraping his chest against the rock and stifling a gasp. He started to slip back, his fingers raking against the stone. “Augh!”
Xena reached over and grabbed him on the arm, steadying him until he got his bearings back. “Less talk more action, okay?”
Ares peered up at her. “Look who’s talking.” He managed a grimace that might have been an attempt at a smile.
The warrior released him. She glanced over to see Gabrielle inching up another step, and she searched above her for her next handhold.
No one ever said life was easy. Xena got her fingertips into a crack and hauled herself upward. No one ever promised a free ride, a free meal, or an easy death. She knew that better that almost anyone. She lifted her other hand up and got it around a protruding knob, flexing her fingers cautiously before she trusted it to bear her weight.
She knew she had to be careful. She’d tied them together the way she had for a reason – if Ares slipped down, she and Gabrielle could hold him up.
If Gabrielle slipped.. well, maybe Ares would help her, and maybe not, but Xena had convinced herself she could hold all three of them up if she had to.
But if she fell? The warrior released one hand and wiped the sweat from her palm, rubbing her fingers against the rock to add some dust to her skin. If she fell, they were all going to take a lethal header and she was damned if she was going to be responsible for that today.
She heard Gabrielle’s gasp, just as she felt the jolt through their link and she looked quickly up, seeing the arch of muscles under skin as the bard froze in place. “Gabrielle!”
“S…” Gabrielle licked her lips, staring straight ahead of her. “There’s a big spider here, Xe.”
“Eat it.” Ares clawed his way up, breathing hard. “Keep your mouth shut for a while.”
Xena moved up a little. “What does it look like?”
“It’s black.” The bard said. “And it’s got a lot of hair on it, and a yellow spot.”
“Squash it.” Ares said.
“Don’t’ touch it.” Xena countermanded him. “Stay still, Gabrielle. Don’t move.”
“Okay.” The bard remained in place, her eyes only widening as the spider emerged from the hole in the wall and waved it’s two front legs at her. “Easy, okay?” She forced her body to stay very still, resisting the urge to jerk back.
To one side, she heard the gentle whisper of steel against leather. “Xena?”
“Don’t move, hon.” The warrior murmured, curling the fingers of her free hand into a faint crack, as she drew her sword out with her other.
“Here, spidey spidey.” Ares turned his head to one side and blew on the spider. “G’wan.. bite her!”
“Ares!” Xena lifted herself up and over him, one arm sweeping out as she clung to the rock with amazing strength. “You pig!”
Ares sneered at her, and blew at the spider again, then gasped as his face was smacked against the rock.
The spider reared back as the air hit it, and then darted forward onto Gabrielle’s hand. It raised it’s legs up and exposed two curved, black fangs, a droplet falling from one of them onto the back of her knuckles.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and turned her head and simply trusted Xena as she pressed her body against the rock and felt the blast of air as the warrior struck.
Xena had, perhaps, the span of a finger in which to kill the spider without cutting Gabrielle’s hand off. She was already in mid motion before she saw the droplets, as the sword was already sweeping towards her partner’s body.
She shoved her body out away from the rock, tightening her fingers as they held her to the mountain as she arced herself over Ares and frantically looked for an angle that would get her to where she needed to be..
She saw the fangs dart downward, and she was out of time. With a curse she released the sword from her hand and let it fly off, slapping her fingers across the back of Gabrielle’s knuckles just at the spider’s needle sharp teeth touched the skin.
She felt the squirming, and the hairiness of it, and then it was gone as her arm finished sweeping across, batting the insect to bounce off Ares face before it tumbled down below them, her eyes losing it to sweep back up as a flash of light distracted her.
As though in slow motion, she watched Gabrielle suddenly release one hand off the mountain and reach out to grab the hilt of her sword as it tumbled past her, half turning to follow it’s motion before she realized herself what she was doing and turned sheet white.
Xena grabbed her arm as she saw her knees unlock. “Gabrielle!”
“Hey. I like spiders.” Ares was splatted against the rock under Xena’s weight. “Best thing that happened t.. ooof!”
“Hang on.” Xena could feel her own grip slipping. “Gab, drop the damn sword!”
The bard slammed against the rock wall with a gasp, her breath coming rapid and hard, the sword trapped between her body and the stone. “Gods.”
“You sure ask a lot for someone who disses me so much.” Ares remarked. “Hey, Warrior Moose. Get off me.”
“Shut up.” Xena tightened her grip, getting a better hold on the wall before she returned a hand to Gabrielle’s back. “You all right?”
One green eye opened and looked at her, no commentary required. The warrior immediately shoved herself further over, getting a good hold on Gabrielle’s belt and holding her up. “Easy.”
“Xena! You’re killin me!” Ares growled, his fingers slipping on the rock.
“Shut up or I will.” The warrior snapped back at him.
Gabrielle pressed against the sun warmed stone, feeling her entire body shaking. Her knees were barely holding her, and she knew if Xena hadn’t had her by the back of the belt she’d have fallen off the…
The whirl of the open space she’d just seen made her stomach rise, and she felt like she couldn’t breathe fast enough. After a moment, she felt motion around her and then the sun was blocked as Xena was suddenly crouched over her, holding on by who knew what.
“Xena!” Ares bellowed. “Damn it, that rope’s pulling.. ow!”
“Gab?” Xena gently put her hand on the sword trapped between the bard’s chest and the mountain. “Let me get this.” She curled her toes into the tiny cracks she’d found to hold them before she started to pull. “Sweetheart?”
“Oh.. gag.” Ares moaned.
Gabrielle felt her partner’s body press against her, Xena’s deep breath warming her back as the warrior remove the sword and it calmed her a little, feeling the steel ease past her shoulder. She blinked a few times, feeling the sting of tears, and she turned her head, to find Xena’s cheek near hers. “Don’t think I can go more.” She whispered.
Xena sheathed her sword with an equal whisper. “I think you’re wrong.”
“Gabrielle, I need you to do this.” The warrior murmured right into her ear. “I want us to get out of here… please?”
Xena asked for so little, in their lives together. Gabrielle knew. But when she did ask, it was never trivial and this time was no exception.
How could she say no? How in the world could she tell Xena she didn’t think she.. they.. were important enough for her to keep going?
Of course, she couldn’t. Truth be damned. “Gimme a minute to get my breath back.” Gabrielle stammered softly, inhaling sharply as Xena’s lips nibbled her neck. “That’s not helping.” The lips paused. “But don’t stop.”
“Augh” The god of war let out a groan.
Xena shifted, then she caught Gabrielle’s earlobe lightly between her teeth and bit down just enough to catch the sharp inhale. “Okay?” She uttered. “Before I cut off the flow of blood to his other brain?”
Gabrielle had to laugh, and the fear inside her retreated grudgingly before that. She didn’t really know what was going to happen next, but at least for the moment her knees had steadied, and she no longer felt like she was going to drop right off the mountain. “Yeah.” She nodded, briefly. “I’m okay.”
Gabrielle nodded again, then almost wished she hadn’t when the warmth behind her disappeared, replaced by the heat of the sun which was far less comforting. She waited for her breathing to finally steady out, before she turned her head to see Xena back on the other side of Ares, half a body length above them.
The sun was outlining her in gold, and clinging there to the rock, head up, body perfectly balanced it was like she was looking at an exquisitely carved statue, cast for the ages.
“Augh.” Ares turned his head and spat, nearly hitting her. He glared at Gabrielle from red-rimmed eyes, and curled his lip. “Done whining?”
Gabrielle gazed at him briefly in silence, then without a word she released one hand off the rock and punched him right in the nose.
“Hey!” The god of war rocked back, nearly losing his grip. “You little bitch!”
“You wanted that spider to bite me.” Gabrielle felt an almost welcome rush of anger replacing her fear. “I’m not a bitch.. you’re a jerk!” She pulled her fist back again, gratified to see Ares move out of her range, glaring at her impotently. “You better move!”
“You better not do that again, you…”
Gabrielle made like she was going to spit at him, and watched him shy off. “Not only that, you’re a sissy.” She pronounced. “You’re not hardly worth anyone worshiping as a god of war, you know that?”
“She’s right.” Xena eased up to another hold. “Up there, Gabrielle. See the ledge? You can get your hand on that and we’ll pull this useless bag of nothing up with us.”
“Watch it, wenches.” Ares warned. “When we get up there, I’m gonna turn you both into pigs.” He paused. “Not that you’ll realize the difference.”
“Oink this.” Gabrielle got her fingers into the crack and climbed up even with her partner. “Okay.” She looked sideways at Xena, and got a wink back, which made her smile again.
So strange. Here she was, feeling good about doing something violent. Even given how much she’d changed over the years, that was something she wasn’t used to. Her hand tingled where she’d hit Ares, and she flexed the fingers of it before she continued her climb upward.
Jerk. Gabrielle focused on staying angry. If she’d been bitten, then what? From Xena’s reaction she’d gathered the spider was poisonous, and so if had happened, then..
Well, then she’d probably be dying right about now. Gabrielle studied the wall in irritation, then she spotted a shadow near one hand and reached up to find a crack there. It was too narrow really to get her hand in, but she used the antler dangling from her wrist and jammed it in there, using it to climb up a little further.
After she did it, she stared at the tool, then down at where her boots were firmly wedged in place, as though she’d been doing this insanity all her life. Her brow furrowed, then she glanced over at Xena in question. “Did I do that right?”
“Good girl.” The pride in the warrior’s eyes was unmistakable. “Knew you could.”
Gabrielle’s lips twitched into a hesitant grin, and she thought suddenly about that wild, rainy day when Xena had come to the village, and stopped an arrow from splitting her in half. She imagined the warrior, facing that cliff, and treating it like just another obstacle to get over, climbing up it without anyone there to admire her courage, or wonder at her skill.
Just doing what she had to do, like they were doing right now. It wasn’t what they wanted to do, wasn’t what they’d chosen.. Gabrielle wasn’t even sure if it was the right thing, in the long run for any of them.
But she understood that Xena believed with all her heart that they had to get up that cliff, and so.. Gabrielle found another grip up over her head and took hold of it more confidently. And so, they’d climb. She pulled herself up, grateful for all the sparring that had built powerful muscles in her arms and shoulders and made her body capable of handling her own weight like she was.
She tightened her grip and felt cautiously with her boots for a hold, catching one on her left foot, but finding nothing but bare rock under her right. She put pressure on her one foothold, and straightened her leg, then found a tiny shelf for her right foot ready to hand.
Hm. The bard got lost, a little, in her own climbing world as she worked out what to do next. It really was a little like one of Xena’s thought puzzles in a way, where she had options available to her and it was a matter of selecting the right ones at the right time.
She reached over and curled her fingers into a crack, letting the bone aid fall down around her wrist again, and pulled a bit sideways, feeling a tension come into the rope around her waist. Pausing, she looked over at Ares, who was nearly a body length beneath her, struggling to move upward. “Could you get a move on?”
The god glared up at her. “Want me to put a move on you?”
“No.” The bard said. “You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny.” She rubbed her nose against a bit of rock outcropping, scratching an itch. “And if you turn me into a pig when we get out the first thing I’m going to do is poop on you.”
Ares glare modified into a stare. “You’re nuts.” He muttered, managing to haul himself up almost to her waist level. “Happy? Now move it.”
Gabrielle was glad enough to go back to her puzzle, the anger and even the fear beginning to slowly be taken over by a curious euphoria as they moved very slowly upward.
The feeling of shock was over. Her body had stopped shaking, and every successful move she made, she felt better and better about what they were doing.
They were going to make it. Gabrielle glanced over at Xena, who was half a body again ahead of her, eyes moving ceaselessly as she selected their path up the wall. As though feeling the attention, the warrior turned her head and smiled, making the bard smile back.
They were going to make it. After everything they’d faced so far, nothing was going to stop them. Gabrielle’s heart lifted.
The sun was painting the rock wall red as Xena paused, tipping her head back and viewing the jut of rock sticking out over them.
From the angle she was currently at, it was impossible for her to tell if the protruding shelf were a roadblock, or perhaps a chance for them to take a break.
Xena felt the ache in her fingers, and hoped for the latter. She looked over at Gabrielle, who had her cheek pressed against the rock, her eyes unfocused as she waited for Xena to move forward. The bard looked tired, as anyone would be, but Xena no longer felt the surging terror between them anymore.
It was possible, she conceded, that there was a point where you were just too tired to be afraid. Xena had been there, a time or two in her life, when the world narrowed to some very black and white basics and personal emotions drifted away.
Ares was just clinging there next to her, eyes shut tight. Xena suspected he was past the point of caring and she just hoped he’d hang in there so she and Gabrielle didn’t end up having to drag him up with them. “Okay.”
Gabrielle’s eyes focused on her hearing the word. “Okay?”
“I’m going to see what’s up there.” Xena pointed over her head. “Just relax for a minute.” She acknowledged the wry look with one of her own, then she carefully released each hand and wiped the sweat off it, before she cautiously found a handhold and edged up.
As she closed in on the protrusion, she realized there was no way up and around it except from the front. She paused under it, looking both ways. A crevice was visible to her left, but it was more than two bodylengths away and she’d have to untie herself from the others to do that.
Not an option. Xena steeled herself and took a few deep breaths, trying to gather as much energy as she could. “Gabrielle!”
“I’m going to..”
“I know what you’re going to do. Don’t miss!” The bard yelled back, her voice loud and stronger than Xena had expected.
“Right.” Xena took another breath, then she crouched, readying herself for a long moment before she leaped out into space, arching slightly backwards to clear the protrusion as she threw her hands over it, hoping like Hades she had something to grab onto.
Her fingers touched stone, then she curled them over as the edge cut into her palm, scraping it. She tightened her hands, and felt her legs swing free, only her grip holding her up in the cool air. If she looked down, she knew she’d see nothing but pebbles and death below her, in a gathering twilight that probably had Pony and Gran already in semi darkness.
She’d also see Gabrielle watching her.
Xena swung herself back and forth, gathering up momentum for a minute before she bucked her body into a jackknife as she pulled upward, using the motion to swing her chest and shoulders up and get her head over the ledge.
Yes! The warrior smoothly continued the hurdle, pressing herself up and onto the now visible space that was roomier than she’d dared hope. She rolled onto her side and flexed her hands, wincing as she brushed slivers of granite from her palms.
After a moment to catch her breath, she reviewed her unexpected sanctuary, a cool breeze lifting the hair from her face as she took in the space with a prickle of delighted surprise.
Roomy enough for her to sit with her back to the rock wall stretching upward, and extend her legs fully, and still not reach the edge. “Damn.” She turned around and let her legs dangle over, sorting out her rope. “Bout time I caught a break.”
“I’m fine!” Xena called back. “Got a spot we can rest in.”
There was a long silence. Then – “You’re not expecting me to do what you just did, right?”
Almost giddy with relief, Xena came close to laughing. “No.” She called back. “You steady enough to untie?”
Another long silence. “Okay.”
Xena slowly pulled in the rope, feeling it catch, and move reluctantly as she yanked it through the cradle around Ares. “I’m gonna let it back down.. tie yourself again.” She crawled over and poked her head out into the open air, dropping the end of the rope back down to her partner. “I’m going to pull you up first.. then we’ll pull Ares up.”
Ares looked up at her.
Xena almost felt a sympathy for him. “Sorry, big boy.” She watched Gabrielle very carefully tie the rope back around her waist, using only one hand. When the bard was done, Xena wrapped the other end over her shoulder and back around her side, tucking her boots up under the ledge to brace herself. “Start climbing.”
Gabrielle gamely did just that, using her bone rigs to slowly creep up the rock. Her face was a study in concentration, the setting sun backlighting her in an almost halo like glow.
As she climbed, Xena drew in the rope, pulling it over her shoulder to steady the bard. Soon enough, though, she reached the spot where Xena had abandoned the wall, and looked up. “Now what?”
Xena gazed into her eyes. “Now, you just let go.” She said. “I’ll pull you up.. you grab my boots, and you’ll be up here next to me before you know it.”
Gabrielle blinked. Then she blinked again. Then, very unexpectedly, she did exactly what Xena told her to do, and simply released her hands, leaning back away from the wall suspended by the rope around her waist.
Xena’s face twitched, as she took the sudden pressure on her shoulder, locking her legs into place so the bard’s weight didn’t pull her off the ledge. Leaning back herself, she started hauling, shifting the rope over her shoulder and around her side in small bursts, until she felt a touch on her ankles.
It occurred to her, suddenly, that thought she was a good deal larger and definitely stronger than Gabrielle, the effort of pulling her over the ledge and pretty much into her lap could actually be fatal to both of them.
Oh well. “Ready?” Xena felt the grip on her legs tighten. “One, two.. “ She pulled hard on the rope and kicked her legs out at the same time, sending Gabrielle hurtling upward.
As the bard cleared the ledge and released her hold on Xena’s legs, the warrior grabbed her and pulled her forward, knocking herself backwards, and ending up flat on her back with Gabrielle sprawled over her. “See? Nothing to it.”
The bards arms closed around her in a hug, and Xena could feel the shivering in them. She wrapped her arms around her partner in return and ignored the feel of two swords digging into her back as they both took a time out.
Gabrielle lay there motionless for a brief period, then she sat up, easing herself off her partner as she scooted over to the wall and put her back to it. “You’re not going to do that with him. Are you?”
Xena shook her head.
“Good.” The bard dusted her hands off, the bone climbing anchors dangling from their gut stays. She leaned back and watched her partner lower the rope again, glad enough to simply sit. Reaching the bottom of the ledge had taken everything she’d had left, and in total honesty it had been relief when Xena had told her to let go.
She hadn’t really thought about falling, or about how far they were up – all she’d wanted was what she had right now – a place where she could sit her butt down and let her muscles relax and just absorb the setting sun on her skin.
Gabrielle tipped her head up and looked at the wall above her head, awash in sunset. The surface looked smooth, and chillingly void of easy handholds, though there was a crevice to one side that offered a potential help.
Then above that.. she exhaled. Above that, she could see the edge of the cliff, their goal that was now half again what it was when they started.
Half again. Gabrielle wiped her face with one hand, waiting for Xena to work out what to do next. Then, when they had Ares up on the ledge, then what? With a sigh, the bard removed a bit of walnut from the pouch strapped around her waist, all she’d taken from the valley with her. She nibbled it, steeling herself to the fact that they had very little other than a few nuts, and some water until they got out. “Know what?”
“What?” Xena turned her head, then looked down again. “C’mon, tie it, Ares.” She leaned over and moved the rope closer.
After a brief pause, Ares released one hand off the mountain and took the rope, then he started working it around his body and through the loops Xena had tied around him.
“No, just around you!” Xena yelled.
Ares looked up at her, then leaned back just enough for her to see the injury across his chest.
“Okay.” The warrior half waved. “Sorry.”
With a faint shake of his head, Ares went back to working the rope into place.
Xena sighed, then she turned her head to look at Gabrielle. “What?”
Gabrielle let her hands rest on her thighs. “When we get out of here I’m going to go find the biggest fish I can, even if it’s big as I am, and cook it for us.” She told her partner. ‘And you’re going to get me drunk.”
Xena chuckled softly. “That sounds great.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Oh yeah.” The warrior watched as Ares finished tying off the rope. “Hungry, tired, thirsty, pissed off… I’m not enjoying life right now. You?”
“Well.” Gabrielle folded her hands across her lap. “You know what I always say.” She looked fondly at her partner. “You and I are here, alive, so how bad could it really be?”
Xena leaned her elbows on her knees and looked off across the narrow valley to the wall beyond, and the sun setting behind it as an unexpected stinging in her eyes made her blink. “Yeah.” She cleared her throat. “You gotta point there.”
“Hey!” Ares called up.
Xena exhaled and returned her attention to their injured companion. “Okay, now get ready to come up.” She called down.
The god of war merely nodded, eschewing his previous sarcasm. He was very visibly at the end of his strength, and Xena knew they’d have a struggle on their hands when they got him to the ledge.
“We ready?” Gabrielle asked. “I’d kinda like to get this part over with.” She got up and dusted her hands off. “Remind me never to complain about sitting on hard rock floors, okay?”
“Me either.” Xena half turned and handed back the end of the rope. “Run it around that crag there.” She instructed. “We’ll haul him up like one of my mother’s oat sacks.” She got up, bracing her boot near the very edge under the rope to keep it from rubbing and took the free end from Gabrielle.
The bard took hold of it herself closer to the wall, and they both started to pull, shoulders moving in smooth synchronization.
Overhead, behind the sunset, a distant rumble of thunder sounded.
The rain started just after the sun set, and put to rest any thoughts on Xena’s part to continue climbing in the dark. The need to move forward was pressing incessantly on her, driven by her instincts and the increasingly feeble condition of Ares – but falling off the cliff wouldn’t do anything to help the situation so she resolved to take the opportunity to at least get some rest.
There was no shelter. Xena had her back to the cliff wall, one arm around Gabrielle and the other half shading her face from the worst of the weather. Ares was lying next to her, facing the wall and curled onto his side as the rain pelted his back.
At least the weather had taken care of her worst fear – their limited drinking water. She licked the drops off her lips, and rested her cheek against Gabrielle’s damp hair as the bard huddled against her quietly, eyes blinking occasionally to shed the rain.
“Know what this reminds me of?” Xena asked, after they’d both been quiet for far too long.
“Nuh uh.” Gabrielle murmured, shaking her head. “What?”
“Remember that night I fell off Argo?”
Gabrielle was briefly silent, then she chuckled. “Do I remember that.. oh, all the gods in Olympus do I remember that night.” She said. “I was so totally, completely freaked out because I made Argo trip..”
‘You bit your tongue.” Xena agreed. “I thought Argo kicked you in the mouth and I freaked out.”
“And it was raining.” The bard recalled.
“And it was raining.” Xena agreed. “And I caught my boot in her stirrup when I was falling and ended up falling on my head in that pile of cow dung.”
“Unnnnghh.” Gabrielle moaned softly. “What a night.”
“Mm.” Xena remembered the stench, and the misery of it all, and the giddy laughter they’d shared. “I realized that night you were actually a friend, y’know.”
“I know.” The bard smiled. “It was one of the best nights of my life.” She said. “Even though I couldn’t say anything without sounding like an idiot.”
“Even though I was covered in cow crap.” The warrior smiled as well. “It had been so damn long since I’d been able to just be stupid and not have anyone judge me on it.. I felt.. I felt like ten years came off me that night.”
Gabrielle held her hand out and caught the rain in it. “I’d never heard you giggle before.” She remarked. “It was so amazing.. and you let me sleep in your lap.. I thought I was in Elysia.”
“If I wasn’t already dying, you’d be killing me.” Ares grumbled. “Would you two shut up?”
Xena chuckled. “Revenge is damn sweet.” She waggled her drenched feet. “My mother always told me that.”
“Especially when it’s served cold and rainy?” Gabrielle snickered. “One of the things you learn when you’re mortal, Ares, is take your fun where you find it, because it might be your last laugh.”
Ares made a rude noise.
Gabrielle shifted a little, laying her arm over Xena’s stomach and snuggling closer. “The other thing you learn is how to savor sweet moments, because you really do never know which’ll be the last one.” She watched Xena’s hand move, and the warrior’s fingers interlaced with hers.
“Give me a break.” The god of war moaned.
The rain came down harder, the sound providing them with almost a curtain of privacy. Xena released her hand to wipe the droplets off Gabrielle’s face, tracing the rounded cheekbones and reserving a moment to simply love the bard.
Gabrielle felt it. She turned and looked up at Xena the emotion so raw in her eyes it needed no light for the warrior to see it. Her hair was plastered to her head, and between the flashes of lightning raindrops trickled down her face.
Or maybe they were tears, but not sad ones. Xena thought about what their lives had been like so far, so full of pain, so full of hardship and yet so full of moments like this one that she wouldn’t have traded for all the dry comfort on earth.
This, she acknowledged, was a taste of immortality, because what she felt for Gabrielle transcended anything physical and even when they both died, she knew in her heart that part of them, part of this, would remain forever.
“Hey, Xena?” Gabrielle drew one leg up, her knee blocking some of the rain. “How about a story?”
“Once upon a time.” Xena responded amiably. “There was a little duck.”
Gabrielle started chuckling. “I meant.. do you want me to tell one.” She clarified. “Because honey, I have heard that duck story, and it’s just not the time or the place for it.”
Xena chuckled wickedly. “Spoilsport.”
Ares rolled over onto his back and stared up into the rain as it pelted him, the droplets bouncing off his body. “You both suck.” He said. “You’re making me want to throw up.”
“Good.” Gabrielle picked up Xena’s hand and started to place kisses across the palm. “You know, I really can’t believe you and Aphrodite are actually related to each other.”
Ares snorted softly. “Me either.”
“Think she’s watching us?” Xena enjoyed the warmth of Gabrielle’s breath against her fingers. “Like you were?”
The god was briefly silent. “Maybe.” He finally half shrugged. “She gets in moods.”
Gabrielle peered over at him. “Do you watch us a lot?”
Ares angled his head so he could watch her. “Why? You want a critique?”
“No.” The bard replied mildly. “I know how good I am.”
Above her, Xena’s eyes popped wide open, and she glanced down at her partner.
“I was just wondering, because it seems like you’ve got nothing better to do than hang out and watch our lives.” The bard went on. “Is immortality that dull?”
It was dark, and it was raining, and they were in an impossible situation. Maybe all of those things, along with his injury, finally weighed in on him. “Sometimes.” Ares admitted. “Just so many wars, so many people to kill, y’know? Gets a little boring sometimes.”
What was it like, Gabrielle suddenly wondered, to know you had to live on without end? She was always so often on the other side of that question it never occurred to her what living forever would mean. “You ever get tired of it?”
Ares opened his mouth and collected some rain in it. “Sometimes.” He answered after a few minutes. “Sometimes you mortals don’t know how lucky you really are.” He stared up into the storm. “If this wasn’t so damn painful and such a pain in the ass, I might’ve enjoyed it.”
“Really?” Gabrielle cupped a handful of rain again and sipped it.
“Different.” Ares explained, briefly. “Lot of things happened.. yeah.” He sniffed reflectively. “Got stabbed.. got half drowned, got blown through a waterfall.. had my nuts pulled half off.. been more fun than kicking my dog, gotta tell ya.”
“Do you?” Xena asked. “Kick the dog?”
Ares tilted his head back and gazed up at her. “What do you think?”
Xena pursed her lips. “I don’t think you do.” She decided. “I think under all the asshole is a square inch of decency somewhere.”
“Kiss my ass, Xena.”
“Bleh.” The warrior stuck her tongue out.
Gabrielle shaded her eyes from the rain with one hand. “Is your dog related to Cerberus, Ares?”
The god nodded. “Yeah.” He answered. “One of his whelps by my sister’s mutt. He’s allright, if you like slobber.” His eyes shifted to her face. “And I know you do, cause that mutt of yours drools like a fish.”
“I didn’t know Aphrodite had a dog.” Gabrielle said. “I like our wolf. He’s loyal, and he’s very protective of Dori.”
‘Yeah.” Ares said, briefly. “Thanks for naming him for me. Yuk hyuk.”
“Well.” The bard put her head back down on Xena’s shoulder. “He’s crazy about Xena, too.” She muffled a snicker as she felt Xena begin to silently laugh. “And he’s a sissy. He’s afraid of his own shadow.”
Ares gave her a look. “You really do suck sometimes.”
“Sometimes.” Xena agreed. “But she’s good at it.”
Ares rolled his eyes. “The seventh level of Hades is so pleasant compared to being here with the two of you, y’know that?”
The rain was chilling now, and Gabrielle was privately ready to agree with her erstwhile nemesis. “We ready for that story yet, or do you want to trade insults some more?” She felt Xena’s arms slide around her, and the warmth was gratifying beyond words. “Mm.”
“I”ve heard your stories. They suck.” Ares said. “They’re all about her. Or about my brother. Or about my sister…”
“How about one about you?” The bard asked, after he paused.
Ares slowly rolled his eyes around to study her. “You don’t know any stories about me, blondie.”
“Mm.. “ Gabrielle mused. “But I’m a bard. I can make one up. Want me to?” She asked. “Want to see how I see you?”
Xena watched them both in some mild fascination. She knew well the power of Gabrielle’s stories, and how she felt when the bard told one about her. Would Ares dare it? “C’mon, Ares. Only chance your’e gonna get for this. Live a little.”
The god of war hesitated, then he shrugged with an almost overly casual air. “Why not?” He said. “You’ve already called me everything in the book.. sure. G’wan.”
Gabrielle’s gaze unfocused, as she stared off into the rain and delved inside herself in this the most special aspect of her gift. Retelling a story – well, that took some work, and she was reasonably skilled at it, or so she thought.
Creating new stories, especially when she was really creating something at a time like this, in a place like they were – that was another level again. “Okay.” She said, after a few silent minutes. “Here we go… in the time of the gods youth, when the world was wild, and men were yet unborn….”
Ares rolled over onto his side, and pillowed his head on his arm, his eyes never leaving her face.
It finally stopped raining not long before dawn. Xena sensed the silence and it woke her, eyes fluttering open as the peace extended itself across the huge space before them.
Nothing was moving. No bats crossed the empty sky, no birds were yet awake. The wind had died down, and if she hadn’t been sitting on granite she’d have felt like she was floating in a gray, formless cloud.
Eerie, and yet as though time had taken a pause on her behalf.
Her back felt stiff, but she’d gotten some sleep, and more than anything she was looking forward to dawn so they could finish what they’d started and get the Hades out of the valley. She wanted that so bad she could taste it, the worry of them not making it gnawing at her guts in an unceasing fashion.
A warm breath against her skin made her look down at Gabrielle, but the bard was still fast asleep huddled against her. Drenched and bedraggled, her partner reminded her irresistibly of the rumpled kid she’d first known and Xena quietly placed a kiss on the damp hair, smiling faintly as she felt Gabrielle’s hands tighten a little.
Well, at least one of them had been halfway comfortable.
Ares was sprawled next to her, his head pillowed on his arms, almost indistinguishable in the dim light from the waning stars, the sky otherwise dark and moonless.
Sitting there wasn’t too comfortable. Her butt was asleep, for example. But Xena had learned over the years to get rest whenever she could so she closed her eyes again, and tried to let the world drift away from her.
Then again. Xena opened one eye and peered down at Ares. “What?”
“Are we dead, yet?”
“No.” The warrior replied. “What makes you think we were?”
Ares mulled the question over for a while. “That whole.. sleeping thing.. wake up, not wake up.. kinda whacked, y’know?”
“Mm.” It was Xena’s turn to ponder. “Gods don’t sleep?”
“Yeah.” Ares said. “Maybe that’s why.. “ He paused. “We depend in you mortals for so much entertainment.”
Xena frowned a bit into the darkness as the silence lengthened between them. Finally, she cleared her throat gently. “Know what?”
“You should get married.”
Silence. Then.. “What???”
Xena shifted a little, then settled back with a sigh. “You should get married. I used to go looking for trouble, mostly because I was bored out of my mind. Now I don’t.”
Ares made a sound halfway between a snort of disbelief and a laugh. “You gotta be kidding me.” The god of war said. “You really expect me to believe that?”
“I don’t.” Xena protested, with a shrug. “I can’t help it a damn flood washed me down the river.”
The god of war snorted again. “See? You’re so stupid, you don’t even know it. The river didn’t wash you down anywhere.. you went to grab the kid. If you’d a let her go, you’d be back home kicking back right now.”
Xena exhaled, shaking her head. “You just don’t get it, do you?”
“It’s the truth, Xena.”
“Yeah?” The warrior’s voice dropped. “Tell me Ares.. was I kicking back after you made Gabrielle take a header into that lava?”
Ares didn’t answer.
“I know you were there. I could feel you. Was I laughing?” Xena’s tone took on a hard edge now. “Could you feel what I felt? Did you hear me screaming?”
Ares remained silent.
“You. Don’t. Get. It.” Xena went on, after a pause. “You keep thinking this is some kind of phase I’m in that I’ll get over. Forget it, Ares. This isn’t a phase. This is my life’s choice.”
The stars were fading slowly out overhead, as the sky prepared itself for dawn. Ares had half rolled over onto his back and was looking up, his profile only barely visible. “What makes you think you get a choice?’
Xena smiled into the darkness. “Because I’m mortal.”
“Aren’t we proud of that.” Ares voice was sarcastic. ‘Think you’re going to like getting old, Xena? Losing those looks? That sword? How’s it feel to know you’re going downhill?”
Xena let her head rest against the rock and thought about that. She knew it was true, but somewhere along the line in her life she’d somehow lost her fear of it. “I like change.” The warrior eventually answered. “And on the bright side, maybe you’ll finally leave me alone, and I can just kick back and chill out.”
Ares snorted under his breath.
Xena felt a feather light touch on the curve of her breast, and she glanced down to see Gabrielle’s lips pressed there. “What do you think?”
The bard looked up at her. “What do I think?” She replied, her voice husky from sleep. “I think I’m going to revel in very single moment of our lives together. That’s what I think.”
“Every moment?” Xena asked. “Even this one?”
“Even this one.” The bard agreed. “Especially this one.” She kissed Xena’s breast again.
Ah. Xena’s nose wrinkled as she produced a grin. Nothing like getting the juices flowing to warm you up on a cold, damp, rock ledge in the middle of nowhere. She shifted and pulled Gabrielle up a little, kissing her on the lips to continue the process.
She could feel the slight roughness from the wind as her tongue explored the bard’s mouth, and she wished they were anywhere but where they were when her body responded and wanted to go much further.
Tweaking Ares was one thing. Giving him a front row seat knowingly was another completely. Reluctantly, Xena lifted her head and exchanged wry looks with her partner, who poked the very tip of her tongue out in response. “All right.” She said. “I’ll give you this moment.”
“Heh.” Gabrielle nuzzled her a little more, then, with a reluctant sigh, she eased away from her bedraggled leather pillow and drew her legs up under her. She rested her elbows on her knees and scrubbed her face with her hands, wishing for a number of things she had no chance of getting.
Food, hot water, Dori. Just to name a few. Gabrielle felt a sudden ache in her heart at the thought of her daughter, though she knew the toddler was probably being well taken care of by any number of her family.
Wasn’t she? The bard frowned. After all, she’d found out now how Pony and Gran really felt, what if Eph… No. Gabrielle pushed the thought aside. Even if Ephiny decided one morning she hated them, she knew the regent would take care of Dori because it was her duty to take care of her. There were many things she could doubt but Ephiny’s steadfast devotion to the tribe wasn’t among them. “Rats.”
“Hmm?” Xena leaned over towards her. “What is it?”
“What isn’t it?” The bard sighed. “I’m getting close to that point where I start freaking out about everything I’m thinking.” She admitted. “Just warning you.”
Xena patted her on the back.
Ah well. Gabrielle slowly pushed herself upright, then she climbed to her feet to stretch her body out, staying close to the wall. She put her hands against the rock and pressed against it, feeling her back pop into place with a grudging sound. “Ugh.”
Xena was glad enough to get up and join her, leaning back and crossing her legs at the ankles as she let the blood flow back into her thighs. “Sleep okay?”
“I slept.” The bard turned around and leaned next to her. “And as much as I’m adoring every second of my life with you, honey, I’d like to be enjoying it someplace else. When can we start?”
Xena turned and looked up at the wall, now that the coming dawn was giving her just enough light to see it. The stone was dark with moisture, and she realized the rising sun would be hitting the opposite valley wall with complete unhelpfulness. “Crap.”
“What?” Gabrielle turned and leaned next to her, also looking up. “It’s pretty steep.” She acknowledged. ”Is that a problem?”
“Not as much of a problem as this is.” Xena lifted her hands off the rock and turned them over, the palms glistening with moisture in the low light.
“Oh.” Gabrielle looked at her own hands. “Well, crap. You’re right.”
Ares had managed to get himself upright, and he pulled himself over to the wall and leaned against it, breathing hard. The front of his half torn catskin was covered in blood and pus, though the rain had washed off most of the wound itself. “Doesn’t matter.” He said. “I ain’t going nowhere anyway.”
“Don’t be a jackass, Ares.” Xena muttered. “We don’t have time for it.”
The god of war stared silently at his upturned hands, resting on his legs. “I’m not.” He answered, after a moment. “Not that I don’t wanna be.”
Xena turned and looked at him, the dawn light showing the hollowed eyes and the ragged breathing. “Ah.” She murmured, remembering suddenly looking at herself in a mirror a long time ago and seeing the same signs, aware of an anxious Gabrielle watching her.
The memory rippled away as a very different Gabrielle slipped past her to kneel by Ares side, mature compassion erasing the frightened post adolescent she had been. “C’mon, Ares. I don’t believe you can’t make it up there. We’re almost to the top.”
“Shut up.” Ares gazed at her. “I’m dying, you idiot.”
To her credit, Gabrielle didn’t so much as flinch. “I know.” She replied with quiet honesty. “But you’re not dead yet, so you have to keep trying.” Her hand lifted and curled around his arm. “Because it’s so easy for us to die, we kind of learn to hold on tight to life, you know?”
“Why?” The god asked.
“What?” Gabrielle said. “What do you mean, why?”
“You come into the world screaming, you live, you get old and lose your teeth, and then you croak anyway.” Ares stated, in an almost mild tone. “So, what’s the point? Croak!”
Gabrielle sighed. “Xena’s right.” She said. “You really just don’t get it.”
Ares shook her hand off. “No.” He said. “You two don’t get it. Mortals don’t get it. Your lives are all meaningless.. got that? They don’t matter!”
“They do to us.” Gabrielle put her hand back on his arm. “And they do to you too, Ares. Don’t sit there and tell me you don’t care about us. Or Xena, anyway.” She stared into his eyes. “All the times you asked me to give my life for hers, don’t tell me that, because if her life didn’t matter, why bother?’
The blue eyes looked right back into hers. “It doesn’t matter.” Ares said. “I just hate losing. Especially to little nothings like you.”
Ahh. Gabrielle sat down next to him. There was truth there, she knew. “Well.” She cleared her throat, very aware of Xena’s silent presence at her back. “The problem is, Ares.. I hate losing too.” Her eyes shifted back to his face. “Especially to conniving, hypocritical bastards like you.”
Gabrielle shrugged. “So.. whatever it takes for us to get out of here, we’ll do it. If we have to drag you with us by a rope around your ankles, then okay.”
“Hey.” Ares gave her a mocking look. “Just leave me here. What’s stopping you?’
The bard leaned towards him, no trace of humor in her face. “Because I won’t.. we won’t lose to you, Ares.”
“Lose to me? I’m the one who’s dying here, remember?”
“Exactly.” Gabrielle kept her eyes glued to his. “Xena touched that sword. We all know what’s going to happen if she gets out of here, and you don’t.”
With the faintest of smiles, he looked at her, then glanced up at Xena. “Figured it out, huh? I always said you were smart. Too bad you don’t prove it most of the time.” He looked back at Gabrielle. “ Dying’s gonna be worth it, you know that, Gabrielle? Because I’m gonna win in the end of this.” He put his hands behind his head.
“No you won’t.” Xena spoke up for the first time.
“Won’t I?” The god of war managed a smile. “Bet I do.”
“Bet you don’t.” The warrior stared across the valley, then looked down at him. “Either we all get out… or none of us will, Ares.”
“Give me a break.” Ares scoffed, weakly.
Xena crouched down next to Gabrielle, leaning one arm on her shoulder for balance. “Believe it.” She said. “I’m not taking your place, Ares. We’ll all die here first.”
All trace of humor vanished. “And leave the world to death and destruction?” Ares asked, softly. “No greater good, Xena?”
His eyes shifted to Gabrielle’s face. “Gonna let all those people die, Gabrielle?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle replied. “You won’t win.” She said. “Not this time.”
Ares settled back against the rock. “Tough crowd.” He remarked. “Guess we’ll see who dies first, huh?”
“Guess we will.” Xena stood and regarded the rock wall again, as a sense of driving inevitability took hold of her. “Gab, get your antlers on.”
“You got it.” The bard started to stand, but turned as she felt Ares grab her wrist. She looked back at him and they stared at each other in silence for a very long moment. Then she removed his fingers from her wrists, and turned away, heading for the small pile of things they had left to them.
Dawn spread across the far side of the valley, lighting the rock wall in pinks and golds. But their wall remained in shadows, both seen and unseen.