THE BETWEEN THE LINES SERIES
(or what happened between the episodes)
For Disclaimers, see "Looking for Trouble"
2.17 How the Mighty Have Fallen
(post "The Execution")
G: “Friends don’t lie. You were right; he wasn’t being honest. I’m sorry for not believing you.”
X: “That’s not an issue. You and I have plenty of time to talk about it, but Meleager’s not that lucky. Besides, I can’t help wondering if you’re more angry at him or yourself. You put people on a pedestal. Sooner or later, they’re gonna fall, and your expectations fall with them.”
G: “I put people on a pedestal?”
X: “Meleager’s made his mistakes -- drunk and sober. Tomorrow he might have to pay for one -- at least talk to him. If you don’t, you’ll regret it. You don’t deserve that guilt.”
-- The Execution
We circle each other, our eyes locked, our bodies tense with anticipation. We've been going for a good half-hour, and our blood is pumping, our breathing erratic. I take a firmer hold on my staff, rolling it back and upward, adjusting my grip for a quicker defense. My feet are further apart than when I'm just standing at ease, my weight centered, my knees slightly bent. I feel a trickle of sweat run down my spine, and another at my brow, but I dare not reach up to wipe it away, so I shake my head, never taking my sight off her.
She's got that feral grin on her face -- the predatory animal that comes out in the heat of battle. She's enjoying this, her eyes twinkling, her nostrils flaring, those blue orbs looking over and through me, daring me to challenge her. She licks her lips, removing the beads of sweat just above them, and that smile disappears.
I swallow, my arms coming up automatically. I've seen that particular lip-lick before -- my one small clue she's about to make her move. I note, fuzzily, to point that out to her when we're done here. I'd hate for an enemy to recognize her body language for what it is. I don't plan to knock her senseless today, but an enemy would.
Not that many have gotten close enough or been skilled enough to take her out, but as she has said so many times before -- someday someone is going to be stronger or faster or have better skills, or she's going to have an off day, and when that day comes, she's going to hope that they aren't all three at the same time -- stronger, faster, AND better, that is. She always counts on having the upper hand in at least one or two of those areas, and that she will be able to use that to her advantage.
Just as I anticipated, she comes at me full force, her staff hitting mine with a shock that travels up my arms, jolting my body to the point I almost lose my balance. We're camping in a remote canyon, and the crack of wood against wood reverberates against the high rock walls around us. It becomes immediately clear she's not pulling her blows this time -- no holding back -- something she's been doing more and more lately. She says it's a testament to my skills, and I'll admit, it's also a stroke to my ego. Sparring with the Warrior Princess, even in a friendly challenge, would send many stronger, larger people running for the hills.
But I have another admission. It strikes just the tiniest spark of fear in me. I know she won't hurt me, and I know if she thinks she's going to -- if she sees me falter at all -- she will pull her blows. That prickle of fear -- it's partly an ever-lingering, if small, lack of confidence on my part -- that my skills won't measure up to what she believes them to be. I want so much to live up to that belief.
Part of that fear is something bigger. Something I need to address with her. I don't want to, and I'm not even sure she's bothered by it as much as I am. I stood against her recently, and I was wrong. The gods know we've disagreed before, but this was the first time I took a firm stand on the opposite side of the line from her -- got in her way, the consequences be damned. This time was different. Sure, we've argued and we've disagreed over a course of action. But this time I took sides against her. This is bigger than just a disagreement.
She says I put people on pedestals. Looking back, I'd have to agree. The thing is, I'm not sure why I had Meleager on the pedestal I put him on. We're not even that close, but for some reason I felt close to him, and he to me. Maybe it goes back to that time I ran home to Potadeia and it was attacked. Meleager was built up to be this hero, but when I met him he was passed out drunk.
He came back to help us in the end, but there's no reason for me to have built him up in my mind the way I did. There's no good reason for it, other than perhaps he and I were two kindred spirits at the time, both of us looking for a measure of self-confidence we lacked, and maybe, just maybe, both of us were trying to live up to reputations that were bigger than life -- Meleager to his own reputation, and me to the one of my big buddy currently standing across from me.
He said I was like family, but I don't feel the same way. Xena is my family. And he lied to me and he used me. I should have been madder than a hornet at him, and I was for a while, but Xena convinced me that a good portion of that anger is directed toward myself, and she's right. I think, maybe, all my life I needed a hero, you know? Someone to come swooping down out of the hills and save me from Potadeia, and perhaps even from myself.
Xena was that hero, and I love her with all my heart. Am in love with her, actually. But this tiny competitive part of me combined with this other part of me that wants to be somebody -- I guess sometimes I envy her and her skills. She's the bravest, most intelligent person I know. And whether she believes it or not, she has a heart as big as the whole wide world. I want so much to be like her.
Even though I stood against her, and put us both in danger with those villagers, she still helped Meleager. She wanted to get to the truth, but I know her -- she knew that for whatever crazy reason, he meant something to me and that's a big part of why she went out on a limb for him. She's always been like that with me. Even if it hurts her, if she thinks something will make me happy, she will let it go. Like my going home to Potadeia or to the Academy, or marrying Perdicus.
I know she wasn't and still isn't very impressed with Meleager. Even though ultimately he did prove to be innocent -- his lies and his using us -- I imagine she might have just let him rot in that cell, regardless. I'm not stupid. There are times when you have to play judge and jury in order to make things right. That was the case with Meleager -- they wanted him dead, the truth be damned, and Xena saved him, even though he put the both of us in danger for his own selfish interests. That I made him out a hero, that I placed him before her -- it's shameful. She's right. I am angry, at myself most of all.
We are going at each other fast and furious now, our staves crossing in a blur. The noise is almost deafening, echoing around us, and every now and then both of us yell or growl as we get in another blow. I have to wonder if she uses times like these to release her frustration with me. She'd have every right to, given what I did.
She certainly seems to be enjoying herself, but when she fights, she almost always does. It was a surprising realization that I also enjoy it sometimes, though not like she does. I enjoy the physicality of it and the chance to use my skills and to feel like I'm making a contribution. Her -- she's got the war fires in her blood. It's difficult to reconcile that Xena with the one who cradles me in her arms like a baby at night. She once told me that as a warrior, you have to take the kill, and sometimes you have to take the kill over mere injury, if it means leaving someone alive presents future danger.
I don't like to think about the fact that she seems to relish not only the attack and the fight, but the kill itself. I've never killed anyone. I almost did, after Perdicus. Xena's faith in me stopped me. I didn't want to disappoint her. Sometimes I think she guards my innocence in this more closely than I guard it myself. I tell her I don't understand and all she will say is, "good."
I come out of my musings and see her staff coming at mine, dead center, and I block it, stopping it just short of knocking me in the head. The power of it forces me several steps backward and I shuffle as fast as I can, while she just keeps coming at me, one blow after another. I yell as rage surfaces, my throat raw, my jaw set. She hits my staff so hard, I can feel my shoulders straining in the sockets, and I feel something pop between my shoulder blades, though feeling no pain, I continue.
Weary of being on the defensive, I duck her next blow and roll, coming up to one knee and sweeping my staff around in a wide arc, intent on taking her off her feet. I laugh, thinking she doesn't see it, and honestly, she doesn't, but she's too good -- her senses honed beyond site. I feel the staff brush the back of her legs, just as she jumps, tucking into an almost lazy back flip, landing behind me this time.
I spin around and leap to my feet and we go after each other again. I'm starting to tire but I refuse to admit it. I find myself right back in the position of fending her off, and my anger bubbles up yet again. Damn her, she never lets up on anyone, and she never lets anyone have the upper hand for long.
I see it in her eyes -- this is a lark for her. She's having fun and I'm breathing and working twice as hard as she is. I try a combination on her, slamming my staff against hers and instead of pulling back for the next blow, I move forward and under her weapon, whirling around, intent on attacking from behind. But as I turn she's on me and with one quick move, she hooks the end of her staff under mine and wrenches it free from my hands.
I watch it go flying, before it hits the ground and bounces end over end, then comes to rest against a boulder. Something snaps inside me and I hear a roar, then realize it's coming from deep within my own lungs. I lunge at her, grabbing handfuls of her leathers with my bare hands, as I knock her flat on her back.
She gasps in surprise, and takes hold of me, rolling both of us over and over as I do my best to wrestle with her. I want to win. By the gods, for once I'd just like to win. Finally we come to rest, her on her back with me on top of her. She has both my wrists in one hand, the other pressed against my stomach. I feel the anger rolling off me and I yell again in utter frustration, struggling to get free.
I look into those eyes and the predatory animal disappears, a mask of hurt and confusion taking its place. Slowly, she releases me and her arms fall back, curving around her head in an attitude of submission. "If you need to hit me that badly, go ahead." Her eyes lock with mine, and I realize she means it. She won't even defend herself if I do.
I draw a fist back but stop, clenching it next to my own jaw. Any satisfaction it might have brought me, she's taken it away with her surrender. "Aggghhhhhh!" I roll off her and draw up my knees, resting my arms across them and burying my face, hiding from that penetrating gaze.
"Gabrielle." She touches my shoulder and I shrug her off. She tries again and I slap out at her. On her third try I turn and launch myself at her again, this time landing sprawled on top of her. I want to hit her. I don't know why, but I do. I look into those eyes and I see something else now, the slightest touch of amusement. "Gabrielle." Her voice soothes, but I'm having none of it.
With no further thought, I close the distance and kiss her, hard and long, wondering if my lips will be bruised when I surface. She kisses me back with equal intensity, our tongues warring for dominance. I feel her arms closing around me and I growl, pushing them away. She may have won the sparring match, but by the gods, I'm going to win this one. Surprisingly, she complies and those arms fall back again. I swear I can feel her laughing, and it only makes me angrier.
She wasn't wearing her armor when we sparred, and I take advantage of this now, tugging at the laces to her leathers, practically ripping them open. I peel it back, pushing the straps down her arms, exposing her. Her skin is still flushed and her chest heaving, though whether from our fight or what we're doing now, I can't tell. It doesn't matter.
I have her and in this, she's all mine. My hands are all over her, my lips making patterns across her skin, and I vaguely hear those little noises she makes when she really likes what I'm doing. They're all nice and soft -- so very different from the battle yells only a few minutes ago. It spurs me on and much too soon, she's clutching at my arms, her body shaking against me.
We're both breathing hard, unable to speak, and I rise up, bracing my weight on my forearm next to her. Her face is glowing -- that lazy, very satisfied expression she gets right after we've made love. My anger is gone now, and I smile, laughing lightly when I see it reflected back at me. I lean down and kiss her forehead and each cheek, and rub noses with her.
Those long arms close around me and this time I allow it, closing my eyes as we indulge in another long, demanding kiss. I feel her touching me and I groan. My body is still on hair trigger, even if my brain is not, and we both know this is no time for her to take her time. I just hold on, knowing she will take care of me, and she does, more than once.
Somehow we end up holding each other in a tangle of arms and legs. She's stroking my head and I'm tracing circles on her belly with my fingertips. I stretch lazily and she laughs, tugging at the laces to my top, which is still mostly on. I look down at our joined bodies and share her laughter. We're both still mostly clothed, but damned if I don't feel good right about now.
"Welcome to battle lust, Gabrielle." I feel the gentlest of kisses to my forehead.
"Huh?" I try to wrap my mind around what she just said, and realize with a groan that she's hit the nail on the head. "Oh, gods." I cover my face with one hand and roll onto my back next to her.
"You get it all out of your system?" She chuckles -- that deep throaty laugh that makes my skin tingle in good ways. "You sure got it out of mine."
"I -- um -- I guess so." I peer over at her timidly and see only love and acceptance in those baby blues. "Wow. Is that how you always feel after a fight?"
"No." She rises up and props her head with an upraised hand. She plucks a stalk of grass up and twirls it in the fingers of the other. "Thank the gods. But sometimes, yeah. Especially if I have a lot of non-battle stuff going on in my head while I'm trying to fight." She looks at me expectantly and I sigh.
"That explains that," I answer her, but I can't meet her gaze at present.
"You wanna talk about it?"
I can't believe my ears. Xena doesn't often offer to talk about anything. I look over at her and I feel ashamed, my cheeks burning with it. "I don't deserve you," I whisper. I break our gaze again and close my eyes, willing away tears. I'll not do anything to make her feel guilty in this.
She takes me in her arms and holds me, rocking both of us. "Gabrielle." My name rumbles in her chest, vibrating back against me. I love the way that feels. "Is this about Meleager?"
"Yeah." My voice is muffled, as my face is currently buried against her chest. I open my eyes and see nothing but pale skin, and I plant the lightest of kisses there. "Partly."
"I don't want you to feel bad about that. You took a stand for something you believed in." She sits up and scoots back until she's leaning against a boulder, taking me with her.
"But I was wrong." I settle back against her, my head on her shoulder, my arm around her waist.
"If I had a dinar for every time in my life I've taken a stand for something wrong, you and I would be living in a castle somewhere on an Aegean beach." She laughs lightly.
"But I chose someone who was barely a friend over you." I look up at her. "Xena, how could I do that?"
"I'm more worried about you blindly believing in someone." Her voice is low and soothing. "Sooner or later, Gabrielle, people are going to let you down. Even the ones who love you. Even me. Sometimes those expectations are pretty tough to live up to. It's a lot harder landing if you aren't standing on the ground in the first place."
"Ouch." I suddenly need to hug her, so I do. "Sorry."
"You were pretty angry when we were sparring." I know she isn't asking. It's an honest observation.
"Yeah. Xena, I was mad at myself, just like you said." I sigh in frustration. "I wanted so badly to beat you, I guess to feel good about myself. But the harder I tried, it only made me feel worse. Then I think I turned that anger back on you."
"Yep." She ruffles my head affectionately. "I saw that, too."
"It was so illogical. It seemed like you wanted to hurt me. I knew you didn't, but it made me want to hurt you back." I blink still holding the tears at bay. Then I hold my breath, long enough to feel my insides calm down, before I release it.
"Do we need to lighten up on sparring?" She's stroking my hair now, and I want to purr like a cat. "It's gotten to where I go all out with you most of the time. You've gotten good enough I don't worry so much anymore."
I peer up at her timidly, then I smile and pull her head down, and kiss her soundly. "If I didn't feel good about myself before, I do now." I smile and peck her lips again. "Thank you. And no, don't lighten up. If I can hold my own against you, I should be able to do it with anyone."
"You compliment me, my bard." She chuckles and I laugh with her. I love it when she calls me that. I like belonging to her. "But that goes both ways. If I can go all out with you, it helps keep my skills sharp. You're a very good opponent, Gabrielle. Don't sell yourself short."
I give up talking, knowing if I weren't holding on to her I'd be floating up above the clouds right about now. She resumes stroking my hair, and I slump bonelessly against her, glad to let go of all that frustration, at least for now.
"As for the battle lust," she purrs into my ear. "Anytime you need to work that out of your system, I'm your woman."
I look up at her and she winks at me. I wink back. "I know." I smile and lay my head back against her shoulder. As I close my eyes, I can hear and feel her humming, and I know in a short while, I'll probably be asleep. But that's okay. The afternoon is young, the sun is shining, we have nowhere to be, and I'm in the safest place on earth.
Next in the BTL series - If You Could See What I See (post "Blind Faith")