One Wild Ride
Gabrielle huddled down behind a moss covered rock andwaited, her hand resting on the furry surface with her fingertips idly rubbingagainst it. Her attention was focused on the broken ground ahead of them, whereXena and Pony were currently scouting. “Wonder if they found anything?”
Ares was seated with his back against the rock and his longlegs extended into the sunlight. “Dead Amazon, maybe?”
The bard sighed. “Next time I’m really going to leave Ponyto guard you. You have the suckiest attitude.”
Ares rolled his head to one side and regarded her. “When Iget my powers back, I’m gonna turn you into a frog. Then you won’t care aboutmy attitude cause you’ll be too busy croaking.”
Gabrielle scanned the slope in front of them again, searchingfor any sign of her returning soulmate. “I like frogs.” She resisted the urgeto kick him. “Xena does, too.”
The bard glanced at him. “Have you always been this big ajerk? How does Aphrodite put up with you?”
Gabrielle returned her attention to the scrub, straighteninga bit as she spotted motion, in tune with the little surge of connection thatcorrectly identified it as Xena. After a brief pause, the flicker morphed intothe warrior’s tall form crossing between two large trees and heading back inher direction.
The bard felt her heartrate pick up, as her eyes fastened onXena, reading the tense body language as the warrior ducked under a pine branchand circled the stone she was hiding behind. “Where’s Pony?”
Xena dropped to a crouch next to her, and put a hand on herknee. “Looks like they’re using that cave.” She said. “We found tracks intoit.”
An unspoken message floated in the air between them.Gabrielle could hear it in Xena’s quiet tone, and feel it in the gentle claspon her leg. It was hard to remember, really, when she’d realized that Xena’sway of preparing her for bad news was that touch, a hand on the shoulder, andlater, cupping her cheek; as though her companion, friend, and then loverneeded that grounding in a difficult task.
And so now, even without speech, Gabrielle knew what Xenahad also found was evidence that Granella had been taken inside the cave. Shemet the warrior’s eyes, then let her own drop to Xena’s other hand, which helda scrap of tattered, fawn colored leather stained in spots with a darker,rustier hue.
She reached out and took hold of it, taking it from Xena’sfingers and studying it briefly before lifting her head and meeting Xena’sgaze. “Pony watching?”
Gabrielle nodded back. “Okay, so let’s go.”
The place that knew violence, and understood it’spurpose. The side of her that wasmost closely aligned with the fire so visible to her behind Xena’s carefullycalm expression.
She wasn’t an Amazon. Xena had said once she’d never trulybe, and she’d been right about that. Gabrielle reached casually over and pickedup the three quarter staff Ares had been using as a walking stick.
Gabrielle closed her fingers around the staff and soundedthe word in her head, finding it as full of light and shadow as she and Xenawere. With a faint smile, she tucked the bit of hide into her belt and tuckedthe staff into the crook of her arm as she put a boot up on the rock andchecked to make sure the laces on it were tight.
“Find your other girlfriend?” Ares asked Xena. “Or what’sleft of her.”
Xena didn’t react to the jibe. She adjusted the strap on herleathers and shifted her shoulders to settle her sword, barely giving the god aglance. “Stay here.” She told him quietly.
“I don’t think so.” Ares snorted.
“Look.” The warrior turned to face him. “That wasn’t arequest.”
The god snorted again. “In case you missed the announcement,you ain’t the boss of me, Xena.”
“Ares.” Xena turned and dropped to one knee beside him withstartling suddenness. She grabbed him by the jaw and clamped down. “Just dowhat I tell you to.” Her eyesfastened on his face. ‘Stay here. Stay out of our way.”
Gabrielle half turned to watch, hearing a note in Xena’svoice she didn’t hear often. Shecould see Ares expression as he looked at Xena, amusement fading to a darkseriousness as they faced off.
Ares raised his hand and caught Xena’s wrist, yanking it.The warrior’s shoulder muscles twitched, but she didn’t budge.
Xena remained still, her fingers still clamped around hislower jaw. “Stay here.” Shewarned, in an equally soft voice. “Ares, I mean it.” She looked him right in the eye, for once feeling no fear ofhim, only a driving need to take care of a problem that made her twitch withimpatience.
Ares studied her in silence, keeping her waiting just longenough for her to come to the edge of her temper before he let his head restback against the rock. “All right.” He answered. “Get lost.”
Xena released him and stood, turning her back on him andheading past where Gabrielle was standing. She brushed by the bard without aword, circling the stone and starting across the scrub.
Gabrielle remained still, watching Ares intently until herpartner was clear of the stone and she was sure the god was going to stay wherehe was. Then she hefted the staff and stepped around the rock, turning only atthe last moment to follow Xena off into the grass.
They were heading into the wind, but Gabrielle saw Xena’sstrides shorten as the warrior detected her approach and she lengthened her ownto catch up. They walked together side by side through the grass, neitherspeaking as the time for that seemed to be at an end.
Ares slowly struggled to his knees and turned, leaningagainst the rock and resting his arms atop it, watching the two women cross thebroken ground leading towards the cliff. Despite the size difference, the body posture wasidentical, right down to the sexy swaggers that brought a wan smirk to thewatching god’s face.
Past them, hecould see the edge of the rocks, and a curve in the cliff they seemed to beheading for, with visible determination. “Huh.” He let his chin rest on his forearm. “Who’da figured.”
It was maddening. His lips twitched into a snarl, before theeffort to hold it became too great and he gave it up, crossing his arms andhugging the catskin to his body as a shiver worked through him. “Ugh.” Hemuttered. “Forgot how much I hated mortality.”
Last time, though, it hadn’t been like this. He hadn’t beenhurt.
Hadn’t faced mortality in quite so mortal a way. Ares openedhis eyes and looked across the tiny clearing, acknowledging the growingweakness of his body with a grim understanding at odds with his often mockingattitude.
Dying wasn’t in his plans this millennium. He’d seen enoughmortals die to know he wanted no part of it – not to mention he rememberedclearly watching from afar as Xena had slid down the long, tortured path toTartarus in the most unappealing way.
He’d despised that weakness. He’d been disgusted at thewaste of potential given in the saving of what.. some little ragamuffinnothing? Peh. He’d given upon her, walked away, found something else to occupy his time.
A soft rustle in the brush brought his eyes wide open, butafter a moment’s searching he found nothing in the area and went back to hisdark musing again.
Returning to Tartarus to find Xena gone, that..
Xena had needed something, bad. He could have given it toher. Instead, she’d turned away from everything he’d ever taught her and goneto the weakling side of her nature instead.
Bleah. Ares rolled his eyes. Barf. His damn sister had laughed, and laughed and laughed at him,and he’d hated Xena for that. Hated Gabrielle. Hated that smarmy happiness andset about to destroy it any way he could.
Ares reopened his eyes and gazed bleakly at the green,verdant bushes, so full of life. He’d had wins and losses, over the ages. Allof them had, a game, really sometimes.
But Xena had been more than a loss.
Xena had beaten him, and that.. Ares only just kept from grinding his teeth together. Thatonly made him more intent on getting her back. He could have accepted a loss.There was no way he’d ever accept being beaten.
Not even by her – this mortal who was as close to whateverhe considered his heart as anything else was.
They found Pony crouched behind a fallen log, her eyes fixedon the entrance to the cave and her elbows resting on her thighs.
The opening to the cave was empty, though the ground beforeit was churned up as though something had been digging there.
Gabrielle nodded. “What else?”
The warrior shook her head. “Scraps.”
Pony looked at both of them. “What are we waiting for?” Sheasked.
Xena was briefly silent, then she reached over her shoulderand drew her sword out. “Nothing.” She responded. “Let’s go.”
Gabrielle scrambled after her, and Pony got hastily to herfeet and followed, drawing her own sword out in readiness.
“Well, c’mon.” Xena called back, impatiently.
“Wait, wait wait.. now it’s c’mon.” Pony muttered under herbreath. “Freaking piece of cycling..oof!”’
Gabrielle didn’t even apologize. She returned her staff toit’s normal carry position andwatched the entrance intently, wondering if Xena’s plan was to simply chargeright into it and start swinging.
Wouldn’t be the first time. Gabrielle only hoped it wouldn’tbe the last time either. She took a firmer grip on her makeshift weapon and fora second, almost wished she had something more potent and the skills to dosomething with it.
Xena reached the curve in the rock and paused, putting herfree hand on it as she studied the opening. “Okay.” She turned to them. “We’vegot two choices.”
In the pause after her words, a thin, wavering scream filledthe air, drifting from the cave entrance.
“We have no choices.” Gabrielle said, into the momentaryshocked silence, before they all simply bolted and ran, picking up speed asthey headed for the dark cavern, moving in for once a solid accord.
As they reached the rock wall, a dark, furred figure emergedfrom the cave, spotting the motion coming towards him and opening his mouth toscream a warning.
Xena had been carrying her sword reversed, and now she whirledit in her hand into fighting position a split second before she swept her armaround in a tight circle, carving a slice across his throat with the tip as hetried to dive out of the way.
Blood flew. The hooter dropped, and Xena hurdled him as herolled towards her and kept right going into the darkness beyond with Gabrielleand Eponin right on her heels.
They stepped into chaos. The darkness blurred with figures,flickering in and out of the light from the opening as the hooters spotted themand charged to attack.
Xena let out a yell and swept her sword around, clearing thespace around her as she sensed Gabrielle moving in on her left. She punched anugly face leering at her from the shadows, turning and wrapping her hand arounda wrist and wrenching it backwards as she reversed her sword and slugged hernearest attacker in the head.
She was aware of Gabrielle in that odd, displaced way thathad developed between them, not needing to see her to know exactly where shewas, her body shifting to one side as the bard’s staff came shooting past her,hitting the hooter whose hands were outstretched trying to grab Xena’sleathers.
The staff batted him away, and that gave Xena a chance toturn her head and sweep the interior of the cavern, searching forGranella. The light from outsidewas dappled from the moving bodies, but her vision was up to the challenge andshe saw through the shadows, into the back of the cavern where the swirling,grinding mass of hooters made their own grim marker.
Xena went into motion, gathering up every ounce of energyshe could as she started through the crowd. “Gabrielle!” She let out a bellow.“In the back!”
“With you!” Gabrielle charged forward at her partner’s heels, staying to the leftside to give Xena the fullest clearance for her sword arm. She ducked under thearms of a leaping hooter, hauling up short as another flung himself at her andflew past as she wasn’t in the place he expected.
She managed to keep her momentum in check until he hit theground and then she jumped over him, her peripheral vision catching a heavylimb in the hands of one of the creatures heading for Xena’s ribs. “Yeahhh!!!”Gabrielle brought the lower end of her staff around to block the branch,grimacing at the shock of the contact.
Xena spun, switching her sword from her right hand to herleft as she brought her left arm down hard, chopping the limb wielder on theback of the neck with the blade and sending blood and bone flying everywhere.
Pony surged past them both unexpectedly, both hands grippedaround her sword hilt and the blade moving in savage, short arcs as she plowedthrough the hooters. “Bastards!”
Xena’s eyes widened as she saw the six creatures turn andjump at the Amazon. She reversed her course and grabbed her own hilt, lockingher arms and starting to yell a warning at Gabrielle, only to see the bard sense her motion and divefor the ground, sweeping her staff in a tight circle as she ended up on herknees.
Xena’s sword, sweeping around in a counterpointing circle tothe bard’s staff, caught three of the hooters at neck level as their feet weretaken from under them and their bodies came right into the path of her blade.She powered her way through them, feeling the grinding wrench as her bladesevered bone and the hot splash of blood across her thighs.
She whirled and kicked out, her boot catching the last oneand flipping his dying body over Gabrielle’s still kneeling form as the bardducked and scrambled to her feet, charging right at Xena with an intent look onher face that made the warrior stop in her tracks, staying still as the tip ofthe staff nearly grazed her jaw before it stopped short with a sound like asplitting melon. She released herright arm and extended it to catch Gabrielle’s lunging form, pulling them botharound in a circle as Gabrielle tucked in close to her and she swung her swordleft handed and twirled it to back stab the hooter attacking them from behind.
Then they were both bolting across the cavern after Pony,Xena getting a shoulder into one of the hooters and sending him flying as shelifted her sword and started hacking at the hairy backs in the frenzied circle.Pony was already fighting furiously to the right of them, chopping all aroundher frantically as bodies turned and howls went up.
A bellow rang out from the back of the cavern, and the pilestirred, opening a little as some of the hooters turned to face the sound andbecame aware of the danger at their backs.
Xena had one fast look at a huge creature, and the flickerof refracted sunlight off something metallic, and the wall of green eyeballsbehind him and for a bare instant the world around her halted.
Just stopped, giving her just a second to mentally enunciatea dire curse before everything exploded back into motion and she knew they hadto get out of the cave or they’d die in it. “Gabrei..”
“See it.” Gabrielle handed her the staff and went for Pony,dodging through the dark, hairy bodies so fast the grasping hands couldn’t geta hold on her mostly bare skin.
Xena let out the loudest yell she was capable of and startedwhacking everything in site, using the staff to hold off the nearest of thecreatures with it’s end tucked against her ribs as she slashed viciously in acircle around her, her body moving in fast, counterpointed strikes that didn’tgive her adversaries time to get a grip on her.
The crowd turned and broke apart, moving from their victimand facing her – giving enough of a glimpse of the tattered, ragged form on thefloor to kick Xena’s already racing warrior instincts into overdrive.
It was times like this, her ability to focus on a goal oftenbrought her through places she otherwise would have died easily in. She droppedthe makeshift staff and grabbed her sword two handed, slashing through thechest of the hooter in front of her and shoving him back.
Giving her enough space to take one long step, and then shewas crouching, letting the arms rush over her before she exploded upward andwas airborne over their heads, twisting and flipping her body as she whirled inmid air, slashing downward to clear space to land.
Blood everywhere. Stink everywhere. Yelling.
She landed on her knees near Granella’s limp form andturned, feeling the hot stab of warning in her guts even before she heardGabrielle’s bellow.
Two creatures were falling towards her, with flaming torchesin their hands. Instinctively, she put her body between them and Granella,knowing she had a chance maybe to stop one of them. “Damn.” She got her swordup in front of her. “That’s gonna hurt.”
Pony paused in her slashing, hauled half offbalance byGabrielle’s grip on the back of her leathers. She turned just in time to seeXena land next to Granella’s body and turn, as the crowd of hooters rushed pasther towards the kneeling warrior.
Xena could have gotten out of the way in time, she realized.She could have jumped up past the crowd and escaped.
But she saw the dark haired woman’s head lift, saw thecomprehension in her eyes as she prepared to fend off the attack to protectGranella instead and suddenly all the crap Gabrielle had been saying to her forthe last two days made some whacko kind of sense.
For a second, she saw Xena’s eyes shift and focus justbehind her. “Crap!” Pony wrenchedloose from Gabrielle and barreled through the crowd, keeping her sword behindher as she reached out with one hand to grab the back of one of the attackersand just…
“Pony!” Gabrielle caught her intent and ripped herself freeof a pair of clutching hands with some difficulty, following the Amazon intothe press of bodies and dodging a rapidly falling stick that bounced off hershoulders just as she caught up to her.
The shove on the hooter had come at the wrong moment. Itforced the creature foreward and into Xena’s sword, twisting it and the warriorout of position as the second hooter dove right at her.
Gabrielle clawed her way forward as the creature grabbed herwith it’s free hand, and they both lunged towards Xena in a flash of torchlightand burning hair. The bard felther boots hit solid ground for an instant, and she used all of it, shoving herbody sideways with all her strength as she caught sight of Xena’s swordsplitting the other hooter in half and whispering by Pony’s head so close itshaved a lock of her hair off.
Then she was twisting in mid air, losing track of herbalance as she sensed the hard ground coming up and she landed on her back witha painful jar moments before the hooter landed on top of her.
She felt the heat of the torch against her face, and got ahand free to paw at it, managing to get hold of hot bark instead of flames andshove it from her just as the hooter was lifted off her body and flungsomewhere. “Xena!”
The warrior’s hand grabbed hers and she was being hauled toher feet in a whirl of burning fur and screams and blasts of chill air at herback that made her nape hairs prickle. “What about..”
“Got her! GO!” Xena’s voice thundered back. “GO GO GO!RUN!!”
Gabrielle caught sight of something big behind them and shedecided to listen for a change, moving with Xena as they headed for the entrance.“Pony!”
“RIGHT FREAKING HERE!” The Amazon bawled. “JUST DON’T LETTHOSE DAMN THINGS TOUCH ME!”
“What?” Gabrielle spared a glance, and saw the skeletons reaching for them.“Sheeps. GO!”
Screaming. Gabrielle felt a cold, slimy touch on her back andshe decided looking behind her again was a bad idea. She followed Xena as thewarriors speed picked up, then winced as something hit the rock to one side ofher and shards broke off to sting her skin. “Wh..”
Xena grabbed her and bolted, and Gabrielle realized thewarrior didn’t have her sword out. She concentrated on just moving and theycleared the cave entrance steps ahead of a screaming mass of wild eyed hooters.
Xena felt something rip through her hair, but she didn’teven pause slightly. She increased her speed and headed for the ridge they’dleft Ares on, knowing what she’d see if she looked behind her.
“Xena!” Pony yelled suddenly. “Bastard’s got that damnsword!” The Amazon pulled her own from it’s sheath. “They’re coming after us..you wanna…”
Face a hooter carrying Ares Sword? “RUN!” Xena directed. “They won’t follow us.”
“They are!” Pony protested. “We can’t get.. Xena! C’mon!”
The almost dead weight on her shoulder was pulling heroffbalance, and it was all Xena could do to keep her footing in the brokenground. She kept hold of Gabrielle’s belt and grimly kept moving, hoping herinstincts were right just this once.
A rock hit her in the back. “Bastards.”
Gabrielle ducked a second, but as she turned to see wherethe missiles were coming from, she saw the hooters dropping back.
There were no skeletons with them. Nor anyone carrying asword. “They’re stopping.” She managed to get out. “Thank the gods.”
“Don’t thank them yet.” Xena headed up the slope, grateful she could just keepgoing. “We’ve got bigger problems right now.”
Gabrielle glanced up at the silent, limp form over Xena’sshoulders and caught sight of a pair of dull, staring eyes looking back at herwithout any recognition in them. She exhaled in shock, and forgot about thehorror of the cave in a flickering instant. “Xe.”
“Shh.” Xena worked on picking her way up the slope,concentrating on keeping her balance. “Later.”
Gabrielle turned to Pony instead, but the Amazon was keepingher eyes on the ground, her face set in frozen stillness.
Damn. The bardfelt an ache settle into her chest. She’d thought they were pretty much at thebottom of the worst, hadn’t she?
“Just keep moving.” Xena was starting to feel the strainacross her shoulders as she lead the way through the brush at as fast a clip asshe could manage. Behind her,Gabrielle had an arm around Ares and Pony was walking along her other side,shoving branches out of her way with impatient gestures.
They weren’t being followed. That much, at least, she wasthankful for but she knew she had to find defensible shelter and find it soonso she could take stock of the woman lying almost lifeless over her shouldersand decide what to do next.
The ground in front of them was more of the same. Brokenrocks, thrown from the cliffs overhead that made walking a trial and betweenthem, thorny bushes that raked over their legs and made her grimace every otherstep.
“Are we.. “ Pony started to ask, then fell silent.
“There’s a cave up ahead.” Xena answered shortly.
“Not another one like that.”
“No.” The warrior said.
“Or like the last one with the water.”
“No. Just a cave.”
Pony nodded, and kept walking. She had her sword drawn andher fingers were clenching and unclenching on the hilt of it, a sentiment Xenafully appreciated as she wished she could do the same.
She knew what this would all boil down to, of course. Thebig thing with the sword would come after them, and she’d have to stand up toit, and get Ares sword back. Likedozens of other times in her more or less recent path, she’d be called on to dothe hero thing and hope against hope that one more time, she’d be up to it.
Xena exhaled, and shook her head to clear the hair from hereyes. They’d been walking for two candlemarks, and the broken ground, combinedwith carrying Granella was beginning to wear her out a little.
“Yeah?” Xena didn’t turn around, merely calling the greetingback over her shoulder at her partner.
“Can we take a break for a few?”
The warrior looked around, and spotted a thick patch ofbushes just to the right of the path she was making. “Okay.” She altered hercourse. “Back behind those.”
She led the way around the edge of the scrub and found athankfully flat bit of ground behind the hedges with a covering of short,almost soft grass. With a softsigh, she dropped to one knee and gently eased Granella off her shoulders andonto the ground, feeling almost lightheaded as she straightened up and felt herback pop into place.
Granella made almost no reaction, simply curling up into aball and remaining still after that, staring past Xena’s knee as though itwasn’t there. She was covered withscratches and bruises, herleathers in mere tatters around her, but the damaged appeared more in her mindeven than body.
That was out of Xena’s realm, really. As a healer, she knewher skills to be more advanced than most, but when it came to the delicatesensibilities of the mind, she had to admit her straightforward often brutalapproach didn’t do much of any good.
With Gabrielle, well.. her love for the bard gave her an almost unlimited patience to untanglethe untidy threads their relationship often got them both into.
But Granella – though a member of the family, was almost avirtual stranger to her and honestly she had no idea really where to evenstart, or if the woman would even respond to her if she did.
The warrior sighed, letting her hands rest on her thigh asshe sensed a presence behind her and felt the warmth of Gabrielle’s hands asthey settled onto her shoulders and began a gentle kneading. “They must have..ah..” She hesitated.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle answered, in a quiet tone. “Why don’t youget some water and let me sit with her for a bit.”
Xena tipped her head back and gazed up at the bard’s somberexpression, acknowledging once again that their partnership made them far morethan the sum of their individual parts. “How’s he doing?”
A faint hint of wry amusement entered Gabrielle’s eyes. “Hestopped bitching at me. So not so good, I think.” She admitted. “I figured wecould all use a break.”
Xena’s lips twitched a bit as she studied the mud smudgedvisiage above her. Then she bumped her a tiny bit with her head before shestood, giving Gabrielle a brief hug before she started towards the gushingrunoff on the other side of the bushes.
Gabrielle collected herself, before she sat down in thegrass next to Granella, pulling her legs up crossed under her.
There were really no words that would mean anything, shefigured. So she reached out and simply took Granella’s hand and held it.
Xena sat down next to the rivulet and scooped up some waterin their skull, sipping from it one handed as she let her body recover.
“Shoulda just killed her.” The God of War commented. “She’sa basket case.”
The words were meant to sting, but Xena accepted them atface value, where their veneer of truth lay. “Shut up, Ares.” She repliedquietly. “What’s one more anchor around our necks at this point? “
“You mean me?” Ares pointed at his own chest. “Xena, I’mshattered.” He waited for her to answer, but the warrior simply sat theredrinking her water, pretending he didn’t exist. “So which girlfriend was that?”He asked, prodding for a reaction.
“She’s my brother’s wife.” Xena replied, wiping her lips.
Xena merely looked at him and shook her head. “I’ll see if Ican find any herbs to put on that cut. It’s going bad.”
Ares looked down at the reddened, seeping wound on hischest. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” The warrior stood up, scooping up a full skull ofwater to take with her. “If I’m lucky, it’ll kill you.”
“You don’t really mean that, Xena.” Ares called after her.
“Keep talking, and I will mean it.” The warrior called back,dropping to a crouch next to Gabrielle and offering her the skull. “Here.” Sheheld it while Gabrielle drank from it’s edge, the bard’s cheek brushing herknuckles. “You doing okay?”
Gabrielle made a half scrunched face, but didn’t answer. Shefinished drinking, then she returned her gaze to the silent women curled up infront of her. After a brief moment, she licked her lips, turning her head againto look up at Xena.
The warrior pressed her lips together and shook her head.Then she stood up and went to where Gabrielle had dropped their pack to returnthe skull to it.
Pony was sitting nearby, her knees pulled up and her armswrapped around them. “Know something?”
“What?” Xena sat down to reorganize the packs contents, androot for some herbs.
Xena paused, and glanced up at her, with a wry expression onher face. “It does, yeah.”
Pony scratched her jaw, removing an ant from her skin andflicking it away. “This what it’s like for you guys a lot?”
Xena’s eyes dropped to the ground, her face going still asshe fingered a bit of tattered leaf. Then she lifted her head again. “More thanI’d like it to be, yeah.”
The Amazon nodded. “This greater good stuff’s a crock,y’know?”
That brought a crooked grin to Xena’s face. “I used to thinkit was all about doing good stuff to make up for the bad stuff I did.”
Pony remained quiet for a few moments. “Because you do thishero crap now?”
Xena tied the pack shut and started to get up. “Yeah.” Sheran her hands through her hair and looked around. “Tell ya what, it hurts a lotless to be a bad guy.” With asigh, she headed into the scrub, searching the ground intently as she walked.
Pony had no idea what she was looking for, so she decidedhelping wouldn’t be very damn helpful. She turned her attention to whereGabrielle was sitting, still holding onto Granella’s hand.
So all she could do right now was just sit and rest, andwait for the next bad thing to happen. It wouldn’t do any good to askquestions, and it wouldn’t do any good to ask what they were going to do next.She knew the answers would either piss her off or not make sense and besidesshe didn’t figure anyone really knew what the Hades was going on any betterthan she did.
Gabrielle’s voice was, nevertheless, a welcome distraction.Pony looked over at the bard, who had half turned to face her. “Yup?”
“Could you get me some water, and that bit of folded clothin my bag?” Gabrielle asked. “I’m going to see if I can clean her up a little.”
Clean her up a little. Like that would do anything causethey were sitting in the dirt anyway. “Sure.” Pony turned and reached for thetravel worn pack. “Sure it’s worth the time?” She got the damn skull back outand got up to get some water in it.
Gabrielle looked back at the dull eyes and expressionlessface. “I think so.” She answered softly. “It’s always a good thing to beclean.. especially when you feel so dirty inside.”
Pony paused in mid step, as something in the tone alertedher to the fact that Gabrielle wasn’t just talking to hear herself speak.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle sniffled a bit, and wiped the back of herhand across her eyes in a casual way. “I know we can’t stick around here long.. want to help with this?”
“Uh.” Pony felt a little overwhelmed. “You know, I’m notreally too good..”
“Here.” Gabrielle took her hand and put the cloth in it.“It’ll be good practice for you when you’re a mom.”
Xena returned from searching with a handful of herbs,sorting them in her hand as she knelt down next to where Ares was half sittingand half lying. “Not sure these’ll do much, but they’re better than nothing.” Sheset the leaves down on a rock and picked up a loose bit of stone, mashing thefoliage lightly to release their oils.
Ares watched her as she worked, studying the angularprofile. “So.” He said, after a bit. “You really want me to die, Xena?”
The warrior cupped the shredded leaves in her hand and movedcloser, easing aside the almost useless bandage and putting the herbs onto thewound. “I want you to stop aggravating me.” She said, wincing a little as hedid when the juice got into the cut. “So whatever it takes.”
“Stings, I know.” Xena agreed, almost in an undertone. “Doneit to myself a thousand times.”
Ares observed the mixture of greenish liquid seeping alongwith a yellow and red discharge. “If this is what mortality is like you shouldagiven it up a long time ago.” He remarked in an almost conversational tone.“This sucks.”
Xena wiped her hands off and sat down, resting her elbow on her knee and propping herchin on her fist. “Shut up, Ares.”
“Here we go with that again.” The god closed his eyes.“Maybe dying wouldn’t be all that bad at this rate.”
Xena sighed, watching as the sunlight slanted across thebushes and made them all a study in light and shadows.
It seemed inordinately appropriate, somehow.
“Gran?” Gabrielle leaned forward again, holding Pony’swooden cup in her hands. “Can you drink this, a little?” She watched the darkhaired woman’s eyes, which slowly tracked to the cup. “Yeah, that’s it.. c’mon.It’s pretty good water, and I bet you’re thirsty.”
To one side, she was aware of Xena strapping the pack to herback, and Pony gathering their things. She knew they had to move on, but shewas hoping she could get Gran to respond to her a little before they started.“C’mon.”
The woman had been unresisting as they’d gotten the worst ofthe grime cleaned off her, but she had curled back up into a ball when they’dfinished and just lay there, rocking a little bit as they watched her.
“Gabrielle?” Xena called over to her. “We need to move.”
Gabrielle exhaled. “Okay.” She got to her knees, and slowlyreached out to Granella. “Gran, we’ve got to get going now.. take my hand,okay? Walk with me?”
Behind her, she could almost feel Xena’s impatience.
Xena waited quietly, scuffing the toe of her boot in thegrass a little as she eyed the inexorably sinking sun. She was hoping whatGabrielle was doing would work for a reason besides the obvious, as climbing upthe slope with Gran on her shoulders was something she wasn’t exactly lookingforward to.
Pony was waiting on the far side of the hedges, her eyesfixed outward ostensibly on guard, while Ares was still sitting on the ground,half lying really on one elbow having fallen silent for the last while.
Her instincts were urging her to grab Gabrielle, and getmoving. Usually, her instinctswere right on target, she felt they probably were this time too but she knewsome things were worth risking trouble for and the sense she was getting fromGabrielle made this one of them.
After a long hesitation, and just before her nerves were atthe breaking point, Granella unexpectedly reached up and took Gabrielle’s hand.
Xena felt the surge of surprise, and spurt of happiness asGabrielle reacted, this sharing of their emotions no longer strange orunwelcome to her. She didn’t evenwonder any more where all that came from, she merely accepted it as part of whothey were together and acknowledged she’d gotten the better end of the deal.
“Okay, thanks.” Gabrielle closed her fingers aroundGranella’s. Her eyes still refused to meet the bard’s, but she got a tiny sensethat she was getting through to their friend if only just a little. Slowly, shedrew their linked hands towards her, pausing when she felt resistance. “Gran?Can you get up and come with me?”
She thought she caught a faint whimper.
There was no reaction, and the bard sighed softly. Shestarted to reach out again when a raucous hooting almost brought her straightupright, her body reacting to a threat her mind hadn’t quite quantified yet.“X.. “
Sudden motion cut the word off as she was almost bowled overby Granella going wild in front of her, eyes bulging as she scrambled to herfeet and started to bolt. With ayelp, the bard threw herself after her, trying to get a hold of the woman.
Pony saw the motion and turned, heading across the camp tohelp Gabrielle as Xena pulled her sword from her sheath and crossed her path ina flicker of powerful motion, moving towards the sound with a ringing curse.
Gabrielle took two rapid steps and got an arm aroundGranella, pulling her to a halt as she dug her boots into the ground and liftedthe other woman off the ground. “Gran.. gran! It’s okay!” She winced asGranella let out a screech of fear, struggling against her hold as Pony skiddedto a halt next to her. “I”ve got this.. go help Xena!”
Pony gave her queen a respectful look as the bard hauledGranella off her feet again, and turned to head after Xena. “Yes, ma’am.” Shecalled back over her shoulder as she drew her sword. “But I got a feeling we’reall gonna be… whoa!”
Xena came hurdling back over the hedges, twisting in mid airand landing next to Gabrielle. “Get Ares.” She reached over and put the pinchon Granella, catching the woman as she went limp in Gabrielle’s arms. “We gottago.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle released her hold and headed for the godof war as Xena hoisted Granella up over her shoulders again, the woman’s armsdangling limply as she shrugged her into place. On the other side of the hedges she’d spotted a hunting packof the hooters headed down the ridge, and she knew they simply didn’t have theresources to beat them all off.
She started down the ridge, as Pony caught her up andGabrielle got her arm around a surprisingly silent Ares. “Let’s move this way.”She uttered softly. “Keep the hedges between us and them.”
She led the way, putting her boots carefully on the rockyground to keep herself from slipping on the loose rocks.
They had too many weaknesses to worry about right now.
They noved from the open scrub into a stand of trees, andshe exhaled in mild relief, looking around quickly as she slid through thetrees that clustered around them on all sides. The woods around them were quiet, as their passage sent thewild creatures into hiding. Xena thought she spotted eyes watching her fromunder a fallen log, but the urge to get to shelter kept her from looking anycloser as the ground started to slope a little more steeply. “Watch it.” Shecalled back softly.
“Oof.” Gabrielle grunted. “Darn rocks.”
Xena forced her attention forward, trying not to think toomuch about Gabrielle being pretty much in Ares clutches back there.
“Xena.” Pony caught up with her, boots scuffing in the
“No.” Xena replied. “C’mon, Pony. Don’t ask stupidquestions.” She edged sideways past two big trees and continued down the slope.“If we can get to that cave, maybe we can do something for her.”
Pony got in front of her and took the lead, her back stiffwith anger.
Well. Xena was glad of the silence at least. She kept oneear cocked back to listen for Gabrielle and contented herself with followingPony’s experienced track through the loose rubble. She was so worried about so many things it was almostoverwhelming her and she hoped they could just get down the hill in one piecewithout something else happening.
Howls rang in the distance, making her head throb. “Damnit.”
“You say something, Xe?”
Xena glanced behind her. “Nothing worth hearing.”
Gabrielle glanced at Ares, then looked back at Xena, anexquisitely expressive expression on her face. “Ah. Probably exactly what I wasthinking then.”
“Mm.” Xena returned her attention to the ground in front ofher, shaking her head.
“Hey. Slow down.” Ares rasped. “What in Hades are yourunning for? Wanna die faster?”
Gabrielle resisted the urge to slam the god into a tree.“The goal is, not dying, Ares.”
He snorted softly. “Why?”
“What do you mean, why?” Gabrielle asked. “Maybe it doesn’tmean much to you, but I’m not into dying today. I’ve got things to
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Ares rolled his eyes. “Well, babycakes,let me tell ya, I don’t think your snookums is getting her mommies back thistime.”
Gabrielle was silent for a few steps. “Are you just tryingto piss me off?” She finally asked, as they struggled through a patch of looserocks. “Is that… entertainment for you?”
Ares shrugged. “Beats spitting on small animals.” Hemuttered. “Besides, you should be used to it. You nearly get her nibs up therekilled every other month.”
Gabrielle felt a slow burn starting at the back of her neckand working forward. “That’s not true.”
“Sure it is.” The god shrugged. “Every time I turn aroundshe’s getting whomped for some stupid thing you did, or some stupid thing yousaid or… hey!”
Gabrielle had to pull up short to keep from crashing intoXena’s suddenly very present form, the warrior’s eyes almost giving off sparksas she grabbed Ares by the hair and glared at him. “Oh.”
“If you don’t shut up…” Xena growled.
“Xe.” Gabrielle bumped her with an elbow. “C’mon.. let’s getgoing. He’s just talking trash.”
“She’s knows it’s true.” Ares managed a wan smile. “Don’tchalove dying for your squeeze here, Xena?”
The warrior released her hold and turned, ignoring him againas she continued through the forest.
Ares chuckled, then stopped as he got an elbow in his ribs.“Stop that, you little runt.”
Gabrielle took her arm from around him and released the handhe had over her shoulder, stepping away and moving after Xena. “Carry yourselfthen, you useless jerk.”
“Hey!” The injured god reeled, grabbing hold of a tree ashis support vanished. “Get back here!”
Gabrielle kept walking.
“I said get back here you… you…”
The bard caught up to her partner and walked along side her.
“Thought he was just talking trash?” Xena eyed her.
“Grr.” Gabrielle muttered something unintelligible under herbreath.
Xena released her hold on Granella’s leg and gave Gabriellea quick, one armed hug and a kiss on the head. “Hon, I’d die for you any day ofthe moon, ya know that?”
The bard exhaled.
“G’wan. Give the old bastard a hand or we’ll never get tothe damn cave.”
“Can I call him an old bastard?” Gabrielle perked up. “Hey,yeah, he is ancient, isn’t he?” She dropped back and turned, heading up theslope to where Ares was waiting, leaning against the tree. “Hey Old man.”
“No wonder no one believes you in any more. You’re an oldcrock.”
Ares glared at her as she came even with him. “You littlebitch.”
Gabrielle gazed at him. “So I guess we’re even now, right?Want help or not?” She put herhands on her hips. “Or does it piss you off so much that she’s willing to doanything for me, when she won’t even give you the time of day?’
Ares lip twitched as he looked her right in the eye.“Careful, mortal.”
“Takes one to know one, doesn’t it” The bard shot rightback. “Now, you want help, or not?”
A loud howl rang out through the trees, wrenchingGabrielle’s head around as shecrouched a little, her fingers clenching on a non existent staff. “They’regetting closer. “ She looked backat Ares. “So you want to come with us, or stay here and wait for them?”
His bloodshot eyes watched her face intently. “You’d leaveme behind, Gabrielle?” He asked, softly. “Nice… maybe you’re not so much a lostcause as I thought you were.”
Gabrielle’s nostrils flared briefly. “I”d leave you.” Shereplied, in a soft voice. “But not today. C’mon.” She stepped forward andgrabbed his hand, pulling his arm over her shoulder as he pushed away from thetree. When she turned and headed down the slope again, she wasn’t surprised tosee the tall, silent figure standing there, waiting for her.
“Speak for yourself.” Ares coughed, stumbling and almosttaking them both to the ground.
“You know.” Gabrielle hung onto him grimly, waiting for himto catch his balance before she started forward again. “I’m glad you’re finallygetting to feel when we have to go through.”
“I bet you are.”
“But I just wish you cared about anyone except yourselfenough to know what it was like to lose them.” Gabrielle finished, enunciatingeach word clearly and with conviction. “Because I would love to share thatexperience with you too.”
And for once, Ares didn’t answer. He watched the groundahead of them, and refused to even meet her eyes.
Past the curve of the trees, Gabrielle could see thebeginning of the rock wall that led to the cave. With her last words tastingbittersweet on her tongue, she sped up the pace in Xena’s footsteps, sensingthe approach of what Xena had once called a sea change, when she’d felt it on ajourney to some far off place they’d been going together.
It was that moment, when they would ride the surging tidesof circumstance and decide on a course that would either bring them home, orbring them into the depths of Hades and to know that moment was coming..
To know that moment was coming was a relief, regardless ofwhat happened after.
Xena sat on a rock outside the cave entrance, slowlysharpening her sword as the twilight deepened the shadows around her.
Inside the cave, Gabrielle was fixing up whatever she couldscrounge for a meal for them, while Pony sat with Gran in case the sufferingwoman reacted to some sound and started running again.
Her body felt a little sore, after the long day. Hershoulders were stiff and she could feel the ache as she drew the stone alongher blade that meant in a few candlemarks she’d really be hurting.
Ah well. She idly thumped her heels against the stone,taking comfort from the long familiar motions her hands were performing, thetracking of the stone against the steel something she could probably do even inher sleep.
A necessary task, of course; every time she used the weaponthe thin edge of it got blunted on whatever it was she was using the sword on,and it had to be patiently worked back into an exquisite sharpness that wouldamplify her strength and make the cuts and slashes more effective with lesseffort on her part.
Gabrielle, back in the old days, had once asked her if shejust sharpened her sword to intimidate her. To which, Xena had laughed and toldher she was being silly, but then had to pause when the bard reminded her sheused to work on the blade whether she used it or not.
Obsessive, maybe. Xena remembered those nights, so full ofshadows when she’d first changed her ways and been convinced every tree hid anold enemy behind it. Taking careof the sword had been a way for her to ensure she was prepared for anything, hadn’tit?
Xena smiled, sweeping her eyes around the barren ground. Andmaybe it had been a way to keep a distance between her and her newacquaintance. A way of reminding Gabrielle who she was, and a warning – to notget too close to her.
A warning Gabrielle had completely ignored, naturally.
Xena studied the sword, the tang of warm metal making hernose twitch. She pondered a momentwhat she would have done if Gabrielle had taken her warning, and left her.
“Hey.” Gabrielle leaned against her, appearing from thedarkness of the cave with surprising stealth. “Whatcha thinking about?”
Xena studied her sharpening stone, then she tilted her headand looked at her partner. “Falling in love with you.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle sounded a bit surprised. “Okay.. well..ah..”
“I did.” The bard admitted. “But I thought maybe you werethinking about Gran, or how we’re going to get out of here, or what I’m makingfor dinner…”
“Nah.” Xena tucked the stone away and sheathed her sword,letting her hands rest on her thighs and flexing them a little. “I needed abreak.”
Gabrielle slid her hand into the crook of Xena’s elbow, herfingertips finding the slow, even heartbeat as they brushed over the blue lineson the inside of her arm. “Soup’s almost ready.” She rested her cheek against Xena’s shoulder.
“Thanks.” Xenastudied the bard’s nearly invisible profile, noting the very evident tension.“Everyone could use it tonight.” She leaned over a little, pressing hershoulder against her partner’s. “Me, especially.”
Gabrielle looked up at her. “Tired?”
The warrior nodded. “Real long day.” She said. “In a lottaways.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle sighed. “But you know, Xena…”
“We gotproblems.” The warrior acknowledged. “Lots of them.”
“Boy, do we.” Gabrielle murmured. “Xe, Ares is going downhill, and I don’t know what to do with Gran.”
“Mm.” The warrior agreed. “I saw you trying to talk to heragain.. any reaction?”
“Not really, no.”
They both stood quietly as the last of the light faded, andthe sound of crickets surrounded them. At last, Xena spoke into the darkness, her tone reflective. “All right.This is what we’re going to do.”
Gabrielle leaned closer, as the warrior’s voice took on adecisive tone, though she spoke softly enough that she had to really listen forthe words.
“Across the valley here, and up that creek bed is the way wecame in.” Xena said. “It’s flat lands, we can make it across if we get movingat first light tomorrow.”
“We get to the wall we fell down, and I’ll climb up it ThenI’ll let a rope down, and pull everyone up after me.”
“Okay.” The bard was nodding.
“I’ll pull Pony up first. Then she can help me haul Gran andAres up.” Xena went on. “Then you come up last, and we keep going from there.”
Gabrielle thought about that. “Okay.” She said, after abrief pause.
“What?” Xena asked, after a moment. “You don’t like thatidea?”
The bard slid around and settled herself between Xena’sknees, resting her forearms on the warrior’s thighs as she looked up at her.“I’m trying to figure out if you’re dissing me or complimenting me.” She said.“I could help you pull everyone up.”
Xena laced her fingers behind Gabrielle’s head. “Yeah, youcould.” She agreed. “You’re stronger than Pony is. But I trust you more to makesure they get up safe.”
Gabrielle pressed herself against the rock, enjoying theretained heat of the sun against her bare midriff. “What if we get attackedwhile we’re climbing up?”
“That’s the other reason.” Xena replied, calmly. “You knowhow to fight them off. Pony doesn’t.. she just goes in there hacking.”
The bard nodded. “What about our obligation to those otherguys?”
Xena gazed steadily at her. “Gabrielle, our obligation is toget Granella and Ares out of here.” She said. “That’s what matters.”
The bard’s eyes narrowed a little, and a pucker appeared inthe skin between her eyebrows. Then, her shoulders relaxed and she put her headdown in Xena’s lap, surrender evident in her posture. “Yeah, I know.”
The warrior ran her fingers through Gabrielle’s hair.
“What about Ares’ sword?” The bard asked, breaking thesilence.
Xena didn’t answer for a few minutes, her eyes searching thedarkness around them from long habit. “There’s that.” She murmured, finally.“But you know something, Gabrielle?”
“I um.. “ Xenaexhaled. “Let me ask you the question. Is my life worth that sword?”
Gabrielle straightened right up so fast she nearly gotlightheaded. Her eyes widened and both eyebrows lifted as she released Xena’slegs and put her hands on her hips. “Wh…” She stopped, then started again.“What do you mean by that, Xena?”
Xena bumped her heels against the rock lightly. “That bigone has the sword.” She said. “Only way I’m gonna get it is go up against himand take it.”
“I don’t know if I can.” The warrior finished, cutting heroff gently with a faint shrug. “Is risking my life worth it?”
Gabrielle put her hands back on Xena’s knees, having todigest something she hadn’t expected. “Of course not.” She whispered. “No thingis worth you even getting a hangnail, Xena.”
Xena let her hands rest on the bard’s. “They are… a lotstronger than I am, Gabrielle.” She said. “Ares sword can cut through mine likemine through butter… even if he’s only figured out what end to hold, I justdon’t know if I can handle the combination.”
Gabrielle shook her head a few times. “I…”
The warrior smiled, faintly.
“It’s not.” The bard shook her head again. “We get so usedto always having to.. sacrifice ourselves for other things that sometimes weforget to stop and ask why the Hades we’re doing this.” She inhaled. “I don’tgive a damn what happens to his sword.”
Xena studied her face. “But you do care about the biganimals.” Her eyes twinkled, just a trifle.
“Mmph.” Gabrielle shrugged one shoulder. “Not a squinchcompared to how much I care about you.” She squeezed the warrior’s knees.“Thank you.”
“Just thanks.” Gabrielle stepped back and tugged gently.“Let’s go inside.”
Xena eased off the rock, dusting her hands off against herleathers as she took a deep breath of the now night air. It was cool, and fullof pine and stone dust, and she felt a sense of deep, somewhat surprisingrelief as she followed her partner inside the cave.
Funny, how telling Gabrielle how she felt about the swordhad been so much harder than admitting it to herself. Xena let her hand trail along the stone wall as she walked.She’d been living up to Gabrielle’s expectations for so long, she’d grownalmost afraid of disappointing them.
She watched the bard go to the fire and stir the soup.Almost? Xena knew herself to havecrossed a path she’d been unconsciously shying from for a very long time, eventhough she knew very well that she’d never had a much of a shine on her heroismfor Gabrielle to lose sight of.
Maybe at the very beginning, there had been. But not forlong, and surely not after Dahok.Xena sat down near where Ares was curled up, feeling very tired, and verymortal and for the first time in a while, feeling her age.
Pony got up and came over to her, settling on the rock ledgeat her side. “Xena.”
“Yeah?” The warrior examined a bruise across one knuckle.
“Lissen.” Pony twisted her hands together. “I’ve been sayinga lot of crap that’s just been.. um.. crap.”
“S’allright.” Xena said.
“No.. just listen.” The Amazon held a hand up. “I don’tunderstand half the stuff you guys do and I don’t really get why you do it, butI know enough to know you don’t do it for you, y’know?”
“Most people ain’t like that.” Pony said, gamely. “Y’know?They just do stuff for themselves.”
“Yeah.” Xena tasted the irony, as she glanced up to findGabrielle regarding her with gentle wryness from across the fire. “I know.”
“So that’s cool, and I’m gonna try not to be a jerk, now.”Pony concluded. “So just tell me what to do, okay?”
“Okay.” The warrior agreed. “Go over there and get somedinner.” She directed. “How’s that for a start?”
The Amazon looked at her, then shook her head and got up,trudging over to where Gabrielle was kneeling and crouching next to her.
Xena watched them, then she let her eyes travel around theinside of the cave, taking in Gran’s tightly curled form on the far side of thefire, and the haggard, deeply shadowed visage of the God of War near her knee.
She sighed. The best she could hope for tomorrow was to endthe day perched on rocks, trying to find a way out of the valley.
The worst she could hope for? Xena looked up again to findGabrielle in front of her, offering her a spoonful of soup from their grisly and ghoulish skull bowl.“Thanks.” She half stood and kissed Gabrielle instead, lacing her fingersbehind the bard’s neck andignoring the bowl between them.
There would be no worst.
The strident yowl of a hunting cat woke Gabrielle up, hereyes popping open to stare into the darkness, broken only by a faint hint ofstarlight from the cave mouth and a dim glow from the dying fire. For a moment,she almost paniced, then a large shadow blocked her view of the cave mouth andshe relaxed as Xena returned and sat back down next to her. “Sounds close.”
“It is.” The warrior murmured. “Not hunting us, though.Something else.. something big’s out there.”
“Don’t even think about it.”
Gabrielle rubbed her face with one hand, waiting for herheartbeat to settle. “Wow.” She looked around, but most of the interior of thecave was mere shadows. “Did you get any rest?”
“No.” Xena’s voice sounded muffled.
Gabrielle leaned closer, enough to see that her partner wasresting her head in her hands. “Hey.” She squirmed over and put her hand onXena’s thigh. “What’s wrong?’
Xena didn’t’ answer for a few seconds, then she swallowedaudibly. “You didn’t put any mushrooms in that damn soup did you?”
The bard exhaled, lowering her head to rest against Xena’sleg. “No, I didn’t.” She said.“You don’t have any of those herbs, do you?”
“No.” The warrior put a load of misery into a singlesyllable.
Gabrielle hitched herself up on one elbow and gentle pattedher partner’s leg. “Sorry, honey.” She murmured, finding her thoughts focusedon herself for the first time in a few days. “Anything I can do?”
Gabrielle hastily did, reaching around for the skull withone hand. “Remember what you tell me all the time? Deep breaths, right? And tipyour head back.”
“Ungh.” Xena determinedly swallowed again, refusing to lether body get the better of her. Instead of tipping her head back, though, sheeased down onto her side and curled her arm under her head, focusing herthoughts on something other than her twisting guts.
She felt Gabrielle’s hand settle on her shoulder, rubbing itgently. After a few moments, the nausea subsided to something just aroundbearable as long as she didn’t move around any, and she exhaled again, lickingher lips. “Bleah.”
Cautiously, the bard shifted closer. “Here.” She carefullyeased her hand under her partner’s head and lifted it, sliding her leg over andletting Xena rest on that instead. “You’ll get a cramp otherwise.”
“Mmhph.” Xena extended her arm and flexed her hand. “Gods, Ihate that.”
Gabrielle slowly ran her fingers through Xena’s hair,massaging her scalp lightly. “I’m sorry.” She murmured. “How about some tea?Should I stir up the fire?”
Xena juggled the potential comfort of the tea with theexisting comfort of Gabrielle’s presence and shook her head. “Been a lot ofactivity out there tonight.” She whispered.
“Hunting, I guess.” The warrior shifted back a little,putting the back of her head in contact with Gabrielle’s stomach, feeling thewarmth penetrate her scalp and relax the tension there. “Lot of animals on themove.”
“Were you keeping watch?”
“Mmhm.” Xena nodded slightly.
Uh oh. Thewarrior smothered a wan grin. She’d considered waking Pony up to take a turn atwatch, but she knew the Amazon was as tired as she was, and she hadn’t had theheart for it. “I’m getting nice in my old age.”
Gabrielle made a sound that was a cross between a giggle anda snort.
“See? No one even respects me anymore.” Xena sighedmournfully. “I’m just a has been.”
“Oh, my poor little Xena.” Gabrielle warbled softly. “Whatam I going to do with you? I’llhave to carry you back home.”
“Hey.” Pony’s voice suddenly cut through the darkness.“Would you two shut up?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle didn’t miss a beat. “If you’d be so kindas to go outside and keep watch for us, since Xena did it the rest of thenight, I’d be glad to be quiet.”
Xena took a breath to protest, then found her lips coveredby Gabrielle’s hand.
There was a sound of rustling around nearby. “She coudlawoke me up.” Pony grumbled. “Not make it sound like I’m some kinda slacker orsomething.” The Amazon got up andheaded for the opening, the soft whisper of steel against leather coming clearlyback to them as she eased into the starlight.
Gabrielle removed her hand from Xena’s mouth and sighed,wriggling into a more comfortable position and leaning back against the rockwall. “Now, where were we?”
“You were mocking me.” Xena murmured, acknowledging toherself how glad she was to remain curled up on the ground.
“I thought I was sympathizing with you.” Gabrielle went backto her gentle stroking, tracing the edge of one of her partner’s finely shapedears by touch, her minds eye easily constructing the image for her despite thedarkness.
Xena’s hand settled on her leg, bare of it’s boot. Thewarrior’s fingers stroked her ankle, then dropped to knead her instep with acasual familiarity that made Gabrielle smile. She exhaled, turning her head to look over at the spot sheknew Granella was lying in.
In the faint glow from the fire, she saw the other womanlooking back at her, though there wasn’t enough light to see any expression onher face. “Hey.” She called over, softly. “How are you doing?”
Those eyes just stared at her for a long time, full ofshadows and barely seen. Gabriellefelt Xena’s hand close on her foot, squeezing in a gesture of comfort, thoughthe warrior remained very still and quiet. “I know you think that’s a pretty stupid question.”
There was no answer, but a rustle of movement.
“I know you’re in a pretty dark place right now.” Gabriellewent on, in a soft voice. “I know… how horrible that place can be.”
“You don’t.” Gran’s voice came, very unexpectedly back, lowand hoarse.
Gabrielle felt her breathing pick up, and Xena shifted herposition, turning more onto her stomach and draping her left arm over thebard’s lap, mutely giving her support. “Oh, Gran.. I wish I didn’t.” Shewhispered into the darkness.
“You don’t know anything.” Gran whispered back. “You allabandoned me. To Hades with you.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes, feeling her own pain, and anecho, deeper and more potent, through the connection she had with Xena. “Wedidn’t abandon you, Gran. We foundyou as soon as we could.”
“You should have killed me.”
Gabrielle exhaled slowly, as Xena shifted again, rollingover to face her, but remaining silent.
“Told you.” Ares drawled, from his huddle near the fire.“Stupid women… you let all that sentimental crap keep you from doing what needsto be done. “
“Shut up.” Xena spoke up finally. “Or I’ll forget all thatsentimental crap and gut you like a fish.”
The god laughed shortly, stifling a cough. “We’re all gonnadie anyway, sweetheart. C’mon and get your jollies now. Put me out of mymisery.”
Xena looked up at her partner, making out the distinctiveprofile despite the lack of light. “You know something, Gabrielle?”
“What?” The bard asked, at the end of a long sigh.
“We should stop being heros.” The warrior said. “We shouldstop risking our lives, and each other just to try and save other peoplebecause all we get for it is bullshit.”
“Oh, boo hoo.” Ares snorted. “You don’t do it for anything except making you look good toher, Xena. Don’t pull the altruistic act on me. I know better.”
Gabrielle looked down into the blue eyes she knew werelooking up at her. There was sometruth in what the god of war had said, and they both knew that, but then, therewas more truth in the two of them than what Ares would ever know so howrelative was all that anyway? “Gran..”
“Leave me alone.” Gran cut her off.
Ares snickered softly.
“Xena!” Pony called from outside. “You better come lookitthis.”
Gabrielle got her feet under her and stood as Xena did
Life was too damn complicated sometimes.
A moment later, all the complications went out the windowwhen she cleared the opening and joined Xena and Pony on the small slopeoutside the cave, facing the thickly forested valley – a valley now filled withtorches and smoke, and flickering light heading directly at them.
Xena exhaled audibly and put her hands on her hips.
“So much for plans, huh?” Gabrielle murmured.
“I don’t do all this stuff to make me look good to you.” Thewarrior said, turning and facing her. “I do it because I’m just too damn slowto get out of the way in time.” She shook her head and strode back into thecavern, leaving Pony and Gabrielle to watch the approaching lights.
“We’re gonna croak, huh?” Pony finally asked, glancing ather.
Gabrielle sighed, and turned to follow Xena, wondering the samething. “Eventually, Pony. But letstry something else right now.”
“Like what?” The Amazon asked, to her retreating back.“Ain’t we tried everything already?” When no answer was forthcoming, she threwher hands up and headed inside. “Sheeptits.”
The Bard's Corner
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