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The Calm After

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Beatrix woke to the sound of heavy, whistling breathing. At first she'd been convinced she was still dreaming, or at least hearing a sound that she had pulled into her dreams. At first she'd wanted to stay down, but curiosity god the better of her, and she carefully pushed herself up on her one good arm to something close to a sitting position.

The breathing faded, and from across the room she saw her tentmate's eyes open. "Welcome back," Lady Freya said wryly. "Or are you sitting in your sleep again?"

"I - ah! - am not yet sure." Beatrix's sleep had been fitful through the last few nights, a few hours of peace interrupted by nightmares and pain. She was only now certain that she was not asleep, that what she was seeing was real.

"Hm." Freya lowered her arms, hissing with the release of pain. "I was trying to meditate. I hadn't intended to wake you."

"You fare better than I did," Beatrix answered. She was in too much pain for this to be a dream; it would've faded by now, or at least shifted from one place to another. But at that moment everything hurt. "Where are we, and for how long have we been here?"

"Some distance from town, in some hidden Tantalus lair - the thieves have been caring for us. They said that it has been at least seven days today - six had passed before I awoke." Her muzzle twitched in amusement. "I had thought you would wake next. Captain Steiner fared much worse."

"I find that distressingly easy to believe."

"So did I." Freya shook her head only very slightly. "He fights bravely and with great strength, but with no finesse. Still, his presence turned the tide against our enemies. I must acknowledge that much."

"Hm. Typical." Beatrix shifted uncomfortably. There were no subjects to change, nothing else she could think to ask. She wanted to ask how it had come to all of this, but in the end she knew there was no need. She would have seen it years before, if she had only been paying attention. But she'd blinded herself with her pride and honor; she'd forgotten that pride was a trap, and honor didn't mean much anymore.

She risked a deeper breath and gasped, the pain in her ribs surprising her. How had they saved them? She had kept them alive long enough to get them close to safety with her own magic, but the attempt had pushed her to mental exhaustion. Even now the thought of casting another healing spell brought on the first twinges of pain, a headache the likes of which she had never felt before. But the pain in her ribcage was sharper and more immediate; she reflexively held one hand protectively against the pain, shielding it.

Freya only turned slightly to look at Beatrix, no doubt hindered by her own injuries. Her off-hand was still in a sling across her chest, and she could see a rod bound to her leg with tight dressings. Beatrix wondered what else was broken that she could not see. "Have a care, General," Freya said flatly. "T'would be a shame for you to die now that the battle is over."

Beatrix fought down the urge to laugh. "That it would," she said instead, keeping her breathing shallow and her words quick. "Although if you still seek revenge, Lady Freya, this may be the most opportune time."

Freya leaned back, and Beatrix could see the exhaustion on her face that covered everything else, with only the slightest grimace to betray the pain. "I would," she said, "if there would be even a scrap of justice in it."

"Fair enough," Beatrix replied. She didn't know whether to join Freya in reclining or try to stand; both seemed equally perilous. At least she'd found a reasonable compromise in her current position. "I do not know if I can agree with you, however."

"Then consider yourself fortunate that I am making this decision." Her voice was pitched lower and rougher than before; the shouts and war-cries had taken their toll. "Self-depreciation does not suit you, General."

"I can hardly go back to the one I was before."

Freya was too far away to reach her without pain, in her current state, but she tried, stretching her claws to scratch at Beatrix's cot. "Do as you will," she said, and the shortness returned to her voice. "I'm only offering an opinion."

"Do not worry. Your point is taken." Beatrix reached back, gritting her teeth and not daring to push herself too far. The contact wasn't much, it wasn't much, fingertips touching the very edge of coarse fur. It was hardly the chaste-yet-heartfelt kiss that the warriors who fought side by side shared in the old romances she'd read as a child. Still, it was something.

Freya shuddered with relief as she relaxed. "I hope you'll forgive me for taking my leave," she said, her voice still drowsy. "Should any of Tantalus return, have them wake me to down a draught or two, please."

"Yes," Beatrix. She managed to compromise, sliding back enough to press her back against the wall without causing any major damage. "I will keep watch. I have no wish to sleep again, not after so long."

"I know," Freya said, closing her eyes. "I said the same yesterday." A smile lifted the edges of her mouth. "But I tired of wakefulness, and so will you."

Beatrix watched her as she relaxed, watched the sharpness of her expression start to fade into sleep. "Not for some time," she said, and settled in to wait for the bandits to come. She had so many questions for them, at least - how had the Princess fared? Had she escaped? All of the pain and suffering would be worthwhile, if only Garnet had managed to flee the castle. She feared it would be even longer before she knew.

But all of her worries would come to nothing; it was best to let them go. There would be time to rest. And time to speak, when Freya was ready to wake and the thieves of Tantalus returned. They were alive, against all odds, and now it was time to recover; the rest could be deferred for later.