Between the Times:
5. Lessons of Titanic Proportion
WARNING - This story contains references to corporal punishment. It is not meant to offend anyone nor is it meant as abusive. If this is offensive to you, please stop here.
Thanks to M for tossing this idea to me. Special thanks to CC for all the hard work editing and finding the crazy errors I always leave behind. Thanks to both for encouraging me when I felt this might be a touchy subject.
The full moon's silver light reflected off the sword that rested against the warrior's boot. Rhythmic sounds of the night cascaded over the darkness interrupted only by the steady sliding of the stone that ran across a well honed blade. In turn the occasional whimpering shudder that came from the form curled under a blanket near the fire interrupted the clicking slide of the whetstone. Xena paused in her chore, her hand frozen in place, as she glanced at the girl who was 'not sleeping' a few feet away. She waited for another sound or a hint that perhaps the young girl was ready to talk, but Gabrielle pulled the blanket closer around her head and kept her back to the warrior. Clearly, the girl was doing her best imitation of a turtle and even more clearly, it was not yet time for discussing the events of the last two days.
Xena wrinkled up one side of her mouth and shook her head slowly as her hand fell back into its steady rhythm of caring for her weapon. In this quiet time, memories seemed to flood her mind. All those things she kept at bay in the daylight seemed to have much more control over her resolve in the dark. Even the tiniest sound or the simplest object brought back some vision of her former life. She glanced once at the black leather whip that lay coiled next to her. A little more than a year ago she had used that instrument to instill fear and total obedience in her soldiers, to keep them in line and enforce her authority over them. On more occasions that she cared to count she had brought men to tears as she enforced her rules and demonstrated to them the price of dissention. Disregarding her command could mean death at the hand of the enemy; it would mean at least twenty lashes at her own hand. Xena, Warrior Princess did not tolerate insubordination. A year ago, disobedience and punishment were clearly black and white. There was no middle ground, no second-guessing, and never a regret. A year ago she could bring a man to his knees with her harsh, strict and quick discipline in one breath then order him back into battle with the next. A year ago she commanded a thousand men and every one of them bowed to her ascendancy. Keeping one small girl out of trouble was not such an easy task.
The decision hadn't been hard to make. It had built slowly, chipping away at the warrior's patience. Simmering her anger to a full boil. When the girl had taken that 'go ahead, I dare you' attitude last night Xena had neither the time nor the space to carry out the sentence she had already passed on her young charge. It was a decision she made in an instant. When the girl disappeared a few minutes later, the warrior had no doubt where she had gone. She could almost hear her blood boiling as she lifted that contraption the villagers had helped create to trap Hyperion, the Sun Titan. 'Oh no,' she thought to herself as she stared at the fire, watching its flame wriggle toward the sky, 'that little bard had to learn a lesson the hard way. The very hard way.' Having made that decision and once again having rescued her brazen little bard, she had found a nice quiet, private little glen to make camp for the night. An hour ago she had used the back of a hairbrush in much the same fashion as she had brandished that whip (and only because she felt her former method of discipline was just a bit too drastic) on the backside of her intrepid young bard. Not that she didn't deserve it. Oh no, she had earned every single smack that echoed sharply in the quiet wood. Xena shook her head again as the girl tossed a bit under the cover but still refused to meet the warrior's eyes. She had no regrets, if warming the girl's backside meant keeping her alive then in all likelihood the girl might find smoke rising from her waistband on a regular basis. Xena took a deep breath to quell the remnants of her anger and prevent it from overtaking her a second time. 'Better for her to cry at my hand than for me to cry at her grave.' Her mother's words spoke to her from some distant memory. Gabrielle just couldn't seem to grasp the concept that putting herself in danger of being killed simply did nothing to prove herself. Xena shook off the shudder that chilled her as she imagined what could have happened. She flipped her weapon over and began working on the reverse side. The events of the past few days ran across her mind as she tried to make sense of it all.
It had started out as just a routine task. Find an outlaw, separate him from his cronies, rough them up a little bit, slap the creep in irons, rough him up a little, bring him back to face his accusers, move on just routine, everyday stuff. Finding Hesiot was not a problem. Slugs like that don't go far without leaving a slimy trail. They caught up with him and his crew within hours of leaving the village. The first mistake she had made, however, was asking Gabrielle to take care of Argo while she did the separating. The second mistake was getting angry with the girl for trying to do just that. Xena cringed as she remembered taking out her frustration on the girl when Hesiot had almost escaped. So she had tangled Argo's reins a bit, nothing that couldn't be fixed. The kid was young and inexperienced. It would take time for her to learn how important it was to move when she needed to move quickly and to be ready for anything at a moment's notice. Hesiot didn't get very far before Xena had a chance to rough him up a little bit more then have him all trussed and ready for travel. Of course by then she had made her third and most grievous error - she had left Gabrielle alone. In the three months that they had traveled together she had learned on more than one occasion that it was simply much too dangerous to leave that kid alone for any amount of time. Trouble seemed to stick to her like manure on a farmer's boot. It followed her like a hungry puppy and Gabrielle embraced it the way any kid would take to such an animal. The problem was, this puppy usually had very sharp teeth. Xena drew another breath and closed her eyes. How could she have been so stupid?
An hour later the 'Virgin Goddess' Gabrielle had brought not one, not even two, but three Titans into the village announcing that they were there to help the villagers with whatever needed to be done. And even more than that, she and her Titans would be traveling across Greece and the rest of the world to help people wherever they went. Xena rolled her eyes. If she had gotten the girl away from her admirers at that point she probably could have avoided the whole sordid affair, but the villagers whisked her away to celebrate with their new found savior. She tried to warn the girl about the responsibilities of power and the danger of acquiring it before being ready to handle it. It was much the same as having a small child try to drive a team of large horses. Gabrielle, however, was long gone on the idea that she had acquired omnipotence and she had every intention of using it. She ate up the attention like a victim of famine. Of course that kid, Philius, or whatever he was called stepped right in and made sure the impressionable young girl was told she was more than ready for the job. He had faith in her, he said. Xena had a lot of faith in the girl, but she also knew where Gabrielle went -- trouble followed.
The warrior gritted her teeth and put a little extra effort into her honing. She recalled the look in that Hyperion's eyes. He was trouble and she knew it right from the start. Of course by that time Gabrielle was so full of herself she wasn't doing much listening, at least not to Xena. The girl was drunk with power and ordered her giants to their tasks with very little forethought. Xena cringed as she remembered Hyperion's enormous foot about to crush her wayward charge. Luckily a well-placed sword in the sandal stopped him cold. Hesiot had not been so lucky and her stomach lurched just a bit as she thought of the splotch on the road that used to be him and the fact that Gabrielle had come very close to being a matching stain on the floor of that cave. The anger and fear washed over her again and she shivered under its frigid grip. If she continued working on her sword under these conditions it would more than likely be transparent by morning. She held it out at eye level to examine her work. Satisfied, she jammed it into the sheath and set it next to her whip and chakrum. Weapons could never be far away.
Xena rose from her seat on the fallen log and stretched the cramps out of her long limbs. She placed her hands on her hips and stared down at her contrite companion. A small wooden object bumped against her ankle as she took a step. The warrior bent down and retrieved the hairbrush she had put to use earlier then crossed the camp and stowed it back in her saddlebag. 'Never know when you might need that to untangle a few stubborn knots,' she told herself as she pulled a wineskin from the saddle she had set on the ground. She took a long drink and let the warm liquid slid down her throat. If it were possible to wash away all that had happened she would do it willingly. But it wasn't and there were still a lot of issues to be resolved. She took a second quick drink, corked the skin and tossed it back across the saddle. The warrior took one deep breath and strode purposefully back to the still sniffling young girl buried beneath the blanket. She stood for a moment over her, folded her arms over her chest and tapped her toe against the dirt. Immediately realizing how much she looked exactly like her mother, she quickly dropped to the ground and sat next to the young girl. Gabrielle, sensing her presence, squirmed a little, moving away from the warrior. Xena laughed silently and shook her head. She tapped the girl lightly on the shoulder.
"I know you're not sleeping," she remarked in a monotone voice. The only answer she got was a curt sniff. Xena pursed her lips and nodded. She sucked a bit of air through her teeth on one side and raised her eyes to the stars. This was not an easy task and Gabrielle was not going to make it any easier. Xena reached over and took the edge of the blanket between her fingers lifting it away from the girl's face. Immediately, Gabrielle snatched it back and turned her head into the blanket beneath her. "Thought so," the warrior remarked casually as she pulled her hand back. "We are not finished, Gabrielle, so you might just as well turn around and get it over with," she warned with a bit more parental authority than she intended and a lot more than she realized she possessed.
"Why," the muffled voice came from beneath the cocoon of blankets and furs, "are you going to spank me again?" The tone was a little more sarcastic that Xena cared for at that point and her eyebrow raised involuntarily. Spanking? Xena hadn't really thought of it that way. It just seemed that a brisk tanning was a more realistic alternative to using her braided scourge. In the warrior's world things were cut and dry. She lived by very simple precise rules. There was a code, a set of guidelines that went along with life on the road. Violating that code meant only one thing - swift and exacting punishment. It wasn't pleasant, but it served its purpose and definitely saved many a life along the way.
"Depends," she answered, quickly landing a swift stinging smack against the girl's backside. "Do I need to?" She asked with a bit of her own brand of sarcastic warning.
Gabrielle yelped once, even the protection of her blanket wasn't enough to shield that tender spot. She flipped quickly to her opposite side and peeked at the warrior from her blanket hood. "No," she snuffled as she quickly rubbed her nose with the back of her hand, "no, that won't be necessary, I " The girl thought carefully about the comment she was about to make then chose very wisely not to tempt her fate with the already irate warrior. "No I'm listening," she shuddered as she swiped her nose again and took a deep breath.
"Good," Xena smiled, "then we talk now." She reached down and turned the makeshift hood down and away from the girl's face. One tear rolled slowly over Gabrielle's cheek. The warrior brushed it aside with her thumb. "C'mere," her voice took on a much more tender tone as she pulled the girl's head onto her lap.
Gabrielle did not resist. She needed this bit of comfort and forgiveness as much as the warrior needed to sort out this crazy day. She rested her cheek against Xena's lap as if it were a pillow. This closeness was a wordless sign that the warrior did in fact still care, even after the girl had made a complete fool of herself and almost destroyed a whole village doing it. The warrior brushed the blonde hair away from the girl's face, gently stroking her head in a comforting motion. Xena needed the closeness as well, even if she would never admit it. She needed to touch that childlike countenance and know for sure that the girl was safe and unhurt. For a few moments the only sound was that of the night creatures that roamed the forest. Warrior and bard each lost in their own recollections of the episode that had brought them to this awkward yet tender moment.
Gabrielle's small voice broke the silence. "Please don't hate me, Xena, I know I was a real brat back there. I really should have known better, really I should." Her voice was near cracking but she managed to finish between sniffles.
"I told you earlier," Xena reminded her softly, "I could never ever hate you, Gabrielle, never."
"But I was so stupid!" The girl's voice rose as she balled her fist and struck it against the warrior's thigh. "Everything I did was so absolutely stupid! What was I thinking?"
"More like what weren't you thinking?" Xena laughed slightly. Gabrielle didn't share the humor of the moment. Again a hush fell over the campsite, disturbed only by the crackling of the fire.
"Xena?" again the girl broke the quiet stillness of the evening.
"Hmmm?" the warrior answered.
The girl turned slowly to face the warrior. She winced as remnants of warrior castigation came in contact with the rough ground beneath her. "Xena I you " she stumbled over her words as she picked at the fibers on the blanket still wrapped around her. "That boy, Philius, when you found I mean came in and we were I mean we weren't! We didn't I didn't he didn't I mean I wouldn't " The girl's face turned crimson as she tried to continue, "but I almost he almost "
Xena raised her brows as she waited for Gabrielle's explanation. She was not going to make this easy on the girl. Gabrielle had been very foolish and full of herself. A second dose of humility would not do her any harm. The girl stared into the warrior's blue eyes searching for someway to continue. She blinked a few times and chewed her bottom lip in that innocent way that always went straight to the warrior's heart. Xena took a deep breath and gently moved a stray hair that had fallen across girl's emerald eyes.
"You're lucky there were so many villagers in that temple and that we had Titans to deal with," Xena narrowed her gaze and tapped the girl lightly on the tip of her nose. "I was ready to let you have it right then and there."
Gabrielle swallowed hard as she felt the blush on her cheeks. She looked away from Xena's gaze. "I knew you were mad," she said in a small voice, "but, I was mad too. That's why I said what I said, but you were treating me like a kid." Her voice took on a slight whine, the 'I'm not a kid, Xena' whine to be exact.
Xena put two fingers under the girl's chin and lifted her face so she could look into her eyes. "Gabrielle," she said quietly, "you were acting like a kid, a spoiled, rude, out of control kid."
Gabrielle wrinkled her brow and sighed deeply. Xena was right. She had acted like a real brat through the whole shameful affair. "I just wanted to show you I could do something on my own, that I could fix my own mistakes," she reasoned. "I just made things worse. I was mean to you and I used that boy to make you think I did something I shouldn't have done and I really didn't mean it when I said it was none of your business. I was just just "
"Trying to get even?" Xena asked, turning her head slightly and raising one eyebrow. Gabrielle nodded. Xena shook her head. "Power is a very dangerous weapon, Gabrielle. Believe me I know."
"But it felt so good having all those people look up to me and being the only one that could tell those giants what to do," the girl interjected.
"Mmmm hmm," Xena nodded, "that's the way it starts and after a while that isn't enough, you need to have more and more people under your thumb and if they don't stay there you simply eliminate them. Easy as that." She snapped her fingers loudly, causing a rustle of some animal in the brush. Warrior and bard looked quickly at the area where the sound emanated then back at each other. "See," Xena pointed out, "even the animals begin to jump just for your sake."
For a moment a smile crossed the girl's features, but the seriousness of the moment quickly returned. "Xena?" she began again. The warrior cocked her head in a silent motion for the girl to continue. Gabrielle turned back on her side and again rested her cheek against the cool metal of the warrior's armored lap. It was too hard to look Xena in the eye and say what needed to be said to completely rid herself of the guilt. "I almost let him just to make you angry " she fell silent with guilt after those last words, sure the warrior would be hurt or angry or both.
Xena took a deep breath and said nothing as she continued to gently stroke the girl's hair. She'd suspected the motive behind Gabrielle's sudden promiscuousness. This was a kid who would take a bath in her undergarments unless the warrior threatened to remove them herself. Even then she would insist Xena turn her back or dart behind a large shrub for privacy. She'd barked at Xena when the warrior's mask feel just for that split second upon finding Philius wrapped around the young girl on that cot. Xena growled back, agreeing it was 'none of her business', but it was a retort made in shocked anger. Like it or not, Gabrielle and her antics were Xena's business and it was one tough business. A mixture of feelings washed across her, leaving confusion as well as relief in their wake. If anyone was to have a discussion on the virtue of chastity with the girl, it certainly shouldn't be Xena, Warrior Harlot. She blew a breath over her top lip as she recalled a history of faces without names that she had shared her bed and so much more with over the last ten years. These were secrets she never intended to share with the little blonde. One dry leaf blew across the campsite on a slight breeze that seemed to come from nowhere. It landed against the warrior's chakrum. She smiled at the memory it brought back to her. That sunny afternoon in that leafy glade with the son of Zeus, if only he had been her first then she shook off the thoughts of something that would never be. But in that thought she found an answer.
"Gabrielle," she began in a soft motherly tone she rarely used, "that would have been very foolish and it would have been something you would regret for a long time."
"Hmph," the girl sighed disgustedly, " I already regret it and I didn't even do anything."
Xena laughed silently at the girl's plight. "When the time comes you'll have no regrets and you won't be doing it to spite anyone. Someone will come along and touch your heart so deeply that you won't wonder whether it is the right time or place. You and he will become so much a part of each other you will forget you existed separately."
Gabrielle had turned back to face the warrior. She watched as Xena spoke in a tone she that had never heard her use. "You sound like you've already been there," the girl quipped when the warrior finished. For a moment Xena stared into the night, recalling her time with Hercules. She shook her head quickly and turned back to her now amused delinquent bard.
"Once," she smiled evilly then warned, "and don't change the subject!" The warrior couldn't help laugh at the wrinkled brow and quick huff from her sullen companion. She tousled the girl's hair amiably.
"What happens now?" Gabrielle asked after a few moments of silence.
Xena shrugged her shoulders, "nothing, Gabrielle, it's over."
The girl felt the panic raising within her as her heart began to race wildly. Tears formed and threatened to fall from her eyes. She fought to control the tremor in her voice. "Are you are you going to send me away?" She asked in little more than a whisper.
Xena wrinkled her face in thought and avoided looking at the bard who was certainly squirming by now. "I have to admit the thought crossed my mind," she sighed and Gabrielle tensed immediately. "But I think the hairbrush was a much better way to impress on your tender but extremely stubborn spirit that when I say something I do mean it." She finished, emphasizing each word with a gentle poke against the girl's chest. Then teased, "of course I did consider the whip."
Gabrielle blanched, "you wouldn't!" the fear of being sent away, replaced with the audacity that Xena would even consider such a thing.
The warrior raised an eyebrow and tapped the girl's nose, "don't push your luck, little girl." Gabrielle remained wide-eyed as she nodded silently. Xena was nothing if not thorough, and she had been extremely painstaking with that dumb brush. She had no intention of letting the warrior know just how tender she had made her stubborn 'spirit' but she had a feeling she would be favoring that same now extremely sensitive spirit for more than a few days. On the bright side, though, she'd have a perfect excuse for staying off of that very tall horse. Of course Xena didn't really have any use for excuses.
"Anyway," Xena's voice interrupted the girl's thoughts as she continued, "sending you home wouldn't really solve anything. How do I know you wouldn't just up and traipse off after some other warlord who might not be so gentle and understanding with you?" For a moment warrior and bard stared at each other each waiting for the other's reaction. This gentle teasing was all the sign either needed to know that all was forgiven and one was not going anywhere without the other. Gabrielle crumbled first as a smile tickled the corner of her mouth and soon both were laughing at the irony of the warrior's statement. Xena ran her hand across the girl's hair pushing it behind her ear then rested the palm of her hand against her cheek. Gabrielle reached up, wrapping her smaller hand around the warrior's.
"You told me not to be sorry, just to improve. I wanted to prove to you I could. I guess I really messed up," the girl sighed solemnly.
"You don't have to prove anything to me, Gabrielle. Everyone makes mistakes, gods know I've made plenty of my own, and I know you need to 'fix your own mistakes', I just don't want to see you kill yourself trying to do that." Gabrielle sighed and smiled a weak smile. The warrior paused for a moment and squeezed the girl's hand in her own. "I don't make up rules to treat you like a child, I don't make them up at all. I've learned a lot of hard lessons, Gabrielle. If I can keep you from those same mistakes then I will do what ever is necessary to do that. Do you understand?"
Coming from Xena it sounded like a threat, or an ultimatum, but Gabrielle saw through the warrior's mask. She squeezed Xena's hand and nodded. Words weren't necessary, she understood completely. Xena wasn't drawing a line in the sand she was throwing a line from her heart. The warrior was willing to do anything to keep the bard physically safe. (For a split second Gabrielle considered the paradox of that statement.) If Xena could do that, then she would certainly do everything in her power to keep the warrior's heart and soul just as protected. This episode was behind them, in more ways than one.
"When I was little and I got in trouble," Gabrielle mused. Xena's eyebrows raised in mock surprise. The girl's shoulder's fell and she wrinkled her brow. Her lip turned out in that fine pout that always made the warrior chuckle under her breath. "Anyway " Gabrielle continued, "after my mother took care of the um discipline, I'd run to my grandma. She always told me to let go and move on," the girl smiled a small smile.
"Smart lady," Xena remarked.
"Stubborn too," Gabrielle giggled as she wriggled herself into a more comfortable position without letting go of the rough hand she held in her own. She blinked a few times and tried to stifle a yawn without success.
Xena watched as the girl pulled herself into a ball and snuggled a little further onto her lap. A few seconds later the girl's soft steady breathing told the warrior she had drifted off to sleep. Xena tucked the blanket around the girl and shook her head, even after all that had happened Gabrielle still found the blissful sleep of innocence. It never ceased to amaze the warrior how quickly Gabrielle fell asleep. She gently brushed the wave of hair that had fallen across the girl's face to the side with her free hand. The bard still held tightly to the other.
"Smart lady," Xena repeated, "bet your mom's hairbrush got a lot of use." She smiled a smirky smile as she leaned back against the fallen log that lay across the campsite and closed her eyes. It was time to move on, but she had no intention of letting go of this very special tie to her heartstrings. Keeping one skinny bard with visions of being a warrior safe in a world full of the temptation of adventure that sooner or later turned out to be misadventure, was more of a chore than leading any army into any battle with any enemy. The warrior wrapped a protective arm around the bard's shoulders and pulled her just a bit closer. It would be a bumpy road, but they would travel it together.
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