THE BETWEEN THE LINES SERIES
(or what happened between the episodes)
For Disclaimers, see "Looking for Trouble"
1.20 – Brick by Brick
(post "Ties That Bind")
X: "Gabrielle-- I want you to understand something. We both have families we were born into. But sometimes families change, and we have to build our own. For me, our friendship binds us closer than blood ever could."-Ties That Bind
"Come on Xena, come at me again!" Gabrielle holds her staff up, just like I told her--hands shoulder-width apart, feet planted firmly, one slightly forward, one slightly back, staff at chest-height, at a slight angle.
I taught her well, and I have the bruise across my shoulders to prove it, although it came by pitchfork, not by staff. Not that I didn't deserve it. Considering what I almost did, getting smacked across the back by my best friend is getting off easy.
The murderer inside me surfaced so easily, my head is still spinning, my blood still boiling. I spent so many years feeling that sensation, never quite sure where it came from, only knowing it drove me, licking at me, like a fire at dry leaves, consuming me until the rage rose up and the only thing that would satisfy me was to conquer anything that stood in my way.
Now I know.
It was always him. Sure, I served him. Any warlord worth their salt paid homage to the God of War. I did my share of sacrificing in his temples, raising my sword in his name. But until I met 'Atrius,' I hadn't a clue what, exactly, was driving me.
He pushed my buttons so easily, and I'm still ashamed of my behavior. We rescued the girls of Locia, and just as quickly as I rescued them, I was ready to kill them all, all because a god posed as my father and made me feel things I had long ago shoved aside. Or so I thought.
He ripped open wounds long-healed, reached down inside, and twisted my guts into a mess, and made me feel like the little girl who lost her father, all over again. He made me hate the people of Locia. And he almost cost me my best friend.
She's apologized a dozen times for hitting me. The thing is, I deserved it. I was so blind I didn't even see her there at first, one of the men I was commanding holding her, his arm pressed against her throat. I don't think she understands just how close she came to dying, at my command.
It was wrong to let go of my heart and fall in love with her. I don't deserve her as a friend, much less anything more. I wonder how close I came to losing her over this? And how in Tartarus she can still want to follow me around after what I did, is one of life's great mysteries.
Maybe it's the fear of loss that I have to overcome. I lost my father. I raised an army from my own villagers and fought Cortese, but we lost so many innocent lives, and my own brother died, spitted on the end of Cortese's sword. With all my resolve to save my village, I couldn't even save a member of my own family.
We may have won the battle, but in the end, I lost my village anyway. No one wanted me around Amphipolis after it sons fell to their deaths under my leadership. So, it seems I would've lost Amphipolis, one way or the other. Damned if I do, damned if I don't. Story of my life.
Maybe it's that fear of loss that drove me to become what I came. Ares, or no, it started out so simply - Cortese moved on from our little backwoods settlement - there wasn't really much there for him, after all. And from the outskirts I vowed to protect it, whether they wanted me or not. I don't know why I did that. It certainly wasn't my home anymore. Maybe I thought it would get me back in their good graces.
So I built up the beginnings of my army. We were so rusty, and I was so young. The only way to keep them under my control was to make them fear me. It was only after I honed my skills that I earned their respect for what I could do - for my ability to fight and strategize. Early in the game, I had only my sword and an attitude as big as Olympus o keep them under control.
And I used that same control to spread fear to the areas surrounding Amphipolis. It wasn't long before thugs and raiders knew not to mess with Xena's hometown. I had conquered them - I owned their fear.
But there's a problem with conquest. It's never enough. It's never over. We moved further and further from Amphipolis, and I moved further and further from the person I was raised to be. After a while, no matter how hard I looked, I couldn't find that village girl who dreamed dreams of adventure and yes, of love. Bed sports took the place of love. And the conquest took the place of adventure. And I lost myself along the way.
Damned if she didn't come along and strip my soul bare. She's bound and determined to see that person I can no longer see. Bound and determined not to let me go down that path again. Even if it means smacking me across the back with a pitchfork.
And yet, I fear all over again.
Fear that I'll lose her. Fear that I'll hurt her. Fear that if I let myself love her, she will only come to hate me. How could she not, if she knew the real me? How can she see what she says she sees in me? All I see is someone who can turn on a dinar - all resolve to use my sword for the greater good completely dissolved the instant someone threatened what I saw as mine.
My father. A father I never really knew. And a father that was never really mine. I don't know what I was thinking. Maybe, if I could get to know this man who had abandoned me so long ago, I could get back some of what I've lost. Maybe I could find that girl from Amphipolis again.
Can I really blame this all on Ares? Maybe it's just who I am. Maybe he simply dug in, carving himself a place inside a piece of me that already exists, with or without him. He found that empty space and filled it with hope of regaining the love of my father. Who will it be next? Will he use my mother? My only living brother?
Who am I kidding? Who can turn me inside out and make me feel things that can take me from joy to terror in a heartbeat? Joy in the hope I can find love - terror that I'll destroy it, just as I've managed to destroy just about everyone and everything that ever meant anything to me?
If I allow myself to feel the things I feel for her, it's only a matter of time before Ares, or someone else, will try to use her to hurt me. Or hurt her to get to me. Or hurt her because of her connection to me.
And yet, I can't bring myself to send her away. She's made it clear Potadeia isn't her home anymore, and I spouted off some flowery sentiment about our friendship bringing us closer than blood kin. Sure, it's true, at least it's true on my part. No one has gotten as close to me as she has, ever. But it isn't right to let her get close enough to get hurt, no matter what I feel.
Her hand on my shoulder brings me back to the present. This is all no good. She has me daydreaming in the middle of a drill, and worse, she walked right inside my defenses and I didn't react at all. It's like my body knows it's her, and my senses drop all guard, letting her in on every level.
It has to stop.
"I can't do this." I drop my staff and lean on it, much like a walking stick.
"What do you mean, you can't do this?" That hand is still there, pressed warmly against my back. "Of course you can. You're the best. I need you to help me learn this, Xena. Eponin only showed me the basics. I've learned so much more from you."
And that's just it, isn't it? I'm leading another person down this path, just like I did my brother. "What have you learned from me, Gabrielle? Have you learned what a killer looks like? Maybe if you look hard enough, you can learn to kill, too." I look down, unable to meet those eyes. They slay me, and I know if I look at them now, I'll only see hurt and confusion.
I feel her hand fall away, and hear a sub-vocal sound from her lips, and I know I've caused her grief. "I . . ." She stops and I hear her feet, running, and see her staff roll across the ground before my downcast eyes. My own soul echoes her ache.
Damn. "Gabrielle!" After a moment or two, I take off after her. She's already out of sight, but she hasn't learned to hide her tracks yet. Maybe there is something useful I can teach her, still. I slow, giving her time to get to wherever she's going, although there's this quiet pond back behind our campsite. We spent a lot of time there earlier today, bathing and just resting in the sun.
Sure enough, as I part the branches of a low-hanging tree, I see her on the far end of a long point of land that projects itself out across the water, a peninsula. She's sitting on the ground, facing out toward the water, all drawn up around herself, and even from here, I see her shoulder shaking. A few steps closer, and I can hear her sobs.
Tears sting my eyes, and I swipe the damned things away. Time to go see if I can un-make an ass of myself. My chest hurts. Or maybe it's my heart. "Gabrielle?" I approach her quietly, and get no response. She doesn't wave me off, though, so I close the distance and kneel down next to her, and rest one hand on her back.
She doesn't shrug me off, but when she looks up, my heart breaks. Tears stream down her face. I put those there. How many times will this happen? I sigh, and reach across, brushing my thumb against her cheek, catching them. "Gabrielle, I'm sorry. That was uncalled for."
"Yeah, it was." She looks back down and picks up a stone, turning it over in her hand a few times before she hurls it out across the water. It skips several times, and I remember a much nicer time a few weeks ago, when I showed her how to do that. She chews on her lower lip and frowns, still looking down. "What did I do this time?" She looks up and our eyes meet, and I can see all the way to the bottom of her soul - she's heartbroken, and it's all my fault. "Xena, I don't want to learn to kill. I -- I don't understand. I just want to be able to defend myself, and help you out."
I start to pop off that I don't need help, but catch myself, just in time. That
would only make things worse right now, and I realize maybe I've learned a
few things from her as well. "You didn't do anything. I did." I
sit down next to her and cross my legs, and lean over them, my forearms holding
my weight. "I never wanted you to see that side of me -- what I
did at Locia. I thought that Xena was long gone. Guess she was
just waiting for an invitation to come out."
"Oh." A brush of air and a warmth settles over me, as she presses closer, one arm across my shoulders. "Xena, you've told me who you were. And I've heard the stories. I think I always knew that side of you was there. It was scary, but it turned out alright. Maybe seeing that -- it can help me understand you better."
"There are some things I never wanted you to understand. I was going to kill innocent people. Gabrielle, I was going to execute an entire village, without even bothering to find out who had hurt the person I thought was my father." I look up at the sky, and close my eyes, willing away the emotions churning in my middle. "What if I do it again, and this time I succeed?"
"I won't let you," she answers quietly. But there is a firm resolve in those words, and a soft stroking of her fingertips against my bare shoulder, and a pressure, as she touches her head to mine, pulling me close.
I melt into her, allowing her to be the comforter, wanting her to make it all go away. She's gone and done it again, torn away my defenses, brick by brick, without me even giving up a fight. "I'm so sorry," I whisper.
"So am I." She kisses my forehead, and then my cheek. "I'm sorry your father hurt you so much when you were little. And I'm sorry you don't trust me to be true to who I am."
I snap my head around and stare at her. "But I do . . ." She presses a finger against my lips.
"No, you don't." Slowly, she drops the finger and touches my face. "You think because I want to be like you and learn from you, that I want to learn to kill. And it's not true. I just want to learn enough to avoid being killed. Big difference, Xena. Big difference. And there's a difference between defense and murder, and you're not a murderer. Not anymore." Before I can protest, she holds up a hand. "Don't."
Her hand is shaking, and she reaches over and strokes my hair. "You're not," she continues, softly. "I know what you can do with your sword. I've seen it and I hate it. But I've not seen you take anyone in cold blood. Not a one."
"I'm sorry. I . . ." That hand stops me again, a thumb tracing my lower lip.
"Let me finish. I hate it, but without it, we'd both be dead. It's what you have to do. I understand that. Don't treat me like a little girl, Xena. I'm not. I think I can decide what I can and cannot handle." She smiles, finally, a tiny one, and tilts her head, forcing me to meet her gaze. "Can you get past this enough to help me learn what I need to learn? Please?"
She takes my face in her hands, and before I can think, those lips touch mine, and I return the pressure for a timeless moment, then hug her to me. I'm shaking all inside, and feel her hands at my back, soothing me. "Okay." I pull back, just enough to touch my forehead to hers. "But can we take a break, and start again tomorrow? I'm not sure I trust my hands to hold a staff at present."
"Fair enough." She takes my hand and kisses first one, and then the other, those green eyes looking right to the bottom of my soul. I know I shouldn't let what is happening between us happen, and hope that I have the courage to put a stop to it if it gets any more intense.
"Come on." I break the spell, and haul first myself, and then her, to our feet. "We don't have to spar for me to show you a few moves with the staff that might come in handy. I can show you a series of drills you can do anytime, all on your own."
"That would be awesome!" She takes my hand and leads me back up the path, and I realize that truly, there will probably be no saying 'no' to her, no matter what she wants. I have no bricks left.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~NEXT in the BTL Series - post "The Greater Good"
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