disclaimer: Gabrielle/Xena are the property of Renaissance Pictures. The story and other characters are mine.
content: Occasional coarse language, some rather yukky (I'm told) descriptions of the aftermath of injury, and the mildest of vanilla-flavoured subtext. This story is set towards the end of Season Three.
thank-you: Many people gave me help on this story, and I probably wouldn't have finished it without them. So to BlindzonElyzon, Mary Morgan, Lariel, Kam, Georgia and the good folks at the Bardic Circle my deepest and indebted thanks! Any feedback is gratefully received and always answered at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Quality Dying Time
Xenas first thought, as usual, was of Gabrielle.
Amazingly, given the circumstances, she did not first think about the agony in her legs or the biting cramp clawing its way up her back, across her shoulders and down her arms. Nor did she dwell even for a second on the fact that her left foot appeared to be crushed flat, or that there was so much blood streaming down her face that she could feel its warmth pooling in the hollow of her throat. No, it was Gabrielle she was worried about, and with good reason.
The rock-fall had taken them both by surprise. Just another one of those freakish moments that peppered their lives with the stuff of which nightmares were born. Just another mid-summers injury, just another possibly fatal encounter with the elements.
Another one for the history scrolls, Gabrielle, groaned the warrior silently as she shook her head to clear her eyes of stinging dust. A thousand tiny pebbles trickled softly from her hair and slid from her cheeks and forehead. When her vision didnt improve, she tried again, only to discover that what was making her blink so heavily wasnt dust it was congealing blood. Great.
Miracle of miracles, she had ended up on her back. She attempted to sit up and discovered that she was going to do no such thing, at least for a while. Even if she had been free to the waist, which she was not, the slab across her legs ensured that she would not have been able to move one inch in either direction.
Instinct told her exactly where Gabrielle lay, just as instinct told her that they werent going to get out of this one in a hurry. These rocks were big. Really big.
Xena coughed and cleared her throat, the gravelly noise trapped in the rocks with her. "Gabrielle? Gabrielle?"
There was no answer, and as the dust settled, Xena allowed herself to succumb to the insistent pain. Just for an instant, just long enough to become its master. For that instant, her breath quickened and her teeth clenched, but after that instant she was calm. Focused. The pain had been pushed into her other, shadowed self - the one that was not allowed to surface without permission.
So, coughing slightly, she tried again, not allowing her panic to show in her voice. "Gabrielle, can you hear me?" Gabrielle, answer me come on, please
A groan cut through the hazy film of the air. "Xena?"
"Isnt it always?" Gabrielle was alive. Thank the gods.
"Sadly, yes," was the dim reply, followed by a dry cough.
Xena grinned, blinked again, felt the film of drying blood on her eyelids crack into flakes. "Are you okay?"
"I dont I dont know," answered Gabrielle, her voice distant and fogged. "Think so. Are you?"
"Ill live," replied the warrior shortly, flinching as her left foot battered down her defences for a moment. For a few days, anyway. "Anything bad?"
There was a short silence and for the first time Xena could make out her partner through the haze. She was on her side facing the warrior, less than arms length away. One arm was splayed above her head in a painfully disjointed salute, the rest of her body obscured by the rocks and sand between them. Her eyes were shut tightly and there was blood seeping from a laceration on her scalp.
Gabrielles voice was very small. "Think think maybe my arms broken."
The warriors relief tasted like metal on her tongue. All those rocks "Is that all? Is your head okay?"
"Yeah, open your eyes."
Another dry cough, dirt-rimmed eyes still sealed. "Ah no no, not yet they kinda hurt. Xena? Is it snowing?"
Xena squinted, confused. "No, its just the dust from the cliff. Itll stop soon. Where else are you hurt?"
"Im cold "
Xenas heart leapt in her chest, eyes quickly raking the rocks that pinned them both to the ground. Two small words, so many reasons to panic. If Gabrielle was cold it meant she was losing blood, and if she was losing blood it meant Damn it.
New urgency in her voice. "Gabrielle, where else are you hurt?" The bard coughed again and this time Xena heard a bubble in the back of her throat. "WHERE?"
"My side. I think. Theres something " Her voice trailed off as a new round of coughs claimed her. When she had finished, the dust was not the only thing whitening her face. "Gods "
"Sit tight, okay? Okay, Gabrielle?" Xena was working frantically on her right arm. One step at a time, Xena, one step at a time. Wiggle your fingers. Done. Okay, flex your hand. Done. Okay, pull it towards your body. Ow. Done-ish. She couldnt quite fit her wrist through the narrow gap between the two boulders. Pulling
"Just hold on a second, Gabrielle, Im-"
"My legs are free I think "
The warrior flinched. "Mine arent. But Ive nearly owww waitasec YES!"
Her hand came free with a wet, crunching sound, and as she cradled it to her chest, she knew without looking that her knuckles lay open to the bone. The knuckles soon joined her ever-increasingly battered other self, to be worried about later. Xena pulled a few smaller rocks off her chest and body, then abandoned it and reached out to her friend.
"Are you okay, Xena?"
"Yes," assured the warrior with a calm she did not feel. "Hold still. Im gonna try and clear some of those rocks off you. Okay?"
Gabrielle nodded, the slightest movement of her head. "Okay."
Five minutes later, the warrior had succeeded in clearing away the smaller pieces of debris between them, and was now working on a larger piece nestled against the curve of Gabrielles stomach.
A sharp intake of breath was the only giveaway Xena got. "That hurts?"
"A little." Gabrielles clenched teeth contradicted her words. She was breathing shallowly, her eyes still shut. A cut on her forehead stood out starkly against her white skin, and Xena found that for a moment the blood matting the bards hair horribly fascinated her.
She let her hand press gently on Gabrielles shoulder. "Just this last one, then Ill rest, and you can rest, okay?"
Xena did not miss the set jaw or the slight ripple of Gabrielles throat. "Ill be as quick as I can, okay?"
"Yes, just do it, willya?"
With a heave, Xena tipped the good sized boulder away from the bard, setting her own teeth against the fresh rush of pain this brought to her torn stomach muscles. Her head swam, and for a minute she didnt even realise that Gabrielle was quietly whimpering.
"Gabrielle? Wh-" And then she saw, and her voice died in her throat.
There was a gaping tear in Gabrielles side. The length of a hand, it was crusted with dirt and fine sand, blood leaking from it in a torturously slow, yet relentless evacuation. Gabrielle was paler than white now - almost blue - and Xena had to bite her lip to stop herself from an exclamation of horror.
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle, listen to me."
"I know it hurts, I know it does, but you have to listen to me, okay?"
"Focus on my voice."
"Uh-huh." The bards own voice was becoming stronger, more solid.
"Okay, now, youve got a bit of a scratch."
"Always the optimist," Gabrielle chuckled softly, then gagged.
"A bit of a scratch," persisted Xena doggedly, "but youll be fine. Okay? Youll be fine. I need you to tell me a few things. Can you do that?"
"Hurt, Xena. Not stupid."
It was Xenas turn to chuckle weakly. "I can see your left arm. Wheres your right?"
Gabrielles brow furrowed. "Behind me. Under some rocks."
"Can you move it?"
Gabrielle gave a small yelp as she tried to comply, and Xena saw that the movement had made the wound bleed more. "Doesn't feel like it. It isn't hurting, just stuck "
Great. Free arm broken, good arm trapped. "What about your legs?"
"Something on my left I don't think I can but my right legs free." As if to illustrate this, Xena heard a little scuffling noise coming from behind the boulders blocking her view of the bards lower body. "Yeah its okay. I can move it a bit. Something on my ankle "
"Well, put us together we nearly make a whole person," joked Xena, before regretting it. This was not a time for humour. "Gabrielle, if you dont open your eyes soon, the blood might seal them shut."
"Okay just give me a second. Is the dust gone?"
Gabrielle, with some effort, cracked open one eye, and was greeted by the smiling, bruised, blood-encrusted face of her best friend. "Why hello there, gorgeous," she croaked weakly, before coughing. "Whats a nice girl like you doing in a landslide like this?"
* * * * *
"Gabrielle, I SAID left. Its not my fault if you didnt HEAR left." Xena flipped open Argos saddlebag and pulled out a leather water-skin. "Anyway, youre here, so it doesnt matter."
"Sure it does," groused the bard, lowering herself to the ground with a groan. "I had to walk six leagues more than I needed to just to get here. It definitely matters."
"RIGHT at the crossroads, LEFT at the bridge."
"Oh, dont," said Gabrielle, flinging up a protesting hand. "Dont. All right? Just drop it. So Im deaf. Happy?"
"Atta girl," grinned the warrior, as she unbuckled the saddle and slid it off.
Gabrielle, not caring whether Xena was addressing her or the horse, settled for putting her staff aside and rubbing her feet with a frown.
She had to admit, it was a beautiful spot. The outcrop looked over most of the Mantarus valley and the sea lay like a ribbon of silver away on the horizon. The cliff wall behind them stretched impossibly high, and amazingly, its long shadow had not impeded the growth of the scattered wildflowers among which the bard now sat. Up at this altitude, the heat wasnt as bad, which was probably half the reason Xena had insisted on camping up here.
She looked over at her partner, who was running her hands over Argo and humming softly under her breath. "Youre not keeping Argo with us tonight?"
"What makes you think that?" asked the warrior, carelessly tossing the saddle blanket into a heap on the ground. Gabrielle sighed. She would fold it later, and store it, and tomorrow Xena would not even notice.
"You were humming."
"I was not."
"You were. You only hum to her when youre sending her away," said Gabrielle with a smirk. "Otherwise its a kind of crooning."
"Gabrielle, I was not humming."
"And I most certainly do not croon."
From somewhere far above, a slight rumbling noise reached them. Xenas eyes were instantly aimed skyward.
"Thunder?" asked the bard, although the sky was hot, unblemished blue.
"No," answered Xena slowly. "Maybe up at the peak falling rocks?"
"Anyway," said Gabrielle, unconcerned, "I was right, youre sending her away, arent you?"
Xena rolled her eyes and slapped Argos flank lovingly. "Off you go, girl. Find good grass."
The horse obediently trotted off down the slope past the satisfied Gabrielle, picking her way through the scattering of fallen rocks.
"Hope she doesnt throw a shoe," remarked the bard.
"Ooh, look whos fancy with the horse lingo all of a sudden," taunted Xena with a smirk. "Maybe we should get you one of your own."
"Maybe you should go hum up your-"
"I DO NOT HUM."
"And I," announced Gabrielle, stretching out and crossing her arms behind her head, "do not cook. At least, not tonight. Im tired."
Xena groaned. "Aw, cmon Gabrielle "
"Of course, we could always come to some sort of arrangement."
Ever one to bargain, the warrior settled back and rubbed her hands together. "What sort of arrangement?"
Gabrielles eyes gleamed. "You could always croon me a little-" Xena's arm moved with lightening speed and the bards grinning face was suddenly covered by Argos blanket. "Augh! Phlehh!"
"Want the saddle, too?"
"You know, it smells like you under here," came Gabrielles muffled voice. She sat up and threw the blanket off with a flourish.
"Are you really not going to make dinner?" asked Xena, with such a petulant pout that Gabrielle had to laugh.
"Im not hungry," she replied lazily, wadding the blanket and using it for a pillow.
The pout deepened. "I am."
Gabrielle smirked. "Youre a big grown-up warrior now, you can do it yourself."
Xena settled back onto her haunches, and Gabrielle realised with a grin that they were about to have an argument that was as familiar to them as each others faces. Well, far be it from me not to hold up my end.
"Gabrielle, there are certain divisions of labour in this partnership. I look after Argo-"
"Shes YOUR horse!"
"I check the perimeter every night "
"You MAKE the perimeter! I dont even care if we have a perimeter! Youre the only one who worries about it!"
Xena was lost. "Well, I I "
"Yes?" asked the bard sweetly.
Xena hefted the water-skin dangerously. "I provide the mess for you to clean up so you can feel useful "
A snort. "Got that right."
A sudden thunderous roar sounded from above them.
Gabrielle, who was already on her back, raised her eyes in shock, let out an explosive shout, and had just enough time to roll sideways and fling her arms over her face before the first boulders struck her.
* * * * *
Less than a league away, and completely unaware that any part of the cliff was collapsing, nine-year-old Tai was standing on a foothill surveying her mountain. She had lived at its base her whole life, and in her incessant nighttime prowling had come to know every nook and cranny of its treacherous paths, steep slopes, and hidden corners.
My house, she thought triumphantly, her wild brown hair falling untidily into expressive dark eyes. It had been a beautiful day on the mountain. Every day was beautiful on the mountain.
Her idyllic aside was shattered by a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"Tai?" It was her mother, and the little girl tensed as the frail woman circled her and knelt down. "Tai, honey, it's going to be dark soon. Are you going to eat with us tonight?"
There was something hopeful in her tone, but the little girl was unmoved. "I'm busy, Hatsume."
The older woman sighed. "As you wish, Tai." She got slowly to her feet. "But your father has been asking about you. I thought you should know that."
Tai's face paled slightly and though she didn't realise it, her hands had curled into fists. She turned slowly and trotted down the slope away the farmhouse. Her mother watched her go and her unhappiness fairly shone from her face.
* * * * *
They slept. Both of them. For hours, it seemed, but when Xena woke, the sunset was just beginning, turning the sky over the ocean into a cacophony of reds, golds, pinks and hazy deep purples. Beautiful, she thought sleepily.
Then, abruptly, the pain.
Xena stiffened in shock. Oh Gods
Sometime during her sleep, her other self had crept back into her consciousness like a wounded kitten, curling into her bones and muscles, clinging with soft fury. For a few moments, the warrior was helplessly smothered. She lay there, split fists clenched, waiting for it to roll away like the wave it had to be, because there was no way she could achieve anything at all while drowning like this.
A few minutes later, after she had regained control, she opened her eyes and glanced over at Gabrielle. The bard was still asleep, her breath feathery-light, the blue tinge of her skin deeper than before.
Think, think, think. Gotta get us out of here. She doesnt have much time.
There was something bugging her, but she couldnt put her finger on it. Something a little off about her left leg. Something soft
The water-skin. It was half-under her thigh and miraculously, still appeared to be full. Xena attacked the rocks she could move, the sweat starting on her brow, ignoring her shallow breath. The sleep had done her some good, and a few of the rocks that had seemed immovable before were now wrenched painfully aside.
When she had finished, she lay bare to the waist, both arms free. Not for the first time, she blessed her cumbersome breastplate. It was twisted and battered, but it had done its job. Examining her legs, however, proved to be less encouraging.
They were both mashed into the earth by a huge, irregular slab of rock that looked like a piece from a giants jigsaw puzzle. Even worse was her left foot, which was crushed under a separate, semi-circular boulder that felt so flat against the ground that the warrior despaired of what the bones in her foot must look like. Still, being free to the waist was one thing. It allowed her greater maneuverability, and it meant she could reach Gabrielle.
Now for the water-skin. Working her left hand downward underneath the slab, Xena gritted her teeth and pushed her hips against the earth, trying to raise her legs enough for her to reach under them. It was like trying to, well, move a mountain. No good. After a few minutes fruitless struggle, she gave up and grasped the neck of the water-skin instead.
She shifted it back and forth, gently working it free, the whole time hearing the damning scrape of small pebbles against the leather, praying that it wouldnt burst. Back, forth, back, forth, back, forth, in a maddening rhythm that appeared to be having no effect whatsoever.
Dammit, come free, dammit, come free, dammit, come free It was a sort of chant, a mantra, whose repetition was as meaningless as the words themselves would be if spoken separately. But for Xena, as she hummed it to herself over and over through white lips, it became the only thing that kept her from screaming with frustration.
A louder scrape then, and a corner of the skin slipped free from its housing of flesh and rock. The warrior nearly shouted with triumph, but cast a glance at her sleeping friend and quieted herself. Let her rest, she thought. And have something good to tell her when she wakes up, sniggered a little voice. Something besides, By the way, youre probably gonna bleed to death? Right, hero?
Ignoring herself, Xena resolutely went back to working on the skin. About twenty minutes and one extremely pissed-off warrior later, the skin came free with a squelching noise and a spasmodic dribble of water from its neck. Xena quickly righted it, setting it to rest on her stomach.
"Gabrielle?" she called, hating herself, but knowing it was the right thing to do. "Wake up."
The bard remained silent and Xena felt terrible. "You shouldnt sleep for too long, its time to wake up now." The lack of response began to make her feel uneasy, and she reached over and patted the bards shoulder gently. "Gabrielle? Wake up."
Gabrielles face was devoid of colour, the gash in her side clotted with dried blood and dirt. Xena was suddenly, horribly afraid. "Gabrielle!" she shouted, shaking her shoulder. "Gabrielle, open your eyes!"
"Wh, gelost Xena sleepin," came a little voice, and the warrior barked a short, relieved laugh.
"Gabrielle, I need to clean your wound."
"Do it while I sleep then," was the softly grumbled response.
"I cant, I need the blanket."
This got Gabrielles attention, and her eyes creaked open. She swallowed, and groaned weakly. "Gods feel like Ive been wrestling with Hercules."
"You would " Despite Gabrielles white face, Xena caught the smirk.
"I cant believe youre making jokes at a time like this."
"Huh, well, live and learn," muttered the bard, shifting a little and drawing in a sharp breath through her teeth.
"Bad jokes, even."
Gabrielle coughed. "Whatd you say about the blanket?"
Xena gestured vaguely. "I need it, can you lift your head?"
"Oh, thats real hygienic," complained the bard. "Youre going to clean blood off me with Argos blanket? And what else? Spit?"
Xena brandished the water-skin, trying not to look smug and failing miserably.
"Should have known," groaned Gabrielle, letting her head fall back and rest on a rock. "Gotta three course meal back there by any chance?"
Xena smiled archly. "I have many-"
"Xena," interrupted the bard, eyes glinting. "We talked about that. Remember?"
"Not fair for life and death situations, Gabrielle," protested the warrior glumly.
"Its my best line!"
"Fine, then lift your head," acquiesced Xena, reaching out with her bloody right hand for the blanket tangled in Gabrielle's long tresses.
"Joke times over now, huh?" asked Gabrielle, smiling and weakly blowing a strand of hair from her eyes.
"You got it," agreed the warrior. "Lift your head."
"Sir, yes sir," barked the bard with a grin. She struggled for a second, lifted her head and looked suddenly stricken. A horrifying, rending string of coughs burst from her. It shook her slender frame to the core, and every time she seemed to be recovering, another shudder would wrack her and strangle her anew.
Xena could do nothing but watch, aghast, as Gabrielles face went from white to livid red. When she subsided, choking and heaving for breath, there were small spatters of blood on the rocks beside her.
"Are you okay?" asked Xena, ashen-faced. She held the water-skin out, flinching a little at the effort it took to keep her arm aloft, and tipped it gently to the bards' lips.
Gabrielle swallowed gratefully and lay back, biting her bottom lip softly. She seemed to be taking stock. "Think so "
"Dont do that again, okay?" warned the warrior, concern making her voice gruffer than she wanted it to be.
"You were right about one thing," wheezed Gabrielle softly.
"Joke times over."
* * * * *
Tai considered something while she watched her father's chest rise and fall erratically in drunken slumber. Now? Or later? Now should be okay for her Dad - there were four clay jugs rolling empty on the hearth, but Hatsume was sleeping with no such bed-partner. She could wake up at any time. Her father hadn't always been that way, thought Tai. Hadn't always been so silent and useless, so unable to care for himself. Not before.
She rolled sideways a little and peeked under the skins stretched across the door frame between the big room and the bedroom. Jed was on his back, sprawled in the uncomfortable, noisy sleep of a teenager, fully clothed, grime from the afternoon's work still staining his clothes and skin. Tai knew from experience that he could sleep even through an earthquake.
Now, she decided. If her mother woke, she could always say she had heard one of the cows up the mountain.
The little girl got quietly to her feet, experience making her avoid without thought the floorboards that squeaked, the uneven rim of the door. When she got outside into the chilly air, she allowed herself to shiver for a minute, before slowing her breathing and turning the cold away. It would be even colder on the mountain.
Her hands were encrusted with dirt, her tattered dress stained at the hem. She was so at home in these surroundings, that when she set off into the night, not a single entity marked her passing.
* * * * *
Crazy shadows. Crazy shadows and white moonlight. Heavy rocks and blue skin. Blood here, blood there, blood everywhere. She looks beautiful, though. Beautiful, even when the lights dead like it is now all creeping and false makes the real world look unreal
"Huh?" Roused from her semi-stupor, Gabrielle could only look dimly at the face beside her.
"Do you feel any better?"
"Than what?" was the bards fuzzy reply, her feeble smile lost among the rocks.
Xena shrugged, grinned a little, helpless. Her face was shadowed, her voice not as strong as earlier. "Whered you go just now?"
Gabrielle tried to shrug, but couldnt. Earlier, Xena had reached across and gently set her broken arm straight again. It now lay useless along her body, the elbow strangely lumped and swollen. In the hour since, the bard had been able to do nothing without causing herself searing pain.
Sometime during the night, however, she had accepted her pain. It was a trick she had learned from watching Xena in the past three years, a trick she hadnt particularly liked learning, but it had become a necessity. Right now, all she could feel was cold. Solitary. When she searched for words she found herself hazy. Only in her mind was her expression clear, and the words ran together like water and sand in a fast-moving stream.
She had once tried writing like that, letting herself go free of her usual rules and focused planning drifting, allowing her soul to free itself, run out onto the scroll. For half an hour she had sat, oblivious to anything but her quill and her emotions. The result had frightened her. So much anger, so much resentment and pain. But among the bitterness had been some of the most poignantly clear and honest writing she had ever produced.
And here she was now. Perhaps none of it would mean anything. Perhaps the scrolls were destined to die with her, under a pile of freezing rocks on the side of a mountain. With Xena.
The bard was interrupted from her thoughts by the warrior's voice. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle."
"Huh? For what?"
Xena sighed. "If I hadn't wanted to camp up here this would never have-"
"Gods, Xena," interrupted the bard. "You are NOT going to try and blame yourself for this, too, are you?"
Xena shrugged in the darkness. "Well "
"That's just crap, and you know it," said Gabrielle irritably. "It's not your fault some rocks fell down a mountain any more than it's my fault it rained yesterday."
"Gabrielle, you wanted to stay in Mantarus. If we had-"
"IF nothing, too." Gabrielle was feeling clear and composed all of a sudden, and she didn't mean to let it escape her. "Xena, if I had everything I wanted, crowds of people would follow me around all day offering gifts. You try and take responsibility for everything because it makes you feel better about things you can't control. But how does that help? You can't fix things, but at least you can assign blame?"
Xena was a little taken aback by the bard's astuteness. So she did what she always did when somebody got it right - backtracked. "I think you're digging a little deep, Gabrielle."
"You don't fool me any more, you know," was Gabrielle's prompt reply.
Xena smiled, couldn't help it. The tangible relief at having somebody as accepting and loving as Gabrielle in her life was, well, overwhelming. Admissions that would never have crossed Xena's lips in the past sprang freely forth where the bard was concerned. What the warrior would have once seen as a weakness, she now recognised for strength. So she said:
"You know what? I'm glad."
She couldn't see it, but she knew Gabrielle was smiling.
They lay in silence for a while, the bard feeling the cold claim her limbs one by one. The small shudders that ran through her were intensified by the chill and her wound. She found herself studying her partner minutely, the blue light of the moon highlighting the softness of her unguarded features.
It's a pity she doesn't let herself feel that more often, thought the bard sadly. And maybe soon she won't get a chance to.
"Xena?" Gabrielles voice was chased by the shadows, small and cold.
"Are we going to die this time, do you think?" As the warriors mouth opened, she jumped in quickly. "The truth."
Xenas mouth closed again. There was a long silence. Finally: "I cant move this rock on my legs. Even if I could, I don't think I could walk. We dont have any food. So, unless someone comes along "
"Were going to die."
Xena said nothing. During the quiet, Gabrielle could hear the small night noises that appear with the open air: the thrumming of faraway insects, the whistle of the breeze that caressed her face, the sounds that came with the darkness. None of them were touched by the miniature tragedy that was unfolding beneath the cliff-face. The world of night would go on, while theirs
"If we dont get help, of course well die. You know that." The warrior's voice was harsher than she intended, but the words were spoken now.
The bard breathed, and savoured the moist air that filled her lungs. "Yes."
"But not tonight." Xena looked the bard in the face. "Not tonight. Do you hear me, Gabrielle? We are going to survive this night, at least. I'm going to wake up in the morning and you will still be here. Understand?"
Gabrielle drew in a breath, nodded, taking the warrior's strength for her own. One night. I can do that. Neither of them said anything for a while. Gabrielle felt the heaviness of the damp blanket against her side and wished that, whatever good it was doing for her wound, it was under her head again. The rocks were so cold
"You know, Xena when we were in Chin, I heard a saying. May you live in interesting times. The man who told me said it was a curse."
"Strange kind of curse."
"I thought so, too. Interesting times were the only way I ever wanted to live." She paused, gathering herself. "And I never would have been able to if it wasnt for you. You know that, right?"
"Stop that." Xenas tone was severe, hoarse.
"Stop talking like youve got your last chance to tell me something," snarled the ex-warlord. "Would have. Would have, my ass. You still do, you still will. Were both going to get out of this."
Gabrielle laughed softly, ruefully, and the sound of it chilled the warrior. "Did I ever tell you that I love you?"
Through gritted teeth: "Yes. You have. And tomorrow, you can tell me again. And the day after and the day after that." Xena strained for the breath being quietly kidnapped by her shadowed self, and the tendons in her neck were taut when she continued fiercely, "Gabrielle, I am NOT going to die under a pile of rocks on this mountain. I am not, I will not, and neither will you."
* * * * *
From thirty feet away, in the deep shadow of the cliff base, Tai watched curiously. They were talking okay. The big one, the dark-haired one, she must be pretty strong to have moved those rocks. Tai had once seen the horses buried under a landslide like this one, and none of them had lived longer than a few hours. Her father and her brother had strained and sweated and worked, but by the time they cleared the rubble, nothing was left but four piles of dead horseflesh. It was really pretty nasty.
So it was amazing that these two had survived, for starters. That they were awake and talking was a pure miracle.
heard a saying. May you live in
Tai clapped a hand over her mouth to stop the giggle from spilling out. Live? Lady, you dont know how lucky you are right now.
Hmm. Pretty obvious who was in charge. Well. Give them a few days, and theyd see. Theyd see that the only thing in charge up here was her.
not going to die under a pile of rocks on this mountain. I am not, I will not, and neither will you.
Well just see about that, big lady. If her mountain had decided they were evil enough to pile stones on them, then that was good enough for Tai. Her mountain. And she was the boss of the mountain.
Time for some fun. She cupped her thin hands around her mouth. "Peekaboo," she called softly. "I see you."
* * * * *
Gabrielles nerves were so on edge that the hollow voice from the darkness dragged a gasp from her before she was aware of it.
Xena, no less surprised, found herself scrabbling futilely for the sword crushed beneath her back. "Whos that? Whos there?"
There was a giggle then, and Gabrielle relaxed, the colour returning to her cheeks. "Its just a kid!"
"Oh yeah?" the reedy voice piped up from the shadows. "And thats justa stack of rocks youre lying in."
"Come out here where we can see you," demanded the warrior.
Another giggle. "Dont you use that tone of voice with me, young lady." A pebble soared out of the blackness and struck Xena unerringly on the chest.
"Oh Gods," muttered the warrior quietly. "Gabrielle, weve got a live one."
"A live what?" echoed the voice. "I heard that, you know."
"She didnt mean it! It doesnt mean anything!" shouted Gabrielle, hissing a warning at Xena before she could open her mouth: "Just be quiet for a second, Xena, okay? Trust me." The warrior nodded grudging assent, and Gabrielle raised her voice again. "Hello? My name's Gabrielle. This is my friend, Xena. Can you help us?"
"I suppose I can, but will I?"
Xena snorted. Gabrielle had that look on her face, that patient, reasonable look that she always got when negotiating with somebody. Xena could never understand from where she summoned the calm reserves.
Gabrielle continued doggedly. "Well, can I ask you something?"
"I suppose you can, but may you?"
Gabrielle sighed, and despite her pain a grin twitched at the corner of her mouth. "Im sorry may I ask you something?"
Tai clutched her hands together with excitement. This was great. This was better than Solstice and her birthday combined. "Ye-es, you may," she trilled in her best imitation of her mother.
Gabrielle took a breath. Careful, careful, Gabrielle. "Why are you hiding?"
"Why arent you dead?" was the quick response.
"Just lucky I guess," Gabrielle replied. "But were pretty badly hurt."
"I can see that." Another pebble bounced off Gabrielles useless arm, and she hissed with pain.
"Hey!" shouted Xena furiously.
"Why did you do that?" asked the bard evenly, through clenched teeth.
"Why are you evil?" The answering question shot out of the shadows like a quarrel from a crossbow.
Gabrielle was momentarily confused. "Were not-"
"You are," insisted the voice. "You must be. The mountain is punishing you, you must have done something to deserve it."
"She's furkin insane," snarled the incensed warrior. She might have said more, but one look at the bard shut her mouth tight. Gabrielle frowned at her, a gleam in her eye. This was a challenge, and in the absence of a foe that could be vanquished by force, it was definitely the bards territory.
"Whats your name?" Gabrielle called.
But Gabrielle had wised to the act, and was ready straight away. "Whichever one you like best."
Under the cliff, Tai was silent for a second. Shes smart, said a voice. Shes smarter than the big one. Be careful of her.
She rose then, and straightened her shoulders. With as much dignity as she could muster, she stepped forward out of the shadows.
The warrior and the bard stared at their strange host. She wasnt much taller than Xenas waist, and her frowsed hair hung in wind-snarled ribbons about her pale face. Thin limbs peeped out from brownish, tattered material. She looked filthy. She looked hungry. She looked every inch the little girl that she was, so her odd self-possession was very unsettling.
"You may," spoke up the small girl, curtsying with surprising grace, "call me Tai."
* * * * *
Cause and effect, thought Xena hopelessly. Everything happens for a reason. The little shit is right. We MUST have done something to deserve this, 'cause this is about the worst punishment I've ever had.
Common sense told Xena that Gabrielle's way was the way. After all, Xena was not able to merely throw off the rocks and shake the girl into oblivion. But the tantalising knowledge that help was available and lay in the filthy hands of this tattered little reprobate was driving the warrior insane. The last hour had been torture for her. Every time she wanted to open her mouth, Gabrielle, with some kind of sixth sense, had hissed at her to shut up. Meanwhile, the bard, with seemingly endless patience, had been trading ever stranger and stranger conversation with the tiny nutter.
"So what happened to you?"
"We were setting up camp when the rocks fell."
"Didn't FALL. They were thrown, you know. I've lived on this mountain my whole life, it's alive."
"Is there any way you can help us? Go get your father, maybe? Or tell someone we're here?"
"Which of you is older?"
"I said, which of you is older?"
"By how much?"
"I don't think "
"BY HOW MUCH?"
"Nine years. Sorry, Xe."
"Why do you call her Xe?"
"I don't, usually. That kind of slipped out."
"What does she call you?"
A chuckle. "No. No, that would be altogether too undignified for a Warrior Princess."
"Stop using big words."
"I KNOW what undgifed means! I don't need you to tell me, just stop USING those words!"
"Okay, I'm sorry. Tai, could we talk about getting us out of here instead?"
"I don't like the name Gabrielle."
"You why not?"
"It's stupid. I think I'm gonna call you blonde girl."
"Whatever you like. Tai, listen-"
"Why doesn't she talk?"
"She's tired. We're both tired, and hurt, Tai, you can see that, right? It's not a game. We need your help."
"She's looking at me. I don't like her looking at me. Make her stop."
"Xena, don't look at her."
"She's in the SHADOWS, Gabrielle, I can't even see her!"
"STOP LOOKING AT ME!"
"She's not! She's not looking at you any more. Are you, Xena?"
"I'm nine years old, you know, blonde girl."
"Would I have said so if it wasn't true?"
"I guess not."
"Which of you is nicer?"
"I don't know I think we're both pretty nice."
"Are you good friends?"
"The best. Do you have a best friend?"
"The mountain is my friend."
"Do you really think it's punishing us? Why?"
"I don't know. I don't know what kind of evil you are yet."
"Tai, believe me, neither of us is evil. We were just unlucky, that's all. You could help us if you wanted to - I don't think the mountain would mind."
"I don't believe you. The mountain doesn't make mistakes."
"Tai, where's your family?"
"At the bottom of the mountain."
"How many people?"
"Me and Hatsume."
"Is that your mother?"
"Yes. And Parothus."
"Your father. Any brothers or sisters?"
"My brother Jed."
"My sister Fell. We don't talk about her."
"WE DON'T TALK ABOUT HER!"
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
"She looked like Xe."
"Lucky girl. Where is she now?"
"WHAT DID I JUST SAY?"
"I'm sorry, I forgot."
A singsong jeer: "Forgot left his head in his bed, forgot forgot his birthday, forgot gots no friends "
It was endless.
Whether or not they were any closer to being able to escape their predicament, Xena had no idea. For now, she just gritted her teeth and groaned inwardly as yet another question floated from the darkness to which the girl had retreated.
"Did you know that Parothus has five horses?"
Gabrielle's voice was tired, but impossibly (thought the warrior), still warm. "Does he now? How were we supposed to know that?"
"I don't know," was the irritated response. "How does anyone know anything?"
"I know that five horses could clear these rocks away pretty easily," said Gabrielle carefully.
There was a snort. "We're back to that again?"
Gabrielle nodded, the quietest motion of her head. "Yes. Look at us, Tai. Don't you want to help us?"
"Tai, are you there?"
There was a scratching sound from the darkness. To the ex-warlord, it sounded exactly like a small child scuffing their feet in the dirt.
"Well " came the small voice. "I guess YOU'RE okay "
"Thank you," replied Gabrielle, solemnly, trying to hide the elation that suddenly surfaced. A breakthrough! "I like you too."
Another rock sailed from the shadows to bounce dangerously near Xena's head. The warrior restrained herself with difficulty.
"But I don't like HER. Neither does the mountain."
Xena snarled. Enough. "That's IT! Listen to me, you rat-faced little sh-"
"Xena, no!" insisted Gabrielle quickly, her body jerking involuntarily. "Just be qui-"
What the bard was going to say next was lost as the movement convulsed her in a ghastly burst of coughing. Xena turned pale, and could do nothing but rest one hand on Gabrielle's head as she hacked and choked, the attack shaking her small frame like a tornado.
"You see what you're doing!" bellowed the furious warrior into the dark. "She's dying!"
"Not my fault," Tai replied flippantly.
"YOU CAN HELP HER!" shouted Xena, noting frantically that Gabrielle was having trouble breathing. "Gabrielle, stay with me, stay with me! YOU CAN HELP HER, YOU
"Noo, Xe' don' " A tiny moan from Gabrielle, between coughs.
But the warrior was furious, and would not be stopped. "YOU SAID YOU LIKED HER!! PROVE IT! HELP US!!"
She fell silent, and Gabrielle's ragged gasps filled the hole she had left. Xena was shaking. The shadows pooled darker than ever, and the warrior was suddenly deathly afraid.
"Tai? Are you still there?"
"Yes." The little girl's voice was hollow.
"Tai " The hated word stuck in her throat, but she forced it out through white lips. "Please. Please help us."
There was a short silence, then a taunting: "Well, I don't knooooow. I think I know a young lady who needs a night to think about what she's done."
"NO!" cried Xena, hating herself with a depth of shame and fury that she hadn't believed possible until now. If only I'd kept my mouth shut! "No, Tai, help Gabrielle! Leave me here if you want, but help her, please!"
"I have to go, anyway. Tell blonde girl I said goodbye."
"If you're lucky, you might see me in the morning. If you're not, you'll already be dead."
"TAI, NO! NO!"
Pattering footsteps disappeared into the blackness and Xena sagged with disbelief. I ruined everything. I ruined it all. Aloud: "Gabrielle?"
The limp bard had been reduced to shudders and tiny explosive intakes of breath. She sagged among the rocks like a broken reed, and Xena's heart hurt her at the sight.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
" s' ok "
Xena reached across and cradled the bard's face in her hands, her fingers caressing the cold, blue flesh, desperately willing it to warm beneath her touch, willing her words unsaid, willing her friend to survive the night.
* * * * *
It was nearly light when Xena realised she had not yet slept. What she had mistaken for sleep was something else entirely a dulled, drug-like stupor so thick that she was not even aware her eyes were open. Dreams had come and gone, pale images that flickered across her eyelids and disappeared into the fog that slunk around her in ropey strands.
Gabrielle was still breathing, the warrior could hear that much. Hard to hear anything else, the ragged rasp of her breath a painful reminder of their circumstances. But the night's over and we're both alive. Xena took comfort from that, as if her mere will and intention had made it so. She knew, however, that another night of the cold would kill them both. Simple as that.
The hollow pit that was her stomach growled at her to remind her it was there, and maddeningly, her foot was itching. Not the kind of itch she had to scratch, but the bone-deep ache of dormant muscles that longed for movement and recognition.
"Sorry fella," she muttered through the cotton wool of her mouth. "A while longer, then Ill take you out for a nice long run."
"Dyou say somethin?" A muffled mumble to her right.
"Nothing. Go back to sleep."
"Wasnt sleeping. I think."
"Me neither. How are you feeling? Are you doing okay?"
"Cant see "
"Its the fog."
Xena was momentarily nonplussed. She waved a hand at the grey tendrils clinging to the rocks. Gabrielle was barely visible to her through its soup. "FOG. Grey stuff?"
A dim reply came that made the warriors heart sink: "Oh. Thought I was imagining it."
Neither of them spoke again until the dawn had chased the last clinging fragments of the night far away. To Gabrielle, the shadows hummed as they receded, and it sounded like a song she had forgotten the words to.
* * * * *
Broken pieces of sun lay in the rocks before Tai came back. She had a leather bag slung over her shoulder, although she didn't expect to need the contents. The small hours had been cruelly cold - they always were on the mountain - so when she rounded the corner of the cliff and saw them both still alive, she was quite surprised.
Stubborn, she decided. That, or really, really lucky. Well, they won't do it twice. Blonde girl's the same colour as the rocks.
Smiling, she approached them, noting the erratic rise and fall of Gabrielle's chest as she lay deep in unnatural slumber. "Morning, Xe! Did you have a good sleep?"
Xena, who had not seen her, or heard her draw near, was startled enough to be instantly furious. She wasted no words, and her voice was a hoarse growl. "Fuck off."
"Now, now, now," admonished Tai, resting a hand on her hip. "Nice girls don't use that kind of language."
"And normal girls don't get off on watching people die," rasped Xena, and coughed. "Help us or get lost, you little ghoul."
"And what if I do?"
A sly grin. "Guess."
"Listen, kid, I'm not gonna play your little game," declared the warrior flatly. "Maybe I can't get up and kick your ass personally, but I've still got a good throwing arm." To illustrate the point, her fingers curled around a rock the size of her fist, and she lifted it slightly.
"You're not going to hit me with that," said the little girl lightly.
"Not gonna miss ya, either." The ex-warlord was mentally measuring the distance and wondering if she indeed did have the strength left.
To Tai's credit, she didn't even blink. In fact, she looked mildly amused, and Xena suddenly had a slight inkling of what was coming.
The leather bag thumped to the ground, out of Xena's reach. "In this bag is enough food for two days. Throw that rock, and she," at this Tai indicated Gabrielle with a jerk of a pointed chin, "won't get any of it."
Xena was still. Silent. Outmaneuvered. Furious. Helpless. The warrior mask dropped into place, and the rock fell from her fingers.
The little girl looked at the warrior and smiled. It was the terrible, knowing smile of someone three times her age, and it made the warrior's stomach turn. "So. Wanna try this again, Xe?"
Tai sank gracefully into a cross-legged pose, weaved her fingers through each other and tilted her head. Completely sure of herself. Sure of her power. "I have a lot of questions."
Xena bit her growl in half. She hesitated for a moment, glanced at Gabrielle. If that's what it takes. She nodded. Once.
* * * * *
"How long have you known each other?"
"What do you do?"
"She told you last night. I'm a warrior."
"Don't you want to know why I'm laughing?"
Tai was taken aback, though tried hard not to show it. "Why not?"
"I'm sure the answer would be more than my little mind could handle right now," the warrior drawled, and Tai's chin came up sharply.
"Wait. You're not doing this properly. I TOLD you that you have to-"
"You know, I've met a lot of kids. But you're the first I've ever met with your particular tendencies."
"Voyeurism. You'd make a great Amazon."
"I TOLD you I ask the questions! Stop ruining it!"
"I was just adding to the conversation," said the warrior airily. "It's such a nice day and all."
"STOP IT!" bleated Tai, her voice pitched too high. "Don't think I don't understand what you're doing! I'm not stupid you know! I TOLD you the rules, and you have to do what I say! You don't break rules. I ask questions and you answer them. QUESTIONS, me. ANSWERS, you. That's all!"
Tai broke off, panting a little, her eyes fiery.
The warrior's unexpected acquiescence left Tai unprepared. Her eyes flicked from the warrior to the bard, calculating, discarding, realising she was taking too long. The knowing eyes of the warrior were boring into her. Waiting. Quickly, without thinking: "My Dad says Amazons aren't real."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Was that supposed to be a question?"
Tai flushed, briefly, just a quick bloom of red that disappeared as she pressed her lips together. Xena was mildly satisfied. Small victories, take them where you can get them. Then she was mildly embarrassed. Look who your opponent is, idiot. Aren't your standards slipping?
The little girl was ready now. "What do you know about Amazons, then?"
"Enough. Know their queen."
"REALLY?" The question burst from a starry face with far more enthusiasm than Tai had intended to show. Her hands fluttered upward, involuntarily, as if to keep the emotion in. But it was too late.
"So do you," was the brief reply. "Gabrielle."
Silence. Then, "She said she was a bard."
"She is a bard."
"Not so loud."
"You'll wake her up."
"So, if you want me to go along with your little question and answer session, I have a few conditions of my own. First among which is, unless you're going to give her that food right now, DON'T WAKE UP THE AMAZON QUEEN."
"Too late," muttered Gabrielle croakily from Xena's right. "Your whispers could wake the dead. And," she added, "that's pretty much how I feel."
Tai giggled. Gabrielle glanced over at her. "Hello."
"Hi, blonde girl. Me and Xe have been talking."
"Really." The bard's voice was little more than a whisper, and now that she was awake to feel it, she had begun to shudder uncontrollably with cold. "Xena "
"I know." The warrior reached over as far as she could, rubbing the life back into Gabrielle's good arm. It was pitiful, but all she could do. With one hand smoothing Gabrielle's hair and the other futilely massaging her neck and shoulders, she shot an accusing stare at Tai, who shrugged.
The little girl sat watching them both with a great deal of interest. Xena leaned close and whispered something to the bard, who smiled a little.
"Hey!" Tai interjected. "You better stop saying things I can't hear!"
"Bite me," was the warrior's succinct reply, and she turned back to Gabrielle, murmuring something else that brought colour to the sallow cheeks.
Tai huffed, noted the way the warrior's voice was gentler and warmer all of a sudden, and watched curiously as the hands made for battle took on an altogether different, healing touch.
Something suddenly occurred to her, and she grinned knowingly. "Friends. Right."
Xena didn't even look in her direction. "Watch it."
The warrior's cheeks warmed ever so slightly. "What would you know about it?"
"I got an aunt who has a friend like you," said the little girl archly.
"Lucky aunt," said Gabrielle softly, completely missing the point. She coughed, then lifted her face to the sunlight, drinking it in. "Did you mention food, Xena?"
"Our HOST here," replied the warrior icily, "was so good as to provide us with breakfast." She indicated the bag, tantalisingly close. "But apparently at the Tavern De Tai, you have to earn the basic amenities."
This tickled their 'host' no end. "Oh me, oh my, that was worth the price of admission, anyhow!" she giggled, pink-cheeked. "Hahahahaha!"
"Where'd you learn to talk like you do?" asked Gabrielle curiously.
"Same place you learned, I expect," said the little girl witheringly. "At home."
"Did you ever go to school?"
Tai looked at the bard accusingly, abruptly. "No. Why should I?"
Gabrielle blinked. "I don't know. Doesn't everyone go to school?"
"I didn't." This came from Xena, who had relaxed back into her position, but left one hand idly stroking the bard's hair, something not unnoticed by Tai.
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "You never told me that."
"Well," replied the warrior shortly, sorry she had said anything, "now I have."
"But I thought that-"
"EXCUSE ME," interrupted Tai heatedly. "I'm sitting RIGHT HERE."
"And?" asked Xena coldly. Gabrielle said nothing.
Tai kicked irritably at the dirt. "And I TOLD you the rules."
"What rules?" asked Gabrielle in confusion. "There are rules?"
"Tai," informed the warrior dryly, "asks the questions. We supply the answers. But you know what, kid?"
"I don't think we're gonna play by your rules any more."
Tai's face flamed. "You don't have a CHOICE!"
"Sure we do," drawled Xena. "What's the worst that could happen? We die, right? You don't help us, we're gonna die anyway."
"But I MIGHT help you! You don't know!" Tai was staring from one to the other now, her mouth open in surprise. This was not the way it was supposed to go. "You don't know anything "
"At what cost?" laughed the warrior. "Think I'd rather die than get bossed around by a little twerp like you."
Gabrielle drew in a sharp breath. "Xena."
"Take Gabrielle, for example," interrupted Xena quickly, cutting her eyes to the bard warningly. "She went along with your game last night, but only because she'd just been hit on the head, and she wasn't thinking straight. Isn't that right, Gabrielle?" Trust me.
The bard's eyes narrowed a little, and her lips compressed. "Yes," she answered slowly. She turned to Tai. "Yes, that's right." You better know what you're doing, Xena.
"Wait, wait-" Tai said desperately, but the warrior sailed on, unheeding.
"Don't you see, you need to get a little motivation factor happening here."
"Motivation factor?" asked the confused girl.
"Yeah, a motivation factor," Gabrielle said. "Don't make this just about you. There are three of us here."
"And we all want something," said Xena.
Gabrielle nodded. "Give and take. You have something we want-"
The warrior took over. "-and we have something you want. For example, if you'd give us that bag, I think you'd find-"
"-that we'd be happy to answer your questions," cut in Gabrielle smoothly.
"For a while, " finished Xena with a warning note to her voice.
Tai had swung to follow this rapid exchange with growing discomfort. "And if I don't?"
"No more fun for Tai," explained the warrior airily. "Just two bleeding people lying in a stack of rocks with nothing to say to her. At all."
"Xena can be very quiet," added Gabrielle confidentially. "Once, she went a whole week without talking to me. Shame, really, she knows so many good stories."
"You're tricking me," said Tai slowly. "You don't mean it."
"Watch us," said the warrior flatly. "You just watch us."
With that, the pair of them turned away from the girl, toward each other. A secret something passed between them.
What do you think? asked the green eyes.
Better than nothing, replied the blue. We'll see.
"Hey!" called Tai peevishly. There was no answer. "HEY." She stood up suddenly, her skinny knees bumping hard against the ground. A scratch split her dirty skin. She ignored it. "I'm TALKING to you!"
The warrior began to hum under her breath, just loud enough for the girl to hear. It incensed her. "HEY YOU LISTEN TO ME!" she shouted, her face enraged, a little foot stomping the earth with wrathful force. "I TOLD YOU WHO WAS THE BOSS HERE! I TOLD YOU! YOU DON'T GET TO CHANGE THE RULES LIKE THAT!"
It was unfortunate for Tai that the very moment she finished her little outburst, a cow bellowed loudly from the lower slopes of the mountain.
Gabrielle couldn't help it, couldn't have stopped it if she wanted to. Suddenly, it just all seemed too damn funny. She laughed. And then laughed some more. Her shoulders shook with the agony it caused her, and tears streamed unchecked down her face. Xena would have helped, but she was laughing too.
"YOU STOP THAT!" screamed Tai, furiously kicking a shower of stones at Xena. "STOP LAUGHING AT ME!" She took a few involuntary steps forward, her fists clenched, not yet quite daring to physically strike either one of them, but her red face shone with her desire to.
"Go home, Tai," said Xena through her laughter. "Just go home. You're wasting your breath."
Tai wavered. Gabrielle could see her thoughts run through her physically, and she held her breath as she covertly watched the little girl teeter on the edge of a decision. It could be good, or it could be really, really bad. But somehow, the bard thought-
"FINE!" It was the high-pitched screech of the truly hysterical.
Gabrielle shut her eyes. Xena tensed. Was she going to leave? Or
The bag of food landed with a thump between the two of them, and Xena instantly dropped a protective hand over the leather, biting back a victorious shout. There's still a long way to go.
They stared at each other silently then, the two trapped women and the little girl. The balance had shifted and they all knew it.
Gabrielle spoke first. "Thank you."
"Just so you KNOW," said the girl angrily, "I didn't give it to you because of what you said."
"Of course not," soothed the bard.
"I made up my own mind," insisted Tai. "I decided to all by myself."
"And we appreciate it. Don't we, Xena?"
Tai swung to stare expectantly at the warrior.
"Sure," said the woman in question, but there was something offhand about her tone that annoyed even Gabrielle. Doesn't she know when she's won? Can't she let the poor kid down easy?
"We appreciate it very much," repeated the bard, firmly.
Tai shook her hair from her eyes. "I decided to all by myself," she muttered through clenched teeth. "Because I can do that. Change the rules. You just remember that."
"Oh, we will," smiled the warrior frostily, as she began to unlace the bag straps.
* * * * *
Later. Sated. Xena had to hand-feed Gabrielle, and had of course insisted upon doing so before she would touch a bite of the food herself. It looked oddly as if Tai had raided the best stores in her house to feed them. She had brought strips of fresh lamb, bread, a full wineskin, and roasted potatoes. Though the girl refused to confirm it when questioned, Xena would wager ten dinars they were eating better than Tai had for some time, and she wondered at her strange contrasts.
The sun beat down from directly overhead, and even though its warmth was both welcome and life-saving, Gabrielle was feeling numb. So tired. It was strange - the way her body seemed to recede until all that was left was her mind. Fuzzy, but active. The warrior appeared the opposite, with twitches and jerks she couldnt control occasionally passing through her.
Gabrielle wondered where the legendary restraint was, and then decided all of Xenas discipline was being exerted to stop herself from going mad with cabin fever. The bizarre range of their conversation that day was unlike any other the bard had experienced, and the novelty of having the warrior literally her captive audience was not going to wear thin any time soon.
Gabrielle had spent part of the morning explaining many of the finer points of Amazon battle strategies to Tai, earning disbelieving snorts from Xena, or sporadic interjections in the form of, "That's not what I would do."
Later, Xena had been forced by pleading looks from the exhausted bard to tell a story of some kind. Any kind. The warrior had capitulated grumpily, and related a short, unembellished tale of fishing with Lyceus. It left both the girl and Gabrielle unsatisfied.
Both of them had raised the subject of rescue with Tai, and both of them met a silent wall of defiance. Gabrielle had pushed a little too far, and earned herself another rock to the arm. Xena, furious, had raged helplessly while Tai laughed.
She had disappeared an hour or so ago. She had not said to where, simply that she would be back. Both the warrior and the bard knew that for truth. The girl was having too much fun.
For the last hour, alone, they had been speaking of odd things. Trees. Egyptian cloth. Copper versus steel. Why Gabrielle's long hair got so tangled in the wind and Xena's did not.
Strange, the bard thought to herself, that we could be so close to dying and weve been talking about anything but.
Aloud, she asked, "Xena, why do you think these rocks fell, anyway?"
Her companion squinted upward for a second, then shrugged. "Package tour, maybe?" she suggested archly, and Gabrielle started to giggle.
"Dont don laughing hurts " was all she managed.
Relentless, Xena added, "Group suicide?"
"Haahah, hahahha mass mass exodus," wheezed Gabrielle through her laughter, "for, for RELIGIOUS PURPOSES hahahaaa " She broke into a mingled spasm of giggles and coughs as Xena tried unsuccessfully to maintain her stoic expression.
When Gabrielle sobered, she felt light-headed and spacey. It was not unpleasant, considering the alternative was pain, but it scared her a little. "Xena, could you ?"
"Way ahead of you." And the warrior was, already removing the blanket from the bard's side with gentle fingers.
"Is it ?" Gabrielle didn't want to look.
"It's looking a little better," lied the warrior, biting her tongue. True, the gash had stopped bleeding last night, which had been a relief, but the proximity to the dirt had left it red and tender-looking. Xena's trained eyes knew that severe infection was not long away.
She scanned the rock-pile for the fortieth time. "There has to be something here cleaner than the blanket. I'd give you my shift, but I can't get to it under this breastplate."
Gabrielle jerked her chin downwards. "Skirt."
It was true. The bard's red-brown wraparound seemed to have escaped serious staining. It was better than nothing. But: "I can't take that, Gabrielle, if we're still here when it gets dark again..." What she left unsaid, and what Gabrielle understood anyway, was that with the darkness came the cold, and with the cold
"Don't have to take all of it, Xena, you can tear a strip off the bottom."
"Like you need to show any more thigh," snorted the warrior, only half-joking.
Gabrielle winked. "Got it, flaunt it. Get ripping, woman."
As always, Xena did exactly what her bard asked. And, as always, she did it wearing a huge smile on the inside.
Reaching over, she grasped the bottom hem of the skirt and began tearing a small gash, careful not to go too high. As she did so, she suddenly remembered Tai's words. Friends. Right. For no reason that she could determine, she felt her cheeks redden slightly as she deftly tore a long strip from the wounded material. She avoided Gabrielle's eyes as her actions exposed the bruised and battered skin underneath.
"Why the blush?" asked Gabrielle from above her, the hint of a smile in her voice. "Not to say it isn't becoming."
"Nothing," mumbled the warrior, feeling the hated flush reach her neck. "Hot."
"Ba da da BOOM," chanted Gabrielle relentlessly and happily, wriggling her legs slightly as Xena had to reach further across her body to complete the task. "I feel like I'm in Meg's tavern or something. Shouldn't you be stuffing dinars into my underwear?"
This got a chuckle. Secretly, the bard was wondering why she felt the need to tease. To cover her own embarrassment, perhaps? How ridiculous.
Xena leant back then, reaching behind her for the water skin. As she was about to tip it up to the wadded cloth, Gabrielle spoke.
"Tear that in half."
"What about it?"
An exasperated sigh. "Xena, have you even LOOKED at it?"
Xena turned her hand over and was quite surprised to see how terrible it appeared. Blackened, crusted with dried blood, the hint of a white knuckle bone showing through torn flesh. Flexing it, she hissed a little, as pain she had not allowed to register shot through her fingers and up her arm. "Oh."
Xena shrugged, tore the cloth in half and set to work. A while later, her hand throbbing but clean and freshly bound, she was carefully probing Gabrielle's side, trying to be as gentle as she could.
Gabrielle had her head back, her eyes closed, breathing in short bursts. "OW dammit Xena, talk to me," she demanded.
"Anything, anything, gods, just talk to me so I don't have to think about what you're doing down there!"
Xena removed a previously-unseen sliver of rock and got a groan in return. "Sorry, sorry, okay what are we going to do about this?"
Gabrielle gritted her teeth. "I think she's weakening. I just think we have to be UNH ow careful or we might scare her off for good."
Xena shook her head. "If anything, she needs more pressure. She's not the type to just take off. She's enjoying herself too much."
Pressure on her side caused a gasp from the bard, followed by a muttered obscenity. "What's the deal with her, do you think? She's pretty messed up."
"She's a little freak, is what she is."
"Xena, children aren't just born like that," said Gabrielle. "Something always makes them that way." I should know.
Xena met her eyes briefly, apologetically. Gabrielle smiled slightly. It's okay. Xena, relieved, finished her cleaning and reversed the rag, rinsing it in their dwindling water supply. "Bite down on something, Gabrielle."
"Why?" Gabrielle sounded apprehensive, and she had good reason. She eyed Xena cautiously as the warrior unstoppered the wine-skin.
"Here." Xena wrenched one of the leather strips off her battle dress, flinching, and held it to the bard's mouth.
"You're not going to-"
"Oh yes I am. You're gonna get a huge infection if I don't, and don't think my interests aren't in keeping you alive as long as possible. Now, open."
"Xena, couldn't you w-"
"But I d-affhgugg!"
"That wasn't so hard, was it? Now bite down."
Xena's hand shot out as quick as thought, deft fingers thudding into a pressure point on the bard's throat. Gabrielle's eyes widened, she coughed, then went frighteningly dead below the neck.
"I can't leave this on for long, so " Xena poured what remained of the wine liberally over Gabrielle's wound, careful to flush every part of it thoroughly. Gabrielle hissed in anticipation.
Finished, Xena looked at her apologetically. "Ready?"
The Amazon shook her head emphatically. "Nnnmfmnf!"
"Sorry," said the warrior tenderly, and she really meant it. "Breathe deep. One two ." As Gabrielle's eyes closed, Xena stabbed at the pressure point before Gabrielle had a chance to tighten her muscles reflexively upon 'three'.
"NNNNNNGNGNGNGNGNGNGNGNNGGGGGFFFFNNFF!" howled the bard through clenched teeth, her cheeks going livid red. She spat the strip at the warrior furiously. "Apollo's ASS! Xena, that HURTS!"
"I know." Xena stroked her hair gently. "That means it's working. It won't last long, just wait it out."
"Grgghghgg damn!" panted Gabrielle, her head flopping backwards. "Damn, damn, damn!" She kept her eyes shut and breathed deeply, until the creases on her forehead smoothed themselves and her heartbeat returned to normal.
Xena soaked the cloth in water, pressed it to the gash firmly, and looped the blanket over it to hold it in place. "Done. How does that feel?"
Gabrielle considered, calmer now. "Cooler. Better," she said truthfully. "Sorry I shouted at you."
"It's fine. We're both fine. But in a day or two we won't be, so let's think."
"Whatever this kid wants, we need to get some kind of plan together. Find her weak spots."
Mulling this over, Gabrielle bit her bottom lip softly. Suddenly, her eyes lit up. "Her family."
* * * * *
"You said you had a sister, blonde girl."
"That's r-right," replied Gabrielle, her antennae going up as she glanced at Xena subtly, "a younger sister. Lila." Finally. Only mentioned her fifteen times.
Tai had returned long after dusk, and by this time neither the warrior or the bard were feeling their best. Gabrielle was as white as a sheet and shivering with cold, and Xena, though she said nothing, betrayed herself with glances toward her crushed foot every few minutes. The warrior seemed immune to the cold, her skin not even goose-pimpling with the icy breezes that scurried over the lip of the cliff and dropped on them both like scavenging eagles.
Tai had brought another bag, which she promptly hid behind a rock and would not refer to. For at least an hour she had been questioning them again, probing, demanding, devouring everything and anything that crossed either of their lips. Her appetite was endless. Had either of them ever seen a dragon? Yes, Xena did once. What was Athens like? Beautiful! (Gabrielle) Smelly. (Xena) Where's the best place in the world? There's this lake near Aphrodite's biggest temple (Xena) Wherever Xena is. (Gabrielle) Who was the nastiest person they ever fought? Callisto. This last had brought a moment's silence from both of them.
"So, what's she like? Your sister?" Tai leaned back and while her pose was casual, her eyes betrayed her; they glittered with a sudden fierce interest.
Gabrielle smiled to herself a little, even through her shivers. "Like nobody else you'll ever meet. She's sw-sweet, and strong, and she's frustrating and s-so wonderful all at once." The bard didn't know it, but her eyes were shining as she said, "She's really sp-special. I'm lucky to have her. I love her so much."
Tai looked on wistfully as Gabrielle paused, lost in a pleasant memory. When she continued, however, it was with the tiniest hint of smugness. "She's j-jealous of me too, but not for the reaso-son she thinks she is."
"Oh yes?" Xena was interested now, and couldn't help asking the question.
"Be quiet, Xe!" said Tai quickly, before turning to Gabrielle again. Without a trace of humour on her face, she asked, "Oh yes?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle blew upward at a wayward strand of hair. "She thinks she's mad because I left her behind in Pota-Potadaeia, but really it's b-because she has a crush on Xena."
Two voices echoed the same sentiment as Gabrielle grinned through blue lips. "D-don't tell me you haven't no-noticed, Miss W-Warrior Breaker of Hearts, you."
Xena snorted. "Gabrielle, that's just ridiculous."
"No, it isn't. You know how she gets."
"No, I don't!"
"How does she get?" asked Tai, openly grinning at the warrior's discomfort.
"All moony," explained Gabrielle, still with the wicked grin. "And g-grumpy when Xena doesn't pay her enough attention "
"Gabrielle, you've got it all wrong." Xena's voice was almost desperate now. "You're reading her all wrong."
"So you admit there's something to READ!" crowed the bard, coughing a little and biting her lip. "I kn-knew it!"
Xena's mouth hung open. Tai giggled. "What else does she do, Gabrielle?"
Inwardly, Gabrielle cheered at the first unchecked use of her name. Getting to you, am I, my girl? Aloud, she merely said slyly, "Well, there was this time wh-when a warlord had attacked Potadaeia, and Xena wasn't with me just then. So after it was all over, I went to meet her and we came back to help clean up and L-Lila was like a little puppy dog. F-followed her everywhere-"
"She did not."
"Hanging on every w-word "
"Was not," grumped the ex-warlord.
"Oh Xeeena, will you teach me all the th-things you've taught Gabrielle?" mooned the bard, making a face like a love-struck cow at her partner. She turned to Tai and batted her eyes exaggeratedly. "You know the face, right?"
Tai laughed. "Yes! My sister used to look exactly like that when she was seeing Jarrod. She had exactly that face!"
Xena only barely restrained her quick glance up as she heard the words. Clever, clever, Gabrielle
Tai continued, oblivious, her face suddenly glowing. "And then when I'd wake up some nights, and she'd be staring in the mirror making these little smiley faces at herself! That was right before she-" She suddenly stopped dead and her expression froze.
"Really?" continued the bard casually, as if unaffected by the girl's sudden rigidness. "Is J-Jarrod her fiancée?"
Tai just stared, and swallowed once, reflexively, her cheeks turning pale.
"Oh wait," corrected Gabrielle, "you said was. I guess they broke up, then. Yeah, you should have seen Lila when we were l-leaving. I thought her eyes would fall out of her he-head the way she was staring at Xena."
Tai let her eyes drift from Gabrielle to the warrior, carefully, suspiciously. Was nobody going to comment?
"Gabrielle, your imagination is unaffected by the cold, I see," said the apparently oblivious warrior.
"So far, so good. But it IS getting pretty damn ch-chilly. Tai?"
"Hm?" The little girl was shaking now, almost imperceptibly, her face still white.
"Is blue a good colour on me?" shivered the bard.
"I don't-" said Tai blankly. "I don't know. I-" She stood up abruptly. "I have to go. I have to go now."
"Tai, wait." Gabrielle spoke clearly to the girl, her tone becoming suddenly resolute and commanding. "We need you to help us with something first."
"What." Not a question, nothing in her voice but dullness.
"We need a fire," said the bard firmly. "We're going to freeze to death tonight without one. Xena can start it, if you'll bring her the tinderbox, and if you'll get us some wood. Whaddya say?"
"Fine." Without another word, Tai slumped off into the darkness, her shoulders sagging. Gabrielle and Xena eyed each other with barely suppressed elation.
When the sound of her footsteps died away, Xena crowed quietly, "Gabrielle, you're a genius!"
Gabrielle inclined her head modestly. "Thank you, thank you "
"You just saved our lives, you know."
The blonde sobered. "For tonight, anyway."
Xena would not be repressed. "Food and fire," she rejoiced quietly. "We're breaking her, Gabrielle, it's just a matter of time."
Gabrielle was quiet.
"What's the matter?"
The bard bit her lip softly. "Do you have to be so ruthless about it, Xena? I mean, 'breaking' her? She's n-not a horse."
"What's our other choice? Freeze and starve?"
"I mean it. There's something r-really wrong with her, can't you see that?"
"'Course I can see that," snorted the warrior. "It's kinda obvious."
"I mean there's s-something wrong with her family," insisted Gabrielle. "You know her sister - what did she say her name was - Fell?" At the warrior's affirming nod, she continued. "You know she mu-must be dead. Did you see her face? "
"And I'm sorry about that, Gabrielle, but if we go easy on her, we'll be the ones that are dead." Xena's face was a cold mask. "If I have to make a choice between ruffling some kid's feathers and watching you die, then line up every kid in the world. I know which way my chariot steers."
Gabrielle shook her head slightly. "We need to think of a way to do this without hur-hurting her," she pleaded. "She just turned into p-putty. It's good for us, but n-not for her."
"Nothing about this has been good for us," snarled Xena. "She could have got us help at any time in the last thirty-six hours and she chose to play twenty thousand questions instead. I can't afford to feel sorry for her, Gabrielle, and neither can you."
"If it bothers you so much, let me do the talking when she gets back."
Gabrielle subsided with a sigh. Beyond the cliff face, a dragging noise announced Tai's return. She staggered up to them, pulling what looked like an entire, but small, dead tree behind her. Dropping it gracelessly beside the warrior, ignoring the scratches that had appeared on her legs, she swung away without a word.
"Thank you," said Xena briefly, but received no response as the girl disappeared into the gloom once more.
Gabrielle furrowed her brow as the warrior began breaking up smaller pieces of the branches into kindling. "I hope she's okay."
Xena said nothing as she debated where to locate the fire. There wasn't much space between their bodies, but a little further down, toward their legs, was at least three feet. Stones everywhere. Perfect.
She began by clearing the space until there was nothing left but dirt. Separating the lesser rocks, she flattened them across the area, leaving small gaps between them, enough for coals to breathe. Gabrielle watched while larger stones were then placed in a loose ring.
"It's not very big."
"Doesn't have to be." Xena was concentrating on her task. "It's close to us and it'll heat the stones, too. We're not building a signal fire here, just something to keep us warm..." Her voice trailed off as she and the bard suddenly stared at each other.
"A signal fire," breathed Gabrielle slowly.
"Right," said Tai's cold voice from behind them, "and then you burn the mountain down and yourselves as well. Good plan, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle stiffened. Oh no. "It wasn't a plan, Tai," she said quickly. "J-just a thought. Thinking out l-loud."
"Besides," added Xena calmly, still breaking up wood, "we have everything we need for tonight. Thank you."
"I wouldn't say everything," replied the little girl tonelessly, dumping an armload of small, thick branches carelessly onto the ground. Xena hissed as one of them struck her injured hand and had to bite her tongue against an angry rebuke.
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle did not quite dare to hope this could be the end of it.
Tai went over and dug around until she came up with the bag she had brought with her. She stuck a hand in and fished out something rolled and brown. "Here." A cured cowhide landed on Gabrielle's stomach. It was only a second before a similar bundle landed upon Xena. "Have a good sleep."
She was nearly gone before Gabrielle called out to her. "Tai, wait!"
Slow footsteps returned to the place they lay. It was frightening to see her face; the girl who had earlier possessed such fire and spark now seemingly devoid of any life at all. Her thin dress flapped around her knees like a ragged sail, and Gabrielle was suddenly so sorry for her it made her sick.
"Thank you," the bard said. And she meant it.
"Why are you thanking me?" asked the girl dully. "You're still under the rocks, aren't you?"
"Yes," admitted Gabrielle, shivering again. "But right now I'm thanking you for small mercies. And who knows," she continued, taking a gamble, "tomorrow is another day. Perhaps you'll be ready to let us go by then."
Tai just stared at her. "Perhaps."
And then she stepped backwards and was gone into the shadows.
* * * * *
The red coals steamed with a joyful light in the blackness. The glow they cast caressed Gabrielle like a lover, pools of light and shadow dancing across the planes of her face, flickering against the blue-black of the rocks, inviting itself to a place it was most welcome.
The bard, warmed right through and strangely happy, lifted her head slightly. Xena, anticipating her need, wordlessly reached over and tucked the rough blanket further up under her chin. Gabrielle sighed. The small fire crackled between them; a living representation of the warmth she felt for the other woman, the warmth she felt coming from her in return. Xena.
In the firelight, Xena didn't look like a woman trapped. She didn't look like a woman injured. She somehow even managed to snuggle under her blanket and make it look regal. Right now, she was staring off into the darkness, a small frown on her face, biting her bottom lip softly. Gabrielle knew that look. She was thinking hard.
I wonder what about? thought the bard dreamily. Some grand plan, perhaps, of how to get us both through tomorrow. She's so selfless
"Gabrielle." The warrior's voice was sudden and startling. "Lila does NOT have a crush on me, you pig."
* * * * *
Did you see those bruises?
Tai, the wind taken from her chest, lay shivering next to her brother in the dimness of their bedroom. She couldn't sleep.
Well, what do you want me to do about it, Parothus? She won't even look at me any more.
It had nothing to do with her father's sad silence and her mother's hurt crying when Tai had come home and refused to speak to them.
We can't let this go on, Hatsume. We can't. It's killing her, and it's killing us. She hasn't eaten in gods know
It had nothing to do with the emptiness in her chest when she glanced across the room at another bed, a vacant bed that she was forbidden to sleep in.
Jed says she killed that sick calf, you know. Did I tell you that? Beat it to death with a stick.
It had everything to do with two pairs of eyes, one green, one blue, that pierced her in ways she had not thought possible.
How can I change things? How can I? She won't SPEAK. She won't stay home, she won't work, she won't talk to me. I don't even know what she does up there all day and all night. You're asking me to fix something I can't even begin to understand, Parothus.
They talked to her. They listened to her. They were even kind, in their own way. She couldn't give them up. She wouldn't give them up. If she let them go, that's exactly what they would do. Go. Even dying, they made her feel more alive than she could remember since
Woman, all I know is, I can't live like this. It's been too long.
Jed stirred and mumbled next to her, turning, coming to rest against her side, his warm breath stirring her hair on the pillow. Tai studied him. Jed was sixteen. He had never been especially nice to her, but he had never been especially unkind, either. He had always just been sort of there. As she watched him, he muttered something unintelligible and his fists clenched. Tai could guess what he was dreaming about.
You're not even trying! Drowning yourself in the bloody bottle every night. Gone before I wake up
While she looked at him, she felt something stir inside her. Gabrielle, her face lit with love for her sister: "She's really special. I'm lucky to have her. I love her so much."
Shouldn't she want to feel that way about the stranger next to her? Shouldn't she run home from the fields to meet his happy grin at seeing her again, to feel his rough arms go around her, to be teased and poked, bullied and loved? Shouldn't she?
Would you begrudge me this comfort? Gods know I earned it. Gods know I work hard enough to earn at least some peace of mind at night, Hatsume. Anything's better than the bloody dreams.
Unbeknownst to her, she had cuddled closer to her big brother, one hand resting on his.
"Jed?" she murmured softly, to no response. "Jed?"
You're drinking comfort you won't let me give you, Parothus. You don't talk to me any more, either.
"Jed. I love you." Shouldn't I?
This got his attention. One eye creaked open, and he peered heavily at the little girl next to him. His voice fuzzy with dreams, he said, "Whad? Whadtimesit?"
Tai took his hand and tried to imagine some kind of warmth between them. "I love you," she repeated stubbornly, fiercely.
Jed groaned, dazed. "Shit Tai, middle of th' night and you wakin' me up f'this crap? Lemme 'lone."
He pushed at her, blindly, and she rolled away, just as blindly. She didn't cry, didn't feel the need to. Just felt cold.
It's this house. It's this house and everything in it. No wonder she's running wild, Parothus. I can't bear to be here myself. I can't bear it any more
Jed rubbed the sleep from his eyes with one hand and propped himself up with the other. Waking up. Slowly. Something told him he had missed the moment. "Tai?" he mumbled. "Y'okay?"
"Fine," muttered the girl softly. "I'm fine. Go back to sleep."
* * * * *
In the morning, the little girl woke before anyone else, as was her custom. She slipped from the bed soundlessly, threw on the cowhide cape she had neglected to wear last night, and shivered at what she suspected was the beginnings of a cold.
She made her way to the farmhouses' rough kitchen, taking care not to let the pots slip against each other as she sorted through them for what she was looking for. Tai knew that she had at least four hours before anybody wondered where she was; her morning chores usually took her at least that long. Guiltily, she wondered if the herds were all right. It had been two days since she had checked or counted them. Probably Parothus had been doing it for her, but you never knew.
Aha. The little fry-pan. Good. She deftly slipped it from beneath three others and tucked it into her cape pouch. One thing, at least - her pilfering of stores would never be noticed. Her mother did even less in the kitchen than her father, and lately, her father was usually too drunk to know what should be where.
With another shiver and a slight cough, Tai picked her way past her slumbering parent to the front door. She glanced at her father in disgust. Couldn't even make it to the bedroom, this time. A light heat rose to her cheeks as she remembered the previous evening. She tried to imagine a similar moment with the hulking man sprawled so close to the fire pit that one side of his face was scalded. Her theory was just as unsuccessful as her practice.
Remembering where she was going brightened her a bit. She unlatched the door quietly and took off towards the barn. In the cold room at the back, several carcasses swung from hooks bigger than Tai's head. With sure, experienced hands, she cleaned one of the dirty cleavers scattered over the work bench and began hacking lengthy strips from a sow that she knew had been blooded only the day before. Fresh. Her mouth watered at the imaginary smell of crackling bacon, and she hesitated only a second before cutting extra strips for herself.
Her next stop was the cabinet under the work bench. She didn't even bother to search through it, just unhooked the little rawhide bag from its place and stuck in the cape with the frying pan.
Last were the stalls. "Stop it, you great big bitch," the girl grunted angrily as Aphrodite kicked lazily at her for the fourth time. "I'll switch you with Ares and you'll be the next on the hook if you don't quit it."
This seemed to placate the cow somewhat; whether it was Tai's tone or her placid namesake's intervention, she immediately stopped her irritable heaving and conceded to Tai's firm hands with a long-suffering look.
Tai herself was feeling surprisingly happy. Why? This took some thinking about, and while the little girl stumped up the mountain trail with a bulging cloak and a heavy bucket, she realised something. She was doing this because she wanted to. It had been such a long time since she had worked and cared about it, or made an effort because she genuinely wanted to please someone. Is this what it's supposed to be like with your family?
* * * * *
"Wake up, she's coming back."
Gabrielle stirred a little and stretched the only part of her body she was able to - her neck. "How do you know?" she mumbled a little grumpily.
"Know anybody else who would come stomping up here humming?"
The bard did a quick mental check. Head: aching. Arms: don't go there. Her broken arm had been a solid mass of quiet agony for what seemed like weeks. Xena splinting of it the night before had stirred up the pain again, even if it was better in the long run. She was almost used to it. Body: warm, if a little sore. Legs: right leg, check. Stiff, but functioning. Left leg, cold, pinned, seemingly and oddly unhurt. Side: strangely numb. Scarily numb. Healing, or the last quiet before the storm?
She glanced sideways to look the warrior over. If it was at all possible, Xena looked stronger than she had the day before. Her only outward signs of injury were bruises and her bandaged hand. Her face had colour, her eyes were watchful. All in all, Xena looked like Xena, and Gabrielle couldn't suppress a jealous twinge.
On the receiving end of an unexpected glare, Xena raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"Are you ever, by any chance less than fresh?" Gabrielle grumbled.
Xena's lips twitched, and suddenly she burst out laughing. It was unexpected and glorious and Gabrielle found herself smiling in response. What a sight to wake up to. She did not, however, miss seeing the warrior's hand settle lightly over her stomach to press gently in response to some unmentioned pain, nor the grim cast of her eyes as she stopped laughing and glanced along her body toward her invisible legs.
Gabrielle, schooled in such things, had learned long ago that to say anything about it was fruitless. The only way to deal with it was to just give help unasked for, not to offer it. And in the present circumstances there was nothing she could do, something which galled her painfully. Xena, thought the bard sadly, when will you understand that I can deal with you being human, too?
"Morning," called Tai as she appeared around the bend.
Xena eyed the steaming bucket. "What's that?"
The little girl grinned. "The Tavern De Tai is open for business."
Half an hour later, Gabrielle groaned. "No more, no more." Xena waved a juicy piece of pork in her face with a leer. "Nononono, get that away from me I'm gonna be sick "
Tai, perched on the rocks between their feet, laughed around the smear of fat on her lips. "Toast?" she asked, holding up a stick pierced with a crunchy hunk of bread.
Gabrielle just looked at her.
"No?" Tai shoveled it into her own mouth. Around the crumbs she said, "I've got something else for you, too."
* * * * *
Xena leaned closer, her hands itching with frustration, as Tai gently swabbed Gabrielle's side again, her ministrations causing a gasp every time the cotton touched the tender, red flesh. "I really think I should be doing that," Xena growled through clenched teeth.
"I've done this a million times," Tai returned sharply, eyes on her task. "My father splits his head open at least three times a month."
"How?" Gabrielle's own teeth were gritted, and she had squeezed her eyes shut.
"Not now, Gabrielle." The little girl held the cloth out to Xena. "Hold this."
Xena snatched at it. Tai dug around in the rawhide bag and came out with a bottle, another cloth, some thread and
"No needles!" snapped Xena, instantly recognising a sewing kit. "No way! Not unless it's me using them. NO WAY, Tai."
Tai sat back on her heels and regarded the warrior flatly. "Are you forgetting something, Xena?"
Xena lowered her chin and stared back, just as evenly. "If you're about to mention the word 'rules', you can forget it. Your rules are a game. Gabrielle's wound isn't."
Tai looked at her calmly. "You aren't in a position to argue with me. Are you?"
Gabrielle twisted her head to follow this discussion, her breathing more shallow than it had been since before the fire was lit.
Xena scowled. "Look, I'm a healer "
Tai laughed derisively. "Oh yeah, that's why she's nearly crying every time I touch her. Because you did such a great job."
"With the tools available to me, I have! If I'd been anyone else, she'd be dead by now!"
Gabrielle flinched visibly and Xena shut her eyes. Tactful, real slick, Xena. "Gabrielle-"
Tai jumped to her feet, brandishing the needle angrily. "And if I'd been ANYWHERE else you'd BOTH be dead by now! Or have you forgotten that, too?"
"No, of course not," soothed Gabrielle. Too late.
Xena's eyes had opened again and were leveled at the girl in a penetrating stare. "Are we supposed to be grateful to you?" she asked quietly.
Tai was taken aback. "Well "
"You must be joking."
"YOU MUST BE JOKING!" roared the warrior, sending the startled girl back a few steps. "Do you really think that feeding us like stray cats makes up for the fact that you've LEFT US HERE FOR TWO DAYS? What kind of happy-crappy fantasy land do you live in?"
"Xena " Gabrielle was desperate now.
"I DON'T CARE, Gabrielle! She has to hear it, we can't just keep letting her think this, this, WHATEVER this is, is okay!" Xena swung upon Tai again, who was biting her bottom lip, stricken, with the most childlike expression either of them had seen her wear. "Do you think we'd just let you do this and not say anything? Do you think you can just keep turning up here and we'd be hanging around for you to CHAT to every day? We're not dolls! We're not gods! You're right about one thing, Tai - in a few more days WE'LL BOTH BE DEAD and that'll be on YOUR conscience!"
"Xena! Do you think this is helping?" Gabrielle was flushed. "What will shouting at her achieve?"
"Maybe knock a little sense into her for one!"
The screech achieved its goal; the warrior and the bard fell silent and gazed at Tai. The little girl was shaking visibly, but her shoulders were square and her eyes were steady upon them.
"This is the way I see it," she said quietly, that surreal aura of unnatural maturity enclosing her again. "Right now, it's like you guys are floating over a big hole, see? And under you is this little rope, holding you up." Her hands moved as she spoke, unconsciously mirroring her words. "The rope doesn't want you to fall. The rope kind of likes you both. But in the end, the rope makes the decisions, right?"
Gabrielle could hear Xena breathing. This was unusual, and when she glanced quickly sideways at her partner she saw the clenched jaw, the lips pressed tightly together, the buried rage.
Tai continued, "You may not like the way the rope is woven, but it's the only thing keeping you up there. So it seems to me that you can shut up and hang on, or you can let go. Do you wanna let go, Xena?"
The warrior was silent, but Gabrielle could see what it was costing her.
"Do you want Gabrielle to let go with you?"
"I thought so." Tai looked them both over. "I'm taking care of you. If I wasn't you would have died last night in the cold. Simple as that. Now that we have that straight, Xena, you can fix Gabrielle."
Xena blinked. "You mean-"
Tai tossed her the linen wrapped package, which the warrior caught reflexively. "I mean, stitch her up, O Healer."
Gabrielle exhaled a little, not sure how to categorise what she was feeling. Relief? Fear? She decided to box it up with 'sick' and, having done so, closed her eyes.
Xena, inwardly fuming, did not spare Tai another glance. She set to work preparing the needle and twine. As she sniffed carefully at a bottle containing some kind of herbal anaesthetic, Tai's quiet voice was heard again.
"I'm taking care of you. So this way, if anything happens to her now, it's on your conscience, Xena. Not mine."
* * * * *
"You love her, don't you?"
Xena, distracted, bit off the thread and spat out the end. "What?"
"She asked if you love me, ass," whispered Gabrielle through white lips, her shoulders shaking with pain.
"'Course," Xena said shortly, gently dabbing away welling drops of blood where her needle had pierced blue and red skin.
"That's not what I meant," said Tai. "And Xena knows it."
"I'm busy, Tai." Xena cradled Gabrielle's face in her hands, searching, searching, checking, reassuring both herself and the bard that she was okay.
"And I'm curious." The little girl tilted her head to one side, examining the two of them as if there was something different about them from the other seventy times she had surveyed them in just such a way.
Xena shot a dark look at the girl, who was propped on the rocks between them. "Is this question time again?"
Tai shrugged carelessly. "If you wanna eat tonight, it is."
"Tell you what," said Xena icily. "I have a better idea. A question for a rock."
"Xena " protested Gabrielle weakly.
"I'm not hungry anyway." Xena stared at Tai, a feral gleam rising in her eyes. "Yeah. Anything you wanna ask me, you have to pay for by moving a rock."
Tai grinned. "We both know I don't have to do anything you say."
"Nope," agreed the warrior stonily. "But if you want me to open my mouth, that's my condition. Feed Gabrielle. I don't care if I don't eat. Rock for a question. You can start by freeing Gabrielle's good arm."
Tai looked at her for a long moment, with something not unlike amusement on her face. "Deal." She scrambled over behind the bard, who had her eyes closed and was concentrating on her breathing. Xena's ministrations, whilst necessary, had been blindingly painful, and Gabrielle was seeing small red spots behind her closed lids.
The little girl surveyed the mess that was the bard's resting place for a minute. "Okay," she said finally, "I know where to start. So are you married?"
"No," snorted the warrior.
"Have you ever been?"
"How about you, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle blanched. Xena held up a hand. "That's already two questions. Rock first."
"You can answer for her," replied Tai. "And we never said it wasn't one question for each of you, so just keep talking, Xena."
"Bitch," muttered the warrior under her breath, but grateful that Gabrielle was spared. "What was the question?"
"Is Gabrielle married?"
"No," said the warrior curtly, hoping it would be left at that.
"Has she ever been?" persisted the girl.
How easy it would be... "No." Easy as that.
There was a small expulsion of breath from the bard, and Tai looked down at her questioningly. "Uh-huh. Are you lying, Xena?"
The warrior lay obstinately silent.
"Because lying would not be part of the rules."
Gabrielle lifted her head, and looked Tai in the eyes. "Yes, I was married once."
"Where is he?"
"That's three questions," Xena cut in angrily, and indicated Gabrielle with a jab of her battered hand. "Rock."
Tai glanced down and dug at the pile, tossing a fist-sized stone away to the left. Gabrielle hissed a little. Xena noted the remaining stones with a sigh. This was going to take a while.
"So where is he?"
"He died." Gabrielle looked past the girl, past the warrior, somewhere into the sky. Her voice was flat and lifeless when she spoke. "He died the day after our wedding."
Tai drew in a breath, her cheeks paling, hands reaching for another rock, freeing it, placing it aside. "When?"
A third rock thudded to the ground, and Gabrielle flexed her wrist, felt the weight lessen, shift. "He was murdered." Gabrielle's normally even tone had vanished, along with any semblance of warmth in her face. Her voice was strained as she added, "Anything else, Tai, or will that do?"
Xena noticed with interest that Tai's hands were shaking as she clasped them together. "Just one thing," the girl whispered, before pausing, an awkward expression on her face. "Um, if that's okay. I mean, okay with you. That I ask."
Xena's mouth dropped open. She's asking permission!
Gabrielle nodded briefly, and Tai moved a further three rocks away, leaving the bard's arm pressed into the earth by a single, head-sized boulder. "What do you do when you miss him?" The little girl was weaving her fingers in and out of each other compulsively. She didn't even know she was doing it, and for a minute, Xena felt a tug at her heart as she saw the raw pain on the girl's face.
"At first I couldn't sleep," Gabrielle answered slowly, clenching and unclenching her fist rhythmically. "Couldn't eat, couldn't dream, couldn't think of anything else but him. Couldn't breathe sometimes, it felt like."
Hearing these words brought an altogether different feeling to Xena's heart, and she closed her eyes in shame as she recognised it. Jealousy. How can I be jealous of a dead man? What kind of insecure, heartless bitch am I?
Gabrielle stared skyward as she finished, "Xena held me together. I wouldn't have got through it without her." Her eyes flicked to the warrior's and rested there, the warmth returning. "She didn't know she did it, but Xena taught me about real love."
"What do you do if you don't have someone like that?" Tai's voice was barely audible now, and she would not look at them. She heaved at the last rock and it was rolled away. "I mean, what if Xena wasn't there?"
Gabrielle pulled her right arm painfully across her body for the first time in three days. It was blue-tinged, bruised, her fingers swollen with blood. Xena immediately took the damaged fingers in her own and began to massage the life back into them. Gabrielle met her eyes and smiled. "She'll always be there. And as for you " Gabrielle flexed her fingers and shifted her focus to the girl. Xena watched, fascinated, as her pupils contracted, narrowed, hardened. She's shutting herself off, realised the warrior with a kind of horror. She's going to say it. She's going to hurt her. I can't let her do it
The ex-warlord jumped in. Her voice was as cold as iron, designed to wound. "Your sister's dead, too."
Tai made a sound. It was a horrible, punched sound, like the air had been driven from her lungs by a hammer to the chest. She stared blindly at the Warrior Princess with disbelief and horror on her face.
Gabrielle let out her own shaky breath. Oh, Gods. Thank you, Xena. The only way to get her to talk is to hurt her or make her mad but I don't think I could have done it. Look at her face
Xena stared at the girl stonily, forcing herself to remain expressionless. "She's dead, and that's why you're such a head case. Am I right?"
"SHE IS NOT!" Tai screamed, jumping up and stamping her foot down with blinding speed. It connected solidly with Xena's side, and the warrior could not repress a startled 'Oof!' of real agony.
Tai didn't even register it. Her face was suffused with furious blood, her eyes wild. "SHE IS NOT DEAD! WHY DID YOU SAY THAT? WHY? WHY DID YOU SAY THAT, XENA?" Each sentence was compounded with a heavy kick, Gabrielle ducking her head back as far as it would go to avoid the foot flashing past her face. "WHY? WHY? I'LL KILL YOU! I'LL KILL YOU FOR THAT! SHE IS NOT! SHE IS NOT!"
The warrior was stunned by the force of the outburst, and unthinkingly allowed four or five of the kicks to connect before reaching up to grab Tai's ankle as the little girl began to aim for her face. "STOP THAT!" Xena thundered, and pulled sharply, sending the girl over backwards.
Tai hit the ground with a dull thud, already scrabbling backwards, already getting to her feet again, already panting with fury. "I meant it, Xena," Tai growled, shaking with rage. "I meant it. I'm gonna kill you for that." She dropped downwards and Gabrielle realised with dazed shock that she was lunging for the fist-size rocks she had so recently moved away.
"Go ahead!" snarled the warrior fiercely. "Do it! Get it over with! Because we're dying here anyway Tai, a little at a time! What's the difference if you make it happen faster? She's dead! It won't bring her back!"
"SHUT UP!" the girl half-sobbed, half-screamed. From mere steps away, she heaved the rock as hard as she could.
"NO!" For Gabrielle, it was as if the world had stopped moving, painting her vision with consistency of treacle, oddly distorting what her senses allowed her to feel. She saw the heavy rock leave Tai's fingers, saw it hum past her own face so close that its chill streaked the air against her cheek. Heard the click of Tai's bones and muscles snapping back into place. Saw the pounding, consuming rage in the girl's face. Glimpsed the glowing, distant carpet that was the ocean. Heard the sickening crack of stone connecting with flesh and bone, heard the warrior's cry of pain, saw the girl's eyes change and fill with horror, heard the air expelled from Xena's lungs, the thud of her skull hitting the rocks behind her head.
"Xena!" Don't let it end like this gods, please Gabrielle was helpless. She couldn't reach Xena with her good arm, because she couldn't turn her body far enough. All she could do was stare as thick redness flowed from a deep, shining gash on Xena's temple, past her closed eyelids and into her hair. Stare as the colour leached from the warrior's cheeks like a wave creeping backwards to the ocean.
"Xena, wake up!"
There was no answer. The bard felt something in her soul cleave in two as the warrior expelled a long, slow breath and her chest did not rise again.
And Gabrielle could do nothing but stare, and turn her welling fury on the girl.
Tai was blank-faced and white, her eyes fixed on the blood. Blood on the rocks, blood on the ground, blood on Xena's face.
"Do something!" Gabrielle sobbed at her, her good fist sending a spray of small rocks at the stunned child. "Do something right now! You godsdamned little parasite, you've killed her " Her voice broke, and she swung back to her friend, straining to reach her. "If you've killed her Xena Xena, wake up!"
Tai choked. Gabrielle shut her eyes and howled in her mind. Not again, not again, not again, not before me, not again, I can't stand it, not again
"Xena, you BREATHE!" she screamed brokenly, violently, terror in her voice at the wound she thought she would never feel again, yet had secretly feared for so long. "You breathe RIGHT NOW, or I swear to Ares, I'll I'll oh gods Xena, please please don't leave me again, please "
Softer than moonlight came the warrior's voice. "Keep your skirt on, Gabrielle."
The bard choked on a hot, shocked gasp of pure joy. Xena opened her eyes and grinned weakly at her, then coughed as a little blood ran into her mouth. "Not dead. But I think I could definitely be classified as leaking."
Gabrielle reached quickly for the shaking hand the warrior held out and took it in her own, pressing it to her chest, wanting proof, needing to feel Xena's life touching her. Tai sat down hard, her suddenly impotent body refusing to obey her, splaying across the ground, shoulders and arms shaking like the legs of a newborn colt.
"Don't you ever do that again, Xena!" Gabrielle shouted, her overwhelming relief manifesting itself as clotted fury. "Do you hear me? Dont you DARE ever do that to me again! What the Hades was that not-breathing about? Some stupid warrior trick to save energy? Don't you-"
"I gotcha, Gabrielle," came the gentle reply.
"Well then," retorted the bard, tears flowing down her cheeks. "Well. Well. Just so as we have that clear."
"Crystal," agreed Xena, and clasped Gabrielle's hand in hers even tighter.
"Didn't feel like you thought it would, huh?" the warrior asked croakily of the girl, who sat frozen and numb on the ground, unable to take her eyes from Xena's wound. "It's still hurting, isn't it? You know what? Doesn't change a thing. You could have thumped us both to death, and in the end you're still going to be hurting inside. Only then you'd have even more reason to feel it. Fell's dead, Tai, and soon we will be, too."
Tai spoke then, and what she said confused them both. "Who's Fell?"
Gabrielle blinked. "You told us that was your sister's name," she said, trying to keep the barely reined fury she felt toward the girl out of her voice.
"No, I didn't." Tai looked away from them, up at the cliffs, her white throat as exposed and vulnerable as that of a swan in a cage. She swallowed, and whispered, "I said she fell. My sister fell."
The little girl stood up. "I'm sorry, Xena," she said simply. She walked away then, and there had been something in her voice that made neither the warrior nor the bard try to stop her.
* * * * *
It was nearly dark before Xena felt well enough to try cleaning herself up, although she had assiduously avoided mentioning the reason to Gabrielle, adopting instead a don't-care attitude that had given her a thumping headache.
Now, with Gabrielle peering through the gloom and grumpily directing her movements of the cloth, she wished, not for the first time, that her bravado streak was not quite as wide nor as deep as the Aegean. The rock had left her breathless and dizzy, and she had been quietly fighting a glazed, unnatural calm all afternoon.
"Left," came Gabrielle's voice. "More left. There's a big clot right above your eyebrow, gods know how that got there. Higher. Xena, higher."
Gabrielle sighed. "Gods, this is annoying. Can't you get any closer to me? Then I can do it for you."
Xena paused in her scrubbing and raised an eyebrow. "Gabrielle, if I could get any closer to you, do you think either of us would have been quite so cold on that first night?"
For some reason, this remark seemed to make Gabrielle flush. At least, it seemed that way to Xena in the gently gathering dusk. It certainly changed the tone of her voice.
"I called her a parasite."
"I doubt that's why she left."
"I guess so, but what if she remembers it on her way back and changes her mind?"
Xena inwardly smiled at the bard's tone of real concern. "That's always assuming she comes back at all, Gabrielle."
This brought silence for a moment.
"Do you think her sister fell from this cliff?"
Xena shrugged. "It's a big mountain."
The answer came from the shadow of the cliff base. Gabrielle's head turned sharply, and even Xena flinched. She swore to herself silently. Dammit, Xena, that's happening too often lately. Get back in shape.
Gabrielle peered into the dusk, her eyes glinting. "Tai?"
A snort. "No, Athena. I'm moonlighting."
Unexpectedly, Xena chuckled. "Kids really do say the damndest things, don't they?"
Gabrielle blanched. "That wasn't funny. This isn't funny. I can't believe you."
"I said I was sorry." Tai again, quietly.
"Not as sorry as you would have been if you killed her!" the bard yelled into the darkness, cheeks darkening. "I would've found some way out from under these things and returned the favour, believe me!"
"And I would have deserved it, too."
Xena drew in a breath and laid a restraining hand on Gabrielle's arm. "Tai, Gabrielle's just angry. You I scared her."
"I'm evil." The little girl's voice was hollow. "I'm evil, just like she was."
Gabrielle, still aflame with anger, was having a terrible time of it. The bard's heart, though now older, wiser and scratched with scars, was still, after all, her heart. And the furious rage she was trying to harbour against the girl had no place there; Gabrielle and wrath were not friends. The pain in the girl's voice called to her like a Siren's song, and she had no way to resist it. If she had, she would not have been Gabrielle. So she cleared her throat.
"Like who?" she asked gently. "Like your sister?"
"Elli," said Tai. "Her name's Elli. Was," she corrected quietly.
"That's a nice name," said Gabrielle. "How old was she?"
"She was seventeen, and I was eight when when it happened. Up there."
Xena's hand tightened on Gabrielle's arm, and the bard was glad to have it there. Suddenly, she was feeling a cold that even the smouldering coals could not keep at bay. But neither of them spoke. They sensed, rightly, that Tai was not finished.
Tai came slowly out of the shadows, feet dragging, her eyes anywhere but on the two of them. "My uncle says she fell because she was already a fallen woman. He says the mountain knew evil and it was taking back its own." She paused and looked at Gabrielle. "Sometimes I think I can feel her here, and then sometimes I think it's just the evil in the ground."
She came a little closer, the bedded coals lighting her face with flickering shadows. "I get confused," she explained softly. "Sometimes I don't know whether I'm thinking things, or saying them, or nothing's happening at all. Do you know when you could be dreaming, but you don't know for sure?"
Xena nodded silently, meaning it.
"Until before, I wondered if you were real or not," continued Tai dully, sitting down on the ground and not appearing to notice that she had done so. "Until before, I thought maybe I imagined you to stop being so lonely. Then I thought maybe my uncle was right."
"Right?" Gabrielle couldn't take her eyes from the spectre of contrasts before her. As callous as she felt by admitting it, the girl was fascinating, and her hands itched for a quill. She was confessing, and a confession must always be a soliloquy, to speak regardless of who hears you, to get it said, and done, and make it real forever. Tai's voice went on and on, softly, unheeding to those around her, or to the gentle curtain of night.
"That the mountain is evil. That Elli was evil, and maybe you are too. Maybe you deserved to be here. Maybe you did bad things, like me " - at this the warrior closed her eyes - " and maybe the mountain knew it. And maybe I don't know what's wrong with me, or what I can do to stop, to stop feeling this way. And what I can do to make sure the evil doesn't get me, too, because I can feel it. I can feel it inside, and I don't want it to win. I dont want it to, but I can't tell what's right."
"Let me tell you something, Tai." Xena spoke directly to the young girl, right into her. "All evil needs to succeed is for good people to see wrong and do nothing. Do you hear me?"
There was a stunning, deafening silence. Tai's mouth hung open, her cheeks oddly red, like she had been slapped.
"Good people to do nothing," repeated the warrior quietly, indicating herself and the bard. "Tai, inside, you're a good person. And we need you."
Tai flinched and her eyes suddenly sparkled with suspicious brightness.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Tai?"
The little girl shuddered. "It wasn't nothing, Gabrielle I didn't "
"What wasn't?" asked Gabrielle gently, already knowing what the answer would be.
Tai's voice was a thin, low wail, so quiet they could barely hear her. "She was still alive and there was so much blood in her mouth, and on her face and she was crying "
"Oh, Tai," said Gabrielle, sorrowfully. "You found her."
Tai went on speaking, words jerked from a trembling mouth below eyes that saw nothing, lost in her pain. "She cried, and she held my hand and her blood was on my fingers, and then I ran so fast fast and then she was dead anyway she died all alone while I was running "
"It wasn't your fault, Tai," Xena told her firmly. "It wasn't your fault at all."
Tai's voice broke and dropped a full octave, tarnished by the unshed pain the little girl had carried in her heart for so long. "I tried and tried but she died anyways, Xena "
Her hands were shaking uncontrollably, and she drew her legs up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them, her frightened eyes flicking from the warrior to the bard and back again. Suddenly, shockingly, she exploded. "I TRIED SO HARD AND SHE STILL DIED! AND THEY WON'T TELL ME WHY! NOBODY WILL TELL ME WHAT I DID WRONG!"
"Listen to me, Tai," soothed the warrior. "That's because you didn't do anything wrong."
"I KILLED HER! IT WAS ME, IT WAS ME!"
"No, it wasn't!" insisted Xena quickly. "No, it wasn't. The fall killed her Tai, not you, not the mountain, not anybody or anything except the fall. I know better than anyone about blaming yourself for things you can't change. But that doesn't help, it doesn't make them better." She glanced at Gabrielle, and a sad smile crossed her face. "You just need someone to remind you of that, is all."
Face buried in her knees, thin shoulders shaking, the girl said nothing.
"Tai. Look at us."
The girl looked up, weakly. Gabrielle put everything she had into her voice. Once again, it was the strongest and the only tool she possessed. "You tried your hardest, Tai, and that's all anybody could ever ask for. Elli it was her time, that's all. It was her time to go. She's not dead, not really, not in your heart. Not in your memory. Everybody we love lives there, they're with us all the time. You're not evil, you could never be evil. You're just a little girl with a very sad story, and nothing that happened was anything you could change, or be blamed for. Please believe me, Tai."
"Why is it hurting so badly ? " Tai begged her, huskily, a keening whimper forcing itself from her throat.
"Because you're finally letting it," whispered Gabrielle, knowing from bitter experience the devastation of accepting grief long held at bay.
Tai rocked, breath in tatters. "Why can't I why does it what's happening to me ?" A large, hot tear escaped, and still she would not surrender to them. Not me. Not ever.
Gabrielle felt her own eyes burn as she watched, and she wished both her arms were functioning so she could put them around the little girl. "Xena," she murmured.
"I know," the warrior whispered back, the blue eyes at last empty of resentment or anger, instead full of warmth and knowing pity. "I know her, Gabrielle. We're so much alike." She raised her voice. "Tai come here, okay?"
The little girl looked up at her again, pleadingly this time, and Gabrielle's own tears spilled over as she saw Tai's face working with anguish, her mouth twisting, no sound coming out, trying so hard to build up the wall again.
The wall that was irreparably broken.
"Tai." Xena's voice was soft, like she was speaking to a startled horse. She held out her arms. "We're still alive. You can still help us. This time it'll be a happy ending. We're good people too, I promise you that, and we won't hurt you. Come here to me."
With a choking sound, the little girl closed the space between them with a desperate lunge, and flung herself hard at the warrior, burying herself against Xena's body. The warrior's strong arms closed around her. Tai reached across Xena and gripped Gabrielle's good hand, clinging tightly, despondently. Gabrielle dipped her head and softly kissed the little fingers.
Tai began to cry. At last. The broken, terrified weeping of the very young and the very damaged. "I'm so sorry," she kept sobbing, "I'm so sorry, Xena, I'm so so sorry, Gabrielle, please believe me please believe me please help me I miss her so much "
Xena rocked her as much as she was able, murmuring soothing words to her, holding her tightly while she emptied her grief into the night. Gabrielle watched, and her own heart filled her chest to the fracturing point.
* * * * *
It was less than an hour later that an exhausted girl limped into the farmhouse, back ramrod straight, her eyes red scratches in a white face.
Her mother turned, the sadness that clouded the house etched deeply on her brow. It was strange, the way the little girls' frame seemed to fill the doorway. So silent. Still. Hatsume looked at her daughter oddly, uneasily, for no reason she could explain.
Tai took a few faltering steps forward. "Mom?"
Hatsume's heart leapt. "Tai?"
Another tear spilled down Tai's cheek, the first of many she would be shedding with her family from now on. "Can I would you hi."
Her arms raised themselves a little, and suddenly her mother, in the way of all mothers, knew that at last it was Tai who had come home, not the empty stranger they had been living with for so long.
She fairly flew across the room, fell to her knees, and gathered her daughter in her arms. Tai sank into her embrace, and they remained that way as Parothus came clumsily past the bedroom skins, a jar already clutched in his hands. He stopped at the spectacle before him, and the ale clattered to the floor.
"My friends need help on the mountain," Tai said softly. And that was all.