“Find a cave,” Gabrielle told Eve. “Somewhere sheltered. And start building a fire.”
Eve had her mother’s knack for not wasting time on pointless chatter. Before the words were fully out of Gabrielle’s mouth she was up and running into the rocks, sure-footed as a mountain goat, even on the slick surface of the half-frozen pond that Xena had nearly drowned in.
(Had drowned in, actually. But the plan had worked, there was no point thinking about that.)
Ares took a step closer. Gabrielle heard the crunch of his boots on the snow and glanced up. He paused, hands empty and helpless at his sides, looking… well, looking very much like he’d just had his newly-mortal ass kicked from here to Sparta and back. Bruises stood out sharply on skin that had never shown them before, on his chest and one cheekbone. Blood still dripped from a split lip and oozed from a line of broken skin at his temple that Gabrielle recognized as the product of Xena’s right jab.
He spat red onto the ice, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and stared at it, then down at Xena. “I — I didn’t want — I mean —“
“It wasn’t you, Ares, it was the Furies,” Gabrielle sighed, her hands busy arranging the furs so they covered as much of Xena’s exposed skin as possible. The barest hint of a smile touched Xena’s blue-tinged lips, and Gabrielle knew she was listening, and remembering the same conversation they’d had in Marga’s hut only a few hours before.
Ares was definitely not smiling. “Hang on. This was your plan?”
Gabrielle stayed crouched at Xena’s side, but shifted her weight onto her heels so she could intercept him if he tried to take a swing at his newly-revived once-beloved. She didn’t think he was that stupid, but he had been suffering from Fury-induced madness until three minutes ago, and before that he’d been suffering from the loss of his godhood — and impulse control had never been his strong suit anyway. “We had to get the Furies out of your head so we could destroy them,” she explained, as patiently as she could. “We figured the only way to do that was to make them believe Xena was dead and they’d won.”
Xena moved feebly, trying to sit up, but she was hampered by the furs Gabrielle had wrapped her in like a Solstice gift. “Only other way… was to kill you,” she wheezed. “Seemed like a rotten way to… repay a favor.”
Ares’ face twisted up into an uncomfortable-looking expression that might have been horror, or touching gratitude. Gabrielle couldn’t decide, and she was pretty sure Ares couldn’t either. “So you almost died to save me?”
“Did die,” Xena said, with a little lopsided half-smile, like she was proud of it.
“So you let me beat you?”
Xena laughed, or tried to, but her lungs seized up and she choked, coughing up drops of icy pondwater until Gabrielle got both hands under her shoulders and heaved her up. With her head resting on Gabrielle’s knees, her breathing steadied again. She grinned up at Ares and rasped, “Had to make it look convincing. Otherwise it woulda been too easy.”
“You —“ Ares’ hands clenched and unclenched spasmodically, and his mouth worked furiously without producing any actual words. If he’d still been a god, Gabrielle would have worried that he’d have blown something up; as it was, a muscle at the side of his neck was starting to twitch under the strain of his emotions, which had probably never happened to him before.
Gabrielle had no idea how long it would take him to figure out what he wanted to say, and in the meantime Xena wasn’t getting any farther from freezing to death, and for all they knew what was left of the Amazon nation might be going up in flames. “We can have this talk later,” she snapped. “Ares, go get control of your men, make sure they don’t do any more harm to the Amazons. We’ll come find you as soon as Xena’s back on her feet.”
Ares stared at her for so long that she almost let go of Xena to get up and push him to get him moving, but at last he huffed out a breath that turned at once to steam in the bitter air. “You two are impossible,” he said, not without a hint of admiration, and started back across the icy dell to his horse.
Gabrielle waited until the snow kicked up by his going had settled, then half-lifted Xena with a grunt and dragged her the few feet to the curved wall of the canyon. She settled with her back to the stone and pulled Xena against her, wrapping both arms around Xena’s waist and pulling the furs over them both. Xena’s head lolled back against her shoulder, and Gabrielle couldn’t suppress a shudder as Xena’s frozen body seemed to pull all the heat from her at once.
Xena’s hand rested over hers, thumb tracing circles over her wrist in silent apology. Good; she could move her fingers, that was a good sign. “Thank you,” she sighed. “For coming up with a way to save him.”
“I owed it to him.” Gabrielle brushed the brittle icy strands back from Xena’s forehead and pressed her lips briefly to a blossoming bruise that must have come from one of Ares’ knuckles. “Now hush. Save your energy. Eve will be back soon and we’ll get you warmed up.”
A quiet minute passed. Gabrielle felt colder than before, but her body heat must have been doing its work, because Xena started to shiver. That was another good sign, she knew; it meant Xena’s body would soon be able to warm up on its own.
Xena shifted in Gabrielle’s arms, resting her head on Gabrielle’s chest, over her heart. It was the reverse of how they usually slept, and for a moment it felt decidedly strange. Gabrielle was so used to being completely enfolded in Xena, tucked neatly under her chin as though she’d been made to fit there. The times she’d been the one holding Xena, trying to wrap around her so completely she could keep out the world, had been few and far between; and no wonder, since Xena’s long legs stuck out from under the pile of furs and her muscular shoulders were so much broader than Gabrielle’s even when she wasn’t wearing water-logged armor.
Then Xena moved again, trying unconsciously to burrow closer into Gabrielle, and all thoughts of how silly they must look fell silent. This, Gabrielle thought as her heart swelled until it might burst, was exactly where she was supposed to be.
“Gabrielle,” Xena said through chattering teeth.
“It hasn’t b-been another t-twenty-five years, has it?”
Gabrielle snorted. “No, it hasn’t. If it had, you would have been fished out of that lake by two wizened old crones.” Xena chuckled. Gabrielle hesitated, then added, “Though the tomb Ares made for us did give me the idea.”
She hadn’t been able to think of any other way for Xena to die without dying. Xena nodded, understanding. “Lucky we had a f-frozen mountain in the neighborhood.”
“I came here once, when we stayed with this Amazon tribe,” Gabrielle said, her voice heavy with the memory. “That’s how I knew where to find it.”
Xena’s brow furrowed. “I don’t remember that.”
“You wouldn’t,” Gabrielle sighed. “It was for a ritual of purification, and of mourning. Right before Autolycus showed up and we went after the ambrosia.”
When you were dead and in your coffin, she didn’t say, but she didn’t have to. Xena squeezed her hands to show that she understood.
There had been that civil war they’d spent in Aesclepius’ healing temple, the first time Xena had brought Gabrielle back from death. And after that Xena had broken her neck, and then there had been Hope, and the crucifixion, and the twenty-five years they’d spent sunk in the cold waters of Death’s tears, and probably times that Gabrielle couldn’t even remember. It might have been the cold finally getting to her, but thinking of all the times they’d crossed the River Styx only to claw their way back into the light and air left her exhausted. She felt suddenly as though her spirit had aged every second of those twenty-five years, even if her body hadn’t.
But there would be time to think about that later; for now there was Xena to worry about. She’d been silent for a long moment, and she was breathing easier now, deep and steady. Just as Gabrielle was beginning to worry about the tales of soldiers who fell asleep in the cold and never woke up, Xena sighed and said, “Let’s not die anymore, all right? At least for a little while.”
“No argument here,” Gabrielle said fervently, and pressed her cheek against Xena’s.
Already Xena’s skin was less clammy, and that ghostly blue tinge had retreated from her lips and the tips of her fingers. Gabrielle drew the furs a little more snugly around them and closed her eyes, just for a moment, feeling every point where they touched, skin to skin and soul to soul.
This wasn’t the first time they’d cheated death and wouldn’t be the last. Together they were doing what they could never have done alone — warming up, coming back to life.