THE BETWEEN THE LINES SERIES
(or what happened between the episodes)
For Disclaimers, see "Looking for Trouble"
1.4 -- TEAMWORK
(post "Cradle of Hope")X: "Where did you find her?"G: "Hey, you fight; I talk. We each have our gifts. You wantedme to scout a way into the castle? Huh! She’s the way."X: "Good work."
- Cradle of Hope
I still can't believe I met Pandora. Okay, so it's Pandora's grand-daughter, but wow! I never dreamed I'd meet the subject of myth and legend. And I actually got to touch the box, but it turns out it was empty.
I'd like to be angry with Xena over that box. She treats me like a child sometimes. Maybe I deserve it, but I can't help it -- to be that close to the box and not at least touch it. The way she chastised me, you'd think I planned to open it. I just wanted to touch it, to absorb some of the story behind it. I want to be able to tell stories like that one -- a story that outlives me and is passed down through the ages. Besides, even if I had opened it, it wasn't going to hurt anything after all.
But she's Xena, and she puts up with me traveling with her, and I just can't stay mad at her. One minute I feel like I'm nothing but a nuisance to her, and the next, she'll turn around and give me a genuine smile. I realized the other day that almost no one gets those smiles from her -- it's a smile that lights up her whole face and gives you a glimpse of her heart.
I wish everyone could see her the way I see her. There is so much good inside her. I know she doesn't believe that about herself, but I know it's true. I don't think she's a bad person, and I don't think she was ever truly a bad person. She was just misguided. I think she did the wrong things for the right reasons. I just don't see how someone who was evil inside could become the person Xena is now.
I want so badly to be able to help her in some way, and I think she's finally starting to trust me for help, at least just a little. For once, she trusted me to sneak into the village and get information, all by myself. She even didn't follow me, or try to tell me what to do, or anything. Just sent me out and told me to find out what I could about how to get into the castle.
A moon ago she would have been too afraid I'd get myself kidnapped or killed, to trust me like that. And honestly, it makes me feel all warm inside that she cares if I get killed or kidnapped, even if it does mean she treats me like a child at times. I've come to crave her approval, and I hope that doesn't show too much. When she said I did a good job, I thought I was going to float right up the ceiling of that old barn. I like being a part of her team. I know I can learn so much from her and be a great help to her, if she'll only let me.
I used some of what I've learned by watching her, when I went into the village. Xena spends a lot of time observing her surroundings. What I've learned is that sometimes you can't talk and learn at the same time. So I did what she would have done, or what I think she would have done. I hung around just outside the castle near the well, and pretended to be tending to chores.
Meanwhile, I watched to see who all was going in and out of the side gate. That's how I met Ophelia. I took a chance when she came to get water, and struck up a conversation with her about the baby and Gregor's search. I just pretended to be a commoner, concerned about the babies of the village. Not much of an act, considering where I come from. I guess I look harmless enough, that she felt she could trust me to tell me her story. I'm not sure even Xena can pull off harmless. I saw that harem outfit she wore to disguise herself and get to Gregor. Whew! That was anything but harmless.
I'm starting to understand something about her. She's very quiet -- doesn't talk much unless there's a reason to. And she's quick to knock heads together. Makes sense, given her fighting skills. But what I’m starting to see is that beneath the fighter is a brilliant mind. I knew she was intelligent -- I saw that from the start, in the way she dealt with Draco and his men. But she's uncommonly bright.
I guess I should have known that. She did conquer half of Greece, after all. I suspect she's done a lot more that she hasn't told me about yet. You can't be ignorant and do some of the things she's done. I think it hurts her feelings sometimes, that people see her only as a warrior -- that they see her brawn but not her brains. You can see it in people's eyes. They've heard of Xena the warlord, the woman who struck fear everywhere she went, and left destruction in her path. Even after she does good for people, some of them can't believe she's changed. Even my own family couldn't see it. I guess it's tough to get beyond her past. Perhaps only another warrior could see and appreciate the tactician behind the fighting.
Xena is even good with people -- a lot better than she will admit. I got to see some of that, when we met Pandora, right after we found baby Gabriel in the river. Pandora's life revolved around that empty box. Not that she knew it was empty at the time, but she cared about the box more than anything, even other people. It controlled her life -- kept her from having a life, other than to live in fear and run from people like those men who wanted to kill her.
Xena saw that. She saw the emptiness of Pandora's existence. Maybe Xena could even relate to the life Pandora was living. I know Xena has a lot of bounties on her head and that sometimes we fight off people trying to capture her and collect on them. That's something she and Pandora had in common, and I think that's why she put Pandora in a position to care for the baby -- to get her to feel for something more than that box she kept clinging to. It gave Pandora a chance to have something normal in her life.
Pandora took to mothering Gabriel naturally, too. He bonded with her. I loved playing with him, and holding him, but honestly, I don't see how Xena and I could have kept him and continued to travel. I don't think the road is any place for a baby, and much as I loved that little baby, I don't want to leave Xena for something like that. I left something like that to be with her in the first place. I want to stay with her and keep learning.
Xena doesn't strike me as the motherly type. From the moment we found him, she was intent on finding him a home. Okay, so she was right that we needed to find his mother, but there was something more there, I think. She didn't seem real comfortable with Gabriel, at least when it came to holding him or physically taking care of him. She left most of that to Pandora and me. There was a sadness in her eyes at times, as if she was sitting on the outside of something looking in. Maybe she felt like a warlord had nothing to offer a baby, and for that I hurt for her.
Xena sure did help Pandora, though. She learned about King Gregor's deceased wife and child, and she figured out what the oracle's prophecy really meant -- that Gregor was to be the child's father. That is how baby Gabriel is going to take the throne someday, as Gregor's heir. Prince Gabriel -- has a nice ring to it.
She fixed up three lives this time. Pandora doesn't have to worry about the box anymore, and she has a home and a baby to care for. Gregor has a son to fill the emptiness of his loss, and baby Gabriel has gone from being a peasant orphan to being a prince in a castle. Maybe Gregor and Pandora will even fall and love, and be a real family. I think there was a spark there, between them. Not too bad for a few days' work, if I do say so myself.
That is where I saw her brilliance -- for her to figure out all those things and put them together in a puzzle that fits. What I saw, this time, is that Xena did much of that without resorting to violence. She used her mind, and I have to admit that up until now, even I've taken for granted just how intelligent she is. Sometimes it's the quiet ones that have a lot to say, when they finally talk.
I just wish she'd open up more to me than she does. She is sad a lot, especially at night by the fire. I think she must be thinking about all those things from her past that haunt her, and I want to make it better. If I thought it would be welcome, I'd ask her about it, but I don't think she's comfortable enough with me to tell me about everything in her past. Maybe she's not comfortable enough with anyone to share that part of her life with them.
So I do what I can to cheer her up -- mostly by telling stories. I know some of them are silly, but she always laughs in the right places, even though I sometimes think she does it just to humor me. I think she likes hearing the stories, so as long as she does, I'll keep telling them. What she probably doesn't realize is that being with her has given me a whole new set of stories to tell.
Speaking of Xena, I hear her coming back from the stream a little way from this campsite, so that probably means I have fish to cook. It's an arrangement we've worked out -- she catches and cleans the food, and I prepare it. We usually both tidy up the camp afterward, not that there is a lot to be done with just the two of us.
"Hey." I look up as she steps into our clearing. She has a stringer with two large fish, and my stomach growls in anticipation. It's amazing how much hungrier I get out here than I did back home. Xena says it's because of all the energy I'm using up just walking around all day, and occasionally running. Most any food looks good to me these days, and tonight is no exception. "Those look good."
She merely nods, but I see a twinkle in her eyes, which tells me she's in a good mood. "Give me a minute to get them off the string." She lays them out on a flat rock near the fire and quickly cuts their heads off. She's already gutted and split them back by the creek, something I've come to appreciate. Makes cooking easier and less smelly.
I drag a saddlebag over and begin rummaging around for spices to make the fish taste better. Unfortunately, our supply is low and I sigh, realizing I'll be cooking relatively plain fish in the frying pan tonight. It will be good, because it's food, but it won't be anything special. Half the time, Xena doesn't seem to taste her food, and frankly, when I'm really hungry, I don't either, but it would be nice to have something more to work with.
I feel a touch to my shoulder, and look over to see her kneeling down next to me. "I brought you something." She opens up her belt pouch and pulls out a couple of large mealy roots. "Found them down by the creek -- they're the sweet ones."
"Oh." I’m surprised, and gratefully take them. "Thank you. I can put them down here in the ashes to cook. I think we have some cinnamon left too."
Her eyes warm at this, and she digs back into the pouch. "Here. I thought these might go with the fish." She shrugs a little bit, and empties a pile of fresh greenery and berries into my cupped hands. I look through them and discover sage and wild huckleberries.
"Wow." My eyes light up, not only at the gift itself, but also at the fact she thought to give it. "Yeah. I can stuff the fish with these. It'll give them some flavor. They'll taste a lot better with these. Thank you."
"I like everything you cook." She looks down and I wish I could see her eyes. "I um -- I just appreciate that you do it. Never was something I was good at."
"Xena, it's the least I can do." My words come tumbling out. "I can't fish or hunt to save my life. If I were out here alone, I'd have starved to death by now."
"No you wouldn't." She sits back and I see something in her eyes I can't name. "You've learned enough now about edible plants that you'd be fine, even without hunting."
I don't know where the compliments are coming from, but I'll take them. My heart feels full at her words, and my eyes meet hers for a long moment. "Thanks. I have a good teacher."
"Listen." She touches my arm very briefly, and my stomach jumps. What an odd sensation. I tuck that away to ponder later. I swallow and force myself to focus on her. She's got that intense expression on her face -- the one I sometimes think I could drown in. It's difficult to not look down, but I force myself to keep looking up. She continues, and some of the intensity softens, replaced by that unreadable expression again. "I've mostly taught people bad things in my life, Gabrielle. If I can teach someone something to help them live, it means a lot. Besides, you've taught me a few things too."
"Yeah?" I feel brave. "Like what?"
"I'm a lot more patient with people than I used to be." She smiles at me sheepishly, and I know my face falls in disappointment. Am I such a pest that I've taught her patience? I think she reads my thoughts, and her eyes widen in alarm. "Nothing like what you're thinking. I've watched how you are with people, Gabrielle. Tried to adopt some of your ways in that regard. That's all." She looks sad again, and I want to kick myself.
"Oh, I think you had some of that in you before you met me." I busy my hands, stuffing the fish and setting them to parboil in the frying pan. "You figured out things about Pandora and Gregor that I'm not sure I would have. You made a real difference for them, Xena."
"Yes, but I couldn't have done it without you." She touches my arm again, and this time she lingers. I look back into her eyes and realize that maybe I've become more than an annoying village girl to her.
"We did it together." I smile at her and am glad to see it mirrored back at me.
"We do make quite a team," she ruffles my head when she says this, a sure sign the closeness has become too much for her, but I can tell something has changed between us. I think it's a good change. "You got any new stories you're working on?" Her eyes are hopeful, almost like a little kid. I want to see that look on her face more often. I think it's a part of her that got lost somewhere along the way.
"Oh, I think I can work up one or two after we eat. You interested in hearing them?"
"Always." At that, she gets up and busies herself with her usual routine, cleaning her sword and brushing down Argo.
So. Xena is my friend, and slowly, she's letting me in. It's a small step, but maybe someday it will lead to bigger ones. Maybe someday she'll let me share some of her burden. I let that settle somewhere inside, knowing it will keep me warm. No chill this night may offer can touch me.
NEXT in the BTL Series – "My Friend" (post "The Path Not Taken")
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