RANDOM THOUGHTS -
Part 9 : Brave
by Claire Withercross
Disclaimer : Xena and Gabrielle are copyright MCA /Universal, everything else is mine. Except the lyrics which are published by Charisma Music Publishing / Rondor Music.
Warning : This story raises the subject of a physical relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. If thats not your particular beverage, you have been warned.
The loneliest person in the world is the one who knows they are dying. Even amongst a crowd of friends, you can see it in their eyes. They may put a brave face on it. They may smile and laugh. But it's always there at the back of their mind; they are the odd one out, everyone else will go on living. Some of them will hate you for it.
Those words came back to the warrior as she watched Raphael smile at something being said to him. The smile didn't touch his eyes. She couldn't remember who had said those words to her. Probably someone she had killed.
"Xena!" Raphael's smile got wider, and for a moment he forgot he was dying.
Raphael held out an arm towards Xena as she walked towards him. She gripped his arm in a warrior's greeting, frightened to put too much strength into it. His arm was thin, like the rest of him, and devoid of strength.
"I'm so glad you could make it," he said.
"I'm glad I could make it, old friend."
"Less of the old," he joked with hollow humour.
Xena studied him. She remembered a strong, healthy, robust man. This apparition before her was none of those. His thin hair hung lank about his thin face, the flesh of his arms was wrinkled now that his muscles were withered. He looked like an old man, but he couldn't be more than fifteen years older than herself. He should still be in his prime. "I...It's...."
"It's okay," he said softly. "Most people don't know what to say at first."
'At least he doesn't hate me,' the warrior thought.
"Grab a drink, and curse the gods with me," said Raphael, and clapped her, without power, on the shoulder.
Gabrielle felt out of place in the room full of soldiers. She stood with her back to the wall trying not to get noticed, and doing a good job at it too. The soldiers paid her no attention. They were busy drinking, laughing, singing, reminiscing. It was almost like any other group of soldiers relaxing, except female company was the last thing on their minds.
She watched them circulate, they would stop by Raphael to share a moment, but move on quickly. They relaxed more when they left him. It was all subconscious, they didn't realise they did it. Perhaps it was because they knew one of them was going to kill him.
No one noticed when she slipped out of the room.
The bard looked up from her scroll at the sound of her name. Xena poked her head around the door to the bedroom.
"There you are. What are you doing here?"
"I'm just..... I don't belong out there."
"Nonsense," declared Xena.
"No, Xena. I'm not a soldier. I....I can't."
"Not even for me?"
The bard shook her head slowly. "Sorry, not even for you. I don't think what's going on is right."
"We're here to give Raphael a good send off."
"Send off!" repeated the bard incredulously. "You're going to kill him!" she cried.
Xena went to her and wrapped her arms around the trembling bard. "It's what he wants," she whispered.
"That doesn't make it right."
"You've seen him. He's wasting away. Getting weaker day by day. The healers can't help him."
"Gabrielle," the warrior silenced her lover's words. "Raphael is a warrior. One of the finest men I ever had in my army. One of the most...no, the most honourable man I ever had in my army. If he ever disarmed someone in battle, he always let them pick their weapon up, he would never kill them unarmed. When he saw the path I was following, he left me. I wouldn't let many walk away from me. Raphael was different.
"This is his choice. He wants to go out with a sword in his hand, the way he always expected to go. He wants to go now, while he still has some strength to pick up a sword."
"It's still not right," insisted Gabrielle.
"Is it right that he's dying from some wasting disease?"
"Not to a warrior. Even nature is a battle to fight and win. And if you can't win, at least you go out fighting."
Gabrielle didn't want to get into an argument over this, but she was adamant that she was going to have no part in it.
"You go," she said. "This is a warrior thing, and I'm not a warrior."
Xena sensed that Gabrielle was digging her heels in and decided not to press the issue. She gave her a kiss, and returned to the gathering.
Gabrielle tried to concentrate on her scroll, but it was impossible. She was grateful for the interruption of the knock on the door. She got up and opened it to see Raphael standing there.
"May I come in?"
"Uh....yes, of course."
He made his way to a chair and sat down. "You don't mind do you? I usually wait until I'm asked."
"No, not at all."
"Ha!" he exclaimed. "It's amazing what people let you get away with when you're dying. I wish I'd tried it years ago." He looked at the shocked expression on the bard's face. "I won't be offended if you laugh at my jokes. That's if you think they're funny."
"Oh, don't worry, dear," he waved a hand to dismiss the topic. "I'm not here to make you feel uncomfortable."
"But you do though," said Gabrielle. "The dying always make the living uncomfortable."
Raphael shook his head. "Not true. I've killed more than my fair share of people on the battlefield and the dying soldiers never made me feel uncomfortable. It's the ones who are dying slowly that make people uncomfortable. The ones who are dying of some disease that the healers can't fix.
"Let me tell you a little secret. Dying's a damn sight more uncomfortable from my end," he concluded with a twinkle in his eye.
Gabrielle couldn't stop herself from letting out a small yelp of laughter.
"That's better," he continued with a smile. "Xena tells me you don't want to join my little party."
"That's okay," Raphael held up a hand to stop her. "That's your choice to make. Just like I'm making a choice. I'm not asking you to approve, or understand. I'm asking you to respect my decision to do this my way."
Gabrielle nodded slowly.
"And if Xena is the one to do the duty, I want you to respect her decision to do it."
"Don't turn your back on her, she'll need your support. I know it's a lot to ask, but you two appear to have something special. It would be a shame to lose that."
"I'll always be there for her."
"Good, because I can see she's hurting."
"What do you mean?" asked Gabrielle, shocked.
"You can't see it? Maybe you don't know her well enough. Or maybe dying makes you see things more clearly. Something is troubling her. Though she's doing a good job to hide it."
"No," said Gabrielle. "You're mistaken. She's fine. Maybe this...this business is affecting her."
"Maybe," agreed Raphael.
They partied all night. And strangely for a bunch of soldiers partying all night, not a single one of them got drunk.
When it was time, Raphael called for attention. The assembled soldiers turned to face him, but very few met his eyes as he spoke, and even those that did couldn't hold his gaze for long.
"I asked you all here for several reasons. One you know. But most importantly I asked you because I consider you the bravest soldiers I had the honour of fighting with. And I know it will take a very brave person to carry out the duty you're all here for. Besides, I wouldn't want to be killed by just anyone," he chuckled dryly.
There were a few chuckles returned.
"You've all proved your bravery on the battlefield, and again by turning up here. Some I invited haven't come for whatever reason. Maybe they're scared I'll beat them."
Again there was some laughter, this time more heartfelt.
Raphael swallowed hard. "I promised myself I'd see the dawn before I die." He turned, walked to the door and threw it open. "Shit! It's foggy. It's foggy!" he laughed. He turned back to his comrades. "It's fucking foggy!" he roared with laughter, tears rolling down his cheeks. "Let's get this damn business over with."
There was one stone for each them, all white except for one black. Whoever drew the black stone would carry out the deed. As each soldier drew a stone from the bag they kept a tight hold of it. When the bag was empty they waited.
At Raphael's nod they all opened their hands at the same time.
Xena breathed a mental sigh of relief when she saw the white stone nestling in her palm. Murmuring started as everyone with a white stone looked to see who had drawn the black one. One person stood stock still staring down at his palm and the dark stone nestled there.
"Victor," said Raphael gently, removing the stone from his soon to be killer's hand.
Victor closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
"If you want to refuse, I'll understand," said Raphael. "I won't hold it against you. No one will."
"Never," said Victor. "I gave my word. We all did."
Xena watched numbly as Raphael picked up a sword in both hands and struggled to hold it before him. It was a sword he would have easily held in one hand before he got sick.
Victor drew his sword and the 'fight' began.
When it was over, Victor turned to face the others, trembling. The first man to reach him, embraced him. The others moved closer to offer their support.
"He died as he wanted."
"You made him proud."
"That was the hardest thing I've ever..." Victor's voice broke in a sob.
"It's okay. It's over," was all Xena could think to say.
Gabrielle sat up as Xena entered the bedroom.
"Is.....?" she let the question hang in the air.
Gabrielle hung her head and let a tear slip out. Xena rushed to her and took the bard in her arms. The warrior felt there was nothing to say so she just held her.
"Who...?" again Gabrielle couldn't bring herself to finish the question.
"I'm so glad it wasn't you," said Gabrielle.
"So am I," Xena admitted. "I don't think I could've done it."
"You would've," Gabrielle assured her. "You gave your word."
Xena nodded. "I guess you're right." She gave Gabrielle a squeeze. "Would you mind if I go. I need a little a time to myself."
"Sure," said Gabrielle, slightly upset that Xena didn't want comforting. "I'm here when you need me."
Xena blinked back a tear. "You don't know how much that means to me." She took a deep breath to regain some composure. "I'll be outside. If you want to join me in a little while, I'd appreciate that. But for now I need a moment to think."
When Xena reached the door, Gabrielle called out. "Xena!"
The warrior turned to face her.
"I love you," said Gabrielle.
Xena nodded and closed the door behind her.
For a moment it feels good.
My breath hangs like a shroud over my face before dissolving into the fog that blankets the world.
I can see the bright disk of the sun, but everything else is white; is nothing. I like that about fog. It obliterates the world, and I can believe for a moment that a new world will appear when it goes.
Or a new me will appear.
Stupid, I know.
The bleak whiteness is merely a temporary thing. A brief pause in life. Nothing will change when it goes away, the real world will come crashing back on me. There's a certain hopelessness to it all, knowing that nothing will change.
Knowing that I won't change.
The ratcheting cry of a crow echoes in the stillness. It stirs memories I want to forget. The carrion birds are common in the aftermath of a battle. That's the bad thing about fog. It gives you time to reflect on the past.
I hear Gabrielle's footsteps before I see her dim shape appear through the fog. She settles down beside me, slips her arm through mine and lays her head on my shoulder. I look down at her and she offers a weak smile in return. I notice a tear threatening in the corner of one eye. I extract my arm from hers, put it around her shoulder to pull her close, she slips her arm around my waist and I kiss the top of her head.
If only this moment would last, I could be content. But time, like the fog, will move on, and the pain will return.
How much more I can take?
"See her sadness in your face
She's inside you
And she's crying"
Brave - Hogarth
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