The harsh roar of thunder caused Xena to lazily open one eye some time later, as she gazed out the window, contentedly watching the rainfall. One hand made slow, soothing circles on Gabrielle's sleeping back, the other rested comfortably on her own stomach, rising and falling with her relaxed breathing. She yawned, and let her eyes close, as the patter of rain on the thickly thatched roof seductively urged her back into sleep. No no... her mind scolded, and she opened the eye again.
The candles had burned down, and now the room was mostly lit from the fireplace, and was shadowed in darkness from the storm outside. Xena shifted a little, and blinked open both eyes, running the council session through her mind.
A cold draft blew in the window, and she lifted her arm, pulling her cloak closer, and tucking the ends neatly around Gabrielle’s shoulder. Not taking any chances with you getting sick again, my bard. Her mind mused, not after that last time. You had me scared out of all good sense.
"I’m fine" The bard had said, for the third time that day, when Xena had questioned her, but this time the words triggered a coughing spell that left her hanging on Argo’s saddle ring for support, and brought the warrior sliding down off the tall horse’s withers at breakneck speed.
"Easy." Xena had said, supporting her shoulders until her chest eased, and continuing to grasp her as she took a cautious breath, and leaned her head against Argo’s flank. "Damn." Xena cursed, and crouched to put a sensitive ear against the bard’s chest. "Breathe." She ordered.
Gabrielle had done so, and watched as Xena straightened up, and put a hand on her forehead, not bothering to hide her worried expression. "We need to find shelter." She told the bard. "I’d like to get to a town, but we’re three days from the nearest." Her eyes searched the area. "Those cliffs over there might have some caves, though. Can you hang on till we get there?"
"Sure." Gabrielle had assured her. "It’s just a cough, Xena." But she had heard the rattling in her own breathing, and knew better. Knew that the warrior knew that even better than she did.
"You’re riding." Xena replied, in a voice that brooked no disagreement. She vaulted back onto Argo’s back, and put an arm out to the bard, shaking her head when Gabrielle reached up for the back of the saddle. "No… in front." She corrected quietly, and lifted the bard up, helping her to swing one leg over Argo’s neck, and moving back in the saddle to allow Gabrielle to nestle in front of her, with one of Xena's powerful arms wrapped around the her middle for support.
Gabrielle had stayed very quiet, and after a while she had given up all attempts at pretending wellness, and simply allowed herself to slump back against Xena’s chest, and had closed her eyes, wearily attempting to doze between coughing fits.
Xena had pulled Argo to a halt next to the cliff, having located a decent sized cave, one large enough for even the horse to enter, and slid off the golden back, gently pulling Gabrielle off as soon as her booted feet were secure on the ground. The bard had swayed, holding on to Xena’s arms for support, and the warrior had made a quick decision, sliding one arm behind Gabrielle’s shudders, and one under her knees, and lifted her like a child.
"Hey. .I can walk." Gabrielle had protested, stifling a cough. "Xena, you don’t." Another cough stopped her, and she curled towards the warrior’s body, resting her head against one broad shoulder. "Oh gods." She’d whispered, and Xena had felt her heart skip.
"Hang in there, OK?" She’d said, right into the bard’s nearby ear. She’d gotten Gabrielle settled, and camp set up, carefully collecting a large supply of firewood, and searching the nearby underbrush for healing herbs she knew she was short of.
Gabrielle had gotten worse that night, and worse again the following day, unable to hold down even the smallest amounts of liquid from the coughing, which allowed her no rest. No rest for Xena either, who had felt a solid knot of panic starting to build in her chest, at this enemy which she had limited strength against.
Going into the darkness of that following night, Xena had adjusted the fire, after having the bard breathe a little of the aromatic steam made from pouring boiling water over crushed eucalyptus leaves, which seemed to help a little. The bard was half sitting, half lying on her sleeping roll, leaning against Argo’s saddle, which the warrior had propped under her so she wasn’t lying flat, and she’d looked up at Xena as she walked back over. "Xena." The bard had said her voice hoarse from coughing.
"Don’t’ talk." Xena had replied, settling to the ground next to her, and putting a hand on her arm. "You’re a little warm."
Gabrielle had nodded wearily, and Xena had hurt to see the paleness of her face, and the darkness of the circles under her eyes. "Hard to breathe." The bard had whispered, and Xena had been able to see the movement of her shoulders as her lungs labored to drag air into her clogged passages. And for the first time, a cold, bleak, knot of fear had gathered in the warrior’s gut, that closed her own throat.
"Cold." Gabrielle had pulled her cloak closer around her body, giving the warrior a wry attempt at a smile. Then her green eyes had found Xena’s, and the warrior responded to the unspoken plea there by sliding onto the bard’s bedroll, and opening her arms.
"Come here." Xena had said, lifting Gabrielle’s body up, and sliding in behind her so that the bard was resting against her chest, with the warrior’s strong arms wrapped around her. "That any better?" She asked, and had heard the break in her voice.
Gabrielle had half turned, and buried her face in Xena’s shirt, and tangled her fingers in the fabric as well. "I’m scared." She’d whispered, then tightened her hands convulsively as a cough racked her body. When it was over, she just lay quietly for a moment, then lifted her head, and peered up at the shadowed face above her. "Glad you’re here."
"Wish I could do more." Xena had answered, with a sigh.
"Glad its you.. and not someone else." The bard had said softly. "So much I want to say…"
"No." Xena whispered fiercely. "Don’t you start that." She had tightened her hold, and abandoned all pretenses towards distance between them. Her careful rationalizations of exactly why she felt an insatiable craving for physical contact with the bard flew out the window, and she just gave into her instincts, and felt Gabrielle do the same.
"Understand.. why you had Callisto help.." The bard responded, stifling a cough with an effort. "Sorry I got mad about that. You were right."
"It’s not important, Gabrielle. You don’t need to bring that up now." Xena protested quietly.
"Owe you.." The bard couldn’t stifle the cough this time, and it had shook her hard, and Xena had been able to hear the rattling sound as she tried to draw breath after it eased.
"You don’t owe me a damned thing." The warrior uttered in a low tone. "You need to get some rest, Gabrielle – try to sleep."
The pale head shook slowly. "Afraid."
"Of what? I’ve got you." Xena had consciously gentled her voice.
"That I won’t wake up." Gabrielle had choked out, and taken a shuddering breath
The words had sent a shock wave of terror through Xena’s body, and her heart started pounding with painful speed in her chest. No….
Gabrielle’s eyes had opened, and her head lifted, to push aside the sickness and the pain, focusing her gaze on Xena’s face. One hand moved up, and settled gently on Xena’s chest, her expression shifting from weary discouragement to startled wonder.
"Yeah." Xena had finally said, "So now you know what scares me, too." She paused. "So don’t you be going off anywhere, all right?"
Gabrielle had blinked at her. "All right." She’d whispered, her gaze going inward.
"Promise?" Xena had replied, aware suddenly of the fragility of the life she held wrapped in her arms.
The green eyes had jerked back and met hers for a timeless moment. "Promise." The bard had finally said, with a quiet air of decision about her. Then she closed her eyes, and with more confidence, laid her head down on Xena’s chest, so that her ear was pressed against the spot right over her heart.
And for all that long, dark night, Xena had held her close, standing sentinel against the cold wind, and the insidious power that was trying to pull Gabrielle away from her, her blue eyes roaming the interior of the cave, daring anything corporeal or otherwise to threaten her charge.
In the deepest hours of the night, when the human body reaches it’s lowest ebb, and when the journey between this life and the next comes the easiest, Xena had felt the bard stir, and sigh, and lift her face to gaze up at her.
"Think I’m gonna try to sleep a little." The bard had quietly said, having had a respite from the racking coughs for a short while.
"All right." Xena had answered, getting her to drink a little water, and giving her a smile when she managed to swallow a few mouthfuls without coughing. "I’ll be right here."
Gabrielle had nodded, and settled her head back down, and after hesitating briefly, moved her arms from their cramped position in front of her and slid them around Xena’s body. "Can’t think of a better reason to wake up." She’d mumbled, forgetting the ethereally sharp hearing of her companion, who let an unseen smile respond to the sentiment, as she turned her head to focus her hearing on the gentle rasp of Gabrielle’s labored breathing.
The sun had found her still listening, and as the first rays warmed the cave mouth, Xena’s heart lurched as the gentle rasping stopped.
But the body securely clasped in her arms still moved, the chest rose and fell with gentle regularity, and Xena realized that the worst was over. She had felt the smile that had crossed her face involuntarily, and as the relief poured through her, it melted down barriers she had kept up for a long time. She buried her face in Gabrielle’s hair, and just let the emotion out, taking a deep breath as silent tears dampened the soft red gold strands.
And had gotten caught at it as the warmth of the sun and the growing light woke the bard, and she blinked open her eyes, glancing up and going still as the dancing rays of dawn outlined Xena’s half smile, and reflected off the tears still glistening on her cheeks.
The bard could have said.. anything. But what she chose to say was nothing, instead, she had closed her eyes, and returned the half smile, and buried her face back into Xena’s linen clad chest with a contented sigh. And that had been enough for both of them.
"Hey." A sleep-blurred voice interrupted her thoughts.
Xena glanced down at the bard in amusement. "Hey yourself." She answered, still smiling from her thoughts.
"Whatcha thinking of?" Gabrielle yawned, charmed by the smile on her partner’s face.
"You." Xena answered, watching the bard blush a little in response. Good answer, Xena. Her mind chuckled. "And a little about the council."
Gabrielle stretched, then snuggled closer, flinching a little at a loud clap of thunder. "What’s up with that, Xena? It sounds like a no win situation.. do you think you can really… no, forget I asked that…" She smiled apologetically. "What’s the plan?" she asked instead.
Xena chuckled appreciatively. "It’s ok to question me, Gabrielle. You’ve been with me long enough to know I’m far from infallible." She chided the bard gently. "Right?"
"Mmmm…" Gabrielle waggled her hand. "I don’t know about that, love. You take sidetracks sometimes, but Hades if you don’t end up in the right place when the game’s over." She gave Xena a smile. "So… what’s the plan?"
The warrior laughed, a sound that never failed to enchant her partner. "OK.. OK… " She said, tweaking Gabrielle’s nose. "They’ve got a real problem, my bard." Her expression sobered. "Secan’s troops, if you can believe Warrin, are better trained, and better armed, and they drill all the time. Lestan’s fighters don’t’ have a good chance against them, and unless I can uncover some hidden talent, he really doesn’t have a standout fighter to send for a one on one encounter with Secan." She took a breath and a sip of cooled tea from a mug resting to her left.
"Uh huh." Gabrielle mused. "No chance of a negotiation? Seems like a more productive course to me." Her eyebrows arched, and she grinned. "Not that I’m suggested anything, here."
Xena snorted. "No no.. of course not." But her expression went serious. "I have only Lestan’s account to go by, but it doesn’t sound like Secan is willing to discuss a settlement, when he’s pretty sure he can win what he wants by force of arms." Her eyes narrowed. "Have to have leverage, and Lestan has none."
"So…" Gabrielle said, fingers tracing the outline of Xena’s ribs under the linen shirt. "What, then?"
"Well." Xena said softly, studying the thatched roof with sudden interest. "There is the obvious solution."
Gabrielle’s mouth opened then quietly shut. Of course, Xena was the obvious solution, because Secan and his well-trained fighters or not, her partner was one of the finest sword wielders ever to walk the surface of Greece. She knew that, even though Xena had never once clamed any such thing. The best of the best, Meleager had even whispered to her, watching Xena work, and that was high praise from her friend.
But Secan was an unknown quantity, and Xena was, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, recovering from some pretty serious injuries. "Is that smart?" She finally asked, choosing her words carefully.
Xena shrugged. "Probably not. " She admitted. "And I’m pretty sure I won’t be allowed to directly interfere. Lestan inferred that I’d be disqualified due to the fact that I’m not a member of his people, or his clan."
"Oh." Gabrielle took a short little breath of relief. "That kind of makes sense."
"Mmm." Xena agreed, but her eyes were distant. "But… well, anyway. " She smiled at Gabrielle. "Plan so far is, I’d like you to continue what you were doing this morning – tell some stories, get some idea of how the clan feels about this whole thing. "
The bard nodded. "I can do that." She grinned. "But what will you be doing?"
A slow feral grin curled Xena’s lips. "What I do best." She smoothly drew her sword, resting close by her hand near the fire, and twirled the blade with smooth precision. "Maybe I can teach them a few tricks."
"I just bet." Gabrielle chuckled, then fell silent for a moment. "Xena.." She said, softly.
"Hmmm?" The warrior replied, resheathing the weapon with an economical motion, then meeting the bard’s worried eyes.
A short silence between them, then.. "Gabrielle.. " A gently reluctant smile. "You’ve been too much of an influence, my love. I can’t… I can’t walk away from this."
Gabrielle’s mouth twitched, and she glanced down, and studied her hand as it played with a button on Xena’s shirt. "Works both ways." She finally said, shaking her head a little. "Because I don’t want to see you walk away." She gave Xena a rueful smile. "But please be careful, all right?"
"Not a problem." Xena said, with a faint smile. "Too much here to stick around for."
Gabrielle blushed, and let her head fall back onto Xena’s shoulder. "Mmm.." She sighed, pressing closer. "This is nice." Her eyes twinkled. "What a great way to spend a rainy afternoon…" She quietly undid the button she’d been toying with, and slid a playful hand inside Xena’s shirt.
"Oh yeah?" Xena chuckled softly, feeling the sudden warm contact. "We’re a couple of lazy bums, I think." Her vague notions of getting up and doing a few chores dissolved like so much fog in the sunshine as the bard’s hands began a gentle exploration. Well… I could pretend I cared. Nah. I’m loving every minute of this.
"Got a problem with that?" Gabrielle smirked, lightly rubbing her fingertips in circles on her partner’s belly. "Hmm?" Grinned as she saw the smile start to creep across Xena’s lips. "Come on, Xena.. it’s raining like crazy, we’ve got nothing to do until dinner, and I don’t care what you tell me about the healer tree, you’re still recovering." She let her hand trace the fading bruises that still darkened the skin across most of the warrior’s midsection. "So close." She whispered, almost too quietly for Xena to hear. But she took a breath and resumed her smile before she looked up, stilling as she met the quiet anguish facing her. "No.. love, I'm sorry. I didn’t’ mean.."
Xena slowly put her head back down on the pillow, and let out a long breath. The dark images she’d been pushing to the back of her mind for days clustered close, and demanded entrance, and suddenly she had the overwhelming urge to share what she’d felt with Gabrielle. To feel those gentle hands, and hear that warm voice sooth away the lingering queasy terror.
"It was more than close." Her voice had a touch of hoarseness. "The air was running out, and it hurt.. so damn much… " She shivered, and Gabrielle immediately pulled the cloak tighter around both of them. "I t.. was dark, and part of me wanted so much to just give up. Let go. "
"But you didn’t." Gabrielle said, softly. "I knew you wouldn’t."
"No." Came the stark answer. "Because another part of me just got mad, and I.. " Her eyes fastened on Gabrielle’s. "Didn’t want to leave." A long pause. "I wasn’t ready.. there was so much I still wanted to.." She stopped, and swallowed hard, sliding her hand through the bard’s hair, and sighing. "All I could think of was how much I’d miss you."
Warm tears struck the bare skin stretched over the warrior’s ribs, and Xena moved her hand to gently wipe the bard’s eyes. "I couldn’t let that happen." She took a breath. "Then I could hear the rocks being shattered, and I felt them.. shifting around me. And I just…" Shaking her head. "Moved."
"I remember." The bard whispered, sniffling. "It was like…" She stopped, and shook her head. "I could feel you slipping.. away." Her voice broke on the word, and she had to stop for a long instant, taking several breaths before she continued. Felt Xena’s fingers tangle with hers, and gripped them hard. "And then you weren’t. Just like that."
"Just like that." Xena agreed quietly. "It was.. about the worst thing I’ve ever had to go through." And that admission seemed to bring the darkness into focus, as Gabrielle slid up, and put her arms around her.
"Gods." She groaned And felt again the horrible roaring as the mountain came down on top of her, and the closed, stifling blackness she’d endured for the better part of a very long day. All right.. all right… let it go past. C’mon, Xena, you know how to do this. Don’t scare Gabrielle.
"Easy." Gabrielle responded, feeling the shudder pass through her, and saw Xena’s face suddenly tense with the effort of dealing with the memories of her ordeal. Gods… when a mind that powerful decides to go off track.. what do I do? What do I say to her? "Take it easy, love." She tightened her hold, and for a second thought Xena was going to resist the contact, but then the warrior’s body relaxed, and she buried her dark head into the bard’s chest for an achingly long moment.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and swallowed, getting a sense of what her partner had been forced to go through. I couldn’t have… done that. She admitted to herself. When I was trapped in that coffin.. I just.. I gave up. The truth hurt, and she suddenly felt very small and a little ashamed. "I wish I had as much courage in my whole body as you do in a fingertip, Xena." She whispered, and that got the warrior’s attention, because she opened her eyes, and gazed up at Gabrielle’s face.
"I don’t…" Xena started, then sighed, and shook her head. "Feel very courageous right at the moment." She finished in a low tone of voice, closing her eyes and craving the bard’s gentle touch, which came then, a hand stroking her hair, and soft words of encouragement that trickled down her hearing and settled comfortingly into the stark coldness of her memories. I’ve never needed this before Her mind bleakly realized, and for a disturbing second she wondered if her experience had pushed her over a line there was no coming back from. Then common sense reasserted itself, and she relaxed a little Probably because she’s the first person I’ve ever trusted enough to allow them to see me like this. Be honest… strength you show everyone, but with her…
She abandoned herself for a time, just absorbing the warmth and love that Gabrielle offered with her voice and reassuring touch, soaking it in and letting it dissolve the dark walls that had suddenly closed in on her. After a bit, she took a deep breath, and leaned back against the pillow, giving the bard a half grin, that was immediately reflected back to her. "Thanks." Xena said, with quiet affection.
"Anytime." Gabrielle responded, flinching as a boom of thunder rolled over head. "Gods." She glanced back at Xena, who raised an eyebrow at her, and was gazing at her with a thoughtful expression.. "You OK?" She ducked again as lightning flashed, followed by a loud crack.
Xena thought about that. "I don’t know." She finally answered, facing what had been bothering her for days. "I think you were right…. I don’t… " I don’t know if I can even say this. Or what it means for me.. for her… "Something happened to me.. in there." Xena’s eyes went quietly introspective. "Something that’s made me doubt.. what I do.. why I do it… " A long painful pause. "Myself."
Gabrielle moved closer, and wrapped her fingers around Xena’s, her gaze all compassion. Gotta be careful here… she’s a field of hidden pits… one wrong step, and I can make this worse… Gods, I’m scared. "Xena.. that’s not an unusual thing when someone’s been through trauma."
Blue eyes studied hers. "Not for me." Xena quietly answered, glancing down. "Not sure why it’s so different this time." But as her eyes swept back up, and locked with Gabrielle’s, she knew the answer to that question. "Or maybe I do." A gentle smile. "I’ve never had so much to lose before."
Gabrielle’s mouth twitched into a small grin. "I think you just need to give it some time, love." She squeezed the warrior’s hand, and felt the strong fingers return the pressure. "I didn’t hear you hesitating when you had to defend Jessan. Or me, for that matter." Now she gave the warrior a real smile. "One word, and you had that entire roomful of hulking, fanged, overmuscled fighters shaking in their furry feet." A twinkle in her green eyes. "Don’t think I didn’t see that."
Xena’s brows creased. Damn. She’s right. Maybe.. it’s just making me think twice before I go risking my life.. hers… is that a bad thing?
"You may be right." Xena nodded slowly, and reached out a hand, snagging the bard’s shirt and pulling her closer. "I guess I just lost it there for a minute.. " She paused, and waited for Gabrielle to resume her favorite spot, and tucked the cloak back around her. "Are you OK?" She queried, feeling a shiver go through her partner’s body, on the heels of a sharp blast of thunder and a violent drumming as the rain came cascading down again, blowing in a cold wet smell through the windows, and carrying the scent of bruised vegetation and mud along with it.
"Yyyeah. " Gabrielle chattered. "Just got a chill." Because that crack of thunder is something I’ll never hear again without thinking about that landslide, Xena… this left scars on both of us, I think. "Better now." She assured the warrior, snuggling closer, Watched as Xena hitched herself up on one elbow, and reaching over, took the pot of still hot broth and tipped a good portion into a nearby cup.
"Here." She said, handing the cup to Gabrielle. "Take a good swallow of that."
The bard did so, and made an approving noise deep in her throat as she allowed Xena to pull her slightly upright, and settled herself back against the pillow, one hand curled around the mug, the other curled around her partner. Then she stopped, and glared at Xena. "Where’s yours?"
The warrior rolled her eyes, and grabbed another mug, chuckling as she poured herself a portion, then collected the scraps of their lunch and poured the remaining broth over it. "Here you go, boy." She commented, as Ares trotted over and plunged his muzzle into the bowl.
"Rww." The wolf mumbled.
Xena grinned, and leaned back with her broth, taking a sip and settling her free arm around Gabrielle. "Hey.. that’s not bad." She commented, taking a larger sip, enjoying the warmth and the taste. Aware of the fact that despite their recent lunch, she was still hungry, and that meant Gabrielle was right, her body was still using everything she was providing it for repairs.
"Here." The bard chuckled, tugging her arm down, and dumping the remainder of her own broth into Xena’s cup. "You need it more than I do." She patted her belly with a rueful grin. "I think I’m missing my sparring partner."
"Yeah right." Xena snorted, draining the cup and setting it down. "Like you have a problem with that. " She slid her hand inside the bard’s tunic, and tickled her ribcage, then moved lower and grinned as her partner’s giggles deepened, and her stomach muscles contracted under the warrior’s teasing touch. "A real problem there, Red."
Gabrielle squawked, and grabbed Xena’s tunic, rolling up and onto the warrior’s chest and baring her teeth. "What????" You did NOT call me that. Did Jessan pay you off? " She wrapped her hands in the soft fabric, and shook the warrior as hard as she could. "I’m gonna hurt you."
Xena was laughing so hard she had no defense against the bard’s tugging. "Ok..ok.." She finally gasped, waving a hand in surrender. "Forget I said that."
"Never." Gabrielle growled, pulling herself up so they were nose to nose. "If you ever…" and got no further, because Xena took advantage of her position and captured her lips in a long, teasing kiss. "Ever.." Gabrielle repeated, but in a much softer tone when they parted momentarily. And again was stopped. "Xena? " She finally murmured, after a slow series of escalations that had her entire body tingling.
"Yeah?" Xena drawled, moving her hands along the bard’s sensitive skin.
"You can call me anything you want." Came the mumbled response.
The healer’s hut was quiet, the heavy thatch roof absorbing the insistent rain, and the silence inside mainly broken by the scratch of a quill on parchment, as Elaini sat, updating her records.
Scratch scratch. Pause. Scratch. Longer pause, as Elaini let her head raise, and her eyes study her lone patient, peacefully asleep on his pallet.
Ares’ boots. Elaini sighed to herself, propping her chin on her hand and giving up the pretense of recordkeeping for the moment. It’s lighter in there. She’d convinced herself, better to do the records in the main room, rather than her own quarters. Right?
She snorted quietly. Stop fooling yourself, OK? You just wanted to be out here.. near him. And so she studied his face in profile, allowing herself the luxury seldom indulged in. He’s so cute.. she’d said to Gabrielle, but that wasn’t entirely true.
His face was too strong to be strictly cute, the jaw too decisive, and the eyes too deep set and piercing. Even in sleep, his features showed a slight tension, a testimony to the alertness of his senses. Elaini felt her eyes drink him in, and knew she was rapidly getting lost in an insane flood of… she didn’t know what.
I’m in love with him. In all that quiet, the thought seemed overdramatic, and she rolled her eyes at herself. Oh damn.
Footsteps treading on the porch, and she turned to see just who in the world was out in this weather. Pale fur, and shadowed eyes, scarred face and a powerful, sinewy body. "Warrin." Elani said with quiet sympathy. "Come to see your nephew? He’ll be fine."
"Not when I’m done with him." Warrin snapped, brushing by her, and heading towards the pallet. His heavy footsteps caused Jessan to stir as he approached, and the younger forest dweller turned his head and gave him a small smile
"Uncle War.." Got no further, as Warrin grabbed his chest fur, and tightened his fists. "Hey!"
"Exactly what happened out there." Warrin growled. "It could be the death of us. So tell me."
Jessan took a deep breath, and didn’t answer for a long moment. Saw Elaini standing quietly a few feet behind them, a watchful look on her face, and hid a grin. "Well.." Can’t give him the real story… "I was out running… and.. " He shrugged. "I got a little distracted, and rounded a blind corner without checking. They were waiting, and they jumped me."
"Distracted." Warrin spat. "Go on."
"It was more harassment than anything." Jessan remarked quietly. "But they were getting kind of rough, and then all of a sudden…" His lips twitched. "It started raining rocks."
"Rocks?" Elaini asked, from over Warrin’s shoulder.
"Uh huh." Jessan confirmed. "Rocks. Nailing them right in the face, too." He smiled a little. "They ran off, and then Xena came romping out of the forest, just checking things out."
"Romping?" Elaini muffled a grin.
"Well, she was." Jessan shrugged. "She was all kind of relaxed, and sort of bouncy, like she gets sometimes when she’s in a really good mood."
They both stared at him.
Warrin just shook his head. "Then what?"
"They came back." Jessan replied, not joking now. His golden eyes darkened. "No warning, no truce.. they just came at us." He licked his lips, and Elaini held out a waterskin without comment. "Thanks.." Their eyes met, and slid away from each other. "So.. one of them jumped all over me and we fought.. and.. " His face took on a feral look. "One had the misfortune to attack Xena."
Should I admit that’s how I got my ribs broken? Too damn busy watching her to guard against that last kick… "She vaulted over him and kicked down, and broke his neck."
Warrin grunted. "So." He said, staring at the floor. "Secan will want her." His eyes darted to Jessan’s. "Fight or no fight, he’ll want her. That one that died.. it was Elusha, you did know that."
Secan’s nephew, who, since the leader was sonless, was his choice for continuing his bloodline in the leadership. "Damn." Jessan cursed, wincing at the jolt in his side. "No.. I hadn’t seen him before."
"He’ll be through this village like a boar in the forest." Warrin stated flatly. "Unless he gets what he wants."
"He’ll never get that." Jessan said, quietly. "Father won’t allow it, Warrin. She saved his life." Not to mention SHE won’t allow it…
"Wont he." Warrin said softly, and his dark eyes slitted. "Perhaps you’re right.’ And he stood, his face going expressionless. "Perhaps." And with the scratchy sound of claws on wood, he turned and padded out, slipping out the door and into the driving rain.
Elaini and Jessan studied each other covertly for a moment, then Elaini gave in to her insistently driving instincts and knelt by his pallet, straightening the covers with a self-conscious twitch. "He sounded… " She said, lifting her eyes to his. "Upset."
"Yeah." Jessan muttered, wondering. "He’ll probably try and convince father to give Xena up to Secan." Aware suddenly of her closeness, and the pale softness of her fur. And the lovely spicy scent of her. Whoa… his mind blinked at him, surprised. What’s going on? This is Elaini, right? Right. "No chance of that." He assured her.
"No?" Elaini said, unable to resist putting a hand out, and touching his forehead, where an errant blow had put a deep bruise. "That’s a bad one." She observed, with a professional air.
"Yeah." Jessan answered, closing his eyes, and feeling her touch. Oh Ares.. this can’t be happening… "Little tired." He mumbled, needing time to think.
"Too true." Elaini said softly, removing her hand and standing up. "I’m sure Lestan will do what’s right." As she stood and went back to her table, and picked up her quill.
And used the whittled instrument to idly draw tiny flowers as she gazed unseeing out the window into the future.
Gabrielle reluctantly dragged her eyes open, and took a deep breath, enjoying the odd mixture of rain-wet air, smoldering wood in the fireplace, and the familiar scent of her soulmate . A sly glance up told that said soulmate was still fast asleep, and Gabrielle was careful to make no movement that would wake her up.
She needs this. The bard’s mind felt the truth of it .Even if she won't admit it, either to me or to herself. She paused a moment, just listening to Xena's steady breathing. Though I’ve gotten her to sit still this time a lot more than usual. She tilted her head carefully, and studied her partner, approving the return of her normal healthy color, and that she seemed relaxed, her body free from pain. You’re going to be all right, you crazy warrior. She mused affectionately. Gods, you scare me a lot.. But.. I think you scared yourself this time.
Gabrielle glanced out the window, and was glad to see the rain slowing. She yawned peacefully, and was about to snuggle back down when her world erupted in violent savage motion.
Never seeing Xena move, but finding herself tucked down flat on the floor, a warning hand on her back, and then the warrior was exploding through the air, powerful hand snapping closed on something then releasing it, and diving back across Gabrielle’s body, pulling her dagger from her armor and whipping it sideways.
Catching another invisible something in the air, then rolling, bleeding off her momentum, and shifting forward to launch herself towards the door, stopping in the entrance, and just watching, one hand resting negligently on the wooden frame.
Silence. Gabrielle stayed where she was, and waited for an all clear, which came in the form of a warm hand on her back, and a whispered word. She rolled cautiously over, and looked at her partner, seeing all traces of sleep gone from her body as though she'd been awake for hours. How on earth does she do that?
"Well." The bard said, taking several breaths as she sat up and gazed at Xena. "I’d say there’s nothing wrong with your reflexes, love." Trying to smile, and waiting for her heart to stop going double time. "That was… " Amazing, Incredible, Impossible. Still looking for more words for her, aren’t I?" "What was it, anyway?"
Xena’s face was very still, always a bad sign. "Someone wanted us very asleep." The warrior answered quietly, holding up a hand, and dropping it’s contents in front of where Gabrielle was sitting. It was a small, feathered dart, the tip stained an uncomfortable shade of crimson.
They looked at each other.
"Wow… so we have a mystery." Gabrielle said, picking up the dart carefully, and examining it.
"No." Xena’s face twitched. "I know who it was."
Gabrielle’s mist green eyes searched hers with unerring accuracy. "Warrin?" She guessed, quietly.
A nod from Xena.
"Why?" The bard asked. "I mean.. sure, he was mad when he left that council, but what would be the point of… Xena, I don’t understand."
The warrior sat down cross-legged on the thick rug next to her, and propped both elbows on her knees, leaning forward and playing with the fur. "I think I understand." She replied quietly. "He figures if he delivers us.. or at least me.. " Her lips twitched "to Secan, that might give him leverage enough to work out a deal." Xena shrugged. "It’s not a bad plan… might have even worked."
Gabrielle stared at her, appalled. "How can you just sit there and be so calm about that?"
Xena smiled a little. "He’s trying to protect people he loves, Gabrielle." Her eyes met the bard’s. "I might have done the same, if it were you."
"No you wouldn’t." The bard quietly answered. "Because I wouldn’t want my life bought at that price, and you know that."
And Xena did know it, and hoped and prayed that she’d never have to make that decision.. because to not act would lose her Gabrielle in this lifetime. And acting might lose her for longer than that. "Yeah, I know that." She acknowledged. "We should get ready for dinner. I want to stop by the healer’s cot and see Jess before we go over."
Gabrielle studied her for a moment. Do I let her get away with that subject change? She watched the blue eyes watching her and smiled inwardly. It was the ‘drop it, please?’ look. Yeah, this time. "Sounds like a plan." She stood up, and started to move towards their gear.
"Whoa!" A sudden yell, as Ares trotted into her path, and the next thing she knew she was falling. "Hades." She muttered, and closed her eyes. "This is gonna hurt."
But hands caught her in mid fall, and she found herself cradled in Xena’s protective arms instead of hitting the wooden floor, and she gave Ares a suspicious look. "Did you train him to do that?" She accused the warrior.
"Sure." Xena said, with an impish grin. "He’s got good timing, huh?" She noticed that Gabrielle was making no effort to escape her grasp. "Comfortable?"
"Mmm hmmm." The bard laughed. "I feel.. very protected." And her mouth twitched as she remembered the last time she’d said that.
A moonlit glade, in a heavily foliaged patch of jungle around the hidden temple where they’d found the ambrosia, and where she’d walked back out from under the shadows, and her life had changed again, this time for the better. She’d spent the first little bit of time after they’d gotten out of the temple just trying to convince herself she wasn’t dreaming.
That the person sitting quietly on that rock, bathed in silver light was no ghost, no figment of her sorely tested imagination, but was real, and alive, and who had pulled her close in a long hug after Autolycus had left, and the Amazons had started to set up camp for the night. They’d eaten dinner, and Xena had even come up with a few wryly humorous comments, surprising the Amazons and delighting Gabrielle. Then the fire had settled down, the exhausted Amazons had set a watch, and otherwise snugged down tight for some well deserved rest, and she’d found herself sitting on her bedroll, facing a quietly pensive Xena.
Who was seated on her own bedroll close by, leaning against a convenient rock, with both arms wrapped around one upraised knee. Those blue eyes had studied her for a long moment before the warrior cocked her head a bit, and spoke gently. "You all right?"
"Me? " the bard had said, "I’m not the one who’s.." And found she couldn’t say the words, couldn’t even think them. "Yeah." She finally sighed. "I’ll be fine. It’s just been… a really bad week." She had glanced up and searched Xena’s silent face. "How are you doing? You need.. water, or anything?"
The warrior had smiled ruefully. "I’m a little tired, I guess." She took a breath. "Feels funny."
"What does?" Gabrielle had asked softly, just wanting to hear her voice more than anything else.
"Breathing." Xena had answered. "Talking, moving…" She took a sip of the hot herbal tea in her mug. " I missed being able to.. feel things… " Her eyes locked on to Gabrielle’s. "Missed being able to just talk to you."
And that had hit Gabrielle hard, as she realized things were changing a little between them. That had started in that clearing with Autolycus, and hadn’t ended with her willingly surrendering control of her body when the warrior had asked her to. Had asked if she was willing. Gabrielle had to laugh silently to herself. What a question. That had been.. awesome. She hadn’t felt any fear, even when Velasca had almost forced her to fall into the flaming pit below, no fear, only a fierce racing of the blood, which had surged through her like strong wine. And she had felt protected, as though she was wrapped in a warm blanket, realizing that warmth had to be coming from Xena. "I really missed being able to talk to you, too." She answered in a small voice, but then smiled wryly. "Even though I talked to you anyway." A depreciating shrug. "You know me."
"I know." Xena had replied. "I heard you."
Then they’d just looked at each other, for a long time, until Xena leaned over, and tapped the bard on the knee, and smiled. "Missed being able to just do that, too."
And Gabrielle had captured her hand, and wrapped her fingers around Xena’s larger ones, and pressed gently. "Me too." Heard the crack in her voice that made her look down, and stare at their linked hands. And swallow hard. Damned if I’m going to break down now. She had thought fiercely to herself. Not after all that. And had taken a very deep breath, and forced a smile onto her face, and looked back up.
Xena’s eyes were fastened on her face, and there was a rare, gentle warmth there that had shimmered over her in a welcome wave. "You need to get some rest, my bard." Xena had said, and then her lips had quirked a little at Gabrielle’s shyly startled look at the endearment.
"Yeah… " Gabrielle had finally managed to respond, and had given that warm hand a final squeeze, and lain down facing Xena, as the warrior did the same, making the last thing she saw before surrendering to her exhausted body and mind a pair of blue eyes just… watching over her.
And the nightmares claimed her again that night, the same damnable scene seared deep into her mind’s eye but this time… this time, a hand shook her awake, and she surged up, heart racing, to see concern scrawled across a face she’d seen only in cold stillness in those nightmares for far too long. Before she could stop herself, she’d put a shaking hand out and touched Xena’s face, just to prove she was real, and it fractured her.
Her composure broke apart into a thousand shards, and the only thing holding her together was a pair of strong arms that wrapped themselves around her and kept her safe as she let out all the grief she’d held inside since she’d left Nicklios. "Oh gods" She gasped, when she’d taken a break to breathe "You’re here… it’s not a dream. You're really here..you really are." Feeling the warmth of her body under shaking hands, and hearing the steady beat of the warrior's powerful heart under the ear she had pressed to her chest.
"I’ll always be here, Gabrielle." Xena’s voice gently reassured her, and that sound became a lifeline that netted her soul out of the dark waters it had been drifting in. "I promise you."
And with that, the exhaustion of the past while just took her out, and she didn’t even remember falling asleep, waking in confusion the next day with the late morning sun filtering through the trees, painting splotches of alternating light and dark over the leaf littered floor, and became aware of a warm, silent presence by her side, and a casual arm draped over her shoulders.
Looking up and watching Xena’s relaxed but alert face idly scanning the surrounding forest had to rank right up there as one of the most beautiful things she’d ever seen. "Hi." She said, reaching out a hand to reassure herself of her realness again. "It’s late."
Xena had smiled down at her, and patted her shoulder. "You looked like you needed the sleep."
"Been up long?" The bard yawned, and propped her head up on one hand.
The warrior had nodded. "Wanted to watch the sun rise." She said quietly, then paused. "Had a lot to think about." And there had been a hesitant, veiled sadness in her eyes. "So.. what’s it going to be like being the Amazon Queen?"
Gabrielle had looked up at her, studied the look of friendly interest there, and sensed the faint hint of… regret? fear? She couldn’t decide which that lay beneath the half smile and lurked in the back of that clear blue gaze, but it plucked a chord in her heart that she hadn’t expected.
So she had shrugged, and watched those eyes carefully as she answered, her decision having been made the instant she'd opened her eyes in that foggy dreamscape and seen Xena standing in front of her.. "Don’t know. You’ll have to ask Ephiny , I guess. " And Xena had merely raised an eyebrow, but Gabrielle had seen the tension in her shoulders relax, and a gentle warmth replace the shadows. "It was.. a refuge, and I would have done the best I could but.. " She sighed.
"You sure?" Xena had asked casually, but she’d been unable to mask the smile tugging at her lips, so she’d looked off towards where the main group of Amazons had been camped for a minute to regain her composure before returning her gaze to meet Gabrielle's.
And Gabrielle had reached up and clasped the hand still draped over her shoulder, and taking a deep, happy breath. "Yeah, I’m sure." She’d answered. "I like the Amazons.. but.. " She’d hesitated, then went on before her courage failed her. "they could never have begun to fill.. that great big empty space that had you in it."
‘Gabrielle…" Xena’s voice was gentle.
"I know." The bard sighed, shaking her head. "That was a goofy thing to say. Listen, I’m sorry. I’m just… I’m glad you came back, all right?" She gave the warrior a smile. "After all, the world needs you." Yeah.. Almost as much as I do.
In the next clearing, she could hear the Amazons moving about the camp, and the wind whipping the trees, the snap of the fire, a dim clanking as the armorer did repairs.. but the warmth of a hand grasping her jaw, and deep blue eyes capturing her own with vivid intensity suddenly jolted her senses. "Gabrielle." Xena said, slowly and clearly. "I don’t give a damn about the world."
And after a long moment of absolutely frozen comprehension, all she could manage to say was. "Oh." But from that moment, she cautiously began to allow herself to imagine.. some new possibilities.
"Hey!." Xena said, giving her a light poke in the ribs. "That’s an interesting smile you have there.. what are you thinking about?."
Gabrielle’s smile grew. "You."
The warrior chuckled, and stood, releasing Gabrielle to stand once she was upright. "I’m flattered."
They bantered while dressing, and were pleased to note that the rain had stopped. "You going to mention Warrin to Lestan?" Gabrielle asked as she was struggling with the laces on the front of her tunic.
"Here." Xena grinned, and took over the lacing. "Probably. He should know what’s going on."
They walked out into the reluctantly penetrating bars of weak sunlight that finally cut through the clouds, and stepped up onto the porch of the healer’s cot just as the door opened and Elaini peeked out.
"Hi." The healer greeted them, opening the door and moving aside. "Come on in… I need to go get some supplies." She moved past them, and skipped down the stairs, oblivious to the swiftly exchanged grins between warrior and bard.
"Hello, Jess." Xena said, as she and Gabrielle entered the cot, and moved over to where the forest dweller was propped up on his pallet.
"Hey." Jessan replied softly, giving them a toothy grin. "How are you feeling?" This was directed at Xena.
"Fine." The warrior replied, with a note of finality in her voice, which didn’t keep Jessan from glancing at Gabrielle for conformation, which he got in the form of a smiling nod. "How’s the ribs?"
The big forest dweller sighed. "Hurts. " His golden eyes dropped. "But not as much as my self esteem does." He took a shallow breath. "I owe you an apology, Xena."
Xena felt her brow crease, and she looked at Gabrielle in puzzlement, who looked back in equal confusion. "For… what?"
"I put you in danger." Jessan answered quietly.
The warrior laughed. "Please, Jess.. I do that all by myself just fine."
"That’s an understatement." Gabrielle muttered, ducking away from Xena’s playful cuff.
"No." The forest dweller shook his head. "I allowed my skills to erode to the point where I got myself in trouble that I couldn’t get out of. And that put you in danger, and we don’t… we don’t do that lightly with lifebonds, Xena."
Great. Xena sighed inwardly. This is all I need. "Look." She said firmly, getting a grip on his chest fur and pinning him with a glare. "Nobody gets me into or out of things, all right? ‘ she felt Gabrielle’s supportive presence, and a gentle hand on her back. "We know the risks."
"Do you?" Jessan asked quietly.
"We do." Gabrielle answered, putting a hand on his arm. "But what kind of people would we be if we didn’t help someone because we were afraid?" Her eyes met Jessan’s. "Life is one big risk."
Jessan studied them in silence for long moment. They do realize. Ares… that bond is so strong.. I don’t’ even need my Sight to feel it. He watched as Gabrielle moved closer, and put her chin on Xena’s shoulder in a casual gesture, and smiled wistfully at them. "I envy you guys." He sighed. "I wish… well, anyway." He forced a grin. "Thanks for the rescue."
"Anytime." Xena smiled, then her eyes took on a mischievous twinkle. "Besides… this’ll give you a chance to.. debate.. your opposing viewpoints with Elaini." She darted a sideways glance at the bard. "Right?"
"Right." Gabrielle nodded solemnly ‘Great opportunity."
They looked at him. He gazed back, then a blush colored his muzzle and he sighed.
Xena grinned. Nice to see him on this side of the coin for a change. "Nice blush." She commented, making it worse. "Aww.. c’mon, Jess. She’s a nice kid."
Jessan peeked at her. Tell me, Xena.. is this what falling in love feels like? I can’t remember… it’s been so long. Is it like drowning? Like standing under a waterfall? Like the sunlight in the morning? Tell me. What was it like for you? "I know." He said softly, and felt his lips move in an involuntary grin. "Better go. Mom hates serving dinner late."
Xena laughed. "We’ll be back later to visit. " She promised, then leaned close to him. "Enjoy it, my friend."
Their eyes met, and he understood what she was saying. "I’m scared." He said softly, searching her eyes intently.
And she nodded. "So was I." A hand on his shoulder, and a look so intense it burned him. "Do it anyway."
"Don’t think I could stop it." He responded, almost in a whisper.
"You don’t want to." Xena replied, aware of the still, silent form at her shoulder. "Believe me."
"I do." Jessan affirmed, and took a breath, as he heard the outer door open. "Thanks."
Xena nodded at him, and rose. "Anytime."