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A Hand in the Dark

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The road was quiet as they travelled away from the temple, a welcome contrast to the chaos of war they’d gone through to get there. For once, Gabrielle was atop Argo, where Xena intended to see she stayed. She’d let Gabrielle walk to start with, but around mid-morning she’d petered out and stumbled heavily on a tree root. Xena had only just caught her in time to prevent another injury, and hadn’t missed the pained gasped as she’d wrapped an arm around Gabrielle’s bandaged waist.

“That’s it, up you go,” Xena had said. Argo had turned her head to nudge at Gabrielle’s arm; Gabrielle gave Xena a rueful smile and let herself be helped up into the saddle.

Now Xena was up front, leading the way and trying to focus on their surroundings. It was a pleasant enough day, and there shouldn’t be any trouble now, but she wanted to keep alert just in case. Any threat would be twice as dangerous with Gabrielle already injured. Xena wasn’t about to let anything else happen to her.

Her concentration was split though, drawn away from the road every time Gabrielle shifted in the saddle, huffing out a quiet breath just sharply enough for Xena to know she was in pain. Whenever she turned around though, Gabrielle was there with a smile and a wave of her hand that she should carry on.

“I’m alright,” she said, when Xena couldn’t ignore the urge to stop Argo and check on her anymore. “Really, I am,” she insisted, reaching down to squeeze Xena’s hand. “Black and blue and with a few more gashes than I usually like, but I’m fine. Actually, I’m quite a bit less sore than I expected to be.”

There wasn’t much she could say to that, so Xena just nodded, hiding her wince when her neck and shoulders protested at being tense for so long. “C’mon,” she said, reaching up for Gabrielle. “We’ll stop here for lunch before we carry on.”

Gabrielle really did seem fine as they ate, and even managed to walk for a while when they carried on. It slowed them down; she needed to hold onto Xena, and leaned heavily on her staff for support. With Gabrielle chattering away though, tucked warmly against her side, Xena found her focus slipping back into place. With it the tension eased, and stayed that way even when she put Gabrielle back on Argo.

Late in the afternoon, Gabrielle’s conversation slowed, then died out to occasional statements interspersed with yawns. When Xena glanced back, her eyes were almost closed, although she was still holding determinedly onto the pommel. Concern faded in the face of fondness, and Xena found herself smiling as she led Argo off the road.

“C’mon, old girl,” she murmured. “Let’s find somewhere to make camp, before Gabrielle goes to sleep on you.”

“We’re stopping?” Gabrielle said sleepily, when Xena pulled the blankets out and spread them on the ground.

“Yeah.” Xena held out her hands for Gabrielle to take as she swung her leg over Argo, then caught her as she almost slipped off, holding her carefully close while Gabrielle tried to find her feet.

“Sorry,” Gabrielle mumbled against her neck. “Must be more tired than I thought.”

Half-carrying her over to the blankets, Xena set her down with her back to a tree, leaving her hands on Gabrielle’s arms until she was sure she was steady.

“‘m alright,” Gabrielle murmured. “Not going to fall over.”

“I guess you managed to stay on Argo alright,” Xena conceded. “I need to go and get firewood, and something to eat. I won’t go far. Call if you need anything, alright?”

Yawning, Gabrielle nodded. With a squeeze of her uninjured shoulder, Xena headed into the trees.

When she came back half an hour later, Gabrielle’s head was tipped back against the tree while she snored. She stirred when Xena set the firewood and the rabbit down, and blinked blearily across at her.

“Go back to sleep, Gabrielle,” Xena said softly. “I’ll wake you when it’s time to eat.”

Nodding, Gabrielle closed her eyes and turned her face towards the setting sun. Xena waited until she was snoring again, then watched for a few moments longer, until she could turn away without thinking that Gabrielle’s chest was going to stop moving up and down while she wasn’t looking.

By the time the stew was cooked, the sun was on its way to setting, and Gabrielle was awake - and hungry. She ate her portion before Xena was half way through hers, and then looked down at her empty bowl with a startled expression.

“Go on,” Xena said, hiding her amusement by taking another mouthful. “I made plenty. You’ll need it while you’re healing.”

Bowl heaped full again, Gabrielle remarked, “I could get used to this.”

“See if you say that when I make you restock our supplies at the next town.”

Gabrielle turned to glare at her, then shrugged and dug into her stew. “I’ll just choose all the things you don’t like,” she said around a mouthful.

It was Xena’s turn to glare, but she couldn’t make it last long, breaking into a grin halfway through. She’d missed this over the last few hellish days. To have it back made her heart lighter than she’d thought possible.

Knocking her knee against Gabrielle’s in lieu of a response, she went back to eating, while Gabrielle went through the list of all the herbs she knew Xena hated.

Predictably, Gabrielle started yawning not ten minutes after she’d finished her food. “Don’t you go falling asleep yet,” Xena warned, as a sleepy blonde head drifted towards her shoulder. “Your bandages need changing.”

Sighing, Gabrielle forced herself upright again. “Better be quick about it then, or I’ll be no help to you at all.”

Even with two of them, it was a slow process to unwrap and rebandage Gabrielle. The ease which had begun to set in didn’t last long when Xena was reminded of the harsh extent of Gabrielle’s injuries.

The gash on her stomach wasn’t so bad, shallow enough not to need stitches and already healing well. That was the best by far though. They had to take Gabrielle’s shirt off to get at the myriad of cuts and bruises underneath and around, and as careful as Xena was, Gabrielle still let out a pained, “Ow” as it slipped over her shoulders.

“Sorry,” Xena muttered, fetching a blanket to wrap around her.

“It’s alright,” Gabrielle said, holding the blanket in place across her breasts. “This bit always hurts, I’ve got used to it.”

Which was far from alright, but Xena said nothing, concentrating on unwrapping the bandages.

Whatever blade had caused the wound on Gabrielle’s shoulder hadn’t been well looked after; there would be a jagged scar there, but the stitches were holding and there was no sign of infection. The arrow graze on her upper arm was next, and once that was done, Xena could no longer avoid looking at the ugly bruise on her sternum.

There lay the imprint of Xena’s fist, marked on Gabrielle’s skin in black and purple, a harsh reminder of the force that had been required to bring her back to life - and of the fact that she’d needed bringing back to life at all. Despite the nausea rising in her stomach, Xena couldn’t help reaching out to touch her fingers to it, as carefully as she could, but not lightly enough to stop Gabrielle wincing.

Snatching her hand back, Xena looked up with an apology on her lips. Gabrielle was already reaching out for her hand again though, wincing again when she stretched too far, but catching it anyway and holding on tightly. When she pulled, Xena had no choice but to let herself be drawn closer if she didn’t want to hurt her. So she shuffled closer on her knees, and let Gabrielle lift their hands to press a kiss to Xena’s tight fingers, lips warm and soft in ways she didn’t deserve but could never refuse.

“I’ve never been more glad that you hit so hard,” Gabrielle told her.

Xena’s eyes dropped to their hands, then to the bruise again, and she closed her eyes. She’d never been so glad either, but the fact that it was needed at all made her want to draw the blanket up and around Gabrielle, and keep her in this quiet, empty clearing forever.

That was never going to happen though. Xena forced her eyes open and looked around for Gabrielle’s shirt. “Let’s get you into bed.”

After a moment, Gabrielle nodded, and let go of her hand. Her face said she knew something was up, but for now she was tired enough to let Xena help her back into her shirt and over to her bedroll. Xena tucked the blanket around her, allowing herself to fuss just for a few moments. Then she retreated to the other side of the fire to watch Gabrielle sleep, reminding herself that this stillness was that of exhaustion and healing, nothing else.

--

It was dark when Gabrielle woke up. For a moment she thought it was general soreness which had disturbed her sleep. Then she heard the rustle from Xena’s bedroll, and the low murmurs as Xena twisted around, hands banging against the ground as she shouted, “No no no.” A nightmare, she realised, just before Xena called her name out, loud and frightened and desperate like Gabrielle had never heard her before.

Struggling to get free of the blankets, Gabrielle hissed sharply when her shoulder protested at the sudden movement, but ignored it so she could get up and move over to Xena’s bedroll. The furs were wrapped around her, and she was tossing and turning so much that Gabrielle wasn’t sure she could get close enough without being hit. She had to though. She couldn’t stand to watch Xena stuck in this nightmare for a moment longer.

Crouching at her side, she managed to take hold of Xena’s shoulders, just firmly enough to keep her grip as she said Xena’s name over and over. After long moments, Xena came awake wide-eyed and breathing hard, damp hair stuck to her face, hands shooting out to clutch at Gabrielle’s forearms.

Dragging in air, she stared at Gabrielle, then gripped even tighter until her fingers dug in hard enough to hurt. The shock and fear on her face was worse than that though, and her lips started moving, a harsh whisper coming out, “Dead, you’re dead, no, Gabrielle, you died -”

Gabrielle managed to move her hands to Xena’s face, clasping them tightly either side, keeping her face turned towards her as she leaned in and held that panicked gaze with her own. “I’m not dead, Xena. I’m alive, I’m right here, look.” Stroking her thumbs over Xena’s cheeks, she tipped their foreheads together and murmured soothingly, “Shh, shh, it was just a dream,” until the wildness faded from Xena’s eyes and her hands began to loosen.

The moment Xena snapped out of it properly was clear, followed almost immediately by her expression closing down and her hands letting go completely. That would hurt, if it wasn’t that Gabrielle knew she’d probably do the same, and if that control wasn’t so obviously slim and hard-won.

Xena met her eyes and muttered something that Gabrielle was sure was meant to send her back to bed. Instead, she lifted one hand to brush Xena’s hair off her forehead, and stayed crouched where she was.

“Gabrielle,” Xena murmured, closing her eyes, only for them to fly open against a second later, slightly frantic until she focused on Gabrielle once more. Seeing Xena’s composure cracked just by that made her heart ache in sympathy.

“It wasn’t a dream,” Xena whispered, curling her fingers around Gabrielle’s wrists. Now that they weren’t so tight, Gabrielle could feel them shaking. “You were dead, Gabrielle. You died in that temple, and I only just got you back. Do you have any idea how much that scares me?”

“Some,” Gabrielle murmured. The number of times Xena made her heart stop was beyond count. That wasn’t the point here though, and she needed to do something to help Xena now.

When she made to stand, Xena’s hands tightened for a moment before she caught herself and let go. “I’ll be right back,” Gabrielle assured her. “But your bedroll isn’t big enough for both of us.”

“Gabrielle, that’s not necessary,” Xena protested, as Gabrielle dragged her bedding over.

Looking at her, Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. “Really? You’re really going to try to tell me you don’t want me here?”

After a moment, with the barest hint of a smile, Xena shook her head. “No. Need a hand?”

“I’ve got it,” Gabrielle said, spreading the blankets out over both the beds, and then crawling under them with a sigh. Xena rolled onto her side, making room for her but coming no closer. Rolling her eyes, Gabrielle shuffled over, and felt around under the covers until she found Xena’s hands. “Get over here,” she said, fighting a yawn as she tugged.

Xena’s arms came around her carefully, and Gabrielle held on to her waist, pressing a kiss to her cheek before she shuffled down and tucked her head beneath Xena’s chin. “Pull the blankets up, would you?” she murmured. Against her, Xena was still shaking, skin slightly clammy to the touch. Warming her up would go a long way towards helping her get back to sleep. “My back’s cold.”

With the blankets tucked around them, and Xena’s hands rubbing across her back, no longer holding onto her like she might break, the air under the blankets warmed quickly. Gabrielle felt Xena’s breaths slow, her chest no longer heaving and the shivers fading too. Just as she was almost asleep, Xena’s lips pressed against the top of her head, and her hands stilled. Satisfied, Gabrielle let herself drift the rest of the way off.

In the morning, Xena was already up when Gabrielle awoke - not surprising, especially when she saw how high the sun was in the sky. Yawning, she worked her way out of the blankets, groaning when half her body protested at being made to stand up.

“Why do I hurt more today than yesterday?” she grumbled as she eased herself down onto the log next to Xena.

“Bodies heal at their own pace,” Xena replied, handing her a hot mug of something that smelt funny. “Where hurts?”

“Everywhere.” She eyed the drink suspiciously. “What have you put in this mug?”

Xena let out a soft laugh. “Something that should help the worst of it.”

Sighing, Gabrielle started drinking. Xena nudged her around and swept her hair over her shoulders so she could rub them gently. By the time the mug was empty, the aches had eased away under Xena’s hands.

“Feel better?” Xena asked.

“Much,” she replied, letting her head drop forwards. “Thank you.”

“Anytime.”

Xena’s hands stayed where they were, resting warmly on her shoulders. Gabrielle lifted a hand to rest over one of them, and murmured, “Did you sleep alright last night? After your nightmare, I mean?”

“Yeah,” Xena replied after a moment. “Thanks.”

She squeezed Gabrielle’s shoulders, and they stayed there until Gabrielle just had to get up and stretch in the sunshine.

They travelled slowly, but Gabrielle managed to walk largely without Xena’s help. She stuck close by anyway. Partly in case she tripped, which was far from unlikely, but also because she’d noticed Xena got kind of twitchy when she couldn’t see her. She probably thought Gabrielle hadn’t seen, but she’d had a good view from Argo, and those shoulders had definitely been screaming ‘tense’ rather than ‘alert’. With any luck, that would fade in time, but for now, she might as well remove the need for Xena to worry.

Changing the bandages went quicker that evening, although Xena’s face still darkened when she saw the bruise on Gabrielle’s chest. It wasn’t even the most painful of her wounds, tender to the touch but otherwise not really a problem. Well, clearly it was for Xena. Gabrielle didn’t know what to say to her to convince her that out of all the bumps and bruises she sported right now, it was one she was grateful for.

Maybe she couldn’t help there, but she could definitely do something about the nightmares. When she started laying their bedrolls out together though, Xena was there, in her way before Gabrielle could put hers down.

“Gabrielle, you don’t need to -”

“I want to,” she said, holding Xena’s gaze. “It’ll help, right?”

A smile touching her lips, Xena nodded. “Alright,” she said. “Let me do it though? You’ve done a lot today already.”

Yawning, Gabrielle handed the bundle over. “Be my guest.”

She managed to stay awake long enough for Xena to put her armour aside and lie down next to her, at which point she rolled over to use Xena’s arm as a pillow. The blankets settled around her shoulders, and Xena murmured, “Sleep, Gabrielle.”

“You sleep,” she returned with a yawn, tucking her feet against Xena’s legs to warm them.

She drifted off to the sound of a chuckle, and a hand stroking softly over her hair, and woke in the moonlight to Xena shaking her by the arms, leaning over her and telling her desperately to wake up.

“Thank the gods,” Xena breathed, and clutched her so close that she had trouble breathing for a moment. Wrapping sleep-clumsy arms around Xena, Gabrielle rubbed her back, cold with sweat and shaking, just like the rest of her.

“You had the nightmare again?” she asked, managing to find a corner of the blanket and draw it back around them both. She felt the nod against her hair, before Xena drew in a few long, shaking breaths and drew back. Before she could go too far, Gabrielle lifted a hand to the back of her head, and rolled with her until they were both on their sides.

“I shouldn’t have woken you,” Xena said, guilt crossing her face. “I just… You were so still, I thought - it’s stupid -”

“It is not stupid,” Gabrielle said firmly. “I hate that you’re having these nightmares, Xena, and if there’s anything I can do to help then I want to do it.”

“Just don’t go,” Xena said, laying a hand on the side of her face.

She wasn’t sure whether Xena meant now, or in general, but the answer was the same. “Not a chance. You’re stuck with me, for better or for worse.”

“Definitely better,” Xena said. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Gabrielle. I never would have forgiven myself if you’d died in that temple.”

“Hey,” Gabrielle said. Determined to get this right, she resettled herself with one hand on Xena’s arm, and joined their free hands between their bodies. Holding tightly, she looked Xena straight in the eye. “You know it wasn’t your fault that I got hurt, right? You got us to somewhere safe. It was my decision to go back out, and I’d do it all over again to rescue that boy. None of this is your fault.”

“My brave Gabrielle,” Xena murmured. “I know.” Some of the guilt faded from her face, and her thumb stroked over Gabrielle’s cheek, shakily at first, then smoother as she carried on. She still didn’t look entirely at peace, but whatever else was on her mind, she kept it to herself. It was good enough for now.

Gabrielle rubbed the tense muscles of Xena’s arm, until she felt her eyelids begin to drop. “Will you be able to sleep now?” she asked through a yawn.

Nodding, Xena drew her close. “Yeah. I’ll just - I’ll be fine.”

“Wake me up if you’re not,” Gabrielle mumbled, and drew Xena’s hand up as she wriggled over a bit more, to keep it warm and hold her close while they slept.

--

The weather stayed fair as they travelled, and Gabrielle grew stronger by the day. Xena smiled to watch her dance slowly between the patches of sunlight on the forest floor. Graceful and elegant she wasn’t, even at the best of times, but her simple enjoyment of the lazy game made up for it. Each day the exertion seemed to tire her less, and her stints on Argo grew fewer, although inevitably by the end of the day she’d be flagging enough that she’d slip her arm around Xena’s waist and hold on until they made camp.

After that second night, and with a look from Gabrielle when she started unloading Argo, Xena laid their bedrolls down together without bothering to argue. Despite her qualms about Gabrielle having to deal with her night terrors while she herself was still healing, the truth was, she did need Gabrielle there. The nightmares would fade at their own pace, and there was nothing either one of them could do about that. Waking up from them alone though, with the memory of Gabrielle’s body lying on that altar, was not something she could endure. At least with Gabrielle in her arms when she awoke, the horror faded faster, and her heart returned to its usual pace after it had stopped.

They’d developed a routine now, Gabrielle sleeping in Xena’s arms with her nose pressed against her neck, one arm around her waist, the other holding their hands to her chest. At first Xena had tried to draw her hand away, for fear of pressing against that bruise, still shaded darkly against Gabrielle’s skin. Gabrielle had stirred when she’d tried though, and she’d given up.

As she’d settled again, she’d realised she could feel the beat of Gabrielle’s heart against her palm. Strong and unwavering, it soothed an anxiety Xena hadn’t realised she’d felt, meant she could close her eyes and still know that Gabrielle was safe.

By chance, or by the gods, the first night it rained was the same night they reached a small town. Their livestock was the best in the area, and the hay they slept on of equal quality. Gabrielle’s face when she laid their blankets out and flopped backwards onto them was more than worth the dinar they’d paid to stay here.

“Comfortable?” Xena asked as Gabrielle wriggled around to smooth everything flat, then lay there sighing happily with her arms spread out.

“Definitely. How long are we staying here?”

Sitting down on an empty patch of blanket to take off her boots, Xena replied, “Just for tonight.”

“Are we going somewhere?” Gabrielle propped herself up on her elbows to frown slightly at her. Xena couldn’t resist smoothing her fingers over the slight wrinkles on her forehead before she answered.

“There’s a lake about five days north of here, if we keep travelling at this pace. This time of year, the water gets the sun all day, and the wildflowers are in full bloom. By the time we arrive, your wounds should have healed well enough for you to go swimming. I thought you might enjoy a few days there while you finish resting up.”

“It sounds delightful,” Gabrielle said with a soft smile. Nudging Xena’s arm, she added, “I might even forgive you for dragging me away from this delightful hay.”

Xena caught her hand with a smile. “I’ll make you a mattress from pine fronds when we get there.”

“Really?” Gabrielle rolled over to rest her head on Xena’s thigh, and yawned her way through asking, “Will that be comfortable?”

“The best you’ve slept on yet.” Stroking her hand over Gabrielle’s hair, Xena watched as her eyes slipped shut. “Hey. You falling asleep on me?”

“Y’r c’mfy,” Gabrielle mumbled.

“We need to change your bandages first.” If she could, she’d leave Gabrielle to sleep here. The risk of infection from dirty bandages though, however slight, wasn’t worth the risk.

Groaning, Gabrielle opened her eyes and lifted her hands up. “Fine. Help me up. But I warn you, I might go to sleep on you before you’re done.”

Even with Gabrielle half out of it, leaning sleepily against her, it didn’t take long to clean the wounds and apply new bandages. There wasn’t a need to wrap anything up too much now, and really, the bandages were on their way to becoming unnecessary.

After that, she carried Gabrielle back over to their bed, where Gabrielle made Xena’s stomach her pillow, and curled up against her with soft sounds of content, apparently comfortable.

“Alright then,” Xena murmured, and settled her hand on Gabrielle’s back, rubbing between her shoulderblades to send her the rest of the way into sleep.

The nightmare was less vivid that night. Xena was fairly sure she woke before she started shouting, because Gabrielle was only just beginning to stir, lifting her head to blink sleepily at her.

“I’m alright,” Xena said, slightly more out of breath than she’d realised, but without the blind panic which usually had her grabbing tightly to Gabrielle the moment she woke up. Tipping her head back, she concentrated on breathing slowly, and let her tense limbs relax into the blanket.

“I’m not,” Gabrielle said, stretching out against her with a pained sound. Panic flared in Xena for a moment, until she added, “Why did you let me go to sleep like that?”

Letting out her breath, Xena reached out an arm for Gabrielle as she settled down again, this time with her head next to Xena’s. “You cling like an octopus when you’re asleep. There wasn’t much I could do about it.”

“Don’t mention octopus when I’m trying to go back to sleep.”

Xena pulled her gently close and stroked a hand below the bandage on her arm. “If the tentacle fits…”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

Smiling, Xena shut her eyes.

In the morning, Gabrielle was up not long after her, and left the hay with only a lingering look. After she’d got past the early-morning fuzz, she was surprisingly energetic, even volunteering to go and replenish their food supplies while Xena checked with the villagers for directions. “I know what I said, but I promise not to buy the things you hate,” she teased as she left.

When Xena found her again, having confirmed the road they should follow, she was looking oddly uncomfortable in conversation with a boy who could be no more than twelve.

“Beat it, kid,” Xena said, standing at her side and glaring at him.

“Xena,” Gabrielle protested, laying a hand on her folded arms. “Thank you for the bread,” she said, turning back to the boy. “We have to go now.”

He could take a hint, at least. He was nowhere to be seen as they headed out of town, Gabrielle unusually quiet at Xena’s side.

“What did he want?” Xena asked, after Gabrielle had been lost in thought for a good few minutes.

“Who?” Gabrielle looked up. “Oh, the boy. Nothing. Well, not nothing. He asked me how I’d gotten wounded. I told him the story of what had happened at the temple, and he looked at me like… I don’t know, like I was a goddess or something. It was really strange.”

“Ah. Hero-worship.” It wasn’t unexpected, and neither was Gabrielle’s discomfort with it.

“But why me? I didn’t do anything. You were the one who set up the temple, and dealt with the wounded. You saved all those men. You saved me.”

There was a slight hesitation when she said those last words, as if she wasn’t sure the reminder would be well received. Xena glanced over and reached out to take her hand in reassurance.

“And you died rescuing a man’s son, then came back to life. Don’t forget, it was you who spoke to Marmax as well. That was no small part you played in his decision to end the war, Gabrielle. Either one of those acts would stand as heroic. Together, well… it’s not surprising that boy looks up to you. I know I do.”

Squeezing Xena’s hand, Gabrielle walked quietly for a few steps. Carefully, she asked, “Even though you’ve been having nightmares about it ever since?”

Opening her mouth, Xena found she didn’t have an answer. As they carried on, all she could think to say, incomplete and inconsistent, was, “The only thing I wish you’d done differently is not die.”

For the rest of the day, amongst Gabrielle’s new game - “Over there behind that tree, something interesting do I see, and it begins with ‘R’” - Xena found herself coming back to the reasons that Gabrielle’s death scared her so much. By the time they made camp for the night, she’d worked it out.

It wasn’t an easy thing to realise. For Gabrielle to not have died would have meant her staying inside the temple, and that would have meant choosing not to save someone. She would never do that. The fact was that that the very bravery which made Gabrielle shine so much was the reason her light had almost been lost forever. And that… that scared Xena on a whole other level than seeing her die.

Things were quieter around the fire that night. Gabrielle didn’t go to bed once her bandages were redone, instead following Xena to sit with their backs against a rock. Having talked on and off all day, she was now silent as she joined in throwing bits of seed and grass towards the flames.

“I worked it out,” Xena said, when she was sure she could give voice to the thoughts tumbling around in her head. “Why this-” she tapped her own chest, where the bruise on Gabrielle’s still lingered, “-bothers me so much.”

Just loud enough to be heard over the crackle of the fire, Gabrielle asked, “Why?” It was almost as if she knew that anything too loud would knock Xena’s thoughts out of order again. Maybe she did. She knew enough to ask the right questions, after all.

“I thought at first it was because it reminded me that you’d died, and of how close you came to not waking up again. That’s part of it, I guess.” Forcing herself to breathe slowly, Xena admitted, “I was… I was a mess when you wouldn’t wake up, Gabrielle.”

Silently, Gabrielle held her hand out. Xena took it, grateful for the strong press of Gabrielle’s palm against hers. “You told me that you getting hurt wasn’t my fault. I know it wasn’t,” she added, turning to place her finger on Gabrielle’s lips before she could get further than drawing in breath.

She waited for Gabrielle to nod before she removed it, although she didn’t go far, resting her hand on the bandage across her shoulder. “See, that’s the trouble. Knowing that it was your decision to go out there, doesn’t make it any easier for me deal with the fact that you almost didn’t come back. It makes it worse. I have to accept that you might be following me, but you’re going to choose to do your own thing. The actions you take will have consequences that aren’t my fault, but I’m going to have to deal with them anyway.”

Carefully, she let her fingers trace over the bandages, until they touched bare skin. “Go on,” Gabrielle said, when Xena hesitated, so she carried on until she’d reached the almost-faded bruise just above Gabrielle’s breasts.

“I do it gladly,” she said, looking back up at Gabrielle, who was watching her with a softness in her eyes that made the next words slip out with barely a thought required. “I don’t want you to stop being you, Gabrielle. I will always be here for you, no matter what happens. Sometimes you’re going to scare me. I’m just going to have to live with it. That’s one of the drawbacks of caring for someone else as much as you care for yourself.”

“Xena,” Gabrielle murmured. She lifted her hand to stroke over the side of Xena’s face, warm and silent in her acceptance of the feelings in those words. “There’s no-one I trust more to look out for me than you. I hope you know that.”

“I know,” Xena replied. She didn’t always know why, but she did know.

“I’ll do my best not to get into trouble,” Gabrielle said, determination and promise filling her voice. “You can carry on teaching me how to use my staff, so I can defend myself. I won’t ever be able to do that catching arrows thing you can, but I can learn to duck faster, and run quicker, and -”

A laugh broke free from Xena, taking her by surprise, and startling Gabrielle into pulling away. “What’s so funny?” she asked curiously.

“Nothing,” Xena said, reaching out to wrap her arms around Gabrielle and pull her close, drawing another startled sound from when she pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Just happy to have you here.”

Obviously bemused, Gabrielle slipped her arm over Xena’s waist anyway and settled against her. “Well… good.” Lifting her head, she brushed her lips against Xena’s cheek, and added, “You should be. I’m a good person to have around.”

Gabrielle’s head came to rest on her shoulder, and Xena leaned back against the rock again. “No argument from me,” she agreed.

--

The rest of the five days to the lake brought bright sunshine, warming Gabrielle’s skin and tickling the newly-bared pink skin of her midriff. Warned that the scar would burn easily, she kept to the shade at the height of the sun’s passage across the skies. The stitches in her shoulder and arm were out now, and although the wounds still twinged when she moved too quickly, Xena seemed satisfied they would finish healing without trouble.

The instances of Xena waking during the night continued to become less severe, until Gabrielle awoke on the third morning and realised she’d slept through the night. Rubbing her eyes, she sat up, and found Xena preparing breakfast on the embers of their fire, looking well-rested and sure of herself in all the ways that had been missing for the last days.

“No nightmares?” Gabrielle asked.

Xena shook her head with a quick smile, and stood to stretch with a low sound of satisfaction.

As things to see just after waking up went, it was a very nice sight, and one that Gabrielle wasn’t at all prepared for this early in the morning. Hastily, she got out of bed and went in search of water for her dry mouth.

That night, she laid their bedrolls out together. Xena looked at them, then back at her. “Just in case,” Gabrielle said, and crawled in before Xena could object. She wasn’t about to get kicked out now.

On the fourth night, she did the same. Xena looked down at her with a fond smile, and said, “Just in case?”

“Right,” Gabrielle agreed.

Xena’s hand low on her back that night was hot and firm, and the way her thumb rubbed just above the waistband of her skirt sent shivers through her that made her just have to wriggle. She regretted that for a moment when Xena stopped, but then a gentle hand cupped the back of her head, stroking gently, making her feel warm and safe, and sending her to sleep in moments.

The next night, they stopped just short of the lake, the hills in front of it too rocky to navigate in the twilight. Xena hauled the bedrolls off Argo, and handed Gabrielle’s to her.

Spreading hers on the ground, Xena remarked, “I think it’s safe to say that my nightmares aren’t going to come back any time soon.”

The words sounded like an instruction, but the way she watched Gabrielle was a question, hopeful and cautious at the same time. Although her heart was starting to race, Gabrielle placed her bedroll up against Xena’s, and met her eyes. With what she hoped was the right amount of confidence, she replied, “You can keep me warm then.”

Around them, the air still held the lingering heat of summer, radiating from the boulders which had been soaking in the sun all day. Xena stripped out of her armour, then her leather, and stood there in just her shift. “Alright,” she agreed.

When Gabrielle slipped out of her skirt - it really was too warm to go to sleep with it on - and fidgeted for a moment with the straps of her top, Xena held out her hand with a smile that was half reassurance, half anticipation. “Come on,” she said, and Gabrielle did.

Laid out on the blankets, all Xena did was pull Gabrielle to her in the familiar embrace of the last weeks, and rub her hand slowly along her back. The feeling of their bare legs tangled together was new, and all that skin touching had Gabrielle’s breath catching for a moment. It felt good to be so close though, and when she rubbed her foot against Xena’s calf, the low sound of encouragement had Gabrielle smiling into her shoulder.

Eventually, the gentle breeze did start shivers on her skin. Xena pulled a blanket over their lower bodies, and tucked Gabrielle securely against her. “Warm enough?”

“Perfect,” Gabrielle mumbled into her neck, sighing as Xena’s warmth spread into her through the thin fabric of her shift, and set her sleepy eyes drooping shut.

The lake, when they reached it the next morning, was every bit as beautiful as Xena had said it would be. From its shore they could see all the way across to the other side, every gentle ripple between here and there sparkling in the sunlight, while the forest to the side filled the air with the sound of leaves rustling in the wind.

“Wow,” Gabrielle breathed. “This is amazing, Xena.”

“I’m glad you like it,” Xena said, voice even but her smile giving her away. “Come on,” she said, drawing Argo around. “Let’s head for the forest. We’ll want the shade in the middle of the day. We can get set up there, and check you’re healed enough to go in the water.”

“I’d better be,” Gabrielle said, with one last longing look at the water before she followed. “Or you’re going to have a mutiny on your hands.”

“Mutinies only happen when you’re already on the water, Gabrielle.”

“I’ll find a way.”

“Without a boat?”

“Argo can pretend.”

By the time they’d found a clearing not too far from the water, shaded by leaves high above them, and set up, it was nearly time for lunch. Then when they’d eaten, Xena really did insist on thoroughly checking her wounds to make sure they were water worthy. Impatient to get into the water, Gabrielle nevertheless took her shirt off and sat as still as she could while Xena poked and prodded at her. She might have worked out her issues, but it was obviously important to her to satisfy herself that Gabrielle was healing.

“So?” Gabrielle said, when Xena sat back on her heels.

“These have still got a little way to go,” Xena said, touching her fingers to the scabs on her arm and shoulder. “But the water won’t hurt them. Your stomach is just fine,” she added, laying her palm across the faint scar there.

Unable to resist, Gabrielle flexed her abs beneath Xena’s hand, grinning when Xena’s fingers twitched against her. “Is it now?”

Xena’s eyes darted up, and she licked her lips as they lingered on Gabrielle’s breasts for a moment. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “And the rest of you.” She leaned forwards, and Gabrielle watched her with her breath caught in her throat, before Xena dipped her head and blew a raspberry on her stomach.

“Xena!” Gabrielle squeaked, as Xena leapt up and back with mischief in her eyes.

“Race you to the water,” Xena said, already undoing the fastenings on her armour.

Shimmying out of her skirt and underwear, Gabrielle set off at a dash. “You’ve got no hope of winning this one,” she called over her shoulder.

Xena caught up, of course, but grabbed her hands as she went past, and they splashed into the warm shallows of the water together.

--

Watching Gabrielle paddling lazily in the clear water, shoulders bathed in sunshine and a smile on her face, Xena let the last of her worries fade to the back of her mind. They lived a dangerous life, and the future wasn’t hers to determine. Right now though, there was a naked, grinning Gabrielle swimming towards her with mischief on her face, and she was going to make the most of it.

“You’ll be sorry,” she warned, as Gabrielle approached. It wasn’t her most convincing stern tone, but it was hard to pretend when her smile kept breaking through.

“It’ll be worth it,” Gabrielle decided, before she splashed water over Xena’s head, and dove underwater to dig her fingers into Xena’s ribs and tug at her ankle.

Taking a deep breath, Xena followed her down, and chased her across the lake. When she caught up, she took full advantage of the fact that Gabrielle was far more ticklish than she, while Gabrielle squealed and wriggled and tried to dunk her underwater without much success.

“Had enough?” Xena asked, holding Gabrielle at arms length while they both drew in breath.

“You wish,” Gabrielle replied, and planted her feet on Xena’s midriff to push herself away.

Gabrielle ran out of tricks - and breath - before Xena did, and laughingly called out for a truce as Xena caught her from behind.

“Oh?” Xena said, pulling Gabrielle back against her with one arm around her waist. Against her front, Gabrielle was warm and soft, relaxing into her with a sigh. “And what,” she murmured in Gabrielle’s ear, “do I get for agreeing to this truce?”

“Hmm.” Gabrielle let her head fall back against Xena’s shoulder, and looked up at her with a smile. “I’ll wash your back for you?”

“That’ll do,” Xena decided, and left Gabrielle in the shallower waters while she fetched bathing supplies for both of them. They might as well take advantage of being in such clean water, after all.

When they were done, having given each other’s backs the longest, most thorough, cleaning they’d ever had - Xena had pointed out that there was nothing in the truce forbidding her from washing Gabrielle’s back as well - she threw the washcloths back to shore and splashed water lazily at Gabrielle.

“You do realise,” Gabrielle said, splashing back, “That I’m going to demand this kind of treatment every time we bathe now? I feel amazing.”

Lifting her arms above her head with a sigh, she leaned back, while Xena reached out to hold her waist and keep her steady. Above the water, rivulets of water ran off Gabrielle’s breasts, leaving behind droplets which sparkled on her skin. Yeah, she looked pretty amazing, too.

“Even when all we’ve got is a tiny tub that only just fits one person and the soap?” Xena asked, lifting her eyes to Gabrielle’s face.

“Hmm.” Gabrielle let her arms come back down, and leaned back in towards Xena. Her faint smile said she knew exactly what Xena had been looking at. “Maybe just every time we’re in a gorgeous lake like this.”

“I can agree to that,” Xena murmured.

Giving in to an impulse, she tightened her hands around Gabrielle’s waist, lifting her out of the water and pressing her lips to the bruise which had all but faded now. Breathing out against Gabrielle’s skin, she stayed there for a moment before she lowered her again.

On the way back down, Gabrielle wrapped her legs around her waist, and settled herself there. Eyes soft with affection, she let her arms rest over Xena’s shoulders and asked, “What was that for?”

Xena slipped her hands around to Gabrielle’s back to hold her in place. “Because I can.”

One of Gabrielle’s hands curled around the back of her neck, and she leaned in to brush her lips against Xena’s, soft and careful and warm enough to make her eyes drift shut.

“What was that for?” she asked, when Gabrielle drew back.

“Because I wanted to,” Gabrielle murmured.

“Feel like doing it again?”

Gabrielle’s other hand curved around her cheek. “Try and stop me.”

This time, Xena let her lips part, and the kiss was warm and wet and long. Gabrielle gripped hold of her shoulders tightly, making small sounds low in her throat as their tongues met. When Xena’s legs started shaking, partly with holding them both up, and partly with the shivers making her toes curl, she managed to pull their mouths apart, half-laughing when Gabrielle tried to follow with an annoyed grumble.

“I’m going to drop you if we stay here,” Xena warned breathlessly.

“Oh.”

Looking as if it took no small amount of concentration, Gabrielle disentangled herself, and they made their way back to their campsite. Xena dried them both off, skimming her fingers over Gabrielle’s ribs when her hands got in the way of the towel, which stopped her for only a moment. It was Gabrielle who pulled them both down to the blankets, and when they lay there on their sides, reached out to trail her fingers down the outside of Xena’s arm.

“We’re not in a hurry, are we?” she murmured, eyes following the path of her fingers before she looked back up.

Xena put one hand to her slightly flushed cheek. “No,” she said, amused. “Why?”

“I feel like I want to lie here and touch you forever.”

Amusement mixed with love, strong and deep in Xena’s heart, echoing the emotion expressed so simply in Gabrielle’s words. Leaning in, she kissed Gabrielle again, as slow and sweet as she could make it. “I’m not going anywhere,” she promised.

Gabrielle’s smile lit up her face, and her hands crept up to splay on Xena’s shoulders. When she hesitated, Xena reached out to stroke one hand down her side, then back up, slipping around to cup Gabrielle’s breast in her hand. Echoing the motion, Gabrielle’s breath caught when Xena’s thumb brushed over her nipple, flushed against pale skin. With her eyes wide, she copied that too, and as Xena worked on learning how to touch Gabrielle so that she arched into her with ever-louder sounds of pleasure, Gabrielle did a pretty good job of doing the same for Xena.

When Gabrielle’s hands slipped away from her breasts, Xena let hers do the same, and leaned in to kiss her again. Soft fingers found their way to Xena’s wrists, stroking over skin usually protected behind her braces. Hot shivers shot down her spine and had her shifting closer, mumbling, “More” against Gabrielle’s skin as she wriggled so that she could press her lips below Gabrielle’s jaw. Licking there drew a surprised squeak, followed by, “Don’t stop.”

Xena grinned. “Not my intention at all.”

Slow and careful didn’t last much past the point where Gabrielle got her hands on Xena’s ass and pulled, letting out a loud gasp when their legs slid together and she pressed hot and wet against Xena’s thigh. When Xena slid their mouths together, Gabrielle deepened the kiss and pressed closer with a whimper, then pulled away again.

“Please,” she said. “Xena, please -”

“Shh,” Xena murmured. “Shh, I’ve got you.”

Watching Gabrielle’s face, she worked one hand between their bodies and down between her legs, sliding her fingers through the wetness there while Gabrielle gripped her hips tightly and rocked against her. When Xena pushed two fingers inside her, pressing the heel of her palm against Gabrielle’s clit, she buried her face in Xena’s neck and let out a cry, rocking against her and clenching around her fingers moments later, body shaking against Xena’s as release coursed through her.

Gasping breaths against Xena’s neck, she lay there for long moments, while Xena rubbed her back gently and waited for her to come down. Eventually, Gabrielle lifted her head and pressed a sloppy, slightly dazed kiss to her jaw. “Xena,” she whispered, and Xena kissed her gently while she withdrew her fingers from her body.

Cheeks flushed and eyes dark, Gabrielle loosened her hands on Xena’s hips, and caught that hand with her own. “Show me,” she said, bringing them back between them.

Xena groaned as her own arousal came back into focus, centered around the thought of Gabrielle’s fingers inside her. When they were there, flexing inside her and then moving slowly as Gabrielle followed her breathless instructions, it was all she could do to grip hold of Gabrielle’s shoulders and shake helplessly as she came long and hard, feeling the pleasure through every inch of her body.

They dozed after that, Gabrielle half-sprawled across her, Xena half-curled around the bits of Gabrielle which weren’t on top of her. Xena awoke first, and lifted her hand carefully to stroke over Gabrielle’s hair, dry now and slightly tangled, but still soft and warm. She lost track of how long she lay there for before Gabrielle stirred, making sleepy sounds and then yawning, before nestling back into her.

“Hey,” Xena said, pressing a kiss to the top of Gabrielle’s head.

“Mmm.” Gabrielle tucked her hands underneath Xena’s back. “We’re all messy again.”

“We’ll have to go for another swim to clean off.”

Huffing out a laugh, Gabrielle said, “Are you sure that won’t just lead us back here again?”

“You catch on fast,” Xena said with a grin.

With a groan, Gabrielle lifted her head. “I think I need more rest first.”

Xena lifted her head to kiss Gabrielle briefly. “Go back to sleep then,” she said, stroking her thumb across Gabrielle’s temple and watching as her eyes fluttered shut again.

Yawning, Gabrielle lay down next to Xena, who rolled over to face her and slipped an arm around her shoulders.

“Hey, Xena?”

“Yes, Gabrielle?”

“You still owe me a bed made of pine fronds.”

“If you think I’ve got enough energy to cut down trees now -”

“Just bits of trees,” Gabrielle protested.

“Tomorrow,” Xena said firmly.

“Big enough for both of us?”

“You bet.”

“Alright then.”

“Alright.”