THE BETWEEN THE LINES SERIES
(or what happened between the episodes)
For Disclaimers, see "Looking for Trouble"
1.11 -- Influence
(post "The Black Wolf")Salmoneus: "You! That's the 'little Miss Innocent' who had me thrown in here in the first place!"
She's changed a lot since meeting the Amazons. I watch her walking ahead of me, and there is a confidence in her step that wasn't there before. She moves more freely in her new skirt and top and said she's much more comfortable than she was in her long skirt. We're shopping in an open-air market, me for boots, and Gabrielle for whatever might catch her eye. At present, Gabrielle in her new clothing is catching my eye, and I am doing my best to remind myself that those emotions have no place in my friendship with her.
I wasn't happy when I found out about Terreis giving her the right of caste, and I'm still not real thrilled about her being an Amazon princess. It's not that I would deny her something that makes her feel good about herself, and being royalty, being a part of those women, seems to do that for her. It's what I know will come with time, unless Melosa outlives Gabrielle, which is highly unlikely given their respective ages.
Someday they will make her their queen, and with that will come decisions that I had hoped she would never have to make. I'm not sure she is equipped to make them. Not that she doesn't have good judgment. Some of those Amazons could learn a thing or two from Gabrielle. Being an Amazon means being a warrior and being prepared to kill. Gabrielle is neither killer nor warrior. I don't want that for her, and I don't want decisions about other people's lives on her conscience.
I'll be damned if I'll see the Amazons destroy her soul. Amazons -- Alti used them to destroy a good portion of mine. Gabrielle being an Amazon has forced me to think about things I'd hoped were behind me forever. Traveling with her means effectively traveling with someone who should be my sworn enemy. Apparently tales of what I did to the Northern Amazons have not made their way to the Greek ones, just yet.
I pray Gabrielle never hears those stories. It's one of the most shameful times of my life. I suspect I would lose her if she were to hear how I slaughtered them all, in exchange for a promise to be made the Destroyer of Nations. I fear the day she becomes queen of the Amazons is the day she and I will have to part ways. Those stories will catch up with me. They always do.
I've avoided much contact with Amazons since Alti cursed Borias, Solon, and me. In some ways, I wish now I'd never taken Gabrielle through Amazon territory, although we did manage to stop a war between them and the Centaurs. I have my own reasons for wanting the Centaurs to be safe. More ghosts from my past that Gabrielle knows nothing about. I still wonder, if she knew everything about me, if she could do anything other than despise me.
As it is, she knows very little, but now, because of the Amazons, she's taken one more step into my world, by bearing a weapon. I'm glad she chose the staff when Ephiny showed her their weapons store. If she had to take up a weapon, it's what I would have chosen for her. She likes carrying it, and she's worked hard at her training. Since she's bound and determined to learn how to use it, I've taken it upon myself to pick up where Eponin left off. Gabrielle knows a weapon makes her a target. It's up to me to make sure she can use it well enough to defend herself, rather than carrying the staff getting her killed.
Her newfound confidence and skills came in handy when I went undercover to rescue my childhood friend Flora from Xerxes' dungeon. After we left the Amazons, we spent a day in a village a days' travel from the Amazon lands. While we were there, I heard rumors there might be trouble in the next village west, which was run by Xerxes, but Gabrielle was asked to stay on a few days and tell stories in the village tavern.
Quite honestly, we needed the dinars. Both Argo and I needed new shoes. Gabrielle assured me she would be fine on her own for a few days. She could see I was antsy to get to Xerxes' village and check out the situation there. As it turns out, Gabrielle staying behind probably saved our lives.
On her own, she managed to get herself tossed into the dungeon, sneaking my chakram and whip in with her in the process. I realized then it was probably time to quit thinking of her as a girl. She's fast becoming a woman -- one who is beautiful, intelligent, and strong. I couldn't have pulled off what she managed any better. The problem with thinking of her as a woman rather than a child, means thinking of her in ways that will only lead to trouble for both of us if I don't keep my thoughts under control.
I try to channel my feelings into a combination of a protective streak I can't help, and a sense of pride in who she's becoming. She held her own with her staff when we fought Xerxes' men, and helped in communicating and executing my rescue plan with the Black Wolves. I still see that hero worship in her eyes. I wish I could tell her outright that she shouldn't try to be like me. I think I found Flora just in time. Her heart was growing hard, even against her own mother, and she was starting to lose her focus, just like I did with Cortese. I look at Gabrielle, and it hurts my heart. I don't want another best friend following me down the wrong path.
I know Flora has killed, though not murdered anyone as I have. But it will rest forever on my shoulders that I'm the one who taught Flora how to wield a sword, and I'm the one she emulated in her efforts with the Black Wolves. She saw me in the early days, when I led Amphipolis in our stand against Cortese. She was too young to join in the fight, and I suppose she was young enough that her mother shielded her from the ugliness that followed.
I left Amphipolis, and I guess, maybe because of what happened there, Flora's family left as well, and ended up in Xerxes' village, where Flora's father and brother were killed. More blood of my fellow villagers on my hands, even if indirectly. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever quit learning of ways my efforts against Cortese destroyed the lives of people I care about.
I'm just glad Flora and her mother were reconciled, and Flora has been spared the heartache I went through with my mother. I watch Gabrielle, and occasionally I prod about her family. I don't want to influence her against them in any way. The only one she speaks fondly of is her sister Lila, and she's not expressed any desire to visit Potadeia. I know things there were rough for her, and we've not talked any more about the fact that neither her father nor her fiancé ever came after her.
How anyone could let someone like her just walk away with someone like me, baffles me. She's walking my way right now, and I realize my eyes have probably given away my thoughts, if the reflection in her eyes is any indication. "Hey." I can't help but smile as she approaches. Her hands are behind her back and she mirrors my smile. "What you hiding?"
"These." She produces a nice-looking pair of boots, sturdy, and similar to the worn ones I'm wearing. I can feel the thinness of the soles below the balls of my feet, and they are starting to chafe the backs of my heels. "Sit down, and try them on." She takes my hand and drags me over to a bench in the shade of one of the covered merchant stalls.
"Alright." She kneels down and unbuckles my kneepads, and I start to protest, but close my mouth instead. She likes to help, and this is something she seems to take pride in -- helping me with my armor. She follows by unlacing and removing my boots.
"Xena." She tsks at me, and produces a damp rag, and proceeds to wash my feet. "Look at your heels. You're hurting aren't you?"
"Nah." I shake my head, but we both know I'm lying. The old boots have rubbed the beginning of a blister on one foot, and I sigh in relief as she cleans it up and covers it with a soft bit of cloth, before she helps me tug on the new boots.
"Xena, you've got to take better care of yourself." She watches me stand, and I bounce a bit on my feet, getting a feel for the new footwear. They are just the right size, and I realize she managed to pick them out without me by her side to check them for fit. Maybe she's keeping a better eye on me than either of us has realized.
"That's what I have you for." I wink at her, and take off at a lope, followed by a series of mid-air kicks and flips, that land me right back at her side.
"Show off." She nudges me in the ribs, and I nudge her back.
"Just making sure I can do what I need to in them." I flip over into a handstand and walk on my hands a few steps, for emphasis, and she pokes me in the stomach, making me lose my balance.
"Hey!" I try to look indignant, but I know if I'm not careful, I'm going to come off as a teenager with her first crush instead. Something must be in the air today.
"Heh. Like you need shoes to fight. You could make your moves in your bare feet and sackcloth, Xena." She shakes her head at me.
"Been there, done that. Not fun." I pick up my old boots and toss them into a rubbish barrel. "Let's go pay for these and find a place to camp."
"Already paid for them." She looks rather pleased with herself. "I told the merchant if they didn't work, I'd bring them right back for a refund, and he agreed."
"Do you need anything before we head out?" I look around at the rows and rows of stalls, dreading the shopping potential they represent.
"Well, I picked up some cooking herbs, and I just got these clothes, so as long as you're not embarrassed to be seen with an Amazon, I think we're set." The uncertainty in her eyes tells me that despite the air of confidence, there is still a lot of the village girl from Potadeia still lurking inside her. And I just as quickly catch a clue that I'm going to have to be the one to put her at ease.
"You make a fine-looking Amazon." I tug at one of her braids, which is interlaced with a strip of beaded leather twine.
"Really?" She looks down at herself, obviously not convinced.
"Gabrielle, I wish I had a mirror, but since I don't, just trust me." I trace a line down her arm with my fingertips, giving her biceps a squeeze. "You've really toned up since we've been traveling together. When I look at you now, I see a beautiful woman with a powerful body."
"You don't have to say that just because --" I hold up my hand, pressing a finger to her lips.
"I'm not. I mean it. The little girl who followed me to Amphipolis has blossomed into a lovely young woman." I drape an arm across her shoulders, steering her toward the public stable where we left Argo. "And for the record, I've never been embarrassed to be seen with you, even from the very beginning. I'm proud to be your friend, and I always have been."
She looks up at me, her eyes shining with an added layer of confidence. "Thank you. The feeling is mutual."
Later, after we've made camp, and eaten supper, she takes off down a path that leads toward the stream where we bathed earlier. We had a good sparing session with her staff, and I debate if I should follow-up with my own usual sword drills, but since I used my sword some in the staff practice, I decide that was enough, just this once.
I find myself following her, and find her up on an outcropping over the stream, high enough to see the sun as it begins to set over the treetops. The sun burnishes her hair with pale gold highlights, and as I approach, I can see it shining against her face, making her eyes sparkle even greener than usual.
"Hey." She looks up and pats the spot next to her.
"Nice spot." I take a seat and extend my legs out, enjoying the remaining warmth of the sun against my skin.
"Yeah." She smiles, looking out toward the horizon. "This was a good day, wasn't it?"
I glance over and catch her in an unguarded moment, though what I'm reading in her eyes, I'm not quite sure. The only thing I'm certain of is that she wants me to have had as good a day as she did. If only she knew. "One of the best." I ease closer until our sides are touching, and I look away, toward the sun, knowing there's no point in hiding my smile.
I can feel something between us, and whether it's a deepening friendship, or a sisterhood, or something more, I can't tell. I know something changed between us when she named me her champion. I can curse the Amazons all day long for any number of things, but they gave me a gift. No matter what else may happen, I'm the one charged with protecting the Amazon princess. It's a responsibility I don't deserve, but one I will treasure for the rest of my days.
She eases closer, and I hold my breath, as she lays her head on my shoulder. She's not done that before, unless she was crying, seeking comfort. This is something different, and I am at war with myself for a moment, before I relax, and decide to let it be, without comment. I put my arm around her, stroking her hair, hoping the sun takes its time in setting.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~NEXT: The War of the Exes - (post "Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts")
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