MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures own everything there is to own about Xena: Warrior Princess. I just borrowed their wonderful characters for my little story, intending no infringement of their copyrights.
Gabrielle could hear her heart pounding. All attempts at stealth seemed moot if her heartbeat was going to give them away. Even though Xena assured her they were gone, Gabrielle couldn't get the horrific images out of her mind. Images of blood and death, the Horde, and that Xena.
She hoped never to see that Xena again. The cruel, heartless, cold-blooded warrior.
But it seemed that she was the only one in the encampment who felt that way. When they walked out of the gates that morning, Xena was treated to a display fit for a hero. The troops of the Athenian Army queued up, standing tall and proud while Xena passed them one last time. Adoring eyes, grateful eyes, thankful eyes lined their way from the hut to the gates. Xena had saved them.
Only Gabrielle noticed during their triumphant exit that Xena's gait was not as confident, her shoulders less square than they had been the past few days. Surely she was tired, but it was more than that. And it scared her.
But now they were hugging the riverbank, walking away from the carnage. The bard shook her head, trying to erase those thoughts. Xena stopped and motioned with her hand, Gabrielle stood quietly. She knew this could be very hard for Xena. The warrior whistled once then once again. They waited.
Gabrielle wanted to reach out to Xena. She held back, it was not yet time for the letting go, for allowing feelings to surface. The ordeal was not yet at an end.
Xena whistled again. They waited. They walked more.
Their fishing poles, constructed one night at a campfire by a river with promise for a tasty breakfast. It seemed so long ago. A few dead fish on the shore, foot prints. Bodies long since washed away. Gabrielle wanted to lose herself somewhere but there was no escaping the present. Her stomach lurched.
She felt Xena's eyes on her back, "Come on, let's keep going." Xena's voice held little hope. Gabrielle followed her into the woods, away from the river, being careful not to make eye contact.
Xena whistled again. They waited.
Gabrielle heard Xena's breath catch. She had heard something off in the distance. Oh gods, please don't let it be the Horde again. Xena took off running into the woods beyond leaving Gabrielle out in the open in a small clearing. Gabrielle ducked behind a thick-trunked tree too afraid to move more.
She waited, unable to listen carefully for Xena because her heartbeat was so loud, in her throat, in her ears. Sweat trickled down her forehead stinging her eyes, her clammy hands having little success wiping the beads away.
Someone's coming. Xena burst into the clearing astride Argo, her black hair flying behind her, teeth gleaming through her smile. Gabrielle stepped out from behind the tree and raced over to them, throwing her arms around the great mare's neck, happy to see her, happier for Xena.
"Ride with me," Xena extended her hand. "I want to get out of here."
Gabrielle gratefully accepted, "You don't have to ask twice." The bard settled in behind Xena, wrapped her arms around the leather-clad waist and finally let herself believe it was over.
For awhile they rode hard, Gabrielle hanging onto Xena with all her might for balance and support. When Xena slowed their frantic pace, Gabrielle's grip remained secure. It was the contact that she craved, the warmth of Xena's body that she needed to lose herself in, a reminder of what her life had been like before...
Xena slipped her fingers into the bard's grip, forcing it to loosen. Gabrielle pulled back, embarrassed, but Xena caught her hands, fastening them around her waist again, "No, it's okay. I just need to be able to breathe." Over her shoulder, gently spoken, soothing, the Xena she knew.
Indulgently, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena not in a grip but in an embrace. That was what she needed. That was what she wanted.
When had she fallen asleep? It was almost dark, Xena was helping her down. Her legs were stiff, she stumbled, but Xena caught her and walked with her to a log. "Wait here, I'll get a fire going."
Where did she get that stamina? Gabrielle leaned back against the log and watched Xena set up camp. A small dinner was heating: some provisions from the army camp they had been given before leaving. Though the fire was warm, the chilled bard was too exhausted to find the strength to fight the shivers that began to control her limbs.
A blanket wrapped around her, a bowl of stew proffered. Gabrielle just held it in her hands, aware of its warmth but with no incentive to eat it. Xena was by her, an arm pulled her close. "Eat a little, Gabrielle. You'll feel better." Gabrielle took a few bites, chewing slowly and deliberately, fighting her stomach's protests.
Somehow she made it to her bedroll placed as close to the fire as she dared. Wide-eyed, she stared into the flames, she couldn't stop shaking. Then Xena was behind her, bedrolls pushed together, blankets shared, an arm tucked around her waist.
They walked side by side. They headed north for no particular reason, they ambled slowly toward no particular destination. They needed to talk and yet neither could begin.
"Follow me." Xena steered them off the path, left Argo to graze in tall grass and continued on to a small outcropping of rocks.
Gabrielle smiled: her first of the day, of several days. "It's beautiful." They stood at the base of a waterfall. Not a tall, out-for-broke, spectacular waterfall, but a soft one with four separate spills zigzagging down the rocks from pool to pool. "Suppose the water is cold?"
Xena sat on a rounded boulder letting the spray tickle her back. The sun-warmed rock baked her skin, the water cooled her shoulders and she laughed inwardly at the irony. Once again, a split personality. She had learned to live with it, accept it for her true self. She studied Gabrielle below her, floating on her back. The old corrosive fear seeped through her, more fiercely than ever before. Now that Gabrielle had met the other Xena, been the recipient of her poisonous words, witnessed the tactics of a warlord, would she stay with her? The nagging question, seemingly so simple but imbued with overtones. Would there ever come a time when Xena would want Gabrielle to leave? No, that time will never come. It was a lifetime she craved.
The falls were so peaceful, neither woman was inclined to move on. The pleasant sound of the water masked out the common sounds of the forest making it seem to Gabrielle that they really had escaped to a different place. She took a walk by herself, following the stream down passed the pools, playing stick races in the creek. She'd left her boots back at the camp so she could indulge in toe-dipping and splashing but even childhood games couldn't distract her thoughts for long.
Had Xena become a monster? She had seen Xena axe a man in the back, a man who was retreating, trying to escape. Xena explained her motives, military reasons, but it was still shocking. Xena had deprived men of food and water. No it was worse. She had demanded Gabrielle deprive men of food and water. Xena sent wounded men back to fight, men who had lost a lot of blood and all hope. Three times Xena had put Gabrielle in her place. Three times the bard had been lectured by someone she hardly recognized.
Could she ask Xena to live by any code other than the warrior's own? It wasn't fair to expect Xena to react as the bard would; it wasn't fair for Xena to expect Gabrielle to think like a soldier.
Xena trapped a rabbit for dinner and set it on a makeshift spit to cook slowly over the fire. Her actions were accomplished without much thought, her movements by rote. Taking the time, having the time to brush down Argo carefully and thoroughly did nothing to bring her mind back to her doings, it was a mechanical rendering of caring for her horse. Instead, her mind was absorbed in reliving the past few days. With what she had done, what she had become and forgotten. And she thought about Gabrielle. Xena knew her behavior had shaken the very foundation of her relationship with the bard. The most important thing in her life. Now she was worried Gabrielle would leave, if the bard would decide to move on, go home, or go to the Academy in Athens. Although each option held the possibility of making Gabrielle happy, none would do the same for Xena. I'm selfish, she thought. I can't abide anything but her staying with me.
An early leisurely dinner was shared by two sullen friends. A little light small talk pretended to entertain them while they ate for there was no need to accompany their meal with more difficult topics of conversation. The repast was soon finished, chores completed, and there were no promises of any more diversions.
Gabrielle sat in a bundle, legs bent, arms around her ankles, chin on her knees. She was staring blankly into the fire when Xena returned from delivering an evening treat to Argo.
"Xena?" It had begun.
"No, Gabrielle. I'm sorry. I should have listened to you, I shouldn't have treated you..."
"Like everyone else?"
"Xena, you did what you had to do."
"But not the way I should have."
Xena found a safe spot opposite the fire and sat down. Behind the dance of the flames was Gabrielle's face. Impassive, unresponsive.
"Gabrielle?" It continued.
"No, Xena. I should thank you. Without you, none of us would have survived. It was your past that..."
"Helped this time?"
"Gabrielle, I only did what I thought I had to do."
Gabrielle found Xena's eyes, blue behind the flickering gold. Disassociated, withdrawn.
"Does it get worse?"
"Only if you let it."
"I can't imagine..."
"Don't. Don't even try, Gabrielle."
"How do you do it?"
"Keep from imagining..."
"Never said I did."
Xena dropped her head. She thought of reaching for her sword, re-entering the mesmerizing world of guiding stone against blade. She looked up into Gabrielle's eyes and watched the eyes become level with hers as the bard sat by her.
"Xena, you live with this all the time?"
"How can you stand it?"
"Only because of you."
Gabrielle reached over and slung her arm across Xena's back. "Care to trade places?"
Xena mirrored the movement and began to tell her a story.
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