Please read the Disclaimer in Part
Spoilers: "Gabrielle's Hope" and "Maternal Instincts"
Sex/naughty language: Still none
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Five: Once again, none of Xena's many skills were harmed in the production of this fanfic, although several of Gabrielle's were sorely taxed.
She's like the swallow that flies so high, She's like the river that never runs dry, She's like the sunshine on the lee shore, She loves her love, but she'll love no more. --Traditional Canadian folk songGabrielle climbed steadily, refusing to look down, concentrating on the sound of her breathing and the goal above. The sky, which seemed now to surround her on every side, was darkening rapidly, and the contrast made the flashes of light from above seem all the more brilliant. Gabrielle was mesmerized by it, her hands and feet moving almost of their own volition as she gazed upward, her heart seeming to pulse in time with the irregular rhythm of the light.
Below, Xena stood and watched her friend's progress, a contemplative frown furrowing her brow. She concealed a small gulp of surprise when the young girl beside her shifted and moaned. Almost grateful for the distraction, Xena dropped to one knee to check on the teen.
Kyla looked at her; her pupils were still somewhat dilated but at least they tracked. "Wh - she went up?" she asked breathily. Xena nodded.
"Yeah, she'll just be a few more minutes. Try to breathe deeply." They both did so in silence for a moment.
At last Xena lifted her gaze to meet Kyla's, and, seeing that she had the girl's attention, asked quietly, "What will you say tomorrow?"
Kyla gave her a look of calm acceptance that sent another chill up the warrior's spine. She had seen that look on Gabrielle's face, when the bard gave her newborn daughter a name. And Xena had seen it again on her own son's face, when he begged her to take him with her. Xena felt her throat tighten and her jaw clench.
"Nothing," Kyla said quietly, but firmly. Xena took a quick breath and tried to regain her armor of cynicism. Ask a stupid question...
So lulled was Gabrielle into the humming moments of climbing and watching, feeling and seeing, that the end of the climb shocked her almost into losing her grip. She clutched at the rocks that marked the next opening in the mountain's face, gasping, feeling cold sweat break out on her forehead and a sick twist in her belly. After a moment she had calmed enough to heave herself upward again, emerging into the cavern from which the fantastic light emanated, telling herself she was prepared for anything.
Just as Gabrielle's face cleared the floor, the light flashed again, stabbing into her eager eyes with an almost physical pain that seemed to shoot directly to the back of her skull. Her eyes instinctively snapped shut, leaving a dazzle of confused afterimages rioting across the insides of her eyelids. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes and she realized she was losing her balance.
"Xeeeeeenaaaaaaa!" she shrieked in terror as she felt her fingers slip from the edge of the rock and her center of gravity shift sickeningly backward. In front of her eyes all was dark, and then another blinding flash seemed to blend with the sound of chilly air whooshing past her ears.
Xena leapt to her feet, her heartbeat nearly stilling as she tilted her head back and saw Gabrielle falling. Surrendering to instinct, the warrior braced, opening her arms, loosing her knees like coiled springs. Watch, calculate the angle, time the jump, and ... she threw herself to one side, Gabrielle dropped heavily into her outstretched arms, and they hit the rock wall hard, Xena grunting as she took most of it on her shoulder. She let her knees give and Gabrielle's rear end contacted the ground, drawing an answering grunt from the bard. Gabrielle clutched Xena's arms so tightly the warrior could feel fingernails piercing the skin, but she ignored it as she rolled to one side, getting her weight off the bard, running her hands quickly over the smaller figure to make sure nothing was broken.
"Xena," Gabrielle gasped brokenly, her voice breaking. Xena felt almost as shaken as the bard sounded, but she pushed it down harshly, forcing her voice steady.
"You're all right. You're okay."
"Yes...." Still gripping Xena's upper arms, Gabrielle allowed herself to be pulled upright by the warrior's motion. Xena rose to her feet, bringing Gabrielle along, and they stared into each other's eyes.
"I-" Gabrielle paused to take another deep breath, and glanced sideways at the wide-eyed teenager. "We should get going."
Xena scrutinized her friend carefully for a moment, then nodded and let her go. Gabrielle pried her fingers loose, leaving little half-moons imprinted on Xena's skin. Turning away, the bard lowered herself gingerly to the ground and looked down the side of the mountain.
Xena turned to Kyla and said gruffly, "We're going down. You'll have to hold on with all your might."
"Okay," the girl said nervously, watching like a skittish kitten as the warrior bent over to help her up. With Xena's help, she hopped on her good leg to the edge and sat down beside Gabrielle.
Xena put her back to the drop and lowered herself down the side of the mountain. She held on with grim determination while Gabrielle helped Kyla climb awkwardly over her. When the youth's brown arms came around her neck, one long leg cinching firmly around her waist, Xena began to climb down. Concentrating mostly on keeping her balance and not jostling the injured girl's leg, the warrior spared a small part of her attention for Gabrielle, who followed them down at a much slower pace. The bard's fingers and toes felt like limp blades of grass, trembling slightly with reaction from what she had seen above and her subsequent brush with death. Gabrielle bit her lip and tried to keep her mind blank as she descended the mountain.
Nevertheless, Gabrielle couldn't convince her body to move any faster, and so, by the time she reached bottom, Xena had already secured Kyla in Argo's saddle. The warrior reached up to take hold of her friend's waist, allowing Gabrielle to let go and practically float the last few feet in her friend's reassuring grip. Her feet solidly planted on terra firma again, Gabrielle turned around and buried her face in Xena's leathers, wrapping her arms around the warrior and simply holding her as tightly as her exhausted muscles would allow.
Xena hugged back, letting her face sink into Gabrielle's hair, which tickled her cheeks and filled her nose with the scents of rock dust, sweat and hay. They stood like that for a long moment, and finally Gabrielle heaved a long sigh and started to pull away.
"What are you doing?" she asked tiredly as Xena tightened her grip, lifting the bard off the ground again.
"No argument," the warrior commanded tersely, swinging Gabrielle up to sit behind Kyla. The bard sighed but didn't protest, putting her arms protectively around the girl and shifting her knee to avoid the injured leg. Xena moved to Argo's head and took the reins, leading her back the way they had come.
Weariness, delayed reaction and paralyzing relief kept Gabrielle in a haze of almost-sleep for the next hour or so. Lulled by the rhythmic motion of the horse's gait, the twinkling of stars in the darkening sky, the warmth of the girl in front of her and the comforting presence of Xena, Gabrielle drowsed. She jerked back to awareness when the crunching and shifting of rocks underfoot gave way to the softer padding of moss and leaves; and then again when the rustling of trees gave way to the heavy silence of the sleeping village. Gabrielle straightened up, looking around and seeing that the villagers had taken Xena's advice and gone to bed. A few candles shone faintly in windows, but mostly the village was dark and silent.
As Argo moved between the cottages, a shape melted out of the darkness and resolved itself into Rahsee. He greeted Xena, and they spoke, in low tones that Gabrielle couldn't make out; but she saw them clasp arms and inferred the gist of the conversation.
"Gabrielle, we must thank you as well," the village leader said quietly, coming alongside Argo. "Our village owes you both a great debt."
"It was no trouble at all," Gabrielle murmured tiredly, as Kyla stirred and came awake.
"Rahsee!" the girl exclaimed, and quickly lowered her voice when he shushed her. "Where's Mother?" she asked softly.
"Waiting for you in the healer's cabin. Come," he said, lifting his arms. Gabrielle helped Kyla slide across the horse's flank and into the leader's grasp.
"You can take your horse back to the stables," Rahsee said to Xena, gesturing with his head as he cradled the injured girl like a baby. "The innkeeper is waiting up to show you your room."
"Thank you," Xena replied. "We'll see you in the morning."
"The Lady bless you," Rahsee said to them both, and hurried off with his burden.
Xena led Argo the rest of the way to the stables, where they found an empty stall prepared for them with rags and brushes set out.
"You go on in," Xena said as she helped Gabrielle dismount. "I'll see to Argo and then come join you."
"Are you sure you don't want any help?" Gabrielle asked, for the sake of courtesy. They both knew she was too exhausted to do much more than fall into bed.
"No, go ahead," Xena replied gently, stroking a sweaty lock of hair back from Gabrielle's face. "I'll just be a minute."
Gabrielle went into the inn and found the innkeeper, who, though clearly excited, quickly picked up on her condition and curbed her own exuberance. The woman showed Gabrielle to a cozy little room with a lovely big bed, gave her towels and a bucket of warm water, and left her alone. The bard forced herself to wash, wiping the worst of the grime and sweat from her body with a cloth, before she stripped off her clothes and collapsed into the bed's cloudlike embrace.
Gabrielle awoke again minutes later (at least, so she assumed) when she felt the covers rise, the mattress shift, and the warm body of her best friend slide in behind her. Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle from behind, clasping her hands loosely over Gabrielle's midriff, and they sank into a comfortable embrace, lying together silently for a long dreamy time.
Suddenly, against all reason, Gabrielle found herself unable to fall asleep. The conversation from earlier that day -- which now seemed to have taken place weeks ago -- returned to her mind and she couldn't help puzzling over it, turning the words round and round.
"Xena," she said at last, quietly. The arms around her waist tightened in startlement.
"Mm?" The murmur that shifted her hair was languid, but Gabrielle could tell her friend hadn't been asleep either.
"About things you regret saying."
"Yeah," Xena acknowledged, and Gabrielle wished she could see the warrior's expression. She forged ahead.
"Do you regret saying that you love me?"
The silence stretched on for so long that Gabrielle began to think it was her answer. Tears prickled hotly at the corners of her eyes, and she pressed her lips together, wishing she could take it all back.
But then one of Xena's hands lifted, moving from Gabrielle's waist and pulling free of the bedcovers. With uncanny accuracy the warrior lifted her fingers to the bard's face and wiped the wetness away.
"I've only said that to a few people in my life," Xena said quietly, withdrawing her hand, "and none of them stayed around long enough for me to prove it." She paused, and there was a tiny slicking sound. Gabrielle realized that Xena was licking the salty water from her fingers.
"Except me," Gabrielle said, her voice small, but resolute. "I've stuck around, haven't I? I'm still here."
"Yeah, you're still here," Xena agreed, and the hand was back, sliding back into place on Gabrielle's stomach. "You're the only one." And she sighed, very softly.
The silence descended again. Gabrielle hugged the words to her and let them pierce her heart, both the words Xena had spoken, and the ones she hadn't. The bard snuggled back against her warrior and felt tension ease out of her limbs.
"I love you, Xena. Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Gabrielle," came the reply. Within minutes, they were both asleep.
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