Gabrielle hardly knew where to start worrying. She caught her breath and then turned to Xena, who was slumped against the rocks bonelessly with her eyes closed. Xe? Awkwardly, she shifted onto her side and leaned against the stone herself to take the pressure off her back. Xena?
Very slowly, the warriors eyes opened, revealing bloodshot orbs so full of misery it made the bard forget completely about her own injury. Oh, sweetie. She squirmed closer, putting her head against Xenas and cupping her cheek. We made it.
Xena exhaled audibly, ending the breath in a cough. Yeah. She whispered weakly. We sure did.
Xena. Gabrielle ached for her, hearing a note of extremity in her voice shed seldom ever experienced. You did it. You got us out of there. Gently, she pushed aside a bit of Xenas hair and bit her lip slightly as she saw the lump at her temple and the trickle of blood running sluggishly from her right ear.
It brought back very bad memories.
She kissed Xena on the head and hugged as much of her as she could, feeling the fevers heat on the skin pressed against her. Youll be fine, Xena. Just relax.
The warriors rasping breath sounded far too loud to her, and Gabrielle wondered if the jolting stab of fear she felt in her guts was a cousin to the one Xena felt when she sounded just like that. It made her mouth go dry as the essential fragility of even this most sturdy bit of humanity resting in her arms.
She massaged the back of the warriors neck, where the muscles were corded and tight and felt Xena slump against her just slightly. Easy, baby.
A puff of warm air tickled her ear. Baby? Hah. The grumble was a ghost of its usual self, but it was a grumble nonetheless, and welcome.
Gabrielles lips twitched into a wan smile. Okay, you big, bad thing you. She felt rather than heard the brief, silent chuckle. Better?
Mm. Xena pushed herself a little more upright, getting on knee up and leaning on it as she let her head slump back against the wall. Cn you do me a favor?
Leave this damn part out of the story when y tell it.
This part right now?
Gabrielle gazed understandingly at her very bruised, roughed up, sick, and put upon partner. Xe, cant do that.
Piteous blue eyes regarded her.
You did it anyway. Thats the heroic part, remember?
Xena stuck her tongue out and made a displeased sound. Then she sighed. Im about tapped. She admitted softly. Not sure I can stand up, Gab.
Sallright. The bard curled up against her. Lets rest for a bit. She eased her head around and studied the path, relieved to see a comforting amount of space between them and the top of the pass. It would be hard for anyone to sneak up on them, and she prayed to the gods no one tried.
Gotta get out of here. Xenas eyes were closed again.
We will. Gabrielle untied the waterskin from around her waist and eased it between them, unstopping it and getting the spout up to her partners lips. Here.
Xena suckled it for a minute, and then nudged it back towards her. You. She blinked, studying Gabrielles profile. Hows your back?
The bard was quiet for a few breaths. It hurts. She finally admitted. I um... its like a burning all the way down to my knees.
Let me see. The warrior pulled her closer and gently eased the back of her shirt down. Ah. She winced, and then sighed heavily. Honey, we need to get out of here. Now.
Just the endearment alone was enough to warn her. I know. Gabrielle replied. Can you get up now?
For an answer, Xena rose, using one hand curled around the rocks to pull herself to her feet while she lifted Gabrielle up with her. The energy came from her will alone, as she simply forced her body to do what she needed it to. They couldnt stay on the path the weather was starting to deteriorate again and the last thing either of them needed was to get caught in it in such an exposed place. Stay by the wall.
The wall is my friend. Gabrielle muttered, as she used the irregular surface to help her get up the slope. This was a lot easier the other way.
Ungh. Xena grunted. She felt like her body was encased in heavy mud every motion was an effort almost beyond her ability. Was it the fever? She lifted a hand off the stone and touched her head, grimacing as she felt the lump under her fingers. Gab?
The bard turned and looked at her questioningly.
Could you Xena had to stop and lean against the wall. Check my eyes.
Gabrielle knew without question what that meant. She turned carefully and lifted a hand to tilt Xenas head up slightly, almost on a level with hers due to the slope in the path. Intently, she looked into both blue eyes. Close.
Xena closed her eyes, welcoming the darkness that blocked the glare from the sun.
Reluctantly, she complied, watching Gabrielles face as the bard studied her. Behind the dirt, the lines relaxed, and tiny wrinkles appeared around her eyes as she smiled, giving Xena a reassuring nod.
One worry down. Xena managed a smile back. Having her brains rattled on top of everything else wouldnt have been a good thing. Gwan. Thanks.
Stiffly, the bard turned and started upward again, her boots slipping a little on the loose rocks. Xena put a hand on her lower back and supported her as they slowly worked their way up towards the pass.
The pain was getting to her, more than she could handle. Gabrielle stopped just shy of the top of the ridge, her knees buckling as she grabbed the stone with cramping fingers.
Xena caught her around the waist and kept her from crashing to the ground, bracing one booted foot up past the bards as she kept them both in place. Gab?
Drops of sweat fell into her eyes. C.. cant. She muttered. Sorry, Xe.
Just a little further, Gabrielle. Xena coaxed her. You can do it.
The last rise seemed impossibly high. Cant.
Yes, you can. The warrior disagreed. Otherwise Im gonna have to pick you up and carry you up there.
Slumped against the rock, hanging on to Xenas arm, Gabrielle half turned to look at her. You cant. Her voice cracked.
Xena looked at her with exhausted eyes. Yeah. She admitted. But
You will. Gabrielle finished, turning back around and focusing on the pass. She got her feet under her and started forward again, aware of Xenas close presence behind her. Alone, she knew shed never have made it.
The warrior coughed, the sound shaking her entire body.
Alone, Xena might never have made it. Gabrielle gathered herself and made the last big push up to the pass, pulling herself up into it and onto level ground at last. Xena stepped up into the cleft behind her and they both exhaled in relief at the exact same time.
Together, though, there really wasnt anything they couldnt do.
Gabrielle gazed down into the green valley beyond, where nestled out of sight in the trees the forest dwellers village waited. Where help waited.
Where Dori waited.
The clouds were gathering overhead, and she could feel rain in the air that blew against her face. Find another hideout? She asked quietly.
Xena came to stand behind her, putting her arms around Gabrielles body and clasping her carefully. Cave, just past those trees. She said hoarsely. Herbs nearby, I think.
For your cough? Gabrielle looked back anxiously at her.
A half shrug. For your neck. Xena answered. Lets go. She held her hand out, and waited for Gabrielle to clasp it, then they both started down the steep path towards the trees.
Theyd gotten lucky, for once this trip. Gabrielle looked around in almost disbelief at the thick mats on the floor of the cave, a legacy of the many hunters who had taken shelter here before they had.
It had a firepit, which now had a fire in it, and almost unbelievably, a stack of old, worn and faded blankets tucked in the back corner.
She looked up as Xena entered the cave, her arms full of something fragrant and green smelling. In the stormy light from outside, Gabrielle could see the stark paleness of her partners skin, and the deep shadows under her eyes
Dear gods, Xena looked miserable. Gabrielle started to get up to help her, but the warrior forestalled her by dropping down onto the mat next to where Gabrielle had been sitting, and releasing her armful of foliage.
Ugh. Xena let her elbows rest on her knees and cradled her head in her hands.
Gabrielle settled back down and started sorting the herbs. It felt good just to sit, and she absorbed the warmth from the fire as she set the dark, leafy ones aside and took the thin leaves and put them in the nut cup shed saved.
Hang on, sweetheart. She poured water from her skin into it and set it by the fire to warm. A roll of thunder crashed outside, and the patter of rain darkened the dirt outside the cave mouth and the cool draft fluttered the flames as it brought the scent of wet earth to her. Boy, we got lucky, huh?
Ugh. The warrior straightened up and reached for the dark green leaves, shifting her body a little and starting to shred the into tiny pieces. A sharp smell, almost pleasant, came from them and Xena cupped her hands, bringing them up to her face and taking a deep breath. Ah.
Gabrielle paused. I thought these thin ones were for you. She gave the warrior a look.
They are. Xena hoarsely agreed. Just wanted to make sure I had the right ones here. Couldnt smell them that well outside. She looked up. Cant stay here too A cough stopped her words, and she gave into it, the harsh sound rattling the inside of the cave and making Gabrielle wince in sheer sympathy. Long. The warrior sighed, clearing her throat unhappily.
Mm. Gabrielle swirled the cup a little, warming the water. You think theyll be coming after us? I thought we trapped them back there.
The ones on that side. Xena rested her head against her fist. Rufus wasnt. Cant take a chance might go after Dori.
The thought had crossed Gabrielles mind more than once. The forest dwellers wont let him hurt her. She put a hand on Xenas knee. Shes special to them, Xe.
I know. The warrior said. But can we trust that?
Gabrielle removed the cup from the fire and handed it to Xena, remaining silent as the warrior lifted it to her lips and drank it down without a pause, even removing the leaves from the bottom and chewing them. Eerrgh.
Xena looked up, a stalk of grass poking out of her mouth and making her look like a beaten up, sick pony for a moment. Just wait. She poured a double handful of the shredded green leaves into the cup and added water to it.
Thats a lot. Gabrielle complained.
Youre in a lot of pain. Xena replied. I need to pack the cut on your back with those. She pointed at the third stack of herbs.
Oh. The bard studied the warming cup. Thosell put me out, wont they?
Xena nodded, fishing a few hot stones from under the fire with a stick and dropping them into the cup to heat it faster. Need to steep.
Gabrielle got slowly to her knees, then she stood up, walking to the far wall where the blanket where. She rested her hand against the stone and carefully leaned over to pick them up, pausing when her back almost seized up on her.
The bard waited, then turned and took a deep breath before she walked back over to her partner. She dropped some of the blankets and kept two, shaking them out and settling them over Xenas shoulders.
Both of their noses wrinkled at the musty scent. Guess Im not that clogged up. Xena sniffled. Unfortunately.
Yeah. Gabrielle combed her fingers through the warriors hair, pulling it back and gently massaging her scalp with careful fingers.
Mm. Xena let her head drop forward, and leaned back just slightly against the bards legs.
Like you wouldnt believe.
Gabrielles hands worked a little lower, kneading the knots she could feel in Xenas shoulders. She dropped to her knees and rested her chin against the warriors head, just sharing some of the skin on skin contact that tended to relax both of them.
And it did. She wrapped her arms around Xenas neck and felt their breathing slowly mesh, and their heartbeats even out and steady.
Thanks. Xena murmured.
The bard leaned to one side and kissed her on the cheek, then nibbled her ear. I love you. She said. Even when were in the biggest pile of piggy poo, I love you.
Somewhere, Xena found a smile and dredged it up for that. Likewise.
Gabrielle eased herself down on the mat next to her partner, gazing quietly at the ground until she felt a gentle nudge on her arm, and looked up to find Xena holding the cup out to her.
She took it, guiltily aware of welcoming its promised oblivion. She was so tired, and the pain was so grating, and the thought of just a little rest was irresistible.
Besides. The bard smiled to herself. If she were out cold, Xena would be forced to rest next to her.
Gabrielle drained the cup quickly, getting the taste of the herbs past her throat before it had a chance to protest. They left a taste in the back of her mouth anyway, and she washed them down with some cold water as she pulled the rest of the stack of blankets over. They werent much but
Xena caught the cup as it fell from the bards fingers and eased her down onto the blankets, rolling her onto her belly and throwing one of the threadbare cloths over her hips and legs. Atta girl.
For a moment, she just sat there, her hand resting on the bards shoulder, as she waited for the herbs to fully take effect. She wanted Gabrielle far under before she put the poultice on her, since the juice from the fresh leaves would sting unmercifully.
The last thing Gabrielle needed was to feel that, right? With a careful sigh Xena eased upright, knowing her body was right at the borderline of giving up on her.
It took her only a few minutes to crush the remaining herbs in the cup with the hilt of her knife, and spread the resulting green mash onto the wound on Gabrielles back as the bard slept.
It was a strong astringent, and it would draw out any swelling, she hoped. At the very least, just keeping Gabrielle still would help and now she
A cough racked her. Now she could rest, herself. Xena took a breath, and it triggered another cough, this time rendering her nearly airless before it finally let up and allowed her to catch her breath.
Gods, she was cold. She pulled the thin blanket around her with hands that shook visibly.
No time for this, Xena. She whispered to herself. No time.
Xena looked around at the interior of the cave. The storm outside had darkened the place, and the fire filled it with friendly warmth that invaded her stricken lungs and eased her breathing somewhat, after a few minutes.
Her chest hurt from the coughing, and her head hurt from the fight, and everything else hurt from everything else.
Xena crawled over to Gabrielles side and collapsed onto the mat next to her. She drew her sword and laid it across her knees, then she draped her arm protectively over the bards back and put her head down on the musty bundle of blankets alongside her partners.
Resting sounded like a damn good idea for her, too. Shed lie here while Gabrielle slept, and let her body recover while the herbs hopefully eased the rattling in her chest.
A gust of smoke from the fire irritated her eyes, and she closed them.
At once, without her vision, her other senses rushed into fill the voice and sounds became evident to her that hadnt been before. The rush of rain outside, rattling against the stone in an almost hypnotic rhythm, and the crackle of the fire, and the lash of the tree limbs in the wind.
She could hear Gabrielles gentle, deep breaths and feel the beat of her heart.
She could hear her own heartbeat, in the exact same rhythm.
At last, the pain lifted, and the exhaustion faded, and she drifted off into a blessedly peaceful gray twilight where they only sound she was aware of was the echo of Gabrielles voice saying she loved her.
It was like beautiful music that simply carried her away.
The sound of a tree crashing to earth at last nudged Gabrielle towards consciousness. For a long moment she had no idea where she was, as her eyes opened to see only dimness around her, the fire burned almost to embers and the days light faded to solid dark outside.
Her body was stiff. Even flexing her fingers hurt, but it was the ache of hard usage she knew all too well that overshadowed the pain of her injury and Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief as she felt a lessening of the savage vise that almost had put her in tears earlier.
She reached out and prodded the fire, rewarded by a flare of light as she carefully turned her body and peered at the figure lying still next to her.
Xena was curled on her side, a hand draped over Gabrielles hip and the other tucked under her head. Even from where she was, the bard could hear the strained sound of her partners breathing, and she eased closer, nestling her body up against the warriors.
Restless, the warrior twitched, her breathing coming faster and her hands clenching as she seemed caught in a dream. As the bard watched, she became more agitated; ripples of motion shuddering down her arms.
The fever was evident through the thin blankets, and Gabrielle bit her lip a little as Xena sensed her presence and uttered a soft cry. Easy, honey. She stroked the warriors arm and got under the covers that were draped over her.
Xena pulled her closer and exhaled, the rattle in her chest painfully evident. She was shivering, even in her sleep and Gabrielle worked her body and limbs as much around her soulmate as was physically possible.
Despite the discomfort and the hard ground there was something so ethereally wonderful about coming into this kind of contact. No matter the sickness, no matter the harsh, scratchy blanket when she put her arm around Xenas waist and curled up against her chest it was just Elysia.
It was her place. The spot where she belonged, that shed gained through long trial, lost, and then regained with the resolution to never lose this place ever again.
Shed fought to the depths of Hades for this spot. She let her cheek rest against Xenas bicep and slipped her hands under the rough, tattered tunic the warrior was wearing, rubbing her ribcage with careful fingers.
She could feel the bones under the skin. The last few days had cost her soulmate; had cost both of them and worn their bodies down in their struggle to stay alive and together. It would take far longer to heal, and she wanted that process to start soon. Now.
But there was Rufus to deal with.
Gabrielle sighed, her thumbs tracing old scars she could feel on Xenas flesh, faded and faint, but very perceptible under her intimate touch. The warrior uttered a moan suddenly, and started twitching again, this time with much more violence.
Xe? Gabrielle tried to hold her still, but the dream escalated into something horrible as Xena let out an agonized yell and her body writhed. Xe!
Instinctively, the bard knocked aside Xenas sword a flickering second before the warrior lunged for it, her body responding powerfully to some unseen threat. Xena! Gabrielle bellowed, hanging on as best she could.
She tried to pin her partner down, but even sick, even that weak Xena shrugged her efforts aside as though she were nothing but a feather. Gabrielle got her knee between the warriors and held on, wondering what to do next just as the body under her abruptly relaxed and went still.
Gabrielle panted a moment, and caught her breath. Sweetie? She leaned over and whispered into Xenas ear. Honey, are you okay?
For a brief instant, there was no reaction, then Xena coughed and shifted, her eyes fluttering open to reveal glazed blue orbs dulled with fever. Xe? Gabrielle repeated, gently.
Xena stared at her for a long moment without seeming recognition. Then, unexpectedly, a tear rolled from her eye and dropped to the ground and she exhaled a long breath ending in a cough.
Oh, honey. Gabrielle cupped her cheek with aching sympathy. Are you okay?
The warrior groaned softly. Damn.
Was it a bad dream? Sounded like it. Gabrielle soothed her. But youre okay now, right?
Xena gazed at her, blinking her eyes as the tears continued to fall. A look of profound sadness crossed her face and she reached out take Gabrielles hand, holding it as though it were precious.
Hey. The bard leaned closer, concerned, searching Xenas face as she looked up at her.
I... Xena whispered. Never wanted to hurt you. A tiny shake of her head. How could I?
Ah. Gabrielle exhaled, silently. They each had their deep wounds, didnt they? Honey...
Never wanted to hurt you.
I know that. The bard rested her head against the warriors. I never wanted to hurt you, either. But thats in the past, Xena. Were here, now.
The tears continued to fall as Xenas eyes watched her face in the dim light. All my fault.
Xena. Gabrielle tightened her grip, pulling her jaw down so they were eye to eye. Stop it.
The blue orbs widened in fevered bewilderment.
This is us. This is now. The bard spoke with quiet force. No more blaming.
For a long string of heartbeats, Xena simply stared at her. Then the long, dark lashes dropped, the fire picking out the glints of crystal caught in them.
Xe. Gabrielle gentled her voice and her touch. Let it go.
A long exhale.
Let it go.
For a little while, they just sat there together.
Then, Xenas eyes opened again, this time with an exhausted comprehension in them. I um... She cleared her throat painfully. Sorry. Fever.
Gabrielle removed the last of the tears with her thumb. Been there. She acknowledged in a soft voice. Its okay.
Xena rested her head against the bards shoulder. Grmph. She uttered. Thanks.
The warrior lay there for a bit, then she rolled her head to one side and looked past Gabrielle. Slate. She said, barely able to keep her eyes open. Damn.
The bard pulled the covers up more snugly over both of them. Its late, its still raining outside, and youre staying right where you are if I have to sit on you to make you. She pressed closer, feeling the shivers racking Xenas body.
Xena huddled against her. Bossy lil thing, arentcha. She rasped.
Gabrielle felt a sense of relief at the feeble humor. You bet your nasty old leather boots I am, honeybear. She pulled Xenas head closer and kissed it, tangling her fingers in the warriors dark hair and simply loving her.
Xena knew she should remember a time, not all that long ago, when the thought of accepting this kind of attention from anyone, much less from a half grown kid shed picked up outside a small village would have been impossible.
But . she realized suddenly she had no idea who that person was, who had shut off all contact with humanity.
The affection she could feel all around her, fairly thrumming through Gabrielles body as they lay together was as nourishing as any food and she gobbled it up without hesitation. The knots in her guts eased and her shivering abated a little, the lingering gray webs from her dream dissolving and slipping away.
The horror of Dahoks temple, rearing its head so very unexpectedly. Xena curled her arms around Gabrielle and pulled her close in silent apology.
Let it go, she would.
Xena stepped out into a bright, cold morning, reluctantly taking in a lungful of the frosty air. It hurt her throat, and she only barely stifled a cough as Gabrielle came out to join her. Despite her long rest, she still felt thoroughly drained and moving was an effort.
However. They had places to go, and she was Xena, after all. The warrior squared her shoulders and lifted her head, gazing out over the forest and picking a route out.
Damn it. Gabrielle sighed.
Xena turned. What? She scanned the area quickly, half expecting to see something dangerous heading their way. Her illness had clogged up her hearing, and she was uncomfortably aware of the fact that she wasnt up to her usual alertness.
The bard stepped up next to her and put her hand on Xenas back. No, its youd just made me a new staff, and damn it, I lost it again.
Ah. Xena nodded. Ill get you another. She cleared her throat, sore from coughing, and winced. Promise.
I know. Gabrielle said, as they started to walk. I was using it more as a crutch coming up here than anything. She chose her steps carefully, her body stiff and very painful as she tried to avoid jarring her back.
Oh. Xena watched her with a quick, sideways glance. Hang on. She eased between two large trees and paused, studying her options.
Xena, its okay. Gabrielle squirmed into the clearing after her. I can handle not having one, dont go f The bard exhaled, stopping to lean against the nearest tree as she watched Xena select a branch and start hacking at it.
It was obvious the job was a strain. Gabrielle frowned, wishing the nights rest had done as much for her partner as it had for her. The sickness had really taken hold of Xenas body and it was almost painful to watch her move with such effort. Honey.
Almost done. Xena wiped her sword blade and resheathed it, making a mental note to sharpen the weapon later on. She took hold of the branch and pulled, using her weight to remove it from the tree. It broke loose with a crack, and she turned with it, measuring its length against Gabrielles body.
Satisfied, she walked over to where the bard was standing and leaned against the same tree, using her dagger to trim the branches and strip the bark off. A pile of the resulting flora detritus formed at her boots as the bard watched. Better for you to use this. Xena commented, in a husky voice. She stripped the last twig off and offered Gabrielle the staff.
The bard took it, closing her fingers around the still damp wood; its sharply green scent tickling her nose. As a weapon, it would be just barely useful the newly shorn limb was too flexible yet, and it would take days of careful drying to harden it into something she could use in a fight.
But it made a great walking stick right now, and she gratefully leaned on it as they squeezed out from between the trees and started again on the path back to the forest dwellers village.
After a few minutes, Xena eyed her. Okay?
Gabrielle jumped a little, having been deep in thought. She turned her head and gave her partner a slightly puzzled look, then realized what she was talking about. Oh... gods, yes. Sorry, Xena. She apologized hastily. Its perfect.
Umph. Xena returned her eyes to the trail.
A memory of a time long past flooded into Gabrielles minds eye, and she smiled in reflex.
It had all started with waking up. Gabrielle opened her eyes to find Xena seated on her sleeping furs across the fire, two cups in front of her. She was putting something inside them and she looked up as Gabrielle sat up and rubbed her face.
Gabrielle stopped in mid motion, her jaw dropping and her eyes popping open wide from their sleepy half closure. Morning! She replied. Wow, it must be early!
No, its not. Xena muttered, glaring at the two cups before she picked one up and thrust it at Gabrielle. Here.
As if in a dream, she scrambled to her feet and went around the fire, taking the cup and looking at it. What is it?
Its tea. The warrior sighed.
For me? Gabrielle gazed at her surly traveling companion.
Xena gave her a look.
Gabrielle took the cup and went back to her furs, sitting down cross-legged on top of them and reveling in the luxury of not having to throw her things together and dash after the impatient warrior at the very crack of dawn.
She took a sip of the tea, and found to her surprise that she liked it. Usually things that Xena chose to drink were rarely to her taste, but this was good. She took a few more sips of it before she dared to look up at Xena.
Mornings with Xena were never fun. The warrior hated being in one place during the daylight, and every second Gabrielle took in getting herself ready to travel was spent under the dourest of pale blue glares.
But today was different. Xena was apparently in no hurry to leave; in fact she was seated in just her leathers, with her armor still set to one side waiting to be donned.
The sunlight filtering through the trees around them made her tanned skin glow and the shadows moved as Xenas body shifted, painting her in a very pretty way.
Today was different. Gabrielle curled her hands around her cup and wondered. Shed returned from the Athens Academy just a sevenday ago and now this sudden change once again made her feel a little nervous.
Was Xena thinking about how peaceful it had been with Gabrielle gone? Her eyes went to the cup, though. But if she was, why do this? Xena doesnt make tea, she sure doesnt make it for me, so .
Xena cleared her throat. Gabrielle looked up with a start. Okay? The warrior asked, looking pointedly at the cup.
Huh? Gabrielle stared at her, then at the cup, then back at her. The warriors eyebrows jumped right up almost into her bangs before Gabrielle realized she was asking her a question. Oh! She stammered. Oh... yes! Um... its great! Thank you!
Hmph. Xena went back to her solitary grumpiness, drinking down her tea with slow deliberation.
Boy, was that rude of me or what? Gabrielle was a little horrified at herself. Xena must be rubbing off on me, huh? Then she was even more horrified at the fact that shed thought that after Xena had taken the time to make her some tea and Gabrielle tipped her head back and looked up at the sun. And let her sleep late.
Boy. Gabrielle looked down at the cup, suddenly seeing it filled with something more precious than simple tea. You know what, Xena? She gazed earnestly over at her friend.
What? Dour blue eyes looked back at her.
Youre the best. Gabrielle told her.
Xena leaned her arm on her knee. The best what?
The best everything. Gabrielle got up and went around the fire again, dropping to her knees next to Xena. I told everyone at the Academy about you.
Yeah? Whatd ya tell them? Xena snorted.
How brave you are, and all the amazing things you do, and about how great a fighter you are, and how be Gabrielle turned crimson and bit her tongue. Ah, I mean how strong you are, and.... and
Aware of the intense scrutiny from her friend, Gabrielle looked down into her cup, wishing her blush would fade. Finally she lifted her head, to meet Xenas bemused eyes. Thanks for the tea, Xena.
The warriors stern face suddenly relaxed into a smile, brief but genuine. Youre welcome.
Gabrielle decided shed better keep her mouth shut before she got herself into trouble. She drank her tea instead.
All those fancy bards, whyd you want to talk about me for, anyway? Xena asked, suddenly.
It came out before she could think straight. Oh, well, because I missed you. Gabrielle blurted. You know, I mean, weve been traveling together for all this time, and I just... um She peeked over at Xena. Talked about you.
Least you didnt try to talk to me. Xena commented dryly.
Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip and looked guilty. Well actually
Drink your tea.
But only when I was in bed at night.
Xena looked at her. The eyebrows went up again.
Gabrielle found herself blushing.
It was just the most amazing morning.
Gabrielle chuckled, and shook her head. Hey, Xena.
Do you remember when I went to the Academy, that first time?
Remember you making me tea after I got back?
Gabrielle flexed her fingers around her new staff, feeling the grained surface beneath them. What was that all about?
Xena paused, then started down a new path, to the right. She reached out and pulled some leaves off a nearby tree, examining them as she walked along in silence. What had that been about?
Oh. Right. Must have been that bit where shed realized how empty her life was without Gabrielle in it. Just felt like it. She said, briefly. Missed you, I guess.
It was really sweet.
No, it wasnt.
Yes, it was.
Gabrielle, Im sick. Dont argue with me. Xena growled, the effect ruined by a racking cough.
The bard shifted her staff to her left hand and rubbed the warriors back with her right. She opened her mouth to answer, when a sound brought both their heads up and around to listen intently.
What they heard gripped them both hard.
It was a very familiar howl.
Ares? Gabrielle whispered.
Sounds like. Xena agreed. Cmon.
I told him to stay with Dori. The bard increased her pace as her partner did, until they were moving through the forest at a very respectable clip. Her back pain faded from her consciousness as the adrenaline kicked in and she knew it was doing the same for Xena.
Almost sounds Xena cocked her head as another howl rang up over the trees.
Like hes calling us? Gabrielle finished her sentence effortlessly. Want me to howl back? Dont you try it, with that throat.
Xena was silent for a moment. Gabrielle, I love you, but you sound like a rooster when you do that.
The bard snorted, a single burst of surprised laughter that emerged without warning. She shook her head and gripped her staff more firmly, leaning on it as she followed Xena up a short incline.
They crossed a small stream, Xenas boots kicking up the crystal clear water in a spray that caught the suns light and sparkled like diamonds. A half pace behind, Gabrielle found it in herself to frame the image and save it for later, the picture of her sick partner forging ahead in the dappled sunlight, determined and stolid, surrounded by natures wild beauty capturing her imagination with unexpected force.
She had moments like that. Gabrielle smiled briefly, remembering how those moments had grown far, and very few between at one point in her life. When the colors of life had muted and become grays, and her stories had left her.
How lonely it had been. Even after she and Xena had taken the first steps on their long road back to each other, shed been unsure if that gift would ever return to her and she remembered with startling clarity the moment when shed realized it had.
Speaking of. Hey, Xe its a little deep here. Gabrielle called out, struggling a little in the current as her unstable balance worked against her. Let me hang on to your tail?
The warrior stopped in mid stream and turned, hiking her eyebrows before she extended a long arm to her, catching hold of her outstretched hand and pulling her forward. They forged together out of the stream and up onto the far bank, splashing onto the muddy ground as they heard the patter of fast approaching footsteps.
Look out. Xena warned, as the bushes rustled and Ares burst out of them, his dark coat vivid against the green. Hey boy!
Roooo!!!! The wolf bolted for her and leaped up to place huge paws on her shoulders.
Easy. Xena staggered back, almost breathless as a cough racked her. Easy, boy. She endured a slurping tongue for a moment, and then she eased the wolf down to the ground. Whatcha doing here, hm? Wheres Dori?
Gabrielle knelt carefully to greet their friend, riffling her fingers through his fur. It was damp, but as she pulled her hand back she was relieved to see it was only water and not anything more ominous. Hi, Ares.
The wolf licked her face with enthusiasm, and butted his head against her chest. Gabrielle hugged him, feeling around his neck. No message. She looked up at Xena. You dont think
Theyre out here looking for us? Xena finished her words. Lets go find out. She waited for Gabrielle to stand, and they started off again. Find Dori, Ares.
The wolf sneezed, and looked at her reproachfully.
Ah. Gabrielle exhaled. I sense wildly rambunctious toddler behavior ahead.
Xena chuckled softly. She put a hand on Gabrielles shoulder as they walked, stifling her itching desire to break into a run as they followed Ares through the trees. She was anxious to see their daughter, and she knew the bard was as well, but she could see the strain it was for Gabrielle to walk even this fast.
If she was being honest with herself, too, her filled up lungs were making walking tough as she had to really struggle to get enough air into her chest. Xena found herself constantly short of breath and the sensation wasnt making her very happy at all.
The broken ribs werent helping either. She was beginning to suspect the two conditions might be related and that was spooking her more than a little.
A commotion suddenly broke out ahead of them and Ares danced in a circle, looking at them and then bouncing in place.
I think Gabrielle started.
Yeah. Xena heard the shouts of alarm. They reached a small ridge and as they stepped over the top of it and looked down the slope, a cluster of color popped out of the surrounding deep greens of the forest.
A dozen forest dwellers, on horseback were gathered, three of them in the act of jumping off their mounts and rushing towards the two of them.
Or not precisely towards them. Xena let out an audible gust of relief as she spotted a bit of disturbance in the bushes, as though a small animal were crashing through them at a high rate of speed.
Ares wagged his tail.
Gabrielle spotted the motion and started towards it, making her way down the slope with heedlessly rambling steps. Xena followed her, and they reached the bottom of the hill just as the brush erupted and Dori popped out of it, spotting them and letting out an ear splitting squeal.
Mama!!!!!! The child bolted for them in triumph. BOO!!!!
Ah. Xena felt a huge weight come off her shoulders, almost making her dizzy. She lifted a reassuring hand towards the oncoming forest dwellers, and heard their shouts of relief. She recognized their young friend Tucker in the lead, and one of the nursery minders along with two of the older soulbonded.
Cmere, sweetie. Gabrielle dropped her staff and knelt, as Dori reached them and ran right into her arms. Dori... Dori... hello sweetheart!
Mama! Dori crawled right up her, throwing her arms around the bards neck. Mama come back!
Ow. Gabrielle gasped. Easy, honey. Mamas owie. She caught the childs hands and removed them, then gave her a hug, pulling her dark head over and kissing it all over. Of course we came back. I told you Id bring Boo back, right?
Boo! Dori pointed over Gabrielles shoulders, her voice excited. Deres Boo!
Gabrielle studied her daughter quickly, finding her apparently well and in one piece despite the smudges of mud and foliage that covered her skin. Her eyes were bright, and now were focused on the presence the bard could feel coming up behind her, and she released her hold with a knowing smile. Go get Boo, Dori.
Eee! Dori scrambled off her lap and rambled past. Gabrielle half turned to watch her as she ran, arms wide, towards the kneeling warrior.
Booboobooboobooboo . Dori giggled as she reached her buddy, climbing up into Xenas lap as the warrior sat down on the ground with her. Boo! Boo! Where Boo?
Right here, munchkin. Xena rasped softly, cradling her daughter in her arms. Right here.
Dori patted her cheek. Boo owie too? She frowned. Bad!
Gabrielle eased over to them and sat next to her partner. The ground was damp, but it felt very good to be still, and she closed her hand over Doris booted foot as she watched the forest dwellers hurry towards them.
Yeah, we were bad. Xena ruffled Doris hair. Your mama and I were both bad girls, Dori.
Bad. Dori gave Xena a big hug anyway. Love Boo and mama. No want owie. She said. Gots pipples to come gots, get mama and Boo, go home now.
Hi. Gabrielle greeted Tucker. Looking for us?
The forest dweller flopped to the ground. You have no idea. He shook his head, round eyes flicking to Doris back. Shes been driving us nuts for two days. Tried to run off, we had to finally put her in your quarters and guard the door, and she got out the window twice!
Xena looked down at the innocent face tilted up at her. Did you make trouble, Dori?
Yes. The toddler agreed. GO find mama. Gots to go find mama and Boo, no good you go. She pulled on Xenas armor. Missed you.
What happened to you guys? Tucker asked.
What didnt.? Gabrielle sighed, as the rest of the forest dwellers galloped up. Her jaw firmed a little. Have you seen Rufus?
Tucker blinked, then shook his head. Not since you left, no. He answered. Why? He looked over his shoulder as the two soulbonded jumped off their horses and joined them. You were right.
Of course we were. Cessi snapped at him. You think we just make this stuff up? Ignorant child. She knelt stiffly next to Gabrielle and Xena. Are you two all right?
No. Gabrielle gave her partner a look. Xena, dont insult their eyesight, okay? She chided her. We had some trouble. She added, meeting Cessis eyes. Xenas pretty sick, and Im a little banged up.
The warrior gave her a dry, pointed glare.
Anyway, we ran into some people who were trying very hard to kill us. Not fun. Gabrielle went on.
Humans? Cessi started. Here?
No. Xena spoke before Gabrielle could.
Cessi drew her head back a little, glancing at Tucker and then nodding slowly. Well, lets save our tales for the village. She seemed to choose her words carefully. We have much to talk about, then.
Hows Lestan? Xena asked in quiet voice.
Surviving. Cessi smiled slightly, her fangs showing just a bit. Wanting very much to speak with you, Chosen.
Gabrielle was sure she wasnt imagining the stress on the title. It boded nothing but even more trouble, but at the moment she was just looking forward to getting them both back to shelter and safety.
Lets get going then. Xena said. She cradled Dori in her arms and got to her feet, tossing her dark hair back and squaring her shoulders. Been a long couple of days.
Boo? Dori tugged on her collar.
Gabrielle grabbed a bit of her partners armor and hauled herself up next to her. She recognized the veneer of stubborn attitude that had settled over Xena and knew better than to try and disrupt it. Want me to take her?
No. Xena set the toddler on her shoulders. Hang on, shortie. She held on to the childs feet with one hand, and put her other around Gabrielle.
You want to take my horse, Xena? Tucker offered shyly. I can ride double with someone.
Or walk. Cessi pointedly reminded him.
Thanks thatd be great. Gabrielle accepted before her stubborn soulmate could refuse. I had a little accident and my backs killing me.
What happened? Tucker asked.
Cessi put a hand on his arm. Stories can wait for the village. She told him. Im sure all will want to hear them. She gave Gabrielle a meaningful look. After our friends receive the care they need.
Oh yeah. Gabrielle sighed inwardly, watching Dori tug on Xenas hair. They were definitely not out of the woods yet. Right. She answered, as Xena led the way over to Tuckers tall mount.
She only hoped the trouble would stay at bay until they were ready for it again.
Have I mentioned lately how much I love horses? Xena remarked, taking s slightly tighter hold with her knees as she sat behind Gabrielle. They were halfway back to the village and between the warmth of the animal, the warmth of her soulmate, and the chance of being horseback Xena found herself in a much better temper.
For once, Gabrielle couldnt argue with her. Though riding tended to bother her lower back, she found being off her feet with Xenas arms wrapped around her helped her neck immeasurably. She patted the shoulder of their big mount, and glanced down at Dori, who was perched in front of her. You love horsies too, Dor?
Yes. Dori had a tight grip on the animals mane. She thumped him with her boots, appearing supremely pleased with her life at the moment. Got mama, got Boo, got Guff, got horsies. All good. She turned her head and looked up at her mother. Mama, tell me where you go??
Gabrielle had her hands free, and she used them to sort through the childs dark, unruly hair. Honey, you need a haircut. She found herself simply glad to deal with minutiae for the moment. You know where I went. I went to get your Boo.
You go dere? Dori pointed towards the tall mountain. Dats bad place.
Is it? How do you know that, Dori? The bard noticed that her daughter was wearing a little pair of blue trousers and a woven shirt, common to the forest dwellers and their children.
Yamma said. Dori examined one of her boots seriously. Said mama no good to go there.
Yamma? Gabrielle wondered if she meant one of her caretakers, or perhaps Wennid. She glanced over at Cessi, who was riding next to them. Was she a lot of trouble?
Cessi wrinkled up her muzzle, making the fur bristle around her mouth in a comical expression. She has a remarkable energy for one of your kind. The older woman answered diplomatically. This morning, she was very insistent that we come look for you, and we were afraid if we didnt, she would.
For us? Gabrielle gazed down at her pint size whirlwind. Dori, did you want to come look for me and Boo?
Yes. Dori nodded. Wanted you.
Well, Im glad you did. Gabrielle sighed, leaning back just slightly against the warm body behind her. She could almost feel Xenas silence, as she cradled one hand around the warriors fever warmed wrist.
We felt Cessi hesitated slightly. We felt that something had happened. She said. You seemed to be in distress, and Wennid and Lestan were terribly worried.
Distress. Thats pretty accurate. Gabrielle murmured. Its been a very tough couple of days for both of us. She looked over at Cessi. Did you know what was in that valley? Those people?
Cessi looked away. We had heard rumors. She murmured. The young ones, the dissatisfied, yes. We had heard they had gone off somewhere, and good riddance to them.
Gabrielle wondered if she really meant that. She felt Xenas arms tighten around her and she remembered what the warrior had told her about her experience in the valley. She realized with a shiver that Cessis words were truer that she knew and wondered what reaction the forest dwellers would have to their story.
They topped the ridge and the village came into sight, a spiral of smoke from the cooking hall rising over the green trees. Gabrielle had seldom seen a more beautiful scene, and she looked forward to getting into some clean clothes, as well as getting the herbs from Xenas kit in her partner.
Xena, did you find what you were looking for? Cessi suddenly asked, addressing the warrior for the first time. The men who attacked us?
Xena felt the heavy haze of sickness lift a little as she turned her head to regard the forest dweller. Might have. She spoke briefly in a low tone. Found the horses.
Cessi nodded. The story will wait. I can see youve had a rough time.
Gabrielle let her hand drop to Xenas knee, giving it a squeeze. She felt a warmth against the back of her head as the warrior exhaled, and the unhealthy sound of her breathing put a knot back in the bards guts. Doing okay, Xe?
Thats what I thought. Were almost there.
Ungh. Xena distracted herself by moving Gabrielles hair out of the way and examining her neck. The place where shed cut into her skin had closed up again, and seemed all right, with just a little swelling. However, she could tell by the way Gabrielle was holding herself that she was still in a lot of pain. What if she hadnt gotten all the bone fragments out? Gab?
Any tingling in your hands or feet?
Gabrielle was quiet for a moment, and then she shifted slightly. Um... no.... just in my neck.
Where youre touching me. The bard added delicately.
Xena had to think about that. Then she chuckled briefly. Nowhere else?? She leaned over and put a kiss right above the spot, nibbling the soft skin lightly.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. Nowhere injury related.
Good. Just checking.
Mama? Dori tugged on Gabrielles sleeve. Where you go? Tell where dat was?
They had just entered the village, and now a crowd was gathering. Not right now, Dori. Gabrielle told her as they came to a halt. Not right now. She looked across the village to Lestans hut, where she spotted Wennid waiting anxiously in the doorway, watching them.
First things were first. Cessi. Gabrielle looked at their escort. Were going to head to our gear. We need Xenas kit. She felt the warrior take a breath to protest and squeezed her wrist in warning. Please tell Wennid well be over as soon as we can.
Cessi hesitated, and then nodded. I understand. Do you wish a healer?
No. The bard took hold of the reins and turned the horses head towards their quarters. Thanks for coming after us. She gave the rest of the group a smile, as they eased through the crowd and headed off.
First things first.
Dont you even think about giving me a hard time about that, Xena.
Thanks. The warrior felt a cough coming on that even her will couldnt stifle, and it left her weak and shaking. She rested her head against Gabrielles and closed her eyes.
It was left to Gabrielle to lead them home.
Mama? Dori warbled softly. Boo no feel good.
No, honey, she doesnt. Gabrielle got them as close to the cabin as she could. Now, you have to be very good, and help me take care of Boo. Right?
Take care of Boo?
Can you get down? Gabrielle whispered. Xe?
For an answer, the warrior shifted and eased off the horses back, keeping hold of his saddle as she got her feet on the ground. She gave Gabrielle a pat on the leg, and reached up to take Dori down from her arms. Ill make it.
Gabrielle watched her anxiously, but relaxed a little as she saw the warriors steady stance. She got herself off the tall horse and they walked into the cabin together with Ares frisking after them. Wow. The bard felt her knees start to shake as her eyes took in the familiar scene.
Xena set Dori down and walked over to her gear, dropping heavily to one knee next to her pack. The toddler followed her and peeked curiously over her shoulder as she removed her healers kit and sat down with it on the floor. Glad to see this. She glanced up at Gabrielle, paused, then she dug into her pack again and removed a packet of trail bars. Here. She tossed them at the bard. Youre white as one of my mothers sheets.
Gramma! Dori thumped down next to Xena, splaying her legs out just like her parents. Boo, you bring me rocks?
Xena looked up from where she was mixing powdered, potent herbs into her travel cup. Rocks? Whatcha need more rocks for?
Dori poked her lower lip out.
Gabrielle sat down on the couch and tore into the packet, removing a trail bar and biting into it with a hunger she only now realized she was feeling. Relieved of the need to travel, her body now made its demands known. I have some rocks for you, sweetie. Let Boo take her medicine.
Dori poked her lip out further and looked sadly at her Xena.
The warrior finished mixing her herbs and dumped water into them, mixing them around and swallowing the resulting mess without even the slightest hesitation. Then she put the cup down and made a face, sticking her tongue out and wrinkling her nose. Worse than I remembered.
Hah. Gabrielle swallowed the last of one bar and started another as she undid the laces on her boots and pulled them off, with the socks beneath them. She stood up and unbuckled her belt, pulling her tunic off over her head carefully and stifling a gasp as she moved the wrong way. Gods. She hissed, lowering her arm and letting the tunic drape over the back of the low couch.
Xenas intake of breath made her look up, to find the warriors eyes on her, a look of pained consternation on her face. What? Gabrielle glanced down at herself and blinked. Ah.
She was covered, literally, in bruises and scrapes, including a raw set of marks right across her belly. Ow.
Mama, owie! Dori got up and came over, throwing her arms around her mothers leg and giving her a hug.
Yeah. Gabrielle let her hand drop to her daughters head. Im gonna go wash off. She added softly, as she started towards the bathing room. Cmon, Dori. Want to help mama clean up?
Wanna help mama. Yes. Dori followed her. You want to hear Guff story?
Do I want to hear a story about Ares? Sure. Gabrielles voice faded as they disappeared into the next room. Tell mama the story.
Xena let her head fall back to rest against the wall, feeling the herbs begin to take effect on her empty stomach. Something for the fever, and a good solid dose of the medicine she gave Gabrielle when the bard came down with the coughing sickness, and the potency of the herbs she was always very careful to carry made her eyes blink and her head feel a little light.
She was too drained to even cough. She let her hands lie slackly on her thighs and willed the herbs to work, knowing she couldnt deny the illnesses grip on her body any longer. They were here, yes, and safe but for how long? Xena let her eyes close. What would the forest dwellers say when they heard her story? Would they believe her? How many of them had she killed most of them youngsters whose parents surely lived right here in the village?
Not that she regretted it after all, theyd been trying to kill her but it was one thing to know that and another to face the families here and admit to it.
Damn it. Xena opened her eyes and regarded her options, focusing on the couch as the better of the two. Lying down flat wouldnt be a good idea. With a groan, she hauled herself to her feet and staggered over to the low piece of furniture, collapsing on it and leaning back with a sense of relief.
Carefully, she laid one hand over her belly and slowly let her body relax, her other hand closed around a small bit of stone.
Xena felt a smile pulling at the tired muscles of her face, as she sat back to wait.
Gabrielle picked up a bit of their soap, opening the shower pull and letting the sun warmed water dampen her body before she used it. So, Dori tell me about Ares. She watched her daughter amble about exploring the bathing room.
Dori walked over and picked up one of the linen towels, pulling it open and putting it onto her head. Guff make a mess, mama. She held the ends of the towel out and flapped them up and down. He goto Yammas and gots cookies.
Uh huh. The bard carefully washed her sore and battered skin. He went into the kitchen? Like at home? Like Grammas kitchen?
Yes. Dori agreed. Pipples making good cookies there. Guff likes! She pattered back and forth. Guff gots all the cookies, den he run fast.
I see. Gabrielle murmured. And what did the people do about that?
Reasonable. And what did you do, Dori? Did you help the people?
Dori peeked out from under her impromptu hat. No.
No? The bard scrubbed what seemed like a months worth of grit out of her hair. How come? You know mama and Boo always tell you to help people, Dori. Dont we?
So how come you didnt? The water drenched her again, bringing a feeling of blessed relief. After all her years on the road, Gabrielle had come to ruefully realize that love for exploring with her partner notwithstanding, she hated being dirty.
Hide Guff, gots cookies. Dori answered pragmatically. Good!
Gabrielle had to chuckle, despite herself. Dori, that was a very naughty thing for you to do. One last rinse, and she stepped away from the shower, capturing the linen draped over her child and removing it for her own use. Those cookies didnt belong to you.
Guff took! Dori protested.
You should have given them back. Gabrielle winced as she dried off her shoulders. That wasnt nice.
Gabrielle wrapped the linen around her body. sitting down on the sturdy wooden bench near the shower and resting her elbows on her knees as she gazed at her daughter. Hey, Dori?
The toddler came over to her. Mama mad? She asked wistfully, gazing up at her adored parent with big, round green eyes.
Paybacks. Gabrielle held back a smirk of self reproach with a strain at her will power as she clearly remembered a muck covered younger self looking up at Xena with much the same expression asking much the same thing. Are you mad at me?
It had been the first time, she remembered, that shed seen that little smile, that little softening in the warriors face that she was relieved to mark down then as its okay in her early guidebook to Xena.
A look shed later come to understand as one of love. Solemnly, she gazed back at Dori, reaching one hand out to touch her soft, round face. Ares was, after all, her friend and shed stuck by him, hadnt she? Self interest in booty notwithstanding? No, Im not mad, Dori. She told her child. But you should think of how badly the other people felt, after they worked so hard on the cookies and then Ares took them.
Doris forehead wrinkled. Pipples felt bad?
How would you feel if you worked really hard on something, like a picture, and then someone took it away from you, just because they wanted it? Gabrielle kept her voice gentle. You wouldnt like that, would you?
No. Dori admitted.
The bard pulled her closer and kissed her on the head, hugging her. Next time, think about that, okay?
Gabrielle released her. Okay. Now, tell me did you tell the people to come look for us?
Dori circled her mothers leg with one arm. Yes. She nodded. Mama owie. Tell pipple to go find now!
The bard gazed at her. How did you know I was hurt, Dori? She asked curiously.
Dori looked steadily up at her mother. Instead of answering, she just hit her own chest with her hand. Owie.
Could her daughter really feel when something happened to her? Gabrielle felt her eyes widen in wonder. Well, honey, you were right. She tweaked Doris small nose. I was owie, and Boo was owie, and we werent have any fun.
No fun. Dori shook her head vigorously. Mama, you go get owie. How come? Make Boo owie?
Ah. Gabrielle stood up and offered Dori her hand. Sweetie, I know you wont understand this now, but your Boo and I sometimes have to get owie because we try to help people.
I know. Its no fun for me, and its no fun for your Boo either, but we do it so other people dont get owie. Gabrielle told her. Want to come help me take care of Boo? I know shed like it if you helped me.
Dori sighed, taking her mothers hand as they walked out of the bathing room. Make Boo all better, mama.
The bard produced a sigh of her own as she spotted the tall, lean figure sprawled on the couch. . We will, honey. We will. And they would, she was confident.
She just hoped it happened fast.
Continued in Part 9
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