THE BETWEEN THE LINES SERIES
(or what happened between the episodes)
For Disclaimers, see "Looking for Trouble"
1.5 -- My Friend
(post "The Path Not Taken")G: "I wish I could have met him. I’m sorry."X: "He was my friend."G: "To be remembered like that is a good thing."X: "My friend; my friend."
- The Path Not Taken
"Xena. You want a drink?" Gabrielle holds up the water flask and I take it with a nod. I just can't seem to muster up words today, unless I absolutely have to. I take a long swallow and hand it back.
She smiles at me uncertainly, and holds out her other hand. "I found these walnuts back when we stopped for lunch. Thought they might make a good snack later. You want some?" She looks so hopeful, but I haven't eaten much in a few days. We both know this, and the thought of dry nuts isn't very appealing right now.
"No, thanks. I'm not hungry."
Her face falls, and she slows down until she's several paces behind Argo. I look back and she is staring steadfastly at the wagon ruts on the path. I can't tell if she's upset with me, or angry with me. I think maybe a little bit of both. I sigh. She's trying so hard to make me feel better after Marcus' death, and I'm behaving like an ass. There was a time when I would have gone and found myself some seedy tavern, and drowned my sorrows in bad ale and a few hits of opium. I can't do that with her. I've taken her to some pretty rough places, but there are some things about my past she doesn't need to know.
Marcus knew everything, almost. He saw the very worst in me. We were birds of a feather. It rips my heart out that he was so close to finding a better way and his first selfless act was his last. I feel the weight of that death so heavily on my shoulders, that it makes my breathing difficult at times. If I'd only gotten to him a little sooner, maybe I could have made a difference. If I'd just been honest with him, maybe I could have convinced him to join me in saving the princess earlier in the game. He wasn't being completely loyal to Mezentius, smuggling arms the way he was, so maybe he would have been open to joining me as well. Now I'll never know.
Instead I lied to him about why I was there and what I've been up to. I had heard a while back he had hooked up with Mezentius. I knew that going into Tracus, and hoped it would work in my favor. I used a friend -- led him on and made him believe there was going to be something more between us. Worse, my using him probably got him killed. He may have been the last friend I had who completely understood me and genuinely liked me anyway. Not like I have that many friends in the first place.
Now I'm behaving badly toward the one person who seems willing to stay by my side. Gabrielle may not understand everything about my past, but she does want to be my friend. That much is obvious. I just wonder if she'd go running for Potadeia if she knew the whole truth about who and what I am. I don't deserve her. I don't deserve anyone.
I didn't deserve Marcus, either. I did far worse in my time than he did, when all is said and done. Marcus was out to make dinars. I was seeking power, no matter who got hurt. I think he's the only lover who ever met my mother, but he knew her from back before Cortese. His family lived way out in the country and Amphipolis was the nearest village. They came into town to trade a few times a year, and Marcus played with me and my brothers and the other village children.
We weren't childhood sweethearts or anything like that. We became lovers much later, after I was forced to leave Amphipolis. He was one of the ones who joined up with me when I raised my first army. I guess you could say I made him what he became. And in the end, I was his undoing.
That's what I fear, for Gabrielle. I don't want her to change because of me. I don't want her to know what it feels like to go into battle, or to wield a sword, or to kill. Marcus died because of me. If anything were to happen to Gabrielle because of me, I don't think I could bear it.
How can a beat-up ex-warlord and an innocent village girl ever truly be friends? And yet I hate to admit to myself how much I've come to enjoy her company. I'm not much for niceties. She does most of the talking, and she's the one trying to make me feel better. I don't know why. I certainly haven't made it easy for her to like me.
I hear a muffled cry and look back. She's way behind now, and sitting on the ground in the middle of the road. I've not much patience for pouting or temper tantrums. This is a little much, even considering my own bad behavior.
I stop Argo and rein her around, guiding her halfway back to where Gabrielle is sitting. "You coming or not?" My voice is sharp, and I know it.
She shakes her head a little, such a slight motion I can't tell if she meant 'yes' or 'no.' "Go on." She sniffles, and I realize she's holding her ankle. "You're better off without me, Xena. I'm nothing but trouble for you."
"You hurt yourself?" She says nothing, and continues to rub her ankle. "Gabrielle?"
"I tripped." She gestures toward a deep part of the wagon rut.
"You twist an ankle?" I see a bit of blood on her skirt and frown. "You're bleeding."
"Okay, I tripped, and skinned both knees, and twisted my ankle. Are you happy now? I'm useless." Her shoulders are completely slumped around and she won't look at me.
I jump off Argo and kneel down, and grasp her chin, tilting it up. She's crying, and I brush away a tear. "You're not useless." This earns me a timid smile. I smile back, and reach down, gently grasping her leg, removing her boot, and examining her ankle to make sure nothing is broken. It is a bit swollen and red, but the bones seem to be intact.
"Hold on." I trot back to Argo and grab my healer's kit and kneel back down next to her. "Show me your knees." She looks up at me and unaccountably, she blushes, before dragging her skirt hem up past her kneecaps. "Not too bad." I take a bit of lamb's wool and squeeze some liquid herbs onto it. "This is gonna sting." I dab at her knees, cleaning them up. I hear a tiny hiss of pain, but otherwise, she doesn't complain.
"Is my ankle broken?" She studies the now well-swollen area around her anklebone.
"No, just twisted it pretty good. I'm gonna wrap it up, and then you need to ride for a few days." I take a long piece of muslin and carefully bind her up. "Here." I hand her her boot. "Come on." Before she can protest, I scoop her up and carry her over to Argo. She's light as a feather, and she's trembling, although she's got a pretty healthy grip on me. "What's the matter?"
I study her skeptically. "Nothing." Her eyes are big as saucers, and that blush has returned. It makes me smile, and I can't hold my stern expression any longer. She finally gives me a genuine smile in return. "Sorry for all the trouble."
"No trouble. Up you go." I swing her up onto Argo's back, and place her boot and my healer's kit in the saddlebags. "Won't kill me to walk for a while. Maybe it'll work the kinks out."
"You can ride." She pats the space in front of her.
"You sure?" She nods and I help her scoot back, and climb up, careful not to jostle her injured leg.
"You're easier to hold onto than the saddlehorn." She looks down, fumbling with a bit of leather trim on the saddle.
"I am, huh?" I wait until she wraps her arms around my waist, and give her arm a pat, before I take the reins. "Glad I'm good for something."
"You're -- " she trails off and gives me a squeeze. "Nevermind." Her voice is soft and thoughtful, and I wonder what's gotten into her today.
She remains quiet for the next few hours, so quiet that I wonder if she has fallen asleep. She moves a little bit every now and then, though, so I know she's awake. From time to time she rests her cheek against my back. I can feel her breath, and her skin and hair against my bare skin just below my neck. It surprises me as I realize it feels kind of nice to have her snuggled up against me, and I just as quickly shove those feeling deep down inside. There is no room for them in this relationship.
I ponder this, and decide it's simply the human contact. It's been a while. I've been with no one since Hercules, but prior to him I had a steady string of lovers, both male and female, and even when I had no lovers, I had friends with benefits. Draco was such a friend. And, to my shame, I also used bed sports to gain favor with people, if it served my purposes. I'm a user from way back.
I think about Gabrielle and what little I know of her experience. I can only assume she's a virgin. It's not like we've discussed it, but there is an innocence to her, and to the girlish crushes she gets on various men we encounter, that make me believe my assessment is probably correct. Plus, if she and Perdicus had been intimately involved, I can't imagine he would have just let her go without coming after her.
I may have found my scruples along with my conscience, but I'd have to be blind to not recognize she's easy on the eyes. I've seen the way men look at her when we enter a tavern. And I've also seen the assumption on their faces regarding my relationship with her. She doesn't need to know about that, as I'm sure it would mortify her. At the same time, it's probably added to her safety, that some people think she belongs to me, either as a lover or as a body slave. I wrinkle my nose in disgust at the thought that anyone would think her my body slave. Then again, knowing who I am, I shouldn't be surprised.
So what do I feel for her? She definitely keeps me entertained with her stories. I see the world with new eyes -- see things I wouldn't usually notice, like the birds, and flowers, and all manner of little details she questions me about. And honestly, she's certainly kept me from being alone with my thoughts in the evenings beside the fire. But I know she's become more to me than a companion I can take or leave. With a start, I realize just how protective I feel of her.
I've known for a while that when I get into a fight, I'm constantly aware of where she is. How many times have I done some nearly impossible things to get to her in time? My skills are something I've worked on since I was a young teen, and that I keep up as a matter of course. And I know I'm able to do things that many people can't do. I don't like to analyze that too much. But with Gabrielle, I've surpassed some of that, particularly with Morpheus and that dreamscape passage. That was new territory for me.
Friendship is also new territory for me, at least as far as friendship with no strings attached. It is more than I want to think about right now, so I begin to focus on finding us a place to make camp. A few more hours and the sun will be down. Plus I want to take another look at her ankle, and re-bind it. I scan the road ahead of us, and remember a small village is within riding distance.
"How would you feel about a hot bath, a soft bed, and a meal we don't have to cook?" Her arms tighten around me for a moment, before I feel her relax against me.
"Sounds like Elysia." One of her hands drops down to my hip and she scoots back, just a little bit. "Is there an inn nearby?"
"Yep." I jostle a small pouch at my waist. "And we've the dinars to spare. Maybe I can find that sharpening stone I keep forgetting to buy."
"Shopping too?" I can't see her, but I know her eyes are twinkling at the thought of civilization. "Let's go!"
After another hour, we reach the village and I help her into the inn. She negotiates for a room for us, while I get Argo situated in the stables. As I duck back outside, I spot a vendor with a stall setup outside the inn. He's got a mess of useless pretty items on his table, but on a whim, I purchase a pale blue hair ribbon and tuck it away out of sight.
Much later, after a satisfying meal and entertainment from a traveling minstrel, we emerge from the bathing room and settle into our room. Gabrielle stretches out on her bed, patting her stomach. "This was such a treat." She rolls to her side and watches while I go through my usual routine of caring for my weapons and armor. "I need to write down all the stories that minstrel sang of, before I forget them."
"You want your quill and scroll?" I rummage around in our bags and find them. "Here." I hand them over to her and she sits up, propped against the pillow, her eyes thoughtful as she watches me.
"Let me take a look at that ankle." I sit down and she stretches her leg out in my lap while I unwind the bandage. "Healing up nicely." I re-wrap it and start to scoot away, when I feel her hand on my arm.
"Xena, thank you." She searches my eyes. "I know I've slowed you down today, and carrying me up those stairs couldn't have been easy. I'm such a klutz sometimes. Just -- thank you for putting up with me."
She looks down, twirling her quill between her fingers, and for the second time today, I tilt her chin up. "You're not a klutz. And I'm sorry I've been in a bad mood these past few days. It's --"
"Marcus." She finishes for me. "I've not lost anyone close to me, so I don't know how that feels. I know he meant a lot to you, and I’m sorry for your loss. I wish I knew how to make that better for you."
"It's something I need to work through." I shift, until I'm facing her. "Thank you for trying, though." I remember the ribbon and pluck it from my belt pouch. "Here." I toss it a bit unceremoniously in her direction and it lands across her scroll with a flutter. "Thought this might match your blouse."
She picks it up and eyes it in wonder. "I --" She swallows. "Thank you. But why? It's not my birthday, or the solstice or anything."
"Just because." Our eyes meet and I see some of the self-doubt disappear from hers. I pat her uninjured leg. "Thank you for being my friend."
"Anytime." She squeezes my hand quickly, and releases it. I smile at her and get up, and make my way over to my own bed.
"Goodnight, Gabrielle." She rolls up her scroll for another time, and sets it aside, before she douses the candle on the table between us.
"Goodnight, Xena." She hunkers down under the covers, and clutches the ribbon in her fist, tucking it up under her chin. I listen until I know she's asleep, and then roll to my side for a little while, watching her, glad of her presence. She's more than a traveling companion, more even than someone I need to protect. She's become my friend.
NEXT in the BTL Series – "Until Next Time" (post "The Reckoning")
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