STORY: Taking Shelter by New Xenalander

DISCLAIMER: These characters do not belong to me and no copyright infringement is intended.

CONTENT: Subtext. No violence in this piece but features a budding romantic relationship between two women. If that sort of thing offends you, please find something else to read :)

This piece was written for one of the Talking Xena Subtext Central Fanfic Challenges, a series of informal, open ended challenges. This one asked us to create a "First Kiss" story based on the scenario "A fierce rainstorm has forced X&G to take shelter in a cave". Here's what I came up with:

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"Come on Gabrielle, we have to keep moving." Xena called, turning and pausing for a moment, her voice almost drowned out by a crash of thunder. The unseasonal storm had brewed up suddenly in the late afternoon, catching even Xena's weather sense unawares. It had swept over them like a wave, battering them with lashing rain and howling winds. They had now been fighting their way through it for the better part of an hour, and Xena could feel the temperature dropping steadily. She needed to find them some shelter soon, but travelling as they were in the foothills of Mount Parnassus, there was little to be found.

Xena frowned as she watched Gabrielle trudge towards her, using her staff to help keep her footing on the slippery trail. The smaller woman was pale and covered in goose bumps. Her russet and blue shirt and skirt were plastered to her skin, and her red-blonde hair hung around her face in tangled, water-soaked strands. Underneath her deepening concern, Xena couldn't help feeling a surge of pride for her young companion. Gabrielle hadn't uttered a word of complaint since the storm started. Xena knew her friend was cold and tired, yet she struggled grimly onwards.

"I think there are some caves around here somewhere." Xena said, bending to talk into Gabrielle's ear.

"I hope s-so." Gabrielle replied through chattering teeth. A flash of lightning illuminated the muddy, rocky terrain around them, and Gabrielle looked around, her expression dubious. "Zeus must be in one Tartarus of a bad mood."

"Yeah tell me about it." Xena said, squinting through the rain, trying to discern a clear path ahead of them. Thunder rolled again, making Argo flatten her ears and shift her feet uneasily. Xena clung tightly to her reins and tried to calm the mare. "Easy girl. Come on." Xena placed her other hand in the middle of Gabrielle's back, urging her forward again. Teeth chattering, Gabrielle trudged on.

"Ow!" Gabrielle winced at a sudden stinging feeling on her arm, discernible even though her skin was all but numbed by the cold. She looked up as she felt another small sting, and realised the rain was now mixed with hail.

"Just when we thought it couldn't get any worse huh?" Xena winced as the tiny balls of ice pelted her skin. Gabrielle didn't answer, merely shooting her a miserable glance and hunching to try to protect as much flesh as she could. Xena glanced forward again just in time for a flash of lightning to reveal a dark spot in the cliffs they were approaching. "Over there!" She pointed. "I think I see a cave entrance!"

"Thank the Gods!" Gabrielle replied and they both picked up the pace, eager to get out of the storm.

Even Argo took little persuasion to enter the cave once Xena had checked it out. It wasn't all that large, but it was dry, and the angle of the entrance meant that aside from the occasional random gust, it was sheltered from the worst of the wind as well as the rain.

Xena wasted little time. She rummaged in one bag for a makeshift torch, an oil soaked rag wrapped around the end of a length of branch. Using her sword and a flint stone, she managed to light the torch, carefully keeping the flame away from Argo. "Here," she said, handing Gabrielle one of their saddlebags. "You need to get out of those wet things and into something dry. I'd better rub Argo down or her muscles will cramp." Xena made a pile of rocks near the side wall of the cave, planting the torch in the middle so it would stand upright. She moved back to Argo, sorting through the pile of folded sleeping furs that were draped over the mare's back, behind the saddle. The top one was almost completely soaked, and she tossed that one aside to be dealt with later. The second one was also damp in places, but she found two that were mostly dry. She and Gabrielle would have to share tonight. She carefully laid the dry ones on the ground towards the back of the cave. Returning to Argo, she removed the mare's saddle and began drying her with the slightly damp fur.

With numb fingers, Gabrielle struggled with the leather laces that tied her saddlebag closed. Finally managing to open it, she was pleasantly surprised to find the contents were indeed dry. Xena's idea of rubbing warm oil into the leather had evidently worked, helping to proof it against the elements. Trying to keep the cave floor dry, she stood near the cave entrance to squeeze as much water out of her hair as possible, and then peeled off her shirt and skirt. Finding a scrap of cloth she often used for drying herself, she began rubbing at her skin, trying to warm it. She felt as though the cold had seeped into her very bones, and she couldn't stop her teeth from chattering. Finally judging herself dry, if not yet warm, Gabrielle slipped her sleeping chiton on over her head. Then she joined Xena, using her scrap of towelling to dry Argo's legs. Together they finished drying the mare off as much as they could. Gabrielle found a pouch of grain among their saddlebags and carried it over to where Xena was removing Argo's bridle. Xena poured the grain into a natural hollow in the cave floor and Argo bent and began lipping up the meal, snorting her thanks.

When Gabrielle began trying to remove her armour, Xena heard the younger woman's teeth chattering. Concerned, she took the bard's hands in hers, her slight frown deepening as she felt the icy chill there. Gabrielle looked up in wonder "H-how are your hands w-warm?" She asked. Xena shrugged, knowing her hands weren't really that warm, just warmer than Gabrielle's were.

"I warmed up a little by rubbing down Argo." She began chafing the skin of Gabrielle's arms, growing more concerned as she realised it wasn't just her young friend's extremities that were chilled. "Gabrielle there are a couple of dry furs back there." She said, gesturing towards the back of the cave where she'd left them. "Go wrap yourself up in them, you need to get warmed up or you'll get sick."

"You n-need to get out of these wet l-leathers Xena. I don't care how w-warm you are at the moment..." Gabrielle said, once more reaching for her armour. Xena stopped her, catching her hands again.

"I will, I promise. First thing's first." Xena led Gabrielle towards the rear of the cave and made her sit down on one of the furs. Gabrielle did so, drawing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around herself, curling into as small a ball as possible. Xena wrapped the other fur around her, tucking her into its thick, soft folds. Pressing a warm hand against Gabrielle's cold cheek, she gave her friend a worried smile. "Now, you stay here, I'm going to go back out and try to find some firewood." As she began to rise, Gabrielle's hand shot out of the furs and grabbed hers.

"In th-that storm?? Xena that's c-crazy. You know as w-well as I do there won't be a-any dry wood out th-there." Gabrielle held on a moment longer, but eventually had to pull her arm back into the furs, wrapping her arms around herself and rocking slightly. She couldn't seem to stop the shivers that wracked her body. She held Xena's gaze though, her expression pleading. After a few moments Xena relented.

"Yeah I guess you're right." She rose and strode the few paces to where their belongings were piled. She began unbuckling her armour, piling it neatly. She had a little trouble with the water-swollen laces of her leather battledress but eventually they parted and she peeled the leather away from her skin. She was nowhere near as cold as Gabrielle but she was still glad to get the soaked leather off. Finding a cloth similar to the one Gabrielle had dried herself with, Xena towelled the last of the damp from her skin, and rubbed briskly at her hair, getting the worst of the water out of it. She found her chiton and pulled it on, loosely tying the belt around her waist. Rummaging in another pack, she found some fruit, and digging further, some bread and cheese wrapped in a cloth. It wasn't overly fresh but it would do for tonight. Picking up their waterskin and a knife she walked back to where her still violently shivering companion was watching her from the bundle of furs. "Any room in there for me?" She asked, smiling down at her friend. Gabrielle gave her a ghost of a smile and nodded.

Moving around behind her friend, Xena unwrapped the fur. Quickly, she settled herself behind Gabrielle's back, against the cave wall, with her legs on either side of the smaller woman. Then she wrapped the fur around both of them, making sure they were completely covered up to their necks. Holding the furs closed with one hand, she wrapped the other arm around the smaller woman's waist. "Better?" She asked. Gabrielle nodded, wrapping both of her arms around Xena's, and weaving the fingers of one hand into the warrior's. Xena raised an eyebrow slightly at the affectionate gesture, but didn't say anything, instead she rested her chin on her friend's shoulder and snuggled herself even closer.

For a while it seemed as though Gabrielle's shivering worsened, but Xena knew this was just because her blood was starting to come to the surface again, seeking the warmth they were now sharing. After a while, Xena felt the chill start to seep out of her friend's skin. Gabrielle slowly relaxed in her arms, the shivers easing and finally stopping altogether. Neither of them made an attempt to move though. Xena found to her surprise that she was enjoying the feeling of having Gabrielle snuggled up in her arms. As she'd warmed, Gabrielle had stopped hunching forward, and now as Xena leaned back against the cave wall, the smaller woman was settled against her, the red-blonde head nestled against her shoulder. Xena was pretty sure Gabrielle had fallen asleep, her breathing had long since settled into a slow, even pattern. When Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it out as a contented sigh, the warrior realised she was awake, though possibly she had been dozing. She shifted slightly, and Gabrielle's grip on her arm and fingers tightened in protest. Xena smiled slightly, evidently her friend was enjoying the embrace as much as she was. She felt Gabrielle's head tilt.

"Hey the storm's finished." Gabrielle commented, realising that the furious noises outside had softened to a quiet whistling, the sound of a night-time breeze.

"Yeah it blew itself out a little while ago." Xena replied, looking over towards the cave entrance. Their torch had long since guttered and died, but the sky outside must have cleared enough for the moon to shine. It provided just enough soft, bluish light for them to see, dimming occasionally as the last remnants of clouds scudded across the sky, obscuring it. "Are you hungry?" Xena asked quietly.

"A little." Gabrielle replied. Her stomach immediately growled, loud and long, and Xena chuckled. Gabrielle began to chuckle too. "Ok maybe a lot."

"I've never known you when you weren't." Xena drawled. Gently freeing her hand from Gabrielle's grasp, she reached out under the side of the furs, easily finding the food she'd left nearby. "Here, it's nothing fancy, just what we had left in the packs." She said, pressing the bread into Gabrielle's hands, and then reaching out again for the cheese and cutting knife. Gabrielle immediately broke off a piece of bread and stuffed it in her mouth, humming with delight, her stomach not caring if the repast was plain. She broke off a second piece and held it up over her shoulder, turning her head slightly to make sure she was holding it near Xena's mouth. Raising an eyebrow, Xena bent her head and accepted the offering, smiling as she chewed. Over the months they'd been travelling together, her feelings towards Gabrielle had grown from resignation at the younger woman's insistence on following her, to acceptance and enjoying her company, to viewing her as a trusted companion and close friend, something very rare in her experiences. Just recently though she had noticed an undercurrent of something more between them. It started innocently enough, a touch on her arm or back, a few sideways glances, an occasional flirtatious comment. If Xena was completely honest with herself, she'd admit that she was attracted to the redhead. Especially since the younger woman had become an Amazon. The frequent practice and occasional real fights with the quarterstaff she now wielded had melted away almost all of the teenage chubbiness from her physique, and the muscles of her arms, legs and stomach were rapidly becoming sleek and toned. More and more often lately, Xena had found herself sneaking those same sideways glances she noticed Gabrielle taking. The thought of a romantic relationship with the younger woman was not entirely unwelcome. But Xena was almost afraid to read too much into it, not knowing if her young and inexperienced friend was even aware how her comments and gestures could be construed. Were they flirtatious gestures or just friendly ones? Were the glances a sign of attraction or merely fascination?

Tonight was the first time Gabrielle had ever tried to feed her, and again, Xena wasn't quite sure what to make of the intimate gesture. Deciding to play along and see where it led them, Xena let go of the furs, allowing them to loosen slightly, and sliced off a piece of the cheese. Holding it up, she offered it to the smaller woman. She half expected Gabrielle to turn shy and take it with her fingers, but instead Gabrielle took hold with her teeth, pulling it from the warrior's loose grip and using her tongue to pull it into her mouth. Xena smiled again as she sliced off another chunk for herself. They fell into a pattern, taking turns to feed themselves and each other. On one such exchange, as the supply of food dwindled, Gabrielle's lip brushed Xena's fingertips, just slightly, seemingly by accident. Xena carefully schooled her reaction, still unsure whether this was merely an exchange of food, or something more. Deciding to test the waters, Xena waited for Gabrielle's next offering. When it was held up, she deliberately bent her head slightly further, taking both the bread and Gabrielle's fingertips into her mouth. Gabrielle shivered suddenly, and Xena heard her breath catch.

"Are you still cold?" Xena asked, feigning concern, even as a smile ghosted across her lips. Gabrielle swallowed hard and cleared her throat.

"There's just... a bit of a gap in the furs here, it's letting the cold air in." Gabrielle made a show of carefully crossing the furs over, closing the gap. Xena already knew the younger woman wasn't cold, she could feel the warmth radiating off her. If anything it was getting a little too warm underneath their furry blanket. Xena made no comment, she merely held up the last slice of cheese. She was mildly disappointed but not surprised when Gabrielle reached up and took it with her fingers instead of her teeth, but she noticed the younger woman nibbling distractedly at it instead of taking it all in one bite. Although her young friend had apparently backed off for the moment, Xena was pretty sure she had her answer at last.

Pretending not to notice her friend's sudden distraction, Xena slipped her hand out from under the furs, placing the knife back where she had left the fruit. Then she casually wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's waist. She felt the smooth muscles of Gabrielle's stomach tighten, and heard another slight hitch in the younger woman's breathing. "Warm enough now?" She asked in a low voice, her lips close to Gabrielle's ear. Again she felt her friend tense, and then slowly, deliberately relax against her.

"Mmmm, yeah, nice and warm now." Gabrielle answered. There was silence for a moment, and then she spoke again. "Thank you, by the way. For this I mean... I don't think I'd have been able to warm up on my own." Gabrielle's fingers began unconsciously stroking Xena's arm where it nestled comfortably against her stomach.

"You're welcome." Xena replied.

"It seems like you're always saving my butt one way or another. I can't even survive a storm without you having to look after me." Gabrielle lowered her head. "You must wonder sometimes why you bother keeping me around." She said in a small voice. Xena shifted sideways, bringing up one hand to lift Gabrielle's chin.

"Actually I was thinking just the opposite." She said, craning her neck around to catch the younger woman's eye in the dim light. "You did really well today. When that storm broke I set a hard pace across rough ground, and you managed to keep up. Even though you were cold and tired, you never gave up and you never complained. And then when we found this cave, you helped me with Argo when you could have just curled up back here. I'm proud of you." She felt Gabrielle shift position, twisting around to face her more fully.

"Really?" Gabrielle asked. Their faces were only a few finger-widths apart, and in soft light Xena could just see the slightly disbelieving expression on the younger woman's face. It made her realise that while she was often quick to criticise, she was slow to praise. She decided to try to work on that.

"Really." She replied, stroking Gabrielle's cheek with the back of her fingers, and then cupping it gently. Gabrielle's eyes closed and she leaned slightly into Xena's touch. "As to why I bother keeping you around, well, maybe it's because I like having you around." At that low voiced statement, Gabrielle's eyes opened again.

"You do?" Gabrielle asked in a slightly breathless whisper. Xena smiled lazily, and then slowly closed the gap between them and pressed her lips softly against the redhead's. Gabrielle breathed in sharply through her nose, and for a moment she froze. Then she let out the breath as a soft sigh, pressing forward into the gentle caress. Xena slid her hand from Gabrielle's cheek into her still slightly damp hair, and felt Gabrielle's hand cup the back of her head as well. Smiling inwardly, Xena closed her eyes, every part of her concentrating on the feel of those incredibly soft lips pressed against hers. She began to move gently against Gabrielle, her lips parting, nibbling, all the while keeping the pressure light, and feeling the younger woman responding in kind. It was exquisite, in all her years Xena couldn't remember ever sharing a kiss so tender, loving, and full of promise. Xena was conflicted, torn between wanting to taste Gabrielle's lips fully, to deepen the kiss and let it become passionate, or to keep it light and loving. She chose the latter, wanting to savour the moment, to lock it in her memory forever. After a while she eased back, ending the kiss, opening her eyes and taking a deep breath to calm her body's reactions. It was a few moments before Gabrielle's eyes opened, to gaze into hers in wonder. Xena smiled.

"Yes... I do. Very much." Xena finally answered Gabrielle's question. It took the younger woman a few more moments to remember the conversation they'd been having. Then she smiled, her face lighting up and making Xena's heart skip a beat.

"I'm really glad to hear that Xena. Because I like being around you too. Very much." Gabrielle said, and tilting her face up, she pulled Xena's head down for another kiss. Xena was only too happy to comply.