Xena and Gabrielle weather a few ripples in their new friendship immediately following their experiences in the second episode, CHARIOTS OF WAR.
IT COULD BE WORSE
"An arrow? An arrow?! A bow-and-arrow kind of arrow?! B-b-but .…how? When…?"
Xena froze. She barely noticed the chilly water lapping at her knees, the goose bumps on her skin, the fact that she stood revealed in all her glory before a gawking crowd of one. She’d had her share of surprises before. Sudden storms. Flotsam drifting by. Stealthy predators of both the animal and human kind lying in wait. This was a first. Like a lightning bolt it hit her that a cherished morning swim might never be the same.
"Doesn’t it hurt? It’s so red and puffy. Should you be doing that? You could strain something or rupture …."
Why wasn’t Gabrielle asleep? The few weeks they’d been traveling together, Xena’d had to pry the girl out of her bedroll. There’d been plenty of time to prepare for the burst of questions and observations and exclamations about everything from how "Elysian" it felt lying under the stars, to how "creepy" the forest could be at night. But if the bubbly redhead had inexplicably become a morning person ….
"Gods only know what might be floating around in there. Mother always said …."
Maybe the girl mistook astonishment for acquiescence. Xena narrowed her eyes and bared her teeth. That usually shut people up.
"You could’ve picked up an infection. What if you get sick or something? I don’t know what I would – ."
Didn’t seem to work on this one though.
"I’d have to …. Huh? You say something?"
"It’s nothing!" Xena gritted out, gesturing dismissively at the fresh wound on the left side of her belly. She lowered her head and strode the rest of the way through the water, up the slight incline, past the latest thorn in her side, over to the blanket she’d planned to relax on while she dried off and performed whatever other rituals she preferred in peace and quiet.
Gabrielle trailed behind. She gasped when she caught sight of another wound – this one on the tall woman’s lower back – but restrained herself from saying anything. While Xena snatched a cloth from her bag, her young companion plopped down in the middle of the blanket. The warrior muttered to herself and began toweling off.
"Seriously, Xena, you should take better care of yourself." Gabrielle rummaged around in a saddlebag, sighing with satisfaction when she found an apple. "Want some?" she asked the furiously scrubbing warrior.
Xena glowered in response.
"See? You don’t eat right. You don’t sleep enough. You push yourself so hard all the time." Gabrielle bit into the apple. "Mmmm. Good." She took a few more bites. "I think this is the last one. Sure you don’t want any?"
Xena scowled at the remainder of the apple. "Any what. Seeds?"
"Oops." Gabrielle giggled, holding up by its stem not much more than the core. "Guess I was hungrier than I thought." She polished off the last edible portions.
Now in her battledress, Xena towered over Gabrielle with folded arms. She stared pointedly at a corner of the blanket. Gabrielle got the hint. She scooted to one side so Xena could drop down next to her.
"Okay." Gabrielle wiped her hands on the blanket, oblivious to her companion’s pursed-lipped disapproval. "Now that we’ve had breakfast, let’s get back to that wound. I can’t believe you’re out of my sight for a couple of days and come back all bruised and nearly torn to pieces."
Xena rolled her eyes. What on earth had she been thinking when she agreed to this arrangement? Neither of them obviously had a clue about what they were letting themselves in for. She sucked in her cheeks and decided that ignoring the chatter might be more humane than tying and gagging the chatterer. She squinted grimly at her boot, forcing herself to care whether the laces went through each eyelet flat and evenly.
"I didn’t see anything before you left to scout ahead. You didn’t get them when you fought Sphaerus’ father, so it had to be before. But if you were already hurt, how come - ."
"Arghh! It happened just after I left you, all right?" Xena yanked her other boot up, abandoning all pretense at patience. "I heal fast. I’m used to carrying around a few nicks and scratches. I told you, it’s nothing."
"Nothing?! Xena, you have two new holes in your body! A hair’s length away from vital organs! How can you say it’s ‘nothing’? You might’ve …. You could’ve been …." Gabrielle bit her lip, averting her suddenly brimming eyes. "And I didn’t even know!"
Finished dressing, Xena prepared to jump up and seek solitude "exercising" in the woods. The hurt and fear in Gabrielle’s voice stopped her – yet another reminder she wasn’t alone anymore. A little unnerved, Xena tentatively leaned closer to her perplexing companion.
"Gabrielle? You all right?"
Gabrielle swiped a hand across her cheek. "It’s nothing," she murmured. "I’m not usually such a baby." She forced a grin. "I’ve seen chickens with worse peck wounds than that. I’ve even popped a few necks in my time." She gathered herself to rise. "Don’t worry, I won’t be a – ."
"Wait." Xena put a restraining hand on the girl’s shoulder. "You’re right. It could’ve been worse. If it makes you feel any better, the same arrow caused both holes." She grinned and got a small smile in return. "Lucky for me, your cute, potential ‘tree in the forest’ wasn’t cut out to be a killer."
"What?! Sphaerus?! He shot you?"
"The good news is, I’d’ve been toast along with those villagers, if he’d pursued them when I was out cold." Xena shrugged. "I could’ve lain on that field and died anyway. Instead, Darius took me in, cared for me. That’s why I could walk around like it was nothing. Okay?"
Gabrielle sighed. "I guess so. I just …. It hadn’t really hit me before you could be hurt like that. Or …. And that I could be in some tavern laughing and flirting with the guy who did it."
Xena chuckled. "I’m actually mortal," she mock whispered. "But don’t tell anyone. Might ruin my reputation."
"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle playfully bumped shoulders with the older woman. "I promise, I’ll get used to all this. I don’t know what I was thinking, getting upset about what a warrior like you shrugs off as no big deal." She grinned ruefully. "I mean, it’s not like I picked a Hestian priestess to tag along with."
"True." Xena uncurled to her feet, signaling time to get moving. She paused to study Gabrielle as the girl began folding the blanket.
"Hmmm?" Gabrielle concentrated on folding the blanket neatly, which she figured would please the warrior. She glanced up when she realized Xena hadn’t said anything else.
"I hope you never get used to all this." Xena’s serious expression softened. "And anybody’d be lucky to have someone who thinks what happens to her is a big deal. Thanks."
Gabrielle grinned shyly. "So I should take back my promise?"
Xena gazed at her a moment. "That’s up to you." She offered her hand to pull Gabrielle up. "C’mon. I can already feel the grass growing under our feet." She whistled for Argo.
"What’s so bad about that?" Gabrielle walked over to her bedroll and retrieved her skirt. She cut her eyes at Xena, who’d come over to gather the rest of her belongings as well. "Philosophers say a little meditation is good for the soul."
"Meditation? That’s what you call it?" Xena glanced at the spot where she heard Argo approaching. The mare trotted up and stood obligingly while her mistress loaded their gear.
"Well, not meditation exactly. More like reflection." Gabrielle shouldered her bag and joined Xena.
"Mm." Xena swung aboard Argo. The trio headed for the road.
"Don’t you reflect sometimes?" Gabrielle asked as she walked alongside Argo. "You know – relax, review your day? Think about where you’ve been and what it might mean in the grand scheme of your life?"
Xena snorted softly. "More like nightmares," she muttered to herself. She looked down at Gabrielle. "I get all the reflection I need, swimming."
"Well, not reflection exactly." Xena smirked. "More like meditation."
"Seriously. Everything comes together then. The physical, the mental, the spiritual." Xena reflected on why that was the one time she felt so relaxed. "It’s like I’m one with the water. My flesh, my muscles, my bones. It takes away my weariness. Absorbs my thoughts. Revitalizes me."
"Huh. That’s interesting."
Xena shook her head, having momentarily forgotten her companion. "Oh?"
"It’s like, for me, it’s taking in. For you, it’s letting go."
Xena closed her eyes. Revisited the feeling of just … being. Moving fluidly through a time and space where past and future didn’t matter, only the moments of blissful nothingness. Suspended in a kind of embryonic wholeness, free of memories or worries about what she would need to be reborn.
"Yeah," she responded, opening her eyes. "I guess you could say that."
She suddenly became more aware of Argo beneath her, of where she was. She scanned their surroundings, a little disconcerted she’d been so lost in reverie, if only briefly. Fortunately she didn’t see or sense anything threatening. She glanced down wryly at the innocent mother hen she’d let slip into her space. Not exactly what she’d bargained for, but - considering what she was used to - it could be worse.
"What about when you had armies?"
"Armies?" Xena blinked in confusion, wondering if she’d missed something during her … reflections.
"Did you swim like that then?"
"Did you take your meditative swims when you had armies? You know …." Gabrielle’s cheeks reddened. "Um, in the buff."
Xena reined Argo to a halt and gaped at the young redhead.
Gabrielle mentally kicked herself. It felt so natural talking to Xena, she forgot sometimes their friendship was only a few weeks’ old and that chatting probably wasn’t so natural for the warrior.
"S-s-sorry. I … I didn’t mean to get personal or anything."
"Personal? What’s ‘personal’ about that? I’m getting whiplash trying to follow where in Tartarus you’re going with this."
Xena dismounted. She grabbed a waterskin and took a few long swigs. She offered it to Gabrielle, who did likewise before excusing herself for a quick trip to the bushes.
Xena used the break to suck in some deep breaths. It was challenging enough being around somebody who actually expected her to converse for extended periods of time about something other than the next military campaign. But the girl acted like they’d been best buddies since childhood. The warrior never knew what to expect, though she admitted an unaccustomed willingness to find out.
When Gabrielle returned, Xena decided to walk awhile. She said nothing, but cocked her head at Gabrielle.
"Soooo …. Where were we?" Gabrielle grinned sheepishly, happy Xena didn’t mind talking, but now unsure about the wisdom of forging ahead. She noted the warrior continued looking at her with a "this better be good" expression.
"Hokay …. See, we were talking about meditation and reflection and all. That led you to talk about swimming."
"I got that part, Gabrielle."
"Oh. Right. Well, I can see how you could do your meditative swimming with just the two of us …." Gabrielle heard a grunt and caught Xena cutting her eyes that way. She cleared her throat. "Um, and when you were alone, of course. But surrounded by hundreds of men?"
"I didn’t need to meditate then. That came with having a conscience," the warrior replied tightly. "I did need to get away sometimes or to focus on the next battle. Sometimes I just needed lots of water to get off all the …. If I could, I swam in private. If I couldn’t …." Xena shrugged. "It’s not like they hadn’t seen a woman before."
Gabrielle snorted. "Yeah, but how many have bodies to die for?" It dawned on her what she’d said. She blushed when she realized Xena was regarding her with a bemused expression. "Um, I mean --."
"Gabrielle, my body is a weapon, a source of strength and power. I didn’t mind my men admiring it. They knew it was mine to use or give as I saw fit. Only a handful actually died because they thought otherwise." She looked curiously at her companion. "You never swam in the raw?"
"Um, Poteidaia had a thing about … modesty. I sometimes bathed in the river with family or friends - female, of course - but not in sight of other people. When we swam, it was in something like our shifts."
Xena smiled in reminiscence of an earlier time. "I loved the water. I’d strip down and dive in every chance I got. Not sure what most of the other girls did. I was usually with the boys." Xena chuckled at a small gasp from Gabrielle. "Don’t worry. Even then they knew to keep their hands off."
The two walked in comfortable silence. Gabrielle mentally thanked all the marauders and villagers in distress who hadn’t intruded upon her rare heart-to-heart with the stoic warrior. She hadn’t realized until recently how used she was to the sounds of gossip, laughter or voices calling out. This was the first time she’d really been alone.
She brought her hand to her mouth, checking out the corner of her eye to make sure Xena hadn’t read her mind. The warrior strolled along as though lost in ruminations of her own.
Gabrielle amended her thoughts. This was the first time it seemed like she was alone. Not so much when Xena rode off for some purpose or another, since she usually left Gabrielle where there were people around. Nor even when the warrior slipped off on the pretext of hunting or scouting or exercise. It was mainly when the taciturn woman would be nearby - wordlessly cleaning her weapons or eating or perched atop Argo - obviously in some faraway place Gabrielle couldn’t fathom. She wanted to reach out, to fill the silence with anything that might bridge the distance between them.
And yet, despite all that …. She stole a glance at the enigmatic, ramrod woman, feeling a surge of affection. No, it wasn’t quite true she seemed alone. Xena’s powerful presence was always there, even during the warrior’s physical or emotional forays. And in those moments when she had Xena’s full attention? She felt like the only person on earth - in a good way.
Gabrielle knew Xena had gotten used to solitude, to answering no one but herself. The warrior doled out words like dinars, at no small cost to such an intensely private person. Gabrielle treasured every grudging lesson, every grunt of gratitude, every thin smile or nod of encouragement.
Feeling the urge to ask Xena something, Gabrielle sneaked another peek at her companion. She was pleasantly surprised to notice the warrior smiling to herself. Gabrielle took that as a positive sign.
"Would it be okay if I swam with you sometimes?"
Xena was thinking about the way her life had changed since Gabrielle’s appearance. When she’d been wounded a few days ago and spent time with Darius and his children, she was reminded of the future she’d left behind. She imagined that must be doubly true for Gabrielle, who obviously needed to compensate for the silences of the self-contained nomad she’d chosen to travel with. Yet when she had asked the girl about that, Gabrielle said she didn’t miss her folks so much, being with Xena.
The warrior had just chuckled to herself at the realization she’d been walking alongside Gabrielle for so long, not even antsy about the fact they hadn’t encountered any marauders or villagers in distress. Maybe having the young runaway around kept her from missing a few things herself. Not just family or the hustle and bustle of her army days, but being alone. Well, not really alone, as there were always the ghosts of her past ….
"Sorry, what was that?"
"It seems so free and calm. I’d try not to disturb you too much."
"Disturb me? Gabrielle, what – ."
"You know, since that’s how you meditate. Swimming, I mean."
Gabrielle bit her lip, cursing herself. "A little too soon, huh? Is it okay watching you from the bank?" She kicked at some pebbles in the dirt, mumbling under her breath, "Like I did today."
Xena continued staring in puzzlement at the redhead, before turning her attention back to the road. Swimming. It amazed her what Gabrielle would take an interest in. Although …. Xena considered the girl was probably lonely, despite what she said. Scintillating conversation wasn’t exactly a shared pastime. She didn’t like riding. Xena certainly didn’t want her fighting. Maybe swimming….
"Yeah, swimming’s good. You could even come with me sometimes if you want."
Gabrielle stared at the warrior a moment. "Really?" She beamed with innocent wryness. "That’s a great idea!"
"Sure." Xena nodded, pleased at coming up with such a satisfactory compromise for more togetherness. "Give you something active to do besides walking and talking." She smirked. "Or sitting on the bank counting my wounds."
Gabrielle skipped a little. "I wouldn’t ruin it for you?"
Xena gave that some thought. She knew she was a master of shutting people out when she wanted, regardless of the circumstances. What she could probably use was a little more practice letting somebody in.
"It’d be all right. I could teach you how to catch fish with your hands, maybe show you some new strokes. Can you float?"
"Kind of. If you call having the bottom half of your body sink all the time ‘floating.’"
Xena laughed. "We’ll work on that. It can be fun. I know lots of water games."
"You do?" Gabrielle studied the warrior skeptically. "They don’t involve holding somebody under until she turns blue, do they?"
"My, aren’t we paranoid."
"No offense, but from what I’ve seen so far, ‘fun’ for you is pinching, stabbing, kicking, and tackling. I’m having a hard time picturing the kind where I might not end up as bruised as you."
"Hmmm, got a point there." Xena rubbed her chin. "I haven’t had to be entertaining in a nonlethal way for quite some time." She gave her companion a mischievous sideways glance. "Speaking of which, I suppose I could honor the Poteidaian dress code when you’re with me."
"The what?" Gabrielle grimaced. "Oh. Um, no, your way’s fine. Probably better for life on the road anyway, huh?
"Mmhm. More efficient. Less muss and fuss."
Gabrielle imagined clothes flying every which a way, the two of them naked to the world. She nodded. "Like you said - more ‘one’ with nature." An image flashed through her mind of Xena emerging from the lake that morning. "Primal."
"Uh, yeah, there’s that," Xena agreed, giving Gabrielle a cryptic look. "Either way, it’s good exercise."
"Yep, could help toughen me up. Some of us aren’t quite as – ."
"Shhh." Xena halted, cupping her ear. "Up there." She pointed to streams of dark smoke emanating from behind a hill a good way ahead. "Shouting. A fire of some kind. Could mean trouble." She quickly unloaded their gear, dropping it beside Gabrielle.
"Xena?" Gabrielle’s eyes shifted uncertainly between the hill, Xena and their pile of belongings.
"Don’t know how long I’ll be," the warrior explained, swinging up on Argo. "Find someplace to camp. With any luck, I’ll be back by sunset." With a "yaaaah" to the Palomino, the warrior took off.
Gabrielle shook her head as she watched Xena race away. The woman sure was full of surprises. One moment she had the sensitivity of a mother hen, the next, of an eagle in single-minded pursuit of prey. The young redhead picked up their gear and walked toward the trees, contenting herself with the progress she’d made thus far in breaching the defenses of the guarded ex-warlord. She settled beneath an oak, far enough from the road for privacy, close enough to find Xena. Not unlike her approach to the warrior - an imprecise charting of unfamiliar terrain Gabrielle admitted she looked forward to exploring.
She surveyed their temporary living room – its "walls" the flora of endless seasons, its "floor" the earth of boundless growth, its "ceiling" a horizon without limits. It lacked the certainty and comforts of home, but it wasn’t as dull either. She unfurled a blanket, stretched out and tried not to worry too much about what her friend might be getting into beyond that smoky hill. Whatever it was, Xena would no doubt return in need of a bath. Gabrielle smiled. Not exactly what she’d envisioned as a highlight of her adventures, but - considering what she was used to - it could be worse.
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