Early in their friendship, before HOOVES AND HARLOTS, Gabrielle worries her time with Xena might be running out.
WORTH THE TROUBLE
Gabrielle pressed the cold cloth harder against her jaw. Silly, she knew, but was desperate to minimize the swelling redness somehow. She entertained delusions of fooling Xena. Maybe rub her other cheek enough for the matched pair to look more normal. Or feverish. Perhaps throw herself down a hill, acquire some other bruises she could somewhat legitimately blame on clumsiness. Anything to suggest a cause unrelated to earlier events. Whatever, enduring extra pain now might lessen the sting of certain ice blue scrutiny later.
Sighing, she trailed her other hand through the brook she sat beside. She wished she could lose herself in the rippling coolness, use that to calm her fears this would be The Day. She felt lucky it hadnít come sooner. She couldnít claim ignorance anymore. Every time she tried to be helpful, Xenaíd had to bail her out. She couldnít count on confining herself to the sidelines, as somehow she got dragged into trouble anyway. Or dragged Xena in. Like that afternoon.
"Okay, Gabrielle, the stall over there should have those spices youíve been wanting. Add them to what we need and meet me at the stables. Try to stay out of trouble."
"Xena, the spicesíre hot, not armed."
Sheíd made her purchases and headed to find Xena. All of a sudden a bunch of ruffians plowed through the crowded market, shoving aside anyone in their path. She tried to ignore them, until they knocked an old man to the ground. Next she knew, sheíd grabbed his cane and prepared to whack one of the attackerís legs, when the cane got snatched away.
"Iíll handle this. Go on back to camp."
Sheíd meant to obey Xenaís command. Had started threading her way in the opposite direction from the bodies that began flying hither and yon. Glanced over her shoulder to check on Xenaís progress when she saw one of the ruffians had found a net and was sneaking back into the fray. Sheíd run up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. When he turned, she threw some of her spices in his eyes. Stopped him in his tracks all right. Unfortunately she didnít make tracks fast enough to avoid his flailing arms.
She smiled sadly. Maybe clumsiness was close enough to the truth without throwing herself down a hill. Thing is, did it matter? Hurt was hurt, just like a ripple was a ripple, whether caused by her hand, a fish or a boulder. Xena wouldnít be happy. Not that sheíd criticize or complain. No, the warrior usually rescued or patched up her young tagalong with a resigned sigh. At worst might deliver a curt lesson about what Gabrielle should consider next time. But how many next times did Xena have in her?
Gabrielle believed in Xenaís affection, that the warrior truly found something of value in their surprising friendship. Like Xena, she acted as though "next time" had no limits, that it was an hourglass Xena would dutifully turn over each time more sand lay at the bottom than the top. Deep down, though, she worried Xena would tire of that routine, of this constant constraint on her freedom to spend her hours as she wished, to make more of them than tending to matters dictated by a companion with a knack for detours, mishaps and other peopleís problems. That maybe this would be The Day the warrior decided the trouble wasnít worth it.
"Hey." Xena dismounted and began removing a couple sacks tied to Argoís back.
"Hi there." Gabrielle positioned herself next to the fire so as to obscure her injured cheek. "You were taking so long, I figured I might as well get supper started."
"Idiots didnít know when to quit. Then I helped secure them for the authorities." Xena dropped the sacks near Gabrielle. "The villagers insisted on giving me some baked goods and smoked meat. Figured you wouldnít mind if I accepted."
"Oooo, better than dinars." Gabrielle pawed through the bags. "I say we heat the ham for tonight."
"Fine with me." Xena knelt beside Gabrielle. Without warning, she gently grasped the younger womanís chin to view the other side of her face. "Doesnít look too bad. You put a cold compress on it?"
Gabrielle blinked. "Um, yeah," she answered matter of factly, though her heart was racing. "You know me - I can be so clumsy sometimes. All I was doing was - ."
"Next time, duck."
Gabrielleís mouth dropped. "W-what?"
"You gotta be just as careful when you surprise somebody. They swing wild. Soonís you hit `em, drop low, roll away in case they kick out. You tend to focus on offense." Xena smiled thinly. "You could put a little more thought into defense." She rose and went to take care of Argo. "Did you see the small bundle at the bottom of one sack?"
Still stunned by Xenaís uncanny ability to notice everything, Gabrielle fumbled at the sack she hadnít finished going through. She found the tied cloth and opened it. "Xena, this is Ö. How did you know Ö."
"The spice merchant donated some extras." Xena smirked. "Seeing as how the first batch turned out armed after all."
Xena stitched a rent in her leathers by the firelight. Gabrielle sprawled across from the warrior propped on an elbow, ostensibly working on a scroll.
"Something particularly interesting about me tonight?"
"Huh?" Gabrielle shook her head, realizing sheíd been staring at the older woman. "Oh," she said, blushing. "Sorry. I Ö um Ö was Ö noodling an idea."
"Mm. Iíve been called many things. Donít think `an ideaí is one of `em."
Though the warrior continued sewing, she seemed open to a bit of chitchat. Gabrielle sat up. Frowning, she tried to formulate the words to her express her fears.
"Just say it, Gabrielle. I wonít bite."
Gabrielle let out a nervous laugh. "I know. Itís just Ö." She took a deep breath. "Do you get tired sometimes? You know Ö. Of Ö me?"
"What?" Xenaís fingers stilled.
"I just wondered if Ö." Gabrielle started losing her nerve. "Oh, itís nothing, really." She reached for her scroll and started rolling it up. "Another of my crazy ideas, is all. No need to bother you with it."
"`Crazyí, eh? Gets better and better."
Gabrielle grimaced. "I didnít mean you. Well, in a way it is, but -."
"If you keep this up, I will go crazy. Is it about today? About getting hurt?"
Gabrielle lowered her head. "Xena, I try to do what you ask. I really do. Itís just Ö. I see something wrong, I canít seem to stop myself from jumping in."
"Hey, that was quick thinking, using those spices. I couldíve handled that guy, but the net mightíve complicated things. You did good. At least with the offensive part." Xena smiled. "Iím just sorry you got whacked in reward."
"I canít believe you saw all that." Gabrielle shook her head. "Does anything get by you?"
Xena gazed at Gabrielle, her eyes serious. "Hopefully not when it comes to you." Sighing, she set her repair work to the side. "Donít take this wrong, but you wouldnít be with me if I didnít think I could protect you."
Gabrielle bit her lip. "I can take care of myself sometimes."
"I know. You also wouldnít be here if I didnít think you had enough sense to fend for yourself when I canít."
"You do? Think I have enough sense?"
"Whew!" Xena wiped her brow. "Guess you havenít noticed me fighting with my fingers crossed."
"Hey, ya gotta admit, nobody attracts trouble like you. Letís see Ö." Xena started counting off on her fingers. "Bar flies, suitors, lovers, zealots, Titans, babies -."
"So Iím a ëpeopleí person. I could be more of an ëactioní person if youíd let me near a suitable weapon."
"You do all right with the ones you have - your mouth, your creativity. Your feet - running, tripping."
Gabrielle scowled. "Tripping bad guys, you mean."
"Uh, right. That too," the warrior agreed, chuckling. "Anyway, if Iím gonna go around helping folks, wonít do for me to scare `em off. A funny little man I met before I changed said I could use better ëpublic relations.í Guess I have you for that now, until I get the hang of it."
"Yeah?" Gabrielle thought about that. "Sort of like your ëadvanceí person? To find potential clients? Soften `em up for you?"
"Mm. I suppose - ."
"So Ö ëtroubleí is actually the work youíre supposed to do?" Gabrielle leaned forward, warming up to this line of thought. "Your job? And if you didnít have me youíd be Ö." She frowned. "Youíd be taking care of it anyway. Only without distractions. Like Titans and babies. Or worrying about me making the trouble worse," she murmured, her initial enthusiasm waning.
Xena relaxed against the log behind her. "When I committed to this, I did picture something grander. Epic battles with warlords like Iíd been." She snorted. "As if somehow I could atone quicker by maximizing the body count of evil doers."
"Somebody has to. Who better than you?"
"Itíd take commanding armies. I donít trust myself with that kind of power again. Not yet anyway." Xena wrapped her arms around her knees, her face revealing pain she seldom let show. "I used to pride myself on grandness - the number of successful campaigns, the size of the territory I conquered, how many villagers provided resources to build or sustain my army. I didnít think about the individuals I hurt - the loss of homes, of fathers and sons. Children growing up with hate in their hearts. Young lovers torn apart."
Xena gazed unflinchingly at her companion. "Daily life, Gabrielle. The ordinary ëlittleí things. I didnít see how I destroyed that when I was busy adding up my victories. Not from my high horse on the battlefield or surrounded by lackeys in my tent. I do now."
Gabrielle nodded. "So thatís why you were alone." She grinned in fond remembrance. "Popping up out of nowhere to save a bunch of villagers, including a big-mouthed peasant girl."
"Yeah, surprised me too. Not sure I really knew what I was supposed to do a few minutes before."
"Huh. You mean, maybe I accidentally had a hand in showing you?"
"Looks like it. Gave me a better appreciation of battles on a smaller scale. Like relying on myself, my own skills. You standing up to petty thugs, ready to sacrifice all for your family, reminded me why I chose to fight in the first place - to protect Mother and Ö." Xena swallowed. "My brothers. Why Lyceus died."
Gabrielle leaned across to brush Xenaís hand. "And why his sister survived to become a great warrior?"
Xena sighed. "Iíd like to think so. Finally try to be one Lyceus could be proud of."
"Interesting." Gabrielle pulled her knees up. "I guess curiosity about everyday life comes naturally to me. Helping young lovers, seeking parents for an abandoned baby - didnít seem a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But you Ö." She studied the scroll sheíd been working on as if already losing herself in the words to complete the unfinished surface. "For you, theyíre stepping stones. Sometimes fixing bad spots made by people like your old self. Sometimes covering new places that could use safer footing. Laying the path to a better Warrior Princess. Leading to a better world along the way." She nodded to herself. "Yes, I see that now. Important work."
Xena raised a wry brow. "Mm. Well, necessary work. At least for me. Except I donít have to do it alone, like I thought."
Gabrielle ducked her head. "Iím grateful you let me," she acknowledged softly. "And so proud."
"Itíd be a much harder road without you, Gabrielle. Walking among people whose eyes reflect a demon. Getting them to trust me. Seeing up close what didnít touch me at a distance."
"Sort of like a buffer? Between you and them?"
Xena gazed into the distance. "I used to shut myself off from all that. Allowing it in Ö. If it came full force Ö." She shuddered. "You kind of temper it. Put it in a different light. I can step back, take it in a little at a time." She snorted. "Besides, saving you helps keep my attention on what I can do, whatís right in front of me, not moping so much about what I canít undo."
Gabrielle rolled to her back. She gazed at the stars emerging from the dusk. "This may work out better than I thought."
"Uh huh. See, at first I didnít have a clue what I was getting myself into. I mean, I had no idea about all the things you can do. Heh, or the company you keep. Ares, Hercules, Prometheus, kings and warlords, Death herself. How could I compete with that? But you acted like it was perfectly normal - a naïve nobody tagging along, butting into things I didnít know were way over my head."
"Doing the right thing is way over a lot of peopleís heads. Takes somebody like you not to let that stop them."
"Hmm." Gabrielle turned her head Xenaís way. "So cluelessness has its good points?"
"Like I said, you have good sense. A good heart to go with it. Long as Iíve got good skills to back it up, weíll be okay."
"I really appreciate that, Xena. You have a lot more patience and sensitivity than you give yourself credit for. Somebody else mightíve dumped me weeks ago."
"Doing good could get boring. One warlord isnít much different from the next." Xena smirked. "You throwing in a baby or a Titan every now and then keeps me on my toes."
"Gee. And here Iíve been worrying Iím too much trouble."
"Donít count on it." Xena picked up her needle. She gave her young companion a crooked grin before resuming her mending. "With my past - all the work I gotta do to make up for it? Iíll be neediní trouble worth a lifetime."