"Stupid, stupid, stupid..." A swift kick sent a rock crashing into the lush forest that nearly choked the path.
"Would you stop that?" Xena was irritated now, her features tensing with each repetition of the word 'stupid'.
"One of these days I'm going to get us killed, Xena, simply because I'm a stupid, idiotic moron who couldn't tell evil from good if it bit me on the ass. I'm not even talking about ancient history, like Khrafstar. Look at Najara -- I fell for her line so fast it would've made Hermes look like he was standing still. Naturally, she was doing all kinds of terrible things and I ended up looking like an idiot. And now Aiden. I thought he was going to be my Lao Ma. But he was a beast -- sucking the goodness out of me, turning me into stone. Why won't you accept that nothing I do is right and get rid of me once and for all?" Gabrielle drew her foot back and kicked a jagged stone with all her might. Unfortunately, this particular stone was just the tip of a much larger rock, most of which was buried beneath the leaf-strewn earth. "Yeoooow!!!!" she screamed, hopping up and down, holding her foot.
Xena closed her eyes briefly, summoning enough composure to cover her irritation, then forcibly sat Gabrielle on the muddy path. Without a word, the warrior knelt before her, working the laces on the younger woman's boot. The bard tried to pull her foot away, but Xena grabbed her ankle. "Hold still."
"Now do you believe me? How could I have possibly proven my utter and complete stupidity better than kicking a Hades-cursed boulder. And now I've probably broken several bones and won't be able to walk and we're stuck out here in some gods-forsaken jungle in the middle of India! My screams have probably awakened a pride of tigers who are even now getting ready to have us for breakfast."
"Lions come in prides. Tigers tend to be loners." The laces finally loosened, Xena gingerly removed the bard's boot. Several of the toes were already red and beginning to swell.
"Semantics, Xena," growled Gabrielle, unable to sit still. She squirmed as the warrior examined her foot, grimacing as each toe was tested. "What are you doing? Stop touching me! It hurts!"
"I'm trying to see if anything is broken. Can you move your toes?"
Gingerly, Gabrielle attempted it, but blanched at the effort. Her eyes widened in fear as she realized that her exaggerated 'prediction' might possibly be the truth. "Oh gods, I've really done it, haven't I?"
"Looks like the first two toes are the ones in trouble. The other three are moving fine. Could just be a bad sprain, but I don't like the look of the second toe." With infinite care, she touched the toe. Gabrielle howled, jerking her foot with enough force that the warrior had to let it go or risk further injury.
"Owww!" Massaging the foot well away from the injured area, the bard finally looked Xena in the eyes. "It's really broken, isn't it?"
"Yeah, I think it is."
"We need to put something cold on it, to help the swelling. We haven't passed a stream in awhile and I don't hear one nearby."
"How can you hear anything through this din?" mumbled Gabrielle, listening to the cacophony of the jungle. Insects buzzed in noisome swarms, cicadas shrilled, birds sang florid arias, a monkey screeched somewhere above them in the canopy, and in the distance came the chilling sound of a deep-throated cat.
"We can't stay here," said Xena, looking toward the wall of verdant foliage that somewhere, hid danger.
Gabrielle's eyes watered as she moved to pick up her boot. "I'll be fine. Let's go," she murmured.
The upper half of Gabrielle's foot had already swollen alarmingly. Xena frowned. "It may be more than just a toe or two. Look here." She touched the area just below the first two toes, an action that immediately caused Gabrielle to yelp in pain. "Thought so. You can't walk on that. We have to figure something else out."
"Just feed me to a tiger. That'll solve it," said Gabrielle with a sigh. The pain was beginning to make her dizzy, and she couldn't imagine actually wearing the boot she still held in her hand.
"We'll keep that as Plan C. Right now, let's figure out Plans A and B. First, we need to cool it down." Xena scooped up a handful of mud from the path and gingerly applied it to the foot. "You do this, I'll look for some healing herbs." Xena left Gabrielle sitting inconsolably on the path, and pushed her way into the jungle.
Gabrielle could hear Xena chopping at the foliage with her sword. Then the sounds moved further away as the jungle swallowed the warrior and the cicadas drowned her progress. "I'll just wait here," she murmured, glopping more mud on her foot. "Just wait here on the path. Alone. Helpless. Helpless and stupid. That's me. Can't seem to do anything right..." She could feel the weight of depression pushing her down, almost erasing the throbbing pain. Her mind turned inward and she dropped the handful of mud back onto the path, reaching her arms around her own body, bending almost double and rocking slightly, tears now flowing freely. It was a moment of utter bleakness, and she allowed it free reign. She let it consume her, invade her, gave it permission to eat away at her from deep inside her psyche. She had no defenses against a desolation this complete, and found it almost comforting to surrender with such abandon.
She was still like this when Xena crashed through the vines back onto the muddy path. "Gabrielle?" Tentatively, the warrior stroked the bard's head.
"Don't touch me," came the muffled response, the voice wretched and rasping.
"Gabrielle..." whispered Xena, sitting beside her, unmindful of the mud.
Xena hesitated, confusion and concern warring for her features. Then with a deep breath, she turned to her friend's swollen foot and began wrapping it with the leaves she had found, mixed with more mud from the path. "This'll make you feel better..." she said, her voice trailing off.
Gabrielle didn't react. She didn't even acknowledge the warrior's presence any more. Didn't flinch when Xena wrapped the tender toes with her mixture. Instead, the bard kept her head down, hugging herself closely, still rocking slightly, as if in a gusting breeze.
"Any better?" Xena asked when she was finished. Silence. "This isn't about the pain in your foot. What is it, Gabrielle? What's happened? I was only gone for a few minutes."
The bard didn't answer.
"Is this still about Aiden and Najara?" asked Xena, in disbelief.
Finally, Gabrielle reacted. "No, it's about me!" she spat, and neither woman recognized the rasp that was passing for the bard's voice. "I'm a royal screw-up, Xena. I keep proving it over and over again. Nothing I do is right. You never do anything wrong and I just keep messing up. I never learn!"
"Anyone could have been fooled by them," said an exasperated Xena.
"Yes, I was. To a point. For instance, with Aiden, it wasn't until my wound reappeared and then I saw the amulet on the statue and, well, it was pure luck that I figured things out."
"Pure luck. Right."
"Gabrielle, talk to me. What is this about? What's going on?"
The sudden tenderness in Xena's voice forced the bard to raise her eyes. What she saw was raw emotion: depthless caring, worried fear, helplessness. Gabrielle was being invited in. Those large blue eyes were pleading with her, begging her to dive inside and touch her, mind to mind.
Taking a deep breath, the bard fought to regain enough of herself to lift the black depression -- if only for a peek outside the dark and twisted world she'd willingly plunged herself into. "I keep doing it. Trusting people who end up hurting me. Taking advantage of me. Betraying me. Why don't I learn? I'm here on a 'spiritual journey' but suddenly I'm afraid of even trying to find any answers. What if everyone we meet is just another Aiden? What if there are no more Lao Ma's in the world? What if... what if my quest leads to our deaths? I don't know how to trust anymore. I'm afraid. I'm afraid that if I try again, it'll be like the others, and... oh, why can't I figure out who these people are before our lives are on the line?"
Sympathy replaced the fear in Xena's eyes and she nodded slowly. "Now I understand. Yes, it's such a dreadful feeling, isn't it? Trusting in someone, then having that trust betrayed. Like they just reached their hands inside your chest and squeezed your heart through their fingers. And it's humiliating. You feel like the only idiot in a world of geniuses. The only one who didn't see through their flimsy masks."
"Yes, that's it..." whispered Gabrielle, awed that Xena would understand so clearly. "Exactly. But how would you know? You're never taken in. Not completely. You always manage to see through them before it's too late. And sometimes you know before it ever begins and warn me. But I don't listen and I mess it all up anyway." Anger began to build. "So how can you sit there and tell me exactly what's in my heart when you're the one who never falls for any of it?"
"Experience. Vast amounts of experience, Gabrielle. Many winters ago, I kept falling for masks and traps and was betrayed time and again, yet I never seemed to learn a damn thing." Xena leaned over to check the dressing on Gabrielle's foot, removing bits of twig and a mired fly. "You're going to need a crutch."
Xena scanned the edge of the jungle, picked up a sturdy, fallen limb then took her place again at Gabrielle's side. She withdrew her boot dagger and began to cut away the small branches and leaves.
Gabrielle watched her, mulling what she had just said. The bard's mind protested, not willing to admit there could be any similarities. Her mistakes were her own, she told herself. No one could be as wrong as she always was.
"You're just saying that to make me feel better. This is different. I'm different. I'm not you, and I'm not a warlord, or after power, or battle tricks, or any of that stuff. How can you even pretend it's the same thing?"
Xena scraped the bark away, her voice calm. "Different goals, same mistakes. Did you know that I was almost exactly your age when I met Alti?"
"Uh huh. And let's see, you were a little older when you met Khrafstar than I was when I met Caesar, but not by much." Xena stopped her whittling and turned to face the bard, sincerity and understanding coloring every feature. "Gabrielle, it's like you're living a parallel life to mine when I was young. Only I was living in a twisted mirror. Where you seek goodness and enlightenment, I sought hate and personal power. You seek the elevation of your spirit. I sought ways to bend the spirits of others to my will. But in either path, we were -- we are -- seekers. Trying to learn. Trying to soak in the knowledge of others so that we can add their gifts to our own. We're students, Gabrielle. And students often have to learn from their mistakes."
The warrior turned back to her whittling, cleanly stripping the bark in long, even slices. "The only reason I tend to be right more often than you is because I've already made so many mistakes. So very many. And despite my bull-headed tendencies, I managed to learn a thing or two from them. And I suppose," she added thoughtfully, "that this has caused a bit of arrogance on my part. Sometimes I trust myself and my decisions to the point that I'm unwilling to see an alternative. Because my past has led me to these decisions and I don't want to be caught in old traps. I'm wary, and cynical and jaded, Gabrielle. And what that means is that I probably won't be fooled so easily. But it also means I could miss out on some truly spectacular experiences. Things you would find and embrace."
The bark now stripped, Xena wrapped a large leaf around her hand and picked up some gritty soil from the edge of the path. With the leaf as protection, she rubbed the sandy particles against the wood, smoothing and planing it. "Don't want you to get splinters," she murmured.
"We're really that much alike?" asked Gabrielle, poking at her foot, testing to see which areas hurt and which didn't. She grimaced as she hit a tender spot. "And that different?"
"Yeah, I'd say we are. To both. Just remember that you aren't the only one who gets fooled by these people, Gabrielle. Aiden had a garden of stone statues as proof of that. There were plenty of others who'd fallen for his numbing peace before you ever showed up."
"You're right. I hadn't thought of that."
"And Khrafstar used your own good heart against you. All you were trying to do was protect him. To save his life. He counted on that, on your inherent goodness. That's not a fault, Gabrielle. That's something to be admired and revered. Just as Alti saw my vast potential for dark deeds, he saw yours for selfless acts."
Gabrielle shook her head, knowing that Xena was leading her on the path back to self-confidence. "I'm still trying to wrap my head around this twisted mirror thing. It's strange to think of you as my age and making similar mistakes. You're so secure and confident. And you do things so effortlessly. It's like you can see right through people and know what's in their hearts, know when they have evil intentions."
"Takes one to know one," said Xena, sweat beginning to pour as she rubbed the stick with quick, sure strokes.
"Well if that's the case -- and as you say, I'm so good-hearted -- then why don't I intrinsically recognize other good-hearted people?"
Xena laughed. "Hadn't thought of that. I don't know. Maybe goodness is harder to see? Or maybe it's just rarer."
"Gods, that's bleak," said Gabrielle with a sigh. She took a deep breath, her nostrils filling with the loamy, sensual scent of the deep jungle. The air was thick with clinging humidity and the din was unceasing. It felt as though everything was alive, even the air. As she thought this, Gabrielle absently waved her hand in front of her face for the thousandth time since they'd stopped walking, trying to rid herself of what appeared to be her own personal swarm of insects. Their own form of living air, she mused.
Xena, seemingly unmindful of her own droning cloud, continued to smooth the wood of the makeshift crutch, her concentration almost complete. "Just makes people like you more special."
Gabrielle swatted her arm, catching a mosquito in mid-sip. "You really mean that, don't you?" Somewhere above, a monkey cried out with an almost human scream. A far off howl answered it.
For the first time, Xena looked away from her work, an alert, wary expression on her face. She glanced up at the canopy, shaking her hand to regain the feeling in it. "Yeah, I do...." She brought her attention back to Gabrielle, the edginess not quite gone. "Look, you don't live the life I've led without gaining a certain appreciation for people who can remain uncorrupted. I was young, you're young. The world is different when your eyes haven't seen every bend in the path. We should get moving."
"You're talking like you're some ancient sage."
"I feel like I lived several lifetimes in that decade of winters." A panting, thrumming growl seemed to shake the bushes nearby. "C'mon, time to get you up and walking," said Xena, her concern betrayed by the suddenness in which she helped Gabrielle to her feet.
"Good idea." Gabrielle fit the crutch in her armpit, marveling at how perfectly sized it was. "It's great!" she said, testing it out with a few steps.
"Wonderful, now move." Several small creatures ran across the path, disappearing into the wall of jungle on the other side. "Uh oh," whispered the warrior, removing her sword.
The monkey's screams could only be heard in the far distance now. They'd abandoned their perches near the path. Even the insects seemed to lessen their monotonous buzzing. For a moment, it felt as though they stood in a pocket of unnatural stillness.
"Now, Gabrielle. As fast as you can," whispered Xena, her eyes glued to the bushes at the side of the path.
"A tiger?" Gabrielle whispered.
The bard hobbled as quickly as she could, her eyes glued to her feet so that she wouldn't make the mistake of tripping and adding to their problems.
As they walked, the stillness followed them. Birds stopped calling as they neared. Monkeys scrambled with fading screeches, loosening bits of leaf and twig that fell from on high. Everywhere in front and behind them was movement and activity. But where they were, all was quiet except for the buzzing clouds of flies and the din of crickets.
"He's following us, isn't he?" asked Gabrielle, in a quiet voice.
"Can we climb a tree or something?"
"I dunno. Do you think you can?"
"Probably not. Can tigers climb trees?"
"Not sure I want to find out. Just keep walking. So far he's still trying to decide how easy a meal we are. I plan on making us a very unsavory lunch."
"What are you going to do? Act bitter?" The pun came out almost unbidden and Gabrielle cursed herself for finding levity in such a trying situation. But to the bard's surprise, Xena chuckled. Gabrielle looked up from the path long enough to glance at her partner and saw that the warrior's face was alive with excitement. Her blue eyes shone with the thrill of danger, and her sword sliced the air as she tracked the cat's movements with sharp turns and adjustments. "Xena... are you enjoying this?"
"He wants a fight, I'm gonna give it to him. That's all."
"Look, he's just doing what he does. And that's what I'm doing, too. We're just two beasts in the jungle, and I'm not about to let him come out on top."
With the suddenness that could only happen in the tropics, rain began pelting the two women as they walked. Almost instantly, the path became a thick morass, sucking and pulling at Gabrielle's crutch so that she had to struggle for every step. The jungle itself began to steam under this suddenly cooler onslaught, and what once was crisp and certain became obscured and shrouded in mist.
"Xena? Where is he?" asked a nervous Gabrielle as she pulled at the crutch, now sunk two inches deep in the mud.
Xena edged closer to Gabrielle, her eyes a little less confidant. The rain had effectively done what the tiger's stealth could not. It had hidden the big cat in the jungle.
Water poured through her hair into her eyes and she wiped it away angrily. "Son of a Bacchae..."
With a wrench, Gabrielle managed to free her crutch, but the sudden sucking release caused her to lose her balance and she fell into the squelching mud.
"Gabrielle!" hissed Xena, a sudden flash of orange just a few feet from the path stealing her attention. "Run! Now!"
"I'm stuck!" said the bard, struggling to find a purchase on the slippery path.
"Now!" screamed Xena just as the gigantic tiger lunged through the dense foliage, his eyes focused on the downed bard. His shattering roar was mirrored by a warrior's battle cry as Xena swiped the air with her sword, hoping to catch his flank -- or at least his attention. Anything to stop his lunge toward Gabrielle. But the agile cat flattened his body at the last minute, missing her thrust and landing atop the struggling woman, pushing her deeper into the mud.
Xena slashed again, this time catching the beast's shoulder as he tried to take the bard's neck in his vicious jaws. He cried out in anger and pain, finally turning his attention to the annoying gnat who accompanied his dinner. Another swipe of the sword, barely missing him as he fluidly shifted his weight, and he bunched his back legs, placing all the power of his well-toned muscles into a swift leap toward Xena's jugular.
The warrior's sword met him as he leapt, but it wasn't enough to keep his claws from raking down her left side. His blood now mingling with hers, he opened his mouth to crush her vulnerable neck. At that instant, a stout branch broke against the back of his head, momentarily stunning him.
Xena took advantage of this small lapse as she pushed with all her strength, flipping the beast onto his back on the muddy path. Gabrielle dropped the branch, now broken in two.
Before the huge cat could extricate himself from the sucking mud, Xena grabbed Gabrielle around the waist and did a twisting leap toward the nearest tree. With one hand, she managed to catch the lowest branch, and pulled both herself and her friend onto the limb.
"Put your arms around my neck," she said as she glanced down at the mud-soaked tiger, who growled unhappily at the base of their tree. Again, he bunched his hindquarters, readying to leap.
Gabrielle quickly did as instructed while Xena reached for a higher branch. She pulled them both up just as slashing claws missed Gabrielle's feet by inches. The closeness of the call made the bard nauseous for several seconds, as she fought to control her nerves. As Xena reached for a higher branch, the bard noticed the tiger gripping the wood, beginning to climb after them.
"Tigers can climb, Xena!" said Gabrielle, abject terror in her voice.
"So can we," said the warrior, pushing herself harder.
The bard heard a crash and saw that the cat had fallen, unable to follow. He licked his wounded shoulder, letting out an angry roar. With determined strength, Xena pulled them unrelentingly upward, reaching toward the canopy and safety. Soon the tiger was an orange speck on the jungle floor, his throaty cries nothing but a plaintive bellow.
Xena, bangs plastered to her forehead, face and body streaked with muck and blood, stopped climbing when they'd reached a large, flat set of branches with good purchase. She looked at Gabrielle with a smile. "I guess we can call that a tie."
Gabrielle just shook her head, watching as the tiger limped back into the jungle, favoring his wounded shoulder, his soft grunts carrying faintly to their perch.
"Maybe we should stay here for awhile. Just to be sure," the bard said.
"Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. He's probably gonna hide in wait for us."
They were quiet for a moment, both lost in their thoughts, the drumming rain loud as it splattered all around them. Xena examined the wound in her side, discovering that the cat had found mostly leather, the blood just a trickle, already halted.
"I don't think we're as alike as you said we were," said Gabrielle, after several minutes of watching a spider eat a beetle. "I just can't see myself ever having your confidence."
"C'mon, Gabrielle, you're full of confidence. It's just a different kind, that's all."
"Am not. There's no way I'd ever be able to face down a tiger like that. He scared me half to death!"
"Confidence isn't defined by what dangers you're willing to face. It's about all sorts of things. You've always been pretty sure of yourself when it came to questions of morality."
"Used to be," she mumbled.
"Still are." Xena turned to the bard, frowning. "Don't dangle your bad foot like that. All the blood is rushing to it. Must throb like crazy."
"Yeah, it does."
"Lean back against the trunk, brace yourself against that big branch to the right and put your foot on my lap. It'll elevate it. Make it feel better."
Gabrielle did as she was instructed and gave a sigh of relief when she was once again settled. "This is a lot more comfortable."
Examining the wound, Xena shook her head. "You've lost most of your poultice." She pulled some leaves from the tree, rubbed them on her arm and when she determined there was no stinging sensation or detrimental effect, she draped them over the bard's foot.
The bard stared at it quizzically. "What's that for?"
"Made you a little tent."
Giggling, Gabrielle said, "And what's that going to do?"
"Nothing. But it made me feel useful."
A broad smile lit the bard's features. "That's very you, Xena. Such a telling thing to do. You always feel best when you're useful."
She shrugged. "Didn't used to be that way. Guess I've changed a lot, huh?"
"I guess!" Gabrielle closed her eyes, listening to the rain and the birdcalls and the still swarming, droning insects. "Maybe, with time, I'll change a lot, too."
"Let's check. Hop on down there and wrassle that tiger."
The bard popped open one eye and caught the warrior's grin. "You are refusing to take this seriously."
"Because it's not serious. Not really. You'll either learn or you won't. You'll make mistakes or you'll do things just right. Why get upset about it? So far, we've survived them all. And sometimes your mistakes are the best possible thing that could've happened. Sometimes they led to us helping people who needed it, or destroying the power of those who shouldn't have it." Xena paused, her features concentrated as she looked for the right words. Finally, she shrugged, a small smile on her face. "I like you, Gabrielle, and maybe part of that is because you're still willing to take the risks that could be mistakes. You do it from your heart. That's what's really important. You do it because you're a good person."
"And kicking that rock -- which was definitely a mistake -- what of that? We're sitting here stuck in a tree in the middle of the jungle and me with a broken foot. Where's the good in that move?"
"I don't know. Maybe that tiger would've attacked some little kid if he hadn't been following us. Or maybe we'll discover some magic cure for broken bones while we look for ways to help you heal. Who knows? Maybe nothing good will come of it. But I'll tell you a secret. I can think of worse things than being trapped in a tree -- as long as you're here with me."
It felt as though all of Gabrielle's heart suddenly found itself lodged in her throat. It was almost difficult to breathe, the lump of emotion was so large. "Oh..." was all she managed to whisper.
A somewhat smug Xena knew she'd hit her target. "You want to get going? Or would you rather stay up here awhile longer?"
"I... let's stay up here," said Gabrielle, her voice still a little ragged. "There aren't as many bugs, it's still raining but there's lots of leaves to take the brunt of it and besides, my foot has its own tent."
"All right. For a little while, we'll let the world go on without us. We'll sit in our tree and listen to the monkeys and throw seed pods at any passing tigers."
"Yeah. Sounds like a great way to spend an afternoon in the jungle."
Xena shifted her position, taking care not to jiggle Gabrielle's foot. When she was finally sitting next to the bard, with her back to the trunk, she put an arm around her shoulders. Gabrielle took the invitation with delight, snuggling close to the warrior's wet skin, and resting her head on one broad shoulder. Xena kissed her lightly on the head and held her a little closer.
"Don't ever call yourself stupid again, you hear me?" the warrior murmured.
"Promise. How stupid could I be if I was smart enough to trail along after you?"
"Some people would call that a mistake."
"Fine. Then I'll gladly not learn a thing from it, and continue to make mistakes as smart as that one until I'm old and gray."
Chuckling softly, Xena held her close, listening to the very distant cry of a wounded tiger. "I'm pretty sure that tiger is still right below us," lied Xena. "Maybe we should stay up here for several hours. Ever made out in a tree?"
"What, you think it might be a mistake?"
"Yeah, a great big one. Let's do it."
The rain stopped falling on Gabrielle's face as Xena's lips found hers, the beginning of an afternoon filled with delicious errors.
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