Xena awoke. Her body throbbed with pain. Her mind was exhausted and wanted to drag her down into sleep. She followed the steady beat of her heart, the rise and fall of her breath, using it as a rhythm to push her mind, nudge by nudge, up into consciousness. Something was there, some threat. She must awake.
Her mind hovering just above sleep, she listened. She heard it again, a soft sound, a hoof and a clank of armor. With a power inhuman, seeming beyond her will, she felt her fingers grasp her sword, and she sat up. There was pain, like fire. She could not say where. All her focus was out before her, looking down. Another soldier has come, she thought. Or more. More death.
She lifted her sword and moved, silent as a wild creature, to the edge of the platform, the will to kill, the will to die, rising up in her heart. She felt it in her throat, as if the epicenter from which the rest of her body tightened, hardening into a weapon.
Her heart almost broke when she saw what had made the sound. Argo stood, hooves planted delicately in the small spaces left between corpses. She looked up at Xena. She had found them by smell. Her face held timidity and shame, her body rounded and turned slightly away from Xena, as if to bolt when reprimanded. But she bucked her head and gave a huff also of rebellion.
Xena felt her body release like a bow being unstrung. Her weight came to one hand. She did not hear the tears that fell on the dry dust of the board near it when she had closed her eyes. She felt now her wounds. One on her side that felt like a whip of flame had licked her, sending heat coursing through her body. Another on her arm, which felt strangely numb. And others, small and numerous. She held her hand before her face to see it trembling. Too much loss of blood, she realized. She'd be weak for a day at least.
She turned then, urgently, to see Gabrielle. The fire in her heart drove out all else. She went to her, felt her breath, felt the pulse in her throat. She put her ear near her mouth and listened closely to her breathing. The poison was dissipating. Already her color was changed. But she was so near to death. Xena wondered if her lungs would be wounded, altered from the ordeal. I should get her to Thessaly, she thought. They would have real healers there. And beyond that, she could find Amazon healers and the healers of Chin.
She touched her side very lightly and felt that it had broken open when she moved. She touched her arm and felt only dried blood there. With incredibly slow movements, she climbed down the ladder. She let herself lean against Argo, burying her face in her neck and the smell of her fur, ignoring for a moment the smell of the barn – a smell of iron and blood, strangely similar, of skin burned, of sweat and fear. It was so familiar to Xena, a nightmare and a drug at once, a poison to her soul, transforming her into a younger self. But Argo was more familiar still. She smelled of wheat, sunlight, home. It was the smell of a new life, the one Xena now fought to save.
She went then to find the saddle and bags she had hidden before the fight began. Drawing out bandages, she managed to wrap her side and arm tightly. She got the saddle onto Argo. Pulling the straps brought out an unwilled groan. She had finished building the litter before the battle, wild thoughts of surviving somehow driving her to the act that was futile to the point of being insane when she should have been creating more traps.
She heard a sound, a moan of pain echo in the rafters. Quickly, she climbed the ladder. Gabrielle was awake, her face awash with pain.
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked tentatively.
"Xena," Gabrielle almost whispered. Xena took her hand, and for the first time in what felt like ages, Gabrielle grasped her hand in return. Xena nearly smiled with relief.
"The pain is back," she said. Her voice came out in a way that felt to Xena amazingly clear after how weak it had been. "I feel much stronger." Xena smiled, and Gabrielle tried to give a small laugh, but stopped after it triggered a cough and a wave of pain. "That's not saying much," she whispered. Neither of them could laugh at her joke.
"We need to go," Xena said softly. She finished collecting everything and tying the litter into place. Xena braced herself and took long drink of wine from a flagon before she climbed back up the ladder.
"Come on," she said softly, lifting Gabrielle over her shoulder. She heard Gabrielle give a sort of whimper and felt her body tense with pain as it was draped over her shoulder. It helped to drown out her own pain, which she forced herself to ignore. Xena took them slowly, what felt to her unbearably slowly, down the ladder. She placed Gabrielle on the litter, all the while, anxiety about the passing of time beating in her mind. She covered her with furs, then led Argo outside.
She came back and quickly set fire to the barn. The flames caught as she pulled herself up onto Argo. A wave of pain washed over her that made her sway in the saddle. She clutched at her side, feeling the new wetness. She urged Argo into a trot, and when they drew up away from that place, she turned to look back. The flames were quickly consuming the barn – a fiery burial for all the fallen men. She felt a pang of deep guilt as she left the bodies of the men who had fallen away from the building. She could not waste the strength it would take to drag them inside. It was always right to bury the dead, but sometimes, there was no way.
She rode as long as she could, far into the night. When she realized, at last, she was at risk of falling from the saddle, she turned Argo into a thick grove of trees. Persian scouts may be around this area. She could not think to anticipate what they would do. She found as much cover for them as she could, becoming almost delirious with exhaustion. It wouldn’t matter much if they were found. Argo would fight at least, she knew. But she wasn't sure what she could do for them now. Her knees buckled when her boots hit the ground, and she caught herself on the saddle. She got her feet and felt she had become stiff and weaker. In the morning, she would have to try to re-dress the wounds. There was a poultice in the bags, packed before the fight had begun. It would help numb the pain and ward off infection as they got to Thessaly.
She took the halter from Argo and untied the litter. She lowered it as gently as she could, and it drained the last of her strength, dragging her down to one knee. She could not bring herself to remove the saddle, but Argo clearly did not mind and began to eat.
Xena moved the furs aside, shivering she could feel, although there was little cold as yet in the air. We should have a fire, she thought, but the urgency was not enough to draw her out of her stupor. She placed herself instead under the furs beside Gabrielle, up against her body, and fell asleep.
Xena awoke to the sound of harsh coughing. She sat up, at once, chakram in hand, full of adrenaline, ready to get them moving.
"Stop, Xena," Gabrielle said, catching Xena's shoulder with a firm grasp. The surprise of Gabrielle's increased strength and the pain the resistance shot through her side brought her back down. Her head was throbbing. Not a good sign, she thought without feeling. Gabrielle coughed more and breathed deep with a faint wheeze.
"I can feel my lungs," she said. "It's like they've been burnt from the inside." Xena pictured the barn in her mind, a strange image, fresh as if it were before her eyes. Urgency pounded in her mind.
"We still need to get you to Thessaly," Xena said. She sensed that Gabrielle turned toward her with a quick movement of alarm. She had heard the frailty in her own voice.
"If I were going to die, I think I'd have done it by now." Gabrielle looked closely at her, stopping once to cough. "You're hurt," she said. This time it wasn't a question.
"I'll be alright," Xena said. Her tone was flat, devoid of life.
"Where are you hurt?" Gabrielle said. Her voice offered no room to avoid an answer.
"On my side," Xena said. It was dim, the light of the moon blocked somewhat by the trees. Gabrielle reached over, felt the bandages, and pressed her hand to Xena's side. Xena groaned, without meaning to, but could not move to resist the touch.
"Xena," Gabrielle said. Her voice sad. Xena could say nothing, her mind blank, pulsing now with her pain.
Xena lay helpless, as Gabrielle moved slowly, finding her way off the litter. She found her staff first, using it as a crutch once again. Then she gathered wood from close by, building a tiny framework for a fire. She stopped to cough several times, and Xena heard her cough actually grow stronger.
"It's like my lungs are waking up," Gabrielle said. Once again, her voice seemed clearer. She limped back to the litter.
"Gabrielle, lie back down," Xena said.
"Who's in charge here?" Gabrielle managed, her tone strained at the effort. The joke made Xena grin lightly, though Gabrielle could not manage to press much, even in tone. She coughed more, softly now, as she got into the saddle bags and worked to light the fire.
She untied the bandages. She had to pull them away; there was so much dried blood, and they had stuck to Xena's skin. Xena had to help her to remove her armor and pull down her leathers. The wound had broken open once more. Each time, the pain increased. Now she felt dizzy and practically fell back. A wave of nausea came over her. Gabrielle lit a candle they kept in their bags. Her hand rested on Xena's stomach, and somehow, Xena could feel the seriousness emanating from her. Gabrielle was silent as she looked at the wound.
Gabrielle washed the wound, carefully, then started the slow work of stitching Xena's side. She moved the candle several times, bringing it close to look at her work, then setting it down again. She had to stop a few times to allow herself to rest or cough. But slowly and precisely, as she had been taught by Xena years ago, she stitched the wound closed. The sting of the needle and the strange pain, almost like a sound, of the thread as it was dragged through seemed somehow to deaden the pain around it. Gabrielle cleaned the wound once more, gingerly, covered it with the poultice she'd found packed away, then properly placed and tied new bandages. Xena felt they were much better than those before.
Gabrielle tried then to remove Xena's leathers the rest of the way.
"No, I'm alright now," Xena said.
"Not until I see," Gabrielle said. Xena stopped resisting and let herself be undressed. She felt the mood between them had changed. Even in her exhaustion, she could track it. Gabrielle used the candle, cupping her hand behind the flame to amplify the light. She looked over Xena's body. She was covered in bruises and small cuts. She found the bandage on Xena's arm, undressed it, then stitched and redressed it. She tied a few smaller wounds.
Exhausted then, she banked the fire, in hopes that it might be rebuilt in the morning. She got their water flask, then came back to the makeshift bed. She packed the furs all around them and gave them each a long, slow drink from the bottle. She corked it and place it next to Xena, then put her arm around Xena's body, careful to avoid the worst wounds, and lay against her naked body, preparing again to sleep.
Xena brought her arm around Gabrielle, feeling it weak enough to quake when she lifted and moved it. She could feel both of their breath, moving in the still night, and Argo nearby. She looked into the stars, and she marveled. They were really alive. A miracle, it seemed. Her heart ached with it, danced with feeling like the small fire at her side. Xena was sure that Gabrielle also felt the change taking place in this moment. It was the first time they had lain together like this and the first time either of them had looked over the other naked since they returned on the boat from Chin.
Strangely, they had made love every night after they left the palace as they made their way across the long-remembered countryside to the sea. That first night, Gabrielle had helped Xena scrub the filth of those dungeons off her body, and Xena had pulled her close. They kissed, almost desperate. They did not speak a word, but they came together, at once fierce and tender, as if to claim a life that had been stolen. But as they lay together after, Xena felt dreadfully alone. She was sure Gabrielle felt the same. Something between them had broken, shattered like an earthenware pot.
The ocean came and with it Gabrielle's seasickness. Then in Greece, it was if they could not bear to face what they had lost. They went weeks without touching one another, falling back into the familiar patterns that marked their friendship before they became lovers when Xena was still half wild from war. She had imagined that self to be a part of the past. As everything turned to madness around them, she found herself retreating back, further and further, until she could hardly remember the person she had once felt was truly herself. They'd found their healing, miraculous and strange, and regained their love. They were the best of friends again and easy with one another. It seemed, however, that the passion between their bodies was gone. It had simply died. A casualty of war, Xena thought, of their own sins.
Tonight, she remembered, not with her mind, but with her body, what it was like to hold Gabrielle, to be near to her, to be her lover. A thousand moments between them returned, flickering through her mind. The feel of her skin, the taste of her mouth – it was a new set of purposes, a new way of relating to the body that Xena had discovered being with Gabrielle. She recalled dozens of small moments from particular nights when they'd known each other that stood apart somehow amid those hundreds of times. These had felt lost to her before this moment. When she was even able to draw them into her mind, they felt devoid of feeling, of reality, as if some cheat, a fleeting gift stolen from the Fates. This now, once again, felt that same world, the world before. Gabrielle reached up to touch Xena's face, gently, before she fell asleep. And Xena felt sure, though she could not say how, that Gabrielle felt the same change.
In the morning, Xena awoke. Argo grazed nearby, still wearing her saddle. Gabrielle was still curled against her, lost in a deep sleep. Xena moved her, gently, unsurprised when she did not wake. She was always a heavy sleeper, especially when she'd been ill or injured. She pushed the hair from Gabrielle's face. Her color was improving still.
Xena sat up, carefully. She pressed her hand to her side, softly, and took notice of her body and the feeling in her head. She aimed to stand and did so slowly, in stages, careful to test to see if she would grown faint. She stood without any dizziness, which was good.
Xena still felt that she had not nearly recovered as she stepped forward. She was surprisingly stiff, not just around her wounds. She could only remember feeling nearly this exhausted from battle once, after the longest battle of her life. She and her men had fought through the night and far into a second day. They were outnumbered four to one, so when both sides broke to rest and rally, the enemy recovered much faster than they and started their charge again. Then she'd had an army of men fighting with her. This time she'd been alone. I guess it's warranted, she thought, padding her ego.
She gave Argo water, then removed her saddle, just for a short time. They should try to eat something, she knew. It would take too long, she felt, to get game. She could find and kill it, quickly, but it would take time to pluck or skin whatever she found and cook it. She dug in their saddle bags, pulling out apples and a piece of very firm cheese. She found a cake of figs still perfectly wrapped in leaves and tightly bound with thread despite weeks of travel. Gabrielle had picked it out at the market of a small village when looking for something to pack away that would last. She always got better deals than Xena on the best merchandise. She was more patient than Xena and enjoyed the game of haggling with the marketers. It wasn't adversarial to her or to them, Xena felt sure, which was part of why they always bickered so long with her without losing patience and seemed satisfied even when she made off with their wares at a fair price.
Xena sat beside Gabrielle and cut the apples and cheese into pieces. When she was finished, she woke her, as gently as she could, shaking her good shoulder and saying her name. Gabrielle struggled to become awake. She sat up right away, heavily.
"How's your side?" she asked.
"It's alright," Xena said. Gabrielle smiled slightly, since she could tell from Xena's tone she was telling the truth this time.
"Here," Xena said. "Let's eat something." Gabrielle sat up, curious if not eager about the food.
"It's been so long, I don't know if I want to or not," she said. She coughed gently into her fist, eyeing the food. Xena smiled. Gabrielle loved almost nothing more than she loved breakfast. She reached out and took a fig and ate it in the smallest bites. They talked as they slowly finished the small pile of food and drank the last of their wine.
"We can get to Thessaly today if we drive ourselves hard," Xena said.
"Let's not," Gabrielle said, glum at the idea. "Tomorrow seems fine to me."
Xena thought it over. She could not weigh in her mind how much difference it would make to reach a healer one day sooner. They both needed rest more than they needed anything else, she felt. If they aimed to reach Thessaly the next evening, they could arrive in town with several hours of light to spare, ride slowly today, and find something to eat along the way. There was a small river nearby.
"Can we bathe somewhere?" Gabrielle asked, as if she had read Xena's mind. She plucked with disgust at her own clothing as she spoke.
"Yes," Xena said.
"Good," Gabrielle said. "We're disgusting." Xena laughed softly at her emphatic tone. With the thought of a bath, Xena felt reluctant to pull on her clothes again. They were covered with grit and sprinkled with blood, hers and others'. She began to look forward to the river. They could wash their clothes at the river and keep an eye out for soapweed along the way, which had roots that would make a cleansing, weak lather and save their real soap.
Xena felt reluctant to get rid of the litter. She feared still that Gabrielle might take a turn for the worse. The wood she used had been kept dry in the barn for years and was very light, so she untied and then bundled the whole thing and lashed it in front of Argo's saddle. She mounted, cautiously, and helped Gabrielle to mount behind her.
They rode gently through the morning. Gabrielle clutched Xena, her arms held high, crossing over the middle of Xena's chest to avoid her wounded side, when she was racked by coughs. Xena felt how her body strained with the effort, dragged deep from her lungs. The sound was wet and no longer dry. Xena thought this was a good sign. She suspected there would be dried blood in her lungs. Gabrielle had grown too weak to really cough as she sickened and her lungs lost their feeling and no longer responded. Now, she imagined, they were reacting, flushing it out. A few times, Xena reached her arm around behind her to brace Gabrielle. She knew it did not help in any practical way, but felt it necessary. Gabrielle would hold her harder for a long time afterwards.
Xena felt a heat grow in her belly, held low, settled just over her hips. Riding like this with Gabrielle, she always used to feel it. The familiar feel had become strange, and it drew her attention throughout the day. Even the feel of her injured side could not rival it in intensity.
It was only a few hours past midday when they came to the small river she had anticipated. In many places, it spread out wide over stretches of round small rocks, and Argo could easily have carried them across without getting their boots wet. In others, it ran narrow and deep, having dug its way down into the soil.
Xena helped Gabrielle down, holding her arm in a firm grasp as she slowly put weight on her injured ankle. She clutched one arm to her wounded side and dismounted with great care. Argo blew and bucked at each of them, clearly happy to be free and reunited with them both. They took the bags down and unsaddled her. She went to the stream to drink before wandering about to graze.
In her search for food, Xena took the absolute most lazy route and set four lines a bit downriver where the water ran deep. She felt sure they'd have a mess of fish for supper when she returned. On a lucky break, she spotted a morel mushroom and quickly discovered another few dozen dotting the surrounding area. She brought them back to camp and found Gabrielle sitting next to a cheery, little fire that was just catching fully.
Gabrielle was eyeing her shoulder, and Xena came to see, checking the wound on her back to make sure it was healthy and fully closed. It had been tended immediately and consistently, and it barely looked inflamed, a sign that the antidote had fully set in.
"You should be fine," Xena said. Gabrielle stood up, wavering, with an arm from Xena.
"You shouldn't take your bandages in the water," Gabrielle said to Xena.
"Yeah," Xena said, glancing down at them. She was obviously annoyed and thinking of going in anyway.
"Here," Gabrielle said. She took Xena by the hand and led her to a shallow part of the stream. Xena felt them both terribly young in this moment, as Gabrielle drew her along by the hand. The sky and the air around them were beginning to glow with the almost viscous, orange light of the closing day.
We'll wash the death off both of us, Gabrielle thought. She sat Xena on a rock and started washing them, passing the cake of soap back and forth with Xena and helping her find ways to work around her bandages. The cool water soothed her ankle. The act seemed almost a ritual, and the idea gave her a surprising amount of strength. She scrubbed at her own body and at Xena's, standing firmly in the water without noticeable fatigue.
They washed out their clothes, scrubbing them with the roots of soapweed Xena had found and handfuls of clean sand from around the base the rock. They had a hilarious time, then, trying to wash Xena's hair. Gabrielle rinsed their empty wine flagon and used it to pour water over Xena's hair as she leaned back. They managed not to get her bandages wet. Gabrielle's shoulder had started to hurt and grown stiff, however, as the poison faded out and took the numbness with it. So she had only one good arm and help from Xena, who could not really keep her balance and lean too far backwards or forwards without hurting her side unless she kept one hand down to brace her weight. They managed, after considerable effort, to work a lather through her hair and rinse it out.
When they finished, they were chilled enough by the stream to want to leave the water. Gabrielle brushed through her own hair, while Xena worked some of the worst tangles out of her own with her fingers. Gabrielle came and took over, knocking away Xena's rough hands to do the work more gently. They both grew very still. As she finished, she took a small part of Xena's hair and braided the length of it. Surprised, Xena turned to look at her, and Gabrielle gave a soft and shy smile. She had never tried braiding Xena's hair before, but somehow the strange, impromptu act seemed fitting with the moment. She tied it off and did another on the other side. When she switched sides, she drew closer to Xena.
Gabrielle then ran the back of her hand lightly over Xena's cheek, grazing her neck. Xena turned to her. With slow movements, Gabrielle cupped her face and brushed her thumb over Xena's lips. The longing showed in her expression as she looked at Xena's mouth, sadness mingled with it as if it pushed its way up through a tangle of grief that had swallowed it. Xena waited, her breath stopped at the hope that Gabrielle would lean down and kiss her. In a stunned realization, she felt that she had never wanted anything more in her life. The desire was vivid and bright. It made her feel more alive than anything she had felt, even in the midst of the frenzy of war. And unlike then, she felt both powerful and frail at once. Her heart seemed to quake, as Gabrielle leaned down and touched her lips to her own.
The kiss was soft. Their lips barely pressed together. It was followed by several kisses with the same sort of hesitance. Each one, however, seemed to fill them both with feeling, as if they had grown unaccustomed to the pleasure of kissing. Their hands met, easily though they could not see, as if regaining an instinct. They risked being overwhelmed and drew away from one another after only a brief time. Gabrielle went to lay their clothes out to dry while Xena went to check the lines she had set. The thought of their kisses filled her mind, and she walked as if half in a dream.
Xena was delighted to feel weight at the end of each line already. She pulled in the lines and found three trout, two of impressive size given the smallness of the stream, and a perch. She gutted and scaled them in moments with a practiced ease. She wound up the lines to bring back to camp. She would put them out in the morning. It seemed likely they'd make a new catch right away, and she could not bear the idea of the fish struggling on the ends of the lines all night. She picked a few sprigs of herbs that grew nearby, strong and wild, but good if used in small amounts.
Gabrielle had already heated the pan, and she poured in some oil as Xena approached camp. Xena rubbed her palms together and dropped the herbs into the heated oil. She lay the fish out in the pan and went to wash her hands. She came back just as Gabrielle was turning the fish and watched her tuck the mushrooms into the pan around them. Xena's stomach felt suddenly hollow, watching Gabrielle work with the food.
They sat in silence for a while and blew on hot pieces of fish and mushroom taken straight from the pan. Gabrielle only had to stop to cough once, and Xena noted the marked improvement. She looked tired, however, after a very light day. Her body was already drooping as they finished their food.
When they had finished, Xena took the pan down to the water and cleaned it, rubbing it out with sand and holding it in the running water. She stuck it back in the fire to finish off and dry. Gabrielle was leaning against the saddle on the ground, eyes half-closed, dozing.
Xena got their bedrolls and sent a twinge through her side when she foolishly tried to unfurl one. Gabrielle sat up and helped her lay out the next one. Xena took the pan from the fire and put a pot of water on to heat. She got their saddle bags and sat beside Gabrielle, drawing out some of the many parcels of herbs she kept.
Gabrielle watched as Xena slowly sorted a concoction of herbs. She ground the first and dropped it into the bottom of two cups, waiting for the heated water on the fire. She then ground a second batch that included some herbs that were still green, gathered before the fight. They drank their tea when it was finished, ignoring the slightly bitter taste Xena masked by adding what dried blue cornflowers she had left. Then they drank all the water, and Xena heated more, preparing it to refill their flagons in the morning.
Xena used the new poultice to redress Gabrielle's shoulder. Xena felt the same sort of stillness between them as she did this, leaning in over Gabrielle, their bodies drawn close. Gabrielle helped her then to unwind her bandages and redress them. There was no new blood since the night before. The poultice stung Xena's fresher wounds, but it felt healing nonetheless after so many years treating other wounds in the same way.
Xena pulled the water from the fire, as Gabrielle lay down once more. She came back to lie down beside her, and Gabrielle held out her arms, unselfconsciously, for Xena to settle into. It had been so long, and yet it suddenly felt to Xena like it could never be otherwise. The sun was not yet down, but they fell slowly into sleep, which deepened as the night came on.
Xena awoke late in the night. She felt neither terribly tired nor restless, so she lay awake and unmoving, resting and letting her mind wander unfocused. She lay looking up at the stars and the moon, waxing and just past a quarter full, looking juvenile, full of a springing energy and life.
The night air had grown only slightly cool, and it carried the smell of the water and the fields and woods beyond. Xena breathed it deep, feeling it move through her as if washing her, from the inside. She stretched her aching body out and let her thought stretch out, as well, over the countryside. She thought of the barn they had left behind, the fire likely died down to a few piles now. No one knew where they were, and there was nowhere they had to be. Tomorrow, they would go to Thessaly, and from there, anywhere they pleased, anywhere they might be needed. Such freedom, she thought, a gift she thought she had possessed most of her life, but only truly had these past few years.
Xena turned to look at Gabrielle, lying asleep beside her. She heard Argo grazing nearby. She felt it such wealth to have a home she could carry with her, a family who loved her for who she was at heart. She reached out to touch Gabrielle, something she had not done in far too long. The heat from the skin of her stomach came up through the blanket into Xena's hand. Xena felt her body rising and falling with her breath. As if on instinct, her own breath shifted to match it, as she closed her eyes and focused, feeling and listening with her whole being.
I love her, she thought. Somehow, it felt so clear. A sharp pain flitted through her heart, as she remembered the first time she spoke those words. They choked her throat like soot on the air. I have to tell her, she thought, when we are not dying. She smiled slightly at herself. Then her brow furrowed with the severity of her thoughts. You will have to find the words, she said to herself. It was important. Nothing else was more important in the world.
Xena breathed deeply and lay back, gazing into the night sky again. A long time had passed when Gabrielle awoke. As she turned, she caught the movement of Xena's head as she looked over at her. She lay still a moment, then opened her eyes again and turned to see Xena awake. A long moment of stillness passed between them. Then Gabrielle turned, reaching one arm over Xena. She leaned in, without hesitation, and kissed her again.
It was easier this time, and their kisses were not so meek. Gabrielle kissed her again and again, as Xena brought her hands up to embrace her. She pushed her hand into Gabrielle's hair. With one hand Xena held Gabrielle's hair, her palm pressed to the back of her neck, behind her ear, and with the other, she held her back, feeling the soft skin contrast the hard muscles, tensed from her position. Their kisses began very slowly to deepen and grow longer.
Gabrielle shifted haltingly after a time. She had hurt her shoulder. She hesitated a moment, looking for another position, and Xena turned onto her side, moving a rolled blanket she used for a pillow over for both of them. Gabrielle settled beside her. She ran her fingers through Gabrielle's hair again and down her back. She was lying on her uninjured shoulder, and she could not stretch out her arm for long. She drew it back, and Gabrielle took her hand, entwining their fingers, letting their arms rest on the blanket between them.
They kissed slowly and gently, rediscovering one another, allowing time to shift, as it always did when they came together, allowing everything beyond them to fall away. Hours must have passed, Xena felt, when their kisses began, gradually, to grow more impassioned. Gabrielle's hand slipped down Xena's throat, wanting to come to her chest. She hesitated, and Xena took her hand and led it down. She let go and put her hand to Gabrielle's throat, as Gabrielle cupped her breast.
It began that simply, and it continued on in the same way. Slowly, they touched one another's bodies, unwilling to break their kiss for more than a brief moment. Neither moved away from the dynamic they had taken from the start, so touching one another, both at the same time, they remained lost in the tangle of energy between them, which shifted back and forth, without ever breaking.
Xena was not surprised when she found Gabrielle's hand between her legs, unsure of when it had come there. She pressed her legs together, shifting them, her mouth on Gabrielle's mouth, hands on her breasts, fingertips running over her nipples. A moan in Gabrielle's throat drew all Xena's attention a moment, then it came back to Gabrielle's hand, and she bent her knee and turned her hips slightly to allow her to touch her more easily.
Gabrielle leaned down to kiss her breasts a moment, then came back to her mouth. To her own surprise, Xena felt her own body had begun to shudder. The shudder built, as tremors that seemed to be rooted deep in the core of her shook her, causing every part of her to quake. She felt her hands tremble as they held Gabrielle's face, felt her lips tremble as they pressed into hers. She was overcome and could not stop them.
She had felt this same shuddering only twice before in her life. The first was the night after her first battle – the night Lyceus had died. She'd killed dozens of men that day and had not shed one tear. In the morning, she and a band of men were to follow Cortese's army. So she willed herself to lie down and to sleep. Her body shuddered violently, in the warm air. She lay on her bed, everything gone strangely quiet inside, and felt herself silently shuddering. It was a mystery to her then. The second time was the night Solan was born, as she held him, knowing she would give him away.
Gabrielle did not stop touching Xena when she began to quake but drew Xena closer. Never before, even at the start, had she touched Xena as if she were in any way frail. Yet she grew incredibly gentle with her now. She never took her hands away from Xena's body, never took her mouth away. It felt to Xena as if Gabrielle were the more experienced lover and led her on, as if leading her through the acts of love for the first time.
Passion grew between them, slowly, and, at some point, Xena's shuddering melted away. They kissed urgently now with the ease of a practiced dance, the past seeming to find its way through, to connect them with itself again. Soft sounds escaped them, as they grew more bold with each other. Xena felt the peak of her pleasure build for an incredibly long amount of time, drawn to the surface like the slow filling of a newly tapped well.
Their bodies were practically tangled with one another's. Somehow they had caught the rhythm of each another, and they moved without hurting one another despite their wounds. As each of their pleasure began to break lose onto the surface, it seemed to draw the other's out to meet it.
At last, they clutched at one another, mouths open and held close. Each of them drew up into the prolonged, poised moment just before the height of pleasure. They kissed, and it broke free, tumbling all around them, neither able to tell where one's pleasure began and the other's ended. They had the fingers of one hand entwined between them, and Gabrielle shifted, falling against Xena's body.
"Xena," Gabrielle whispered. Xena kissed her deeply, urgently, several times.
"I love you, Gabrielle. I love you," she said. It was not choked, nor hesitant now. She spoke calmly. Gabrielle cried, only for a moment, and Xena went on kissing her and being kissed in return.
When their kisses finally drew to a close, dawn was coming. The sky had just begun to grow blue. They lay so close to one another, the soft currents of their breath swirled together. They fell asleep this way. As the images of dreams floated into Xena's mind, she pictured a beautiful pot, sacred and ornate, covered in spider-webbed lines, unbroken.
Xena awoke to a feeling of panic, not violent, but urgent. In a brief moment, she realized Gabrielle was dreaming, having a nightmare. She whimpered and tossed. Xena gently shook her and said her name.
Gabrielle said Xena's name once, turned towards her, and began to weep. Xena held her close, kissing her hair, and trying to offer her comfort. Gabrielle wept from some deep place, enough to draw out reserves of energy Xena felt would have been better left for her body's healing.
Xena held Gabrielle, herself now wide awake. Something is terribly wrong, she thought. She kissed Gabrielle's shoulder. This was beyond what she knew, beyond the two of them. Something was wrong, and she could not yet piece together what it was.
Gabrielle's weeping seemed to close, not in catharsis, but in exhaustion. She fell fully asleep again, and Xena slipped into a sort of half sleep, her mind roaming as she searched for an answer to what felt a riddle. She could not reach what was wrong with Gabrielle, but she would find a way.
When she awoke again, Xena's first thought was a sense of resolve that she would never lose Gabrielle again. Not until death found one or both of them. She felt reassured in a way. There was time. She need not understand everything that was happening between them now. It would unfold gradually.
Gabrielle seemed alright when she woke up. She rubbed her eyes, and drank a cup of water that Xena gave her. They kissed a few times, Xena kneeling down in front of Gabrielle. Gabrielle reached up to hold her face and her kisses felt confident, and this gave Xena a sense of comfort after her strange weeping.
They had a slow morning, as they ate breakfast and packed away their things. They gathered up their dried clothes, a bit stiff, and put them on, a delight to feel them clean again. Xena filled their water flagons.
She'll be alright, Xena thought, watching Gabrielle lean into her staff and limp forward. There were hurts Xena could not see fully, but they would heal. They were healing. Her own wounds were healing, as well. Xena turned back to Argo, buckling the saddle, bracing one arm against her injured side, as she pulled it tight.
"You know what I'm excited about?" Gabrielle said. Before she could think to make an answer, Xena's breath rushed into her chest and her eyes welled up with tears. Gabrielle's voice speaking this exact phrase, in this exact tone connected to dozens of memories. It was a sort of game Gabrielle would play, almost since Xena had first met her. Xena had not heard her say it in months. She'd almost forgotten it herself. She let the breath out slowly.
"What?" she said.
"Bread. Big chunks of bread. With butter! Hot out of the oven, with all those seeds and crisp bits of crust…" She continued on, painting the picture in both their minds and growing more and more excited, as she drew up behind Xena and settled into the saddle, and they set off into their journey.