It started with an argument, like everything else.
That’s not true. We don’t start everything with arguments. Only the big stuff, the important stuff. It never comes easy with her. How could it? Nothing in her life has been easy, from the time she was fifteen and a warlord. Just knowing that, how could I expect anything to be easy? I must be out of my mind. I’m sure she thinks that too. But I’m not, I know I’m not. Anything this right can’t be wrong.
It was a long day, after several long weeks of long days, after even more long months. We hadn’t had a break in forever; it just never stopped. We kept fighting and traveling, and we kept going and saving people and getting hurt and barely healing before getting hurt again. I was utterly exhausted, and she must have been too. But she kept going, and pushing, she wouldn’t let herself stop. She has that inner fire, and drive, and determination. At times I don’t even think of her as human anymore, just an object that fights bad guys and saves villagers and does what needs to be done. She gets that look in her eyes, the one that means she’s trying to make up for all the evil she has done, the one that means she doesn’t care what happens to her, as long as she can save a few innocent people from the latest warlord or slaver who comes through. The look that ignores cuts on her limbs and cracked ribs, and no food and no sleep. The look that means her memories are killing her inside. I know that look.
I see her relive every death she ever caused, every time she closes her eyes to sleep. I know how the nightmares wake her up at night, shivering and crying silently. I know how much her wounds hurt her. I see her stitching herself up and not taking herbs that would dull the pain, because they would dull her senses and reactions as well. I have seen her stay awake for three days straight on the battlefield, leading an impossibly outnumbered defending village to victory. I know that she is trying to atone for her sins.
I know her bad side. I know the cold, ruthless, killing heart that lets her send men to their deaths on the battlefield. I know the cruel glare in her ice-blue eyes that penetrates into the glassy stare of men who are about to die at her hands. I know that at times she likes the fighting, the killing. I know the joy on her face when she sees a group of men coming at her that she knows she can kill without remorse. I know her pleasure in the sounds of the fight; her sword slashing, kicks and punches laid about with careless abandon, which nevertheless knock down every opponent, the calculated throw of her chakram. I know that she needs it.
I also know her good side. Her wry humor at night around the campfire, the relaxed banter she allows me to pull her into. The sarcastic remarks muttered under her breath when yet another group of village elders don’t believe that she has come to help. Her tender gaze on the children she has saved from countless floods, avalanches and raiding parties. Her swift defense and fierce protectiveness of me. Her gentle smile, which I see all too rarely, makes all the hardships worth it. That smile I would do anything to see.
We had been arguing. I wanted to stop at the next village and stay for a few days at the inn, telling stories for money and resting for a while. She didn’t want to. There had been reports of an up-and-coming warlord in the area, and she wanted to take care of him. I wanted him taken care of just as much as she did, but I thought her health was more important. Harsh words were spoken, and she left the campsite. I went to sleep early, and the next morning we did things her way. The warlord was taken care of.
It was a short but vicious fight, with all seventy of the men against the two of us. I was lucky; most of them went for her and had their backs to me, so I could pick them off and ease her burden a bit. She had to take quite a few hits before she took enough of them down to make it a fair fight. Correction, perhaps a thousand men, and she blindfolded, that might be a fair fight. This one was nothing. Still, she was hurt. Enough to agree to a room at an inn and a hot bath. I settled with the innkeeper while she took immediate advantage of the bathing room, then we both sank into bed like Hades had visited, and slept.
The smell of sunlight awoke me at last, and her side of the bed was empty and cold. She had left me some fruit for breakfast and a note saying that she had gone to the armorsmith. After rebandaging my few wounds from the day before, I decided to spend a few candlemarks in the market, replenishing our supplies. I was haggling for a length of thin gut thread, suitable for stitches, when I felt her shadow on me. I turned with a smile, thinking to forget about our arguments a few days before. I didn’t even have time to see the scowl on her face before she started talking.
“This isn’t working. You’re obviously not happy with me, and you would rather be somewhere else. Do you want me to take you home, or to the Amazons?”
I was speechless. I was baffled. I was furious. I wasn’t speechless for long. “How dare you presume to tell me where I want to be? What makes you think you can decide my life for me? And furthermore, why do you think I would stay with you for one minute longer than I wanted to? Don’t you think I would leave if I were unhappy? I know what I’m doing, Xena. I live my own life the way I want to!” I was aware of my voice rising to a yell on the last sentence, but I didn’t care. I was so distressed by what she had just said that I almost missed the dazzling smile that crossed her features. I blinked hard, then again.
“Thank you,” she said gently. And walked away.
My mind was whirling, confused, angry, upset, so many emotions I didn’t know what to do. I bitterly swallowed the tears that rushed to my eyes, and stalked off in the direction opposite the one she had gone. By the time I was able to take note of my surroundings again, I was deep in the forest outside the village, and I was utterly lost. I sat down hard on the ground, put my back against a tree and sobbed in bewilderment and outrage.
Again, I felt her before I saw her, a presence on the edge of my senses. I held my breath and stopped my tears, determined not to let her see me cry. She sat down in front of me and spoke. “I’m sorry that I upset you. I needed to know that you were with me because you wanted to be, not because you felt that you had to prove something to me, or because I was forcing you.”
My anger blazed back up, full force. “Of course I’m with you because I want to be! Would I ever do anything I didn’t want to? Scratch that. Do you think I would travel with you if I didn’t want to? You think I can’t make my own decisions? You think I don’t love you more than anyone in the world?” I was still so upset that I didn’t notice what I had said, I only knew that I meant every word of it. “I can run my own life! I am not a child, Xena!”
She gave that dazzling smile again. I was mesmerized by it, so I didn’t move away as she leaned forward. “You certainly aren’t,” she murmured as she pressed her lips to mine. Not the sweetest honey in the world, the best wine, nor ambrosia could have tasted better than her mouth at that moment. All I could think was that this was what I had wanted for so long, and now it was real. She leaned back and looked in my eyes. I saw the ice melt, and I drowned in the pools of her eyes. “I love you, Gabrielle.”
I know her good side. I know her bad side. I know that she loves me as I love her, and that is all I need to know for the rest of eternity.