The Exchange

 
 

It was late, but still Xena was awake. Gabrielle had been asleep for some time. Xena enjoyed spending a little quiet time alone occasionally. She thought of taking a walk, but the day’s trip had brought them far enough into the wilderness she didn’t want to leave Gabrielle unprotected.

So instead she sat by the fire and listened to the night, while she cleaned Gabrielle’s precious frying pan. With concentration she could pick out a dozen different creatures on their nocturnal hunts, from the squeaks of bats overhead to a rustling in the brush a ways off that was probably a raccoon. A log in the fire popped.

Xena paused in her work to watch Gabrielle’s sleeping form, curled up towards the fire, blanket half over her but kicked off one leg. Her hair glowed ruddy in the firelight, bangs brushed down off her forehead, a single lock curling up about her chin before her mouth, lifting and falling with each breath. She looked so peaceful, so comfortable. Xena smiled: Gabrielle had fallen asleep with her stylus still in her fingers; her parchment was inches beyond, its edges just starting to re-roll.

A whisper of sound in the leaves overhead drew Xena’s attention. The wind was picking up. Through the branches overhead she could see the stars now and again as the clouds drifted past. Xena’s brow furrowed as she watched. The clouds moved very quickly. In the distance she heard thunder.

Xena felt a chill as the breeze, descending from the treetops now, invaded the camp. The fire flared a bit, sparks drifted upward and, caught in the air, were torn away. Gabrielle’s parchment skittered a few inches. Xena stood, began moving to retrieve it. If a spark were to— and then one landed on a corner. Fed by the agitated air, the spark ignited the paper almost instantly. Xena leapt to grab it, and slapped away the flame.

She let out the breath she’d held as she examined the parchment. Nothing lost. Xena resisted the temptation to read what her companion had written; Gabrielle always held back until she was finished, and Xena couldn’t steal from her that thrill Gabrielle always said she felt from the first performance. Rolling the parchment up gently, Xena crouched down and slipped it inside Gab’s pack. Then she started to pull up the blanket that covered her against the quickening breeze, and, unable to resist, lowered her head to kiss Gabrielle’s cheek ever so lightly. Though she couldn’t tell, Xena thought a brief smile touched the young woman’s lips.

At that moment, all Xena’s senses came to life. She had the strongest feeling that she was not alone by Gabrielle’s side. She spun about on the balls of her feet, but saw nothing. Far off, the thunder continued. Above, the clouds were racing. Then, among the trees across the camp, she thought, for a moment, she could see a pair of eyes watching, their color impossible to miss even at a distance, a shocking sky blue. Xena blinked. There was nothing.

The hair stood up on the back of Xena’s neck and again, she felt someone was behind her, stronger this time. She turned back to face Gabrielle’s prone form — and stopped. The blanket she had begun to pull up around her partner was completely tucked in. Gabrielle snuggled inside it, murmuring happily. Thunder, loud, and then an unmistakable voice, dangerously charming.

“Xena...” it called, from nowhere, and everywhere.

Xena sat bolt upright from her bedroll, sweating. The fire was but a pile of softly glowing embers.  The trees above were awash with moonlight, and it dappled the camp. She immediately looked to where Gabrielle slept, and thought, for a brief moment, she saw a familiar figure there beside her companion. Not moving, just watching. Silver light on golden hair. But as Xena rolled silently to her hands and knees to approach, she saw nothing was there at all. Just a trick of her dream, Xena guessed, but still she crept to Gabrielle, just to be sure.

Gabrielle slept comfortably, tucked inside her sleeproll. Xena shook her head, and climbed to her feet. A thought struck her, and she turned back, checking. Gab’s parchment was neatly rolled, just the end peaking from her pack. The thought progressed no further as Xena heard a rumble of distant thunder. Above, the sky was still clear.

Xena looked about and chose a likely tree. Choosing her footholds carefully in the dim light, she searched the horizon once she’d climbed high enough. Distant, to the north, was a lone thunderhead perched in the star-filled sky. Xena frowned. She knew the place.

*  *  *  *  *

Gabrielle awoke at first light, and as usual, Xena was already up. Gabrielle stretched her arms over her head, yawning. Xena had built the fire back up, and it made the camp toasty and comfortable.

“I had the nicest dreams, last night—” she began, but stopped. “Xena, what are you doing?” she asked.

The Warrior Princess stood by Argo, tightening down the straps on her saddlebags. She was already dressed.

“There’s something I need to check out. I won’t be long... a couple of hours, maybe.”

Gabrielle started rolling up her bedroll. “Give me a couple of minutes to pack and I’ll come with you.”

Xena shook her head, turning back to her work. “No, Gabrielle, really, it’s no big deal. Spend some time with your scrolls. I’ll be back by noon... I’ll catch lunch for us.”

Gabrielle stood. “Xena, I thought we were past this.”

Xena looked at Gabrielle. “Past what?”

“Past you excluding me from your life.” She felt very hurt. “I thought you believed in me. I thought you trusted me.”

Xena walked to her friend, taking Gabrielle gently by the shoulders. “I do believe in you, Gabrielle. But this... could be too dangerous for you.”

“And if it’s too dangerous for you? Am I left waiting here forever?”

“Gabrielle, you know I can take care of myself.”

Gabrielle lowered her eyes. “And I can’t.”

“Not against this you can’t.”

Gabrielle pulled away. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.” She went back to rolling the bedroll.

The Warrior Princess sighed. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Then how did you mean it exactly? Can’t you at least tell me what’s going on?”

“Look, Gabrielle... I’ve made too much of this already. It really is probably nothing.” She looked to the sun climbing the sky. “I have to go.”

“Go then,” the bard said, not looking up.

Xena opened her mouth, then closed it again, and headed for Argo. She mounted up.

Gabrielle paused in her task, wanting to speak, but unable.

Xena wheeled her horse about, then paused, turning back to Gabrielle, who was still not looking back. “I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I didn’t have a good night. I hardly slept at all.”

Gabrielle turned to her friend. “Can’t you tell me what this is about?”

Xena looked away, then back. “Can you tell me what your dreams were about?”

It was Gabrielle’s turn to open her mouth and say nothing. She blinked. Somehow, she realized, Xena knew exactly what she’d dreamt. Worse, Gabrielle realized, at the time the dreams had seemed so nice.

Xena met Gabrielle’s eyes, and Xena’s jaw clenched, her fears confirmed. She lifted Argo’s reins, and started off through the forest, not sure of what she’d find, but trusting it wouldn’t be good.

 

II: Thunder and Moonlight